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October 12, 2015 / Michael Yaroshefsky

HBS Reflections

I’ve never really considered myself the “reflective type,” but HBS makes a point of promoting reflection for the purpose of digesting lessons we learn in class.  Unlike accounting or finance principles that can generally be accepted at face value and applied by rote, lessons in leadership and team dynamics are not prescriptive.  They need to be filtered and adapted based on one’s own personal style.  While being a narcissistic hardass may have worked for Steve Jobs at Apple, it’s something I personally wouldn’t enjoy nor do I think I could pull off successfully.

localglobalmaxFortunately, there is no single correct leadership strategy, only a diverse set of parameters with a continuum of possible approaches.  And across this multidimensional landscape of leadership styles, for each individual in a given context, there exist local and global maxima of effectiveness.  (Clearly I take comfort in relating squishy concepts back to hard, logical math.)  The goal of reflection, therefore, is to become aware of these parameters and consider where my personal local and global maxima are.

Early in the semester we were urged to keep a “Leadership Journal.”  While I initially balked at the idea, I now feel like I’m learning far too many new concepts and frameworks each day to hope to remember.  For this reason, I’m endeavoring to start keeping a leadership journal… online — in hopes that I can look back on these posts for inspiration in the future and that they may be of value to anyone else who stumbles on them.

This leadership journal begins now, with this post reflecting on the merits of reflection.  Very meta.

November 14, 2012 / Michael Yaroshefsky

The Organic Music Movement

Every time I switch from satellite radio to CDs when I lose the signal in the Lincoln Tunnel, I realize how much more engrossing high-bitrate music is.  The sound of the CDs feels much fuller.  The surround sound amplifier really hits its stride, giving me a convincing soundstage (as much as you can get in a car).  For those few minutes where the satellites can’t see me, subtle details that are muffled or forgotten by XM’s compression come rushing back and remind me why I love music, and I ask myself why I’m not listening to more CDs.  Then I realize I’m listening to the same songs I did last week because I forgot to change the CD…

English: Spindle with writable CDs.

CDs still sound better than their modern replacements. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Streaming audio providers (XM, Pandora, Spotify, etc.) continue to make the CD obsolete by offering us variety and convenience, but in return we sacrifice audio quality.  So the question is: does anyone care?  If trends in other consumer verticals can give us any hints, then perhaps we’ll soon see a renaissance of high quality audio.

Background on Audio Compression

In audio, a song’s bitrate describes the amount of information per second that is recorded.  Generally, a higher bitrate means the audio will sound better.  Streaming audio services like Pandora and Spotify broadcast audio compressed using lossy algorithms in order to make the songs load faster.  In other words, to reduce the file size, they toss out information you are the least likely to miss.

While that may sound complex, we do something like this all the time when we abbreviate in text messages.  Instead of ‘I will be right back,” we write “brb.”  Your friend knows what that means, and you saved a lot of room.  Musical compression operates similarly by scrapping information that isn’t essential to getting the point across.  The ability to compress audio efficiently made way for innovations like the iPod and the iTunes music store, since now you could store thousands of songs in your pocket and download them quickly.

Although not exactly how modern audio compression works, this graphic demonstrates the principle that reducing the amount of data per second can have a significant impact on audio quality. Notice how different the area in the third yellow circle is from the original.  (Photo credit: Sony)

This also made way for innovations in streaming music. By compressing the files enough, companies like Pandora can make sure your music plays without having to stop for loading or buffering — providing a continuous listening experience.  It also decreases their costs to store and transfer this data, meaning it becomes cheaper for consumers.

However, just because you are are less likely to miss what was taken out by compression doesn’t mean you don’t notice that it’s missing.  This site lets you play a file at different compression rates to hear the difference. Try comparing the 64 kbps file to the 192 kbps file.  You can still understand what’s being said at the lowest audio quality, but there’s a real difference in quality.  Although the difference between higher-bitrates (say 160kbps and 320kbps) are less obvious, they are still noticeable when using high-fidelity audio components.  In other words, if you’re listening to the music on your laptop’s speakers or Apple Earbuds, you might not notice the difference.  But you might if you listen to a good set of speakers or headphones.

Imagine walking through an art museum wearing the wrong prescription glasses. Sure, you’re experiencing the same art, but everything’s a little blurry. It’s not the way the artist intended for you to experience it, and that’s why compression is a problem: because it distorts the original work.

What the Organic Food Movement Suggests

Today, compressed music is everywhere: the iTunes store, Spotify, Pandora, XM satellite radio.  Even the audio component of YouTube videos is compressed to save space.  All of these innovations are bringing music and entertainment to our fingertips in ways that would be much more difficult (practically impossible) without compression.  However, compressed audio — by definition — contains less information than the original recording.

Pandora is doing to music what McDonalds does to food.  They’re making music cheaper and more convenient by reducing its quality.

So what happens next?  As we are seeing with the demand for healthier food, consumers are increasingly spurning mass-produced, preservative-laden food for the real deal — and paying a premium for quality and taste.  Companies like Whole Foods and Chipotle are capitalizing on this shifting consumer interest.  Even major CPG brands are recognizing this trend, offering product alternatives to keep these customers from buying elsewhere: from Bisquick “Complete” pancake mix to Yoplait’s new entry into Greek yogurt.

Blue Bottle Coffee

Blue Bottle Coffee has emerged as a competitor to Starbucks in certain markets for coffee aficionados  (Photo credit: inky)

The coffee market is another great example.  Dunkin Donuts commoditized coffee, making it cheaper and more convenient.  Starbucks disrupted their model by offering a higher quality product in convenient locations, at a commensurately higher price.  Recently, upstarts promising even higher quality brews are threatening the market, like VC-backed Blue Bottle Coffee.  Meanwhile, McDonalds has launched the McCafe brand to bring their own coffee up to snuff.

What About Music?

The recent trend in expensive headphones (like Beats By Dr. Dre) seems to suggest that consumers are willing to open their wallets for a higher quality music experience.  High definition video sources (especially BluRay) similarly followed the adoption of HDTVs, so perhaps Monster Audio’s success with Beats suggests that higher-quality audio sources will become more prevalent.

In fact, it seems that the transition to higher bitrates is already underway.  Earlier this year, Spotify rolled out an “Extreme” quality audio setting to the iOS application, doubling the bitrate of it’s previous high-quality audio.  This suggests that the major players are unlikely to be caught flatfooted.

Nonetheless, there may still be room for a competitor to claim to be the Starbucks or BlueBottle to Spotify’s Dunkin Donuts, offering premium-quality audio conveniently over the internet and/or to vehicles.  Perhaps XM will find ways to upgrade their channels to higher bitrates if consumers demand it.  Or maybe there will be a greater interest in live performances going forward, as hipsters consider anything prerecorded to be too mainstream.  Or better yet, maybe we’ll all hire minstrels to follow us around one day.

However it pans out, I am looking forward to being able to fully retire my CDs so I don’t have to be reminded of the Spice Girls album I still own every time I go looking for a new album.

June 12, 2012 / Michael Yaroshefsky

Getting the Fastest Speeds from Optimum Online Ultra

There are 12 devices around the house that use WiFi, and I frequently find myself downloading and uploading huge files for MikeYaroSoft projects, so it made sense to upgrade to Optimum Online Ultra.   Before Ultra, regular Optimum Online served about 15Mbps downstream to the house.  This new service is rated at up to 101 Mbps downstream.  That’s fast.

I always find the Mbps (read “megabits per second”) rating misleading, though, since nobody talks about files in terms of bits.  A more understandable rating would be MBps (read “megabytes per second”).  Since a byte is 8 bits, it’s just simple division.  Whereas regular Optimum Online serves 1.875 megabytes per second, Ultra serves 12.625 megabytes per second.  Downloading Casino Royale in HD from iTunes, a 4.54 GB file, goes from 41.32 minutes to 6.13 minutes (assuming theoretical maximum speeds).  That’s the difference between my daily commute to Manhattan and the time it takes to get up and pop popcorn.

The problem is, however, when we are talking about speeds like this, hardware constraints come into play.  Just like you need good tires to get the most performance out of a sports car, you need the right technology and settings to maximize speed here.  Jason Perlow found this out when one of his Firewall/VPN routers’ max throughput was only 60 Mbps.  I was having similar trouble, but I did some testing to compare wired vs. wireless and 2.4 GHz wireless vs. 5 GHz wireless, and here’s what I found.

The tests were completed using a Macbook Air (2011 model), a 2012 model Airport Extreme, Belkin Cat6 network cables, and the Arris TM822 modem at about 12:00 p.m. Eastern Time.  All speeds shown indicate an average of two speed tests performed on www.speedtest.net.  The first speed test was to Fortress ITX in Clifton, NJ.  The second was to Optimum Online in New York, NY.

2.4 GHz is always slower than a wired connection, but it offers better long-range performance than 5 GHz.

5 GHz offers speeds matching a direct wired connection to the modem up to about 25 feet, but beyond this the performance degrades significantly.

Here’s the result of comparing the wireless technologies directly.

5 GHz is faster than 2.4 GHz at shorter ranges, but 2.4 GHz degrades less quickly.

Both frequencies offer similar performance at multiple distances.

It seems that, where a wired connection is unavailable or impractical, 5GHz at small-to-medium distances is the best bet.  However, at long distances, 2.4GHz is a better option.

May 12, 2012 / Michael Yaroshefsky

Thoughts on the ALTA Report and the Grading Policy

This represents my personal views, not those of the USG or the ALTA committee.

After over one year in the making, the Academic Life Total Assessment Committee has published our report.  You can find it here. I am incredibly grateful to the committee of superstars that have selflessly given of their time and energies to produce this report.

Click the cover to download the report

At 100 pages, it’s certainly not a quick read, but you can check the table of contents and read the sections and recommendations that you are most interested in.  We’ve addressed a number of important issues that have been overshadowed by the grading policy but really needed to be addressed.

I think students may be disappointed that ALTA did not suggest getting rid of grade deflation at Princeton, but we didn’t have the support to do it, it would decrease overall effectiveness of the report, and it may soon be less of an issue.

Surprisingly, student opinion of grade deflation was too mixed for us to challenge the policy.  Of those that expressed an opinion, the policy was opposed 2-to-1.  However, there were many students without an expressed opinion, meaning the absolute portion of students against the policy (56%) was not as strong as it would need to be (80% or more, I think would be convincing) to recommend a repeal.  We did in no uncertain terms explain how the policy has been misapplied and how concerning it is.  Nonetheless, going into the arena against grade deflation without a strong student mandate would be unsuccessful and draw attention away from the other important issues the report covered.

Better yet, it seems the policy is going to become less of an issue.  Although it is going to remain on the books, some very reliable sources have suggested that the new goal in West College will be to shift the emphasis of grading from the 35% cutoff and towards feedback that will help students.  It seems obvious that this is the right direction. I think providing feedback that will help students learn is a more important goal of assessment than having grades be “rigorous markers of academic performance in an extremely challenging program of undergraduate study.”

This will probably mean the grading policy policing mechanisms will gradually become less intrusive and the specter of the policy will fade (it’ll be less like Minority Report pre-crime cops descending on a professor’s office when she gives out one too many A’s).  I don’t think Princeton will suddenly hand out A’s as generously as our peers in Cambridge and New Haven, but I think professors will feel less pressure to split hairs. It might be a public embarrassment for the University to formally retract the policy, so this seems a graceful way to handle a policy that, in my opinion, has had an overall negative impact on the University.

February 17, 2011 / Michael Yaroshefsky

Hello world!

I don’t have a post to put here, but may I offer you a sloth instead?