I’m : a programmer, writer, podcaster, geek, and coffee enthusiast.

Fancy Ice Kits From Kickstarter

Left: Neat Ice Kit. Right: Wintersmiths Ice Baller. The ice appears slightly cloudy here from condensation, but it’s clear when properly installed in a drink.

Both the Neat Ice Kit (Kickstarter) and Wintersmiths Ice Baller (Kickstarter) have the same goal: make big, cool-looking, crystal-clear ice cubes at home for fancy cocktails.

Both work on the same principle. The cloudy flaws in ice cubes are in the part that freezes last — usually, that’s the middle. These products use insulated tubes that are only uninsulated on top, forcing the ice to freeze directionally (top to bottom). This pushes the cloudy flaws to the bottom, leaving the top clear. (It also makes a complete freeze extremely slow and inefficient, taking about 36 hours for me with both kits.)

The Wintersmiths kit is fancier: its insulator is double-walled stainless steel, and inside is a two-layer silicone mold to form the clear portion of the ice into a sphere with a little raised “W” symbol. After it’s frozen, you need to remove the mold from the metal cup (the bottom half of which is now full of cloudy ice), then remove the outer sleeve from the inner mold, then separate the inner mold halves, then finally remove your clear ice sphere.

This removal process is extremely, frustratingly difficult, especially separating the outer sleeve from the inner mold. This alone is enough to make me never want to use it again. I’ve now frozen about 6 spheres with different removal attempts, some involving strategic application of hot water, and it’s frustratingly difficult every time.

The Neat Ice Kit is a much simpler design: a rectangular foam surround with a silicone insert. After it’s frozen, you need to push the silicone sleeve out of the foam surround, then peel it down to access the ice rectangle. This takes substantial force, but it’s not nearly as difficult and frustrating as the Wintersmiths kit.

Split the ice rectangle in half (with the supplied tool) to get one cloudy and one clear cube, then throw away the rejected half, use it for crushed ice, or serve it to less-demanding drinkers.

Hops did not judge the cloudy half of the Neat Ice Kit’s rectangular output.

Casey’s review of the Neat Ice Kit is much more detailed.

After you go through the hassle, you do indeed get mostly-clear ice. None of my attempts so far with either have been perfectly clear, but they’ve been very close.

The Wintersmiths sphere is cooler-looking once you get past the more frustrating extraction process, but I actually find it clumsy in a glass: it bounces around weirdly and hits my nose a lot. The Neat Ice Kit’s cubes are much easier to extract and actually use in a drink.

The Neat kit is simpler, more practical, and easier to use. If you’re going to get one of these, get that one.

But in practice, I find both to be much bigger hassles than they’re worth. The Tovolo King cube tray and sphere molds produce cloudy-in-the-middle ice, but they also do it with far less time, freezer space, and effort.

I’ll Never Fly Amazon Again

If you swear off an airline every time you have a poor experience, you’ll be out of airlines in five years.

This isn’t because everyone who runs an airline is an idiot: it’s mostly because being an airline is a terrible business. No matter what logo you put on the plane, most people don’t care what airline they fly — since it hardly matters to the overall function of flying, and airline tickets are a significant expense to most people, they just buy the cheapest tickets that they can find. An undifferentiated commodity competing mostly on price with little customer loyalty is a terrible business.

As I was complaining yesterday about Amazon’s sleazy tactics in the Hachette ebook-pricing negotiations,1 @mareMtl said:

@marcoarment So no more amazon links on your blog?

This gave me pause. I’ve been an Amazon Prime customer since 2005, I buy almost all of my physical-item purchases from Amazon, I use some Amazon Web Services, and Amazon affiliate links provide almost half of this site’s income.2 It’s worth questioning whether I can be so disgusted by some of Amazon’s actions, yet continue to buy from them and earn income from directing other people to buy from them in good conscience. For some reason, that doesn’t feel wrong to me.

Physical retail is similar to the airline business. If you want a pair of Beats, well, stop there and rethink your choices. But if you still want them, it doesn’t really matter whether you get them from Apple, Amazon, B&H, Best Buy, Wal-Mart, Beats’ online store, or any other retailer. Some let you try them in person somewhere, some make returns easier, but the main value of the retailer to you is simply selling you what you want. Most people just buy it from wherever’s cheapest that’s reputable at all and will get it to them reasonably soon.

Like airlines, retail is an undifferentiated commodity competing mostly on price with little customer loyalty. And a terrible business.

Very few general-purpose retailers aren’t run by terrible people. We just know a lot about Amazon. But ask anyone who’s worked in retail, and you’ll learn that the others aren’t meaningfully better, ethically — and they’re usually worse than Amazon for customers. (If an online retailer for a substantial market is good, Amazon has probably bought them anyway.)

When it’s easy to support a better-behaving alternative with little downside, do so. I hardly ever buy Kindle ebooks, but that’s easy because I hardly ever buy or read any books. I don’t use Amazon Prime Video because I don’t like how much Amazon spams me about it, but that’s mostly because Apple TV and Netflix cover my needs well. I haven’t bought gas from a BP station since 2010, but that’s easy because there aren’t any BP stations near me, and when I see them on road trips, there’s always another gas station across the street. If the best or only gas stations close to my house were all BPs, I’d probably go there. (It’s not like the other oil companies are awesome.)

But in a market where everyone’s terrible, or where the non-terrible alternatives are much worse for customers, pragmatism wins over minor ethical debates and personal preferences. (Major ethical breaches are another story, but Amazon doesn’t have major ethical problems that I’m aware of.)

That’s why I use Google search and Maps despite not liking Google much, why I still use Instagram and haven’t deleted my Facebook account despite not liking Facebook, why I still use Twitter heavily despite their many dick moves, and why I even recently bought a Samsung SSD because the alternatives weren’t competitive.

And that’s why I’ll keep buying from and linking to Amazon for physical products. It’s usually the best retailer for customers by a mile, its occasional ethical issues are minor, and there are no alternatives that are significantly ethically better and anywhere close to Amazon’s quality for customers.

  1. Amazon will win. They have enough power in the ebook market (and the Department of Justice) to dictate their terms, no matter how unfair or abusive, and the publishers must follow. Amazon believes that they deserve most of the money in digital media sales and unbounded control over pricing, and they’ll eventually get both. ↩︎

  2. This is why I can justify buying, for instance, more headphones than one person really needs: people often come here looking for headphone reviews, then buy the ones I’ve reviewed and recommended over the years. All in, I’ve made a net profit on my headphone hobby. It’s therefore important for me, both ethically and financially, to try to keep those recommendations relevant, accurate, and up-to-date. ↩︎

The Wirecutter’s Headphones

Lauren Dragan’s guide at The Wirecutter, The Best $300 Over-Ear Headphones, was updated yesterday, the same day I published my similar mega-review.1

We agree on a lot: our opinions are very close on the PSB M4U 1 (their top pick), B&O H6, and B&W P7. We only have a few major disagreements:

They dismissed my top pick, the AKG K551, as being “tinny” and bass-light, but did not test it this time. They didn’t mention the newer AKG K545 at all, which is unfortunate since it improves on the K551 in some key areas.

They dismiss the NAD HP50, which is extremely similar to their top-picked PSB M4U 1 down to the same designer, parent company, and approximate frequency response, as measured by one of their panelists. The HP50 and M4U 1 are nearly indistinguishable in sound to me (exactly what you’d expect from the measurements), but I rated the HP50’s sound very slightly better, while they complained about the HP50’s “sparkling high end” and “bumping bass” and didn’t rank it.

They ranked the Blue Mo-Fi as “a (very close) runner-up” to the M4U 1 and actually rated its sound quality higher, while I don’t think it’s very close at all and ranked them far below the M4U 1. They recommend the Mo-Fi for “when you listen to live and acoustic instruments”, but live recordings and acoustic instruments are where you need treble presence and detail the most (and notice when they’re lacking), and the Mo-Fi has very poor treble response and detail. And while they did correctly note that the Mo-Fi is very heavy, they were much more forgiving on the fit and comfort than I was.

They ranked the Sennheiser Momentum as third-best, while I ranked it dead last. We agree that it’s uncomfortable, but disagree on the degree and importance of discomfort. We agree that they have too much bass, but while they say “the fit and sound were just barely off from our top slot”, I think there’s a large difference between the M4U’s sound and the Momentum’s: the Momentum has substantially less detail and an even more severe lack of treble (which most pro reviews have backed up), although I place it above the Mo-Fi in that regard.

We both thought the Beats Studio didn’t have great sound, but I rated the sound slightly better, and they didn’t mention its ANC (or the hiss). The wording suggests that Lauren didn’t actually test these with the others, yielding to a panelist’s year-old review instead. Since these are probably the most popular headphones in the world in this price class, I think they’re worth testing directly with the others. (That’s why I bought a pair to include in my test.)

They didn’t mention any models from Bose, which was strange since, again, they sell one of the world’s most popular $300 over-ear headphones: the QC15. It’s pretty good, too — so good that it’s The Wirecutter’s top pick in a nearby category. Maybe it was excluded from this review because it has active noise cancellation, but so do the Beats Studio and the sidebar-mentioned M4U 2.

That’s one of the biggest problems I have with their review: they don’t define the category or its boundaries very well, it doesn’t include some very popular models that people actually buy, and it recommends some models without appropriate warnings about their needs or side effects.

Should “$300-ish over-ear headphones” include noise-cancelling models? I think so, especially the very popular ones. Should it include open-backed headphones, large studio headphones that don’t fold, or models without phone clickers? I think not, since that probably doesn’t reflect what people expect today from an unqualified “best headphones” pick. Should a $2,000 orthodynamic flagship (that Lauren seemingly didn’t spend much time with) be mentioned in the review at all, especially without mentioning that it also requires a very powerful and expensive amp? I think not. That’s like saying “The best mid-priced car is the Honda Accord, but for a big step up, get the Ferrari 458” — correct but not helpful, lacking some big caveats, dismissing a huge range of great options in between, and nowhere near the whole story. They disagree with me on all of these choices before we even get to sound-quality evaluation.

Much of our disagreement on sound quality can be chalked up to different preferences. They clearly prefer the “laid-back” sound profile with reduced treble response, which I address in my review (and provide separate picks for, led by the HP50 and M4U 1). Sound quality is mostly objective but partly subjective, and they barely address those possible differences or dismiss them as wrong. And while objective measurements aren’t everything, some of their cited differences strongly contradict them.

That’s the problem with The Wirecutter’s approach: “This is the best one.” There is no single “best” headphone for around $300, just as there’s no single “best” of almost anything. In practice, it’s more complicated than that for almost every product category unless it’s defined more narrowly and consistently than the bounds they usually set.

  1. For the same reason: the Blue Mo-Fi embargo lifted yesterday. ↩︎

Worked things out with The Wirecutter

After my disagreement with parts of The Wirecutter’s headphone review, we had a heated conversation on Twitter. To many readers, it was a juicy fight. To the actual humans on both ends, it was a terrible, regrettable mess that ruined us for days, and I’m extremely sorry that it happened.

I had a long, pleasant phone conversation today with Jacqui Cheng, The Wirecutter’s editor-in-chief. In short, we both admitted to shortcomings and poor decisions, we both accepted each other’s grievances, and we’re both going to improve and communicate better.

It seems ridiculous that reviewing a bunch of headphones would bring this degree of controversy, but that wasn’t really the cause. I often speak and write with arrogance, absolutes, and generalizations that I don’t intend, and often don’t even realize I’ve done unless someone points it out. It’s probably the biggest flaw in my writing and personality, and while I’ve been trying to write (and think) with more qualifiers, fewer absolutes, and more consideration and inclusion of other viewpoints, I still have a long way to go.

Furthermore, my common move of retweeting outrageous comments to me on Twitter has more severe side effects than I usually consider. I’ve been doing that mostly as a coping mechanism to mask negativity with humor, but it’s also vengeful, and only amplifies and extends the negativity further as my followers inevitably fight back and spread the storm further. No amount of possible humor or defense is worth fanning the flames that much and causing so much additional negativity, so I won’t be doing that anymore. (If you catch me relapsing on this, please tell me.)

*   *   *

As a sidenote, the barrage of negativity, guilt, and self-doubt over this in the last few days affected me strongly, and I took some time away from Twitter. It was remarkably effective at helping me restore my mind to a peaceful state, and I highly recommend trying it.

Much of the stress I felt during this is from the amount of access to me that I grant to the public. A few months ago, Howard Stern pulled back from Twitter for this reason, after being flamed ruthlessly whenever he said anything, and raised a great question on his show: Why do we give people such access to us? Why do we read what every random asshole says two seconds after we post anything?

We allow people access to us 24/7. We’re always in public, constantly checking an anonymous comment box, trying to explain ourselves to everyone, and trying to win unwinnable arguments with strangers who don’t matter in our lives at all.

Schoolchildren face a related issue. When we were kids, almost nobody was on the internet. No matter how bad you had it in school, socially, you could go home every afternoon and have a break from it for the rest of the day. Today, everyone’s on social networks and nobody ever gets a break. Kids can get harassed in school all day, go home, and continue to get harassed by the same people online all night.

The same problem affects adults. If you have an online persona and a smartphone, there is no break unless you exercise a degree of self-control that almost nobody can. Information is addictive, especially when you know that people are talking about you and you’re not seeing it.

The best you can do is stop feeding the flames and stop paying attention.

If you’re having a rough day on social media, try taking a break. A big break. Delete the Twitter app or bury it in an obscure folder. Don’t check it for 24 hours. Go longer if you can. The difference is bigger than you might assume. It’s eye-opening.

And listen to a bunch of Phish. That helps, too.

In whichever headphones you like.