Thoughts on CEU: Would Income Share Agreements Work for Us?

CEU is going through an incredible transformation. We are moving countries and we are facing new challenges. CEU leadership laid out a plan that is referred to as CEU2025. I plan to write about what I am about to say in an itemized list but my broad conclusion after looking at the CEU2025 plan is that it (with generous help from the Hungarian government) will destroy everything that made CEU a great place to work for me. (Others’ opinions may vary, but as far as I am concerned, this is how I see it.)

I have made a promise to myself that, despite more regular solicitations, I will stay at CEU and see all this through. I will try to contribute to the best of my ability. But in the process, my main goal will be to ensure this negative foreshadow of the CEU2025 future does not come to fruition. Next fall I will give up the on-demand baby sitting just one floor below where my parents live and move to Vienna because I believe that will be the best place where I can contribute to making an Austrian CEU an even greater place to be both for us, the faculty, and, most importantly, for our students.

These blog posts under the “Thoughts on CEU” series will be in this spirit. Hopefully they can contribute to a conversation on how CEU could thrive despite its new challenges.

To begin the series, we have to talk about something none of us want to talk about. CEU, despite recent recapitalization of the endowment and additional money for the Vienna transition (and maybe also cash for a permanent campus in Vienna), is not in good financial shape. It is fair to say most people on campus are not honest about this fact. Even the ones who may have been concerned before are now fooling themselves with this recapitalization. We, the faculty, do not have on demand access to accurate and up to date information about our yields, endowments, budget, but I can cite a conversation with the Rector here (from before our “little local troubles” started) we are not in good shape and the current influx of capital only puts us on life support, giving us a chance to get back on our feet and not be doomed in the long run.

To combat the problem, CEU2025 proposes to collect 3000 EUR tuition even from people who previously received a full ride. (Note that CEU2025 was only a few slides and the proposals are, of course, fluid. That is exactly why I am putting these thoughts out in the open.) Above, I mentioned that I have a long list that makes CEU a great place to be (and in my next post I will itemize). Here’s the first one: we have excellent and ambitious students many of whom had no opportunities elsewhere because they cannot afford it.

This tuition move puts CEU outside of the reach of some of our best students. Cost of living increases in Budapest (mostly due to steeply increasing real-estate prices) of the past 6-8 years have already put a strain on low income families’ ability to send their kids (and sometimes spouses, mothers and fathers) to CEU. Add Vienna cost of living ,which is around 50% more than in Budapest (with housing prices 80% higher) along with this hint of 3000 EUR tuition certainly puts us out of the reach of our traditional demographic of students who cannot afford a Western education. CEU, traditionally, was the jumping board to a Western education for much of the post-communist region. By the time I joined CEU in 2006, the West was directly accessible to many, but not to everyone. If we lose this demographic, I wonder who will come to CEU? This, of course, calls for a longer conversation but I do not believe that the appropriate market research has been done to answer it. If it has been done, I haven’t seen it. So, for now, lets just say that if we trade ambitious people who had no other opportunities for well off people who had no other opportunities, CEU’s reputation will certainly suffer (not to mention its academic staff).

But maybe there is an appropriate way to handle this without charging tuition. A few months ago a 50+ year old idea dating back to Milton Friedman’s book Capitalism and Freedom received quite a bit of attention in the news: Income Share Agreements. Agreements that a student can attend a University for free and in exchange they will share a certain percentage of their income for a certain amount of years. NPR’s Planet Money described it as a University buying stock in a student they train. They literally financially invest in the student’s future success.

Now, that sounds like CEU to me. We pride ourselves in our students, in training the future leaders of the entire region. We have students who are mayors of capitals, ministers, EU administrators. We believe in our students. So instead of charging them tuition, why not invest in them?

There are many nuances of how these income share agreements work to go through in such a blog post. But let me highlight some of the most important ones. CEU is not trying to generate that much revenue per student. So we could keep the income share quite low. Purdue University’s program asked 15% for 8 years from someone who worked in food science. (Purdue University also varied the percent depending on the person’s major, but this is a non-issue at CEU.) We can probably do much better keeping the percent at a non-scary number. Say, 5% would sound OK to me. Our tuition are nowhere near Purdue’s (though maybe neither is the projected income of our students, not sure). I guess we can keep the time longer if need be. The 8 years was 8 years while a person was in employment or was seeking employment. If someone wanted to get out of the labor force and make money traveling around the world busking, that did not count. (They could do it and pause their 8 years.) On the other hand if someone was laid off and was searching for their next job, that counted towards the 8 years. There were protections in place for the students. If they became mega-millionaires. They still only had to pay back 2.5x the cost of their tuition (a tuition that, with such a program in place, CEU could totally raise without a bad conscience). The amount the school expected back was capped.

Such an arrangement would allow our historical demographic access to CEU, especially if CEU provided some need based housing and scholarships to offset Vienna’s relatively high cost of living. It would put CEU in the world of cutting edge outside the box thinking, innovative solutions true to who we are and who we inspire to be. And there are other benefits. First, CEU received strong criticism for its “neo-liberal” behavior from an internal activist group. While I share the group’s concerns, I worry about their numeric literacy. If their goal was to just blow the endowment over the next decade or two, then I do not share these goals. If they thought figuring the numbers out is not their job, I do not find their propositions constructive. Maybe they were just, like so many at CEU, ignorant about our financial situation. This strategy is one that even such a radical group and the people whose job is to look after the financial health of the University could (maybe even should) agree on. Also, let’s say such a program is launched and the 10 or so years (whatever it will be) is up for the first students. The University, at this time, will have a strong personal but also contractual relationship with this student. We would have a great ability to communicate with them, find them if we lose track of them (because we would have the ability to collect more information from them even in the age of GDPR and use this information for staying in contact). So why not ask them to keep contributing? Not everyone will, but in the spirit of CEU’s mission, they may just chose to target CEU (or its future students) with their philanthropy. They are used to paying 5% of their income to CEU. Why not just keep doing that (and get a tax write off)? Maybe these people will be the ones who put CEU in their will and 75 years down the road, the benefits will multiply.

There is just one major complication this is all pointing to. In the past I have often asked why CEU doesn’t offer student loans for tuition or housing ourselves. The response was always, we simply cannot. We don’t have the ability to track students from a 130 countries to get our money back. That is true. But you know who else doesn’t have that ability? NOBODY! None of the financial institutions operate in all countries effectively. Some may decide to take on such a task but it will cost us, or it will cost the student dearly with heavy interest. The reality is that CEU is in the best position to administer such a program. We are used to offering education, even for free to students. Let’s keep doing that with deferred income. We do not have the ability to go after anyone in every corner of the world, but we have the ability to put a list on our website of the former students who defaulted on their obligations. (Not something we should take lightly, but this ability is a stronger enforcement mechanism than what anyone will have. One’s reputation is important.) Will some people default? Sure. Will it be such a large percent to declare the project a failure? Maybe I have too much faith in people but I sincerely do not believe so. I know this is an experiment, but what we lose if we, in the spirit of CEU2025, start charging tuition of everyone (or just about) is quite clear. The potential for gain with this alternative structure may be greater than anyone could predict today outperforming any tuition scheme we may put in place. So why not try it? If it fails completely, we can go back to a more traditional structure.

NOTE: Many of the ideas presented here come from the above linked NPR Planet Money Podcast and the Freakonomics interview with Purdue President (and almost Republican US Presidential contender) Mitch Daniels.

Twitter is a good tool to promote yourself and your work. Don’t screw it up from the get go.

Recently with the Guardian projects, Team Populism data releases and etc. I received quite a bit of twitter traffic. Maybe I shouldn’t do this but I am one of those people who wants to follow everyone back. So I do, except…

So, young scholars. If you want to use Twitter to promote your work or yourself, I have three small pieces of advice for you.

1. Fill out your twitter profile. Add your academic level (PhD Candidate, Post-Doc for example), your institution, maybe where you graduated from. Maybe link your website. Say what you are working on academically. And then add anything personal if you want. If it is not clear from this summary, like when it is empty, filled with BS or all personal stuff, that you are a fellow scholar, your academic peers will not follow you, or follow you back, and your ability to promote yourself and your work will be limited.

2. Pin a post that is representative of your work. Make it a tweet about your most recent achievement. You have a recent publication? I am sure you tweeted about it. (And if not, do it now.) Pin that tweet. You have multiple pieces to promote, put together one tweet about the multiple pieces. I actually have three. Here it is:

In 2019: w/@b_castanho @cmbosancianu Multilevel Structural Equation Modeling w/Hawkins Contemporary US Populism in Comparative Perspective & The Ideational Approach to Populism also Carlin & Rovira Kaltwasser

But don’t feel like you need to have several things published before you can pin something. This tweet doesn’t need to be so much. Maybe you are not there yet, maybe you haven’t published anything so far. But you wrote something for sure. Maybe something you did for a class? Maybe you have something under review or getting ready to send something. It is best if such a thing is related to your research topic you want to pursue. Tweet about it! (Link it if you are brave enough.) Offer a summary of the premise and the finding. (Good exercise summing these up w/ 280 characters.) And then pin it. And as your academic work evolves, pin new things as you go.

3. Write in English. (Full stop.) It is OK to have tweets of more personal nature (though some advise against these altogether) but if I can’t read your profile without machine translation (which is still annoying), I will not follow you. Unfortunately, because of this you also want to limit what you retweet as well. If it is not in English, you may retweet it, but it is best to do it with the function where you write about a tweet. Tell everyone, in English, what that retweet is about.

…so receiving this higher traffic I was quite amazed how many people simply don’t have their profile filled out. I could not tell if the person is an enthusiast who I will not care about, a bot, a troll, or a fellow scholar who is clueless. Needless to say, you know who wasn’t followed back despite my total openness policy for following everyone back on Twitter if I believe they may some something I may care about. Don’t be that person.

About the “Playing Authentic” Gibson Campaign

I was just listening to Mike at 424 Recording (awesome channel about analog music recording gear and creative life in general – check it out) get pissed off at Gibson on the life stream. I thought about commenting, I thought about writing him (we are pen pals and I haven’t written him in a while) but in the end I decided to blog.

Here’s the backstory. Gibson recently released a video (I am not gonna link it) with some typical marketing bullshit about “playing authentic”. This video could have been some standard marketing crap we’d expect from Gibson. But near the end the video got weird. It started talking about how they are going to go after everyone copying their intellectual property, warning people who tape over the head stock on TV that such moves will not get them out of trademark infringement. They made it clear they are going after everyone from flat out illegal Chibson copies to mass manufactured Gibson looking cheapos to boutique builders who even think about making a guitar resembling Gibson. A weird video, if I have ever seen one. And on the heel of this, now Gibson is suing Dean guitars for trademark infringements. (And I am sure they are not the last ones.) Needless to say, the whole Internet quickly lost their shit, because it is the Internet. Gibson took the video down but it lived on like every teenage girl’s bathroom selfie lives on, because it is the Internet.

So let’s get my biases out of the way. I have tried to love Gibson since high school and I have failed. While I love the sound of Les Pauls and SGs, I never liked to play them. Today, I have an Epiphone Les Paul that I got because it came with my University logo on it. It is complete garbage but looks cool on the wall. Figure it is a better thing to get than a class ring. (Once I will finally have an office I will not have to move out of in a year or two, I may move it in there permanently.) A while back I picked up an SG (with the highly innovative and universally hated robot tuners) that was priced nicely. I didn’t even get to play it yet. It is sitting in the US (so can’t comment on this one but I was willing to spend money on it). I got it for quick changes between open tunings (something I always wanted to experiment with) and the mini humbuckers which I never really got to experience yet first hand. I also have a birth year The Paul which is certainly growing on me, but is far from the top guitars I reach for when I want to grab a guitar and play (though it may be #2 or 3). This said, my main instrument now is the mandolin and you cannot find a mandolin player who does not admire Gibson’s “authentic” 1922-1924 Lloyd Loar designs. Every bluegrass mandolin player plays a copy of such an instrument. We all cried when Charlie Derrington died who put Bill Monroe’s Loar’s back together when someone decided to break into his house and go at them with a fireplace poker. Ironically, directly as a result of Charlie’s death, I had the honor of holding one of the original ones in my hand (the one owned by Andy Owens). He said Gilchrist’s wait time is too long and since Charlie died he only trusts the Czech luthier Ondrej Holoubek to work on the mandolin. So he brought it to Europe and my friend and I decided it was worth driving to the next country to play the thing (even if it was just for 10 minutes at the airport). It is a truly magical instrument.

Finally, in the world of acoustic guitars I was always a Martin guy. But back in the late 1990’s my “uncle” from the American host family I had picked up an old Gibson guitar. Just found it somewhere through a friend. Wanted to learn how to play it. That guitar was so magical, it is difficult to describe. I didn’t even know what it was but even a decade later I was still dreaming of that sound, feel and connection I had with the instrument. That guitar turned out to be lower end model from the early 1930s. And I am trusted with it by the family to look after it until someone in the next generation can play it. Needless to say after this, it is an instrument I have a very special connection with. I had it nicely restored structurally and it plays like a dream today.

So, despite being a Fender and Martin guy, I also have a very special connection with Gibson instruments and respect for their history. That marketing bullshit about “playing authentic” actually resonates with me. But I also think people need to find their instruments wherever it comes from. I am sure Gibson would be unhappy to see my main electric guitar that is shaped as a Les Paul Junior (though from the neck pickup down it looks more like a Tele). And this guitar is the opposite of authentic. All those play marks came stock from the manufacturing bench. #relic #not authentic But it is the best guitar I have ever played.

And my Kentucky mandolin from the workbench of Eiichi Sumi is about as close anyone can get to ripping off an instrument, in this case, a 1922-24 Gibson F5 mandolin. Still, I always connected with it better than my friend’s authentic Gibson F5 Fern from the same general era as my Kentucky.

Gibson is going through rough times. They declared bankruptcy recently but it seems they are coming out of it OK. I worry about what the vulture capitalists will do to the company. Some suggested this move to sue everyone is their doing. This said, if you look into what happened to Gibson that got them in financial trouble, it is not their guitar business. Guitar business, despite some serious mishaps best represented by the robot tuners coming standard a few years back, is doing just fine. The previous CEO wanted to turn Gibson into a comprehensive music brand along the lines of Apple. They bought up brands who manufacture everything music related, some of which weren’t exactly the products of the future (like cassette and record players). Also, as evidenced by the 424 Recording live chat, people often forget that Gibson is a company that manufactures solely in the United States. Sure, they own Epiphone, that is made overseas but Gibson is made in the US. I hear complaints about Gibson’s prices but that has to be put into the context of a made in USA product. Earlier this year I got to visit Thomann and I played a single P90 double cutaway satin finish guitar that sell for $799. It was a great feeling and playing guitar if I’ve ever seen one. Almost took it home. Nothing fancy, one pickup, two knobs, pedestrian finish, nice looking mahogany though, but shown me another Made in USA instrument for $799. A few years back they managed to make guitars for even less ($400 street?), but admittedly, that was complete garbage. But they were trying and that is more than I can say for other guitar companies. Now do I think that the Chinese make worse guitars? Not necessarily. They have gotten very good. I envy the kids who pick up a cheap instrument today because they are excellent instruments. Do I think Gibson’s higher end line are overpriced? Sure. Do I think you can get better (and possibly cheaper), boutique alternatives that are made in the developed Western world? Absolutely. (I have one myself as my main instrument. But if you do this, watch for resale value as well.) But there is something about the will to keep the manufacturing jobs in the US, try to maintain quality while at it that I also respect. In the grand scheme of things Gibson is doing the right thing here and I admire that. And, as far as their guitar business is concerned, they are making it. The rest of the stupid crap was what got them into trouble. I hope this current reorganization will not drive them to Indonesia because it would be a shame to see a Gibson guitar with Made in Indonesia stamped on the body.

In the end, I guess, what I am saying is that, I am not willing to shit on Gibson for their “playing authentic” crusade. And I am rooting for them to succeed as a company. And I really hope they are not trying to get there by suing everyone. In fact, I really hope that this whole thing was nothing more than a publicity stunt and maybe an action to punish one company who has been bothering them for a long time. But I hope it ends there. If it was a publicity stunt, it was brilliant at that. Six months from now nobody will remember anything of all this shit that just hit the fan when someone at Gibson did something the Internet though was wrong. But “playing authentic” will be a slogan we will all remember and associate with Gibson. And while Gibson is trying to make it manufacturing in the US while keeping their prices below everyone else’s who haven’t bailed overseas yet (seriously, is there anyone left? Maybe Deering Banjos but I can’t even think of another – I don’t think Martin makes a sub $1000 instrument, if they do it is proportionally less than Gibson for sure), that is a slogan I have absolutely no problem with. They should own it because it is really theirs (and sure, also Fender’s) to own as far as the electric guitar (but also the contemporary bluegrass mandolin) is concerned.

Multilevel Structural Equation Modeling, Online Appendix (2019, SAGE QASS 179)

Silva, Bosancianu & Littvay 2019

Thank you for reading our book and visiting this page. All the examples in the book were estimated using Mplus 8. For your convenience, we designed them to be usable with the free demo version. You can download them (including datasets) here. Code for the R package lavaan is also available for most models, courtesy of Yves Rosseel. In addition to the scripts, we also offer you LaTeX code for all the equations and all the figures presented in the book. If you are interested in purchasing the book, please visit the following links: US, EU, UK.

Next workshop at the 2019 European Consorcium for Political Research (ECPR) Summer School in Methods and Techniques hosted at Central European University (CEU) in Budapest, Hungary.

Authors in order from the left at the 2019 ECPR Winter School in Methods and Techniques at the Bamberg Graduate School of Social Sciences in Germany.

How to write a survey?

OK, so you figured out you need to conduct a survey. What’s next?

Everyone’s gut reaction is, let’s start writing questions. But if you want to do it right this is exactly what you should not do. In fact, resist all urges to even think about what questions to ask. To write a better survey, the first question you need to answer is:

1. what am I interested in finding out?

It is very important that you do not phrase the answer to this in a survey question. You never really cared how people respond to any question anyway, right? You care about what is behind those responses. Let’s say, you want to know if a customer likes a product. Maybe you want to know if they are likely to refer you, as a service provider, to others. Ask yourself, what are the relevant demographic information needed for your study. Make an exhaustive list of what you want to find out.

Now you write questions? No! You still should not. Rather, ask yourself…

2. what will you do with this information?

You have to think about this question in two different ways, two different sequential steps.

a. How will I analyze this data. Develop an analytical strategy. Will I look at (or present) a histogram? Do I want to see any association between two of the constructs defined in point 1? Are older or younger people more likely to refer my services to others? Men or women? Compile an exhaustive list of such questions you have, that you want to get out of the data. Once you asked your questions, come up with an analytical strategy. Do I just want some descriptive information (like a cross-tabulation) all the way to needing to develop an instrumental variable regression model to causally ascertain the relationship between a key independent and the dependent variable? For the latter you may also need to find three or four plausible instruments. Have an analytical strategy in mind. It could be as simple as calculating the mean, it could be a simple inferential statistic like a correlation or a two sample t-test or it could be something complex. Just make sure you have a preliminary analytical strategy.

b. Know what you will do with the information. Devise action strategies. If I see that young people do not refer my service to friends, I will develop a marketing strategy that will nudge young people to do this. Maybe you are not the person taking action on the survey, then devise a recommendation strategy. If you work for a client (even if it is in-house) push them hard on devising this strategy before you start the survey. The better they know what they want to do with the data, the better chance you have a writing a useful survey for them.

To aid steps 1 and 2 (which you may need to go back and forth on a bit) it is a good idea to draw things out. It is OK to go back and forth between your current and previous steps, but don’t go beyond that.

3. Take the constructs you identified as crucial and figure out how best to operationalize them. Chances are, this is the stage where the constructs (if you are following these steps closely, that are drawn up in a web of relationships of interests) are going to start turning into survey questions. It is OK to ask multiple survey questions trying to tap one construct. Beware (and if need be, modify) the analytical strategy developed in step 2 as you start operationalizing. Maybe you thought you will look at a correlation, but it turns out a simple yes-no question is the best way to ask about something. Then you will only have a dichotomy and not a continuous variable as called for by a correlation. So, you may need to adjust your analytical strategy. At this stage, don’t go back to step 1 anymore.

Follow conventional rules of questionnaire design. Make sure you are asking questions (not just throwing words at the respondent. “Gender: ” should be “What is your gender”? The survey process is a conversation. Don’t break the basic conversational rules. Make sure the response categories you offer are unique, mutually exclusive and they answer the question you ask. Label all your response categories and no need to throw numbers you will use in the analysis at people. Unless you are some survey researcher or quantitative social scientist (which you probably are, or slowly becoming if you got this far), it is wholly unnatural to map a conversation on to some numeric space, so don’t make people do it. Also, don’t even bother them with your numeric mapping. And – very important – make sure the response categories actually answer the question. If the question starts with “how many”, the answer is never “strongly agree” or “disagree”.

Remember that bipolar scales should be no wider than 7 points (11 for experts – but good luck labeling all of them…) and unipolar scales no wider than 5 points (7 for experts). Don’t let your respondent just run through tables of questions with the same responses. They will lose attention. Better if you write question specific response categories.

Write at a grade level that is around 3-5 years lower than the lower end of your population. Don’t use big words, homonyms, heteronyms or jargon that may not be understood by the respondent. Ask one question at a time (the words and + or are usually red flags in survey questions). You can offer a don’t know option, just remember, it encourages people to not engage with the survey, not to think about the survey. (And men, on average are less likely to admit not knowing anything anyway, so even if your goal is to find out of people don’t know something, just know that your results will be biased no matter what, so why bother.) This is hardly an exhaustive list. But there are a million more pointers and also great survey question writing tutorials online. Read through a few. What I see less of is tutorials demonstrating this broader process that looks beyond the question writing and, IMHO, is absolutely necessary to acquire quality responses that you can effectively use.

Finally, please remember that most people hate surveys. This process ensures that you only ask what is necessary and what you know you need and know what to do with. The longer a survey is, the worse the data quality will be. Off the bat, fewer people will take a survey that seems long to them (and it is a good idea to tell people anyway how long the survey will take to ensure they have enough time to do it when they do end up taking it – some people may never take a survey as they don’t know if they will have time to do so, unless you give them a ballpark estimate of how long). People’s attention spans are more and more limited in today’s day and age. After 10 minutes, you can forget about them paying much attention which will be at the expense of data quality. This process ensures no unnecessary questions are asked.

When you start a survey by writing questions, you become fond of those questions and more likely to ask them (or hesitate on cutting them later). This is why it is especially important to first know what research question you need answered and only then, start designing the survey questions that will help you do it.

Of course, there will always be that stakeholder who comes and says, we also should ask question XYZ… and sometimes they have good ideas with obvious implications. But most of the time, this is not the case. The best weapon against such a proposal is the demonstration of the thoughtful development as described above. You come back to them demonstrating how and why all questions are in this survey and asking them, now with this in mind, why do you want to ask that too? They will either improve your design on the spot or back down. Either way, it is a win-win.

Headphone Geek Out

It has been a while. I need to get back into the habit of writing. Right now, I am writing grant proposals and there is nothing as soul killing as those. I hate it. Maybe this will be therapeutic.

So I threw away a headphone or two lately. They were dying. So it was time, once again, for that semi-regular activity when I contact Juraj Medzihorsky, who, in addition to knowing everything there is to know about music in Budapest, he also knows everything there is to know about sound in general.  From a fun scraping exercise, once he scraped some headphone review site and came up with the following scatter plot. (Y Axis is sound quality, X axis is log price).

It does not take a stats genius to figure out which headphone one should buy. (So I did, and since, I consult Juraj on headphone purchases.) I don’t have this headphone anymore. It had no mic, no button so I actually did not like it for day-to-day use.  It did sound amazing. (OK, Szása called me out on Facebook for this. It was the Monoprice 108320. And yes, I totally wish I would have kept it so I could do a comparison now.)

I had a horrible time with headphones around then. Klipsch S2/S4 were dying every 2-4 months. Etymotic lasted 6 months. There were others as well (maybe a very specific cheap Samsung which was OK), but the first true love ended up being the Xiaomi Piston 2. Those things were cheap, durable and they sounded great. There was only one thing about them that bothered me. They got discontinued.

Piston 3 sounded like shit IMHO. The 4th generation Xiaomi Piston Dual Drivers sounded fine but they did not have the durability of the Piston 2. In fact, the one I threw out recently was the last one of these I had.

So it was time for new headphones. There was buzz around a Sony and they were cheap outgoing models. Meh. I guess they work but there was nothing about them I really liked. Sound was OK, nothing special. Feel was weird. Flat cable didn’t tangle so I kept them as the back up in the bag, in case I forget my daily drivers. But when I found myself digging on the bottom of a box for something to listen to podcasts/music with, I knew it was time to make new purchases.

Talk to Juraj. Industry favorite is apparently the KZ-ATE. OK. Lets grab two. I also managed to find a Piston 2. Made me so happy. And as I tried it out today, it is certainly not a fake. (Yeah, it is that bad. They are counterfeiting the cheap headphones in China. So everyone BEWARE!)

(This was the worst rambling way too long intro I ever wrote.)

Well, this was interesting. I put on the < 20 EUR KZ-ATE and I knew I was up against something very-very serious.  So it was time to do some more in depth testing. I did not use any special equipment. Just my Google Pixel Phone and Amazon Music. The test songs were Tom Russel’s Man from God Knows Where (my favorite test song) and Chris Thile’s I’m Nowhere and You’re Everything. This covers the style of music I listen to where I most care about quality. These are songs I know very well. They are well recorded.

The KZ-ATE had incredible clarity and detail. Despite the stupid size (don’t worry, they are not as uncomfortable as they look) it was not bassy. I figured the rationale behind the size was to fit a big driver in there. In fact, it was surprisingly not bassy. With the clarity I was up against, I expected more bass. The roll off on the low-end was very smooth though. The top was weird. The resolution was incredible. I could hear every little detail in the music, but it sounded off. The acoustic guitar overtones especially were simply incorrect. That is not what a guitar sounds like. Mandolin was ditto. Thile’s vocals were also off. It was such a strange feeling to hear all the details and hear it incorrectly.

For good measure I did a listening test with the Piston. Nowhere near the resolution. The bass was also not there. (OK, maybe a bit more there, but definitely not a big difference.)  The sound was not nearly as sooth. Resolution was not there at all. But the guitar and mandolin (not to mention Thile’s voice) sounded right. And the sound stage was open and musical.

There are so many terms in the audiophile vocabulary and I don’t know what most of these mean (but I swear, neither do anyone else – this often reminds me of the fruits people list off when tasting wine). But I felt that the KZ-ATE has incredible sound within that middle range. Once we got to the top and bottom, it was not correct. I know that many people are in love with their single driver speakers. I assume this is the kind of sound those has. Missing top and missing bass. But it is very musical, easy to listen to and the detail will not bother your ear/brain. (I am guessing here. Never heard such a system.) But I still prefer the Piston. (Should hunt for more old stock I guess and pray they are not fake.)

I put the KZ-ATE through some burn in. Have not tested since. If it turns out I didn’t do them justice, I will update.  I do wonder which of the two causes more listening fatigue. I know my home system does quite quickly and it is probably because the incredible resolution and the sheer high-end coming out of the horns. (I am sure the cross-over is also not helping, though that has been updated since.) I don’t know if it is the resolution of the KZ or the high-end clarity of the Piston 2 that would tire the ears/brains more. But I do know which of the two I prefer.

This said, at the price I paid, the KZ-ATE is an incredible headphone. It does not happen often that I hear a headphone and I schedule a dedicated listening session to figure out what is going on. I didn’t even do this for the Piston 2. Only that outlier dot on the figure got this treatment before and that was a biased pre-conception. The Sony never got the honors. I knew from the get go that they were nothing to write home about. So, at this price, they are recommended despite al the “bad” things I said about them above. They are great headphones.

If anyone is interested, I got them here.

Bulletproof Coffee

A few weeks ago as a van full of music geeks were heading back from the Chris Thile – Brad Mehldau duet concert in Vienna, I found out that I am also sitting with some serious food geeks which devolved into quite a conversation with one revelation (at least for me).

From the colleague who (objectively) offers the most popular course at the ECPR methods school (who also turned out to be a serious food geek), I already knew about the importance of medium chain triglycerides (MCT – translation: fats) for anyone (like me) on a low carb diet. It is an important substitute of carbohydrates in providing quickly accessible energy for people whose bodies are already used to burning fat for energy. Best (natural) sources of MCTs: coconut oil, palm oil and cheeses.

So apparently this is a thing. One spoon full of coconut oil, one soon full of butter and coffee. (And it is not as bad as it sounds. I add a sweetener and top it off with some milk.)

So since my body adjusted to the low carb diet, I really have not been eating lunch. Even before the diet, when I had a nice big egg breakfast, I was always OK until an early dinner. (But when I ran out of the house without a breakfast and grabbed a pastry on the way with a yoghurt drink, I was already starving by lunch.) But this may just become my substitute for the run out of the house quick meal (and plan on, probably, an egg based lunch). Last week’s experiment did not work so well, but I think the 4 hours of sleep had more to do with that than the meals.

Give it a shot… but until then, enjoy Chris Thile and Brad Mehldau (though I prefer this instrumental cover of theirs from the late Elliott Smith… and also Don’t Think Twice and Marcie for which I did not find good live recordings). But this is the most representative of their work.

Innovation in music is generally bad, but…

I think it is fair to say that just about every technological innovation in music since about the time I was born left the world being a worse place (be it the CD player, mp3s, mp3 players, mp3 compatible CD players… transistor amps, digitized techno, digitized anything, everything in the 80’s and etc.). Exceptions are few and far between, but today I came across a big one.

This trinket is certainly not for me. But I appreciate the fact that it is a modernized classical coil based guitar pickup design with the string separation nobody ever cared to develop. And the possibilities for musical creativity is are quite amazing starting with the idea carried by its predecessor allowing the insertion of a (low) octave effect on the lower two strings. An ability to put effects on certain strings independent of each other, and to do so with the same analog effect pedals running into the same tube amps that made music (before I was born) what it is, is kind of amazing. For someone to approach the same problem that has already been addressed (with disastrous results) by Roland midi pickups in the 80’s in a truly analog and sonically conservative way is true genius. I cannot wait to hear what people do with it. Until then, if you are a more creative guitarist than me, get one of these! But definitely see the demo.

How you can never be smart

Apparently, when I was a toddler (not like I remember, but I am often told), my parents were also not morning people. So to prevent me from waking them up, they left sufficient entertainment and some food (chocolate milk) for me in the crib at night before they went to bed. This way I would not stay hungry and entertain myself in the morning while they crawled out of bed.

Some 38 or so years later, Stela and I are also not morning people. So we decided to try this same approach to manage our little monster. Been doing this for a week or two. One day she didn’t drink the bottle. Otherwise all seemed cool.

Yesterday we noticed that she found the bottle shortly after we left it, a little after midnight. OK. Must have been a fluke. Today, we noticed that she woke up at midnight and was frantically looking for the bottle of milk.

Try to be smart in this world and a 16 month old will outsmart you. Now we have to figure out how to decondition her from waking up at midnight in search of food. We’ll never know but I am fairly sure she has been drinking the bottle of milk just minutes after we left it for a week or two now.