what i do with politicians

Posted September 7, 2014 by collectedobsessions
Categories: Uncategorized

I went to a press conference this week and asked a few questions. That in itself is unusual because I’m basically a news bureaucrat, the guy who signs time cards and looks at stories other, usually much younger, people write. But I went, because I hadn’t seen this politician in the flesh, and I wanted to.

Why I wanted to is what I want to note here, first noting that ‘why’ is not important at all to anyone but me. The questions and answers, and the context in which they took place, is what counts. This politician, and his counterpart in the other major party, have been taking some heat for not answering questions well or often or, in some cases, at all. We the press have solemnly noted that a political campaign is one long job interview, that answering our questions is what democracy is all about, that failure to do so is a Bad Thing. All of which is true, but doesn’t get to the heart of the matter.

So, at the press conference, with the candidate behind the podium in bright sunlight and a group of supporters flanking him, holding signs, I asked my questions. A few things: when you ask in that situation, in public, it’s always theater. Your role may be to be the reporter-who-doesn’t-care-about-the-theater-of-it, but it’s always there just the same, and when you ask you’re by definition performing. I know this, and I had a weird case of the jitters; I couldn’t figure out where to look or quite what to do with the rest of me. I brought a notebook, but my note-taking, to be charitable, sucks. I had trouble focusing on the sentences long enough to get them down. I was grateful we had a camera rolling.

What I shoot for is that state of grace where I’m not really thinking about any of this, where I’m just asking and the other person is just answering. I like to be all antennae when I ask a question; it goes out like a radio transmission, and I sit by the receiver, waiting to get something back. What that something is, I don’t know, and it’s the brief, nervous excitement of waiting, and listening as the question gets parsed and replied to, that I’m there for. That and all the other signals I think I’m getting – is the politician nervous? Is the crowd interested? Who’s smiling, who’s frowning?

Of course, what you usually get back is as predictable as a press release, and you often end up in the unsatisfying business of trying to make small distinctions – You said ‘no’ yesterday and ‘not’ today, and has your position changed? Anyway, neither the candidate nor I had good footing, so nothing much interesting happened, and I walked away no wiser.

The photographer Lee Friedlander was asked once about the act of photographing as art, and he corrected the questioner, said it was more like what an athlete does. You hit a ball or catch one or run fast because you can, because the act and your wiring agree with each other. Asking questions is like that, even though I hate intruding on peoples’ privacy, hate hurting people, hate being difficult or being seen as difficult. Sometimes – more so as I get older – I walk away, but sometimes still I ask and wait, and hope for the blessedly unexpected.

bruce morton: an appreciation

Posted September 7, 2014 by collectedobsessions
Categories: Uncategorized

For a few years back in the 1980s, I wanted nothing more than to be Bruce Morton, the CBS News correspondent who died Friday at the age of 83.

The obituaries online pretty much all describe Morton the way the New York Times does, as an ” a solid reporter of expansive breadth and expertise, with special gifts as a writer.” The last is the important part, because over the years I have come to think of Morton as representing the road-not-taken by TV news, the writerly road, for lack of a better word.

Now “writerly” is not necessarily a good thing, and certainly not a common thing, in TV journalism. As the medium has matured, we’ve learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t, and in general, very plain, functional writing works, but even a little bit of literary flourish does not, especially when you move away from feature pieces and toward hard news. Writing that calls attention to itself is competing against TV’s primary selling points, pictures and sound, and you end up with stories that are more about style than about the subject at hand.

As I remember it, Morton fought this problem to a draw; I paid the most attention to him when he was writing about politics for CBS, and his pieces were deft; you got the point, got that there might be more points worth exploring beyond the horizon of the particular story you were watching and got that there was an intelligence behind the story, that the piece at hand was part of a larger narrative. He was seldom merely clever, though like all writers, he had his off-days.

Two memories:

- I met him once, in New York City, while I was in town working on a story. A guy at the network knew I was a fan and decided to surprise me by introducing him. I’d like to say it was memorable, but I was too flustered and worried about my own story. What I remember most was, he was surprisingly tall.

-  The very best memory I have of Morton is from the CBS News coverage of Tiananmen Square in 1989; Dan Rather was anchoring from there, and CBS had a murder’s row of correspondents on the ground including Morton and Charles Kuralt. While the details have long since faded, there came a point during the coverage where Morton delivered a magnificent “it doesn’t get any better than this” story wrapped live, and then Rather went to Kuralt, who did a piece that, impossible though it seemed to me at the time, was even better. Here were two great reporters, right in the middle of history, who were working at such a high level it was almost like play.

Of course, TV news isn’t built for such things – the Mortons and Kuralts are rare, since writers tend to gravitate to mediums where they can, well, write. And it’s easy to go wrong with writerly TV news; I know, I’ve done enough of it. But Morton reminds us that TV news had the potential to be somewhat different, a little more open to different ways of telling stories.

good enough

Posted July 27, 2014 by collectedobsessions
Categories: Uncategorized

I ended up with a new phone about a month back; I didn’t want one, didn’t want to spend the money and bought on price.

So how is it? Like the headline says, good enough.

Here’s what happened: I was coming in from walking the dogs and somehow – I have no idea how – jammed the on/off switch on my HTC 8x, the stylish Win 8 phone I’ve been carrying for several months. The thing sat in a spare bedroom and buzzed every 30 seconds or so for hours as it cycled between on and off, before the battery finally gave up. It’s a beautifully shaped and styled phone, but there really wasn’t much force involved and the fact that it broke so easily is disappointing.

Anyway, I was now phoneless, so I dug out the HTC Trophy I used a year or so back. It remains a surprisingly competent phone even though it runs the deprecated Win 7; I could get almost every program on it that I could on the 8x, which maybe also says something about how slow progress is on the platform. But I wanted 4G, which meant a new phone was necessary.

Obviously, I could have bought an iPhone or a top line Android phone, but that would have meant either handing Verizon several hundred dollars of my money, or giving Verizon another two year commitment. Since one of my goals is to get all the phones in our family off contract, I did neither.

That left me with three choices: buy a very old iPhone, buy a newer used Android phone or buy another Windows phone. I could have bought an iPhone 4s for roughly $150 on ebay, with no guarantee other than the likelihood that the phone has already seen hard use. Nope. That left Android or more Windows. If I shopped it, I could find a used Moto X for about $200. That’s better, because the Moto X is a very recent phone and got strong reviews, all of which said, basically, “This phone is a bargain, both on price and design.” I was tempted, but again I wasn’t going to get a guarantee, and given the fact that  I’d be gambling that the phone was both in good shape and cleared for use on Verizon’s network, I passed.

So that left buying another Windows phone. Because the platform isn’t very popular, you can get great deals on refurbs and excess new stock. I ended up with a Nokia 822, a phone that’s about a year and a half old, brand new in a Verizon box. The screen took a little getting used to; it’s not nearly as high resolution as the 8x. It’s also boxy and not at all stylish, and it feels ever so slightly loose, like you could rattle it a little. (You can’t.) However, it’s every bit as fast as the 8x and has two things the other phone didn’t – a memory expansion slot and a battery you can replace. Not glamorous, but nice.

Because the screen is wider, and the resolution is lower, everything’s a little bigger, which suits my eyes just fine. Plus, the Nokia is better at making calls – reviewers criticized the audio quality, but the people I call like what they hear from this phone better than the 8x. And because it’s a Nokia, the company (now part of Microsoft) most invested in the Windows phone platform, I have a better chance of getting updates and fixes. (The only problem I’ve had was today, when plugging in headphones, and the right channel wasn’t there. A reboot fixed it.)

And the price? $134 shipped, with guarantee. I avoid extending my Verizon contract, which makes this a very good deal for me. The larger point is – Win phones are the best value out there for ordinary human beings who just want a phone and who can compromise a little on app availability, and are likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. Microsoft seems committed to the platform – the company just killed what many people believed was a “Plan B” Android phone that substituted Microsoft’s online services for Google’s – but most of the growth is reportedly taking place in low end phones, and in “developing countries,” where cheap tech rules. That means we can expect a few more years of slow growth and bargain prices.

keyboard blues

Posted July 27, 2014 by collectedobsessions
Categories: Uncategorized

I’ve been struggling lately with computers and more specifically, what to do for a laptop. My daily driver is a Win 7 Lenovo T61, and it’s getting old. There’s nothing wrong with it, but the cpu isn’t powerful enough to run some software I want to run, so I’m looking at replacements.

(I don’t buy tech often, and when I do, I buy old/used/refurb and cheap as a rule because nothing devalues faster than a computer/tablet/cell phone.)

First up was a Dell XPS 12, one of those “flip it one way and it’s a laptop, flip it the other it’s a tablet” things. It’s a lovely machine, lightning fast, but the trackpad was not great and the high resolution small screen was just a little too small for me. On top of that, the flip function…didn’t. The physical part works fine, but if I wanted to use the computer in what I think of as “stand mode,” I would have to manually adjust the software so it’s right side up. So the XPS went back.

Now I’m trying another Dell, a 7000 series, 14 inch machine. It has decent specs; an i5 chip, six gigs of memory, a 500 gig hard drive. The screen is a little dim, but I can live with that, and the battery life is tremendous. However, the keyboard is a deal breaker; it’s chiclet style, which is bad enough, but far worse is the action – writing this note has been an exercise in frustration. Almost every sentence has one, and often more than one, word with extra letters or skipped letters. Also, the track pad – which was supposed to be a highlight of this machine – isn’t good. The “track” part is fine, but the click function is terrible; you really have to bear down, and even when you do, it’s hard to tell the click was successful. One of the most common tasks, left clicking on the track pad and holding it down while swiping through copy, is far more difficult than it should be.

Laptop manufacturers appear to regard good keyboards and track pads as premium items. I spent 20 minutes in a store Saturday trying out various machines, and none of them were very good at the most basic distinction between laptops and tablets, the ability to type a lot, easily. That includes cheaper Lenovos – the decent keyboards seemed to be reserved for $1,000+ models. What this means is – I’m going to have to buy T series Lenovos (or maybe Dell Latitudes) going forward, which also means either spending more than I want to, or buying older machines than I want to. I really hate spending money on technology.

(My Lenovo’s keyboard and track pad is so far better than anything else I’ve tried as to be in a completely separate league. My experience with Latitude keyboards/track pads is they’re good enough.)

All that said, Dell’s Chromebook is great value for the money. I’m using the four gig version and even though the 11.6 inch screen is a little small for my 58 year old eyes, as a content consumption device it beats tablets in most respects, though I’m disappointed I can’t listen to Audible titles because the cloud player requires a Silverlight plug-in, unsupported in ChromeOS. And no small irony, it’s a lot better machine for typing as well.


pleasures of the pod

Posted July 2, 2014 by collectedobsessions
Categories: Uncategorized

Here’s what I missed about podcasting, what I thought was a weakness – or at least I had trouble getting used to it – and now understand it as podcasting’s chief strength: it meanders.

This is no news at all to the millions of people who listen to podcasts already, but it is to me, who loved the idea of podcasting from the start but was annoyed by the implementation, the way people just, ummm, talked to each other.

My background in broadcasting doesn’t help, especially because I’m a product of commercial tv news where you don’t use many words, so everything has to count. You’re very goal-oriented. So 45 minutes of drifting in and out of a topic struck me as grossly inefficient and boring.

What I missed was the way a good podcast mirrors a good conversation in the real world, how you turn over an idea or an item from the news or you-name-it from a bunch of different angles. I find myself absorbing more about a given topic and, I think, getting a fairer take on the matter at hand.

A good podcast isn’t seat-of-the-pants of course; there’s preparation in the background. Windows Weekly, a favorite, alludes to the show notes, which get passed around in advance among the three hosts. It’s their ability to animate those notes, to digress from and return to them, which makes the show work.

I also like podcasts which are repurposed from radio – like the Fresh Air and Radiolab shows – but they don’t strike me as the main event. I know, I know – I’m laughably late to the party, but I tend to be this way about tech. I didn’t care about Twitter until I understood it as a highly personal wire service. I still don’t care about Facebook much because  I don’t value what it does best, work at the personal level.

I have yet to find the ideal podcast client; I finally understand Stitcher, and like it better than anything else, but it doesn’t let me download shows for offline listening and has some gaps which suprise me – Dave Douglas’s A Noise From The Deep isn’t on there, and neither is The Committed podcast with Kirk McIlhearn. So I’m using Stitcher, TuneIn Radio (I hate the new interface though) and Podcasts! on my Windows 8 phone.


new (to me) releases

Posted June 8, 2014 by collectedobsessions
Categories: Uncategorized

A decent Saturday at the record store, mostly used stuff. Some details for my future self:

- Wynton Marsalis, “Hothouse Flowers.” His third album, a ballads and strings affair; it came right before two of his greatest records, “Black Codes From The Underground” and “J Mood.” “Flowers” is generally regarded as inconsequential; it’s not Clifford Brown or Charlie Parker with strings, certainly, but I’ve always had a soft spot for it – it was the first “pretty” jazz I fell for, and it taught me there’s value in all well done music, even when it’s basically mood music.

- Dr. John, “Gumbo.” Somehow, I never owned this back in the day, and coming to it new in 2014 is a subtle disappointment. Not for the music itself, which is as wonderful as everyone has said down through the years. The difference is, back in 1972 no one was making this kind of music – New Orleans funk/old time rock and roll – on major labels. It’s so much less special now, with Americana and roots music a staple of concerts, CDs and public radio. Hard to unhear what came after “Gumbo,” to hear it fresh.

- Nick Cave, “No More Shall We Part.” You can either live with Nick Cave’s words or not; Robert Christgau rated this a bomb. He finds Cave pretentious, and he has a point. Even Cave’s best stuff can come off as someone trying too hard to write. But when all that seriousness works, Cave can take you to some unexpected places. This album does that a lot.

- “Hold Me To This: Christopher O’Riley Plays Radiohead.” Second of two volumes of O’Riley transmogrifying Radiohead’s tunes to solo piano. I really like Radiohead, and really like Brad Mehldau’s jazz takes on Radiohead songs. O’Riley’s a classical player, so he’s coming at the songs from a different angle. From what I gather, what he’s doing here is similar to what classical composers did before there was a bright line separating serious and popular music.

- Taj Mahal and Toumani Diabate, “Kulanjan.” Ok, yes it sounds like something you’ll hear at your local Panera Bread. I don’t care; I’m beginning to think Taj Mahal, despite how well known he is and how many albums he’s recorded, is under-appreciated. He’s not purist enough for blues specialists, not modern enough to be truly popular, and too polite for hipsters. By my count, that only leaves truth and joy.

- Madlib, “Pinata Beats.” The instrumental version of his hit album with Freddie Gibbs. I don’t listen to a lot of rap – the storytelling usually does not move me – but I love instrumental hip-hop tracks and have bought a lot of Madlib and J. Dilla over the years. It reminds me of John Cage and John Zorn, the way sounds can collide with each other and end up sounding like they were supposed to be together all along.

Also, from the box set, the Kronos Quartet’s “Flood Plain.” That bright line between serious and popular music is obviously going away at this point, and it’s an amazing time to discover music that doesn’t care at all about categories.

Reading: (I mention because of the subject matter) “Dance of Death,” a biography of John Fahey. Fahey’s music from first to last fascinates me; he led a sad life and I guess the best thing you can say is he got some redemption toward the end with the record label he created, the last few years of public performances and his last album. After moving from what he called “American primitive” guitar – the beautiful acoustic work for which he’s best known – to the noise of his electric guitar excursions in the 90s, toward the end he seemed to find a new balance. It wasn’t pretty, but it was approachable. The book is a decent balance between biographical detail and critical analysis of his albums, emphasis on the biography.







song of the young and dead

Posted June 1, 2014 by collectedobsessions
Categories: Uncategorized

I worked in the yard a little this weekend, weeding, and since it was a beautiful day I took my Tivoli PAL, (the very radio seen at the top of the blog) a book and a chair out to the shade of a big tree. WCNY-FM out of Syracuse  came in fine, and I caught the end of the still-wonderful Leo Rayhill’s jazz show.

(I learned a lot from listening to Leo, when I lived in Syracuse and his show was on the main channel every night at 6. I usually caught a good 15 minutes after I got off my reporting shift at WTVH.)

Anyway, I wasn’t expecting what came next: WCNY still plays old Syracuse Symphony concerts on Sunday afternoons. Today it was a 1978 show with the late Calvin Custer conducting (Christopher Keene was the marquee name, but Custer carried a lot of the load). A young Yo Yo Ma was the featured soloist. and the whole thing opened with Webern’s “5 Pieces For Orchestra.” Don Dolloff, one of the great voices of WCNY, hosted.

It seems impossibly long ago that Syracuse had a highly regarded symphony, one that was confident enough to begin a program with something as tough as Webern’s music, and smart enough to bring a pre-superstardom Yo Yo Ma to town. The local classical station did live recordings of the symphony’s concerts, and played them a couple times a week.

The SSO went bankrupt a few years back; musicians, at personal cost, have tried to keep a “something-like-the-symphony” running since. I root for them, but still. For a long while, a medium-sized American city could have its own orchestra, and the extraordinary thing looking back from 2014 is that it didn’t seem extraordinary at all. We just figured it was a permanent part of the town, and if you asked me back in the 80s if the SSO could just go away, I wouldn’t have gotten the question.

A note about the Webern:  my least favorite music for a long time, no contest, was the music of 12 tones and serialism which dominated classical music during the first half of the 20th century. It was never heard, let alone enjoyed, by most people, and has  been entirely out of fashion for a long time – which is a good thing. Having the movement washed up, wrung out, exhausted and then largely ignored and passed over makes it easier to hear the individuals involved. So over the last year, I have learned a little about classical music in general, and the 1900-1950 high modern period in particular. I never really heard Webern before listening to the “5 Pieces” today, and I was instantly hooked. They’re tiny little things, each a few minutes long at most and sometimes shorter and there’s a precision to them  which grabbed me. It’s not easy going, but in its own odd way, it’s entrancing.

So I ordered a Naxos cd, which has the Webern in question along with a few of his other compositions. It was $7.90 for the cd through Amazon, shipped in two days. The iTunes download is $9.99. Why is the one in which no physical product is delivered more expensive? This continues to make no sense to me.





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