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.




neither helplessness nor unbounded enthusiasm

Posted April 20, 2014 by collectedobsessions
Categories: Uncategorized

Nicholas Carr has a must-read note on technology which begins with a wonderful quote:

“Neither helplessness nor unbounded enthusiasm and indifference to consequences would have allowed humans to inhabit the earth for very long,” observed Bruno Latour in a lecture in Copenhagen in February. “Rather a solid pragmatism, a limited confidence in human cunning, a sane respect for the powers of nature, a great care invested to protect the fragility of human enterprise — these appear to be the virtues for dealing with first nature. Care and caution: a totally mundane grasp of the dangers and of the possibilities of this world of below.”

To which Carr adds “When technological progress comes to be seen as a transcendent, implacable force, a force beyond human fashioning, it begins to foreclose opportunities at least as often as it opens them. It starts to hem us in.” My own sense is that technology as either utopia or dystopia peaked a while back, but the point’s still worth making.

nine years and counting

Posted April 19, 2014 by collectedobsessions
Categories: Uncategorized

Although I surprised myself over the last year or so by taking to Windows, I’m never without at least one machine running Ubuntu Linux – including my oldest laptop, which up until today was running 12.04, the last long term support release from Ubuntu.

(If you don’t know what Linux is, take a break and read up on it here.)

This machine, a 2005 Dell Inspiron 6000, is old and wasn’t much to start with – a 1.5 GHz Celeron processor and low end graphics. I upgraded the memory and hard drive over the years, had the hinges repaired a couple of times, bought batteries every couple of years. I think I paid around $450 for the machine refurb’ed from Dell, and probably put another $100 in parts into it, plus another hundred in repairs. Call it $650 all told.

You can argue that repairing the laptop once it was six or seven years old was not a good investment, but from my point of view it was incremental money, no more than $50 or so at a time. It didn’t feel like I was spending a lot.

Of course, Ubuntu was the reason why it made sense to me to keep the laptop going. The economics of owning a computer change once you’re not paying for the software – look at older used laptops on ebay and note the price differential between identical units with and without legitimate Windows software installed. The price of the software can easily equal that of the computer. At a minimum, upgrading the Inspiron from XP to Vista to Windows 7 to 8 would have cost me $250 (I’m doing this from memory but I think the pricing would have been $99 + $99 +$49, assuming I stayed with the home version). And that’s assuming the Inspiron would have run the later versions of Windows adequately, which is unlikely.

Ubuntu changed all that; it’s free, and the Inspiron has run long term support releases since 10.04. (Formally, “long term support” refers to how long  the company backing Ubuntu, Canonical, will provide support; in this case, six years. Informally, long term support releases have a reputation for being the most stable, bullet-proof releases of Ubuntu – I can vouch for that.) From the start, Ubuntu was lighter in its resource demands than Windows, and the folks behind Ubuntu have been careful to not let it grow bloated. 14.04, the new long term support release I upgraded to today, runs just as fast as 12.04 did.

What can’t Ubuntu do? Well, no iTunes, nor Word (though LibreOffice, the free office suite in Ubuntu does a fine job with most Word documents) and a lot of high end productivity tools aren’t available for Ubuntu – no Adobe Creative Suite, for instance.

That still leaves about 98 percent of what you need in a desktop or laptop computer – and there are workarounds for those things you don’t have direct access to. For instance, there’s the aforementioned LibreOffice and a number of programs that can play your iTunes (aac) files.

Most of all, as the computer gets older my relationship with it changes. I now have something that’s hard to have with electronics these days; I’m invested in the damn thing, which means that as long as it can do useful work for me – and I see no reason for that to change any time soon – I have no reason to recycle it, which is probably good for both the planet (repair is better than recycling) and my wallet, which requires no further explanation. With the new Long Term Support release, the software is good to go until 2020, and the computer really can’t get much more obsolete. Barring some catastrophe, the Inspiron could see 15.



sick day

Posted April 17, 2014 by collectedobsessions
Categories: Uncategorized

I’m on vacation, and haven’t been sick in a long while, but ended up in rough shape this morning – I’ll be discrete and call it a “stomach bug.” Better now, but the plumbing is still off.

On days like today, I usually struggle to find music I can live with, and usually don’t, including most of Van Morrison’s  “Astral Weeks” while I sat outside a doctor’s office waiting for a family member. I’m reading Greil Marcus’s book about Morrison, “When The Rough God Goes Riding,” but it didn’t give me a way into “Astral Weeks,” not today. It’s obviously beautiful, but I’ll be damned if it just doesn’t move me, don’t ask me why.

Anyway, with soured stomach and bowels I retreated to spoken word. I have the Stitcher app on my Android tablet. For the life of me, I don’t understand Stitcher; I think it’s supposed to be some kind of personal playlist for whatever audio you’re interested in besides music, but how to use it well eludes me. I just clicked on it, lay down and let whatever was there play. So I heard stuff from public radio and CBS tv audio and maybe one of the other networks as well. I’m guessing you’re supposed to train it in your likes and dislikes, but I prefer direct, hands-on control.

Stitcher was followed by this week’s “Windows Weekly,” lots of semi-interesting stuff about the 8.1 update to Windows Phone, and then part of “All Things Considered.”

Tonight, Pristine Classical’s radio channel. I found out about Pristine through a write-up on Kirkville, and a second one in the New Yorker. It’s very old classical music recordings, cleaned up using some interesting techniques. Having been on the wrong end of RCA/BMG restorations of Ellington, Jelly Roll Morton and Sidney Bechet in the 80s, I’m skeptical, but whatever they do seems to work.

theater of the absurd

Posted April 17, 2014 by collectedobsessions
Categories: Uncategorized

I have refrained from commenting on CNN’s increasingly bizarre obsession with the missing Malaysian airliner, mostly because I don’t have anything useful to contribute.

However, I was surprised when I took a look at the current state of cable news ratings. Obviously, CNN has a narrow ledge to stand on, sandwiched between the two more ideological channels. CNN does best when there’s a breaking story; it has the most resources, and a 30 year reputation for handling the big stuff well, even if that reputation has taken some hits in recent years – see the Boston bombing and the Supreme Court decision on the Affordable Care Act. Most of all, breaking news usually doesn’t have an obvious ideological component.

So it makes sense that CNN would run hard at the story of the missing airliner, try to pick off Fox and MSNBC viewers, and from what I recall, it got some numbers early on. But we’re about 40 days out now, and well past the story’s sell-by date. Tonight, for instance, we have a ferry overturned in South Korea and scores of children (likely hundreds) dead; new, dangerous developments from Ukraine, including a weird threat to Jews living in the country;  a few other worthy things.

But of course the 7 pm CNN anchor’s show (this would be the show that specializes in asking odd straw man questions as set-ups for various segments; the questions are almost never actually addressed) led with Malaysia, which amounted to “another day of looking,” followed by more panel discussion and – having abandoned the aircraft simulator that poor Martin Savidge was held prisoner in for a month – a new, underwater vessel wired for pictures and sound to, ummm, demonstrate what it would sorta, kinda be like to be looking for the missing airliner deep underwater. Except the search that’s going on is being done by remote drone, which is not terribly exciting.

Anyway, the point: CNN has apparently gotten somewhere by remaking itself as the plane crash channel. Take a look at Wednesday’s ratings, courtesy of TV by the Numbers. For the day, Fox dominates both overall and in the critical 25-54 demographic, but CNN edges MSNBC in 25-54. During prime time, CNN is third overall and third 25-54, but in terms of 25-54,  it’s close. CNN does well at 5 and 8 pm in 25-54, and well at 10 and 11. (“Well” is a relative term; again, Fox dominates the numbers, so “well” means ” in terms of runner up status.”)

This is a classic case of going all in with what you have; CNN has no ideological base to draw on, so it has no ready made, easy options for stoking outrage/ratings. The network’s attempt to declare everyone suspect (the Anderson Cooper promotion line that seems to be going away: “Keeping Them Honest”) didn’t get any traction. Give Zucker credit; he has focused the network on the big story, and then backs and fills with specials and series that are purpose-built to compete with programs on the History Channel and A & E.

However, the downside is substantial – my guess is CNN is not getting cruising altitude doing what it’s doing and struggles for its numbers. That means CNN has to keep stoking its version of the outrage machine, in this case, the gross overuse of the term “breaking news.” And that brings with it the age-old problem of exhausting your audience. To put it another way, the next time there’s big news happening, will you trust CNN as much, knowing they’re playing a tightly focused game for eyeballs?


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