audience participation

These days, my favorite music is old music. A few recent listens:

  • Music of Morocco, the anthology the writer Paul Bowles compiled and which was re-released in much expanded form last year by the wonderful Dust to Digital label.
  • Singles, a new collection of 45s spanning 30 years, from the late Sun Ra. Again, an expansion, this time of a two CD set from a decade ago on the Evidence label. This adds a third CD, much new material.
  • The Asch Recordings, Mary Lou Williams. 35 sides, most of them originally 78s, recorded for Moses Asch’s Folkways label between 1944 and 1947. The great pianist in a variety of contexts – solo, trio, small group, big band.
  • Why The Mountains Are Black, Greek village music recorded between 1907 and 1960. As has been noted frequently elsewhere, this stuff is abidingly strange to western ears. At times, it sounds like avant jazz from the 60s.
  • Complete Warner Recordings, the Busch Quartet. Bach, Beethoven, Schubert and Brahms, from the late 20s to the late 40s.

In general, I find myself much more drawn to old music than new, though I listen to a fair amount of new music as well. But the old recordings sound better to me, which is interesting.

I’m not listening out of nostalgia. While you can argue that jazz was more vital 50 years ago, I don’t long to go back there, don’t waste time comparing then to now. The Busch Quartet is wonderful, but there are lots of equally or more wonderful quartets in much more modern recordings. As for Morocco and Mountains, yes I’m smitten with how the music sounds, but I’m not especially interested (other than to understand context) in the time and place of the recordings – I don’t think of them as artifacts.

So what’s the appeal? Physics and physiology are a big part of it: I’m 60, have moderate tinnitus, some hearing loss. Paradoxically,  I’m more acutely aware of what I can no longer hear when I listen to a new, crisply recorded album than when I listen to something old. The physical sensation I have is that of being boxed in, where there’s no room for me to hear what’s going on. The music is finished; it doesn’t need me, the listener. I know that’s not rational, but it’s what it feels like.

Old music, on the other hand, sounds expansive to me. It’s all gaps and openings, to which I get to add my listening, to complete the experience. In a weird way, there’s more fidelity in an older recording for me than a new one. Because there are things missing, there’s room for me in it. I’m drawn in.

One question: all music gets old, so will I feel the same way about, say, a Dave Douglas album recorded in the mid-2000s 30 years from now, in the unlikely event I’m around to make such a comparison? Doubtful. I’ve been listening to some Arthur Blythe recordings from the mid-70s, and while I thoroughly enjoy them, they don’t have the same “old music” vibe I get from music recorded up through the early 60s.

It may be that my hearing gets worse and I turn more and more to the past as compensation – if so, it’ll be ok. There’s a lot of music from the 30s, 40s, 50s, both classical and jazz, I haven’t heard yet. More than enough to last.

a hypothetical republican party

So, the Republicans in Congress and President Trump couldn’t undo Obamacare this week and replace it with something better.

I don’t know any fair observer who’s surprised by this, and right now the news cycle is consumed by whether and how President Trump and the party recover, whether they can pass tax cuts or infrastructure spending. There’s also good writing about how deeply divided the Republican party is among the extreme right, the used-to-be-far-right-but-lost-the-title right and the hand waving, sort of right. Of course, the Democratic and Republican parties are each coalitions, collections of interests who agree to get along with each other because they have enough in common to make it worth their while, but it’s hard to see how this particular coalition doesn’t come flying apart. There’s just a lot of daylight between the Freedom Caucus and the moderates.

So what would a coherent Republican party look like? A few thoughts. (I don’t endorse these positions neccessarily; this is a thought experiment.)

  • The most important words are “pragmatic” and “creative.” Republicans spend way too much time limiting their choices. Sure, if you’re a Republican you want to do things with private enterprise first. But if that doesn’t work, don’t cut off your options. This isn’t giving up; it’s acknowledging the way the world works. And once you stop saying everything outside a narrow range of options is off the table, you open up the door to creativity. The Republican Party should be the party of hackers – in the old, good sense of the word – and makers, in the not-Mitt-Romney way. The Ryan health care plan is exhibit A in the “failure of creativity” exhibit.
  • The other most important word starts with “r.” Not “rights.” A Republican party that works emphasizes individual rights and responsibilities in equal measure. Responsibilities without rights lead to a dismal, conformist state; rights without responsibilities turn feral, and lead to bizarre, impossible-to-settle standoffs.
  • The party honors religion, and believes in science. Full stop. You can’t have creative problem solving if you can’t use the tools we have. Science, both pure and applied, is the toolbox of modern life.
  • Markets first, but…. You’re a Republican, so you believe markets work. And they do, often. not always. And the answer can’t just be, “get government out of the way.” Much of the time, government’s already well out of the way. Sometimes markets are simply broken, and you need government to make things work. The underlying premise of Obamacare, the individual mandate, is common sense. If the auto insurance market was voluntary, only terrible drivers and old people (pending bad drivers) would get it. And premiums would skyrocket. Why would you expect health insurance to work any different? The market for home internet service doesn’t work because each market is effectively a monopoly so a.) there’s no price competition and b.) there’s no incentive to build out to sparsely settled areas, or into poor areas. Government could serve as a market maker, either directly or indirectly.
  • Support business. Big business, not so much. The overused expression about capitalism, that it’s a force of “creative destruction,” is applicable here. We have less innovation, less disruption of the good sort, because the large incumbents in the economy have too much sway. A healthy economy needs constant churn; we have something closer to a monoculture, with a few big retailers, giant drug companies, a lot of tech in very few hands.
  • Oppose discrimination of all sorts, but equally oppose identity politics. Democrats don’t do this; the two get conflated. If you’re a Republican, let differences just be…differences. Not there to be celebrated or condemned. Just acknowledged.
  • Let cultural issues lie. You may feel to the depths of your soul that abortion is wrong, but a majority of Americans disagree, though I’ve never met anyone on the pro-choice side of the argument who is enthusiastic about the procedure. Understand that there are good people on both sides, downsides however you look at it, decide that you’re going to speak your mind when you can, and move on.
  • Which brings me to my final point for the moment: the problem with what passes for conservatism now is that it has more in common with the radicalism of the 60s than it does with classical conservative thought. The radicals of the late 60s, early 70s believed the state (and drugs and music) would get them there, but they believed in the perfectibility of the human condition. At their core, they believed in utopia. Today’s conservatives have a hard time seeing the similarity,  but they believe in free markets and small government just as irrationally, just as religiously, as their counterparts of 40 years ago. True conservatives, I think, believe in the blues; they know life is short, options are limited and imperfect, and that you can only do the best you can, which is no guarantee of results. I see exactly zero sign the current crop in Washington understands that; until they do, you’ll get what we got this past week and worse.

(And read David Frum on the week’s events here, and Dave Winer’s take on Frum here. Both are excellent.)

the sunk costs of twitter

In economics, a “sunk cost” is a cost that has already occurred and can’t be recovered. Twitter has a significant sunk cost aspect, if you use it the way I do.

For me, Twitter is primarily a recommendation engine; I go there to find things I wouldn’t otherwise know about that interest me, and that are worth spending some of my very limited time on. In order to add value to Twitter, I retweet some things.

Now I assume that most people who retweet items do so after a quick scan, not a thorough read or listen or watch. That’s the central tendency, the natural order of Twitter. But I’m not willing to do that – I know how little time I have, and I too often have the disappointing experience of starting an article or podcast that has promise, but falls apart before it’s over.

So I read or listen to everything from start to finish before I retweet, which severely limits my output and which also has a conflict of interest built in. If I spend 20 minutes or half an hour reading through a lengthy piece, it’s hard to decide it’s not worth passing on. After all, I just put a lot of effort into it, and which also means I didn’t read or listen to something else. On the other side of the equation, I suppose, is the knowledge that I’m holding the line on the reliability of my Twitter feed. But you don’t get followers or interest for being reliable, and Twitter – done this way – isn’t “bite-sized” or “snackable” or whatever cliches are used to describe it. It’s work.

(Yes, I know this is all old hat. Yes, I know Twitter’s limitations have been endlessly rehearsed. I think how you use it is still an issue.)

like kudzu

In this dismal, drifting season, when the weather is a horror and our politics are unmoored and far from shore, you look for signs of life, signs that things go on.

Here’s one, a good one, from the always valuable diymedia.net blog written by John Anderson: notes on the spread of pirate radio in New York City.  There are more than a hundred pirate stations on the air there – that’s the estimate of the official, sanctioned broadcasters, to whom pirates are just roaches, potential interference in their signals and more important, their business models.

But for the communities they serve, the pirates are the neighborhood voice, and Anderson ties pirate radio specifically to the Haitian diaspora in Brooklyn. And then he goes further, with a really interesting notion – using low power, tiny computers like Raspberry Pis to extend the reach and availability of the hole-in-the-wall pirates, who broadcast irregularly, go on and off the air, move on. It’s a fascinating, worthy idea.

Anderson has written eloquently for a long time about community radio, and the powerful forces – including, alas, public radio – allied against it. Reading him tonight reminded me of another piece I saw recently on Radio Survivor about legal 1 watt broadcasters in New Zealand. Just enough to reach the neighborhood, but that’s where community starts, so I suppose that’s the point.  There are safeguards so no one can game the system with tricky antenna designs or other hacks to make the signal stronger than it should be, and best of all, you don’t need a license. In my fantasy life, the Republican-majority FCC thinks this is a great idea – what could be more American than not having to ask permission – and opens the floodgates on micro radio experimentation. I won’t count on it.

(The authorities, of course, are always “cracking down” on pirate radio; pirate radio is always popping back up, shortly after the last cop, in this case the FCC, pulls away.)

when the music’s over

In 2016, what does it mean to really love music? I’m thinking about that question a lot these days, because the answers I always had no longer work, and what’s replaced them is…interesting.

One of the forums I frequent is dedicated to the no-longer-manufactured-but-much-loved “Squeezebox” line of media streamers. Squeezeboxes were wirelessly sending music files to your stereo well before the modern era of streaming kicked in, in earnest. The Squeezebox software is open source, which has allowed the platform to survive – and be ported to new hardware – years after the last Squeezebox rolled off the assembly line.

But Squeezeboxes really aren’t a business anymore, which means most popular streaming services are only partially supported, or not supported at all, or supported only by means of community ingenuity.

So I was struck by a post from a user announcing he’s leaving the forums because after 10 years, he’s switching to Sonos. Sonos is sort of the anti-Squeezebox; as a platform, it’s a black box, not amenable at all to hacking. As hardware and software for the average user, it just works, and works well with all the major streaming services. I know, because I’ve had three of the company’s Play:1 speakers for the last half year – two paired as a stereo in my family room, and one as a radio at the office.

But here’s what caught me in the post from the forum member;  he wrote he was switching to Sonos full time because “I no longer need to listen to my own music.” He noted that Spotify, with its millions and millions of tracks, “pretty much satisfies all my listening needs.”

(I assume a “he.” Most people, though obviously not all, who obsess about hardware and tech are male.)

I get it. I ordered a CD the other day, a Japan-only mono CD of John Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things” album, and it was the first CD I’d bought in, well, six months. (Oddly, the last CD before this was the Coltrane in Mono box set.) After I did it, I wasn’t quite sure why. I dug out a CD to play yesterday and the whole process struck me as cumbersome, strange, limiting – and not in the “it’s cool to not have unlimited choices because it focuses your attention” kind of way.

I use my Sonos for 90+ percent of my listening. To an extent, I’ve replaced my album  buying habit with a music subscription habit, but the two aren’t really equivalent. Buying is a lot more expensive than renting. And even though I have a lifetime of music available on Spotify, I’m less likely to listen to complete albums. What happens instead? Some of the time I do the nervous “flipping from one song to the next” thing, starting an album and then killing it 45 seconds later, but much more often now I find a radio station – or a radio-like service such as Pandora or Slacker – and let someone else do the driving. This is what’s changed most profoundly for me; I’m gradually losing the idea of the album as the default container for music. I know, I know; I’ve just discovered playlists, 10 years after the fact. But not really; what I’ve discovered is radio. Playlists are too closed off, too predictable; what I need is something that can range wide, go deep. The new world of listening is well suited to that.

As a result, I no longer feel the tug of specific albums the way I once did; I may read about a musician and some music he or she has recorded, go looking for it on Spotify or Apple Music, but if it’s not there, I’ll listen to something else the musician did. And if the musician isn’t there, I’ll just listen to something else. The itch isn’t that strong.

This doesn’t mean music has become mere background listening for me, any more than it was when I’d put a CD on. I still pay a lot of attention to what’s being played, and by who; but I often let it go when it’s over. In a way, that’s more satisfying; it gets back to the evanescent quality at the heart of music. You can’t hold onto it.

So I was in the basement today, boxing up books to take to the library for its annual sale, and looking around at the few thousand CDs I own. I’m not quite ready to get rid of them, still, but maybe soon.

(Of course, there are a couple of reasons to keep them: maybe my finances will be diminished, or the economics of internet access will change, and there will come a point when I can’t afford to rent what I listen to. More broadly, maybe something like climate change has deep effects on connectivity over the next 20 years and the internet goes away or is severely curtailed or something. Presumably at that point I’ll be concerned with things other than the relative merits of Coltrane in mono and stereo.)

the great war

Before I have to return it to the inter-library loan system, I want to note a book that will stick with me for a long time and, really, should be read by anyone practicing media these days.

It’s from 1995, it was written as an academic study and as far as I can tell, has had no afterlife. Which is a shame, because “Media at War” is superb history and most relevant to the current moment.

(By the way, there are a few books with that main title; the one you want is “Media at War: Radio’s Challenge to The Newspapers, 1924-1939” by Gwenyth L. Jackaway.)

What’s it about? Back when radio was first becoming a thing, it toyed with broadcasting news bulletins. Newspapers, which used stories about radio to goose circulation, treated the new medium with gentle condescension.  Except it turned out that radio in all its forms, including news, was phenomenally popular. It rapidly became a threat to the utter dominance of newspapers as the public’s source of news, prompting a 15 year “war” is which the newspapers tried to beat back radio by, variously, withholding access to national and international news, setting up their own “radio bureau” by which a trickle of news to radio could be tightly controlled and, most interestingly to me, making appeals to morality.

My takeaway is threefold – and remember, this slim book (168 pages) was written before the real rise of the web, and maybe more important, before the rise of smartphones. Takeaway 1, and this is minor: newspapers had roughly the same attitude toward the internet that they did towards radio, and it’s ended about as badly; Takeaway 2, and this is more important: that the war between old media and challengers is about economics but it’s never just about economics – it’s about who gets to say what’s news and be paid attention to; Takeaway 3, and most important: whether it’s newspapers, radio, TV, whenever an established medium feels threatened, it falls back on a handful of responses, most of which are self-interest disguised as something else.

None of the internet stuff is explicitly in the book, though the author pretty clearly was writing with one eye towards the immediate future, but it’s right there in the text anyway.

Two paragraphs from pages 147-148:

“New communication technologies threaten to replace older ones. By definition this means that they threaten to render the established media institution functionally obsolete. If the new technology can perform the same communication function as the older one, and do a faster, more efficient job of it, the older institution is no longer needed. Not only is this an economic threat, but it is also quite threatening to the social, cultural and political power enjoyed by the established institution. The established media institution fights back in self-defense. One of the best ways to defend one’s own interest is to link it to the interests of society at large. The use of democratic or other “sacred” rhetoric effectively masks the self-interested nature of the argument, for who can argue with someone claiming to be protecting democracy?

“At stake in battles between old and new media is the struggle for the enormous power that comes with controlling the channels of communication. It is a power that derives from serving certain communication functions in a society. The story of the Press-Radio war suggests a pattern: Faced with the possibility of being displaced from a long-established role, communication institutions are likely to fight back by accusing the new medium of being dangerous to one of society’s sacred values. They will wrap their own interests in the flag of democracy, the family, the church, or whoever appears to be the best ideal to hide behind. They will take this sacred rhetoric to Congress, the FCC, the courts, or whatever regulatory or legal body has the power to protect the communication status quo, and they will argue that unless they retain their role and continue to serve “their” institutional function, this sacred ideal will be endangered or destroyed entirely.”

Those two paragraphs come at the end of the book, so by quoting just them you don’t get the detail the book is built on, the careful recounting of how the press tried to tame radio, then oppose it, then make a sort of peace with it, and finally, simply lost the argument. It’s well-written, carefully researched history, and is a model of good academic writing.

Of course, the current moment, with its severely partisan media, its viral fake news, its increasing concentration of the public’s news sources in two or three places – Facebook, Twitter – is different from the newspaper-radio conflict. History doesn’t repeat itself; it echoes and yes, the downside risk to democracy is greater now that it was 80 years ago. But perhaps those of us who practice media for a living can take a page from what happened then, and realize that all the disruption of the last long while is new – but not entirely so.

the best buy vig

I tried to return a wireless router to my local Best Buy today, failed, and in the process learned something about the state of big box commerce.

The lesson will probably cost me $100.

Over the course of a year, I always end up needing a few hundred dollars’ worth of tech stuff; hard drives and memory, cases and routers. And even though I’m a heavy user of Amazon, I’ve tried to buy most of the aforementioned stuff at Best Buy.

Not because I particularly like the place, mind you; it’s overpriced and if I really want selection, Amazon is fine. So is eBay or a few specialty web sites. Best Buy is the Barnes & Noble of tech, the kind of place people who don’t know much about technology go to, thinking they’re going to get a decent selection and knowledgeable help. Generally, neither condition is true.

But it does provide jobs, and if you’re a kid who wants to be around tech, it beats working at your local fast food joint. And it’s kind of convenient, though the convenience of being able to buy something now is usually offset by the fact that you can’t quite buy the item you really want.

Anyway, routers.

In my experience, routers are generally good for a year or two before they go flaky, stop being reliable for reasons that are never quite obvious, and after I screw around with the settings for a week or two it always comes down to buying a new one, which works either a little better or a little worse than what it replaced, and life goes on.

I dropped a hundred dollars back in May on an Asus router that looked decent – I read the reviews on Amazon and in general people liked it, though there were some early bugs with the firmware. It appeared to be a step up from the $70 Netgears I had been buying, without walking over to the land of $250-$350 routers  with more stuff than I could possibly want, or use. Were I living alone, I’d probably buy something that runs one of the open source router platforms and waste some nights screwing around, but my wife and son both want reliable internet now, so I needed something I can set and forget.

The Asus was that, plus a little geekiness – a pretty good web interface I could play with. And from May to early October, it ran fine. But maybe three weeks ago, after we lost power in a thunderstorm, the router started misbehaving. Of course I did all the obvious; made sure the cable modem was ok, checked the wires, restarted (many times) the router, did a few other things. But the router just lost some of its reach no matter what I did; the wifi signal now got as far as our kitchen counter, but not the family room sitting area, where my wife and I spend the majority of our time.

I bought a $20 range extender, which worked reasonably well – but my wife’s Macbook Air choked on it.

So today I packed up the router and went back to Best Buy, six months, more or less, after purchase, with original box and parts and receipt.

No sale. The kid behind the counter told me that since I was past the 15 day return period, I would have to deal with the manufacturer. I asked to speak to the manager, who explained in slightly more detail that their agreement with Asus means that they wouldn’t get anything back on the router if they took it, and while she understood how I felt, there really wasn’t anything she could do.

And she was sure Asus would be helpful. Obviously, she’s never dealt with Asus.

But here’s the thing that got to me: both the first person I spoke with and the manager made a big point of saying, in not so many words, “We have a contract/relationship with Asus. We have to live by the terms of our agreement. That’s why we can’t help you.”

Except…the manager told me that if I had purchased Best Buy’s protection plan when I got the router, we wouldn’t be having the conversation. They’d just take the thing back, no questions asked.  So much for contracts and relationships between supplier (Asus) and store.

(I typically don’t buy protection plans because they tend to cover events after the first year, and generally if tech is going to fail, it will fail early. I’m careful with what I own, so breakage isn’t an issue. And the extra $10 or $15 makes the purchase from a Best Buy even less competitive with Amazon.)

So now I ask myself, why bother with Best Buy at all? I’m just old enough to remember when you bought something from your local appliance shop, they would almost always make it right if it broke. And I’ve been around enough mom and pop computer stores from the late 80s and early 90s to see the lengths people will go to, to help their customers solve a problem. It was part of the unwritten contract between people like me and local businesses; I’ll give you my dollars, you don’t screw me on support.

Best Buy has neatly turned the equation on its head: you want to buy something locally, expect to pay more for it – and oh yeah, you want service with that? Sure, but it’ll cost ya.

Anyway, I vowed to the manager to not set foot in a Best Buy again, a promise I intend to keep. And the next time one of the big box stores complains about how the Amazons of the world are eating their lunch, the only thing I’m gonna think is: good. Serves you right.