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.

the nub of it

The thing about dystopias is, they’re only fun to consider if you’re not actually living in one. My guess is a real dystopia is not very interesting, and what is interesting is probably scary.

That said, I was intrigued by President Obama a week or so back, responding to Donald Trump’s latest invocation of fear and loathing. (You’re not safe! You don’t have a job! You have no hope!) The president said something like ‘America is not a dystopia.’ He’s right of course, as you’d expect the adult in the room to be. But did I hear just a little of “he’s trying to convince us” mixed in?

So of course we’re not a dystopia, but one would imagine a dystopia doesn’t happen all at once; you don’t wake up to a blighted landscape, martial law and neighbors from Neuromancer. With that in mind, I note the following from the New York Times front page Saturday:

Bonus reference: from NPR (and a bunch of other places) “Anthrax Outbreak in Russia Thought to Be Result Of Thawing Permafrost.”

Money quote: “That means anthrax outbreaks in Siberia could occur every summer, she says. And it’s not just anthrax that could be a problem.

“People and animals have been buried in permafrost for centuries. There could be bodies infected with all kinds of viruses and bacteria, frozen in time. She says scientists are just starting look for it.

“So we really don’t know what’s buried up there,” she says. “This is Pandora’s box.” ”

Yes, I know you could cherry pick examples like this every day. Yes, I know you could push back with other, optimistic examples. It’s just that sometimes, it feels like we’re roaring headlong for the 11th century, complete with iPhones.

radio to the rescue

The studios must bank on it – if you’re a fan of a franchise, you forgive…a lot.

So I’ll forgive the shortcomings of “Star Trek: Beyond” for two, maybe three reasons.

Reason one, I’m a fan of Star Trek. Not a serious fan, not an obsessive fan, not even a want to talk about it much fan, but I grew up in the heroic era of space travel, which coincided with the original series. I know better, but have never fully outgrown the awe and optimism of the time.

Reason two, it’s not that bad. You can read the reviews, and they’re right. The movie is not very coherent; plot points are left unpointed, things don’t make sense even within the context of the movie. And as always, CGI makes everything too big, too impossible, even allowing for healthy suspension of disbelief. But sometimes it works, as in the latest destruction of the Enterprise, and there is heart to the movie, in the same way there is heart running through all the franchise. Star Trek is thick in its own mythology; at one point, Zachary Quinto’s Spock is looking through the belongings of the original Leonard Nimoy Spock and finds a photo of Spock with Kirk, McCoy, Mr. Scott, the rest. It’s a still from one of the late movies featuring the original cast and it’s unexpectedly poignant – I had a catch in my throat for the passage of time, for the characters and for the actors who played them.

Reason 3, they use radio to beat the bad guys. No, it makes no sense, but when they have to disrupt the swarm of bad guy ships from destroying the Federation space station, they do it by broadcasting the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage.” It’s as sensible a call as the guy strapped to the top of the truck, shredding, in the last Mad Max movie. It’s apparently what you do when making a blockbuster, and you can’t ladle on any more CGI. You rock out. I think they’re trying to summon the release, the rush that’s part of the mythology of rock music. It strikes me as a cheat, as a way too obvious way out, but whatever. It’s radio. Just go with it.

getting an earful

I have tinnitus, and am in the middle of an especially annoying bout of it right now. Not that it ever goes away, but there are fairly long periods when I don’t notice it so much.

Right now, I notice it.

Also, my hearing seems to be getting a bit worse. I lost the top 25 percent of frequencies over the last decade – I’m talking the hypothetical top 25, including the range most people don’t hear well – but now the loss seems to be creeping down into the area where it counts.

Coincidentally, I just got stereo equipment that has changed my listening life.

Our daughter bought me a set of Sonos Play:1 speakers for my 60th birthday. The Play:1 is every bit as good as people say it is; the sound is superb (a reviewer who measured them concluded the output was ‘extremely flat’; he said it’s what you might find in a $3,000 pair of tower speakers), connectivity is great (they don’t struggle to find and keep a wifi connection, unlike every other streaming audio device I’ve owned) and the app does a seamless job of integrating various music sources.

I spend my time in Pandora, various radio stations found through Tune-In, and, yes, Spotify. I have a problem with on-demand streaming services; they don’t pay enough to sustain the music industry, and especially the interesting, low sales artists I spend most of my time listening to. (By definition, that takes in all of jazz and classical.) But I have bought and bought and bought over the years, and to an extent I feel like I’ve done my part.

Plus, a fair and increasing amount of my listening is to old music, as in music recorded decades ago and reissued now. I’m mildly less conflicted about getting that from Spotify or one of the other streaming services, because it feels less like I’m taking something away from a living artist.

Also, the quality of the stream, 320 kbps mp3, sounds fine to me. I have been firmly in the CD/lossless file camp, and if I’m buying, that’s still what I’ll purchase but…I’m not sure it really matters to my ears at this point. Right now, for instance, I’m listening to some early 50s mono recordings of Haydn string quartets at less than 320 k, (I’m streaming WFMT out of Chicago, and the weekly “Collector’s Corner” show) and I don’t feel like I’m missing anything.

(Aside: I bought a box of all the Haydn quartets a few years back, the ones by the Angeles String Quartet, but don’t play them much. The performances are fine, but the sound doesn’t move me – and if you read the reviews on Amazon, you’ll see others noting the same thing. It’s like I’m too far away from the musicians or something. The recordings I’m hearing tonight were mic’d much “closer,”  and the music comes alive, despite their age and being in mono.)

One other thing about Sonos; while there is a generous selection of music services, a few things I like (ClassicalRadio, SomaFM) were missing. No problem; I was able to very easily add channels from both through Tune In. It’s maybe a hair less convenient than each having its own app, but it works and works well.

So how much do I like the Play:1s? Well, in the last 10 days, I’ve played exactly one CD at home. I’m not trying to prove a point; it’s just that I haven’t felt the want, or that I needed to hear something I couldn’t. I’ve added one more Play:1 on my own dime at my office, where it’s set on low murmur for pubic radio/news/talk all day. My office is a giant Faraday cage so regular radio is a non-starter. I love radio in its old-fashioned thing-you-get-with-an-antenna form, but this is radio as well, and quite wonderful, I think.