what the blues aren’t

Posted July 28, 2015 by collectedobsessions
Categories: Uncategorized

If you write you’ve done it: you try to describe something and no matter what, the words don’t come. Or much worse, the slightly wrong words come, but you can’t think of better so you, ummm, let it go. It’s the old ‘difference between lightning and a lightning bug’ thing.

For years, I thought about how weirdly bad most blues-rock sounds, how disconnected from anything it is. Blues-rock was in its terrible prime when I was 14, 15 years old, and as much as I tried to like it back then – hey, I had to have something in common with the guys I went to high school with – I can clearly remember nodding off from boredom  listening to bands beat blues riffs to death for 15, 20 minutes at a time.

And as I got older, I developed a weird revulsion to things like beer brand-sponsored “blues festivals.” People seem to enjoy them and I should leave well enough alone, but they always seem, at best, beside the point, and at their frequent worst, the exact opposite of the blues. They make the blues into nothing more than good time music, with hard-hearted men and mistreatin’ women as comic book characters. But finding the right words to explain all this? Not me.

Thankfully, Amanda Petrusich‘s “Do Not Sell At Any Price,” does the job. The passage below is incidental to the larger themes of the book, which concerns itself with collectors of rare 78 rpm records and the nature of collecting in general, but I’m awfully glad she wrote it:

“The commercial presentation of “the blues” is often disastrously corny, wholly divorced from – even antithetical to – the grimness of the songs themselves. It’s a young woman at an open mic night, oversinging “Chain Of Fools” with her hands in the air. It’s a guy with a T-shirt  tucked into his shorts, nodding appreciatively at a bar band with three shrieking electric guitars. It’s bright colors and branded guitar slides and old, pinkish-white guys bellowing about women. It’s three squat, wonky statues in a fountain in Wisconsin.”

Exactly. Couldn’t have put it better. When it comes to culture, we kill things without meaning to, when our intent is to preserve, hold onto, support, but we kill anyway by making the thing not-quite-itself. That’s what Petrusich catches.

microsoft – and verizon – get it right

Posted July 26, 2015 by collectedobsessions
Categories: Uncategorized

I complain a lot about Verizon Wireless, but they’re getting better.

This isn’t a “goodness of their hearts” thing, of course. But they are an example of the benefit of even mild competition; all it took was somewhat better offers on the price of a gig of data, and a few promotions that paid people to switch from Verizon, and Verizon got a little more reasonable about their monthly charges.

They’re still egregious, but somewhat less so now, especially if you do what I do, run with older and/or cheaper phones.

However, getting a cheaper phone – as in, one that doesn’t extend your contract, tack monthly charges onto your bill – remains challenging. You want a Verizon iPhone or Android flavor? eBay or Amazon for you, and you’re taking on added risk in the process. If that $280 5s dies nine months after you bought it, well, sorry.

Up until now that’s been true of Windows phones as well. Even very, very mediocre phones on a platform almost no one uses would have a full list price of $400-$500. It was a pretty obvious play to make sure no one ever outright bought any phone, and thus continued to rent/be contractually bound to/pay higher monthly charges to Big Red.

Which is silly, given the plethora of dirt cheap Windows phones Nokia Microsoft has turned out over the last couple of years. I’m doing this from memory, but a few months back at the Microsoft store at the large mall about 60 miles from me, I saw AT & T Windows phones for $50 – $60 full price which weren’t…horrible.

Well now Microsoft has somehow talked Verizon into putting an inexpensive, mid-level Windows phone into its line-up, the Lumia 735. I’m assuming that’s how it worked because I can’t imagine Verizon caring much whether it has any Windows phones, so the dealing would most likely come from the Microsoft end.

I played with one for a while today, and came away impressed. It’s reasonably fast, has a nice screen, is mid-sized, (specs, details here) and most important, costs just under $200 without a contract. True, 99 percent of Verizon customers won’t directly care; they’re not going to switch to Windows phone, which continues to suffer from not having many of the basic, important apps the other platforms have. But it could be the start of resetting the value proposition in smart phones on the Verizon network – if you can buy a not-low-end, competent, nicely appointed phone for $200, what are you doing paying double or triple that? It’s a good question.

Over the long haul, phones like the Lumia could bring some equity to the relationship between Verizon and its customers. Up until now, that relationship has been a lot like what cable companies have with people, basically, “Screw you, you’ll take what we give you, pay what we ask, and like it.” The more people are able to buy their phones outright, and are not legally bound to Verizon, the more it has incentive to keep costs down, offer more for the same price, improve service.

And while I couldn’t test it today, it appears that, yes, the f.m. radio is activated in the 735. It’s mentioned in the owner’s manual. Nice.

(Noted – After I wrote the above, I took another look at Verizon’s web site and discovered they’re now offering a couple of Android phones in the $200 and down range, off contract. I have no idea if they’re any good, but it certainly looks like Verizon is changing, at least a little, in response to the market.)

augmented intelligence

Posted June 20, 2015 by collectedobsessions
Categories: Uncategorized

I used to turn on a computer and feel, if not smarter, then at least like the thing had the potential to make me smarter, extend my reach.

That feeling’s gone missing, but I got a little of it back when I went to the library this morning to return an overdue book and renew three others. I had a nice conversation with the librarian, who asked me what I thought of “Turing’s Cathedral.” I did my business and made a quick scan of the new releases on my way out.

All of which has me thinking about what a library is and does. I’ve just started, and there’s probably not an ounce of anything original here, but it occurs to me that you could view a library as a kind of active – though slow – intelligence augmentation device. We already think of libraries (to begin beating the computer metaphor to death) as networked, searchable storage, and the people coming in and out as the very rough equivalents of users logging into and out of various aspects of the internet.

But I think that may put the emphasis in slightly the wrong place, by calling the library “storage” and treating the “for who” question as incidental. That’s what I’m chewing on now – whether heavy library users self-select, or (more likely) whether the form and technology of the library dictates who it is most useful for, the user strikes me as oddly deprecated, and more important than you’d expect.

Libraries aren’t created equal for everyone. You can get on a computer there and use Facebook, but it’s less than ideal for that purpose. You can’t always be on – your turn is limited, the library closes – and that means means social media, which relies on ubiquity, is limited. You also can’t get up and buy anything. Again, you could use a computer, go to Amazon, but libraries themselves are pretty much marketing-free zones, one of the few left in public life. So shopping – which is a lot of things including a form of intellectual activity – is not very effectively done from a library, and I could probably add a few other non-fits if I thought hard enough: video games, extended bouts of TV watching. All forms of knowledge, but not really library knowledge.

So what strengths does a library have? I’d say three things – or one thing with three sides: constrained searches, relatively high signal to noise ratio, a useful environment for drift. Let me explain.

Constrained searches: a library isn’t Google. It only holds so much, and mostly it holds books. That means you have an inherent bias in what you’re seeing – you won’t get blog posts and tweets on the subject you’re interested in – and there’s a kind of presentation bias as well: you have physical objects, with heft and size, to examine. Hard for them to not occupy an outsized place in your judgement.

Obviously, you can borrow a library computer and hit Google. Also obviously, what I described above can leave you with some big blind spots. But on balance, I’d guess a competent library can get you up to speed on most topics pretty quickly, at least in part because so much is left out.

Signal to noise: along the same lines, the library discriminates in what kind of information it considers valuable, by what information it chooses to hold. It’s mostly the realm of the extended text, presented without someone trying to steer you – obviously, the texts themselves can hold lots of opinions, but the library isn’t trying to get you to buy anything, or vote one way or the other. (That’s not entirely true – with its relative quiet and strong sense of order, libraries are machines built for considered thinking, so I suppose you could argue that, say, science gets a fairer shake than superstition.)

A good place to drift: many people have had this experience at their library: you start out looking for one thing, and something else interesting catches your eye. And if you know even a little about how a library is organized, you can run down whatever the new thing is fairly easily, which leads to a bunch of other related stuff and then, maybe, yet another new thing. Also, if you have a general idea of what you’re interested in, you can go to the section in question and get a fair idea of the size of the subject. This is the experience the internet sort of duplicates with linking, but linking seems more directed to me; when I’m drifting through the music section at my library, I’m not serially looking from one book to the next. I’m taking in several at once and making some quick, imperfect decisions about which to open first, knowing that there’s not much cost associated – I can get a good feel for if I’m interested and if not, move on to the next. There’s no exact web or app version of that, at least in part because books aren’t free, and because there’s still no great way to randomly dive into a book you have online. That experience, at least, remains superior in the physical world.

I don’t want to overstate the case for libraries; obviously I spend a whole lot of time on my computer and understand how to use some pretty marvelous tools to do things. But when it comes to getting smarter, the old ways still have much to commend them.

(Aside: has anyone ever treated a library literally as a peripheral and tried to figure out in a rigorous fashion just what kind of bandwidth one provides, at what speeds?)

miracles and unwonder

Posted June 14, 2015 by collectedobsessions
Categories: Uncategorized

I live in an age of miracles and wonder, but can’t bring myself to be impressed. As noted elsewhere here, I run computers that are four or five years old and don’t miss having new, because there just isn’t that much new to miss. My Windows phone has the problem of being a Windows phone, but is basically very, very competent. Astoundingly so, if you could have put one in my hand back in, say, 1998.

I get it – these devices are, by any standard, extraordinary. But they do not move me. For that, to get my sense of wonder on, I have to reach back.

For a long while after I first got seriously interested in computers, my special thing was the history of the machines and software. I figured I was catching up, and that as soon as I read through the mainframe era, the “Soul of A New Machine” mini-computers, the Apple IIs and the original PC, that I’d be done. I bought a lot of obsolete and odd machines along the way.

Turns out, I cared for how we got to the present much more than I care about the present itself. And lately, more about the past than the future; some of that’s me getting older, but more of it is disappointment with what I’m being sold. I was expecting some kind of intelligence augmentation; what I got was Twitter.

I’m about halfway through George Dyson’s “Turing’s Cathedral,” which is a deep dive into the construction of one of the first computers, and into the way software was first worked out. I’ve read a lot of books that cover much of the same ground, but they all tell the story differently. “Cathedral” adds to the genre with what amounts to a mini-biography of John von Neumann. It also throws light on some names I know, but didn’t know much about, especially Stanislaw Ulam, a mathematician who was a protege of von Neumann, and who strikes me as underrated in the history of computing.

Mostly, I realize again just how smart all these people were, and how they were fumbling along, taking the magnificent hypothetical of Alan Turing’s universal computing machine and instantiating it, with vacuum tubes, and wire for memory, and most importantly, how the real world of balky electricity and bad air conditioning shaped what was possible. Dealing with that real world ended up being the critical accomplishment of the computer pioneers – it was hard to think of storing information as binary digits, but it was insanely difficult to turn that concept into something fast and reliable. They solved big, practical problems building computers, which I think gave them the confidence to see these machines as reliable tools for thinking, and to tackle even harder, more complicated problems – they made the modern world of weather forecasting and climate science, to name just one.

And that’s the thing I keep returning to – my phone, my tablet, my computer are more designed to save me from thinking than they are to extend and enhance what I can do. Yes, I can (and do) use these machines to think with, but the central tendency, all the weight, seems to be elsewhere. They’re all about – just watch the TV commercials – a seamless experience. In fact, as I was writing this I saw some beautiful footage of a city, apparently shot from the back of a metro train, and framed by white. It was simple, graceful, lovely. It was, the ad said, shot on an iPhone 6.

One suspects the actual turning of the iPhone video into something suitable for TV was more complicated than the ad suggests, but never mind; like much advertising, this ad is aspirational. It wants us to picture ourselves gliding through life as easily, as smoothly as the video of the city passes by the train window, with the help of our iPhone, of course. Now this is not new: car manufacturers have been doing it for decades. But it is at odds with the history of computing that we’ve been sold, and parts of which I believe to be true: these machines were developed by very smart – and in some cases very noble – people; there was a strong drive to democratize the technology; it can be used to spread knowledge in an unprecedented way. That’s the picture we’re supposed to hold in the background, while we more and more live in the tightly packaged, increasingly centralized experiences of social media. Our lived experience of computing is at odds with the reason it’s been given special status.

To put it another way, I follow with professional interest the growth of “mobile” as opposed to desktop or laptop computing – and it’s a rout. Mobile – phones – is the dominant computing experience for most people. And what is mobile really good for? Consuming things – words, music, increasingly video. But as a means of production, mobile sucks. Yes, you can post to Twitter or Facebook or Instagram, but I wouldn’t try writing this blog on my phone. Think of it as another example of most important lock-in going on, the one that all content companies, ISPs, aggregators, you name it, agree on – we are here to be marketed to, period. All this talk about using the internet to get smarter, to learn things, is, well, not in the business plan.

The good news here is that the internet remains a big and somewhat unruly place, and you can still go against the grain, find the places and people that can teach you something, though this is much easier done on a laptop or desktop than on your phone. (Why is the web such a generally crappy experience on phones and tablets? I almost never use either to look at the web itself, because I find it slow and buggy and miserable.)

But you can feel the exits slowly being sealed, the back streets blocked off or renovated out of existence in the name of a new! better! internet, one which is largely controlled by a handful of companies, with various toll schemes thrown up to extract money from the rest of us, while effectively blocking any opposition movements from forming. (And yes, in this scenario there will be a fair amount of highbrow culture available – the Comcast Symphony Orchestra would be both an attractive tax write-off and a lovely counter to arguments that it’s somehow less than optimal for three cable companies to control the vast majority of U.S. internet traffic.)

What will we be left with? I fear more things like my iPhone 6 video – a frictionless not-quite experience, a place where the real world is increasingly viewed not as a source of necessary constraints, where that’s a good thing, the place from which you start learning, but as something that isn’t quite as good as what we have in our pocket. Much of the history of computing has been a thrilling story of how we learned to make tools, and become competent in entirely new ways; right now, the story seems to be how the tools have been turned against us, and how little we care.

black codes +30

Posted May 24, 2015 by collectedobsessions
Categories: Uncategorized

I had the CD of Wynton Marsalis’s “Black Codes (From The Underground)” in my car for a few days, and even though I’ve listened to it off and on since 1985, I think this was the first time I really heard just how good an album it is.

I chalk it up to 30 years going by. Back when “Black Codes” came out, there was a big controversy about Marsalis and what he represented – a kind of counter-reformation in jazz that seemed to threaten the very good, but harder for the average person to listen to, jazz that came out of the 1970s, what people generally call the “loft jazz” movement. Marsalis struck a lot of people as a dead end, with his veneration for the jazz that had come before him, his insistence that the past represented the one true way.

Well, I’m sure he wouldn’t put it exactly the same way now, and one of his main points – that you have to submit to the discipline of an art form in order to master it, and that listeners should pay more attention to forms which require such mastery – is less threatening and more appreciated these days. Marsalis himself is a genial older statesman for a music that has disappeared into the academy – jazz is now safely one of America’s great cultural treasures, everyone agrees, and maybe the poorer for it.

None of which touches “Black Codes,” which is generally regarded as a successor to Miles Davis’s mid-60s quintet – and maybe it is, but coming back to the album, I hear something slightly different. As much as I love the second great quintet, I don’t remember many of the melodies – some of Wayne Shorter’s classics being the exception, though even then I tend to remember other versions more easily. Maybe I’m just not musical, but my favorite second quintet recording has always been the “Plugged Nickel” set, because its largely standards-based repertoire gives me something to hang my hat on. And I have huge affection for the music Miles made right before the second quintet, the “Seven Steps To Heaven” era, because of both the covers and the memorable originals, and because the band had not quite reached the stratosphere. It played brilliantly, at high altitudes, but you could still see the ground.

And that’s where I think “Black Codes” fits, if you’re talking historical precedent. But the more I listen, the more I think the best way to approach this music, this band, is on its own terms. If “Black Codes” reflected lessons learned, those lessons were thoroughly absorbed and made original. “Black Codes,” the title, is a declaration of purpose, a band lighting out for the territory; “For Wee Folks” is an utterly distinctive ballad; “Phryzzinian Man” and “Delfeayo’s Dilemma” swing like mad and after 30 years sound completely in the moment.

The closer, “Blues,” just Marsalis and bass, sounds far more traditional than the rest of the album, and to the degree that you think Marsalis is diminished by his years dwelling in pre-bop jazz, it may feel like the tipping point, though he had already recorded a “with strings” album and was showing every sign his muse wasn’t confined to 1945 and after.  That said, in the context of “Black Codes” it’s more than fine – and Marsalis followed this album with another that was at least as good, “J Mood.”

One other point: jazz, like novel writing or portrait painting, is feature-complete, has been for decades, and for a while was prey to the arguments of post-modernism.  “Black Codes” came out in 1985, right in the heart of the long post-modern moment, in which the line was “everything’s exhausted, there’s no more innovation, and all that’s left is to stack the blocks in different combinations.” The smart money – I’ll put Marsalis in that camp – never believed that in the first place, and looking back, one of the virtues of “Black Codes” was the way it demonstrated craft and care while it refused irony, refused to know too much. That strength made “Black Codes” durable and deserving of a place high up on the shelf of best jazz albums.

(Note to Columbia/SONY: It’s time to give “Black Codes” and “J Mood” the deluxe treatment. I think Marsalis peaked here, and these are great jazz albums. I’d like to hear more.”)

the road to hell

Posted May 4, 2015 by collectedobsessions
Categories: Uncategorized

I’m trying to make good use of Twitter, but it’s oddly difficult for me to keep at it.

Why? The usual reasons – the incredible anxiety I feel when I see the cascade of new! interesting! stuff raining down on me, the urge to give up when I don’t compulsively check my feed every couple of minutes, come back to it, and discover another dozen bon mots have landed, the overwhelming sense that everyone there is so much more plugged in than I am or could possibly ever hope to be.

And mind you, I follow a miniscule 14 other people and organizations. 14. On Twitter, that’s less than “statistically insignificant.” It’s probably less than “failure to launch” or “what did you do with your second hour on Twitter?” And it’s still too much for me to follow, what with all the retweets that get added in.

I’m sure most people use Twitter the way it’s meant to be used, to be scanned, flitting from item to item until the pull of gravity from one of them is strong enough to make you look at the attached link. I’ve done it – do it – myself, but have decided I don’t like the way it makes me feel. I think you’re supposed to just go with it (“Look at me! Riding this wave of information!) but what I increasingly notice is what’s missing. Twitter not only cuts into the time I would otherwise devote to books, it seems to stand in opposition to the act of reading them.

I know, I know. There is a lot out there these days about the bad effects of the internet, and more specifically, social media. The case is overstated, as reactions to technology tend to be. But there is something worth paying attention to here: I read, at least in part, to relieve anxiety. To successfully read a book you have to quiet your mind some to start, and then the reading itself acts as a kind of bootstrap. The more you’re absorbed by the words on the page, the more able you are to take in more of the words. You experience the peculiar effect of having the universe shrink to book-size, and yet grow at the same time. Not every book does this fully of course, but once your brain establishes the “reader pathway,” you know how to get there, even if imperfectly.

Twitter works at cross-purposes to reading because it increases anxiety – on Twitter, you can never know enough, be current enough or be following enough. You’re always at risk of missing the most important thing of the moment, so you’re always reading with one eye on what’s next, what you could be scanning instead of what you’re looking at now.

So maybe it’s surprising that I want to make some sort of peace with Twitter; I hold out hope that I can wrangle it into serving as a personal wire service, without it killing the host. In honor of this hope, I spend time on Twitter every day, and usually find one or two things to tweet or retweet – but that presents another problem. I try really hard not to, but I find myself looking for things to pass along, and subtly evaluating what I look at in terms of whether it’s fit grist for the Twitter mill. And because there’s so much stuff to consider, I’m tempted to give an item the quick once-over and if it seems ok, pass it along. Taken together, I think of these things as the central tendency of Twitter, the compulsion to redistribute whatever you’ve taken in, no matter how slight your attention.

But I’m pushing back: my personal rule of thumb is – don’t retweet anything I haven’t read carefully, all the way to the end (silly to say, but I’ll bet a lot of things get tweeted after the first third is digested) and I try to avoid most things that are of the moment. Also, it has to be something I have more than a passing interest or expertise in, which narrows the possibilities greatly. I’d like to say it works, but I don’t know yet. I’m finding it hard to keep my balance – use the medium for my own ends, and not let the means take over.

no future

Posted May 3, 2015 by collectedobsessions
Categories: Uncategorized

If you’re a Verizon customer, as I am, there appears to be no option at all right now for buying a phone with an FM radio chip inside that’s been activated. Set aside the obvious flagship phones, the Samsungs and iPhones – if I’m reading things correctly, nothing else in the Android line-up, including the Moto X, will work either.

(Two other Motorola phones, the G and E, both apparently work with Motorola’s own FM radio app. They’re cheap pre-paid phones; the X is a mid-priced, full-featured phone. What gives?)

To make matters much worse, even if you’re willing to sacrifice a lot and go the Windows phone route, the FM option has been closed off there as well. The HTC One adopted from Android doesn’t have its FM chip activated, even though the version Sprint sells does. And even if you go back a generation and buy, say, a Nokia Lumia 928 off ebay you’re out of luck. The FM chip wasn’t turned on in the 928, even though it was the “flagship” phone of the ragged Windows phone fleet on Verizon less than a year ago.

So I’m stuck with my bordering-on-ancient Lumia 822, or getting my HTC 8X repaired. This strikes me as more than a little ridiculous, and transparently anti-consumer; no, there hasn’t been a big demand for FM on phones, but that’s at least partly a conceptual problem – how would people know to want it? And I’m guessing it costs exactly nothing to turn on the chip in question, which leads to the inevitable conclusion that Verizon – and let’s be charitable here – just doesn’t want to support the functionality. I would never suggest they want us to burn up our data plans instead of getting free over-the-air radio.

All that said, I don’t see the radio industry making much headway on the issue. They’re not good at this sort of thing; see, transitions, HD.


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