Category Archives: internet

dark horse

I’ve tried all of the major music streaming services, and am currently subscribed to several – Pandora, Spotify, SiriusXM, (part of my car subscription), Jazz/ClassicalRadio. I’m on the free tier of Slacker, though I’ve paid for it in the past, and have a six month deal for Microsoft’s Groove Music.

I think I missed an obvious winner.

It’s early days, but I’ve been using a service that’s been around longer than any of the above, that is absolutely free, but somehow doesn’t get much attention. It’s AccuRadio.

What’s AccuRadio?

It’s the brainchild of Kurt Hanson, who publishes the must-read RAIN: Radio and Internet Newsletter. If I understand the history of the thing correctly, Hanson created AccuRadio as proof of concept for the things being talked about in the newsletter.

In any event, AccuRadio is not on-demand – you can’t pick out songs or albums to play.  It is a whole lot of (the number that gets tossed around is more than a thousand) channels of just about any kind of music you’d want. So it’s on the Pandora/Slacker/SiriusXM/JazzRadio/ClassicalRadio end of the spectrum.

How does AccuRadio stack up? As a jazz/classical music listener, my initial answer is “very well.” As in, if I had to use nothing but AccuRadio, it would be more than ok.

Compare JazzRadio and AccuRadio: JazzRadio offers 40 channels, divided by era, style, instrument, mood. It throws in a couple of blues channels and some Brazilian/bossa nova. You can listen for free, but you have to pay to use the apps or to get the higher quality streaming. When I bought it, it was $60 a year, which also gave me ClassicalRadio and a couple of streaming services I don’t  care about.  I paid because I wanted the higher sound quality, up to 320 kbps for mp3s.

AccuRadio’s jazz section offers an astounding 76 channels, divided by era, style, instrument, mood, but also offering channels devoted to single composers (an all-Ellington channel!), a “top 50 jazz albums of all time” channel, even a channel for Chicago’s legendary AACM (Association For The Advancement of Creative Musicians). That’s deep.  And AccuRadio is free, as are its apps. Even if you wanted to, you can’t pay for it.

I’m guessing the sound quality isn’t as good as the paid-for services, but listening on my Sonos Play:1s, I’m hard pressed to hear much difference. In theory, there are commercials, but over a couple of days of listening, I have yet to hear one.

Oh, and if the jazz section’s Brazilian channel doesn’t do it for you, you can find another four Brazilian channels in their own section.

The classical section is equally good; I especially like the channel devoted to the conductor Herbert von Karajan – you could spend weeks sampling what he put on record – and the channels set aside just for European and American orchestras. Like ClassicalRadio, AccuRadio gives you channels for composers, instruments, types of composition (symphonies, string quartets), eras, moods.

Did I mention it’s free?

Hanson and company apparently regard Pandora’s “build your own” model as a bug, not a feature, because even though there’s an interesting way for you to hear your favorite songs more often, in general AccuRadio has already done all the selecting work for you. That said, you do have a degree of control: you can skip songs and ban an artist or song from a channel.

There’s a dedication to craft and detail that pervades the whole operation – even though it appears AccuRadio runs very lean. You want Broadway on Pandora? You’ve got a handful of choices. SiriusXM? Just one. AccuRadio? Try 45 channels. Reggae? There are separate, specialist channels for both dub and instrumentals.

AccuRadio has branded itself a few different ways. The current slogan is “Better radio for your workday,” and Hanson has said he’s not chasing young listeners. The service is aimed squarely at people from their mid-30s to their mid-60s, sitting at a desk with a browser tab open, quietly playing something while they work. AccuRadio supposedly doesn’t quite hit the top 10 of streaming services, but the strategy they’re using strikes me as smart, going at a demographic the other services seemingly aren’t all that interested in.

I’ve struggled a little to describe exactly how good I think AccuRadio is, so here’s my best shot: it’s the Linux of streaming services. In almost all respects, it beats the ones you pay for. You can’t get much better than that.



emergency non-broadcast system

The captains of commercial radio spend much of their working lives in a defensive crouch; if nothing else works – given how often they suck –  they’ll tell you ” You need us when there’s an emergency, like a natural disaster.”

That’s at least part of the argument, for instance, for pressuring cellphone manufacturers and carriers into activating the chip inside phones which allows you to pick up an FM broadcast, assuming you’re wearing headphones.

So this weekend, with Hurricane Harvey unleashing a biblical amount of rain in parts of Texas, is a fine field test.  Cell service is out in a lot of areas, and I heard a guy from the Red Cross say people should have hand-cranked radios, in order to get emergency information.

If I were in, say, Corpus Christi, with my Galaxy 7 and Koss PortaPros, or had a hand-cranked radio,  how well would I be served? I’m a long ways from Texas, but as far as I can tell, the answer is “not very.”

I spent a couple of hours this evening listening to every radio station I could stream  from Corpus Christi, and reading their web sites. Now Corpus Christi isn’t small; the population is well over 300,000.  But as far as I could tell, there isn’t a single local station on the ground in Corpus Christi, telling the stories of the worst affected areas, explaining peoples’ fears and frustrations, while also reporting on what local officials have planned.

What is there? Well, there’s an iHeart cluster, which includes News/Talk KKTX. But this evening, KKTX and other iHeart properties in Corpus Christi were carrying the chain’s San Antonio news/talk station. What they did wasn’t..awful, but there wasn’t much local, specific-to Corpus Christi news in the hour or so I listened.  Worse, the San Antonio station was relying on audio from the Weather Channel for much of its coverage. So the local station was getting its news from out of the market, which was, in turn, getting its news from a national source. Whatever happened to being the local guys who knew what’s going on?

There’s another news/talk station in Corpus Christi, KEYS, but according to the station’s web site they were knocked out by the storm. Which wouldn’t stop the station from updating its web site, but that wasn’t happening.

And so it goes for every station I could find: from Christian to contemporary hits, little or no current, local information about the hurricane. A note about web sites: almost all TV station web sites have problems of one sort or the other, failings, inadequacies, but at least they try. Radio stations don’t appear to even try.

What about public radio? In a lot of towns, the local NPR station has taken the responsibility that used to be shouldered by the dominant commercial station, that of providing basic news coverage. In Corpus Christi’s case, the local NPR affiliate is KEDT. As far as I can tell, KEDT doesn’t stream, so I can’t hear what the station is up to, but the web site is not encouraging. Other than canceling a station event because of the weather, there’s no Harvey-related news.

To be clear, what I’m looking for is a station that’s on the air 24/7, with reporters out where the weather hit, lots and lots of weather updates and – here’s the important part – a continuing conversation with listeners, reporting in on what streets are in the worst shape, who’s missing, lost and found animals, etc. During a crisis, radio can be one big community bulletin board, but I didn’t hear anything remotely like that today.

So what I hope for is that amateurs, hams, have stepped in where the pros aren’t, and are supplying the kind of neighborly, boots-on-the-ground information that’s needed to get through a crisis like this. What I fear is that commercial radio is so weak, so ineffectual, that it can no longer even go about special pleading for itself (“you need us when the weather’s bad”) and have anyone believe it.


ask me now

Even though I’m fascinated by sound, by music, by radio and by radio journalism and its derivatives, I have a wary relationship to podcasting.

On the one hand, yes, podcasting is a big deal, a way of doing things with sound and words that is outgrowing its origins – its not talk radio, or blogging, or the kind of sound art and documentary exemplified by Glenn Gould’s The Idea of North.  Nearly a quarter of Americans report being monthly podcast listeners. So here’s a medium that’s both new(ish) and popular, and the bar to entry is low.

On the other hand, there is a precious quality to podcasting; it feels like there are too many people trying to do it, too many people thinking out loud about “the podcast space,” too many companies chasing – still – too few listeners. It’s a land rush for hipsters.

So I’m flummoxed by the fact that my favorite podcast right now is “The Turnaround.” It’s very meta, as younger and smarter people said back in 2012. Each episode runs an hour or so, and consists of the host,  Jesse Thorn, talking to famous and semi-famous people about…talking. More specifically, Thorn talks to people who specialize in interviewing.

So what keeps Turnaround from swallowing its own tail? Well,  Thorn is an engaging host and he asks good questions, knows how to keep the conversation going; there’s an emphasis on the real-world craft aspects of interviewing; and as it turns out, it’s just interesting to listen to interviewers talk about how they feel about what they do. There’s alchemy to Turnaround, the whole (Thorn plus interview subject) is greater than the sum of its two parts.

I’ve listened to four or five of them this weekend, and bits from several stick with me – how Errol Morris ended up liking Robert McNamara; Susan Orlean on being so into music that she was more comfortable interviewing musicians whose music she didn’t care for; Brooke Gladstone explaining why she’ll edit answers together, but won’t re-record her questions after the interview ; Louis Theroux talking about  how having a British accent can help, when it comes to getting people on the fringes of American society to trust you.

More to the point, taken together “the Turnaround” episodes are a master class in how to talk with people. I’ve been doing journalism for a long time, but there is still something reassuring when Susan Orlean, best-selling author and New Yorker staff writer, says that being uncomfortable is just part of the gig, and that if you’re going to ask strangers to talk to you, expect to get rejected a lot. And while it wouldn’t work as a plaque in your local journalism school, Errol Morris’s advice on interviewing (‘Shut the fuck up’) should be burned into all young reporters.

I’ll be interested to see how long Turnaround lasts; they’ve posted 13 episodes since late June, have already hit a lot of the obvious choices. I’m not sure how they keep up the pace. Regardless, what Turnaround has already accomplished is considerable and – here’s a metric for the nascent podcasting ratings industry – if it cost money, I’d gladly play it.





weekend radio

I had dinner with a couple hundred fellow journalists this weekend; the best part was  conversation about radio, and then some radio I heard on my long trip home.

First, I got an answer to something which vaguely bothered me for the last few months. For decades, the Associated Press offered a very solid, reliable radio service. If you owned a radio station and didn’t have an affiliation with CBS/NBC/ABC you could buy AP radio and get a respectable five minute report at the top of every hour, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

One of my little pleasures as a SiriusXM subscriber has been that the channel I listen to most, POTUS (the all-politics channel), ran AP radio news. So when I was driving to work, or especially on the weekend, I got to catch a newscast or two. But sometime in the last few months, AP went away, replaced by an unbranded newscast that uses some CNN talent. It’s ok, but I miss the AP.

Turns out the AP discontinued its “live” newscasts when it comes to overnights and weekends, so SiriusXM switched providers.

My impression is that doing overnights and weekends was expensive, and a lot of radio stations – as we all know – don’t do any news at all. I’m sure it wasn’t a money maker, the last few years haven’t been easy for the AP, so this was probably the practical thing to do.

Still, there’s not a lot left in the commercial space when it comes to reputable, trustworthy radio news, and not having the AP, or as much of the AP, is a loss.

One of my dinner companions got stuck dealing with TV professionally, but is a radio guy at heart, and we fell to talking about the merits of streaming versus tuning it in the old fashioned way. He said it sounds better, even when it sounds worse, when you tune in the AM or FM band. I agree, and I don’t think this is just old guy nostalgia – the new book The New Analog makes a  persuasive case that the absence of “noise” in digital sound is a loss. I don’t fully understand it, but somehow not having noise – the background hiss you get with even the best radio signal, the inherent rumble and pops and clicks you get with a record – diminishes the “signal,” the part you came to listen to.

Another TV guy who likes radio a lot was sitting across our big table from me, and because it was noisy and crowded, we ended up shouting our conversation at each other. He told me about his plan to corral an AM radio station on the fringe of New York City. If he pulls it off, it’ll be an education for high school students and a real, honest to goodness emergency station for the area.

We talked about how radio stations used to be owned by local guys who wanted to be somebody in their town, and how that impulse meant that they spent some money, usually in the service of making a lot more, but also to make the station stand out with its news, its DJs. Sure, they liked the money, but it was just as important that they got to sit at the head table at the Chamber of Commerce dinner, got invited to sit on the hospital board.  The vastly more efficient mega-radio chains have no interest in any of that.

I worked for an AM station back in the 70s, and we ran local news up until noon on Saturday and were local with our disc jockeys all weekend. Sunday morning was reserved for local church services, as I recall. That’s changed: many (most?) commercial radio stations, especially AM stations, abandon any pretense of being anything other than a money machine on the weekends. They sell time by the hour, running pitches from lawyers, money guys, assorted bottom feeders. It brings money in, but to my ear ruins any identity the station has.

My dinner companion told me that’s pretty much the state of play in New York City, which surprised me. I would have thought there was a big enough audience there to sustain regular operations all weekend long. He told me the two commercial all-news stations, WCBS and WINS, don’t do that. He admires them for that. So do I.

I had a three hour drive home Sunday morning, and – speaking of weekend radio – lucked out.  The first thing I hit, randomly twisting the dial on the Passat’s FM, was a guy saying ‘You wouldn’t want to start your Sunday morning without polka, would you?” Now there’s a pitch. Turns out it was Siena College’s station. College-affiliated stations – unless they’re NPR operations – are always rock or rap or something else youthful, in my experience, as are the DJs. This was different, and pretty wonderful. I don’t know from polka, nor care much, but there were a couple of community guys behind the mics, they knew their stuff – this show has apparently been around for a while – and they were taking requests from an audience whose names all ended in complicated combinations of vowels and consonants, and who – it appeared – were all longtime listeners. My impression was the show has a following that extends through the middle of New York state, from Syracuse to Albany.  I listened until the signal went away.

Then, in honor of Sunday morning, I got religion. A station was running EWTN programming, (the Catholic channel), which I’ve heard a little on SiriusXM. I caught most of a half hour show dedicated to being pro-life; usually when I hear someone talk about being anti-abortion, it’s in the context of a debate with someone on the other side, and it’s usually more noise than anything else. This show featured interviews with the woman who heads the anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List and with anti-abortion U.S. Senator Mike Lee. None of it was all that probing or incisive, but I got to hear what pro-life folks talk like when they’re among friends, which was valuable in and of itself.

Finally, for the last leg of the trip going north from Utica, I found a preacher. He was going on about spiritually mature and immature people, about the difference between what is commanded or forbidden in the Bible and what’s merely stuff to argue over, about selfishness, about not throwing obstacles in peoples’ paths – and yes, it was, for an unenlightened heathen, as confusing as described. But the guy was a good talker, knew when to take breaks, and I can see how people have been drawn in for decades by the voice coming from the speaker. As weekend radio goes, not horrible.





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 before I retweet something I read it or listen to it (or rarely, watch it) in its entirety, 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 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 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.