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.



on not writing

There is a sad reflex among blogs as they die in which the author, not having posted for three or six months, makes some apologetic noises and promises to do better.

That’s usually followed by an entry or two, then a longer, more final silence.

From what I’ve seen, many of these blogs had pretty good runs before they hit the skids; there’s usually a year or two of steady work, followed by some months of sporadic posting, followed by the above. Which is to say, they aren’t examples of failure to launch – the people who put up six entries and run out of things to say don’t generally bother to apologize – and blogs that gets past year two or three are apt to keep going.

So this is not that note, but writing here has been oddly difficult for the last several months. That’s not a lack of interest in the world; if anything, I’ve read more – and more deeply – lately. The Soviet Union has caught my attention, as has, belatedly, the Iraq war. I’m poking at climate change, though for all that’s written I have yet to find a book that works for me. And I’m drawn as always to the history of technology.

But writing is another matter; I follow the race for President closely but there is so much written about it every day – and then so much written about what’s written and so much written about that, a pile-up of self-referential stuff – I have nothing new to add. Trump and Clinton exhaust me, though like everyone else, I can’t look away.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about cell phones and writing about the minutiae of the ones I use, and that’s fine – I think the FM radio business is a real issue – but the topic has its limits. I have not noted (until now) that the Moto E I enjoy so thoroughly died an unceremonious death 10 days back. For no particular reason, the speaker made a loud buzzing noise and quit. It’s at Motorola for repair/replacement now. Motorola will likely just send me a new one, and then I’ll have to beg Verizon to waive $30 in activation fees. It’s a hassle, but I don’t think it means anything; there’s no larger lesson to be extracted from it, not even “It’s a $29 phone.”

In honor of my 60th birthday, our daughter delivered a set of Sonos Play:1 speakers to me, which I have now set up as a stereo pair in the family room. For the moment, they’re on top of my regular stereo, and I’m not sure how to handle my very, very large collection of CDs, but I can see the day when I get rid of most of the stuff under the TV and just go with the paired Sonos for listening. They’re that good. I got a three month trial to Spotify, and am impressed by the depth and breadth of the thing. But I think it’s a terrible deal for musicians, and don’t know how to resolve that.

So, writing. If I had to describe what stops me before I start it would be – I’m tired of the sound of my own voice. The cure for me traditionally has been to get very, very interested in something or things outside of my own head, and get the itch to talk about it. (Hence the title of this blog.)  My current reading gets me part way, but only part way, there. I may read two or three more books about the Cold War or the run up to World War II and be well satisfied, but have nothing to add.

Meantime, I fashion little bursts of words and am going on the assumption that at some point the wheel turns, the gears click and there’s more where this came from. I’m reading Neil Gaiman’s “View From The Cheap Seats,” which is a collection of non-fiction, much of it about writing and writers, and it helps. Gaiman reminds me this is work, and that the simple truth, as always, is that writers…write. (Except Douglas Adams, but that’s a different story.)


lost in space

Saw “Independence Day: Resurgence” on its opening weekend. It’s not very good, but then neither was the original, and I’ve watched it at least a dozen times over the years. This was more of the same, and I think the critics are maybe being too hard on the new movie – yes, if it’s possible for an already ridiculous movie to get even more CGI-ed ridiculous (an alien ship 3000 miles wide?) this certainly qualifies. But it’s basically the original movie told all over again, and that’s fine.

One thing: the real science fiction of “Resurgence” isn’t the weapons or the alien ships or the giant alien queen. The real science fiction is that in the 2016 of “Resurgence,” the world is at peace. There are, the President says early on, no more wars and the planet is united. Back in this world, it feels very much like an old and faded dream.

Reading and listening:

Finished “Eccentric Orbits,” a captivating new book on a topic I knew nothing about – the strange history of the Iridium satellite phone.  (I think a couple of Iridiums make cameo appearances in “Resurgence.”) Because I cared nothing about cell phones for the longest time, I missed some big stories. This is one of them.

Cued up: “The Network.” A book about David Sarnoff and Edwin Armstrong and the early crushing of FM by Sarnoff’s RCA. I’ve known for a long time that Sarnoff tried to kill FM, which he saw as a risk to his AM radio business. This new book is a deep dive on the subject.

Also, Bob Woodward’s “State of Denial.” I’m belatedly reading some history of the Iraq War. Even though Woodward gets criticized for being a captive of the insider accounts he writes, he still gets an enormous amount on the record that might otherwise stay submerged. 10 years down the road, it’s easier to see just how good a piece of reporting this book was.

Cued up: George Packer’s “The Assassin’s Gate.” I got to both the Woodward and the Packer by way of John Gray’s “Black Mass.” Gray pretty much defines the idea of a sobering read.

Listening: I traded in a bunch of box sets I never listen to and ended up with a few hundred dollars credit at the record store in Syracuse. I made a dent in it this weekend: Bill Evans, “Some Other Time”; Allen Toussaint, “American Tunes”:  Giles Peterson/Sun Ra, “To Those of Earth & Other Worlds”; Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, “Multishow Live.” I listened to half of the Evans, half of the Veloso and the Toussaint so far. Money well spent.


no, microsoft, no

Somehow I missed the dismal news that Microsoft has axed its FM radio app from Windows 10 Mobile.

A Microsoft spokesman told Radio World, “Due to decreased usage, FM Radio was removed in a recent Windows 10 Mobile build released to Windows Insiders, and will likely be removed for general customers in a future update.”

The good news, such as it is, is that the FM chip will remain activated in Windows phones. That means third party FM tuner apps will continue to work. The rest is bad news. Here’s why:

The Windows phone platform failed. It has less than five percent of smartphone users worldwide, and no matter what Microsoft has tried that number doesn’t improve. In fact, in the U.S. it’s gone backwards. However, I’d argue that people who follow smartphone development continue to pay disproportionate attention to Windows phones, and as long as FM was part of the base operating system,  there was a small, persistent reminder that FM is important to some people and should be considered for other more popular (i.e. Android and iOS) platforms.

More to the point, the FM tuner was a place for radioheads like me to rally, something we could point to, to show having “real” radio in a cellphone is a desirable feature. My guess is Microsoft’s announcement will undermine efforts like the Free Radio on My Phone campaign and make it easier for the holdout carrier, Verizon, to continue dragging its feet when it comes to activating the FM chip in Android phones.

I went to great lengths to get an Android phone (the only one Verizon offers) with FM radio; I use it at least three or four times a week for at least half an hour at a time, and often more. Yes, it competes for my attention with audiobooks, podcasts and music I’ve downloaded. But the point is, it is competing – I still choose to use regular, broadcast radio for a fair amount of my listening.

And what is a choice for me is a necessity elsewhere. A comment on an mspoweruser  article about the removal:

I know it’s difficult for some people in the western hemisphere and specifically the U.S. to understand but having an fm radio receiver is vital in some parts of the world or a necessity. How do you access now your local radio station in a rural or remote location.. Not only that you don’t use data, but you have radio coverage even in some places where cellular reception is bad. For India and even certain parts of Europe this is a bad move.

Let me point out that’s not the same as the marginal “in an emergency, access to radio could save your life” argument used sometimes to bolster the case for activating the FM chip. That argument says ‘Here’s an edge case, one for which we have no actual real world examples but which sounds good.’ The argument above says ‘Radio is part of every day life in most of the world. Anything you can do to delivery it cheaply and cheerfully is good.’

Mind you, I think having the radio chip turned on would be good in an emergency, but…that’s not enough.

And I would be remiss not to spread much of the blame on the radio industry itself; radio is seen as less essential on phones because it is, well, less essential. You take 20-30 years of reducing formats to the lowest common denominator, dumping most or all local programming, turning the commercial load up to 11 and no wonder so many people lost interest, or never got it in the first place.


buy the piano player a drink

Have you heard the new Bill Charlap album, “Notes From New York”? You should. Charlap is my favorite jazz piano player working today – and the new album is very, very good.

My guess is a lot of people come to Charlap expecting this generation’s Oscar Peterson or Erroll Garner, someone whose music is easy going down, but is, well, a little trapped in amber.  He’s so much more than that. Just one example, the opener, “I’ll Remember April,” bolts from the theme into something that manages to be skittering, Monk-like  before finding its way home.  His is a fine and joyous musical intelligence.

All that for $10.76 from Amazon, shipped to my doorstep, with the mp3 version thrown in as part of the deal. Truth is, I would rather have skipped the CD entirely if I could have spent the same $10 or $11 and been able to download the album in FLAC or ALAC, the two lossless formats used by people like me, who care about such things. But I couldn’t, so buying the CD and ripping it will be the next best thing. Meantime, the mp3 will tide me over.

Of course, I could have simply streamed the album from Apple Music, of which I have a three month trial. My guess is Spotify and Google Play and whatever Microsoft calls their music service now have it as well. And I’d further guess that Bill Charlap, who is among the relatively few jazz artists you can call successful, probably can’t buy a new suit with what he makes off streaming. I could be wrong, but I doubt it, because I have a child in the music business, one whose band’s album was a modest success a year or so back. My child told me about what streaming paid, and the word “paid” is only used because no one has come up with a substitute that accurately describes the relationship between the streaming services and the artist.

Bandcamp, the online clearinghouse for musicians who want to sell their own music as downloads or CDs or vinyl, puts it this way in an excellent new blog post:

Subscription-based music streaming,* on the other hand, has yet to prove itself to be a viable model, even after hundreds of millions of investment dollars raised and spent.

I agree with that, excepting the possibility that it’s a “viable model” if you’re Apple and being big in streaming is vital to the larger business of the company, selling hardware. One thing’s for sure: it’s not viable for anyone trying to make a living playing music. The internet was supposed to be the great equalizer, in which the cocaine-fueled excesses of the 70s and 80s couldn’t happen again, but in which more people would be able to put their music out and get paid. There was talk of a new middle class of independent musicians.

Instead, a relative handful of people – and, emphatically, the corporations close to the servers, the Googles, The Amazons – do very well. Everyone else, not so much.

Which is why I take Bandcamp’s governing philosophy so seriously:

As long as there are fans who care about the welfare of their favorite artists and want to help them keep making music, we will continue to provide that direct connection. And as long as there are fans who want to own, not rent, their music, that is a service we will continue to provide, and that is a model whose benefits we will continue to champion.

(Read the whole thing here.)

So when my Apple Music tryout expires, I won’t be renewing. Have barely used it anyway. I will keep two streaming services that are fundamentally different from what the Amazons, the Apples, the Googles have to offer – Pandora and ClassicalRadio. Both services are more radio-like than they are “on demand,” meaning I can hear lots of music, but I can’t pick exactly what I want to hear. For that I need to invest in an artist, which is pretty much exactly the deal radio had with the music industry pre-internet. I’m ok with that, though I do think regular AM and FM stations should have to pay something, no matter how modest, for the performance of the songs they play, as opposed to just paying the songwriters.

Recordings are now generally regarded as a loss leader for touring, where an artist has more control over expenses and pay.  But for many artists all that does is put more weight on touring than it can support. The current model is broken, but good folks like Bandcamp aside, there doesn’t seem to be much interest in changing it. So look at it like this – buying the CD or the download isn’t making the artist rich, but it might put a buck or two in his or her pocket. Little enough, for what we get.