Thursday, March 29, 2007

CD Album sales, sinking like a stone:

You'll find it easy to read on the web that people now prefer to buy songs rather than whole albums that are fifteen times more expensive. Recording companies are signing new prospects to record a few songs rather than an album. The years of album sales are pretty much over. Now since album sales have routinely been a way for the recording companies to overcharge the public, you might expect me to shed no tears. After all, paying $15 for two good songs and nine bad ones is a poor deal. And many groups that were expected to record a whole album to get their hit song published were simply not up the task. But let's look at the other side of albums:

First, when a good group records an album they give you a great opportunity to learn their style. I bought a Dire Straits album just to get a recording of Sultans of Swing. The music on the album is quite uneven, but there are other excellent songs. Best of all, I learned that Sultans of Swing is an atypical song for them, off-style; yet it sounds better when you know this group's style and understand how it plays into and also varies away from their more typical offerings. Some groups, forced to record an album, must FIND heir style. This is a great exercise that the recording companies will no longer support.

Second, some albums are through-composed, intended to be listened to straight through from beginning to end. The Beatle's Sargeant Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band was one of the first of these. If you're wondering why there aren't many more – well it's harder to create an hour-long composition than a bunch of songs. But worse, the recording industry actively discourages them, it won't allow radio stations to play them! This assertion may sound remarkable, but I believe the FCC rule is that in one hour you can only play three tracks from a record. (We'll save classical music albums for another day, okay? Lots to say there, too.) The intention of this stupid rule is to keep people from recording a full album off the air so they don't have to buy it.

The Album-by-one-group is something of a historical accident, I think. It was simply the recording industry's best idea about how to fill out a long-playing record that could hold an hour of music. One way to see this is to imagine a different path: imagine the recording industry full of, let's call them “recording engineer artists,” or REAs. These REAs learn new music and new bands as fast as they hit the scene, and they cleverly interleave the best from different groups to create, effectively, through-composed albums of music from multiple bands (If REAs sound far-fetched to you, please note that disco DJs used to do the exact same thing, and they did it quite consciously.)

But there's no point having REAs if we can't play their full albums on the air, is there? So the album is dying, and it won't come back unless people who make recordings think creatively about it, instead of regarding the people who buy albums as a collective audience of suckers.

And by the way, there IS an excellent way for albums to make a comeback: On the web, where downloadable music can be any length at all, independent musicians do not need to compose the 3 or 4 minute songs. They can experiment with compositions of any length, and I'll bet they're doing it already.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Making Murphy’s Law Work for you:

This is really amazing, but I’ve found a way to make Murphy’s law work for me. The elevator nearest my office usually takes a half minute or more to arrive after I push the button. But when I walk to the elevator, if I have some trash in my hand, say, a banana peel, I press the elevator button and walk further to a trash can eight steps beyond. The elevator always seems to arrive when I’m furthest from it - right at that trash can - so I drop in my peel and run back to the elevator, catching it a lot sooner than if I’d just stood there, waiting for it. Really. Trust me.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

The Egalitarian Office (sometimes sucks?):

Most offices I work in have a relatively egalitarian environment. You may have no idea what I mean unless you've experienced the typical office of the 1950's and '60s. In those days, important (and even routine) workers handed their work off to be typed, copied and mailed. There was an underclass of support people, mostly women, who also made the coffee, kept things clean, fixed the copiers, set up meeting schedules and so on.

The invention of word processing machines did not bring an end to the era of this underclass. Early word processing machines, whether typewriters or screen-based, were hard to use and required experts in this underclass to operate them.

In the 1970's, winds of social change, and the increasing cost of every support person (caused by rising salaries and benefits, I believe) caused companies to get rid of most of their support people. Inexpensive computers with word processing, spreadasheets and presentation software facilitated his change. Instead, as we routinely find today, people do their own writing, editing, printing, copying, mailing, and even fix copying machines, load paper reams and change toner units. (Making travel arrangements, and setting up meeting schedules are interesting exceptions these days, these still seem to require a lot of expert support.)

My point in bringing all this up, is that I do not fully believe in the egalitarian office. The tendency to treat the “support underlings” as a lower caste was always atrocious; but so is the idea of a busy manager cleaning the coffee machine and making the next pot, which could be done as well or better by a person making one tenth or less of that manager's salary. And there are plenty of people prepared to work such support jobs today, freeing precious people resources in the most overworked jobs. Why is it no longer economical for mid-sized companies to hire more support people?

Monday, March 26, 2007

My DS2 Recorder, a sinkhole for notes:

I usually carry around a DS2 recording device. It is superb for helping me to remember fleeting thoughts that I don’t have to act on right away. I can turn the recorder on in two seconds, record my thought – maybe I want to find a recipe for cauliflower – and I’m done. This is MUCH faster and more convenient than adding a note to my PDA.

Unfortunately the key is that these are notes NOT requiring immediate action. Quick-action notes have to be scheduled in my PDA so I’ll see them and get to them in time. I can listen to a few DS2 notes at leisure and do whatever I told myself to do, or put those notes in a more permanent form.

Or not! After all, the DS2 is merely a new way to be lazy. One day I noticed I had eighteen DS2 notes waiting for review. It took me about ten days to work them off.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

If Cleopatra's Nose ...

I don't know about you, but from my youth I've been fascinated by Blaise Pascal's remark that: “If Cleopatra's nose had been shorter the whole history of the world would have been different.” I have a little insight into this situation that I'd like to share with you. Don't rush now, and take your time to savor this: Cleopatra's nose actually WAS shorter.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

I ‘Read’ cookbooks:

I own many cookbooks, and there’s always a risk I’ll buy another one. Our family owns a lotalota cookbooks, and I peruse these, too. I also read cookbooks in libraries, and cookbooks in friends’ homes. And, I read recipes in the food sections of my favorite newspapers.

All this cookbook reading used to bother me, because I cook a lot, but I rarely follow recipes. I think that all the cook-reading I does affects my style, but … well, what does justify the time and expense?

I’m pleased to announce that in this little matter, I understand myself. I just like to “read” cookery. Okay?

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Rock and Roll and Squares:

I was a camp counselor for the first time in the summer of 1959, near the town of Narrowsburg, NY. This is a Northwestern NY town, and it was rather rustic in those days. On counselor’s-nights-out, we would flock to the nearest bar to drink beer (okay over age 18), talk, and fool around.

We also watched the young locals (many of them about our ages), and they watched us. We absolutely did not mix, with one exception: a counselor-in-training aged fifteen, a svelte, friendly girl, who seemed to have torrid dates with every local who owned a car.

From time to time a local would drop coins into the excellent juke box, and they would dance four or five lindy-hops. Then, after refueling their beers, they would drop a few more coins and form up two squares. There was a good caller, the juke-box had plenty of square-dance music, and I found their square dancing entrancing. They never attempted anything tricky, no allemande rights or duck-and-dives, for example, but there was a bounce in their step that made the square dancing look an awful lot like the lindies. I especially remember the promenade step. It was so much like a casual rock step as to proclaim that square dancing was not the old way, but the still-cool way.

I’ve never visited a Narrowsburg bar since that summer, but I wonder how many more years passed before square dances were utterly forgotten there. Two or three years, I suspect.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

The Zune and Shelf Space (again):

Last December 25th, I blogged about what I thought was Microsoft's expectations for its Zune (a competitor to iPod). Based on the enormous amount of shelf space for the Zune, I decided that Microsoft really expected it to be a serious potential iPod killer (which it ain't). I've just heard an interview with David Caulton of the Microsoft Zune team. (This is Leo Laporte and Paul Thurrott's 17th Windows Weekly Netcast.) Caulton says something different, and I want to respect his position, which does not seem to me to be an "after the fact" explanation.

Caulton says their marketing goal was to be second to iPod. Now the player market is heavily fragmented after Apple, and this was not an unreasonable goal. A good way to pursue that goal at Christmas time was to eat up all the shelf space normally reserved for iPod's competitors, and that's what I saw in the stores, with space usually reserved for SanDisk, Zen etc. full of Zunes. So maybe Microsoft pursued a "second place" goal by attacking the sales opportunities of all the best-known smaller competitors.

That brings us to today. Microsoft's story is that they have a long term commitment to the music player market. They ought to be able to catch up to Apple faster than Apple can innovate. It will be interesting to see what happens in the rest of 2007 and beyond.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Today: a Joke.

Our local supermarket has good produce. I was standing in the vegetable section looking all around, and one of the vegetable workmen asked me in his distinctive Spanglish: “What are you looking for? Can I help you?”
“I'm looking for a bargain, a cheap vegetable,” I replied.
He waved me over. “Come here, I can help you.”
I walked over to him, and he told me this story:

Once there was a man who wanted to buy a cheap car. He went to an automobile dealer and said, “Show me the cheapest car on your lot.”
“I have just the car for you,” said the dealer, and he took the man to a small, ugly car.
“What does it cost?”
“A million dollars.”
“A million dollars! I asked you for a cheap car, not this!”
“You don't understand, just watch. This car has a genie, you can ask him for anything.”
The dealer opened the door and put the key in the ignition. A genie appeared!
“What do you want?” asked the genie.
“We're kind of busy right now,” said the dealer, “Just get us two cups of coffee.”
Poof! Two good cups of coffee appeared. As they drank, the man made up his mind. He rushed home. He sold his house, sold his possessions, borrowed money from friends and neighbors and returned to the dealer.
“Here! Here's your million dollars,” he said, “sell me the car.”
Soon he was cruising his neighborhood and everyone came out to see the car. He stopped and got out, they crowded around him.
“This is a million dollar car? Why did you buy it?”
“Just watch.”
He opened the door, put the key in the ignition, and the genie appeared.
“Genie, give me a million dollars,” he said.
“I'm sorry,” said the genie, “I only make coffee.”
The vegetable man roared with laughter, and I must say, I joined in.

I bought a three-dollar head of cauliflower.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Please Press the Button!

I'm sure you've often had this experience: you're running to catch an elevator, and you call to the person already there to hold it for you. I just discovered that there's a natural, related activity that has somehow escaped my notice all my life. (I would expect this situation to arise more at work than in a residential building.) Here it is: You want to catch an elevator, and you see a person about fifty feet ahead of you walking right past that elevator. You call to them, "Please press the button for me!" If they do, the elevator's more likely to be right there for you when you walk up to it.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

What's going to replace the floppy disk?

Just a few years ago, this was a hot question: What's going to replace the floppy disk? I hardly ever use floppies these days, and I know I'm not alone.

In the past there were many candidates to replace floppies. The most interesting were:
  • Small devices that could hold about 20 times as much data as a floppy.
  • Many special drives like the Bernoulli Zip drives that used special platters and held 100MB and up.

The conventional wisdom about these devices was that they were wonderfully useful but could not replace the floppy. They all required special hardware that you wouldn't find on every computer. (Zip drives, I think, came closest to being ubiquitous.) The other problem was price competition: Floppies cost $1 (more recently, more like 30 cents), a great price point for carrying a single file around. Who wants to buy a $20 disk to carry a single small file? And who wants to carry around a special purpose disk just in case you can use it on some computer systems?

Now look again, what happened? I think that the Internet, and USB flash drives (and even PDAs and music players and flash cards in cameras), are replacing the floppy. There are many ways to copy, store or backup a file on the internet, making it routinely unnecessary to use a floppy to carry a file. USB drives are incredibly convenient because of their size, even though they can't match the floppy's price point for a single file. The convenience of all these media is that they can be used almost everywhere without buying a special disk drive. If you pay $50 for a 4GB flash drive, your price per megabyte is lower than the floppy's. But the flash drive supports so many multiple instances of moving just a file or two, it soon catches up.

What interests me about the waning of the floppy is how quietly it has happened, after years of everyone watching to see who would knock the floppy off its perch.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Would you (10) open an Email with this Subject?

  • grossly anecdote
  • Intestinal Mostly
  • Couldst thou behold and think me still the same
  • With folded arms with pensive nunlike air
  • we are search responsible people
  • charisma soiled

And would you open an email from:
  • Well-meaning
  • Richard and Judy probe extended

Oh, and would you listen to a rock group called the Dolly Llamas?

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Off-Web, Gotta Catch Up!

We were off the Internet at home for thirty hours, from mid-Sunday through Monday evening. Monday night I called Verizon and let the customer service guy do his thing. Then I called my router company, Linksys, and let Anna in the Philippines do her thing. Three hours later we were back on.

Now I can’t afford to waste three hours during an ultra-busy month, and I can't bear to stay up late before my Tuesday a.m. radio show, but I still count it as a win if the problem gets fixed. If I understand correctly, it went like this: Verizon decided my modem (which they sold me long ago) needed re-authenticating, so they shut me down until I called them. During the authentication process, in which the DSL modem was detached from the router and re-attached, the router decided it could guess what kind of modem I had but it couldn’t. After we TOLD it what my modem was, Verizon gave the modem a new Internet address, whereupon my firewall refused to let this strange new me access the internet, even with firewall permissions at their lowest settings. But we completely restarted the firewall and all’s okay. Sort of.

If you ask me, this whole thing was triggered by the new EDT time change, even though the change happened hours before we lost web access. I think practically everything that’s happened in the last two days is due to the new time change.

By the way, here’s something new: I always like to find out the locations of the customer service people who help me. The Verizon guy was in India, but he could not tell me his city “for security reasons.” Right.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

A delicious food tip:

I've suggested a few ways you can flavor coffee (rather than buy flavored coffee): anise and cardamom. Here's another idea. When I thought of this I was so skeptical, I tested it in a small sample, I didn't want to waste a whole cup. But it's delicious, especially if you like malt: Add one tablespoon of Carnation Malted Milk powder (maybe other malt powders will do as well) to each cup of coffee. Mmmmmm ...

By the way, Blogger reminds me that this is my 1,001st blog item. So far, so good.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

OW! (Too soon):

Speaking of how we assume our brain perceives things the moment they happen (see a few entries below): I surprised myself yesterday by saying "Ow" too soon. I was trying to pry the lid off the hot water kettle, and it came off suddenly. My hand smacked hard against something and I said OW! But even as I said that, I knew I had felt no pain. The pain arrived a good two seconds later. (Have you never had a similar experience? Be patient, you will.)

Friday, March 09, 2007

What? (3 and the last, for now)

A few years ago I took a vow not to say “What.” It can be extremely annoying to hear another person state this question too often, and increased “whats” seem to accompany the human aging process. I now try to say something different every time: Sorry. Sorry, I didn’t hear that. Could you please repeat that? I heard the first two words, I missed the rest. The sink was running, I didn’t hear you. Did you say something? What did you say? Please tell me what you just said? Do you still love me?

You get the idea.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

What? (2)

Yesterday I talked about the predicament you’ll be in if you say “what?” to a person just before your brain decodes what they said. Then you do know what they said, but since you said “what?”, you have to be polite and hear them out again. Well guess what? This scenario sets you up for a greater frustration. Fortunately, only a selected few will visit this torture on you.

Some people, when they hear you say “what?”, assume that whatever they said was incapable of conveying their meaning. That is, they figure you heard every word they said, but you failed to comprehend. So when you say “what?”, they repeat themselves in entirely different words, maybe even entirely different meanings. That’s okay if you really didn’t hear them the first time, but if you really DID understand them already, you know they’re now saying something entirely different, but politeness prevents you from acting on this knowledge. The point? Same as before. Don’t say “What?” too soon, give your brain a chance to decode first.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

What? (1)

I just listened to a podcaster complaining about a person who usually says “what?” the moment you stop talking. In this case it's a young person unlikely to have hearing problems. But maybe that “what?” person has a semantic issue that plagued me for a few years, a long time ago.

I think it's natural to assume that as we hear speech, we understand it. It's the speech-to-text computer programs, who may need five to ten seconds of mad analysis to understand the previous sentence, who are unnatural. But in fact I think it takes most of us some lag time to decode audible phrases, and the meaning of a sentence you hear might pop into your head a full second after the sentence is over.

The moment a person stops talking, you may (I certainly did!) find yourself saying “what?” because you know you don't understand it. You've scarcely finished saying “what” when you DO understand it, and now you have to be polite and listen to the whole sentence again, even though you know exactly what the speaker is going to say. The point? You may have to suppress your “what” reaction, give your brain another second to translate before you ask the speaker to repeat.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Creativity under Pressure (1):

I believe some of the hardest jobs in the world involve being creative or inspired, “under the gun.” That is, required to come through with something remarkably perfect on a tight time schedule. The problem with these jobs is that very few people are such optimists that they believe they can come through when required. There's no way to check your mental equipment and know that it's in top gear when you want it. The inevitable doubt takes its toll. I'll give you two quick examples here.

The first is Reggie Jackson's remarkable day when he won a world series game by hitting three home runs with three swings of the bat. He may have been lucky, but he required near perfect concentration to turn three swings into three home runs. When he woke up that morning, did he tell himself he was in perfect shape to go? I doubt he had any way to tell. Jackson was called “Mr. October” for his ability to be at his best in the world series. I suspect he didn't know how to “be at his best,” or he would have been there most of the time. Some of baseball's clutch hitters also had lots of psychological problems, maybe, just maybe, stress-related.

In baseball, you can be a wildly successful batter if you do what you're trying to do one third of the time. The other two-third of the time, great hitters fail. Yet there have always been clutch hitters who came through more often when really needed. Do they know, when it's the last chance to win a game, that their timing and perception have stepped up to the next level, ready to turn the miracle? How could they know? What they do know, is that everyone is counting on them.

The composer, Richard Rogers, is my other example. He composed hit musical after hit musical, and wrote a lot of other very popular music. All he needed to do, to keep his family in the style it was accustomed, was to write another hit musical. How do you know you're going to write another hit musical? I think you don't. But if you want to get up in the morning and put pen to music paper, you've got to take yourself deeply on faith. Rogers was not always a real nice guy. The pressure got to him.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Legacy Stuff:

I helped the company I work at to swap two laboratories. (These were not "wild scientist" labs, but rather rooms full of computers annd lots of bits of random hardware.) Each of the two projects would be better off moving its stuff to the other's room, don't ask me why. Moving a lab is a mind-numbing process, bit by bit by bit by bit. But in this case there was a fun part: each lab contained some equipment whose ownership was uncertain. We had to decide whether to junk the orphan stuff, move it, or cordon it off in a corner and forget about it. Ingenuity, and a large garbage can, were required!

Many months have passed since the lab swap, and I am pleased to report that somehow, all the orphan things we kept in our new lab have crept back into service. I hope the true owners of these thingies never notice.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Only two minutes late...

Driving to my haircut appointment, I thought I'd be about two minutes late, so I used my trusty cellphone to call and announce my tardiness. Of course the receptionist said "no problem." That left me trying to explain to myself why I had bothered to call. Why call to tell anyone I'm going to be late by such a small amount?

It turns out there's a good reason, at least in my case. As soon as I made the call, I relaxed and started driving more slowly and carefully.