Sunday, December 31, 2006

Serendipitous Cinema

For most people I know, watching a movie is a self-contained act. They see it, it ends, and they’re done. Next!

It’s very difficult for me to get any kind conversation going with our friends about what made a movie work or didn’t work. Socrates maintained that an unexamined life isn’t worth living. My corollary is that an unexamined movie wasn’t worth watching; and no matter how bad, any movie can be worth watching.

I thought about this as I watched “It’s Trad Dad” on TCM this weekend. I was the only one in the room who enjoyed the film, and my enjoyment didn’t stop when the movie ended. The 1962 teen movie follows the formula of the day. Town bans teen music, teens put on TV special to show the music is good. Just enough of a plot to string together musical performances by different recording artists.

An amiable piece of fluff, but it gave me greater understanding of the world of music and cinema. This was Richard Lester’s first feature film, and on the strength of its imaginative camerawork, cheeky tone and convention twisting, it won him the job of directing the Beatles’ first two films. From “It’s Trad Dad” would spring a visual vocabulary of hipness that would not only help define the Beatles, but would later be copied by the Monkees, and continue to show up in countless music videos through the current day.

The British film mixed traditional Dixieland jazz with pop. Apparently both were hot with UK teens in the early ’60s. Del Shannon sang a song (NOT “Runaway”), and I got to see a rare performance by the Paris Sisters (for the full lineup, follow the link above to the entry) And Aker Bilk was a featured artist. I was only familiar with his “Stranger on the Shore.” The jazz he and his combo laid down was a far cry from that syrupy hit, and gave me new respect for this underrated artist.

The leads were Craig Douglas and Helen Shapiro. Doing a little research after the movie, I discovered Shapiro was big in the UK, and had the distinction of being the least-successful one-hit-wonder this side of the Atlantic. Her song “Walking Back to Happiness” entered Billboard’s top 100 chart at #100 and never went any higher.

I also was impressed by a performance by the Temperance Seven, a band specializing in 1920’s style white jazz. Their sound reminded me of “Winchester Cathedral” a hit for the New Vaudeville Band four years later. The goofy shenanigans and visual puns they pulled off during their numbers reminded me of the Goon Show. Great stuff, and in my post-film research I discovered they even shared an album with Bonzo Dog Band, who grew out of the same trad jazz movement.

So this one film gave me an insight into the evolution of rock and roll cinema, helped me learn a little more about British pop, let me sketch in some background on a couple of one-hit-wonders and provided an entertaining 87 minutes of viewing.

I despair for my uncurious friends. They miss so much when they just watch a movie.

- Ralph

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Collateral Classical Damage

According to, the sad saga of the fate of classical music on Washington DC's airwaves continues. Like Japanese movie monsters, the key players battle for position, oblivious to the havoc they wreak. As you may recall, Dan Snyder put forward the offer to buy Bonneville's commercial classical station WGMS and convert it to a sports talk format.

Now Snyder's put the brakes on the sale, claiming the frequencies WGMS operated at aren't worth the original pricetag of $45 million (plus a Clear Channel station may now be available). While the broadcast industry focuses on the Bonneville/Snyder clash of titans, let's take a look at what irresponsible behavior hath wrought.

  1. Bonneville switched frequencies between their commercial radio stations WGMS and WTOP, to create. Washington Post radio. The top-ranked commercial classical station in the country (and at one time 6th ranked in the DC Metro market) lost signal power and coverage area. Result: a significant portion of the 400,000+ loyal WGMS listeners either got a poorersignal or none at all.
  2. After more than three decades, public radio station WETA switched from classical to news/talk in a vain attempt to pump up revenues. Result: listeners who supported the station with pledges felt betrayed. WETA's ratings fall, as do revenues.
  3. Snyder offered to buy WGMS. Result: Bonneville began laying off staff. Advertising commitments fell into limbo. WGMS' subscription-only Internet radio station Viva La Voce prepared to suspend service.
  4. WETA's board gave the station permission to switch to classical – if there's no other outlet for it. Result: nothing, for now. WETA's former audience remained unserved.
While executives postured and jockeyed for position, people lost their jobs, and two formerly robust radio stations continued to suffer. WETA's experienced significant audience and revenue decline, and WGMS' fate was much worse. I don't expect WGMS to survive regardless of what happens next. If the station's sold, the format will flip and WGMS is gone. If not, the loss of staff and revenue may prove a fatal blow and the station will either go dark or go to a low-maintanence automated system – but no more classical music. A sorry end to a station that generated about $9.7 million in revenue just last year –- before these captains of industry started wheeling and dealing.

- Ralph

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

In Praise of Greenberg

Question: is the Internet always better? No. Over the holidays my dad and I, both toy train collectors, were trying to do a little detective work. We had a steam locomotive and boxcar that had survived from 1942 –- they had been part of a set, but we didn't know what other freight cars came with it.

The Greenberg Guides have been our standard reference work for years. For toy trains, especially Lionel Trains, Greenberg Guides have consistently proven informative and accurate. My father did some writing and editing for a few of Bruce Greenberg's publications, and I got to see first-hand how a pool of knowledgeable hobbyists could create reference works as rigorous in their scholarship as any specialized encyclopedia.

Most fields of collecting have a standard reference work that hobbyists use to determine rarity, value and general background information. Scott publications for stamp-collecting springs to mind.

The particular Greenberg Guide we needed was at Dad's house, so we tried to do a little research on the web and got a real education. All of my searches –- even those using catalog numbers –- yielded ebay pages almost exclusively. While ebay may be a great place to buy, it's a notoriously unreliable information source. We saw mismatched pieces called "sets," common items labeled "rare," and photo captions that were just plain wrong.

The adventure prompted a discussion about the importance of accurate information to collecting. Someone who had not witnessed our online travails wondered if there was any money in publishing such works –- wasn't it easier just to post it on a website?

Sure; as long as the level of scholarship and peer review remains high. Bruce Greenberg and other dedicated enthusiasts set the bar quite high. Higher than what I found online this weekend.

- Ralph

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Does Jessica Simpson speak for you?

In heavy rotation on television now is a DirecTV commercial featuring Jessica Simpson. Reprising her role as Daisy Duke, she touts the benefits of digital broadcast, and the advantages of DirecTV’s high definition signal –- the primary benefit being able to see Ms. Simpson’s body in greater detail.

This post isn’t the discuss the pros and cons of DirecTV, but rather the attitude articulated in Ms. Simpson’s lines.
“DirecTV broadcasts in 1080i. I don’t know what that means, but I totally want it.”
I suspect that sentiment underlies more consumer electronics than anyone’s willing to admit. Do more megapixels make a digital camera better? Is an 80GB iPod better than a 30GB one? Is a 60" flat-panel display better than a 50" one? Is a 100 watt sound system better than a 50 watt one?

The answer to all of these is simply “it depends.” It depends on what your needs are, it depends on what your performance expectations are, and it depends on what aspects of picture taking/music listening/TV viewing/sound reproduction are important to you.

Because in each of the examples above, the best choice is not necessarily the biggest. Do you really know what you want, or are you more like Jessica Simpson? There are plenty of on-line resources to explain the ins and out of consumer electronics features. A little time spent in research can make a big difference when you’re ready to purchase.

Imagine going into a store and saying, “I don’t know what 1080i means, but I totally want it.” You’ll probably be sold something –- and it may actually have a 1080i display. But would you know if it didn’t?

Have a safe and happy holiday!

- Ralph

And if you've inferred that 1080i –- whatever that is -— is the non plus ultra, click here.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

IgNoble "White Lies"

As promised, I visited the Charlottesville Barnes & Noble, hoping the biggest book store in the town might have Sarah Honenberger's novel "White Lies."

I first looked in the rack for local writers. Sorry, only coffee table books with pretty pictures of the Blue Ridge and/or Monticello seemed to be available. There was a big cardboard display for John Grisham, but it wasn't any where near the local section.

I then trolled the shelves, and came up empty.

The help desk was slammed, and with the limited time I had available, I couldn't wait for assistance. Perhaps "White Lies" could be special-ordered, but I doubt it. I suspect that both the stores and website are pulling from the same inventory, so if it isn't available in one, it isn't in the other.

Your milage may vary, so if you have success ordering the book from Barnes & Noble, please leave a comment on this post. I'd like to know!

- Ralph

Two little words

The shopping frenzy continues to ramp up as Christmas day draws closer. The most recent Target flier has a great gift suggestion, and an example to illustrate the importance of careful consideration before the sale –- even on Christmas Eve!

On sale now is the Memorex flat-screen TV/DVD/VCR combo for $199.88. For a dorm room, or other small spaces (like our front room) it’s a great idea. The price is right, and Memorex is a reputable brand, so I think anyone who purchased this looking for a simply TV combo player would be happy.

Unless, that is, the buyer was confused by the similarity of two little words.

"screen" vs. "panel"

LCD and plasma TVs are known as “flat-panel” displays. Most traditional CRT (cathode ray tube) TVs use curved glass. About the time flat-panel technologies hit the market, higher end CRT sets were being made with flat screens, which helped reduce glare and distracting reflections.

Flat-panel displays are in high demand. CRT sets –- even those with flat-screen displays -– not so much.

Flat-panel is an accurate and commonly accepted term for LCD and plasma displays, and flat-screen is the same for a certain kind of cathode ray tube. And therein lies the potential for confusion.

If you’re not sure of the difference between “flat-panel” and “flat-screen,” there are some other clues you can use to determine what this set actually is. Flat-panel TVs, even small ones, are still relatively expensive, while CRT sets are dirt cheap. The price suggests this might be a CRT set. The full-front shot in Target’s flyer can make this look like a flat-panel TV, but their website image, which is slightly angled, gives you an idea that it’s a tube TV (it’s also why I went with the photo I did for this post).

Even –- or rather especially -– when you’re last-minute shopping, take the time to make sure what you’re purchasing is really what you think it is.

If you want a compact all-in-one video player, then you (or your gift recipient) should be happy with this Memorex TV. If, however, you just rush in and grab this off the shelf, equating “flat-panel” with “flat-screen,” then you may have an unpleasant surprise when you open that box.

- Ralph

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

"White Lies" revisited

Sarah Collins Honenberger left a nice comment on my recent post titled “Publishing Pariah.” As you’ll see in her comments, she felt the title was a little off-putting. I assured her (and you, gentle reader), that it wasn’t a characterization of either her or her publisher, but rather where I believe independent publishers stood in the eyes of bookstore chain buyers.

To test my premise, I visited the websites of the three major bookstore chains. had the title available for sale on their site, and it was easy to find.

Barnes & Noble had a listing for the title as well. But you couldn't purchase it there. According to the site, "A new copy is not available from Barnes & at this time."

Walden Books had “White Lies” available for sale on their site -- but only because they pull their website content from

So one chain has “White Lies” for sale; another doesn’t. And a third has it only because it was already available on

If we were to search for the latest John Grisham tome, would the results be the same?

I’ll swing by the Charlottesville Barnes & Noble tomorrow and see if I can find “White Lies” in the store. And while we're at it, let’s try for a little interactivity. If you happen to go into a bookstore anywhere anytime soon, look for “White Lies.” Post a comment to the blog and let us know what happened.

- Ralph

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Spin Hard! Harder!

Well this is an interesting turn of events. With the eminent demise of classical music of Washington, DC commercial station WGMS, speculation about public radio station WETA’s return to the format has been rampant. While logical, in conversations with others I maintained that the switch was unlikely.

IMHO, WETA abandoned classical in a grab for the bigger pledge bucks of public radio news/talk listeners. They cloaked it in other terms, but that’s the heart of it. To return to classical after so shortly (and with so much fanfare) switching would be an admission that the leading luminaries at WETA had made a huge mistake.

My mistake was under-estimating the art of the spin -- especially in the nation’s capital. In Febuary of 2005 the station flipped formats. According to an article in Currents,
This was principally and primarily a public service issue,”[emphasis mine] said Dan DeVany, v.p. and g.m. for WETA-FM… Classical music has become more widely available in the meantime, DeVany pointed out, with the advent of satellite and Internet radio.
The board overwhelmingly approved the switch after a public comment session, when listeners and representatives from Washington-area arts organizations begged them to preserve the city’s free, noncommercial source of classical music.
Fast forward to December, 2005. Listenership is off, the fall fund drive underperforms, and in a Washington Post article, we read this:
"People were angry -- still are -- and I understand that," says Dan DeVany... "But there was an audience in the Washington area that was not being served by public radio, and we wanted to reach out to them." He's talking about breaking out of the traditional public radio audience of affluent, highly educated, older and white listeners.
Here’s how they did it. WETA reached out to non-affluent, less-educated, younger and non-white listeners with a mix of “Morning Edition,” “All Things Considered,” other NPR news/talk shows, and BBC World Service.

And now the board that killed classical in the first place hastily meets to authorize WETA’s return to the format. If, that is, there’s no other source for classical music in Washington. So if the format is shoved off onto, say the AM station that Red Zebra owns, then WETA is off the hook.

As the Washington Post reported:
"This is a good classical music market," DeVany said. "WGMS has done very well with it. But there's something to be said for a non-commercial station carrying it."
So in nine months we’ve gone from dropping classical to better serve the public to maintaining nobody can do classical like public radio. Nicely done.

Classical programming may return to WETA –- but I repeat my caution from my previous post on the subject. Listeners of non-commercial radio need to remain active and vocal in their support (and that can include serving on a station’s board). The next format change is only a spin away.

- Ralph

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

A Class(ical)-less City

The big news in regional radio is the eminent demise of WGMS in Washington, DC. The station, which has been classical since 1948, is being sold to Dan Snyder, the owner of the Redskins who will surely flip the format to sports/talk. When that happens, our nation’s capital will have no classical music on the air.

Take a moment to think about that. Doesn’t a capital reflect the character of the nation? What would your reaction be if the last theater closed in Washington? Or the last art gallery?

The sad part is that classical music was not a money-losing format in the Washington area. Public radio station WETA did quite well with classical music for three decades. It changed to all news/talk only because it could make more money.

Part of the rationale with WETA’s switch was that, since there was a commercial classical station, broadcasting classical music no longer best served the public. WGMS saw a big rise in listenership after the format change. Although the music was watered down, and rarely did you heard anything outside the late romantic period (never mind complete works), for the classical listener, WGMS was better than nothing.

And now WGMS will be sold and changed. Did it make money? You bet. Healthy audience size? Yep, and unique, too. No danger of another station stealing the WGMS audience –- an enviable position for any radio station to be in. But as a sports station it will (in theory) make even more money.

I can’t fault commercial radio chasing the money. Like any other business, they’re supposed to make money, and as much of it as possible. But for public radio to abrogate their responsibility for the same reason is reprehensible.

Remember, classical music doesn’t necessarily mean dead white Europeans. With the format gone, the music of Americans George Gershwin, Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein are banished from the Washington airwaves. So too the works of living American composers, such as Libby Larson, Philip Glass, Ellen Taffe Zwilich, John Adams and Steve Reich. Marin Alsop, director of the Baltimore Symphony, may have been awarded a “genius grant,” but you won’t hear the recordings that won her that honor. Nor will you hear world-renowned American performers, such as Rene Fleming, Joshua Bell, John Williams (the guitarist) or Thomas Hampson.

I harken back to my October 11 post about WTJU’s fund drive. Whether you’re reading this in Charlottesville, Virginia or somewhere else in the US, your local public stations need your active –- and vocal –- support. Don’t assume that what you’re hearing today will be there tomorrow. WTJU celebrates its 50th anniversary on the air in 2007. Remain complacent, and by 2008 it could all be gone.

- Ralph

(I leave it as an exercise for the reader to decipher the image's reference and it's relevence to this entry.)

Monday, December 11, 2006

The Virtual Library of Alexandria

Ken makes a good point about diaries. They can provide valuable historical information about everyday life. But the assumption that blogs and other web-only documents are so much digital ephemera may not be entirely accurate.

The original library of Alexandria (Egypt, not Virginia) was the repository for the knowledge of the known world in the 3rd century. Near the site of that ancient library is the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, which holds the modern equivalent.

Over two pentabytes of archived webpages –- some going back almost ten years -– are available to historians and others through’s “Way Back Machine.”

Have blogs been archived? Possibly. Bots troll the web, accumulating data constantly. There’ll be lots for historians to go over. Here’s an example -– AOL’s website from 1997. Ah, memories.

- Ralph

Dear diary,

As Ralph just pointed out, the internet has changed the face of publishing, and given authors a chance to build their own buzz and be discovered by the wide world. It's an interesting development. Here's another development of the internet that may have some interesting ramifications down the road.

A few years ago, historians were fearing that much of the flavor of future histories would be lost because of a dearth of diarists. Through history, many people, the famous and the unknown, have kept daily journals -- they've often provided valuable insights into the events and way of life of their times. For example the war time diary of Mary Chestnut gives us a very tangible look at life on the Confederate homefront during the Civil War.

The 20th century saw a decline in this exercise, with diairies and journals becoming the stereotyped as the province of teenage girls and feminists pursuing literature degrees. But the rise of the blog is creating a new generation of personal journalists who write about nearly everything -- from the profound to the mundane.

It may be that these are a great source of raw material for future historians. Then again, since they're rarely put into "hard copy," they may disappear in a few years. Time will tell.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Publishing Pariah

In olden times (actually, just a few years ago), most people didn’t consider someone an author until a major publishing house put out their book. You could self-publish, but hardly anyone took the resulting tome seriously -- and if you came out on a small press you could expect to have copies in some specialty stores, but almost nothing on the shelves of the major booksellers.

Recently I went to a book-signing in Orange for a friend of ours. Sally Honenberger has been writing for some time, and her first novel “White Lies” came out November 30.

While this book is being brought out by a small publisher, there’s a good chance it will find its audience. Why? The Internet.

In the bad old days an author with a small publishing house could expect to sell a modest number of copies (with more than a few to friends and family), but that would be it. Chain bookstores only order from distributors, and distributors only carry the offerings of the established publishers. And there was very little possibility of creating any kind of a buzz. At major papers editorial space is tight, and the big releases from major publishers usually get that space.

So Cedar Creek has put out Sally's book, and she’s established a presence online. “White Lies” is available at the world’s largest bookstore -- There’s a dedicated website for the author, with excerpts from the novel and some of her other writings – as well as a blog. The Amazon page already has some reviews – watch for more as the book starts selling. Expect to see some conversations started on her blog as well.

In the past, only the folks in Orange would have known about Sally’s book. Not now. Google her name, and you can quickly find out more about her and what she's doing. For example, you’ll see that she’s slated to be a panelist at the next Virginia Festival of the Book. Anyone in the world can discover Sally, read an excerpt of her book, and order a copy if they want to read the rest. More importantly, they can also leave feedback, write thier own reviews and participate in conversations with the author.

I’ve watched the traffic to our blog grow steadily over the months as more folks discover it, and I expect something similar to happen with “White Lies.”

Granted, this kind of gradual grassroots growth is nothing compared to the big push a publishing house could give it, but that's OK. "White Lies" is a book that -- through the Internet -- has the potential to reach all of its audience.

- Ralph

Friday, December 08, 2006

Wi-Ex Update

I received some unusual feedback from my post about cell phone service in Orange – the product manager for Wi-Ex wrote me a nice e-mail wanting to talk more about his product.

After a few failed phone calls (no one believes me when I tell them how bad my cell coverage is), he sent a follow up e-mail.

I appreciated the friendly tone and helpful information in the e-mail, so rather than paraphrase I’m presenting the original text below. To Wi-Ex, I say thanks for joining the conversation!

- Ralph

I've left several messages to follow-up with you on some feedback on your experience and provide some additional info on zBoost. I understand the poor coverage issues you are experiencing in your area so I thought some info by email would be helpful.

We have made zBoost very consumer friendly and very easy to setup. First, we include everything in the box necessary to easily install zBoost. We also include three documents, an Installation Overview, Installation Tips and a more detailed Installation Guide.

The Installation Overview provides a "quick start" guide to ensure your phone is compatible with the zBoost model purchased, pictures of everything included in the box and an illustrated easy installation guide. The Installation Tips provide more information to ensure maximum performance from zBoost. The Installation Guide provides detailed instructions, troubleshooting tips, our one-year warranty information, specifications and how to contact Wi-Ex.

Wi-Ex also offers accessories to enhance the performance of zBoost. Your particular situation with extremely low signal would benefit from the upgrade higher gain antennas to pull in more signal. Our website,, provides more information on all products and accessories allowing customers to purchase directly online, if desired.

John A. Davis
Director – Product Management
Wi-Ex "Extending Cell Zones"

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

How do you measure "good?"

I had a buddy e-mail me the other day with an audio question: "How good are the Bose systems?"

Turns out that he and his wife were looking at the Bose Wave Music System with the add-on multi-CD changer for their great room. Basically a glorified boom box for $700.

Now, I have my own opinions on audio. While I'm not an audiophile by any means, the idea of this Bose piece as my primary audio system doesn't appeal to me. Even a modest investment in a good-quality receiver, CD changer, and bookshelf speakers would give me better sound and better capabilities for expansion in the future. Bose equipment does a pretty good job, but most people in the know will agree that marketing, not audio quality, is their real genius.

But that's not the only thing to consider sometimes. "Good," in this case meant how well it would suit their needs, not mine. I dug a little deeper into why they were considering the Bose. Here's what I found out:

The wife had seen it advertised in her favorite magazine -- this gave it legitimacy in her eyes.

A 0% financing offer meant they could pay for it over a year -- it fit their budget.

They both wanted something that wouldn't take up much space and could be moved easily -- that's certainly true of the Bose.

The wife "didn't want wires all over the place" -- yup, no wires here.

I then considered what I knew about this couple. They aren't really active music listeners -- music is a background part of their lifestyle. The audio performance of the Wave Music System is up to that task.

In the end, I thought, it's all about what'll make them happy.

"Go ahead and get it, buddy. You'll like it just fine."



Monday, December 04, 2006

Another no-bar noel

There are many things I like about living in Orange, Virginia. Cell phone coverage is not one of them. Orange is at the extreme edges of several different coverage areas, so you can only get partial coverage in the country. How many bars you have (or don't) and where depend on which service you're with. Although I don't have service in my house, it improves as I get closer to Charlottesville (where I a great deal of time), so I put up with it.

When I first ran across The Wi-Ex zBoost YX510 cell phone signal booster system, it looked like a good solution for me. I also saw a demonstration of it recently, and was impressed at how well it improved the signal strength. The system consists of three basic components. It includes an antenna that mounts wherever your cell phone reception is strongest. The antenna connects -- via a coaxial cable -- to an indoor amplifier base unit. This unit has its own little antenna, which broadcasts the signal throughout your house.

If you get three bars in corner of your house, but one bar everywhere else, this can keep you at three bars throughout your residence. Seemed like a great gift for our family -- until I conducted my own little test.

In our house I couldn't get more than one bar -- anywhere. Good thing I checked.

As the holiday season ramps up the frenzy, keep this thought in mind. If you're looking at any kind of consumer electronics, check to make sure it will work for you before purchasing. Whether it's taking five minutes to measure the size of your A/V cabinet before buying a TV, or checking cell phone reception as I did, it will save you some headaches later on – even if the store does have a liberal return policy.

- Ralph

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Dust-catching DVDs

Best Buy, Circuit City, Target, Wal-Mart -- all of them prominently feature DVDs in their consumer electronics fliers. So now the time has come to tie together our threads on collecting and shopping together.

How many DVDs do you really need to own? Personal question, true, but one not everyone asks. Some of my friends want to own every movie they see. Even after several years, they're still in the accumulation phase of collecting. Sure, they've got hundreds of movies, but how many get viewed more than once or twice?

These are collections that are stuck in the accumulation phase, with a list of titles that's wide but shallow. Do you really need to own Steve Martin's "Pink Panther" or Jim Carrey's "Fun with Dick and Jane?" Sure, they're both on sale now at Target but, really, how many times to you expect to revisit these gems?

While there are some DVDs I consider important to own, it’s a fairly small list. For a title to enter my collection, it has to be something I know I'll want to view in whole or in parts at least ten times or more. It should also be something that's not readily available. For everything else, there's Netflix.

And that's where collecting and gift buying come together. Unless you know your intended gift recipient is really burning for a copy of "Geisha," (another title on sale in said Target flier), a gift subscription to Netflix might be a better choice. As we move more towards Web 2.0 (more on that another post), the tradeoff between owning something of marginal interest and being able to access it when needed will continue to grow in importance when considering a purchase.

I'm glad I own the Kino release of "Metropolis." I've revisit it with some frequency, and I continue to find new insights with each viewing. "Pirates of the Caribbean?"

I can wait three days for the Netflix envelope to arrive.
- Ralph

Sunday, November 26, 2006

The informed shopper and Black Friday

So how did you do the day after Thanksgiving? Many people were there when the doors opened at 5:00 AM, and many departed with some kind of consumer electronics. In fact, the CE category was the big winner this year.

Reading anecdotal stories from various newspapers across the country, it seems few people thought out their purchases (beyond price). The most common purchases seemed to be flat-panel TVs, DVD players, MP3 players and game consoles -- all basically stand-alone items.

In the Bloomberg story I've linked to above, one shopper reports that "[she] bought a 42- inch Panasonic plasma TV for $1,000 at a Best Buy Co. store the day after Thanksgiving. The set was marked down from $1,700 and was "my gift to me."

I wonder if any research went into that purchase. If not, there may be some unpleasant surprises in store. Expect to mount it on a wall? The wall mount is a separate purchase -- expect to spend around $100 or so. Gonna just put it on your current A/V stand? Hope it isn't particle board -- that TV weighs about 69 lbs.

And if you're going to mount it on the wall, its best to get someone who knows what they're doing. If the mount isn't anchored to studs that set's going to take a spectacular nose-dive to the floor.

How about the rest of her gear? GIGO (Garbage In, Garbage Out) applies to video as well. If she's only getting standard analog broadcasts (or the equivelant from cable or satellite), then its gonna have the same poor resolution -- only it will be easier to see how bad it really is. While the set does have a built-in tuner for over the air digital broadcasts, without the proper reciever and connections, her cable service or satellite TV digital signal will be downcoverted -- and look like her plain old analog broadcasts.

It could be that she was prepared for all that, and everything's fine. But my rule of thumb is this: if it costs more than $20.00, its too expensive to qualify as an impulse purchase.

- Ralph

Friday, November 24, 2006

Ebay and the erosion of passion

Ken brings up a valid point about collecting and the impact of Ebay. In any collection, the value of an object is determined by three factors; desirability, availability and condition. Items formerly difficult to find are now only a click away on Ebay – which subsequently lowers their value.

And another aspect of collecting disappears -– the thrill of the hunt. It’s not something to be underestimated. While hoarding is a compulsion, collecting is a passion. The search is sometimes the most rewarding part –- and the experience can lead to a greater knowledge and appreciation of the field.

When everything becomes instantly available, objects not only loses some monetary value, but some of emotional value as well. Most collectors have stories about prized objects in their collection; how it took six years to finish the matched set, or how they stumbled across this great find in a flea market. The difficulty (or serendipity) of its acquisition can give the object added emotional value to the collector.

With enough money, you could probably acquire an instant collection of just about anything through Ebay. But would you care?

- Ralph

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Collecting in the electronic age

Nice post on the difference between collecting and hoarding, Ralph.

One thing about collecting that struck me recently is how much the on-line auction has changed collecting. As a teenager, I collected beer cans. This involved a lot of leg work -- scouring flea markets, searching back roads, buying cans from different regions when on vacation, etc.

30 years later, when I decided to unload the cans on eBay, the market was swamped. Cans that had been hard to find were now easily available -- all you need is a PayPal account, and money was the only limiting factor. And, as a corollary, cans that had once had some value were selling for pennies on the dollar. The grunt work was gone.

Sure, there are still gems to be found in collecting the old-fashioned way, and there'll always be people doing that. But collecting can be almost a whim now. Decide that you want a collection of vintage movie posters and you'll probably start your search on-line. In fact you may never have to go any further.

A labor of love becomes a business transaction. Instant communication and an interconnected universal marketplace has brought us much, but something else has been lost.


The Concept of Collecting

I'd like to dig a little deeper into the concept of "collecting," especially as it's sometimes indistinguishable from hoarding. IMHO, true collections go through three stages: accumulation, consolidation, and definition.

1) Accumulation
-- This is when a collection is born. The collector actively seeks out more items to fill the collection. Whether the collector can articulate it or not, the goal is simply to get more. Let's take a stamp collection, for example. This would be the stage where any and all stamps are welcome -- new, old, foreign, domestic.

2) Consolidation
-- At some point, the collection begins to take shape. The collector, who now has a greater knowledge of his or her field of interest, finds some aspects of the collection more interesting than others. At the same time he realizes that it's impossible to collect every object in the field. The collector becomes more discerning with his purchases, and may even begin discarding peripheral pieces. Our stamp collector finds he likes US commemoratives, and sells or trades his foreign stamps to further his acquisition of American stamps.

3) Definition
-- As consolidation continues, the collector further narrows the theme of his collection. This kind of focused collection can usually be summed up in single, detailed sentence. Our philatelist might define his collection as US commemoratives issued between 1960 and 1977, mint condition only." The goal has changed from accumulating one of everything to obtaining the best possible examples of the collection's focus. While the collector may keep some items that are outside of the core collection -- a rare foreign stamp, or his first plate block -- most fall within the narrow confines of the collection.

Hoarding may seem indistinguishable from accumulation as I've defined it. Both involve gathering more and more things. Hoarding is usually a physical manifestation of unresolved emotional issues; building a nest of objects where one can feel safe. The accumulation phase of collecting is similar -- one object gives me pleasure, so ten should give me ten times as much. And most people don't move on from phase one, like the lady at the office who collects pigs -- ceramic, stuffed, large, small, realistic, whimsical or anything -- and has for years. That's the kind of collecting that can quickly turn to hoarding.

Notice, though, that as a collection moves through its life cycle it may actually shrink in size. The definition phase is a good time to dump items of marginal quality, duplicates and so on. And collectors in the definition phase may go months or even years without adding a new item (as opposed to those in the acquisition phase that can be adding stuff daily).

Healthy collecting can be a good thing. The accumulation of stuff just to have more – whether old newspapers or big-ticket electronics -- is not. And it could land you a place later on in the fourth circle of hell.

- Ralph

Monday, November 20, 2006

PlayStation 3 and the Fourth Circle of Hell

Ken’s recent rant about consumerism and the antics at the PlayStation 3 lines got me thinking about Dante’s “Inferno.” In Canto VII, the poet runs across the hoarders and the wasters in the fourth circle of hell. They’re locking in perpetual combat, never realizing that they are two sides of the same coin. Dante’s guide Virgil remarks:

"Now canst thou, Son, behold the transient farce
Of goods that are committed unto Fortune,
For which the human race each other buffet;

For all the gold that is beneath the moon,
Or ever has been, of these weary souls
Could never make a single one repose."

So we have people waiting in line for two days to purchase a PlayStation 3 – in order to immediately put it on Ebay. Is it really essential to get the very first PlayStation 3? How much above retail price is it worth?

I admit I never really understood the importance of being the very first one to get the hot new gadget. In my experience, it takes a generation or two to work all the bugs out – and by that time the item is much improved, and far more reasonably priced.

Consider the iPod. The first ones held 5GB and cost $400. That’s less than the $250 8GB iPod nano holds now. Anyone who stood in line for one of those first generation iPods still have them? How about the original “Tickle Me Elmo” or even the first xBox?

In another post I’ll tackle the thorny concept of collecting vs. hoarding, but this holiday season as the ad campaigns ramp up to full strength, I’ll just ask that you take a moment to ponder your “must-have” item from last year. Do you even remember what it was? Do you still have it? Is it still absolutely essential to your health and happiness?

It’s easy – especially with consumer electronics – to get caught up in the acquisition of things. And if something makes us fleetingly happy, well surely an even bigger one will make us happier still. Dante’s hoaders tried to hold onto everything that came their way in life, accumulating as much as possible. The wasters appeared to be the opposite, frittering away all they had for momentary diversions.

But consider this: as we gather more and more cool gadgets around us, maxing out our credit cards in the process, are we hoarders, or wasters, or both? And, while we may subscribe to the philosophy that “Whoever dies with the most toys wins,” we may want to ask what exactly the prize is. Can a PlayStation 3, a Nintendo Wii or even a Zune buy our weary souls repose?

- Ralph

Friday, November 17, 2006

DVD PS3 Q-list

Suggestions for DVDs to watch while waiting in the PlayStation 3 que.

There's several ways to go here. One thought would be to bring movies with the longest running-times to help pass the time. Just sticking to theatrical releases, there's "Napoleon" (235 min) if you want to do serious cinema. Or try "1900" (333 min.) if you want to add color and sound. Of course there's the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, the "Star Wars" movies and so on which can all help pass the time.

Another thought (and a little more in line with the gamer's demographic) would be use that time for a season retrospective of your favorite TV series. How about the complete "Babylon 5"? Or one of the Star Trek series, or something similar. An interesting viewing experiment might be to do a complete run of "24" -- playing each program in its corresponding hour. See if your powers of reason match Jack Bauer's after staying awake for 20+ hours.

Or you could have a filmfest of videogame-based movies to get you in the mood for your new purchase (and maybe arouse the fighting spirit necessary to make it through the frenzied mob of fellow shoppers).

"Resident Evil,"
perhaps, or "Mortal Kombat." "Lara Croft, Tomb Raider," or maybe "The Last Starfighter" if you're really old skool. You could try "Super Mario Bros." or "Street Fighter" if you wanted to make it a real stink-fest (with appropriate MST3K-style commentary).

And let's not forget the top-selling DVD of all time based on a video game -- Pokemon.

- Ralph

Camping out?

Ah, the lifestyle of the early adopter! On my way to the pool on Thursday morning I saw them -- the early adopters/gamers/geeks camped out in front of the local big box store waiting for the new PlayStation 3.

I won't try to figure them out. After all, they probably think I'm stupid for getting up at 5 AM to swim a couple of miles -- who am I to criticize their choice of recreational activities?

I will, however, try to make a few suggestions for making their stay in the great outdoors a little easier.

First off, you've got to have power. May I suggest this nifty device from Xantrex? The XPower 1500 will supply your encampment with over 1300 watts of power -- enough to power a refrigerator, LCD screen, laptop, and (soon to be obsolete) game console.

As far as shelter goes, it's shocking to see what passes for a tent these days. Ditch that WalMart tent and step up to The North Face 2 Meter Expedition Dome. Sure, it may look like overkill, but if you're going to lay down six bills for a game console, shouldn't you make sure you can rest in comfort while you wait, protected from wind and rain? And since it holds 8, there's plenty of room for your friends -- party time!

Speaking of lying in comfort, you'll want to stay warm at night. There's no substitute for a good down bag -- light and warm to the max -- perfect for your fast-moving style.

Now that you're snug and warm, you'll need entertainment.

Got some movie suggestions, Ralph?


Wednesday, November 15, 2006

The Gift of Magnavox

Let's continue our tour of that big box flyer. On the facing page from the Tivo® and Sony items is a Magnavox 15" LCD TV for the nice price of $249. Stand-alone, or contextural gift?

There was a magic time when any TV would have been a basically stand-alone gift. A television is a self-contained unit, and the only real consideration was the space requirements. Even with more displays being incorporated into home theater systems, a TV (especially a small one like this) is basically a stand-alone gift.

For most folks, this would be great secondary TV. I can see it being used in a den, beach house, dorm room or guest room.

In the olden days, a TV was a TV -- not so much anymore, and it's those fine considerations that may make this contextural for a minority of shoppers. In 2009 broadcasters will switch over to digital broadcasting. The frequencies of all stations will change, as will the aspect ratio of the pictures broadcast. This is part of that HDTV thing we've heard so much about.

Our little Magnavox here has a 4:3 screen aspect ratio, so images broadcast today fit nicely. In 2009, everything will be sent 16:9, or "widescreen." If letterboxing isn't a viewing issue with the recipient, then everything will be fine.

Near the base of the picture in the flyer is the little note "HD Ready." What does that mean? You can take the Magnavox LCD out of the box today, plug it in and it will pull in broadcast TV signals. "HD Ready" means that, in 2009, it will display the new digital signals, but it does not have a built-in tuner to receive them. An outboard HDTV tuner will be necessary.

Now this may not be much of a problem. I suspect most of these little Magnavoxes will spend their operational lives hooked up to cable or a satellite box, so this won't be an issue. If you're thinking of buying it for a weekend home that has neither cable nor satellite service, then you'll probably have to purchase an additional HDTV tuner somewhere down the road.

Still, this is mostly a stand-alone gift.

And finally, running down Ken's shopping rules:
#1 - If they specifically ask for this Magnavox 15" LCD, fine. This is one item that you can reasonably substitute another brand of LCD for, though (I'd make sure its the same screen size, though).
#2 - If you are going to substitute, make it a brand you've heard of. There's a reason why no-name brands are soooo much cheaper -- and your recipient won't want to find out why the hard way.
#3 - For the right person, $249 for a TV isn't a bad price at all.

- Ralph

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Take it away

Ralph presents plenty of good reasons why I shouldn't get myself in a twist about the mega-storage capacity of the new Tivos, and he's right -- there's no logical reason why I should worry about it. But the Tivo is symptomatic of larger issues.

In our consumer-centric society we gather more and more moss as we roll through life, stuffing our garages, sheds, attics, and rented storage buildings full of stuff that we had to get, don't use now, but can't bear to get rid of. Now, even digital storage devices have to get bigger to hold all of our crap. And, make no mistake, once we've got the space, we'll fill it up.

When I need a new Tivo, I won't get a choice -- it'll have loads of storage whether I like it or not. But spare a moment, Ralph, for someone who wants to take the exit ramp off of the consumer super-highway, who strives to simplify and reduce their footprint, living for the moment rather than tied down with his possessions. It's not that I don't want good things, it's just that having too much dilutes the quality of the experience of that good thing, whatever it is.

I'm not perfect -- one look in my garage will tell you that -- put I keep trying. I'm reminded of this quote from the French author and aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupery: "A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away."

Monday, November 13, 2006

The Curse of Curly

One of the things that struck me about the announcements of Jack Palance's death was how his long and (mostly) distinguished acting career was collapsed down to one role -- Curly, in "City Slickers."

Granted, when you're a newscaster and you've only got two minutes to do an obit, you can only hit the high points. Its a shame that the one movie Palance will be remembered for was basically a pastiche of his most important role,

Jack Wilson in "Shane." All those great movies (we won't talk about the Italian period) and all those TV dramas (remember, he was in "Requiem for a Heavyweight") and it all comes down to Curly.

Palance isn't the only artist to suffer from the Curse of Curly. Although he wrote fugues, chorales, motets, masses, instrumental suites, Johann Pachelbel is known for one thing and one thing only -- the "Canon in D." And just try to find recordings of any of the other of the hundreds of works he composed.

Grant Wood created a number of works in a variety of media -- charcoal, metal, ink and even stained glass. But to the general public he only did one painting; "American Gothic." The Curse of Curly.

My point is this. For most people, knowing the single piece of a "one-hit wonder" is enough. But it shouldn't be. I've discovered some really wonderful music, movies, books and art just by asking "what else have they done?"

It's fine to enjoy "City Slickers." But do yourself a favor and check out "Shane" as well. The Curse of Curly only works with the uncurious.

- Ralph

Saturday, November 11, 2006

The Gift of Sony

Let's continue our stroll through a big box retailer's flyer. Next to the TiVo® DVR is the Sony S2 1GB Sports® Walkman® MP3 player. For someone who runs, walks or otherwise works out, this could be a great gift. It uses embedded memory, so there's no moving parts to jostle.

One gigabyte is enough room to store a decent amount of music -- especially if the device is used primarily for workouts. The S2 also has an FM tuner, and some exercise-oriented features, such as a pedometer, stopwatch and calorie counter.

So is it a stand-alone or a contextural gift?

It could be considered stand-alone. You can take it out the box, turn on the FM tuner and go for a job. When we look at the digital music side of it, though, it becomes contextural -- and in a way that gives most people headaches.

According to the specs, the S2 plays "MP3, ATRAC3, ATRAC3plus™, WMA(non-DRM), AAC (non-DRM)." If you're not familiar with the byzantine workings of Digital Rights Management (DRM), you can be creating a lot of work for your gift recipient. Let's break it down.

MP3 format is the one format just about any player can use. CDs transferred to your computer from your personal collection can be saved in this form (if the CDs don't have some kind of malicious DRM). Many bands on MySpace and other websites also use this format.

ATRAC3 is a Sony format that they've unsuccessfully tried to force on the public. For a while Sony digital music players ONLY played ATRAC files, requiring you to convert everything to this format in a long, slow transfer process. The Sony CONNECT™ Music online store uses this format -- which is why you can't use songs bought from CONNECT on other brands of players -- only Sony players can play ATRAC files.

WMA files are Microsoft's proprietary answer to the MP3 format. WMA files can be played on any Windows-based player, which is just about everyone except Apple. Music purchased from most online music stores are "protected" WMA files, which means they have DRM added to limit their use.

AAC format is the one used by Apple, and is the format songs purchased from the iTunes store come in. As with other online stores, DRM is added to the files to limit thier usage.

Note that the S2 can play non-DRM WMA and AAC files. What does that mean? It can't play any files in those formats if the songs were purchased from an online music store. Here's another little twist. While Sony's grudgingly allowed MP3 files onto their players, all other file formats have to be converted to ATRAC3 before they can be transferred to the player.

This is why only non-DRM WMA and AAC files can be used. The DRM prevents file format conversion (or at least makes it inconvinient). If the recipient has a lot of music purchased from iTunes, they will not be able to use them with the S2. If they prefer Windows Media Player and have bought songs from Napster, URGE, Rhapsody and most of the other online stores, those songs also will be incompatible.

This is a heavily contextural gift. If the recipient hasn't really gotten into digital music and exercises, the S2 would be a great choice. If they already download a lot of music, it might be better to consider another embedded memory player that's compatible with the bulk of their library -- either the iPod shuffle if their iTunes customers, or perhaps a Creative Labs Zen V if they're not.

And finally, running down Ken's shopping rules:
#1 - If they specifically as for the S2 Sports Walkman, get it. If not, do some research about what format their digital music's already in.
#2 - Sony's name denotes a family of products -- not just the old portable cassette player. Make sure you've got the right "Sony Walkman"
#3 - The S2 is very reasonably priced (about $120) especially now that its on sale.

- Ralph

Taming the TiVo® tirade

Ken -- who knew increased storage capacity stirred such deep passions? While it may challenge the fundamental premise of blogging, I have to tell you -- neither you nor I are the measure of all things.

Ken outlines a very sensible approach to using a DVR, and it goes to the heart of the system's appropriate use. TiVo recorders and other DVRs are designed primarily as temporary rather than archival storage units. All that being said, with the viewing habits in my house I think we can come up with ways to fill an 80-hour hard drive.

First off, there's the programs that I want to watch, and those that my wife wants. She's continually frustrated that the quilting shows she's interested in come on while she's working. Save those, and you're adding 2 hours a week. We both like "ER," but not the time slot. Add an hour (for the weeks its new). I'm interested in the silent films TCM runs. They're two hours a pop, but they're not run all the time, so figure an average of an hour a week. I could go on listing programs, but in the interest of brevity, lets just say that all told, we would probably record about 10-12 hours a week.

Now I'll be the first to give props to Ken. In his daily workout he not only burns off unwanted fat, but blows through his digital avoirdupois at the same time. Record, watch, delete. Do that on a daily basis and sure, you don't need a lot of space.

Weighing in at about twice Ken's body mass I could certainly benefit from his regimen, but my schedule's a little different. Both my wife and I have narrow windows of time to watch TV -- and sometimes those windows disappear. I don't watch in the morning -- that's when I do paperwork for DCD Records. My wife's required to be on call several nights a week, which limits her viewing time even further.

There have been times when we have not watched TV for a solid week. Plus there are some things I don't want to watch right away. D.W. Griffith's "Intolerance?" I'll save that for a snow day. There's two hours of storage that won't be freed up for months. I'll delete it when I'm done of course, but in the meantime there it sits.

Large storage capacity gives me the flexibility to hold that film for an ideal viewing time without having to forgo daily or weekly programs we want to record.

Iron Man Ken may keep his digital storage lean and mean, but Stay Puffed Ralph prefers a roomier fit.

- Ralph

Friday, November 10, 2006

80 hours?

Nice summation of the Tivo service, Ralph. But I can't come up with an answer to a question that really bugs me:

Who needs 80 hours of TV storage?

From my point of view, it's insane. Think about it this way -- the real strength of a DVR is its ability to let you "time shift." In other words, watch a show at a different time. For example, I don't usually stay up past 11:00 -- I'm an old fogey, and I'm tired from my triathlon training (see my other blog). Tivo is ideal for letting me watch "The Daily Show" while I'm riding my exercise bike at 5:30 AM. Watch the show, delete it, move on.

I've got a first-generation Tivo, the Sony SVR-2000. At the best picture quality, I can record 13 hours of programming. Occasionally I may not get to something I've recorded, and a show gets deleted. Big deal. If I couldn't get to it before, I won't get to it later -- I've got a life to lead.

So if you're anxiously waiting for your 80 hour Tivo so you can record every episode of "Lost" and "Desperate Housewives" from now until the sun quits shining, wake up and get a life. And if you really need to keep all of those shows, get a DVD recorder, or buy the series when it comes out on DVD (they all do). Better yet, get a Netflix subscription and watch something besides TV.


Wednesday, November 08, 2006

The Gift of TiVo®

Now that we've laid out the ground rules, let's go shopping. I just got another flyer from a big box store in the mail (it won't be the last), and featured on the front page is the new TiVo 80-hour box.

TiVo virtually created the demand for digital video recorders, and despite other entries into the field, remains the best service. TiVo customers tend to be loyal and fanatical — and not because of hype, but because of the smooth functionality and integrated options of the system.

All this makes it a logical choice for that loved one who's really into TV. Be careful, though. I'd call this a contextural gift. The TiVo DVR is not a stand-alone device. Like a VCR, your gift recipient has to connect it to your incoming video source (cable or satellite TV), and then connect it to their TV. That's not a big deal — those are pretty straightforward connections. But are the cables to make those connections included? If not, they won't be able to use this on Christmas Day.

The TiVo system requires access to a phone line. The box makes daily calls (usually in the very early AM) back to TiVo to receive schedule and software updates. Two more questions: is the recipient's audio/video system near a phone jack? And if so, do they have the splitter and phone cord to make the connection?

Also, remember that TiVo is a subscription service. Without activation, the TiVo DVR is nothing more than a cool-looking paperweight. Again, not a big deal to get a subscription, but its a requirement for operation.

So this is a contextural gift because of the following:
Requires simple installation
Some location requirements
Potentially requires additional cables
Requires subscription

And running down Ken's rules
#1) If they ask for it, get it. If they don't, don't.
#2) Tivo is a well-known brand. Accept no substitutes
#2) This is in the $200 range, so definitely affordable. Remember to factor in the subscription.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Do you #1 or #2 when you shop?

While I was writing my last post that expands on my shopping theme, Ken chimed in. Ken's three points are dead on. To review:
Most people buying an MP3 player as a gift are going to consider three things:

1. What the person asked for.
2. What they've heard of.
3. What they can afford.
When #1 is locked up ("Grandma, I want a 4GB iPod nano") then there's no problem (unless #3 is an issue). I was thinking about cases where #1 is either vague or non-existent. If all you know is that your niece wants one of those portable music players, then #2 and #3 will determine your purchase. I'm thinking more of cases where #1 isn't even known.

For example. You have to buy something for your niece, but you have no idea what to get. Say, you've heard about those iPod thingys (#2). Well, you've heard all the kids seem to want one, so OK. Wow -- look at the price (#3)! At your favorite big-box retailer you find a no-name player that the clerk says is just as good as an iPod, and half the price. Another perfect gift! Or is it? That's the problem of a contextural gift.

As to Ken's concerns about iPod's hard drives -- that was a general statement. If you run, jog, mountain climb or do any other physical activity that regularly subjects a player (of any brand) to repeated shocks, it's best to go with one that uses embedded memory. Remember that hard drive players have a little spinning disc with a very small arm that has to track across it like the stereo LP players of olden time. While they're designed to handle occasional jarring, sustained impact could eventually misalign these moving parts and cause problems.

Orange plays again tonight. I think the second time they get flagged, the band should play Brittany Spears' "Oops, I Did It Again." Or maybe not.

- Ralph

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Shopping made easy.

Good point about the decision-making process that should go into buying an MP3 player, Ralph. Only problem with that is that I doubt many people do it.

Think about it for a moment. Most people buying an MP3 player as a gift are going to consider three things:

1. What the person asked for.
2. What they've heard of.
3. What they can afford.

Guess who wins? Hint -- it's named after a fruit.

Seriously, iPods are "cool" -- people want them (#1). Everybody's heard of them, even your 78-year old grandmother (#2). They come at a lot of different price points (#3).
Can gift-giving get any easier? That's not an endorsement of iPods -- just a look at reality.

And by the way, what about this statement: "Buy something with a hard drive for someone into running track, and you're giving them a player that will soon be on the fritz." Sounds like a generalization to me -- got some supporting evidence that the HDD in iPods doesn't hold up?

On the subject of memes, I hope Orange County can turn it around. Maybe the band can learn that Chumbawamba song, "I get knocked down, but I get up again..."

On second thought, better not.


Contextural gift-giving

I want to talk more about this daunting task of buying consumer electronics for presents. Before we plunge into the discussion, I'd like to offer a concept to help define the problem.

It seems to me there are two kinds of gifts: self-contained and contextural. A self-contained gift is just that -- one that works all by itself. Gloves are a great self-contained gift. So is the big tin filled with three different kinds of popcorn.

A contextural present is one that has to work with other items the recipient already owns. It could require additional things not provided with it to fill its function. A car stereo, for example, requires installation in a vehicle before you can enjoy it.

A contextural present also might be something that has to fit into an existing system. A first day of issue stamp might seem like a good gift for a stamp collector, but if the gift is a U.S. regular postage stamp, and his collection is European airmails, then contexturally it's not a good fit.

Most gifts fall somewhere along the spectrum between completely self-contained and totally conxtural. Take our above-mentioned example of gloves. While they're self-contained, they do need to fit with the rest of the recipient's outerwear. If the recipient normally wears black overcoats, then brown gloves may not be the best choice (but if its cold enough, I'll bet they get used anyway).

Gift cards are an excellent way to avoid the problems of context. Most local music collectors I know would rather get a gift card to Plan 9 Music than a loved one's best guess as to what they might like. Take someone who's really into the Beatles, for example. Their collection already include the studio albums (both US and UK versions), bootlegs, early recordings and so on. A greatest hits CD would be a poor contextural gift.

IMHO, understanding this difference between contextural and self-contained gifts is critical to selecting a consumer electronics present.

I'm starting to receive sale flyers in the mail, so next time we'll start looking at specific items. Feedback welcome!

- Ralph

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Marching Memes 3 - and a new topic

Sorry, Ken. I've got to give you 2 out of 3 for your last post. "Imperial March" is a great addition to the list. "Green Acres" makes a valid marching meme -- the show hasn't been on for years, but everyone catches the reference.

I think any band that played "Three Blind Mice" after a call would earn their team a penalty of some kind, though. And besides, that's much too obvious. It may be a little on the subtle side, but Cory Hart's "I Wear My Sunglasses At Night" might sneak under the radar.

Orange has continued its losing streak. Maybe the band should play a little "Livin' On a Prayer" (Van Halen)? More additions are welcome. I'll compile a master list at the end of the season.

New Subject
So its that time of year again, and everyone's pitching consumer electronics as the perfect gift for your spouse/child/relative/coworker/paramour. But what would the perfect gift be? One of the problems with these kind of gifts is that they usually bring other unanticipated things to the table.

For example: an MP3 player for your pre-teen might seems like a good idea. All the kids have one. But when you purchase an MP3 player you kind of lock into a format. Is the recipient a big iTunes user? Those files only work on iPods. Get something else, and the recipient is looking a massive file conversion project. What about memory size? Get one too small, and its practically useless. Buy something with a hard drive for someone into running track, and you're giving them a player that will soon be on the fritz.

So, Ken (and loyal readers), what kind of consumer electronics device would make a great gift without requiring a lot of hookup or unpleasant incompatibility problems? Believe me, enquiring minds wants to know!
- Ralph

Thursday, October 26, 2006

More memes...

OK Ralph, I'll take you up on that...

When the opposing team takes the field -- "Green Acres" theme (if they're from a rural area)

When your team takes the field -- "Imperial March" from Star Wars Trilogy (best if your team wears black...)

A bad call from the ref -- "Three Blind Mice"

Balls in your court, buddy...


Sunday, October 22, 2006

Return of the Marching Memes

Another edition of "Friday Night Lights" (the Orange County version) has come and gone, and I can't get the concept of marching memes out of my head. For those who came in late, I'm calling any of those short little musical quotes marching bands play in the stands "musical memes." These little song fragments have, in some cases, been off the charts for over a quarter of a century, and yet everyone know them.

In one sense, they're serving a similar purpose to ringtones -- they're a musical shorthand. I keep thinking that it might be possible for a band to provide running commentary throughout an entire game just by playing 16-bar song quotes.

So here's the challange: think of a musical meme that would work for a football game. It must be short, have an identifiable melody, and words that everybody knows. And it would be helpful to list its purpose. I'll add to the list as I think of things -- and hopefully Ken will have some more. And maybe you will, too.

- Ralph

Marching Memes

Firing up the stands
"Song 2" - Blur

Opposing side penalty
"Hounddog" - Elvis Presley

Team losing with a big lead
"Where Did Our Love Go?" - Supremes

Team winning with big lead
"Na-na Hey Hey Goodbye" - Steam

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Paying for the play

Thanks to the Internet, this is no longer a purely local post. WTJU-FM, the station I volunteer for, is having their fall fund drive. The goal is to raise $80,000 over the course of the next two weeks. So far, we've raised a little over $10,000, which is a criminally small amount when you consider how many people listen, not just within the Charlottesville area, but worldwide through

Fundraising for public radio is always tough -- if a listener doesn't give, there's no perceivable consequence. They still get the same signal as the folks who contribute money to keep the station going. But there are consequences, and when they happen, they're usually major.

Sometimes its a change to a more lucrative format, such as WETA's discarding classical music to go all news/talk. In other cases, such as the sale of WVXW to the Christian Voice, its the death of a public radio station and the birth of another religious broadcaster.

For the Charlottesville market, there are three other non-commercial stations: one plays alternative rock and Americana, two run NPR news and classical. WTJU's classical and jazz programming is far more adventuresome than our focus-group programmed colleagues, and our rock and folk department -- unlike our distinguished competition -- isn't concerned about what the charts decree is hot, only what sounds good.

WTJU's getting ready to celebrate its 50th anniversary. Will it be around for another 50? And if so, will it have the same character? A lot depends on the individual listener -- and their decision to whether to pledge or not. Which is as it is for every non-commercial station.

- Ralph

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Vindicated -- again

Denon gave a presentation for their new products this past week that Ken and I were able to attend. One of their showcase items was their new DVD player, the DVD2930C. To demonstrate the quality of the signal, they did an A/B comparison. They connected the 2930C and a Blu-ray player to the same receiver, feeding into the same flat-panel display. They then flipped back and forth between the two sources, showing the same scene from the same movie, "The Fifth Element" -- a perennial favorite for video demos.

The challenge for the audience was to determine which was the Blu-ray and which was the DVD. After moving back and forth a few times, most of the A/V professionals in the room could tell the difference.

Denon made their point. With a top-notch DVD player, you can come very, very close to the picture quality and detail of Blu-ray. And they helped make the point we made back in our 9/11/06 post, "'Better' Best Be Better". Pros couldn't immediately spot the difference between high-quality DVD output and Blu-ray. Is it any wonder that the average consumer can't see what all the fuss is about?

Thursday, October 05, 2006

The Age of Gould

October 4 marked the 75th anniversary of the premier appearance of Dick Tracy – which led me to a contemplation of newspaper comic strips. When Chester Gould started the strip, the field was bursting with possibility, sort of the Internet today. By the early 1930's the funnies had settled into fairly high level of sophistication, and appealed to readers of all ages.

Newspaper editors, who for most part endured rather than nurtured the genre, continually pressed for smaller panel sizes, not to squeeze more comics in, but to make room for more advertising. While the gag-a-day strips coped with the compressed formats, the adventure strips suffered greatly. And that's a shame, as there was (and is) virtuoso storytelling going on here.

While I followed Dick Tracy in the Washington Post throughout my formative years, I've since given up on the strip. The creators are clearly hobbled by strictures to not stray far from the Dick Tracy staples – grotesque villains, the return of classic villains, character traits spelled backwards or used as puns for names. What's left is a living dead strip.

When Gould drew and wrote the strip, it crackled with energy. Gould never plotted – he would dump his hero into a fix, and then figure out how to get him out of it. Some of his most memorable sequences involved elaborate crimes that unraveled quickly and then degenerated into a long, drawn out chase.

Some of these sequences lasted six months to a year, but the public loved it. Today, all strips with a continuing story are pushed to keep the story arc short. And I've heard friends dismiss the adventure strips because the stories move too slow! What's the rush? As long as you're looking forward to what's going to happen next, who cares how long it takes? Some of the best strips still manage that feat today – even with reduced panels. Gould was the master at it.

While Dick Tracy has not fared well after the death of Gould, some other strips have managed to not just continue, but actually build on the accomplishments of their original creators. Below is a short list for your consideration.

So what does all this have to do with consumer electronics? Simply this: as new things come along, old things get discarded (like your eight-track tapes). And while change is good, sometimes its worth taking a moment to realize that some of what we're leaving behind is worth our appreciation, too. See you in the funny papers.
- Ralph

Brenda Starr – started in 1940 by female artist and writer Dale Messick, the strip continues with Mary Schmich, who draws on her journalists' background for stories, and artist June Brigman.

Judge Parker – started in 1952 by Nicholas P. Dallis (writing as Paul Nichols) and drawn by Dan Heilman, now written by Woody Wilson, and drawn by Eduardo Barretto, who worked for DC Comics.

Prince Valiant – started in 1937 by Hal Foster, now written by Cullen Murphy, who has a degree in medieval history, and drawn by Gary Gianni, late of DC Comics.

Rex Morgan, MD – started in 1948 by Nicholas P. Dallis (writing as Dal Curtis) and drawn by Marvin Bradley, now written by Woody Wilson and drawn by Graham Nolan who had previously done comics work for both Marvel and DC.

Saturday, September 30, 2006

Even the Times says so

Remember our first post on August 10, "Radio loses, listener wins (IMHO)"? Well, a little over a month later, the New York Times makes it official. Their article Changing Its Tune talks about how radio listenership is declining -- because folks are listening to their MP3 players! Remember, you read it hear first.
- Ralph

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Bruised fruit and busted pods

I personally haven't had any problems with the iTunes 7 program, but I have professionally. The DCD Records podcast I produce is in the new iTunes 7 podcast directory, but all of the programs listings have disappeared!

And unfortunately, iTunes holds podcasters at arm's length when it comes to fixing problems. Its not that difficult to do the original registration, but almost impossible to get any changes made to the feed, and there's no way to "open up the hood" and see what the problem might be with the iTunes program itself.

When you follow Ken's link, make sure you read the article's comments. Taken in conjunction with this posting from Macworld, it seems that a fair amount of the problems seem to be with Windows, or with third-party add-ons. In my case, we did change servers around the same time the new iTunes store launched, so that may have added to the problem.

I'll keep you posted on our postings. I'm not sure the Apple's rotten -- just a little bruised.

- Ralph

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

There's something rotten in Appleland...

I know Ralph is having a great time with the new iTunes 7 (I haven't upgraded yet, since I'm something of a Luddite). Turns out there may be a few bad apples ruining the barrel. Reports are coming in that everything isn't working as smoothly as it should.

A problem? Long-term -- probably not. Of course, you run into problems when you rely on a single-crop economy -- just ask the Irish.

Friday, September 15, 2006

In whose best interest?

Did you miss it?

There was a second product announcement this week. One for Microsoft's Zune MP3 player. Somehow, it lacked the intensity of interest Apple's announcement generated. While several tech sites had live text-messaged updates of Steve Job's speech as it happened, I didn't see any real coverage of the Zune rollout until after it was over.

Lots of virtual ink will be devoted to this new "iPod killer." As you read, consider this: at the core of the Apple vs. Everyone Else there's been a fundamental philosophical difference. Apple started with what the consumer wanted, and worked around what the media companies demanded. Microsoft, et al started with what the media companies wanted, and worked around what the consumers needed.

Has that changed? I don't think so. Consider the Zune's coolest feature, the ability to share songs with other Zune players wirelessly. If I want you to check out a new band, I can squirt some tracks to your player. That serves the consumer.

However, you have three days to play the tracks, and you can only play them three times before the files are disabled. The media companies' needs trumps the consumer's desires. Think about it – when friends loan you movies or music to check out, do you do so right away, or when you can get to it? In my case I’d just end up with a lot of disabled files cluttering up my Zune.

IMHO, until other manufacturers make the focus the consumer, not the media companies, we'll never have more than an iPod wounder.

- Ralph