Tuesday, December 30, 2008

HD Radio - The Grand Illusion

So the HD Radio Alliance issued a press release yesterday.

"HD Digital Radio Alliance Continues Aggressive Marketing Campaign in Q1 Despite Down Economy"

It makes for fascinating reading, although probably not in the way intended by the Alliance.

The new 2009 campaign will focus on HD Radio's evolution (not sure how that will play to a certain segment of the population, but we'll let that pass).

So what will this fantabulous new campaign be about? According to the press release,
HD Radio has 'evolved' and wants to show off its cool new features (iTunes Tagging), low price-points (as little as $79), extra stations (from Indie Rock to Smooth Jazz to The Irish Channel), and no subscription fees (perfect during a recession). And with less advertising 'clutter,' there has never been a more perfect time for the message to resonate with consumers.
OK, let's look at those points in detail.

Cool new features (iTunes Tagging) - What customers want:
  1. Hear a song on the radio
  2. Press a button
  3. Download song
What customers got with iTunes tagging:
  1. Hear a song from an HD Radio broadcast that has compatible metadata on an HD Radio tuner that has the iTunes tagging option
  2. Press a button
  3. Metadata (NOT song) stored on tuner until customer syncs iPod with tuner
  4. Customer syncs iPod with computer
  5. Metadata loaded into iTunes and displayed as an option to purchase
Not only does this take way too many steps, but look at all the qualifiers in step one. Only some of the radio stations in this country broadcast an HD Radio signal. Of those that do, only some have the iTunes Tagging metadata. And there are only a few tuners capable of even using said data. My dad might think this is cool, but I'm used to downloading directly from the Internet. I find this a lukewarm feature at best.

Low price-points (as little as $79) - Low prices are good, in context. Getting a product you want for $79 instead of $300 is a real bargain. Being asked to spend $79 dollars for something you neither want nor need is just a waste of money. So far, most consumers have shown a steadfast indifference to HD Radio.

Extra stations (from Indie Rock to Smooth Jazz to The Irish Channel) - This could be attractive, if all of these stations were available in all markets. They aren't. Most commercial stations only have one HD Radio signal -- the simulcast of their regular programming. Of those that do offer an alternative channel, it's up to the station to pick the one -- or two -- other programming feeds it offers. So I'm sure the Irish Channel is being aired somewhere, but not in every major market, and certainly not in most other markets throughout the country. So if you're thinking of getting an HD Radio for that fine Indie Rock Channel, better check your local program listings first.

No subscription fees (perfect during a recession) - Cool. But analog broadcasts are also free. So if money is really tight, why not save $79 (see above) and just keep using the radio I already have? I know this tis a swipe at satellite radio, but that's still a small percentage of the radio market. This seems to be paying it a disproportionate amount of attention.

And with less advertising 'clutter,' there has never been a more perfect time for the message to resonate with consumers - Does it mean that the Christmas season is over, so there's fewer ads? Nice, but filling the empty spaces with HD Radio spots isn't really the solution. Listeners have consistently complained about the overburdened spot breaks for years. Too many commercials in every break simply makes every ad less effective, and all of them more annoying. This press release acknowledges that there's clutter -- so why not address that problem (less spots at higher ad rates) and make everyone happy?

I'm not sure talking about HD Radio in terms of evolution is the way to go, but one thing's for sure. This isn't intelligent design.

- Ralph

Day 189 of the WJMA Web Watch. (We could do with a little evolution here.)

Monday, December 29, 2008

Podcast Review: Radio Clash

"Radio Clash" is one of the longest podcasts I listen to. This program of mashups, remixes, unusual and outsider recordings and other types of hip sonic mayhem usually runs about 70 minutes. Episodes lasting 90+ minutes to over two hours aren't uncommon.

So there's quantity, but is there quality? Absolutely. The show's host, Tim from the UK, has been sharing his (and others) reinterpretations of pop music since 2004, and I have yet to hear an episode that didn't have some kind of sonic surprise that made it worthwhile.

As with other podcasts, if you listen long enough, you'll build up a portrait of Tim, but that's not what "Radio Clash" is really about. While the choices of music and the way they're sequenced is highly individualistic (which is revealing in and of itself), Tim keeps the focus on the music.

So what can you hear in an episode of Radio Clash? I don't know if there's a typical episode, but there's all kinds of things you could hear. There could be some Negativland, or other types of musique concrete. You might hear some pop song mashups that either blend two or more songs together, or use one song as a framework for other kinds of audio bits. Sometimes there's drum and bass, and you might get some WFMU-worthy aural oddities, and other things besides.

I've always been of the opinion that there's more to music than the top 40, and Tim effectively proves it every episode (while also showing that even the most commercial pop music is good for something if you just tweak it a little).

It's a labor of love, and I'm surprised and grateful that Tim hasn't experienced podfade yet. After four (soon to be five) years, "Radio Clash" is still going strong -- and I'm still subscribed.

Thanks, Tim!

- Ralph

Day 188 of the WJMA Web Watch.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas Vacation

Taking some time off -- and some time off the grid. I'll be back in about a week. In the meantime, if there are subjects you'd like to see discussed in greater detail on this blog, leave a suggestion in comments.

Here's an image of the season -- from our own Christmas tree. Best of the season to one and all.

- Ralph

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Waltzing Cowboys and the Social Media Dance

Sarah Honenberger's latest novel, "Waltzing Cowboys," has already received several good reviews. But this post isn't about the book (several copies of which sit wrapped under our tree, awaiting Christmas morning).

Rather, it's about the growth of the author. You may recall when I started blogging about Honenberger, her first novel "White Lies" had just been published by Cedar Creek Press. She was still something of an Internet novice, and her website (started primarily to support the book) was a little sparse.

Well, two print runs and a new novel later, things are radically different. Her website has plenty of information about "Waltzing Cowboys," including an excerpt and talking points for book clubs (now that's proactive marketing).

In one of my earlier posts, I mentioned that she was working on a MySpace page. She completed it, (although it's suffering from a little neglect, just like mine). But in the meantime, Honenberger's expanded more fully into the world of social media. You can find her on Twitter, FaceBook, Gather, and LinkedIn, just to name a few.

Barnes & Noble has the book for sale, and it looks like the entire stock Amazon.com got in is almost gone (better hurry).

Bottom line: Sarah Honenberger's clearly learned how to connect directly with her readers. And through social networking, the people her readers are connected to can discover her work. After all -- aren't you more likely to try an author your friend likes than one you don't know much about?

One of the most important elements of storytelling is character growth. In this case, it's the author who's growing in social media sophistication. It's not over yet, but I'm liking the direction of the story arc.

- Ralph

Day 183 of the WJMA Web Watch. (Good thing Honenberger's success doesn't depend on local radio coverage.)

Monday, December 22, 2008

Podcast Review -- Mostly Trivial

Trivia should be fun -- and not many people make it as much fun as Johnee Bee, host of the "Mostly Trivial" podcast. The show is a nice balance of frantic silliness and straight-forward common sense.

The calm, even-voiced Johnee Bee hosts the quiz. He asks the questions, provides the answers and gives additional information about the subject. Introducing the show is Mr. Category Guy, whose deep, gravelly electronically altered tones don't quite disguise the fact that he's also Johnee Bee. And the same is true of Johnee's able assistant, Robot Boy, who speaks in a higher and more artificial-sounding voice.

The trivia's interesting enough; it's usually about things that a reasonably well-rounded person might know. But it's the production values that really make this podcast.

I don't know who Johnee Bee is, but he has to have a background in major market radio. His characters are deftly drawn, and with a few simple sound effects, he can paint an audio picture of Mr. Category Guy having one too many in his sound booth, or Robot Boy extending his hydraulic arm to give Johnee Bee the list of questions. Although all three voices are done by the same person, the conversations flow naturally, and the comic timing is impeccable -- these are mad editing skills at work!

And the podcast is peppered with all kinds of crazy and non-sequitur quotes and sound effects. Snippets from classic films, TV shows, and cartoons pepper the podcast providing a counterpoint -- and sometimes humorous commentary -- to Johnee Bee's simple, straightforward delivery.

The choice of music is also brilliant. Johnee Bee uses the strange musical stylings of Coconut Monkeyrocket, which provide a Carl Stalling-like soundtrack to the proceedings (if Stalling was more like Spike Jones, that is).

I thoroughly enjoy this little six to eight-minute podcast, and only wish it came out more often. But I can hear the amount of production work Johnee Bee puts into each episode, and I know that probably won't happen without a bigger payday.

My suggestion? Syndicate it. One of the reasons I'm moving away from radio is the dull, uninspired "morning trivia" segments on some of my local stations. If "Mostly Trivial" was available as a segment radio stations could just drop in, then I think the show would be a much bigger hit than it is, and Johnee Bee might become as famous as Dan Orkin's "Chickenman" -- and for much the same reason.

- Ralph

Day 182 of the WJMA Web Watch. (These guys could use Johnee Bee for sure.)

Friday, December 19, 2008

Watt's Thoughts - Blacksmithing

My great-grandfather was a blacksmith and his son, my great-uncle, followed him and then moved to auto mechanics. Their blacksmith shop was in Kansas. I remember visiting it when I was a young boy.

For several years when I have seen a blacksmith course listed or mentioned at a college, it sounded interesting, although I had no idea what I would make in a class. I had done some very basic metal work in shop class in junior high and high school.

Northwestern Technical College, where I taught at the time, had a course offered in continuing education, so I signed up.

The class had a great teacher/student ratio; there were five students to start and four teachers. We basically made a project a week, although a couple projects took two weeks.

I bought my own hammers (through Blacksmithdepot.com), and actually had to buy twice as my first set was too light. I now have a ball pein hammer and 3 cross pein hammers (two styles and weights). I also purchased several pairs of leather gloves, getting as light a weight as possible that I could for maneuvering while handling the hammer and metal. I usually had no glove on the hand with the hammer, except to keep blisters away, but I'm calloused now.

The class went from fairly simple work to making fancy ornamentation on the handle the last week. We started with a simple hook for a wall. Then it was on to a bar and three hooks to hang coffee mugs on (have not figured how to get my hundred or so mugs on three hooks). We then learned an ancient skill of how to make nails. I did OK, but you do not want me making nails.

We use our own fire tools (which we actually used in the forge) including a shovel (from a rod and flat piece of metal and riveted), and a couple of fire pokers (with some fanciness in the handles like twists and various hammered curves).

We learned to forge weld. We made crosses out of a single piece of metal split two ways and flatted, and forks by splitting metal also. And we fabricated tongs to put our metal in the fire and to get the metal out, and chisels and punch tools out of truck springs.

The important things I learned in blacksmithing were:
  1. getting the metal at the right temperature (can't be too hot or too cold),
  2. knowing how hard and where to strike the hammer
  3. knowing which type of hammer to use
  4. how to use a punch and chisel
Blacksmithing is an interesting craft to know (to go with my wood, stained glass, and photography crafts). After the class was over, I did some occasional demonstrations at the Pine Tree Festival here in Swainsboro where I live. What I may do with it, I am not sure yet.

It's funny. I've done computer work for a steel fabrication plant for years and now I actually know how to work with the metal. Just as my great-grandfather did so long ago.

- Dwight Watt
from "Watt's Thoughts," available at dwight-watt.home.att.net

Thursday, December 18, 2008

A New Guest Blogger

Tomorrow we run the first of (hopefully) many entries by our new guest blogger, Dwight Watt.

Dwight's something of a renaissance man, with a wide variety of interests and skills. He's been involved with IT and IT instruction throughout his professional life, but that's only part of the story. Dwight's a runner and cyclist, and is also a published author. He's also a blacksmith, as well as something of a stained glass artist, poet and painter. Dwight's active in his church, and in many other civic organizations.

I've known Dwight for quite sometime, and receive his e-mail musings, "Watt's Thoughts." As you might expect from his background, he writes about technology issues (especially those involving Microsoft), religion, politics, and whatever else strikes his interest -- that last bit lets him fit right in to the meandering nature of "C.E. Conversations."

I don't always agree with Dwight, but I've always found "Watt's Thoughts" to be thought-provoking. I hope you will, too.

- Ralph

Day 178 of the WJMA Web Watch.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Twitter in Real Life

HubSpot recently published the cartoon below. It's worthy of your attention for two reasons: what it says, and what it is.

What it says:
It's a great illustration about what's becoming one of the most important aspects of social media -- you are known by the company you keep. Whether it's following someone on Twitter, or friending them on Facebook or whatever the process is called on the social network you're using, reciprocity shouldn't be a given.

Why? Well, you can block people from following you (to stay with Twitter terms), but except for the truly offensive, having a lot of followers that you barely know isn't necessarily a bad thing. Especially if you're Twittering to promote your career or business -- the larger the audience, the better. But you're not obligated to return the favor and follow everyone who's following you.

One reason is manageability. When you only have twenty followers, then following all of them yields a small trickle of hourly tweets. For 200, it gets noisier. And for even larger numbers the volume of tweets can easily take up far more time than you want to take to read them, rendering the service virtually useless.

The second reason is personality. If you have 2,000 followers and you're following 2,000 people, then you're clearly not choosy about the company you keep. If you're only following a fraction of that number, then the choices you make provide additional insight into the kind of person you are (or business you represent). And that can be very important and beneficial in attracting the right kind of attention to your profile.

What it is:
This is an image made available with a Creative Commons license. HubSpot created the cartoon, posted it on their Inbound Internet Marketing Blog, and encouraged people to use it. Under their Creative Commons license, anyone is to free to share or even work with the image as long as they properly attribute the source -- which would be HubSpot.

Why would they do this? Because they want this image out there, doing its job. And that job is not just to make an important point in a witty way, but to raise HubSpot's profile as a resource for social media marketing. And as this cartoon is a good example of said marketing, the success of it spreading demonstrates how well HubSpot knows its area of expertise.

By giving the cartoon away, they generate more traffic and potentially more business.

Yep, I'm following them on Twitter.

- Ralph

Day 177 of the WJMA Web Watch. (Haven't heard a peep, much less a tweet.)

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Halcyon Days of HD Radio

Ran across an interesting article from 2004 the other day (it seems like everything remains perpetually available online). Reading it today, you can really see the shortfall between the promises made for HD Radio technology and what was actually delivered.

In the Knight Digital Media Center article titled "HD Radio Offers Tantalizing Hope for Niche, Hyperlocal Radio Content," author Mark Glaser wrote:
Pity the poor folks running local radio stations. On the music side of things, downloadable MP3s, satellite radio and podcasting have eroded their power to create hits and keep people listening to commercials. As millions of people discover the joy of programming their own playlists on iPods that play right onto their car radios, the pain of listening to preprogrammed, repetitive playlists becomes apparent. [Emphasis mine]
And after four years, the problem's only gotten worse. Glaser continues:

But wait, there's a white horse on the horizon for radio broadcasters in the United States: HD Radio.

And what follows is all the wonderful things HD Radio was expected to do:

...digital channel that delivers higher quality sound -- and data... perhaps the most exciting part of HD Radio is that one station on one frequency could serve multiple digital streams -- meaning a public station could have news on one channel, classical music on another and public affairs programming on another. Plus, there's the possibility of rich data services such as local weather and news beamed to portable devices in the future...
Well, it's happening on the public radio side, but how many commercial stations are really doing anything with those other channels? Better question: four years later, how many stations are broadcasting HD Radio content at all (even if it's just duplicating the analog signal)?

Anybody see that streaming news and weather scrolling across their radio dials? Me neither. But you can get those widgets for your smartphone.

So far, HD Radio hasn't consistently delivered on any of its promises -- not that many were interested, anyway. But there's another part to this story that I also find extremely interesting. Glaser goes on to talk about how HD Radio could be used for local content.
What if radio stations gave the extra channels over to community groups to run hyperlocal programs or niche music for ethnic communities?
The one advantage radio broadcasters have over satellite radio is their local focus: local weather, local traffic, local news and local advertisers. If they could really dig down to the hyperlocal level, commercial and public stations could strengthen their ties to local communities.
Richard Redmond, director of broadcast systems for Harris Broadcast Communications, says he hasn't heard any broadcaster say that they'd like to turn over one of their digital channels to the community, [emphasis mine] but he still thinks there's potential.
So here we sit. Most stations aren't interested or don't have the resources to program a separate digital channel (outside of public broadcasting, that is). And yet it's better to keep that subchannel dark than broadcast truly local programming (which has to be cheap to produce -- heck, community groups would probably be willing to pay for airtime).

Even back then, there were voices of reason. The article quotes Richard Warner of What's Up Interactive:
"It's not DVDs taking over from VHS. There is no groundswell of support from consumers for digital radio. [Emphasis mine. Four years later and the ground still ain't swelling] They're more interested in all the hits and whether traffic is bad, and they get that just fine now.[Emphasis mine]."
Four years later, we've learned that the digital sound isn't really that good (it's very compressed), and the signal strength makes reception problematic for many -- especially if you're indoors. HD Radio broadcasts are still the exception rather than the rule for many stations, and of those that do broadcast, only a fraction use a second or third channel of programming. And as far as all that metadata goes, well, it's minimal.
Most radio listeners are still where they were in 2004; contented to hear the hits, weather, and traffic on the gear they already have. To them, there's no perceived advantage to buying an HD Radio to receive programming that was promised years ago and still isn't readily available. And while the radio industry waits for the public to begin buying enough radios to get serious about providing content, the rest of us moved on long ago.

- Ralph

Day 176 of the WJMA Web Watch. (These guys used to have an HD Radio simulcast. I wonder if they still do? I'll just go to the website and - oh, wait. Never mind.)

Monday, December 15, 2008

Podcast Review - In Our Time

I listen to a lot of podcasts instead of the radio when I drive. Why? Content, of course. Let me tell you about one of my favorite podcasts, "In Our Time" and perhaps you'll see why I prefer it to long commercial breaks and a sparce selection of today's top hits.

"In Our Time" (IOT)hould be a national treasure. I don't think it is in its native Britain, but it should be.

IOT is a weekly radio program broadcast on BBC Radio 4. Fortunately, it's also available as a podcast, which is how I receive it. The program, hosted by novelist Melvyn Bragg, examines the important events, concepts, and people that shaped Western civilization and brought us to where we are; basically, the history of ideas.

The program's format is simple enough. Bragg invites three guest experts, and through a series of questions the topic unfolds. If I could, I would require everyone I know who's intelligence I respect to sit down and listen to this program. Why? Three reasons.

1) The topics. I have learned an amazing amount about science, history, philosophy, religion, and culture just by listening to this program. Check out some of the topics covered this season alone:

Dante's Inferno - to Hell and Back
Neuroscience - does the brain rule the mind?
The Translation Movement - Aristotle in Arabic
Godels Incompleteness Theroms - the dirty little secrets of maths
Miracles - will they never cease?

2) The organization. Take the recent program on the Great Reform Act of 1832. This was a subject I knew absolutely nothing about. And yet by the end of the program, I had a working knowledge of the event, and understood why it was an important turning point in English political history, leading to the reforms of 1848, and eventually sufferage for women.

The program is very carefully organized to quickly provide background and context for the subject within the first few minutes of the program, and as the show progresses, Bragg ably serves as the listener's advocate, asking clarifying questions and rephrasing technical information in everyday language.

3) The panelists. While there are some returning guests, the field of panelists is wide-ranging. But almost all are extremely articulate, and thanks to the aforementioned organization (the questions and the outline of the program are worked out in advance), generally stay on topic. And there's usually some nice interaction between the panelists, as minor disagreements arise, or in some cases, additional clarification added by a more expert member.

Instead of listening to the radio, for forty minutes I enjoy the company of articulate people who aren't apologetic either about their education or their field of study. Guided by the incomprable Melvyn Bragg, they examine an important topic in such a way that, regardless of how little I know about the subject, I can comprehend at least the basics.

So, for example, while I had encountered the Fisher King reading Edmund Spenser, I discovered during a program about the subject, the symbolic importance of this character in Mallory, and even his possible pre-Christian origins (and his reinterpretation for Twentieth Century writers).

If I had to, I would pay to receive this podcast. But I don't -- and neither do you. It's available as a free download from the BBC. And you can subscribe to the feed, which means that each new episode can automatically download to your computer. It's made my daily commute time well spent.

- Ralph

Day 175 of the WJMA Web Watch. (Should we do something special for day 200?)

Friday, December 12, 2008

HD Radio and the MMTC -- WTF

So the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council has weighed in on the issue of mandatory inclusion of HD Radio tuners on satellite radio receivers. According to Radio Ink:

"The MMTC feels the FCC "should require seamless scan AM/FM and HD Radio capacity in SDARS receivers because, without such a requirement, Sirius XM could use its satellite monopoly in the marketplace, the cost savings generated from the merger, and its relationships with equipment manufacturers and retailers to retard the growth of terrestrial services."
As they state on their website, the MMTC's concerned about promoting and preserving equal opportunity in the mass media and telecommunications industries. But is that cause really being furthered here?

One proposed condition for the merger was to have some frequencies set aside for minority broadcasters. MMTC support for that proposal would make a lot of sense, as it keeps the door open for others to enter the satellite radio game.

But this petition only makes sense in the strange alternate universe of the NAB. In this mythical realm, broadcast radio's audience is only declining because of satellite radio's existence. Listeners are lured to the pure, digital sound of satellite radio. If only HD Radio had a fair chance, broadcasters know they could win those listeners back!

In such a world, the MMTC's reasoning makes sense. After all, "
Sirius XM could use its satellite monopoly... to retard the growth of terrestrial services." Therefore, by placing AM/FM/HD receivers on satellite radio tuners, listeners wouldn't be forced to only get the programming that SIRIUS/XM monopoly doles out. The world would open up for those boxed-in listeners.

Well, in this reality things are quite a bit different. First off, broadcast radio listeners aren't exclusively fleeing to satellite radio. They're moving to MP3 players to enjoy their own music libraries, and smart phones for streaming Internet radio. They're enjoying "radio on demand" (podcasts) and services such as LastFM and Pandora that let them program their own radio stations. And almost all of this is commercial-free (or at least not as commercial-heavy).

Secondly, the appeal of satellite radio isn't the sound quality -- it's the content. A lot of subscribers are grousing about the programming after the merger, but it's only in comparison to what each service offered before. I doubt you'll find anyone saying broadcast radio has far better music options!

Thirdly, HD Radio's been pitched as having better sound quality (which no one really cares about), and no subscription fees! But what people are subscribing to is the content. And since most stations simply simulcast their main signal on their HD Radio frequency, that's not much of an incentive. (And I grant public radio's done a much better job in this regard). Which is why, even after five years in the marketplace, HD Radio's gone nowhere.

And fourth, the satellite radio monopoly really isn't one at all. It's a subscription service. If you don't pay the subscription, you're not cut off from news, talk, sports, music or any other audio information. You still have the above-mentioned terrestrial radio, MP3 players, smart phones, etc.

So the MMTC's stance doesn't really wash. If every satellite radio receiver had AM/FM/HD built in, how much do you think they'd be used? Remember, these devices are in the hands of people who are paying money for content they can't get on terrestrial radio in the first place.

And if it's so important that every citizen have access to HD Radio, why is the petition limited to just satellite radio tuners? Why isn't there a mandate requiring every radio receiver have HD Radio built-in? And really, to be fair, why isn't there a petition requiring every radio receiver to be satellite-ready? After all, if a "seamless scan" of AM/FM/HD is vital for SDARS receivers, then shouldn't AM/FM radios also provide a seamless scan through HD and SDARS as well? Wouldn't that really be equal opportunity, as it places all platforms on all devices?

I'm sure the MMTC only wants to ensure that all people have access to all media -- but I just don't see how this petition does that. The only "winner" I see here is iBiquity. Because if this requirement is passed, then iBiquity will receive a licensing fee for every satellite radio tuner manufactured. And even if not a single owner ever turns on the HD Radio option, it won't matter. iBiquity will -- by government mandate -- make a fortune.

And IMHO, there's nothing fair or equal about that opportunity at all.

- Ralph
Day 172 of the WJMA Web Watch.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

"Murder Squad" - a free Raven adventure mystery

As promised, I'm making available the novel "Murder Squad," the first adventure of Raven and Crow, as published in 1936. You can download the entire story as a PDF. Here's the first chapter to whet your appetite.


NIGHT in the city! The side street sullenly reflected the indifferent glow of the street lamps in its rain-streaked surface. No cars were parked on this forgotten byway. Faded brick warehouses stood silently on one side of the street, solid walls broken only occasionally by heavy wooden doors and barred windows.

On the other side abandoned row houses in various stages of decay looked back, their ranks broken by a vacant lot in the middle of the block, its scrap lumber fence decorated by faded posters for events long past. Traffic noise from New York City's busier avenues echoed faintly along the street, but no vehicles ventured down this dark thoroughfare.

Suddenly a new sound intruded. Faintly at first, then increasing in volume the tapping of running feet approached the entrance to the street. A portly figure appeared in the glare of the corner street lamp, gasping for breath as he ran. His heavy great coat flapped about him, seemingly intent on hindering his progress.

As he entered the street, the lamp burst behind him. The runner shrieked and stumbled as he hunched his shoulders. A second streetlight on the opposite curb exploded. The man veered away. The streetlight in front of him shattered into fragments. He stopped. His body heaving with heavy breaths, the man turned towards the street entrance. The surviving streetlights silhouetted his large frame. With wide eyes he peered into the gloom from which he had come. The only sound to signal the destruction of the street lamps had been that of the heavy glass fragments tumbling to the pavement.

Abruptly the man violently spun around and pitched face forward onto the pavement. Something seemed to silently pluck his left shoulder and his body moved forward slightly. An invisible force pulled at his collar and the body moved slightly forward once again.

Footsteps approached the entrance of the street. They stopped, the sound briefly echoing along the buildings. A shiny piece of tin arced out from the darkness and landed near the man.

It caught the light as it bounced on the pavement. The footsteps receeded. The street was silent once again. The portly man did not move. In the now reduced illumination of the street, there was a large dark shape in the middle of the pavement - as silent and lifeless as the uncaring warehouses that looked upon the scene.

Of course, it's not really a reprint from 1936. "Murder Squad" was actually my homage to the pulps, originally written as a way of easing into more serious writing. Except it was too much fun. So while the serious writing hasn't quite gotten off the adventures of Raven and Crow have continued, and there's even some material featuring the supporting characters mentioned in "Murder Squad's" forward.

I may get to great art someday, but in the meantime, enjoy. There isn't much of a market for this kind of story, so I offer it as a free download.

Feel free to leave a comment and let me know what you think (and if you're one of the folks who suggested turning the "Purple Doom" into a radio serial, and like what you read -- let's talk).

- Ralph

Day 172 of the WJMA Web Watch.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Preparing to launch

Sometimes a project becomes a series of backwards steps. Case in point: there's been some [small] interest in my novel, "The Purple Doom" that I recently completed as part of the National Novel Writing Month competition.

I'd like to capitalize on that modest interest, but that desire has led me down a trail of prerequisites.

1) The novel needs to be edited and cleaned up a little (OK, a lot -- I did some crazy-mad typing there at the end). So I don't really want to post it raw, so that means it will be about a month before it's available -- at which time all interest will be gone. But wait! "The Purple Doom" is actually the fourth novel I've written about these characters. I should post the others.

2) The first novel, "Murder Squad" was written a few years ago. It's finished and edited, but it still needed another pass.

3) But before I could post it, I needed to decide on format. Should it go up as a text file? A PDF? A Word document? I think I might go with a PDF, which means I've got to convert it to that format.

4) But wait. What kind of copyright do I want? Well, I've already decided on using a Creative Commons license. Anyone can enjoy and share "Murder Squad" for free. If someone wants to make money of it, though, I'd like them to contact me. But I need to register the work with Creative Commons before finalizing the format, as the CC language needs to go into the document.

5) But the form asks for the author's URL and the work's URL. Well, I can have the "Murder Squad" download live on our FTP site, but I don't have my own website! Should I use my FaceBook page? Not the best first impression. Should I construct a new site for this? Probably not -- the whole idea is to get "Murder Squad" out as quickly as possible.

So once I get the infrastructure worked out, then it all should flow very quickly. But in the meantime, I feel like I'm starting not at Square One, but Square Negative Five!

- Ralph

Day 171 of the WJMA Web Watch. (Which will happen first? Will "Murder Squad" be posted, or will their website go live?)

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

What Price Social Media?

Compared to some, I not a big user of social media -- but I want to be, for both personal and professional reasons. Personally, it's a great way to stay in contact with friends and family (well, those on this side of the digital divide, anyway).

Professionally, it's a great way to drive traffic to our company's website, and blog, and podcast, and our Linkedin network, and -- well, you get the idea.

The problem is, though, that we're talking about social media. Which means I've got to be social. If I want traffic to my blogs, I've got to read and comment on other blogs. If I want folks to check out our label's MySpace page, I've got to do the same for theirs. If I want more Twitter followers, I've got to actively follow other Tweeters (is that the right word?).

Don't get me wrong -- it's not that much of a chore. I'm having a blast. But at the same time, especially for the business side of things, I have to balance time and effort invested. After all, Digital Chips, Inc. has a very small staff, and the time I spend being social is time not spent working on projects, or completing paperwork, or doing any of the other million-and-0ne things a small business owner needs to do (beside producing the actual product or service).

So what's the balance? How much time should be spent developing and maintaining social media networks vs. other parts of the job?

I'm still experimenting with the mix, but I don't quite have the answer yet. If anyone has a solutions they'd care to share, please let me know!

- Ralph

Day 170 of the WJMA Web Watch. (I think these guys might be even further behind the curve than we are)

Monday, December 08, 2008

Evolving Holiday Traditions

In our family (as in many others) holiday traditions are important. It's not written down anywhere, but when we start to decorate, what order the decorations are put up, what foods are (or aren't) candidates for the Christmas day menu, and many other details just have to be a certain way.

What I try to keep in mind, though, is that these aren't rituals handed down from time immemorial. Rather, they're things that have evolved in response to circumstances and continue to evolve year to year. Yet while changing over time, they offer a comforting continuity to the past.

Case in point: The first year we were married, someone gave us a small bound notebook. We received some special ornaments for our first Christmas tree and decided to use the notebook to record who gave us the ornaments.

That first entry was back in 1977, and it's a tradition that we've kept up ever since. Before decorating the tree, we record the new ornaments into the book. But it's an evolving tradition.

When we started, my wife did the recording. As time went on, our children sometimes took over the task, and a season or two I did it as well. While the early years record additions, in time we started to record losses as well. Some ornaments didn't survive storage (like the handmade cookie dough star), and recently we've given some to our children as they begin setting up their own housekeeping.

It's a good thing we wrote things down when we did! There are ornaments from family members long since departed, and friends and colleagues who have moved away. Some were souvenirs of trips, others gifts for special occasions (some not related to Christmas), and some just fortuitous finds. I might remember a few of the stories attached to different ornaments (like the batik blue felt dove a friend made), but certainly not all.

So now part of the tradition is thumbing through the notebook, recalling good times and dear friends both present and past. As far as I know, we're the only family with such a book, but that doesn't matter. It's something that has meaning for us.

And that, in my opinion, is what the holidays should be about. Traditions that help you enjoy them on a deeper level. When we first got married, we had to combine two different family Christmas traditions -- not everything made the cut. We kept the ones that meant something to us and ditched the rest.

What holiday tradition means a lot to you? And how has it evolved over the years? Leave a comment and let me know!

- Ralph

Day 171 of the WJMA Web Watch.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

A Life Less Sedentary

Long-time blog readers have noted the relative absence of Ken, my writing partner. Ken's been busy with a number of different things, some of them outdoors and away from the computer. His personal blog, "Milestones" chronicles his training regime as he prepares for the Boston Marathon.

And he's also become my coach as well. He's inspired me to become more active, and after about a half century of relative inactivity, I took to the roads this year, preparing for the Charlottesville Men's 4 Miler.

So how did I do? I didn't come in last (although at 1:08:28 it was close). Ken kept stressing that for this race, personal performance was what counted, and he was right. I walked rather than ran most of the four miles, but I did keep up a good pace (for me), and although the runners in the 80-year-old and up class left me in the dust within the first quarter mile (as did everyone else), it didn't matter.

And it didn't seem to matter to either the other runners or the folks along the course. Everyone was encouraging, and everyone seemed appreciative that even though I was the cow's tail for most of the race, I was still hanging in there.

So what next? I'll start in next week working towards the next race. Can I get down to a 15-minute mile? We'll see. It's certainly something to shoot for. I've got a lot of lost time to make up (several years worth, at least)!

- Ralph

Day 169 of the WJMA Web Watch.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

A Veiled Threat

Not everyone understands the concept of transparency, and why it's important on the Internet. Here's a perfect example of our local area (although the concepts discussed here can be applied anywhere).

Orange County, Virginia has been fought over for some time by pro-growth and anti-growth factions. Both groups are politically active, and both have powerful allies outside the county helping their respective causes.

Now there are many pro-growth people who just want what's best for the county. They see new residents and new businesses coming in as a healthy thing. Then there are some large land owners who see subdividing as a way to make a lot of money -- and a lot of it. And then there're the developers, of course, who just want to come in, throw up structures as quickly and cheaply as possible, and move on to the next project.

Recently the Board of Supervisors tried to tighten up the regulations surrounding development. A lawsuit was filed to overturn those regulations.

The people behind the lawsuit may have the purest of intentions. But the lack of information about them creates problems -- especially in a world where most information is readily available online. Accidental and innocent, or purposeful and sinister?

1) According to the news story, four families have filed the lawsuit, claiming that it unfairly restricts their rights as land owners. That sounds straightforward enough. So who are these people? I can't find any information anywhere that lists their names.

Most anyone involved with this issue in Orange Country could easily rattle off the names of four big landowners who have a vested interest in looser development regulations. Is that why these families are remaining anonymous, because if their names were known it would seem as if this was a ploy to forward development rather than an issue about property rights? I don't know, but the question sprang quickly to mind.

2) Although the news report said four families filed the suit, the link provided with the story goes to the "Orange County Citizens for Freedom."Great, a website! Now we can get some information.

Well, not really.

So who is the OCCF? There's no "about" link. The site tells us nothing about what the group's mission statement is, or how it's organized, or what its purpose is or anything. The homepage claims that the OCCF filed the lawsuit. So is the organization just the four families? And if so, what four families would that be?

The website also doesn't say if it's a non-profit group, for profit group, just some individuals, a PAC or what. There are no officers listed, nor any contact info save for a neutral e-mail address. There are links to some pro-property rights sites, but nothing especially illuminating.

Is this group trying to remain faceless for some nefarious purpose, or are they just clueless as to what information an organization website should hold?

3) There was only one name connected with the site. On the home page, people are encouraged to contribute to the OCCF by sending checks to the firm of Vanderpool, Frostick & Nishanian, P.C. Now there's no indication as to what the money will be used for, or how much is needed. And it isn't clear whether this is a tax-deductible contribution or not.

But from that one piece of information, I found out a little more about Vanderpool, et al. A simple search revealed that they're a law firm based in Manassas (part of over-developed Northern Virginia), and their  specialties are land use, zoning, and development.

So is the OCCF really concerned about property rights, or is this just another way for developers to get rid of inconvenient legislation?

The OCCF had none of the information I expected to find on an above-board organization website. It could be an oversight (and if it is, I suggest they fix it quickly), or it could be the OCCF/nameless four families have something to hide. Given the little bit I had to go on, I suspect the latter.

- Ralph

Day 167 of the WJMA Web Watch.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Radio Days

Well, sharing information about my participation in the National Novel Writing Month competition had an unexpected result. I received not one but two proposals to turn my competition novel, "The Purple Doom" into a radio drama.

Actually, it might work pretty well. Like all pulps, each chapter ends with a cliffhanger to keep the reader turning the pages. But adapting a print work to radio is more than just transcribing the dialogue.

In order to really do a radio play properly, all the scene-setting elements, such as sound effects and narration, need to be kept to a minimum in order to stay out of the way of the story's forward motion.

For example, here's an excerpt from Chapter Two of the "Purple Doom" (you can read Chapter One here):

Amos Kensington glanced at the mantle clock. Five minutes to midnight! His stance became more relaxed, his smile broadened. The millionaire looked around the small study. The room was a simple box, with a high ceiling. Two walls were covered with bookshelves from the floor up, displaying three generations of rare book collecting. A third wall also contained shelves, framed by two large windows, now locked and completely shuttered from the inside.

Kensington looked to the fourth wall, where the marble fireplace contained a roaring blaze. The light from the fire flicked wanly across the room, unable to complete with the collective illumination from the room’s electrical fixtures and lamps, every one of which switched on by Kensington.
His eyes traveled back to the automatic laying on the desk. Well, he thought, let the Doom come. I’m ready now.

Raymond turned onto the narrow lane that lead to the Kensington estate and looked at the dashboard’s illuminated clock. Five minutes to midnight! He had visited Amos several times before. About five minutes to get to the main gate, another three to get to the front door. I might not be early, but I won’t be late, Raymond thought.

As he approached the entrance, he saw a large dark shape on the road’s shoulder opposite the Kensington gates. The limousine’s headlights played across a familiar sky-blue object. Raymond recognized the Italian sports car that had recently passed him. But why was it here, partially hidden off the road, and where was the driver?

Feeling vaguely uneasy, Raymond pulled into the gates. On a sudden impulse, he turned the vehicle so that it faced out toward the road, and backed off the driveway close to the poplars lining the drive. The motor stopped and the car lights winked out. Silently Raymond moved from the vehicle. His dark shape glided through the gates and across the road to the sports car.

And here's how I would adapt it to radio:

Narrator: Last time, as you remember, millionaire Amos Kensington urgently asked Raymond Barr to come to his house at midnight. Kensington has made a fateful decision.

(sound of crackling fire and a ticking clock)

Kensington: Five minutes to midnight. Maybe nothing's going to happen after all. (breathes a sigh of relaxation). After all, I'm here, safe in my study, alone. My automatic's laying on the desk there, and I know how to use it, too! But there's only one door, and it's locked. (laughs slightly) So let the Doom come. I'm ready now.

Narrator: Not far away, Raymond speeds through the night in his roadster.

(sound of motor and a screech of tires)

Raymond: Almost missed the turn onto this narrow lane. That would have been too bad - it's the only road to the Kensington estate. (thinking aloud) Let's see, about five minutes to the main gate, another three to get to the front door... I might not be early, but I won't be late.

(sound of motor slowing down)

Raymond: Say, what's that in the headlights? That looks like that sky-blue Italian crate that passed me earlier. What's it doing here? And where's the driver?

(sound of tires scrunching on gravel)

Raymond: I'll just back into this grove of trees here. Call it a hunch, but I'm betting I'll have to drive out of here in a hurry.

Narrator: Silently Raymond moved his parked vehicle. His dark shape glided through the gates and across the road to the sports car.
I think the best thing is to finish the edits on this thing as quickly as possible, so folks can read the whole story. These offers may dry up -- but if they don't, this may be the start of a beautiful podcast series...

- Ralph

Day 166 of the WJMA Web Watch.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Open Government

Larry Lessig, one of the major proponents for an open Internet, has helped start a new organization - Open Government.

The concept is simple. Open Government simply wants to ensure that the transparency of government that President-elect Obama promised does in fact happen. Towards that end, it's presenting a petition to sign supporting the three principles for an open transition:

1) No legal barrier to sharing - Everything on the Change.gov website has a Creative Commons license, giving virtually everyone the right to use the material with few restrictions. Why is this important? To prevent silliness such as Oregon sending a cease-and-desist letter to a website critical of its judicial decisions. The website quoted Oregon statutes, which the state claimed was copyrighted material.

2) No technological barrier to sharing - Some government websites prevent cutting-and-pasting of their material. Why? It's not proprietary to an individual or a corporation. All this point says is that government information available to public viewing should be available for the public to take and use as they wish.

3) Free competition - Currently, when an official makes a public statement, the mainstream media covers it, and promptly locks down the video as proprietary. But is it? When all the networks use the same feed provided by the government, do they really own it? This proposal simply asks that videos of public statements be available for the general public to use. Naturally, if a network edits a clip incorporates it into a segment produced and hosted by their employees, that's legitimate to copyright. But the source footage freely provided? Not so much. And if you think this is an esoteric issue, remember that the McCain campaign had many of their ads pulled because of just this kind of "copyright infringement."

I encourage everyone to go to Open Government and read their explanation of these principles. I signed the petition, but I'm not telling anyone else to. Just go, read, and decide for yourself.

That's the way an open government should work.

- Ralph

Day 165 of the WJMA Web Watch.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Dial-Up: the Digital Doldrums

We traveled to my wife's family over the Thanksgiving holiday, and for three days I was forced to use a dial-up connection to link to the outside world. It was frustrating and illuminating.

Watching the monitor on my laptop, I saw the incoming data stream start out at about 165 Kbps, then drop to around 40 Kbps, then bottom out at 2 Kbps. After about 10-15 seconds, the cycle would repeat. And of course, it didn't take much to break the connection.

Taking a half an hour to check e-mail was the frustrating part.

But trying to navigate to the various sites I regularly visit or use professionally was illuminating, because I understood why the Internet has so little appeal to a significant part of our population.

At 2 Kbps, even thumbnail images took a significant amount of time to load, which meant that graphic-heavy sites were just not practical to visit. When it can take a couple of minutes per page to open up a news site, then just reading the paper or watching the evening news seem really attractive options.

Even Digg.com, which is mostly text, took a long time to load because (I believe) it's so link-intensive. So too with Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites. They just took far too long to load and refreshing the pages took a significant amount of time as well.

And of course, any site that used flash animation was difficult to use. I found myself getting increasingly irritated at the sites that make flash part of their navigation, as it significantly added to the page's load time. I usually had to wait about a minute before enough of the page loaded for the navigation tools I needed even appeared.

YouTube was even worse, and at 2 Kbps videos were virtually unwatchable. Even streaming audio was out of the question. So goodbye, Pandora and Internet radio! And also goodbye podcasts -- unless I wanted to leave my laptop connected to the phone line overnight to download new episodes.

In a recent poll, the Pew Charitable Trust asked people who weren't online why they weren't. The answers broke down like this:
  • 33 percent say they are not interested.
  • 12 percent say they don't have access.
  • 9 percent say it is too difficult or frustrating.
  • 7 percent say it is too expensive.
  • 7 percent say it is a waste of time.
And being on dial-up is just as bad. The long load times made me quickly lose interest in visiting sites. And I soon had no desire to explore the Internet at all. Yes, it was extremely difficult and frustrating. And after two hours online, I felt like I hadn't really done anything at all -- in other words, being online felt like a complete waste of time. So I experienced what about 49% of the people cited as reasons for not being online.

According to Pew, 27% of American adults aren't online at all, while 15% only have dial-up. After this past weekend, I'd say that puts 42% on the wrong side of the digital divide.

- Ralph

Day 164 of the WJMA Web Watch.