Reinventing the World

August 5, 2011

This is a long and meandering post. I’m not entirely sure what the point is. This is the luxury of a blog.

As you, dear reader, are likely aware, I spent a good part of last month plowing through A.S. Byatt’s wonderful novel The Children’s Book. It is centered in England at the beginning of the 20th century up to WWI. The main characters are, primarily Fabians, Socialists, and similar derivatives. What they generally have in common is a desire to make the world into something different. They live in a time of enormous injustice and are generally aware of it. They hold political meetings or write editorials or participate in protests in an attempt to change their society for the better. They do not, generally, succeed, but that isn’t the point. The point is they tried, and much of what they started did lead to real changes over time.

Beyond that, there was this idea/feeling of optimism. It’s something the US really had after WWII. I can remember the last strains of it from my childhood.

And then I look at the absurd mess that is the United States right now and I am totally flabbergasted. We have now reached a point where some of our elected officials are willing to destroy the economy of our country to ensure that rich people get to keep every-damn-penny they have. There is no sense of optimism. There is no sense that we are all working together to make something new and good. There is only division and selfishness.

Never mind that there is no evidence – none – that conservative economic policies work. What is most disgusting to me is how utterly uncharitable it all is. America has become a place where money is the only thing that matters.

You may be familiar with the concept of Gross National Happiness. It is a concept introduced by the king of Bhutan in an attempt to better measure how well the people of the nation are doing. It attempts to measure several things. Let’s look at each one for the US:

1. Economic Wellness: This is bad and getting worse. Republicans haven’t totally destroyed the economy yet, but they’re getting close. Real wages haven’t gone up in I don’t know how long and unemployment is high. No one thinks the recent deal in Washington is going to make things better.

2. Environmental Wellness: We are currently in the process of gutting a lot of our environmental standards (at least where enforcement is concerned) and it’s impossible to get any new regulations through congress because we don’t want to hurt industry. Someone remind me, again, how it is that industry has been helping the general populace lately?

3. Physical Wellness: Well, once the rest of Obamacare kicks in, things should get a little better here. That said, every year I’ve been teaching, the cost of health insurance has gone up (often matching exactly whatever raise I was given) and benefits have gone down. A great many Americans are still uninsured, and we rank near the bottom of the industrialized world in health care. But again, at least this one figures to get a little better.

4. Mental Wellness: I don’t really know much about mental wellness stats in the US, but since basically everyone is worried about losing their job, I have to believe this is kind of a downer, too.

5. Workplace Wellness: Yeah. Do I even need to explain?

6. Social Wellness: We live in a nation where religious discrimination is almost status quo. We live in a nation where sexism, misogyny and violence against women are horribly rampant.

7. Political Wellness: Oy. vey.

And here’s the thing, we could fix most all of these things. Much as the Republicans have been trying to tear apart the New Deal for decades, it freaking worked. Why can’t we do something like that now? Why can’t we make a giant investment and agree, as a society, that we want to make a better nation. Things we should do:

1. Economic Wellness: We’re going to need some kind of rational tax system. Rich people benefit from the society that allows them to be rich. In most instances this comes in the form of inherited wealth. In other instances, someone is simply lucky enough to have their particular talents valued highly by the society in which they live. A stock broker is very important in America. Less so in nomadic Mongolia. If you are rich, you are also almost certainly very lucky, thus you should pay a higher percentage of your wages to keep society going.

2. Environmental Wellness: It is time to go the route of green energy (if you don’t think global warming is real, you are an idiot, I’m just going to state that as a fact) via direct government. The US government has invested in industry infrastructure before (think railroads, among others) and it’s time to do it again. The primary problem with green energy is the upfront cost. If the government starts to offset that, suddenly green energy is much less expensive.

3. Physical Wellness: Socialized Medicine. Single Payer. Do it. I know socialism is a bad word, but if you really hate social programs, I hope you’re sending your children to private schools and hiring a private security force to take care of crime in your neighborhood. Why basic health needs aren’t considered on par with these other things is beyond me. Also, socialized medicine works way better than our current system as about a million studies will tell you.

4&5. Mental Wellness & Workplace Wellness: I’m tying these together to talk about human-friendly labor policy. Why on earth don’t we have paid maternity and paternity leave? Why don’t most of us have decent amounts of vacation time? This one would be pretty tricky as it really requires a mental shift to the idea that time can be more valuable than money. Less work would lead to less production, overall, but I don’t know why that’s a bad thing. Economies can’t grow forever. Eventually, we need to stabilize, and I would be willing to bet that most people would be way happier without the 60-hour work weeks and constant fear that you could be fired at any moment. Stronger unions would certainly help this along. Interestingly, despite this idea that lack of job-security makes people more productive, every study I’ve ever seen says the more secure a person feels, the harder they work. This comes, I suspect, from feeling like and important part of an organization instead of like a nearly-worthless cog that can be replaced at any time.

6. Social Wellness: Let’s start by trying to value all members of society equally and go from there. It would certainly help if a certain political party could drop the sexism, homophobia, and mad-crazy religious intolerance.

7. Political Wellness: This comes down to the anti-intellectualism in place right now. I don’t know how this happened, but it now seems to be decidedly uncool to have any idea what you are talking about. I suspect a lot of it stems from the political power ultra-conservative religious groups currently have. You can’t be a member of some of these sects without stomaching a lot of cognitive dissonance (I’m thinking of the things that come out of Michelle Bachman and Glenn Beck’s mouths). Basically, you can’t believe that nonsense if your willing to actually research information. Thus, researching information (also known as learning) is bad and ignorance is good. This explains how the Tea Party got so many people elected during the last go-round. If you could take care of this and get everyone thinking that it’s a good idea to listen to people like Paul Krugman (who has been very, very right about what’s been happening in the economy) because, you know, they actually have some expertise and don’t say stupid things like, “You know, where I grew up, we believed in common sense…”

So what if we did all this? Well, we’d end up with a sustainable nation where people are mostly happy. Instead, we have an unsustainable (oil is going to run out eventually) mess with high unemployment and an overwhelmingly unhappy populace. But it could change. We just need to realize, as a nation, that what we’ve been doing isn’t working. It’s time to try something else. We can reinvent the world. We have the means, we only lack the will.

Audiophile Heresy

June 10, 2011

So, if you’ve been paying attention and care (I doubt either of those is the case), you’re aware of my recent personal research into the realm of CD vs. vinyl vs. mp3 and analog vs. digital in general. I have reached a conclusion and everyone is going to tell me I’m wrong.

First, let’s talk about the equipment and music.

The primary test subject is Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs by Derek and the Dominos. I listened to other albums in both vinyl and various digital forms, but this was the definitive test subject because: 1. It is my favorite album and I’ve listened to it a million times, in different mixes, and can theoretically pick up small differences in sound and 2. I have both a good vinyl copy and a CD that uses the original mix.

Now, the equipment:

To play the CDs, I used our above-average Pioneer DVD player. It’s not the greatest thing on the market, but it’s very good.

mp3s (AAC files, actually) were played from my iPod, which was plugged into my stereo with standard AV cables.

Vinyl was played on my Dad’s JVC turntable. It is an old turntable, but has been well cared for, and when he got it, it was the best thing on the market (my dad is also an audiophile).

The stereos were my perfectly solid Kenmore digital stereo (with 5.1 and all that jazz) which is about 10 years old (college graduation present) and an excellent Yamaha vintage stereo that was rebuilt and given to me by a family friend who does that sort of thing as a hobby.

Speakers: the primary speakers were a pair of wonderful Realistic speakers that are almost exactly as old as I am.* I also included my supplemental surround-sound speakers at times.

The results:

I am going to be crazy and give each format a rating (from 1 to 10) on three categories: Convenience, Aesthetic Appeal, and Sound. Sound will count for double because we are talking about music here. The total score will give  you their overall ranking. From the bottom:

mp3, AAC, and the like: Convenience -10, Aesthetic Appeal – 0, Sound – 5 (times two). Total score 20/40

Comments: I love my iPod. When I was in college I used to take 20-40 CDs for the four hour drive home because I didn’t know what I’d want to listen to. The iPod does a great job solving that problem, and if I’m driving or mowing the lawn, I can’t really tell the difference. If we’re talk about dedicated listening though, it doesn’t hold up. Plus, no album art or liner notes or anything like that. To those who believe there is little sonic difference between the various formats and CD/vinyl, I refer you to this, and recommend a hearing test. There was a very clear difference (Cate listened with me and agrees). There are, of course, some digital formats that are indistinguishable, but they take quite a bit of memory aren’t readily available in many places. They also sometimes cost more, which makes them moot, if you ask me.

Vinyl: Convenience – 0, Aesthetic Appeal – 10, Sound – 6 (times two). Total Score: 22/40

I wrote a post a while ago about how I love the packaging and feel of a vinyl disc, so I won’t dwell on it here. What I will do is say that, even when I listened to good vinyl, the sound was totally acceptable, but not great. People love to talk about warmth, but frankly, I think they’re nuts. The warmth you’re hearing is distortion that mars the sound of the instruments, especially on the low end. Not to play the, “I’m a musician” card, but instruments don’t sound like that live. Most bands, I think, get a sound in the studio which they want to get down as close as possible on record. Vinyl doesn’t do that. I think the preference some people have for vinyl is the result of nostalgia and that nearly everyone gets most of their music from a recording and not a live performance. Thus, a distorted idea of what “real” music sounds like. Here is an article that fully explains why I’m right about this.

CD: Convenience – 7, Aesthetic Appeal – 5, Sound – 8 (times 2). Total score: 28/40

Comments: CDs sound way better. They just do. It’s much easier to distinguish the different instruments and there’s no mud on the low end. I do understand that there are issues with the loudness wars. dynamics are an important part of music, but failings there are the fault of the people, not the format. If you have a well-mixed album with full dynamic range, it will sound better (where better = more like the musicians likely intended it to sound) on CD than it will on vinyl. I listened for myself and I read up on the subject and both avenues of research tell me this. Also, Tom Dowd agreed with me when  he was alive, so there’s that.

Now, here’s the kicker. I also preferred my digital surround-sound stereo to the vintage one. It was a similar difference when comparing CD to vinyl. I know this is serious heresy, but it’s what I heard. I understand the appeal of analog, I do. I play guitar through a tube amp because I think it sounds awesome, but there’s an important distinction. I use a tube amp because I am trying to generate a certain sound. Once I have that sound, I don’t want recording technology to mess with it. the best way to keep it clean is to record it and play it back digitally through excellent speakers. Do CDs/digital recording techniques perfectly capture that sound? No, they do not, but they come a hell of a lot closer than their analog equivalents as I think anyone who’s spent time around a rehearsing band in a good sounding room will tell you. I’ll never play through a solid state amp if I can help it, but when you’re playing it back to me, keep it digital and don’t compress it.

*How I got those speakers is the best story ever: Once upon a time (1980), my dad had ordered some speakers from Radio Shack and sent my mom, who was 8 1/2 months pregnant at the time, to pick them up while he was at work. The salesman was a phenomenal jackass and provided her with no help at all loading them into the car (they were, I gather, fairly hefty). She wrote a letter to the company complaining. A few months later, she received a response telling her to come down to the store and pick out whatever she wanted. On my dad’s advice, she got a pair of fantastic speakers. They are about three and half feet tall and still the best sounding speakers I have ever heard in anyone’s house. The sound is crystal clear, especially if you have nice wood floors.

Years later, my parents were having a dispute because my dad wanted to get rid of a hulking entertainment center which was handmade and very nice, but no longer fit their needs (changing technology and all). My mom had, for some reason, developed an aesthetic hatred for the speakers (they were too “big” as though that’s possible) and struck a deal with dad that she would agree to get rid of the entertainment center if he got rid of the speakers. Thus, the awesome speakers passed on to me where they will live until I die because Cate is sensible enough to know the importance of kick-ass speakers.

Apple recently unveiled it’s new cloud service. Google and Amazon did the same thing a while ago. It’s all pointing to a world where all media is stored in the aether and pulled down for us to use whenever we feel a need for it. I do not like this, not at all.

I will admit that the idea of all my music being accessible to me at all times is pretty appealing. Additionally, I have certainly been tempted by readers and the wealth of free classics available. I may, in fact, make use of some of these services, but I can’t imagine ever fully trusting them. There are two reasons for this.

1. If I can’t hold it, is it really mine? Most of the cloud services don’t require you to actually have things on a hard drive. Further, they often control what you can do with the file. Amazon has removed titles from Kindles before.  You can loan a book that you buy for your Kindle one time. Once. If you ask me, that means it isn’t really mine. Also, what happens if Amazon or Apple or Google goes out of business? Sure, they all look invincible now, but history is littered with invincible companies that quickly fell by the wayside. If a book or album is really valuable to me, I want a physical copy of it that cannot be taken away by some amorphous corporate entity.

2. The devaluing of art. There is something about digitization that makes people feel that art is disposable. Books, music, film, whatever. It doesn’t matter if we lose it or don’t ever give anything for it because it’s just a file somewhere. But you know, people put a lot of their lives into these things. Writing books is hard. Making music is hard. If we are moving toward a point where, as a culture, we start to view these things as having no real value, well, I’ll just get off right here, then.

Am I being ridiculous? That is totally possible. It may be that this is just a technological transition that I am already too much of an old fogey to understand or appreciate. It may be that we are going to find a new way to value art and artist. But I don’t see it happening and until I do, I’ll be keeping one foot out of the cloud and on the ground.

More than just about anything else I’ve written on this blog, I should preface this post by saying that I have absolutely no idea what I’m talking about. I’m presenting ideas that are based almost exclusively on personal observation.

Last week, Borders announced it was filing for bankruptcy. Correspondingly, on Saturday our nearest Borders announced its going out of business sale. No one who spends any kind of time shopping for books and music is surprised by this. All I can say for them is that they send out some pretty decent coupons, but otherwise Cate and I avoid shopping there. Borders is a terrible store. Nearly every one I’ve ever been in has been horribly organized and their customer service has never been great. That’s not what did them in though.

Borders is the book equivalent of a big box store. They rely on the consumer believing that they have everything. Of course, they don’t have everything. Cate and I have often failed at using the awesome coupons they send out because, well, they just didn’t have anything we really wanted. Add to that that Border’s is often significantly more expensive than Amazon, and you’re forced to wonder if it’s even worth going to the store in the first place.

This is the same problem that a local music store (Ear X-tacy) ran into recently. They were something of an institution, but now they’re struggling to survive because everyone just downloads music or orders from the internet or whatever.

Ear X-tacy and Borders both want to be all things to all customers, but they can’t be. You can’t stock every book. You can’t stock every album. There are too many. What you have to be willing to do, if you want a presence in the physical marketplace, is to become boutique.

What does this mean? It means you acknowledge that you can’t stock everything. Instead, you appeal to the educated consumer. A local bookstore (Carmichael’s) has mastered this. Their fiction section, for instance, is excellent. Does Borders have more fiction titles? Of course, but Carmichael’s survives because they stock the right titles. They don’t, for example, stick Ralph Ellison next to some unfortunate African-American erotica just because both authors happen to be black. They don’t even bother with the erotica. This means that people like me will go there because they’ve already separated a lot of the wheat from the chaff. Discovering new writers is hard, especially when there is so much trash out there. If I want to do all that work myself, well, I can just go to Amazon.

The second part of knowing what to stock is realizing that while, yes you have to stock Justin Beiber if you’re a music store and Dan Brown if you’re a bookstore, you better find plenty of space for the Jenny Lewises and William Maxwells of the world.

I’ll end this with a story that illustrates my point: Cate and I tried hard to support Ear X-tacy. If we could buy something there we did, but then Robert Cray put out an album. And they didn’t have it. Derek Trucks put out a new album. And they didn’t have it. Finally, Jenny Lewis put out a new album. And they didn’t have that either. None of these are huge mainstream artists, but they are artists that you have to carry if you’re catering to music fans and not people who listen to top 40 radio on the way to work. We looked around and realized their selection wasn’t really any different from your local FYE. After the last incident, we stopped shopping there. It wasn’t worth the trip anymore. If they cared about my business, they’d stock music you can’t hear on the radio. Amazon has it cheaper anyway.

Digitized Music

January 13, 2011

Just a warning, the nerd factor on this post is very high…

Shortly, I will finally – FINALLY – be purchasing a new laptop. I am very excited about this, however I am being caught unawares by a particular development: optical (CD/DVD) drives are starting to be phased out. It’s not widespread yet, but it seems to be coming. This is problematic for me because Cate and I buy nearly all of our music (and books and movies) in hard copy and import it onto our computers.

I realize, of course, that this makes me a dinosaur, but I have my reasons. For one, I do rather enjoy the idea of owning a physical disc that holds the music. I like album covers and lyric booklets and all of that stuff. It does strike me, however, that this is an historically odd notion. Recorded music that can be readily purchased hasn’t even existed for a hundred years. Before that, you pretty much had to be at the performance to hear music. So, the whole concept of the album (and the cover and the booklet) is relatively recent when compared with the history of music. Further, if I’m being honest with myself, I don’t really spend much time with those covers. My music collection sits neatly organized on an enormous shelf with only the spines visible. I probably see the covers more when I’m poking around iTunes.

Of course, the big issue with me has always been the concept of sound quality. I have always maintained that CDs sound better than compressed files. Compression is fine for in the car or mowing the lawn, but sometimes, I want to sit down and listen to music in all its glory and I can’t do that with compressed files. Neither can I store my fairly enormous music collection in uncompressed form on my computer.

So it is time, I think, to solicit advice. If you have an opinion at all, tell me what you think. Am I nostalgic for a time that is quickly passing me by, or is there really value in continuing to hold on to these things?

Additionally, sometime this weekend, I am going to conduct and experiment. I have wondered for a while how much difference I can really hear. I have a couple of good stereos and some pretty excellent speakers and so, I am going to test the different formats in different environments with different musical selections and see what I think. I will of course, write another post about that because I am a nerd.