Saturday, July 27, 2013

Music Formats (AKA: Why I miss CDs and 8-Tracks)

I was born in the 70s, so I have seen almost every recognizable format for music in my time.
There were 8-Tracks, which were justifiable loathed by anyone who loved music, for their lousy sound and the need to rearrange albums (or simply to edit them) just so you could get a song to fit on one of the four bands. Nothing like hearing a 22 minute Allman Brothers track where you hear, "Ain't but one way out (KERCHUNK!!!!), Lord I just can't go out the door." They should have tied the person with this bright idea to the whipping post. Still, my dad loved them because you could put them in and let them go. And I have an affection for two Christmas tapes my dad got in one of those Columbia House "25 albums for a penny" that he made me swear I would never join.

There were albums. These, of course had been around forever, and it was the first format I actually spent my own money on, buying Queen's The Game at K-Mart for around $7 in the early 80s. Albums were big, beautiful, substantial purchases that were meant to be shelved and displayed, and apparently to roll joints on. And there was nothing like throwing them on and hearing your favorite album.

Another one bites the dust. Another one bites the dust. Another one bites the dust. Another one bites the dust. Another one bites the dust. Another one bites the dust. 

Yes, that was the joy of realizing the album you bought had a skip in it because you accidentally scraped it against the spindle while you were trying to put it on. And let's not forget the joy of paying $8 for a warped album that had been pressed with materials so thin that it looked like a wrinkled shirt when you pulled it out of the sleeve. Still, there was the fun of slowing down the record (if you had an old stereo with 16 speed), or speeding it up to 78 and listening to the idea that inspired the Chipmunks entire musical career.

Let's not forget cassettes. This was the essential 80's format to fit in your "boom box" or "ghetto blaster". For you youngsters, a boom box was a portable stereo with a handle on it that you could use to enjoy music in large groups of people who WEREN'T networked in through a computer, and were simply doing stupid things like hanging around in a room together. They took 48 D batteries that died halfway through your Thriller cassette. I had LOTS of cassettes. And because I was obsessed with music, I began to compare how each of the record companies packaged their music (BMG went the cheap route with crappy inserts and no liner notes. Warner usually went all out), the sound from each company (the HX Pro from Warner Brothers kicked ass), and even the smells (for some reason, some companies had really intoxicating perfumey smelling inserts and cases.) Of course, none of this hid the fact that cassettes were second to 8 tracks in their awfulness. There was nothing like hearing your favorite album wrap itself around the guts of your player, or worse yet, realizing you left the cassette in your hot car and the entire tape was now a lump of Jello in the shape of a cassette. Still, it didn't stop me from buying a buttload of the things.

Then, the gold (silver?) standard.    CDs.  I got my first CD player in 1988 and still have it. It was a Pioneer six disc changer that kickstarted me into music fanaticism. I remember seeing my first CD player years earlier in JCPenney's and reading about the incredible sound they produced.  I wanted one.   $1000 dollars for a single player seemed insane then, and impossible now, but by 1988 they'd dropped enough that I finally had one. CDs were great because now record companies had a format they could legitimately overcharge for, since CDs inititially had to be produced in a wasteful process involving a clean room (not your sister's bedroom, but an actual environment with no contaminants) and there were very few plants making them. And they could make you rebuy your entire music collection because the CD sound was marketed as being the best around. Who wanted a skippy and crackly album when you could hear the music as it was recorded.

Of course, that didn't stop the record companies from saying, "oops, our bad, this really isn't the best that Three Dog Night has sounded. You need to by our new 16 bit.... make that 20 bit mastering process that was reengineered using the original source masters with supervision by the band and a team of audiophile historians."

And then they thought of "Deluxe Editions", in which your favorite album had bonus tracks, demos, and maybe even fragments of cocaine they found in the studio from the time it was recorded.

I lapped that crap up. There are some artists, (I'm looking at you, The Who) who I have bought four different copies of their album because some new mastering or lost demos made it a must have. Today I have thousands of the damned things, which are worth nothing because of......

Digital downloads. The scourge of the record industry. A single file that contains an entire song. I remember my first digital download, and my first illegal copy ever. It was a Metallica's One, downloaded in about 18 hours over AOL dial up from Napster. A week later I was banned from Napster, my criminal days over before they began because of a bunch the humorless masters of speed metal.

People like to say that digital theft killed music, but I like to think it was something else. For those of us who grew up as music lovers and liked the physical presence of discs and tapes, as well as liner notes and pictures, digital music seemed like a cheat. When I purchased a digital download, it felt the same as making a cassette copy of an album. Yeah, I had the music, but I didn't have the experience. I had a replica of the experience.  

As digital albums and songs slowly creeped onto my iPod (full of my CDs, so I'm not cheating on them), I realized something even more important about why digital audio files have helped destroy music.    They sound like shit.   I'm not talking about the typical audiophile gripes about the bitrate of digital files, I'm talking about the loudness with which digital files (and now, sadly, CDs) are now mastered.  

Ever been to a movie where the dialog is whispered so low you can barely hear it, and then followed by an explosion that rattles the ceiling tiles in the theater?   That's what digital sound is supposed to do.  It's supposed to give you a full range of audio.    Previous formats were limited in how much range they could provide, so they were mastered with a more limited range of soft and loud.    Somewhere in the past five or ten years, the people that master music decided that you should enjoy both the whisper and the explosion and explosion volumes.     The idea is that you won't miss any bit of music through your crappy earbuds if you accidentally run in front of a semi at a crosswalk and the driver honks his horn at you.   Unfortunately, this mastering pushes every instrument and vocal to eleven and creates (at least in this listener) an audio fatigue in which your ears get tired because all of the sounds that reach your ear are strained to the breaking point.  (For more information, see this excellent wikipedia article.)

Which brings me back to what brought me to write this in the first place, the resurgence of vinyl. People my age and people who never saw a physical album in the store when they were growing up are buying vinyl again. They are learning to appreciate the idea of a physical purchase of music, and they're saying 'it just sounds better."    I'd love for them to start exploring the different formats and realizing that the record companies have denied them the actual sound they should be hearing, as demonstrated in any number of 1980s and 1990s CDs.   Any used record store should give them a treasure trove of great sounding discs for cheap.    

Posted with BlogsyPosted with Blogsy

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The Trolley Problem, or Would You Throw the Fat Guy Off the Bridge?: A Philosophical Conundrum -- A Review

The Trolley Problem, or Would You Throw the Fat Guy Off the Bridge?: A Philosophical Conundrum
by Thomas Cathcart

(This review is based on a review copy received from the publisher.)
The Trolley Problem poses an interesting philosophical dilemma. If faced with having to choose between leaving a runaway trolley car on course to kill five people, or taking an action that will divert the trolley and only kill one, what would you do and why? Would your actions make you a good person or a bad person. 

Cathcart presents the problem as a trial in the court of public opinion with a woman on trial for homicide for diverting the trolley. Is she guilty of manslaughter, or simply making the best choice she had in an impossible circumstance. Various philosophical points of view are presented by the fictional people arguing and discussing the case in the book. Sidebars with the biographies and the philosophies of the philosophers being presented accompany each discussion.

I was amazed at how well the book presented numerous points of view in looking at the moral and ethical issues that guide our decision. It was especially interesting to read in the wake of the George Zimmerman trial as you puzzle over the decisions and statements made by the jury. Where would they stand on this issue. 

If nothing else, the Trolley Problem, Or Would You Throw The Fat Guy Off The Bridge, is a great introduction to philosophy for those, like me, with little direct experience with it. It's a quick and entertaining read that enlightens. Recommended.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Dream Journal

Self help books and writing guides often tell you that you should keep a dream journal by your bed to log what goes on in your subconscious mind when you're sleeping. Supposedly, Keith Richards literally dreamed up Satisfaction and had the presence of mind to wake up and record a snippet before falling asleep.


It sounds like a great idea, but I have to imagine my dream journal would look like this.


1/17/13 - Woke up with bad gas. Was dreaming. Not sure about what. Tough to write this in the dark. What was the dream? Hmmmmmm. Can't sleep.
2/12/13 - Had dream. Opened up iPhone to record dream and saw a really funny tweet. Read 50 others, including a political post that made me mad. Forgot dream. Can't sleep.
3/7/13 - Woke up with nightmare. Tried to grab phone to record dream and accidentally knocked over lamp. Woke up wife. Forgot nightmare. Can't sleep because couch is too short.

Or perhaps it would simply be a series of two word posts with the beginning of a third word that drifts off into a straight line, followed by the sound of a journal loudly falling to the ground.

Whatever the end result, perhaps it's better I don't keep a record of my dreams. I'd hate to have dreams of a guy with a burned face, a glove full of razors and a striped sweater. I'd probably interpret it as an admonition to wear sunscreen, stop biting my nails, and to be more appreciative of Christmas gifts I don't care for.


Why Buying New Glasses Is A Pain in The....

I've needed glasses for most of my life, but only worn them religiously since 1995, when the stress of a new job and the visual requirements for it caused my eyes to go completely haywire.

Part of the joy of bad eyes is getting new glasses.   I realize some people love new fashion and enjoy getting glasses.   I am not one of them.   Here are some reasons why I hate the eye exam and the glasses buying experience.

Refraction retraction

"One or two?"

"Two or three?" 

It's 2013.  By now I was hoping that a laser scan of my eye would find me the perfect fitting glasses without me having to spend 20 minutes looking at two different versions of an eye chart and trying to decide which of the two looks better.   I just know that the optometrist is judging me as I make her flip back and fourth five times because one variation of E M O P R looks bold and stately and the other looks dignified and sharp and I can't decide which one is supposed to be the better one.   No matter what, I'm always convinced that I made the wrong choice on my last selection and I'm going to be walking around not being able to read that Arby's sign from 700 yards away.   I also think my eye doctor is saying, "what an indecisive jackass.  I can't believe he ever found a wife."  

How do you pick out something you can't see?

If, like me, you can't wear contacts, the glasses buying experience is like this: 

"Ooooh!  Those look good on the wall.  Let me try those on." 

(Pause to put them on and look in the mini mirror that is the size of an index card.) 

"I look like an inkblot of Mr. Potato Head.   Can someone tell me how these look?"

I realize that many of us make questionable fashion choices even with 20/20 vision, but the idea that you pick out the one item that corrects your vision without ever really seeing what it looks like is just crazy to me. 

Too much selection with too much "manfusion" 

It used to be that eyeglasses were sold with clear distinctions between male and female frames.   The men's frames had the big rugged manly look, and the women's had the sweetly curved feminine look.   Now, there is simply too much "manfusion" as the manly man that I am (stop laughing, dear) tries to pick out frames suited for me.  

Now, who knows what the hell is going on.   I'll pick out a perfectly great pair of frames that would intimidate John Wayne with their manliness only to have my daughter point out the pink flowers on the sides.     I'm not saying there isn't and shouldn't be some overlap in styles, but my genuine fear is that I'll be the guy that everyone in the office knows as "Girl Glasses Guy." 

And while we're at it, how many different variations of the same frame can you have?   Does the world really need 700 takes on "hipster oval"?   I did so much whipping off of frames that I felt like I was auditioning to replace David Caruso on CSI: Miami. 

Would You Like Heated Lenses?

Once you pick your frames, you want to go home and crawl into bed.  But no, there is the selection of lenses.  Would you like glass, regular plastic, polycarbonate, or perhaps lenses made of Swarovski crystal?  Okay, now that you've picked those out, would you like the kind that get darker when sunlight hits them, or turn florescent under a blacklight?  How about coatings?  Would you like them scratch resistant, UV coated, or perhaps dipped in a sugar glaze?    Would you like accidental breakage coverage?    How about a Bluetooth receiver built right into the earpiece?  Oh!  That doesn't work with the iPhone 4. 

When picking out lenses, what you realize is that whatever choice is affordable is the choice that "nobody gets".   If you want glasses that aren't going to weigh so much they carve two divots out of your nose or scratch when you walk under a ceiling fan, you're going to have to pay for it.  

Picking up your glasses

It's always great to pick up your glasses for the first time.  You typically have to wait.  Then you see a guy who takes your brand new glasses and dips them in different machines that appear to turn your frames into taffy for him to mold to your face.  He stares into your eyes as he does this, apparently implanting some secrets that only opticians hold, and then asks you "how do those feel?"   This is a trick, because your eyes are too busy freaking out for your nose and ears to communicate that the frames are cutting off  your circulation.   I can only assume that the optician does this because he wants you to come back so that he can implant more secrets in your head, or perhaps so he can laugh once again at your girl frames.  

Caring for your glasses

No matter what method of care you use for your glasses, from Windexing the crap out of them to using a cloth made of the finest soft cloth spun by angels and then spraying them with a solution designed by the company who made your lenses, your optician will tell you that you're doing it wrong.   The reality is that once glasses are made, they're meant never to be cleaned again.  But you'll do it, and you'll get some sort of scratch that those $300 lenses were meant to resist, and your optician will tell you that it's because you must have used water that wasn't formed in a lab by nuclear scientists.  He'll then appear to do everything you've been told not to do to clean your glasses, shake his head, and hand them back to you.    This cycle will repeat for 2 years until you do it all over again.