Mixed Up Tape

Cassette TapeBy now, you’re probably well aware of that vinyl albums have continued to sell (and gain popularity) even in this post-MP3, streaming music era. But a new report from FastCompany titled Music’s Weird Cassette Tape Revival Is Paying Off, recently noted that there’s been an odd resurgence in sales of cassette tape-based music in the past year. In the article, John Paul Titlow is quick to attempt to dispel the notion that the renewed interest in this fossil is simply analog hipsterism, citing that the format offers very real, practical benefits for budding artists as well as being embracing anew by well-established artists.

But I’m just as quick to call BS on this. I believe it is all about hipsterism.

Ok, ok, vinyl, I sorta get. Many audiophiles have long favored LPs over other formats, arguing that vinyl albums boast more warmth or a “rounder” sound due to the inclusion of super- and sub-frequencies that may be more perceived than actually heard. I suspect that most of those die-hard vinyl fans are really clinging to the format for mostly non-qualitative reasons. Nostalgia. Tactility. The cover art. Especially for us digital immigrants, LP music imparts more of a “wholeness” to it because it is concrete thing — you can feel, care for, and respectfully handle a vinyl album. There’s something to be said for the physicality of placing a record on the turntable and setting the needle — listening to an LP evoked a connection to your music that I’m not sure you can get with digital, regardless of how enjoyable the actual content is.

Mark Browm suggested that the revived interest in vinyl has more to do with the absence of DRM than anything else. But the motivation for studios to make the effort to encrypt their music has almost entirely waned, especially with streaming becoming the main way so many people get their music now. Once a very hot button issue, music “ownership” is no longer something most listeners even think about.

And really, digital media bests vinyl recordings soundly (rimshot!) by any objective criteria, including dynamic range, frequency response, noise floor, and channel separation, to name a few. Certainly, cassette tapes never even approached the audio quality of vinyl, much less digital music.

One undeniably cool thing about cassettes was making mixtapes. I remember fondly my first “boombox” portable player that had dual cassettes! Recording a mixtape required considerable effort, a lot of forethought, and a dash of skill. I made boatloads of mixtapes — often with accompanying custom J-cards for the cassette box — and it was a very personal thing. A mixtape was a labor of love. And because of the sequential nature of cassettes, the listener was all but forced to listen to your custom music compilation in the order that you intended.

In the post-cassette years, I burned CD versions of mixtapes. (Yeah, the term “mixdisc” does exist, but it never caught on.) Most of my CDs featured carefully-affixed custom labels (‘cuz scrawling across the disc with a Sharpie was just plain lazy) and the artwork of my home-brewed discs rivaled commercially-produced CDs. Certainly, the mixdisc offered the opportunity for lots more artwork, both on the media itself and the jewel case inner and front inserts. And with a physical disc, while there was less assurance that the listener would do so, it was still fairly likely that your carefully-selected anthology would be experienced in the intended sequence at least once.

However, in the MP3 era, this all went right out the window. Sure, you could still compile an assortment of files for your friends, but it lacked the same creative punch that a carefully-curated mixtape had. And with purely digital music, there’s nothing to force or even encourage the listener to play the tracks in any prescribed order. Gone too is any physical vestiges of music — digital music isn’t a thing, but more of an abstract concept.

So, FastCompany’s article posits that mixtapes are a viable way for up and coming musicians to cheaply produce small batches of their albums. But I insist that creating a CD is easier, less expensive, and the resulting product is far more accessible — how long has it been since you owned a car or home stereo equipped with a cassette player? Or maybe you’re still lovingly clinging to your circa-1979 Sony WalkMan?

For that matter, who among us still has a DiscMan?


So, I’m sticking with “hipsterism” as the key motivator for those stuck on tape.

What do you think?

Under the Gun

gun wordcloud

I’ve had a host of diverse, sometimes-conflicting thoughts about guns swirling around in my brain for some time but the recent shootings in Colorado & Wisconsin have kicked that into overdrive:

 

  • My late Father-In-Law learned to shoot a rifle (a simple .22 that he kept all of his life) as a child and used that rifle to hunt for small animals and birds. He knew how to clean and make the most of what he killed. It was often the only means with which his very poor rural family could add meat to their dinner plates. His rifle was, in a very literal sense, a necessary survival tool. But the time when guns were commonly needed and used as tools is long since gone. Guns now only serve to kill or destroy things.

 

  • There’s such rampant careless, neglectful gun ownership now that very few Americans really have to fear criminals. No, instead we have more to fear from our law-abiding neighbors. You know, the ones who have an unsecured, loaded .45 on their nightstand. Kids who take guns to school or playgrounds didn’t score those in a seedy back alley deal with some shady lowlife; children get guns right out of their parents’ bedroom or den!

 

  • Yes, I know of highly-skilled marksmen, for whom shooting handguns is a serious sport and their skill & accuracy are things of great pride. But by and large, I don’t believe most handgun owners fall into that category. Instead, I suspect that the vast majority of handgun owners would cite the need for possessing those weapons as “self-protection.”

 

  • If we’ve learned nothing else from the George Zimmerman case this year, it’s that while we may applaud the idea of “Dirty Harry” style vigilantism where some swift, finite—and preferably painful—street justice is doled out, our society doesn’t have the stomach for it. Sure, Zimmerman may still be alive because he took action and shot Trayvon Martin, but the event has undoubtedly destroyed his life and those of his entire family permanently. I wonder how many concealed carry zealots who fantasize about putting a hole in some would-be burglar are even remotely prepared for—or have ever even truly considered—the incalculable emotional, financial, and legal toll that their handguns could cost them and their families?

 

  • I believe there’s a strong case to be made that outlawing handguns would ultimately make us more safe, not less because of the lack of ease in concealing and spontaneously wielding a rifle. Wouldn’t the basic form factor—the size & shape of a rifle versus a handgun—make random, unplanned violence and/or accidental shootings (by legal gun owners) much less likely? Maybe it’s time that handguns be restricted to only military, police, or other civic groups charged with protecting their communities or country…

 

  • What does it say about our society when we don’t bat an eye at the prospect of restrictions on the sale of over-the-counter children’s cough medicines yet people march in the streets at the very mention of gun control?

 

  • 2nd Amendment supporters usually go berserk over the notion of limiting what they can possess, yet hardware such as sawed-off shotguns, fully-automatic firearms, rocket launchers, bazookas, and countless other “dangerous weapons” are already illegal to own. Why do they bristle so about new gun controls yet at the same time, calmly accept and willfully comply with those other restrictions?

 

  • Gun-rights groups argue that handgun prohibition would prevent law-abiding citizens from protecting themselves, but I have to wonder what percentage of handgun owners have ever—even once—fired their firearms for the sake of protecting themselves or their families. Perhaps it’s more the idea of self-protection rather than any actual need for said, that drives gun supporters. But wouldn’t the far greater accuracy that most rifles provide or the greater sheer destructive force of a shotgun make either of these a far better choice for self-protection? If you’re going to claim to own a gun for protection, why wouldn’t you opt for the most effective tool for that task?

 

  • If we cannot tolerate the idea of placing any limits on guns themselves, why not at least place strong restrictions on the sales of large quantities of ammunition, large capacity magazines, and tactical assault gear to civilians?

 

  • And finally, I read a quote from Austin American-Statesman this past weekend that really summed up how short-sighted gun control opponents are being: “While [control] measures might not prevent the next Aurora, they would make it hard for the shooter to […] kill so many people in such a short period of time. The alternative—to continue to shrug off America’s outsize gun violence as an inevitable risk in a free society—is helplessness.”

 

What’s your take on this? Do you believe outlawing handguns could reduce senseless gun-related violence? Is there some compelling reason why citizens should be able to purchase tactical gear like body armor? Is it possible to put in place some limits without voiding our 2nd Amendment right?

The Green, Green Grass of Home

lawn chairs in the desert

(Giving credit where it’s rightly due, this started as a response I was drafting to Eric’s “Water Musings” post
earlier this weekend but I didn’t want to hijack his blog with such a lengthy comment.)

 
Starting today, the City of Odessa has enacted even more stringent—some would say extreme—exterior watering restrictions for homeowners. That is, we’re allowed to water, via bubblers or by hand only, a scant 2 hours per week within a given 4 hour window. As you can imagine, area residents are doing a lot of hand-wringing over how they’ll even keep their trees & plants alive, much less their lawns.

Ah, the lawns. That’s the thing that’s really bothering me. Simply put, we have conditioned ourselves to an idyllic 50s-TV-inspired notion of what a home should look like. And it’s an unrealistic image that’s especially ultimately unsustainable when you live in the West Texas desert. We’ve convinced ourselves that a suburban home without a lush, green carpet of weedless turf is somehow much less cared about than those in the neighborhood that do have such. We’ve bought fully into the notion that the guy on the block with the best yard wins. And I’ll admit I’ve been as much a part of this problem as the next guy, having spent lots of money, time, and effort in years past to foster and maintain just such a showpiece front lawn.

Now of course, some locals are opting to have water wells drilled on their property so they can continue right on with the same watering practices, but that seems short-sighted at best and downright irresponsible at worst. Plus, there’s a reported 4 month average wait time now that so many are turning to this alternative source of water. And then there’s the considerable expense with little or no guarantee that a long-term personal supply of water actually does lie directly beneath your feet.

Perhaps it was inevitable that we’d run low enough on water that concessions would have to be made, but I think our civic leaders have done us a disservice in enacting severe water restrictions without first giving us homeowners some guidance on low-water (or no-water) alternatives. And likewise, the city officials should be offering some kind of incentives to those who opt for no-water solutions, as is common in many other areas of the country.

I certainly don’t want to concrete in the front yard and I’m less than crazy about crushed rock, and sadly, I’m not quite creative enough to visualize other, more attractive options. But certainly, I’m especially interested in alternatives that don’t negatively affect my property and/or resale value—and that’s something that a brown yard will almost surely do.

The artificial turf that’s available now looks and feels authentic, complete with little strands of dead thatch to complete the illusion. And it’s a long-term, nearly maintenance-free option. However, that plush, realistic synthetic lawn material must’ve been developed in a NASA lab, because they come with suborbital price tags! (Ya gotta wonder why the vendors offering this aren’t pricing their product more competitively to capitalize on the desperation of area homeowners.) And again, even if artificial turf were anywhere near affordable, that only goes to perpetuate the “lush lawn” stereotype that’s gotten into the jam we’re in.

So, if you’re in this area (or another with similar drought-stricken conditions), how do you plan to deal with the exterior water restrictions? And how does this shape your long-term home plans?

The Big Two Oh

Hard to believe, but today marks my twentieth anniversary at .

Yup, the big two oh. 2 0.

Twenty years.

Hardly seems possible.

Early into my working life, I remember worrying that “job-hopping” could make you seem risky to potential employers so I made a point of trying to establish lengthier stays at jobs. For a brief period, even having multiple jobs at the same time. In fact, when I started at MCH, I was only halfway through my 4 year stint at America Online and was still doing occasional weekend shifts for Washington Inventory Service auditing grocery stores’ inventory in the wee hours of the night—a mind-numbing job if ever there was one, but it taught me 10-key proficiency and the value of Mountain Dew: it had almost twice the caffeine of other soft drinks! Somehow I thought that all of this would make me look more attractive on paper to prospective employers.

But somewhere during the past 2 decades, there’s been a big shift in the value of job longevity. It used to be a much-admired trait. We used to marvel at hearing about friends’ Dads who retired from their companies after many, many years of service. Building tenure at a single company was considered a sign of dependability and fortitude. Accordingly, I’ve always been—and continue to be—proud of having been able to remain a productive, ever-growing employee for the long haul.

But these days, when I tell someone I’ve held a job—tho a number of distinct postiions—at the same company for so long, I’m sometimes greeted with a mixture of sympathy and thinly-veiled disgust. This is especially the reaction of “Gen Y” people, for whom self-loyalty is most often the focus. They seem to think of long-term employees as stagnant or non-ambitious. For this group, dependability does not equal consistency. For the newer entrants to the job market, job-hopping is practically required for professional development.

And maybe some of this is due to the job market quakes we’ve seen in the past decade. The ripples from downsizing and corporate disintegration may have forever changed the old rules. Where employers once promoted job security, corporate loyalty to employees seems almost dead. Employee loyalty still seems to be kicking, but it’s detached from the idea of long-term security and aimed more at skill-building and growth opportunities.

What do you think? Are your views on job longevity different than that of your parents? Or do you have a different outlook on job security now than you did when you were just starting your working life? And how much do your employment benefits (paid leave, insurance, etc.) play into this? Have benefits and/or security ever kept you at a job in spite of wanting a change?

Netflix: A Story of Greed, Apathy & Karma

As longtime Netflix subscribers, we were really miffed to learn earlier this Summer that they’d be dramatically increasing their rates. While we previously paid $9.99 per month for one DVD at a time plus unlimited streaming, the same combination would, effective September 1, 2011, cost $15.98 per month.
greedy businessman
Note that this new pricing included no additional features—in fact, they’ll have less to offer since Starz Entertainment has terminated its deal as a content partner. Netflix claimed the increases were necessary to continue to grow & improve their service. Maybe. After all, the streaming service was initially a freebie but had grown significantly, so the need to shore up the infrastructure could be legit. But the company’s unapologetic, cavalier attitude struck a sour note and many customers were understandably angered, threatening to cancel their subscriptions entirely. Given the company’s withering stock value since—especially plummeting since Sept. 1st—a lot of those rightfully disgruntled customers have followed through with their threats. (In fact, we did too!)

Today, subscribers were treated to a personal message from Reed Hastings, co-founder and CEO of Netflix, with as backhanded an apology as you may have ever heard. He feigned remorse for how they handled the rate hike but still did nothing to earn back customer trust or instill faith in his leadership. He explains that the company is rebranding the DVD mailing portion of their service as “Qwikster” while retaining the “Netflix” brand for streaming only. This divisive maneuver is sure to aggravate customers who’ll have to bounce back & forth between the two sites, never knowing which movies will be available for streaming vs. delivered. Beyond that, this just seems like a feeble effort to distance the now-disgraced Netflix brand name from the price hike debacle. It’s a desperate move by short-sighted, greedy, leaders whose faulty management and slap-in-the-face customer service have just cost them the keys to the kingdom.

Netflix is embedded in TVs, DVD & Blu-ray players, videogame consoles, and well… just about everything but your toaster yet rather than continue to gradually build on the captive audience within that already-installed base, they spurned their loyal fans, got greedy and blew a phenomenal, once-in-a-lifetime market lead. Especially given how flippant the company’s management has been about all of this, it’ll be nothing short of a miracle if they ever fully recover. This is pure, swift consumer karma in action. Make room on the loser’s bench, TiVo & Palm!

Were you a Netflix subscriber before the price increase? Did you stick with ’em or jump ship?

Be sure to check out Seinfeld’s Jason Alexander put a hilarious spin on this situation:

Accustomed to Violence

There’s been a surge of articles in parenting magazines, blogs, and news coverage about bullying lately. Children are being tormented in America’s schools and online—sometimes to the point of committing suicide. It’s hard to believe that something I had been so totally unaware of is such a huge problem, yet the media has declared bullying to be a national epidemic.
Biff Tannen bullies Marty McFly
There’s some contention about just how severe this has become; some experts insist that bullying is no more prevalent now than it was back when little boys yanked little girls’ pigtails and that the media’s portrayal is unrealistic and excessive, making behaviors that might simply be cruel into something more criminal. Maybe physical bullying has taken a backseat to psychological or emotional bullying, but even if the media has blown this out of proportion, there’s no denying that bullying is a credible and increasing problem.

As a parent, I’m thankful for all of the efforts to shed some light on this problem and I fully support both punishing bullies and helping kids learn to better cope with pressure-filled situations. But maybe we should put forth as much effort looking at some of the root causes. I believe a big contributing factor is how acclimated we’ve become to violence.

Horrific, explicit, oppressive violence is now an accepted part of our everyday lives.

Remember the movie Robocop about a terminally-wounded Detroit cop who returns to the police force as a powerful cyborg? What you may not recall is that the 1987 movie was initially given an X rating by the MPAA due to its graphic violence. Right, the movie was rated “X” not because of explicit sexual content, but for its shockingly-violent imagery. To appease the requirements of the ratings board, writer/director Paul Verhoeven pulled back on the significant blood & gore in 3 scenes so the movie could be released with an “R” rating instead.

Yet compared to what we routinely see on TV, movies, and video games now, the uncut version of that movie is tame by today’s standards. Within a 20 year span, what was shocking and socially repulsive has become acceptable, commonplace entertainment. Movies have become gleefully gruesome and morbidity is now mainstream. Consider the “Saw” series that let us watch as people are brutally murdered in twisted, torturous manners. Compare the likes of a Bruce Lee or Chuck Norris martial arts movie to that of the endless barrage of bloody carnage shown in contemporary movies like “Kill Bill.”

Likewise, TV shows even feature a stunning degree of graphic violence. Procedural cop shows like C.S.I. are far more realistically gruesome than that X-rated version of Robocop. Even when the violence isn’t necessarily visually graphic, there’s still some extremely negative behaviors at play. Consider that toddlers now watch wrestling on TV, which was strictly the guilty pleasure of Dads when we were kids—much to the disapproval of most Moms.

And where playing video games in our teen years meant shooting squiggly blips to make pixelated aliens disappear, now video gamers are immersed in battles where they fire super-realistic weapons at convincingly-real, three-dimensional opponents who yowl in agony when hit, spurt blood, limp, and finally collapse in a nauseating mass on the ground when they’ve sustained too much damage. (Until recently, this is the sort of thing that only soldiers would have to endure—and sometimes suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result.) Other video games reward players for beating up women, stealing cars, pistol-whipping passers-by, and inflicting varying degrees of terrible carnage on, well, anything that moves. According to some estimates, by the time typical American children reach the age of 18, they’ve already seen 200,000 acts of violence and 40,000 murders on some sort of screen.

We’ve allowed our society as a whole to become fully engulfed, acclimated, and accustomed to horrendous, gratuitous violence as a normal component of daily life. Perversely, our society actually savors and glorifies extreme cruelty and destructiveness! And as we’ve become numb and indifferent to negativity and violence, bullying has escalated to epidemic proportions. Surely, that’s no coincidence.

Terrorists, No More

In response to the recent shooting of Congresswoman Giffords in Tucson, Hillary Clinton empathized that America has loony, sometimes dangerous extremists just like nearly every other nation. While I don’t especially care for or agree with her uneven comparison of this lone gunman’s actions with that of militant groups like al-Qaeda, I did like Clinton use of the word “extremists” rather than “terrorists.”

I wonder if, by calling nutjobs (here or abroad) “terrorists,” we’re giving them a certain amount of power? Perhaps we’re tacitly admitting that they’ve accomplished their goal—they’ve instilled terror and disrupted our lives. Are we in some way giving these loonies exactly what they desperately crave?

Biff Tannen photoSo maybe former-President George W. Bush had it right when he called them “evil-doers.” Sure, at the time, I thought it sounded juvenile and had some odd evangelical connotations, but maybe I just failed to understand his rationale. Was Bush just trying to avoid giving terrorists the satisfaction of living up to their label?

Therefore, I’ve decided we should mandate that anytime they’re mentioned in the media—be it print or broadcast—terrorists must be referred to as “buttheads.”
Just imagine the headlines:

     “Buttheads Delay Flights in NYC”

     “Domestic Buttheads On The Rise”

     “Citizens Foil Libyan Butthead Plot”

What better way to trivialize and emasculate these buttheads?

Biff Tannen would approve.

The Crust of the Matter

Ever heard of Smucker’s Uncrustables for kids? These frozen peanut butter sandwiches (of dubious nutritional caliber) come in a variety of flavors, are made from whole wheat or white crustless bread, and are thawed out an hour or two before lunch or snacktime.

I bring this up because earlier this week I read a brief post over at Bargain Briana about a kitchen tool that lets you make your own Uncrustables-style sealed pocket sandwiches. I read the article and promptly left a comment hoping to generate a little discussion on the broader topic of cutting crusts. Frankly, I’m kinda miffed that Briana apparently not only opted to toss out my comment, but didn’t even email me. Okay, fair enough—her blog, her prerogative. Perhaps she just didn’t want to get mired down in the dicey, controversial waters of crust-cutting. So, I thought I’d broach the topic here:

Let’s not mince words: I’m opposed to the idea of cutting crusts off of sandwiches for kids on a number of levels:

  1. Babies don’t come out of the chute with an inbred hatred of bread crusts; parents implant that notion. Why foster the idea that crusts are bad?
  2. Crust-cutting not only creates more work for harried parents, but unnecessary waste as well. Why instill the expectation that someone will always gladly take the time to needlessly trim off and discard an otherwise good portion of a sandwich?
  3. The crust is the most nutritious part of bread, containing 8 times more antioxidants and more dietary fiber, which helps prevent colon cancer! Why wouldn’t you want your kid(s) to have the full benefit of the foods you’ve chosen (and paid hard-earned money) for them to eat?
  4. And lastly, in support of my pro-crust position, I offer the following:

    If thou tastest a crust of bread, thou tastest all the stars [and] heavens.
    —English poet, Robert Browning (1812-1889)

  5. But maybe I’m missing something here. Is there a valid reason for crust-cutting that simply eludes me? Am I some kinda retrograde Luddite or just being downright negligent by not trimming the nefarious crusts off of Liam’s otherwise delicious sammiches?

    So, what do you think? Do you cut the crusts off of your kids’ bread?

Lost Library

stack of old booksA recent blog about beautiful libraries triggered some old memories.   As a kid, I loved going to the public library — and still do.   Our library wasn’t elaborate or grandiose, yet it seemed immense.   People spoke in hushed church-like tones.   There was that nameless scent.   The obscure Dewey Decimal System held untold secrets just waiting to be decoded.   The shelves just dripped with potential.   Yes, going to the library was a rich & wondrous experience!

But it’s an experience I fear that my son may never know…

Booked-filled libraries are becoming a thing of the past. But while virtual libraries of e-books are certainly more accessible, I don’t think they’re as appreciable.   There’s not the same sense of vastness nor do they inspire the same reverence or wonderment.   Digital books seem less tangible and substantial.   You can electronically duplicate the content, but not the context or sensual aspect, the smell, feel, heft & texture, of actual books.

I’ll admit that even in spite of my love for real, physical books, I’m not immune to the hype & allure of e-book readers.   The idea that in a matter of seconds, you can download a new book rather than ordering it and waiting days or weeks for it to arrive make devices like Amazon.com’s Kindle really attractive.   But several factors — not the least of which is the price — have held me back.   I’ve seen a Sony e-book reader and the screen was surprisingly easy on the eyes, but deep down I’m still suspicious that the e-book reader experience just wouldn’t be as satisfying or comfortable as reading a book.

But sadly, the trend of replacing actual books with digital versions is only accelerating.   In fact, Cushing Academy near Boston is one of the first schools in the U.S. to abandon traditional books in favor of virtual ones.   In lieu of a library, the academy is instead creating a media center, spending nearly $500,000 equip it with with flat-screen TVs, e-book readers, and a coffee shop.

Is it just me and this is just nostalgia rearing its head once again?   Do you think there’s anything lost in the transition from physical to digital books?   Have you considered making the move to e-books?   Are libraries all but lost as we plunge ever deeper into the cyberworld?
 

Tax-Free Insanity

tax-free graphicThe annual, three-day Sales Tax Holiday begins today in Texas.   During the "holiday" weekend of August 21—23rd, back-to-school shoppers get a break from state & local sales taxes on most clothing, shoes, backpacks, & school supplies priced at less than $100 purchased for use by a student in an elementary or secondary school.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m all for being frugal and realize that even small savings can add up, but just as I wondered how did shopping become a holiday? a couple of years back, I continue to question this insanity.   There’s little doubt as to our government’s underlying motives for this "holiday" — oh sure, we get a little relief from sales taxes on a few select items, but they get a massive shot in the arm from the influx of taxes on incidental purchases — purchases we’d be much less likely to make if not for this artificial incentive.

And really, unless you’re spending hundreds of dollars, an eight percent savings isn’t a tremendous net.   (C’mon, we’re talking about less than a Frappuccino or two.)   In fact, I suspect that if instead of this pay no sales tax all weekend event, retailers advertised a take 8% off on back-to-school purchases sale, the response would be, um, "yawn."

Rapacious retailers are, of course, banking heavily upon this "holiday" to lure budget-crunched consumers into the stores and help pry open their wallets.   These annual sales tax holidays have become a huge event that extend, in many states, well beyond sensible school supplies to include big-ticket items like large electronics, major appliances, & furniture.

And the tax-free insanity doesn’t end there…

Some states also have separate sales tax holidays just for firearms.   Firearms?   Yup, you can get your weaponry & ammo tax-free in Louisiana on September 4—6th and in South Carolina on November 27—28th!