Caveat auditor

I have been sold on the value of books on tape for a long time now. But sadly my old standby stopped renting and then, as an added insult, decimated their collection down to bestsellers. No sign of a long tail here. They seem to have some deal with, so I took my business there to give it a try.

Actually, even the phrase “books on tape” has become something of an anachronism these days. Now I download books to my iPod in seconds via Audible. It’s a pretty good service, but Audible’s site is maddening. The design makes browsing for titles painful and slow, and the implementation is so JavaScript-heavy that you can’t pop open multiple tabs. The site logs you out after what seems like 30 seconds of inactivity, forcing you to restart your session if you aren’t a Type-A hard-driving online shopper. And if you pay for a subscription that entitles you to one book a month (as I do) your book credit is use-it-or-lose it: if you forget to download your February book in February, they get your money, and you get Jack Diddley Wiener. Overall the service is good enough to keep using, but I sure wish it were better.

At this point, people who are not too lazy to visit public libraries sometimes observe that I need not be spending lots of money for my audible fix. As I understand it, piles of entertaining books can be had at these “libraries” for free. But I have not yet personally verified the veracity of this outrageous claim. Now where did I leave that Visa card…?

The music industry: a view from the inside

A very good friend of mine from college, Alan Kennedy, worked until recently in the music industry. It’s very common these days to read uninformed bloggy prognostications about the music business by people like me who have no real direct experience with it. I’m extremely happy, therefore, to report that Alan has volunteered to go on the record with his opinions about the industry he loves and worked in for many years, thereby giving this website that most remarkable of gifts, original commentary by someone who knows what the hell he’s talking about.

I’ll let him take over from here, but it is interesting to observe that, of his list of the three most important things that are poisoning the music industry right now, stealing music ranks last. What are one and two? Here’s Alan with the rest of the story…

Continue reading “The music industry: a view from the inside”

I’m published!

The Yankees vs. Red Sox Reader

If you are interested in any of the ten thousand opportunistic books about the famous baseball rivalry between New York and Boston, I thoughtfully encourage you to consider The Yankees vs. Red Sox Reader. Happily, this particular instance of the genre includes a short essay by me. Check out the table of contents: there I am on page 259, just after a New Yorker piece by Roger Angell. I was just kidding old Roger about how I was batting cleanup for him. He laughed… he’s a big joker himself… but I could see it bugged him. Of course I only tease Roger because I love him.

Naturally you can always read my essay here, chez Star Chamber, but if you really want to read it on paper, you can either print it with your inkjet or send Amazon $10.85.

Clay Shirky on Ontologies

I find myself completely agreeing with Clay Shirky’s assertion that ontology is overrated based on a speech he gave at a recent O’Reilly Emerging Technology Conference. I didn’t go to the conference, but I did hear the speech, courtesy of ITConversations. The gist of it is that we have inherited a world view of the taxonomy and classification of information based on the fact that when a book sits on one shelf, it cannot sit on another. This is the librarian’s physical reality: is “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” to be classified under philosophy or fiction? Make up your mind once, and then declare it to be so forever. But this physical reality casts a long shadow across our intellectual tradition in that it lets ontologists define the world that the rest of us live in. As Shirky goes on to say, the bookshelf is gone, and its departure makes way for new and, to the ontological old guard, disturbing ways of categorizing information. Google,, and others let socially aggregated post hoc views of reality define the world. At one point Shirky says: “It comes down to a question of philosophy: does the world make sense or do we make sense of the world?” If the world makes sense, then any conflict you and I have must be resolved against some larger semantic framework of reality. This was the object of Leibniz’s universal philosophical calculus, which sought to resolve all arguments with pure logic, beginning with the words “Let us calculate.” But if we make sense of the world, then context cannot be banished, and we must resolve all arguments with the words “Let’s talk.”

Let’s talk.

Great moments in tax software

Happy tax day! As I was wading through TurboTax, I came across a “Frequently Asked Question” that seemed entertaining enough to pass along. The topic was income received in the form of awards (not that I received any…). Here’s the screenshot.


I can see how this comes up a lot. Gangs of angry and confused Nobel Prize winners must have been hassling the TurboTax tech support staff again this year. I understand the Pulitzer Prize winners are even worse. I wouldn’t share a limo with those guys if you paid me.

Robotic porpoises

I recently started reading Roland Piquepaille’s site again; it’s got some darn good stuff on it. This item caught me eye: Seagliders Break Endurance Records. A seaglider is an underwater airplane, or rather an underwater glider. Take a look at the size of the “wings” and you’ll get an idea of the difference between flying through water and flying through air. A much smaller wing will do the job in water. You get the same picture when you think about a sailboat as an airplane with one wing (the keel) in the water, and the other wing (the sail) in the air. The forces nearly balance despite the vast difference in wing area. The beauty of a seaglider is that it can glide incredibly cheaply by changing its buoyancy. I wrote about this last fall, but the technology seems to have taken a real leap forward in the meantime. These robot porpoises are swimming across the Pacific, reporting by satellite to their masters. There must be lots of people jumping at this idea.

Encarta goes wiki

I find this both astonishing and inevitable: From Corante’s Many2Many blog I learn that Microsoft is stealing a page from Wikipedia. It’s making some of the articles in its Encarta dictionary (which is a very profitable enterprise) open for editing.

What’s astonishing is that this happened so fast. Predictably, some people are crying out that it’s a Wikipedia rip-off. But that’s not really the point. Just because Columbus got to the New World first doesn’t mean nobody else should make the trip. I actually give some credit to Microsoft for having the cojones to jump into this format. For its part, Encyclopedia Britannica (er… Encyclopaedia Britannica) would rather fly into the side of a mountain than admit this is a reasonable practice.

What’s inevitable here is the new process: learning from your readers is the coming thing, and to avoid it solely because of its zany Wikipedia legacy is foolish and ultimately self-destructive. This is the way content is going to work in the future, and I credit Encarta for seeing that coming.

The Times and You

Take a look at this Annotated New York Times. It pulls down the most recent version of the Times and then weaves in blog commentary about each article. The cost of prominently displaying bad writing is going up every day. There’s an old quote that you shouldn’t pick a fight with someone who buys their ink by the gallon. That’s true enough when words ride on the backs of inkpots. But these days just about anybody can afford all the electrons they need.

Oil’s end and the Long Emergency

The Rolling Stone recently published an article called The Long Emergency by James Howard Kunstler in which Kunstler spells out an apocalyptic vision of the coming Great Weaning from Oil. Briefly, he forecasts an Atlas Shrugged sort of societal meltdown. That giving up oil will not be pleasant, I have no doubt, but his Cassandra routine is a little over the top. Still, I feel like the meta-story here is that stories like this are getting more exposure. And there are many indisputable facts about the gravity of the situation throughout the article. For instance,

In March, the Department of Energy released a report that officially acknowledges for the first time that peak oil is for real and states plainly that “the world has never faced a problem like this. Without massive mitigation more than a decade before the fact, the problem will be pervasive and will not be temporary.

Fair enough, but Kunstler sags when he predicts the breakdown of government at all levels. He is not sanguine about the Red States:

I’m not optimistic about the Southeast… I think it will be subject to substantial levels of violence as the grievances of the formerly middle class boil over and collide with the delusions of Pentecostal Christian extremism. The latent encoded behavior of Southern culture includes an outsized notion of individualism and the belief that firearms ought to be used in the defense of it. This is a poor recipe for civic cohesion.

Look for a whole new breed of survivalist gear to appear in stores.