Wednesday, March 20, 2013

A crispy, sizzling fable

My friend Ted, who now lives in Maryland, happened to be passing through Pennsylvania on business. He stopped by for a visit.

We were preparing to watch America's Favorite Orchestral Clarinet Players. (It was the reed adjusting portion of the competition that night! The peak drama of the show, most people would agree.) I discovered, a bit to my surprise, that there was no bacon in the fridge.

"OK," I said, "let's go on a quick bacon run before we watch TV."

We drove out to a shopping center about 15 minutes away. Ted had not visited since I had moved to this town, but the sameness of modern American suburbia was the same as ever, and so Ted didn't bat an eye as I pulled into the parking lot of a complex that included, among other things, a large supermarket. As we were chatting about this and that, we walked toward the shops and onto the sidewalk fronting the shopping center. Ted, by force of habit, turned in toward the supermarket entrance.

"Come on," I said, "our stop is farther down."
"Oh," said Ted, glancing around, "where at? This looks like the only place that sells food."
"We're going to the bacon store." We continued walking. After a moment Ted repeated, "The... bacon store."
"Yeah," I said. "Here it is." We walked into the store, which at least in terms of quantity was a bacon-lover's paradise. Cured, uncured, organic, small local farms, big national brands--there was a lot of bacon. This particular bacon store did not have a massive selection of artisanal bacons like some of the places in stylish Philadelphia neighborhoods, but it had a more adventurous stock than many.

"A whole store for... bacon," deadpanned Ted.
"Yeah," I said, "What brand do you like? "
"Umm whatever you usually get is fine I guess. Wait, they have a whole store just for bacon? And people shop here instead of the grocery store?" There were a handful of other customers in the store. And while there was a small selection of lunchmeat, bread, and eggs, it was clear that this was the place for bacon.
"Yeah, pretty much."
"Man, when you said we were going to the bacon store I thought
you were pulling my leg. This... wow, this is different."
"You don't understand," I said, picking up a pound of Oscar Meyer and a pound of Gwaltney Applewood Smoked. "This place, and all the other bacon stores, are licensed by the state."
"Yeah. You can't buy bacon anywhere in Pennsylvania, not at grocery stores, not at specialty butcher stores... anywhere except the licensed bacon retailers."
"That's messed up. I mean, back home you can just pick up some bacon most anywhere that sells food."
"I guess it is unusual," I allowed as we approached the cash register, "even by the standards of states that have more tightly controlled pork sales. But you get used to it. And the status quo is too entrenched to see much chance for change."
"I... I had no idea," said Ted, dumbfounded.
"That's a common reaction from out-of-state visitors," said the manager, who was catching the end of our conversation as he rang us up. Counting my change, he continued, "Once every few years we get a governor in Harrisburg who wants to shake things up. But we bacon distributors have enough clout that they haven't gotten away with it. No doubt about it, though, I'd be out of business in a minute if you could buy bacon over at the supermarket."
"That's probably true," I said as I picked up the bag of bacon. "Come on, let's get back home and see how the show comes out. I hear one of the contestants is trying to get them to allow a synthetic reed."

Photo courtesy flickr user dinnerseries 

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Early thoughts on Spotify

A couple days ago, I started trying out Spotify Pro. In general, I like it a lot, but there are a couple annoyances I just can't get past.

The selection is pretty good, from my perspective as somebody who listens to mostly classical music. And the social and sharing features are great. For the most part everything works nicely, though I have run into specific tracks that just won't play on the mobile version that are fine on the desktop. For example, "Dance 10, Looks 3" from the latest cast album of A Chorus Line. (That link's a great example of the sharing and social features that Spotify does a really great job with.)

But, on to the bad. I am seeing the message "Artist/Label has made this track unavailable" way too much. It's really obnoxious. And there didn't seem to be any rhyme or reason for it. Let's look at an example. Clarinet-playing readers may have played the Staccato Studies written by Reginald Kell. You may not be aware, however, that Deutsche Grammophon has released a box set of his recordings. Let's check out this set on Spotify: 

As you can see, we miss out on the entire Mozart clarinet concerto, half of the quintet, and the first movement of the K.388 serenade. But it's understandable. Deutsche Grammophon can't allow people to listen to the 3rd and 4th movements of the clarinet quintet, even though the first two are OK, because... ummm... Well, OK, let's take another look. Did you know Hilary Hahn recorded the Jennifer Higdon violin concerto? I didn't! (Name drop: I was briefly in grad school at the same time as Higdon.)

Once again... missing tracks. Why? Well, it turns out there is a reason--a really stupid one. A Spotify employee posted that UMG labels (including, hello, Deutsche Grammophon) seem to have blocked tracks that are longer than 7 or 10 minutes long. (It seems to be 7 here, if you look at the tracks in the above examples.) I'll say it again. This is stupid. At risk of belaboring the point, I'll share one more example of exactly how stupid it is. Let's check out a Decca (also UMG) recording of highlights from Verdi's La Traviata with Joan Sutherland and Richard Merrill. 

Note that we're missing out on one of the most famous Verdi arias,"E strano! / Ah, fors'è lui," which checks in at a slothful 7:03. Not to worry, though! Fortunately, Dame Joan moved it along when she recorded the same aria along with Luciano Pavorotti. She brought it in at 6:54, so we are able to hear it (though other tracks did not make the cut).

This seems to be the labels' fault (or label's? It's not clear that other folks besides UMG are doing this), but I've run into it often enough just looking for stuff I like that it's making me less happy with Spotify.

The other thing that's really annoying me is the track titling. Again, this is something that seems to be worse for classical recordings than for others. To be fair, this is (once again) the labels' fault. And anybody who's spent any amount of time dealing with classical music in digital form knows that tagging is a complete disaster. The issue is simple: Put the name of the album in the Album tag. Put the track title in the Track field. Instead, we get stuff like this Wolfgang Sawallisch recording of Elijah:

I suppose it's nice to know that you're in Part 1, but do we really need to know that we're in "Mendelssohn, Elijah, op. 70," in every single track?? I submit that we do not. And of course, "Sung in German!" Priceless.  And the same kind of thing in this Flying Dutchman. Though now we learn that it's digitally remastered from 2000, with every track.

The most unintentionally hilarious example, though, was this recording of Tannhäuser

It's so nice of them to let us know what act and scene we're in. (Except for the first act.. let's not worry too much about consistency.) No matter what language we use!

At this point, I'm no doubt once again guilty of beating a dead horse. And this is a very arcane complaint, right? I'm being compulsive about my insistence on having tags exactly the way I want them. Does this really detract from my enjoyment of the music? That's a fair point. I should just relax. In fact, I think I'll get my phone and listen to the Elijah I posted above.

Ah. Yes, well, good luck picking out any individual track. Or seeing which track is playing.

All things considered? I'm probably going to cancel when my month of "premium" subscription is over. It's picky, I know, but overall, I'm just not happy enough to shell out.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Epic blogular fail

#ds139 "Writer's Block"I actually had two half-written posts I had been working on. Regrettably, in blog-land, two half-posts don't add up to a whole one. They have now sat so long, it's pointless to try to bring them back out and finish them up. I'll just give a brief summary, and let it go at that as I move on to coming attractions.

One post was a reaction to Facebook's privacy policy change. ("Which one?!?" asks the Peanut Gallery.) I was idly musing that, back in the mid-1908s or so, you could (mostly) only send email to other people on the same online service: Compuserve? Delphi? GEnie? All separate. We're in kind of a similar place with social networking today: Facebook? LinkedIn? Orkut? Yahoo 360? (OK, sorry, I'm obviously getting snarky there.) My point is, nobody hands you an email address and worries about who your ISP is. Maybe eventually we'll have a more open, distributed social networking architecture, and we won't be as beholden to one provider as we are now with Facebook. (To the extent that we are.) But I have no clever ideas, just wondering.

The other basically made the non-newsworthy point that people have always been able to do stupid things in front of their home town. Now they can do stupid things for the entire world. Though it's by no means the only example, I was inspired by the Lower Merion Webcam Debacle. Lower Merion is local for me, literally the next town over in a densely-populated suburban area where you can go from Township A to Township B without even noticing that you passed through Townships X and Y on the way. As a Lower Merion High School student from my congregation posted on her Facbook account, "Way to go, LM... we're in the news in AUSTRALIA."

Again, this is not news. I just wonder when this comes into play. Clearly some government official in Idaho can't make a decision based on what they think people in Maine will think. But at some point, it seems, it would become obvious that you're contemplating something controversial, and you have to ask yourself if you really want to put your name and your employers' name behind defending it in public. News flash: the days of "Well, nobody will notice" are over.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Permission to Hate

I had a media consumption experience recently that gave me pause and caused me to consider the nature of the creative process, criticism, and reception.

Back in the dark ages (you know, the 1980s and 1990s), I watched Star Trek: The Next Generation. I'm not a huge fan such as you'd see in the documentary Trekkies. I don't speak Klingon or own any Starfleet uniforms. On the other hand, I've seen all the movies and I've been known to read some of the novels. In the pre-Tivo, pre-"all reruns, all the time" cable world, I would watch TNG regularly, but I wasn't religious about it and I certainly didn't see every episode.

Flash forward to 2003. The "reimagined" or whatever you call it Battlestar Galactica came along. I watched the miniseries and one or two extra episodes, but it really didn't hold my attention. I let it go until about the start of the fourth season, when I had heard so much about it that I though I should give it another shot. So I watched it all, from the first episode on. I was, on the whole, extremely impressed.

Yes, "on the whole." There were episodes here and there that I found . . . tiresome. Boring. Unengaging. "Can we get back to figuring out where Earth is? And how many missing Cylons there are?" I admit to a vague feeling of guilt about this. It's such a great show. Maybe I'm missing something? It wouldn't be the first time I had a better reaction on a second viewing or listening. Alas, no.

So, last year, while tooling around the iTunes store looking for interesting podcasts, I noticed the episode commentaries from producer Ron Moore. I started listening to them (I'm currently about halfway through season 3). I enjoyed listening to them, but I noticed that there were a couple episodes that Moore was very critical of. In fact, he wasn't happy with them at all.

By the same token, looking back at early episodes of Star Trek: TNG, a number of them were. Umm. Pointless? Unwatchable? I don't want to be to overly harsh. But I don't have to, since Wil Wheaton, who played Acting Ensign Extraordinaire Wesley Crusher on TNG, has obliged us with Memories of the Future. I confess I haven't read it, but I listened to his podcast, Memories of the Futurecast, where he read excerpt of the book. And indeed, Wil is very straightforward in his criticisms (of the first half of the first season so far).

So we have two TV series.  I didn't like some of the episodes.  And my dislike was "validated" in some sense (no doubt there are those who would disagree with both Moore and Wheaton).   Well, so what?  I don't have any great insights.  But it struck me that this closer relationship between the creator and the consumer is a new thing.  Can you imagine Desi Arnaz or Dick Van Dyke holding forth about their least favorite episodes of their shows?  It's almost unthinkable.  Today? Not so much.  Moore and Wheaton have a completely relationship with me than Arnaz and Van Dyke.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010


Welcome to my blog, "Brain Lint." As I start it, I'm reminded of a couple items. First of all, in their book Naked Conversations, Robert Scobel and Shel Israel wrote,
The dull should not blog.
Tough. Here I am anyway.

Second, my friend Tony Shepps wrote some years back:

"Home pages are the pet rock of the 90s. We all have them, we all think they're very cute. But in a few years we're going to look back and be pretty embarrassed."

(Ironically, I was unable to find Tony's page with this quote. I wouldn't be surprised if he got rid of it. I'll have to ask him.)

Anyway. If home pages were the pet rocks of the 1990s, what are blogs? The cabbage patch dolls? The tickle-me-Elmos? The mullets? I'm not sure, but I can't escape a nagging feeling that we'll regret it somewhere down the road.

So don't look for any particular pearls of wisdom here. Postings will be irregular, when I feel like I have something worth saying. (My twitter feed, over on the right of the page, will be somewhat more active. If you're looking to hear what I had for lunch, or which tie I decided to wear to work, you'll be sorely disappointed. But I will throw out various flotsam and jetsam that I find interesting around the web.) I do have a couple posts on tap, but those will have to come another time.