Browsed by
Month: August 2020

Book Review: Appetite for Self-Destruction

Book Review: Appetite for Self-Destruction

One would think, now that we are in lockdown, that I would be making better progress on my 2020 Reading Challenge than I am. I’m actually very busy at work, what with my info tech WFH privilege, and aside from that there are duties to household and family. Not to mention all the streaming video to keep up with. Nonetheless, I have been reading when I can, and generally reviewing every book that I do finish.

I recently finished Appetite for Self-Destruction by Steve Knopper, published in 2009, about the crash of the record industry. I thought I would reproduce my Goodreads review here, and add some thoughts. First the review:

It’s interesting to read a book about the music industry that was published just as the smartphone and subscription streaming services were taking off. Reading it after ten years have passed is like looking back at a distant era. There actually was a time in the misty past when music publishers made tons of money selling plastic discs to eager consumers, and there were even brick and mortar retail outlets dedicated to just that product. It was the most lucrative period in the music industry’s history, running from the mid-1980s through the 1990s. And then it all went up in smoke with the introduction of mp3s and the easy sharing capabilities provided by the Internet. But even the days of ripping CDs and building libraries of music files seem distant, when today we plug our earbuds into our phones to access vast musical archives for a low monthly fee.

Knopper’s book is full of personal stories from entrepreneurs and business leaders in both the music and technology industries, much of it gleaned from interviews. You get a nice history of both of those industries, focusing on the years from the death of disco in the early 1980s to the end of 2008. Some of the stories told are one-sided, because important players declined to be interviewed, and so their perspective is missing. There is some sensitivity regarding the decisions made and the issues at stake. But what you get is well written and informative; Knopper is a Rolling Stone editor and brings his journalistic talent to bear in telling the tale of the implosion of the music industry.

Knopper lists a number of mistakes the major labels made as digital online music took off, but marks the big one as instinctively going after Napster instead of making a deal with them, at the very end of the 1990s. Even worse, they went after consumers – their own customer base – suing individual filesharers for copyright infringement. There were other fumbles and missed opportunities, and the irrestible conclusion is that the generation of leadership at the labels just wasn’t ready to make the leap from the tried and true model of selling individual records in the millions at high profit margins, to the new models that the Internet and compressed digital music formats were making possible. They missed the boat, and it sailed on without them.

Some additional thoughts: I don’t think consumers as a whole wanted to play the role of renegade pirates during the decade or so that file sharing was a big thing. It was just too easy to do; and people saw how much more music they could have access to that would have cost a fortune to purchase in CD form. But once an option was provided that was both legal and affordable – subscription services like Spotify or Pandora – consumers flocked to that. People in general want to be honest and play by the rules.

I suppose you could even think of the transition from the the filesharing era of the early 2000s to the streaming era of the 2010s as part of the transition from the Gen-X driven pre-Crisis era to the Millennial driven Crisis era. It’s an early example of the formation of a new institution; we may not have the new order figured out completely, but at least we have the soundtrack ready. Something to listen to in our earbuds while the apocalypse is raging.

On a final note, I still buy CDs. I like owning the discs with the liner notes and the art, and like collecting particular artists. I dig up obscure singles available only in Japan and pay 30 bucks for them on Amazon. Drives my girlfriend up the wall. And then I rip them to my laptop and shelve them. You know, for looking at. But my .mp3 player sits in a drawer, along with my digital camera, because now the smartphone does everything. Times, they are always a changin’.

The Emojis of Our Discontent

The Emojis of Our Discontent

Recently, I posted about the DNC on Facebook and one of my Trump supporter friends (friend-in-the-Facebook-sense) responded with the Haha emoji. That’s the laughing face one, appropriate for silly videos and jokes but also available for mocking someone’s beliefs, which was the intent, I think, in this case. This person proceeded to respond to every subsequent comment with the same emoji, was scolded for behaving rudely, and subsequently unfriended me. However, their comments and reactions remain for posterity.

I bring this up not to hold a grudge but only to note how the Haha emoji is sometimes used to express dissent. I guess you could say it substitutes for a dislike or downvote, which Facebook does not provide. The only other choice is the Angry emoji. Either way it’s going to come across as emotionally charged, so maybe we were unfair to my friend-in-the-Facebook-sense, who kind of got mobbed. But that’s the consequence of posting an unpopular opinion on social media, where people of like belief tend to congregate. Very, very few of my friends-in-the-Facebook-sense are Trump supporters.

I’ve seen the Haha emoji used in other contexts, clearly to express dissent. The typical case is when the Governor of my fine state of Pennsylvania posts a declaration regarding his administration’s response to the pandemic. There are generally a few thousand reactions, of three kinds: Like, Haha and Love. I take that to mean: supports, does not support, and supports whole-heartedly. The ratio will be something like 67%/23%/10%. I find comfort in knowing that there is 3/4 support for the Governor among Facebook users, since I think he is doing an excellent job and want him to keep at it.

I see this pattern of minority objection on other social media platforms as well. Now it’s quite possible that I am not getting the whole picture because of some kind of social bubble effect. But I am reminded of the religious faction in Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri game, protesting against their society’s mad rush to a technological utopia. Today’s pandemic deniers tag Facebook posts with Haha emojis like they are spraying “We Must Dissent” graffiti. And as the majoritarian viewpoint emerges, they are getting pushed into the shadows.

Trump supporters may actually be too large a minority to be relegated to the lurking in the shadows status of a renegade faction in a science fiction game. But it is my partisan hope that as this era evolves, that is exactly where they will end up in the next era. In the mean time, I can only express my dissent at the outrageous social injustice and criminal conduct of the Trump administration using the Angry red face emoji. It gets used a lot these days. The Sad crying face emoji is also available for expressing a kind of pitying dissent, as if to say, “what a pathetic species.”

I suppose Trump supporters have their criteria for what makes them Angry or Sad, but I don’t see them so much. I live in a different bubble from them. A society split between two bubbles of likeminded people, each group clicking icons on scrolling digital feeds in their own patterns, may be the saddest thing of all.

Watching You, Watching Me

Watching You, Watching Me

Outside she goes, to explore the planet of the Covidiots. They volunteered her because she’s such a good observer.

***

I worry when she’s gone. The world is plague-ridden and full of hostiles. But at least I have a tracking device with which I can monitor her progress from headquarters.

***

The device in question is our Android smartphones running Trusted Contacts, which lets us always see one another in Google Maps.

***

I had long resisted getting any kind of tracking software for my phone, counting on loved ones to report their location if ever needed. But then my partner got a job as an enumerator for the U.S. Census Bureau. Knowing that she was going out and knocking repeatedly on strangers’ doors, in a country that has suffered an implosion of trust (and never much trusted in government, ever), changed the equation. Suddenly getting tracking software became an imperative.

First we tried Waze, but found the interface difficult. Not to mention I couldn’t see her on the map even though I connected to my Facebook contacts. The app isn’t really made specifically for tracking individuals. But then her son suggested Google’s Trusted Contacts, which integrates easily with our Google accounts, as well as Google software like Maps. It requires mutual agreement between two account holders, and then one can see the location of the other in real time.

Now I can see her as she moves about the area. Since her profile picture on Google Accounts is a sunflower, I see her as a flower floating about town. It’s reassuring to watch her moving in the expected pattern, because I can take that to mean everything is fine.

To her, I would just be a floating head at home base, since I am a privileged stay-at-home worker, not an essential worker like she is. From where I sit, life is safe and comfortable. She is out braving the dangers of post-apocalyptic America, but at least I can keep an eye on her.

***

So I wait into the evening, watching her on my screen. And have dinner waiting for her return, to her one safe haven in this ravaged land.

Rise Of The Planet Of The Covidiots

Rise Of The Planet Of The Covidiots

It’s more contagious than other deadly coronaviruses we have encountered, like SARS. And it’s far deadlier than other very contagious viruses, like H1N1. That is what experts are telling us about SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the respiratory disease Covid-19. To reiterate, the virus is both very contagious and much more lethal than the flu. That is why mitigation is warranted.

The current case fatality rate is around 6%, according to this dashboard. That is like, if you get the disease, you roll a d20, and on a 1, you’re dead. Do you like those odds? Do you want to be infected by this virus, or have someone you know become infected? I would hope not. So why don’t you just wear a face mask in public? And avoid crowds? Why is this so hard?

I think about this whenever I see the viral videos of beachgoers or partyers ignoring all social distancing recommendations, or of the crowded hallways of a just opened school. I think about it when I drive by a restaurant and see people out on the tables dining, or even when I walk up to the Post Office and see them gathering at the ice cream place that’s up the block, standing in line or sitting on the benches without wearing masks.

I mean, seriously, it’s that important to eat out? You know you can get takeout, and all parties involved, both the customer and the vendor, can be masked, right? If it’s really that you’re trying to support the restaurant business, you could get takeout but tip like you were dining in, and just forego being waited on because, you know, pandemic.

But apparently it’s all too much for an impatient country, restless from months of being stuck at home. A country with failed national leadership and no cohesive plan for dealing with this disease. A country that bases its beliefs on the science of the pandemic on political partisanship, so that whether or not to wear a mask depends on being blue-zone or red-zone.

So we almost flattened the curve, early on there, but then pent-up energy and sheer orneriness overcame us, and back up it goes.

I feel like we’re at the beginning of some weird apocalypse movie trilogy. I call the current installment Rise Of The Planet Of The Covidiots. I see them everywhere – the anti-maskers, the plandemic conspiracy theorists, led by the Covidiot-in-Chief. Now I’m just waiting for the inevitable sequel. Lord knows what madness comes next.