Memo to Michael Hiltzik: If you think The Force Awakens Stinks, the Problem was your expectations — and here’s why….

Force Awakens Logo

A couple of days ago on Facebook, my buddy Aaron Starkey posted the following piece by L.A. Times columnist Michael Hiltzik: Admit it: ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ stinks — and here’s whyIf you haven’t read the piece, you might want to do so before continuing.

Given the historic box office success of the Force Awakens, and the triumphant tenor of the press surrounding it, I can understand the curmudgeonly impulse to want to take the piss out of the film.

Indeed, I’m exactly the sort of cynical, middle-aged, white guy who is ripe for a piece like Hiltzik’s. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no Star Wars hater. But I also have no special relationship with the films, aside from seeing all 7 installments in the theater upon their release.

I’m not deep in the Star Wars universe. Star Wars didn’t define my childhood. I don’t have a position on the role of the expanded universe in the Star Wars canon (I don’t even know what the expanded universe is).

I don’t attend conventions, collect action figures, or camp out overnight weeks in advance to buy tickets for the 3:00 am showing on opening night. I don’t hang out on Internet message boards devoted to Star Wars, or quote passages from the film in day-to-day conversation.

An attack on Star Wars doesn’t feel like a personal attack on my community or my identity. I have no personal stake in defending it, and I’d welcome interesting and insightful criticism of the Force Awakens.

Unfortunately, Hiltzik’s column was neither insightful nor persuasive — and here’s why.

It’s unfair to judge the Force Awakens against our memories of seeing New Hope in 1977, and we need to acknowledge the affect of personal history and cultural context on our reaction to it.

I saw the first Star Wars movie when I was 14 y/o (Hiltzik is 11 years older than me, so he was around 25 y/o in 1977). No matter what the Force Awakens is (or isn’t), I can only see it through the eyes of the 52 y/o guy that I am now. Given that I’ve seen a lot more at 52 than I had at 14, my take is bound to be different, no matter what the film is (or isn’t), and it’s probably going to feel somewhat compromised.

I have this problem with music all the time. I’d love to hear more music through my 14 y/o ears, because those ears knew so much less about the history of music and how the sausage was made. They didn’t have that knowledge getting in the way of just eating the sausage on its own terms and enjoying it. There was so much uncharted territory to explore.

On the other hand, it was the love of that sausage that motivated me to study the history of it and to learn more about sausage making, so it’s a trade-off. I can still love music, but I have to love it in a different way and with different expectations than the ones I had in 1977. But that’s nobody’s fault, and it’s not an inherent flaw of today’s culture. It’s just one of the challenges of aging and acquiring knowledge and wisdom. The old drugs don’t work like they used to. Continue reading “Memo to Michael Hiltzik: If you think The Force Awakens Stinks, the Problem was your expectations — and here’s why….”

Primates of Park Avenue: A Spoon Full of Sugar Helps the Medicine Go Down…

Picture of Jake London holding a copy of  Wednesday Martin's book "The Primates of Park Avenue"

You Can Tune A Piano, When The Heat Is On, But Can You Roll With the Changes, After the Boys of Summer Have Gone?

Back in June, in the run-up to my birthday, I found myself contemplating how much things have changed since I was a kid in the 1970s. Apparently, that sort of pre-birthday nostalgia is a contractual obligation of middle age.

During my formative years, the culture of postmodernity was in its insurgent adolescence (a lot like me). It was steadily chipping away at the hegemony of cultural modernity, but it was not yet the cultural dominant.[1] At least that’s my sense of things now, looking back on it. So the 1970s and the early 1980s existed in a murky transition state, with one foot still on the familiar ground of cultural modernity and the other foot now firmly planted in the exciting possibilities of the postmodern.

Today, things are different. The culture of postmodernity–in all its ironic glory–is fully dominant. And with each passing year, the time-honored roles, categories, and clearly defined conceptual boundaries of cultural modernity (and my youth) have become either residual artifacts of history or hybrid, postmodern jumbles that resemble something familiar from the old days, but seem to mean something different now.[2]

If the culinary metaphor for cultural modernity is a Swanson TV dinner, with each food item placed oh so rationally in its own distinct section on the disposable aluminum tray, the culinary metaphor for cultural postmodernity is a compostable burrito bowl from Chipotle. Or maybe it’s a scoop of rum-infused banana, peanut butter, and chocolate-covered bacon ice cream in an artisanal waffle cone. (“It’s like Bananas Foster on steroids and Elvis Presley’s favorite sandwich all together in a single cone!”)

No more separating things. Now, highbrow, middlebrow, lowbrow, and no brow all exist on equal footing. For the first rule of cultural postmodernity is this: “Mix it all together, put a big spoonful in your mouth, and savor the weird and wonderful diversity of flavors.”

Curation, as Fredric Jameson has argued, is the highest form of artistic expression in postmodernism,[3] and an embrace of eclectic mixtures has become the ultimate mark of taste and refinement. The person who elegantly creates the most unexpected and far-flung mix of flavors earns the most cultural capital. The remaining capital goes to anyone who enjoys the mix and gets its references and allusions.

As a result, we’ve come to distrust things that feel like the divided sections of that old TV dinner tray. That’s not an interesting mix. It’s hardly a mix at all. It’s a relic from an older and more rigid time and place, an era where cultural relevance filters were typically on the supply-side and cultural elites at the top had disproportionate influence over what sort of stuff made it through the filter and into our ears, eyes, noses, and bellies.

Today, the old supply-side filters feel increasingly like one of those residual artifacts of history I referenced above. They still exist, but they’ve become less and less effective, as we’ve been overloaded with more and more information. This has forced most of us to do a lot more of our own demand-side filtering–quite a wearying experience for many people.

But it has also taught us to question things, like whether fancy job titles and educational attainment really provide the assurances of quality, legitimacy, and relevance that were attributed to them back in the day. For in the age of the Internet, where almost anyone can share their mix of thoughts with everybody, it’s become difficult to predict where meaningful commentary will come from, what it will look like, and who will be offering it. So it pays to take each bite thoughtfully and with an open mind, rather than rushing straight to judgement. Continue reading “Primates of Park Avenue: A Spoon Full of Sugar Helps the Medicine Go Down…”

Hondo II: Random Memories of Dick Lurie’s Guitar Studio–Cleveland Heights, Ohio

My brother recently posted the picture below on Facebook. He said it immediately took him back to the Dick Lurie Guitar Studio in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. I knew just what he meant, and so did a bunch of other old musician friends from Cleveland’s east side. For Dick’s store is where we each began our personal journey with the guitar or the bass.

Ben and I studied with Dick himself. Later, my brother also studied with Bill Jeric, who apparently had been a member of the James Gang at some point. Bill was the rock teacher.

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Dick, who was probably around 60 at the time, had a long history as a local jazz player and session musician. He was also quite a character. But whatever his eccentricities, you’ve got to give the guy all due respect: He managed to make a career out of music, and that is no small accomplishment.

As for the store, well, I’d say in retrospect that it was more of a front for the guitar lesson business that happened in the back. Over time, I came to realize that there were better places to go looking for guitars (e.g., there’s probably a good blog post to be written about Barry’s Mayfield Music, which wasn’t far from Dick’s studio).

Dick didn’t actually have that huge of a stock of instruments and amps in his shop, and a lot of what he did have wasn’t necessarily top of the line (more Hondo II guitars and Marlboro amps than Gibson, Fender, and Marshall–although he did get a Mesa Boogie combo in there at one point). This was mostly stuff for beginners, and one imagines, stuff where the manufacturers were more willing to offer a store owner favorable credit terms.

But as a 15 year old kid, there was plenty to be learned in Dick’s store, and the dudes behind the counter were always kind to us in our ignorance. Whether they were actually cool, I’m not sure, but at the time, they seemed pretty cool to me, because they were already inside of a world that I very much wanted to enter. So any little tidbit they laid down about that world, I was going to scoop it up has fast as possible.

We had no Internet back then. We just had guitar shop dudes, Guitar Player Magazine, and our own over-active imaginations.

Anyway, with that brief introduction, I give you a few random Dick Lurie memories:

1. Christmas Eve 1978:  My dad, my brother, and I entered Dick Lurie’s for the first time on Christmas Eve 1978. Ostensibly, we went to get Ben a bass as a Christmas present. Our dad knew Dick, because he taught guitar in the music department at Cleveland State University, where dad also taught.

While we were in there, my dad turned to me and asked “You see anything you want here?” After I timidly said “Maybe a guitar would be cool,” my brother walked out the door with a low-end Fender Precision Bass copy, and I walked out the door with an electric six-string that said “Alpha I” on the headstock and made a Hondo II Les Paul copy look like the real thing.

Imagine two pieces of 5-ply plywood glued together to double the thickness, then cut into a Les Paul shape, finished with a bad red tobacco-sunburst, some humbucker shaped pick-ups, and some volume and tone nobs (no pick-up selector switch). That was the Alpha I.

But it wasn’t a bad guitar for what it was. Action wasn’t bad, intonation was okay, and down the line, after I got some new tuners on it, it stayed in tune pretty well.

Kind of sad I don’t have that guitar. It got left behind when I moved away from Ann Arbor in 1985. Pretty sure it’s the only guitar I’ve ever owned that I don’t still have (I don’t really have that many guitars compared to a lot of other folks I know). Continue reading “Hondo II: Random Memories of Dick Lurie’s Guitar Studio–Cleveland Heights, Ohio”

Apple and Personality-Based Marketing/Publicity in the Music Space

Apple Computer Logo
By Apple, Inc. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I was on Facebook earlier today and came across the comment below from Tim Quirk. It’s apparently about Apple’s new streaming music service, which is slated to launch later this year. Tim’s a musician and has also spent time working at Rhapsody and Google Music, amongst other places.

WHO’s telling you to listen is far, far less important than WHAT they tell you to listen to. Also, GETTING you to actually listen.

Reading the comments underneath Tim’s post, I came to understand that it related to his criticism of what he asserted was the personality-based approach that Apple seems to be using with its new service.

One commenter, Jamie Dolling, asserted that the new service was as much about “personality as it is about music,” and worried that this approach couldn’t help but “poison the water.”

Subsequently, Jon Maples, a digital music consultant formerly of Rhapsody, indicated that it was the same..old…’human music curation’ approach without any understanding of what the listener actually wants.”

I started adding my own comment on that post, but as its length ballooned it seemed to be morphing into a blog post. So I moved over here.

Anyway, here’s my take on this stuff.

As Tim correctly points out, getting listeners to break out of their default is the challenge, because most listeners just want to keep listening to the stuff they are already familiar with (and consume the same products over and over again as well).

To my mind, personality-based approaches to marketing and publicity can be one way to accomplish that goal. Even if there’s an element of bullshit, snake oil to it, they wouldn’t still be using it if personality-based publicity and marketing didn’t sell shit.

For many people, who is telling you to listen/buy is inextricably bound up in what they are telling you to consume. That’s the whole point. It’s a gestalt experience.

The further you move to the right in the diffusion curve on anything new, the less likely consumers are to use their own research and judgment when making buying decisions. These people are much more likely to look to trusted people (opinion leaders) for signals about what choices to make.

This is not a new thing. It’s as old as consumer capitalism (or actually even older still). And while I pride myself on doing my own research on lots of stuff and making my own decisions, there’s lots of other stuff where I just don’t care enough to do that. I want somebody else to point me to an answer that is good enough (or better still, great). The whole point of doing that is that I don’t know what good is, so I can’t really effectively evaluate the quality of the thing being recommended. If I could, I wouldn’t need somebody else’s advice.

So the personality/trustworthiness of the person making the recommendation is extremely important. It becomes a proxy for the knowledge I lack about the thing being recommended, because, rightly or wrongly, I do feel comfortable evaluating what I think about the person doing the recommending.

The logic goes something like this. I don’t trust my judgment about what cool clothes are. This person over there seems to be a person who I think is cool and has on cool clothes (or at least a person who I understand from their reputation is supposed to be cool and wearing cool clothes). Therefore, their judgment about cool clothes is probably better than mine. So I’ll see what they think I should wear, and moving forward I’ll look to them for more clues and cues on that subject.

Unlike data driven metrics, this isn’t just about figuring out what I want. It can also be about creating a new want, because while I may know what I think I want, I may not actually know what I want all the time. Data driven metrics may do a good job of figuring out what I think I want right now or even what I might want based on what I have wanted in the past, but they don’t do such a good job of determining what I don’t know that I want right now but what I might nevertheless want in the future if it was put in front of me in the right way. The right sort of charismatic curator/opinion leader has the ability to do that.

For many people, music is something they are unsure about. It’s also something where they don’t want to have to filter through all the noise to get to the signal. They like having music around. They also know that what music they like says something about them, so there’s something at stake there beyond just the hedonistic experience of consuming the music.

But in many cases, they just want to be pointed towards some good stuff. If liking this good stuff also seems to help make them seem a little bit less uncool, well, even better. Because in 2015, nobody wants to seem uncool, not even middle-aged people like me. Indeed, seeming/feeling less uncool may be just as important–or even more important–than liking what has been recommended.

So yes, Apple’s new music service is a publicity/marketing platform. And yes it appears to be personality-based. That’s because the biggest objection that the music industry seems to have about many of the other streaming platforms is this:

They may deliver a good user experience to certain users, but despite many assertions to the contrary, they have not yet proven themselves to be particularly good marketing/publicity platforms for companies trying to focus demand on a limited slate of new releases (the only way to generate the kind of cash they need to stay in business long-term). They can service demand when it arises. But they don’t drive demand or significantly shape it.

Moreover, to the extent that these services create new wants in people, the want pattern is much more diffuse than in the old system. So the old-line music industry is still trying to find a marketing/publicity platform that looks and works more like terrestrial radio did in the glory days, because that was a great platform for focusing demand on a limited slate of new releases. It had a focused want pattern.

It’s a fair criticism to say that trying to find that sort of platform is a pipe dream. That we’re in a new reality now, and the desire for that sort of platform reflects an unwillingness to get with the times. But there remain very practical reasons why that sort of platform would still be useful to the music business. So it makes a certain amount of sense that its members continue to chase it.

Apple seems to be taking a stab at trying to provide that sort of platform with a more personality-based approach. But just because Apple may, in part, be trying to solve a problem for the music industry, that doesn’t mean their solution is inherently at odds with the user/audience.

After all, terrestrial radio has often been a personality-based marketing/publicity platform both for labels and all the advertisers that subsidize it. But it’s also beloved by many users, because they value both the curation and the personalities they find there. Often, those things cannot be separated.

That doesn’t mean that human curation is always good. Indeed, on average, algorithmic approaches may now be better at delivering a good-enough experience that is more personalized than the average human curation experience.

But when human curation is good, I think it remains the gold standard for curation, even when it is less personalized. Maybe I’m showing my middle-age here, but that’s how it seems to me. That sort of curation is inherently personality-based. That’s a big part of its appeal. You trust the curator enough to give up control and let them take you on a journey of discovery.

In the process, you bond with them, for being associated with a cool personality has the capacity to make you feel cooler and a part of the world they have created around their personality. That experience creates a want in you.

An algorithm rarely makes you feel cooler like this, because it’s a tool. You might use it for the purpose of doing your own research and discovery.  It might even show you some things about yourself that neither you nor other people readily see. That, in turn, might allow you to feel cooler when you deal with other people, because of the knowledge you’ve gained. But even when the algorithm is doing a good job delivering quality suggestions to you, it still makes you feel a little bit more like a data point and less like a human.

A friend of mine recently started a Spotify mix-tape group on FB. Each week a different member delivers a 90 minute playlist to the group (a virtual mix tape). So far, this experience has been infinitely better than any algorithmic experience I’ve ever had, because each group member actually takes into account what other people have done and who the audience is.

So if somebody included a track last week, that track isn’t likely to be in this week’s mix and more than likely neither would that artist. Although if it made aesthetic sense in the context of the mix to include the same artist or track two weeks in a row, maybe it would be in there anyway. But in any case, these mixes have a much richer sense of the many contextual factors that contribute to creating a good mix. The same is true of a great show on a non-comm radio station like KEXP. As a result of this, these kinds of mixes reinforce a sense that the group members are part of something bigger than themselves.

Of course, if that mix tape group was me and 25 kids who are under 15, the quality of the curation probably wouldn’t seem as good to me, although I’d probably still hear an occasional great tune I would have missed otherwise. I’d also feel more like an interloper in that group. Maybe that distinction is actually demographic rather than personality-based. But to me, issues of demographics and psychographics are embedded in the idea of personality-based branding. You are buying the gestalt experience that you associate with that person or company.

This is why an anonymous human curator is less valuable than a curator with a personality/reputation that is known and trusted by users, even if the choices of the anonymous curator are objectively just as good as or better than those of the known curator. The lack of an identifiable personality makes it harder to evaluate the utility of the suggestions. And once you’re dealing with that problem, you’re pretty much right back where you started. The curator is no longer solving a problem for you. Now, you need a curator to sort out the anonymous curators for you.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I don’t use algorithmic radio ever. I do. A group of my college friends made a playlist that encompasses many of the songs that were on the jukebox in the coffee house that was in the basement of our dorm at the University of Michigan (the Halfway Inn). Spotify generated a radio station based on that playlist, and it works pretty well, although it still does a poor job of managing repeats of the same song and multiple related songs by the same artist or by related artists (e.g,. Velvet Underground and solo Lou Reed).

A good human curator does not do these things. That’s part of the artistry. They take those things into account. Like I said above, they have a better and richer contextual awareness. Also, part of the reason that particular Spotify station works as well as it does is because it’s based on a playlist that was human curated. So it’s bootstrapping on the contextual awareness of the people who compiled that list.

If enough people trust a guy like Zane Lowe, some of that is his personality. But his personality and that trust is also a function of his talent for curation.

Grunge/Alternative rock broke on commercial radio back in the ’90s in no small part because of Seattle DJ Marco Collins. The relationship that people had with Marco at that time was very much personality driven. They liked him. He was a dynamic on-air personality, and they thought he was cool. But a big part of the reason why was that they came to trust his taste.

If Marco said something was cool and played it on the radio, people gave it the extra listens they needed to appreciate why it was worthwhile, even when their first impression might not have been great. Twenty years later, his impact is clear enough that somebody recently made a movie about him.

Some people have that intuitive gift for knowing what new stuff people will like if they just give it a chance. Computers are also getting better and better at deducing that information based on prior user behavior. But I’m still not sure those two approaches always lead you to the same place.

What’s that term? “Filter Bubble,” where your perceived options keep getting smaller and smaller as the search algorithm feeds back based on your previous choices. At its best, human curation seems less prone to the filter bubble (although it has its own problems and risks–e.g., it’s probably more prone to personal politics and lobbying, which can create a bureaucratic capture problem that undermines trust–See e.g., payola). But human curation only works if people trust the human curators and don’t have to invest too much energy vetting them.

Apple is a high profit-margin, gold standard brand. That’s why people pay extra for it. Its whole message is grace, ease of use, and quality (even if these things are not always actually true). Historically, it’s been about finding the spot where technology and people align. You know, a mix of art and science.

That’s the value proposition it is selling. The personalities are at least theoretically in the service of that. They are supposed to be part of the art that interfaces with the science and tech.

Part of the art is also the fashion sensibility. Undoubtedly, that’s part of what must have attracted Apple to Beats. I have mixed feelings about that. My feathers get ruffled thinking about paying hundreds of dollars for a pair of headphones that may be fashionable but ultimately aren’t very good sounding headphones for the money.

But at the end of the day, I guess I’m a bit of an engineer at heart. I value function over fashion, and I especially hate the idea of paying a premium for something just because it is perceived as being fashionable. Nevertheless, I also recognize that many people are not like that, and that these kind of people are more than willing to pay a premium for something they perceive as fashionable. Indeed, in many cases they are the highest margin consumers.

The personality-based approach also dove-tails with Apple’s history and culture. Before the death of Steve Jobs, it was a personality driven company. It’s also an opinion leader brand. So while it collects plenty of experience data from users, it has not historically solicited explicit input from the public about what it wants. It doesn’t have the same sort of beta-testing developer blogging, two-way conversation that many other companies have as they develop their products.

I once had conversation with a Boeing IT guy in a bar here in Seattle. He said they loved Microsoft, because they were much more open with his department about what they were working on and where it was going.

Typically, Apple hasn’t shared where it’s going until it releases a product for the public to see. It’s not looking for that sort of approval and feedback. When it releases something, the message is this: “Here’s our new thing. We’re cool. We think our thing is cool, and if you try it, we’re confident that you will think our thing is cool too, even if you don’t understand right this minute why it’s cool.”

Over the last decade, it’s had a pretty good track record doing that. So even when it does something that other people have arguably already done, it typically re-contextualizes it in a way that makes it sit differently with the public

We’ll see if Apple’s new music service provides that sort of bold leadership and delivers on the idea that theirs is a place where art does a better job meeting science than at other places. We’ll also have to wait and see whether their approach resonates in the market.

If it just ends up being a re-branding of the Beats music service, then I think the answer will be “no.” While there was nothing really wrong with Beats and it looked cool, at the end of the day, I didn’t find it qualitatively different from its competitors, either in terms of user experience or curation.

So to succeed, imho, Apple will need to extend things considerably on the personality front and keep their curated playlists and other personality-based offerings far more dynamic than they were on the old Beats service. Otherwise, it’s just the same wine in a different bottle.

 

 

Now I get it: Self-Driving Cars are the Spotify of Auto Travel

I just read a pretty useful article on the Vox site about self-driving cars. It could turn out to be wrong in many ways, but a few things clicked for me after reading it, like a better understanding of why Apple or Google might want to get involved in the automobile space, and why their expertise might make sense there too.

Picture of a Google Self-Driving Car
By Steve Jurvetson [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
I’m not a huge fan of Uber for a variety of reasons, but if you think about Uber-like companies deploying driver-less cars on a broad scale, that would mean a huge shift in the role of cars in our society and how we interact with them.

It’s a move from car as a widget that a car company sells you to car as a service to which a service provider sells you access. Repairs? That’s their problem. Gas or electricity? It’s baked into the price. Parking? Don’t need as much of it, because like a taxi, these cars don’t sit still most of the time. They move on to a new user who needs a ride. So those are some potentially cool features. On the other hand, if you want to jump in the car on two minutes notice and go somewhere, well, that may not always work so well.

At the end of the day, a self-driving car service like that would be very similar to a service like Spotify in the music space (or Netflix in the movie space). Instead of buying the hard product CD or DVD widget, people buy the right to access the same music or video from the service provider.

We’ll see how it all plays out, and I’m not sure if I’m totally sanguine about that outcome, particularly if Uber is a big player. But it is interesting to see how the success of services like Spotify, Netflix, and Office 365 have started to expand the adjacent possible of this sort of business model outside of the realm of intangibles, like digital music files, and into the realm of large tangible things, like cars.

Obviously, technological changes are driving some of this shift. But to a certain extent, it’s also about changing people’s cultural expectations around the value of “ownership” of a thing vs. access to the service that the thing has historically provided to us.

In the final analysis, the project of 20th-century, consumer capitalism was about extending the possibility of widget ownership as broadly and as deeply as possible. But as the Internet continues to link more and more people and information together, it’s those intangible linkages that provide much of the innovation and the power, rather than the widgets themselves, which are much more conduits for those linkages (i.e., more commoditized).

So more of the value is in the service itself rather than in the widget that delivers the service. And particularly if the service is delivered via centralized cloud servers, it’s much easier for a service provider to control access to the underlying service. As a result, digital piracy is much harder for the average user to accomplish. It also makes it easier for the service provider to roll out updates and security fixes. On the other hand, individual privacy rights may suffer when everybody’s information lives on a central server (self-driving cars would be no different–it would be much easier to track people’s movements if most travel happened in self-driving cars).

That doesn’t mean there is no money to be made making and selling certain classes of widgets (e.g. smartphones), but as more and more classes of activities are being mediated through the same widget, the markets for a lot special-purpose widgets have started going by the wayside.

We’ve already seen that process starting to play out in the context of things like music, books, and movies. But if it continues into things like cars, that’s going to mean some disruptive long-term changes that dwarf anything we’ve experienced thus far. It’s not quite the Jetsons. But it’s getting closer.

Anyway, nothing really profound in this post. Just some quick thoughts that came clearer for me. So apologies in advance if this is some Captain Obvious stuff.

Update:

A friend asked me the following question today after reading this post:

What about taxis? Don’t they already provide the service-based model for auto travel I’m talking about above?

Of course, the answer is “yes,” up to a point. With a taxi, you are buying the service instead of the vehicle, but the proliferation of the taxi is far more limited than the proliferation I imagine if the driver-less car were to really take-off. At best, at least in most American cities and towns, Taxi service is currently an adjunct to private cars and transit.

The networked nature of the driver-less car also makes it more easy to imagine the viability of a subscription plan for driver-less car service rather than the metered fee-for-service approach of taxis. This is what would make such a service the Spotify of auto travel, either a capped or all-you-can eat subscription within a given geographic area.

In this regard, the driver-less car might be more like public transit, where you buy a monthly pass. Indeed, it might work as a sort of compliment to public transit, ferrying people to and from trunk lines where it’s not efficient for them to provide service. This would mean less space needed for parking and less traffic on the roads, particularly if there was a way for multiple people to easily arrange to share a driver-less car to a shared destination (or where it’s efficient to hit contiguous destinations in the same trip).

 

Five Reasons The Music Industry Hates Pandora The Most

pandorahate

Note 1: I’ve been chipping away at this post for about eight twelve months off and on. I finally managed to bring it in for a landing yesterday night. File it under #slowblogging and #longreads.

Sam Lefebvre’s recent cover story on Pandora in the East Bay Express overlaps some of what I discuss here, and it’s well worth reading. That said, as our respective focuses aren’t the same in every regard, I’m hopeful that this post will serve as a useful compliment to Lefebrvre’s piece.

Note 2: This post was updated on December 8, 2014 with a bit of new content based on some comments I received when it first went up. I expect there will probably be more substantive updates as time goes by, and if that happens, I’ll let you know right here.

Note 3If you’d rather read this post off-line, feel free to download a copy of it in pdf, MOBI, or EPUB format. Apologies in advance for any formatting anomalies. I’m not yet a wizard at doing ebook format conversions.

***

Of all the dedicated digital music streaming services to come on-line since 2000, none has drawn the ire of the music industry quite like Pandora.

On its face, this may seem peculiar. After all, Pandora is a legal, royalty paying service. It has passed 250 million registered users in the U.S. Moreover, despite loud protestations to the contrary, there’s a credible argument to be made that, on a per listener basis, Pandora actually pays more royalties per spin to both songwriters and master rights-holders than does terrestrial radio.

So shouldn’t Pandora be a win for record labels and music publishers? Aren’t they being irrational in hating Pandora more than all the other services?

Succinctly, no. Pandora has been more disruptive of established music industry practices than any other major legal streaming music service. So the music industry has some very real reasons–both financial and aesthetic–to hate Pandora.

This post is a deep dive into five of those reasons. I’ve tried to keep my thoughts in plain English. But fair warning: I do get into some technical legal stuff towards the end. You can’t grasp the full picture without it. Continue reading “Five Reasons The Music Industry Hates Pandora The Most”

The Importance of Getting Your Vitaman D Levels Tested

Latitudes of continental U.S. population centers. From October to March, most of the U.S. does not have enough sunlight to create the vitamin D you need.

The NYT reported today that low vitamin D levels have been tied to premature death. This finding underscores an important point: Especially if you live in a place like Seattle (actually, anywhere north of Arizona), it’s important to get your vitamin D levels checked regularly. There is a good chance that sunlight alone isn’t giving you all the vitamin D you need. Consequently, your levels may be low if you aren’t supplementing.

This is particularly important if you don’t work an outside job. Moreover, the older you get, the more likely it is that your vitamin D levels will be low. So for those of us over 45, it’s time to start paying more attention to this metric.

When your doctor orders blood work for glucose, cholesterol, etc., make sure s/he includes a vitamin D test as well. Trust me on this. You may be surprised what you find.

Recently, I asked for a vitamin D test. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have had one, because my doctor had not suggested it. I found out that my levels were quite low, which was odd to me, because a few years ago they were quite high. But I was supplementing around the time of the last test, and I had not been supplementing lately.

Now, I understand just how much vitamin D levels can vary over time, and how supplementing can raise them up. But if you stop supplementing and spend a lot of time indoors, as I often do, they can go way down again.

That’s why it’s important to supplement and get your levels tested periodically. It’s the only way to get a rough picture of where things stand.

Recap: the Beastie Boys Vs. GoldieBlox–A Drama in Four Acts

Back in March, the Verge reported that the Beastie Boys had settled their lawsuit against educational toy company GoldieBlox. That suit alleged copyright infringement, trademark infringement, false advertising, false endorsement, and unfair competition, stemming from GoldieBlox’s unauthorized use of the band’s song “Girls” in the company’s popular Internet promotional video.[no_toc]

Photo by Masao Nakagami

According to the Verge, “[a]s part of the settlement, GoldieBlox will no longer be able to use its parody of the Beastie Boys song “Girls” and will publish an apology to the band…The toy maker will also make a donation based on a percentage of its revenues to a charity selected by the Beastie Boys that supports science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education for girls — the very subjects that GoldieBlox’s toy lines try to promote.”

Until recently, the specific amount of GoldieBlox’s donation was unknown. But on May 12, 2014, Digital Music News reported that the amount of the donation had recently been detailed in court filings from the Beastie Boys’ copyright infringement lawsuit against Monster Energy drink: To compensate for its unauthorized use of “Girls,” Goldieblox will donate 1 percent of its gross revenue to the Beastie Boys’ specified charity until it has paid a total of $1 million.

With this final piece of the puzzle in hand, now seems like a good time to offer a little recap commentary on the GoldieBlox drama, highlighting a couple of the important story lines and the lessons they offer for content users and content owners.

So I give you the Beastie Boys vs. GoldieBlox–A Drama in Four Acts. Continue reading “Recap: the Beastie Boys Vs. GoldieBlox–A Drama in Four Acts”

A few thoughts on Seattle’s New Minimum Wage Proposal

Lots of discussion and some confusion about the mayor’s recently announced minimum wage proposal (actually it’s the work of a committee of business, labor leaders, and politicians that he convened).

To me, the most useful quick and dirty metric for thinking about the proposal is to look at the proposed minimum wage increase in 2014 dollars and then ask how it relates to the current minimum wage.

That’s the number you get when you do this equation:

Proposed Seattle Minimum Wage in 2014 dollars/Current Washington Minimum Wage

If the final minimum wage increase ends up being $13.25/hr in 2014 dollars as Goldie has argued on his Horse’s Ass blog, that is a little more than 1.4 times what the current state minimum wage is now (and 1.7 times the current federal minimum).

Fifteen dollars an hour in current dollars would be around 1.6 times the current state minimum and almost twice as high as the current federal minimum.

Some people didn’t want to raise the minimum wage at all. Some people wanted it to immediately be 1.6 times greater than it is now. Those are the two polar extremes.

But everybody who supports raising Seattle’s minimum wage didn’t necessarily support immediately making it 1.6 times higher than it is now. Indeed, I suspect as more people have drilled down on the details, they’ve come to understand that this is an issue with a lot of moving parts and dependencies.

One poll showed that 68% of Seattle voters favored raising the minimum to $15 an hour, but I doubt those people are a monolith. What that poll shows is that Seattle voters want substantive action on this issue. That’s why business can’t just put its head in the sand and stonewall.  Nevertheless, the poll doesn’t say that every single member of that 68% would oppose a reasonable compromise.

That seems to be what Murray’s commission has delivered: a compromise proposal that gets us to a minimum wage around 1.4 times greater than it is now, which is about where I thought things would end up. It’s a big enough increase to show meaningful substantive action on the issue and no bigger.

If this plan passes the Council, I can see why some of the more hardline folks on the left will be disappointed. They haven’t had this much wind in their sails on an economic justice issue since the early 1970s. But I can also see why organized labor is going to walk away feeling pretty good about the outcome.

This is precedent they can use moving forward, and it’s probably closer to a number that can play in less liberal and affluent cities than Seattle. So it doesn’t seem like some crazy anomaly.

I hope the hardline folks will eventually put things in perspective, follow suit, and feel good about it too. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.

If you had told most left-of-center folks in 2012 that Seattle business leaders in 2014 would sign off on raising the city’s minimum wage to 1.4 times the state minimum (already among the highest in the nation), I think most people would have seen that as something to be psyched about.

It may not be a perfect win, like the Seahawks blowing out the Broncos in the Super Bowl back in January. But it’s a win nevertheless

The Universe Had A Plan: “Go Hawks!”

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Back in 1977, I was starting 9th grade in Champaign, Illinois. One day, a kid in my class told me that if you wrote a letter to a pro sports team and told them you were a fan, they would send you free stuff.

The Seattle Seahawks were a brand new NFL franchise back then. Unlike the other expansion team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who were one of the worst teams in NFL history, the Hawks had been reasonably competitive in their first season.

I thought the Seahawks helmets were super cool. They also had a left-handed quarterback: Jim Zorn. I thought that was cool too, as I was left-handed.

With the help of my mom, I wrote the Seahawks a letter saying that I was a big fan of their team. A few weeks later, I got an envelope back from them. Inside, was a decal that looked a lot like the picture above. I put that decal on the window in my bedroom.

Fast forward to 1992. My brother and I are driving across the country from Boston to Seattle, where he had lived since 1989. I am in the process of moving out there too.

We drive through Champaign on the way there and spend the night hanging out with my old friend Larry Crotser, who happens to be in town from Chicago that weekend visiting his parents.

The next day, Ben and I drive by our old house to take a look at it. There’s a guy out in front of the house next door, and we strike up a conversation with him. He indicates that if we knock on the door at our old house, the teenage son of the owner is there and he suspects that the son will let us see the inside of the house.

We go over and knock on the door. Sure enough, the son is home and after we explain who we are, he invites us into the house for a tour. They’ve done a lot of nice renovations on the inside. But while some things are definitely different, a lot of it is just as we remembered it.

When we head upstairs, we walk into my old bedroom. That’s when I see it: The Seahawks decal is still on the window there.

Later that day, after driving around town some more, we got in the car and continued the trip west to Seattle, where I’ve lived ever since.

In 2005, my parents moved to Seattle too. Now, the whole family is living here.

But long before any of us got to Seattle, the universe apparently knew that we would all end up here one day rooting for the Seahawks.

***

A year ago next Sunday (Jan 26), my dad passed away here in Seattle. Since my folks moved out here, Sunday football has been one of our family rituals.

I’m really happy I got to watch so many games with my dad in the years before he passed. Parkinsons took a lot of stuff away from him. But it never took away watching football, which was one of the last things he had left, and something he enjoyed to the very end.

I watched the NFC championship game with him last Jan 20, six days before he died. If he’d held on another week or two, we  undoubtedly would have watched the Super Bowl together as well.

In a little while,  Antonia and I will be heading up north to get my mom. Then, we’re going to my brother’s to watch today’s game with Ben and his family. Although my dad won’t be there, I know he’ll be with us in spirit for sure.

UPDATE 1:

Well, the Hawks played hard, got a few home team breaks, and managed to pull out a 23-17 victory. So we live to play another day.

Early in the season, my nephew developed a special celebration he’d do when something good happened for the Seahawks (a score, interception, sack, etc). It was also a tribute to my dad. He called it the “Conductor” (among other things, my dad was an orchestral conductor).

First, Max would tap the an imaginary podium with his imaginary baton. Then, he’d raise his hands up in the air and start conducting his imaginary orchestra. In my mind, they’re always playing a beautiful celebration song.

Let’s just say we were all doing the Conductor today at the end of the game after Richard Sherman tipped Colin Kaepernick’s pass in the end zone and Malcolm Smith grabbed it for an interception.

photo

Next stop: Super Bowl. No sleep till Jersey!

Here’s hoping our imaginary orchestra is playing another celebratory song on Feb 2.

Go Hawks!

UPDATE 2 (2/2/2014):

Seahawks beat Broncos in the Super Bowl 43-8!

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The Universe did have a plan.