Thursday, December 26, 2013

One Thing at a Time, Never Enough

I've been perennially late to the party when it comes to tech. Mostly out of financial woe, but sometimes because the newest, cleanest thing didn't serve my ragtag needs. I held cassettes dear way past their expiration date, but I'd be damned if I wasn't going to take my music with me and the walkman ruled the day (until the batteries started draining, but that's showbiz). Most important thing about cassettes: I could make my own. People soon will hardly remember cd's, or that computers even had cd burners. (I even had a disastrous playtime with mini disc that I can't talk about anymore). I suppose I could gift someone with a playlist on a usb drive, but, who even has a usb port anymore? My personalization angst has a body count.

I recently read through the results of a survey Google ran discussing folks' digital device habits. Apparently, the word of the day is: multitask. Our digital world: where only one thing is not enough. As someone who actually tries to concentrate on one thing at a time, I have difficulty  envisioning folks jumping from phone to tablet all while watching TV and possible driving or baking bread at the same time. 

There were many scenarios assumed by this survey, mostly grouped by: phone+TV, tablet+TV, PC+TV  which just shows how dull TV is that no one wants to pay attention to it anymore. Not as surprising, but more entertaining, was one respondent using the term "life time management" to express how he can be online while actually waiting in line. Sure, I suffered a long, slow line recently, but everyone was orderly, quiet and calm because they were all staring at their mobiles. You say "life time management", I say "crowd control". Are we all now happy to be waiting for our chai lattes, appointed court times and dentist visits as long as we can continuously suck at the 4G teat? 

Don't label me a luddite just because I am wielding tech from 2009. But if I won the lottery and could construct the ultimate tricked out digital den, would I have iPads built into the toilet paper holder and google glass in the defogged bathroom mirror? I enjoy getting answers to my questions anywhere wifi flies free, but I cant imagine needing to rearrange my Netflix queue while walking from my house to my car. (Not yet, you say, but just wait. People used to have to drop a bucket into a hole in the ground to get their water once upon a time.)

I've fetished old tech into art, just like everybody else: floppy discs, flash bulbs, 8mm film lacquered into sculpture, vinyl 45's melted into herb planters. And this year, apparently, I have fetished new tech into a blog of sorts. I started my online diatribes a year ago promising equal-opportunity derision, but the conversation somehow kept pointing to my skewed digital life (I maintain 3 iPods with different playlists, but won't join Facebook). I'm all for the organic and holistic in art and life: go where the vitriol takes you, keep an ear to the ground for the most enlightening discourse and try not to tell too many jokes that show your age (in my day, a selfie meant something else entirely…)

It's the end of 2013 and I still don't live in a minimalist white room with a single small device that holds all my music, books, movies, memories, hopes and dreams. Maybe next year it'll pop up on my amazon wishlist.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Fair, Balanced by Choice

For most of the 20th century, magazine publishers and their advertisers made big money  putting out movie magazines for the (mostly) women of the world. The idea of escaping a dull existence by reading about fabulous celebrity lives always left me kind of cold. If all I read about was people who seemed to have better lives than I do, wouldn't I always feel bereft about my own existance? There were only a handful of magazines - Life, National Geographic among them - along with the local and national newspapers that could always tell the other side of the story. And it's important, I believe, to feed ourselves equal parts of news - good and bad - to help level out our own existence.

We have the opportunity, in the digital age, to have access to such a wide range of news. Unfortunately, the government seems bent on trying to define a journalist in order to reign in who can and cannot present their opinions online; but until then, it's caveat lector and we're each responsible to vet our own resources.

Websites like Netvibes, Flipboard, and my personal choice, Feedly, allow you to bring in blogs and newsfeeds to create a self-curated collection of news and commentary from all over the globe, from all manner of sources. Certainly the combinations are endless, but my appeal to you is to take a moment and find ways to receive information on a wide variety of challenges facing our planet, our population, our country and the many components that make up a civilization. Yes, it takes time and attention to detail as well as rifling through a lot of bad prose, questionable facts and downright corporate-controlled propaganda. To get a better idea of how your neighbors are thinking, always skim through the replies. Better the devil you know is sometimes the best defense against rose-colored glasses.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Oh, CD

Managing my music collection has always been more about avoiding pain than it has been about instant retrieval at my fingertips. I have lived with people whose entire music world consisted of cassettes (with no cases!) dumped into a shopping bag. I consider myself lucky to have once rescued a sturdy wooden tri-level wine display off the streets of Manhattan back in the '80s. The slight incline of the actual shelves made for excellent (alphabetical, of course) cassette perusal.

Of course, this wasn't an extremely portable solution. Because I moved around endlessly in those years, it's no surprise the wine display didn't survive all of my many pads and gaffs. I began my music collecting life with 45s (because I swore to everyone that one day I'd be able to afford a jukebox; thankfully some dreams remain filthy shards of disappointment). Back in the small vinyl days, I kept a cache of footlong "crates" culled from places like Peaches (remember how the stores always smelled like sweet hippie incense?).  The crates were a godsend for many years: easy to transport, easy to display and today they serve time as organizers for tools and bathroom items, so I am an upstanding citizen of sustainability as well.

A small-ish music collection is easy to maintain when everything is laid out in one glance; however, when several different genres are scattered throughout a residence, organization becomes less about the storefront and more about the database. Who wants to run out and buy another copy of Beaucoup Fish or Dubnobasswithmyheadman just because you don't remember if it's under the sofa or you sold it on Amazon for cocktail money? And who among us, unable to memorize every track on every CD, purchased a greatest hits compilation never realizing you owned all the songs already? 

By the time I'd converted to compact disc and invested a sizable chunk into funky art installations to house all that plastic, I'd long since discovered a manic way of keeping a database of my music, no matter how time consuming and life draining. It wasn't just album tracks, it was the endless compilations and "samplers" I'd picked up along the way, the CD singles and CD maxi singles and CD ultra maxi singles with amazing rarer-than-rare b-sides and 15 remixed versions (at least 3 being dubs) of the latest techno/electronica/trip-hop track that I snagged just in case I was ever asked to deejay (I was never asked). Seriously, who needs to spend the time upending an entire room's contents as if the FBI had mounted a drug raid when you can consult a handy, gratutiously-updated list-to-end-all-lists?

Of course, those days are a distant memory, I am pleased to say. My digital life allows a piece of software like iTunes to literally assault me with libraries and playlists complete with an endless array of iterations for viewing "The Collection". It will even back up the monstrosity to some ethereal otherworldly cloud if I choose. The fact that I can make an on-the-fly mix of any songs that contain the word "kittens" or "mmmm" never fails to delight.

It goes without saying, but I'm saying it anyway, that all the time I save not worrying about my music collection I still have to waste with all those books and dvd/blu-rays. Scanning barcodes with my iPod is still terribly time consuming and the severe lack of vital information -  like who catered each film's food truck or in what typeface each book edition was set in - makes the whole database app enterprise ripe for competing developers to sweep in and take the marketshare.  One day soon an algorithm will select the perfect track to match every situation of my day. My music will follow me everywhere, a soundtrack uploaded, shared, blogged about, commented on and then quietly archived by the NSA.

Monday, September 16, 2013

gecko, behind the Dali

I'm not trying to be surreal; this is just what happens when you live in the subtropics through a long sticky summer: things hide behind other things that shouldn't be there but they are. I have a lot of Dali posters scattered throughout my house. Absolutely none can match the thrill of seeing the original in person, but we try to reproduce life as we can – it's human nature.

Besides, in my neck of the woods it is possible to see some of Salvador Dali's 2-story tall paintings live. Now, art museum etiquette frowns on folks taking photos of masterpieces, but in our ubiquitous digital world, there's no longer any real vigilance against this practice. I saw plenty of iPhones snapping in the museum, trying in vain to capture the enormity, the textures, the details, but it can't happen. Even my reproductions barely scratch the surface - I sometimes wonder why I bother. There are art gallery websites, of course, that allow us to magnify each sector of the world's art output, but it's all still web resolution artifacts and device-dependent pixels. Maybe that's why the Dali doesn't truly police their no-photo law: they know nothing can replace the experience of eyes-on-canvas.

The live music world has long ago lost that battle as well; but I believe they now actively court an audience that comes armed with their tech, so the next day I can see the whole event replayed on YouTube. (Was that me in that crowd shot?) Seriously, sitting in the balcony at the Pet Shop Boys show, I beheld the sweaty swath of audience below me, hundreds of phone screens shining brightly at me, hundreds of phone screens instagramming, facebooking, probably YouTubing. In fact, while sitting in a mezzanine lounge before the concert, I gazed down at 2 couples at a table directly below me. All were animated in conversation, all were manhandling their phones, texting, swiping through photo galleries and who knows what else at the same time - and these were people my age, not tweens.

I had the thrill of attending two concerts in one weekend and my digital life allowed me to not only preview the set lists from previous tour stops, but also scope out fan photos of the swag booths. (which makes sense, because at the swag booths, there were more people snapping pix of the merchandise than standing in line to purchase.) And sure, the kid in front of me was pulling up the Depeche Mode setlist so he knew what was happening before it was happening, but I swear I saw him go to iTunes to search for which song being played was on what album and he might have even purchased it right then and there. Internet advertisers, take note: this is interactive marketing at its most immediate and sublime. 

As an aside, I also truly believe that very soon there will be a whole explosion in augmenting our appendages via plastic surgery. Right now there is no defense against "zombie thumbs" as devices get smaller. The only solution: shave off most of our thumbs in order to be more stylus-like. No matter, the kid at the concert thumb-typed at least 85+ wpm (although I hope he isn't using autocorrect, one of the true scourges of the digital world).

So, my only digital question left is: no one raises their lighters anymore in our nanny-state during ballads. Is there an app for that yet?

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Something borrowed, something used

The sheer glut of used media (books, CDs, DVDs) has been threatening to overwhelm our society for a few years now. In fact, selling used is apparently not a sound business model (all those CD Warehouses went out of business even before the heyday of digital). Even the thrift stores don't have the room for all the VHS cassettes and Readers Digest condensed volumes dumped into their bins; they still make their bucks turning over clothes and handmade holiday macrame. Is there a better model?

There are still some independent retailers in my area who are sticking to the "mostly-used, some new" model, but many were forced out of business by a public obsessed with purely digital entertainment.  One former community favorite - Vinyl Fever - ended up splitting their new and used music sections 50/50, but I don't think it could sustain itself on meager 99 cent used CD sales. Up by USF, Mojo Books and Music is rocking a cavernous, well-stocked used book selection (and selling coffee and being a community hangout), while in Pinellas Park, SoundExchange is so overrun with used DVDs, they are pushing most off at 3/$5 (but being smart by organizing them by lead actor rather than alphabetically for easier binge watching). The venerable local institution that is Bananas will invite you to their voluminous warehouse, but their retail presence serves up a rather generic catalog of used CDs, sure to please the passer-by looking for a bargain.

So, juggling new and used media in brick & mortar is probably not a good business model at all. (I can't see Barnes and Noble doing it, no matter how quickly I am contributing to their demise.) Books and CDs are, unfortunately, destined to clog up the landfills; DVDs probably even faster due to the realization that you don't have to own a movie in order to have access to it whenever you want thanks to streaming subscription services and several robust rental schemes like Amazon and iTunes.

But folks don't stream CDs, they still rely on glorified radio stations like Pandora (and the upcoming iTunes Radio) to curate for them. As for books, is there really a more sustainable idea than the public library? Thanks to places like Better Worlds Books, it's gotten easier. I can buy a used book for a penny from Better Worlds Books via Amazon, read it, and then deposit it in one of the many green Better Worlds drop boxes in my community. It seems like borrowing to me, verging on recycling  (the tree's already been felled, the presses already run). Unlike the public library, it isn't exactly free - but most of the price goes to keeping the U.S. Postal Service alive - so that's almost being patriotic, right?

I have attempted to set up the same sort of cycle for CDs, but it's a bit more complicated. Sure, I get 99.9% of my music digitally (not just iTunes, elitists, I actually make the trip to to pay my favorite artists directly), but you know how iTunes and Amazon will make the best song on a soundtrack "album only" just to piss you off? I'll by the CD used and within minutes of it showing up in my p.o. box, I've digitized the track and re-listed it to sell on Amazon. The circle of life to be surel I may even make a profit.

Speaking of supporting artists directly, one fantastic arena rocking my online world is original art t-shirts. Instead of rolling down to Hot Topic (at my age, please!), I find amazing art to wear on websites such as Zazzle and Threadless and – since I have a New Orleans bent – Dirty Coast. The original t-shirt world is bright, shiny and booming while allowing me to spread my bucks around big business directly to the folks who deserve it.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Pomo, for my boho

As an aside to my regularly-scheduled digital misadventures, I am compelled to include a recent episode I'd always imagined would be a life-altering event. As I fast approach my half-century mark, this event falls squarely under the "I never thought I'd see this in my lifetime" menu item. Like avoiding the grim reaper, I've dreaded this moment, but also been a bit curious to see what the old boy's like under his hoodie.

My event, oddly enough, concerns the recent film adaption of Jack Kerouac's On the Road. Having not only read the book several times, I also studied numerous biographies, many of Kerouac's letters, as well as dozens of scholarly riffs on this piece of mid-last-century lit. I know all the real-life scenes, understand the whole myth behind Kerouac's supposed benny-induced nonstop typing of the novel. I know how long it took him to find a publisher, as well as the damaging effects its success had on him. Hell, I even bought a Dutch-language version of the book when in Amsterdam (it's called Onderweg).

But this isn't just a film culled from a book. It's a film culled from a book that was largely autobiographical, whose characters are now, 50+ years later, virtually indistinguishable from their real life counterparts - something Brazilian filmmaker Walter Salles capitalized on. In our post-modern world, personal works of art are often readjusted, re-aligned and re-maligned over the course of generations. Fellini's 8 1/2, back in '63, was also this type of artwork: a film about a film director having trouble making a film. Twenty years later, a Broadway musical based itself on the same material, but Nine seemed like less like a rework and more like an alternate take. However, when Rob Marshall decided to make a film of that Broadway show, he set it back in 1963 in order to emphasize we were watching a film based on the real life drama of Federico Fellini, not the character played by Daniel Day-Lewis. (I am surprised Marshall didn't shoot in black and white, as 8 1/2 was originally presented, but you really can't sell a glitzy movie musical without all that color.)

Still, watching On the Road was an intensely personal experience. I waited for Netflix so I could screen it alone, under the covers with two dogs fast asleep beside me. I won't review the film here except to say that it was faithful to the material for the most part and didn't ramble on as much as you'd think a rambling first-person series of roadtrips would. This is one of the reasons the book was thought to be "unfilmmable". But Kerouac gifted us with more than just hip narration and cool dialogue; as any good chronicler does, he gave us indelible images to play with.

The trouble most people like me have with film novelizations is that I envision characters and events in a totally different way than a screenwriter and filmmaker. In fact, like a lot of people, I will inevitably "cast" an actor in a role, hear their voice while reading dialogue. Action tends to be less adventurous in novels and this is where movies are able to take the visual to loftier extremes. I read the Percy Jackson novels before the films came out and there is no way what I conjured in my mind while reading can match the awesome action sequences onscreen. Uma Thurman aside, my imagination is not as good as CGI in 2013.

Back in the 90's David Cronenberg attempted to film William Burroughs' Naked Lunch. A scatalogical, drug-induced web of cautionary tales, there was only one way to connect them: introduce Burroughs' actual life story into the script in order to ground and focus the rest of the plot. If you already knew the source material, I think the film worked just fine - but if you were unfamiliar with either Burroughs or the Beats, you might as well have been sitting through Existenz.

So I was pleased the film version of On the Road didn't try to go all "meta" on me. It did not try to distill all of Kerouac and Beat Literature into its manifest. The novel emerged from notebooks Kerouac kept while just living his life. His iconic style sprang largely from the bebop jazz he loved so much, matching its relentless syncopation and improvisation. However, the main problem I have with this film is I wasn't watching On the Road, the misadventures of purehearted Sal and wildhearted Dean, I was watching a Jack Kerouac/Neal Cassady bio pic. The differences between real life and art can be small, but significant. Kerouac wasn't as much a radical as his p.r. machine tries to sell. He spent his time doing what his friends did: party, listen to music, try to score with chicks, argue with his mom. The most wild thing his clique did was drop benzedrine inhalers in their coffee. Salles' film doesn't show us a lot of moments where there isn't drug use and wild sex, giving the audience the impression that's all these characters were about. 

A good simple example has to do with underwear. In the book, when Sal first meets Dean, it's a shocker because Dean opens up his front door wearing only his underwear. In real life, when Kerouac first met Neal, Neal opened up his front door bareass naked. Conservative Kerouac didn't feel the need to relate these exact details in his book, (or maybe his publisher insisted), but the film relies on reallife facts and not the novel for this introductory scene. I found a lot of that in the movie: when Old Bull Lee shows up in the middle of the plot, we all know it's William Burroughs and there's no attempt to differentiate character from real legend. Carlo Marx, based on Allen Ginsberg, shows up in the last part of the movie sporting a full beard. Was that in the book? Maybe not, but in real life Ginsberg had this look at the time, so the movie faithfully reports it like it's a mini-documentary instead of a filmed version of literature.

There are a few remaining items on my bucket list: I've been both mortified and wistful while daydreaming about a big screen adaption of Catcher in the Rye. Yes, the novel deserves to be brought to a new generation through film. No, I don't want another bout of Cider House Rules hanging over my memory (I will never be able to reread John Irving's novel now that I've seen the film). There are remaining a handful of cherished novels that haven't made it to film (Poppy Z. Brite's Drawing Blood, Hemingway's Moveable Feast, Grant Morrison's Invisibles), while there are others I cringe for/long for currently in production (Neil Gaiman's Sandman series, Faulkner's As I Lay Dying).

Cinema will mine what it needs in order to survive; I accept this. I don't believe there are any sacred cows in art. Art is meant to be interpreted, and, if need be, reinterpreted. There are hundreds of years of amazing work that have been lost to the ashtrays of time, just as there are too many "new" stories that have been told several times over millennia. In the end, the novel is the novel and the film is the film and where the two meet is just a movie studio decision, an editor's point-of-view, an auteur's grasp of the material, sometimes the author's contractual agreement. In my digital world, images and words collide and coalesce. Somewhere, always, there's a kid with a notebook (or an iPad) writing down the utter crap he and his wild friends are up to that will become "a voice of a generation", and then the machine starts churning again.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

I Scan Barcodes, Tearfully

A visit to my local Barnes & Noble is still a special occasion. There is something comfortingly old-school about circumnavigating the maze of aisles, the espresso aroma of the embedded Starbucks, the awe-inspiring wall of magazines from all over the globe, the crazed half-cocked lean that everyone stands at while perusing the shelves. I appreciate the depth of the selection and the chance that I will happenstance upon something completely unplanned and amazing.

And then I scan the barcode with my iPod, visit thanks to B&N's free wifi and purchase the book at a discount. Right in front of a B&N employee, no less.

It wasn't supposed to be like this. And, make no mistake, I don't want B&N to go away.

When I was a kid growing up in generic subtropic suburbia, there were no big box stores, especially for books. I could brag that the local stripmall bookstore was "independent", but that implies something funky, something dangerous. It appeared that generic subtropic suburban bookstore had a wide selection, but what did I know? It wasn't until I moved to New York City that I discovered small bookstores that catered to specific tastes, like Rizzoli with their gorgeous, out-of-my-price-range, hardcover coffeetable art books, the loft on Broadway that sold nothing but theatre scripts, the Spring Street eclectic bookstore with the expansive worldview – not for people who read romance novels.

By the time I settled back in Tampa Bay, I was all about the independent bookseller, especially in what was then the "bohemian" quarter in Ybor City. Friends had opened the Three Birds Bookstore, complete with poetry readings, subversive literature and a surly barrista. It wasn't until I moved on to Atlanta that I first beheld a two-story Borders and ascended to heaven (or at least up to a graphic novel paradise).

I hear Barnes & Noble isn't doing so well. Whether their online presence is profitable or their digital reader is popular is not my concern; I need their brick-and-mortar to stay in tact. Am I worried there will be less choices without a B&N? Not really. There are already less choices in my digital shopping mall. The small collection of streaming film I list on Netflix is the exact same one streaming for free with my prime account. Music that is maddeningly available "album only" on iTunes is served up the exact same way on The vendors change; the product does not.

I know I can seek out the digital equivalent of "boutique" stores, spread my e-dollars out, go right to the author and bypass the publishing company as much as I can go to Bandcamp to buy music directly from the artist. I have to admit I am afflicted by the same one-stop-shopping laziness that makes folks go to WalMart. Voting with my wallet has never been more important in this world economy, but I don't feel I can really do anything to support local businesses. 

I once again find myself living in a generic subtropic suburbia, but this time around I don't feel I will miss out on the latest German import or out-of-print first edition. As long as I have a good cable connection and an efficient postal system, I am golden. But I am also isolated and not part of the solution (but my espresso skills ain't half bad).