12 Albums

It’s easy to romanticize the medium of our youth. I’m too young to miss vinyl; for me vinyl means Nana Mouskouri’s Christmas album. No one really misses cassettes; except maybe for mix tapes, which we mostly loved because of how much work we put into them. CDs are also hard to lament. They were never very portable; it seemed to take 10 years to develop a portable CD player that didn’t skip. Mostly, though, they were digital. There is really no difference between CD audio and a similarly configured audio file on any other digital medium.

When technology advances, we often realize that we miss the things that were flaws in the previous generation of devices. We miss the warm crackle of vinyl. We miss the sense of accomplishment from hours spent painstakingly crafting the perfect mix tape.

Now that we are awash in the glut of availability of digital music, I’ve come to realize that I’m missing one of those flaws. When I could only afford to buy one CD, I was stuck with it. I would listen to it until I knew every word and every chord.

Now that I have so much music at my disposal, even when I do find music I enjoy, it’s often enjoyed on “Random” or while I work, where my attention is spread far too thin. As a result, I seldom get to the level of familiarity with an album that I did ten years ago. I might get there with a single song, but seldom an entire album.

I do not assume that listening to the same album until it’s burned into your head is inherently better than a more cursory listen to a broader selection. However, familiarity is one of the fundamental elements that makes music something more than just sound. Our brains are good at spotting patterns, and we like completing patterns. Great artists use familiarity as one of their instruments to hack the brain into thinking notes, chords, and rhythms are playful, unexpected, or satisfying.

The deeper you know a piece of music, the greater the opportunity to enjoy it. Each note means something different when you know its coming.

So, I’m trying to artificially re-create a limitation that caused me to get to know a limited number of albums deeply. The limitations used to be accessibility and (mostly) cost. This year, I’m creating my own limitation. Each month, I’m choosing one album to focus on. It won’t be the only thing I listen to, but it will be the first thing I go to each time I start up some music. I’ll also listen to the entire album, in order, each time I’m looking to listen to a long stretch of music.

I’m curious to see if there is any more joy to be squeezed out of music by concentrating on a small set of albums this way.

Last year, without any such regime, I did end up enjoying a few albums this at this level: Fantasies by Metric, Far by Regina Spektor, Welcome to the Night Sky by Wintersleep, Three by Joel Plaskett, Into Your Lungs by Hey Rosetta!, Read Less Minds by Mardeen, and a few others.

Nice, Nice, Very Nice by Dan Mangan

The albums I’ll choose for each month won’t be the best albums of the year (many I might not have heard at all before I choose them, as was the case when buying albums 10 years ago). For January, I have chosen the album Nice, Nice, Very Nice by Dan Mangan.

It’s a good way to start the experiment. It’s a good album, but not something I would count among my all time favourites. If it had been one of a dozen albums I was listening to, I would never have gotten as much enjoyment out of this album as I have in the past few weeks.

I have eleven more albums to go this year. I will certainly include the upcoming release from Wintersleep. Suggestions for other albums are welcome.


Eastlink Injects Itself into the Internet Experience of its Customers

After having used Aliant (now Bell Aliant) as my Internet service provider (the term high-speed is useless in its relativity) for several years, I switched to Eastlink – the only alternative. My service with Aliant had been fine, but due to some bizarre Internet-topography, to get from my house (on Aliant’s network) to my office (a ten-minute walk down the street, but on the Eastlink network), packets were routed through Chicago (a 4,000Km+ round trip).

Having now been an Eastlink customer for a few years, the service has been similar to Aliant, in that it works fine, and I don’t really have to talk to them.

Some time last week, though, Eastlink began to stick its nose into my Internet browsing. They introduced a “service” they call Search Manager that picks up any mistyped host-names, and rather than leaving it up to your client (Firefox, etc.) to decide what to do when you request a bad host-name, they displayed an Eastlink-branded, Yahoo-powered, Google-look-a-like search results page.

From their Eastlink’s FAQ on the service:

Q. How does it work?
When a user mistypes an internet address or types a request for a non-existing website in the browser, our service will present you this page. The objective of this service is to present a page that can assist you in reaching your destination on the internet.

It doesn’t sound like such a bad idea. However, most web browsers now deal with a bad host-name quite well. Firefox, for example, uses Google’s “I’m Feeling Lucky” to turn a request like “Prince Edward Island” into an immediate jump to the Government of Prince Edward Island website. Eastlink has broken this feature of Firefox.

Of course, they also show ads on these search results pages (pages I never asked to see). Again, from their FAQ:

Q. How much do I pay for this service?
This is a free service. You will not be charged for using this service.

Of course it’s free. Eastlink is making money on it with ads – even though I already pay a healthy monthly fee for my Internet service.

To their credit, Eastlink does make it relatively easy to opt-out of the service. However, I find this “on-by-default” setup that requires me to opt-out to be an inappropriate intrusion into the content that flows through their network.

When I contacted Eastlink to complain about the service, I clearly stated that I understand how to opt-out (and already have), but that I wanted to register my complaint that the service exists at all. Eastlink’s customer service group responded by telling me how to opt-out. For bonus points, the response came from do_not_reply@corp.eastlink.ca. This is a bit like answering a question for a customer at a store, and then running away before they respond.

I’ve since contact Eastlink again with my complaint, and will share any pertinent updates here. If you are also an Eastlink customer, I would encourage you to contact them and complain.


The Temptation of the Mobile Web

In all of the talk about devices that provide pervasive internet connectivity (like the iPhone, Palm Pre, and Android phones), I had yet to see anyone address what I see as the most significant drawback of such devices. Until, that is, Tim Bray wrote up his experience with his Android G1 phone and included this:

Temptation and Work-Life Balance

If you haven’t had a real Internet phone before, and you’re a wired kind of person, there are social stresses. If you can always glance at your email or Gtalk or Twitstream, the temptation to fill any otherwise-blank moment by doing so is considerable. Your mind may find itself classifying a lull in conversation with your spouse as an “otherwise-blank moment” which turns out almost always to be inappropriate. [Tim Bray, July 19, 2009]

I’ve never been good with self-discipline. I don’t have cable-tv for this reason. Not because I don’t want to watch it, but because I do. If I had cable, I would watch it – for hours – and not anything in particular. I don’t see any reason to think that my behaviour with an always-connected phone would be any different.

I’m not particularly concerned about inappropriate use (during conversations, etc.). The problem for me would more likely one of frequency and volume. I would probably be better off if I could only check my email and feeds twice a day, rather than any time I want. Adding the ability to do it while I wait in line at the grocery store might not be a net gain in my quality of life (and grocery-line magazine covers are my only life-line to celebrity gossip).

Neil Postman talked about how the dawn of electronic communication filled our lives with impertinent information, mostly due to the proximity (or rather lack thereof) of the information sources. It seems we’re about to start carrying that entire problem around in our pockets.

I certainly don’t mean this as any kind of judgment on others with such devices. You’re probably a better person that I am and can manage your impulses. If you have the discipline to use it wisely, then great. I’m not sure I do.


The Apple-ication Tax

Imagine for a moment that you are a brilliant person. Are you with me so far? Ok, now imagine that you’ve created a software application that everyone wants. Maybe it’s Lotus 123, or Mathematica, Doom, or a screensaver with flying toasters.

Imagine then, that as you went to sell your application, Microsoft charged a tax for it to run on Windows (or Apple for it to run on Macs). Given the freedom we have to install whatever we want on our personal computers, this situation sounds absurd and unacceptable.

This is pretty much how it works for iPhone applications. In order for anyone to actually use your brilliant new application, you have to give Apple a 30% cut of the purchase (Palm plans to do the same the Pre, and Google for Android phones, but more on that later).

Of course, Apple has the right to charge for this distribution service. They provide bandwidth, quality control, visibility, and do most of it quite well. The problem arises, though, when Apple intentionally precludes any alternative distribution methods for iPhone applications.

If Microsoft (or Apple) decided tomorrow that the only way to install applications on Windows was through a Microsoft owned and controlled distribution system (let alone take a 30% cut), we wouldn’t accept it. There would be overturning of cars.

The trouble isn’t that Apple charges for their application distribution system. The trouble is that it’s the only means of distribution for iPhone applications. It seems unclear if Palm is going to make the same mistakes with their Pre/WebOS platform as Palm’s position on “home-brew” applications isn’t yet clear (even the term “home-brew” is a bit troubling, as it seems to imply negative connotations to non-Palm-distributed apps).

Google can do whatever they want with the Android marketplace, because you don’t have to use it – you can install applications on Android phones without using the centralized marketplace system.

Why do we accept this system for phones when we wouldn’t for our laptops?


Technology Freedom in Metaphor

If Twitter were a phone company, you could only call people who used the same phone company as you.
If the iPhone were a desktop computer, you could only install applications approved by Microsoft (or Apple).
If DVDs were books, you couldn’t read a book from Europe while in North America (oh, and you also need secret decoder glasses).

See identi.ca for an open alternative to Twitter.


Captcha’s Used Against Us With Comic Results

Nasty Spam Captcha image

I’ve always been bothered by the idea behind captchas (those weird looking things you have to type in to create an account on some sites). I resent that they make us, the good guys, prove that we’re good guys (or that we’re human, in this case). I feel the same way about having to lock my car, but after being repeatedly robbed, I have given up on that ideal. I’ve even had to use captchas on a few systems I’ve worked with myself (and I’m particularly proud of the catchpa on WebTwenny.com).

The reasons captchas are bad have been well explained by people smarter than myself. I’m no fan of spam, but I find myself oddly delighted to see spammers using the very technology developed to limit spam, to actually defeat spam-prevention systems. Recent spam emails have been including captcha-like images that are presumably intended to confuse spam-detection systems.

Oh, and the images are cartoon penises. Hold your mouse over (or click on) the grey image to see the delightfully horrifying image I received in my inbox.

Note: I’ve obscured the image by default not because of prudish sensibilities, but because I just couldn’t have those little guys staring at me from my own weblog.


Chronic Belonging

When I was in grade school, I was in a Church youth group. The group was interesting and fun, and I was able to really feel a part of it. I took comfort in belonging to such a group. My response was to jump in with both feet. If there was a related event, activity, or group, I was always a part of it.

This was the first of what would become a string of attachments to groups that would span much of my life.

A sense of belonging to something, anything, seems to be a basic human need. Even when the thing to which we belong is negative, the belonging itself can feel like a positive. While the need to belong is not necessarily a bad thing, I have found myself to have suffered from a chronic need to belong, often to the exclusion of anything else.

As I entered university, my new fix for belonging came from a band. There were only three of us, but I would have practiced every night if it were up to me. Of course, the music was a draw and it was a fun to create something, but what always pushed me was the need to belong.

Later in life, I came to belong to a new type of group. This time it was a legal entity; a corporation. Of course, it was much more than that; it was a group of peers building something together. Again, I wanted to belong, and as always, I wanted to belong as much as I could.

This worked well for quite a while, as the founding partners were all at a similar stage in life were such a venture really could be their primary focus. When your need to belong to something is this strong, though, it can be troubling when another member finds something else more important than the group. When some of the partners chose to focus on travel or education, even though it was almost always beneficial, this struck at my basic need to belong to the group. How could someone not want to be completely focused on this?

Ed Robertson of the group the Barenaked Ladies spoke in an interview about how deeply he was affected by the departure of one of their founding members during the midst of their early success. I can’t find the quote (it was a TV interview), but Robertson spoke of how it shook his view of what was important to see a member of this thing that was so important to him just walk away from it.

I write about this now because I can understand it in hindsight. That is to say, it’s behind me. I’m still a member of the company we founded almost ten years ago. It is still an important part of my life. However, it is no longer the most important thing in my life, nor do I feel the need to immerse myself completely in it. No longer do the choices of fellow company founders shake my faith in the value of the group.

It’s also easy to understand the origins of this need to belong once you are able to step outside of it. From this vantage point, it’s clear that the need comes, at least in part, from the comfort of sharing values and goals with others. As long as you’re not the only one living your life in a particular way, you can find security in knowing others have made the same choice. Even if it turns out to be a mistake, at least it’s a mistake you’ll make in good company, rather than alone.

Moving beyond this chronic need to belong seems to require a sense of self-confidence. You need to know that you can make good choices even when others make different, or even contrary, choices. It also helps to know that there are some groups to which you will always belong. Having a family of my own now seems to have given me much more security in this regard. I will always be, by definition, a member of my own family.

I finally find myself able to be a part of something, without having to immerse myself completely in it.