New media in Cuba

I read an ingenious article this week on Slashdot, talking about how Cubans evade Internet censorship (not to mention lack of access) by passing contraband material around on flash drives. It’s so old school, but brilliant.

Sure, it’s less efficient and less elegant than using the Internet, but unlike the Internet, it’s nearly impossible to detect and even harder to stop. Read more


Wow… How’d that happen!? I got my taxes in the mail yesterday at about 6:30. Business at the post office was brisk, but I only had to wait in line for about five minutes. I didn’t trust that I was putting the right info on the scales, and taxes are the very last thing in the world I want returned to me because of insufficient postage. It was a good thing I did, because I’d have been a few cents short on both envelopes.

This was a red-letter year in two regards. One, this was the first time in a number of years that I filed on April 15, without filing Form 4868 to get the automatic three-month extension. Second, this was the first time since age 19 that I got a refund. That was a nice surprise, because the past three years, tax time totally wiped out my bank account. I lost a lot of money writing last year (I wasn’t kidding when I said writing became a very expensive hobby), but this year I found out having a totally unprofitable business can really help at tax time.

I’ve got a big backlog on mail. I’ll answer the unanswered stuff tonight.

Office pranks. Steve DeLassus called me over the weekend, partly to find out what was going on with and partly to gloat. His hobby seems to be egging on one of his coworkers, named Ben. Courtesy of Steve, I know more about Ben than I know about George Washington, but Ben’s most recent thing has been striking up a friendship with an old flame from junior high. Ben insists the goal is platonic. The story Steve tells me suggests otherwise–you don’t start thinking about moving across the state so you can be closer to a friend. Closer to an ummfriend, maybe, but not a regular old friend.

Well, Ben made one of his pilgrimages to Kansas City thw weekend before last, so Steve decided to have a little fun with him. On Sunday, Steve hopped onto Napster looking for some good porn groove. So he keyed in the word “porn” and looked at the results. He found a track called “Love Muscle.” Promising. He downloaded it, along with a boatload of other tunes, and gave them a listen. “Love Muscle” had a good kitschy ’70s groove to it. So he called Ben’s place, knowing full well that Ben won’t be home, waited for the answering machine to pick up, then at the beep, he held the receiver to his PC’s speakers and gave Ben a nice minute and a half of porn groove. Then he hung up, called me, and gloated about his latest exploit. I’d sigh and say something like, “Ah, youth,” except Steve’s older than me.

Well, Ben got home, called his wanna-be ummfriend in Kansas City, and while on the phone with her, listened to his messages. I guess Steve’s serenade amused him. “You gotta hear this,” he said, and held the phone up so she could hear it. She laughed. “Oh, you gotta get him an apple pie.”

So Steve came in to work on Monday to find a warm apple pie with a hole in the middle sitting on his desk.

Now for something that actually is useful… I found this (unfortunately abandoned) Basic for Windows and Linux: It’s very Qbasic like, and makes it easy to incorporate GUI elements. Check it out if you have any interest in that sort of thing.


About DDR… I should have stated the difference between the two types yesterday. PC1600 DDR runs on a 100 MHz double-pumped bus. PC2100 DDR runs on a 133 MHz double-pumped bus. Obviously PC2100 is much more desirable, providing about 33% as much bandwidth. Crucial is selling PC1600–a fact I didn’t notice–at the price of PC133 SDRAM. That’s less than 50 cents a meg. They aren’t currently selling PC2100 directly, which is what you probably want. PC2100 is currently selling for about a dollar a meg from other sources.

The short term bang-for-the-buck option is to go with a KT133A-based board, a 133 MHz FSB Athlon, and PC133 SDRAM. You’ll get 85-90% of the performance for $100-$150 less. Long-term, however, a DDR solution will make more sense from a performance standpoint and an economy-of-upgrading standpoint. Take a look at what EDO memory costs today and you’ll see what I mean. It’s more expensive than Rambus memory–while Rambus sells for about $2 a meg, antiquated EDO memory sells for about $3 a meg. The price of FPM memory, an even older technology, is over $3 a meg.

So… If you’re swapping out a motherboard and can afford PC2100 DDR, it makes sense to go ahead and get a board that uses it.

What’s this PCxx stuff mean anyway? It’s fairly easy to understand SDRAM monikers–PC100 means the memory bus runs at 100 MHz, PC133 means the memory bus runs at 133 MHz. But manufacturers have gotten ridiculous with the naming schemes of new memory. Along comes Rambus with PC600, PC700, and PC800 memory. But the slowest Rambus memory isn’t 4.5x faster than PC133–far from it. And then comes DDR, not to be outdone, calling itself PC1600 and PC2100.

Here’s what it means. PC600 Rambus is running at a memory bus speed of 300 MHz. PC700 Rambus is using a 356 MHz bus speed. And PC800 Rambus is using a 400 MHz bus speed. CPUs still run at their old bus speeds of 100 or 133 MHz when using Rambus.

Now, PC1600 DDR runs on a 100 MHz bus, while PC2100 DDR runs on a 133 MHz bus. Their names refer to the amount of memory bandwidth available.

So, PCxx isn’t a direct comparison of speed at all. Comparing SDRAM, Rambus, and DDR by their names is like comparing apples, oranges and bananas.

And now for something totally different…

The height of hypocrisy. The RIAA is saying  that paying royalties to songwriters for their work is too difficult–a similar argument to the one Napster used in its defense. The RIAA can’t have it both ways. (Never mind everyone else has to pay to use the songs, and rightfully so.) Hopefully the government will agree. Otherwise the only thing the past year has proven is that the RIAA can bully around anyone who’s smaller than they are.

The story goes like this. Now that the RIAA has turned Napster (who had little ground to stand on) and (who had all the ground in the world to stand on) into shells of their former selves, they’re poised to launch their own online service(s). But the RIAA, who represents the record labels, has tried to cut the NMPA, who represents the songwriters, out of the deal.

I’ve heard people advocate pirating music, then tracking down an address for an artist and paying the artist directly. That’s more honorable than paying the RIAA. An honorable and legal approach is to just buy music from artists who also own their record label–when you constantly bend the rules in your favor, it’s hard to keep friends, as the powers that be at the RIAA seem to have not learned on the grade-school playground.


Just a note about yesterday. The missing backslashes in Tony Brewer’s mail were my fault, not his. Manilla uses the backslash as a control character, so unless I double up on them Manilla munches them and you get run-together strings like c:windowscommandattrib.exe.

And a memory tip. I read in The Register yesterday that at least one industry expert expects memory prices are about to climb. With brand-name PC133 128s going for $40, if you’re in the market, go get it.

My sources have been wrong every time I’ve said memory prices looked like they’d level off, so I almost hesitate to say anything, but I’d hate to see prices quadruple next month without me saying something.

Then again, if brand-name PC133s are going for $20 next month I’ll feel equally foolish, so I guess I can’t win, can I?

Speaking of prices, I don’t have any new sources of $35 motherboards this week, but I can probably find one if someone wants…

Given the title of this site, I wish I had some great tidbit to pass on, but I spent half the day playing with ramdisks and the other half trying to figure out why someone’s laptop couldn’t see the router even though the router was seeing the laptop. Not very inspiring.

So enough about computers. Let’s talk about music, seeing as Napster has some ultimatum by today. I think today’s the day the hammer falls if they aren’t filtering out certain titles. This should be interesting, seeing as Sony didn’t provide them with filenames to filter like the court ordered, and there are at least two efforts under way to encrypt/decrypt filenames real-time. Ironically, record companies’ efforts to defeat that effort are supposedly forbidden by the Digital Millenium Copyright Act.

One of my favorite bands of all time is coming back. I’ve been hearing rumblings off and on about a new album from Depeche Mode for several years, but they actually look to release a new album in a couple of months.

It’s hard to imagine that Mode’s last great album, 1990’s Violator, came out 11 years ago. Songs of Faith and Devotion, their 1993 effort, was overshadowed by the efforts of that year’s up-and-coming alternative rock bands, and the band’s troubles didn’t end there. First keyboardist Alan Wilder left the group, then lead singer Dave Gahan, battling heroin addiction, attempted suicide. After Gahan spent time in rehab, the band released 1997’s Ultra, which was just totally ignored. I’d love to be proven wrong on this, but I suspect this newest effort will be ignored too.

My grandparents’ generation swooned to Frank Sinatra. My parents swooned to Elvis Presley. My generation swooned to The Cure and Depeche Mode. (I’m trying to figure out if this should frighten me.) I guess I should find out what the youth of today swoon to, but I’ve got a feeling after I find out, I’ll understand it about as much as my parents understood The Cure and Mode. And that’s why I don’t think this album will go too far. Mode’s audience doesn’t buy that many records anymore, and to the demographic who does buy records these days, Mode will sound like a relic of a bygone day.

The quality of the album is hard to gauge from the 30-second snippets on their site, but the content isn’t. Mode specializes in two types of songs: spiritual alienation songs and make-out songs. And somehow they usually manage to sound depressed in both types of song. What can I say? They’re talented. People don’t call ’em “Depressed Mode” for nothing.

But I’ve gotten off track. Exciter looks to be a make-out album, with one obligatory song of spiritual alienation (“Breathe,” which is a bit surprising because that sounds like a make-out title if I ever heard one). As for the sound, the synthesizers are much more prominent this time around than they were on the last two albums. They sound like Depeche Mode again, rather than sounding like Depeche Mode following whatever’s trendy that year.

And at the risk of going off track again, do girls take it as an insult when someone dedicates a Depeche Mode song to one of them? They probably should. “Enjoy the Silence” sounds like a love song, and on one level it is, but the lyrics are really just a long-winded, disguised way of saying, “Shut up.”

“Words are very unnecessary, they can only do harm…”

Or maybe I’m the only one who pays that much attention to lyrics. Probably.

And speaking of albums that’ve been long overdue… I checked in on Peter Gabriel’s Up over the weekend. Supposedly that’ll be released this summer. Gabriel announced Up in 1998, days before R.E.M. announced their next record, which was also titled Up. As I recall, R.E.M. actually apologized for that. That turned out to be totally unnecessary, seeing as it’s now two and a half years later, R.E.M.’s Up is mostly forgotten (a shame because it was good), and Gabriel’s album of the same name still hasn’t been released.

Let’s see… After four self-titled albums, Gabriel got caught in a rut of two-letter names for his studio albums: 1986’s So, 1992’s Us, and then whenever’s Up. Who’s to say his follow-up, which at this rate would probably come out in about 2013, will be titled It? Fits the pattern, and it’d be a fitting title for a final effort.



Napster; Pentium 333-II; OS and APP installations

Emergency Repair Disks are your friend. We have no company policy on ERDs. That needs to change. Yes, I know floppies are about as reliable these days as dear departed Royals closer Ricky Bottalico (nicknamed “Blow-ttalico” last year because of what he so frequently did to late-game leads). But an ERD created on a fresh floppy and then put away in a safe place ought to be reasonably reliable, and an unreadable ERD is less maddening than no ERD at all–at least you’re taking precautions, right? Besides, hopefully you’re like me and you grabbed a 386 off the scrap heap and put DOS and the old DOS version of Norton Utilities on it so you have Disktool and Norton Disk Doctor (run in that order) to fix bad floppies, right?

Why are ERDs your friend? Well, on a system at work Friday, NT must have asked the question, “Kernel? What’s a kernel? We don’t need no stinkin’ kernel!” because the NT loader couldn’t find it. So they brought me in. I asked if there was an ERD available, knowing full well what the answer would be. Well, I didn’t predict the puzzled look, but I got the “no” part right. So then I asked what the most similar system in the immediate area was. They looked it up in the database, so I grabbed a disk, went to the system, and ran RDISK.EXE to create an ERD to use. Then I grabbed an NT4 CD and got ready to go to town.

I booted off the CD, then chose the option to repair an installation. It asked for the ERD, which I dutifully provided. It then asked what aspects to check. I de-selected all the registry-related stuff because I didn’t want it mixing registries between the systems. I just wanted it to replace system files, preferably just the missing ones like, um, the kernel.

Luckily for me, the HD’s filesystem was in pretty good shape because it found files immediately and started prompting me to replace them. An awful lot of them. This bothered me but I let it do it. In the end, I had a bootable system that wouldn’t run Internet Explorer. I realized pretty quickly that the two systems had mismatched service packs, and that was the reason for the large number of files, and IE was my ticket to SP6a.

The moral of the story: Had the system had an up-to-date ERD, I could have had it back up and going in about five minutes. Lacking the ERD, I spent five minutes making one, five minutes repairing the installation, and about two hours uninstalling and reinstalling Internet Explorer and the myriad of security updates Microsoft’s released over the course of the past year.

Not that I’m complaining too badly–the user shares cube space with one of the coolest people I’ve ever met, and she turned out to be friendly and interesting as well. But downtime’s not good for the company’s bottom line, and while I’m on the clock, the bottom line’s more important than my social life.

A correction from yesterday. It took several hours for my brain to warm up yesterday I think. At least one person wrote in to ask why I ran Windows Update so close to the beginning, rather than at the end. I have no idea why I wrote it that way. He’s right, you should run Windows Update at the end, in case something you install clobbers an updated file. Slim likelihood but hey, I’ve seen all kinds of weird things and seeing as MS doesn’t know where the OS ends and applications begin, better safe than sorry.

So I went back and changed yesterday’s post to reflect the correction. Far be it from me to add more misinformation to the Information Superhighway-turned-Misinformation Traffic Jam.


Napster; Pentium 333-II; OS and APP installations

Napster and the decline of copyright–part 3

All of this talk of Napster brings up some questions: What is legitimate use?

Making MP3s from CDs you already own is legal, just like making tapes from CDs you own is legal. It’s difficult to say that downloading MP3s made from CDs you already own would be illegal, as you can just make the MP3s yourself. For some people, this is preferable, as encoding MP3s takes a good deal of time on slower systems. However, one can never be certain of the quality of the MP3s online–the condition of the CD, the quality of the source drive, and the quality of the encoder come into play. Those who aren’t audiophiles probably prefer to just download the MP3s, but the existence of the files understandably makes record companies and artists nervous.

So Napster isn’t just out-and-out theft. (Just almost.)

But some tracks on Napster are legal as well. The right to make and distribute live bootleg recordings has been upheld by courts. And some artists, notably The Grateful Dead and, more recently, Phish and The Dave Matthews Band, have given bootleggers their blessing. Other artists aren’t so keen on being bootlegged, but aside from trying to keep recording devices out of their concerts, there isn’t much they can do about it. Such recordings on Napster are legal, but determining whether such a track is what it claims to be can be difficult. I once downloaded a supposed live version of ‘Til Tuesday’s “Believed You Were Lucky,” only to find it was the studio recording with reverb added–clearly a violation of copyright unless you happen to own the original. Many of the live recordings I’ve downloaded from likes of Joe Jackson, Peter Gabriel, and Social Distortion turned out to be from commercially available live albums, some of which I owned, and some of which I didn’t.

And occasionally an artist will release a recording on Napster for promotional purposes–or to hack off their record label. Veteran alternative supergroup Smashing Pumpkins released an album’s worth of unreleased material on Napster last year and said it was their last album.

But policing content on Napster and other peer-to-peer sharing plans is difficult. It’s not a total impossibility, but file renaming can make it much easier for illegal content to get through. Digital fingerprinting would be harder to circumvent, but that, too, could be done, and implementation is extremely difficult. The difficulty of such measures makes me wonder why Napster came into being–it’s not a good business model. Part of me wonders if Napster’s creators just didn’t care whether they were breaking the law or aiding others in breaking the law. While there are legal uses for Napster, I suspect few people are confining themselves to the legal uses.

There are plenty of people calling for copyright reform, and that’s not unreasonable. Under current law, copyrights can be extended beyond the material’s original audience’s lifetime. Under the original law, copyrights lasted for 26 years, renewable for another 26, for a total of 52 years. So that time frame won’t prevent Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney from making a living. But under that law, the pop songs from 1949 would now be freely distributable, and could be performed without royalties. The beloved early rock’n’roll tunes from the 1950s would come available this decade. For those songs, Napster wouldn’t be an issue.

Content publishers seem to be more worried about current copyright provisions than content creators are. Sci-Fi author Jerry Pournelle has stated numerous times he had no problem with the original law, when he was writing his early works under it.

Reverting back to the old law is probably the best compromise. People wanting to freeload will be able to do so, but they’ll have to wait 52 (or if they’re lucky, 26) years. Those who produce and distribute content will still be able to make a living doing so–the majority of people won’t be willing to wait all those years. Abandoned property won’t be an issue either–once it reaches 26 years of age, if it’s not renewed, it’s fair game.

Unfortunately, the copyright law debate is lost in all the Napster rhetoric. And that, I fear, is possibly the greatest casualty of the battle. But it’s no silver bullet either. It increases the pool of material that’s fair game for free distribution, but it doesn’t solve the problem of outright piracy of recent material.

MP3 has plenty of legitimate uses, for the consumer as a matter of convenience and for copyright holders as a matter of promotion, and the courts have upheld those legitimate uses. MP3 usage tends to be a fall guy for all the record industry’s problems, but the record industry had problems before the MP3 phenomenon became rampant. As Andy Breslau said, there are so many avenues of entertainment available today, it’s perfectly natural that the recording industry’s share of the entertainment pie would shrink, just like TV networks’ share is in decline. If and when Napster is forced to close its doors, the industry’s problems won’t just disappear, and the illegal copying of MP3s will almost certainly continue, though possibly not on such a large scale. There’s very little, if anything, the industry can do to stop MP3 swapping through Usenet newsgroups and IRC chatrooms, which was where the MP3 phenomenon began in the first place.

I expect the use of MP3 for promotional purposes to continue, and services such as will take advantage of it legally for years to come. But services like Napster, which provide virtually anything you want with no proof of ownership, are probably running on borrowed time, even though the industry is lying to itself about the true impact these services have.

Napster will be forced to shut down, the record industry will continue to make billions and artists won’t get their fair share, and the record industry will continue to complain their billions aren’t enough and blame MP3s or something else.

Part 1 in a series. Part 1 Part 2 Part 3

Napster and the decline of copyright–part 2

“Am I remiss in wanting to protect the possibility of recouping my losses from all those years ago?  In the wake of Aimee [Mann]’s deserved recognition, why shouldn’t I be able to at the least make back my money selling a `protected’ product?” Breslau asked. “And then, besides, Aimee, Doug Vargas and Michael Evans (the other former Snakes) could start seeing a couple dollars too?”

Napster hurts big record labels a little. But it hurts little record labels like Ambiguous Records, whose big star’s records are still sitting in Breslau’s basement after 19 years, even more. But what about the musicians themselves?

I asked Breslau about the typical musician’s plight. I’d heard Courtney Love’s assertions that she made less money than I make, but at that point Breslau seemed much more real, possibly more candid and, frankly, more interesting.

“Many musicians are poor and struggle their whole lives to stay above water. Those who have regular gigs either in orchestras, as jingle players, teaching, or as sidemen aren’t making what your insurance broker is,” Breslau said. “A great many folks who are involved with music drift in and out of making a living and eventually their day gig becomes the gig. The few, the proud, the multimillionaires represent a tiny, tiny few.  Probably the same percentage that pro hoop players represent as figured against all those who played junior high ball.”

Breslau mentioned a musician he’s working with. He’s 60 years old and has been playing 150 shows a year for the past 10 years, has a worldwide following and critical acclaim. Yet he’s having difficulty finding an apartment and health insurance he can afford, and the rigors of touring are starting to catch up with him.

I asked Breslau what he thought legitimate uses of Napster might be, if there were any. His response surprised me.

He cited Napster as potentially a distribution method, and certainly a marketing and promotional tool. “For some an unspooling, open ended library like Napster can be an incredible tool, a repository of discovery and a font of fun,” Breslau said. “Those who use it the most are students and those who have work-at-home gigs.”

Napster may replace some of the more traditional methods of introduction to new music, but not for him, at least not completely.

“For someone like me who has a demanding job, family and still wants to take advantage of sunshine, the editorial screen and organization that a music store (chain or boutique) or radio provides is still very useful. It guides me to what I’m interested in and when I’m frustrated in that search and still thirst after who knows what, I now have a new tool to seek my heart’s desire through–that’s to the good.

“I do miss great radio though–WFMU here in New York is a last outpost of dedicated eclecticism,” Breslau said. “When I was growing up in suburban Maryland, WGTB, Georgetown U’s station and the old WHFS – a truly great free-form commercial station in the day–were keys to whole other worlds for me.  The role of the `trusted guide’ is perhaps diminishing and I think that’s not a good thing. Plus the art of the segue is now almost completely relegated to clubs. Great segues can illuminate whole new contexts and resonances betwixt and between different songs and musics that you have to hear to get hip to.”

I asked Breslau if he thought Napster, as some claim, was responsible for the decline in record sales cited by large labels. He didn’t seem to buy it.

“I’d say the lion’s share of the change in market share comes from the explosion of entertainment options,” Breslau said. “It’s inevitable in a world of computers, gaming, cable television and myriad other entertainment outlets that the recorded music industry should see its share of the entertainment pie diminish. Competition has totally diffused viewing habits in visual mediums–there’s no reason music should be any different.”

Breslau’s words brought to mind a quote from an interview with U2’s Bono and The Edge I read in 1994 in Details magazine. At that point, MP3 was very much in its infancy, gigabyte hard drives cost $400 and recordable CD drives cost $1,000, a 28.8 kpbs dialup connection was state of the art, and the Internet wasn’t yet a commercial success. It seemed a different world from today, but like today, record sales were down. And The Edge, U2’s lead guitarist, observed, “More people are buying video games today than records.”

And Breslau disagreed with the common idea that today’s music isn’t as good as the music of earlier, more commercially successful days.

“The broader industry is guilty of saturation marketing for fewer and fewer products while releasing all kinds of stuff they never have any intention of supporting. There is lots of good music out there,” Breslau said. “I think its arguable that today’s scene is actually broader and more vital than 5 years ago, but the predominance of mega-hit mentality with little attention spent on building artist’s careers tends to push the obvious and two-dimensional stuff out there to the fore. The idea of a company supporting an artist who comes to maturity in craft and commerce by their third recording is almost quaint at this point.”

Some examples of bands who needed three or four albums to reach maturity: U2, Rush, and Bruce Springsteen–none of whom any record executive would mind having on a label. Impatience is hurting the industry in the long term at least as much as Napster.

And Breslau said it’s too early to judge Napster’s true impact.

“Young people, particularly those in college, are now pouring some of their musical curiosity/energy into downloading and not to listening to radio or scouring live venues or music stores for new gems,” Breslau said. We’re seeing some of this impact today.

“What will be interesting to see is the long term implications of these new habits,” Breslau continued. “College age is when life long musical appreciation and consumption habits get formed.”

I liked the way Breslau concluded one of our conversations. As one who has been hurt by Napster–how many people download Bark Along With the Young Snakes instead of buying it from him?–he still sees a potential for it to be a good thing overall, so long as the law is respected.

“Napster can be many positive things: a way to give your art to the world, a way to build an audience for your art, a test of commercial viability, a great marketing tool–but all of those are affirmative voluntary acts,” Breslau said. “What troubles me is when the technology becomes compulsory, when an individual’s choice and right is overwhelmed by another individual’s desire without regard to the other’s circumstance, goals or intention. If technology is to be liberating and empowering, its radical implications must be grounded in respect for an individual’s right to privacy and liberty, and, yes, that includes the exercise of property rights.”

Part 1 in a series. Part 1 Part 2 Part 3

Napster and the decline of copyright–part 1

When Napster’s technology first appeared in 1999, I was like everyone else. I didn’t understand all of its implications. All I saw was a potential venue to find new music.

The cool thing about writing a book and running a Web site is that your questions rarely go unanswered. Just post, and answers tend to find you as people connected to works you admire find you.

Just this thing happened to me, when I mentioned finding a gem on Napster: a complete copy of Bark Along with the Young Snakes, the first commercial recording by one of my heroes, Aimee Mann. I didn’t know where else I would be able to get a copy, so Napster, I concluded, was a good thing, as long as you were willing to let your conscience be your guide. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

People seem to assume that superstars make millions of dollars. Who really gets hurt when we pirate, say, a Matthew Sweet single that’s been running through our minds for the past seven years? He was a pretty big star, so he’s set for life, right? No one really cares… No one gets hurt.

That’s a pretty clear-cut case. It’s illegal, period. Now you can probably justify it in your own mind if it’s just part of a course of action–you hear a song on the radio, or a snippet of it, so you search online to try to find out the title and artist, you find some possible suspects, then you listen to the snippets online at CDNow or another record store. If that doesn’t click, then you hop onto Napster, download the possible suspects, listen, figure it out, and then buy it. If you do that, you’ve technically still broken the law, but not really the spirit of it. You got your music and the artist got the money.

But some things aren’t as clear-cut. Out-of-print stuff, for example, isn’t. If I covet Pale Divine’s Straight to Goodbye from 1990, I face a tough challenge. The album’s been out of print for seven or eight years and never was all that common. It’s fairly easy to find in the band’s hometown of St. Louis, assuming I’m willing to pay $40 for it. But when I pay some record dealer $40 for a used copy, it’s not like the band ever sees a dime of it. As far as the band is concerned, there’s no difference between me buying it and pirating it. As far as the record label is concerned, there’s no difference either, but given the way Atlantic Records treated Pale Divine, no St. Louisan who followed the band in the late 1980s and early 1990s would feel sorry for them.

It was when I cited another obscure record, Bark Along with the Young Snakes, from 1982, as another example, that the story got complicated. Andy Breslau, the producer and owner of the copyright, found me and asked some compelling questions.

While Bark Along with the Young Snakes is hard to find, it’s not really out of print. It’s somewhat sought after, being the first commercial record that Grammy, Oscar and Emmy nominee Aimee Mann sang on. But the story is pretty different from Atlantic Records and Pale Divine. Aimee Mann recorded with Ambiguous Records, which was an effort by Andy Breslau, a bluesman then based in Boston, to capture and preserve and disseminate some of the eclectic music coming out of Boston in the late 1970s and early 1980s. We’re all familiar with classic rock mainstays Boston, and the classic rock/new wave crossovers The Cars, but much of the other music coming out of that city at the time never really made it outside of Boston. Someone needed to take this untapped resource and use it, so why not Breslau?

Breslau was playing in a band called The Blues Astronauts, and he had close ties with a number of bands playing around Boston at the time. Plus he had a desire to learn about production and recording, so all the pieces were there.

So Breslau formed Ambiguous Records, and he recorded and produced three albums: Bark Along with the Young Snakes, by Aimee Mann’s band The Young Snakes, Singing the Children Over by Kath Bloom and Loren Mazzacane, and Darkworld by Dark.

The venture lasted 18 months. Independent record distributors, Breslau found, sometimes had difficulty paying him in a timely matter. The Young Snakes were getting popular, so the logical thing to do was to press more copies. Breslau did just that, but then The Young Snakes broke up, and Aimee Mann and her then-boyfriend Michael Hausmann formed `Til Tuesday. While `Til Tuesday made it big for a while, their success did nothing about the large number of unsold Young Snakes records in Breslau’s basement. And Breslau’s own band broke up. And then?

“I discovered the joys of making records in a different way,” Breslau said. He was working on a fourth record, titled Doing the Sugar, Too by Luther “Guitar Junior” Johnson.

“Luther had played with Muddy Waters for a number of years before and had moved to Boston and was playing around town.  It was then astonishing to me that he had no recording prospects at the time,” Breslau said. He took Johnson into the studio, struck a deal with his agent and the owner of a small blues label, and had a revelation.

“The whole process ended up being much more about the music for me,” Breslau said. “At that point continuing the label seemed too financially risky and really not as satisfying as the experience I had doing Luther’s record. For me it turned on this: If I could still produce the records I wanted to and not assume all the risk, end up hassling with distributors, doing all the PR work, sending out the copies to radio and critics etc. etc. etc., I could give up the label. Working with a small label as opposed to being a small label seemed the right direction for me to go.”

“Frankly, independent pop music is a very hard business,” Breslau said. “The world you compete in has at its upper limits multi-million dollar deals, multi-national corporations and huge ambition–some of it valid, a lot of it insufferably pretentious.”

All of this meant Ambiguous Records was history and mostly forgotten.

Then the MP3 phenomenon hit. While popular songs made up the bulk of the music available online, some die-hard fans connected turntables to their PCs, sampled their old records, and turned them into MP3s. In time, these rarities–Bark Along With The Young Snakes among them–showed up online.

“At a gut level, the experience of finding work you had a hand in `Napstered’ does feel as though someone is taking something without asking whether or not you want to give it away,” Breslau said.

Part 1 in a series. Part 1 Part 2 Part 3


Printer shopping. My sister, Di, was in town this weekend, with her printer: a hand-me-down Panasonic KX-P4410 I bought my freshman year of college, which would make it 7-8 years old. It started jamming every time you print not too long ago, and now it doesn’t even respond at all. Looking at it, I couldn’t tell if the printer’s problem was the drum unit or the toner cartridge; a new drum unit costs nearly as much as Panasonic’s current closest equivalent printer today costs. Put a drum and a toner cartridge in it, and you’ve paid as much as you would for a new printer. So while I hate for a possibly good printer to go to waste, it’s just not worth it to spend that much on what was at the time Panasonic’s entry-level laser-class printer.

Panasonic printers aren’t so easy to find these days, so we ended up getting an HP LaserJet 1100. We found one for $285 with a $30 rebate, which isn’t bad for a printer that normally sells for $425 on the street. It’s a low-end printer, but it’s HP, so it’ll last a long time. And at 8 pages per minute, it’s got plenty of speed for what Di does–she’s not going to be printing book manuscripts with this. Driver support isn’t the best from HP these days, but it’ll work with an HP LaserJet 4 PCL5 driver, which means any new OS should support that printer even if HP is slow in supplying official drivers. I’m not in love with HP’s driver policies these days but they still make good iron, and I can keep it working for years to come.

Napster. With Napster on the ropes, the time seems to be right for this. I wrote a piece a month or two ago, without really knowing what I’d do with it. With Napster’s days numbered, it seems pretty obvious: post it now because there is no market for such a piece. It’s long so I think I’ll split it up. What is it? It’s an industry insider’s perspective on Napster. How much of an insider? Well, my interviewee is a musician, producer, and at one time owned an indie record label. His views will be a bit surprising. I’m guessing this’ll be a three-parter by the time I split it up.




Steve DeLassus asked me for some ideas of where I see innovation, since I said Microsoft isn’t it. That’s a tough question. On the end-user side, it’s definitely not Microsoft. They’ve refined some old ideas, but most of their idea of Innovation is taking utilities that were once separate products from companies Microsoft wants to drive out of business, then grafting them onto the OS in such a way as to make them appear integrated. What purpose does making the Explorer interface look like a Web browser serve? Doesn’t everyone who’s used a real file manager (e.g. Norton Commander or Directory Opus) agree that the consumer would have been better served by replicating something along those lines? Not that that’s particularly innovative either, but at least it’s improving. The only innovation Microsoft does outside of the software development arena (and that makes sense; Microsoft is first and foremost a languages company and always has been) seems to be to try to find ways to drive other companies out of business or to extract more money out of their customers.

Richard Stallman’s GNU movement has very rarely been innovative; it’s been all about cloning software they like and making their versions free all along. It’s probably fair to call Emacs innovative; it was a text editor with a built-in programming environment long before MS Word had that capability. But I don’t see a whole lot of innovation coming out of the Open Source arena–they’re just trying to do the same thing cheaper, and in some cases, shorter and faster, than everyone else.

So, where is there innovation? I was thinking there was more innovation on the hardware side of things, but then I realized that a lot of those “innovations” are just refinements that most people think should have been there in the first place–drives capable of writing to both DVD-R and CD-R media, for instance. Hardware acceleration of sound and network cards is another. Amiga had hardware acceleration of its sound in 1985, so it’s hard to call that innovation. It’s an obvious idea.

A lot of people think Apple and Microsoft are being really innovative with their optical mice, but optical mice were around for years and years before either of those companies “invented” them. The optical mice of 2000 are much better than the optical mice of 1991–no longer requiring a gridded mouse pad and providing smoother movement–but remember, in 1991, the mainstream CPUs were the Intel 80286 and the 80386sx. That’s a far, far cry from the Thunderbird-core AMD Athlon. You would expect a certain degree of improvement.

I’d say the PalmPilot is innovative, but all they really did was take a failed product, Apple’s Newton, and figure out what went wrong and make it better. So I guess you could say Apple innovated there, but that was a long time ago.

So I guess the only big innovation I’ve seen recently from the end-user side of things has been in the software arena after all. I’m still not sold on Ray Ozzie’s Groove, but have to admit it’s much more forward-thinking than most of the things I’ve seen. Sure, it looks like he’s aping Napster, but he started working on Groove in 1997, long before Napster. Napster’s just file sharing, which has been going on since the 1960s at least, but in a new way. There again, I’m not sure that it’s quite right to call it true innovation, but I think it’s more innovative than most of the things I’ve seen come out of Microsoft and Apple, who are mostly content to just copy each other and SGI and Amiga and Xerox. If they’re going to steal, they should at least steal the best ideas SGI and Amiga had. Amiga hid its menu bars to save screen space. Maybe that shouldn’t be the default behavior, but it would be nice to make that an option. SGI went one further, making the pull-down menus accessible anywhere onscreen by right-clicking. This isn’t the same as the context menu–the program’s main menu came up this way. This saved real estate and mouse movements.

I’m sure I could think of some others but I’m out of time this morning. I’d like to hear what some other people think is innovative. And yes, I’m going to try to catch up on e-mail, either this afternoon or this evening. I’ve got a pretty big backlog now.



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