(The problem behind this rant has been mostly solved. See bottom).

(This is Rant 1 of 2. In a few days, I will post my rant about  Smashwords)

Dear Amazon.

I’m really mad — no furious — at how crappy your ipad app is for reading Kindle files. Crazy/unpredictable output.

  1. Your $#$#$# Kindle Previewer on Windows 7 doesn’t render a preview for ipad after it converts it to  azw. (more)  It registers nothing but a blank page on Kindle Previewer. How on earth do you expect me to test that?
  2. If your rendering of azw is so pathetic, don’t you owe it to publishers and authors to document its quirkiness in the Kindle formatting guide?
  3. Why doesn’t the Kindle Formatting Guide give an example of a  CSS media query that can hide/display things  on ipad/iphone?  (more)Why don’t you at least update the ios app so that it is even capable of supporting a media query for ipad/iphone?
  4. Why on earth doesn’t the Kindle app for ipad support KF8 (or heaven forbid epub)? Don’t you realize how much extra work you are creating for publishers? And how much crappier design you are dictating?

Thank you for taking a dump on my ebook design.   Up until now, you have done a lot of things right; for example I really appreciate your rollout of KF8 onto K4 and K3 devices.  You have some great resources for authors and publishers.

But your ipad app is so terrible that it is almost embarrassing to even open it. Up until now, I have relied on the ipad app to read some Kindle books I have bought. I always knew that the ios app wasn’t up to par. It is only now  — at 4 AM while trying to produce an ebook on a deadline – that I realize how abominable it truly is – for everybody involved.

Up until now, I have assured friends with ipads that you can just read Kindle files on your ipad. I truly was suckered in by your usual propaganda about Kindle-on-all-platforms. Clearly now it is obvious that you are abandoning any pretense of supporting Kindle on ipad. Your ipad app makes the publisher look bad, the author look bad and most of all it makes you look bad.

Get with the program, guys! Either improve the ipad app or just remove it from consumers altogether.

Postscript: Your KDP Community forum is now offline. Wow, that’s icing on the cake!

Postscript 2: Let me be clear. I know how to create designs for Kindle Fires and K3s.  That’s because you have provided adequate documentation about how to do that. I am even vaguely aware of  how to design for K1 and K2.  (it remains a distant nightmare in memory).  I know how to degrade gracefully. What I can’t do is design for an undocumented platform without a good testing tool.

Postscript 3. Ok, I may have exaggerated the extent of the problem. The formatting guide hints that using a media query for the older mobi7 format might do the trick. I can definitely deal with that, so I will try that now. The problem is that nowhere does it say that the ipad app actually renders things in a mobi7 way.

Postscript 4. Well, it’s not a problem I can solve by making a mobi7 media query. I need to confirm that I haven’t done anything stupid, but if this is the case, then it looks like I’m going to have to toss out the design and use a bare bones one. (Sigh!)

Postscript 5:  Here’s the publisher’s note I included on the title page:

Viewing Tips: For a Kindle, this ebook is best when viewed by any Kindle device produced in 2010 or later (or any Android device which has the Kindle software app). For Nook, this ebook is best viewed on any Nook device (or on any Android device which has the Nook software app). Please turn the PUBLISHER DEFAULT setting (on the font size menu) ON. For iPad or iPhone, the book is best viewed if the ebook file itself is imported into iBooks (which can be done if you open it as an attachment from within the iPad).

Postscript 6: Wow, Amazon.com claims that you can email the .azw file to your ipad device, but when I tried, I got this error message:

The following document, sent at 12:10 PM on Mon, Nov 04, 2013 GMT could not be delivered to the Kindle you specified:
* mybook-kindle_2013-11-02_12-12-57_2013-11-04_06-08-20.azk

The Kindle Personal Document Service can convert and deliver the following types of documents:
Microsoft Word (.doc, .docx)
Rich Text Format (.rtf)
HTML (.htm, .html)
Text (.txt) documents
Archived documents (zip , x-zip) and compressed archived documents
Mobi book

Postscript 7.  I am happy to report that the problem is not as bad as I originally thought. The ipad kindle app actually has decent rendering of the KF8 format. However, my method of sending a kindle file to the iPad was producing a kind of Frankenstein ebook which was neither Mobi 7 or KF8. I used the method of emailing a .mobi file via Personal Docs to the ipad app. Apparently the only acceptable way to test the file on the iPad was to sync it through iTunes. You could email a .mobi file to the Kindle app on the iPad, but Amazon would not do the proper conversion to make this file readable.  I was vaguely aware that testing via Personal Docs had its issues,  but never in my wildest dreams could I imagine that they would be this bad. Of course, this would never have been a problem with better documentation, automatic conversions to AZW on the cloud or native support of epub to begin with. But there is no point in bitching about it any longer — the problem has been solved!

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A few months ago, Facebook  did something so shocking and stupid that it left me no choice but to leave Facebook. For good.

Up until that time I have enjoyed Facebook for what it is. It’s a great way to keep up with friends from school and work and overseas. Frankly, I have avoided these kinds of social media web apps, but the first tipoff that FB  was actually useful came when Texas uberblogger Gary Denton announced that he was abandoning his Easter Lemming blogs in order to focus on Facebook. Amazing! Soon, too, I found a lot of the same link-sharing which I normally did on my blog could  be done just as easily on Facebook — and more people would read it too. I also found that I was learning about lots of new URLs and essays through Facebook which I’d normally learn about through bloggers. Suddenly FB was a better source for content than bloggers were.

If you think of it, Facebook is nothing more than a microblogging platform with a little bit of messaging and relationship management  thrown in. It’s not rocket science,  and for news junkies and readers, you could follow lots of people and content sources by RSS feeds. But most Americans never paid attention to RSS feeds, plus you had lots of news sources not allowing full feeds (a real pain for readers). Even when things started moving into mobile platforms, few people used naked RSS readers, instead obtaining their content by “Liking” things on Facebook or using an intermediary like Flipboard to browse through cool stuff.

I could talk about some things which annoyed me about Facebook. (such as everchanging privacy controls, unsafe third party apps and difficulty suppressing trolls and promiscuous posters). But for the most part FB was doing many things right. More importantly, 2 or 3 years ago Facebook introduced a personal archive of your data which you can download for safekeeping.

Swell. Every two or three months I would request another personal archive to be made, and shortly thereafter I would receive via email a link to a zip file containing my data in html form. This is a case where everything worked exactly as expected. All my data was there and easy to find offline. I could easily refer to it and look things up on it. I found that I did that often. I posted some of my things onto Facebook  just in case.

But around June 2013, I began to notice that the latest zip of the FB archives was missing stuff. At first, I attributed it to a bug. Facebook is a gigantic system always in flux, and I had read reports that the archiving feature was causing problems for many users. Give it time, I thought.

Then, I noticed that my latest personal archive no longer included the URLs to the links I was making to my facebook posts. Let me explain. One “trick” about Facebook is that when you paste a link into the posting space, FB will automatically discover the Title, Summary and preview image of the link in question. In fact, you can even delete the URL you posted and Facebook will still keep the link in your wall post. It’s a really cool thing, and if you think about it, why does the tiny wallpost form need to include URLs when you already have the preview as a hyperlink?

I had been embedding links into Facebook wall posts that way for over a year now. But now I discover that not only were my personal archives missing comments from others, Facebook had also stripped out every single link I had added.  It had also removed all my friends’  comments by friends to my posts as well as my own comments. Bastards!

The Old Facebook Archives

Here is what the old Personal Archives used to look like for my wall. In this particular screenshot you don’t see comments by others, but in fact, specific posts in my archives do include comments by others (depending on their privacy settings).

fb-good-archive-debate

The “New and Improved” Personal Facebook Archive

Stripped of all my links, none of the posts make sense, and my own comments are removed.

fb-bad-archive-debate

My original descriptions are there, only the links are nowhere to be seen!

There is a way to keep the URls so that they can (for now) be included in personal archives. That is to leave the URL’s in the status bar. But even when you do this, the links themselves will no longer be “clickable.”

Furthermore, comments are removed totally from the archives. I can understand not showing comments by OTHERS (if it conflicts with a user’s privacy settings). But I do not understand why it has removed MY OWN COMMENTS to MY OWN POSTS!

Again, the personal archive from last year did EVERYTHING perfectly. Now let’s look at the monstrosity that motivated FB to ruin its own archiving capability.

Facebook Activity Log: Disaster in search of a problem

Facebook introduced something called the Activity Log. I don’t know why they did it; I’m sure there is some crass commercial motivation behind it; never mind about that.

The fig leaf behind this function is that it’s supposed to make it easier for users to look up past posts. This is a worthy goal; Facebook has always been horrible about having to look up anything older than a week old. I have probably spent hours continuously clicking the More button just to find some link I posted a few months ago.

But here’s the thing. When FB introduced the Activity log, it seems that that they also crippled the personal archive.

Now let’s look at that some post I made about the presidential debate in the Activity Log.

facebook-activity

Everything is posted in unthreaded reverse chronological order without including user comments, making it practically impossible to understand the context of the original remarks.

That means: if you posted on a controversial topic on Friday and on Tuesday someone makes a comment on that same thread (or maybe you do too), any of your other activity in the intervening time will be mixed in with it.

Facebook has a helpful table describing exactly how they are screwing you. Here is the relevant listing of what from your wall posts they will be saving:

facebook-table

 

What’s the Alternative?

Facebook is where everyone is at, so we can’t just leave Facebook willy-nilly, can we?

Or can we?

Google Plus is a newer and cleaner alternative to Facebook. It is not as full featured as Facebook (and doesn’t have 1/10 of the users), but it has some other cool features. Plus, you can’t beat it as an integrated solution.

More relevant to today’s post, Google has made a full commitment to data liberation. Here’s what they say:

For this reason, we always encourage people to ask these three questions before starting to use a product that will store their data:

  1. Can I get my data out in an open, interoperable, portable format?
  2. How much is it going to cost to get my data out?
  3. How much of my time is it going to take to get my data out?

The ideal answers to these questions are:

  1. Yes.
  2. Nothing more than I’m already paying.
  3. As little as possible.

Google Plus has a free service called Google Takeout which lets you export ALL of your data out of the web application. That includes not only Google Plus, but also Google Docs, Blogger, etc.  I haven’t played that much with Google Takeout, except that it does exactly what it says it does. I noticed that Google Plus archives are exported as individual html files. So your archive will accumulate dozens (if not hundreds)  So each individual post is a separate html file. That is inconvenient, yes, but at least I’m not losing any data here. Sure, it’s not as easy to search through in offline mode, but a single grep command in linux  or a good text editor could probably help you find what you want easily.

For me as a writer, I want to keep a record of as much as possible. I never gave free web apps the right to hide my own data from me. It no longer makes sense to use Facebook if I can no longer know for sure if I can export my data outside of Facebook.

The Post-Facebook and Post-Google-Plus Era

I jumped pretty quickly  onto blogging and  other web services. Probably in about 2006-8, things changed. Smart phones came and with that came producing and receiving content from your phone. Then Facebook came  — which managed to straddle both desktop  and mobile devices.

Now we are entering a phase where we want to repurpose content into other platforms. You may have noticed that many people automatically  re-publish their twitter posts or blog posts  to facebook  or to twitter. (To say nothing of instagram, etc).  I used to find that very annoying — especially because things reposted in Facebook seemed ill-formatted or inappropriate for it. For example, I wouldn’t want to repost all my blogposts onto Facebook (although I feel differently about doing so on Google Plus).

I don’t heavily use Evernote, but the concept is alluring: it can keep archived versions of certain web pages as well as your own content. Couldn’t I just store all my content streams there?

I have discovered two services which deal with cross-posting things onto multiple platforms.

First, there is HootSuite, a tool online marketers use to republish content onto multiple platforms. Which only raises the question: if you are creating your content originally in Hootsuite, how do you archive your Hootsuite content?

Second, there is IFTTT (short for If This, Then That) which lets you create or use different recipes to convert and publish your content from one platform to another. It basically lets you set up notifications too. Everything seems to be RSS-based, and sometimes the various platforms have special rules and restrictions which make it hard to import/export stuff. Sometimes just browsing through the known recipes can help you figure out a solution; sometimes you need to use a search engine to find what you want. Here for example is a good way to create feeds out of your Google+ posts which then can be scooped up by Facebook.

Note: this solution isn’t recipe is hosted on a third party site, so it is not likely to last too long. But for now it is the only solution I know of.

The ultimate goal for a blogger like me is to post at one place where I have full control and high confidence (like my blog) and then use customized RSS recipes to re-post certain things where relevant.

Don’t count out blogging software. With blogging software you remain in control over data; you own it, and then you simply use intermediary tools to connect things to another. I’m not sure that there’s a clean solution for replicating or backing up comments (though Disqus makes a compelling argument for outsourcing it altogether).

Of course, you need to take into consideration the specific characteristics of each platform and the nature of the audience. But  I am finding that it is no longer necessary to depend on or live inside these social applications as much. Sure, I stop by Facebook.  It’s certainly nice visiting old friends, but I certainly wouldn’t want to park there and create content ONLY for Facebook.

The flaw with Facebook (and other community sites) is that they succeed only with good content and mindshare. But when the good content can be found elsewhere (or anywhere!), suddenly there no longer is a compelling reason to park there.  Suddenly that mindshare — which seemed to have so much self-sustaining momentum — seems to  disappear.  The time will soon come when more people will be  reposting onto Facebook than posting. And that will be a good thing.

Postscript: Making the Blog Cool Again

A few years ago Virginia Heffernan remarked that with Facebook and Twitter, suddenly it was no longer cool to be blogging anymore. At the time I thought she was mistaken, but over time I  had to admit that my blogging output was significantly less after Facebook came along. I was spending more time on longer articles, less time on casual blogging and linkdumps.

Intermediaries like IFTTT make it possible to have content originate in WordPress. But that does not solve the problem at all. Here are the issues that initially jump out:

  1. How can a personal blog or website feature both short content and long content without making the site itself unusable?  (The theme would have to do this,  you’d need better front page management and you’d need to have separate content types probably).
  2. What are the rules for displaying short content on  the various platforms? What images show up? How many characters? Does the link show up, etc?
  3. How do you make it easy for people on one platform to see comments people have made on other platforms?

About the first question, bloggers have typically made linkdump pages on a daily/weekly basis, but does that solve the problem? One thing fun about FB/G+ is that the posts are really short. There’s really no elegant way to repurpose a linkdump post onto facebook. I need time to think this through…..

 

 

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You may have seen Tyler Cowen’s cover story about Texas (discussed on his Marginal Revolution blog).

I’m sure  I see these kinds of articles regularly (Economist had a cover story a few years ago about California vs. Texas).   They annoy me because they are one-dimensional. I think they compare it to California or NY  — which probably is burdened by more paperwork  and has a state income tax. But overall, California and NY and Mass provide a lot more startups than Texas, and Texas doesn’t innovate a whole lot (except for medical, which they do pretty well in). Probably the best known non-fossil fuel  business to come from Texas is Dell, but Dell has always taken pride in NOT innovating but simply running a more efficient suply chain.

  1. Texas acquired their wealth through ample land and  mineral depletion. Many local economies are  still dependent on defense and oil and gas. These are ephemeral signs of wealth.
  2. Texas is VERY vulnerable to climate change, and per capita CO2 emissions are very high. Its pollution is also very high; the whole state would be a smokestack were it not for the federal Clean Air Act.
  3. Texas has pitiful social services, and its safety net is abysmal.  Many people fall through the cracks. Also, we have a significant underground economy from undocumented workers. Who knows? That probably means that the GDP of Texas is bigger than estimated, but the important point is that they operate on the outskirts of  the law (minus worker protections, etc.)
  4. Lack of zoning (I assume he’s talking about Houston only) has some consequences. It becomes impossible to do any urban planning, and as a result mass transit is practically impossible. From that you become a car-dependent city with all sorts of social stratifications.
  5. A lot of companies choose Houston or Dallas as their headquarters, but I think it has to do with low taxes and low real estate than anything else.  Many companies assume that they can find workers from other cities or out-of-state to work for their jobs.
  6. One thing rarely mentioned in talk about Texas is commute times. I have never seen such a high percentage of workers (in Houston and  elsewhere)  be willing to spend an hour or more commuting each way to work every day.
  7. Texas does have cheap college tuition options, but secondary schools have a great deal of inequality which almost makes that point moot.
  8. Texas does have a lot of cultural dogmatism. Remember, 76% of Texas voters voted to ban gay marriage.  It is absolutely suffocating to any educated person (even in a “liberal bastion” like Houston).
  9. Texas has a very fickle judicial system. Election of judges, “tort reform” and political influences on judges.
  10. Housing prices are relatively cheap because land is plentiful; what else is new? Significantly, the biggest political contributors to the state GOP  have been housing developers; as a result, you have homeowners without  much legal recourse in the event of disputes.
  11. One reason innovation is fairly lacking in Texas is the mediocre education system for a state its size. We have a lot of big companies move to Texas (to take advantage of cheap labor and lack of regulation and cheap land), but our startups are not as bold as in California or Massachusetts  for example. If you need some PHDs in Math or Comp Sci, Texas is not the best place to go. (Well, except here and here) On the other hand, if you need minimally educated Americans to provide phone support, Texas can’t be beat!
  12. Creative types in Texas (and especially Houston)  tend to be snapped up by  the fossil fuel sector or the military. The tragedy here is first, much of this innovation  does not transfer easily to other fields. Second,  this innovation does not really better humanity in a way that a product manufacturer or enterpreneur might. As the years go by, the stigma of working in fossil fuels will only  increase.
  13. I have mentioned it already, but Texas consumes more fossil fuels than any other state in the US. If Texas were a nation, it would be the 7th largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Electric plants in Texas (population 25 million) emit as much CO2  as electric plants in the COMBINED states of   New York, California, Florida, Massachusetts and Oregon (population: 86 million). Texas has made the decision to couple its state economy  to the carbon  consumption and generation. But  other states have decoupled their economies from carbon and still have strong growing economies. From a standpoint of risk, sticking with fossil fuels for living and for growing an economy  doesn’t seem wise in the long term.

In Houston (where I live), a large percent of the economy is dependent on the fossil fuel industry — either directly (with drilling, pipelines etc) or indirectly (IT support, financial services related to energy futures). Many of these services relate specifically to oil and gas and don’t transfer that easily to renewable energy or any other industry. Anyway, the profitability of fossil fuels in Texas eclipses the opportunities presented by renewables.  Houston tried to diversify after the oil bust in the 80s, but from what I can tell,  it just shifted away from domestic drilling to global exploration & logistics.

Here is Forbes’ list of most innovative companies  and Fortune’s ‘ Best Companies to Work for in Texas and Forbes List of  Fastest Growing Companies . I realize that not every state can have a Google or Microsoft or Facebook or Amazon, but I think it’s notable that Texas doesn’t really has an industry leader (outside of fossil fuels) which it can call its own. Rackspace and Texas Instruments and Dell are distinguished companies, and Cowen’s article mentions TinyTexasHouses (which also seems great).  With these notable exceptions, Texas is where established or rising companies go to expand.

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I’m in the process of writing an ebook about music collecting. I’ll probably add some book excerpts  on my blog.  This URL will regularly be updated with new information, so feel free to check later.

Two years ago I wrote about great ways to learn about free creative commons music. Since that time, a lot has changed. Jamendo continues to grow bigger, Free Music Archive has grown larger too.

But  most people are more interested in learning about pop music by emerging artists who have risen somewhat above amateur status.  These artists agree to share  a lot of music even though this music is still copyrighted and isn’t creative commons. Often these free downloads are available only for a limited time, so once it stops being free,  you may have no choice to purchase it.  You can amass a large and wonderful collection with samplers alone (though it would be shallow).

Before I start listing things, I want to mention that most of these free sites provide links to high quality downloads. In the past, the thinking went, “we should make available low quality music samples for downloads” in the hopes that later the consumer will buy a high quality version. That strategy no longer seems to be popular, and fortunately most of the free download sites listed here are now distributing high quality audio with the correct metadata.

Festivals/Journals

South by Southwest (SXSW) Music  Bit Torrent contains music tracks by bands who participated in SXSW music fest in Austin. Starting in 2005,  a 5-9 gigabyte bit torrent was released each year (Total = 45 gigabytes!) These artists explicitly allowed these tracks to be downloaded from the sxsw.com, and the torrent simply assembled everything together for permanent archiving. Torrents are released in early March of each year, generally in two parts.  Available: permanently. As of 2013, a lot of the music distributor sites are also featuring SXSW samplers –and often they include additional tracks not in the torrents.

CMJ Mixtape is a monthly download of 20+ songs from College Music Journal. The link says you need to “subscribe,” but that’s not true; all you need to do is to click the link and you should be able to download all the music in single zip file. CMJ is “College Music Journal,” a wonderful mag primarily for college radio stations. I subscribed to it in the 90s, and one highlight was the sampler CD which each issue contained. Samplers in the 90s were wonderfully eclectic and international; Mixtape seems a little more selective and possibly with an Eastern/urban bias. Available: one month only.

American Songwriter has an irregular sampler which contains more acoustic/country/folk songs by singer-songwriters.  So far, once every 6 months. Available: until the next sampler is released.  Because it’s infrequent, you should sign up for their mailing list to be notified about new samplers. Available: until the next sampler comes.

NPR’s Heavy Rotation surveys a lot of DJs and asks them to recommend some tracks each month.  Their list of recommended downloads appears in batches of 5 or 10, at the rate of once or twice a month. Unfortunately the download link is somewhat easy to miss (it’s at the bottom of the song description), and you have to download each song individually. On the plus side, NPR is more likely to get tracks by well known artists. Available: several months, or until the artist decides to make the download private again.

Denovali is a German-based online seller of electronic/ambient/jazz music.  They publish a lot of free albums and tracks including samplers. I count at least 5 full samplers of really remarkable stuff. (You can listen/download them from Soundcloud as well).  Available: indefinitely I think.

Chandos/Classical Shop sends out a monthly newsletter which offers information about a free downloadable classical music album.  Chandos is a UK label which publish a range of high quality recordings, including the always interesting  and excellent Brilliant Classics series of low-priced recordings.  Notably, these albums also include album notes. (You can buy these mp3s on amazon or emusic). Unfortunately, you need to know the newsletter URL to be able to find the download link, but they seem to stay online for about two months.  (Still working downloads can be found on an older newsletter and a newer newsletter, but I would be ready for either link to go dead at any time. )

 

Music Retailer Sites

Many of the online music retailers  sites provide a lot of free samplers for members. Most will be specific to one label and specific to that distributor.

Amazon has by far the greatest number of samplers, although the quality of them is not particularly high. It depends on the sampler and the label  obviously. The top free album list is here. Unfortunately there’s no way to sort by release date, so you just have to check it often. The best thing about these samplers is that it goes directly to your Cloud Player; you can opt not to download until you have figured out which songs are worth keeping. The Tunecore samplers have been good. Here’s a search for free samplers.  Look for samplers by established labels: Subpop, 4AD, Merge Records . Also, look for Tunecore samplers.and CDbaby samplers.  Tunecore (like CDBaby)  is for a lot of indie unsigned bands; quality varies, but these samplers are almost always interesting. Available: mostly permanent (with a few exceptions).  I’ve noticed that Amazon has retired some Tunecore samplers, which I hope is not  a trend.

Emusic doesn’t have as many samplers as Amazon, but the ones they have are more interesting. Often in fact, they coordinate a label’s sales with the release of a new sampler. Unfortunately it can be cumbersome and time-consuming to find these samplers. A blogpost from 2 months ago linked to their most significant samplers although it’s already out of date.  Go here first to see articles about samplers which will inevitably contain links to the downloadable samplers as well.  (Update: Here’s another search result for free albums but unfortunately about 40% of the albums actually cost money, so be careful!).  I almost always love emusic samplers. You may have to sign up for (non-free) membership to download the samplers, but it almost always is a good deal. Even if you sign up for only 1 month at $6, you can usually find deals, plus Emusic typically gives new members a $25 credit to buy new music. (Here’s a list of my latest musical finds – which are usually priced low).  Available: permanent. Note, there is also a free song of the day for members. I only started downloading these things recently, and so far it has been totally noncrappy.

Google Play has free downloads although not really free sampler albums. That of course will change as Google Play becomes a stronger distributor of music. When you first sign up for Google Play, you are allowed to download a certain number of free songs by very well known artists. When I signed up, I was able to download 800 individual preselected songs. I seem to remember that you had to download the songs individually. Google Play features freebie songs on a daily basis, but I found keeping up with this more trouble than it was worth.

Bandcamp has a number of respectable bands and lots of interesting music. Here’s a list of all their free albums by popularity  and by release date.  A fair number of these free albums are creative commons, so you might also be able to find them on jamendo and Free Music Archives. Some of the free albums require that you give them an email;  the link for the free albums also lists “pay-what-you-want”  albums, so you will inevitably have to give your credit card and make some sort of token payment.

Archiving Sites

Although I wanted this article not to be about creative commons music, (I’ve already written about that) I wanted to mention 2 special aspects of archive.org.

  • Live Music Archives list recordings of a lot of live shows by musicians. Many musicians have several concerts recorded here. A lot of these recordings are bootlegs; some are band-approved, but generally if it shows up here, that usually means that the band tolerates recording. Generally the landing page gives a list of the most recent uploads and staff picks. I confess, although I have listened to 2 or 3 concerts here, I have not even scratched the surface of what is here.
  • IUMA Archives. IUMA was one of the earliest music hosting services popular in the late 1990s and early 200s. A lot of this is hit and miss, but there are some hidden gems to be sure. Here is a list of its most downloaded and recently reviewed.

Mixing Sites

Although I’m not going to point to specific artists, Soundcloud and ReverbNation have  a tremendous amount of free downloads. Soundcloud in particular has a lot of extended  mixes — although now that I check my favorite artists, I see that items which I downloaded earlier are no longer available for free downloading.  Like Bandcamp, even if you cannot download a track for free, you usually can  stream them for free.

Freebie Tracks

I really don’t know if these music promotion sites which offer daily freebies are worth the effort. Clicking individual songs can be tedious — both on Google and Amazon. My guess is that many of these are from the bigger labels and for tracks which might be included in free albums eventually, so these freebies may not be particularly high quality. If you’re just clicking to add them to the cloud, then it’s not a problem, but how do you know whether to actually download them. Nonetheless, it’s time to start a list.

  • Songzini provides links to free 5-10 Amazon songs each day. It’s a good idea, but it’s tedious to do. Still, there’s a good mixture of well-known and unknown singers, so it might add up. But watch that hard drive space! Update: It’s still around, but it is really time-consuming to download individual songs — especially when a lot of them are in free albums you may be able to find on amazon’s search engine. Also,  Amazon emails you a receipt for EVERY SINGLE SONG so it will clog your email with receipts — yuck!) Update 2: I have finally gotten around to listening to all the random songs I downloaded using Songzini. It is terrific!  As long as you make sure that the song doesn’t come from a free album which you downloaded already, you’ll be fine. Update 3: Although the site is still up, it seems to be totally nonfunctional. Oh, well.

Quirky Music Download Blogs

By now there are quite a number of blogs which unearth lots of overlooked bands from previous years. Often the blogger will upload the digitalized content onto a file downloading site, and the site visitor can download the zip file of mp3s by clicking on a link to the third party file hosting site. These blogs are great for discovering old bands; on the other hand, 1)downloading from these places may not be exactly legal by US standards and 2)the hosting sites frequently remove content or go out of business, so the download links may stop being valid fairly quickly. The quirky download blogs generally try to share music which hasn’t yet been digitalized or that is so obscure that there’s no way people would have heard about it otherwise. A lot of these bands are simply defunct  and so it’s impossible to purchase these tracks anyway. Generally those blogs will take down the download URL if the band contacts them, and so to that extent, they follow copyright law, but I think these kinds of bloggers are more interested in rediscovering and in making compilations of overlooked tracks.  And the bands generally don’t seem to mind (if they still exist).  Hint: a lot of these blogs don’t include the download link in the blog post itself but in the comment section, so be sure to check the first comment at least.

  • Willfully Obscure is probably the best example of the quirky music blog  genre, with lots of commentary and background information about each new download. He emphasizes a lot of raw punk and garage bands from the 1980s, with occasional self-made compilations. I think this blogger probably rips his own CDs, and each week has about 2 or 3 downloads, plus a “mystery download” every Monday.  More importantly, this blog links to a lot of other quirky music download blogs on the right column.
  • I hate the 90s blog features a lot of 90s music. I confess I have not really followed it, but I wanted to mention that the left column includes links to 6 different compilation zips to download.
  • Bloggio Odio Overplay blog features a lot of unusual content. A large number are creative commons, and Katya, the woman who runs it also curates music at FMA and  runs a site collecting kid’s music. Recently she has taken an interest in classical, but she also digs up a lot of novelty music, lounge stuff and vintage European stuff.

 

Related:

 

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Recently the Houston Public Library switched over to a new cataloguing system. One nice feature I discovered was the ability to create custom RSS feeds out of search results. So I decided to create a table of permanent RSS feeds for the music CDs for quick reference. This is a work in progress (and actually, I probably need to refine these things and add more categories). But this is good to start with. Everything is sorted by publication date from MOST RECENT to OLDEST. Publication date doesn’t refer to when it was originally published but when the purchased CD was actually produced. So the 1966 Beatles album, Revolver, might be listed as 2009 because the remastered edition was re-released in 2009.

By Language/Country
By Time Period
Other Criteria
Chinese Language MusicPop Music 2011-2020: N American Pop/rock, Country Music, Spanish/Latino Music, Jungman Branch Music CDs
Russian/E. European Music Excludes most classical)2001-2010: Country Music, American Pop/Rock, Soundtracks/TV/Musicals
Arabic Language Music 90s Rock MusicJazz
Music in Multiple Indian Languages (Includes soundtracks, classical)Electronic/Dance/House Music
Africa: 2011-2020, African Pop/Folk (generic)Rough Guide Music Series
New Releases

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The Silliness of TV shows

by Robert Nagle on 7/16/2013

in Pop Americana,Video/Multimedia

I normally don’t watch TV dramas or procedurals. They are dull and predictable. I started making exceptions for supernatural sexy teen angst shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but really the entire series is silly.

I have done some binge watching of TV shows — I once watched 20 episodes of Lost in 26 hours. That show is well-executed and produced, and I really don’t mind the supernatural aspects of the show even though the flashbacks are mostly dull.  Recently I’ve started re-watching episodes of Lost — skipping through the flashbacks and taking notes on what worked well and how the show managed to be what it became.  There’s a lot to hate about the story, but for certain scenes, I just think the writers must think TV watchers are idiots.

Take this example:

Season 3 opener features a group of  scientists doing all kinds of  suspicious research (medical and otherwise)  on an island. They hear and see a jetliner heading for an inevitable crash on the island. Under these circumstances, how would the scientists react? Do they:

  • send out some of their people to the crash scene to offer assistance?
  • ignore the crash entirely and return to their  normal business?
  • Send out some of their own people to pretend to be crash victims so they can spy and report back?

If you chose option 3, congratulations! You have the limited imagination of a TV writer.

Even if you assume that these researchers from the Dharma Initiative are semi-evil or hostile or reluctant to socialize,  having them pretend to be crash victims is pretty much the dumbest thing you can do under the circumstances.  Yet it’s necessary for the plot. It makes me realize that the show I’m watching is essentially silly and manipulative and that hours of Bergman and Sembene Ousmane are still waiting to be watched.

I sometimes  enjoy escapism and shallow conflicts and characters. I just want it to make sense.

Can you imagine the same Lost show if 1)there were no guns, 2)all the main characters were uglier and older, 3)people weren’t always dying at someone else’s hand? and   4)people weren’t always trying to remove bullets with silverware or their hands? How strange that we watch such silly shows when our own lives are already packed with turmoil and frustrations. Don’t underestimate the dramatic or comic potential of our  mundane  lives.

It’s unfair to compare a book to a TV show, but being stranded on an island offers a lot of drama already. How do you find food and water? How do you handle health and hygiene? How do you not get depressed or bored? How do you use your creativity or ingenuity to fix things and come up with stopgap solutions? That is exciting stuff– and that’s why Robinson Crusoe was such a great read.

Contrast that with Lost where you have to throw in  evil scientists, psychotic killers, imaginary predators, time travel and the fact that everyone is boinking everyone else as indiscriminately as a porn film.

Later, I  will try to explain the things about Lost which actually work well. For now though, let’s marvel at how gullible most TV shows think we are.

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“That fish has been  fried”  is a slang phrase used in the context of  an Internet thread. It expresses (in a terse & fish-fry1colorful way) the speaker’s opinion that a thread is growing tiresome, tedious or repetitive and that the speaker is leaving it for that reason.   In no way does it imply that the speaker believes that the issue has been settled or the previous commenter’s argument was correct or should prevail. Often it’s quite the opposite. A person who utters this phrase may be convinced that his viewpoint is still valid or logically unassailable, but may simply be tired or weary of arguing.

Although I believe the phrase has negative connotations, I don’t believe it should only have negative connotations.   The phrase should remain  ambiguous enough to retain a neutral meaning. Here are some possible connotations:

  1. Both sides have already  presented their respective opinions in some detail, and past this point, the only rational thing to do at this point  is to “agree to disagree.”
  2. One side has simply not done their research or is making too many unproven assertions.
  3. One side is unusually shrill or derogatory, and rather than trying to engage, the other side has decided that it’s best just to leave the thread alone.
  4. One side is too tired or has more pressing matters (Like living, working, etc). I’m a writer and if I have strong feelings about a subject like capital punishment, I’d rather write a long blogpost  to express my opinions than continue some unending Facebook thread about the topic.
  5. The time it would take for one side to disprove the misconceptions of the other side would be considerable.
  6. The context of the thread makes it inappropriate to continue this debate.  It may be off-topic (i.e., a capital punishment debate on an Elvis Costello forum for instance). Or the discussion may just involve too many arguments or people or vantage points to allow for  a coherent debate. Even in a context where the person threw out the question in the first place, the forum itself may not be particularly well-suited to longer and more sustained arguments. Who wants to read something with 400 responses?

I have written before that it is often difficult for reasonably educated people to disengage  from Internet conversations.

How to use this phrase correctly:

Because this neologism is still new, I think the best way to use it  in the context of a thread would be to simply write the phrase with a hyperlink:

It’s not my intent to create extra web traffic to my site. But since I coined the phrase and defined it most thoroughly, it would be easier for people  just to link to this page rather than to explain what it means.

Of course,  when one person declares that “this fish has been fried,”  others may disagree with this assessment. So others may choose to continue this thread. But it broadcasts a message to others that the thread might be ready to end. Rather than encouraging censorship or suppressing speech, my hope is that the expression of this phrase will simply  create initial momentum for people to move on and get on with their respective lives.

I debated several variants to this phrase. “My fish has been fried” “The fish is fried, etc.” I like “that fish” (rather than “my fish”  because it is objectifying (i.e., depersonalizing) the discussion and “has been fried” because there is no point in trying to fry the fish again.

Anyway, world,  here it is! Hope it helps!

Postscript: I will know that this idiom will have finally entered the vernacular when people start using it on me….

Postscript 2. It probably is impossible to force a slang word into vernacular.  Challenge accepted!

Postscript 3. I just realized that my neologism is a snowclone with endless variations (“That banana’s been stretched,” “that kernel’s been popped,” “That bone’s been chewed,” etc). The customizability of this phase attests to its flexibility and usefulness.

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For better or worse, the Affordable Care Act (the new health care reform law) has been dubbed “Obamacare.”

Here’s  another neologism: PerrycareIt is  is defined as health care inside a state which has refused Medicaid expansion despite generous financial incentives to do so. It is characterized by skyrocketing health care premiums and overall costs for individuals who fall below  138% of the federal poverty line. Named after Texas Republican governor Rick Perry. 

Even though this graph doesn't take into account that many kids go on their parents' plan until 26, it is still an alarming amount of people

Here are some other characteristics:

  • The population between 19-26 have the highest level of poverty. On the other hand, they are still eligible to be on their parents’ plan (that is, if their parents have a plan!). In general, people in this age range are healthy and would require care mainly for emergencies (or giving birth).
  • The population between 26 and 30 have high rates of poverty. They are no longer on their parents’ plan; on the other hand, it is assumed that their income will have risen a bit depending on how long they have been in the workforce. Females are particularly at risk here because these are generally the child-bearing years.
  • The population between 30-65. More likely to have savings, but on the other hand, more likely to have serious conditions and require several visits.

The Kaiser Foundation has prepared a health care rate calculator. Note that it provides two estimates: the estimate under Obamacare and Perrycare. According to the site’s FAQ, “The federal poverty level varies by family size. In 2013, it is $11,490 for a single adult and $23,550 for a family of 4. The poverty level is estimated for 2014 based on Congressional Budget Office projections of inflation.”

On a positive note, medical underwriting  will be prohibited on Jan 1 2014 under Obamacare, so very low-income individuals will be able to purchase a plan without having to go through underwriting; they just won’t be able to afford it!

Update: Here’s a cost estimate from Kaiser about just how much money Texas is not going to spend and not going to receive:

TEXAS (population: 26 million) 

Without Medicaid expansion, between 2013-2022, feds would spend 228 billion and TX state would spend 159 billion on Medicaid for Texans.

With Medicaid expansion for 2013-2022, feds would spend 305 billion and TX state would spend 168 billion on Medicaid for Texans.

In other words, spending 9 billion dollars more on Medicaid in Texas will prompt the feds to spend 77 billion more dollars on health care for Texans over the next decade.

New York (population 19 million)

Without Medicaid expansion for 2013-2022, fed pays 468 billion, and NY state pays 451 billion for New Yorkers.

With Medicaid expansion for the same time period, feds pay 553 billion, NY state pays 433 billion for New Yorkers.

In other words, because NY already  pays a greater amount  into Medicaid,  Obamacare will cause New York to spend 18 billion dollars less on Medicaid,  while the feds will spend 85 billion dollars more on health care for  Medicaid in New York.

A Rand analysis estimates other effects from deciding to opt out of Medicaid expansion.

If 14 states decide not to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act as intended by their governors, those state governments collectively will spend $1 billion more on uncompensated care in 2016 than they would if Medicaid is expanded. … In addition, those 14 state governments would forgo $8.4 billion annually in federal payments and an additional 3.6 million people will be left uninsured… “State policymakers should be aware that if they do not expand Medicaid, fewer people will have health insurance, and that will trigger higher state and local spending for uncompensated medical care,” Price said. “Choosing to not expand Medicaid may turn out to be the more-costly path for state and local governments.”…


Researchers also outline how failing to expand Medicaid could have more than financial consequences. Based on earlier research showing that past expansions of Medicaid has led to decreases in deaths, the study estimates that an additional 19,000 deaths could occur annually if the 14 states studied do not expand Medicaid.

My rough  ballpark estimate is that Texas accounts for a third of the population of those states opting out of Exchanges and Medicaid  expansion. Therefore, applying the Rand’s data to Texas, we could say that Perry’s decision not to expand Medicaid will cost Texans somewhere in the range of  $300 million and result in 6000 more deaths.

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Houston Dining Index by Mike Riccetti (2013), Tempus Fugit Press.180 pages.(Author Website)

Ebook Edition: $3.99  (Buy at Amazon, and  BN)

Summary: great restaurant review book with lots of useful lists (such as restaurants near Metro Rail stops), but it is somewhat  difficult to browse by neighborhood or region.

The author is a Houston native who has been reviewing Houston restaurants for a long time.  He and I went to high school in Houston together, and I have fond memories about his taking classmates to an obscure and crazy Asian jazz restaurant where he ordered all kinds of crazy and delicious things for the table. Mike’s enthusiasism for food and fine dining is evident in his book which collects lots of information about Houston’s amazing restaurant scene. In addition to writing regular restaurant reviews for the Examiner and Houston Press, Riccetti has already written one Houston culinary guide. This volume  updates and improves upon the previous one.

The book seems to be targeted to the out-of-town traveller. He gives three dollar figures under price: average dinner cost (including 20% tip), entrée price range and average entrée price. Also, he begins by talking about restaurants in areas frequented by out-of-towners (the airports,  downtown), I have looked up about 30 restaurants I know very well and found that his reviews are succinct, fair but not overly positive and  good at capturing what is unique and interesting about the restaurant in question.  Most of the listings include its neighborhood and/or its culinary type, but this is not always done consistently.

The  excellent introduction gives an overview about Houston restaurants and trends.  This book has some incredible “extras”: a listing of local pubs and microbreweries, a review/list of Bistros (I didn’t know Houston had so many!)  a review/list of restaurants in hotels,  a listing of restaurant without walking distance of the Metrorail (! — this will be even more useful after Metrorail is expanded even further in 2014). There is a section for “restaurant rows” (small pedestrian-friendly areas full of restaurants). Perhaps the oddest section was “Seen on TV” (restaurants which were reviewed or featured on various food shows).

I like the fact that this book covers a lot of budget restaurants and that it contains a lot of lists (Late Night, Sunday Brunch, Uniquely Houston Restaurants). Its coverage of Vietnamese restaurants was  particularly good.  But it can be hard to browse the book by location. The book highlights certain areas (e.g., “West Houston — Energy Corridor and Katy”) but for the most part you have to browse by culinary type and then look at individual listings to see where they are located. Also, there was not a special section for Galleria (where I live, a common destination for visitors). There is not an index  but a section for “Location” near the end (which is useful but easy to overlook). It would have been even more  helpful for the Location section to actually link to the place in the book where the restaurant was  reviewed.  As a practical matter, you will have to use the ebook search feature to find a specific restaurant.  One tip I have is creating ebook bookmarks for the most useful sections (which I found to be “Metrorail”, “restaurant rows,” and “Locations” ) so you can access them later  more easily.

This raises question about whether restaurant books still matter in an age of Yelp and B-4-u-eat. Although raw feedback from  review  websites are great, they can overwhelm you with extraneous information  In contrast, restaurant guidebooks like this are more practical and concise and give you a better overview of what’s here. Houston has some incredible restaurants, and books like this help the visitor and  longtime residents to discover new and wonderful places.

********************************************************************

Disclaimer: Mike and I were high school classmates. More on Disclaimers and Reviewing

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In preparation for my book on music collecting, I signed up for emusic and  starting downloading (and paying for) digital music.   At first glance it’s hard to get what emusic is all about. Its website is  slow, you can’t stream  easily, plus there’s a membership fee. You may initially not see what the big deal is (especially because as a non-member, you only see non-member prices). But look further.

Comparison of Prices for Digital Music Albums

Name of Album
Emusic (member price)
Itunes
Amazon
Google Play
Francophonic by Franco Vol 111.9817.999.4916.49
Call the Doctor by Sleater-Kinney5.889.999.99Not found
Some Nights by fun6.499.995.999.49
Close Encounters of the Third Kind Soundtrack6.499.999.999.49
Rough Guide to Psychedelic Africa6.499.999.499.49
World of Daevid Allen and Gong CD 15.999.999.999.49
Truth about Love by Pink8.2410.997.9910.99
12 Bit Blues by Kid Koala6.999.998.9911.49
Grace by Jeff Buckley6.499.995.006.99
Revolution by Miranda Lambert7.1410.995.00 10.99

 About the prices listed on this table. I wanted to show the dramatic price differences between emusic and everybody else. I picked these albums here at random — making sure to include a mix of Top 40 (Pink, fun) with some rather obscure new works (Kid Koala), obscure semi-oldies (Sleater-Kinney)  classics (Francophonic, Close Encounters) and some series (Rough Guides). As you can see, member prices for emusic are dramatically lower than most other  music sellers. Top 40 and “hot artists” are somewhat lower on Amazon. In addition to these “normal” lower prices for popular albums, Amazon will occasionally offer 1 day sales on bestselling albums for $1.99 or $2.99 which are definitely worth watching.  Google Play store does this occasionally too.  Also, Amazon has a special section for select golden oldies/best sellers  with regular prices of  $5 (“Dolly Parton’s Greatest Hits”,  Jeff Buckley’s “Grace”,  Black Keys’ “Magic Potion”, ) which beats emusic and all the others.  Each  store will have its special sales and promotions, but on the whole, unless the album is currently “hot,”  you can find it on emusic for 10-20%  less than anywhere else.  Emusic has lots of  low-priced compilation albums (see below for my recommendations), and so does Amazon, although not the same ones.  Amazon has a good number of budget classical music compilations, while emusic has more and cheaper  pop music compilations.  Both services offer lots of free samplers,  with Amazon.com probably offering slightly more.

For emusic you pay a membership fee which applies to your purchases. Usually when you sign up, you receive some kind of introductory gift certificate (mine was $25).  You are given several membership tiers, but you shouldn’t worry worry about that too much. Just decide how much want to spend, then sign up for the appropriate membership level. You can downgrade or even cancel later. I’ll let you in on a secret. If you do cancel, they will dangle a free month worth of credits – how awesome is that?  If you sign up for higher tiers of membership, you get bonus credits.  If you prepay a year for a Basic $12 membership or a Plus $16 membership, you receive a 30% discount. So when I pre-paid  for  one year  a Plus membership, I paid a one time fee of  $134 for credits totalling $204 ($16.99 per month for 12 months).  (Here’s a complete breakdown of emusic’s prices on their site).     Emusic’s member  prices are almost always 10-20% lower than itunes and Amazon, and sometimes even more. (Its non-member prices are basically the same as Amazon and itunes).  Besides having cheaper prices, emusic also has a higher percentage of music-savvy consumers. Emusic staff write a lot of  reviews, and these are often great picks – not only for new releases but also  obscure music and jazz stuff.

Here’s the downside.  You don’t get particularly good deals with Top 40 stuff, and you can only download it once or twice. Emusic’s website kind of sucks and it lacks a  cloud solution and doesn’t even stream music well.  So when you download, you must backup your files to Amazon cloud player or Google Play cloud player. Also, there are holes in emusic’s music catalog –  though most of the time it’s only compilations. One customer pointed out that emusic doesn’t list the bit rate for the mp3s — which is also a bummer, but I have to assume that the mp3s for sale are almost always high enough quality.

Two other interesting things worth pointing out: There’s an emusic  free daily download which changes every day.  Generally a good deal.  Plus — although the interface sucks, here’s links to various emusic  lists of bookmarked albums which I’m considering buying.

For yuks, I decided to do a comparison with Amazon prices for the things I bought in March-April 2014 (see below):

The Amazon list price for these albums amounted to $191.43
The emusic member’s price for the same albums is $124.54.
If I subtract from the total my monthly bonus credit of $5.82 and the 2-for-1 credits ($50), that means that the total I paid was $68.72 for albums which I could have gotten from Amazon for $191.43

If you add that to the fact that every day on emusic you get free tracks from random bands and that every two months or so you get a free music sampler, that adds up to a tremendous value proposition. Heck, I know I sound like a commercial for emusic, but despite its warts and all, you can really get a great value here.

Before I describe my emusic purchases, I want to make three  general observations about my music collection habits.

First, the things I buy on emusic are things I couldn’t obtain cheaply as CDs.  Hey, music labels, if your digital  prices were cheaper than the cost of used CDs on half.com or Amazon, I would stop buying used CDs altogether.

Second, because of the lower price, I take a lot more chances with the things I download/buy. I’ve made some mistakes (see below), but I’ve also found some amazing things.

Third, I also pay $5 per month to use RDIO’s streaming music service. I can often stream entire albums and later decide whether I want to buy them on emusic.     One might ask if the album is available already on Rdio, why not just listen to Rdio and never  buy anything? The answer is simple: streaming services pay shit to artists!

Each month I get $17 worth of credits, so I’ll tell which ones I get each month.  My main rule for buying is that I need to buy at least one album by a living/still performing artist — it’s really easy to focus on the old stuff, and it’s important to put money into the hands of artists now so that they can perform and record tomorrow.  I won’t list half-albums below if I have already bought portions previously.

Note: Since I’m generally loving to death every single thing I buy, it’s no longer necessary to mark an album as Recommended or Highly Recommended.

March -April 2014 (combined). I took advantage of the 2 for 1 booster credits to gain $100 of credits for only $50. Just in the nick of time because my To-Buy list is growing incredibly large.

  1. El Kravchuk. Luchshye pesni – 15 let.  (18 songs for $5.99) El Kravchuk is a Ukrainian singer with an almost  operatic voice who sings tunes with a techno pop. Some of the pieces seem low-key, lyrical, soaring, danceable. This is a compilation from the last 15 years and truly wondrous.  I didn’t warm up to it immediately when I first heard it in Ukraine, but now I can’t get enough of it.
  2. Chess Blues Box Set. (101 tracks/290 minutes for $26)  I’ve been salivating over this box set for years, and it bugs me that I haven’t been able to get it from ILL (interlibrary loan). Because the price of the digital box set is steep even with the discounts, I can only justify buying this when I have bought 2 for 1 credits.   But it is great! (I am eagerly awaiting from ILL  another blues box set called Juke Joint Blues which contains no overlap with this one).
  3. Anti 2010 Fall Sampler and Anti 2010 Spring Compilation are each about 50 minutes and cost only $ 1.99.
  4. Samantha Stollenwerck, Carefree. I’m a huge fan of this  Los Angeles singer who seems like a funkier version of Sheryl Crow with J.J. Grey’s rip-roaring bluesy style. Note that you can download some of her live concerts (legally!) for free.
  5. Dual Mono by the Greenhornes. Rowdy, traditional rocking, with almost every song a winner.
  6. Distant Earth Remixed by ATB. Really exhilarating EDM,  starting with the song accompanying the incredible Hulafantastica video.
  7. Awaara/Shree. An album which combines 2 well-known soundtracks from Bollywood movies. A bargain! (Update: Just listened again to it.  What a great collection of songs!)
  8. Noor Jehan Collection in Urdu Volume 3.
  9. Advisory Committee by Mirah. Very well-received moody shoegazing female songs.
  10. Elegancia Tropical by Bomba Estereo.
  11. Lo Mejor De Lo Mejor de RCA Victor by Libertad Lamarque. (Compilation: 40 tracks/112 minutes for $11.10) Great compilation of an Argentine singer who became wildly popular in Mexico. This stuff contains lots of songs from her Argentina days in the 1930s-40s and her later stuff for Mexican films in the 50s and 60s.  The songs are good and gushy romantic, but her voice is outstanding and very expressive.
  12. Originales — 20 Exitos by Jeanette. Great 20 track compilation of Jeanette’s best songs from the 80s. Lots of hidden gems here. Jeanette has a soft coy soft  like Suzanne Vega, and these tunes are catchy, pensive and very sweet.  Like a Bacharach song, these songs seem deceptively simply and formulaic, but after you unpack the lush orchestration and crescendos, you realize that there’s a lot more here than you expected. (Note: “Originales 20 Exitos” is a generic title for single artist compilations from previous decades (most are smaller than the RCA 100 Anos de Musica). Often you can choose the single CD compilation titled “Originales 20 Exitos”
  13. RCA 100 Anos De Musica – Segunda Parte ( Grandes Baladas De Los 70s) (Compilation: 36 tracks for 120 minutes at $11.10). Outstanding compilation of  Top 40 Easy Listening Ballads of the 70s by all the Mexican greats. Honestly, I wish I could buy every single of the 50+ titles — even though they were rather expensive. Unfortunately, the Mexican music business don’t have low cost compilation CDs, so this is all you’re stuck with.  In addition to single artist compilations, there are some good 2 disc compilations by multiple artists. Honestly I was torn between 3 different compilations and this one won…
  14. Slave Ambient by War on Drugs. Great guitar rumblings and electronic background to a man who sings like Bob Dylan. I can’t for the life of me understand what this singer is saying (the guitar strumming drowns it out), but the music is exciting and at the same time low-key.
  15. Snakebite by Eleni Mandell. I’ve been following Mandell for years. She writes quirky, dangerous and off-the-wall songs. Great lyrics, lots of dissonance and crazy melodies. Sure, she’s mellowing out with her later albums, but this albums comes from her I’m-still-crazy stage. Check out this awesome review of this album.
  16. Tele by Pjusk.   ($4.41) Slow subterranean ambient music that moves at a glacial pace. It’s made by two Norwegian guys who say their music is influenced by the natural landscape — living in the mountains in the snowy winters. A nice change of pace and a genuinely beautiful soundscape (dare I call it music?)
  17. Adams Effect by Pepper Adams. Last recorded performance of jazz great Pepper Adams in a cheap ($3.43) recording. This album has been on my list for over a year, and I finally got around to buying it. Lively perfection and a historically important recording.

February 2014. What luck! I posted the Refer a Friend $50 Credit and Earned $50 more credits to my account.  (PS, If you want me to send you the $50 offer, email me).

  1. Various Polyvinyl Samplers. To take advantage of the 2 week Polyvinyl sale, I’ve started downloading a number of free and very cheap ($1.50) Polyvinyl samplers. After listening to those I’ll purchase some  actual albums. Polyvinyl samplers are everywhere, so here are some links: Free samplers on  emusic: PV Digest, Hey Girl Hey, Polyvinyl SXSW 2013Winston’s Essentials. Free samplers on Amazon (but not emusic): PV 15 year anniversary, Sells for $1.40 on emusic: PV 2005 Sampler, PV 2004 Sampler, PV Summer/Fall 2005 Sampler, Simple Mental Math (2009), PV 2002-3 Sampler, PV 2009 Sampler. There’s usually 1-3 duplicates on each album,  but considering that I spent only $8.40 for about 150 unique indie tracks from an edgy label (about 4 or 5 per artist!), that’s a great deal!
  2. 100 Hits Lounge (456 minutes for $11.98). Probably a frivolous choice, but a good value and I had LOTS of fun listening to it on rdio. The concept is simple: 100 mainstream pop songs are reinterpreted  and rearranged by mostly South American jazz/lounge DJs. So almost every tune is familar, but the reinterpretations (often with jazzy vocals) are fresh, unusual and surprising. I listened to and enjoyed another 100 track lounge compilation for $5.99  called Lounge Top 100 (listed below) which contains unfamiliar tunes and I see that there’s  a low-cost sequel called Lounge Top 100 Vol 2 which I have yet to buy, but almost certainly will do so eventually.
  3. Roots of OK Jazz (59 minutes for $5.99). Early musical offerings by the legendary Congolese jazz band led by Franco. This tracks feature more of the band and less on individual stars (like Franco himself). Just as good as I’d imagine it.
  4. Very Best of 1960-2. Franco and L’Orchestra OK Jazz. (121 minutes for $6.49). Both of these albums are great; this album is a double set. Significantly, with the exception of one track, there is virtually no overlap between this album or Roots of  OK Jazz or the Francophonic 1 compilation.
  5. Places like This.  Architecture in Helsinki. ($5 for 31 minutes) . Peppy rhythmic Australian band with lots of weird sound effects and vocals.  Reminds me of Talking Heads or B52s, with a healthy dose of silliness.
  6. Fluorescence by Asobi Seksu. Great hazy electronic band by a Japanese-American artist. Shoegazing,  meditative, flighty stuff with lots of unusual beats that leave you off-balanced. I actually prefer her earlier work Citrus which was really moody, Goldfrappy  and stirring in a bold way, but Fluorescence was on sale by Polyvinyl, so I decided to get this first. Still an excellent album to contemplate by.
  7. I need you bad. Various. (Sale $5 for 15 tracks at 48 minutes).  Random collection of West Coast garage bands. No single track stands out, but there’s a variety of styles and a lot of  slow/whispery/underwater-sounding tracks. Though I loved it at first listen and like being exposed to these kind of bands, nothing really wowwed me.
  8. Noor Jehan Digital Collection in Urdu Volume 2. (73 minutes for $5.99). Sounds like Bollywood with some individual flourishes. I generally love her voice.
  9. Cartagena! Curro Fuentes & The Big Band Cumbia and Descarga Sound Of Colombia 1962 – 72 (Soundway Records). 68 minutes for $5.99. Not a bad track in the bunch. Really amazing stuff and no overlap with my other compilation albums (such as Diablos del Ritmo below).
  10. King Of History – Classic 1970s Benga Beats From Kenya. (84 minutes for 5.99). This music is characterized by fast jumpy  beats, and call and response by the chorus and the jumpy guitars . A critic writes,” he songs normally start off with a snappy guitar riff as introduction, followed by voices over lulling guitar work. Then, with the singing out of the way, the instruments get down to the serious business, galloping into double time as the guitars trade short, frantic phrases.” Love it overall, but there doesn’t seem to be any musical climaxes, just lots of rapidfire beats.

January 2014.  Still trying to figure out what to get.

  1. Noor Jehan Digital Collection Volume 1. (72 minutes for $5.99) Jehan is Pakistan’s most famous singer who sang in movies and as a playback singer. She appeared in a number of Bollywood movies as well. She has recorded over 10,000 songs (compared to 26,000 songs each for Asha and Lata).  This is the first of 9 volumes. Unfortunately this digital collection doesn’t have any sort of organization (chronological or otherwise), but the songs are great.
  2. 1992-2012 Anthology by Underworld. A 3 1/2 hour anthology for $6.50 certainly seems like a good deal, especially because the compilation of tracks by this legendary 90s techno group provides highlights of many famous albums, including their early 90s stuff. This sells for almost 3x the price on Amazon and itunes.
  3. 100% Hits der 60er 70er 80er.  (53 tracks/ 153 minutes for $4.50). I was browsing through many random compilations and came across this ultra-budget compilation of upbeat  German folk hits from previous decades. This hoaky Lawrence Welkish style (called Volkstümliche Musik) was popular among a certain class of German society — but almost certainly not German’s youth; it is roughly analogous to U.S. country, but with oompahs and occasional yodeling. I’m aware that these tracks are easy to mock,  but when I learned German at college, the music teacher used to play these songs occasionally — and it never really occurred to me that real people actually listened to this kind of music outside of an academic setting.  There is not even a whimper of rock and roll here, but a few drops of classical music. In favor of this album, most (or even all of it) seems to be by the original artists. A great glimpse into a European musical style that was buried by rock and roll and disco.

December 2013. I have since found lots of interesting things, but can’t decide what to spend it on.  Indeed, I have found several double albums and box sets available here which though cheap exceed my monthly credit. Good things will have to wait, I guess.

  1. Angola Saudade 60*70. (194 minutes for $.4.40). Apparently someone at emusic goofed, and the 4 CD version is as expensive as each individual cd. Update: This album has been removed altogether from emusic, but it is still available on Amazon. Each of the 4 CDs cost $6.99 in digital form on Amazon. It’s still a fun and remarkable album.
  2. Diablos del Ritmo 1960-1985: The Colombian Melting Pot (Afrobeat – Puya – Cumbiamba – Terapia – Mapalé – Caribbean Funk. (108 minutes for $11.98 — note: This was available on Amazon for 10.49)). I wasn’t pleased at having to pay “full price” for this album, but this album is so smooth and fun when I listened to it on Rdio that I know I will play it to death. The compiler wrote a nice long intro to the songs and how he came to know about them.  This double album ranks up there with the Soundways Original Sound of Cumbia 1948-1979 which is one of my alltime favorites. (note: this second album is also   $2 cheaper on Amazon than on emusic. What’s the deal with Columbian music being cheaper on Amazon?)

November 2013.  Using more of last month’s credit. Overdosing on Cambodian pop and neo-pop. One interesting historical fact is that about Cambodian musicians were very influenced by Western rock and dance styles; about 20% of them were killed by the Khmer Rouge.

  1. Dengue Fever Presents Electric Cambodia. Dengue Fever collects some of their favorite Cambodian pop from the 60s and 70s. Pretty rocking stuff. Highly recommended.
  2. Cambodian Psych Out. Another Cambodian song compilation with an emphasis on psychedelic guitar rock.
  3. Dengue Fever Presents: Dancing through the Mekong. This half-compilation also features DF themselves playing some classic and original tunes.  All very good, but I should add that I fully expect to buy a DF only album next month.
  4.  Not Easy Rock and Roll.  by Cambodian Space Project. Apparently another group from Australia also is trying to squat on this Cambodian/world beat space. Surprisingly modern and  cool.
  5. Now Hear This! Winners of the Independent Spirit Award (Free sampler). A surprisingly cool collection of song winners, most of which I enjoyed. 66 songs total.
  6. Vida Mia and Very Best of Lydia Mendoza   are two dynamite compilation albums by the Latino/Tejano singer from Houston who later lived in San Antonio. Born in 1917, most of Mendoza’s  songs are from the 1930s and are absolutely boffo. mendozaMost consist of simple lyrics (all in Spanish),   solos with acoustic guitar. Yet they have a lot of vitality and heart. They are sweet and relaxing, full of Latin strumming, danceable rhythms and soulful vocals.
  7. Dandelion Gum by Black Moth Super Rainbow. Experimental arty rock by a Philadelphia band. I listened to their other incredible album Eating Us . Each song tries something different. Sounds like downtempo  dream pop with almost a cooing Yo Lo Tengo vibe. These songs are individually so interesting that I find I can relisten to these two albums a lot.

 

October 2013. Still recovering from last month’s listening and buying orgy.

  1. Lyadov Complete Piano Works, performed by Marco Rapetti (248 minutes for $6.49). (Liner Notes). 19th century Russian composer Lyadov wrote a lot of very short romantic programmatic pieces. Insubstantial, but colorful, complex. Hilariously uninterested in sonata-allegro forms, his music is reminiscent of  Scriabin and Schumann. Apparently a lot of these pieces are performed here for the first time, so for $7 in emusic credits, you can get an outstanding deal. Please note that this and other recent classical music acquisitions (aside from Argerich)  are re-releases from Brilliant Classics, a budget but high-quality label. Highly recommended, if only for historical novelty.
  2. Prokofiev. Symphonies Number 1-7. Zdenek Kosler, Czech Philharmonic. 248 minutes for $6.49.  (Long outside  Review here).
  3. Nouela. Chants. Nouela Johnston is a Seattle singer and pianist who has played with a variety of alternative bands, including Say Hi and Mon Frere. She also recorded the solo album People Eating People which I think is great. Chants is basically Nouela with a piano; it  shows  versatility, a mastery of the jazz genre and heaps of soul. I love it.

Sept 2013. Took advantage of the Double-the-Value of your booster pack. I added $50, which meant a whopping $100 of emusic credits.  I gave my nephew $30 of the music credits, that that let me still have $87 of credits which I put to good use quickly. I’m still in Africa, although I’m starting to venture into Classical Land and 80s Land. (Update: I ended up spending those $30 in credits meant for my nephew — sorry, Dylan!)

  1. Lisanga Ya Banganga. By Grand Maitre Franco. This is a collection of duets by Congolese singer Tabu Ley Rochereau and singer-guitarist Franco. I’m continuing my obsession with the Congolese jazz guitarist and singer Franco which started with the amazing collection Francophonic 1 compilation which I bought a year ago. I will certainly buy Francophonic 2, although interestingly, Amazon has lowered the price of both compilations to be $2 cheaper than emusic’s prices. This collection emphasizes singing more than instrumentals; it is very slow, tropical, laid back, and neither singer dominates any of the pieces.   The album actually combines two albums — one of them “Omana Wapi” was called by Robert Christgau one of the best albums of the 80s. Actually, though, I liked the 3 pieces not in that album called “Suite Lettres” which are softer, faster and  more contemplative. This album didn’t wow me as much as Francophonic did, but it definitely will grow on me. Highly recommended.
  2. Martha Argerich — The Collection 1. (liner notes). I was tempted to blow my entire credits on the 4 volume set, but this volume costs $14.40 and contained 374 minutes, and so I know that would keep me happy for a while. This volume contains the “solo recordings” and the selections seem to come from her remarkable and iconoclastic early performances. Next I’ll be buying Volume 2: The Concertos, but I already knew some of her early concerto performances already, so it wouldn’t exactly surprise me.  By the way, I realize that now she’s in her 70s, but some of the photos from her early days (which appear on all her album covers)  are really sexy. 600x600Update: It now appears that the encoding rate for this compilation  is substandard (ie., 160 bps VBR compared to 256CBR  on Amazon.com). This is both puzzling and disappointing. I have notified emusic about this, and hopefully this can be resolved. Update 2: They gave me a credit which I applied to volume 2 — which I am assured is high fidelity quality. Everybody is happy.
  3. Martha Argerich — The Collection 2. The Concertos. (461 minutes for $16.30 — liner notes) I am happy to report that sound quality on this volume is perfectly fine. It includes her early concert of the Ravel concerto in G and Prokofiev #3  (which are electrifying and great, the definitive recording for each piece). Included also are standard works by Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Schumann. These are all a delight; highly recommended. One note: there are duplicate recordings of the Ravel, Tchaikovsky and Beethoven #2, so the total time is somewhat deceptive.
  4. Next Stop…Soweto is a compilation of works from South Africa in the 1960s and 1970s. Volume 1:  Township Sounds From The Golden Age Of Mbaqangwa contains lots of happy stuff .Volume 2: Soultown. R&B, Funk & Psych Sounds from the Townships 1969-1976  is (oops, I haven’t listened to it yet!). The tracks from  Volume 3:  Giants, Ministers and Makers: Jazz in South Africa 1963-1984 are twice as long as the other two volumes, and contain lots of interesting world jazz numbers.
  5. Singles and Sessions 1979-81 by Delta 5. Delta 5 is a British girls punk band I had never heard of (and frankly was flummoxed to learn that they even existed).  But their rowdy smartalecky lyrics  was accompanied by genuine musical ideas and unexpected transitions. I heard about them on an NPR radio show about The 80s: Were they really that bad? and even though I never heard them until 2 months ago, they’re practically my fave 80s band now. Highly recommended.
  6. Nigeria Rock Special: Psychedelic Afro-Rock & Fuzz Funk in 1970′s Nigeria is another Soundways album which I nearly bought 2 months ago.By now I know a lot about what was going on in Nigeria in the 1970s, but there were some excellent tracks not anywhere else.
  7. Shout: The Very Best of Tears for Fears.  I was vaguely aware of this 80s band and never really cared for them, but while listening to one of their songs in that same NPR radio show, I began to really like the moody synth sound and the pulsating rhythm permeating almost all the songs. I still am not a huge fan of the genre or the time period, but I have to concede the brilliance behind the music on this album.
  8. Kokomemedata by Komeda. I just love this Swedish band to death. It’s always dizzyingly fun, inventive lyrics backed by traditional rock sounds and slight electronic effects. I bought the very early Pop Pa Svenska a few months back and loved it with reservations. This album is more mature, a lot more fun and solid. Ironically I haven’t listened to their middle (and most famous) album The Genius of Komeda, but I’ll be hitting that next. This album is fun, fast and  brilliant.
  9. Electro Perfecto by Mike Viola. I found out about Mike Viola from Willfully Obscure’s Top 100 albums of the decade.  Ironically I didn’t buy the 2 albums this blog recommended, but this one is very clever and well-put together. Unconventional lyrics, catchy melodies. I’m definitely going to check out his other works, especially the Candy Butchers stuff he did in the 90s.
  10. Lil’ Golden Book by Princess Chelsea is more slow dreampop, this time from New Zealand. It’s moody, electronic and full of keyboard, child-like melodies and really memorable singing styles. Sounds more like crazy kids lullabies than pop songs though.
  11. Czech String Quartets by Stamitz Quartets  903 minutes! (liner notes here) contain quartets by Dvorak, Smetana, Martinu and Janaceck.

August 2013. Finishing the low price but  gigantic Middle Eastern singer collections.

  1. Mohamed Fawzi Complete Works. (176 tracks for 904 minutes).
  2. Layla Mourad Complete Collection (90 tracks for 369 minutes).
  3. Mughal-e-azam. Movie Soundtrack. Songs by Naushad Ali.  Voiced by playback singers such as Lata Mangeshkar and classical music artists such as Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan (who sang some qawwalis songs).  Unbelievably good (and famous soundtrack) which features uplifting and philosophical songs. Highlights (for me) include Mohammad Rafi’s Ae Mohabbat Zindabad and Teri Mehfil Mein Kismat,  qawwali duet where two women battle over the heart of the Prince (and the nature of love itself).  Each song costs 49 cents and there’s no album discount, making it good to use when you have extra credits.
  4. United Breaks Guitars (and the two  sequels) . Dave Carroll.  The two sequels to the original viral video song are just as good and fun…plus they only costs 49 cents each.  Love the fact that the songs immortalize United Ms. Irwig (what a name!).
  5. Free Sets. Various.

July 2013 (includes a $20 booster which I paid for). I’m taking advantage of a great sale of Soundway Albums.  All these albums were $4.99 until the end of July.

  1. 24 Hours in a Disco 1978-1982. Kiki Gyan. This album came from nowhere. It is as good as disco gets. KIKI GYAN joined the well known Afropop/ Worldbeat band in the 70s at the age of 16, They performed in UK, came in contact with lots of American pop luminaries, until Gyan decided to try his luck in the US. This album bears an uncanny resemblance to the Donna Summer/Disco Inferno sound. My fave track is Disco Dancer (great jivin’ keyboard!), but Disco Train did somewhat well. Highly recommended ( though there are only 7 tracks).
  2. A Nigerian Retrospective 1966-1979 (Double CD Album). Tunji Oyelana. Some of the tracks are more artsy/expressive than fun, but for a double album, it’s a great buy. Highly recommended.
  3. Nigeria Afrobeat Special: New Explosive Sound in 1970s Nigeria. Highly recommended. This album really rocks. I love almost every track
  4. The World Ends: Afro Rock & Psychedelia in 1970s Nigeria (Double Album).  Some of the tracks are so-so,  but highly recommended because it’s a double album and still has a lot of obscure winners.
  5. Dancing Time, the Best of Eastern Nigeria’s Afro Rock Exponents 1973-7  Funkies. I downloaded selected mp3s here. (I had two of their songs from other compilations). Great stuff.
  6. Soundway presents Ghana Soundz (Afro-Beat, Funk and Fusion in 70s Ghana). Highly recommended.
  7. Ghana Soundz Vol. 2: Afro-Beat, Funk and Fusion in 70s Ghana
  8. Afro-Baby: Evolution of the Afro-Sound in Nigeria 1970-9. A good album, but I didn’t have enough credits to buy the whole thing. Instead I bought the rare Fela Kuti track.
  9. Soundway presents Nigeria Special Vol 2 (Modern Highlife, Afro-Sounds and Nigerian Blues). I bought Volume 1 on Amazon (for twice the price), and I’m assuming Vol 2 is just as good.
  10. Kings of Benin Urban Groove 1972-1980. T.P. Orchestra Poly-Rythmo. Highly recommended.
  11. Emusic Hidden Treasures 2013 Sampler (38 tracks/157 minutes! for free! A great compilation of tracks from hot artists from various genres. With the exception of  one death metal track (ugh!), all the tracks are delightful.

June 2013: (includes a bonus “Thank You” credit of $20 from Emusic)

  1. Sabah. Complete Collection (146 tracks — 868 minutes! for $6.49) Sabah is a great Lebanese singer who sang and appeared in many movies in the  1940s and 1950s.  Definitely more upbeat and pop than Kalthoum. Also, the songs are shorter, more dramatic and energetic — many came from movies. For this reason, I think Westerners would find her music more than palatable. This and the other “complete collections” have a few recordings of subpar quality, but most are listenable. For the record, Sabah has recorded thousands of songs, so I’m assuming that this is a good sample.
  2. OUM KALTHOUM. Complete Golden Collection (Remastered) (60 tracks — 2276 minutes for $5.84). Kalthoum is a famous classically trained Egyptian singer who was famous for singing numbers which lasted as long as an hour or two.  This comprehensive collection includes her beloved Enta Omri song/concert as well as lots of other extended numbers. She usually sings with a full grand  orchestra, and her extended songs sound more like symphonies alternating between the orchestra and her intense solos.
  3. Mohamed Abdelwahab (Complete Collection)  (249 tracks — 1957 minutes for $6.49) Mohamed Abdelwahab is a classically trained singer/composer and contemporary of Kalthoum. He was known for his Western influences and for the songs he wrote for Kalthoum and other people.
  4. Farid El Atrash (Complete Collection). (111 tracks — 980 minutes for $5.84) Farid El Atrash is a Syrian-Egyptian singer and composer who performed in many movies in the 1940s through 1970s.
  5. Shadia (Complete Collection) (137 tracks — 784 minutes for $6.49). Shadia is an Egyptian actress and singer who was features in many films between 1940s and  1970s.
  6. Abdel Halim Hafez (Complete Collection) (115 tracks — 1429 minutes – $6.49). Abdel Halim Hafez is a legendary Egyptian singer who sang a lot of uplifting and patriotic songs. He was also a protege of Mohamed Abdelwahab (listed above).
  7. Mark Bernes. Song “Cranes”. A gorgeous song written and performed by Bernes a month  before his actual death. The words come from a famous poem about soldiers who died in World War II.  I’ll buy the rest of the album later. Update: I bought about 5 other Bernes songs, all of them good but not as good as Cranes.
  8. DJ Rap. In the Lazers EP. is a cheap dance-techno EP which cost only $1.96. I basically bought it to spend my remaining balance, but  I’m  a big fan of it too.

May 2013:

  1. El Inolvidable by Tito Rodriguez is a great and almost comprehensive collection of vocal hits by the Puerto Rican mambo singer (i.e., the other Tito). Note that this album is identical to another album Anthology which is slightly more expensive. The 12 minute intro number introducing each performer is rather insufferable but quaint too, but even so, 107 minutes for $6.50 is an amazing deal.
  2. Ima by BT  is an early 1990s trance album by BT with some great soaring moments (Loving You more) and a sampling of Tori Amos which was wildly popular (Blue Skies).  The first album ESCM is also legendary (though somewhat New Age dreamy by contemporary standards). Unfortunately the album itself is not for sale digitally, but I made a youtube playlist of it.
  3. A certain smile, a certain sadness by Rocketship is a vivid and retro mellow electronic album in the style of Stereophonic.  This album (their only one) first came out in 1996.

Now here’s the rest of the albums which I had been purchasing since December 2012.

  1. Best Of Mushroom Jazz, Vol 1 – 5 by Mark Farina.  Farina makes these slow and funky jazzscapes full of random samples and spoken words.  It blends together very well, and actually it’s soothing enough that it doesn’t distract.  I have fallen asleep to many of these unending mixes.  I would have rather bought each volume separately, but this is a good sampling. Sometimes things sag and slow down, but  like  Gong’s soundscapes  (see below) it’s always headed  to interesting places. Ultimately, I bought this more for novelty’s sake than any other reason, but I was not disappointed.
  2. One Day I’ll Be on Time by The Album Leaf. I have no idea why I bought this ambient instrumental album other than it had a dreamy meditative quality and it still had vestiges of a rock band  (drums, guitar, etc). It’s more mood music than anything melodramatic, but almost every track has a rhythmic energy that keeps things chugging forward.
  3. Selections from Hotel Hell and Stand Up and Fight by Richard Lee Wilson.  Richard Lee Wilson is a great blues guitarist  whose rough and roaring melodies will remind you of his idol, Stevie Ray Vaughan.  Highly recommended even though some of his tracks have an uncanny resemblance to Stevie Ray. Hey, sometimes it’s ok to be derivative!
  4. Call the Doctor by Sleater-Kinney. Shrill 90s Grrl band. This album was highly recommended in multiple places, but I couldn’t get into it except for maybe 2 or 3 songs.
  5. Pirates Choice by Orchestra Baobab. I have become a sucker for anything by this Senegalese band. They combine many styles: mbalax jazz with danceable Cuban rhythm.  A saxophone is front and center of almost each performance, and singers alternate between Spanish and Oolof.  This was a one-session album from the 1980s (“Pirate’s Choice “ ironically refers to how often their albums were being bootlegged). Highlights include   bluesy Ndiaga Niaw and the slow and deliberate Ultrus Horas. Highly recommended.
  6. Selected Ambient Works by Aphex Twin (1985-1992): This early electronic album has been called an early groundbreaking work of electronic music. Personally I found it too minimalist for my liking. Not bad, but it had a tinny and cheap techno feel sometimes. It’s certainly a good listen, but it doesn’t compare to the richer symphonic creations of Tangerine Dream (see below).
  7. Pragamatic by Praga Khan. Praga Khan provides the turbocharged electronic energy behind the ground-breaking underground band, Lords of Acid. All of his 90s albums are great (I have them as CDs).  Classify under hard-hitting /house/dancey band with a European feel.
  8. Rehearsals for Departure by Damien Jurado. One emusic editor recommended this acoustic singer-songwriter, and  for the hell of  it I decided to buy this early album.  Jurado has a distinct and fragile voice, and his  country  songs are rich, tightly written and arranged with traditional harmonica and guitar. I think the poetic  lyrics are more interesting than the melodies (which are slow, lilting and heartfelt). But the whole package is so pleasant and sincere that I am able to overlook the fact that the songs aren’t particularly hummable.
  9. Best of Douglas Sahm & Sir Douglas Quartet (1968-1975) .  Tom Moon of 1000 Recordings to Hear before you die ranked this Texan singer’s compilation CD  as one of his fave recordings. Doug Sahm plays a lot of downhome country songs with a slight Tejano and polka  feel. A pleasant addition to the  traditional mix  of instruments is a jazz sax; however, the songs demonstrate a variety of styles and instruments  ranging from rock blues (I’m not that Kat anymore), country ballad (Texas Me), funky pop, and even 50s rock and roll. Everything feels simple and  old-fashioned (even for 70s music) but I think his best songs are these slow, understated  upbeat country songs like Mendocino and Sunday Sunny  Mill Valley Groove Day.
  10. Tangerine Dream: The Virgin Years (1974-1978). I was only vaguely familiar with Tangerine Dream, but I heard that their early electronic  stuff was more interesting and intense. This double set includes 4 complete early albums; that’s enough to get an idea about the  ground-breaking stuff they were doing.  The music has enough  momentum and keyboard crescendos to take your breath away.  It’s exhilarating, eerie, perplexing and spacey without sounding too abstruse. Highly recommended.
  11. (Real Love) (Optimo Remix)  by Factory Floor.  Here’s a dynamite single track recommended by the NPR music editors.
  12. Nothing but the Blues and Texas Swings by Herb Ellis.  Herb Ellis is an easygoing jazz guitarist who plays lovely melodies. His rendition of “American the Beautiful” is one of the most beautiful I’ve heard, and he has collaborated with many immortals (Getz, Hampton, etc). I bought Texas Swings a long time ago, and it was one of my favorite easy listening tapes. Nothing but the Blues is  one of his best  collaborations.
  13. Rough Guide to Psychedelic Africa  Rough Guides are a steal (especially on emusic). They usually contain 2 CDs worth of music, and are impeccably chosen. I check out a lot of them from my public library, but this one was conspicuously missing. The featured performer is Nigerian Victor Uwaifo, whose 10 tracks here show the jazzy highlife sound. Other highlights include great tracks by Orchestra Baobab and other performers unknown to the west. Noteworthy about Uwaifo was the prominence of the flute in his mostly guitar-driven songs. By the way, you can subscribe directly to Rough Music albums. 2 albums per month at 10$ a month (minimum 12 months).
  14. Submarine Bells by The Chills. Wonderful 80s New Zealand band who play these incredible soft rock ballads. This album is just perfect – lots of different styles, most of it lowkey synth rock with laid back qualities. I’m thinking of the Eagles/Fleetwood Mac/Police, but really I don’t think the US has any real equivalent. Highly Recommended.220px-Submarinebells
  15. Shoes – 35 Years: The Definitive Shoes Collection 1977-2012.  I heard a piece on NPR about how the Shoes have basically been ignored by the public despite being loved by music critics. When i heard an excerpt of their  “easy listening” sound,  I thought, “that’s just like The Chills!” I didn’t immediately love this compilation; the sunniness of the songs can grow tedious after a while, and the singer’s voice doesn’t have a lot of emotional range. Songs like Too Late, Girls of Today, Curiosity,  Feel the Way I do and Three Times are interesting  (and catchy) songs, but they feel a little meandering. Over time I have come to appreciate  the fine textures of both the vocals and instrumentation. These songs are not supposed to overwhelm you, but they have surprisingly intricate rhythms and melodies; I just wished the songs were more memorable.
  16. Best of “Rock El Casbah” by Rachid Taha. This Algerian singer does a variety of rock and dance styles while preserving the Middle East feel.  I didn’t love this album as much as I thought I would – it seemed too mainstream and pop, but it still had great moments.
  17. Classic Titles by Boubacar Traore  Traore is a great singer from Mali, and I forgot why I bought this man’s music.  He sings these  slow and  gorgeous ballads with a solo guitar. His voice is always plaintive and yet the expressive guitar counterbalances the melancholy.  Aside from the fact that the songs from this album all seem to resemble one another,  they are powerful, intense and by far my most remarkable find on emusic. Highly recommended.traore
  18. Live at the Old Quarter by Townes Van Zandt  This live recording is supposed to be Van Zandt’s best album, and it has some interesting qualities – the small talk in between songs for example. Van Zandt has a great voice, and his songs are earnest and gentle – more country than blues. But no particular song stood out in my mind. Contrast that with Steve Goodman’s comedy songs (see below)  whose songs always made me  say, “Wow.” I realize it’s unfair to compare comic songs with serious ones and that I’m supposed to love this intimate presentation of Van Zandt songs.  But to tell the truth, I don’t think any of the songs came close to “moving” me.  Let’s  compare and contrast Boubcar Traore with Townes Van Zandt. They both have beautiful voices and a soulful style; unlike Van Zandt  (who gives the guitar a mostly accompanying role), Traore integrates the guitar deeper into the song and uses it more expressively.  Traore’s guitar almost overshadows his voice in importance to the songs.
  19. Very Best of Toot and the Maytals. Imagine Ray Charles or James Brown singing reggae songs. The songs on this compilation album are funky but also seem laid back for reggae; perhaps one could call slower songs like Never Get Weary or In the Dark  gospel or soul. Toot knows how to rock with fast songs like 54-46 That’s my number or Monkey Man or Pressure Drop or Pomps & Pride.  It’s hard to imagine a reggae singer not being overshadowed by Bob Marley’s memory, but these songs seem less political, more about faith and good feelings. To some, this underlying message might seem bland, but at least it shows that Toots is not simply trying to head down the same path Marley did.
  20. DJ Rap Presents Propa Classics Volume 1 . I’m a big fan of DJ rap’s stuff from the 1990s, but this isn’t my favorite album of hers.  I really dug Deep Inside and the downtempo Spiritual Aura 2001 (which ended the album). But the faster version of Aura was really fun too, and so was Diggable Bass. Hardstep was funky and good dance stuff. But I thought there was way too much chitter-chatter on tracks in the middle, especially Your Mind and The Lickshot. (Update: I am really liking some of her more recent stuff, including the $1.96  In the Lazers EP).
  21. World of Daevid Allen and Gong CD 1 and CD 2  So far I’ve bought 2 CDs of the 3 CD collection which contains the best of Gong from the early 1970s. When I first listened, I admit I wondered if this freeform jazzy/prog stuff was pulling my leg – it just sounds like a long drug trip. But the slow and emerging melodies always go to interesting places. It sounds like a more colorful and less dark Pink Floyd. Highly recommended — just for the experience.
  22. Steve Goodman Anthology.  Goodman is a legendary folk singer who sings these fun songs about baseball, TV,  sex, food.  This great compilation album includes lots of great live performances and  hilarious songs with guitar accompaniment. The songs are catchy, upbeat, and clever. This double album costs 11.98 on emusic vs. 17.98 on Amazon.  Highly recommended.
  23. Curve EP by Last Charge of the Light Horse . I used to know one of the performers from high school, so it was a treat to hear this album. Jean-Paul Vest has an interesting voice, and the jazzy instrumental touches really make these songs for me. The best and most accessible song is the lyrical Lately track…a real winner. The other pieces are moodier and less about the lyrics or the singing than about the winding instrumentals and silences.
  24. Pop På Svenska + Plan 714 Till by Komeda.  Komeda is a great Swedish electronic/punk band that combines dazzling special effects (a la Stereophonic) with strange rhythms and beeps, and lovely warblings by its lead female singer. Their later stuff was more palatable for the masses (one song even was played on a Powderpuff Girl cartoon). But this album (actually 2 albums re-released later ) consists of their juvenalia when they were still experimenting with styles and forms (oh, yes, the singer sang only in Swedish).  This album isn’t perfect, but it is bold and dazzling and even mind-bending.
  25. 100 Jazz Essentials  by John Coltrane.  This amazing collection of Coltrane includes both the familiar and unfamiliar. At the low price of $6, it’s a must buy.
  26. 100 Disco Hits of the 70s, 80s and 90s .  ($6) Some have criticized this  (and other) collections for not including original recordings. A number are  “one off recordings” (By that, I mean “different recordings of the same song by the same artist). Let’s not split hairs. 75% of the time, I couldn’t tell the difference, plus I enjoyed the grabbag of stuff from three decades which combines the well-known with the obscure.
  27. 100 Greatest Gospel Classic.  ($6) I totally loved this collection for $6, although it seemed to emphasize African-American gospel a little too heavily. Sound quality is ok considering that it contains lots of stuff from 30s, 40s and 50s.
  28. 100 Greatest Motown Hits . ($6) A lot of “one-off” recordings, plus a lot of singers I’ve never heard of before mixed with Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, etc… Still, I enjoyed it.
  29. 100 Original Blues Kings.  ($6!) Some of the specific recordings sound terrible, but there’s enough variety and stuff from little known artists to make up for it.
  30. Lounge Top 100 ($6) This is my favorite big compilation, especially because I haven’t heard of any of the musicians. Lounge/downtempo jazz is a genre totally unknown to me, populated by lots of South Americans and Europeans. Highly recommended.
  31. Number 1 Latin Jazz Album Ever!  (6$) This compilation  of 100 Latin jazz tracks has a lot of odd selections – quite a number from 1940s and Big Band era and Desi Arnaz?  and I suspect that these are quite a few one off recordings. Still it’s a lot of fun.
  32. Close Encounters of the Third Kind: Original Soundtrack by John Williams. One late evening I awoke from bed and felt various melodies from Close Encounters flowing through my head. Aside from the amazing interplay of the musical motif  between spaceship and humans in the final scene, there is a lot of good incidental music along the way. This soundtrack was nominated for an Oscar for best musical score, but lost to John Williams’ Star Wars soundtrack (which I consider a lesser work by Williams). Of course, these are programmatic symphonic works, but it’s fun to compare and contrast with Holst, Debussy, Ligeti… Highly recommended.
  33. Wild Ones by Flo Rida. (recommended by nephew).  This collection of middle-of-the-road  techno-rap tracks   has sweet spots  (especially in the Sweet Spot starring Jennifer Lopez samples, Good Feeling  and Let It Roll tracks).  Clever instrumentals and good and catchy dance tracks, but its repetitive format gets old very quickly. Also,  it seems a victim of the loudness wars; everything is at a constant volume and can be exhausting on the ears. I think the duets between Flo Rida and females work especially well, and as long as you don’t listen too often to these tracks, they will seem great.
  34. Overexposed by Maroon 5 (recommended by nephew). These songs are described on allmusic as “soul groove,” and that’s as fair a category as any (although it inevitably includes some electronic kicks).  Highlights include: Daylight and Lucky Strike  and Sad (an interest  slow number). This album sounded a little too fashionable and prosaic for my tastes and really didn’t leave much of an impression on me.
  35. Some Nights by fun.(recommended by nephew).  I was pleasantly surprised at how engaging this pop album is.  The main vocalist Nate Reuss reminds me of Freddy Mercury — naked, boyish, expressive, full of attitude (though not as histrionic as Queen). The songs are catchy, never overproduced and always have interesting lyrics.  The sunny Why am I the one? sounds so much like the Afternoon Delight/Sara Smile  easy listening of the 1970s that it’s refreshing to hear something so unapologetically retro.
  36. Various albums by Sergent Garcia.  I saw French-born Cosmopolitan singer perform at a Brazilian international festival in Houston. He and his band sung in so many genres that I had trouble catching up. I ended up buying $8 of his 49 cent songs from 3 different albums, and got some great stuff especially from the Mascaras album. He fuses reggae with salsa and cumbia and everything else and a rapid rapping vocal accompaniment. They were amazing in live performance. Highly recommended because of the band’s  versatility.
  37. Nortec Collective Presents Clorifila: Corridos Urbanos is a great and funky  series of electronic jazz pieces with occasional cameos from horns and accordians. Everything has a tribal/ industrial/synthesized feel to it, but the occasional vocals (Naked Ladies), and the dreamy  downtempo songs (Nicole Ya No Baila Aqui and 4:15) make it clear you can’t categorize this album very easily.  This complex pieces are actually collages of Mexican folk with electronic bursts and lots of percussion (almost too much at times).  Highly recommended if only because of their ground-breaking sound.
  38. Politico by Mexican Institute of Sound

I want to mention some other titles which I bought on Amazon, Google Play and other indie sites. Generally, emusic has everything cheaper, but Amazon has some amazing prices on compilation albums and occasionally “flash sales” for 1 day on Top 40 albums.

  1. Anthology by The Clean. I bought this amazing double album for $7 on Google Play when it was on sale. (now it’s selling for $11.50).  The Clean is an important New Zealand alternative band who at times  resembles  a good rowdy grunge/garage band (Side On, At the Bottom), and at other times sounds like 60s  psychodelic pop. Try the mind-blowing Outside the Cage, Point that Thing Franz Kafka at the Zoo.  I guess they’re a kind of Velvet Underground, only smarter and more  obsessed with producing good guitar riffs than meaningful vocals. I liked this album so much that I listened to it continuously for 3 or 4 days and did not feel bored once.  Highly recommended.

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I am linking to it casually (and making only superficial comments), but this  professional code of ethics I have developed about working for the energy industry is one of my most important (and most expensive personally). 

I live in Houston, which is basically the center of many energy companies, most of which deal with fossil fuels. I would estimate that 80% of the technical job opportunities in my field (Technical Writing and Instructional Design) are in the oil and gas field. I have turned them down without exception – no matter how lucrative or promising. I generally have to explain myself to HR people and recruiters; usually people’s response to my declaration that I could not work for any oil and gas companies is absolute amazement – and almost hilarity.  “Is this guy crazy?” they must think.

I would love to remain in Houston, but it’s becoming harder to make a living here and stay true to these core ethical principles I have articulated on that page.  The irony is that I genuinely enjoy the field of technical writing – plus I think I am really good at it,  but if most   of the jobs in your city are in an industry you find abhorrent,  then what does it matter that a particular type of work is interesting or well-paying? 

I have been working on a much longer blog post about the ethical question, “Is it ethical to work for an oil and gas company?”  Stay tuned!

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Linkdump from Facebook 2

by Robert Nagle on 4/2/2013

in Facebook Linkdump,linkdump

Here’s some dumping from Facebook onto my blog.  (Warning: very long!)  (This is the 2nd installment. See the first linkdump)

[click to continue…]

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Brief Book Reviews 3

by Robert Nagle on 3/28/2013

in book reviews,Brief Reviews

Here’s my next batch of capsule book reviews.  Now that I’ve figured an easier way to lay things out, I hope to post book reviews more frequently. Next batch will have more indie ebooks, I promise! Here’s an index to my other book reviews.

DeadZone Stephen King

The Dead Zone by Stephen King. After viewing the sci fi TV series based on the novel, I decided to read the original source material. Many original elements from the TV show are here (albeit in smaller form). The book did a good job of bringing the plot to a personal level; the book called more attention to the struggle between John Smith and his parents. Because the book used fewer supernatural effects, it was actually more plausible and inward-looking. At the same time, the heavy emphasis on plot and dialogue made this story ready for TV. Aside from the protagonists, none of the characters seemed compelling or seemed to have complex struggles. This book was a train wreck, and even though I'm not a fan of Stephen King's works in general, I feel sure he must have done better than this later on. (I thought Misery was brilliant though overdone and needlessly sadistic). The premise here was great -- and so was the research about brain function, but I don't think the plot or the characters rose above cliche. As a book, it didn't work; however, some of the pop culture details from the 1970s were fun enough to make the book occasionally tolerable.

The Failure by James Greer. Great comic novel about an ill-fated attempt to rob a Korean check-cashing store and one brother's attempt to make a bundle off some Internet scam. The plot is outrageous, and full of strange characters and comic diversions and narrator long-windedness. The "Korean check-cashing fiasco" is announced to be a failure from the start, but it was delightful to hear it in excruciating detail. The book consists of many short chapters with funky titles ("Marcus, Guy's Brother, Contemplates what might have been, standing at the window of his office in Cambridge, the same day as the Korean Check-Cashing Fiasco") and lots of hilarious asides (See the one in Chapter 47 about the "plight of the underappreciated writer."). The book is about the vagaries of wealth and success and how the Internet-driven economy only makes everything more unpredictable. It's just as hard to know whether the check-cashing scheme has any chance of success as the latest Internnet technology which no one quite understands. As zany as it seems to pair a California novel with Irish narrator Tadhg Hynes, the audio book published by Iambik Press works because Hynes easily can adopt a tone of derision, pettiness and cynicism. Hands down, the audiobook was one of the funniest things I'd heard -- it ranks up with Rob McQuay's narration of Bill Bryson's "Walk in the Woods." Highly Recommended. (Also: Here's a revealing interview between Miette Elm and the author.)

Cooler, Smarter: Practical Steps for Low-Carbon Living by the Union of Concerned Scientists . This nonfiction reference guide provides good consumer information about how to reduce your carbon footprint. Out of the 300 page book, 30 pages are end notes, 20 pages are resources and author bios (!?), 50 pages are an introduction to climate change (unneeded by now, I think). That leaves about 120-150 pages of good stuff about home heating, food production transportation, electronics, and bringing green living to the workplace. I thought the food section had good and new information, and the home heating/utility contained useful information for home-owners. I would have liked to see more discussion about the value of organic products and more formulas for calculating footprint; for example, how do you estimate the carbon footprint of an ipad produced overseas? How do you estimate the carbon footprint of bus travel? How do you convert between different measuring units and scales? How does recycling lower your carbon footprint (if at all)? The book is the best on the market, but there really needs to be a better and more comprehensive guide on the subject. Related: I highly recommend No Impact Man (the book) by Colin Beavan and Story of Stuff by Annie Leonard.


Yu Hua brothers

Brothers by Yu Hua. This remarkable picaresque and satirical novel about the rags-to-riches tale of two Chinese brothers against the backdrop of modernization has a lot going for it. An engaging style, two well-drawn out characteristics, and a lot of political and social subtexts. It brims with scatological humor and lots of episodes and hilarious dialogue. I listened to the audiobook and confess that parts were electrifying -- either sad or humorous or both. Yu Hua's satire is so caustic that one is almost shocked to find something so daring from China. (Its far-flung reach is reminiscient of Journey to the West). One critic described it as Rabelais Meets Horatio Alger, and I think that's fair. The central character is Baldy Li, an aggressive, blunt boy whose effrontery translates into being a good businessman. His older brother Song Fanping is more modest and enlightened; at the same time he is crippled and even emasculated by his willingness to follow the traditional paths to success. The novel is more about Baldy Li's outrageous behavior and how it helps him to succeed. I liked Book 1 (which describes how the two brothers were orphaned as a result of the Cultural Revolution and how they both fall in love with the same girl). As the book goes on and focuses more on Baldy Li's business success, the plot becomes more ridiculous -- whores and incurable diseases and opulent living. I read the book as Chinese society's naive introduction to business success. The rags-to-riches fairy tale; is often unrealistic and maudlin. Many characters aren't quite sure how you make money in a privatized system, and only Baldy Li's shameless pursuit of wealth seems to be working. My favorite moment comes when Baldy Li seeks investors for his new business. Several people buy shares on the basis of Baldy Li's bluster. But when it appears that Baldy Li may not be bringing a return on their investments, suddenly these ordinary Chinese realize that capitalism itself might be a scam. This novel was ostensibly written for laughs -- and it's probably unrealistic to hold it up to a standard of realism; at the same time, I suspect that the larger-than-life character of Baldy Li doesn't seem plausible to most readers; more people probably identify with this older brother who would be in the grips of poverty were he not connected to Baldy Li. The book ultimately takes things to ridiculous heights -- to the point where I no longer cared about the outcome. I don't particularly like this novel as a whole, but it did reveal the variety of attitudes (both naive and sophisticated) that oridinary Chinese had towards privatization and dreams of prosperity. Baldy Li is really a horrible person, but the book never really hints that Baldy Li's life may not be the paradise it seems. And Baldy Li's foil (his older brother) is too impotent and bland to stand out as a credible alternative. Everyone loves a funny and boorish literary character, but I have to wonder if the author loves Baldy Li too much. The audio narrator, Louis Changchien, does an outstanding job at bringing the book to life. It's just too bad that the novel becomes a ridiculous concoction.

PuddnHeadWilson

Puddnhead Wilson by Mark Twain. This funny postbellum novel about a nitwit and a wealthy white man who learns unexpectedly that he was actually born black. I liked the early chapters , but as the plot became complex and the Negro dialect became thicker, it became harder to follow. The story proceeds haphazardly; it almost seemed thrown together. Twain's style and humor is unmistakable, but I would have preferred a more focused novel.

1000 Recordings You Must Hear before you Die by Tom Moon. At first glance, this nonfiction book seems to be a typical reference guide of best albums. But the book contains lots of unusual recommendations, lots of connections between musicians in different genres. Reading this book is pure delight. Succinct, full of collector's notes and recommended recordings and great layout for easy browsing. Every time I flip open the book, I learn some new thing both about the artist and the context in which the album was released. Even the indices are useful (they even have a "mood index" where you can find music in categories like "Music to inspire Reflection" and "Cardio Workout" and "Headphone Journey.") Unlike Dimery's book (which actually aims to be a boring reference guide), Moon's book feels more personal and less inclined to list historically important albums. Unfortunately some albums listed here are not easy to find, and Moon -- anticipating this -- does a good job of describing what you're missing. You can download a PDF listing all the recordings, and the website/blog for the book has lots of related commentary. Such a reference guide will by definition go out of date quickly, but it still will be a delight to peruse long after. Highly Recommended (though avoid the ebook edition -- which isn't as browsable or as well laid out).

1001 Albums You must hear before you die by Robert Dimery can easily be confused with Moon's classic, but they are like night and day. Dimery's book tries to be a chronological reference book, and even though the choice of albums are predictable and not particularly interesting, it is still useful to have this reference guide as a counterweight to Moon. This is the kind of book you'd want to give to your son or daughter to give them a conventional introduction to pop music from previous decades, but it won't open your eyes to much. This sounds like I'm knocking this book, and in a way I am. But as long as you don't expect cutting edge recommendations here and simply a timeline of famous albums, you'll be fine. Still, read Moon's book before this one.

Rock Snob's Dictionary by David Kamp and Steven Daly . This slim mock-reference book sounds fairly easy to write, but I wanted to mention how well the authors manage through the format of a glossary to discuss many overlooked musical styles and persons. It explains a lot of cultural terms which even well-informed listeners might miss. Also, some of the glossary items are satirical. Example: "Plangent" is a "standby rock-crit adjective used to lend a magical aura to any nonaggressive guitar-based music (even though the word's primary meaning is"loud and resounding. Perhaps this guide might merely amuse those knowledgeable about music, but I found it very informative as well. Highly recommended.

Christgau's Consumer Guide: Albums of the '90s . (also Christgau's Record Guide: The '80s and Rock Albums Of The 70s: A Critical Guide) By Robert Christgau. Christgau has been reviewing albums for a long time and has perfected a manner of writing of writing capsule reviews of most of the major musicians. Many of Christgau's reviews seem peremptory or missing the point of the music; on the other hand, Christgau does seem to get British punk and rap/hip-hop and is generally good at identifying duds. Despite the fact that I disagree with a lot of Christgau's reviews (he overlooks or belittles some gems), often his snap judgments can give you a sense of where to place individual albums. I'm happy to report 2 things. First, Christgau wrote a great introduction to his 90s edition which is worth reading for its own sake. Second, reviews from all of Christgau's books (and even ones published later) are easily accessed from Christgau's website. His essays are a lot more sympathetic and consumer-oriented. Finally, although Christgau covered the 90s pretty well (despite being generally unsympathetic to alternative music), I've noticed how many titles never get reviewed by Christgau. We have to be grateful that Christgau tried to review as much as he can, but the 2000s, the music world had become too large and complex even for Christau.

Hitler's Last Secretary: A Firsthand Account of Life with Hitler . By Traudl Junge. This autobiographical account of Hitler's final days became the basis for the magnificant German film "Der Untergang" (aka "Downfall." ) This book gives even greater detail, starting with the lavish parties Eva Braun used to throw in various summer houses. Junge writes long after the fact, so she occasionally throws in postscripts about what happened to some of the major and minor actors. Generally though, she writes through the naive eyes and ears of her younger naive self, describing everyone's foibles and predelictions in this typical awestruck way. This of course is a stylistic conceit, because Junge has spent the rest of her life trying to atone for her blindness, but it was important to convey without a guilty tone both logistics and the smaller events that intruded on German politics and war-planning. Probably most fascinating about the book is the afterward by Melissa Muller which describes her life post-Hitler. (For about 10 years she labored under the cloud of her past, and later, she became well known as a liberal-minded editor and publisher). She describes horrifying events (such as the various suicide pacts and the disappearance/death of her friends) with matter-of-factness. She even does not go into detail about her marriage (encouraged by Hitler) to a soldier who falls in battle. One book review mentions that Junge almost never witnessed Hitler's emotional outbursts, and in fact towards his staff he was considerate and paternalistic. I saw the movie first, read the book, and then insisted on watching the movie again. I recognize that a secretary's account of Hitler and the Nazi Party is likely to be blind to many ugly realities, but if anything it dramatized how for incurious people inside the reassuring bubble of Naziism, work and family life seemed perfectly normal ... except perhaps for secondhand reports of casualties. Ultimately, the plight of Traudl Junge is more important than that of Hitler; it's eye opening to read about how ordinary and basically good people become caught up in a totally evil system. Highly recommended. (PS, I read this book in 2 days!) Note: This is available as an ebook for $1.99. Great buy!

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I am embarrassed to admit this, but one of the reasons I haven’t posted book reviews in a while is in wordpress it is difficult to make tables well.

A good 2 column table is the perfect format for displaying capsule book reviews. The left cell contains the cover art; the right cell contains the actual review. In my previous capsule book reviews, I did put everything in a table; it looks ok (but rather crappy). At the same time, it was tedious and confusing to make just a two column table. The rich text editor strips paragraph tags and puts br tags in strange places.  In the source html you can format things perfectly, but if you want to edit it in the rich text editor, you can only edit the table stripped of paragraph tags. You’re constantly trying to guess what the rich text editor will do to your original source.

The other problem is proper styling. It’s not easy to make css for just that table, especially if your class declarations are rather complicated. Also, it is hard to add images in the rich text editor for a table you are editing on the desktop. It also provides a decent preview mode

I’ve just spent the last hour testing Tablepress, a wordpress plugin which is designed to solve precisely these problems and more. It provides a better table wizard (and some cool javascript tricks for sorting rows and colunns). It also gives you option for importing tables (HTML or CSV)  and for inserting images or accessing the rich text editor from the table editor.  I think its primary use is to display tabular data, but it also is a time-saver for making simple tables whose function is simply to display text more efficiently.

My method now is to create the table offline, import the file into the Tablepress plugin, and then within Tablepress table to manually insert the images. All this looks relatively easy to maintain, with the only down side being that the tables aren’t actually included in posts, but inserted as shortcodes into posts.  I suspect that will cause migration issues if you are migrating into another CMS, but then again, I’m almost feeling that wordpress will be here forever.

Two weeks ago I was horrified to discover that creating the simple three row table in the middle of this blog post took hours to get right. Partly it had to do with the fact that the theme I was using had messed up CSS, but it was also cumbersome to test properly. I still need to update the shopping cart page, and preliminary efforts ended up breaking the original table.

You wouldn’t think that HTML tables are very important any more, especially not ones you have to make manually. But having the ability to make boxes and two columns really makes layout easier, and wordpress just makes simple tables impossible to do right. One underlying problem is that WordPress expects bloggers to use the rich text editor inside the browser instead of a special desktop client.  Tiny MCE is good and powerful, but there are many times when I want to use neither the visual editor or even the text editor within the browser. Tablepress lets me import code directly, and that is good.

Anyway, expect much more book reviews (and something very soon!)

Update: I did produce the book review page, and it was very easy to do, but I noticed some oddities. First, Tablepress translated line breaks literally instead of ignoring them within a P tag.  So you need to make sure you eliminate all carriage returns. (My Oxygen XML Editor does a “pretty formatting” for XML which apparently enters carriage returns). Second, importing tables into Tablepress ignores the custom classes. Third, Tablepress has a button to open the Advanced Editor, and I ended up doing this a lot. Fourth, I didn’t bother to make code for images in my table before importing. I just added the graphics to Tablepress (which was pretty easy).

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Getting back to Ubuntu (Again!)

by Robert Nagle on 3/15/2013

in Linux/Open Source

I thought I’d do a quick post detailing my return to Ubuntu.

I installed 12.04 LTS Precise Penguin last June  and experienced a variety of small issues. Mainly I experienced crashes related to memory dumps — often with mounting file systems or loading music libraries. I thought it might be related to my ATI video card or just with the fact that Ubuntu was still receiving bug reports. My main goal in using Linux was to have a test server environment for  a new CMS for my Personville Press site.

I managed to fix most of my user issues (mainly with dropbox) , while I had to live with several others: Oxygen XML Editor was incredibly slow, and I still had not found a decent desktop blogging editor.

Let me define what the problem is: Bloggers need a desktop client for linux which has a preview mode, an  offline mode which you can save  (if necessary) and the ability to withstand a browser crash.  Optionally the  Windows Live does this well (although over time I have noticed some deficincies  — crappy code). The greatest thing about Windows Live is that it was very reliable and did all of these things. (Update: I just checked Live Office 365 which I paid for…Its blog client incorporates most of Live Writer’s elements, while leaving out some important things — like the ability to position an image in terms of pixels instead of inches).

Because Windows Live produced good clean code (basically), had a preview mode and a save/restore mode, it was basically better than MS Office itself….. I tried several linux blogging clients. The best so far I’d seen is blogilo, which has a lot of Live’s features, but just isn’t as reliable (it also hasn’t been updated in a while). More importantly, I lost some work…and I don’t think I ever lost work in Live Writer.

At someone’s recommendation, I am trying Scribe Fire (a browser plugin). This doesn’t really solve the offline mode problem, but it is better than nothing. On the other hand, the WordPress rich text editor is so good and reliable that you might as well do that from another browser. WordPress does autosaving, so if the browser crashes, you are protected generally (thanks, Matt).

Last summer, just as I was getting comfortable and productive in Linux, I had two major projects in MS Office, so I had to live in Windows Vista for a long while. Then I started learning about some Windows music tools and  and then was already comfortable using Oxygen in Windows (it had all my settings configured).  Then, I started doing a lot of music-related research for my upcoming ebook on music collecting  that involved Windows tools. Despite my resolution to have a working Linux desktop, I spent almost all of it in Windows.

Finally, I’m ready to return to Ubuntu, first having to do some updates. Here are some things I discovered:

  1. Ubuntu and specifically Unity  is much more stable than before. Horray! Also, more apps are built into the Unity framework. I know Linux people have been ragging on Unity, but I loved it from day 1.
  2. The Firefox flash plugin still causes problems — especially for Youtube. This firefox plugin lets you set the Youtube default to play the HTML 5 video player.
  3. The Clementine music player (which was the fork from Amarok 1.4 before they ran it into the ground) is awesome and stable. It even makes me less inclined to try Foobar2000 on Wine.
  4. There is an linux client for Evernote called Everpad.
  5. Music streaming program Rdio now has official linux support for their client.
  6. It wasn’t too hard to find, but gpodder podcast client for linux seems to work well.

Another thing. I noticed that Ubuntu works significantly better on my dual boot machine than Windows Vista (which has lots of Firefox-related memory problems and Flash memory problems). Vista is just slow and especially slow to boot.  (Ubuntu by contrast boots in record time). Windows Explorer is ridiculously slow.  Despite the fact that my HW is  6+ years old, its specs are still good:  4 gigs of RAM and lots of HD space. So a new 64 bit OS will have to work much better and faster than an OS several years old which has been patched to death.

So I’m generally happy with my Ubuntu machine and don’t expect to have to revert to Windows (especially because my Win 7 laptop is several feet away). On that laptop I have several indispensable  programs which simply must run on Window: dbpoweramp, Camtasia, Sony Vegas, MS Live Office 365.

Postscript: One very annoying thing is that Firefox is continuously showing a Flash plugin error whenever a website (like my blog) requires flash. Need to figure out how to turn that message  off because (on my system at least) the player and Youtube does work, so the error message is in fact mistaken.  (Solution found: go to about:config, set value for plugins.hide_infobar_for_missing_plugin to True).

Update #2. I’m about ready to give up again on the Unity Window Manager. Really, I had high hopes. I like the interface a lot; I can get things done  quickly, and everything is intuitive. The problem is that it always crashes catastrophically. Whenever I have an application crash (Firefox, etc), the windows manager crashes and then Ubuntu needs to be rebooted. I’ve been rebooting an average of 5 times a day at least.

Here’s a thread I started last summer about alternative window managers. Unfortunately, from a usability point of view, none of the other window managers came close. Now that I’ve decided to ditch Unity 2D, I’m going to have to try again. Here’s a more recent discussion about Ubuntu stability issues. What would be interesting (and sad) is if these random crashes still occur in other windows managers. Then, I  would be in bad shape.

(PS, I am typing this in Windows).

Update #3. My computer crashed and I re-installed Ubuntu on a slightly newer PC.  I learned a few important things. First, with a decent video card, I could use the 3-D Unity. In terms of performance, my PC handles Unity much better, but more importantly the application darkens whenever the app uses too much CPU or memory. When I used Ubuntu before, I think I had tried the 2-D Unity, which apparently didn’t have this feedback feature. I don’t think I’ve had to reboot once. Ironically on my new machine I have only 3 gig of RAM (I had 4 gig before), but because of the better video card and the darkening window, I have avoided any catastrophic crashes. Sometimes a specific app will hang (I’m looking at you, Firefox!), but most of the time it’s just a matter of waiting for the memory usage to decline to more manageable levels.

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sphinx-cover-web

My ebook publishing company recently released a delightful audio play by Jack Matthews.  I even was the narrator who read the introduction (P.S. I was the worst part of the play).

You can download the mp3s of the play for your listening pleasure. It’s 67 minutes total. Until April  7, I am keeping the price of the audio play down to $1.99, but after that, you should be able to buy it for $3.99 from cdbaby and itunes.  (For some reason Amazon prices it at $8.99 and I’m trying to rectify that).

 

Many, many people have told me that

  1. the economics of audio plays just don’t add up. It requires a lot of initial investment and production costs (You have to pay for multiple actors – not just one) , and is a tough sell just to break even.  It’s the reason why audio plays are so rare. Audible  has even  fairly small offerings in that category  (here are new releases) ; most are  audio versions of plays which were actually produced elsewhere or “original cast” recordings.
  2. you can’t make any money unless you sell through Audible.  Audible pretty much dominates the market and has a user-friendly app for the Kindle and other devices.

I find audio plays to be terrific, and BBC Radio featured lots of plays which I listened to when overseas.  They are fairly easy to produce, and don’t require elaborate sets or lots of rehearsal. Staged readings are a lot easier for the actors, plus they are fine for most audiences. I always remind people that “The Honeymooners” and “I Love Lucy” began as radio series and later went to TV.

Paying the actors upfront is the biggest expense of production and adds to the risk. (I also offered mandatory residuals to the actors and author after 4 years even if I don’t recover expenses – something I considered very generous….)

One core value I have is an antipathy to Digital Rights Management (or DRM).  Audible is nothing but DRM. They make up for somewhat by deploying apps on all the major devices. But basically the digital files are never yours. (Some may actually prefer it that way – it can be a pain to maintain all those files).

The bigger problem is the pitiful royalties Audible give to audiobooks which are not exclusive to Audible. Look at this Audible graph about breakdown of royalties for content creators:

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For audiobooks being sold on Audible  in low volume (i.e., 95-99% of all audiobooks), royalties are 25%  if nonexclusive and 50% if exclusive. The percentages slowly increase with more volume, but basically Audible is screwing the content creator.  One can argue about how much value Audible.com is adding. Granted, 10 years ago we wouldn’t even be able to have this conversation, but 50% is what I would consider to be the low end for the distributor’s split. And that’s what you get only if you grant Audible exclusive distribution rights.

To contrast, I can sell mp3s on cdbaby for $3.99 and make 91% if the consumer buys it directly from them. (CDbaby also distributes it to itunes and Amazon as well, but they charge 9% of whatever Amazon or itunes pay).  For this month’s  promotional price, I am using a DIY paypal shopping cart which – can also provide a 90% cut. I pay a one time fee to e-junkie for the shopping cart (usually $5-15$ a month).

That’s how the indie publisher can beat the big guys at their game. That assumes of course that you have a steady sales volume and that fans know where to find out about you.  These are big assumptions. One key advantage Amazon has is prominence in search results (which is even more prominent than the author’s own site). If people just go to Amazon, they will never find out purchasing choices which are cheaper and better for the content creator. Another advantage that Amazon and itunes have cloud solutions.  That saves the consumer the trouble of worrying about where the file is. (MY response  is to keep all ebook purchases in Dropbox – it’s that simple!)

If I had only one suggestion to give consumers, it’s to check the author’s or musician’s website for the best deals before buying from the majors. Sometimes the website can also point you to vendors which give the content creator the highest royalty percentage or even the lowest price. 

Another thing that worries me is learning that Amazon’s distribution system is trying to feature exclusive content. I was shocked to learn that some of its overseas ebook distribution deals only gave 70% if you agreed to give Amazon exclusive rights to sell the content (via Amazon Prime).

Amazon is a good company, and they offer a lot of good metrics and friendly tools and a user-friendly website, but if I faced the choice between being railroaded into exclusive contracts on DRM cloud  with Amazon and leaving Amazon altogether, I would probably have to consider other  options. 

On a related note, I have been buying from emusic – an outstanding music service. Most of its mp3  prices are 10-20% cheaper than Amazon’s prices, and if you get a subscription, you get even more discounts.  The only hitch is that emusic doesn’t offer a cloud solution, so if you lose the mp3 files after downloading them, you’re basically screwed.

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