Sunday, October 25, 2009


The long tail of live music

Maybe it's just me, but at age 60 I've stopped having fun at big-room music events. For the last decade I've been running on fumes; I've been to maybe three big-room events that were memorable. For two of them, I lucked into great seats. (These were Maurizio Pollini at Carnegie and Rickie Lee Jones with a tour band that definitely had found its groove; the third was Willie Nelson, Ray Price, Merle Haggard & Co., at Radio City.)

Meanwhile small room music has a much higher hit rate. But nobody goes. If you took all the nights of leisure time in America and threw them into a truckload of crushed rock, you would not find the 100-seat and under concerts until you swept out the dust. If music were conducted by the market's magic hand, small gigs would be Bye-bye Miss American Pie. Homo economicus would never be a musician.

Discontinuities are often where the value is. Earlier this month I went to five small gigs in eight days -- every one of them was its own little gem.

The first gig, on Columbus Day Sunday, was The Asylum Street Spankers at The Fairfield (CT) Theatre Company. The Spankers are an Austin-based neo-Jug Band with tight harmonies, imaginative arrangements, skilled players, a killer sense of satire and a joyful love for their craft. There were 25 people in the room, including the 6-piece band and its entourage. The rest of Fairfield County was closing up the vacation house in Nantucket. The gig began with a tongue-in-cheek announcement to step back, "so the people up here can breathe." It achieved a living room ambience. An audience member bought a round of drinks for the band in the middle of the second set. Audience and band played out the joke until the end; we hooted and hollered and stomped after the "last" number, all twelve of us who were left, and the Spankers came back and did a couple more.

The next gig was the following Tuesday, pianist Rossano Sportiello at the Fishmonger Cafe in Woods Hole. I've written about Sportiello before, and I've seen him twice in New York, but this was my first time at one of his locally-famous Woods Hole gigs. (It was my home town. I knew about half of the people in the room.) It was packed, maybe 80 people, for the first set; Sportiello did two long, panoramic numbers. You know the stereotype about how Italians talk with their hands? My jaw dropped watching Sportiello's hands as he played. In his second set, he did a Scarlatti piece, then Chopin, then he kept his right hand classical and brought in some Fats Waller stride with his left, and then . . . I have no words, none. The encore, a duet with his wife, Lala, a singer, "Nice Work If You Can Get It," was perfectly cut, polished and mounted.

The next night I went to a house concert in Woods Hole, by my friend and sometimes music teacher Glenway Fripp's jazz trio, "QuasiModal." Glenway's knowledge of music is astounding; he was making the most improbable piano things work in surprising and sophisticated ways. There were 25 people in the audience. Again, I knew most of them. I caught up with some old, too-infrequently-seen friends at the post-music wine-and-cheese.

The next gig was three nights later at the Riverside Y in the Bronx. This night, Rossano Sportiello shared the stage with two equals, singer and bass player Nicki Parrott, and Jonathan Russell, 14, a current holder of the Daniel Pearl Violin. (Daniel Pearl is the WSJ reporter who was kidnapped and murdered in Pakistan in 2002. He brought his fiddle and his mandolin wherever he travelled. The back story on the Daniel Pearl Violin, with poignant details, is here.) The 200-seatish room was about half full. Sportiello was super, see above, but to me the star of the evening was Nicki Parrott; girl could sing, girl could play, girl was charming even when she was rude. (For example, she did her own, "I like big instruments," in which one line was, "They say size doesn't matter but I think it's idle chatter.") Her bass playing was strong, melodic, imaginative, very up-front. Jonathan Russell was a bit tentative, and this made me hold my breath. Was he going to make a big dissonant mistake? Answer: no. Next answer, as he found his way into the music --NO!!! -- once into the middle of a piece this boy was just fine. Very clever three-way interaction with Parrott and Sportiello. By the time he's 16, he'll be awesome.

The next night my wife and I found ourselves (long story) at one of Marjorie Eliot's internationally famous Sunday afternoon parlor jazz soirees in upper Harlem. We sat on two of about 75 card-table folding chairs wedged into every crevasse of her apartment. Marjorie not only hosted but also played the piano. Her fingers were long, her knuckles were large, there was a lifetime of music in each chord. She (as did Sportiello) spoke to her audience about the unity of music. To Marjorie, it was also about the unity of humanity and the sharing of joy. "There have been tears, but today we have music," she said. "There's no color thing in here," she explained. There was a newspaper picture of an angry Dr. Martin Luther King, elbow bent, scotch taped to the wall. I won't get the names of the other players right, so let me just describe them. There was a black fellow who sang beautifully, with deep vibrato, in the straight-ahead tradition of Nat King Cole, songs like Autumn Leaves and Autumn in New York. Then he sat down at the piano and a blind white kid came out to play tenor sax, cutting abstract post-bop figures. There was another white tenor player, (Googling, I think the guy is Sedrick Chonkroun), who played in a more lyrical, spare, layered style. Marjorie and the younger gentleman shared piano duties. There were two sets. In the middle, humble refreshments, apple juice and candy bars. At the end, hugging kissing and personal words as we left. Wow.

So. Five gigs to remember in eight days. Life should always be this sweet.

[photo source]

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Wednesday, October 21, 2009


Rachel in Woods Hole

I've known since I was a child that Rachel Carson, the author of Silent Spring, did much of her biological work in Woods Hole. A current friend's father was Carson's station chief at what we used to call, "The Fisheries," today the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the Department of the Interior.

Carson's Silent Spring (1962) is the first book that brought a scientific sensibility about our environment to public attention. The book got action, too. When I see a Great Blue Heron lumbering low across the sky or an Osprey wheel and dive and splash, then struggle into the air with an Alewife in its talons, I silently thank Rachel Carson.

Beth Daley has a terrific article on Carson in today's Boston Globe documenting her various stays in Woods Hole, beginning in 1929. What a pioneer she must have been!

One measure of how much times have changed: She died in 1964. Of breast cancer. This is not reported in the Globe article, but local folklorists recount this fact. Back then you didn't speak of cancer in public. Or breasts. She was suffering silently with her illness even as she was writing Silent Spring.

We actually have made progress against the toxic environmental dangers that Carson identified, but we have a long, long way to go from the first revelations of Silent Spring to the abandonment of the idea that flushing the toxins down the drain means they've gone away. More than the Great Blue and the Osprey are at stake if we don't start treating our small blue planet an integral whole.

h/t: Without Google News Local I might have missed Beth Daley's great piece.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009


Meatloaf as content

Ethan Z reports a BIF-5 talk by Don Tapscott about learning from your kids, who said he
was invited to spend an hour on national TV, surfing the web. His son refused to watch the show – when they talked about it later, his son said, "That’s about as interesting as watching you change channels on the TV." His daughter pitched in, pointing out that the refrigerator is also a technology – "We could watch Dad surfing the fridge – here’s some content: it’s meatloaf!"
Ethan reports that Tapscott concludes thus:
“If you spend 24 hours a week being a passive participant, consuming tv – as Baby Boomers did – you get a certain sort of brain.” If you spend those hours searching, researching and building connections, you get a very different brain.

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Ten riskiest foods regulated by the FDA

A is for Afghanistan, B is for Budget, C is for Climate Change . . . down the list somewhere there a government role for food safety. [The free market hasn't done a very good job under laissez faire.]

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) lists [.pdf]
LEAFY GREENS: 363 outbreaks involving 13,568 reported cases of illness
EGGS: 352 outbreaks involving 11,163 reported cases of illness
TUNA: 268 outbreaks involving 2341 reported cases of illness
OYSTERS: 132 outbreaks involving 3409 reported cases of illness
POTATOES: 108 outbreaks involving 3659 reported cases of illness
CHEESE: 83 outbreaks involving 2761 reported cases of illness
ICE CREAM: 74 outbreaks involving 2594 reported cases of illness
TOMATOES: 31 outbreaks involving 3292 reported cases of illness
SPROUTS: 31 outbreaks involving 2022 reported cases of illness
BERRIES: 25 outbreaks involving 3397 reported cases of illness

My guess is that there's 100 unreported case for every one that is reported.

Why I care: I'm a consumer of food, I like being healthy, and I can't see the pathogens when I'm buying food in the store.

Link to CSPI.

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Tuesday, October 06, 2009


Mood Messages

UPDATE: Problem solved! Thanks to Phil Wolff and Anonymous. The key is:
Skype Preferences>Advanced>Disable Mood Message Chat

Does anybody know how to block "Mood Messages" in Skype?

If so, please leave a comment or send email. Thanks!


Nobel Prize honors fiberoptics

Woods Hole, my home town, has six scientific institutions and a year-round population of under 1000. As Gloucester is to fish, as Pittsburgh was to steel, as Palo Alto is to venture capital, so is Woods Hole to science.

As I was growing up, the fall spectator sport wasn't the World Series. It was the Nobel Prize. We'd root, root, root for the home team.

This year's Nobel Prize for Physics goes to Charles Kao, who I had the honor of hosting at Bell Labs when I worked there. Ironically, the two other scientists sharing this year's Physics prize, Willard Boyle and George Smith, were Bell Labs scientists, but I did not know them.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences choice to honor fiber this year underscores how civilization-changing a technology it is. The whole spectrum, from DC to daylight, including all the frequencies that carry wireless communications, are replicated in each glass strand. A cable the width of a broomstick can hold thousands of strands. The leap from electronics to photonics will prove to be as profound as the leap from muscle power to mechanical power.

Wireless communications has its place; I'm confident we'll find the right mix of fiber and wireless communications technologies. But our grandchildren are likely to ask us why we didn't replace copper and coax cables faster. What will we tell them?

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New Rules? Not here.

The new FTC rules about disclosing quid pro quos, business relationships and other possible ulterior motives will not affect this blog.

I've always disclosed facts that might influence my opinion about a topic I''ve blogged about. I'm proud to do so. I feel like I have a duty to my readers to tell them what's behind my opinions -- it's the very essence of blogging, in my opinion.

If there's any question, I'll even disclosed when there's not any influence.

Nobody at the FTC asked me to write this article and the FTC did not pay me anything for it. It's just a good idea. Too bad we bloggers needed a federal agency to tell us how to behave.

UPDATE: Popehat points out that any attempt to enforce these FTC rules is likely to bog down in a regulatory morass. (Hat tip to commenter Jess Austin!) I agree. It'd be SOOOO much better if we just decided that transparent motive disclosure was the thing to do.

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Friday, October 02, 2009


Wrong on the "Exaflood," Wrong on Network Neutrality

In 2007, Johna Till Johnson, president of Nemertes Research, published a paper that hyped a so-called "Exaflood" -- a kooky Discovery Institute idea about how the Internet would drown in its own data.

The Nemertes press release on the paper was widely reported in newspapers. It described itself as a ". . . landmark study . . . groundbreaking analysis . . . evidence the exaflood is coming . . . "

It said,
The findings indicate that by 2010 . . . users could increasingly encounter Internet "brownouts" or interruptions to the applications they’ve become accustomed to using on the internet.
We are mere weeks from 2010. There's no sign of The Exaflood or brownouts. In fact, the best data indicate that Internet growth appears to be slowing. In two short years, the Nemertes paper's main conclusion is falsified by the data.

Now Johna Till Johnson says,
Hello Net Neutrality, Goodbye Internet. She says that Net Neutrality gives carriers
. . . just one option for recouping their costs: Charge by the bit.
Wow. Talk about false choices!

Maybe she's forgotten about "charge by the month," and "charge more for faster connections." How about "charge more for better service."

Maybe the poor carriers aren't making enough to build faster Internet connections. Verizon just made a paltry $6 billion in profits last year and paid $1.3 billion in dividends. AT&T made $12 billion and paid out $2.5 billion to shareholders. These companies need help, Johna. They're really suffering from too much government regulation to build a good Internet.

Johna Till Johnson's "Goodbye Internet" screed misses today's real Net Neutrality action, which is in wireless. The wireless NN action is not about big bandwidth at all. Quite the opposite. Spurred by FCC Chairman Genichowski's
recent speech suggesting that wireless NN should be the law of the land, the discussion has shifted to whether wireless companies have the right to block competing low bandwidth apps like texting and telephony over IP. As Wall Street analyst Craig Moffett recently said in the Washington Post,

For wireless, the arbitrage risk comes from low bandwidth applications like Skype and Google Voice, but unfortunately for the voice business, almost all the revenue today comes from low bandwidth voice and data applications. So it's a risk that simply can't be managed by the adoption of usage-based pricing schemes.

So up to now, operators have managed that risk by simply prohibiting certain applications. In net neutral world, they wouldn't have that luxury.

Network Neutrality has never been about the idea of too much bandwidth on a limited network. That's dinosaur feces. It's always been about whether the telcos and cablecos could leverage ties between their network and certain apps to make discriminatory, anti-competitive profits.

The strength of the Internet is that it accepts all traffic without a "will it make money" test. That's why a Pez dispenser collector could grow a hobbyist site into eBay. It's how two Stanford students could grow their thesis into Google. It's how an Israeli apps company that wanted to reduce its phone bill invented Internet telephony. Johna Till Johnson isn't just wrong this time, she has it exactly backwards; the reality is that if we ever say "Goodbye Net Neutrality" we'll also be saying, "Goodbye Internet."

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