Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Jewelry 2.0

The February issue of Popular Science features a full-page look at the Ety8, wireless iPod earbuds that operate using Bluetooth or an adapter.

It was only a matter of time; wireless cellphone headsets such as the Jabra FreeSpeak are already available.

So why does this feel like one of Mad contributor Al Jaffee's Mad Inventions?

I have a ton of Mad back issues and paperbacks. I'm sure this has already been satirized. If any Media Dieticians dig up a Jaffee jape along these lines, I'd be thrilled silly.


I'm intrigued by MySpace as much as the next guy, but a couple of recent sightings give me pause.

In New York Channel 9 has an aggresive subway placard campaign advertising "MyNews." The Fox affiliate has even dubbed itself My9. (Thank you, Rupert Murdoch!)

And in the Feb. 8 issue of Rolling Stone, I noticed a new standing sidebar element. "My List" features what musicians such as Clap Your Hands Say Yeah's Alec Ounsworth and Deerhoof drummer Greg Saunier are currently listening to. Meanwhile, a piece on "British MySpace sensation Lily Allen" includes a photo with a design element featuring the text "My Look."


Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Tabloid Television

The tabloids have hit the TV screen in recent months, as well as media news, with the recent shows Tabloid Wars and Dirt getting no little attention. And with the broadcast of I'm from Rolling Stone, TV portrayals of magazine work have progressed a ways from the days of Just Shoot Me.

But tabloid magazine-inspired TV is nothing new. Just turn to the 1985 TV movie Scandal Sheet, which starred Burt Lancaster and Robert Urich. Available on DVD as a standalone feature as well as a double with Lancaster's 1951 feature Vengeance Valley (an awkward pairing if there ever was one), the telemovie might make an intriguing parallel watch.

Having not seen the aforementioned TV shows, I can only comment on the movie, which I'm watching this evening. It's not very good. Urich plays a movie star and recovering alcoholic. Lancaster plays a scrupulous tabloid newspaper editor who wants to print the scoop on Urich's characters drinking. And Pamela Reed plays a freelance writer who's friends with Urich's character -- and who is hired by Lancaster to write for his trashy rag... all in order to get her to write the story.

The movie's portrayal of journalists is cartoony and unflattering, albeit not altogether unrealistic. Lancaster is cold, cold. And the pitch meeting scenes are a riot. But in the end, the movie is less about journalism and more about friendship, as the writer grapples with the choice between an economically stable life for her son and professional respect and friendship.

I haven't finished the movie yet, but from what I've read, it doesn't end well. Any other good examples of tabloid portrayals in film and television?

Punk Post

This morning, I pulled a somewhat random book off the shelves in my bedroom to read on the subway ride to work. It was Punk Rock: So What?, a 1999 Routledge anthology edited by Roger Sabin. I've owned the book for seven years and not once cracked the covers.

So far today, I've read two essays. "Misfit Lit: 'Punk Writing' and Representations of Punk Through Writing and Publishing," contributed by then-Middlesex University lecturer Miriam Rivett -- who seems to have since become some sort of Jack the Ripper scholar -- reminds me of a piece I considered writing when Media Diet was a print zine. Considering novels and books considered and marketed as "punk" literature, Rivett offers a survey of relevant texts. She limits her study to British books and asks some intriguing questions about the use of "punk" as a marketing term and the relationship between more grassroots punk publications -- zines -- and the books adopting the label.

Two ideas come to mind. One, the article I once planned -- a survey of the wave of zine-related books, including Pagan Kennedy's Zine: How I Spent Six Years of My Life in the Underground and Finally... Found Myself... I Think, R. Seth Friedman's Factsheet Five Zine Reader, and Chip Rowe's The Book of Zines: Readings from the Fringe. Those three texts arguably heralded the maturation of the early '90s American zine renaissance as zinemakers became authors and editors.

Secondly, I'm struck by the increasing number of punks and zine columnists who've become relatively mainstream published authors in their own right. Ben Foster of Screeching Weasel wrote a novel. Dr. Frank of the Mr. T Experience wrote a novel. And long-time zine columnists George Tabb and Mykel Board both have books. And that's not to mention even newer books reprinting zine content.

Is there an American punk literature? And, as Rivett asks, what does that mean? Are punk books books by punks or writing described as punk regardless of authorship?

I also quite enjoyed George McKay's "'I'm So Bored with the USA': The Punk in Cyberpunk." Basically, McKay suggests that the use of the term "punk" in the named science-fiction "cyberpunk" largely forgoes the rich history of British punk. Interestingly, McKay highlights that most of the music references in canonical cyberpunk texts aren't punk references at all but more rooted in classic rock and "hippy" music.

Despite a perhaps more intriguing tangent on the suburbanity of punk -- versus its urbanity -- he goes on to express an interest in writing that is cyberrap, cyberfreejazz, cyberblues, or cybercountry. True, science fiction authors could benefit from more experimental combinations -- Paul Di Filippo's ribofunk comes to mind -- but isn't the evocative resonance of the term "cyberpunk" power enough to warrant its use? McKay might say not -- and that cyberpunk is the result of an American interpretation of punk, not the idealized British punk.

Interesting stuff.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Magazine Me LXI

Three-plus years ago, I never did post my list of favorite magazines. While that entry inspired a lot of reader response, I never compiled my own list, for whatever reason.

But today, while hanging out at home on the holiday, I've been tidying up -- and recycling -- my piles of read and unread magazines. And I've been reminded that there are a lot of awesome magazines I don't always keep up with.

While this is not a definitive list, these are some of my favorite magazines.

25 of My Favorite Magazines:
(In alphabetical order)

  1. Adbusters
  2. The Atlantic
  3. The Believer
  4. The Big Takeover
  5. BusinessWeek
  6. Colors
  7. The Comics Journal
  8. Cracked (new entrant)
  9. The Economist
  10. Filmfax
  11. Giant Robot
  12. Good (new entrant)
  13. Harper's
  14. The Horn Book
  15. Juxtapoz
  16. Make (new entrant)
  17. Maximum Rocknroll
  18. Metropolis
  19. National Geographic
  20. The New Yorker
  21. Smithsonian
  22. Stay Free
  23. Utne
  24. Wire
  25. Wired

(Criteria for selection: I currently subscribe. And the magazine is awesome.)

10 posthumous honorable mentions:

  1. Creem
  2. Enter
  3. Might
  4. Mondo 2000
  5. National Lampoon
  6. Omni
  7. SF Eye
  8. Spy
  9. 21-C
  10. Whole Earth

(Criteria for selection: I wish these magazines were still publishing.)

And five existing magazines that never should have changed their format:

  1. Computer Shopper
  2. Grit
  3. Thrasher
  4. TV Guide
  5. Yankee

(Criteria for selection: I wish these magazines had kept their page size or paper stock. If you know the magazines, you know what I'm talking about.)

What are your favorite magazines? Email me and let me know!

Thursday, January 11, 2007

New Year's In Box Cleaning

Every January, I get the urge to begin anew in many ways. Some people make new year's resolutions. I make a list of things to do -- many of them things I didn't accomplish in the previous year but wanted to -- and strive to clean up my in box.

For the last week or so, I've been unsubscribing from newsletters and mailing lists. Not all of them, just the ones I don't and can't keep up with. And I'm struck by the multiple ways services offer unsubscription options -- as well as how hard it is to get off some lists; many people don't make it easy.

I'm also struck by the impression that my in box hasn't really slimmed that much over the last week. I wonder how many newsletters I've really subscribed to -- and how much email is actually wanted. In the 2k7, I hope to better manage what I subscribe to, and when. Then I can better compare the impact of my new year's cleaning.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Down the Up Side of Being a Frequent Customer

Next week, I'm going on a trip out west, and I just realized tonight that I'd forgotten to book a room for one of the nights I'm there. I thought I had made a reservation at a hotel that I have frequented in the past, but calling to confirm my maybe-reservation tonight, I learned that I had in fact forgotten to do so. I had no room reserved.

So I asked whether they still had vacancies. "Are you Heath Row?" the woman asked. I replied in the affirmative. "OK. I'll save a room for you. I don't need your credit card. I know you stay here all the time."

I'm kicking myself that I gaffed on this one night, but it's good to know that the hotelier's got my back. They don't have a frequent guest program. But I think they just made one up.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

On the Technological Commodification of DVD Players

I bought a new DVD player today. It cost $50. I bought it at a Rite-Aid. Several years ago, I bought two DVD players for my sister and parents at a Kmart for something like $30, and it struck me then that the DVD player had become a commodity product. But today's purchase brought the point home again in spades. I could have bought a DVD player for less -- I just needed a short-term replacement for my recently broken player -- but the convenience of buying one at a drug store was worth for the extra $10 or so.

My previous DVD player was a Toshiba SD-1700. (They released their first DVD player in 1996. There's more history available, as well as information about how DVD players work.) My first DVD player came out in 2002 or so (estimate based on that page's URL) and cost $200. My new player is a Memorex MVD2023 and cost 25% of that. But why are DVD players so inexpensive and easily available now?

They're smaller and better. My new DVD player is about 25% the size of my original player, too (as is the remote, perhaps even smaller!). DVD players are no longer the size of full stereo or TV components. Even without a display, they're about the size of a portable DVD player. That means that there have been improvements in their design and components.

They're no longer high end; they're low end. Now that that technology has been widely adopted and distributed, their pricing reflects that of an entry-level, expected purchase versus that of a first-time, higher-end purchase. DVD players bought today are most likely second DVD players or replacement DVD players, which means that the adopted base is adding a second player for a second TV or replacing an older model that's no longer working.

They're seen as necessities, not luxuries. If everyone has a DVD player now and DVDs are the movie home medium of choice, they're no longer nice to haves, they're need to haves. So the purchase threshold is much lower in terms of need and desire. Buying a DVD player is no longer a device switch or a purchase you need to think about, you can just get one on a whim or immediate need.

Those points aside, there's another interesting question that remains: Why are DVD players being sold at drug stores instead of electronics shops or retail locations that specialize in movies and recorded music? Because they've moved into the mainstream, into the low end, and into the realm of commodity products, they're apparently products we don't need to seek out -- products in the vein of shampoo and underarm deoderant.

The fact that I can walk down the street, walk into a Rite-Aid, and walk out with a new DVD player that works better than one four years old, four times the cost, and four times the size indicates that the product may have run its lifecycle. Perhaps new DVD formats are intended less to improve the DVD viewing experience -- and more to necessitate the purchase of a new DVD player that will handle those DVDs. Blu-Ray, anyone?

Friday, January 05, 2007

New Yorkest Books

Some Yelpers are organizing a book discussion group.

I supplied the title. Should be cool.

Podcast of Thousands IV

My media alma mater, Fast Company, has launched a podcast of sorts!

This is something I hoped to do on my watch, and they've gone and done it without me. Sheesh.

You can check out an example here.

Offline Awfulness

For the past week, I've been without Net access at home. I returned from my holiday away to no wireless signal. My cable TV was working, and I was getting a full wifi signal from ye olde Airport, but no Web site URL would be recognized or resolve.

The first few days, I tried to do without. I figured it was a momentary glitch, and that once a day or two had passed (It was, after all, the new year.), my service would return. This has happened before. My cable Net has come and gone. I ripped articles out of newspapers and magazines to add to Delicious at a later date -- and I actually wrote no fewer than three letters, handwritten letters, in response to Christmas cards and even emails I remembered receiving. Imagine: A letter in response to an email!

One night, while C. and I were hanging out, I called the cable company to see what was going on. I went through the interactive voice response self-diagnostic test and got nowhere. So I called and called again, continually hitting 0 so I could eventually get a human.

Eventually, I got one. They had me do something the IVR hadn't recommended, ran a diagnostic test, and learned that I was receiving too weak a signal for wireless access. Something had happened between my leaving and returning. So I scheduled an appointment for a technician to come by.

That appointment was for today. I worked from home, offline, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., waiting for the technician to arrive. And when he did, we learned some interesting things. One, I was indeed receiving too weak a signal to use wireless. And two, I didn't even have my own dedicated cable line -- even though I had an active drop off the tap in the back yard. Instead, the technician who intially installed my cable split me off of a cable line running next door -- not even to my own apartment building.

We couldn't just disconnect the guy next door in order to get me my own line. Instead, the technician dropped a new line from the roof to ground level in order to hook up to the active drop on the tap dedicated to my building. I now have actual, real cable -- TV and Net -- all my own.

A couple of things struck me. One, cable billing is not at all dependent on a dedicated line. If you had a cable box, modem, and splitter, you could easily tap into someone else's line -- as far as I know. I had my own bill even though I didn't have my own access; I was just splitting someone else's. And two, people will take shortcuts. Had the initial technician done the right thing, it wouldn't have taken 30 minutes for today's technician to find out why none of the lines for the building wasn't my line.

Doing the right thing has nothing to do with splitting someone else's signal. It has everything to do with doing things a way that those who come after you can easily, effectively, and efficiently see how you did something -- and why.

Records in Review

Czar Caviar, "Girth"
Hawksbill Records, 2001

When you're a motivational speaker and sales trainer, there are few alternative avenues for such a strong release of your creative juices. Apparently, one of the solid options available is that of singer for a stage revue or band. Czar Caviar is one such band. I met the musical group's front man, "Mr. Caviar," during a series of events I helped organize for a business magazine I used to work for. Not many people attended the event he led (not his fault), which was held at a suburban hotel in the south, but the workshop leader and I bonded momentarily over the fact that both of us had sung for a band. I once fronted an act called the Anchormen in the Boston area, and he had recorded at least one album, as well.

This is that album. He gave it to me the night of our event at that suburban hotel in the south, which leads me to think that any gig is a possible lead to another kind of gig. I may have later reciprocated with the CDs the Anks recorded. I don't remember. Truth be told, however, I haven't listened to his album until tonight. I wish I had, and I wish I hadn't because it leads me to question my own band activity.

It's not bad as a record. Mr. Caviar's vocal style is interesting in a Rocket from the Crypt by way of the Cramps kind of way, filtered through the entire '90s decade wave -- and wake -- of rockabilly and swing, and the music's not all bad. But in the end, the record lacks heart, if not art. Oh, it's plenty smart.

Live, I can see this working. It's a dark club, somewhat lounge-like. Mr. Caviar's a real personality, perhaps acting as emcee as well as front man. And the band's a show, their songs interlacing and building to some sort of stage-show crescendo involving smashed martini glasses and stand-up basses. But on record, it falls short of the concept I'm sure started the whole wheel turning. That might be Mr. Caviar's downfall.

This is neither a dark rockabilly record nor a shady swing record nor a psychedelic garage rock record. It takes aspects of each and mixes them up in a studio project-like setting that doesn't give much indication of what the live performance might have been like, if ever there was one. In fact, this record sounds like a calling card for a live show.

That means it feels a business book by a conference speaker. Like a workshop by a former executive. Like a CD made by people who primarily do things other than make music. I used to be in that kind of band. At least that's what I brought the Anchormen. The other guys in the band did other things to fund and fuel their musical and other activities, but I was a weekend warrior.

There are also joke elements to this CD that make me question the integrity of the concept and project at root. The songs entitled "White Stripes Song" and "Phish Sucks" predate many too-late mainstream embracings of both. They also telegraph a concern with an of-the-now popcult awareness and mainstream consumerism that is neither necessary nor necessitated by either of those sources, at least within the genres in which the band has chosen to revel and wallow.

If you don't take the sources of the pastiche you're producing seriously, how seriously do you take the end project in itself? This is far from a parody, but I'd be much more comfortable if I could hear the other musicians' records -- or more love of the source material in the overall effort.

Cover Story XI

Still no snow in New York City, but the cover of the current issue of Yankee strikes me as particularly beautiful and well designed. Kudos to the design team!

Thursday, January 04, 2007

From the In Box: Christmas Card Shark

In response to my Dec. 17 entry, I received the following email from a Media Dietician named Sue:

I loved your December thoughts on the Christmas card address book and the way people may only be a part of our lives because we send them that holiday greeting each year. I am the same. I am going to hang on to the tradition of handwritten cards for as long as I can. This year I sent 33.

Happy new year, Sue. Thanks for reading Media Diet!

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Cursive, Foiled Again

I'm reading the 1999 third edition of David Crowley and Paul Heyer's academic reader Communication in History: Technology, Culture, Society, and I just finished three intriguing pieces.

Denise Schmandt-Besserat's "The Earliest Precursor of Writing" considers the role played by clay tokens -- and signs imprinted on their containers -- in helping to develop written language. Harold Innis's "Media in Ancient Empires" takes a look at the move from stone to papyrus in Egyptian society -- and how papyrus' portability helped the empire spread. And Marcia Ascher and Robert Ascher's "Civilization without Writing -- the Incas and the Quipu" explores the use of another early form of record keeping -- one that's particularly tactile yet portable.

One statement in Innis's contribution struck me especially strongly: "Writing on papyrus permitted cursive forms suited to rapid writing." Later, he indicates that the Sumerian use of clay as a writing medium required a transition from using pictographs to "formal patterns" and signs in order to communicate.

What interests me is the focus on portability and speed of communication. The use of papyrus and quipu meant that communication could take place on a farther, larger, and wider scale. The use of quipu made communication a very tactile and physical experience. Carving images in stone takes a lot of time and effort, while you can imprint information on wet clay using a premade roller -- a cylinder seal, say -- quite quickly.

We've seen a rapid improvement in the portability of communications media. Single, handmade tomes made way for mass-produced books made on a printing press. Books have been joined by newspapers and magazines. And now, with the Net, we've moved away from atoms to bits. Regardless, the devices we need to receive and interpret those atoms are as bulky if not moreso than the clay envelopes designed to encase the tokens of 3200 BC (even if they do hold much more information). Laptop computers and laptops are not as portable as books, magazines, or newspapers. The activities of companies like Plastic Logic presage more portable devices, but as things are, even our cell phones are too clumsy for true data management and massaging even as texting picks up.

Which brings me back to speed of communication. Handwriting and reading remain one of the most intimate and efficient ways to communicate. Yet as more students write term papers in text speak, schools are devoting less time to teaching cursive writing, which Innis suggests is one of the more rapid forms of communicating.

When was the last time you wrote in cursive? Do your children know how to write in cursive? What does it mean for society -- and humanity -- when we cannot write in cursive any more? Or even block letters? What happens when people can only type to write?

Update: Check out this Wired article on the khipu. I read that piece after posting this entry. Weird.