Blogging since 1998. By David Wertheimer

Month: April 2015

Twenty years of tinnitus

March 22, 1995. That’s when my ears started ringing, give or take a day. It was just shy of my 22nd birthday, and I was a senior in college, sitting in a chair in my bedroom, doing homework, when I got one of those random high-pitched tones in my ear.

Except this time, instead of fading out after a few seconds, the tone didn’t leave.

After five or ten minutes I began freaking out. I played in rock bands; I went to a lot of shows; I blasted the car radio on my three-hour drives from home to school. I knew exactly what I was experiencing. I took out the pad I carried around for journaling and notes, turned to a blank page, and wrote to myself, in all caps:


Sadly, I was right. With a couple of random, fleeting exceptions, my tinnitus has persisted for twenty years now, an anniversary I’m pleased I didn’t remember last month.

Tinnitus is a disappointing thing to live with. I rarely go to live concerts anymore, and I can’t blast music very often, whether in a car, on a stereo or with headphones.

I’m That Guy wearing earplugs at social functions like weddings and bar mitzvahs. I cover my ears when the express train rumbles past and cringe when fire engines and ambulances race by. At night I can’t fall asleep without some ambient noise in the room.

That said, I’ve gotten used to my tinnitus. Protecting my ears has kept my hearing sharp—I test above average when I get my ears checked—and avoiding loud noises does minimize the ringing. And I stumbled into Earplanes a number of years ago and it’s made my air travel infinitely more comfortable. On par, I’m doing just fine, thanks.

Numerous Ideapad posts over the years have discussed my tinnitus in various forms; if you want to explore, I’d suggest reading “The ringing,” from February 2004, and proceeding into the archives from there.

A review of the watch-ness of the Apple Watch, by a longtime watch-wearer and Apple product user who got to play with the Watch for 10 minutes at an Apple Store today

I went to the Apple Store in Soho today mostly to check out the Watch from the perspective of a watch-wearer.

I’ve been buying first-generation Apple products since the 1990s, so buying the Watch is sort of a fait accompli for me. The product is apparently a personal one with a learning curve, so outside of toying with it for a minute, I didn’t try too hard to use it.

But that’s because this is a different kind of purchase—it’s fashion, it’s luxury, it’s apparel and accessories, it’s 30 different default combinations of Watch and Watch Sport sizes, colors and finishes. From that angle, it’s a far more complicated product to order than just picking the amount of memory for your iPhone, and choosing white, black or gold on the back.

Which is why I shouldn’t have been surprised when I was asked to make an appointment to view the Watch with a specialist. The front of the Apple Store now resembles a Tourneau: lots of product quietly tucked away, available for sampling only when handled in a 1:1 customer interaction. There are plenty of watches on display for tinkering with the UI, but to try one on, one gets personal assistance—and security oversight.

It took Apple all of two minutes to get me to a specialist, who had gotten to the store at 4 a.m. and was understandably not in a real salesy mode. She let me play with every style of watch, though, and helpfully showed me how certain physical components worked. My impressions:

  • For anyone who thinks about fashion, it will be hard to buy the Sport over the Watch. The stainless steel looks, well, like stainless steel, polished to perfection and with the right heft for a watch of importance. The Sport is fine for casual and sport usage; it looks plenty nice on its own. But it’s a matter of context. The Sport won’t look quite right under a suit-sleeve or French cuff. I have long worn a watch for fashion purposes, and I’m going to be hard-pressed not to pay the extra $200 for the stainless.
  • There’s a substantial difference in the screen real estate, and thus areas for interaction, between the 38mm and 42mm models. As someone whose thumbs often miss the letter targets on the iPhone keyboard, I’m glad I can buy the larger one and have it fit my wrist.
  • I really love the basic sport band. The material looks and feels terrific. It’s soft and comfortable on the wrist, although clasping it will take some getting used to. I thought it looked nice enough to carry the watch face in style.
  • The leather bands didn’t do much for me. Mind you, I’m not really a leather-watch-strap guy, historically, so I didn’t expect them to.
  • The metal bands were really disappointing to me. The Milanese band, which I’ve long admired on Skagens, was thin and narrow, and I could almost see my wrist through the gaps in the mesh. The link bracelet, meanwhile, reminded me more of a $30 Casio than my Breitling, which is not the impression a thousand-dollar watch should give.

This last point is where Apple’s pivot is going to really have to accelerate in the coming year or two. The craftsmanship behind these accessories is obvious. However, it’s a technical attention to detail at work, and not yet an emotional one. I’d love to have a handsome link watch from Apple; perhaps I will wind up with one through a third-party watch band seller. In the process, though, I came away a little disappointed with the fashion side of the Apple Watch.

That said, the product is an exciting one; the screen is gorgeous, the tapping mechanism borders on cute, and the innovations to come in the next couple of years is too great to ignore. Check this space again come summer when I can report on what it’s like to own one.

Update: “Trying on the Apple Watch” mirrors my in-store experience pretty well and captures some of what I tweeted in the moment but missed in my write-up. Apple doesn’t know how to do personal, wearable luxury yet, and it’s going to be a little while before they get the rhythms just right. In the meantime, we’re stuck with non-functional watches and salespeople that lean toward geeky technical expertise rather than the emotional, tangible experience in which a watch purchase traditionally relies.

[tap, tap] check one two, check

Seems I’m blogging at a regular clip again. Those recipes didn’t do the trick, but getting worked up about music and writing about it has been rather invigorating.

The Ideapad has been publishing since 1998—sometimes multiple times a day, sometimes not for a month, but never dark, and always perpetually archived. Like the headstand anticipated a few weeks ago, there’s more to come. Thanks for reading.

Don’t look back, you can never look back

I casually tweeted that late one night in November, having caught the commercial on TV. The thought keeps coming back to me. Not only is it a parallel moment, it’s also a reflection of how the music industry has evolved in the three decades since “Boys of Summer” dominated charts and airwaves during the rise of classic rock.

Back then, music was more entrenched in defining societal moments. Henley, the former frontman of the Eagles, a band regularly dismissed as lightweight despite selling a hundred million albums, had begun forging a more thoughtful identity as a solo artist. From his first album, Henley reached #3 on Billboard’s singles chart with the song “Dirty Laundry,” a political commentary on negative advertising that still rings true today (and which remains catchy, if dated).

Henley’s social commentary began to mesh with introspection by 1984, when “Boys of Summer” was released. Coupled with a moody, award-winning music video, the song aimed to capture the nostalgia felt by the Baby Boomer generation as it first confronted aging. Henley, 36 years old when the song was written, had seen America grow from the postwar 1950s to the Reagan era.

“Boys of Summer,” besides being a pretty big hit—a top-five single in the U.S., anchoring an album that sold three million copies domestically, and a track still spun on classic rock radio stations—is memorable for its wistful lyrics, particularly this one:

Out on the road today, I saw a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac
A little voice inside my head said,
‘Don’t look back. You can never look back.’

Henley, of course, is referring to the juxtaposition of cultures represented in this act: the counterculture and independent spirit of rock ‘n roll, a respected but decidedly fringe band and musical genre, a subculture defined by carefree living, illicit drugs and beat-up Volkswagen vans, unceremoniously showcased on the back of the preeminent American luxury vehicle. He thought his generation had sold out. The concept abhorred him; to this day, Henley doesn’t license his music, and actively combats its commercial use.

Fast forward to now. Josh Davis is 42, five years older than Henley was when “The Boys of Summer” was released. As a 24-year-old, Davis, recording under the moniker DJ Shadow, recorded “Endtroducing…,” a striking pastiche of sampled music that is widely regarded as one of the most innovative albums of the recorded music era.

Nearly 20 years on, “Endtroducing…” has sold fewer than 300,000 copies, making it a prototypically seminal work: revered, respected, imitated, yet still somewhat fringe. Not unlike the Grateful Dead in 1984, who, after 15 years of touring, were still something of a sideline in the rock pantheon, selling albums without mainstream exposure (that came a few years later, in 1987, when “Touch of Grey” became an unlikely pop hit).

Except life has changed a lot in thirty years. In 1984, the music industry had one of its boldface names singing on a hit song about the peculiar sight of an independent act getting co-opted by mainstream tastes. By contrast, in 2014, it’s the independent act that’s being co-opted—but willfully, for a payout, to sell perhaps the most mass-market automobile on the road, the Chevrolet Malibu.

The ad is still running, and every time it airs, it reinforces our comprehension of the era we’re in, while reminding us of the parallels to music history of the generation before.

I don’t begrudge DJ Shadow his income, and certainly, music consumption has reached a point where people are discovering songs and artists via TV commercials. (Also, “Building Steam with a Grain of Salt” is a fantastic song, so it’s a nice 30 seconds.) But it couldn’t be further away from the ideals and disappointments Henley so powerfully noted a generation ago.

DJ memories

My post from yesterday on F&M has me thinking more about the radio station. I loved being at the studio, being on the air, hanging around with people on the air, finding new music and sharing it, toggling between records and CDs, trying to hit perfect transitions between songs, coming up with pithy things to say when the mic was live, looking out the huge picture window onto the quad while queueing up promo carts. I miss that environment terribly.

When I was a 24-year-old postgrad listening to Vin Scelsa late at night I considered volunteering at WFMU. But I had just moved into the city, and getting on the air would have meant committing to a 4 a.m. weeknight timeslot in New Jersey, and I didn’t have it in me to pay those dues. I’ve never really listened to podcasts, and as such I never got into making my own, so my dreams of being a radio personality are, for now, just a memory from my time in Lancaster. It was a blast.

Herewith, some anecdotes worth preserving in writing.

—I came to WFNM a highly skilled 18-year-old, having founded my high school radio station out of the TV studio senior year. The general manager of WFNM gave me a quick on-air test (only telling me after that we were live) and gave me a timeslot and an FCC broadcast license without having to go through training, which was apparently unprecedented, and that was fun. I made sure I had a lunchtime broadcast all four years of college, as WFNM was broadcast in the campus cafeteria, and I knew I’d be reaching my core audience each week. (Also, the news came on at noon, which I enjoyed, and on occasion I read the news, and once in awhile the AP news feed would break down—it was a dot-matrix printer directly connected to “the wire” back then—and I’d get to freestyle the news from my copy of the New York Times. I have a recording of one of those moments somewhere, it was great.)

—I was a first-semester freshman doing my radio show in the fall of 1991 when my friend Rich Schultz came into the room, said “listen to this” and played me “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” I remember thinking it was good not great; Rich insisted it was going to be major. A few months later it revolutionized the music industry. College radio let me in on the secret ahead of the masses, which is exactly what it was meant to do.

The world doesn’t work quite like that anymore, which is a shame. But a liberal arts college is all about those shared moments. I cherish them and hope future generations have them, too.

—The radio station had a good old-fashioned music library, two closets filled floor to ceiling with records and CDs. I volunteered as a librarian and helped keep things organized and tracked. DJs could check out music as though it was a real library. Senior year, I watched a sophomore friend of mine, also on library duty, cavalierly pocket a few CDs for his permanent personal use despite my overtures and his own radio participation. It was a blunt introduction to how people like to behave when no one’s looking. Disappointingly, I believe he handed me a Rusted Root CD as he was taking for himself, and I took it. At least I still have it.

—In addition to the sheer joy of being on the air, I got a kick out of meeting a couple of bands in the studio, notably the guys from Live. They were from York, Pa., 20 minutes down the road, and WFNM helped break the band. When I met them it was before they released “Throwing Copper” and experienced a No. 1 record; they were your basic music dudes, cooler than us DJs, since they had a record deal, but pretty normal and nice, and roughly our age, too.

Still, I was a huge Live fan. I still have their autographs in my “Mental Jewelry” CD jewelbox (remember them?), along with ticket stubs (remember those?) from when I saw them at the Chameleon, their hometown club in Lancaster, as well as at CBGB (remember that?) before “Throwing Copper” came out, the night Ed Kowalczyk shushed me from the stage with a smile for calling out to them to play “Susquehanna” because it didn’t make it onto the album. This was all before their self-righteousness got the best of them and before Ed was offering to make you a video message for five hundred bucks, but oh well.

—For several semesters, I volunteered for the Saturday night, 1- to 3- a.m. timeslot. I did it with my friend Chris for a semester, then with our buddy Norm. We thought it would be an amazing chance to do whatever the heck we wanted on the air (and if we were too tired or having too much fun, the station would just shut down for the night, no biggie). I remember two things about this: one, that I only managed to make it into the booth two or three times, blowing off the rest of my weeks; and two, that Norm really, really loved it, and made the show his own. Which was awesome.

—I still have numerous cassette tapes of my shows, one of which I believe is in my car (which is old enough to still have a tape deck, but never mind that). They’re still fun to listen to. I should convert them to digital audio at some point before the tape degrades.

On charitable priorities

Franklin & Marshall College is my alma mater. When I was in school, I basically did two things on campus, academics aside: I was editor of the newspaper, The College Reporter, and I was a DJ on WFNM-FM.

So I was more than a little surprised and disappointed when friends pointed me to the F&M Spark website, where two rather desperate-sounding fundraising initiatives are currently live. Without $10,000 apiece, the site says, both WFNM and the College Reporter are in danger of ceasing operations, because, it is implied, the school isn’t investing in upgraded equipment for either entity.

I am having a rather hard time with this.

From my desk in New York, it seems both organizations have stayed fairly contemporary. WFNM has a live audio web stream, and the Reporter moved its publication online last year. As an alumnus of both properties I applaud the modernization. Whether they have large audiences or small, they seem to still be a relevant part of the college experience, which I love.

What I don’t love is the implied threats in these fundraising initiatives.

F&M has a $600 million endowment. The school has a target fundraising goal of $4.5 million for this year.

F&M is one of the fifty most expensive higher education institutions in the United States, with an annual cost north of $60,000 for the 2014-2015 academic year.

F&M has run its radio station for nearly 60 years and its newspaper dates to 1881.

Both of these activities are largely self-funded, or at least they used to be. WFNM had underwriting on many of its timeslots, particularly the news; the Reporter sold advertising, and used its revenues to pay for printing and computing costs. Ultimately, though, the college would find funds when the organizations needed additional support.

Am I to believe now that the school is ready to shutter both activities unless it gets direct contributions via online fundraising campaigns (neither of which I heard about from the school, mind you)? Do they mean that little to the campus now? Given the myriad ways in which Franklin & Marshall has expanded since my graduation nearly (gulp) 20 years ago, has there been a collapse of support for the media properties in which scores of students participate, year after year?

Sure, kids can blog and podcast from their dorm rooms nowadays. But without these organized activities, the real-world exposure to in-person collaboration and participation that is critical to the campus experience is lost.

I wrote in this space almost exactly 10 years ago how disappointed I had been with F&M’s direction since my graduation. (I will note here again that I had a terrific undergraduate experience.) The items I highlighted a decade ago don’t seem to have shifted all that much in the ensuing years, and with this latest fundraising request, my disillusionment shifts just a little bit further.

I sincerely hope these overtures in the Spark pages are poorly worded appeals by student activists and not the result of threatening overtures from the administration. And I strongly urge the college to support these institutions, both of which help shape their student participants’ interests, voices and personal growth.

Update: this blog post made its way to the administration at F&M (truly one of the better aspects of having gone to a small college), and the next day, F&M President Dan Porterfield donated to both fundraising campaigns, and tweeted about it. Which is nice enough of him, yet completely misses and thus reinforces the points made above.

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