Ideapad

Blogging since 1998. By David Wertheimer

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Counterpoint: Music has become a ‘just-in-time’ economy. Good

Over on Music Industry Blog, Mark Mulligan argues that today’s streaming platforms have created a just-in-time economy for popular music, with algorithms pushing artists and labels to release a song once a month to maintain relevancy.

Mulligan’s thesis is that this is bad for creators, and in turn the industry, and it’s going to hurt musicians who need to crank out songs and feed the beast.

I have a countervailing opinion to this, which is that while Mark may be right, the shift is also fantastic—for fans.

The phenomenon of musical acts taking years to craft an album is not consistent through the history of recorded music. Indeed, it only dates back to 1983, when Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” was such a phenomenon that Epic released seven of its nine tracks as singles, drastically extending the active shelf life of the most popular album in Top 40 history.

Before that, albums were thought to have a six- or eight-month sell window in record stores. So artists made a lot more music. Pick any artist from before the disco era and the volume is amazing.

  • Jimi Hendrix released four albums of new music in the three short years he was a solo artist.
  • Kiss famously recorded eight albums (including two live double LPs) in less than four years; when Pearl Jam followed up “Vs.” with “Vitalogy” after a little more than a year in the ’90s, the band went on record as saying they wished they could keep up Kiss’s pace.
  • The Supremes released or appeared on so many albums from 1965 to 1970 that my web browser choked on the Allmusic page.
  • Even Steely Dan, who were famous for their perfectionism in the studio, put out an album a year from 1972 to 1977.

The Red Hot Chili Peppers taking four years to perfect an album is not a “normal” music routine. It is the result of record labels manipulating album release cycles to maximize the return on investment of expensive studio recordings. The Chili Peppers are proof: their fourth album came out just five years after their debut, and after they got popular and major-label marketing kicked in, it took another thirteen years for the next four to come out.

Now the pendulum has swung the other way, with release cycles condensing for the same reason they expanded—maximize ROI, this time of the artist’s visibility—and artists adapting accordingly. And as a music listener, this is great news.

Most fans will be thrilled to hear a new song from their favorite artists every month or so. This harks all the way back to the 1960s, when people couldn’t get enough of the Beatles, and they locked up the top five slots of the pop chart (and twelve of the Hot 100) at the same time. Perhaps things will get further contorted, and we’ll go back to the pre-rock era, when an artist’s albums were often compilations of songs people already largely knew. This may further antiquate the concept of an album as a cohesive artistic statement, but then, MP3s started that process decades ago.

So yeah, maybe the Spotify effect is changing music release cycles, the same way it’s shortening song lengths. But hey, bring it on! More music sooner is a good thing.

The last phone-sized phone

My last-out-the-door iPhone 13 mini arrives today.

I’ve been using an iPhone 12 mini since spring 2021. With the exception of battery life it’s been great. For me, the most important thing is that the size is reasonable: I want to be able to hold it in one hand; I want to throw it in my jeans pocket without protrusion. Modern iPhones don’t meet those criteria.

I have been advocating for reasonable phone form factors for quite some time. Back in 2016 I skipped technology upgrade cycles and bought older hardware in order to own a right-sized iPhone SE that fit in my hand.

My hands aren’t getting any larger, but the iPhone is. So I made it a point to buy the 13 mini the day before this year’s September iPhone keynote. I was actually holding out hope that we’d get a surprise small phone and I could cancel the order, but the opposite occurred. Apple discontinued the mini the next morning.

There’s an interesting case study to be made on smartphone usability optimization, and how “I want a big screen” consistently trumps “I want it to fit in one hand.” I’m not alone in my desires, but I’m certainly in a minority segment.

Here’s to hoping my new phone lasts until Apple tries a return to smaller form factors.

iPhone 7 Plus, my personal media server

Last week [sic], my boss scoffed at my iPhone SE and told me to get a bigger phone, so I picked up an iPhone 7 Plus just for work. Its 5.5″ screen creates a different productivity profile than my SE, and I’m excited to see how it plays out, as I’m now carrying both devices around the office. (The SE is still my main device, and retains my phone number and core suite of apps.)

But I also maxed out my 7 Plus with a 256 GB hard drive, and I’m testing whether I can finally bid a fond, loving farewell to my old iPod Classic.

While I enjoy streaming music services, I love having all my music ready for travel, impervious to drops in network connectivity. For years, the iPod Classic, with its hearty 160 gigabyte hard drive, has been my go-to device for the car, train, plane and hotel room, and allows me to drag around nearly 20,000 songs wherever I go. While the screen and clickwheel are in good shape, the battery is starting to give out, sacrificing some of its portability.

More importantly, I have a lengthy car commute these days, and my car’s touchscreen head unit does a terrible job navigating a music library of this size. I bought a bluetooth dongle instead, which has worked well, but now I’m constantly reconnecting and managing the battery life of two gadgets, three if you include my phone.

The 7 Plus should solve much of this. Its bluetooth will connect seamlessly in the car, as my SE already does; I’ll be able to use Siri, keeping my hands and eyes focused on driving; and the big hard drive ensures I have lots of runway to add more music. (I’d been considering an iPod Touch, but they never got past 128 GB, and I couldn’t bring myself to downsize.)

I’ve been joking about the goofy system profile of my new gadget all week: half a dozen work apps and eighteen thousand MP3s. I think I have a win-win on my hands, though. I’m looking forward to trying it out.

Drafted 2017/02/16 at 1:22 am. Published unedited. I still have the iPhone 7 Plus, and it’s still my main music hard drive, keeping up with my Apple Music library adds.

Reading fiction

I am a voracious reader and always have been. As a kid, I read the Star-Ledger sports section every morning at breakfast; as a young adult, I read magazines while brushing my teeth; nowadays, it goes without saying that I’m constantly on my laptop and phone, reading.

My reading sources run the gamut, from newspapers to magazines to websites to RSS feeds of dozens of blogs to Twitter and its successors to fantasy baseball experts. The best writing leaves me both informed and entertained. I gravitate toward news and well-thought-out opinion pieces. I will read and devour most anything discussing rock music, New York City, pro sports, new cars, the entertainment industry, Apple, business strategy and current events.

What I haven’t read, in many years, is a novel. Or pretty much anything in book form.

It’s not for lack of trying. I bought The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles and carried it on so many vacations across several years that it became a point of amusement for my children. (I think I’m on page 87.) Two years ago, I decided that the issue was the fiction angle, so I bought The Power Broker, and I’ve only managed the first 27 pages of that, which has made the travel bag a lot heavier with the same result.

I bought Moneyball, but never cracked it; my son has it right now. I thought about re-reading the classics, but I never get started. At one point my sister-in-law bought me a thoughtful Adam Gopnik compendium, and I thanked her, and never opened it. “But you’d absolutely love it!” she said, when it slipped out that I wasn’t reading it, which was probably true, but it was a book. “If you had given him the link to it in blog form,” my wife said, both needling and truthful, “he’d have read the whole thing.”

This summer, in my building’s community bookcase, someone left two Carl Hiaasen novels. I brought them upstairs and wound up taking the first one (Bad Monkey) on vacation last month, where it came to the beach a couple of times, instead of the usual Sunday New York Times Magazine. And that did the trick. I read maybe 75 pages on vacation, and the book was fun enough for me to keep going when I got home, and before I knew it I’d finished the book and whipped through its sequel, too.

Fiction! I’d finally gotten back into reading something that wasn’t designed to advance an angle or teach me something. Hiaasen is fairly light reading, but he’s good at telling a story, and the books kept me going. And, happily, reading the books didn’t detract from my other reading; it pulled me away from sitcom reruns and video games, making for a much more rewarding diversion.

The two Hiaasen novels are headed back to the basement for another neighbor to enjoy, and next up is my first book on Kindle, an Amor Towles novel that my wife says is fascinating. I’m looking forward to reading it.

Let’s talk about license plates

I love when Steven Garrity writes about car stuff because it gets me to write about car stuff too. Yesterday he wrote a post about the license plates of Prince Edward Island, and I love license plates, so I’m going to parrot him again and share my own, local experience and perspective. (Update: Kottke posted about license plates today, too, just hours after me. Remember when this kind of blog post virality was a thing?)

Seriously: I love license plates. I think they’re endlessly interesting and amusing. Growing up, I played the license plate game for years on family vacations, looking for every U.S. state (Montana was my last). I got to know styles, variants, and updates for all of America, and the plates for eastern Canada, too. Growing up, I hated my local plates, so I tried to design my own (more on that later). I read—past and present tense—license plates as I go by, looking for catchy phrases and humor; I know by alphanumeric sequence which plates in my home state are the newest; I bristle at the new trend of defacing a plate to avoid tickets and tolls—in part on ethical grounds, and in part because it takes away some of my fun.

For better or worse, I have passed on this fixation to my younger son, who constantly tells me about what he sees, although he’s more about the logical order and less about finding words where there aren’t any. We do both enjoy a well done custom plate.

Anyway, Garrity’s post was about the recent history of PEI’s license plates, so let me discuss my own. I grew up in New Jersey, and when I was a little kid, they all looked like this:

New Jersey license plate, 1970s.

They weren’t much to look at, but they get high functional marks, with their high contrast making them easy to read. (I recall at one point learning about how plates’ readability correlates to cops’ ability to recover stolen cars.)

Soon after I started paying attenion, the Jersey plates got redesigned. The state added a New Jersey silhouette to the profile, replacing the center dot, but they inverted the color scheme, and came up with this cringe-worthy style:

New Jersey license plate, 1980s.

Apparently “blue and buff” is a thing to New Jersey, but it makes for an awful license plate. Readability certainly took a hit with this style. And the overall effect was just unattractive.

I had an Apple //c computer growing up, and around 1987 I went so far as to redesign the New Jersey license plate in Dazzle Draw. (Why I didn’t draw it freehand, I do not know.) I played up the Garden State angle, with a Jersey Tomato, and leveraged the Jersey Devil and the new hockey team’s color scheme, making a design with a white background and green-and-red visual elements. I sent two variations with a note to Governor Tom Kean’s office. I’m sure it looked pixelated and awful, but I bet it wasn’t any worse than the blue and buff license plate. The governor’s office did not respond.

By 1993, I had gotten a new car, and New Jersey had updated its license plates again, so mine looked like this:

New Jersey license plate, 1990s.

Readability was back, and the design was both retro and modern with its color fade, but what was this design? We’re giving up on “buff and blue”? The nice state stamp in between the letters stuck around, but in an era when other states’ license plates were increasingly attractive and clever, Jersey got a plate that met outsiders’ low expectations. With minor tweaks, this design persists to present day, thirty years of uninspired license plates on the Garden State Parkway.

Meanwhile, New York was pulling ahead. My childhood memories of New York plates were of the color and then the Statue of Liberty, which were fine—not exciting, but somehow more stately, interesting and important than New Jersey. Like the state and its namesake city, New York’s license plates (like California’s) had some presence, and it suited them.

In 2001, New York redesigned its license plates to showcase more of the state, and they nailed it.

New York license plate, 2000s.

This plate brought lots of good elements together: the state outline divider, the slogan, and a collage of statewide geographic features across the top, from Niagara Falls to the Adirondacks to the Manhattan skyline. It was handsome, easy to read, interesting and memorable. A great license plate.

My car at the time was registered in New Jersey, so I missed having that license plate on my vehicle. By the time I got a new car, in 2015, New York had moved back to the orange-and-navy theme of the 1970s, ditching the geographic elements, which were beginning to seem fussy, in favor of a simple, clean layout.

New York license plate, 2010s.

This design was… fine. Easy to read, plays off the past, curved lines and fonts give it some style, the shade of orange matched the NYC taxicab fleet pretty well. I didn’t love it, but there was nothing to dislike, either.

The same cannot be said of the current New York plates, which adorn my car now. They are emblematic of much of the Andrew Cuomo administration: well-intentioned, earnest, but failing to stick the landing.

New York license plate 2020s.

We are back to the previous geographic elements—all of them! Plus the Statue of Liberty returns, and now there’s a lighthouse, and some clouds. “Empire State” has been sacrificed for EXCELSIOR, which Cuomo loved to use, presented in an overly bold and blocky font, while the stripes atop the plate fall at an odd height and fail to tie the design together. The overall effect is amateurish. Kind of like something a middle school student would design at home, only this time it’s on every new license plate in the state.

Governor Kathy Hochul hasn’t expressed much concern over the current New York license plate, which is just three years old, but perhaps her successor will. Maybe we’ll get something inspired for the next decade. At least the current plates are easy to read. Excelsior.

Chasing the conversation

A number of years ago, I made a conscious decision, based around privacy concerns and ad trackers, to minimize my time spent on Facebook and Instagram. It wasn’t especially hard; I deleted the Facebook app on my phone and diverted my attention elsewhere, and that was that. A little bit of righteous indignation goes a long way.

I have largely stuck to my decision and I’m no worse off for it. I’m not a Meta heathen; my accounts are active, and every now and again (a couple of times a month, I’d guess) I look through my feeds. I occasionally post to one or the other, when the moment is right. (And I use WhatsApp, because every group chat that’s not immediate friends now defaults to WhatsApp.)

Mostly, though, I’ve chosen to keep current on the news and chatter of the day, rather than the personal posts of social media. And for a long time, getting the best information of the moment meant hanging out on Twitter.

For the past nine months or so, the once-vibrant Twitter community has watched with concern as its new owner has put the service on a path of self-destruction. Competitors are now rushing to take its place, from grassroots distributed platforms to scrappy startups to, now, Instagram, in the form of Threads. Like many others, I have accounts on all of them.

Perhaps in a few months or years one of these systems will be our collective hangout like Twitter used to be. In the interim, though, it’s all rather overwhelming. I find myself completely at a loss as to which short-form posting platform to open. I’ve been flipping indiscriminately around all day without rhyme or reason. And still in muscle memory is that Twitter search is best for in-the-moment breaking news, so I’m still there, too, quieter but not gone.

What to do? We have so many decision points now. For one, where are my friends? My business colleagues? The interesting journalists and pundits I follow? The push news from the sources I trust? The fantasy baseball content? Darth?

Then: who do I want monetizing my feed? Elon Musk, on a site where he’s pushing extremist views? Or Mark Zuckerberg, whose platforms I so deliberately left not long ago? Or Jack Dorsey, whom most people blame for this situation existing at all? Or no one at all, via Mastodon, but leaving so much behind?

Or maybe—just maybe—I should just let go?

It may be time, at least for me, to stop chasing the conversation. It’s not really a conversation, anyway, not most of the time; you post, I post, they post, once in awhile someone replies, and once in a great while an actual conversation ensues. We’re all so used to this cadence that we don’t realize we don’t need it. But I know I don’t: my time away from FB/IG proves it. I just need to extend that motivation.

Giving up a 15 year short form posting habit would not be easy. I enjoy having an outlet for sharing thoughts in writing (see also) and with social media there’s a built-in audience. But then, audiences are elusive; sometimes my posts get some attention, and oh the dopamine hit that comes from a retweet, but sometimes I float a thought at the wrong time of day, or that the algorithm doesn’t dig, and fewer than 20 people even see it. With the fragmentation of the landscape, it’s all a crapshoot now.

I’ve been carrying around an old copy of “The Power Broker” for a good while. This could be a great time to commit myself to it. And a hundred other things that don’t require a social media feed.

In praise of the new baseball

I’ve been two two Yankees games in this young season, and I can declare unequivocally that the pitch clock is a good thing.

It takes out the dead air from the game, and thank goodness. No more watching some diva hitter effectively call time out after every single pitch to go through some useless superstitious ritual with his batting gloves. No more pregnant pauses as gamesmanship. (Seen this comparison of one inning vs. one pitch?) The pace feels more old-timey, in a good way.

In the past decade, I suffered through so many four-hour slogs between the Yankees and their American League opponents that I got used to leaving the ballpark early out of weariness. On Sunday, the Yanks and Twins played an exciting, nine-inning pitcher’s duel in 2:10. Two hours and ten minutes! Even high-scoring blowouts are wrapping in under three hours. The action on the field just keeps coming. It’s also better on TV, but as an in-person spectator, it’s so, so good.

I’m anti-shift and pro-small ball, so the other rules are working for me so far. I think some of them are overkill (for example, if you’re going to make steals easier, you shouldn’t be restricting pickoff throws) but Major League Baseball feels fresh without feeling different. I love it.

I hope to get to numerous games this season; they’re so watchable now. Want to join me?

Six-word reviews of the restaurants in my neighborhood

(With long-memory apologies to Paul Ford.)

Absolute Bagel: a bit far and worth it.

Au Jus: pretty decent BBQ, inscrutable portion sizes.

Blue Marble: a pricey little scoop, but yum.

Bosino: we tried it once, were underwhelmed.

Broadway Bagel: makes a solid egg and cheese.

Broadway Restaurant: fun there’s a greasy spoon nearby.

Cafe du Soleil: bubble dining was a pandemic highlight.

Cheesy Pizza: gloppy, sketchy, and not my style.

Famous Famiglia Pizza: Eli’s favorite. I’m not sure why.

Flor de Mayo: tried it twice. Got stomachaches twice.

Guacamole: now it’s called Pico de Gallo.

Just Pho You: meaning to try it, haven’t yet.

Kouzan: pretty decent Japanese, but no delivery?

La Vera: not bad, but not our go-to.

Lenny’s: best for their whole-wheat everything bagel.

Malecon: we order from Pio Pio instead.

Mama’s Too!: delicious, unique pizza. Try the pear.

Manhattan Diner: like Metro, but not as good.

Manhattan Valley Cuisine of India: Nate didn’t enjoy, but I did.

Metro Diner: Reliable, high quality diner. Excellent bacon.

Naruto Ramen: fine, but wish it was great.

Nobody Told Me: good food and unique summer cocktails.

Ollie’s: mediocre Chinese, displaced by Shun Lee.

Ozen: sixteen years and we’ve never gone.

Pio Pio: every time we order, we’re happy.

Popeye’s: they undercook their chicken for juiciness.

Regional: cute; we tried, but it’s meh.

Sal and Carmine Pizza: fantastic slice joint, a regular purchase.

Serafina: Italian. Reliable. Amy loves their focaccia.

Street Taco: impressive decor but for the weapons.

Shun Lee 98th St: sure, it’s franchised, but it’s great.

Super Tacos: a solid, authentic Mexican food truck.

Sushi W: great omakase in an unlikely location.

Szechuan Garden: we tried it once, were underwhelmed.

Sun Chan: college students say it’s good sushi.

A Taste of Ecuador: Riverside Park food truck; tasty empanadas.

Texas Rotisserie: so-so BBQ, but good lunch special.

Thai Market: great neighbor recommendation, a weekly staple.

Westside Market: a supermarket, but great tuna salad.

WingStop: we shouldn’t, but yeah, we do.

Wolfnights: fussy for the sake of it.

Drafted 2021/10/15 at 2:46 pm. Published with updates for openings and closings.

My all-time favorite video games

In chronological order, with honorable mentions for the same platform noted in parentheses.

Combat for Atari 2600 (plus Breakout, football)

Friendlyware for MS-DOS

Pinball Construction Set for Apple ][

Pole Position arcade console (plus Offroad)

Marble Madness arcade console

Bard’s Tale III: The Thief of Fate for Apple ][

SimCity for Apple ][

Nintendo Golf for GameBoy

Klondike Solitaire for Mac OS 7

Triple Yahtzee for Mac OS 7

Risk for Mac OS 7

PGA Golf III for Sega Genesis

Mario Kart 64

Snake for Nokia mobile phones

Mario Kart Wii

Sparkle for iOS

Wii Sports and Wii Sports U (particularly golf and disc golf)

Klondike Solitaire for iOS (Mobilityware version)

Taberinos for Flash

Bounzy! for iOS (plus Holedown, Physics Balls)

Townscaper for iOS

What I find most interesting about this list is how many of these games I still play and can play, even though the top game on this list dates to 1980. The bottom four are all in regular rotation—I play Taberinos in a legacy desktop Flash player—and many of the others I’ve played in the past couple of years, thanks to still-working consoles and MacMAME. Last spring I played Wii Sports disc golf as a nightcap for almost two months straight.

Also, I need some new games.

Drafted 2023/01/02 at 1:08 pm. Published with clarifying edits and epilogue.

The new car

I last bought a new car back in March 2002, when this website was hand-coded with a sidebar. That car was a share, with my brother; for good measure, we even titled and registered it in my mother’s name.

As one might imagine, this became increasingly anachronistic as we married, had children, went gray, etc. The ridiculousness of being in my 40s and driving what amounted to Mom’s extra car has not been lost on me. That said, it’s been wonderful: our car lasted a long time, and my brother and I had a remarkably easy time swapping it back and forth all these years. I move on with no complaints.

But move on I must, away from the car that requires a steering fluid refill every few weeks, that shakes like a Magic Fingers motel bed at red lights, that occasionally requires I slam my fist into the passenger door armrest to reconnect the stereo speaker. Owning a car means never knowing exactly when to say goodbye. But then, as a friend remarked to me, there’s a direct correlation between hanging onto our car and the odds of waiting on the side of the highway for the AAA guy.

Buying a car is a full-on ordeal. I performed far too much research, considered dozens of cars, visited no fewer than eight dealerships, drove seven different vehicles. I emailed or called even more dealerships than that, in a quest to find the exact car I was after, some more than 300 miles away.

The salespeople at the dealers were mostly miserable. I received price quotes in a $7,000 range, low to high, for more or less the same vehicle in each location. I had dealers say they had cars they didn’t. I had sales guys refuse to price match. I had a salesman bring me into the showroom to negotiate, only to be told there would be no negotiating. One full-on yelled at me for telling him I’d like to remove a bunch of add-ons to the car to lower the price, saying it was impossible to pull out rubber floor mats.

Another salesman wrote down all my information, consciously avoided giving me his business card, then failed to ever send me a price quote. At one dealership, a salesman gave me a once-over, decided based on my shoes (which he stared at) that I wasn’t a serious buyer, and treated me dismissively; when I returned the next day, he pawned me off on the most junior member of the staff, and managed to literally sell the car I wanted while I was on a test drive at the dealership. I repeat: miserable.

Not everyone was like that, though. One dealership was fair, levelheaded, and fully transparent in their pricing, although they were ultimately unable to source the car. Another had a sales manager who spoke with me patiently on the phone, multiple times, and aggressively dropped the price on the vehicle in order to win my business. I liked the price I got, but I also liked their style. I’m headed there this weekend to finish the transaction.

And after all that, I actually did buy a new car.

Drafted 2016/08/18 at 11:50 pm. Published with light edits for readability.

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