Where Did My Love of Science Fiction Go?

    For a long time now, years even, I’ve had an aching hunger to find and read a great science fiction novel. When I was a kid I stayed in a constant science fictional high – from opening my eyes in the morning, to dropping into unconsciousness at night, I kept a running sense-of-wonder buzz-on fueled by pulp fiction, the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo space missions, and fantasies about the future. This craving I have now is really a psychological need to return to that old passionate state of mind. Does the desire to be young again really mean wanting to be physically twelve again, or to feel mentally like I was twelve again?

    I remember when I was a kid, when the oldsters used to moan and groan about aging, I used to think, what’s the big deal about getting old? So what if I turned wrinkled and bald – I could handle that! No big deal. It never occurred to me that my mind would get old too, in some unimaginable way. Jeez, if someone could have put this emotion in a horror film, it would have been the scariest monster movie ever to frighten kids.

    I keep thinking if I could only find the right Sci-Fi tale it would be Viagra for my mind. This summer ABC ran four episodes of Masterpieces of Science Fiction on successive Saturday nights. I had great hopes, but my sense-of-wonder was left limp. It’s a crying shame when TV shows like Big Love and Mad Men, about renegade Mormons and 1960s ad execs are more exciting than a new science fiction program. Damn, Robert A. Heinlein never predicted this future.

    Imagine reading in a 1939 issue of Astounding Stories about the year 2007 where Americans aren’t living on Mars, but waste their lives watching reality television and fighting an endless war, not with brainy alien invaders, but with humans whose only desire for the future is to go back to the past, to the seventh century.

    Have science fiction writers stop writing astonishing stories, or has getting old allowed the mundane world to grind down my adolescent excitement? I think it’s a little of both. I suppose if I was twelve in 2007, and reading Asimov’s and Analog science fiction magazines for the first time, I’d be just as wild-eyed about the future as I was in 1967 reading Galaxy and Worlds of Tomorrow. But I’m not twelve, so how do I get my old Sci-Fi high again?

    Could it be after waiting forty years for mankind to travel to Mars, I’ve just given up hope? That makes me think of the old preacher at the beginning of classic film, The Big Chill, and his eulogy about lost hope – then the organist starts playing with perfect irony the Stones, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” Making Mars earthly by terraforming seems a lot less important now that we’re turning Earth into Venus.

    As I have come to learn, the future is everything I never imagined. Science fiction was just fantasy. Nevertheless, I’m still looking to find that old thrill to spike some high quality sense-of-wonder to my vein. If you are past fifty, and thought Heinlein from the 1950s was the crown of science fictional creation, and have discovered any new books that bring back that level of thrills, write me and let me know what they are. Please, please, I need a fix.

jwh

Did AARP Rip Off My Old Mother?

    I don’t mean to knock AARP, an organization that helps us all as we get older, but I have to question their efforts to promote the sale of long term healthcare insurance. My mother died recently, and the experience was a great learning one for me in many ways. Getting old and dying involves a lot of details and it really helps to be prepared. My mother was a fiercely independent person who lived alone for the last third of her ninety one years. Around 1995 she purchased long term healthcare insurance policy from AARP. I assumed she was afraid my sister and I would not take care of her and she wanted peace of mind. She tried to buy that mental comfort at $220 a month, spending around $32,000 before she died without requesting even a dime in benefits.

    For the last several years my mother was in and out of the hospital. She refused to live with either me or my sister, Becky, and she didn’t want to go to an assisted living home. I would force her to stay with me and my wife when she was very sick, but she’s always pack her bags and sat on the edge of her bed demanding to be taken home when she got well. Lesson number one: old people want to stay in their homes. The AARP policy did provide for some at home professional care, but it had severe limitations and didn’t pay much. As it turned out, Medicare covers some at home help which we used on various occasions.

    In the end my mother had two very strong wishes. First, she wanted to die at home. Second, she wanted to leave Becky and me something, and the only thing she had was her house. To have gone to assisted living or a nursing home would have required selling her home. Medicaid will pay for a nursing home if the individual is poor, so a common practice for old people is for their families to sell their parent’s homes, pay for nursing home care until the money runs out and then get their parents on Medicaid. My mother grew up during the depression and had strong objections to going on the dole. She hated the idea of Medicaid.

    I’m guessing she bought that AARP policy assuming it would keep her from using Medicaid and losing her house. However, reading the policy after the fact, which was in large print and easy to understand verbally, the math just wasn’t there to make it practical. Nursing homes at the low end run around $6,000 a month and that policy only paid $50 a day, or $1,500 a month with a limit of 1,460 days – for a maximum value of $73,000. It didn’t even start paying out until day 91 of a nursing home stay. My sister moved from Portland, Oregon to take care of my mother, who was a total invalid for the last three months of her life. In other words, even if we had put my mother in a nursing home, the policy would never have paid out. Lesson number two: any insurance must cover inflation and practical experience.

    So when is a long term care policy worth buying? My wife and I have no children. I assume I will die first and my wife will have to live by herself. Single living is very common to the baby boomer generation anyway, even before old age. Thus, insurance for long term healthcare is appealing. I’m seeing it promoted and advertized on TV and in magazines. Mathematically, when does it make sense? If my mother had put $220 monthly in the bank, she would have had about $40,000 dollars when she needed it to spend starting on day one. Assuming she really would have gone to a nursing home, which I don’t think was her desire.

    Dying at home is expensive too. We had to hire non-professional sitters. Even in a rural town where wages are low, sitters can run to thousands a month for 24×7 care. Personally, at my current age and thinking, I plan on going to assisted living, this runs about half the cost of nursing home care (and not covered by long term care insurance). But I’m only 55, and who knows how I will think when I get to be 90. Lesson number three: it’s impossible to plan for specific arrangements in the future. That leads me to believe that putting money in the bank is better than buying an insurance policy because it’s more flexible.

    I currently buy insurance betting if I die my wife will have some money to help her get by. It’s a precautionary thing. Life insurance become more expensive and less practical as you get older, but is very practical if you die young. When is long term health care insurance practical? I’m guessing it’s not in many situations. If my mother had been forced to stay in the nursing home for the last 9-12 months of her life, she would have gotten her money back, but it wouldn’t have covered her true expenses and she would have still had to sell her house. All the policy would have done would have been to delay becoming poor enough to go on Medicaid.

    One year of low end nursing home care is about $72,000. I’m guessing, unless you have Alzheimer’s or some other condition that involves a long slow decline, that on average you’ll spend less than a year in a nursing home. The decision between assisted living and nursing home care seems to be whether or not you can get out of a building under your own steam in case of a fire. Most people will need far more money for assisted living expenses than for nursing home care – not the territory of long term care insurance. My mother never understood this and I’m wondering if she thought the policy covered assisted living.

    In the end, my mother wanted to die at home and Becky and Hospice Care were the miracles that allow that. My sister had to quit her job and rent her house to come stay with my mother and that was a huge sacrifice on her part. I think Becky felt she owed me that because I always lived closer to my mother and helped her during her long retirement. Thus having children is a key component to long term care. Like I said before, my wife and I do not have children. Most of our regular friends do not have children. Where does that leave us? It makes the urge to buy some kind of insurance stronger, but I have to wonder after seeing my mother’s experience and ask if it’s worthwhile.

    I wonder what kind of insurance AARP is selling today, twelve years after my mother bought her policy. I’m sure the market is constantly evolving. Would something I buy today be practical when I get ready to use it 20-30 years from now? How can we best plan for the future? I know this might sound silly, but I’m hoping that science and technology will perfect robotic health caretakers so if I want to stay in my home as long as possible. I’m guessing though, a good supply of cash will be the most flexible problem solving insurance. I also have to wonder how the system will handle the bulge of aging baby-boomers.

    Medicare pays for Hospice care, and I think they do this because it’s far more cost effective than letting people die in hospitals. My guess is any end-of-life living arrangements for the future might follow this lead. Can nursing homes be made more affordable and more humane? There is work in that area now. Long term health insurance policies need to prepare us for various kinds of possibilities. I don’t think AARP ripped off my mother, but I don’t think it sold my mother a good policy either. Long term care insurance should be more like what was called whole life insurance – more of an investment than a gamble. What we need is something like a 401k for our final days (402k?). We need to save for living without working but remaining independent, and we need to save for our dying months when we can’t take care of ourselves

jwh

Inventions Wanted #2 – The Solar Power Tree

Update 8/19/11: Kid tests out solar tree collector

I think crystal balls are showing households should become more energy independent, or at least, less dependent on distant sources of energy. The first line of attack on this problem is to just use less energy, but another solution, which for me is a long term solution, is to produce energy locally. This is neither easy nor cheap – $12,000 might buy me a modest system that would supplement my energy needs, but it’s doubtful that it’s cost effective. 12k is equivalent to 60 months of $200 payments, and that would buy a lot more power company energy than I would generate. In other words, generating your own energy isn’t about saving money. At least for now.

Owning my own energy producing system would get me some energy independence if we have blackouts or other failures of the central energy grid and would let me us less energy from polluting sources, or less energy from nations I don’t care to support. My worry is the energy production grids in this country won’t keep up with demand. Producing my own energy would reduce the load on the central systems, contributing to the common good, and give me some electricity when things are bad, contributing to my selfish interests. In other words, if the forecast is for global warming, I want to stay locally cool.

The easiest was to produce electricity at home is with a generator, but that’s not a long term practical solution if we’re talking gasoline generators. Fuel cells may become practical, and most homes are ill suited for wind or geothermal electric generation. The only other solution is photovoltaic panels. Now my house is completely hidden under a canopy of trees, which is a natural way to keep cool in the summer and save electricity to boot. Memphis, the city I live in, has so many trees it feels like the suburbs are really houses built in forests. And I don’t want to cut down my trees. I love the shade and they suck up lots of carbon.

The invention I would like to see is a solar power tree – a photovoltaic collector shaped like a big Christmas tree that I can raise above the tree line – but not look like a big eyesore. It could also serve a dual purpose of being a HDTV antenna or hold a satellite dish. I picture this device sitting on an extending pole that can be automatically raised and lowered depending on weather conditions. All the photovoltaic panels I’ve seen are flat, but flat panels are not something good to send skyward because of their aerodynamic drag. Trees, branches and leaves are a natural shape that’s suited to collect sunlight and handle strong winds.

What’s needed is the maximum surface area to collect energy that can easily shift to follow the sun, low weight, and high strength to handle wind and rain. It will also need to withstand lightning. I have no idea how to build such a thing, but if it was reasonable priced, worked well, and produced a decent amount of electricity I’d want one.

If a variety of solar energy collectors could be designed and marketed cheaply enough, that would have a major impact on society, because how would things be different if every house generated 20-80% of its own clean energy? I think a lot of people fear the world won’t adapt to dealing with global warming because it will require too much change from people. What if the changes required actually benefited people directly? Instead of making sacrifices, you bought something at Home Depot, like buying another appliance and it made your home better, is that such a sacrifice?

JWH

Supplemental 11/23/7.  I got to visit the Solar Decathlon in Washington, DC this past October and it furthered my desire for a solar collector shaped like a tree.  All the houses were built with the assumption they would be shaped and lined up for the maximum exposure to the sun.  This isn’t practical for retrofitting an older home, especially one where trees block the sunlight.  I asked about other kinds of solar collectors but didn’t find much encouragement for my proposed design.

Then Nanosolar was mentioned in the December 2007 issue of Popular Science as their Innovation of the Year.  The PowerSheet product is a cheap film-like material sold in rolls as a solar collector that can be applied easier than the more bulkier old-style box collectors.  It’s manufactured rather than assembled making it cheaper.  It’s not hard to imagine that this stuff being produced as solar leaves that could be assembled into three shapes.

Using fractal mathematics its probably possible to design an optimal pattern of leaves and branching that would work with the electrical wiring needed to channel electrons down the leaves, stems, branches and trunk, like the reverse osmosis of sap.  Further, it might be possible, within the need to be energy efficient, to design this solar collecting tree with servo motors that would keep the leaves and branches oriented to the sun.  If a complete system could be sold for $5-10k that produced enough electricity to supplement a normal house need’s then it might be practical for commercial success.

It would not have to have a battery system to be useful.  As long as a local collector reduces the overall drain on the grid providing power during the day, and using grid power during the dark, the overall effect would be to reduce dependence on foreign oil, reduce the carbon footprint of the house and improve the reliability of the grid system.

UPDATE 10-28-08

Open Energy Corporation shows off an energy tree prototype.


Inventions Wanted 001 – The Memory Bank

    In our age of technology new inventions flood the market daily, but the pace still isn’t fast enough for me. I can always think of new things I wished I owned or services that I wished existed. Here’s an example. I’d like an internet company where people could register photos by date and location, for sharing. I’m obsessed with memory, probably because I have such a bad one, and it would be great to go to such a photo database and ask if there are any photos of Maine Avenue, at Homestead Air Force Base, in Homestead, Florida from 1961-63? Or Air Base Elementary from the same time and place.

    If I had known how bad my memory would become when I got older, I would have taken one photo a day when I was a kid to document all the places where I lived and grew up. I lived in a lot of places and met a lot of people and I’d really, really love to see them now. Are there enough people who think like to me to start such a business?

    Imagine being able to input an address and get a list of photos taken near that address over a range of years. Or enter a person’s name and the name of a school and location and get a screen of thumbnails to click on. Even more fantastic is if such a photo database could be combined with a Virtual Reality viewer and I could walk from my old home to my old school via a series of stitched together images wearing VR glasses and then see a collection of mug shots of my fifth and sixth grade classmates. Cooler yet, would be the ability to click on a face and then see a series of photos showing that person growing old.

    Of course, back in the 1960s people didn’t take photos like they do now. There’s a chance that nobody took a photo of Maine Avenue back then, or even inside the classrooms at Air Base Elementary. My family tended to take pictures on special occasions, usually at Christmas.

    My parents would have me and my sister Becky walk outside where the light was good and snap a single shot of us in our new Easter outfits and then not finish the roll for three years. What I’d love to see now is pictures of houses, cars, streets, school rooms, stores, and all those places we hung out in daily or pictures of people not in my family that we used to know.

    Using the same system, users could register film and video clips, sound recordings and any other clues about the past. I even have a name for this hypothetical company: The Memory Bank.

    By the way, I tried to go back to Maine Avenue a few years ago. My old neighborhood was destroyed by Hurricane Andrew and bulldozed away. All that’s left is a vast close cropped field patterned with flat black streets that I imagined looked like a printed circuit board from the sky. Like a dummy, I didn’t take a picture that day. I wished I had.

jwh

DRM and iTunes and Rhapsody Music

With all the recent discussion of EMI and other music companies releasing their music catalogs with DRM-free files, I had to wonder what will happen with subscription music services like Rhapsody Music, Napster, Yahoo Music!, Urge, Virgin Digital, etc. Subscription services offer unlimited access to giant catalogs of songs, and they use DRM systems to make sure the music is locked down from thieves. You can boogie just as long as your monthly payments keep coming. Could subscription services work without digital rights management (DRM) systems like so many are campaigning for the buy-by-the-song businesses?

I’ve been using Rhapsody for awhile now and I’ve essentially stopped buying CDs. I have a collection of a couple thousand CDs and LPs but I’ve stored them away. Digital music subscriptions are just too damn convenient over both getting my lazy ass out of my chair and tracking down CDs I never re-alphabetize or ripping and maintaining digital collections on my always changing computers. I can’t believe anyone would be buying digital music from iTunes or any other pay-by-the-song services. Ownership, whether digital or physical means work – librarian type work of organizing, filing and preserving. Buying files without DRMs will mean easier backups, but you still have to manage your tracks – and after awhile iTunes gets unwieldy with large collections.

Physical CDs are great for playing anywhere, lending to friends, and getting the maximum sound quality. MP3 songs are great for making compilation CDs to share with friends or for emailing single songs to distant friends. Rhapsody allows for sharing songs, but your friends need to be members of Rhapsody. Rhapsody just started selling MP3 DRM-free music – so now it’s possible buy a song and share it – although I don’t think that’s the purpose of the new feature. It’s doubtful the industry wants Rhapsody to transmit all their subscription tunes over the net via unencrypted MP3 files, but would that be so bad? If everyone subscribed to music would it matter? The key to subscription music is the convenience of not worrying about owning files.

Rhapsody does all the work for me. I think of a song or album or artist and type in the name in the Rhapsody search box. If it’s there, and most of the time it is, I just play the music. When I’m tired of listening I close the window. Rhapsody does allow me to download the song files to my computer, but I don’t use that feature. First, I don’t use a portable player. I play songs through my computer or my stereo system via Wi-Fi and Firefly Media Server. I do have an iPod but I use that for audio books. When I’m at work I play Rhapsody through Internet Explorer and my computer’s speakers. If you do have a compatible player you can download files to your player. If you want, you can download thousands of albums to your computer, as much as it can hold, and as long as you pay your bill the songs will play. But is that the ultimate way to experience music?

When I was a kid I used to have this Sci-Fi fantasy that I could mentally play music in my head and it would sound like I was listening to a loud stereo. Just think of the song and my neurons would dance. Rhapsody is close to that. Rhapsody even has players that use Wi-Fi to connect to its services. I doubt I will ever have music transmitted directly to my brain, but if Rhapsody (or competitors) were available anywhere I went, then that will be good enough. Once you hear music in that light you realized that DRM locks aren’t needed. I don’t want to own the music. I don’t want to store the music. I don’t want to manage music files. I just want to listen.

Right now if Rhapsody took the locks off its songs people would steal them blind. That’s because some people can’t see the utopian view of listening to subscription music. Why horde songs when you can listen to what you want when you want and where you want? I do all of this for $120 a year – Yahoo and others even offer cheaper deals. Rhapsody currently charges more to people who want to download songs to put on compatible portable players, but if they ever perfect Internet everywhere on portable devices that wouldn’t be needed.

Finding Music v. Buying Music

I was just reading an interview with Daniel Radcliffe who told about where he was and what he was doing when reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. At one point he mentioned he was listening to a group called Takk and their album Sigur Rós, a band I’ve never heard of before. So I fired up my browser, typed Takk into Rhapsody search box and began listening to it. That’s how I find out about music now. Oh sure, I could have zipped over to the iTunes store and bought it for $9.99, but why? For the price of one album I get to listen to them all. I’ve gone beyond how to afford music. And I never wanted to be in the business of stealing music. For my ten bucks of legal rental payment, I’m now in the music finding business. I can’t believe kids steal when legal music is so damn cheap.

If the music industry could acquire X million subscribers worldwide they would probably make as much money as they used to make selling physical albums but without the costs and overhead of actually making, shipping and selling CDs. Once you get past the part about owning music you realize the problem becomes finding great new music. And Rhapsody has many features that help there too. One of them is the ability to send songs, albums or playlists to other Rhapsody members. If I discover a great new album, I can hit the share button and send it to my friends. They don’t get the actual song, but a link to where to play the music. That’s all that’s needed. The holy grail of musicians and music publishers is to get millions to people to start playing a song. Having easy access makes that much easier.

This will be a major paradigm shift in the world of music. Why listen to radio? Just request a playlist or music channel if you want surprises and randomness. This allows everyone to become music programmers by building playlists. No more mixed tapes and CDs. Create a playlist and email it to your girlfriend. When you meet new people you won’t flip through their CD collection, you can request their favorite playlists and listen to the music. You can make friends by having your playlists analyzed and compared to others. It’s a whole different world.

The greatest thing about subscription music services is discovering new music. You can try anything you want. On Tuesdays when new music comes out just play as many new albums as you can. You aren’t restricted. When Stephen King lists his top 25 rock songs in Entertainment Weekly, just pop over to Rhapsody and listen to them.

Subscription services will have to maintain their DRM systems until the mass of people realize that owning music is a pain, but eventually DRMs won’t matter.

Where Subscription Music Fails

Since 1964 I’ve been buying music, and even though I’ve had to sell my collection a couple of times since then, I’ve gathered a couple thousand albums – far more than I want to rip and preserve on hard disk. Rhapsody is great for the new stuff and the famous stuff, and crappy songs from artists that only their mothers would buy, but it is far from complete. I have a lot of albums that Rhapsody doesn’t. And if I want to play, “Fresh Air” by Quicksilver Messenger Service, I have to dig through my closet. That really puts some holes in my musical heaven.

For subscription music to really work it needs to be complete. Every online retailer should have access to everything imaginable – and publishers should allow the various online subscription libraries to promote music in whatever fashion they want. No need to have a big brother monopoly, but it would defeat the idea if I had to subscribe to a bunch of services just to get the variety I want.

The next big problem is sound quality. Compressed music is pretty damn good, but it ain’t stereophile quality. In my ideal dream music system I don’t want to own and store music, so it doesn’t matter how big the files are just as long as the music can be piped to me in real time with no interruptions. My assumption is technologies will only get better and transmission speeds will only get faster, so music libraries should have no trouble improving the quality.

A side effect of all this should be the end of the format wars. The wizards behind the Internet curtain will worry about such details. We might have to upgrade our browsers, sound cards and drivers from time to time, but that’ll just give computer companies reasons to sell us new computers. A few years ago when SACD music came out I expected to repurchase all my favorite albums – the ones I first bought on LPs and then later bought again as CDs. I didn’t because SACD music didn’t catch on, but under my dream system, instead of buying all new albums I’d just need to buy a new sound card and speakers.

Another music related fantasy I have is all the black boxes and wires will disappear and music will magically come from nowhere. It would be great if they could put SACD quality surround sound in tiny little speakers built into my monitor. I love the look of those new 24″ iMacs – and what a thrill it would be to have one if it worked like the Apple sales photos without a rat’s nest of wires docked at the back and produced Bose Wave audio quality sound without any visible speakers. Oh, drat, Steve Jobs doesn’t believe in subscription music.

What’s Playing Right Now

Rhapsody is good enough now that I very seldom get out a LP or CD. Right now I’m listening to Joe Cocker from 1969 and 1970. I’m listening to albums I haven’t owned or seen in years. Rhapsody is one great trip down memory lane. I often play albums that I remember flipping by in stores years ago when I was a teenager and my bagboy job at the Coconut Grove Kwik-Chek wouldn’t allow me to buy everything. And 128kbps WMA is probably better sounding than my old $199 stereo I bought in twelve payments from the Columbia Record Club in 1968 – my first experience in credit. I play my music through a sound card plugged into a Sony amp that’s connected to Bose bookshelf speakers sitting on each end of my computer desk, so I sit in the sweet spot. Rhapsody’s web based interface has become so good that I often skip the full client version. I just flip through the library and click the little plus sign to add songs to the playing queue. I can’t believe people actual pay for songs 99 cents at a time and then have to worry about saving them. Hell, I would have already run up a $20 bill just writing these last few paragraphs

What Happens If Subscription Music Fails

My worry is the music industry will decide to call it quits on subscription music. If they do I don’t expect to start buying DRM songs for 99 cents. I might buy a few $1.29 DRM free songs, but what I’d do is rip my CD collection, create a pool of favorite songs I’ve discovered over the last fifty years and go musical Rip Van Wrinkle and time travel through my tuneverse. Which is what I think many people have already done and explains why CD sales are down – they’ve just checked out from the system. If Apple has sold a 100 million iPods and one billion songs, it sounds like selling digital songs isn’t that big of a business since on average people are only buying ten songs. I wonder how many rental songs have been played in that same time?

I’m not sure about the health of subscription music. I know few people who use it. I show it to friends all the time. I think most of my baby-boomer music friends are content with their small collections of CDs which they ripped with iTunes. But real music fans should try subscription music so they can try new stuff. It’s nothing at all to try out several new albums of unknown artists each week. If subscription music goes the way of SACD then I doubt I’ll be trying as many new groups as I am now.

Can Artists Make Money From Subscription Music

I’m playing “In A Big Country” and I wonder if the old group Big Country will make any pennies from my few moments of nostalgic pleasure. With enough subscribers it’s possible for the music industry to generate the same billions they used to earn by selling CDs, but will any of that moola reach the deserving talent? Are there accounting systems that let the artists see how many times their songs have been played? That could be pretty cool info to track. If I pay $10 for a month of music, that’s 1,000 pennies. If I play 33.33 songs a day, that would equal to 1 cent per song per play.

To earn a buck a group would need 100 plays – to earn a million bucks would require 100 million plays. At a royalty of 10 percent, a group would have to sell 1 million $10 CDs to make a million dollars. Since most fans play their favorite songs over and over again, groups wouldn’t have to reach 100 million people, but get 10 million people to play the song 10 times or 1 million people to play the song 100 times. Thus it’s quite possible to make money at a penny a play, but I doubt the music industry is that generous to artists with their subscription income. At a tenth of a cent per play it would take a billion plays to generate a million bucks. I bet I played Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone” at least a thousand times, maybe a good deal more.

I also figure the $10 a month fee Rhapsody charges won’t always stay that low. It used to be $9.95 a month paid monthly, but the by monthly fee has since gone up, so I have to pay by the year to get that low rate. If the subscription services could get 100 million users world-wide they would be in the 12 billion dollar annual revenue range and we know at least 100 million people world-wide love music enough to buy an iPod. If everyone paid the $15 monthly fee that goes with having a portable player, that industry figures grows to 18 billion. It’s quite easy to see the music business making plenty of money via the subscription model. Whether they pay their artists any more than what they paid when they sold music as LPs or CDs is another issue.

Conclusion

If the music business could get the majority of their clients to support the subscription model there would be no need for DRM systems. No one would want to clog up their drives to horde music or waste their precious free time trying to acquire and manage files. If my record collection were digital files I’d have 20,000-25,000 of the little buggers to deal with. What a pain it would be to protect all those gigabytes. The only data on my computer should be the data I created. The only data I should worry about backing up is the data I created. Music should be store elsewhere play anywhere.

Update: 12/24/07

I can now play “Fresh Air” through Rhapsody.  Several music services have closed or limited their efforts.  The big ones are still Rhapsody, Napster and Zune.  Rhapsody is expanding its services by partnering with hardware companies like TiVo and cell phone services.  Denon is even making a table top radio that has a dock for an iPod, plays XM music, is compatible with MP3 CDs and connects directly to Rhapsody – thus offering the Rhapsody library without a computer.  Rhapsody has also made marketing deals to give away songs with hamburgers.  They are making a valiant effort to push the concept of subscription music.

The Ideal President

    Normally, I’m not that political, but the upcoming Presidential election promises to be the most exciting one in decades, and maybe the most important one. I’m sick and tired of the old Democrats versus the Republicans, or the Blue states against the Red states. Why must we live in a politically polarized society with one half winning and the other half steaming with disappointment? I’m not suggesting a third party solution – I think third parties should be outlawed since they only spoil the elections. No, what I’d like is if each side would promote a candidate that stands in the middle of politics, so in the 2008 election a majority of citizens of each party could feel happy with either side winning. In other words, I’m a Democrat, but for 2008, I’d be happy with a Republican if he or she was closer in spirit with my needs and wants.

    The trouble is members of each party tend to pick candidates that kiss up to their personal beliefs and special interests and if a candidate professes to be against any of their cherished ideals, even in one instance, those candidates immediately become unworthy, if not reviled. What core presidential qualities are there that a large majority of Americans can support? The latest issue of Time Magazine has an article; Bloomberg and Schwarzenegger: The New Action Heroes has me thinking positive about two Republicans. Why? Both of these men are appealing politicians because they are successful in politics, life and business. They both have very high voter approval ratings, they are visionary and they get things done. It makes me wonder if a core presidential quality shouldn’t be a success in life before trying to be a success in politics. Should only people with a minimal 9 figures in their savings account run? I don’t know. It’s something to consider.

    Which shows better experience: a successful governor, mayor, CEO or senator? It’s a shame that Arnold can’t run since he’s had so much success with such a large state and population. Does a lifetime of working in Washington, DC really prepare a person to run the country? Or does running a major industry show more management skill? The key quality I’d like to see in the next President is success. I want him or her to make the U.S. a success in the eyes of Americans and the eyes of the people around the world. Now that’s a lot to wish for. Is it even possible?

    I’m afraid billions of world citizens see the U.S. as a rich bully. I wished they saw us as promoters of prosperity, as worldly traders and business people, and not as self-appointed cops of democracy. I think if the next President focused more on mutually beneficial trade and proper stewardship of the Earth we might turn that around. We need to morph the unilateral war on terrorism into a universal fight for worldly stability. The terrorists we seek to destroy are really just rogue individuals – which I think needs to be pursued by international police work and not armies. I think the Muslim world needs to decide if it wants another crusade before we start one. Getting out of the Arab world both militarily and economically is going to be a major skill requirement for the next President. Anyone who casts his vote in November 2008 based on gay rights or abortion will be penny-wise and pound-foolish. And I’m not saying those issues aren’t important, no matter which side you take, but I’m more worried about a global war or worldwide ecological catastrophes.

    Of course, do the rights of the many outweigh the rights of the few? Conservatives are worried about the rights of the rich and unborn, and liberals are worried about the rights of the poor and gays. Can any Presidential candidate promote the needs of the rich and poor, and protect the unborn and gay? Are there any Solomons running in 2008?

    Conservatives hated Clinton because of his personal conduct and his support for liberal causes, but the Clinton years were good in terms of improved opinions about the U.S. from world citizens. Clinton didn’t use a big stick to make U.S. policy and that helped. Those years were also helped by an economic boom and a computer communications revolution. President Bush’s efforts with AIDS in Africa are a very positive position for the U.S. If the U.S. could promote a boom in medicine, ecology and alternative energy we could turn world opinion around and make money creating a new economic industry. If the future president could promote those ideals and make the rich richer and the poor richer we might even bring Democrats and Republicans closer together. What we need is a President with business sense, technological vision and the willingness to find a political solution to make all countries more energy independent. We need a candidate that doesn’t see global warming as a gloom and doom issue, but as an economic opportunity to create a world-wide business boom in energy independence and conservation.

    I wouldn’t mind a Republican like Patrick J. Buchanan, who is for reducing the size of the federal government and making the U.S. more isolationistic. However, I don’t want a Republican who I feel is promoting fundamental religion – we don’t need any Christian Ayatollahs. I do think we need a President who will be more interested in fiscal issues, but I wouldn’t mind a philosophical President who is interested in ethical and moral issues. An enlightened crime fighter would be a big plus. What I’d really like is a President that brings Americans closer together. We’ve had two Presidents now that have polarized the nation, and I find that depressing. I’m sick of hearing about partisan politics. Would it be too much to hope for a President that gets 60 percent of the popular vote?

 

 

Information Overload

    I often think about that movie Short Circuit with the little robot named Number Five who kept shouting, “More input, more input.” That’s how I feel about life. I wish I could process information as fast as Number Five.

    This morning I cleaned off several chaotic stacks of mail from my desk. I have hundreds of unread magazines – and for some insane reason I responded positively to several ads to subscribe to even more magazines. I also have hundreds of unread books waiting patiently on my bookshelves to get my undivided attention, as well as dozens of audio books in my iTunes library waiting to be heard.

    Each magazine represents at least a couple hours of good reading, each book wants from six to sixty hours of my time. My DVR is 94% full with many hours of great high definition video waiting for me to watch. My NetFlix DVDs just sit around, and my CDs and LPs wait quietly for years at a time to get played. In other words, I’m backlogged by thousands of hours, maybe even tens of thousands of hours. If I could only read like Number Five – as fast as pages could flip.

    So what should I do? Obviously, to stop buying books and magazines is one good solution I keep telling myself. That’s easier said than done. I’m like a squirrel hiding nuts for the winter. Whenever I see a great looking book, I buy it thinking I’ll get to it someday during my dwindling days on Earth. (I just tried to go and tear up three subscription renewal letters sitting in front of me, but I couldn’t. I just couldn’t.)

    What I would like, assuming I could achieve some theoretically self-control that’s never surfaced in my fifty-years of living, would be to own only one book at a time. I’d go down to the bookstore every time I finished a book and enjoy shopping for my next read. It would be fun to carefully select just the right volume to purchase; one I’d dedicate myself to for the next week or so. Ditto for magazines – instead of stacks of them around the house, I’d only have one that I’d cart from room to room until I finished. Then it would be kosher to buy another. For movies and music I’d use Netflix and Rhapsody. My house certainly would be less cluttered.

    I can really picture this. It would be “just in time information” like industries that use just in time parts for manufacturing – no warehousing of information. What I need to make this fancy daydream come true is the ultimate Ebook reader. To go with the device I’d need a service like Netflix for books and magazines. The key is to be able to get any book or magazine I wanted when I want it. Since books go out of print, and magazines are as ephemeral as whims, the impulse is to buy them to save for when I’m in just the right mood.

    The web is a great metaphor for what I need. When I want to know something I go to Google and type in a query. I don’t need to store up answers. I just need to ask when I have a question. With an Ebook I could call up a book to read when I’m in a mood for that particular book. That’s how Rhapsody music service works. I think of a song I want to hear and type in the name and play it. If I had such a company that would provide my reading material, my life would be so much more organized.

    Ignoring the theoretical future of online possibilities, is there a practical solution? Could I do all my reading on the web and replace my magazine habit? Many magazines offer all or part of their content online. I almost bought an issue of Astronomy Magazine last night because I wanted to read the article, “How Large Will Telescopes Get?” I just checked. It’s not online. I also thought about buying the latest New Yorker for the short story, “1966.” It’s not online either. However, “Gone: Mass Extinction and the Hazards of Earth’s Vanishing Biodiversity,” in the latest issue of Mother Jones that I was eyeing is online. I have two envelopes with offers near my keyboard. Both Newsweek and PC Magazine promise me a year of their product for $20 – good buys since they are weekly and twice-monthly publications. However, both of these mags provide a lot of content online.

    I could easily make a web page linking all my favorite magazines to a quick-to-scan system that would allow me to regularly browse their content. A distinct advantage of reading magazine articles on the web is I can send emails to my friends pointing out great reads. I should give this idea a try.

    Another idea is to just go to the library and read magazines there. Let professionals manage the stacks and subscriptions. I used to work in a periodicals department at a library and we had lots of regular readers. I volunteered for Friday nights and got to know a regular crowd. However, reading on the throne in the smallest room at home is kind of important to me. Reading Discover magazine first thing in the morning is devotional, in its own way.

    Now all of these solutions ignore actual content. Another way to manage information overload is to pick subjects I want to study and then ignore all the rest. Take the Iraq War. There must be millions of people worrying over that topic. I’m sure they don’t need me. I am fascinated by the One Laptop Per Child concept and how greedy industrial giants are spoiling Nicholas Negroponte’s dream machine for poor kids of the world. Going on an information diet, I could make a web site that tracked all the subjects I was really interested in and felt I had time to track. I have noticed that the people who get the most done in life are those who focus narrowly on their goals.

    A radical solution to information overload is to become a Zen monk, you know, be here now, one with the moment kind of guy, and all that rot. It does have its appeals. But I’m afraid I’ll end up like by tabby cat – content but ill informed. I could apply that Zen focus to a goal, like writing a book. Then when I stick my head into the maelstrom of data I’d only stare at the bits that would be useful to my writing project. I have to admire writers that pick a big topic, like the life of Einstein or the Jamestown colony and focus on it for years, finally producing a summation of that study.

    Well, I have several ideas to think about. I can become systematic at gathering more information, or I can become focused and narrow the selection of information I try to handle. I have come to this conclusion before. I have written this essay to myself many times in the last forty years, always coming to the same conclusion – I always decide my life should be project based and focused. However, once I clear my thoughts with writing this essay I always go back to hummingbird mode and flit from fact to fact, mindlessly gorging on information.