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.

Love’s Labour’s Lost

    Libraries used to be repositories of knowledge. Writers wanted their books bought by libraries so they could be preserved for all time. Times have changed and their labors of love are being lost. Quite often when I buy a used book on Amazon.com I get an ex-library edition back in the mail. I recently bought Stories of Your Life and Othersby Ted Chiang, an exceedingly fine collection of science fiction/fantasy writing. Its previous owner was the Palm Springs Library in California. It’s easy to spot how many ex-library books I own because their call number labels stand out along the rows of books in my bookshelves. To me this is a literary tragedy.

    Libraries have made a paradigm shift from storehouses of culture to panderers of popular taste. Librarians use computers to track usage and if a book hasn’t been checked out for a certain period of time, neglected volumes are pulled from the collection and made to walk the plank, thus falling into the sea of oblivion. Libraries were meant to preserve books and copyright laws were meant to protect authors, but I’m not sure if that’s not more love’s labour’s lost.

    While libraries dash to digitize crumbling ancient books modern books are disappearing too. With strict copyright laws books are “protected” for the lifetime of the author plus seventy years. There are millions of books published and most are never reprinted or even make back the advance paid to their authors. The last time I saw anything on this subject; it took on average, selling 2,500 copies of a hardback novel to break even for a publisher. That’s not a huge print run. Like giant sea turtles laying piles of eggs, few ever hatch and live to find homes in the sea.

    I collect books by Lady Dorothy Mills, a writer of travel and fantasy adventure books from the 1920s and early 1930s. Her fifteen books have almost disappeared from the Earth, with just a handful for sale at any given time. Her books are still within copyright, so they can’t be reprinted on the web. Lady Dorothy Mills is a forgotten writer. It’s doubtful she gets many new readers – I feel I’m one of her last fans. If her labors of love where still on library shelves or reprinted as e-books on the web, Lady Mills might have a few more fans.

    Copyright laws exist to help writers make money, but most writers labor for love. It’s like Las Vegas, a few gamblers make a killing, some win a little, and most leave the glittering casinos with empty pockets. Copyright laws should be changed to help the writers who don’t make money. I’d suggest that any book that hasn’t been reprinted for ten years be allowed to be republished free on the web. However, if the book is ever used for profit the same lengthy copyright laws should still apply. There’s always a chance that if enough people in the digital world rediscover a book it will help resurrect interest in a novel for the people in the analog world.

    Books are owned by the writers, but they belong to their readers. Fans are what keep books alive. Once a book comes into existence it deserves every chance to live. Sure the writers deserve every dime they can get, but a book deserves every reader it can find. I’m reminded of Bob Dylan and bootleg albums. Dylan and his publishers may want to protect his catalog and reputation, but as a Dylan fan I feel it’s my right to be able to listen to any song he recorded during 1964-1966. I love Blonde on Blonde, and have bought it many times in many forms, but I love those songs so much I feel it’s my right to hear any version of them that still exists. Once an artist creates a work of art, fans have the right to explore and experience that work to the nth dimension. Artists have the right to sell access, but if they don’t offer such access for sale, it should be wide open to free access. The reality of the web reflects that and I think copyright laws should too.

    It’s my hunch that if writers can’t have money they might like readers for their love’s labour’s lost.

    

What Would It Be Like To Be A Kid Today?

    What would it be like to be a kid today? Is the world scarier now than when I was growing up? Are the children and grandchildren of the baby boomers any smarter than that famous generation that made such a fuss and expected the whole world to watch? The 1960s radicals wanted a revolution, the sociologists predicted a social transformation, the spiritual gurus promised a New Age, and scientists extrapolated an array of futures from doom to bloom. Youth from the past two generations have been quiet – when will there be another noisy generation that demands the whole world change for them? The Iraq War feels like 1967 Vietnam – will the 2008 election be 1968 Chicago? Global warming should make the kids of today hate us – when will they get angry? When does the new revolution start? My fellow baby boomers, we are the establishment this time around – should we trust anyone under thirty?

    I began first grade in 1957 just before Sputnik and finished high school just before Neil Armstrong took his stroll on the Moon in 1969. My generation grew up with our parents playing with atomic bombs and going apeshit paranoid over the Russkies. We grew up in three bedrooms/one bath/single carport Leave It to Beaver homes. Our parents told us to go to school, study hard and we’d live in four bedrooms/two bath/two-car garage homes of their fantasies! We replied to their dreams by turning on, tuning in and dropping out. We expected the future to be a combination of a Thomas Jefferson/Henry David Thoreau Utopia and Star Trek – but one that didn’t take a lot of work to build.

    After our tantrums we picked ourselves up, went out and became our parents, bought even bigger homes and cars than our parents imagined. It takes a big SUV to carry a fat-ass baby boomer but we bought them rationalizing that big trucks protects little kids. We didn’t just want our kids to finish high school, we wanted them to go to Harvard and become rich. And we went apeshit over any hint of hoods selling drugs anywhere near our children. No turning in for them. And we were damn sure they wouldn’t drop out.    

    My mother and father grew up in the roaring 1920s, my mother in roarless rural Mississippi, my father in sleepy tropical Miami. They went to high school in the 1930s and then got jobs expecting prosperity to be just around the corner. Instead they got Germany, Italy and Japan wanting to rule the world. My parent’s generation had schools that taught the basics with everyone dreaming Horatio Alger, Jr stories, hoping to learn enough to get a good job with a company that would last a lifetime. High tech entertainment was a radio and dreams came in black and white visions imported from Hollywood. They didn’t want much, just economic security and freedom from Fascism. I think my father was caught up in the romance of airplanes because the joined the Army-Air Corps. I don’t know if he read science fiction but he grew up during the golden age of science fiction pulps. The drug of choice and rebellion for my parent’s generation was alcohol. My mother’s first husband had been a bootlegger.

    My parent’s parents grew up before the automobile and the airplane. My father’s mother became a teacher in a one-room school house. My mother’s mother braved convention when her father shipped her off to Little Rock at the turn of the century to attend secretarial school. She went to work in the big metropolis of Memphis in 1901. I never knew my grandfathers or their dreams. My mother’s father was farmer, and my dad’s dad grew up in rural Nebraska before moving to Miami in the 1920s. I’m sure the transformation from farm life to city life that most of the country was going through was full of excitement and promise. I’m not sure if either of them had twelve years of schooling. I figure they were dazzled by the transformation of the horse into the car, and the bird into the plane but I sure wished I knew what their dreams of the future were like. I assume the drug of choice for this generation was booze, before Prohibition. I know my grandfather, like my father, died a drunk.

    So what are kids today like? What kind of official and unofficial education are they getting? If you listen to the news the school system is in crisis. When I was a teenager I expected the future to be as exciting as science fiction. What can the kids of today expect when all they hear is gloomy forecasts of global warming? I loved growing up in the 1960s because the times were so exciting, although full of turmoil. Present times are shaping up to be just as extreme and challenging.

    I’ve worked at a university for thirty years now, and I haven’t seen anything like the 1960s again. Social and political apathy has reigned over student populations since the Vietnam War. Did ending the draft, enacting civil rights laws, illuminating the injustices done to minorities, women and gays, and strengthening EPA buy off recent generations? In many ways the Iraq war is almost identical to the Vietnam War – so why aren’t today’s kids outraged? Global warming is the ethical crisis of our times but young people haven’t tried to make it their issue. Why? Do they not understand that it’s the great challenges that define a generation?

    Maybe they are mad as hell and aren’t going to take it anymore, but they are shouting out virtual windows and we can’t hear them. When I watch MTV, the youth appear to be trying to define themselves by decadence and money. If I could show MTV to the Puritans or folks from the Great Depression and tell them this is the future of America I think it would have blown their minds and they would have given the country back to the Indians. I know my generation who smoked pot, bragged of free love, grew their crew-cut hair long and refused to go to war, scared the hell out of our parent’s generation.

    My dad called me queer because I had long hair – called me a commie pinko because I was against the war – and called me a hoodlum because I smoked pot. He called me all those names in rage and anger, but I think mostly because my actions scared him. The violence of the current generation scares me, with the school shootings, boy gangs, girl gangs, and attacks on teachers. First person shooter games just make me wonder about today’s kids like my father wondered about me. Beyond their violent lives their indifference to the future freightens me more.

    But that is the TV view of things. Up close the kids of today don’t seem much different from when I was a kid. They tend to have less hair, take fewer drugs but like booze more, seem greedier, and love tattoos and body art. The girls wear skimpier clothes with uncomfortable underwear that shows because they have cleavage in both front and rear. On the whole I’d say they are equally self-absorbed as my generation and equally focused on sexual bonding. I am always disappointed when I talk to them because they have no interest in big issues, no interest in exciting topics like space travel or scientific discoveries, and have zip to say about the future. It truly is a Be Here Now generation.

    The Slashdot crowd are different – they do think about the future and scientific discovery, but then I was a computer geek long before they were, so I identify with them. Maybe modern kids feel they should be seen and not heard. I do see a lot to envy about kids today, especially the Internet and computers, but most kids just use the technology and aren’t cutting edge techno-evangelicals.

    Back in the 1970s when my friends were deciding whether or not to have children some of them said no because they felt the world was too awful and getting worse. Has it actually gotten worse? There were bumps along the way, but this world and time doesn’t suck despite its many pitfalls – in fact I see a lot about growing up now to be jealous. I also assume that kids growing up today find the future scary, but are they pessimistic about having kids themselves? I’ve never heard one say so.

    Of course, in kidworld you don’t see all the horrors of the world; you see the world close-up, immediate, and the things that make you laugh or cry are right next too you – family, friends, pets, schools, games, books, movies, televisions, computers. My parents had lots of great memories about growing up in the depression. I grew up with an alchoholic father that dragged us around the county forcing me and my sister to attend more than a dozen schools and yet I was still happy for the most part. Last night on the news I saw a piece about the lull in fighting in Bagdad and families were out playing in the parks.

    If you study history close enough you’ll find that every generation had their end-of-the-world doomsayers and every generation will have people who will want to get off the genetic train to the future. However, I want to ask: What’s unique about this generation? Sure, Ecclesiastes tells us there is nothing new under the sun, but I don’t think that’s true. Growing up today means being plugged into a world-wide digital nervous system – and that is new! And after hundreds of generations of Chicken Littles screaming the sky is falling there’s always a chance that one generation of soothsayers are going to get it right, and maybe the sky will fall, or a small piece of it. Personally, I think we’re going to adapt and survive global warming but it will take considerably longer and be more disruptive than the world wars of the twentienth century.

    This is going to sound weird but as a kid I rated television as the most important part of my life. I know family is supposed to come first, but when I grew up adults still believed in the old “kids should be seen and not heard” philosophy. And unlike today where kids and parents often interact as friends my parents were very distant. Oh, they loved and provided for me and my sister, and made us behave and learn right from wrong, but they didn’t play with us. Modern kids seem to spend more time with their parents, often as buddies and it’s no wonder that so many want to keep living with their parents late into their twenties.

    The main difference between my childhood and growing up today is the amount of adult supervision kids get. My little sister and I became latch-key kids when I was nine and I loved that. But even before that, as young as first grade I got to walk to school by myself. When we moved to New Jersey when I was in third grade Becky and I got to play in the woods alone or with other kids, and we ventured far and wide. Today’s kids don’t get that kind of freedom. I don’t think our world was safer, but parents back then felt that kids should go outside and play and they didn’t need constant adult supervision. In this regards, as a kid, I’d vote for my past times. If I was a parent I’d vote for modern times as being better.

    Regarding television, I’d vote for modern times because of the hundreds of channels, the high definition big screens, and because of the numerous chances of seeing shows with naked women. When I was little we had three television stations to watch. The screens were so small, and the black and white images were so bad, that even when they showed girls in bikinis it wasn’t that arousing. I pitied my poor father who grew up with radio and the girls just had sexy voices.

    I’d also vote for growing up in modern times when I think about the television shows the kids get to watch today. Modern kids may love Nick at Nite and TVLand featuring shows from my past but 1967 Batman blows chunks compared to 2006 Heroes and Planet Earth in HD is lightyears beyond Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. The most exciting shows of the 1960s for me were the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo space flights. Yet seeing the Earth from space on Discovery HD puts modern kids in a whole new visual dimension of wonder and awe. Modern television is just far more sophisticated as entertainment and many magnitudes better in education.

    I work in a College of Education, so I have a tiny idea about modern classroom life. I’ve sometimes visited our campus school to help them with their computers. My office is near a textbook depository and I flip through them sometimes. I also know a number of teachers. The news is both good and bad. The quality of education various widely from school to school, and from state to state. Growing up I saw a lot of schools in a lot of states. My guess is the quality of education is better today, but there are more problems with discipline and violence, so it may have been more fun to attend school back in my times. I’ve met a lot of people from my generation who says the worse times of their lives were when they were going to school. I think those people would hate now.

    When it comes to toys modern times beats the past hands down. Tinker Toys are nothing compared to Mindstorm Robots. Comparing a Gameboy to a plastic box with a BB is just silly. If you could take a Toys R’ Us catalog back to 1963 all the kids would have wanted to move to the future.

    You know what would really make me vote for growing up in the past? Music. AM radio from 1961-1969 just flat-out out-performs all music before and since. I know that’s probably a prejudice of my times. The kids of today do not having anything close to a Bob Dylan, much less bands like the Beatles or the Bryds. Modern pop music has zero social impact, except for some hip-hoppers and Goth song writers, they don’t even try. Modern music seems to be exclusively hedonistic – but that may my take at seeing the videos that go with it.

    I envy the kids today, living with hundreds of television channels, the Internet, iPods, Gameboys, Xboxes and cellphones. Their lives are more technologically exciting than the science fiction I used to read. John Brunner pegged the bad parts of our time in his 1969 novel Stand on Zanzibar but he missed all the fun and exciting stuff. Science fiction never imagined the video games or the World Wide Web and it especially never predicted the naked girls on HBO and the Internet – when I was in eighth grade finding an issue of National Geographic in the school library during study hall with a photo of a topless old women made me famous with all the other boys for the rest of the day. I bet my dad was envious of my generation because we had Playboy magazines – an item I couldn’t afford until after I started working as a bagboy unless we stole them – yeah, in those younger horny years all we had to make do with were the bra and panty ads in the Sears catalogs. Boys today have no idea how lucky they are. Today, any boy with access to Google can see whole vistas of feminine forms.

    I’ve been thinking and talking about this topic with my friends for a couple weeks now. I think the consensus is we had it better in our day and we wouldn’t want to trade lives with the current generation. Our biggest concerns are with the schools and education. I know my parents were impressed with the limited technology of our baby-boomer schools but feared the violence of our times. I think they felt they got a better basic education in their day, and they felt they were more moral. Besides global warming, education is probably the second direst crisis of modern times. And both are issues that the Bush administration likes to ignore.

    There was a very common phrase from the 1960s that’s mostly forgotten today – “the generation gap.” I think the most positive thing I see about the current generation is they communicate more with their parents and parents try to communicate more with them. My father died when I was nineteen and he was forty-nine. I never tried to communicate with him and he never tried to communicate with me. I was too young to understand and he was too much of a drunk and too afraid of what I might say. I know he tried a few times in odd ways. When his long-haired boy started going out on dates with girls he expressed himself by giving me his drinking money and car. Before he died he tried to apologize for his lack of communication skills.

    I think the biggest difference between growing up in the 1950s and 1960s and today would be difference in the relationship I would have with my father. I’m pretty sure we would have talked more if we both grew up in modern times. Who knows maybe he would have taken better care of himself – quit smoking, drank less, and exercised – things they didn’t nag about in his day. I don’t think the generation gap would have been as wide today – and I’d like to think the chasm between us would have been narrow enough so we could have heard each other.

The Many Definitions of Science Fiction

    Science fiction has always been hard to define. To the general public it has been typecast as space opera and anything to do with the future but that is not my definition of science fiction. I consider Star Wars one-hundred percent fantasy with not a single drop of science fiction in it. Just because a story is set in the future, with space ships, bug-eyed monsters and robots, doesn’t make it science fiction, at least in my skewed view of the world. Maybe we can call it sci-fi, but I’m not even happy about that. Of sure, science fiction is the accepted label commonly used to categorize books, movies, comics, games and television shows as a genre, but that’s like saying all art forms with human nudity is porn. And I’ll admit that most science fiction is a kind of porn compared to the works I want to label science fiction.

    To me science fiction is art that conveys a revolutionary speculative idea that should fit into reality according to the laws of science. Any story about traveling faster-than-light after the speed of light was established and before Einstein’s famous work can be science fiction and any story about traveling faster-than-light after Einstein is fantasy. Before anyone complains, I do know there is scientific speculation that could justify hypothetical means of FTL travel, but it involves things like converting the mass of Jupiter into energy, so I’m still going to call FTL fantasy.

    Sometimes it’s a tight call – for instance, “Bears Discover Fire.” Not likely, but a fascinating speculation. H. G. Wells got to most of the best science fictional ideas at a time in history where they might still be considered scientific. Time travel was a brillaint piece of speculation. Timescape by Gregory Benford is the last time travel story I’d call legit science fiction. Time travel is definitely in the realm of fantasy now. When Wells wrote War of the Worlds the phrase science fiction didn’t exist, but he pretty much defined the term as I like to see it. Aliens and life on other planets and around other stars was not new in his time, and I’m not even sure if Wells’ book was the first to suggest invading aliens, but WoftW has gained worldwide acceptance as a science fiction classic. H. G. Wells made the concept of science fiction famous, even when it wasn’t labelled.

    In the 1920s E. E. “Doc” Smith established the concept of interstellar travel but in a totally unscientific way, but it fired up the minds of the public about the idea of traveling to the stars. Robert A. Heinlein’s 1941 story “Universe” about a starship that took generations to reach its destination was rim of reality science fiction – the fact that Heinlein had his characters set in a time where they have forgotten their mission is mega sense-of-wonder story telling and science fiction squared. However, there aren’t that many original science fiction ideas and thus not that many true science fiction novels. Heinlein went on to write science fantasy when it came to space travel.

    I think Heinlein knew this because after Starship Troopers he figured that writing science fiction about space travel was a dead end, so he wrote Stranger in a Strange Land and took science fiction into a new dimension. I’ve read Stranger many times and both love and hate it. The kernal of a story about a human raised by aliens and then returned to Earth to be reeducated as human is very fine. The story of creating a new religion in modern times is also good speculative exploration. In fact, SIASL is full of good ideas, but it’s also full of bad science fiction. It devolves into a fantasy about wishful I Dream of Jeannie type powers that appeal to adolescent minds, and ultimately was an old man’s fantasy about wife-swapping and swinging.

    By my definition of science fiction there aren’t that many science fiction books and movies. Gattaca was a magnificent story speculating about the impact of genetic manipulation. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? was a disturbing story speculating about the worst mechanical qualities of being human – which is the opposite of the film based on the book, because Blade Runner was about the possibility of human qualities showing up in machines that looked like humans.

    The book I’m reading now, Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson is about the colonization of Mars, a very old and tired storyline, but one that Robinson makes into cutting edge science fiction. Although it was published in 1992, I think it represents the bar for speculating about what humans can do with Mars. It’s a big book, with lots of characters and ideas, and to surpass it would probably take even a bigger book, bigger even than the entire Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars trilogy, which means that’s a lot to attempt. Other than that, books about Mars are going to be adventure fantasy stories with a few science fictional ideas thrown in here and there.

    The first guy to use a space elevator in fiction can claim he’s writing science fiction, after that it’s no longer speculative science fiction but a baroque embellishment. Robinson has a space elevator, but it’s not why his Mars book is science fiction. Red Mars is science fiction because it’s a complex ecological speculation about humans coming to Mars. It’s human ecology/psychology meets Mars ecology done with finesse and characterization.

    Being a science fiction writer is hard. Coming up with new ideas that are real speculation is light-years beyond hard. Most so called science fiction writers are content to live with writing action stories set in old speculation. For god’s sake, just how many military science fiction stories are needed? Starship Troopers was original and had some very good science fiction in it, as well as a lot of fantasy action. The Forever War was a standout novel of science fiction. By the time the great film Aliens rolled around, the genre was clearly adventure fiction – although high quality. Battlestar Gallactica is fantasy soap opera. And I’m not being critical. Good story telling is good story telling – but the phrase science fiction in my book should be reserved for those stories and films that wow us with a new and novel idea. The very act of calling a work of art science fiction should be praise in itself.