Inventions Wanted #4 – The Desktop Art Gallery

    I don’t know why this doesn’t exist already, but I’ve been Googling my brains out trying to find fine art masterpieces for sale to be used as desktop backgrounds. I’m shopping for a 24″ LCD monitor with 1920 by 1200 resolution and I want it to be my personal Desktop Art Gallery. A good example of what I’m talking about is here for Van Gogh’s Irises. Visit that site and right click on that image and make it your desktop background. It helps if you have a large wide-screen LCD monitor. (FYI, it will replace your current desktop art, so you may want to just view it on a full-sized window. If you are using Webshots, it will automatically replace Irises during the next scheduled photo rotation.)

    Last month I visited the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC and I was so impressed that I’ve taken on a minor obsession with art. My wife and I had been planning this vacation for years and I expected to go crazy over the Air & Space Museum, since I’ve been a space nut all my life. I loved the Air & Space Museum, but I was mesmerized by the National Gallery of Art. Since I’ve returned I’ve bought several art books and I’ve been watching a 24-part lecture series on DVD on the history of Impressionism. None of the reproductions can do justice to actually seeing the originals, but my high-definition TV and computer screen comes closest.

    Art for the TV screen has already been invented evidently, since I found Ambient Art at Amazon.com. Amazon has other TV art collections too. But I can’t find anyone selling fine art collections of .jpgs for computer screens. I guess copyright owners are afraid .jpgs will be pirated all over the internet, just like MP3 files. Although the prints in art books are great for casual study, their reproductions are usually just terrible when you compare them to the originals. (I have to admit that some reproductions are better than the originals. I don’t know why. The Pissarro exhibit at the Brooks Museum in Memphis was somewhat disappointing to me because all the paintings seemed color faded whereas the reproductions online and in books seemed colorful.)

    Here’s what I want someone to invent. I want a program that uses my desktop and screen saver to display art and if I hit a hot-key to narrate a history about the piece and if I hit another hot-key bring up text and hyperlinks for further study. I want this system to be open in such a way that when I buy an art book or visit a museum they can sell me a CD/DVD that contains a digital version of the show that I can add to my Desktop Gallery. I want it to be modular so that there will be folders for artists, show collections, and permanent collections. If a big collection is traveling around the country, I’d like a centralized service to offer a digitized version for my Desktop Art Gallery that reminds me when and where I can go see the originals. I’d loved it if art books came with a supplemental disk that added reproductions and commentary to my Desktop Art Gallery. And I supposed the same service could offer me shows by unknown new artists to try.

    I’d also like my Desktop Art Gallery to generate shows by programmed criteria. For example, I might want to see all the paintings from France from 1700 to 1900 in chronological order. Or select a particular artist and pull his work from all the collections. I don’t know what the technical ramifications would be, but I’d like to examine each piece like Deckard examined the photograph in the movie Bladerunner. I guess this would mean making a grid over each painting and taking further 1920×1200 resolution images of each portion of the grid. And if people write up studies and critiques of paintings on the Internet, I’d like a way for this program to track them – maybe through Wikipedia.

    This system really needs an open format, probably in XML, so my Desktop Art Gallery can grow with acquisitions from any source. I’d like it to be smart enough so it won’t duplicate paintings using the same image copy. Which means it needs to allow for multiple versions for each image. It’s actually very hard to photograph a painting and it would be worthwhile to have multiple perspectives. Brushstrokes can be seen depending on which angle the light comes from. Color is very hard to match. Some of the paintings I saw in Washington I’ve since seen in many different books and they all look different. Some don’t even look like the painting I saw since the colors are so jarringly different. I don’t know if there are calibration sensors for such copy work like there are for matching monitor colors with printer colors, but it sure would help if there were.

    I do have some art collections on CD-ROM that came with art books, but the reproductions are tiny and the software crude. And there are some screen saver companies that do sell art collections, but they only work with their software – a closed system. For my dream system to work it has to be open. It’s too bad the copyright owners can’t trust .jpg or its future improvement because that would allow many programmers to try and invent such a system, or for an open source system to develop. I think DRM systems will go the way of the Dodo, but it will take time. And the world of art lovers might be such a small group that there just isn’t enough of a demand for product like I’m describing. But if you love art, try finding some good 1920×1200 images to study and you’ll see why I want this invention.

JWH 11/14/7

    

    

Are MP3s at the End of Their Lifecycle?

I have a lot of LPs I’m about to give away but I’m torn about whether or not I should try and save them as MP3 files first. Nowadays I prefer to listen to music through Rhapsody Music, which has a giant library of music. Even though there are several million songs in their collection they don’t have everything. Not by a long shot. Music albums are like books, they go out of print, often to become forgotten, sometimes to become rare lost gems.

When CDs became the new music format decades ago people waited for their favorite LPs to be re-mastered as CDs. A lot of LPs got new lives as CDs, but probably only a small fraction of all LPs. Now with digital music, a fraction of all CDs are reborn as MP3, WMA or AAC files. I’m talking about legally published music – if you count illegal, then probably a greater percentage has been reprinted on the net by fans. If would be great to have a music database like Internet Movie Database that tracked all the various incarnations of albums and how to find them now.

Most of my albums don’t even inspire me to replay them much less spend the time to record them to MP3. I even have a Sony turntable designed for use with my computer. I’m pretty good at using Audacity to record MP3 files, but even if I did it the sloppy way of making one MP3 per LP side, it takes about an hour an album to convert. Dividing the side recordings into individual song files and entering the song data into the ID3 tags would add even more time. It would be easier to see if they are on Rhapsody and just record those that aren’t. Buying would also be cheaper than wasting my time.

Doing some spot checking shows me just how many albums Rhapsody doesn’t have in its collection. Rhapsody seems to have every Bob Dylan album back to his first one. For Buffalo Springfield they have their third and a couple hits albums, but a year or so ago I could have sworn I played the first two albums on Rhapsody. In other words, there is no guarantee that Rhapsody will have any specific album in the future. I’ve often wondered how Rhapsody acquires music. I assumed if they had a deal with the publisher they would offer everything that publisher had in its library. I’m now guessing publishers control access to parts of their collections. It almost appears if a CD is in print and available for sale it might be included, but if the CD is pulled from the market it’s also pulled from Rhapsody.

Future of Music: Owned Or Subscribed?

The music world sits at the crossroad of many possible futures. Ian Rogers points out in his blog “Convenience Wins…” – the music industry has been fumbling around for eight years and finally AmazonMP3.com beta points to a practical future. I, on the other hand see a different future as described in my blog entry, “DRM and iTunes and Rhapsody Music” that the subscription model should be the future of digital music. If Rogers is right then I need to record my music. If I’m right eventually everything should show up on a subscription service. Most people want to own music – and buying MP3 songs from Amazon is perfect for that mindset. It baffles me that subscription music isn’t the obvious choice because it’s so damn cheap. For the price of 10 songs I can listen to as many songs as I can squeeze into my month of musical enjoyment. To me it’s worth $120 a year just to preview all the hundreds of new albums that I try out. And playing music through a subscription service makes music listening so convenient that it’s about like switching from normal TV to DVR TV watching.

I don’t mind paying .89 cents a song, that’s cheap enough. What I hate is managing all those files I must save for the rest of my life. If you study science and science fiction you’ll know that technology is moving towards machines with fewer moving parts. Digitizing the world means moving information off of physical formats and onto binary documents. An iPod like device that instantly acquired songs off the net in real time would be the ultimate Music Mecca for listening to songs. This is about as simple as I can imagine for the final form of music storage and distribution. 78s to LPs to CDs to MP3s to Subscription music.

However, if I’m wrong I’m giving up a lot of treasured songs when I give away my LPs. And since I’m also thinking about thinning out my CD collection, I’ll be losing access to even more songs. Betting on the subscription music future might be dangerous, but it’s the one I want. I readily admit the ownership model might win out. However, Rhapsody is moving subscription music on cell phones, Tivos, and cable TV services, and music publishers are talking about selling subscription libraries to internet providers. Music everywhere might be more powerful than music hording.

The Past is a Heavy Weight to Carry Forward

It would be great if Rhapsody and its competitors became the Library of Congress of music history so I could always depend on finding the music I want to hear with just a few keystrokes. Since I can’t, I worry that I should save my old LPs and CDs, or at least convert them to MP3. But I don’t want the burden of becoming a digital librarian. I’ve spent a lot of money over the last forty-five years buying this music so I should want to hang on to it, but I don’t. My music collection has become a heavy weight on my shoulders. It’s connected to a lot of memories too. I could put my albums in the order I bought them and create a timeline of my life. On the other hand, I’m getting old and running out of future years, and life is busy and I don’t have a lot of free time, so managing these physical tokens of my past has become time consuming work.

Several times in my life I have had to give up my record collection and years later I always regretted that and would hunger to hear long lost albums. Sometimes they would be reprinted as CDs, or I’d shop with rare record dealers and re-buy vinyl treasures. Many though, are even forgotten by my memory. I seldom play my LPs anymore. Every couple of years I want to make space on my shelves and I get them out and find that I still love them and put them back. This time they are going. I met a young woman that collected 78s and LPs but lost her collection to Katrina. I figure she will give them a good home.

Letting Go of the Past Makes Room for the Future

I always loved discovering new music so my collection really is a form of external memory. I’ve known a lot of fellow baby-boomers that never got past the 1960s or 1970s in their music tastes. Evidently they reach a point where they had enough music to cherish and that was good enough. When I go onto Rhapsody each day I have the choice of looking up something old or trying something new. Feeding my nostalgic moods keeps me spinning old songs. Hunger for new rushes pushes me to find new songs. I probably own 20,000 songs now, but Rhapsody allows me to try 4,000,000+ new songs.

Giving up my LP collection, and even my CD collection frees me from the physical world and lets me live in the non-material digital world. I can’t help but wonder if that’s a higher plane of musical existence, a more spiritual state of mind beyond the crass world of ownership and hording and living in the past? The time I would spend being a music librarian could instead be spent on being a music fan.

The Ultimate Playlist

Let’s play the old stranded on a desert island game. Let’s imagine I can’t keep everything, but I’m allowed to keep my all-time favorite songs. That might be an interesting project that wouldn’t require too much work and time and even fit on a memory stick or flash memory player. Such a collection could be a hedge against Rhapsody going out of business. Even if I decide to keep my top songs, what format should I save them in? The music industry is moving towards 256kps MP3 files, but audiophiles prefer FLAC or lossless recordings. I could buy an Olive OPUS Nº5 and start feeding my CDs to it and then pack them away in the attic. Then over time I could delete the songs I don’t like and I’d end up with my perfect playlist. That takes a lot of work, and what happens if my OPUS dies? I can’t imagine owning a stereo device for thirty more years.

How long will Rhapsody or iTunes last? CBS, NBC and ABC have been around my whole life providing me with TV entertainment. Is there any chance that Rhapsody could become a music network with their staying power? Geekboys on the net like to talk about the MP3 revolution changing the music world and how the old guard better get with the new paradigm. What if MP3 is already old hat? Net music might now be the new MP3 and they don’t even know it.

I’m giving away my LPs and I’ve already packed up my CDs and put them in a closet. I’ve stopped buying CDs except for gifts. I will only buy MP3s from Amazon for songs Rhapsody doesn’t provide, but I’m leaning towards not even buying MP3s at all. I’m wondering if AmazonMP3 isn’t just as backwards as the DRMed iTunes?

Final Format

Subscription music could be delivered on MP3 but its WMA now because of the DRM restrictions. It doesn’t have to be DRMed any more than songs sold one at a time. And it could be broadcast in FLAC or whatever current technology is the best suited for the network technology of the time. The burden of formats and storage would be pushed to the broadcaster. Why should there be millions of copies of Feist’s “1234” sitting on hard drives all over the world when it just needs to be on a few servers? The net should trump hard drives. I don’t buy DVD movies anymore because Netflix is too damn convenient and cheap. Why should I own songs when net music like Rhapsody is available?

The real questions are still: What happens to all those forgotten out-of-copyright albums? Can subscription music services ever be allowed to be complete like a Library of Congress? Will copyright and publishing rights limit subscription music to marketing whims or fracture it into too many services to be practical? Technology allows for the network delivery of anything song you can think of – but will legal and marketing issues destroy that potential? If you consider illegal P2P trading, the reality is almost here. Can the music industry find a marketing system that satisfies the publishers, the artists and the music fans? Will AmazonMP3 become the legal front-end to a vast distributor of stolen shared music? One reason I would buy a song from AmazonMP3 now is to give it away. I would prefer my friends would all use Rhapsody so all I had to do was hit the Share button, but if they aren’t a member and I want them to hear a song I like, I have to find an alternative way. What if I hear a great song and buy it from AmazonMP3 and give it to seven of my friends? And this becomes the norm, how long will that sales model last? Any ultimate music system has to account for music sharing. Subscription music has that built in as long as all users are subscribers. Is that practical? What if I’m a Rhapsody subscriber and three of my friends are Napster users and four are Zune users?

We have a long way to go before we have a stable music system. Maybe this is just another reason why most people of my generation stopped buying music. See my blog, “Why Has Listening to Music Become as Solitary as Masturbation?

James Wallace Harris 10/10/7

Inventions Wanted #3 – The Perfect DVR

     Once you own a DVR, a digital video recorder, sometimes thought of as a TIVO, you’ll understand what a magnificent device it is for television lovers.  The functionality is so useful you’ll want one on every TV set you own.  However, that doesn’t mean DVRs can’t be improved.

     Within a very short time you’ll want more hard disk space, especially if you’re recording shows in high definition.  We can save 10-20 shows depending on length and quality.  Our Scientific Atlanta 8300HD allows for an external SATA drive to be attached to the unit to expand storage capacity, but I’ve already got enough electronic boxes sitting on my television stand and too many plugs plugged into my surge protector.  I would say a 320 gigabyte hard drive, about double our current capacity, would be about right.  You want to keep a nice selection of shows for the family to watch when the mood strikes them, but you don’t want to create a junk hole like the drawer in the kitchen that collects everything but where you can’t find anything.

     Now that brings up my first idea.  It would be great to save shows to folders, so each family member could have their own selection of shows to control and protect.  Space allocation should be assignable to each folder.

    Next up is bookmarks.  I’d like to be able to bookmark where I left off – and each show should have it’s own bookmarks.  An even spiffier feature would be named bookmarks, so each family member can have their own.  When a show is highlighted in the DVR directory, it should display how many bookmarks are placed on the show, that way people won’t erase any show someone is still watching.

     One way to handle bookmarks would be to offer the option:  delete up to this point.  That would save a viewer’s place and add space back to the drive for more recording.  These are computer hard drives, so adding such features should not be hard.  It’s just computer programming.

     The biggest feature I’d love in my next DVR is a built-in DVD player.  I hate switching video sources and juggling two remotes.  Why have a whole other box needing a second HDMI cable and HDMI port when it’s very logical to just combine the DVD and DVR players into one box.  It would save power, remotes, and further simplify the use of televison.  Better yet, make that built-in drive a Blu-Ray or HD-DVD recorder.  Then if the hard drive gets too full I could off-load shows to disk.

     Now this might be a total fantasy of a desire, but why not add a 5.1 sound amplifier into the box so I could jettison my AV receiver too?  It would help if a new standard emerged for speaker cable connections or even wireless connections, so that the back side of this box wasn’t as big as my current receiver.  I don’t expect high-end audiophile quality either.  All I want is more simplicity in my setup.

     Finally, and I know this is showing just how much of a TV whore I am, but I’d love another tuner.  Susan and I can currently record two shows and watch a third from the recorded list, but quite often we wish we could record three shows at once.

     If Comcast and Scientific Atlanta ever came out with this dream DVR we’d be loyal subscribers for life.  By the way, I do feel the perfect DVR has to be part of the set-top box.  I’ve messed with computer PVRs and they just don’t cut the cake.  And standalone DVRs like TIVO just add complexity to my television viewing.  My basic belief is a cable TV or satellite TV provider is only as good as their set-top and DVR combo box.  It’s no longer how many channels they provide, but how easy they make the television viewing experience.  Susan and I would hate to go back to the pre-DVR television days.  The enjoyment of television watching has been improved by DVRs as much as when TV broadcasting added color.

jwh

Why Has Listening to Music Become as Solitary as Masturbation?

My friends seldom whisper a word about music anymore, which I am finding very strange. People used to talk about music, at least back in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. I assume young people today are just as crazy about music as my generation, but they don’t talk about music with me. It could be the generation gap, or has music dropped off the water-cooler topic list? Oh, I have a number of guy friends that are music nuts like me, and we tell each other what we’re listening to and trade recommendations, but as far as I could tell, most of my friends stopped listening to music a long time ago. At least that’s what I thought. I sent an email out and polled some friends and I was surprised by what I got back. Many still love music, they just love it alone.

My wife hates when I play music at home when she’s there. I beg her to sit and listen with me and share the music I’m discovering, but my enthusiasm to just sit and listen bores the crap out of her. She does love music, but in the car, when she’s by herself, where she can sing along. It’s become a personal thing, something to do in private. I’ve heard from other women friends that like to sing in the car alone too. Many people tell me their only source of music is the car radio. Others love the iPod, and we all know how isolating those little gizmos are. Plug in, turn on and tune out the world. I have heard people extolling the virtues of noise cancelling headphones but nary a word about what they are hearing. And I’ve heard endless arguments over digital music, MP3 players, music piracy and so on, but I just don’t hear people listening to albums together.

When did music become so anti-social? As kids in the 1960s with limited budgets we gathered together in after school parties to play, trade and share records. Or gangs of us would ride around in beat up old 1950s cars, going nowhere, doing nothing but listening to dashboard AM radio. On weekends we’d go anywhere where there was a great jukebox, or to roller rinks and thunder along on wooden floors to the blasting boom of the Beatles. We’d have endless arguments. The Bryds v. The Buffalo Springfield, Eric Clapton v. Duane Allman, Motown v. Brill Building. Did the Monkees play their instruments? What did those lyrics really say?

And of course, there was the communal aspect of the musical enhancing herb that would bring us together in darkened rooms lit by muted televisions, with the stereo drowning out our thoughts, sharing the vibrations, feeling groovy. We’d spend hours talking about our favorite groups between changing LPs. Music was a revolution that was of vital importance to art and society. We felt we were on the cutting edge. We could have all written our own books about Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen.

Every weekend there would a selection of touring bands to consider, and this would bring us together by the hundreds or thousands. Seeing top performers cost no more than going to the movies today. Now, don’t get me wrong, I do know there’s plenty of live music playing every night in 2007 in any big city, but that’s for a generation two generations younger than mine. My generation might go out once every year or two to some performing arts center to see an Oldie-Goldie nostalgia act, but to be honest folks, I don’t like seeing geezer rock and roll. I remember going to concerts or parties with bands and I hated when old people showed up, so I don’t like intruding on the current generation of the in-crowd. So I wonder if age is a factor – is live music mostly for the young? I know I’m going to get some howls over that prejudice.

I do have some theories about us old guys playing music alone. I think music makes us feel really good, almost like a drug, but it produces a high we like to experience alone. I’m bobbing my head to “All Your Reasons” from Matchbox Twenty’s Exile on Mainstream album that’s coming through my computer’s speakers via Rhapsody. I’m listening to this week’s new releases. I just finished Annie Lennox’s Songs of Mass Destruction and I’ll probably listen to Bruce Springsteen’s Magic next. It’s 7:43 pm and I’m tired after work, and I haven’t had dinner and I’m hungry, but the music is infusing energy into me, enough to encourage me to write. When I tired of music I’ll eat. Music is more nourishing now. My wife is at the kitchen table playing games on her laptop – that’s her way to unwind. My friends are at their homes, tired from work too, doing their thing. Maybe watching TV, maybe woodworking, reading the newspaper or maybe they are at the gym grooving with their iPods – tuning the rat race out. I guess the world of work, marriage and families split up our communal listening gatherings. That’s sort of sad.

I wished that all my friends were members of Rhapsody so I could still share music. I’d hit the share button on special discoveries and send them a song in a bottle to listen to on their own mental desert island, where they commune in their loneliness. I’d love to share some songs from The Reminder by Feist, the little girl doing the iTunes Nano commercial with her song, “1234.” Maybe that’s why MP3 music stealing is so popular – kids don’t want to get together, but they still want to share.

The best I can do to recapture this old spirit of music sharing is to write this blog. I do have to wonder why my generation is secluding itself into their little rooms to pursue solitary pursuits. Are our hobbies of self pleasure more fulfilling than trying to communicate and work on the same wavelength? It reminds me of long ago when my sister would beat on the bathroom door and yell, “Why are you taking so long? What the hell are you doing in there!”

jwh

I’ve Got an Electronic Monkey on My Back

    Every Sunday I page through the Best Buy, Circuit City, Office Depot and Office Max ads for new electronic toys to help make my life better.  I’m currently thinking about buying a Palm TX, Asus Eee PC, iPAQ 200, iPod touch, Nokia N800, Nikon D40x, an external SATA drive for my Scientific American 8300HD DVD cable box, a GPS for my wife, better speakers for my PC at work and home, a 24″ LCD for my home computer, a Roomba vacuum cleaner, a Canon SD750 pocket camera, an Olympus voice recorder, a Mac Mini to put the Internet on my HDTV, a Sonos ZP80, a SanDisk E280R, a miniDV video camera, a Blue Ray/HD-DVD player/recorder, a Blackberry, and so on.  That’s the current stuff I’m thinking about. 

    When my wife brings her work laptop home, we have five computers, two printers and two scanners to do our work. We have two digital cameras and seven remotes on the table between our La-Z-Boys in the den, and that doesn’t count the expensive universal remote bought to replace the others that we do not use, or several other orphaned remotes scattered around the house. We have three television sets, two DVRs, four DVD players, two of which are DVD recorders, two component stereo systems and two cable boxes. We have four telephones hooked up, who knows how many not hooked up, as wells as our two separate cell phones. We both have iPod Nanos we always carry, plus we have several other less famous MP3 players sitting around cluttering up shelves and chest-of-drawer tops.

    Growing up, from 1962-1967 I survived off of one white GE AM clock radio.  My family had one TV and one telephone the four of us shared.  I rarely used the telephone, but spent hours with the TV and books. And I consider those years the golden years of life.  In 1968 I bought a stereo and Yashica twin lens 120mm camera which began my gadget addiction.  By the late 1970s I started buying home computers and all the junk that goes with them, plus I began the new addition of reading magazines about gadgets.  The crap has been piling up ever since and I’ve got an electronic monkey on my back.

    Do I really need all this crap? Does it make my life better? Is there a way to manage this addiction? I say manage because I don’t plan to give up using a computer, watching TV, playing music, using a phone, or listening to audio books on my iPod. I’m so tempted right now to buy a smart phone because of how cool my friend’s Treo 700w is. Laurie has one gadget that I need two to cover – a definite case of gadget envy. Three if you count the camera that I sometimes carry. Four, because roaming access to the Internet that I don’t have now at all, but would like.

    There is a struggle between what I really need and outright gadget addiction. The spirits of Buddha and Henry David Thoreau urge me to simplify my life, to seek inner harmony and withdraw from this crazy over-connected world. But my modern soul thrives on input and I constantly crave more data. Is there a middle way? One where I can maximize my philosophical growth and yet drink from the fire-hose of the Internet? On one hand I seek a monkish contemplative life with my books and on the other I want to use the Internet as a sixth sense and watch every sparrow that falls from the tree.

    What are my pure needs and how can I use technology wisely? How can I achieve simplicity of living but live in a world of fiber optic interconnection? We have seven technologies to master: telephones, computers, stereos, televisions, photography, video and games, although it really comes down to one, the digital computer. Theoretically, it might be possible to have a device that does everything, but I’m inclined to think I’ll need three: the personal handheld that goes everywhere, the general computer for each family member, and the entertainment center in the den for family and friends.

The Telephone

    The telephone is a marvelous invention that we can carry in our pocket and connect with anyone else in the world. It’s more basic and universal than the computer, and it’s no wonder that it has worldwide acceptance. I would never give it up. What would be the perfect phone be in concept? The obvious is it should have crystal clear voice communication and work anywhere from the depths of the ocean to the highest flying plane. After that, what should a phone be? You can already get phones that combine limited functions of the other six technologies, so does that make the iPhone the ideal phone?

    The concept of combining my cell phone and iPod Nano into one unit is very appealing since I carry both everywhere, but I’m not ready to buy an iPhone. I have a Motorola cell phone with a pay-as-you-go plan with no monthly bills. I upload $50 about twice a year to T-Mobile and that covers my cell phone usage. Switching to an iPhone might save pocket space but will decrease my wallet space by 8x. However, is spending more money on a gadget that brings six of the seven technologies together worth the monthly expense?

    How many of the seven essential techs are really needed in a palm size device? If I was stranded on a desert island I’d want them all.

    I’m meeting more and more people who have cancelled their home phones and switched completely to cell phones. My house alarm depends on my wired phone system, but I’ve heard they now have cell phones that can do the job too. Or I could kill off all the features from my AT&T service except a rotary dial line and devote it to the alarm. This would have the added bonus of stopping unsolicited phone calls. We’re already on the do-not-call registry, but there are an amazing number of charities and other organizations that are exempt.

    My wife objects to cancelling the home phone because cell phone reception isn’t that good at our house. That could improve, especially if Google gets to buy the current TV spectrum and use it for some super wireless network. Convergence is on its relentless way.

The Stereo

    Music has been vital nourishment for my soul since the late 1950s. Over the decades I’ve had many stereo systems. I’m not an audiophile, but I like a certain level of sound quality. I was moving toward Super Audio CD (SACD) technology when MP3 took over the music world. Coincidently, about the same time I was getting a 56″ HDTV, Apple was promoting the 2.5″ video iPod. The modern generation seems to be into small – and that’s cool. I’ve tested MP3 music enough to know that it is better quality than the stereo systems I had in the 1960s, or even the 1970s. MP3 is good enough technology.

    The burden of the past is maintaining legacy systems, and in this case, maintaining technology to play LPs and CDs. I have 1500-2000 CDs and LPs. Many of my LPs have never made it to CD, much less to iTunes and Rhapsody America. For example, I have a soundtrack, “On the Flip Side” to a 1966 TV show featuring Ricky Nelson, a teen idol from the 1950s who is probably totally unknown to the Brittany Spears generation. To maintain that music I must keep a turntable and stereo system, or convert it to MP3, and find some way to preserve those song files from being lost or corrupted for the rest of my life.

    What I really hate about giving up LPs is losing the 12″ square cover art. Boy, wouldn’t I love to find a website that has hi-rez images of all the great LPs to use for my desktop background. Scanning my LP covers would require getting a very large flatbed scanner – well beyond the practical, or set up a macro-photo stand and light for photographing the covers.

    I’ve hung onto many LPs for years but only play a couple every few years. I think I should just let go and give them away to some collector who still lives and breathes LPs. My inner Buddha tells me not to hang onto the past. And the present is Rhapsody America with tiny cover art and no liner notes. On the other hand, the present is Rhapsody America with instant access to millions of songs for $10 a month – unfortunately, Ricky Nelson, like the Beatles and Led Zeppelin, are not available through Rhapsody, which shoots black holes in my life of subscription music simplicity.

    I can understand copyrights and not stealing, but I find it hard to understand why creative work that isn’t for sale, or hasn’t been for sale for decades, is protected. Is there a movement somewhere online to preserve all those forgotten LPs, including the covers and liner notes for the future? It’s a shame the system doesn’t allow the fans to digitize those old albums and upload them to Rhapsody music, and then allow the legal copyright watchdogs to set up accounting for Rhapsody to pay the original artists when the music is played.

    And it annoys me that Ricky Nelson “In Concert” is for sale on iTunes but not AmazonMP3, or as a CD on Amazon.com, or playable from Rhapsody America. Life and music should be simpler, and so should preserving the past.

The Television

    I love my 56″ Samsung DLP HD TV. Imagine combining all seven technologies through it? It would be great to have video conferencing with my old friends living in distant Miami or Australia. My TV can already be a giant screen to surf the net, play games, show photos and videos. But right now there is a good deal of complexity in doing all that. It’s complex enough that I have to set up things for my wife and all the remotes and wiring is annoying to me as well.

    The straw that broke my camel’s back was this morning when I was pricing external SATA drives to add to my cable box to get more disk space to save more TV shows on my DVR. I had to ask, what would Henry David Thoreau do? After his ghost told me to give away everything and build an 8×10 cabin in the woods, I decided to ask: what would I do? The first thing I told myself was to either watch the damn TV shows or stop recording them, but don’t buy any more crap to add to the entertainment center.

    That’s simple enough. The little red collector devil on my left shoulder whispered, “Psst, just record them to DVD+R disks.” Red has been pestering me to buy two DVD sets this week, The Complete Monterey Pop festival and Freaks and Geeks complete series. He wants to collect everything I ever loved. The fat Buddha on my right shoulder keeps pointing out the efficiency of Netflix and the virtue of non-ownership. Buddha-boy also keeps nagging me to give up my closet of old LPs and my turntable. He also wisely points out that my entertainment system doesn’t need two DVD players, and I could jettison the one that plays SACDs because Super Audio CDs never caught on and I only bought five of them. It’s too bad that my receiver/amp doesn’t come with a wireless media server built in so I could also junk the SoundBridge M1001.

    Once I start thinking that way, I begin to wonder just how many components I need in my entertainment center. The 56″ HDTV is a must. Ditto for the cable box/DVR. But what if Scientific Atlanta made a cable box with a Blue Ray/HD-DVD player/recorder built in that was compatible with all formats including SACD? What if it also had a built in amp for 5.1 surround sound? I’d go from TV + Receiver + 2 DVD players + turntable + Soundbridge + cable box/DVR to television plus superbox. I also be down to one remote, which would be fantastic. Comcast, are you listening?

The Computer

    I actually spend more time with the computer than any other technology or with any other human being for that matter. The brain is where our five senses come together to be processed by our conscious mind. The computer is where our technologies meet and our conscious mind uses it like a sixth sense to examine all of reality. It probably does deserve the time I devote to it, and although it keeps me from physically being with people, I know a lot more people through the computer than I know in real life. There is a philosophical balance there.

    Now, the question is how to build the ideal computer. Many people have come to love the laptop, but I find a large high resolution screen essential for my extended viewing of reality. I love photography, art and other recordings meant for the eyeballs and there’s nothing like a large screen for my personal art gallery or showing HD video. I currently have a 19″ widescreen LCD, but I’m planning to buy a 24″ replacement. 1920×1200 pixels allow the computer world and the HDTV world to intersect and overlap.

    The ideal CPU will have all the processing I need for as few watts of power as possible to help promote Green Living. It should be silent and cool and ultra-dependable.

    Next it needs great sound. I’m working on that. My desk is still cluttered with Bose bookshelf speakers and Sony AV receiver I use to play music from my computer. I’m just ordered Klipsch ProMedia 2.1 speakers to simplify that problem so I should get back a couple square feet of my desk’s top (I hate to say desktop since that might be confusing since the old word, desktop, has been hijacked by computer phraseology). The goal though is to process all the music digitally inside the CPU and play it with the highest fidelity speakers I can afford, yet be the smallest.

    My Canon MP600 copier/scanner/printer has already simplified things nicely in the paper related department, but I’d love to live in a world without paper and printing. The ideal future will be when I don’t have to scan anything in, print anything out, or copy anything at all. I wonder if that’s possible. My wife and I have inherited the family photos from our dead parents, so we have a heritage to preserve. Once those photos are digitized I don’t think I’ll need a scanner any more. I think I’ll package up the physical photos and give them to my sister who hates computers. That will free me of a lot of physical possessions and make my inner Buddha smile.

    I’m still burdened by those 1500-2000 LP and CDs. The thought of digitizing that much music is daunting. Rhapsody Music has become so easy to use that I rarely play CDs. If Rhapsody were to go bankrupt though, I’d want those CDs & LPs. Getting rid of 15 heavy boxes of physical music sure would make Henry David T happy.

The Camera

    I doubt they will ever make an iPhone type device with a camera I will like. I’ve played around with photography off and on throughout my life. When I was younger I had a darkroom and did black and white work. Later on I built a dark room for my wife and she did color printing. Digital cameras and Photoshop are absolute magic compared to those messy chemical days. I want a digital SLR like the Nikon I use at work, but if a cell phone had a 7 megapixel camera with 4x optical zoom and a quality lens, it would be very valuable to carry around all the time. I don’t know if technology can make a phone small and light enough and still be a worthwhile camera. The iPhone is nicely sized for showing off photographs, although I’m thinking a 4″ screen like on a iPAQ 200 would be better. A 4″ screen is also superior for GPS, data and e-Book reading.

    I currently want to get back into photography and that means carrying a camera around at all times. By today’s tech I would have a cell phone, iPod and camera. I’m quickly moving towards needing a purse. If I got a SLR with flash I’d need a backpack. The elegance of a handheld device that does everything is overwhelmingly attractive.

The Video Camera

    I don’t know if I need a video camera because I don’t take video now. However, I damn sure wished I had own one my whole life because my old brain just can’t remember things like it used to and it would be nice to see all the places and people I knew growing up. If a video camera could be added to my list of functions on my handheld device there might be times I would use it and save the results. That’s a whole new area to explore philosophically and intellectually. What does it mean to have such a well documented life?

The Game Machine

    I feel left out and old because I don’t play video games. My wife loves playing games on her laptop but doesn’t want an Xbox or Wii. I do wish I could play chess or Civilization, and sometimes think I should get into games as a way to exercise my aging synapses. Like video, games are another thing for me to think about in the future.

Conclusion

    Besides my addiction to gadgets, I have the weight of thousands, if not tens of thousands of albums, books, magazines, photos, DVDs, important papers and mementos to carry on my back as I march forward into old age. If I chose one object a day from my lifelong clutter to give up, I’d be dead before I could achieve Thoreau like living. Getting rid of 10 objects a day would probably allow me Zenplicity before I’m sixty. I’m fifty-five now, and choosing ten items a day to jettison from my collection would require real work. Having everything digitized is a wonderful dream, but I don’t think it will happen. To achieve at home Nirvana, I must reduce the number of gadgets I use, but also let go of the past, and just get rid of my junk. The real importance of having the right-minded technology is to improve your life and help others to improve life on Earth. Ultimately, it’s more important to study reality than play with gadgets, but realistically computers are far more powerful tools to do this exploring than any telescope or microscope.

jwh

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