Monday, February 05, 2007

Winston Tastes Good...

While most everyone else was wrapped up in the trappings of the Superbowl – next year I’m sure we’ll hear about the remake of Return to Peyton’s Place – I was delightfully engaged in a different pursuit of my own that blended the quite new with the very old. Early in the week I took delivery of an ION ITTUSB turntable, a birthday present to myself. On Saturday I assembled it – the directions are Spartan and I was cursing inwardly about not being able to get the thing to work – but the old dog can learn new tricks (and remember other tricks learned long ago) so after finding their FAQ I ultimately did figure out how to get the sound settings appropriate on the computer and in Audacity, the program that does the recording, and then on my own and after some experimentation with the tone arm skipping, it occurred to me to put more weight on the stylus – once I’ve got the album digitized I’m less interested in preserving the vinyl asset – and then the audio performance is reasonable. I started by saving Audacity formatted files for later editing – they give you a sampler software program for cleaning up the scratches, etc., but that later editing ended up seeming like too much work and those files took up too much space on my hard disk. So I just converted to MP3, which record at about one meg per minute of audio. I also *cheated* a little bit on the files and so have the wrong metadata associated with a few recordings. Now I know better and I may re-record those particular albums to get that part right.

The schema I arrived at was to have a track coincide with one side of an album. That was do-able. My idea was to do other things while recording, not be totally wrapped up in it and so I was doing other things on the computer while the recording took place – listening to other albums I had already recorded and reading the New York Times online or otherwise surfing the Web. My first thought of the day was to write something about copyright – the albums I was recording were from the early to mid ‘70s and surely whatever creative instinct drove their production can’t possibly be effected by reproduction at this late date (I believe I’m entirely within my rights to make a personal digital copy of these vinyl recordings, on the same argument that I can TiVo a TV show for later viewing, but now that I’ve got these MP3 files I could give to others. That would be a no-no.) The first album I recorded was Sounds of Silence, which other than the title song has some really interesting songs I had forgotten about. The next was Live at the Keystone, a two album set that again has quite a few numbers I had long forgotten.

This was the album that triggered my thoughts about copyright. I knew that Jerry Garcia passed away a few years ago. So I did a Google Search on Merl Saunders (no “e” at the end of Merl) and found his Wikipedia entry (it’s a good source for some types of information) and from that it sure seems that Saunders is still among the living. I can’t begrudge him royalties for work he has created – he’s still a performing artist. And then it occurs to me that most of the music I have in vinyl was made by people who are still alive. So while that actually copyright term (70 years after death of the creator) seems completely untied to encouraging creativity of the artists/creators and totally tied to preserving the economic rents of members of the MPAA and RIAA, I don’t have sufficient skin in this game to wage a little moral crusade about rewriting these laws so they are more just. And surely it is also true that sharing new digital content, legally or otherwise, is going to happen. There really is no way to argue that if we had a more sensible copyright term then we consumers would respect that. So I quickly dropped it as a theme for a blog post. My only true conclusion from this episode is that Live at the Keystone is an awesome album.

I had several other thought about the blend of the very new and the very old, all triggered by this recoding activity. Early in the week there was a bit of a to-do about the History Department at Middlebury banning Wikipedia as an allowable source of reference for student papers. Of course this type of thing becomes news, but I really wish that instead of the bans, which by their nature create a negative message, we had an affirmative message of the type of citation we want from our students. In my own teaching the students on their first project must cite at least two papers from a referred Economics journal and I show the students how to access JSTOR to find the AER and the Journal of Economic Perspectives. The point is that they should know the writing of professional economists and see how it differs from the writing of others who write about economics.

But there is also a need to cite just to make sure that the writer gets the facts straight (or to be able to point to the source where the error was introduced). Students don’t have a good sense of appropriate evidence, and part of that is that they are awash in propaganda, including from the government, and separating out that rhetoric from a consistent and believable story based on hard evidence is a lot of work. One writer whom I believe provides a good model to follow is Frank Rich of the New York Times. (You need Times Select to get to his columns.) His columns are now better to read online than in print because they are heavily hyperlinked to his sources of evidence. In Rich’s writing, the hyperlink has come to replace the footnote. This form of writing seems a welcome development to me and emulation is something we should encourage in students. Further it gives students a way to see how the new ties to the old. And since most sources students are likely to confront, even those in print, are likely to have “metadata” such as an entry in the Library Catalog online, it gives students a way of thinking about reference that is do-able from their point of view. (Of course there is still a need to read the source and be acquainted with the information therein. So, to bastardize a well worn phrase, there’s still an issue of “citation with (mis)representation.”)

Another piece in the times, this one from the Magazine section entitled BrewTube, was the first article I’ve seen written about the Net Generation that resonated with me and it did so on many fronts. The article is about the fledgling effort at, an online video site with content made for Web viewing, motivated in large part because that’s the way the Net Gen wants their content and better for Anheuser-Busch to wrapper it’s message around that content than to insert commercials into programming that the mute button and the pause/fast forward controls can essentially bypass. (As usual there were a lot of new commercials introduced during the Superbowl and the Bud commercials were among the funniest. So they have not completely abandoned the alternative idea of making commercials their own form of entertainment.)

As I’ve been telling colleagues, as of late my younger kid has been watching a lot of video online and it is this content rather than video games that seems so threatening and frightening to me as a parent, because much of it is quite raw. The BrewTube piece makes it clear what’s at root here and since so much of the piece is about the content of the programming itself, it really is instructive this way. (In contrast, there is a lot of discussion right now about creating educational content in Second Life but most of the conversation is still about the container and not about “the programming” and so it seems hollow to me.)

A great deal of the content is lampooning in some form – there is repeated mention of the word “mockumentary,” a word the spell checker in Word doesn’t seem to like. Lampoon as a dominant genre makes sense if there is a great deal of mistrust about more earnest institutions. And, indeed that seems to be the case. David Brooks has a nice column about a class he taught at Duke, where students show this mistrust any time the ideas seem to have an ideological and extremist bent, and we’re talking about radicals on the left and right in American political life, many of whom hold office, not Osama. The consensus view is pragmatism and getting things done. The kids are fed up with quagmire, a consequence of ideology gone awry. This, indeed, may be the biggest gap between us and the net generation. When we were in our teens John Lennon was the hero and it was our parents who were trapped in their sensible but in-transcendent existence. Perhaps many of our generation never really grew up and now our kids have to do that for us.

So kids want out of these frustrating ideological arguments and instead crave humor either in the form of the lampoon or in the utter absurd – the zillions of perturbations on the reality TV theme an exemplar of the latter and a way to deliver while keeping the production costs of content down to a reasonable number. So, in effect, with the advent of the Borg, Mad Magazine has become a life form unto itself and its various progeny are what our kids are consuming. And even if we haven’t quite figured it out, the folks who make Budweiser have and they’d really like to get our kids hooked even before they’ve turned eighteen and so are willing to spend hundreds of millions of dollars in that pursuit.

What’s that expression about the more things change?

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