Sunday, October 17, 2021

The Loudness Wars

Music from the 1990's sucked, not because of content, but because of how it was produced.

I recently went down a Wikipedia rabbit-hole and ended up on the "Loudness Wars" page.  It was an interesting revelation, as I sensed something was wrong about modern music, but couldn't put my finger on it.

It all started in the 1960's with Phil Spector and the "Wall of Sound".  Spector was later convicted of shooting his girlfriend, but before that, he was the master of mixology and record production. Instead of just recording a band playing, he filled in the sound with all sorts of instrumentation, over-dubs, and reverb, so that the sound seemed "fuller" and sounded better on the car radios of the era.

Karen Carpenter - and her brother, who produced her albums - did sort of the same thing.  The would "overdub" her voice by singing over and over again on the same track, until the resulting recording was a half-dozen or more Karen Carpenter's singing together.  This results in the harmonics being emphasized and the off-notes being cancelled out.  The voice sounds better than it actually is, and also has that echo quality.  It was auto-tune before auto-tune was invented.

Actually, Auto-tune, (first made famous by Cher in "Live After Love") as I understand it, does pretty much the same thing - it "corrects" the frequency of the voice to a predetermined score.  You can be a total monotone singer, and yet create music these days, provided you have a good producer and audio engineer.

And that's the key, right there.  Sir George Martin (knighted no less!) was known by some as "The Fifth Beatle" as his studio engineering created the sound of many Beatles records (and Phil Spector had his hand in it as well).  Studio music can be created artificially using recording equipment, to produce a sound that can never be reproduced live, which is why many bands basically lip-synced their live performances using a cue track to sing along with.  There was no way you could play, live, a song that required 50 takes and was assembled electronically on tape.

But those efforts were primitive in comparison to what can be done today and what could be done on the CD. Using compression and other techniques, studio engineers could increase "loudness" creating a "brick wall" of sound - making Phil Specter's "Wall of Sound" look like a picket fence.  Some claimed this technique made music sound better - particularly to record company execs.  Others thought (as I do) that it is a crutch that musicians use to make crappy music sound better.

Whatever the reason or motivation, many albums from the CD era had this overproduced "Brick Wall" loudness, and as a result, sounded like crap to many folks.  Music was - and is - a product sold to us like a gallon of gasoline or a pound of potatoes.  More like McDonald's food, I think - generic and bland and bad-tasting.

At that point in my life, I drifted away from music. I sold my "killer stereo" that was something I desperately wanted when I was 20 years old, but at age 40, seemed juvenile and pointless.  I listened to less music, and much of what I listened to was older. I thought at the time that perhaps this was just part of my getting older - that older people listen to less music than teenagers and 20-somethings - and perhaps this is true.  But I think something else happened as well - the music changed.  And the "Loudness Wars" were part of this - packaging music as an overproduced product, to be processed and artificially sweetened until it was palatable, even if the core ingredients were dreck.

In a way, it was like television shows - they "sweeten" them with canned laughter, which you often don't notice until it is absent.   They have people applauding wildly and laughing loudly at things that are not entertaining or even funny.  This was parodied astutely in "Heil Honey, I'm Home!" where each character gets a standing ovation just for entering the room.

Television, like music, wasn't something we just happened to watch, but a product engineered for us, much as a "Spicy McChicken Sandwich" is engineered and focus-group tested until it becomes something that bears little resemblance to actual chicken or a sandwich.

There is, of course, hope.  The loudness wars encouraged a backlash, and many musicians have come out against this form of over-engineering of music - that is, until their album flops and they seek out the "sugar" to revive their career or pump up the numbers on a lame release.  Given the loudness levels of much of today's popular music - as well as the warbling and auto-tune - I doubt that over-production is gone for good - it will just morph in new ways.

The real shame is that really talented artists are falling by the wayside, and people with no talent, but an image and reputation are taking their place - their "music" being manufactured in a studio by Engineers, instead of being performed by artists.  All a modern recording artist need do is read the lines of lyrics out loud, and the Engineers can do the rest - making him or her sound like a songbird, albeit an electronic one.  Add a little loudness, some over-dubbing, and a host of backup studio musicians, and well, hell, I could be a "rock star" today.

But then again, that was the point of rock since the 1960's - it was all about selling an image, not music.  Sometimes the music was actually good, too.  But without an album cover showing pouty androgynous late-teens or early-20's males on it, well, the stuff didn't sell.  Rock and Roll didn't die - it never was alive!

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Happy Amerigo Vespucci Day!

We need an Italian hero!  May I suggest?

Columbus day has come and gone and the usual complaints about Columbus are being aired.  And they are, for the most part, true.  Columbus engaged in enslaving an entire race of people and then wiping them off the face of the earth.  And he either participated in, or condoned, the use of sex slaves as young as nine years old.

A reader of mine tried to convince me that such actions were the fault of his Spanish cohorts and that Columbus was just the navigator - he drove the getaway galleon.  But under the felony murder rule, it makes him just as culpable as the rest.  And besides, letters he wrote which still exist today, document his greed.

Perhaps it was not so much greed as a need to be vindicated. The Spanish throne funded his exploration and all he had to show for it was a couple of lousy islands with little or no treasure on them - other than potential slaves.  So he argued for yet more money to explore further and find more riches - which he did, but those riches primarily being more slaves.   His abuse of the natives was so bad, he was tossed in jail later on - something that was covered in my 3rd grade "history" book, but not the reasons why (we were told he was "in debt" or something).

So, fuck Columbus.  He didn't "discover" much other than present day Haiti and the Dominican Republic.  He missed two entire continents that were only a few hundred miles away. And besides, the Norse got there first - among Westerners.  The place was "discovered" of course, thousands of years before, by Asians crossing over from Siberia - the ancestors of today's Native Americans.

As I noted before, American Indians were no saints, either - often slaughtering one another in tribal warfare. The Aztecs and Incas were apparently quite fond of this - but not very efficient. Spanish explorers brought horses, muskets, cannons, and diseases - and wiped out the natives at a far greater pace.

So... Columbus Day is problematic. But as I noted before, it had become more of an "Italian-American" day celebrating Italian heritage - using a guy who lead a Spanish Expedition as a talisman.  It has a number of structural problems.

But the push-back to "cancelling" Columbus Day is in part from Italian-Americans who don't want to lose "their" holiday, even if its roots have little to do with being Italian.  So why no pick another day and another name and just move on?  Let's face it - "Indigenous Peoples Day" just doesn't have legs.

May I suggest Amerigo Vespucci Day - from all accounts, Amerigo - who was Italian - never enslaved anyone.  But he named the "Americas" with his own name (a nice trick) and thus we can celebrate him - and Italian heritage - without worrying about exploitation of anyone.

There you go.  Problem solved!  Next!

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

It Might Rain!

You can run for cover if you think it is going to rain, but then again, you might miss out on something.

Fear is never a emotion to be trusted.  Fear has its uses - to warn you of danger.  But it is not a substitute for logical analysis and thinking.  If you rely on fear alone to guide your life, you will miss out on real opportunities, and at the same time, end up being victimized by fraudulent ones

It has been raining a lot as of late, and it is all-too-easy to give up on your activity plans if you are afraid it might rain.  On the other hand, if you just take a wait-and-see attitude, you may find there is a few hours of no rain and take the risk that it won't rain, and enjoy a nice kayak ride.   If we listened to the weather forecast and stayed inside, we would have missed out on a nice day.

It is interesting, but fear works both ways.  People are afraid of small inconveniences - being stuck in the rain, having a bad meal, being backed up in traffic for ten minutes.  But at the same time, people will jump off a cliff if they think they are "missing out" on cliff-jumping.  Old FOMO rears its ugly head, and people trying to get into your wallet love to use Fear of Missing Out. "They didn't make many of these cars in this color, and I have another gentleman who is seriously interested in buying it!" "Better buy a house now, before you are priced out of the market forever!" 'This is a great investment opportunity that comes along once in a lifetime! Do you want to be like the guy who took a pass on Microsoft back in 1983?"

And so on and so forth.

Growing up in Syracuse, New York - the second cloudiest city in the USA next to Seattle - I realized early on that a cloudy day could be a "good day" if you let it.  If you think a few clouds means rain, and rain means cancelling all your plans, well, you'll never do anything in Syracuse, other than watch television.  The best days we had waterskiing were often cold, cloudy days when the lake was like a mirror and no one else was out there.   If you wait for a sunny day, odds are there are 1-foot waves and tons of other people making wakes.

Even if it rains, you can have fun.  One time we were stuck in a downpour in a State Park on Cape Cod.  We put out the awning on the camper, boiled two lobsters and got the cocktail shaker going, and played every song on our iPod that had the word "rain" in it.  We had fun.  Others cowered inside their fancy rigs and watched Fox News on their big-screen televisions.  Choices, we always have choices

If you're going to go camping, and shy away from any activity at the first sign of rain, well, you won't end up doing much of anything, if in fact you don't just run back home with your tail between your legs - as we see many weekend warriors do (after fruitlessly arguing with the park ranger for an hour for a "rain refund").  Some people just don't get it.  Indoor cats.

It is funny to me how we as people will risk everything we've worked for on some hairbrained scheme - whether it is MLM, a time-share, Bitcoin, gambling, "stonks" or whatever.  But when it comes to trivial risks - the chance of rain - we go running for shelter.

Maybe that says something right there about human nature.  And maybe there is something to be learned from that as well!

Where Did All The Trump Flags Go?

Where have all the Trump flags gone?  Turns out, they wore out!

Travelling through Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee and Alabama, we notice something missing that was quite prevalent just a year ago: Trump Flags.  At one time, they seemed to be everywhere, but today they have all but disappeared.  What gives?

Well, I think the main thing is, they were poorly made flags from China that were bought for cheap and sold to the Trump faithful for a lot.  The Trump campaign claims all their flags were "Made in America" but none of their campaign finance disclosures can point to a single American supplier.  They did note that anyone selling unauthorized Trump merchandise with the "Trump 2020" logo would be guilty of Trademark or Copyright infringement.  Meanwhile, in China, a factory is filmed with Trump flags being made.  Guess they got a license, eh?

So the Trump flags wore out - the few we see left are tattered and faded.  I guess the campaign figured there was no point in making a long-lasting flag, when campaigns are measured in months.  Then again, perpetual campaigning seems to be the new norm these days.  So it would have helped Trump to make a longer-lasting flag.  Funny thing is, they still sell Trump merch - you just don't see any of it.

Maybe that is the second part of it - that many people are embarrassed at this point.  My Catholic Republican friends voted for Trump and put up a yard sign because their priest told them to do so.  They were single issue voters and they knew Trump was not Godly, but that his minions would suggest anti-abortion Supreme Court picks.  But the day after January 6th, their yard sign came down - everyone has their limits.

I do see some other flags, though   I saw one that said "Jesus is my Savior, Trump is my President!" which was really offensive - to Jesus.  I mean conflating "Grab 'em by the Pussy!" with "Turn the other cheek" makes no sense, unless Jesus was talking about an ass cheek, I guess.

Is it still a thing to fly flags from pickup trucks?  Must be awfully noisy at 70 mph on the Interstate.  Maybe that is why the Trump flags are tattered.  I have seen a few this summer flying in tandem with the US flag on the back of a pickup.  The American flag is in good shape.  The thin-ass Trump flag (which you could see through when it was new) is tattered.  So maybe it is just cheap-ass flags bought for a buck and sold for $50 by our grifter-in-chief.

And we see these black American flags, as well - for example flying from the back of a pickup truck (along with a regular American flag).  Not the thin blue line (or red line) flags, but all-black stars and stripes.  Supposedly this means "Give no quarter!" or "Never surrender!" but I am not so sure.  It is a coded signal - a dog-whistle - I guess, that the Trump faithful haven't given up, they've gone underground, no doubt to escape prosecution for their roles in the insurrection.

But there are other coded signals as well.  Several times this summer, I saw pristine "Reagan/Bush!" campaign flags flying from porches and houseboats in the midwest.   They made better flags back then, obviously - quality stitching and thicker material.  Reagan was made of sterner stuff.  But the message these flags send is an interesting one.  My guess is they are saying, "I am a traditional Republican, and what are you going to do about it?  Criticize Reagan?  He's already been beatified!"

So it is a neat way of telling Trump supporters to fuck-off and that they don't own the GOP anymore, if they ever did.  Or maybe it is wishful thinking, anyway.  We'll see.

But it is odd there are no more Trump flags and Trump trains, and you don't hear much about Trump rallies.  The news doesn't breathlessly report Trump's tweets because there aren't any and as an ex-President, it is understood that you become irrelevant overnight.  No one cares what Jimmy Carter says, or George Bush, or Clinton or Obama or any ex-President.

Maybe Trump himself is fading like his cheap-ass flags.  Tattered and torn, and so thin you can see through him.  Maybe.  People thought Hitler was through after the Beer-Hall Putsch, too!

Monday, October 11, 2021

False Narratives


If you're paying $8000 a month in "doctor" bills, something isn't right.

I saw the above "meme" on the Internets the other day and it struck me as a classic example of Learned Helplessness.  You can't win at the game of life, so you might as well give up, order a double-tall latte frapachino at Starbucks and a burrito the size of your head at Chipolte!  Haw-haw!

Seriously, though, this "Meme" was obviously created by someone from overseas (Hello Russia?) who has no idea how things work in America.  To begin with, $8000 is more than the maximum out-of-pocket on an Obamacare plan, so it is hard to understand how anyone could end up with a staggering bill like that on an annual basis, much less a monthly one.  Not only that, this represents a serious illness (cancer, car accident, whatever) that isn't affecting a "typical" Millennial or anyone else for that matter.

The rent thing is also suspect.  I have a condo in the DC area - next to a Metro station, no less, and it rents out for $1300 a month, utilities included.   That's pretty cheap!  Maybe $2000 a month is the "norm" in a trendy district or a tech hotspot like the bay area, but not the rest of the USA.  Where I live, you can rent a place for under $1000 a month - sometimes well under.

But it gets even better than that.  Get a roommate, a lover, a partner, or a spouse, and that rent check cuts itself in half.  So many people I meet today are loners and lonely and wonder why their life sucks.  They claim they can't get laid, and everything costs too much.  But if they would just find someone to live with (and no, you are not "entitled" to marry Stacey or whatever) you can cut your personal overhead in half.

But it doesn't end there.  The punchline of the piece is "you could save $3 by making meals at home!" which is also wrong.  The "Meme" posits that the Millennial spent $49 a month on meals and coffee (no mention in the budget for groceries - but hey, the whole thing is made-up anyway!).  Making meals at home would save about 3/4 of that cost, or about $40.  Coffee at home costs about 22 cents a cup to make.  It's free in the break room at work.  Going out to buy coffee at Starbucks is just stupid.

It may not seem like a lot, but $40 a month, invested at 7% interest over a 45-year working life, amounts to an additional $146,760.85 in your retirement account.  Additional - because I suspect the typical slacker who uses a restaurant as a kitchen isn't spending only $49 on meals but far, far more.

Little costs add up - on your credit card, resulting in intractable credit card debt.  Compound interest is a bitch when you borrow, a friend when you save.  And that has been the whole point of this blog - how small cuts in your budget allow you to save for the future - and you will have a future.  You can't just decide to invest without taking that money from somewhere.

There are other liberties taken in this "Meme" as well - Netflix went from $8.99 a month to $12 for some reason - and there is no reason to have it every month.  Watch a streaming channel, see all there is to see in a month (believe me, Netflix is pretty shallow in content - they all are!) and move on.  You don't have a "right" to cable or a streaming service, that's just bullshit.

The Uber thing is hard to parse.  I guess this person doesn't have a car?  Or did they get hammered at the bar (expense not shown, along with drugs) and need a ride home?  It is just tossed in there because I guess Russians think that is how we live.

So what's the point of this "Meme"?  Several.  First, it is a shot at class warfare - the rich have it so good while the rest of us struggle to pay for our Starbucks while inexplicably failing to sign up for Obamacare - and we all have chronic medical conditions that cost thousands of dollars a month.  Yea, that could happen, I suppose.  I guess it could happen if you were one of those Obamacare deniers (like the anti-vaxxers) who refused to get a free Obamacare plan just to "show the man" they weren't going to accept charity (but at the same time let the hospital absorb their $50,000 emergency room bill from their motorcycle accident!).   In other words, it is just bullshit.

The second thing, is of course, the underlying premise that unless radical social change is enacted a la Ms. AOC, well, you might as well not bother trying.  Just wait for the revolution - saving money is for chumps!  So go ahead, have that Starbucks - it is an act of rebellion!  Besides, you deserve it!

Which takes us back to learned helplessness.  When you think nothing you do in your life changes your environment, it is all-too-easy to cower in the corner, hunker down on your sofa, order delivery food and binge-watch Netflix or play video games for hours on end or just surf the net.  We call that "mental depression" and it is a mental illness.

And when you do this, well, it is no surprise your life doesn't go anywhere, which seems pretty obvious when you think about it.

Does this mean social change is a bad idea?  Heck no - far from it! But obsessing about social change while not balancing your checkbook isn't a good idea.  Not balancing your checkbook on the premise that unless radical social change occurs, is just ridiculous.

Life will always deal you a shitty hand - and most people realize this when they get older and get infirm and realize they have not much left to look forward to.   I complained about my diverticulitis until I met a man at a campground here - 15 years younger than me, and still working - who not only had diverticulitis, but had 12" of bowel removed, at which time they found cancer.   Yea, that.   But he isn't bitching about his $8000-a-month "doctor bill" because it doesn't exist - he has Obamacare.

But that doesn't fit the narrative, does it?