Sunday, May 30, 2010

Dancing About Architecture

"Writing about music is like dancing about architecture." is one of these quotes that never seem to die. Last week I heard it again while listening to a podcast. The quote is attributed to many people including Elvis Costello in a 1983 interview, although the origin seems to be older, perhaps much older than that. More interesting, from reading the linked piece is that someone tested dancing about architecture to see if it "was really so strange".

Whoever said it, they certainly caught the truth that written words cannot adequately capture an aural sensation. A great illustration of this is the 1998 interview* of Ray Manzarek of The Doors by Terry Gross on the Fresh Aire radio program. Manzarek describes with the help of a keyboard how the Doors worked as a group and how they wrote the song "Light My Fire". A written transcript of this interview would be unintelligible, whereas the audio interview is a revelation. Terry Gross has recorded many interviews with musicians where they play their music and they are all worth hearing.

Although I spend plenty of time listening, I have never found it useful to read about music. That is not to say that there cannot be good writing about music. In my experience the best has been in fiction, particularly the novels of Ian McEwan. In "Saturday", there are a few pages with a magical description of a rock band performing one song, followed by a meditation on how certain passages of music, and certain performances can affect us to the core.

A good part of "Amsterdam" is about the process of composing a classical symphony. While I have never composed music, I do design and write software and there are similarities to the process. I will write more about this another time. Unfortunately the novel and the symphony are cut short by the books annoying ending.

* Unfortunately, to listen to this piece, you have to have the Real Player. I have it because I have installed the BBC iPlayer to listen to old comedy shows including the Goon Show. If you do not want the Real Player, here is a another piece from NPR Music about "Light My Fire" with more palatable download requirements.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The App Economy

The evolution of the App Economy is a marvelous thing to watch. In March I questioned whether apps for the iPad would develop with the same strength as apps for the iPhone, because more content is accessible through the browser. Jacob Weisberg at Slate discussed the same thing recently in more depth. He exhorts publishers to beware of getting tangled up with Apple for both monetary and censorship reasons.

On the other hand, web content is not fully available on the iPad. Steve Jobs has denigrated Flash for being slow, buggy and inefficient, and has sworn that it will never be seen on the iPad. In its place Jobs suggests HTML5. The problem is that HTML5 does not do everything that Flash does. This recent piece on on Apple Insider explains the shortcomings of HTML5 and why Hulu will not be using it any time soon for their video distribution.

If Hulu cannot use Flash, then its only alternative is to develop an App, which it is reportedly doing. If Hulu has an App, it may charge a subscription as is being discussed. If Hulu charges a subscription, some of that revenue flows to Apple. By banning a rival development platform, Apple is encouraging the App Economy to its own advantage. Thus it is a pity that so many of the early publishing apps have received such bad reviews.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Google Books Rocks

Awesome is too small a word to express what Google Books has achieved. Last year Google settled the class action law suit that allows them to index out of print books that they had digitized. As part of the settlement they also have to sell the books, which means that Google is now a bookseller. The most important part of the settlement is the Books Right Registry:
"The agreement will also create an independent, not-for-profit Book Rights Registry to represent authors, publishers and other rightsholders. In essence, the Registry will help locate rightsholders and ensure that they receive the money their works earn under this agreement. You can visit the settlement administration site, the Authors Guild or the AAP to learn more about this important initiative."
One of the biggest practical issue with Intellectual Property is that it is impossible to use most Intellectual Property because you do not know who owns it, and therefore you do not know who to ask for permission to use it. Laurence Lessig has been talking about this for a long time as a part of his campaign to fix copyright laws. The establishment of a Book Rights Registry goes some way to address the problem with one type of Intellectual Property. Perhaps this will be the beginning of a trend.

I will write more about this issue another day. For now, here is how I stumbled upon the awesomeness of Google Books. My father would often quote "but tomorrow by the living god, we'll try the game again" after some setback. I knew it was from a poem, but not much more. So the other day, I typed "but tomorrow by the living god" into Google and was astonished by the progress that has been made in search over the last few years. The first entry in the search results linked to a poetry anthology in Google Books that has the full poem by John Masefield.

Masefield is best known for his poems "Sea Fever", "I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely seas and the sky, ..." and "Cargoes", "Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir, ..." For poem collectors, here is the rarely seen poem TOMORROW by John Masefield:
Oh yesterday the cutting edge drank thirstily and deep,
The upland outlaws ringed us in and herded us as sheep,
They drove us from the stricken field and bayed us into keep;
But tomorrow
By the living God, we'll try the game again!

Oh yesterday our little troop was ridden through and through,
Our swaying, tattered pennons fled a broken, beaten few,
And all a summer afternoon, they hunted us and slew;
But tomorrow
By the living God, we'll try the game again!

And here upon the turret-top the bale-fires glower red,
The wake-lights burn and drip about our hacked, disfigured dead,
And many a broken heart is here and many a broken head;
But tomorrow
By the living God, we'll try the game again!
In my original search results, there was a link to Google newspapers where a Virgin Islands Daily News edition from 1950 quotes part of the poem. This time when I did the search, that link did not come up. Instead there was a link to a 1991 zine for Vietnam War vets that quotes a verse of the poem. Who knows what you may find when you do the search.