Thursday, July 31, 2014

New World, New Hall

[I'm finally posting this review which I originally wrote for Suite101 now that the text is again mine to do with as I please.]

America's only orchestral academy, the New World Symphony, officially kicked off its new season in January of 2011 by breaking in its brand new concert hall, New World Center, in Miami Beach. And I was there to savor the moment.

We attended the first public concert (there was a private one for donors the night before) and came away knocked out by the one-two punch of performance and concert space. The Frank Gehry-designed structure has been turning heads even before completion. Its innovative and high-tech features seem destined to inspire a reinvention of classical music presentation for the 21st century. Inside, huge "sail" shapes on the walls spread out the sound and double as projection screens for laser and video images. Outside, a 6-story Projection Wall allows the performances to be viewed -- and heard -- from the adjoining two-acre park. Can't get a ticket? No problem!

To support these media capabilities, an entire audio-video production studio hovers over the rear of the concert hall, looking like NASA Mission Control. (For more about the Wallcasts, see my review of the one featuring Mahler's Sixth Symphony.)

None of these bells and whistles overshadows the music, however. Conductor Michael Tilson-Thomas (fondly referred to as MTT), who founded the New World back in 1988, picked up the reins at the podium and got an instant response from his highly-tuned ensemble. From the opening strains of Wagner's Overture to the Flying Dutchman we could tell we were in for a treat.

The sound in this new space is simply electric. Both intimate and expansive, without a bad seat in the house, it offers a degree of clarity and precision sometimes lacking in larger auditoriums. In our case, we were actually seated behind the string section in a bank of benches that can also serve as choral risers. This arena type of seating offers a chance to experience the music as if you are part of the orchestra, right in the thick of the action.

And it's impossible to overstate the abilities of the New World's youthful musicians. Their ensemble playing is impeccable, the brass gutsy, the strings capable of all kinds of sonorities and the strength to stand up against the rest of the instruments.

What would an opening be without a world premier? "Polaris," by Thomas Ad├Ęs, was co-commissioned by the New World and a handful of some of the the best orchestras on the planet. The piece, accompanied by a commissioned film projected on three sides of the hall, challenged both musicians and audience, but it seems we were all up to the challenge. The texture of the sound at the end resembled a combination of a raging torrent of water and a jet of flame -- a sound perhaps never before uttered by any orchestra.

After this, I thought the closing Third Symphony of Aaron Copeland would sound tame by comparison. I was wrong! This work is perhaps one of the most ambitious of the prototypical American composer and demonstrates what it was possible to create even way back in 1946.

The final movement, based on the famous "Fanfare for the Common Man," formed a fitting conclusion to the evening and kicked off a standing ovation that lasted until Tilson-Thomas had to beg to be allowed to go home.

We left too, but can't wait to come back for more.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

eBooks, eBookshelves, eLibraries

A whole library dumped on my doorstep ...

One of the odd things about reading eBooks is that the booksellers encourage you to use only their own software for reading them. Of course this is to insure you will keep buying from them, since they have integrated their own digital "stores" as an extension of what you're reading.

Amazon is the worst culprit in this practice because they go further by using a proprietary format for their eBooks that insures you have to use their software. But Apple, Barnes and Noble, Google, Kobo and the rest do the same thing even if they agree on using the ePub standard format. Amazon even locks down their tablets to prevent you from installing reading software from other vendors. (This is the main reason I tell everyone not to buy a Kindle. Most other tablets, even from B&N and Kobo, will allow you freedom of choice.) So if you want to buy from multiple vendors you end up having to remember who you bought a book from so you can look for it in the appropriate software.

This is just weird. Imagine if you could only pick up and read one of your paper books if you could remember where you bought it. Hm, let's see. I was on my way to San Francisco, and in the airport ... or was it after I got there and went to City Lights? Or did I just take it with me to read on the trip?

It's possible to centralize your digital library with something like the Aldiko reader (for Android) or Adobe Digital Editions (Windows and Mac), but the lack of multiplatform support and digital rights management issues (the dread DRM) can make that challenging. So in practice we're ending up with these compartmentalized collections as if we had to organize our library in bookcases labeled "Amazon" et al. instead of Fiction, Biography, History, etc.

One of the downsides to this is that we're dependent on the bookseller to stay in business so they can continue to support their distribution ecosystem. How reliable is that? What would happen to all your eBooks (and music) if Amazon went belly up someday? Well, okay, maybe that's not likely. But what if it was Barnes & Noble? Not impossible, since they're struggling. It already happened to Borders, which had partnered with Kobo for eBooks. Luckily for their customers, Kobo remained open for business even after the chain of stores went down the tubes, but that was only because they were separate companies. (Kobo subsequently formed a partnership with the Independent Booksellers Association, which is why you should go to the website of your favorite indie bookseller and sign up for an account through them.)

Another case in point is Sony. The faltering entertainment juggernaut was in the eBook business at one time, and even launched one of the first readers with an ePaper display. This is where it gets personal, because the unimaginatively named "Sony Reader" was my first one. (I wrote about it here and here back in 2008.) I used it extensively for several years, mostly to catch up on the wealth of free literature available in the public domain from Project Gutenberg.

As the competition heated up with Amazon, Sony released a software update so they could convert to the ePub standard and abandon their own proprietary one. But they had missed the boat on distribution. What made the Kindle such a runaway success was not the reader or software or even the pricing available from Amazon's vast catalog. It was the ability to buy instantly over the air. Sony was too late to that party, having started out with the idea that you would shop on your desktop computer and push books onto your device through a cable. Quaint. So last year they decided to pull the plug on their whole book store to staunch the bleeding.

I was sorry to see them go. My Reader still works and still has unfinished books on it. (Be patient, Joseph Conrad, I'm getting back to you!) But I imagined my ability to re-download them vanishing. Kobo to the rescue! The Canadian company now owned by Rakuten of Japan struck a deal to take over all of Sony's existing clients along with their purchase history.

Amazingly, when the day came I didn't even have to do anything. I just got an email from Kobo letting me know that all my Sony books were now available in my Kobo library. Grabbing my tablet, I looked, and there they were. Instant gratification.

Imagine if when Borders went out of business a Barnes and Noble truck had pulled up to my front door and deposited copies of all my Borders-purchased books. Impossible of course, with traditional books. Not necessary, either, because they were already on the shelf. But with eBooks all things are possible. And necessary.

[Next time -- the changing library.]

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Neutrality? What Neutrality?

When all is not what it seems ...

There's quite a buzz going around about net neutrality, so much so that it feels like my head is going around in a buzz. In the end I've come around to quite a different position than where I started out. Allow me to explain.

In a nutshell, the problem arose because Internet Service Providers like Comcast and AT&T became concerned about the amount of bandwidth being consumed by their customers to stream data from Content Providers like Netflix and Youtube. In the merry old wild-West days of the Internet this was not a problem, because, well, let's face it, dialup modems were not up to dealing with songs, let alone HD movies (which did not exist yet).

But now we're in the age of high-speed always-on connections, and soon will make the leap into superfast fiber optic connections. Increasingly this puts the ISPs in the position of providing a free transport mechanism for anyone with a digital product to distribute. To be clear, the transport mechanism is being paid for by the consumer (us) on the receiving end, and in many cases the content is also being paid for by the consumer. So what's their beef?

Depending on your point of view, the issue is either clarified or muddied by the fact that the ISPs "like" Comcast and AT&T are also content providers, so what they're really uncomfortable about is having to provide the highway for their competitor's trucks to deliver on while the money for the product goes to someone other than them. So you can understand their concern. Their poor shareholders are being deprived of an even bigger piece of the pie because of some stupid rule left over from the dark ages.

That rule is the "net neutrality" policy that began as a sort of gentleman's agreement between all the carriers that they would treat all traffic equally in the interest of creating the environment that gave rise to email, the World Wide Web, ecommerce, and the whole dot-com splurge that soon followed. Naturally enough, the ISP's would now like to treat some traffic differently. If they can't sell you the content, they would like to be able to charge someone else for delivering it. Plus, they'd like the right to give preferential treatment to their own content if you're buying from them so you'll have a more pleasant consumer experience.

All the hue and cry results from the fear of a domino effect. Once this precedent is established, people fear, we will head down the road that leads to a dual standard, with huge wealthy companies paying one another for the privilege of high speeds, while the rest of us muddle along on footpaths. I understand this argument, too. I've even signed petitions begging the FCC or anyone else in a position of power to KEEP THE INTERNET FREE, for all users to be treated equally, etc.

Now I've changed my mind. The problem is, the issue has come up not because of services "like" Netflix and Youtube -- it really IS Netflix and Youtube. As much as we all love them, these guys are running the public network into the ground. Netflix alone is said to account for over 30% of all internet traffic, and Youtube half again as much. With the advent of 4K video we can expect another huge jump. Add to that all the other providers that are flooding the net with song streams and videos (subliminal: Pandora, Facebook) and you can see that what the rest of us are doing amounts to a hill of beans.

Pushing the old highway analogy, it's as if we built a network of 2-lane highways across the country so we could take a Sunday drive, and now a few mega-trucking companies have flooded it with semi-trailers. The highway builders have to add more lanes, and someone has to pay. Guess who?

You got it. We asked for it, we demanded it, we're watching it and listening to it, and we're gonna pay. But the real insight that changed my mind is that we're asking the Internet to do something beyond what it was designed to do. It's high time to create a separate channel for all those huge commercial loads. Consider it a turnpike to take the load off the county roads. Whatever makes you comfortable. With this bottleneck behind us then the REST of the Internet can remain neutral.

And as far as how equal we are? Here's the technical reality: You may not have noticed the fine print in your contract with your ISP, but you are prohibited from running a website from your home computer. This is related to the speed you're getting. The A in ADSL stands for "asynchronous," which is a thousand dollar word that means you download ten times faster than you upload. The whole system is designed around the reality that you are consuming several DVDs worth of videos each day while sending a few emails and making a couple of Facebook posts.

If you do want to create a website, you rent space on a rack somewhere in the cloud and hang out your digital shingle in cyberspace. But read the fine print of that contract also. You'll note the limits on traffic that came with your 9.99 or 6.99 per month of service, with rather huge fees for excessive overage. If you're really trying to run a start up digital service, you'll quickly find your measly shared server is overwhelmed by demand. As you scale up with success, you'll move to your own managed server, then maybe to a cluster of them, and you'll pay a distribution service such as Cloudflare or Akamai to be able to handle all the thousands and millions of hits you'll be getting. You may even end up building your own massive data centers the way Google, Amazon, and Microsoft do. It will end up costing you a fortune and you'll either be burning through a pile of investment capital or, if you're lucky, already managing to monetize your service and make it profitable.

So my question is, how much will the loss of net neutrality alter this picture? My instinct tells me, not much. Unless of course you are someone "like" Netflix and Youtube.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

In The Sweet Spot

Now how much would you pay ...?

Techies everywhere know a secret that can save you thousands of dollars in just a few years. All you have to do is avoid the compulsion to buy the latest and greatest gadgets until about a year has gone by. As soon as they're superceded by a marginally improved model, then jump on it.

I've been following this policy with hard drives, for example, for decades. There is a measurable price curve
with a point near the upward slope known as "the sweet spot," the most gigabytes per buck. Pay more and you get more capacity, but for a premium price. Pay less, and you save money but lose an increasing amount of capacity as you approach the absolute minimum cost for building a drive of ANY size. At the low end the price hovers always between $20 to $40, but the amount of storage you get keeps going up in parallel with the high end. It's just not worth it to build them with less space than that. And amazingly, in another year or two that minimum size may reach a full terabyte.

Which brings us to phones. After venting about the issues with my HTC Vivid, it was time to go shopping. Every two years around this month AT&T offers to subsidize a new phone for me if I promise to keep using them for another two years. Seems fair to me, as long as I get something good for it.

Last time I got the Vivid for free, in "certified refurbished condition." It wasn't my first choice, but the price was right. And with all my kvetching, it did serve me daily throughout its life, though it really did struggle at the end. This time I was in luck. HTC had just come out with its latest and greatest model of the One. It was instantly available from AT&T for the subsidized price of $199. But (see instructions above) the previous model of the One was still available for the price of ... ZERO.

I confess that I was tempted. Reviewers were oogling the new model and cooing about its aesthetics and improvements. But let's see ... $199 ... zero ... $199 ... zero ... Two hundred bucks is two hundred bucks. And a phone is a phone. You have to stick with this philosophy for it to work.

So I placed my order, which included FREE next day shipping from Ft. Worth, TX to my front porch. It arrived with a new SIM card preinstalled, and online activation was pretty nearly one-click. I mean I didn't even have to enter any numbers because they already HAD my numbers. How easy can it get?

Am I in heaven now? Too early to say, but having installed all my apps in the first couple of days I'm beginning to get the feel of it. One thing is certain -- the GUI is so much smoother it feels like it's been oiled and floating in water. I'm finally realizing how much I was suffering with the old phone.

Another pleasant surprise is the sound quality. I spend more time listing to music on my phone than anything else, and even on the commuter train I noticed a marked improvement in sound resolution and spacial separation.

Like the Vivid, the new (old) One came prepared to download an instant OS upgrade. This was a 619 megabyte download (equivalent to a full CD!) that took me painlessly from 4.3 to 4.4.2. Nice. Now if only those updates keep rolling in for the next two years ...

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The New Windows?

A while ago I saw an article online titled "Is Android the New Windows?"  At the time I didn't feel the comparison was fair, but it did raise some good points. Android was definitely surging toward the kind of market dominance that Windows has maintained. At one time Microsoft dominated 98% of the world's desktop PCs, and Android is already at around 80% of tablets and phones, depending on which set of statistics you care to adopt.

That success becomes a target on the back, inviting the global hacker community to invest heavily in attacking the dominant ecosystem. Rafts of malware and the need to run antiviral software are the result. In spite of its "sandboxing" features, Android devices have proved to be vulnerable.

But Android was an underdog, and who doesn't love those? It started out yapping around the heels of Apple's iPhone/iPad juggernaut and ended up as top dog. It ran on Linux at its core, sharing a code base with everything else in the world from set-top boxes and routers up to the fastest supercomputers -- even the Large Hadron Collider. And Android itself was at least sorta/kinda open source, with a vibrantly free marketplace for apps.

But recent experience has left me -- even as a fan -- with a discouraged feeling. I'm on my second Android phone, and I've previously raved about how much better it is than the first one. But it's end-of-contract time now, and the HTC Vivid is showing its age.

My first phone never had an Android upgrade at all, due to the rediculously convoluted steps required back then. (Download an installer program -- Windows only -- then connect your phone to the PC and use the software to push the update onto it, hoping not to brick it in the process.) It just wasn't worth it.

In contrast, the Vivid started out with an instant over-the-air upgrade to 4.0 that was painless and darn near automatic. But it turns out that was the last one it ever received. The next update never ran to completion, with the result that it has a permanent "Continue Update" link when you check the software status, but clicking the link does nothing.

Tech support? Start by resetting your phone to factory defaults. This is like the cure-all for Windows woes: wipe your hard drive, reinstall the OS, reinstall your apps, reinstall your data (you did back it up, right?). Leaving software updates in the hands of the carriers (AKA "the phone company") is like contracting with Radio Shack to do your Windows migrations for you. They are just not the right folks for the job.

So, OK, no more upgrades until I get a new phone. Not a problem, right? I can still run all the apps I like and update them due to a pretty good level of backward compatibility. But earlier versions of Android contained a nagging flaw that gets progressively worse over time. The flash memory in which the OS and all its apps and data live becomes ever more fragmented, producing sluggish performance.

How annoying is it? A widget that used to turn wifi on and off with a tap becomes unresponsive. You tap again, then find it just responded to the first tap, so you've now reversed what you wanted to do. Click the phone icon and wait, and wait for it to open. Tap a contact and wait to see if it will dial. Sometimes it won't! This is a phone, right? And so on.

If any of this sounds familiar then you may have had the experience of living with a Windows XP or even Windows 98 box with its frequent disk-thrashing and need to be "defragged." I find my phone issues are lessened if I simply reboot from time to time. Deja vu all over again. And due to the failed update, it insists on "optimizing" my 112 apps every time it starts up. 1, 2, 3 ... 112.

So is there any hope for us, or are we poor downtrodden consumers doomed to be stuck with inferior software support? Well, thankfully, software evolves. The newer versions of Android claim to have mitigated the fragmentation issue and to focus more on smooth user interaction. I know it's true because I also use a Nexus 7 tablet running version 4.3. If only my phone had been able to go along for the ride.

And of course there's always the hope that comes in the unopened box of a new device. This year's latest model, bigger, better, faster, smoother than ever before! Oh, and more secure, too. Talk about deja vu ...

[Next time ... In the sweet spot.]