Friday, August 29, 2008

The Palin/Meirs Paradox

There's been a firestorm of opinion about John McCain's choice for running mate. But this post isn't about that, really. It's just to share a simple observation. The reader can make of it what they will (it's that whole I report/you decide kind of concept).

Here goes. Commentators are going wild over Sarah Palin's inexperience. And her conservative Christian views make many nervous. It occured to me we've been here before.

When George W. Bush nominated White House Council Harriet Miers for the Supreme Court, commentators went wild. Her inexperience seemed to make her manifestly unqualified for the job, and her conservative Christian views made many nervous.

So the President chose someone from the religious right with relatively little experience for one of the most important positions in the government. And John McCain's chosen someone from the religious right with relatively little experience for one of the most important positions in the government.

Different? Or the same?

- Ralph

Day 76 of the WJMA Web Watch.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Pandora and the 70% Solution

Josh Tucker asked about my initial letter to Eric Cantor (R-Va) concerning the Internet Radio Equality Act, and I’m sorry to say I can’t find the original text. This time around, though, I’ll share the letter right here so I can’t lose it.

And, as a special added bonus, I’ll hold off sending it until the end of next week in case anyone has any additions or corrections (just leave a note in the comments field).

With minor alterations, this letter will be going to my senators as well. I'll change the name of the bill from H.R.2060 to S. 1353 and other little things. While I’m at it, I might just write the folks that are holding these bills in committee and see if we can’t get a move on here.

Dear Representative Cantor:

I had recently written you asking for your support of H.R. 2060, the Internet Radio Equity Act. I understand that the resolution is still in committee, and I’m hoping you will do what you can to get it to the floor. Since our last correspondence, Tim Westerberg, the president of, has announced the company is about ready to close its doors. They will try to stay in business until Congress acts, but if there appears to be no serious effort, then they will stop broadcasting.

Why? Because the royalty rates SoundExchange requested and the Copyright Royalty Board approved without amendment take 70% of Pandora’s income. Now this is not unexpected.

Netcasters gave detailed testimony last year demonstrating that the new rates would have these results – it was simple math, and so far it’s been pretty darned accurate. Many small webcasters have already gone out of business. Pandora will be the first of the majors to fold, but most likely not the last.

There seemed to be a little bit of confusion in your kind response to my letter, so let me be as clear as possible about some points.

1) Everyone agrees that artists and copyright holders must be compensated for their work. And everyone agrees that there should be an increase over the previous rate to keep pace with the cost of living. What’s at issue is the 1200% jump in that rate.

2) No one’s asking for an industry bail-out. Passing the act will simply reduce the rates to a realistic level, and make them scalable. As a webcaster’s income increases, so will royalty payments.

3) The current system only harms the U.S. While American Internet broadcasters will be shut down by these rates, foreign netcasters will simply pick up the slack. Any advertising income that could have been generated by net radio will happen overseas. This industry will continue to grow outside of the United States and other countries will reap the benefits of it.

4) While the SoundExchange has represented themselves as advocates for the artists, their actions don’t support that claim. Their unrealistically high rates have already killed several sources of income. Forcing the large netcasters out of business will simply hasten the decline. It’s like a realtor who prices a client’s house several times higher than the market value. If they can get somebody to buy it, it’s great for the seller. But if it remains unsold, is the realtor’s actions really in the best interest of the client (who sees no money rather than some)?

The Copyright Board didn’t do their job and find a solution that was equitable to both parties. I’m afraid it’s time for the government to step in and do so.

Please vote for the passage of this bill when it comes before you.

Best Regards,

Ralph Graves
President, Digital Chips, Inc.

[I figure sending this on company stationary and using my officious official title might get Rep. Cantor's attention.]

Maybe now that McCain's selected his VP (Cantor was in the running, you know), we can get back to business here.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Real Joy of Collecting

Collecting isn't the same as accumulating. And it's certainly not the same as hoarding.

My definition of a good collection is one where every item's there for a reason -- and sometimes connected with a story.

Ken recently placed a number of items he found cleaning out his parent's house on eBay. The toy soldiers and accessories didn't mean much to him. They'd been packed away since before his birth.

Unlike Ken, I'm very interested in old toys. Two items he had for sale especially caught my eye -- a 1936 Tootsie Toy Special Delivery van, and a Barclay artillery truck of similar vintage.

So I started bidding on the trucks. I didn't think I'd actually get them, but I didn't mind. At the very least, I was helping a friend get more for his items. As it turned out, bidding was sluggish. Even though I went a little higher than I meant to, I ending up winning the items.

I'm happy.

These were a real find. But that's only part of the joy of collecting here (besides a great deal). The Tootsie Toy and Barklay trucks come with a story of how I accidentally got them helping a friend. And they'll always remind me of that friendship.

You'll not be seeing these two toys on eBay again.

- Ralph

Day 74 of the WJMA Web Watch.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Whispering Shadow

Sometimes there are small pleasures to be found in the most modest of productions. "The Whispering Shadow" is one of them. This 1930’s serial starring Bela Lugosi certainly isn’t on par with the Republic or Universal serials of the day, but it's not without a certain charm. And that’s the point of this post – getting enjoyment out of the commonplace.

"The Whispering Shadow" is a typical chapter serial. Such films were meant to be viewed in installments, and an overly complicated plot is just the thing to keep things moving -- especially when each chapter's end is punctuated by the seeming demise of the hero.

In this case, the mysterious masked figure known as the Whispering Shadow is after a MacGuffin and killing and/or attacking people in the process through radio waves. Radio was the hot technology back then, a character working in a radio lab served the same function as a computer geek in a modern film.

The MacGuffin's a crate hidden in the warehouse of an international shipping company. A shipping company with their very own radio research laboratory on the top floor (!) of the building. I found the infatuation with the latest technology charming in a retro fashion. The bad guys use an autogyro (precursor to the helicopter), and the special effects with models are laughable –- but in a fun way, as this first clip shows.

There’s a lot of action, though. And it's truly exciting to watch. In 1935, there was no CGI. The stunts were real.

Look at this scene involving a foiled hijacking. Sure, the acting's laughable. Malcolm McGregor barked all his lines in a manner most often seen in community theater.

But the stunts more than makeup for the wooden declamations. Check out the chase with the stuntman hanging on to the top of the truck, or the leap onto the car. Most of that would involve some CGI and green screen these days -- but they are, charging down a dusty road and clinging on for dear life.

And then there’s the following scene. Viva Tattersall walks towards a car she thinks she sees her father in. Rather than be discovered, the man floors it and drives away. Look at the shot carefully. Sure, it’s a stunt woman, but look how close the car comes to her! Only her skill prevented a serious injury.

I won’t give the plot away (it would take another entire post just to explain it), but the denouement is so over the top it almost seems like a parody. Almost all the surviving cast members reveal they’re Not Who They Seem To Be. Only the hero doesn't have a secret identity!

This was second tier stuff even back when it was released. Mascot wasn't a big studio, and they shot the whole thing -- very economically -- in just 18 days. Nevertheless, "The Whispering Shadow" provided me with plenty of viewing pleasure, if not always in ways intended by the studio. And because it's out of copyright and available for free from, I more than got my money's worth.

- Ralph

Day 73 of the WJMA Web Watch.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Thinking Outside of Pandora's Box

As the discussion about the eminent demise of Pandora and other webcasters continue, there's an underlying assumption that no one's articulating. Everyone seems to assume that the major labels have a lock on the music. And they do -- kind of. The RIAA has prevented podcasters from using major label tracks, and the SoundExchange is charging webcasters outrageous fees because, well, because they can.

Podcasters have already figured out that there are plenty of great artists not associated with major labels -- or any labels at all. Webcasters still haven't gotten the concept yet. And a lot of listeners haven't made the leap yet either.

There's a lot of independent artists making music as good -- if not better -- than anything being put out by the majors.

How much is out there? Here's a small sampling. BBC Radio One recently showcased under-18 bands -- that is, all the musicians were under eighteen years of age. Here's an excerpt of Huw Stephens, host of Radio One's Introducing program giving quick overviews of ten bands being considered for a slot at an Underage Festival.

Excerpt One features excerpts from Off Limits, OCD, Unicorn Kid. Prems, Mandygams, The Zimmermans

Excerpt Two has samples from the Liddy Berlins, Vanilla Kick, Spiked, Monday Street, Tristan and the Troubadors, 10,000 Flushes, The Naturals

You just heard ten great unsigned acts -- acts who are happy to let their music being used online. Now carry this forward for a minute. These are the best underage independent bands in the UK. That's just a small subset of the independent music scene in England. And that's a small part of the European music scene. And there are plenty of equally creative musicians in the Middle East, in Africa, in Asia -- and of course North and South America.

Why are we wringing our hands over the inaccessibility of the Top 40 when there's 40,000 (or perhaps 400,000 or even 4 million) other songs of equal quality readily available?

I don't know either.

- Ralph

Day 72 of the WJMA Web Watch.

Friday, August 22, 2008

A True Story of the Recent Unpleasantness

This is a regional story. Some will find it funny, others won't get it at all. Depends on where you were born...

My wife’s college suite mates gathered together with their spouses for a wedding in Lexington, Virginia. While three of the ladies are native Virginians, the fourth is from New Jersey, as is her husband.

We all met up at the home of one of the suite mates who lived in Buena Vista. Our hostess grew up in this small town near Lexington and had returned to BV (as it's called) after college.

Our New Jersey visitor was admiring the d├ęcor of our hostess' home, which was furnished with antiques and family pieces. He looked at two vintage pictures in the living room and asked her if the gentlemen in the civil war uniforms were her ancestors.

It got a good laugh. They were prints of General Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.

Our friend endured a fair amount of ribbing for the rest of the visit. Someone even remarked, “I guess up North the Civil War is history, not a religion.”

To many throughout the Old Dominion where a good portion of the war was fought, the battles and personalities of the civil war are a part of common culture. To someone from New Jersey, though, the civil war was a historic event that came and went over a century ago.

As I've told and retold the story, I've noticed reactions tend to follow geographical patterns. Folks from the South find it funny, others don't. Depends on where they grew up.

- Ralph

BTW – There's a twist to the story. Our hostess never particularly cared about the Recent Unpleasantness. She had purchased the pictures for the frames. She'd hung the prints temporarily to get them off the floor, and was looking for different pictures to put in the frames.

Day 69 of the WJMA Web Watch.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Case of the Misunderstood Mason

Ask anyone what they know about Perry Mason, and they'll probably respond "Raymond Burr." And in a way, that's a shame. Because the Perry Mason of TV fame (and later made-for-TV movies) is only a shadow of Erle Stanley Gardner's original creation.

Over the years, I've been able to find about two-thirds of the 82 novels Gardner wrote. And of all the people I know that read mysteries, not one has read Gardner, nor has any desire to do so. That's a shame, because there's a lot of enjoyment in these books.

First off, forget the cliches of the TV show. The 40-minute four-act structure of TV meant shortcuts had to be taken. The Perry Mason stories adapted to TV usually had their cast of suspects stripped down. The investigation took fewer turns and twists, involved fewer clues, and the guilty party always, always, always confessed on the stand after some goofy trial shenanigans.

Now the Perry Mason novels are not great literature. Erle Stanley Gardner was a practicing attorney, who in the 1930's began cranking out stories for pulp magazines. As his output (and subsequent income) increased, he transitioned out of law into full-time writing, sometimes dictating two novels simultaneously.

So what makes the Perry Mason books worth reading?

1) Authenticity -- Gardner was an imaginative attorney, and many of the tricks Mason plays in court were used by Gardner himself. And his first-hand knowledge of trial procedures makes Mason's courtroom scenes read like actual transcripts. Anyone who likes the courtroom part of "Law and Order" should enjoy a Perry Mason novel.

2) Forensics -- Gardner was fascinated by the evolving field of forensics, and often worked the latest developments into his novels. The criminal science is rooted in reality. The tests that Gardner describes and what they can (and can't) prove are factual, even if used to solve fanciful crimes.

3) A large cast of characters -- The TV series was limited to a few characters. Perry Mason, along with his secretary Della Street, and private investigator Paul Drake matched wits against police Lieutenant Tragg and district attorney Hamilton Burger. But the books were much more interesting. In addition to Della Street, Mason's law offices also employed Gertie, the receptionist who was a character in her own right. And for a time Mason had Jackson as a law partner -- a man completely different than Mason. While Mason was daring and resourceful, Jackson was straight-laced and traditional, relying exclusively on precedent.

And on the other side, there was Sergeant Holcomb, who like to ensure the person he arrested was the culprit by planting evidence and trying the case in the papers. Lieutenant Tragg was more perceptive and methodical -- and someone who Perry Mason both respected and was a little afraid of.

There were also a number of judges who made recurring appearances. Any lawyer will tell you that the judge trying the case can be a major factor in its outcome. Gardiner had a rotated cast of judges, some who liked Mason, some who didn't. A few were out to get Mason and continually put up obstructions. Whoever presided over the trial often affected the direction it took -- and the tactics Mason used.

4) A look into the past -- One could almost read the Perry Mason novels as historical fiction. Most were written before Miranda, and no one's read their rights. And that's just for starters. Perry Mason often has to race against the police to save evidence before its destroyed, interview witnesses before they disappear, and sequester his client before the police have a chance to force out a confession.

5) Variety -- On TV, the murderer always confesses on the stand. Not so in the novels. It does happen occasionally, but not every case even makes it to trial. Sometimes Perry Mason is able to prove his clients innocent at the preliminary hearing. Sometimes it happens between trials. And not all of Mason's clients are innocent. There's one book (I won't spoil it by revealing the title) where the client's guilty!

Gardner's writing style is as direct as Hemingway (without the artistic part). The stories move along briskly, and never fail to provide plenty of twist and turns.

To say you know all about Perry Mason because you've seen Raymond Burr's portrayal is like saying you know about the Saint because you've seen the movie, or that you know all about Oz because you've seen the movie (I'm thinking I've just given myself some more post ideas).

Forget the TV show. If you're into mysteries, just pick up a novel and judge for yourself.

- Ralph

Day 68 of the WJMA Web Watch.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

My Pandora Story

Controversy about the possible shuttering of continues on the Internet. If you read the comments under any of the stories, you'll see a recurring theme -- people discover music through Pandora. Music that they buy.

I have that story, too. And it gives us some numbers to work with.

"The Love Generation" is one of the radio stations I started on Pandora. As the description says,
Sweet vocal harmonies from the Summer of Love. For a brief span of time, groups made groovy music influenced by the sunshine pop sensibilities of Southern California. Mellow songs from a gentler time.
While I started out with artists I already knew, such as the Love Generation, the Fifth Dimension, and Spanky & Our Gang, it wasn't long Pandora began adding songs and artists I'd never heard of before -- but I really liked. And, yes, I followed the links to Amazon and started buying music.

So far, I can attribute the following purchases directly to this one Pandora channel -- one of the six that I have.

Each of these discs cost about $19.00 (most were imports), so listening to Pandora for free caused me to purchase $171.00 of music directly from the labels. So let's say the average listener only buys one CD or download equivalent (although I know plenty of music geeks who've spent even more).

Pandora has approximately 6.5 million subscribers. If each one only spent $15.00 on music they discovered through Pandora, then the site would be responsible for generating $97.5 million in music sales. And a good portion of that, I suspect, went to non-Top 40 artists. After all, I wanted more music by Two of Each and Jackie Trent -- not Beyonce and Avril Lavigne. 

And if the average Pandora listener buys more than one disc? Well, then SoundExchange -- currently collecting 75% of Pandora's revenue -- really is strangling the goose that's laying golden eggs.

 - Ralph

Day 67 of the WJMA Web Watch.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

How To Make Classical Music Fun

You can have fun with any musical genre you're familiar with -- even classical music. It's just a matter of knowing enough to spot the humorous possibilities inherent in the form (which are often different than those outsiders choose to spoof). Here's a good example.

Robert Conrad, president of WCLV, recently posted this story on a public radio listserv (and kindly granted me permission to quote from his email and share the tale with you).

Back in the middle 70s, Matthias Bamert and Kenneth Jean were on the conducting staff of the Cleveland Orchestra. They and yours truly produced a number of comedy bits for use on a Cleveland Orchestra fund raising recording and on "WCLV Saturday Night."

They included a spoof of a record company commercial called "Arnie Schoeberg's Second Viennese School Commercial." I have played in on the air a number of times over the years. Then last year someone sent it to Alex Ross, the music critic for the New Yorker. He put it up on his blog, and it made its way around the Internet. Some people even sent it to me, not realizing I was the voice.

Anyway, someone in Germany has gone to the trouble of making video of the bit, a pretty good one at that.

It's my 4:20 of anonymous YouTube fame.

Well, it's better than 4:33 of silence I think!

- Ralph

Day 66 of the WJMA Web Watch.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Pandora Boxed?

Looks like it's time to write my congresscritters again. And this time, I'll send it snail mail to let them know I mean business. The Sword of Damocles hanging over netcasters just slipped a little.'s announced they're rapidly approaching the point where they'll have to go dark. Why? You've read it here and many other places as well (I hope). SoundExchange, the agency that collects artist royalties from Internet broadcasters and streamers jacked up the rates past the point of sanity. While no one argued that the rates needed to go up, the industry was stunned when SoundExchange proposed (and the Copyright Board promptly agreed) that a 300% to 1200% jump was fair -- even though it meant royalty rates would outstrip income for most netcasters.

The old system was scalable. A percentage of a netcaster's income was paid to the artists. So niche netcasters catering to a small audience paid a small amount, and popular services with many listeners paid a large amount. And there was a reason for netcasters to grow their audiences. The more listeners, the more income -- and the more the artists got.

Under the new system, it doesn't matter. Unless you have a massive audience, you can't bring in enough to pay the royalty fees which have a pretty steep minimum fee. And when the service goes dark? Then no one gets any money, and how does that serve the artist?

I'll share my letters to my Congressmen encouraging them to support S. 1353 and my Representative to support H.R. 2060 in this blog.

No one's asking for an industry bail-out. As MC Lars said:

You know, we just wanted a level playing field.

- and not by leveling Internet radio.

- Ralph

Day 65 of the WJMA Web Watch.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Download This Song -- Two Years Later

Hey Mr. Record Man
The joke's on you
Running your label
Like it was 1992
Hey Mr. Record Man,
Your system can't compete
It's the New Artist Model
File transfer complete
MC Lars' 2006 Internet hit "Download This Song" articulated the disconnect between the major records and the rise of downloading music consumers.

Two recent court decisions made me wonder how far we've come since MC Lars first penned his song.

So Warner, EMI, hear me clearly
Universal Music, update your circuitry
They sue little kids downloading hit songs
They think that makes sense
When they know that it's wrong

The RIAA continues to sue right and left, but the tide is shifting. Several cases are under review because of the questionable practices of MediaSentry, the security company that either is or isn't an investigative agency depending on the case.

I know I'm rhyming fast, but the message is clear
You don't need a million dollars to launch a career
If your style is unique and you practice what you preach
Minor Threat and Jello both have things to teach!
I've got G5 production, concept videos
Touring with a laptop, rocking packed shows
The old-school major deal? It makes no sense
Indentured servitude, the costs are too immense!
I've talked about truly indie artists like Jonathan Coulton and the Mason Brothers before, but the exception is increasingly becoming the rule. And why not? How much do you want to net from your music sales -- 90% on your own, or 12% as an artist signed to a major label?
Their finger's in the dam but the crack keeps on growing
Can't sell bottled water when it's freely flowing
And now the another piece of the puzzle falls into place. The federal appeals court ruled on a landmark case involving freeware. Bottom line -- freeware and creative commons licenses may not have money attached to them, but if it doesn't mean they're not protected. So all those musicians who've made their songs available for non-commercial use (which increases their popularity) are still legally entitled to the benefits from any commercial usage.

So now it's even easier to make money by giving things away.
You know, we just wanted a level playing field.
You've overcharged us for music for years, and now we're
Just trying to find a fair balance. I hate to say it, but:
Welcome to the future.
Download this song.

- Ralph

Day 62 of the WJMA Web Watch.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Dodecophonic vs. Bicameral -- Fun with numbers

Just mashing up two of the themes from recent posts -- Eric Cantor's efforts to mount an Internet petition to reconvene Congress, and a Swiss music lover's tribute to avant-garde composer Anton Webern. As of this writing, Cantor's Call Back Congress video's been viewed 5,257 times on YouTube while Anton Webern's Symphony video has been watched 15,961 times.

So does that mean Webern's masterwork holds over three times the appeal of Cantor's political posturing?

Well, the Webern video does have more of an international audience (note the comments in other languages), so perhaps not. And I freely admit this isn't really a fair comparison (although not too far afield from others we're hearing this election year).

But what if it did...

- Ralph

Day 61 of the WJMA Web Watch.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

A Civilized Discussion -- on YouTube!

Many folks I know don't think much of YouTube. In their minds, it's all skateboarding dogs and painful pratfalls. And the comments that accompany them are even worse -- The Onion's recent article "Local Idiot to Post Comment On The Internet" is more truth than fiction.

But YouTube videos encompasses the entire range of human experience, from the lows to the highs.

I recently ran across a video of Anton Webern's "Symphony, Op. 21." For those not familiar with Webern's work, he was part of the Second Viennese School of composition. Following the lead of Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg, Webern sought to move from a tonal-based system of composition to one where all twelve of the notes in the scale are of equal weight (the dodecaphonic system).

At the same time, Webern continually distilled his music down to its essence. His symphony lasts less than ten minutes and often has just one instrument playing at a time. But every note is absolutely critical, often serving several different musical functions simultaneously.

Webern's music doesn't sound like anybody else's. And though it was written over sixty years ago it still challenges many.

Now someone's made a video of Webern's symphony.

What I find most interesting are the comments that follow the video. They're literate, polite, and often informative. Instead of comments like "Haha wtf?" and "yall haters is salitiee," we get this:

"I feel Boulez is hugely underrated not only as a conductor, but as a composer also."
"Recall that Beethoven, one of the most original of composers, went to Vienna "to follow in the footsteps of Mozart". He did not self-consciously try for originality: he was original because he had an original mind and personality. Setting out to be original on purpose is death to genuine creativity."
Thanks to poldi24 for creating the video and sharing it. Looks like you've prompted some good discussion. And on YouTube, no less!

- Ralph

Day 60 of the WJMA Web Watch.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Orange PACs whacked

The political scandal in Orange County, Virginia has finally been resolved. While this might be old news for some county residents, here's the wrap up for our readers around the world (and we got 'em -- just check our StatCounter map).

As you may recall, in the hotly contested Board of Supervisors race, two websites popped up. The URLS,, and lead one to think these sites were supporting those candidates -- the opposite was true. Although both sites have been expunged from the Internet (you can't even find them at, I did manage to save cached versions from Google of both the Teel Goodwin and Thomas Graves site (text only, I'm afraid).

The sites were amateurishly done, and it's not clear how much they affected the election. Nevertheless, when the dust settled, and the state police completed their investigation, the origin of both sites was traced back to two political action groups run by Supervisor-elect Zak Burkett and his wife, Marcia Landau.


In May Burkett tried to spin things. He called the charges "bogus and even a little silly," and demanded the Commonwealth's Attorney bring the Board (which he's on) the results of the investigation before going public (which, as the CA politely pointed out, was illegal). Could he feel the hounds closing in?

The investigation probably wasn't very challenging. I'm sure the offending parties just plunked down a credit card to buy the URLs. The amateurish nature of the sites suggests they figured since the content was anonymous, that there would be no way to trace them back to the source.

So the two PACs have been fined for their misdeeds and their ham-handed attempts at misdirection.

Personally, I don't think the $8,800 fine was enough. I think there should have been an additional $1,000 fine for painfully poor website design, and a mandatory $500 fine for attempting to operate on the Internet while under the influence of ignorance.

- Ralph

Day 59 of the WJMA Web Watch.

Monday, August 11, 2008

"Doc Savage, Man of Bronze" by John Amos

I figured they had put me in the dumb class by accident. I was in the sixth grade, and all the smart, cool kids were down in the other wing of the building as part of some new-fangled “team teaching” experiment. Somehow I got stuck in a traditional classroom with none of my friends. It proved to be a lonesome year, redeemed only by my discovery of Doc Savage, Man of Bronze.

Once a week my English teacher allowed us free time to read whatever we wanted. I’m sure she hoped I would choose quality classics or the kind of Newberry Award winners she was always reading aloud to us. However, after I found Doc Savage, nothing else could compare.

Doc was part Superman, part Tarzan, and part Sherlock Holmes. He fought evil in the shadowy underworld of big city criminals. To a boy, how could literary merit compete with the dark seediness of a Doc Savage adventure? It couldn’t.

I didn’t know it at the time, but these novels had first appeared in the 1930’s and were classics of pulp fiction: dime novels printed on cheap pulp paper with eye-popping covers. The classic pulps included such long-running magazines as “Amazing Stories,” “The Shadow,” “Captain Future,” and, of course, “Doc Savage.”

Just a glance at their lurid covers (with one-eyed aliens attacking scantily clad, buxom beauties; and bulbous spaceships disgorging giant spiders onto our unsuspecting Earth) let you know that pulps were the cream of lowbrow literature.

In the late 1960’s, just as I was hitting middle school, someone got the idea to update the Doc Savage books. The stories themselves, I think, remained as they had first appeared in the 30’s; but the covers were modernized, adopting a sort of James Bond-as-Rambo look. The “new” Doc wore a sleeveless safari vest with a cartridge belt full of ammunition slung across his chest. He stared coolly out at the reader, his massive arms crossed Schwarzenegger-style, an automatic weapon hanging at his side.

The stories inside didn’t really match the covers, but so what? Anybody who’s ever read the teaser on the front of a comic book knows that covers are designed merely to catch the reader’s interest. The updated Doc Savage certainly caught mine.

So, I spent all my free reading time on titles like “The Green Eagle,” “The Mindless Monsters,” and “Cold Death.”

I will always be grateful to Mrs. Burnett for letting me read these cheesy things. Even back then, I must have realized that Doc Savage books bordered on the illicit. Many teachers would have strongly discouraged kids from reading such stuff at school. Many would have tagged these books as “trash” or banned them outright. But this most traditional of teachers, this gray-haired minister’s wife who tolerated no nonsense, turned a blind eye and let me keep on reading.

She was one wise woman, and she understood boys. Pretty soon, she began to pass along copies of things she liked (and things she thought would be good for me). I especially remember "Up A Road Slowly" and "Light in the Forest," quality teen lit with strong moral messages. I read them and liked them, but I would never even have cracked their covers had she tried to squash my interest in the Man of Bronze.

A Washington Post article recently argued that young boys resist reading because books of heroic action have gradually been nudged out of the curriculum. Biographies, war stories and adventures on the high seas have been replaced with things like Sarah Plain and Tall and Julie of the Wolves. These are perfectly good books, but (at the risk of sounding sexist) they ain’t no Doc Savage. I don’t blame boys for not wanting to read them.

In reality, however, it’s not just boys that don’t read anymore; it’s people in general. Reading today is under siege from a pervasive, insidious video culture. Kids and adults alike satisfy their craving for action stories not with books, but with images from television, movies, and electronic games. Who wants to expend effort reading about heroes fighting villains when, with a few clicks on the computer, you can actually be the hero who defeats the villain?

Like Doc Savage himself, I sometimes feel as if I’m up against the amassed forces of evil. I keep hoping that, like Doc, I can win this battle. But as of now, it looks pretty grim. The bad guys are winning.

- John Amos
from his column "Every Now and Then"
©2008 by John Amos, reprinted by permission
"Every Now And Then: Occasional Essays"

Day 58 of the WJMA Web Watch.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Call Back Congress? I'll take Paris!

This past week we saw two politically-motivated Internet initiatives. One's calling itself a viral movement -- the other just is. is Rep. Eric Cantor's attempt to start a grassroots revolution to have Speaker Pelosi reconvene Congress so that the Republicans can bring their energy bills to the floor. I've posted about this before. As of today, a little over 30,000 people have signed up since the site was launched a week ago. While the decidedly conservative part of the blogosphere's been talking about this viral campaign, it's garnered almost no interest elsewhere.

On the other hand, there's the video created in response to John McCain's first "Celebrity" campaign ad. Here's the original, for those who came in late.

Interestingly enough, the most effective response didn't come from the Obama camp -- it came from Paris Hilton herself. Here's her reply.

In its first two days, the video was viewed over 6 million times, with no end in sight. It's created enough of a buzz to make it into mainstream media (MSM) reports and commentary.

Now some may say that Hilton's celebrity status account for a large number of views, but if you poke around YouTube, you'll see plenty of Hilton videos (both amateur and professional) that have only a fraction of the views. So it's not just who's in the video.

It's that magic combination of content, plus execution, plus timing. The video parallels the McCain original, and Paris plays her public persona perfectly. But if the video had been released next week, instead of almost immediately, that critical mass would have been missing, and it would not have achieved the success it has.

And while many people toss the term "viral" around, few really seem to understand it. Like a virus, a video, or Internet meme spreads through contact. Each viewer shares it with many more people, each of which shares with multiple people and so on.

In the case of the Cantor petition, most of the 30,000 came in within the first day, and a decreasing number of signers each day after. Hilton's video has been growing exponentially since day one -- and with it making the jump to MSM, it should continue to gain viewers.

30,000 and slowing vs. 6.2 million and growing. One's viral, the other wishes it was.

- Ralph

Day 55 of the WJMA Web Watch.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Start the Revolution Without Me

Representative Eric Cantor's not tweeting me anymore. Yesterday it was all about the Republican revolution gone viral! Angry citizens all over the country were going to and signing Cantor's petition, demanding that Speaker Pelosi reconvenes the House so Republicans could vote on crucial legislation to lower gas prices!

For a while, I was getting a Twitter update from Cantor as another 1,000 joined the protest. And then the updates came a little less frequently, and then....

Well. After two days, almost 29,000 folks have signed up. And while there's a small group of bloggers and pundits electronically high-fiving each other, I must say it's nothing like the real revolt of the HD-DVD code protest.

And while 29,000 may seem like a lot of people, let's put it in perspective -- it's a few thousand less than the population of Orange County, Virginia where I live. So not quite the popular revolt it's being billed as.

And that's the strength -- and the weakness -- of the Internet. Everything's quantifiable. Is this a successful campaign? Check the numbers and judge for yourself.

The stats report, you decide.

- Ralph

Day 54 of the WJMA Web Watch.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

"Viral," or just a mild infection for Congress?

Can something be viral just because someone says it is? Representative Eric Cantor seems to think so. He's created a website that is as viral as all get-out (according to the service that created the site).

You may recall the dust-up in the House of Representatives when Speaker Nancy Pelosi declared the House adjourned, and the Republicans refused to leave. They were protesting the refusal of the body to vote on offshore drilling, and kept their seats as the lights and microphones were turned off.

Cantor was one of the protesters, and has started an online petition. The goal? To get Pelosi to reconvene Congress (

I'll give Cantor credit for trying to use new media. As the web designers breathlessly write

This really is a case study in how like-minded people who don’t even know they’re working on the same thing can converge to create something bigger than themselves. It really speaks to the nature of viral communications. There was no strategic plan, no unifying message grid, and no conference call to coordinate the whole endeavor. But people with the same passion, who had the tools at their disposal, were able to move into action quickly. Will the House reconvene? It’s not likely, but thanks to new media, more people are aware of the need for energy independence.
And for the past 24 hours I've been getting hourly tweets on Twitter from Cantor as the numbers continued to climb for the petition. 5,000! 6,000! It's just like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington! (an actual tweet Cantor forwarded).

OK, so let's take stock. As of this morning, about 17,000 people have signed the petition, and a little over 2,000 have viewed the accompanying video on YouTube.

Let's compare that to something like, say, the DVD DRM code posting revolt of 2007. Within 24 hours was inundated with posts featuring the forbidden code, YouTube videos with songs and signs featuring the code went up, blogs, Flickr accounts, and countless other sites posted the code. Within 24 hours several million individuals had taken action.

The code protest indeed had become viral, spreading rapidly through the Internet, each post triggering new responses that furthered the message.

I'm not sure I'm seeing the same thing here (especially looking at the numbers).

And one more thing -- during the code revolt the Internet was abuzz with conversation back and forth. When Cantor first tweeted me, I looked at the petition, and had a question about the claim that "House Republicans have a plan to lower gas prices, a plan that has the votes to pass." I tweeted back, asking if he cold provide a link so I could read about the plan. No response.

Later on, I asked what was to happen with the petition when they got enough names, and how many names they considered enough. No response.

Hmmm. So has the "Call Congress Back" gone viral? Well, I think if you have to ask, then the answer is obviously not -- or at least not yet.

In the meantime, gas prices here in Orange, Virgina dropped 25 cents over the past three days. Should I credit the vacationing Speaker of the House, or the Republican Representatives sitting in a room with the lights out?

- Ralph

Day 53 of the WJMA Web Watch.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

The Anthropology of YouTube

If you think YouTube is just goofy videos of skateboarding dogs and silly but painful pratfalls, then you've missed something significant about this site. Michael Wesch, professor of anthropology at Kansas University, has been studying the Internet -- and specifically YouTube -- for some time.

His video, "Web 2.0... The Machine is Us/ing Us" should be required viewing for anyone trying to do anything online (in my opinion).

Wesch recently posted his Library of Congress address, "An Anthropological Introduction to YouTube."

So why should you care what some egghead has to say about videos with kittens playing the piano? Well first, what he talks about is more fundamental than that -- he gets at the underlying social forces that drive the YouTube phenomenon. Second, Wesch is an academic with real-world experience in his field, so his observations and conclusions have been documented and tested. And any business with an online presence -- even if it doesn't post YouTube videos -- needs to understand the core concepts Wesch presents.

His concept of context collapse is probably the thing most traditional businesses stumble upon. Basically (if you haven't watched the video yet), the idea is this: once something's made available on the Internet, other people can take it and use all or parts of it for their own self-expression -- and the original creator has no control over its use.

Now this is the kind of thing that keeps RIAA and MPAA lawyers busy round-the-clock issuing take-down orders and filing lawsuits in a vain attempt to hold back the tsunami with an umbrella.

But it's also the kind of thing that made Jonathan Coulton a star. While Prince goes after a mom for the background music heard in a video of her child dancing, Coulton encouraged people to use his music to create their own videos -- and they have. Each one raises Coulton's profile, and each one represents another way for his music to reach potential fans.

Coulton's embrace of YouTube culture has helped him monetize his music while the major labels continue to spend huge sums of money to wage war on their artists' biggest fans.

Which is the smarter marketing strategy? Which one does your business embrace?

Invest an hour. Watch the video.

- Ralph

Day 52 of the WJMA Web Watch.

Monday, August 04, 2008

"How Martin Agronsky Killed the 6:00 Evening News" by John Amos

Let's take stock of the news business.

Newspapers can no longer compete with the computer. Subscriptions are down; advertising dollars are down. Everyone is reading online. No doubt, I'll soon be arm-twisted into giving up my daily paper -- an actual, physical object, delivered to my house before dawn -- for some ghastly dot-com news source. I'm resigned. There just aren't enough of us who want real ink on real paper anymore. The Newspaper is Dead! Long Live the Internet!

Television news programs have suffered a similar fate. The solid, reliable networks with their solid, reliable anchors (Cronkite, Jennings, Brokaw, and the like) have been pushed aside by flashier, tabloid-esque cable channels. And while I've never been a big fan of television news, opting instead for the breadth and depth of newspapers, it's still sad to see what's happened.

The way I figure it, Martin Agronsky is responsible.

In the late 1960's Agronsky, a respected correspondent for (at times) all three major networks, dropped his job as a reporter to begin a new kind of public affairs program. The show was revolutionary, visionary, so far ahead of its time that no one could possibly realize the impact it would have on the way we view "the news" in this country.

Agronsky's idea was simple: Gather four experts in a studio to discuss the major political events of the day.

I didn't start watching until the 70's after the show had been established for some time. The Jimmy Carter fiasco was in full bloom, and I wanted to know how things could have degenerated to such a pitiable state. So in addition to reading the papers, I turned to Agronsky and Company for analysis.

In those days, the cast consisted of a young arch-conservative named George Will; Carl Rowan, a self-avowed liberal and the most prominent African-American political writer of his day; journalistic elder statesman, Hugh Sidey, editor of Newsweek; and Agronsky himself.

The show was interesting, informative and dignified. The participants discussed the hot political topics of the week. When they disagreed, they did so respectfully. At the end of every half hour, I always came away more knowledgeable about the issues.

But over time, something curious happened. I started seeing these pundits as caricatures. Was George Will really that stiff? Was Rowan really that naive? Would Sidney ever utter an opinion that didn't sound soothing and grandfatherly? Gradually, the substance of their conversation began to get lost in the unreal glow of their television personas.

Without my realizing it, these figures had become celebrities, had morphed into Famous Television Personalities. Once that happened, I was no longer watching the news. I was watching a cartoon. An entertaining cartoon, for sure. Even a somewhat informative one. But a cartoon nonetheless.

The success of Agronsky paved the way for other, less edifying shows. First came The McGlaughlin Group, a shout-fest in which the experts spent their 30 minutes bickering and shouting rudely. Then came Crossfire, pitting partisans from Right and Left, who talked past each other about the issue du jour. Crossfire spawned The Capital Gang, an Agronsky knockoff that truly was more about personalities than issues.

Today the imbecilic political gab-a-thon has become the norm. We're offered The Situation Room, The Verdict, The Factor, and Countdown, mini-dramas with the Star Journalist as central character. In addition to professional yakkers like Wolf Blitzer and Bill O'Reilly, we now have pretty-boy David Gregory, a former White House reporter, whose show reduces politics to a game. Fox's insufferable Sean Hannity spouts jingoistic blather from the Right, and MSNBC's equally insufferable Keith Olberman, trying way too hard to be funny, spins every issue from the Left.

I know all this because I watch. It's my guilty pleasure, my pitiful substitute for the real thing.

Such shows never simply report the news. Instead, they analyze; they predict; they opine. In truth, simple reporting is held in pretty low esteem these days. Any young reporter worth his salt aspires to more. They all have ambitions. Everyone wants to be a star.

Without question, Martin Agronsky was a pioneer; yet I'm sure he wouldn't approve of the path he unwittingly blazed. He wanted a better-informed public, not a citizenry polarized by preening, demagogic talking heads.

Fact: We get the politicians we deserve. Corollary: We also get the media we deserve.

Maybe if we quit watching this silliness, it would go away. Maybe if we demanded better, we'd get it.


- John Amos
from his column "Every Now and Then"
©2008 by John Amos, reprinted by permission
"Every Now And Then: Occasional Essays"

Day 51 of the WJMA Web Watch.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Webb Responds!

As long-time readers may recall, back on May 20th I wrote Jim Webb, one of my two senators about the Internet Radio Equality Act. I received an e-mail response today. Here's the letter.

August 1, 2008
Dear Mr. Graves:

Thank you for contacting my office regarding Internet radio. I apologize for the delayed response. [two months and some change -- but I'm just as guilty with some of my correspondence]

Internet radio and other forms of alternative media provide a fair and open forum for musicians to present their material, as well as for consumers to hear music that does not always receive air time on mainstream media. [true, that] My staff and I will carefully evaluate Copyright Royalty Board decisions, court decisions, legislation, and other pertinent matters affecting webcasting to ensure that the best interests of Virginians are served. [I'm hoping that the best interest of folks in my state aren't divergent from the rest of the nation here!]

As the 110th Congress continues to address media rights and other important issues facing the United States, please be assured that your views will be very helpful to me and my staff. I hope that you will continue to share your views with us in the years ahead.

I would also invite you to visit my website at for regular updates about my activities and positions on matters that are important to Virginia and our nation. [Yep. And I also track you on]

Thank you once again for contacting my office.


Jim Webb
United States Senator

OK, not too bad. I appreciate the initials at the bottom. For those not up on the formalities of business correspondence, it means the letter came from Senator Webb, but was actually typed by someone else whose initials are A.S. (either a secretary or office assistant). I appreciate it because it means Webb's not pretending to personally answer all the letters that come into his office.

And it looks like he actually read my email, so I'm kind of happy about that. How will he vote if S. 1353 ever makes it out of committee? Well, I'm not 100% sure. But his take on the issue seems a little more solid than Rep. Eric Cantor. At least he doesn't think I'm against any royalty increase at all!

So I'll keep watching the mail and inbox for something from Senator Warner. Two down, one to go!

- Ralph

Day 48 of the WJMA Web Watch.