Monday, December 28, 2009

Walt, Skeezix, Dad, and I

"You always talk about the same thing," my wife observed after Dad's visit. "You always talk about Gasoline Alley." I suppose we do. Both of us love comics, and we're both very fond of "Gasoline Alley."

The strip began in 1918, written and drawn by Frank King. It was set in an alley where Walt Wallet and his fellow car enthusiasts, Doc Smartley, Avery, and Bill the mechanic. That alley would later spawned a garage that became a focal point for the comic. King drew the strip until 1956, when he retired and Dick Moores took over. Moores bowed out in 1986 to Jim Scancarelli, who's guided the Gasoline Alley storyline ever since.

It's been running a long time -- but so have some other strips. As youngsters, both Dad and I read "Blondie," "Little Orphan Annie," "The Katzenjammer Kids," "Moon Mullins" and many other long-running newspaper strips. But they don't generate the same level of discussion.

I think it's in part because unlike most humor strips (even the older ones) where all the characters are reset at the end of the daily strip, "Gasoline Alley" characters aged. "Dennis the Menace" has remained five years old for a half century. Ditto with the Peanuts gang. Blondie and Dagwood have had two teenagers for just about as long.

But the characters in "Gasoline Alley" have been born, grown, and -- albeit rarely -- died. When Dad was reading the strip in the 1930's Walt Wallet was raising Skeezix, the foundling he adopted, along with the help of Doc, Avery and the rest of the Gasoline Alley regulars. Dad picked up the story after Skeezix had grown from baby to teenager, and by the time World War II broke out, Dad was reading about his exploits as an enlisted man fighting in Europe.

When I was old enough to follow the strip, Skeezix was middle aged, and had long been married to his first love, Nina Clock. Their daughter, Clovia was dating Slim Skinner. I followed their courtship and marriage. Walt had retired from the furniture business he co-founded, and the Gasoline Alley garage was run by Skeezix, with mechanics (and fellow vets) Hack and Sarge.

We both followed the strip as Doc Smartley retired, leaving his practice to Skeezix's son (and Vietnam vet) Chipper Wallet. Eventually time caught up with the first generation of the cast. Doc, Avery, and resident miser Uriah Pert (uncle to Wilmer Bobble (an Eddie Haskel-like high school friend of Skeezix) disappeared, and later references make it clear that they've passed on. As did Walt Wallet's wife Nina in a major storyline from 2004.

Dad and I have kept up with the unfolding story of the Wallet clan and their supporting cast for some time now. And because, like real life, things change over time it's fun to recall great episodes of the past.

Remember that time Garfield ate the whole pan of lasagna? Probably not -- it happened ten years ago, last year, and may even be in tomorrow's strip. Garfield's static. Recurring gags don't demand much from the reader.

But the time when Slim had to take over for Hack and Sarge, or what Corky had to go through to open his diner? Only happened once. And those unique events -- like the ones in our real lives -- are fun to recall and discuss again and again. At least to a couple of comic characters like ourselves!

- Ralph

Yes, that's Dad and I. Strangely, he's the one with the hair!

Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Suicide Squad - An Appreciation

As the sky dumped twenty-two inches of snow on my central Virginia home, I spent some time revisiting a collection of Emile C. Tepperman's "Suicide Squad" stories. Tepperman may not have been a very prominent author, but he certainly was a prolific one. He wrote over 260 short stories, novelettes and full-blown novels between 1933 and 1943.

Tepperman definitely captured the pulse of the time -- readers of pulp magazines wanted action and plenty of it. Tepperman didn't disappoint. His stories are fast-paced thrill rides that pull the reader along from chapter to chapter.

The Suicide Squad -- Johnny Kerrigan, Stephen Klaw, and Dan Murdoch -- were the subject of twenty-two 15,000 word novelettes that ran in "Ace G-Man" magazine between 1939 and 1942. As Tepperman describes them:
Kerrigan and Murdoch and Klaw. The three Black Sheep of the F.B.I.--three men who were never sent on a regular routine assignment, but who always rated the calls where death was almost a certainty. Not so long ago there had been five of them. Now there were only three. Tomorrow there might be only two--or one--or none.
The Suicide Squad was reckless, and often deliberately walked into traps just to spring them to get the villains to tip their hands. With Tepperman's break-neck pacing, once the Squad gets involved (usually about three paragraphs into the story), the villain's master plan starts to unravel.

But what plots they are! In the Adventure House collection of wartime adventures I just finished the Suicide Squad takes on a 9,000 man-strong Japanese Expeditionary Force hidden in rural Maryland, a gang-run city, a saboteur with a cadre of Korean fire-archers, and the Undertaker, who returns all who go after him in a casket -- embalmed!

What makes the stories interesting is the dynamic between the three lead characters. There's an easy camaraderie and byplay between them, and (within the world of the pulps) some differences between the three. It's suggested that Stephen Klaw overcompensates for his youthful looks and short stature by being overly aggressive (even by Squad standards). Dan Murdoch is more concerned about organization and planning, even when it has to be done on the fly. And Johnny Kerrigan is the glue that holds these two opposites together.

Often times one of the Squad take the lead in the adventure, and the story takes on the dynamic of his personality. But action is always the watchword of the day, and in the end, the Suicide Squad always gets their men -- if they're still standing.

Here's a sample from the 1940 story "Suicide Squad - Dead or Alive!" Stephen Klaw has allowed himself to be captured. And, according to plan, Kerrigan and Murdoch enter at just the right moment.
Roy Fenn ripped out an oath, and went for his gun. At the same time, the two gorillas who were holding Steve Klaw let go of him and swung their own weapons to shoot at Kerrigan and Murdoch.

Dan Murdoch, with that grim smile still upon his dark and handsome face, fired once. The big gun jumped in his hand, and the hoodlum on Stephen Klaw's right was hurled backward as if he had been struck by a ten-ton sledgehammer.

Simultaneously, an automatic appeared in Klaw's right hand, and somehow its muzzle was up and belching flame at the second thug. The shot caught the man in the left shoulder and spun him around like a weather-vane, with his arms outstretched. He went sliding across the floor and ended up against a desk, huddled on the carpet, and moaning. Klaw's gun and Murdoch's had barked almost in unison.

A split-second later, Johnny Kerrigan reached Rory Fenn in a flying leap. Fenn had his gun out of its holster. Johnny smashed down with his revolver, struck Fenn's wrist. The big bruiser let go of the gun, uttering a cry of pain. He stood disarmed, staring vindictively at Kerrigan.

Johnny chuckled, kicked the fallen gun over toward a corner. Then he looked at Klaw and said, "Hello, Shrimp. Looks like these lads aren't so tough after all."
If you enjoyed the non-stop action and retro feel of the first Indiana Jones film, you might like the Suicide Squad stories. They would have made a great series of B pictures.

Emile C. Tepperman
remains somewhat of a cypher. There's no biography of him anywhere that has more than his professional life up through the late 1940's. Nevertheless, he left behind a body of work that, while not great literature by any definition, can still deliver entertaining thrills seventy years after its publication.

And that's not a small accomplishment.

- Ralph

Thursday, December 17, 2009

MST3K, RiffTrax, and Me

After trying (again) to explain the concept of MST3K/RiffTrax and why I enjoy it so much, I decided to just write a post about it that I can point newbies to. So if you're already a fan of Mike/Joel and the 'bots, then please let me know if there's anything I need to include. If you're wondering what the heck this is all about, read on.

The Basic Concept
In essence, both Mystery Science Theater 3000 (MST3K) and RiffTrax do the same thing: provide running commentary on a video as it's being shown. If you've ever talked back to a commercial, made a mordant observation during a film or TV show, or even provided your own dialogue over top of what the characters are actually saying, then you're doing the same basic thing as the MST3K commentators. The difference is the frequency, level and quality of the comments.

A Bit of Background - MST3K
Mystery Science Theater 3000 started off as a gentle spoof of the locally-produced late-night SciFi/horror movie shows that were popular in the 1960's and 1970's. In such shows, the host would introduce the movie, usually a B-grade movie (cheaper to rent). MST3K took the concept a step further by having the host segment extend through the entire movie.

The conceit is that an evil mad scientist, Dr. Clayton Forester, has sent a hapless victim -- first Joel Robison (Joel Hodgson), and later Mike Nelson (Mike J. Nelson) -- into space. The victim is forced to watch bad movies as part of an experiment. The victim resists by commenting on the films, aided by two robots -- Crow T. Robot (originally voiced by Trace Beaulieu, later Bill Corbett) and Tom Servo (voiced by Kevin Murphy).

MST3K ran as a two-hour program on Comedy Central from 1988 to 1999 and developed a large fan base. They eventually released a theatrical movie version of the show, skewering "This Island Earth" before calling it a day. Rhino Records is reissuing many of the programs on DVD.

RiffTrax - The Legend Continues
With the rise of the Internet, the concept of MST3K returned in an expanded form. One of the drawbacks hampering MST3K was the need to get rights to use the films they lampooned. A limited budget kept the list of available films limited to movies fallen into public domain and really low-end productions.

A RiffTrax production is just an MP3 audio track, which means the staff can comment on virtually any film available on DVD (there are instructions telling you when to start the audio track so the sound syncs up). A much lower overhead and an expanded range of available films have revitalized this peculiar art form practiced by Mike J. Nelson and fellow MST3K alums, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett.

So where's the humor?
If you're someone who watches movies and TV shows uncritically, then this probably won't appeal to you -- you'll probably wish the commentators would just shut up so you could enjoy the show! However, if you've ever noticed details in films you weren't supposed to, or find that some parts of a TV show seem odd, or occasionally deconstruct a video, then the MST3K/RiffTrax commentary can be a wonderful thing.

Humor comes from surprise and unexpected juxtaposition. And that's what the commentary of Nelson and company provides. There are some recurring tropes. Some may give you an idea of the appeal these shows have.

  1. Cultural commentary - There are regular references to public radio/TV programming, opera, classical music, classic jazz, art works, classic literature, and history. Whenever the heroine trips and sprawls on the ground, count on someone mentioning Andrew Wyth's painting "Christina's World."
  2. Pop cultural commentary - This actually spans several generations. It can include current pop music and movie stars, as well as references to iconic moments from older films and TV shows. A recurring trope (which they lampooned themselves) was the cite "NBC Mystery Movie," an early 1970's TV show whenever someone shown a flashlight in the fog (the TV show opened with such a shot).
  3. Visual or audio riffs from the film - A silly phrase from early in the film may get repeated throughout the movie, heightening the humorous aspect of it. In "Teenagers from Outer Space," a character overly dramatizes the word "torture." Every time the character appears, a commentator adds "... and torture," to his lines, delivered in the same tone of voice.
  4. Breaking the fourth wall - The commentators often take a step back and make observations about the quality of the production. Doors that open the wrong way ("Why is my room in the hall?" a commentator asks), a movie set in prehistoric times that clearly show tire tracks in the road, awkward blocking, botched transitions, continuity errors, muddy dialogue recording -- it's all grist for the humor mill.

Finally, while it may seem easy, it's not. Anyone can sit back and crack wise while watching a video. But the commentators of these programs operated differently. They viewed the films several times, making notes, recording commentary and then refining and polishing their ideas to create finished scripts that sound improvised, but aren't.

And that, for me, is really the appeal. The quality of the humor usually consistent throughout the entire program. And the commentary is dense enough that it's only after a second or third viewing that I finally get all the jokes.

So there you have it. Something that I can enjoy with repeated viewing, that consistently makes me laugh, and something that does what I like to do, only better -- that's the appeal for me!

- Ralph

Yes, I know I haven't mentioned Cinematic Titanic, but I haven't seen any of their productions, yet. Some of the MST3K alum appear in RiffTrax, while most of the founding cast (Joel Hodgson, Trace Beaulieu, and others) appear in Cinematic Titanic -- same basic concept, though.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Christmas Time Capsule

Part of what gives Christmas it's emotional weight (at least for me) is the accumulated history of tradition. I thought about that as we decorated this past weekend.

For us, just about every ornament has its own story, and recalling those stories is part of what makes this season special.

Take the picture at right, for example. This hand-carved set of a mother cat and kitten drinking milk we purchased back in 1987. It was made in East Germany -- a country that no longer exists. I believe this set cost us about $15.00 (after Unification, the price jumped to $45.00).

We purchased the ornament at the Persimmon Corner, a boutique gift shop in downtown Charlottesville, VA. The store closed in the 1990's when the owner retired. But it was a great place to find the small wooden ornaments we needed for our Scandinavian tree.

The tree was given to us shortly after we were married by a good friend. It's made of wooden paddles that fan out to hold the ornaments, which are all less than an inch tall (or significantly smaller for the upper parts of the tree). She's long since moved away, but her gift remained. And after 25 years, we finally found enough ornaments to fill it.

So there's a lot of memories wrapped up in this little wooden set -- the shopping trips to one of our favorite store, good times with our friend, decorating in years past with toddlers, young children, and teens, and it's something of a historic artifact at this point.

And that's just one ornament on one tree.

Traditions are a way to help us remember. So what memories do your holiday traditions hold?

Friday, December 11, 2009

A priceless experience

I had a very odd thing occur yesterday.

A colleague and I were sharing stories about some professional successes that sounded impressive but were far more modest in their career-changing impact. My friend pointed to his Rolling Stone Magazine contribution -- an article for the "Schools That Rock: The Rolling Stones College Guide, 2005." It's still readily available from Amazon. Used copies start at 12 cents.

Although I've written over 40 compositions, only one has ever been recorded. And it's been recorded twice (sort of). "Three Etudes for Piano, Op. 3" was premiered on a 1990's ERM recording, "Piano Art," a recital disc by composer/pianist Robert Ian Winstin.

It's a pretty small work. All three movements only take about six minutes total, and it's sparsely written (my piano technique is somewhat limited). Pianist Leanne Rees liked the music well enough to include one (!) of the movements on her recital CD, "Women Composers and the Men in Their Lives."

Needless to say, this miniature masterpiece did not take the classical music world by storm (or even by sprinkle). The CD "Piano Art" had a good run, but eventually, all the copies sold through, and it's currently out of print. And yes, I kept my day job.

So I was very surprised when I called up the disc on Amazon during our discussion. Leanne Rees' CD, which is still in print, is available for a reasonable $9.99. But if you want the complete version of my Op. 3, a mint condition "Piano Art" CD can be yours for only $130.74! (click to enlarge the image)

Of course, the real interest of the album is Robert Ian Winstin's title composition, "Piano Art," which presents a series of music impressions of some classic images. And I'm sure that's what is determining the price and desirability of this CD.

But still. Glad I kept a couple of extra copies!

- Ralph

BTW - If there's any interest, I'll be glad to post PDFs of the music. Sorry, can't post the recording -- I don't own it, ERM Media does (and that's your music biz lesson for today).

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Too Much Joy, Not Enough Cash

As AC/DC once sang on "'74 Jailbreak,"
You learn to sing
You learn to play
Why don't the businessmen
Ever learn to pay

That's show business (Show business)
Show business (Show business)
Show business
That's the way it goes
Common complaint, of course, but two recent posts really put things into perspective. If you think getting signed to a major label is your entry to Easy Street, think again. For most bands, its anything but.

Tim Quirk, of the band Too Much Joy, recently posted his royalty statement with some very pointed (and knowledgeable) commentary. If you're interested in the music industry at all, you should read then entire post. Especially revealing is Quirk's explanation of how the majors use creative accounting to make sure their investment is covered at the expense of the artist.

While our royalty statement shows Too Much Joy in the red with Warner Bros. [for about $400,000], this doesn’t mean Warner “lost” nearly $400,000 on the band. That’s how much they spent on us, and we don’t see any royalty checks until it’s paid back, but it doesn’t get paid back out of the full price of every album sold. It gets paid back out of the band’s share of every album sold, which is roughly 10% of the retail price.

So, using round numbers to make the math as easy as possible to understand, let’s say Warner Bros. spent something like $450,000 total on TMJ. If Warner sold 15,000 copies of each of the three TMJ records they released at a wholesale price of $10 each, they would have earned back the $450,000. But if those records were retailing for $15, TMJ would have only paid back $67,500, [or $1.50 a unit] and our statement would show an unrecouped balance of $382,500.

Of course, things are different now that it's all digital downloads, right? Well, according to some sources, the artist gets 12% of what the label receives from the 99 cent iTunes sale -- which is about 70 cents (credit card processing gobbles up 25 cents, BTW). Which means the artist makes a little over 8 cents per song (and yes, the same accounting rules about recouping investment apply).

But the majors forced iTunes to variable pricing
, and now many new songs cost $1.29. So out of the dollar the labels now receive, what does the artist get? Many have contracts with fixed residuals, which means they still get 8.5 cents per song.

If the songs are noted in the account process, which was the primary subject of Quirk's post.

AC/DC recorded "Show Business" back in 1974. Sad that it's still relevant.

- Ralph

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

National Novel Writing Month 09 - A Personal Account

So what's it like to write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days? If you like to write, I highly recommend it. There's something exhilarating about slamming out words with your internal editor turned off.

To me, this kind of pedal-to-the-metal writing is very similar to what I imagine authors of the 1930's did. It was possible to support yourself as a fiction writer then, but you had to write a lot -- and write it on deadline.

And so this year's novel, "Death in Five States," was another in a series of pulp homage adventures I've written about the mysterious crime fighter known only as Raven. I had a pretty detailed outline of the story prepared before I began the event.

The plot involves two rival gangs fighting over a mcguffin, which the heroine inadvertently steps into the middle of when she boards a cross-continental express train. Most of the action was take place aboard the train, with a brief denouement as the surviving parties disembark and finish the chase.

About halfway through, though, something happened. A minor character that was really only introduced to be killed threatened to take the story another direction.

Behind her two men emerged from the corridor. One was of average height, but broad. His face had a beefy quality to it, what little wasn't covered by his big bushy beard. He clutched a small valise close to his chest.

His companion was shorter, a slight man with watery gray eyes that peered out through rimless spectacles. The two settled into a couch next to Nancy. The small man nodded pleasantly to the girl. Encouraged by the gesture, Nancy beamed back

"I'm Nancy Whitaker. How do you do?" she said.

The small man nodded again. "A pleasure to make your acquaintance. I'm Eustace Smithers. This is my colleague, Mr. Bruno."

Mr. Bruno grunted.

"I believe we're travel companions," Smithers continued, "You're in 4C aren't you? We're in 3C."

Nancy cocked a quizzical eyebrow. "You two are journeying together?"

"Yes," said Smithers enthusiastically. "All the way to San Francisco. And you?"

"Same here," said Nancy. She peered over to Mr. Bruno. "That's a nice-looking satchel" she commented.

Mr. Bruno pulled the valise tighter to his chest, looking suspiciously at Nancy.

Smithers leaned close to Nancy. "Mr. Bruno is very protective of that case," he whispered. "It contains some... personal things that are very close to his heart. It's best not to call attention to it."

Nancy nodded slowly. "I see," she lied.

I have no idea where Mr. Bruno came from (the original walk-on didn't even have a name).

But that wasn't the only surprise. There's the FBI agent who was supposed to remain in the background, but ended up becoming a romantic interest. And the whole back story of the Gemini Gang, which turned my two ill-defined crime boss rivals into fraternal twins locked in a deadly struggle.

About half-way through my detailed outline no longer fitted the story -- or perhaps it was the other way around. "Death in Five States" had gone off the tracks, if you will. But with the month half gone and over 25,000 words written, I couldn't just start over, nor take the time to pull it back around by rewriting the first part if I wanted to finish on time. No, all I could do was keep typing, and read what was going to happen next.

The National November Writing Month slogan is Thirty days and nights of literary abandon. That's what it was for me. I learned a lot more about the writing process during this time, and had a blast.

I didn't end up where I thought I would when I started out, but it was definitely worth the trip.

- Ralph

You can read my Nanowrimo entry by clicking on the link below. This isn't edited yet - I've just gone through and fixed typos and added chapter headings.

"Death in Five States" by Ralph Graves - first draft pdf

Monday, November 30, 2009

Where's Ralph? Writing in Virginia

Readers of our blog may have noticed a significant drop-off in the frequency of our posts. (If you haven't we have an even bigger problem).

During the last 30 days, I once again participated in the National November Writing Month event. The idea's simple enough -- start and finish a 50,000 word novel in one month. I completed the event last year, and I did so again this year.

Unfortunately, my other writing fell by the wayside, for which I apologize. We'll get back to business now that the event's over.

As always, Nanowrimo was a blast. My novel was titled "Death in Five States," and was actually a prequel to last year's tome, "The Crimson Doom." Here's the first draft, as I completed it yesterday, warts and all.

"Death in Five States" by Ralph Graves - first draft pdf

Over the next few days, I'll go back through the manuscript and clean up spelling errors and other typos. But I won't even think about serious editing for another few months. And I already know there's some trimming in this story's future.

So will "Death in Five States" ever be published?

I'm not sure. It's a literary homage to a pretty obscure genre of fiction (the hero pulps of the late 1930's), so this may be as far as it gets. No matter. I had fun, learned a lot about the writing process, and already have the next adventure planned out.

- Ralph

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

The Principles of Collecting - Part 5, Understand the market dynamics

If someone's just starting out in the field of collecting, there are a few things to keep in mind. Personally, I think you can boil them down to five basic principles. And these should work whether you're collecting subway tokens or vintage clothing. In the other parts of this series I talked about ways to determine what to collect and how to shape your collection.

But collecting requires acquisition. And for most collectors, that means purchasing items. And that leads us to the final principle.

Understand the market dynamics of your collecting subject

In the first post I talked about the importance of collecting your passion, rather than to make a quick buck. But that's not to say that knowing the value of what collect isn't important.

Even if you don't intend to sell anything, and let your heirs decide what's to become of your collection, it's good to understand value -- and how it's determined.

Basically, the value of any collectible is a function of condition, desirability, and availability.

Not all old objects are valuable. If they were very common (and easily found) then prices will remain low. If they're something that's not very desirable (say, hospital bedpans), then even if they're sort of scarce, they won't be worth much.

Remember, though, that the value of a collectible object isn't determined by the general public, but by other collectors. And so it's important to know what features make a particular item desirable.

Know the standards

For the average person, it doesn't matter if a book has a dust cover or not. It matters greatly to the book collector, and its presence (or absence) and condition impacts value. And if you're looking to add that volume to your collection, having that knowledge can be the difference between finding a bargain and getting fleeced.

Some objects decrease in value when reproductions arrive on the market, because it affects availability. Some don't. And sometimes the reproductions themselves become desirable.

And remember when we're talking about condition, it's not necessarily new-in-the-box. Some antiques are more valuable if they show wear. And for very old objects, some types of damage is acceptable (while other kinds are considered deal-breakers). Same with repairs and replacement parts. For some objects, these kinds of alterations don't affect value, but for others, repairs or partial replacement parts can make them practically worthless.

Nothing lasts forever (especially collector demand)

Fashions change, too. Rare objects in great condition still arent' worth much if they're no longer desirable. Think Beanie Babies, or pogs. Red-hot for a while, now just yard sale fodder. That's not to say that the value on these items might not increase should they become desirable again.

For many collectors, the thrill is in the hunt. Understanding the market dynamics just helps get you through the jungle safely while you're hunting.

- Ralph


Monday, November 02, 2009

The Principles of Collecting - Part 4. Build a solid knowledge base

So what advice would you offer someone starting a collection? Regardless of what one chooses to collect, I think there are five basic principles to keep in mind. Pick something you're passionate about, keep it focused, and know how you want to organize and/or display it. Which leads us to the fourth principle.
Build a solid knowledge base about the subject of your collection

If you follow the other three principles, this one should just naturally develop. It's one of the primary reasons to collect something you're really interested in, instead of something you hope to make a quick buck on. Because research is an important part of collecting, and having to study a subject you're especially fond of is, well, too much like work.

So where does this knowledge come from? All over. And all of it can have its own set of rewards.

Talk with fellow collectors - especially when you're starting out, visiting other more experienced collectors can be very helpful. First, there's the sense of camaraderie that comes from "talking shop" with someone who's just as into a subject as you are. You can also see what your collection can potentially grow into, look at display and organizing solutions, and so on. You might see fairly rare pieces up close. And by talking with other collectors you'll generally get some hands-on tips about what to look for, what things are truly worth and so on.

Personal experience - over time, you'll become one of the collectors I just talked about in the paragraph above. Chance are you'll get burned on some purchases, you'll learn the hard way that all that glitters is not gold (or even pyrite). If you learn from your mistakes, you'll eventually develop an instinct that will help you when you encounter something out of the ordinary.

Case in point: at a recent toy train show, someone brought in an unusual piece: a vintage Lionel steam engine with an "Eastern Railroads" decal on its tender. It was decided a one-of-a-kind item, so looking it up online or in a reference book wasn't going to help. First off, what was it, and secondly, was it real?

I happened to be there during the discussion when this item was presented, and the collective wisdom of the folks examining it went as follows:

"Eastern Railroads" a road name used in the "Railroads at Work" diorama at the 1939 World's Fair Railroad Building (sponsored by the Eastern Railroads Presidents' Conference).

Could this be a surviving piece from that legendary display?

No, because the engine was an off-the-shelf O-gauge locomotive. And while it was made in the late 1930's the railroad exhibit used all hand-made smaller scale models.

Could it have been a display piece from some other part of the railroads pavilion?

Possibly, but the trim actually dated the locomotive as coming from a run made after 1939, and therefore not likely to have been at the Fair.

What about the paper decal?

Decidedly of the right age, but hand-applied. And such decals were known to exist.

Most likely explaination: someone with connections to the Fair had obtained the decals and made their own souvenier by converting a locomotive they already owned. There was probably no intent do defraud, and so this is an interesting curiousity, even though not an actual piece of the 1939 American Railroads exhibit.

All of which, of course, greatly impacted the value.

Reference Works - reading up on the subject of your collection can help greatly in several areas. Sometimes the way a reference book is laid out can give you ideas on how to organize your collection. And while it can give you relative values, don't take them to heart -- most price guides are out of date before they roll off the printing presses. Such guides can, however, be useful in helping you understand what's out there in your field, and how available (or scarce) particular objects might be.

Historical reference works are useful, too. Lists with prices are great as shopping guides, but to really understand the nature of the objects in your collection and the reason why some are more valuable than others, you'll need to understand the background of your objects.

If you're familiar with the history of Arm & Hammer, you'll have a better idea of why tins from certain years are more valuable (and more desirable) than others. And if you're collecting any type of object from the past, just understanding the general history of the time will help tremendously, too. The scrap tin drives of the Second World War took a heavy toll on inexpensive prewar toys.

And don't forget original sources. Again, if you're collecting something from the past, company records may be spotty or even non-existent. The best references for 1920's Tootsietoy dollhouse furniture are the catalogs the company sent out to retail buyers. You'll see what was available, when it was available, and in what colors. If you look at successive years, you'll know when items were discontinued, redesigned, recolored, and/or repackaged. All of which helps accurately date objects when you find them in the wild -- the very kind of information used to determine that the World's Fair locomotive couldn't be authentic.

If you're collecting your passion, then all of this research -- both written and oral -- will just add to your appreciation of your hobby.

- Ralph


Sunday, November 01, 2009

The Principles of Collecting - Part 3, Have a plan for organizing/storing your collection

So what advice would you give to someone thinking of starting a collection as a hobby? I think there are five basic principles to keep in mind, whether its Victorian birdhouses or Christmas Seals, or anything in between. In part one we talked about how to choose your collecting subject, and in part two we suggested how to keep the collection manageable.

But there's another important point to consider before you go too far down the collecting path, which may actually determine the subject and focus of your collection.

Have a plan for the organization and storage/display of your collection

Let's break that principle down into its component parts.

Storage - It's usually not the first thing a collector thinks of, but it's often the first problem one runs into. Say your interest is nautical memorabilia -- and you live in a tiny New York City apartment. Deciding to collect ship's wheels wouldn't be very practical. But steamship dinner menus, small box compasses, a sextant or two, etc. could be things that one could collect and enjoy in such a small space.

And storage isn't just a question for bulkier items, like oil paintings or Chippendale furniture. Even small objects can reach critical mass.

I know someone who has a massive book collection. Now she doesn't follow our second principle -- have a focus. She continually brings home boxes of books from auctions and estate sales that are only marginally related to her primary subject, and after years of doing this she has yet to separate the wheat from the chaff of her collection.

Her library has outgrown the house, as well as the small detached building built for her use. A portion of the barn on the property has also been converted to book storage, and that's currently overflowing as well.

Here's the thing -- many of those books which she "rescued" from the dumpster by bringing them home are deteriorating a rapid rate. The volumes in the barn are exposed to extreme temperature, excessive moisture, and various critters who find old paper quite tasty.

Had she kept the confines of her library building, her collection of books might be one of a limited number of volumes, but one that could be continually refined and upgraded. As it is, most of her collection is simply disintegrating because storage wasn't considered.

Collect your passion, but consider the space you have available to indulge it.

Organization - So let's assume you have the space you need for your collection to grow into. How will you organize it? Thinking about this may also help the direction your collection will take. Decided to collect stamps? Cool. Chances are the albums you purchase will help you organize your treasures better than a shoe box.

Collect LPs? Then organize them by label, year, genre, artist, or some other theme that makes sense to you. Dolls can be arranged by size, or perhaps by age. Vintage stock certificates by company, or engraver, or year.

The point of organizing is two-fold. First, it's a good way to maintain an idea of what's in your collection. Because there will come a time (sooner or later), when you can't remember everything you have, and you'll start unintentionally duplicating objects.

Secondly, it's a good way to evaluate your collection. If you're looking to collect a particular run or sequence of objects (like all the baseball cards of the 1954 American League), then you can readily find the gaps and know what you should look for.

It's also an opportunity to take a hard look at what you have and ask what objects need to remain. Organizing isn't a one-time activity. Regular organizing helps you reevaluate your collection and help you keep it pruned. After all, tastes change, and sometimes those oh-so-desirable objects have become "what-was-I-thinking?" embarrassments. Let your collection change and grow with your interests.

Display - And finally, there's the question of display. Perhaps you don't want to show off your collection. That's your choice, of course. Maybe for security reasons you'd rather not have everyone know just what stamps or coins you've collected.

But since a good collection reflects the collector's passion, it's safe to assume that you'd want to display some of it. Maybe your collection is such that only a few pieces can be shown. You may have thousands of antique post cards, for example, but only choose (or have the space) to frame and hang ten of the most interesting.

Maybe you'll want to have a bookcase for your collection, or (depending on the size) a dedicated room. While your collection may start small, it's a good idea to think of these kinds of things early.

I know someone who has their collection scattered about their home. Things were just placed anywhere temporarily -- and never moved. Just about every flat surface is filled with something from their collection, which makes it hard to see exactly what the collection's about (and kind of looks like the first stage of hoarding to me).

So go ahead and collect those soda pop bottle caps. But while you still just have five or six, think about what you're going to do if you accumulate several hundred of them. Having piles of bottle caps on a card table is not an attractive long-term solution.

- Ralph


Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Principles of Collecting - Part 2, Have a focus to your collection

What advice would you give someone thinking of starting a collection as a hobby? That's the question my father and I attempted to answer, and came up with what I think are five universal principles. Collect something you're passionate about seems a good place to start, but then what?

Have a focus to your collection
Here's the reality: for virtually field, it's impossible to collect it all. Romance novels, coins, dolls, stamps, Civil War memorabilia -- there's just too much.

Someone I know "collects" pigs. Well, it's something she's passionate about, but there's no focus to her collection. Anything that's generally pig-shaped is fine with her, from the cheapest plastic knick-knack to expensive crystal sculptures. It's not so much a collection as a pile objects indiscriminately thrown together.

Museums have a plan for obtaining objects, and so should the collector. Museums are after things that fit into their overall mission, that helps tell their story. A museum that's focussed on 19th century life may have a few contemporary newspapers to help illustrate daily life. A newspaper museum would have thousands -- but none of the 19th century clothing, furniture, etc. that the other museum would have. Both museums could have the same objects, but use them in different contexts.

Same with personal collections. Having a focus makes the collection manageable, and at the same time gives it a purpose.

Let's go back to that pig collection. Currently, it suggests someone who's a borderline hoarder. But suppose it had a little focus. In addition to her affinity for pigs, she likes crystal. Combining those two passions, she could collect only cut or blown glass pigs. It would actually make each object mean more to her, and also tell a story of her interests. If she liked a particular studio, or school of design, she could further narrow her collection, while increasing its interest not only to her, but to others as well.

The more focussed a collection, the easier it is for non-collectors to understand. I'm not saying you should collect for the approbation of others -- collect your passion. But you can communication that passion, and perhaps pass on an appreciation of your interest to others if there's a purpose to your collection.

A collection of 19th century cast-iron piggy banks is tells a story -- several, actually. This is the level of technology for these type of objects in the 1890's; this was the shared cultural perception of pigs; this is an example of 19th century life; look at the variety of form and quality in these pieces all made around the same time.

And having a focused collection makes it easier to decide what belongs, and what doesn't. That doesn't mean you have to be draconian -- it's your collection, you make the rules, and you decide when to break or bend them. So that collection of cast-iron banks may have a lone plastic piggy bank from the 1950's, the bank the collector owned as a child, or perhaps was given by a dear friend.

And it's best to decide on the focus of your collection as early into the process as possible. It's always easier to not bring something into the home, then to try to get it out again -- and more economical, too.

- Ralph


Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Principles of Collecting - Part 1, Collect your passion

If you were talking to someone thinking about starting a collection as a hobby, what advice would you give them? That's the question my father and I attempted to answer, and in the process came up with five universal principles.

First Principle: Collect something you're passionate about

There's really only one good reason to start a collection -- it gives you pleasure. Something about the objects you're seeking out provide a joy that just isn't met otherwise.

So what does that mean? Well, it's no accident that many collectors are interested in objects from their past. Take the area of toy trains, for example. The average collector seems to be a 60-year old male. The hottest items? Toy trains manufactured in the early 1960's, when that average collector was 10-13 years old.

For the average collector, trains from that period have special meaning. They may conjure up pleasant associations from years past (and since most toy trains of the period were commonly used as Christmas decorations, that feeling of nostalgia can be especially strong). They may be the toys that the collector wanted but never had as a child, and so to get that special train provides a feeling of accomplishment.

Whatever the reason, for the toy train collector, there's more to their hobby than just accumulating objects of plastic and metal.

That should be true of whatever you decide to collect. A book collector I know tells me that, while he's primarily interested in the author and the story, there's something about the smell of old paper that conjures up fond memories for him.

A coin collector friend likes to contemplate the history of the Roman coins he owned. Where had they been? How many hands did they pass through? How did they end up where he found them?

And remember collections don't have to be about old things, or even valuable things. If a particular group of objects strikes your fancy, then that's fine. I knew someone who collected novelty salt-and-pepper shakers and seldom paid more than a few dollars for any set. While the items weren't (and still aren't) worth much, it doesn't matter. She had fun collecting them, and that was really the point.

Remember: it's your collection. Perhaps you like post-modernist fine art. Or maybe your taste runs more towards bobble-heads. Doesn't matter. Your collection only has to speak to you.

Corollary: Collect for fun, not profit.
Even a casual Internet search will turn up lots of posts talking about the value of "collectibles." But there's a reason why the stories about old, presumably valueless items found to be worth thousands keeps turning up. Because it's still such a rare occurrence that it's newsworthy.

Make sure you read those stories carefully. What you'll discover is that these highly valued items are exceptional in some fashion. Sure, that first appearance of Superman in Action Comics #1 is said to be worth $310,000. But don't expect to collect comics and then sell them off to fund a comfortable retirement!

Let's look at that value again. The estimated top value of Action #1 is $350,000. That means the price it can get when the comic's in impeccable condition. Damaged covers, missing pages, etc. significantly lower the value. However Action Comics #2 is valued at around $20,000 (first appearance of Superman is historically important - the second, not so much). And there's a further fall off with issue number 3, 4, and so on.

When Action Comics #1 came out in 1939, the concept of collecting comic books wasn't really formed -- many were folded up and jammed into back pockets, passed around among friends, read and reread to tatters. At the time comic books were regarded as cheap juvenile ephemera, and often discarded. Quite a few ended up recycled in World War II paper drives.

Out of a print run of about 200,000, less than 100 copies of Action #1 are known to exist. So it's very unlikely you'll find a copy in your attic. And of those copies, only a handful can command top dollar. Further, that $350,000 is an auction estimate. If all the major collectors are at the same auction and if they get into a bidding war, the comic might fetch that amount.

But Action #1 is an unusual comic. It's both rare and historically important. Millions of comics have been published, and many of them aren't especially desirable -- even in mint condition. Most of the comics you're likely to run across won't be worth a fraction of Action #1. A clean copy of Career Girl Romances #1 from 1965? Perhaps three or four dollars -- if you can find a buyer.

So while the idea of finding a stack of old comics in the attic and selling each one for hundreds of thousands of dollars might seem like an attractive business model, that's not likely to happen.

Collecting things for the primary purpose of selling them at a profit isn't a hobby -- it's a business. And as any antique dealer can tell you, it's a labor-intensive business at that. Tracking down items to buy, maintaining the books, making sure you have enough operating capital, monitoring the market, selling at shows and auctions -- it's work. So unless your hobby is running a commercial operation, it's best to stick to collecting for enjoyment.

One other thing -- most collectible markets are even more volatile than the stock market. If buying and selling is your thing, you'll probably do better as a day trader.

Next: Narrowing the focus.

- Ralph


Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Principles of Collecting - Introduction

In his retirement, Dad's become a fairly popular speaker for fraternal organizations and the like. Many of his presentations center around some aspect of history, usually involving either local history, or the background of pre-war toy manufacturers.

Currently, he's developing a talk he'll present with a fellow toy car collector. It will be a presentation on the basics of collecting designed for retirees just contemplating taking up a hobby to occupy their leisure time.

As Dad and I traveled to the Train Collectors Association Eastern Division toy train meet in York, PA, his project prompted us to think about and discuss what the underlying concepts of collecting might be. And while at the meet, we had a chance to see some of those concepts in action.

So here's the question: if you knew someone who wanted to start a collection, what advice would you give? What principles universally apply whether you're interested in Beanie Babies or Hemingway First Editions?

It gave us a lot to think about. And (I think) we came up with some interesting ideas, which I'll discuss in detail in a series of posts. Look over this list, though, think about your own hobby, and let me know if I've overlooked something.

The principles of intelligent collecting:

1) Collect something you're passionate about

2) Have a focus to your collection

3) Have a plan for organizing and storing your collection

4) Build a solid knowledge base about the subject of your collection

5) Understand the market dynamics of your collecting subject

- Ralph

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Lessons from York - Economic indicators?

My dad and I recently returned from our semi-annual trip to York, PA for the Train Collectors Association Eastern Division toy train meets. As I've noted before, it's a pretty big event, and as significant in the field of toy train collecting as, say, CES is to consumer electronics.

This is a hobby that tends to skew old -- most people don't get serious about the hobby until they're in their fifties. So there's a significant portion of collectors that are retired, and living on a fixed income

Dad and I wondered if the economic downturn would impact the hobby -- or at least what we saw at York. Would attendees pull back in their spending? Would some even stop coming? After all, a hobby isn't a necessity, but for many, it's a very important part of their life.

In the spring, we didn't notice much of a change. Attendance was still very high, Lionel, MTH, Atlas and other manufacturers still displayed new products, and older items for sale seemed to be about the same price.

This month, though, things were different. The major manufacturers were all still there, albeit with somewhat restrained product lines. I don't have attendance figures, but the crowds did seem thinner.

But the most obvious change were the dealers. Quite a few halls had empty tables. In some cases, it was clear that the tables had simply not been rented. But many had names on them -- the tables had been rented, but the dealers never showed up. Table signup is finalized months before the meet, so clearly, circumstances changed during that time.

And the effect was similar to the "broken window" syndrome. The vacant tables didn't go unnoticed. We overheard many conversations talking about sluggish sales and general unease about the future. And if we stopped to look at something, more often than not the dealer was right there really giving us the hard sell.

We still had a good time and got some good bargains (like that Lionel MPC boxcar pictured above I brought home). And truth to tell, we also came with less spending money than in years past. And we got the answer to our question. Hobbies can provide a nice diversion, but sometimes reality can't be ignored.

- Ralph


Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Value of Twitter, Part 4: Join the Conversation

The Value of Twitter Series:
Part 1: The Personal
Part 2: The Professional
Part 3: The Informational
Part 4: Join the Conversation
Part 5: An Annotated Conversation

In the three previous parts of this series, I talked about the ways I find Twitter valuable using the analogy of a cocktail party. Many people hear about Twitter, open an account, look around, and abandon their account fairly quickly. Talking with some folks I know that have done so, there seem to be two reasons:

1) They don't understand how Twitter works
2) They don't know where to start.

Hopefully, the three previous posts help with point 1. As for the other, let's return to our cocktail party analogy. You walk into a very large room (perhaps at a convention) and it's entirely filled with people engaged in conversation with each other. The din is overwhelming, and there's no way you can make out more than a few words of what anyone's saying.

What do you do? Well, you could join the people lining the walls, the wallflowers looking on, but never participating (until they decide this is stupid and leave the room). Or you could plunge in. And most of us would probably do so in one of two ways. If we saw someone we know, we'd probably join their conversation, at least initially. If we happened by a conversation about something we were really interested in, we might introduce ourselves and join in. In either case, you're filtering out the noise, by focussing in on something specific.

Same with Twitter. To get started, you need folks to talk to and things to talk about. Many abandoned Twitter accounts have a single tweet that essentially says: "I'm here, now what?" The response is the same as it would be if you made it at the door of that convention hall -- nothing. Because you're not talking to anyone. So the first thing is to start following people.

Following friends
A good place to start is with other people you know on Twitter. The search function is fairly useful in tracking people down. Once you start following some friends, you've part way there. Each person you follow receives a notification that you've added them, and (if they're really friends), they'll return the favor.

Once you have some followers, that's the time to ask "I'm here, now what?" because then folks will see your question and have an opportunity to answer.

Following friend followings
OK, sounds a little circular, but it's not. If you visit the profile page of someone, you'll see a list of everyone that they follow. It can be a great way to discover other people or organizations of interest to you (depending on how much overlapping interests you have with your friend).

Following strangers
You're not just limited to friends, of course. I find it useful to follow my elected officials, for example. Many other public figures have Twitter accounts, too. As do many news organizations, cultural institutions, etc. One way to find such feeds is to search by the name of the person or group.

Get hip to hashtags
Another good way to expand your follow list and find interesting conversations is to search with hashtags. A hashtag is a word with a pound sign (#) in front of it. It serves the same function as a keyword. Twitter recognizes this symbol and uses it as a link. You can click on it and see everyone else who used that hashtag.

So, for example, if you're interested in knitting, you might search for #knit (with only 140 characters, #knitting is a little too chatty). I've found hashtags handy for communicating during conferences (using the conference initials) as a way to talk to other attendees -- some of whom I met through the process.

RT and FF
There are two other ways to join the conversion -- Retweeting (RT) and Follow Friday (FF). When you see RT in a tweet, it means "retweet," or forward to your followers. It can be an efficient way to spread the word about breaking news, things requiring fast action, etc. Yes, it's similar in concept to the idea of forwarding emails, but there's a difference. With only 140 characters stupid stuff like urban legends, and chain letters tend not to happen. RT or not as you choose.

"Follow Friday" has become something of a tradition on Twitter. Every Friday people send out lists with recommendations of people to follow. Usually, the tweet has the designation FF or #FF (remember hashtags?) and then a few names. Sometimes there will be a word or two about why that particular person is worth following. It can be a great way to find people to follow -- and for you to help others find the folks you enjoy conversing with.

Reciprocity optional
Just because someone follows you, you don't have to follow them (and visa versa). If you're at our hypothetical cocktail party and the person you're talking with is boring (or saying something inappropriate) you move on. Same with Twitter. It's fine to unfollow people (even friends) if you find you're not interested in what they're saying.

And conversely, don't be too upset if the people you follow don't follow you. Let your list of followers and follows reflect your use of Twitter -- the numbers don't have to match.

So there are my suggestions on where to start. Where you go with Twitter from there is entirely up to you.

- Ralph

Day 186 of the WJMA Podwatch


Friday, October 16, 2009

The Value of Twitter, Part 3: The Informational

The Value of Twitter Series:
Part 1: The Personal
Part 2: The Professional
Part 3: The Informational
Part 4: Join the Conversation
Part 5: An Annotated Conversation

In the first post of this series, I outlined three major areas where I find value in Twitter: the personal, the professional, and the informational. Of the three, the informational is probably the easiest to understand.

Virtually every news-gathering agency maintains a Twitter feed at this point. The 140-character format actually works very well for delivering a news headline with a link to the full story. I follow a few key news services to keep up with international, national, state and local news.

And it’s surprisingly easy to do. I prefer the BBC World for international news, and Breaking News for most everything else (I found if I followed too many news sources the feed got cluttered with a lot of repetitive tweets). Other people use CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, etc. –- depends on what flavor you like your news in.

But the real advantage of Twitter for me is the local coverage. In our little community of Orange, Virginia, we have a local newspaper that publishes weekly. The regional television stations do a good job, but I seldom catch the morning, noon or evening newscasts. So one might think it’s difficult for me to keep up with local events.

But when our board of supervisors abruptly canceled a controversial meeting in the early afternoon, I knew about it. As I did with every other important event that’s happened in our county (and there have been several). Why? Because I followed the Twitter feed of said regional TV station, NBC Channel 29.

And that’s the informational value of Twitter to me. I receive live updates of important events nationally, and locally. If I want more information, I can click on the provided link and get it. If not, at least I’m aware of the event.

Twitter’s what you make of it. Choose the news feeds you follow carefully, and it can be a valuable resource. Twitter’s not the be-all and end-all, but it can be a good place to start.

- Ralph

Day 184 of the WJMA Podwatch


Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Value of Twitter, Part 2: The Professional

The Value of Twitter Series:
Part 1: The Personal
Part 2: The Professional
Part 3: The Informational
Part 4: Join the Conversation
Part 5: An Annotated Conversation

If you want to understand Twitter, think of a cocktail party. In part one of this series, I talked about the value I find in Twitter on a personal level. This would be the equivalent of making light conversation with friends and acquaintances. But sometimes a cocktail party can be more about networking and make business connections than socializing – and so can Twitter.

Like networking face-to-face, it’s important on Twitter to strike a balance between self-promotion and genuine interaction. From a professional standpoint, I use Twitter to do the following:
  1. Promote our company’s activities
  2. Discover and interact with professional colleagues who can help us, and whom we can help
  3. Develop a resource for information
So how do I do that? Well, I actually have two Twitter accounts. @ralphgraves primarily deals with my personal tweets, and @DCDRecords is the Twitter feed for our record label, DCD Records.

Professional tweets in a professional feed
I use the @DCDRecords feed to promote the activities of DCD Records. Normally our tweets concern

  1. Notices of our Friday sales and other special offers
  2. Notices when new episode of the “DCD Classical ‘Cast” podcast is posted
  3. Notices when new releases are added to the DCD Records website
  4. Notices when updates and additional features are added to our website, such as sound samples, new artwork, etc.
  5. Reminders that we have a Facebook Fan Page and a MySpace page as well
All of the above, of course, include a link to the pages I’m referring to. And yes, I’m looking at the traffic for those links. I also like to go a little behind the scenes and share vignettes of what it’s like to run (almost single-handedly) a small record label as eccentric as ours. I’ll post about writing podcast scripts, formatting web pages, exciting new projects, all kinds of things.

As yet, we’ve not received much feedback, but should some of our followers offer up questions or opinions, I’ll be more than happy to start a conversation. And that conversation doesn’t have to end in a hard sell, either. Just as you can form an opinion about a person’s character through conversation, I believe you can do the same with a business -- especially a small one. That’s why our little label (read: me) continues to tweet away.

Professional tweets in a personal feed
I also do some professional tweeting at @ralphgraves. The goals are different than those for DCD Records. On my personal feed, my goal is to build my own personal brand. I do that by posting the following:

  1. Notices about a new blog post to C.E. Conversations. If you want to know who I am, and what I know about, this is a good place to start!
  2. My radio program on WTJU. This serves two functions. I want to raise awareness of the station within the online community, and document my knowledge and experience in radio.
  3. Notices about updates to the “Gamut” playlist. This is the playlist for the above-mentioned radio show. It’s a pretty unique program, predicated on the rule that I will only air a particular classical work once. I just finished show #851, and I still haven’t run out of music to play. The Gamut Playlist site documents that journey.
  4. Participating in collegial conversations. It’s not just about me. If other broadcasters are tweeting about an issue, I’ll join in. If you’re at a party, you don’t want to hear the other person’s list of accomplishments – you want a back-and-forth conversation. Me, too.

Other advantages? When our company attended the Public Radio Development and Marketing Conference this summer, we used Twitter to our advantage. I tweeted commentary about the sessions I attended and picked up several followers in the process. I tweeted invitations for a get-together at our booth in the exhibit hall – and people showed up. All good from a business standpoint, you’ll have to agree.

And here’s something else. There was a professional conference I wasn’t able to attend earlier in the year. I really wanted to be in a certain session, as the information presented was critical to our business. One of the folks I follow was there and tweeted during the session. I raised an objection to one of the things being said, my colleague read it, and asked the question to the presenter, and then tweeted the answer. And this conversation wasn’t just between the two of us. All the other professionals in the field who were following the thread got the information, too.

Final advantage – I follow several fairly prominent journalists and podcasters in the tech field. I’ve commented on their tweets, and have received some responses. And in a few cases, been asked for input. Without Twitter, it is extremely unlikely that any of this would have happened.

So yes. I personally find professional value in Twitter. And if you think creatively about your business, you should, too.

- Ralph

Day 182 of the WJMA Podwatch.


Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Value of Twitter, Part 1: The Personal

The Value of Twitter Series:
Part 1: The Personal
Part 2: The Professional
Part 3: The Informational
Part 4: Join the Conversation
Part 5: An Annotated Conversation

Several people have asked me what value I find in Twitter. They all signed up for the service, and after a few desultory posts pretty much gave up on it.

Well, as I recently wrote, Twitter is what you make it. And it works pretty much like a cocktail party. If you're a wallflower and don't talk to anyone, you're not going to get much out of it. Personally, I find three areas where Twitter's valuable to me; the personal, the professional, and the informational.

Let's talk about the personal.

If you're not familiar with Twitter, you might ask how is it different than Facebook or any other social media site?

Part of it has to do with the length of the posts, and the nature of the service. With only 140 characters, you have to be brief. Facebook, et al, allows for more lengthy conversations, along with embedded pictures, videos, etc. With Twitter, it’s all text. You can provide a link to further illustrate your point, but even that URL must remain within the 140-character limit.

People often dismiss Twitter as a time-waster. And if you're perception of the service is an endless series of tweets about what one had for breakfast, or when they went to the bathroom, then that would be true. But it’s not.

Go back to the cocktail party analogy for a moment. Plenty of people just make small talk in social gatherings. "How's the weather?" "How about them [favorite sports team]?" There's not much value in those conversations. And I think few of us would be interested in talking with someone who could only make small talk.

But suppose you were a fan of said sports team. That opening question might get you to respond with your opinion of the star quarterback. Which could lead to a discussion of the current season, and then favorite plays from past games, and so on. Now you and the other person are conversing in depth about a topic of mutual interest.

That's how I use Twitter for the personal. I sometimes throw out informational tidbits about what I'm doing, to give folks a better idea of who I am. But they’re also designed to be conversation starters, too, if anyone’s interested. Here are some real tweets I’ve done:

One thing I like about fall. When it's chilly, the morning sky is clear and I can really see the stars (even the Milky Way this morning).

"Food will not bring us close to God." (1Cor.8:8) Hmmm. So I guess I better put down that Lil' Debbie snack cake.

Bird feeder's knocked out of the window, and there’s feathers on the windowsill. I think we've inadvertently fed the hawk again.

Sometimes it works. In the following real-life example, I happen to know a goodly number of my followers are interested in classical music. So when I talk about what I listen to, I expect to get a comment or two -- like this:
Me: Listening to Bruckner's Missa Solemnis in B flat. (thanks, iTunes DJ) This choral work seems to flow better than his symphonies. IMHO

Tom: Bruckner's Symphonies flow majestically if the conductor knows what the f*ck he's doing (i.e. Furtwangler).

Me: Not saying I don't like Bruckner symphonies. I do. Now Furtwangler's symphonies are another story entirely...

Tom: Furtwangler's symphonies are awful. He did write a decent Te Deum, though. It's not as good as Bruckner's however.

Me: I actually have all 3 symphonies, his piano concerto, and violin sonata on CD. So I think I've given Furtwangler a fair shot!
Not earthshaking, but a pleasant conversation, nonetheless. And I learned a little in the process, too (now I have to track down that Furtwangler Te Deum).

Just as I would at a cocktail party, I only disclose so much on Twitter. I seldom talk specifics about work (boring), and politics (too polarizing). Since other family members aren't on Twitter, I don't talk about them to respect their privacy.

But still, I find the personal content of my Twitter feed to be an engaging read when I check it. If you pay attention, you can get to know a person better just chatting with them informally. And I've found that to be true, even through a 140-character filter.

Are my followers BFFs? No. But, just like a good cocktail party, it’s an interesting mix of personalities. And one that I brought together by taking part in the conversation and not being a wallflower.

- Ralph

Day 182 of the WJMA Podwatch.


Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Going private as publicly as possible.

Two things happened recently that sort of go together. I had at least four different friends independently ask what the value of Twitter was, and Miley Cyrus quit Twitter in a very public fashion.

Well, I've certainly found value in Twitter. To me it's very much like a cocktail party. Whether or not you have a good time depends on whether you sit in a corner, or get out there and mingle.

I think there are three basic areas where 140-character conversations can be beneficial (I'll explore each in depth in future posts).

1) Personal - You exchange small talk at parties, and a standard complaint about Twitter is that small talk makes up the bulk of the conversation. But is it really worthless? Small tidbits and personal observations can help you get to know a person better. (But you can't always control who listens in.)

2) Professional - Many people are on Twitter to further their career in some fashion. Sometimes I'm one of them. It can be a great vehicle for collegial discussion and promotion. (Celebrities get this part, including Ms. Cyrus.)

3) Informational - Virtually every news organization has a Twitter feed. There really isn't a better vehicle for pushing out breaking news. I follow several news sources.

Like that proverbial cocktail party, Twitter can be whatever you make of it, which leads us to Miley Cyrus.

When celebrities first discovered Twitter (Ashton Kutchner, Oprah, et al.), there was a concern that the Twitter would be awash with vacuous tweets by the famous (or more likely, their assistants).

But Miley Curus seemed to have used Twitter for another purpose -- as sort of a micro-diary to do quick asides and further connect to her fans (see point 1). Unfortunately, Twitter can be a very public forum. Yes, in theory you can block people you don't want to follow you, and retain a certain amount of privacy. But if you have followers numbering over a million, it isn't difficult for at least one tabloid journalist to sneak in posing as a 14-year old girl.

And (no surprise) it wasn't long before information shared in tweets started showing up in the news. For some celebrities, this was gold and a dream come true. Because when reporters use celebrity tweets as their news sources, they're reporting the information the celebrities themselves provide, and so the celebrities get to shape (but not totally control) the message.

Ms. Cyrus, apparently, felt differently, and closed her account.

Now the story might have ended there, but she then produced and posted to YouTube a (cringe-worthy) rap video explaining why she closed her account -- which makes things a little more complicated.

Twitter is like a cocktail party. It's not a private phone conversation. Whatever you say can be overheard, because you're saying it in a public forum. And one thing we should have learned by now is that content released to the Internet often take on a life of its own, with no guarantees that the originator will have any control over where or how it's used.

It's one thing to quit the conversation if you're not having a good time. But when you decide to leave a cocktail party by standing on a chair and screaming your displeasure -- well. That's something else indeed.

Respect my privacy! Don't read my tweets (but please watch my video)!

A mixed message, to be sure.

- Ralph

Day 181 of the WJMA Podwatch. (No, WJMA doesn't have a Twitter feed -- but WTJU does!)

Monday, October 05, 2009

WQXR - The Finest of the Flavors

There seemed to be a little bit of confusion about the intent of my post about WQXR's revamped programming. Let's see if an analogy will help.

Let's say that instead of music, WQXR served up ice cream. WNYC acquired WQXR and had to move them to a new frequency with a lower coverage area. Sort of like relocating an ice cream store to a different neighborhood with a smaller local customer base.

Continuing with the ice cream analogy, WNYC's announcement (reported in a New York Times article) might be paraphrased like this: WQXR will combine "the longstanding tradition of being a full-service ice cream parlor with WNYC’s passion and commitment to discovery.”

Now there're two ways you can go with ice cream. You can sell all kinds of exotic flavors, or you can stick the basics. Baskin-Robbins, Ben and Jerry's, et al. do just that (although some have more variety than others).

Or you can just stick to the basics and maximize sales. Dairy Queen, Tastee Freez et al. only offer vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry, the three most popular flavors.

Now it's obvious what's going on with our radio/ice cream parlor analogy. Smaller market, need to recoup investment as quickly as possible -- going with the three most popular ice cream flavors makes sense. If anyone's going to buy ice cream, there's a very good chance they'll settle for one of those three flavors.

Nothing wrong with that, but what would you think if you had a "passion and commitment to discovering" new ice cream flavors and walked into the WQXR store. They said they share your passion, but instead of a Baskin-Robbins-type store, you only have the choice of vanilla, chocolate, or strawberry? And, when you asked about the limited choices, how would you feel when the clerk told you (paraphrasing from the article again), "There may indeed be times when you have a taste for cookie dough, or chocolate mint chip, but we will not favor them over the flavors that speaks directly to the needs of the taste buds.... Vanilla trumps Rocky Road.”

And you had your heart set on Heath Bar Crunch. Feel like you've been a victim of a little bait and switch?

Right. That's one of my points. If you're just going to provide the three basic flavors, fine. But don't try to spin it into something grander.

As several observers have pointed out, we may all agree with the Bare Naked Ladies when they sang in "One Week" that vanilla is the finest of the flavors. But how many servings will it take before even the "finest of the flavors" becomes boring and unappealing?

And finally, what about the people who like fruit-flavored desserts? Or desserts with nuts? Or desserts with caramel, or marshmallows, or -- you get the idea.

If their only exposure to ice cream is vanilla, chocolate, or strawberry (if you want to go wild) they'll come away with the impression that ice cream is never a good choice for dessert. It has none of the flavors they like.

Does that grow or shrink the market for ice cream? There's a reason why those specialty ice cream parlors offer more than three flavors...

- Ralph

Day 174 of the WJMA Podwatch.

Thursday, October 01, 2009


And no, I don't mean "Save Our Ship." New York City's all-classical commercial radio station, WQXR has been bought by WNYC. Initially, there was rejoicing. The venerable station, formerly owned by the New York Times, had become a cultural institution over its 70 years of existence.

So what do I mean by "SOS?" Same Old Sh*t, of course.

According to a New York Times article by Daniel Walkin, the new WQXR will have more classical music aired (because they won't be running commercial breaks), but the selection is about to get much less interesting.

In the article, Laura S. Walker, president and CEO of WNYC said new WQXR will combine "the longstanding tradition of being a 24/7 classical music station with WNYC’s curatorial point of view and passion and commitment to discovery,” she said.

Cool. So that means that WQXR -- broadcasting to the city that is the center of American classical music -- the city that gave Steve Reich, Philip Glass, John Corigliano and many, many others their start -- is going to continue interviewing composers and presenting the best in current classical music, right?

Not so fast.

According to the new mission statement: “There may indeed be times when the more radical and unfamiliar pieces work, but we will not favor them over the work that speaks directly to the needs of uplift, beauty, and contemplation.... Greatness matters. Bach trumps Telemann.”

OK, so that "passion for discovery" doesn't extend to the third best composer (behind Bach and Handel) of the late baroque. Surprising to hear that Telemann's music doesn't uplift, nor inspire beauty and contemplation. So what else doesn't make the cut?

Well, according to the article, the usual. No vocal music, no choral music, no contemporary music, nothing from the renaissance, or the middle ages. No chamber music (except for some solo piano, perhaps), no American composers (save Gershwin and Copland -- but no singing!).

None of this is surprising if you look at the circumstances and decipher the code words. WNYC spent some serious money to purchase the station, and with the frequency move, WQXR is going to broadcast to a smaller potential audience. So what WNYC really wants to do is get as many people listening as possible to justify the investment. The best way to do that? The tried and true radio method is to be as innocuous as you can.

"Greatness matters. Bach trumps Telemann." - Translation: We're not really talking about the relative merits of the pieces here because there is NFW we're going to air a Bach oratorio or the Art of the Fugue. Bach is a household name, Telemann is not. Familiar is comfortable, so we're going with that.

"work that speaks directly to the needs of uplift, beauty, and contemplation." - Translation: we want to get as close to Muzak as we possibly can. "Speaks directly" means familiar tunes. "Uplift" means light and pleasant music. "Beauty" means great for background listening. "Contemplation" means music that's not too loud (see: Beauty).

So explain to me this: where's the "passion and commitment to discovery" Ms. Walker was talking about? Based on what I've read so far, it seems to be more passionless familiarity.

- Ralph

Day 170 of the WJMA Podwatch.