Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Drawing the Line in Social Media

This is a post of questions -- answers would be most appreciated.

Like many others, I have an extensive social media network. I have a Facebook page, a MySpace account (although that's really for business), two Twitter feeds (personal and professional), a LinkedIn account and so on.

Some of my friends/followers I know in real life, and some I see on a regular basis. Others I've only known through business dealings (primarily online), and some only through these social media networks.

Where do I draw the line between what to share and what to keep private?
Generally, I try to keep personal posts/tweets about myself rather than my family or friends to respect their privacy (if they want to share experiences online, they can chose to do so themselves).

What level of sharing is appropriate?
Our family recently went through a serious experience, and all of a sudden, the abstract question became real. Obviously, close friends and family that needed details of what was happening I contacted directly by phone or in person.

And while I didn't think everyone in the wide world really needed to know what was happening (or even wanted to), it did impact the frequency of my posts, and with my attention drawn elsewhere, the quality of them as well. I tried to provide enough info to explain my lapses without violating the privacy of those involved or just being too much of a downer to read.

So what's the relationship of my social media contacts to me?
Real, true friends? Professional colleagues? Casual acquaintances? Granted, looking at the entire list, it's a combination of all those and more -- but if I want to post something to all my Twitter followers, or all my Facebook friends, what tone should I take. Where's the TMI line?

Others have shared their misfortune socially, and sometimes to good results. If you're laid off it makes sense to get the word out through your social media networks -- you never know where that next job lead is going to come from.

Is there conversational etiquette for social media?
I'm crafting my own answer to these questions as I go along. If you have any answers, please leave a comment!

- Ralph

Day 216 of the WJMA Web Watch.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Podcast Review --The Chris Moyles Show

Few broadcasting entities have embraced the new media as tightly as the BBC. Virtually all of their radio programs (across all their channels) stream online, have associated blogs and podcasts, and other online components.

The Chris Moyles Show airs Monday through Friday morning on BBC Radio One. For those of us over here, it's the equivalent of any of the nationally syndicated morning programs heard in this country. There's the main personality (Chris Moyles) and a team of coworkers for him to play off of (Comedy Dave, newscaster Dominic Byrne, sportscaster Carrie Davis, and daytime producer Aled Jones and producer Rachel Jones).

They interview celebrities with movies, TV shows, books and DVDs to promote; stage silly games with the audience; play today's top hits and generally have fun.

Like some of America's morning jocks, such as Howard Stern, Chris Moyles can be quite dirty-minded (if not always as dirty-mouthed), and his acid wit can cut deep sometimes.

The "Best of Chris Moyles" podcast features the best bits of the week's programs, condensed down to a single 45 minute podcast with some exclusive new content. Music, of course, is out (thanks RIAA!), so what's left are the speaking parts of the show. And that's just fine.

The comedy is brilliant (and compared to American broadcasts far more sophisticated and off-center). And it's clear that the program is rigorously planned out -- with ad lib sections built in, of course. Moyles always has an amazingly diverse library of sound effects and music cues at his fingertips, and always has just the right audio clip to further the comedy.

It's definitely entertaining for the average listener. But it should be required listening (in my opinion) to anyone involved in broadcasting in this country. Each week Chris Moyles and his team demonstrate how to engage an online audience, how to drive listeners to a website, how to make text messaging work for you, and how good radio should be done.

I've used specific examples from the Chris Moyles show before to illustrate how American radio can move into the 21st Century (nine years and counting, guys). I count on the Chris Moyles Show podcast to provide me with at least a half an hour of solid laughs. I'm seldom disappointed.

Remember, you don't need an iPod to enjoy a podcast. Just go online and listen!

- Ralph

Day 215 of the WJMA Web Watch. (Now here's an organization that really, really, really needs to subscribe to this podcast.)

Friday, January 23, 2009

Adventures in the Land of QAM

As I was watching my WVU Mountaineers throttle Georgetown last night (see it here!), my enjoyment was furthered by the lovely HD broadcast of the game. And then it occurred to me -- I wonder how many people who could be watching it this way didn't know they could?

I won't speak for everybody's cable system, but mine (Comcast), sends numerous HD channels out over the wire that are open for anybody to receive. It's their little secret -- they'll never tell you they're available. Instead, they want you to subscribe to their HDTV packages, add their tuner box, and pay their extra fees for the privilege of using your HDTV the way it was intended.

What do I do? Simply use my QAM tuner. I instruct my TV to search for digital channels, and it locates all the channels (SD and HD) that are available. As I said, many of Comcast's offerings aren't scrambled, so I can tune them in without having the man stick it to me. I get all of my broadcast channels, plus ESPN, ESPN2, and several others, in HD without paying a cent above my basic cable.

The downside? You get some weird channels -- like 89.1403 for Discovery, for example. And I suppose there's always the chance they'll decide to scramble the channels. But for now, I'm a happy guy. Let's Go Mountaineers! (In HD, of course).


Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Transparent Inauguration

Volumes have been written about the recent Inauguration of President Obama. One of the concepts I've maintained for some time (and I know I'm not the only one) is that whatever else he may be, Obama is the first 21st Century president. He's not only comfortable with tech, he understands its concepts and how to use it.

So it was only fitting that the coverage of his inauguration should also move into the 21st Century as well -- although there's still plenty of holdover from the old way of doing things.

In times past, most people would have watched the event on TV, or listened to it on the radio. Internet coverage was certainly available for Bush's second inaugural, but I didn't find it especially compelling or convenient.

This time, however, it was.

And what I found most important about it was how it illustrated one of Obama's main themes: transparency. I had to work Tuesday, so I watched the CNN/Facebook stream. But I found the Twitter feeds of even greater interest. Instead of having some reporter telling me what the crowd was feeling, I was reading comments from the crowd (served in convenient 140-character chunks). I could judge for myself what the mood of the crowd was. I didn't need a third-party intermediary (the talking heads) telling me what I was witnessing.

I also sampled coverage from various international sources, such as the BBC and Aljazeera. Reading different perspectives helped me examine my own. And those views were blended into the mix with the first-person narratives of Twitter, and the impartial coverage of C-Span.

I tried watching the mainstream media ball coverages in the evening but quickly became frustrated. No matter which cable or network channel I flipped to, I got the same thing: reporters and pundits in the studios talking and/or interviewing the reporters on the scene for their impressions. All the while the event was unfolding in the background, but I actually saw very little of it -- the cameras remained tightly focussed on the reporters, and commercial breaks occurred right on schedule.

Used properly, the Internet can be a great resource for primary sources. I didn't need Katie Couric's anecdotes, or Brit Hume's snarky comments, or Anderson Cooper's pronouncements to help me make sense of what was going on. I had access to all the same basic sources they were using, and I could simply judge for myself.

Most people don't make good windows -- they're difficult to see through. So to get true transparency, I had to move the talking heads out of the picture.

It was not hard to do.

- Ralph

Day 210 of the WJMA Web Watch. (These guys are the antithesis of transparency. Who knows what goes on behind that placeholder page?)

Monday, January 19, 2009

Podcast Review: Inside Europe

I like to stay informed -- which means I usually have to travel beyond the bounds of mainstream media. Fortunately, with podcasting this isn't hard to do.

One of my primary sources for European news is "Inside Europe" from Deutsche Welle (DW), the international broadcast service of Germany, tasked with providing news and information about Germany and Europe throughout the world.

Some public radio stations in this country carried some Deutsche Welle programs, but with NPR's plethora of news programming, it was often difficult to find room for any other news source in the schedule. Enter podcasting.

DW produces the one-hour "Inside Europe" program once a week, which makes it a perfect anthology of the top European news stories for American listeners. The format is very similar to "Morning Edition" or "All Things Considered" -- long-form stories with background sounds, lots of actualities (interviewees), and well-reasoned, informative reporting.

And "Inside Europe" is just that -- a news program about Europe. German stories don't get prominence, and I have yet to hear any particular bias in the reporting. Germany isn't favorably pictured -- the bad gets reported with the good. And there isn't a pro- or anti- U.S. slant, either. American actions are reported, but only as they affect Europe.

Virtually every "breaking" news story from Europe breathlessly reported on MSNBC or CNN I already heard about the week, or sometimes several weeks, before on "Inside Europe."

That dust-up between Georgia and Russia? Not a surprise to anyone following the posturing that's been going on between the countries for some time. None of that made the news here -- but it certainly did in Europe. The French immigration riots, the Turkish political crises, the problem of English farmers competing against European imports, the events leading up to Kosovo's bid for independence, all of these stories (and more) have been brought to my attention thanks to "Inside Europe," and they're keeping me up to date on their developments.

"Inside Europe" is a remarkable news program, and one I find invaluable as a global citizen. (And if you don't think you're a global citizen, then you're just not living with reality.)

Remember, you don't need an iPod to listen to a podcast. Just download to your computer and enjoy.

- Ralph

Day 208 of the WJMA Web Watch. (The relaunch of the WJMA website? Now that would be news!)

Saturday, January 17, 2009

DTV - Hawaiian Fact vs. Political Fiction

One of the coolest things about the United States (which most people don't seem to notice), is that we actually have fifty different laboratories for social experiments. What should the drinking age be? 18? 21? Some states allow the former, some the latter. The advantage is that rather than guessing which is more beneficial, there's real-world data to study.

So here we are finally at the brink of the transition to digital TV. And now some politicians want to put the breaks on because some of the population won't be ready. Well, what isn't talked about is the fact that this deadline has already been pushed back once before.

Some are crying that millions will be thrown into darkness, and we've got to delay! Well, here's another way to look at it: less then 10% (with the number shrinking daily) of the population will be affected. And what about all the pain and suffering anticipated?

Look to Hawaii for test results. They made the switch ahead of schedule. The early returns indicate no rioting, no mass confusion, no end-of-the-world gnashing of teeth.

Democrats have vowed to keep working on pushing the deadline back because of what theoretically could happen. But the facts coming out of Hawaii contradict that.

So: what happens next? Will our congresscritters wait a week, study the results from Hawaii, and make a decision based on the facts? Or will political posturing trump the facts?

Hmmm. Time to write my representatives again....

- Ralph

Day 206 of the WJMA Web Watch.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Procrustean Bed of Child Safety

There's a real danger to creating a general law to address a specific problem. You usually end up with a Procrustean Bed. And that's where a significant number of small businesses will be forced to lie on February 10 (aptly called the "Day of Bankruptcy") unless some chowderheaded legislation is changed PDQ.

The initial problem: High amounts of lead were found in some toys imported from China.

The initial solution: Pass new laws to make manufacturers and retailers have laboratory-certified test results that products sold to children were within safe lead levels (there were already regs on the books covering this issue, but never mind that). And then, because Children Were In Danger, make it retroactive so that after February 10 no uncertified children's product could be sold. That would show them!

And it has. CPSIA was aimed at a specific problem from a few specific sources. But the results of the hastily written law are far-reaching indeed.

If you're not familiar with the story of the Procrustean Bed of Greek myth, Procrustes claimed to have a magical bed that perfectly fit every traveler. And it did. If his guest was too long for the bed, Procrustes chopped off his feet. If the guest was too short, he was stretched on the rack until he fit. Everyone fit the bed, but at what cost to the health of the guest?

These new regulations, we are now discovering, will be applied to everything. According the Christian Science Monitor,

This law defies common sense. The CPSIA does not focus on products and materials that have a history of actually presenting a danger. Nor does it present a reasonable method of testing. For instance, it does not exempt already certified materials, or allow inputs, such as the paint, to be tested prior to production.

Rather, the CPSIA would require a wooden animal manufacturer with, say, 400 different animals, to apply paint to them all and then test the same paint 400 times, for a cost exceeding $100,000. As most small companies produce low volumes of many styles, this law could mean the end of diversity in the children's product market.

Many small toy manufacturers and craftsmen will have to cease production -- the tests (in many cases irrelevant) are simply too expensive. Off go the feet.

Retailers will not be able to sell non-certified goods after February 10. For many specialty stores, that means destroying inventory they can't return -- and their operating capital with it. Stretch those limbs till they pop out of their joints.

Yes, child safety is important, but these rules go far beyond that. By making everyone lay down in the Procrustean Bed of CPSIA, NationalBankruptcyDay.com estimates that come February 10, these rules will result in over $46 million in lost wages, $41 million in lost sales for the year, and approximately 61% of the affected businesses forced to shutter their doors.

The previous laws already addressed the safety issues -- adequate enforcement was the real problem. So if child safety isn't really at stake here, does the mandated destruction of $72 million dollars worth of goods make any sense whatsoever?

To Procrustes, certainly. But that's the problem. Just like Procrustes, the ones who made the bed aren't the ones who have to lay in it.

Time to start writing the congresscritters again.

- Ralph

Day 203 of the WJMA Web Watch. (Now here's an organization that needs to get the lead out. When's that website coming back, anyway?)

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Podcast Review -- The Dorktones Podcast

One of the best things about the Internet is that things linger on after death (it can also be the worst thing depending on how you look at it). "The Dorktones Podcast" was absolutely my favorite music podcast of all time, and I was very sad when the Dorktones -- a trio of maniac Dutch music geeks -- called it quits.

For over two years they cranked out a weekly music podcast that was a real pleasure to listen to. The Dorktones are also a three-piece combo (I suspect they also have day jobs), and they basically played the music they liked, and the music that influenced them. Which meant that on any particular episode you could hear 50's R&B, early sixties Beat recordings, Euro pop from the 1970's, proto-punk, psychedelica, garage bands (both old and new), hard bop jazz, reggae, Northern soul, country and western swing, and a heaping helping of Frank Zappa (and Del Shannon, too).

I discovered a lot of great artists listening to the Dorktones podcast, from Brue and Terry, The Prisoners, The Tony Jackson Group, Wynonie Harris, The Bristols -- and even the Dorktones themselves!

Now if this was a radio show, then you would have to take my word about how awesome this program was. But it's not. The Dorktones have left their website up, and all 87 episodes of the Dorktones podcast are still available for download -- for free.

So you can still enjoy this amazing program. I'm grateful to the Dorktones for putting on their little show as long as they did, and I'm doubly grateful that I still have an opportunity to share them with others.

And remember -- you don't need an iPod to listen to a podcast. Just download to your computer and enjoy.

- Ralph

Day 202 of the WJMA Web Watch. (If anyone suggested WJMA play any of the tracks the Dorktones do, the program director would probably faint dead away.)

Monday, January 12, 2009

The Value of Spare Parts -- Hats Off to Sennheiser!

When I worked as an electronics salesman on the phone, I'd usually get at least one call a week from some old codger complaining about how he couldn't get his VCR, stereo, turntable, etc., repaired. "They don't make them like they used to," he'd inevitably say.

I didn't bother explaining to him that actually electronic equipment was more reliable and better built than it was back in the "good old days" -- I knew I wouldn't have a chance of winning that argument. Instead I'd cluck sympathetically and sympathize with him, hoping he'd go away and let me sell some gear to some one else, instead of clogging up my phone line.

In truth though, I had to sympathize a bit with him. When you're familiar with a piece of gear, it's like an old friend -- you don't want to bother learning about the ins and outs of a new piece of gear, you just want to sit down and use the old one they way you were used to.

This week I had a small moment of satisfaction with my Sennheiser HD477 headphones. I've had these excellent, reasonably priced phones for many years, and I liked the way the sound and feel. Then the cord went bad, and the left channel kept dropping out. Sennheiser, to their credit, realized that the cord is the weak link with any set of headphones. The HD477's headphone cord unhooks easily, and a replacement cord can be had for only a few bucks.

So after a quick trip to the Sennheiser web site, a quick application of my American Express card, and a few days waiting on the mail, I'm now sitting at my cube listening to the Austin Lounge Lizards while I type this little tribute.

Way to go, Sennheiser!

Thursday, January 08, 2009

What Plays in Peoria

It's not just me. Other people -- even some within the industry -- have figured out what's wrong with commercial radio, and what needs to happen next.

I recently ran across a Peoria Journal-Star article by Steve Tarter profiling radio personality David Manning. Manning's a long-time radio veteran currently managing four stations for Independence Media. His take on the current situation?
"If people want nonstop music, they'll find it. What they can't get from their iPod is local weather, news and updates on area activities."
In other words, local programming. And when asked about the radio/Internet interface?
"Radio has never been able to generate revenue off the Internet. It's still a programming tool. We've got to figure out a way to tap into it locally."
Local content again.

So it's not just me. Even some people inside the industry get it. And Manning's take on HD Radio, the savior of the industry?
"I don't think it's something that's needed. I think sometimes you can offer too much of a menu."
'Nuff said. Who needs Clear Channel when you've got someone with clear vision?

- Ralph

Day 197 of the WJMA Web Watch. (Don't know if they're still big HD Radio supporters or not -- they never mention it on air.)

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

"Rashamon" for the Video Age -- "Vantage Point" Review

The family and I sat down with the DVD for Vantage Point the other night. It's always nice to be pleasantly surprised by a movie, and VP did the job for me. Start with a simple thriller story, add a boffo car chase and a few surprise twists and you've got the makings of the standard Hollywood fare. But here's what makes “Vantage Point” stand out -- as in the classic Kurakawa film, Rashomon, you see the action that occurs in the movie numerous times, but from a different perspective each time.

No spoilers from me, but the action, involving the assassination of an American President, is shown and reshown from 8 different perspectives, with as many subplots as there are characters and viewpoints. Starring prominently are several video cameras, which serve as a convenient way to replay the action for the characters and the viewers. Our vantage points run the gamut -- from an American tourist to a compromised Spanish cop, to a gang of terrorists, to a twitchy Secret Service agent, and even to the President himself.

Performances are solid throughout. Dennis Quaid brings nervous energy and a “never give up” attitude to his role as a Secret Service agent, Forest Whittaker (The Last King of Scotland) is vulnerable yet resilient in his role as the tourist, and William Hurt puts in a good turn as the President.

Vantage Point will keep you guessing to the end, but thanks to first-time director's Pete Travis’ able work, you're intrigued and surprised, not frustrated, by the numerous plot twists. As you'd expect, all the loose ends wrap up into a tidy bundle by the end, but that's just fine. It's an enjoyable ride, and one you won't mind taking.

Put it on your Netflix queue. Ken's rating: 3-1/2 out of 5.


Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Write or Die: Dr. Wicked's Writing Lab

Got to write this post fast -- I'm using Dr. Wicked's Writing Lab's "Write or Die" program. What is it? Simply the stick to go with the carrot of creative writing, that's all. This ingenious web app lets you set a time limit and a word count.

And then you'd better start typing because the clock's running. the idea is to inject a sense of urgency into writing that normally isn't there (resulting in either incomplete projects or ones that take far too long to finish). Dr. Wicked knows that most people work best when deadlines are applied externally -- and this web app does just that. So what happens if you don't finish the given amount of words in the time allotted?

All kinds of negative reinforcement (of your own choosing). You can simply have a message appear, or an irritating sound effect continues non-stop until you hit the writing goal, or..... worse.

I've participated in the National Novel Writing Month contest and having a deadline helped keep my word count up. But for shorter writing projects, sometimes my enthusiasm flags. Watching a timer tick away as my word count rises really helps keep me focused and on task. And the negative feedback doesn't hurt, either. I don't want to hear that sound, and so I'll keep typing away (I can always edit later).

Whether you're writing for fun, or to become a great author someday, or just because your work demands that you do, Dr. Wicked's evil little web app can be just the thing to dissolve that writer's block. I expect my productivity to rise... or else!

And the best part is that you can send out a notice when you've completed your task, showing how many words you wrote in what amount of time. Why is that good? You get to share your success with your peers -- which is a nice bit of positive reinforcement (as well as the nice widget that you get when you finish -- check out mine below).

Well done, Dr. Wicked!

- Ralph

Monday, January 05, 2009

Podcast Review: AMPed New Music Weekly

How do you discover new music? The radio? Pah-lease.

I listen to podcasts to find new music. It's a great way to discover independent artists.

The major labels have forbidden their material to be used by podcasters (because most podcasts are distributed as MP3s, the majors consider them identical to songs illegally shared in the same fashion). And that's good news because it's forced podcasters to turn to independent artists for material. In turn, it's opened up an entirely new opportunities for independent artists and labels.

And don't think that the music used for podcasts is in any way of lesser quality than that released by the majors -- in some cases, it's often better because the artist can be true to their own vision instead of conforming to the kind of sound that market-tested focus groups prefer.

With hundreds of music podcasts to choose from, though, how do you know which ones to listen to? I solve the problem by listening to the AMPed New Music Weekly, a forty-five-minute anthology podcast put out weekly by the Association of Music Podcasting. The Association looks to promote the highest-quality podcasting standards, and they have about 50 podcasters as members.

New Music Weekly offers up music from various member podcasts, with the hosting duties shared by different podcasters. Just by listening to this anthology podcast, I've discovered not only a lot of artists I want to explore further but also (thanks to listening to the various hosts), some podcasts I wanted to follow as well.

This was the program that introduced me to artists like Los Campesinos, Black Angels, and Jonathan Coulton, just to name a few.

There's more to music than what's on the radio (thank goodness). And AMPed New Music Weekly proves it in spades every seven days.

And remember -- you don't need an iPod to listen to a podcast. Just download direct to your computer or smartphone and enjoy!

- Ralph

Day 194 of the WJMA Web Watch. (Had to go to AMPed to discover Farrell Spence, Little Country Giants, the Dixie Bee-Liners, and other country artists -- can't find 'em on WJMA, AKA "Today's Country.")

Friday, January 02, 2009

The RIAA and the Eyes of the World

The complete transcript for Capitol Records vs. Jammie Thomas is now available online. Why is this important, and why should you care? Several reasons:

  1. If you're an average citizen who's curious but undecided about the RIAA litigations, you can go straight to the source and see how this landmark trial was conducted. Then judge for yourself if the defendant was given a fair trial and that the jury arrived at the proper conclusion.
  2. If you're someone who's received a letter from the RIAA threatening prosecution, then you might want to make sure you study this, and that your lawyer takes a good look at it, too.
  3. If you're a lawyer interested in copyright law or have been asked to represent someone threatened by the RIAA, then you should decidedly read this transcript to better understand how to prepare such a case.
The main thing I got out of reading the transcript was just how dangerous it is to be hauled before a court for a high-tech crime where neither the judge nor jury nor even your own lawyer fully understands any of the core concepts about the situation.

The RIAA's case rested on an account name with Kazaa that matched Ms. Thomas' other account names for e-mail, etc. They claimed that that account name had offered 1,700 different song files through Kazaa. Strangely, though, they only chose to prosecute for 24 specific song files.

Here's what I found most fascinating, though. The RIAA could not conclusively prove that the account belonged to the defendant. They could not prove that anyone had actually downloaded the songs from the account. The hard drive of Thomas' computer had been replaced, destroying any forensic evidence. The timeline suggested that she had sent the computer to Best Buy before notification had arrived and evidence shows that Best Buy had recommended replacing the drive.

Nevertheless, the RIAA maintained that they had the right person, that the drive had been replaced for criminal reasons by the defendant, and without evidence of actual file sharing, or confirmed identity, or even possession of the song files themselves, managed to push through a conviction and a $220,000 fine. Innocent until proven guilty? Had the jury been made up of people familiar with the workings of the Internet, there would have been more than enough reasonable doubt -- but that wasn't the case.

Later, the judge declared a mistrial, after re-thinking some of the instructions he gave the jury (based on information he received from the RIAA). But if you think this is a dead issue and therefore irrelevant, know this: the RIAA just recently got turned down on their appeal, and they're not done yet.

My New Year's resolution? Become an even more informed citizen. And the posting of this trial transcript is an excellent opportunity for self-education.

- Ralph

Day 191 of the WJMA Web Watch. (I hope WJMA's resolution is to relaunch their website soon.)