Sunday, December 31, 2006

Serendipitous Cinema

For most people I know, watching a movie is a self-contained act. They see it, it ends, and they’re done. Next!

It’s very difficult for me to get any kind conversation going with our friends about what made a movie work or didn’t work. Socrates maintained that an unexamined life isn’t worth living. My corollary is that an unexamined movie wasn’t worth watching; and no matter how bad, any movie can be worth watching.

I thought about this as I watched “It’s Trad Dad” on TCM this weekend. I was the only one in the room who enjoyed the film, and my enjoyment didn’t stop when the movie ended. The 1962 teen movie follows the formula of the day. Town bans teen music, teens put on TV special to show the music is good. Just enough of a plot to string together musical performances by different recording artists.

An amiable piece of fluff, but it gave me greater understanding of the world of music and cinema. This was Richard Lester’s first feature film, and on the strength of its imaginative camerawork, cheeky tone and convention twisting, it won him the job of directing the Beatles’ first two films. From “It’s Trad Dad” would spring a visual vocabulary of hipness that would not only help define the Beatles, but would later be copied by the Monkees, and continue to show up in countless music videos through the current day.

The British film mixed traditional Dixieland jazz with pop. Apparently both were hot with UK teens in the early ’60s. Del Shannon sang a song (NOT “Runaway”), and I got to see a rare performance by the Paris Sisters (for the full lineup, follow the link above to the entry) And Aker Bilk was a featured artist. I was only familiar with his “Stranger on the Shore.” The jazz he and his combo laid down was a far cry from that syrupy hit, and gave me new respect for this underrated artist.

The leads were Craig Douglas and Helen Shapiro. Doing a little research after the movie, I discovered Shapiro was big in the UK, and had the distinction of being the least-successful one-hit-wonder this side of the Atlantic. Her song “Walking Back to Happiness” entered Billboard’s top 100 chart at #100 and never went any higher.

I also was impressed by a performance by the Temperance Seven, a band specializing in 1920’s style white jazz. Their sound reminded me of “Winchester Cathedral” a hit for the New Vaudeville Band four years later. The goofy shenanigans and visual puns they pulled off during their numbers reminded me of the Goon Show. Great stuff, and in my post-film research I discovered they even shared an album with Bonzo Dog Band, who grew out of the same trad jazz movement.

So this one film gave me an insight into the evolution of rock and roll cinema, helped me learn a little more about British pop, let me sketch in some background on a couple of one-hit-wonders and provided an entertaining 87 minutes of viewing.

I despair for my uncurious friends. They miss so much when they just watch a movie.

- Ralph

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Collateral Classical Damage

According to, the sad saga of the fate of classical music on Washington DC's airwaves continues. Like Japanese movie monsters, the key players battle for position, oblivious to the havoc they wreak. As you may recall, Dan Snyder put forward the offer to buy Bonneville's commercial classical station WGMS and convert it to a sports talk format.

Now Snyder's put the brakes on the sale, claiming the frequencies WGMS operated at aren't worth the original pricetag of $45 million (plus a Clear Channel station may now be available). While the broadcast industry focuses on the Bonneville/Snyder clash of titans, let's take a look at what irresponsible behavior hath wrought.

  1. Bonneville switched frequencies between their commercial radio stations WGMS and WTOP, to create. Washington Post radio. The top-ranked commercial classical station in the country (and at one time 6th ranked in the DC Metro market) lost signal power and coverage area. Result: a significant portion of the 400,000+ loyal WGMS listeners either got a poorersignal or none at all.
  2. After more than three decades, public radio station WETA switched from classical to news/talk in a vain attempt to pump up revenues. Result: listeners who supported the station with pledges felt betrayed. WETA's ratings fall, as do revenues.
  3. Snyder offered to buy WGMS. Result: Bonneville began laying off staff. Advertising commitments fell into limbo. WGMS' subscription-only Internet radio station Viva La Voce prepared to suspend service.
  4. WETA's board gave the station permission to switch to classical – if there's no other outlet for it. Result: nothing, for now. WETA's former audience remained unserved.
While executives postured and jockeyed for position, people lost their jobs, and two formerly robust radio stations continued to suffer. WETA's experienced significant audience and revenue decline, and WGMS' fate was much worse. I don't expect WGMS to survive regardless of what happens next. If the station's sold, the format will flip and WGMS is gone. If not, the loss of staff and revenue may prove a fatal blow and the station will either go dark or go to a low-maintanence automated system – but no more classical music. A sorry end to a station that generated about $9.7 million in revenue just last year –- before these captains of industry started wheeling and dealing.

- Ralph

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

In Praise of Greenberg

Question: is the Internet always better? No. Over the holidays my dad and I, both toy train collectors, were trying to do a little detective work. We had a steam locomotive and boxcar that had survived from 1942 –- they had been part of a set, but we didn't know what other freight cars came with it.

The Greenberg Guides have been our standard reference work for years. For toy trains, especially Lionel Trains, Greenberg Guides have consistently proven informative and accurate. My father did some writing and editing for a few of Bruce Greenberg's publications, and I got to see first-hand how a pool of knowledgeable hobbyists could create reference works as rigorous in their scholarship as any specialized encyclopedia.

Most fields of collecting have a standard reference work that hobbyists use to determine rarity, value and general background information. Scott publications for stamp-collecting springs to mind.

The particular Greenberg Guide we needed was at Dad's house, so we tried to do a little research on the web and got a real education. All of my searches –- even those using catalog numbers –- yielded ebay pages almost exclusively. While ebay may be a great place to buy, it's a notoriously unreliable information source. We saw mismatched pieces called "sets," common items labeled "rare," and photo captions that were just plain wrong.

The adventure prompted a discussion about the importance of accurate information to collecting. Someone who had not witnessed our online travails wondered if there was any money in publishing such works –- wasn't it easier just to post it on a website?

Sure; as long as the level of scholarship and peer review remains high. Bruce Greenberg and other dedicated enthusiasts set the bar quite high. Higher than what I found online this weekend.

- Ralph

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Does Jessica Simpson speak for you?

In heavy rotation on television now is a DirecTV commercial featuring Jessica Simpson. Reprising her role as Daisy Duke, she touts the benefits of digital broadcast, and the advantages of DirecTV’s high definition signal –- the primary benefit being able to see Ms. Simpson’s body in greater detail.

This post isn’t the discuss the pros and cons of DirecTV, but rather the attitude articulated in Ms. Simpson’s lines.
“DirecTV broadcasts in 1080i. I don’t know what that means, but I totally want it.”
I suspect that sentiment underlies more consumer electronics than anyone’s willing to admit. Do more megapixels make a digital camera better? Is an 80GB iPod better than a 30GB one? Is a 60" flat-panel display better than a 50" one? Is a 100 watt sound system better than a 50 watt one?

The answer to all of these is simply “it depends.” It depends on what your needs are, it depends on what your performance expectations are, and it depends on what aspects of picture taking/music listening/TV viewing/sound reproduction are important to you.

Because in each of the examples above, the best choice is not necessarily the biggest. Do you really know what you want, or are you more like Jessica Simpson? There are plenty of on-line resources to explain the ins and out of consumer electronics features. A little time spent in research can make a big difference when you’re ready to purchase.

Imagine going into a store and saying, “I don’t know what 1080i means, but I totally want it.” You’ll probably be sold something –- and it may actually have a 1080i display. But would you know if it didn’t?

Have a safe and happy holiday!

- Ralph

And if you've inferred that 1080i –- whatever that is -— is the non plus ultra, click here.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

IgNoble "White Lies"

As promised, I visited the Charlottesville Barnes & Noble, hoping the biggest book store in the town might have Sarah Honenberger's novel "White Lies."

I first looked in the rack for local writers. Sorry, only coffee table books with pretty pictures of the Blue Ridge and/or Monticello seemed to be available. There was a big cardboard display for John Grisham, but it wasn't any where near the local section.

I then trolled the shelves, and came up empty.

The help desk was slammed, and with the limited time I had available, I couldn't wait for assistance. Perhaps "White Lies" could be special-ordered, but I doubt it. I suspect that both the stores and website are pulling from the same inventory, so if it isn't available in one, it isn't in the other.

Your milage may vary, so if you have success ordering the book from Barnes & Noble, please leave a comment on this post. I'd like to know!

- Ralph

Two little words

The shopping frenzy continues to ramp up as Christmas day draws closer. The most recent Target flier has a great gift suggestion, and an example to illustrate the importance of careful consideration before the sale –- even on Christmas Eve!

On sale now is the Memorex flat-screen TV/DVD/VCR combo for $199.88. For a dorm room, or other small spaces (like our front room) it’s a great idea. The price is right, and Memorex is a reputable brand, so I think anyone who purchased this looking for a simply TV combo player would be happy.

Unless, that is, the buyer was confused by the similarity of two little words.

"screen" vs. "panel"

LCD and plasma TVs are known as “flat-panel” displays. Most traditional CRT (cathode ray tube) TVs use curved glass. About the time flat-panel technologies hit the market, higher end CRT sets were being made with flat screens, which helped reduce glare and distracting reflections.

Flat-panel displays are in high demand. CRT sets –- even those with flat-screen displays -– not so much.

Flat-panel is an accurate and commonly accepted term for LCD and plasma displays, and flat-screen is the same for a certain kind of cathode ray tube. And therein lies the potential for confusion.

If you’re not sure of the difference between “flat-panel” and “flat-screen,” there are some other clues you can use to determine what this set actually is. Flat-panel TVs, even small ones, are still relatively expensive, while CRT sets are dirt cheap. The price suggests this might be a CRT set. The full-front shot in Target’s flyer can make this look like a flat-panel TV, but their website image, which is slightly angled, gives you an idea that it’s a tube TV (it’s also why I went with the photo I did for this post).

Even –- or rather especially -– when you’re last-minute shopping, take the time to make sure what you’re purchasing is really what you think it is.

If you want a compact all-in-one video player, then you (or your gift recipient) should be happy with this Memorex TV. If, however, you just rush in and grab this off the shelf, equating “flat-panel” with “flat-screen,” then you may have an unpleasant surprise when you open that box.

- Ralph

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

"White Lies" revisited

Sarah Collins Honenberger left a nice comment on my recent post titled “Publishing Pariah.” As you’ll see in her comments, she felt the title was a little off-putting. I assured her (and you, gentle reader), that it wasn’t a characterization of either her or her publisher, but rather where I believe independent publishers stood in the eyes of bookstore chain buyers.

To test my premise, I visited the websites of the three major bookstore chains. had the title available for sale on their site, and it was easy to find.

Barnes & Noble had a listing for the title as well. But you couldn't purchase it there. According to the site, "A new copy is not available from Barnes & at this time."

Walden Books had “White Lies” available for sale on their site -- but only because they pull their website content from

So one chain has “White Lies” for sale; another doesn’t. And a third has it only because it was already available on

If we were to search for the latest John Grisham tome, would the results be the same?

I’ll swing by the Charlottesville Barnes & Noble tomorrow and see if I can find “White Lies” in the store. And while we're at it, let’s try for a little interactivity. If you happen to go into a bookstore anywhere anytime soon, look for “White Lies.” Post a comment to the blog and let us know what happened.

- Ralph

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Spin Hard! Harder!

Well this is an interesting turn of events. With the eminent demise of classical music of Washington, DC commercial station WGMS, speculation about public radio station WETA’s return to the format has been rampant. While logical, in conversations with others I maintained that the switch was unlikely.

IMHO, WETA abandoned classical in a grab for the bigger pledge bucks of public radio news/talk listeners. They cloaked it in other terms, but that’s the heart of it. To return to classical after so shortly (and with so much fanfare) switching would be an admission that the leading luminaries at WETA had made a huge mistake.

My mistake was under-estimating the art of the spin -- especially in the nation’s capital. In Febuary of 2005 the station flipped formats. According to an article in Currents,
This was principally and primarily a public service issue,”[emphasis mine] said Dan DeVany, v.p. and g.m. for WETA-FM… Classical music has become more widely available in the meantime, DeVany pointed out, with the advent of satellite and Internet radio.
The board overwhelmingly approved the switch after a public comment session, when listeners and representatives from Washington-area arts organizations begged them to preserve the city’s free, noncommercial source of classical music.
Fast forward to December, 2005. Listenership is off, the fall fund drive underperforms, and in a Washington Post article, we read this:
"People were angry -- still are -- and I understand that," says Dan DeVany... "But there was an audience in the Washington area that was not being served by public radio, and we wanted to reach out to them." He's talking about breaking out of the traditional public radio audience of affluent, highly educated, older and white listeners.
Here’s how they did it. WETA reached out to non-affluent, less-educated, younger and non-white listeners with a mix of “Morning Edition,” “All Things Considered,” other NPR news/talk shows, and BBC World Service.

And now the board that killed classical in the first place hastily meets to authorize WETA’s return to the format. If, that is, there’s no other source for classical music in Washington. So if the format is shoved off onto, say the AM station that Red Zebra owns, then WETA is off the hook.

As the Washington Post reported:
"This is a good classical music market," DeVany said. "WGMS has done very well with it. But there's something to be said for a non-commercial station carrying it."
So in nine months we’ve gone from dropping classical to better serve the public to maintaining nobody can do classical like public radio. Nicely done.

Classical programming may return to WETA –- but I repeat my caution from my previous post on the subject. Listeners of non-commercial radio need to remain active and vocal in their support (and that can include serving on a station’s board). The next format change is only a spin away.

- Ralph

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

A Class(ical)-less City

The big news in regional radio is the eminent demise of WGMS in Washington, DC. The station, which has been classical since 1948, is being sold to Dan Snyder, the owner of the Redskins who will surely flip the format to sports/talk. When that happens, our nation’s capital will have no classical music on the air.

Take a moment to think about that. Doesn’t a capital reflect the character of the nation? What would your reaction be if the last theater closed in Washington? Or the last art gallery?

The sad part is that classical music was not a money-losing format in the Washington area. Public radio station WETA did quite well with classical music for three decades. It changed to all news/talk only because it could make more money.

Part of the rationale with WETA’s switch was that, since there was a commercial classical station, broadcasting classical music no longer best served the public. WGMS saw a big rise in listenership after the format change. Although the music was watered down, and rarely did you heard anything outside the late romantic period (never mind complete works), for the classical listener, WGMS was better than nothing.

And now WGMS will be sold and changed. Did it make money? You bet. Healthy audience size? Yep, and unique, too. No danger of another station stealing the WGMS audience –- an enviable position for any radio station to be in. But as a sports station it will (in theory) make even more money.

I can’t fault commercial radio chasing the money. Like any other business, they’re supposed to make money, and as much of it as possible. But for public radio to abrogate their responsibility for the same reason is reprehensible.

Remember, classical music doesn’t necessarily mean dead white Europeans. With the format gone, the music of Americans George Gershwin, Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein are banished from the Washington airwaves. So too the works of living American composers, such as Libby Larson, Philip Glass, Ellen Taffe Zwilich, John Adams and Steve Reich. Marin Alsop, director of the Baltimore Symphony, may have been awarded a “genius grant,” but you won’t hear the recordings that won her that honor. Nor will you hear world-renowned American performers, such as Rene Fleming, Joshua Bell, John Williams (the guitarist) or Thomas Hampson.

I harken back to my October 11 post about WTJU’s fund drive. Whether you’re reading this in Charlottesville, Virginia or somewhere else in the US, your local public stations need your active –- and vocal –- support. Don’t assume that what you’re hearing today will be there tomorrow. WTJU celebrates its 50th anniversary on the air in 2007. Remain complacent, and by 2008 it could all be gone.

- Ralph

(I leave it as an exercise for the reader to decipher the image's reference and it's relevence to this entry.)

Monday, December 11, 2006

The Virtual Library of Alexandria

Ken makes a good point about diaries. They can provide valuable historical information about everyday life. But the assumption that blogs and other web-only documents are so much digital ephemera may not be entirely accurate.

The original library of Alexandria (Egypt, not Virginia) was the repository for the knowledge of the known world in the 3rd century. Near the site of that ancient library is the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, which holds the modern equivalent.

Over two pentabytes of archived webpages –- some going back almost ten years -– are available to historians and others through’s “Way Back Machine.”

Have blogs been archived? Possibly. Bots troll the web, accumulating data constantly. There’ll be lots for historians to go over. Here’s an example -– AOL’s website from 1997. Ah, memories.

- Ralph

Dear diary,

As Ralph just pointed out, the internet has changed the face of publishing, and given authors a chance to build their own buzz and be discovered by the wide world. It's an interesting development. Here's another development of the internet that may have some interesting ramifications down the road.

A few years ago, historians were fearing that much of the flavor of future histories would be lost because of a dearth of diarists. Through history, many people, the famous and the unknown, have kept daily journals -- they've often provided valuable insights into the events and way of life of their times. For example the war time diary of Mary Chestnut gives us a very tangible look at life on the Confederate homefront during the Civil War.

The 20th century saw a decline in this exercise, with diairies and journals becoming the stereotyped as the province of teenage girls and feminists pursuing literature degrees. But the rise of the blog is creating a new generation of personal journalists who write about nearly everything -- from the profound to the mundane.

It may be that these are a great source of raw material for future historians. Then again, since they're rarely put into "hard copy," they may disappear in a few years. Time will tell.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Publishing Pariah

In olden times (actually, just a few years ago), most people didn’t consider someone an author until a major publishing house put out their book. You could self-publish, but hardly anyone took the resulting tome seriously -- and if you came out on a small press you could expect to have copies in some specialty stores, but almost nothing on the shelves of the major booksellers.

Recently I went to a book-signing in Orange for a friend of ours. Sally Honenberger has been writing for some time, and her first novel “White Lies” came out November 30.

While this book is being brought out by a small publisher, there’s a good chance it will find its audience. Why? The Internet.

In the bad old days an author with a small publishing house could expect to sell a modest number of copies (with more than a few to friends and family), but that would be it. Chain bookstores only order from distributors, and distributors only carry the offerings of the established publishers. And there was very little possibility of creating any kind of a buzz. At major papers editorial space is tight, and the big releases from major publishers usually get that space.

So Cedar Creek has put out Sally's book, and she’s established a presence online. “White Lies” is available at the world’s largest bookstore -- There’s a dedicated website for the author, with excerpts from the novel and some of her other writings – as well as a blog. The Amazon page already has some reviews – watch for more as the book starts selling. Expect to see some conversations started on her blog as well.

In the past, only the folks in Orange would have known about Sally’s book. Not now. Google her name, and you can quickly find out more about her and what she's doing. For example, you’ll see that she’s slated to be a panelist at the next Virginia Festival of the Book. Anyone in the world can discover Sally, read an excerpt of her book, and order a copy if they want to read the rest. More importantly, they can also leave feedback, write thier own reviews and participate in conversations with the author.

I’ve watched the traffic to our blog grow steadily over the months as more folks discover it, and I expect something similar to happen with “White Lies.”

Granted, this kind of gradual grassroots growth is nothing compared to the big push a publishing house could give it, but that's OK. "White Lies" is a book that -- through the Internet -- has the potential to reach all of its audience.

- Ralph

Friday, December 08, 2006

Wi-Ex Update

I received some unusual feedback from my post about cell phone service in Orange – the product manager for Wi-Ex wrote me a nice e-mail wanting to talk more about his product.

After a few failed phone calls (no one believes me when I tell them how bad my cell coverage is), he sent a follow up e-mail.

I appreciated the friendly tone and helpful information in the e-mail, so rather than paraphrase I’m presenting the original text below. To Wi-Ex, I say thanks for joining the conversation!

- Ralph

I've left several messages to follow-up with you on some feedback on your experience and provide some additional info on zBoost. I understand the poor coverage issues you are experiencing in your area so I thought some info by email would be helpful.

We have made zBoost very consumer friendly and very easy to setup. First, we include everything in the box necessary to easily install zBoost. We also include three documents, an Installation Overview, Installation Tips and a more detailed Installation Guide.

The Installation Overview provides a "quick start" guide to ensure your phone is compatible with the zBoost model purchased, pictures of everything included in the box and an illustrated easy installation guide. The Installation Tips provide more information to ensure maximum performance from zBoost. The Installation Guide provides detailed instructions, troubleshooting tips, our one-year warranty information, specifications and how to contact Wi-Ex.

Wi-Ex also offers accessories to enhance the performance of zBoost. Your particular situation with extremely low signal would benefit from the upgrade higher gain antennas to pull in more signal. Our website,, provides more information on all products and accessories allowing customers to purchase directly online, if desired.

John A. Davis
Director – Product Management
Wi-Ex "Extending Cell Zones"

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

How do you measure "good?"

I had a buddy e-mail me the other day with an audio question: "How good are the Bose systems?"

Turns out that he and his wife were looking at the Bose Wave Music System with the add-on multi-CD changer for their great room. Basically a glorified boom box for $700.

Now, I have my own opinions on audio. While I'm not an audiophile by any means, the idea of this Bose piece as my primary audio system doesn't appeal to me. Even a modest investment in a good-quality receiver, CD changer, and bookshelf speakers would give me better sound and better capabilities for expansion in the future. Bose equipment does a pretty good job, but most people in the know will agree that marketing, not audio quality, is their real genius.

But that's not the only thing to consider sometimes. "Good," in this case meant how well it would suit their needs, not mine. I dug a little deeper into why they were considering the Bose. Here's what I found out:

The wife had seen it advertised in her favorite magazine -- this gave it legitimacy in her eyes.

A 0% financing offer meant they could pay for it over a year -- it fit their budget.

They both wanted something that wouldn't take up much space and could be moved easily -- that's certainly true of the Bose.

The wife "didn't want wires all over the place" -- yup, no wires here.

I then considered what I knew about this couple. They aren't really active music listeners -- music is a background part of their lifestyle. The audio performance of the Wave Music System is up to that task.

In the end, I thought, it's all about what'll make them happy.

"Go ahead and get it, buddy. You'll like it just fine."



Monday, December 04, 2006

Another no-bar noel

There are many things I like about living in Orange, Virginia. Cell phone coverage is not one of them. Orange is at the extreme edges of several different coverage areas, so you can only get partial coverage in the country. How many bars you have (or don't) and where depend on which service you're with. Although I don't have service in my house, it improves as I get closer to Charlottesville (where I a great deal of time), so I put up with it.

When I first ran across The Wi-Ex zBoost YX510 cell phone signal booster system, it looked like a good solution for me. I also saw a demonstration of it recently, and was impressed at how well it improved the signal strength. The system consists of three basic components. It includes an antenna that mounts wherever your cell phone reception is strongest. The antenna connects -- via a coaxial cable -- to an indoor amplifier base unit. This unit has its own little antenna, which broadcasts the signal throughout your house.

If you get three bars in corner of your house, but one bar everywhere else, this can keep you at three bars throughout your residence. Seemed like a great gift for our family -- until I conducted my own little test.

In our house I couldn't get more than one bar -- anywhere. Good thing I checked.

As the holiday season ramps up the frenzy, keep this thought in mind. If you're looking at any kind of consumer electronics, check to make sure it will work for you before purchasing. Whether it's taking five minutes to measure the size of your A/V cabinet before buying a TV, or checking cell phone reception as I did, it will save you some headaches later on – even if the store does have a liberal return policy.

- Ralph