Thursday, July 31, 2008

Book Review: Magic Street by Orson Scott Card

Iv'e always been a big fan of the Ender series’ and every once in a while I dabble into another of Card’s books. My brother Mike gave me this one a while back but I didn’t get to in until now. April and I read this one together as well. Our two-person-book club seems to be off to a good start. As a book club field trip we went around and saw the spots where the events of the book happen. They are all within a few miles of our house and the dogs could always use another walk. I think I liked the book more than April but I can still only give it a mixed review.

First what I liked. I loved the alternate fantasy world of Los Angeles. It was a lot of fun to imagine the terrain that surrounds me as being wild and devoid of all the concrete. I also loved the sense of dread that occasionally carried the narrative. Card is good at horror. His short horror stories are actually pretty scary (something that is very hard to do in print). The first chapter of Magic Street is thoroughly creepy and instantly got me into the story.

My favorite aspect of the story was that of Word. He becomes this sort of faith healer/prophet but is unsure of whether his abilities come from God or from some more sinister source. I would have liked to see this line developed a little more. I wanted to see him struggle more with the corrupting forces of fame and power and really have to dig deep to reject it. I guess I’m starting to drift into what I didn’t like about the book. I wish Card wouldn’t have borrowed so much from Midsummer’s night’s dream. But at least he made sure to explicitly alert the reader to the fact that he was doing this. I also thought that the sex scene seemed a bit contrived and really only existed as a way of advancing the plot. It was just a little out of place and it made me loose attention.

Magic Street was nevertheless a fun read so I give it a mild recommendation. But I may be a bit biased because I live where it takes place.

Most of the events take place in an area called Baldwin Hills. Baldwin Hills is just south of our apartment. It is an affluent, mostly African American, neighborhood that is sometimes called the black Beverly Hills.

Cloverdale in Baldwin Hills

Mack’s house

The drain pipe where Ceese finds Mack

Yolanda’s house

Downtown with Yolanda’s house, the hairpin turn, and the field

Word’s house

See's Candies

Avenue of the Stars Olympic Blvd Overpass

The scene of the last battle in Century City. The building behind the battlefield is in Die Hard.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Southern California Excitement

Within the last 24 hours we have experienced two of the things that LA is most famous for; earthquakes and crime.

We were just hit by what the USGS is estimating to be a magnitude 5.8 earthquake. The epicenter is about 35 miles to the east. My first though was “what in blazes are they doing upstairs?” but then the whole building started to shake and I knew it was an LA Riverdance.

In April’s building, which is a skyrise in Century City, the effects were even more dramatic. Her entire building swayed for about a minute. Out the windows they could see the other buildings swaying. So far there are no injuries or deaths reported. I hope it stays that way.

Last night a woman was stabbed and killed in the parking lot of April’s building just as April was leaving work.

In the video in the link they interviewed April’s supervisor. A lot of people weren’t able to get out until the investigation was finished. April brought mace to work today (unfortunately it doesn’t work against earthquakes).

I’m grateful that April was not harmed and our hearts go out to the family of the victim.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Youtube of the week: Bunnies

It’s been quite a week for our rabbit friends. First a rabbit saves its owners’ lives from a fire. Unfortunately the bunny didn’t actually jump up on a bed and simultaneously drag two sleeping adult humans out of a burning building as the headlines imply. But it is still pretty cool and a major score for the hares. I love rabbits. We had them as pets growing up. And while they may not hold a candle to dogs in the usefulness department they can do some pretty cool things; like this one.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Farewell Marisa

This morning April, Seth, Star, Julie, and I drove down to Orange County for Marisa’s mission farewell. She’s leaving for the Czech Republic next week. We’ll miss her and we know that she will be a fantastic missionary.
Last night we went to the Bet Tzedek Justice Ball in Hollywood curtesy of Mac’s law firm. It was a total swank fest. The tickets were worth $150. But because we have cool friends we got to go for free and got to try and pretend like we fit in with L.A’s elite. The Psychedelic Furs played and we even got swag bags, though I'm sure that they don’t compare to the ones they give out at the Academy Awards.
Update: April wanted me to make it clear that the liquid in the bottle that she is holding in the above picture is nonalcoholic.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Reflections on Facial Hair

The other day my friend Kirill asked me why all the Mormons in the law school seem to have facial hair. My theory was that because they went to the oppressive BYU they now felt the need to throw off their Norelco shackles. I could be wrong. It may be a return to our 19th century roots (no pun intended).
Even though I never went to BYU I nevertheless tried my own little facial hair experiment about a year go. The problem is; the Garff genes are almost whisker free. My father came in last place in his high school beard growing contest (but at least we don’t go bald). But in spite of all of this I tried to grow my beard out while April was away for a few weeks on business. Unfortunately I can’t just put on my beard like my friend Josh (See YouTube of the week for my May 1 post). But I gave it my very best effort. My beard, if you can call it that, didn’t last long after April got back.
I can’t say I blame her. It was pretty pathetic. I certainly wouldn’t want to kiss this.
I guess I won’t be joining ZZ Top any time soon.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Where the Sidewalk Ends

"There is a place where the sidewalk ends
And before the street begins,
And there the grass grows soft and white,
And there the sun burns crimson bright,
And there the moon-bird rests from his flight
To cool in the peppermint wind."

Shel Silverstien

Saturday, Steven and I travelled the Ballona Creek Bike Path to its end (several miles later). We started at Duquesne and Jefferson, and went to Marina Del Rey. After that, we connected to the beach path where we pedalled farther than we've ever done before. Once we got past Manhattan Beach, we reached the zone of unknown beach. We stopped to watch the hangliders off the dunes, and the fishermen off the pier.

After Manhattan, we went to Hermosa and Redondo Beaches. At Redondo beach, we found a neat outside mall. We had dipping dots and french fries and saw cool cement carvings of whales and fish on the ground.

Finally, we reached the end of the road. The Strand ends at Palos Verdes. We took advantage of the last bit of beach to cool off in the ocean and eat lunch.

After an hour of rest, we continued on our journey up the Palos Verdes hills. By this time, we had gone about 25 miles and were pretty tired going up the steep hills. We went a few more miles until we decided to give up and come back home after taking in the beautiful views from atop the cliffs. 50 miles is pretty good, right?

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Something cool to waste your time on

Campaign finance disclosure laws require that anyone making donations of $100 or more must make their name and donation history a matter of public record.
This website lets you track campaign donors via these records. You can search by you neighborhood, you can see who celebrities and companies are donating to, and you can even check up on your friends (a little disturbing but also extremely interesting). I’ve added the widget below or you can go to the website.

This is a somewhat frightening example of the power that comes from combining the internet with freedom of information acts.

Also I’m a confessed ‘mapophile.’ I’m just fascinated by maps. There is this website with some cool interactive maps that show historic trends and wars here’s the one for the spread of religions.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Saving The Music Industry (From Itself)

People are using new technology to get entertainment for free. The industry sues and sues consumers but with no apparent results. The problem keeps getting worse. Sounds like I’m talking about the music industry, right? Nope. I’m talking about cable television circa 1990. It seemed like everyone was stealing cable. They even made a Simpsons episode about it. Do you ever hear about people stealing cable now? It happens but it’s pretty rare, especially compared to what it used to be. Why? Because cable companies solved the problem by making a product that was attractive enough and affordable enough that no one would bother to steal it. But wait didn’t they use scramblers and all sorts of new technology to beat the thieves? Yes but in the arms race between thieves and companies, the thieves are always ahead. Every new “un-crackable” version of Windows gets beaten by some kid the second it hits the market. Ditto for cable technology and ditto for DRM (digital rights management, this is the stuff that makes it so you can’t put your CD on your ipod etc…). I remember a few years ago when I bought the new 30 Seconds to Mars CD and I couldn’t put it on my ipod. It took me about five minutes of searching online until I found a way to beat it. I’m no computer geek; in fact I suck at that stuff. The solution was so simple anyone could do it. My point is that increasing anti-piracy technology alone will not do didily unless you give consumers a reason not to steal your product. Cable companies did this by bundling and lowering their prices. Now that legitimate cable was good and cheap who would go through the hassle of stealing it?

The music industry needs to do the same thing; that is if people still want to make money doing music. This goes for musicians, songwriters, producers, label executives, and everyone else.

There are several ways to do this. You could lower prices. But in general people in the music industry aren’t exactly making a killing and the increase in volume might not make up for it. This is because people want their music really cheap. I have a 40 gig ipod that filled up a long time ago. That’s over 10,000 songs even if you charged say 10 cents a song that’s 1,000 bucks. Plus this will never happen because the statutory minimum for songwriters’ royalties is nine cents per song for hard copies (that includes mp3s). This isn’t going to change anytime soon. There are too many different songwriters and publishers and they are not organized enough to engage in any collective bargaining. Sure you have ASCAP and BMI but they’re really just collection agencies and have no real sway over their publishers.
If reducing prices won’t work then the only viable option is subscription. The problem is; subscription sucks. But what if you could improve it? What you could make it so good that everyone would want it? If you can have any song, anytime, anywhere then who cares whether or not you actually have a copy on a physical drive?
Advances in technology are now making this dream possible. One of these is the inevitable universal access to wireless and or wi fi internet. Wireless internet will soon be accessible anywhere on the planet much as cell phone access is becoming universal. With this in mind a new kind of subscription service can provide music to consumers with everything they want at a modest price. With wireless internet everywhere on the planet there is no reason why people could not access a subscription service directly from their portable devices. Call it device direct subscription. This is a variation of the so called ‘heavenly jukebox,’ an idea that has been floating around the music industry for a few years now. With device direct subscription subscribers could access a subscription service not only from their computers but directly from any portable devices that they authorize as well, just as itunes currently allows users to authorize up to five computers to play music on a single account. Likewise subscribers to device direct subscription could authorize several portable devices to access the subscription service via their account. Direct device subscription would be extremely appealing to consumers because it would provide the subscriber with the complete freedom to listen to any song anywhere anytime. This freedom would have tremendous appeal. For example say a subscriber is driving in their car with a friend and this friend tells the subscriber about some great new band or song. Instead of having to go home and look the artist up on a computer the subscriber could instantly listen to the song on their portable device.

The iPhone boasts a format where it is easy to quickly find music anywhere in the vast itunes store. Likewise a direct subscription device could incorporate a format where users could quickly search for music on the subscription service. The portable devices could also allow users to construct playlists that can automatically pull songs from their locations on the subscription site. This will give subscribers easy access to the music they like so they don’t have to search for their favorite songs every time.

Another appealing feature of such a subscription service is the possibility of combining it with a custom internet radio service similar to Pandora. Here, however, there would be the added advantage that users could instantly add the songs that they like to a playlist and listen to them at anytime.

One problem with current subscription models is that if a user wants to enjoy the service on a portable device the user must use a tethered download that will self destruct if the service is ever cancelled. Tethered downloads are unappealing because they make the subscriber feel as if they are being held hostage by the subscription service. If a user ever cancels the service, the songs are wiped clean and they have to take all of the time to re-download each one. With device direct subscription there is no need for tethered downloads because the subscriber will be able to access all the music on the service instantly and directly from portable devices. This way, users won’t feel as if they will loose their property if they cancel because they haven’t spent time downloading songs.

Device direct subscription will make royalties easy to calculate fairly. Because no copy is made, mechanicals (the statotry rate of 9 cents per copy made of a song) will be replaced by royalties. This will also help keep costs down. Because there are no downloads the service can instantly keep track of exactly how many times a song is listened to. One way to calculate royalties would be to get the service, labels, and publishers, to agree on a percentage of the subscription revenues that will go to each group and then to divide those percentages among the various labels and publishers in proportion to how many times their songs were played. For example the total revenues from subscription fees could be divided into three pools (i.e. 33% for the service, 33% for the labels, and 33% for the publishers). Each label and publisher would get a pro-rata share of their respective pool depending on how often their music is played. Of course some artists and labels will not put their music on the service. This poses a problem for users who will want to have the ability to listen to these artists as well. To solve this problem the devices should have some storage space where songs can be ripped from cd’s or downloaded from other sources. For example if the Beatles don’t post their music on the site I can still download Revolver to my portable device an listen to it along with all the music provided by the service whenever I want. This way, subscribers will not feel that they are limited to a set of songs. This will have the added effect of incentiveising artists and labels to join the service because if their music is not available to the subscribers for free many may be temped to obtain those tracks illegally.

Device direct subscription is a format in which the album can survive. Currently with internet downloads people don’t buy or even steal albums they download the songs they like. With a subscription service, listening to other songs on an album requires no purchase and no download time or disk space. As a result people will be more likely to give the other songs on an album a listen if they like one or more of the songs from the artist. This would allow artist and labels to generate additional royalties by posting entire albums on the service.

Device direct subscription will get money in back in the hands of artists, labels, and publishers. 100 million subscriber paying ten or fifteen dollars a month would generate a large enough pool divide up and keep everyone paid. Instead of a few people buying cd’s many will listen to an artist’s tracks because they can do so for free once they’ve paid the subscription fee. Labels will still market artists because increasing interest will boost subscription and result in more listening of their songs. This will result in a larger portion of the pie for those labels and artists that successfully market their music. Device direct subscription is attractive enough that consumers will be willing to pay for it. P2P downloading takes time and carries with it the risk of viruses and prosecution. Subscription, on the other hand, is safe and takes little time because there is no downloading. Right now the paradigm is ownership. Listeners like to own their music because ownership gives them the freedom to listen music any time. With device direct subscription there is no longer any need for ownership because listeners will enjoy the same freedoms that come from ownership with the added benefit of a virtually infinite music library.

Come on, don’t you want one?

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Book Review: Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky

I’m not sure whether or not I will also review the fiction I’m reading (I usually read one or two nonfiction and one fiction book at the same time). I don’t consider my self a lit critic and I don’t want this blog to turn into a review site (that’s why I refrain from reviewing movies and albums until after the end of the year, also if April started reviewing every book she reads 80% of the posts would be book reviews). But here goes anyway.

Crime and Punishment was one of those classics that for some reason I never got around to reading until now. I stole the book from my brother Kevin when he left for his mission a couple of years ago. After that it just sat on my shelf, making me look smart. Not until recently did I actually pull it out of our bookcase. April and I read it together, trading it back and forth and having our own mini book club. This was a lot of fun and also helped us to remember characters and plot developments.

Crime and Punishment is probably the best work of fiction that I’ve read since I finished Angle of Repose a few years ago. Dostoevsky’s prose is not as beautiful as Stegner’s or Steinbeck’s, for that matter (though some of this was likely lost in translation). Still, I have never read a book that did a better job of putting me inside the head of the protagonist, a protagonist who is a murderer. It is amazing how realistically his thought process is laid out for the reader. You really get to follow this guy through his rationalization. Importantly this book shows how good people can do horrible things.

Crime and Punishment also has a healthy share of page turning suspense. Dostoevsky’s writing left me guessing and was I surprised by most of the twists and turns. The cat and mouse between the protagonist and the detective is fantastic. The timing that Dostoevsky uses in their dialogue is perfect.

Towards the end of the book there are some touching sequences. And throughout the narrative a strong sense of reality pervades. It was fun to revisit Russia in literary form. I was there ‘literary-ily’ last summer when I read Master and Margarita. Some day I will go there for real. Both novels have something of a similar feel though they are radically different in almost every other respect. Master and Margarita is more of a dark fantasy novel, a retelling of the Faust legend. In both books I struggled to keep track of the Russian names. Fortunately the Pevear and Volokhonsky edition that I used has a helpful table of names at the front. This edition also has translators’ footnotes which are helpful in understanding not only translation issues but references to places and people as well as for understanding the context of many of the events and references in the work.

Youtube of the week: Filipino thriller

Just about everyone on the planet has seen this by now. But it takes me back to my mission where I visited a couple of Filipino prisons and some mental institutions as well. I served in this area called Mandaluyong in the middle of Manila where there are so many prisons and mental institutions that the joke, when anyone says that they are from Mandaluong, is to ask them “sa loob ba?” (from inside?). The conditions inside these places were nightmarish. We once had an investigator who was committed to the largest such mental institution by his aunt as retaliation for listening to missionaries. We went to visit him. He was in one of many large rooms where he and about a hundred other people lay chained to beds that were jammed next to each other. There were people howling and screaming. We got his aunt to let him out after a couple of weeks. As far as I know he never did join the church. But on a lighter note here are prison inmates in Cebu which is 365 miles south of Manila doing their famous Thriller reenactment.