Thursday, April 17, 2008

Brief Adventures in 3G

During my recent hospital visit I found myself desperately in need of internet connectivity. The hospital provided wireless internet in the main "food court" area, which was a significant hike (the hospital covers multiple city blocks joined by 2nd to 6th floor crosswalks) from my wife's bedside, so I settled for daily email checks along with my morning coffee.

But if hospital is one thing, it's boring, and my craving for internet connectivity eventually got the better of me.

My wife and I have been planning to get 2nd Generation iPhones as soon as our Verizon account expires and assuming Apple releases a second generation iPhone we like (preferably with 3G networking and SDHC support or a lot more internal storage) but in the meantime, what to do?

It turns out that Verizon offers several wireless broadband solutions via their 3G network. The options are: PC card modem, USB modem, or 3G cellphone. Since I didn't want to buy a modem or get locked into a plan, I decided to try the 3G cellphone option.

Now, I've used the iPhone to browse the web via its EDGE network both in stores (after getting an Apple person to show me how to turn off WiFi) and using friends' iPhones in random places, notably in the stadium with 110,000 people at a Crimson Tide home game (where I would say that EDGE was uselessly slow).

Well, I've tried Verizon 3G both through my Motorola RAZR v3 (c? m?) with varying levels of reception (we get full bars in our house) and the best results I could squeeze out of this "3G" "wireless broadband" network was roughly comparable to what we got out of EDGE at anything other than a Crimson Tide game. That is, for about two minutes, I was able to slowly view simple web pages. Aside from that, whether using my cellphone as a modem via USB or Bluetooth, or browsing directly on the phone, I got unbearably slow throughput. At the end of all my browsing attempts, the running totals on the bandwidth meter were all still zeroes.

They tell you "5GB is effectively unlimited". I was concerned by the 5GB limit (since they charge you a ridiculous $0.50/MB over the limit) but I don't think even a dedicated masochist with a point to prove could bear to suck 5GB per month down this particular straw even if it were theoretically possible. From my experience having managed to upload and download a total of less than 512kB (I'm assuming more would have rounded to something beyond "0") I'd need to completely restart my connection and my phone (the latter a painfully slow process fraught with reminders that I'm a Verizon customer who will not be extending my service plan) about ten times per MB downloaded, which means to download 5GB I'd need to restart my phone 50,000 times. By back of envelope that's about ten solid days of watching my phone's shutdown and startup animations.

(I should add that separate tests at home where we get "more bars" produced scarcely better results.)

I'm sure that, in theory, 3G is pretty wonderful. In practice, however, the speed of Verizon's 3G network in downtown Birmingham is atrocious (or is it the Motorola v3 (c? m?)), and it would be faster to walk to a WiFi hotspot to download a few web pages. Assuming you have WiFi support, which the iPhone does and most of its rivals do not.

Oh and when I cancelled the 3G data "feature" on my phone account, Verizon charged me pro-rata for the fraction of a month I kept it, even though I stopped using it after the second day and clearly got nothing out of it. Thanks Verizon.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Favorite Music Videos

While I'm reminiscing about music, here are some of my favorite video clips from the days when MTV actually showed music videos and some talent and thought went into rock videos.

Subterranean Homesick Blues, Bob Dylan
Blind, Talking Heads* -- YouTube does not do this justice; the projected face effect is absolutely brilliant, and the drooling tool is a bit of statement, eh?
Love for Sale, Talking Heads* -- sadly all the YouTube copies manage to cut off the final shot of one of the many kissing couples pulling apart and her lip sticking, rather grossly, to his, which is simply priceless.
And also Once in a Lifetime and This Must Be The Place, Talking Heads
Whip It, Devo
Orinoco Flow, Enya
Don't Let's Start, They Might Be Giants -- mind-bending clip made for no money at all
Sat in Your Lap, Kate Bush -- bonus points for weirdness?
Boy in the Bubble, Paul Simon -- amazing to consider this was made in 1987
Missionary Man, Eurythmics -- Like David Byrne and women on horseback, Annie Lennox is a special effect (link is to Thorn in My Side video which isn't that great a video, but Annie Lennox looks like she's CGI in it, and it is my favorite Eurythmics song)
Don't Dream It's Over, Crowded House
Say Goodbye, Hunters and Collectors
Bohemian Rhapsody, Queen -- in Australia, most fondly remembered as "the song that finally kicked Fernando out of the No. 1 slot"
Ashes to Ashes, David Bowie
Love Shack, The B-52s
Oh Superman, Laurie Anderson
Sledgehammer, Peter Gabriel -- tour de force of stop motion

More Recent Videos that give me hope

Perhaps these are the good old days of music videos too. Certainly, there are a few musicians around who seem to really think about their video clips (or hire someone who does) and of course the technology has progressed astonishingly.

Bachelorette, Bjork
Isobel, Bjork
All is Full of Love, Bjork
In This World, Moby
Why Does My Heart Feel So Bad, Moby
Right Here, Right Now, Fat Boy Slim -- simple idea, brilliantly executed. For some reason I love this track too, even though it's repetitive as hell
Weapon of Choice, Fatboy Slim

Better Idea than Execution

Only for Sheep, Le Bureau
Fade to Grey, Visage (actually a lot lamer than I remember)

* Talking Heads (or perhaps David Byrne) probably deserves a category all by themselves, having produced more awesome videos than the rest of the industry put together.

Favorite Cover Versions

I just thought I'd share some of my favorite ever cover versions of songs. A good cover brings something to a song that makes it seem completely new, and doesn't make you wish you were listening to a different version. In other words, it's not like almost every performance on American Idol.

Bizarre Love Triangle, Frente
Don't Fence Me In, David Byrne
Quinn the Eskimo, Manfred Mann
Always on my Mind, Pet Shop Boys
Times They Are A-Changin', Simon & Garfunkel
Star Spangled Banner, Jimi Hendrix
Sometimes when I'm dreaming, Art Garfunkel (strangely hard to get, apparently it was released on a "Greatest Hits" album in the UK and Australia, but not in the US or Canada)
America, David Bowie with omnichord (part of a 9/11 Benefit Concert, no idea how to get it except by ripping the DVD)

I can't even come up with ten.

My current canonical example of a redundant cover version is The Bangles version of Hazy Shade of Winter, i.e. a derivative and clearly inferior version of the original. Or pretty much any performance on American Idol. But even some famous and successful covers, such as Jeff Buckley's Hallelujah are redundant and unoriginal (his is not really much different from John Cale's rendition, which itself wasn't much different from the original).

Singing Babies to Sleep

Well I sang it once, I sang it twice,
I'm gonna sing it three times more,
gonna stay 'til your resistance is overcome.
'Cause if I can't sing my boy to sleep,
well it makes your famous daddy
look so dumb.
Hmm, he looks so dumb.

From St. Judy's Comet, Paul Simon

Leonard Cohen, 1969 (from Wikipedia)

One song I always knew I would sing to my children, if I ever had any, was St. Judy's Comet by Paul Simon. Not many songwriters seem to have set out to write lullabies, and it's great that my favorite songwriter of all time did. Of course he wrote the song for his first son, Harper, so I'll have to change "boy" to "girl" in a few spots, and of course I'm not famous so I guess it's "your lazy daddy look so dumb" or something. When the girls are older I can prompt them for suggestions...

I don't know many lullabies, and the ones I do know are pretty lame, strange, or vaguely threatening. I have, however, had the extremely satisfying experience of singing my babies to sleep, and it occurred to me that this would be a great opportunity to memorize the lyrics of some new songs.

I don't know how most people memorize lyrics, but I learned songs in three ways. The first was being required to perform them for some kind of stage production. I can still remember snatches of the Mikaido because we did some kind of "good bits" version of it in primary school.

The next was sing-alongs, which were a class activity from grades 1 to 6 when I was a child. We'd all gather around the radio at a specified time each week with books of songs (which we had to bring $2 to school to pay for at the beginning of the year) and learn new songs and repeat songs we'd learned earlier. I can remember quite a few songs (some of them hauntingly beautiful) from those days, including "Donna Donna Donna" a lament for a calf being taken to market for slaughter, and a song about Norfolk Whalers. Odd that both songs involve cruelty to animals. Anyhoo...

But most of the songs I have learned come from the period from the age of ten or so to the end of college during which I was (a) sufficiently poor that each LP or CD was a major investment and thus was listened to incessantly for days or weeks after purchase, (b) obsessed by popular music, and (c) had time to spend hours listening to albums while reading the lyrics from the back of LP album covers or liner notes or (at the very end) from the little booklets which accompanied some CDs or, in the case of bands like REM, trying to puzzle out rather poorly enunciated lyrics with no help at all. (I remain convinced that in Bohemian Rhapsody, "Beelzebub rides a devil's motorcycle".)

So I have a little songbook in my head that contains the complete lyrics of many songs by Paul Simon, the Beatles, Tom Lehrer, a few by the Eurythmics, Suzanne Vega, Talking Heads, They Might Be Giants, and so on, and then I can kind of kind of manage half a verse here and there of the rest.

While looking around for possible lullabies the second songwriter I thought of after Paul Simon was Leonard Cohen. I'm a latecomer to Leonard Cohen. I bought So Long Marianne a long time ago because a lot of people (both friends and musicians in interviews) I liked and respected liked and respected Leonard Cohen*. I found the album pretty impossible to listen to. (The title song was lovely, but I hated Cohen's nasal, whiny voice. A pretty common reaction, I think.)

* It's fairly well-known that working musicians have far broader tastes than their audiences, and thus listening to the stuff the musicians you like listen to is likely to broaden your tastes in odd directions.

Anyway, my sister spent some time living in the US in the early 90s and came back with I'm Your Man, which immediately hooked me. (It didn't hurt that I'd heard "Everybody Knows" in the flawed but still watchable Christian Slater movie Pump Up The Volume a few years earlier. I'd liked the song so much I bought the soundtrack album, which is pretty darn good but has Concrete Blonde covering the song versus the original version, which is in the movie.

When Cohen released I'm Your Man he had perfected a new sound that he'd started experimenting with an album or two earlier. Instead of a whiny, nasal voice accompanied sparingly by folk instruments and female backing vocalists he switched to a deep crackly bass voice accompanied by a big, textured, synthesizer sound and (of course) female backing vocalists. The result for some reason brings to my mind the image of honey dripping over coal. This made Cohen a lot more accessible to latecomers such as myself, and eventually I grew to love even his whiny, nasal performances because of his arrangements and phrasing.

I mention all this because I am meticulous -- borderline obsessive -- about remembering where I picked up my predilections from. I think it's very interesting to know how you grow to like something, and when, and why. E.g. I still remember who first suggested I read a novel by Ursula Le Guin, and what it as. Or when I first read a "real" Science Fiction novel. Or that I didn't much care for Blade Runner the first time I saw it, although some snatches of dialogue were brilliant, and haunted me.

A huge proportion of Cohen's output can do service as lullabies. I think this is because his songs are fairly simple melodies, sedately paced, usually without a bridge (why anyone would put a bridge in a lullaby escapes me), often without a distinct chorus, and are manageable by a singer with a modest vocal range. Oh and the songs are also downbeat and have a lot of verses. Best of all, they're really good songs with marvelous, evocative lyrics, and what Cohen lacks in terms of what Paula Abdul might call "the colors of his voice" he makes up for in phrasing. (Phrasing is, apparently, something that, along with enunciation, is not learned until after you graduate from American Idol.)

While I'm on this sidetrack, it astonishes me that, on American Idol, anyone picks songs by Queen. The trick, it seems to me, is to pick very good songs best known for performances by mediocre singers, versus mediocre songs best known for performances by very good singers. Even "mediocre" pop singers are generally better at phrasing than the contestants on American Idol, but at least you won't be forcing the audience to compare your vocal range to Freddy Mercury's. So, Queen: no, The Police: yes. But I digress. Again.

There are two obvious objections to using Cohen's songs as lullabies. The first is that the songs invariably feature "adult concepts". I can happily dismiss this objection because his words are never explicit, so any child who can figure out the adult concepts is probably sophisticated enough to deal with them. In any event, traditional lullabies often feature far worse expressed far more clearly ("Rock-a-bye baby" for example). The second is that his songs often feature religious themes and references -- Hallelujah (which has a chorus, also making it less lullaby-worthy) is utterly drenched in the Old Testament. Again, I can dismiss this because, hey, this is Western Society, and it's better to have your Judeo-Christian references out in the open, and if you're going to have them, let's take a look at the tough parts of the Bible (in "Song of Isaac" Cohen tells the story of Abraham from the point of view of the son being sacrificed). If more religious people approached religion the way Cohen does, I might not be so hostile to religion.

Anyway, here's my favorite adopted lullaby so far:

I loved you in the morning, our kisses deep and warm,
your hair upon the pillow, like a sleepy golden storm,
yes, many loved before us, I know that we are not new,
in city and in forest they smiled like me and you,
but now it's come to distances and both of us must try,
your eyes are soft with sorrow,
Hey, that's no way to say goodbye.

I'm not looking for another as I wander in my time,
walk me to the corner, our steps will always rhyme
you know my love goes with you as your love stays with me,
it's just the way it changes, like the shoreline and the sea,
but let's not talk of love or chains and things we can't untie,
your eyes are soft with sorrow,
Hey, that's no way to say goodbye.

I loved you in the morning, our kisses deep and warm,
your hair upon the pillow like a sleepy golden storm,
yes many loved before us, I know that we are not new,
in city and in forest they smiled like me and you,
but let's not talk of love or chains and things we can't untie,
your eyes are soft with sorrow,
Hey, that's no way to say goodbye.

Hey, That's No Way To Say Goodbye, Leonard Cohen

If you haven't heard this song, I urge you to listen to it. Cohen's phrasing is immaculate, managing to make a very slow song sound breathless and stream-of-consciousness. What's doubly amazing is that while Cohen did this during his whiny, nasal phase, and there are over ten cover versions of it on the iTunes Music Store in the US, only Roberta Flack has managed to produce a version other than Cohen's versions that isn't incompetent or simply a poor copy of Cohen.

Final Note

A third objection to Cohen as a lullaby-writer, especially for lullabies to be sung to baby girls, is his apparent misogyny. I actually gave up listening to Billy Joel after paying attention to some of his more sexist lyrics ("I don't want clever conversation/I want you just the way you are" is obviously unintentionally back-handed, but the song isn't supposed to be funny, unless I'm missing something). I excuse Cohen's apparent misogyny for the same reason I don't have a problem with his religious subject matter -- he never takes an objective viewpoint ("women suck") but always a highly, and explicitly, subjective viewpoint borne of (what I assume to be) deep introspection ("right now, in this bleak mood I am in, I think that women, you in particular, suck"). In other words, Cohen's occasional nastiness to women is the flipside of Alanis Morrisette's less occasional nastiness to men. It's an important distinction, I think. Either that, or just another rationalization. Cohen is, in the end, a better songwriter than Joel.

I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel,
that's all, I don't even think of you that often.
Closing lines of Chelsea Hotel #2, Leonard Cohen