Unmistakable Marks

Warranted Genuine Snarks

2004: Year of Convergence

Back in the ‘80s, magazines used to trumpet every year as “The Year of the LAN.” But somehow or other, years just kept on passing by without LANs (which we here in 2003 just call “networks”) ever becoming really popular. Until, of course, they did.

In the same way, people have been dreaming about “convergence” — the unification of the computer with the home A/V center — for an awfully long time. And why not? Computers have CD-ROM drives, computers use a CRT tube just like TVs, computers play music out of speakers. But for a whole bunch of perfectly good reasons, convergence has never taken off; most people today (including Steve Jobs) think it’ll never happen and that nobody wants it.

They’re wrong, and convergence is right around the corner. There are three key technological improvements that make convergence finally feasible:

  1. Big hard drives. Everything you want your computer to do with your TV involves drive space. You want to store all your music for convenient playback? Well, that’ll take about 1/3 of a gigabyte per CD, in archival quality. (MP3s, of course, take less space; but while their quality is probably okay for playing through your $100 computer speakers, it’s not good enough for your multi-thousand-dollar home-theater system.) You want to record TV for viewing later? Yeah, that’ll chew through the ol’ disk space, too. Back when a 10GB hard drive was hot stuff (that is, 1999), this was infeasible. Now that 100GB hard drives are standard equipment and 200GB hard drives aren’t ridiculously high-end, you’ve got all the space in the world.
  2. Wireless networking. The biggest benefit to using your PC as the centerpiece of your A/V system is that it lets you access all your media from anywhere on the network. If you want to look at last year’s vacation photos or listen to Mahler’s Fifth, it shouldn’t matter whether you’re sitting at your computer, sitting in front of your living room TV, or in the basement rec room. Since you probably don’t have Cat-5 running through your house, this was never possible. With Wi-Fi, it’s possible.
  3. HDTV. Hooking up a computer to a traditional TV has always been frustrating, because TVs suck. They’re blurry, fuzzy, and low-resolution. But HDTV, well, that’s a different story. Where an old-school analog TV has an interlaced resolution of 640x480 (about the same as that old 14" VGA monitor you used to have), HDTV has a top interlaced resolution of 1920x1080 (similar to that widescreen 20" flat-panel display you’ve had your eye on). You can do a lot with that kind of resolution. As a nice plus, new and future HDTVs have DVI inputs, just like new and future computer monitors, which makes it downright simple to hook a computer up to an HDTV.

That said, it’s still possible that convergence might be delayed. People want convergence, but industries don’t. The music and movie industries are doing their level best to make this sort of convergence completely impossible, by putting copy-protection (now going under the temporarily friendlier name DRM) on everything and disallowing all the things that people want to do. You’d like to record all your DVDs to a giant hard drive, so they’re ready for watching? No chance. You want to “tape” The Sopranos and watch it later on the TV of your convenience? It’s possible now, but with HDTV’s new restrictions, it might not be in a few years.

I’m an optimist, though, and I don’t think stupid DRM restrictions will work in the long-term. If people aren’t able to use things they’ve paid for in the way they want to use them, they get awfully pissy about it. So far, DRM hasn’t stopped people from doing what they want to do, so they haven’t cared; but if it gets intrusive, oh, they’ll care. The worst-case scenario, as I see it, is that DRM will slow everything down and give us an irritating period of confusion and uncertainty.

But ultimately, convergence — like the LAN — makes too much sense not to happen. And if 2004 isn’t the Year of Convergence, then I’ll make the same prediction about 2005, 2006, and 2007.

Comments | November 21, 2003

The Rationality of Limousine Liberalism

In an article on Slate, Daniel Gross chuckles at the irony of wealthy people supporting Howard Dean instead of George W. Bush:

At both the macro and micro levels, there’s plenty of evidence that well-off liberals are using their increased disposable income—much of which can be attributed to the Bush tax cuts—to sate their desires for luxury goods and for political revenge. This odd condition of consumerist self-indulgence and political indignation—fueled by the same source—has reached epidemic proportions in areas where high-income Democrats tend to congregate. Many people I know are finding themselves simultaneously coping with a sense of greater well-being and a niggling sense of unease when they stop to consider to whom they owe their good fortune.

I’m baffled as to why Gross considers this ironic. On the contrary, I remain puzzled as to why anyone who’s well-off would support tax cuts for the rich.

Assume for a moment that you’re even vaguely sympathetic with other humans. Now, when you sit there thinking, “Oh dear, life is ever so hard on only $300K a year — how shall I get by? Perhaps I’ll need to hold myself to a new BMW 5-Series this year instead of the 7-Series. Woe, woe!” wouldn’t it automatically be followed up with, “Gosh, if life is tough for me, it’s got to be much tougher for the 99% of Americans who make even less than I do. I read somewhere that the median family income is under $50,000! How could you even survive on that? Those poor, poor people certainly need more help than I do.”?

And if, like most people making $300K annually, you’re actually not bemoaning your finances, wouldn’t you be irritated that President Bush has made your non-existent financial problems the core of his economic program? Hey, great, you can afford to get another thin-panel HDTV for the guest bedroom. While you might vaguely think that’s mildly pleasant, you probably suspect that there are a lot of people who need that money far more urgently.

But okay, let’s go ahead and assume that when you took that big salary, you traded away your soul, and don’t give a damn about anyone else. Even from your own selfish perspective, you’ve got to be against the Bush tax cut. As someone who pulls in the big dollars, and who has more money invested in the markets, you’re more sensitive than Joe Median to the fluctuations of the economy; a huge deficit that’s going to be a drag on growth in years to come is going to directly hurt your pocketbook in the long run, no matter the short-run impact.

And what’s more, you know damn well how things are going to play out in a few years: When the insurmountability of the deficits becomes too obvious to ignore, taxes are going to go up — and the taxes on the wealthy (i.e., you) are going to go up more than most. So you’re not even really getting a tax cut; you’re just borrowing some money from your future self, at a time when you don’t need the extra cash anyway. That’s just insane.

And then there are the secondary effects: Living in a nation where schools have adequate funding, colleges are affordable to all, poverty is on the decline, and the middle class is feeling increasingly prosperous... all that will contribute to your feeling of well-being far more than the extra cash. (Would you rather be rich in a nation that looks like downtown Detroit in 2003, or a nation that looks like downtown San Francisco in 1999?)

I don’t wonder why people like George Soros, Warren Buffett, and Bill Gates Sr. are against the tax cuts — I wonder why any rich people are for them. I hesitate to suggest that rich Republicans are not-so-bright heirs like our esteemed President, but the evidence doesn’t exactly point against it.

Comments | November 14, 2003

Culture in Three Steps or Less

One of the fun side effects of the Internet is that it’s completely devalued connoisseurship. It used to be, back in the day, that domain-specific expertise was something hard come by, obtained only from sources that were frequently obscure and inaccessible. Not any more.

Case in point: Mike Bruce says in the comments to my last post, “I like classical music, generally, but I just have no idea where to start, as far as buying CDs and such.”

Well, Mr. Bruce, we here at Unmistakable Marks can help you out. There’s no need to subscribe to Gramophone, no need to go buy the Penguin Guide (though I hear good things about that latter); thanks to the Internet, you can get everything you need from the comfort of your toilet. Provided you have wireless networking or a long network cable.

Step One: Classical.net’s Beginner’s Guide, which is... not Classical Music Buying 101, but Classical Music Buying 095: Remedial Classical Music Buying. It’ll get you oriented, with a high-level view of the landscape.

Step Two: Classical.net’s Basic Repertoire List, which gives a rather long shortlist of classical music worth knowing about. Thankfully, the really important stuff is starred — and yeah, there’s probably still well over 100 starred works, but the important thing is you can’t go wrong with any of that starred stuff. I mean, you may not like every starred thing, but knowing that you don’t like, say, Bach’s Art of the Fugue is something worth knowing. So just go ahead and pick one starred piece out of each period to start with.

Step Three: If you’ve got a great local music store whose staff really knows their stuff when it comes to classical music, go there. But it’s 2003, and you don’t, so go to Amazon instead. In fact, if you’re in a hurry, you can skip the first two steps, and go straight here. Amazon has well-chosen “Essential CDs”, they’ve got frequently useful customer and editorial reviews, and they’ve even got music samples for most CDs, so you can get a vague sense of whether something is really up your alley. If you can’t come out of Amazon with five good CDs (especially if you’re being driven by those Classical.net recommendations), then you don’t have a credit card.

Voila! As soon as the UPS box arrives on the porch, you’ve got yourself a small start on your CD collection; you can find something you like out of that first sample, and then refer back to Classical.net for more recommended music that’s similar to the stuff you like (or recommended music that’s completely different from the stuff you’ve tried, because you never know); you should be able to take it from there, if you want to.

(Alternately, you could always just go steal some music from Kazaa or Gnutella or wherever the cool kids steal their music these days, but you’ll find that it’s surprisingly difficult to find a large classical music selection on most music-thieving services. Except for Carmina Burana, probably.)

Comments | November 10, 2003

Reluctant Cheerleading

I don’t enjoy playing the part of a Microsoft cheerleader, but damn, Microsoft’s putative competition makes it awfully hard not to. Take Steve Jobs:

Asked about Apple’s interest in selling Macs that could serve up the video recording abilities Microsoft offers with its Windows XP Media Center Edition, Jobs joked that Apple was instead focused on melding the computer with a toaster.

“I never get mine quite brown,” said Phil Schiller, vice president of marketing. “We can do an up-sell for bagels.”

Jobs said that he doesn’t see such products creating a big market.

“We’re not going to go that direction,” Jobs said. “There is a small audience that likes this.”

This is the same Steve Jobs who, not quite three years ago, announced that Apple was focusing on being the “digital hub” that links together all your digital media devices. That digital vision is stronger than ever as more media become digital and more devices become connected; but Jobs is inexplicably backing off of it, even while Microsoft slowly but surely improves its Media Center Edition of Windows.

Apple got there first. Apple had a huge head-start on Microsoft, with its iDVD and iPods and iTunes. And Apple’s sitting back and relaxing, while Microsoft relentlessly charges forward — even its Media Player is better than Apple’s iTunes on XP (and, oh yeah, works seamlessly with far more devices than just the iPod, including cool devices like the Turtle Beach AudioTron).

You know where this story is going to end up, and the only question is how much pain you want to put yourself through denying the obvious. (Have fun converting all your music from AAC to WMA in a few years.) Me, I’m sick of rooting for an underdog that doesn’t care if it wins.

Comments | November 5, 2003

Pick Your Diet

As the inevitable consequence of the proliferation of “Seemingly Bad Food X Is Good For You” diets, I just saw a KFC commercial advocating the dietary benefits of fried chicken.

Thank you, diet industry, but you’re not needed any more. We can handle it from here.

Comments | November 4, 2003

Bush: “Democrats would do a better job”

Well, this is an interesting marketing tactic:

Matthew Szulik, chief executive of Linux vendor Red Hat, said on Monday that although Linux is capable of exceeding expectations for corporate users, home users should stick with Windows: “I would say that for the consumer market place, Windows probably continues to be the right product line,” he said. “I would argue that from the device-driver standpoint and perhaps some of the other traditional functionality, for that classic consumer purchaser, it is my view that (Linux) technology needs to mature a little bit more.”

Very odd. I mean, it’s true and all, and since Red Hat just quit making their non-Enterprise Linux, it’s not surprising that they’d start dissing the consumer Linux market, but still. There are some headlines you just don’t expect to see.

Comments | November 4, 2003

Previous Entries...