Snow a-comin’

We’ve had a nice run of it this week, but Esta is heading home today…into the thick of a March snowstorm. And I’ll be heading out to Framingham shortly, despite the fact that the last time they called for as much snow as we’ll get today, it took me three and a half hours to drive the 19.7 miles between the two locations.

(I never wrote about this, but when I was doing Holiday Pops concerts in 2005, I had a Friday morning rehearsal followed by a call at the office. It was snowing as I drove onto the Pike from Symphony Hall, but just a dusting. By the time I got out of my call at the office three hours later, I had six inches on my car. I spent 45 minutes just getting up the hill out of our parking lot, and another 45 making my way down Speen Street to go back to the Pike…)

So hopefully today goes better.

The big integrator buys the big presales tool

CNet: Cisco to buy WebEx for $3.2 billion. Cisco has been buying up into the services layer for a long time, and a service like WebEx, which depends on rock solid communications management, is a natural fit.

It would be interesting to know what this represents as a multiple of earnings. So many companies (my own included) depend on WebEx as a critical sales enabler that you could read that multiple as a prediction on the future growth of the technology sector.

Anyway, I hope that the acquisition means that WebEx sticks to its knitting. I haven’t been impressed with their scattered marketing focus recently (we’re a conference solution! a training aid! a tech support tool!) while their core conference delivery business still has wrinkles to work out.

The thaw

It’s been in the 50s, almost the 60s, here for the past couple of days, and the ice is slowing withdrawing into the shadows. The worst of it at our house continued to be the ice pond over the French drain. As late as Sunday it was still a solid block of ice.

I came home last night to find that it was mostly water, but still a standing pool—not draining. I looked closer at the one big chunk of ice that was left and realized that it sat over the drain, so I took a pair of downed branches and levered it away. What did I see? The grate of the drain—with ice visible through the holes. So I flipped the drain gate out of the way, and saw a solid block of ice going down into the mouth of the drainpipe. Insert heavy sigh.

Fortunately, getting the grate off provided other places for the water to escape, so by the time Lisa and I got home from dinner the pond was drained for the first time since Valentines Day. Going forward, I’ve got to figure out a method to keep that drain clean.

Deval Patrick at Old South

As I was saying, it’s a little bit of a red-letter (blue letter?) day when the governor of Massachusetts is in your church. I suppose it’s nothing new for Old South, which has hosted Boston Tea Party planning meetings and baptized Ben Franklin, but it was pretty new for me. So I was interested to see how senior minister Nancy Taylor treated Governor Patrick’s presence.

First note: the timing of the governor’s visit was probably deliberate. The UCC churches celebrated Amistad Sunday yesterday—the anniversary of the first significant pro-civil rights decision by the Supreme Court, in which the abolitionists among the Congregational churches had a significant part—and one would suppose that Massachusetts’s first black governor might find the occasion worth marking. But the sermon, about mercy and justice versus the hard dictates of law, went into interesting territory. Reverend Taylor’s argument was that Amistad set a precedent that the need for justice and mercy in repatriating the seized African slaves triumphed over consideration of their slaying their captors and seizing the ship that imprisoned them.

But she also pointed out that the larger Biblical context of this incident, as well as for consideration of slavery in general during the 19th century, is even more interesting. She pointed out that there were Christians on both sides of the slavery issue, both of whom claimed Biblical support for their positions, and that in a way the Civil War was also the war that ended American Christian perception of the Bible as infallible.

At this point, I supposed, she might transition into a discussion about Christians who cite the Bible in taking homophobic or anti-gay-rights stances. Instead, the Reverend made a point about the church’s work with transgendered persons and talked about a recent case in which Largo, FL church leaders called for the dismissal of a long time city manager when he revealed that he was struggling with gender identity issues and planned to become a woman. Rev. Taylor said that Old South had offered the city council free lessons on transgender awareness, and made the point that we seek to respond with understanding rather than using the Bible as a weapon.

So I think Governor Patrick could have taken away two messages from Sunday’s sermon: not all Christians are intolerant wielders of the Bible as a weapon, and mercy and justice must sometimes trump enforcement of the law. One hopes that he takes the latter to heart as he works on how the state will interact with Homeland Security on immigration matters in the future. If there was ever a case that pointed out the need for mercy and justice in public matters, this is it.

The full text and an MP3 recording of Rev. Taylor’s sermon will be posted on the Old South site, as well as available in the sermon podcast.

Update: Of course, the governor had other concerns on Sunday as well. My heart goes out to him and Mrs. Patrick. I certainly know what it’s like dealing with depression, and I commend both of them for dealing with the issue transparently and publicly.

On a completely different note…

Before I forget, I should note that yesterday, my sister Esta and I not only went to church services with Deval Patrick (about which, more later), we also got coffee with him.

Or at least we were in the same line at the register together.

And before Esta tells the story: Yes, there was some funky music on in the coffee shop, and yes, I may have unconsciously shaken my booty just a little bit. While I was standing next to the governor of Massachusetts. Waiting to pay for coffee.

And no, Patrick fans, I didn’t hear what he ordered.

Wireless jukebox follow-up

Three last notes about the final (?) stages of the Great CD Project, which started with over 1000 CDs plus about 30 GB of digital music across two computers, and ended up with about 400GB of digitized music—over 23000 tracks worth—on a networked hard drive:

  1. iPod syncing One of three scenarios I was concerned about was the ability to sync my iPod; since all the music was on the network, I would be gated by how fast the data could come from the remote hard disk. As it turns out, this wasn’t too bad a problem—compared to what I was coming from. I used to have to sync the iPod, a 5G video model that only supports USB sync, with my old PowerBook G4—which only had USB 1.1 connections. So syncing it was terribly slow. Syncing it with the new setup—hard drive over USB 2.0 to my AirPort Extreme, over 802.11g to the MacBook Pro, and then over USB 2.0 again to the iPod—is faster than I expected: it took about three hours to transfer 600+ songs, many of which were ripped losslessly, to the iPod.
  2. Ripping CDs This was a big surprise. While nearly every other operation involving moving data to the AirDisk (the big disk connected to the AirPort Extreme) was pretty slow, ripping a CD with the music going to the network drive seemed to happen at a very reasonable speed—about 8.8x. I don’t know how Apple pulled this off—do they cache the data for later writes? If so they need to do the same thing in the Finder, because the performance seemed much more reasonable ripping than virtually any other write activity.
  3. Playback This one puzzled me for quite a while. Yesterday was the first time I actually tried to play music through the setup, and it was awful. The sound cut out partway through the second or third song that I listened to, and I couldn’t get it to play again without restarting the whole base station—after which it played one song and quit again. For context, I’m still playing back music through an AirPort Express, so there are now two wireless hops involved—one to pull the music into iTunes and one to stream it back for playback. I did a ton of research and found that by switching the base station to a less crowded channel, and enabling interference robustness on both the base station and the AirPort Express, I suddenly got great performance again.

The best part of the whole thing is that I can use the MacBook Pro as a mobile music console without being tethered to the hard drives, and can use FrontRow to drive the music for a party—very slick.

Music Review: Josh Haden, Devoted

Back in 2001, in the first week of my blog, I went to see a show by Josh Haden’s former band Spain at the Crocodile Cafe in Seattle. I was really into Spain at the time, and soaked up the whole atmosphere: the hushed reaction of the crowd, the tight performances of the band, Josh Haden’s eyes-closed, stone-still performance with his bass at the vocal mic. But the reaction of my friend—a sarcastic request for “another mellow song!”—made me realize that Spain lived or died by how convincing you found its blend of slow, quiet, blues and country-inflected late night bar music and heart-on-sleeve sincerity. Certainly the band’s best moments—the song “Every Time I Try,” snagged by Wim Winders for the soundtrack to his film The End of Violence; their superb swan song “I Believe”; and their entire first album, The Blue Moods of Spain, all revolve around that formula.

Over time, though, their work began to feel just a little like it was a formula. And the more the sound drifted toward country, the more I felt like Josh’s heart wasn’t in the songwriting. The songs were still simply beautiful—“Mary” is an aching melody that has been stuck in my head for days at a time—but the lyrical content seemed less broad in intention or scope than it had on the first few albums.

Turning, then, to review Josh Haden’s first proper solo album, a self-released affair called Devoted, one must ask: are the songs still slow? Is the country twang still there? Are any of them not love songs? In other words, what’s new?

The answer: Josh Haden found Dan the Automator.

Yes, the songs are still slow love songs. Having set a landmark with his song “Spiritual” (and really, having a song from your first album covered by Johnny Cash has to count as a home run), Josh doesn’t dwell overlong in that starkly religious land, though the closing “Salvation” returns to the territory in a pan-religious way. There is a powerful religious subtext, though, to almost every other song on the album, whether it’s “only love will set you free” in “Discontent” or “take my hand and never go astray” in “Show Me the Way.” This is perhaps to be expected given Josh’s position on the purpose of music: “Why waste my time with music that doesn’t help to bring me to a deeper understanding of life?”

And, again, thanks to Dan the Automator’s beats and some quirky keyboards from John Medeski (of Medeski, Martin, and Wood), the sound is totally different from Spain, even with the continued presence of guitarist Merlo Podlewski: less bluesy, less organic, brighter, flatter, more trancelike in places (indeed, at times Josh’s performance recalls another singer-songwriter who hooked up with a beat-focused producer, Beth Orton). Not all the experiments are successful. The upbeat “Drifting” is spoiled by an uncertain-pitched vocal and a beat that feels canned, and the harmonies on “Want You So Bad” are likewise wobbly. But balancing out these low points are some real gems: the apocalyptic imagery of “Hallelujah,” the dark seduction of “Love You More,” and even the Spain-manque of “Light of Day.” In fact, some of the strongest moments on the disc are the ones that sound most like Josh’s old band.

Which, I suppose, begs the ungenerous question: why change at all? But songs like “Show You the Way” and “Devoted” blend the plaintive songwriting of Haden’s older canon with a fresher musical palette, and maybe that’s the value of this recording: helping to distill the essence of Haden’s songwriting in the absence of the sonic hallmarks of the old band.

This review also published at Blogcritics.

Frozen food

I feel rather like a bag of frozen peas these days, rattling around in the bottom of a very large, very cold freezer.

While Lisa and I were in New Jersey this weekend, we had a brief thaw that started melting the layers of ice and snow that had lingered since Valentine’s Day. Unfortunately, the French drain in our driveway is covered with six inches of ice, and the snowmelt pooled on top of that ice until it crept into the garage and the laundry room. Thank goodness that after the flood last year, there was really nothing on the floor to damage, and our neighbor was on hand to get the worst of it up with a wet-dry vac before any problems could occur.

And then, of course, we had another cold snap. So instead of alternating layers of ice and snow, we have a two-inch layer of solid ice over much of the backyard, parts of the front yard, and bits of the driveway. At least our sidewalk is clear…

Airport Extreme update – some successes

After last week’s post about the difficulties working with the new Airport Extreme 802.11n base station, I decided to pick up the pieces and put some things together. I ended up going down a path that led to some success:

  1. Borrow a 500 GB drive from work
  2. Set my library location for iTunes to the borrowed drive
  3. Back up the contents of my RAID disk to the borrowed drive using the Advanced | Consolidate Library command
  4. Break the RAID set and reformat as two separate drives; connect the 500 GB to the Airport Extreme
  5. Set the library location for iTunes to the networked drive
  6. Back up the contents of the borrowed drive to the networked drive using the Consolidate Library command

And darned if it didn’t work. There was one directory that didn’t get transferred successfully, possibly because the borrowed drive was FAT32 and the artist name had an accent in it; fortunately it corresponded to a CD I still have.

So now I’m using the set up. Benefits? One iTunes library, one laptop. Disadvantages? Working with changing data on the networked drive is slow; for instance, updating cover art for 30 tracks can take up to five minutes. Based on what I’ve read on line, only part of this is explained by the fact that my first gen MacBook Pro only has 802.11g; a larger part of it appears to be due to very slow write speeds to the networked drive. (This might also explain why the last step in my project took a week.)

Other issues? The drive apparently falls off the network every now and then; in fact, it’s not accessible via the AirDisk utility at all. I have to browse to it directly using the afp:// protocol. This may be a broader problem with Bonjour on this network; AirTunes isn’t working right now either. Curious how all this stopped working when I dropped the new AirPort into the network…

The entropy heat death of Starbucks?

Synchronicity is coffee related blog posts from both Doc Searls and Blogorelli arriving in one’s aggregator on the same day. Granted, it was Tuesday; I’m a little behind.

Anyway: first Doc Searls pointed out Howard Schultz’s mail to his troops about how Starbucks’s growth has endangered the customer experience in its stores. Doc further opines that the “milking down” of the experience has endangered the core product.

I would concur: I thought the chain was in trouble from a soul perspective ever since, in the late 1990s, it started heavily promoting Frappucinos. Why? Because a Frappucino is a lot of ice, sugar, and milk with coffee flavoring; it’s not really a coffee drink. I believe at the time it was a creative response to a short term supply constraint (there was a big spike in coffee prices at the time), but over time the milk has drowned the coffee. Nasty-ass flavored lattés are just the logical evolution.

Still, there’s part of me that pauses when I read Doc’s recommendations. One is to “go back to real commercial espresso machines. Too many Starbucks now feature automated machines that any idiot can use. I don’t know what you call these things, but they are made to move customers through faster…” I pause when I read this, because I’m the guy who gets nervous when there are more than two people ahead of him in line at Starbucks and the line is not moving. Yesterday in the airport, in fact, there were two “baristas” (neither of whom would last a second in Seattle), who were each taking and then filling their own orders—no division of labor, no checking ahead to get drinks for the next person in line—and it took forever to get through and get my coffee. Why can’t that be sped up?

Because, of course, if you want quick coffee you don’t get to cavil about the quality of the preparation experience, or ask for the company to put in slower machines. But if you want fast coffee, why not just get McDonalds to do it? The answer is, of course, we all want to feel special, like we have a personal relationship with our coffee. What’s the best thing about going to Starbucks regularly? That the barista knows who you are and starts making your drink when you walk in the door. That is such the opposite of the mass market experience. So is the fact that I expect Starbucks to be clean, the employees to be intelligent and lively, and the other customers to be professionals. So maybe my expectations for Starbucks are classist?

Something else comes into the mix, of course: Blogorelli points to the newest East Coast trend of high service espresso bars, featuring ristretto shots, freshly roasted beans, and (most visibly) foam art on the lattes. (The article doesn’t mention it, but really good baristas can do a leaf pattern in the crema on top of a plain espresso shot even without any cream.) Having experienced this in Seattle four years ago, I can say it’s a pretty amazing difference from Starbucks and is clearly where the leading edge customer is going. So the question is, can Starbucks follow this customer?

Put another way, there are two markets for coffee drinkers: those who love coffee, and everyone else. Can Starbucks really continue to try to serve both? Or will its efforts continue to disorder its brand until it loses all momentum and is overtaken by another competitor?