Friday, September 06, 2002

London Calling?
Another cross post with Blogcritics.

Jaguar, a unit of Ford Motor Company, has a new ad campaign for their cars featuring the song London Calling by The Clash. This immediately seemed totally wrong. I was never a huge punk rock fan but I heard my share of Clash tunes and you only had read their album covers to understand their politics (Sandinista anyone?). I really doubt they intended London Calling to be a tool the capitalists could use to sell more high end automobiles. The song is about the collapse of Western civilization. Example lyric:

The ice age is coming, the sun is zooming in
Engines stop running and the wheat is growing thin
A nuclear error, but I have no fear
London is drowning-and I live by the river

At the end of the day, though the Jaguar ads bug me, the recent avalanche of Pontiac ads featuring Walking on the Sun by Smash Mouth was much worse. It seemed like it was on every five minutes. And the crowning moment was when I saw it on TV just before midnight on September 3rd and had to listen to the pitchman say "Hurry- sale ends September 3rd".

Sorry Charlie. Too late.

Back to The Clash. A quick Google search revealed plenty of other people who thought the mix of The Clash and Jaguar was, well read their words: "...the fact that Jaguar is using the Clash's "London Calling" in their TV commercials is just, well, wrong."

A poster on the Commercials I Hate board: "But NOW...NOW oh my GOD, it's almost too terrible to think about...The Clash's "London Calling" being used in a...JAGUAR ad!!!!!!! It was like an aural lobotomy..."

I think you get the picture. There were a few people who said they were cool with it, but they are totally outweighed by those who decry it as a crime against nature. But assuming it was the band members who took the money (and extensive Googling did not come up with any evidence on who owns the song) why shouldn't they profit from their work? Perhaps the band thought that if Jaguar was dumb enough to give them millions for a song that condemns Western culture then the joke would be on Jaguar. I doubt they worried too much about the band's reputation considering the band hasn't existed since the mid 1980's.

Instead the opinion seems to be that the band had no right to do this because "selling out" hurt the fans. The extreme viewpoint is that the song should not belong to the band at all, but to the public:

legitimate or not, there was a popular culture in the 1960s and 70s (punk) that, while commercial, represented ideals of freedom for a lot of people. music is very powerful, perhaps the most powerful form of human expression (other than sex I suppose)

we do need symbols to fight back. reclaim public space.

i was watching shaw cable (formerly the public access station) city council tv and the councilers describing public space as 'city property' (they were saying anyone who posts a sign on a city street pole is a vandal of city property)

the public needs to take things back. badly.

If we didn't have so many goddamn 'intellectual property rights' we wouldn't be able to sell out revolutionary songs and ideas because they would be owned by those who know them and not some mytholigical 'artiste' who 'invented' then 'patented' the idea.

I suspect that writer doesn't own a Jaguar....

The problem with that solution is that with no "goddamn intellectual property rights" what would stop Jaguar from using the song without any payment to anyone? Why would a corporation not have equal claim to use the now free music or ideas? Of course in that world view I suppose we wouldn't have any corporation either.

One thing is for sure, symbols are powerful and music is one of the most powerful. It evokes strong memories of the past. For those who truly believed in the message of The Clash the song represents a step back to when things were more black and white than they seem today. We were going to change the world and stick it to the Man. As the excellent commentary on this topic in Art For A Change puts it:

The point really is, the music of the CLASH served as a backdrop for the turmoil of the late 1970's and early 80's. They sang their opposition to war, police violence, the arms race... and we believed them.

But now many of those people either depend on the Man to pay their salary so they can send their kids to college or worse yet they now are the Man. The ad agency was ordered to target that demographic group and programmed music they would identify with. The song's message was already weakened by the passage of the years. Its use in a commercial only put a spotlight on those changes. That is the real underlying shock.

Things change. Punk is dead. A Jaguar is just a dressed up Ford. The Clash, the only band that mattered, are just another band. Life is dynamic- thank God!

But hey, if The Clash or whoever owns the songs has indeed sold out perhaps I can look forward to having Rock the Casbah serve as the official theme song for the campaign to squish Saddam.

Thursday, September 05, 2002

TSA Answers The Phone
When I got my conditional job offer from TSA at the end of the assessment process (See Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5) they also gave me a list of possible start weekends. Your TSA screener employment always starts with a weekend orientation meeting where all the hiring paperwork is taken care of and you are sworn in as a Federal employee. Your classroom training starts the following Monday. Well the list of weekends they provided as possible start dates ends for me this weekend. So I've been naturally curious as to what was going on. My previous efforts to get TSA on the phone had failed. So today I decided to call every half hour or so until I got something.

At the start all I got was a busy signal. I thought that was probably not a good sign. Then I though perhaps they have ditched that recording that says "Leave a message" and then you never get a call back. And sure enough on about the 10th attempt the number rang through and a live person answered the phone.

"You are the 6th call I've had about that airport today," she said. "What's up?"

I told her the story of the ending weekend dates and the fact that the people at the assessment were saying we would be contacted sooner rather than later.

"Oh my," was her response. "They shouldn't have told you that. It is more likely to be longer."

She then told me no training had yet been scheduled for my site. "You will know before we will- they call the candidates and schedule them before they release the dates to those of us in HR customer service."

I suggested the problem was a lack of people to form a class. She disagreed. "No, there are probably enough people. The problem is that all the necessary equipment is not in place at the airport." She had a list of terminals with equipment and my airport was not on that list. "Because you move straight from orientation to training they have to be set up before you can start." I will be at a regional airport and the main urban airport has not yet been fully outfitted. Until that happened my site would probably not be set up.

She checked my name and phone number and verified I was on the call list. Beyond that all she could do was tell me to wait. She apologized for that but said, "That is the way it is."

My conclusion from all this is that the roll-out is going to be even slower than I had expected. I had thought I'd be at least in training before the end of August. Now I do not expect to start until the end of September or perhaps even mid October. That would be two months from my receipt of the offer. I'm in a position where I can live with that, but I suspect many people are not going to like having to wait two months if they are unemployed or quit their previous employment in order to be ready to start TSA training quickly. It also gives me time to keep looking for other job options and risks having me turn them down when they do finally call me.

At any rate, if you've got a TSA job offer and haven't heard from them it isn't your fault. You just have to wait.

Wednesday, September 04, 2002

Rolling Stones Hot Rocks 1964-1971 SACD
This is a dual posting also available on the Blogcritics site. Blogscritics is a great source of music and book reviews and I'm proud to be one of their participants. Check it out!

Though it has been big news in the Rolling Stones fan and high end audio circles the release of remastered Rolling Stones discs by ABKCO seems to be very quiet for a potential revolution. One of the few "main stream" media sources to cover the story was Slate (see why I put main stream in those ""?). And even that article by Fred Kaplan opens with:

The next hi-fi revolution begins a week from today, with a whimper.

So what is the big deal? Simple- ABKCO has put out 22 Stones discs from 1964-1971 not on CD but on hybrid SACD. And unlike most SACD products to date it is not charging a premium- in fact they are in most cases less expensive than CDs. Amazon for example is offering the single disc albums for $13.99.

SACD? ABKCO? Too many consonants, not enough vowels? I think some explanation is in order. What many folks are blissfully unaware of is that a high resolution format war has been going on between two new music formats. Sony developed SACD or Super Audio CD based on their DSD (Direct Stream Digital) recording process. An opposing group of manufacturers released DVD-A or DVD Audio discs. In both cases the discs offer superior resolution and sound quality over standard 16 bit CD audio and support multi-channel sound. Where the formats part company is in the backwards compatibility department.

DVD-A discs are only playable in DVD-A players. They will not play in standard DVD movie players (though if you bought your DVD player recently it might actually be a DVD-A player as well). Thus if you buy a DVD-A disc you will be unable to play it in your car or with your portable CD player.

Sony's potential trump card is that SACD's come in two flavors. SACD only and hybrid. SACD only discs will only play in SACD players. All of the SACD discs issued by Sony's record label Columbia are SACD only, something that obviously limits their appeal. But Sony also developed the hybrid disc. This uses a dual layer technology allowing the disc to contain both a normal CD layer and a SACD high resolution layer. A SACD player's laser can read through the CD layer to the SACD layer, but a normal CD player only sees the CD information and plays the disc like a normal CD. Sony wisely used the limited hybrid pressing capacity to produce SACD's for other labels to encourage them to produce SACD discs.

Up until now most the SACD production outside of Sony's Columbia has been smaller niche labels that lack artists with huge following. And that is what makes the appearance of the new Stones discs so important. Not only are the Rolling Stones a huge name but ABKCO, the record label with rights to these albums, decided to do all 22 titles at once. And they did it without an emphasis on SACD. Unless you know ahead of time nothing on the packaging tells you that you are buying a hybrid SACD. The discs are stocked in the regular CD section of your local record store. Millions of people will end up with SACD discs and Sony hopes their curiosity will eventually drive SACD hardware sales.

OK, that is all wonderful for Sony, but how about you the music lover? I'm not a huge Stones fan but I picked up Hot Rocks 1964-1971 to spin on my Sony 333ES SACD player. Hot Rocks is a two disc hits collection with all the songs a casual Stones fan would want. You've got Satisfaction, Ruby Tuesday, Sympathy for the Devil and other classics. I also spun the disc on my JVC mini-system I use for computer sound to get a handle on the pure CD sound since most people will experience these discs that way.

I won't waste your time talking about the music. You have all heard this music on the radio and know if you like it or not. Instead I'm going to talk about

I'm familiar with all the songs on Hot Rocks but the SACD versions are a revelation. The first batch of songs are not great sounding but as the Stones grow as a band and learn to use the studio the sound improves. Listen to the crunchiness of the guitar in Jumpin' Jack Flash or Brown Sugar for example. If you enjoy listening to the tone and flavor of instruments you'll really dig this. The percussion on Honky Tonk Woman has a slam and impact I haven't heard before. Even songs I've never really liked had a new sense of depth and emotional attachment to them. Wild Horses is a great example. The song has a very subtle build to it. On the radio it always sounded flat and, well, boring to me. Not anymore.

The main impression you come away with is one of slam and impact. On both the SACD and CD layer you have a sense of tremendous dynamic range. At the same time the more intimate moments such as the opening of You Can't Always Get What You Want put the band in your living room. Often times you can have one or the other. If a disc does a good job on the intimate stuff it runs out of steam when it should be rocking. Or the entire album is compressed to hell so everything is equally loud and any sense of emotional range and building to a climax is absent. Not here. The lack of dynamic range is my main problem with MP3's- they have no sense of life in them. I call them undead music. But that is another post....

The differences between the two layers is detectable but subtle. On an SACD player expect to hear a bit more of that slam and a better sense of air and space around the instruments. Everything also is a bit more laid back and smooth. While smooth and slam sound like mutually exclusive options on SACD they are not.

I want to stress that these are minor differences between the SACD version and the CD are subtle. Everything I said about the sound of the SACD is true about the CD, just not as true. With the CD you give up the air and space but still get the slam and impact. I'm listening to the second disc of the set as I write this and I don't feel cheated that it is only on a pair of tiny speakers on my JVC mini system. And I say that as a confirmed sound snob.

Like the Stones? Buy these re-issues. They are way better than your present CDs. You don't need a SACD player to benefit from them. They are identifiable by their packaging. They are using the cardboard type cases and have stickers that proclaim they are remastered. I know, I hate those cardboard sleeves too. I remember when Sting issued The Soul Cages in one and it was a bad idea way back then. That cover looks like crap now and unlike a broken jewel case I can't fix it.

These discs will rock you now and if SACD technology catches on you'll eventually end up with a SACD player and you'll get the chance to re-experience them all over again. Isn't that the way great music and great technology should be?
Starting To Bug Me....
Attempted for the 3rd week in a row to call the TSA and ask when I'd be starting. In weeks one and two I got a message saying "All operators are busy, please hold" followed by about a minute of hold music then "Please leave a message and we will return your call within 24 hours." Perhaps they should say 24 days because I'm still waiting.

This time I first got a busy signal. Not a good sign on an 800 number. I tried again and got the "Please hold" message followed by a fast busy. So I haven't been able to even leave a message.

We are approaching the one month anniversary of my job offer. I have yet to be told when I'll start. If I had a full time job and needed to give notice before starting with TSA I'd be in a bad spot if they suddenly wanted me to begin work. Likewise if I receive another job offer I actually have no way to tell TSA I don't want their job. Someone needs to kick the HR folks in the butt on this one.
Traveling On Amtrak
Traveled from my present home in the San Francisco Bay Area to Los Angeles for Labor Day. Because I made the decision to go inside the 7 day period airlines use to divide planned trips from whims the cheapest airfare would have been over $200. I didn't want to drive because I had done that drive the weekend before. So I cast around for options. Greyhound wanted $80 and 8 hours to get me there on a bus. But for just a bit more I could go on the Amtrak Coast Starlight train from San Jose. I would be saving about almost $100 and I'd get to see first hand whether Amtrak is worth the hundreds of millions it is getting.

The train pulled out of San Jose on time on the Friday before Labor Day. We pulled into Los Angeles about 10 minutes early. Pretty good performance. However that trip, including the time it took for me to take the regional Caltrain down to the San Jose station was 12 hours. You can drive that same distance in 6 hours (and the bus does it in 8).

On the plus side the seats in coach were nice. Tons of leg room. The food was about on par with amusement park food. I didn't try the dining car so perhaps that is better than what I got in the snack area. There were a ton of families with kids thanks to the holiday and Amtrak's half priced kid fares. That resulted in lots of crying and screaming, reduced somewhat when the kiddie car started showing cartoons.

On the return leg the train was quieter with fewer kids (I presume they were in school). However we were half an hour late getting into San Jose and I almost missed my connecting train. Again it ends up being a 12 hour trip.

I enjoyed being able to watch the views and the Amtrak staff were universally pleasant and attentive. But you have to have the time to devote to train travel.

And to tie this into my TSA blogging there was zero security during the journey.