Thursday, September 05, 2002

Pot Less Harmful Than Alcohol - Canadians

A Canadian Senate Committee on illegal drugs released a report today which states that marijuana is less harmful than alcohol, and should be regulated in the same way.

In the story, Senator Pierre Claide Nolin is quoted saying,

"Scientific evidence overwhelmingly indicates that cannabis is substantially less harmful than alcohol and should be treated not as a criminal issue but as a social and public health issue."

When dissenter's raised their voices, Sen. Nolin accused them of 'harshing his mellow', and then added, "But anyone who is caught selling that Saskatchewan ditch-weed that tastes like Mister Clean and sawdust should be locked up." He then ajourned the press conference for a munchie break.

Tuesday, September 03, 2002

Henry Raddick - Reviewing Genius

The net is spawning all kinds of new forms of communication, and not all of it involves blogs, blogging, blogger, or blogapallooza.

Take, for example, the art of the joke review. This is Henry Raddick's medium, and here's his work..

His reviews are hilarious. For example, here's what he said about a book called, The Maltese : Diminutive Aristocrat:

A first rate guide to this extraordinary breed. The book deals with all aspects of ownership and care with admirable thoroughness it even gives tips on how to spot when your dog is liquefying into a pool of itself.

Perfect. Smooth setup, deadpan delivery, then a hell of a zinger. Or there's this review of a book called, The Art of Flamenco:

I bought this book for my wife. Flamenco is the dust of the bull-ring, the flounce of the gypsy's skirt and the crazy clatter of castanets. Flamenco swaggers. Flamenco pleads. Flamenco is the beating heart of Andalusia. Flamenco is NOT a tanked-up Englishwoman embarrassing her husband in a hotel bar in Seville.

After a healthy sesssion of reading, laughing, and spraying beer out of my nose, I decided to try and figure out what this all meant. How would you classify Harry's work? High-tech graffitti? Is he a parasite, amusing himself at the expense of Amazon and its customers? But then I thought, "Hey, this guy draws readers to his work, which in turn advertises the book he's writing about." I'll bet the authors and Amazon don't mind that. But then there's the problem that he has to give the book a rating, which skews the ratings system.

I tried to figure out how it all balanced out, but in the end I decided to have another beer. I'll leave you with more of the wisdom of Henry, from his review of the beloved classic, God, Why Did Dad Lose His Job? :

A truly wonderful guide which has enabled me to explain my recent sacking for vandalising company property to my children in terms of a minor act of redemption. First rate.

First rate, Henry.

Monday, September 02, 2002

More Light Posting

Gar Smith, who edits The Edge, the online magazine of the Earth Island Institute, speaks out against electricity in this interview. While Brother Gar is headed in the right direction by speaking out against the vile flow of electrons, he overlooked the most insidious and destructive form of energy known to man. And it's an easy mistake to make, because it's so common and so ubiquitous we hardly even notice it, even as it destroys our lives.

I'm speaking, of course, of Light.

Einstein gave us the first, best clue. Is it a wave or a particle? Why, it's neither, it's either, it's both. If you ask a person, "Do you love the Earth, or are you an evil lickspittle running dog capitalist imperialist globalizationalist?" and they answer, "Uh, I'm not sure", would you lend that person your pedal-powered sewing machine? Hell no! They don't know who they are, you don't know who they are, so they'll have to learn to sew by hand.

But maybe that's just identity politics. Maybe that's Light saying, "I'm hedging my bets on the whole particle-wave duality until it's clear which form has been more victimized, so I can be in the right reparations line when the time comes." That's only fair. But before we invite Light to marry our sister, let's take a look at his family. Nice bunch of regular folks, right?

Wrong. His closest relative is infrared radiation. You never seen him around, but he's always where things are hot. He's heavily involved with the military/industrial complex; seems he's good at finding his way around in the dark, giving his high-tech soldier-boy friends the unfair advantage of seeing in the dark.

But hey. Every family's got one rotten apple, right? What about Light's other brother, ultraviolet? He's pretty cool, ain't he? He was involved with a lot of really neato posters back in the 60s and 70s, and even today turns up in a lot of discos and nightspots. Just a good ol' boy looking to enjoy his evenings, right? Well, what the mainstream media won't tell you is how this creep spends his days... slowly destroying everything he touches: fabrics, building materials --- oh, and your skin. That's right, you can thank ultraviolet for sunburn. Where's the New York Times expose on that? I'll tell you where it is --- the same place as the "UV Index" that used to be on the front page of every newspaper, before we decided that the ozone wasn't important. Oh, and by the way: ultraviolet radiation, oxygen, and ozone are all mixed up together, but don't hold your breath waiting for "scientists" to explain it.

The rest of the family is even worse. Microwaves. X-rays. Gamma rays. Television. The Voice of America.

But that's guilt by association, isn't it? Maybe Light is the one shining beacon of hope in this despicable company. Surely Light has some positive social features?

Consider a sleeping family. They're together: a cohesive family structure, snug in the beds, visions of fair-trade sustainable sugarplums dancing in their heads. Bliss. Love. Contentment. Togetherness.

And then the sun rises.

And everybody has to get out of their comfortable beds. Thanks a lot, Light... that the worst you can do? Hell no! The sun's up, so Mom and Dad have to go to "work", and the kids have to go to school --- well, of course they need Light! Without Light, they'd have to stay home together and enjoy one another's company, and we couldn't have that, could we? Merciful heavens, no!

Without Light, there'd be no way to tell the colour of a person's skin --- "Character is who you are in the dark!", observed the great social activist John Worfin --- so we have Light to thank for racism. Light is the great enabler of lookism --- judging people on how they look. Without Light, nobody would ever have to hear others say "You're a short, dumpy unemployed guy --- if you want to call yourself an environmental activist, that's your business!" Think of good times you had as a kid, singing around the campfire and telling ghost stories --- what was missing from that idyllic picture? Yeah, that's right --- Light (other than the eco-friendly sustainable light provided by the campfire, of course). Without Light, there'd be no call for fancy packaging of consumer goods, reducing litter. What are the kids buying and wearing at so-called "raves"? Light sticks (or "stix", as they're called in "raver" lingo). The list goes on and on.

So why don't we hear calls for restrictions on Light? Where is the anti-Light legislation to protect the working man? I'll tell you where --- bound up in the iron grip of a vast Light wing conspiracy. The manufacturers of sunblock and sunglasses, the awning makers, and the bedding plant growers have unbelievable political power. The sun-junkie agricultural lobby has even more. The newspapers need light to be read by, so they ain't gonna say boo. The radio and television interest groups fear that any action against electromagnetic radiation, even if initially limited to the visible variety, might spread to other parts of the spectrum. Don't expect support from the makers of Marlboro Lights (which are supposed to be better for you than "regular" Marlboros!), or the purveyors of "light rock" (often paired with "less talk" to make it more palatable), or the sellers of lite peanut butter, light reading, dance lessons (tripping the light fantastic), or any business classified as light industry. One popular horror movie exhorts a little girl to "Walk towards the light!" The founder of a certain major religion (well known for its association with questionable causes) was fond of saying "I am the Light of the World", so you know which side his followers are on... the "Sun" of God, indeed.*

No, the only voices raised against Light are those of a few brave, lonely souls, hiding in the shadows and whistling in the dark. But we, the forces of darkness, will not be silenced.

Turn out the lights, people... before it's too late.

* The case for his nemesis isn't quite as clear-cut, though; is he the Prince of Darkness or Lucifer ("The Light Bringer")? Tough call.
Breaking the Music Industry's Heart

Lately, I've been looking for a story which illustrates the problems of the music industry, and which reveals the flaws in the 'conventional wisdom' of file sharing. That's how I stumbled across the band 'Wilco', and the story of the problems they had releasing their new album "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot". It's a story about great music, record company weasels with tin ears, and the ultimate triumph of good vs. evil (well, musicians vs. The Suits. Same thing).

First, a bit of background. Wilco rose out of the alternative music scene, from the ashes of an 'alt-country' band called Uncle Tupelo. But the moment they were on their own, they began creating a whole new fusion of rock, country, punk, blues, and the occasional chainsaw. Not your typical band, and not music that is easy to pigeonhole into a particular style.

But the music is great. Phenomenal. Addictive, beautiful, poetic. Sorry, I'm gushing. But since I discovered these guys, I can't stop listening to them. And everyone else who has listened to them (at my fevered insistence) feels pretty much the same way.

So why aren't they all over the radio? Because they don't fit the marketing model. They're not country, they're not hip-hop, and they're not teen rockers. There's no easy pigeonhole to put them in, so they languish in the relative obscurity of alt-rock and college radio, much like REM did before they were 'discovered'.

Anyhow, back to Wilco. After making several wildly acclaimed albums for Reprise (a division of AOL Time-Warner), they emerged from their loft with a new album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. This was a brilliant album. Maybe the best album of the new millennium. But like many great albums, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It's an album you need to listen to carefully. You need to pay attention. Great music challenges you. Much is lost if you just look for the catchy tunes that you can dance to.

So of course, the record company shrieked in anguish and demanded 'changes'. It was too dark. It wasn't radio friendly. It wasn't 'pop' enough. The record company boneheads who evaluated the album told Wilco that it was 'career-ending'.

Now, a lesser band would have put their tails between their legs, went back to the studio, and proceeded to tear apart a great album and create some forgettable pop substitute. But Wilco has always done things their own way. So they dug into their own pockets, paid the label $50,000 for the rights to the album, and Reprise released them from their contract.

Over the next year, YHF sat on the shelf while the band went on tour. But then they did something unexpected - they put their entire album on their web site, for free. Before you could blink, the file sharing networks were loaded with copies of every song. Industry insiders opined that this was the death of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Who would buy it, when it had been available for free for months?

And why would the band give their album away? Founder Jeff Tweedy says,

"There was a period when our record was up on the website and we were touring, where I felt confident that a lot of the ideas and idealism of the band was being given validity. Yes, we've made a lot of records and been on a major label but I've always liked to believe we'd be a band without having a piece of plastic every year and a half to define our existence. It was being proved we could have a record out, not make any money and support ourselves the way we've always supported ourselves."

"The other bottom line is that I've never been paid a penny for any record I've ever made through royalties."

So there you have the artist's perspective - unless you're a blockbuster act, CD sales are not a way to make money. They are a way to connect with your audience. They are advertising. The real payoff comes from touring, merchandising, and from the sheer joy of making a living creating music. Artists want to make a living, but above all they want to create art. File sharing networks give artists a way to connect with an audience, without involving the compromising factors of large record labels and the demands of 'pop' radio.

But then a strange thing happened. The widespread availability of the album started a buzz. I mean, anyone but a record company executive can spot a great album when they hear it, and lots of people were hearing it. Wilco's concert attendance started to rise. When they'd play songs from the new album, the audience would go nuts. Articles started appearing in the music press about this great 'lost' album. Stellar reviews began to appear about a CD that had no record label.

Now think about this - here was an album reaching an audience. Getting national praise. The band was a hit in concert, selling out everywhere they went. And nary a record label in sight. No RIAA, no lawyers, nothing. Just great music, a new technology to let people hear it, and a band willing to take a chance and stand by their principles.

So of course, the record companies were having kittens over this. Suddenly, the record was a hot property. Bidding wars erupted. And in the end, Wilco wound up signing a contract to distribute YHF with Nonesuch records, a small alternative label. Nonesuch wound up paying more than three times what Wilco paid to get the record back from Warner in the first place. And here's the best part: AOL-Time Warner also owns Nonesuch. Which means that the parent company paid to have the record produced, took partial payment of that cost to get rid of it, then paid three times as much money to get it back again. How's that for poetic justice?

Now that Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was about to be released, the big question remained: How well would it sell? Many nay Sayers claimed that it was a dead duck - all the hardcore Wilco fans had already downloaded the album months before its release. Who would buy it?

As it turns out, lots of people. The CD debuted on the Billboard Charts at #13, by far the highest debut for any Wilco record, and much, much higher than the average for 'alternative' music. Considering that there was no single, and that the band couldn't get much radio airplay, the success of this album can be largely attributed to the exposure it received from being available for free on the Internet.

This new distribution and marketing model is a huge threat to the record companies. After all, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot only cost $85,000 to produce, and distribution was free. With low-cost production and a new distribution network that connects artists directly with their fans, there is little room for a giant plodding record label to insinuate itself into the picture and skim off the money. This is the real reason why the RIAA is spending millions of dollars to buy politicians and use the heavy hand of government to try to shut these networks down.

Peer-to-Peer file sharing networks are the 'World Wide Web' of music. They promise to provide a new, efficient way for artists to connect with their audience. They allow, and even encourage the kind of artistic experimentation and risk-taking that cannot be allowed in Top-40 radio. And they give all of us a new way to ‘browse’ the musical landscape. They are good for the culture, good for artists, and good for the audience. The big losers will be be the people who try to cling to 20th century distribution models in the 21st century. The RIAA will have to adapt or die. Or, they can continue on their current path of trying to stuff the technological genie back into the bottle through government regulation.

Don't let them.

Sunday, September 01, 2002

An End to Good Vibes

Lionel Hampton, 1908 - 2002