Friday, April 20, 2012 at 6:47 AM

The Post-PC Hullabaloo

by Merryl

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I was reading DaringFireball today when I came across this. If you’ve never read anything from John Gruber about Apple, then you should take a look. He has an obvious pro-Apple slant, but I generally find his points clear and well supported. The post actually calls out a Macworld article by Andy Ihnatko that you can see here about his “Post-PC” device. In his own concise way, Gruber is piling on evidence to the assertion that, slowly, Apple’s iPad is replacing conventional computers in average people’s daily use. I’m not sure I completely agree with the idea.

So what’s my problem with the concept? Well, I think my issue begins with the whole “Post-PC” concept. I’ve heard the argument that Post-PC doesn’t necessarily mean that PCs are dead. But if we’re talking about the next step in personal computing, then aren’t we  simply charting the demise of conventional computers? More than that, are we really post-anything? Despite what some may say, the iPad is a tablet, and we’ve had tablets for a while. I think that Apple had to differentiate its product when it launched. Calling it a Post-PC device was smart marketing. It clearly says, “This is the new, better, personal computer.” At the end of the day though, we’ve been here. Apple just found a better way for people to interact with a known device. Some say the better way, i.e. iOS, is what makes the iPad a Post-PC device. Wait a second, so any OS that allows us to manipulate a tablet better traditional Windows makes us a Post-PC device? So, getting past any personal preference, objectively speaking Ice Cream Sandwich is a superior tablet OS than Windows (Windows 8 will confuse the issue so let’s leave that alone for now.) So is a Samsung Galaxy Tab a Post-PC device? I think the correct answer would be yes, but that just means that the concept is more marketing than meat. Apple’s just trying to put its product in its own class, and let’s face it, it’s worked. Most retailers have an iPad category and a separate tablet category.

The truth is, I love my iPad, so this is tough to say. I think it is an amazing device that has a phenomenal user experience and great design. If you haven’t tried one, you should. But let’s quit with the catch phrases and the gimmicks. It is a tablet computer that is easy to use, capable of a lot of things, and is a extremely popular. That makes it different enough. “Post-PC” simply makes it sound like the next thing, the end-all-be-all. It’s not. It won’t be, and if it does, it will start looking a lot like a netbook with a touchscreen.

So I probably ruffled some feathers with that last statement. Before you leave in a huff, let’s look at Ihnatko’s post. He basically talks up the Post-PC phrase and points out how we’re in a “slow-roast revolution.” If we get to the meat of the point, I think he’s saying things are changing. I can’t disagree, but he still sounds so enamored with the idea that this is a new era. He seems to recognize that Post-PC is kind of a roofie, but swallows the pill anyway.  So he goes on to recount the ways that things have changed in the iOS app space and why he’s now able to abandon his MacBook for his iPad. What I think he’s glossing over, though, is the compromises he’s making. Some are smaller than others, but all of them are compromises nonetheless. For example, using a keyboard with the iPad is necessary for extended durations of typing. I can’t prove that, but I think there is enough anecdotal evidence out there from experienced writers. With that said, I have yet to find a keyboard/case combo that can rival the ergonomics and comfort of typing on a MacBook (or any comparably sized laptop/netbook). I’ve looked and the best I’ve found is still less comfortable and flexible than a laptop. Let’s look past that for a minute. Let’s look at one of his main points, improved apps. He says that developers are now more willing to harnessing the full capabilities of the iPad. That’s true, as time passes, more sophisticated applications are making their way to the iPad. But even the most complex apps limit and simplify their functionality to match the experience of the iPad itself. They in effect have made compromises for the user. And by using the application the user makes those compromises as well. Don’t believe me? Try to find an iPad app that has more functionality than its PC counter-part. If there are any such apps (which I doubt, but can’t discount), then then they are in a very small minority. Ihnatko actually proves my point for me. The one application that he spends the most time on is VNC, an app that lets you remotely control your PC. If we really are Post-PC, than should we need something like that?

I use my iPad daily and I find I’m not booting up my MacBook as often. If I’m really honest with myself though, that’s because I’ve simplified my daily activities. Not improved or made more efficient, just simplified. I don’t do as wide a variety of computing tasks as I used to. I stick to the ones that I can do easily on my iPad. Not because I don’t want to do more complex activities, but rather because it is more convenient to do simpler activities. One example is uploading a document to a website. I was learning to use GoogleDocs (I’ve just never tried it, didn’t really need to) and I grew frustrated because I couldn’t get my document from Pages uploaded. It took a few seconds from my MacBook, but I will never attempt it again on Safari on my iPad. That is a task I would say is fairly common, but my guess is that most iPad users forgo its benefits simply because the iPad doesn’t support it. I haven’t done things better, I’ve just decided not to do the things that don’t work on the iPad.

So you’re probably having a hard time believing I’m a fan of Apple and the iPad. Really, I am. Honest. I mean it. I just don’t think that we need all the fuss, all the hullabaloo. Focus on the merits of the device. Buzzwords like “Post-PC” are what contribute to the idea that Apple customers are obsessed zealots who mindlessly follow the company that makes their iGadgets. We’re not post-anything and we’re not getting rid of our PCs, but the iPad is a great device. Let’s leave it at that.


Friday, April 13, 2012 at 8:01 AM

The Death of Discs

by Merryl

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If you look back over the past decade or so, you’ll notice something fairly obvious: physical media is slowly dying. Beginning in the late 90s, digital formats and distribution methods have slowly eaten way at markets of physical content distribution. Applications like Napster and iTunes can be blamed for the demise of the CD. It’s true that you can still by a CD, but at the rate sales are declining, for how much longer? And it’s not just limited to music. Multiple sources now provide movies, games, and books in digital formats, on demand. But you know all of this already–what does it matter, it’s more convenient and you get the same product, right? Maybe. This shift away from physical media has several far-reaching implications, some good and some bad.

The most popular issue of course is Digital Rights Management, or DRM. Digital content locked by DRM can only be played on approved devices. Current DRM schemes used for digital media severely limit how a consumer uses the content they purchase. Most people will remember this is the reason they couldn’t play their iTunes purchased music on non-Apple media players. Though the music industry slowly moved away from DRM, almost every other type of digital distribution still uses DRM. When I buy a DVD, I am free to play it in thousands of different devices, something that can’t be said for the movie I purchase from Amazon’s Video on Demand service.* The argument goes that DRM prevents piracy, but that’s never been clearly established. The truth is that those individuals savvy enough and determined enough to engage in piracy aren’t hampered by DRM. Some well-thought out searches on Google will yield multiple methods to circumvent common DRM schemes. The collatoral damage from this war on piracy: honest consumers.

It’s not all bad though. Digital distribution has brought greater accessibility and convenience to consumers. Like a song you heard on the radio? Download it to your media player in less than a minute. Want to read the latest New York Times bestseller? Start devouring it on your e-reader in seconds. And though convenience may seem like the crowning achievement of digital distribution, I’d argue it’s actually accessibility (or discoverability). It has never been easier to find new content than in the digital age. I can listen to a song, read a chapter of a book, or watch a few moments of a feature length movie, all before committing my hard earned cash. That means I’m willing to look at what else might be out there.  But beyond trying before you buy, digital distribution actually enables consumers to find related content, from novels in the same genre to remixes of you favorite song. Most popular digital distribution venues use some method of displaying suggested content. Looking for The Hunger Games in the Kindle Store, I see that I might want to consider A Song of Ice and Fire. Maybe I should check it out.

Both of these issues are probably ones you’ve considered before, but what does the death of physical media mean for individual ownership? In all of this, the idea of ownership has been changing slowly for the worse and not many people realize it. When you purchase physical media, you own it fair and square. You do not enter into any form of binding agreement when you pay for a DVD or Blu-Ray.** You trade a (sometimes) reasonable sum of money in exchange for a physical item. It’s not that different from buying a chair. However, when you buy a piece of digital content, things get more complicated. Purchasing digital content actually requires agreeing to a limited license. This license details how you may use the digital content, what rights you have to it, and sometimes how the license can be revoked. Yup. That’s right–revoked. Let’s say you buy a digital comic book on Tuesday. You can have it taken away from you on Wednesday when the publisher decides you shouldn’t have it anymore. The linked example highlights the very really impact that digital distribution has on ownership. In the digital age, consumers are really purchasing a license to consume content, not to own it. If you ever want proof that you don’t own the digital content you’ve purchased, try to sell it. The FBI agent that shows up on your doorstep will politely explain the error of your ways as he gives you some new wrist accessories. Ever get tired of a video game you thought you’d love playing forever? Well, if you downloaded it, you have no way of recovering any of that expense. If, however, you bought it on a disc, you can drive down to your (occasionally not-so-)friendly neighborhood GameStop and get ten percent of what you paid for it, because you actually own the disc. You won’t get much, but you’ll get something. You’ll also be able to buy someone else’s cast-offs for a significant discount over new games, something that isn’t possible with digital content.

So where does that leave us? Well, time will tell if the current trend of DRM-laden limited license digital content will persist. We can hope that everyone will learn the lesson the music industry learned, but I wouldn’t hold my breath. In reality, I think that more digital distribution mechanisms will tend toward the model that Netflix Instant Streaming has developed. Basically, you pay a fixed cost for an ongoing limited license to consume content. The main difference from most other methods: there is no illusion of ownership.

*It is true that DVDs employ DRM, but their implementation is far less restrictive than the methods employed on digital movie files.
**I know that this isn’t completely true. You are agreeing to abide by the laws governing the purchase of copyrighted material. It is actually a limited license, but it is far less limited than the license that accompanies digital media.


Thursday, April 12, 2012 at 8:01 PM

Focus

by Merryl

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Focus. It is a simple yet powerful word. I’ve discovered that over the years, I’ve lost focus on what I enjoyed about this site: writing. I’ve worried about page hits, ad impressions, links, and traffic. In other words, I haven’t enjoyed writing here in a while. Today is hopefully the day that changes. The new look is a minimalist approach to the site. Its focus is the content. There are no ads, no banners, no distractions from the words I write. From now on, I hope to focus on the writing.

You may notice that most of the old content is missing. I decided that it was all over the map in terms of (yup, you guessed it) focus. I’m going to try to focus on writing about current topics I enjoy, mostly technology and gadgets. I may occasionally venture back in to movies, TV, or other topics, but only as an occasional aside to mix things up (like the live performances).

Focus. Focus. Focus.


Thursday, July 19, 2007 at 10:12 PM

Travis

by Merryl

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I have been a fan of Travis for several years. A friend of mine suggested I try out this band that she had been listening to for a while. I decided what the heck–I didn’t have anything to lose. It was one of my best musical decisions. I got my hands on “Writing to Reach You” and I loved it. I’ve been a fan ever since.

Though I’ve been a long-time fan, I’ve never had the opportunity to see them live. I came close on October 11th, 2001, when they came to my hometown of Ann Arbor, MI. Unfortunately, that was to be my last chance for six years! Then I got one of the coolest birthday presents ever from my buddy Rohit, two tickets to a Travis concert here in D.C.! So this past Monday, June 16th, 2007, after many years of waiting, my girlfriend and I saw Travis live at the 9:30 Club in NW D.C. Here are my thoughts:

My opinion of the venue hasn’t changed since my review of Anna Nalick. The only difference this time was that it was much, much more crowded. This is understandable, since Travis is of a completely different caliber.

Having never seen them live, I was concerned that they would disappoint me. Some bands are great in a studio but horrible live. I think that Maroon 5 is a very good example of this phenomenon. They don’t even sound good on awards shows. I am happy to report that Travis did not let me down. They were everything I expected and more. The great thing about the band is that they had real personality. They didn’t just stand on the stage and sing (I’ve seen artists do this.) They actually gave us a show. The on-stage antics of the band were quite amusing. Only the drummer, Neil Primrose, seemed a bit subdued. I was a little concerned when guitarist Andy Dunlop climbed the speaker sets. Luckily, he didn’t fall and kill himself.

The music itself was incredible. They played a wide variety of their music spanning from their first album, Good Feeling, to their latest, The Boy With No Name. Of course I heard all of my favorites, including “Writing to Reach You,” “Sing,” “Pipe Dreams,” Driftwood,” and “Eyes Wide Open.” The end of the main set was Turn,” which is definitely a great. Things almost went awry when lead singer Fran Healy got shocked in the mouth by his mic and stopped the show. He was actually good-humored about it, but it did spoil the momentum of their last number. The encore was great too. I especially liked their performance of Flowers in the Window. I guess you could call it an acoustic version as all of the band members crowded around an acoustic guitar and a single mic and sang together. I also loved Why Does it Always Rain on Me?”, when everyone (yes, me too) did the pogo for the last refrain. Oh, and you can’t forget their rendition of AC/DC’s “Back in Black” (which I am told by a critical listener was very good).

Another great thing about this concert was that it made me appreciate the music more than I did before. I’ve always liked “My Eyes” from The Boy with No Name. Before the band played this song, Fran paused and explained that he wrote this song the night he found out he was going to be a “papa.” Though I thought I understood the lyrics before, they suddenly seemed to be far more meaningful than before. This might sound lame, but I think it made the music a little more real for me.

If you want to actually hear what I heard, go to NPR. Click on the “Listen” link to hear the entire concert. It sounds decent, but it was so much cooler being there. In the end, I have to say that this will definitely be one the few concerts I remember in my life. I sang along to every song and I had the time of my life. If you ever have the opportunity, check them out live. If that’s not an option, I highly recommend their albums. Enjoy!


Tuesday, February 21, 2006 at 3:26 PM

Martina McBride

by Merryl

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Overall Rating: *****

Martina McBride performed at the Patriot Center in Fairfax, VA on Friday, February 17th. Ok, so this may be a bad review. Mainly because its difficult for me to be objective. Try as I may, I find it difficult to criticize Martina. I’ve always loved her music and I was looking forward to this show from the minute I found out she was going to be playing a local venue. Fairfax was a stop on her Timeless Tour to promote her latest album, coincidentally named Timeless. Though I was dissappionted a little with the album, I wasn’t let down by the show.

The Patriot Center is the basketball arena for George Mason University. I was there almost a year prior for the Brad Paisley’s Mud and Suds Tour featuring Sara Evans. That was a great show too, but that’s another review. The Patriot Center holds a basketball court, so its big but not that big. I like this venue. Its size allows for a lot seats, but still allows a reasonable view of the stage from most locations. I didn’t have a bad seat, E10 Sec 117. I had a clear view of the stage and the acoustics were fine. I was a little dissappointed by the seats, only because I thought I was closer. Somehow, for Brad Paisley I had managed to get fairly close to the stage. All in all, not a bad venue.

Now, according to Ticketmaster, the local radio station 98.7 WMZQ, and the ticket, there was no opener. Come show time, we found out that wasn’t true. The Warren Brothers, stars of Barely Famous on CMT, did a 30 minute set. I didn’t know a single song they sang, so I wasn’t thrilled that I had to wait longer to see Martina. It turns out that the Warren Brothers aren’t half bad. They sounded pretty good. I’m not going to run out and buy their CD, but I’m definitely goin to look in to some of their music.

Now we come to the artist herself, Martina McBride. For those who haven’t seen or heard her before, she’s beautiful and talented. She may be 40, but she’s still gorgeous in my opinion. Simply beautiful, but enough about that. I guess I’m showing my weakness for a pretty girl. Not a good weakness for a critic, but what the heck, everyone’s got one. The thing that made me a fan of Martina is her voice. Its an amazing singing voice. Its got great range and suits the various styles of country music she’s explored with her albums.

One thing I despise about artists is the neccessity for “technilogical assitance.” Britney Spears doesn’t sound the same in person as she does on her CDs. Neither does Maroon 5, Hoobastank, and several other artists. If you can’t sing a song without all the gadgets in a recording studio, do you really have the talent to sing it? Ok, so that may be a bit harsh, but I’ve heard artists on award shows that sound nothing like their CDs. That’s just dissappointing. That’s why this concert was a test for Martina in my mind. Does she sound like she does on her CDs in a concert? I am very happy to report that she does! Not that I ever doubted (well ok, maybe just a little).

Her performance was broken down in to two parts. The first hour was dedicated to songs from Timeless. Most of the songs off of this album never really grabbed me, so I was a little dissappointed when she said this at the beginning. Turns out that the first half of the show gave me a new appreciation for the album. Its still not my favorite CD by her, but I definitely like them more now. Since the songs are country classics, they never had much energy. During the concert, I think that they got that spark they needed. Perhaps, they are best suited for a live performance.

The second half of the show was dedicated to her hits. This part of the show was amazing. I got to hear most of my favorites live. She covered all the greats, including My Baby Loves Me, Valentine, Happy Girl, and A Broken Wing. I was thrilled when Martina pulled out her harmonica during Loves the Only House. She’s multi-talented! I always liked Concrete Angel. Its a sad song, and it sounded perfect when she sang it. Martina also took requests. I was thoroughly impressed by Hit Me With Your Best Shot. She hit it dead on (no pun intended).

I was pleased and dissappointed by the encore. I was pleased because she sang Over the Rainbow. She does an amazing job with this song. She proved she’s got a powerful set of pipes with this one. I personally liked it more than the original. That may be blasphemy against the great Judy Garland, but I think I’m right. No offense Judy. I was dissappointed only because her encore was one song. It was a great song, but still only one song.

The tickets were $50 + ticketmaster fees. Though I felt it was a little steep, it was well worth the ticket price. I honestly thought I couldn’t like Martina McBride more than I did before the concert. I was wrong. In my mind, she proved there is true talent out there. She also showed she really has a voice, no post-processing required. If you ever have the opportunity, see her in concert. You won’t be sorry you did.


Sunday, October 16, 2005 at 9:50 PM

Anna Nalick

by Merryl

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Overall Rating:*****

This review is a little overdue, but better late than never. Anna Nalick preformed live at the 9:30 Club in norther Washington D.C. on Tuesday October 11th. The opening act was a group called Blue Merle. Now this review is a supposed to be about the show I saw, but it will be difficult not to make it a review of her debut album Wreck of the Day. Either way, I have positive feelings about both, but the two have very different aspects that make them good.

To get the minor details out of the way, I’ll mention the venue. The 9:30 Club isn’t exactly the coolest club I’ve been to. Its not very attractive on the outside and the interior isn’t exactly exciting. It does have two floors, the second of which has a large balcony overlooking the first. The one thing this place has going for it is that it makes for a very up-close-and-personal show. I could actually see the stage well and I didn’t need a jumbo screen to see the artists’ faces.

Blue Merle opened the show. This group isn’t bad and with time, they might grow on me. I must say I was a little dissappointed because I was told the lead singer, Luke Reynolds, supposedly sounded like Coldplay frontman Chris Martin. Suffice it to say, it wasn’t true. Unfortunately, most of the music seemed to overpower the lyrics. I couldn’t hear what was being sung, which made it kinda hard to follow allong. They weren’t a bad band, just not a good one.

This brings me to Anna Nalick. The show started off stong with Citadel. The song is pretty solid so it was a good choice and a nice beginning. Nalick tends to do little dances while she sings. She’s not exactly an amazing stage dancer, but it is better than simply standing and singing. Unfortunately, after her opening song, she dismissed her band and announced she had laryngitice. I was not happy, because I thought she was going to cut the show short. Lucky for me, she believes in giving her fans their money worth. She changed the show to an acoustic performance.

I like the music, which makes a huge difference when it comes to critiquing the show. In my opinion, a good show requires three things, good music, a good voice, and stage presence. I’ve already commented on the music, but Nalick’s voice is her true strength. Despite her bout of illness, she never missed a note. She sang every song clearly. One thing that really impressed me is that she sounded like she did on her CD. In an age of digital enhancement, its hard to tell what is true talent and what is computer aided. Some artists, Maroon 5 for example, sound nothing like their CD when they preform live.

For the final component, stage presence, Nalick has a good beginning. She’s young, hip, and funny. Through out the show, she constantly traded witty remarks with the audience. She also likes to tell stories, which are usually pretty good. It worked well for her in such a small personal setting. She can interact with the crowd and keep everyone engaged. Unfortunately, I don’t think this would work that well in a bigger venue. You can’t chat with the audience when you’re performing in front of hundreds of people. I think the stage presence you need to play to a big venue will come with time.

I hope Anna Nalick becomes a little more mainstream. She isn’t super popular, but she’s not unheard of either. Her album went gold last week. If she lasts, I think we can expect great things from her. If you haven’t already, check out her album Wreck of the Day. You won’t be disappointed.