Sunday, April 10, 2011

Kindle Envy

Every musician knows what it’s like to suffer buyer’s remorse in a gadget or equipment purchase. This is the feeling that manifests itself sometime between one minute and 24 hours after you finally plunk down your hard-earned cash. You suspect that the company you’ve just supported by buying their product will instantly relegate that model to the scrap heap and release something more powerful, cheaper, shinier, and happier. And inevitably, they do. If you stay in the technology-buying game long enough, you will swear that the company is simply waiting for you to buy before they announce their new releases.

To look at it from a non-musical perspective for a moment, let’s take the case of the Kindle, which I own. To say that the new version, just released last month, is an improvement over the original laughably understates things. It positively trumps its predecessor in every conceivable benchmark. The new Kindle costs less, has a smaller footprint (while retaining the same viewable screen area), is lighter and thinner, faster, more readable, has more memory and a better keypad, offers a choice of configurations (you can buy a cheaper Wi-Fi-only version or the full wireless version), and it even looks better (a more mellow charcoal-gray versus glaring appliance-white). And the biggest kicker: if you have an old one, you can’t update it for any of the newer features.

All of this made me resent Amazon for its closed-system approach to technology. I can’t even upgrade my memory? I have to buy a new unit altogether? I have to dispose of my working version in a landfill to keep up? What is this, 1980?

But then I got a grip. My original still does every single thing it does the day I bought it. My experience reading everything from Moby Dick to the Eleven Rack manual on my original Kindle would have been no better than on the new Kindle. The realization opened my eyes to a bad habit: I’m focusing on the tools again.

Let’s go back to music technology. How new your interface is has absolutely nothing to do with the music you create on it. Wouldn’t you rather have a five-year old audio interface than no audio interface? Among other things, it would mean that you’ve been producing work on it while your careful friend waits for the preamps to get just a little more transparent. Thinking about the next one down the line takes your eyes off the prize and will make your crazy. And there’s actually a paradox in updates: The only true hedge against obsolescence, the only sure way to make sure you buy only the latest model, is to make your purchase the day before you die.

Buy the best thing you can afford today, run it into the ground, and when you come up for air, look around to see what’s happened while you’ve been busy working. Isn’t it the best feeling in the world to be able to say, “I can’t upgrade my OS this weekend because I’m on a creative roll. No time to do anything but write.” This time the artist wins against Big Technology.

Jon Chappell ( is the author of six books in the well-known “For Dummies” series, including Rock Guitar for Dummies and Blues Guitar for Dummies, as well as The Recording Guitarist: A Guide for Home and Studio (Hal Leonard), Digital Home Recording (Backbeat Books), and Build Your Own PC Recording Studio (McGraw-Hill).

Proper Netiquette Is for Keeps

“Young man, if I catch you doing that, it will go on your permanent record.” Certainly these words were leveled at me (more than once) to try to make me behave by instilling the fear that my mischief-making would have lasting consequences. (I don’t think it worked, most of the time.) We know now that these threats are largely empty, as kids are protected by laws prohibiting disclosure of most youthful transgressions. But even if kids are shielded, real life on the Internet holds more perils of indelibility.

For example, comments you post on a forum can stick around for a long, long time. If your online identity is close to your real one, or if it’s thinly veiled enough to discover who you really are, you have to be very careful of what you say. But don’t misunderstand me: As one who does not separate his online identity from his real-life one, I can tell you that that is a good thing. You think real hard before you speak—just as we’ve learned to do with emails and talking to people face to face. My posts are better for it.

Too often people use aliases to behave badly on message and comments boards. If they had to use their real names, posters would be a lot more polite, for a start. An anonymous alias, as a device for non-face-to-face communication, is a recipe for bringing out the worst in some people. And it only takes a couple of bad apples to really stink up a barrel of forum posts.

Sometimes even good people post bad things. Case in point: A poster for a forum I administer contacted me in my admin capacity to change his screen name. The reason? The screen name was close to his email address, and he’d said some embarrassing things he didn’t want around in perpetuity, and tied to his email. He was sincere and apologetic, so I changed his name for him. On many forums, screen names are dynamic, so all posts created under someone’s old screen name will change to the new screen name. But what didn’t change were his words that were quoted by others. Those are static text strings that get “flattened” when someone copies or quotes another’s post. Screen names that are part of a quote stay intact. So this guy is going to have to live with his posts being held up as an example of bad behavior.

It’s a good lesson in taking responsibility for your actions and for the long term effect your words can have. The original idea of screen names is that they allowed you to assume an anonymous role—so you could travel cyberspace without worrying about being targeted for posting unpopular beliefs. It’s an almost fanciful notion—a sort of masked ball where different aliases all engage in uninhibited expression. That was the theory, anyway. But I’ve found it’s a short trip from masked ball to hooded mob. One of the advantages of Facebook is that you’re not anonymous. It encourages more civil behavior than you find on a forum. So the moral is, imagine people know who you are before you post. Avoid ad hominem attacks. Be constructive, helpful, and kind. And think before you post.

Multi-tasking . . . or Multi-taxing?

Everyone thinks that multi-tasking is a good thing—or at least a necessary skill worth mastering for these modern times. Well, just because we’re forced into multi-tasking for work and home life doesn’t mean it’s healthy. Witness texting while driving: That’s multi-tasking, and that’s clearly an unsafe, bad, illegal thing to do. Many experts argue that simply talking on a cell phone in a car is dangerous, and that the whole “hands-free” loophole doesn’t really address the basic problem—that dividing your concentration ultimately makes you less successful at either activity.

It’s proven more and more that humans don’t process in parallel, and the best they can do is serial processing quickly, and they’re not even really good at that. We are, as a species, uni-taskers. Or at least we’re at our best when uni-tasking. Think of all the great feats of human achievement in sports and inspired musical performances. From pitching a perfect game to playing a flawless version of the Minute Waltz, what’s the common ingredient? Focus!

Those of us who work creatively should take note of the basic lesson of texting-while-driving and apply it to our own pursuits. If you have Facebook, Twitter, Skype, and Instant Messenger open—plus a beep and a little window that appears whenever a new email arrives—are you really going to be able to concentrate on a demanding problem? Not likely. Because the sad fact is, you use these little interruptions as an excuse to break away from the difficult tasks that face you. These tasks don’t even really have to be that odious or unattractive; even if they’re just a little taxing, you find ways to avoid them.

Even very-accomplished, mega-prolific sorts deal with the same productivity-soaks that us mere mortals do. For example, best-selling author Jonathan Franzen has rigged his computer that it can’t get on the internet. How? By gluing an Ethernet cable into the port of his laptop, and then cutting off the end. Glue? Yes, glue. That’s how serious (or weak-willed) he was. And this is a guy who clearly has discipline and makes millions through writing—and finishing—long books. So if that’s what it takes for him, wouldn’t you do the same thing?

Now, you don’t actually have to go through the process of permanently destroying a part of your computer to achieve isolation (though you have to admire Franzen’s commitment). You can simply disable the networking. A program called Freedom (ironically, the name of Franzen’s latest novel) will disable your computer’s ethernet and wireless functions for up to three hours at a time. The only way to get them back is to reboot. By the time you’re doing that, hopefully you’ll catch yourself and stop. You might think that buying a separate program to help you with your vow of social-networking silence is gimmicky, but consider that the real danger in online distractions is how insidious they are: you go to them without even realizing it! So any help here is worth serious attention.

Many productivity specialists tell us to just cut out the multi-tasking. Some refer to it as “chunk time”—where you’re “allowed” to do only one thing during certain hours of the day: compose, practice your axe, or manipulate loops, but not do email, answer the phone, or check Facebook and Twitter. Other “attention management consultants” (this is a real term) will tell you to create separate stations for separate tasks. I practice this at home: Even though I use a computer for music creation as well as online surfing, word processing, and Photoshop, I keep the music separate. It’s the most important thing I do, so it gets the better environment (my man-cave/studio as opposed to my family-shared office) and the better machine (my new Mac vs. my old PC).

This helps me focus my attentions on music—at least when I’m in the music space. The trouble is, I can’t quite bear to turn off the internet yet on the music computer. But at least I am more aware that when I’m in the music space, I shouldn’t be Facebooking. Perhaps I will install Freedom on that machine. That seems a better solution than injecting glue into the ports. Or maybe I’m just not dedicated enough. How far would you go—if it meant you could be really productive?