Coronavirus and the Culture Industry

These are difficult times for everyone. For some, the worry is that they will get sick and perhaps die of this new plague. For others, it is that they may lose their livelihoods. As stores, restaurants, and bars close around the world, the people working in those businesses may have no protection, no sick pay; or if they do have sick pay, it’s not enough to live on. Here in the UK, “statutory sick pay” is £94 a week.

This is especially tough for creative professionals: musicians, actors, and anyone involved in the production of live performances. By their very nature, these performances are now hazardous, and countries have started cancelling them. In New York, Broadway is shut down; in the UK, individual theaters are starting to close, and it won’t be long before they are all shuttered. (It actually seems irresponsible now that they haven’t all closed.) The performers and staff will have no work, and in general, these performers, eking out a precarious existence even in the best of times, will have little or no support from their governments. When I was living in New York City, I knew some actors who worked in restaurants in between acting gigs, but even that possibility is disappearing. As for musicians who make their living on the road, they’ll have to take a long hiatus. (Obviously, A-list performers will be fine; but it’s the other 99$% who face difficulty.)

But even when this plague winds down – as I hope it eventually will – it may take some time for people to go back to the theaters, the bars, and the concert halls. Unless we can be certain that we have immunity from the disease, it won’t be safe to be in enclosed spaces. I go to the theater in my neighboring Stratford-Upon-Avon regularly, and the average age of the audience aligns with those most at risk from the coronavirus. I can’t imagine them rushing to go back to the theater. Even at the best of times, there are plenty of people coughing in the theater, and you always here this at classical concerts when people try to hold back their coughing until between movements. Sitting there for a couple of hours, listening to that, would be stressful now, and even after things cool off.

So the only thing we can do, if we can afford it, is try to help support these creative professionals. For musicians, you can buy their music, if possible directly from artists. It’s a lot harder to support actors and musicians who are members of an orchestra. I have no solution for this, but we need to ensure that when we get through this crisis, our culture still exists.

Stay safe.

Coronavirus quarantine 5​-​hour playlist #1 from Another Timbre

Simon Reynell, of Another Timbre, a great little British label of avant-garde music, posted this on Facebook:

I’ve just uploaded to Bandcamp a 5-hour ‘coronavirus’ playlist of recent pieces from Another Timbre. It’s for everyone, but particularly for those who are self-isolating or in quaratine. Free streaming, or you can buy downloads of individual tracks – and I’ll pass the money straight on to the principal musicians involved, many of whom will be facing tough times for the next few months. Featuring pieces by Magnus Granberg, Linda Catlin Smith, Cassandra Miller, Morton Feldman, Ryoko Akama, Adrián Demoč, Jürg Frey, Tse Trio + Angharad Davies, Catherine Lamb, Federico Pozzer & Frank Denyer. There will be other playlists uploaded as the pandemic continues.

You can stream the playlist for free, or buy it for £40.

We spoke with Simon on The Next Track in Episode #155, and interview pianist Philip Thomas, who plays the 90-minute Morton Feldman work Triadic Memories, in Episode #161.

The PhotoActive Podcast, Episode #63: Sharing Photos

Photos are meant to be shared, but with digital photos the options multiply. In this episode, Kirk McElhearn and Jeff Carlson look at several ways to share photos with friends and family.

Find out more, and subscribe to the podcast, at the PhotoActive website. You can follow The PhotoActive on Twitter at @PhotoActiveCast to keep up to date with new episodes, and join our Facebook group to chat with other listeners and participate in photo challenges and more.

Intego Mac Podcast, Episode #126: The History of Apple Malware, with Guest John McAfee

Malware has affected Apple computers since even before the release of the Macintosh. In fact, the very first computer virus that spread in the wild affected the Apple II. We discus the history of Apple malware, and we talk with John McAfee, creator of the first commercial antivirus, about how he created the software.

Check out the latest episode of The Intego Mac Podcast, which I co-host with Josh Long. We talk about Macs and iOS devices, and how to keep them secure.

The Next Track, Episode #171 – Vintage Audio Gear

While there are lots of reasons to opt for minimal audio equipment, for some people there is an enduring allure for vintage stereo amps and receivers from the hi-fi heydays of the 1970s. The time when audio gear had knobs and dials and VU meters, like the fins and grilles on 1950s cars. We discuss our lust for those baroque audio devices of yore.

Find out more at The Next Track website, or follow The Next Track on Twitter at @NextTrackCast.

Sonos Really Sucks at Communication

Sonos has again gone back on a controversial decision they made, but this time it’s too late for a lot of people.

Late last year, Sonos announced a “Trade Up program,” whereby people with certain older devices could trade them in for a 30% discount. They wouldn’t physically send them to Sonos, who didn’t want to be bothered recycling them; they would be responsible for recycling them themselves. And they couldn’t keep them, because they would be bricked after 21 days.

The company was roundly criticized for creating e-waste. The goal, which we didn’t know at the time, was to get customers to upgrade from devices that would later be classified as “obsolete,” and that wouldn’t receive software updates.

Well, the company has changed their tune on both of these controversial moves. First, they walked back the original claim about obsolete devices, saying now that they will find a way for them to still be used, and that they are changing the policy of bricking older devices, according to The Verge.

In this case, you’ll get the 30% discount, and your older device will still work. So you can recycle it if you wish, or, I’m sure many people will keep the older devices, or give them away. Some may also sell them, and if you think that you can buy an older Sonos device cheaply, then use it to get the 30% discount on a newer device, be careful. I’m sure the company is keeping track of the serial numbers of devices used for the discount. It’s worth noting that Sonos’ support document about recycle mode does not yet specify this change.

I feel bad for Sonos. They had a great reputation in audio and tech circles, and they’ve blown it by not thinking carefully about what they should have known were two controversial decisions. They should hire some PR people to help them not make similar mistakes again.

Intego Mac Podcast, Episode 125: RSA Conference 2020 Highlights

Josh attended this year’s RSA Conference, one of the big meet-ups about computer security, and discusses what he learned there. We also cover news about smart speakers listening to your conversations (again), a copy/paste issue that Apple says isn’t a big deal, and a new limitation by Safari for HTTPS certificates, that will affect some websites.

Check out the latest episode of The Intego Mac Podcast, which I co-host with Josh Long. We talk about Macs and iOS devices, and how to keep them secure.

What if Apple Delays the iPhone 12?

Major events continue to be cancelled around the world, due to the Covid-19 coronavirus outbreak. The first major event was the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, scheduled to be held in late February. Since then, Google and Facebook announced the cancellation of their developer conferences, and other smaller events have been cancelled as well. Yesterday, the London Book Fair was cancelled. And today, the news says that both Apple and Netflix have pulled out of SXSW, the annual everything festival in Austin, Texas, due to start in about a week.

Sporting events have been cancelled, some will be played in empty stadiums, or “behind closed doors,” and it seems unlikely that the Summer Olympics, scheduled to be held on Tokyo, will not either be cancelled or played without spectators.

Apple’s cancellation of their presence at SXSW, where the company was planning to highlight some new Apple TV+ programming, suggests that the company is already planning to cancel their Worldwide Developer Conference in June, though it’s possible, even likely, that the conference goes on, but as a virtual event. Many developers I know have said that they would regret this, because one of the benefits of the San Francisco meet-up is networking with other developers, and the ability to speak with Apple engineers face to face.

The next question is whether Apple will delay the iPhone 12, and whether other companies will push back release of new devices planned for later this year.

Here in the UK, preparation for the pandemic is moving ahead slowly and methodically, without any panic or seeming confusion at the head of government (in stark contrast to a certain country, where it seems that the disease is thought of, at the highest levels, as a “hoax”). This morning, the head of Public Health England was speaking to a parliamentary committee, suggested that the epidemic in this country would last about six months: two to three months as it ramps up, and another two to three months as it winds down. This is assuming that there are not multiple waves of the illness, of course.

With this in mind, and with China most likely not out of the woods, Apple, and other tech companies, will face two problems. The first is their supply chain. Being so heavily dependent on China for manufacturing – in retrospect, people will point out how foolish this eggs-in-one-basket strategy was – it may be impossible for Apple to have enough devices built to meet potential demand. If any one component cannot be sourced in sufficient quantities, phones, computers, or tablets cannot be finished. And the logistics of shipping devices may be complicated if a lot of workers in different countries are off sick.

And as far as consumers are concerned, if people do stay off from work for several weeks, the economy will take a big hit, and it’s likely that many people won’t be able to afford new iPhones at the end of the year, whether they upgrade annually or every two or three years.

As for the Apple upgrade program, which I have used for the past two iPhone models, here in the UK – unlike in the US – you have to go to an Apple store to hand in your old phone and sign up for a new one. If there is an epidemic, there’s no way I’m going to a crowded Apple store in a closed mall to exchange my phone. I’ll continue to pay for the same model until I’ve paid it off in full. Perhaps they’d change that this year – after all, Apple has just closed some stores in Italy, and they certainly don’t want to put their retail employees at risk.

So what if Apple does delay the iPhone 12? I’ve long felt that the annual upgrade cycle for mobile phones is artificial and unnecessary. In the early days, there were big changes from model to model, but now we see tiny incremental changes, mostly affecting the devices’ cameras. What if Apple decided to move to a two-year cycle, starting with the next model? It would certainly change their revenue model, but would it be that negative? They’d have more time to get things right in their operating systems; while macOS and iOS don’t need to be tied to this annual cycle, they are, causing a lot of frustration when new features don’t work well and when new releases are full of bugs.

Apple’s stock would probably take a hit, but it’s shot up so much recently that I think the market would be fine with a more restrained rate of return. Over the past year, before the coronavirus effect, it had nearly doubled. But this could also be a more responsible way to sell these devices: it would cause less exploitation of mineral deposits, result in less waste, and make the company think differently about responsibly selling electronic devices in an era when we need to pull back due to climate change. If there’s one company who could lead in this area, it’s Apple; in part because they want to be a socially responsible company, and in part because they can afford it.

Delaying the iPhone 12 – and perhaps some other device upgrades – could be a reasonable way to face the pandemic that is upon us, and a responsible way to plan for the future.

How Hi-Fi Magazines Write about Cables, Part 24: Ethernet

So here we are again, with yet another magical hardware device to make music sound better. This one is an Ethernet switch; it’s what you use to, for example, connect to a router then connect a bunch of Ethernet cables, with then connect to other devices. They could be computers, wi-fi access points, other switches, or even audio equipment. Some receivers and amplifiers have Ethernet jacks to received digital audio.

First, a brief primer about Ethernet. It’s a technology used to send data over cables, and most networking uses TCP/IP, very robust protocol that has been around for decades, and has been standardized. It is what runs the internet and most networking. A Wikipedia article explains the main element of Ethernet that makes it so robust:

Systems communicating over Ethernet divide a stream of data into shorter pieces called frames. Each frame contains source and destination addresses, and error-checking data so that damaged frames can be detected and discarded; most often, higher-layer protocols trigger retransmission of lost frames.

The bit about error-checking data and retransmission of frames is what’s important. You see, unlike analog data – think of an old TV where you get your signal over the air, and there can be static – each frame, or unit of data, which can be from 64 bytes to 1518 bytes, is checksummed before it is sent, then after it is received. If the checksums don’t match, the frames are resent.

This is very important. Let’s say you’re reading this article on a computer connected via Ethernet to your router. Upstream from there, the router gets data from a series of network devices, from your local exchange, from other switches, finally from the original server sending you data. If data correction is not used, it’s possible that some data gets corrupted during transmission, and you might lose some of it, or some might be garbled. In which case, you would be reading some random sequence of characters instead of what I’ve written; or some of the words and sentences would be missing.

So think about how that works with music. When you send music from a server – be it Apple Music, Spotify, or your own computer – it is sent the same way. Your hardware devices don’t know that it’s music; they only know that it’s frames of data that has to perfectly match what was sent. If not, it is resent. This happens very quickly, and data is buffered to allow for resent frames to catch up and be correctly reassembled. I’m simplifying a bit, but you can be certain that, with working hardware, the data sent is exactly the same as the data received.

Anyway, back to our hardware hawker. According to the venerable What-HiFi:

The Chord Company has relaunched a Great British brand to front its audio electronics business, English Electric, and has demoed its first product – a hi-fi grade network switch.

Beyond the question of whether this product serves any purpose, this company is capitalizing on a recent trend in the UK, among a certain demographic, of wanting “great British brands,” and “blue passports.” (Search the term “gammon” on Google.)

So, what is this device?

English Electric announced the device at the Bristol Hi-Fi Show with claims that the English Electric 8switch can act as a filter for streamed audio to remove unwanted noise which regular computer industry-made switches and routers never consider.

Let’s highlight the magical thinking above:

unwanted noise which regular computer industry-made switches and routers never consider

They are saying that there is “unwanted noise” on network hardware, and that “regular computer industry-made switches and routers never consider.” Let’s think about this. When Netflix streams 4K video, do you think they “never consider” “unwanted noise?” Or that banks, for example, don’t care about noise that could cause data loss or corruption?

Actually, they don’t, because it doesn’t exist. Ethernet, and the protocols it uses, don’t have “noise.” They have 1s and 0s, and error checking, and retransmission, to ensure that the data sent matches the data received. It’s true that you can have cables that malfunction; when that happens, they simply don’t work, because there are too many errors to correct. (You can see this if you ever have a bad HDMI cable; it’s a mess, with lots of artifacts and pixelation.)

But, says the magazine:

The 8switch will come with its own unique power supply and feature better separation with the idea of “making nastier sounding tracks better”.

Now this is something different. Not the bit about “making nastier sounding tracks better,” which is just marketing copy written by someone who didn’t attend much school, but having it’s own “unique power supply” could make a difference to noise; at least the noise that you hear if you put your ear really close to the device. Because while a bad power supply could create a hum, or ground loop, in an amplifier, it will not do anything to an Ethernet switch. If the power works, the data is sent and received. It doesn’t matter if there’s a hum, or if the power is “dirty” as people in the audio fantasyland like to say. If the cables aren’t broken, the data is sent correctly. If the cables are broken, then there’s too many frames that aren’t received correctly, and data won’t flow. It’s not like data comes through looking like this:

Gur 8fjvgpu jvyy pbzr jvgu vgf bja havdhr cbjre fhccyl naq srngher orggre frcnengvba jvgu gur vqrn bs “znxvat anfgvre fbhaqvat genpxf orggre”.

Oh, and it costs £400. You can get an 8-port Ethernet switch for about £21 on Amazon.

But back to the brand. This is, apparently, a truly great British brand:

English Electric was originally founded in 1918 in the armistice of the First World War by amalgamating five companies which had been used in the war effort to manufacture munitions, armaments and aeroplanes. It became defunct in 1968 after some notable successes including the English Electric trains and the supersonic English Electric Lightning jet.

And as the article ends:

Expect to hear from English Electric later in the year.

I shall hold my breath.