Category Archives: Technology

Baggage Fees and the Decline of Free Hotel Wi-Fi

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I’m in Las Vegas attending the National Association of Broadcasters show–easily the most informative trade show I attend each year. It’s an unparalleled exhibition of cutting-edge gear for making all things audio and video-related, and I inevitably return with a bad case of lust for something that has at least three more zeroes in the price than the Bickford family budget can absorb without a lot of hard thinking.

That said, NAB’s always an amazing place to learn tricks from people who make multi-million dollar feature films, which can be applied to things as commonplace as tightening up that horrific color cast in our in-house ComicBase barcode scanner commercial of a few years back. (In an otherwise smooth production, I unthinkingly bounced a light off our orange front office walls, giving everyone on screen the look of having just returned from getting a really cheap spray-tan). On the plus side, my tangerine-toned complexion in the video did teach me both a valuable lesson about lighting, and to appreciate the need for accurate camera monitors.

If you haven’t visited Vegas in a while, it’ll likely come as an unpleasant shock that one of life’s great pleasures for the common man–free valet parking at strip casinos–is basically a thing of the past. Free valet parking was once the great meeting of ostentatious casino hospitality and gambler gullibility, letting even the station-wagon-driving dad feel like a king for a brief moment as he passed the keys to the hotel valet in front of Caesars like a bona-fide high roller. At the same time, it set up a “quid pro quo” that encouraged the punters to repay the gesture by risking some of the kid’s college fund inside at the tables.

For over a decade of periodic visits to Vegas, I’d “pay” for my free valet parking by ritually playing $20 win-or-lose on the nearest blackjack table wherever a casino was kind enough to park me for free.  (And of course remember to tip the valet!). But those days, like so many other fine traditions that occasionally made the world of the everyman just a little wonderful, are now gone and buried.

It was a matter of great local scandal two years ago when the heads of MGM resorts decided to do with parking on their strip casinos (both valet and self-park) what airlines had done years earlier with baggage, booking, and countless other fees. I’d spared a hope at the time that casino patrons would rebel in sufficient numbers to cause the big resort chains to back down, but sadly no such revolt took place, and now an industry whose entire basis is to not encourage you to keep close tabs on your money has fully embraced the sort of nickel-and-diming that makes airfares such a labyrinth today.

In booking this year’s NAB trip, I also noticed that the ever-increasing “resort fee” (typically $15-25/day) tacked onto almost all hotel rentals in Vegas now no longer covers wi-fi at a growing number of hotels. This caused me to eschew my old strip favorites for the trip, as the resort, internet, parking, and other fees often more than doubled the stated price of the room.

So this time in town, I explicitly decided to pay a bit more for both the room and the resort fee to stay off the strip at a place explicitly offering free parking and wi-fi. But, like so much in Vegas, there’s a catch even to that: The free in-room wi-fi is limited to two devices per room, and it’s throttled  so hard that it’s useful for little other than email.

Interestingly, the wi-fi down by the hotel fitness center was performing respectably enough to actually let me stream an episode of Lost while working out on the treadmill. But the same episode from my room was soon choked down to modem-like speeds despite showing 5 bars of coverage. Helpfully, the hotel also offers an “expanded” wi-fi option for $5.99/device which promises to perhaps even bring the in-room wi-fi up to the speeds offered by your average Motel 6 in Des Moines, Iowa, but I’m avoiding it for now.

As I type this, I’m a few blocks away at the local Starbucks on Los Vegas Blvd, pulling down a respectable 3 MB download speed, even when shared by the other two dozen coffee-swilling denizens of the joint at 8pm at night.

As the man said: “TANSTAAFL”: There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch. And this goes for everything else in life, including wi-fi. So take this missive as a free travel tip to always check the fine-print on your hotel booking, and even then be ready to roll with the punches.

But if you do need to find a good place to sync your Dropbox when you’re on the road, the local Starbucks might just be able to hook you up for the price of a Tall Skinny Blonde Mocha. And that’s not half bad.

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Farewell, Facebook? (or “Back to the Blog”)

When I moved to Nashville a little over a year ago, I warned friends that I was simultaneously going to use the move as an excuse to do a fade from social media like Facebook.

The reason? Facebook had changed–or maybe the people using it had changed–since I first started using it a decade earlier. What was once like a friendly bunch of water-cooler chit-chat had become increasingly strident and nasty, and less and less of it was about the goings-on in my friend’s actual lives, and more and more an exercise in either virtue-signalling (my nomination for the Official Narcotic of the New Millennium), or punching at shadows for the Outrage of the Day.

We were being manipulated, and we should have known it. It was pitting friends against friends, while looting mountains of data about our lives, attitudes, physical locations, and relationships. And increasingly, I was beginning to notice that I felt worse about my life and the people in it after I launched the Facebook application than before.

Facebook: Our Own Private Iago

My best guess as to what’s going wrong? It’s that we’ve become a generation of addicts to the dopamine rush we get when our friends signal their social approval to something we’ve done with the various “Like”s, comments, or retweets.

More, changes to Facebook’s algorithms now hide all but the most active engagements from your timeline. This slight change in the mechanics of the system had an enormous effect: encouraging incrementally more strident and over-the-top position-taking, ratcheting up the reactions of those who identify with your positions, and making invisible anyone in your life who does not feel as strongly. The lack of visibility of everyone but those who agree or disagree strongly with you then becomes a social cue that your more strident position-taking is normal, and the ratchet continues until all subtlety of discussion is lost. Suddenly, friends who agree with each other on 95% of all issues suddenly feel like blood enemies over small differences we’ve ourselves magnified to huge size.

Pocket-sized Big Brother

More recently, it’s becoming increasingly obvious how very much spying these social networks are doing on your every activity. Want a scare in your life? Go to Facebook’s Settings > General page, and click the little blue link at the bottom to request a download of all the data Facebook (admits) it has on you. The KGB and Stasi never dreamed of having this kind of tracking data that we’ve all willingly given up to Facebook, including our every movement, our relationships, beliefs, and tastes in everything from music to dishwashers.

Similarly, Google and Apple keep location maps of everywhere your phone travels, logging your every movement since your first booted up your iPhone or Android phone and let it enable Location Services.

Used Google Maps to find your way to the mall yesterday? Google remembers where you went, when you left, and whether you were speeding along the way. Asked your Amazon or Google smart speaker for anything? Your every word is now stored on their servers. It’s truly shocking how many moments of our life are being monitored. And increasingly, all these companies are willing to use all this data to do more than just sell you products.

Google already actively skews search results to put forward points of view it believes are more acceptable, even if they’re objectively less relevant and even overtly propagandistic in nature. Politically incorrect YouTube channels are being demonetized on a massive scale; Twitter has been stripping hundreds of thousands of followers from people they find objectionable; and Facebook is increasingly hiding or “correcting” news items they disagree with.

Recently, Facebook has been getting a lot of negative attention for helping facilitate the mining of personality and political data on tens of millions of people during the past election, but was actually celebrated when such mining helped a different candidate the election before. The real trouble is that all of these companies have so very much data about our personal lives, and we let them have it. This was bad when they behaved like disinterested utilities, but it’s now clear they’re willing to take sides, and there seem to be less and less restraints on using what they know about you to get results they want.

Back to the Blog

I’m still piecing my opinions together on all this (which is part of why I’m writing this blog entry–to write is to think, after all). That said, I think I’m going to be quite a bit more circumspect in my use of Facebook and other social media for the foreseeable future.

To all my friends who last saw me on Facebook (where this blog entry automatically cross-posts), please don’t take my lack of activity on the site as a sign that I don’t still love you all. I’m just becoming increasingly convinced that Facebook itself is a friend I don’t want to share many confidences with. I’ve deleted the app off all my mobile devices (this is where much of the spying comes from), and will likely be using the Facebook website more infrequently, and yes, more for business than personal reasons.

I’ll likely be reviving this blog for sharing thoughts on matters of more personal concern (such as this). If I write something you want to comment on, I’d encourage you to use the blog’s comment feature, or message me directly–I may not see comments you post to Facebook. And as always, feel free to contact me via email, phone, or text — my contact info’s right on the Contact Me page at pbickford.wordpress.com.

 

The Analog Studio Fire Sale

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When our house in San Jose didn’t immediately sell when we put in on the market, I decided to take the heartbreaking step of demolishing the 3-room recording studio I’d painstakingly built in my garage, restoring it to a plain-old two-car garage. Whether due to chance, or (I prefer to think) since it opened up my home as a potential purchase to folks who had no idea what they’d do with a recording studio, the home sold soon afterward.

Although Carolyn and I definitely worked hard to cull the herd of our possessions before making the move to our new home near Nashville, most of my former studio gear made the trip–even though I don’t have a studio in the new house. As I try to piece together my new office and work area, however, I’m starting to think that I made a mistake in hauling most of the analog studio gear across the country.

Starting tomorrow, everything from my treasured 32-channel Mackie mixing board, to my vintage Kawaii R-100 drum machine, to a rack full of effects processors is going up on eBay. And my old studio furniture–custom-designed for my control room–is heading for the dump. The mere thought of doing this is killing me, but I’m increasingly convinced it has to be done.

Music Gear vs. Technology: Fight!

Whereas classic instruments and microphones can hold or even increase in value over time, the same is almost never true of electronics. Many a musician gets a thrill playing with the controls of an original Linn drum machine, or listening to unforgettable sounds of a Roland D-50 or Korg M1 synthesizer. But now, modern musicians can simply load up the sounds and characteristics of these old pieces of gear into their DAW (digital audio workstation) instead of maintaining a private museum of vintage gear.

My rackmounted effect units weathered the test of time even less well. The effect processing powers have improved massively in the past many years, to the point where even famous effects–e.g. a Lexicon reverb–can no longer compete with the algorithms and processing that powers a modern computer-based DAW.

Perhaps more to the point, my analog effect units are starting to no longer fit into the modern recording process.

Most older rackmount effect units typically processed analog signals (such as the input from a microphone or guitar), giving out an altered signal (i.e. adding reverb) over the rack effect’s (analog) outputs. If you wanted multiple effect processing on a signal–e.g. adding a delay, some reverb, and a chorus effect to a guitar tone, mixing it in with the bass and drums, then routing the result a compressor to smooth out the dynamics of the resulting mix–you’d accomplish all this by patching the whole signal chain through numerous effect units, effects returns, and submixes, adding a little bit of distortion each time the signal had to be converted between analog and digital.

In the modern world, once a signal is digitized, it’s typically processed entirely in the digital realm, where it’s immune to the noise that comes with analog combining, as well as multiple trips between the analog and digital worlds. Instead of chaining together several rack units using patch cables, a DAW lets you create a virtual patch bay allows the musician to chain together as many digital effects as they want, while keeping the resultant output entirely digital–right up to the time it’s mixed, mastered, and pressed on CD or distributed over the internet.

In a world where you can do all this digitally, why use analog effect units at all? Possibly the best reason comes down to the ease of doing a simple effects chain by just plugging in cables and twisting knobs. But when sound quality is critical, or the effects chain gets complex, digital wins hands down. My old rackmount effects have some good tricks up their sleeve, but at some point they become John Henry working against an infinite number of steam shovels.

In a new home, without a dedicated performance room and control room, I’ve got to be able to do the entire recording and performance job in a relatively compact space. Switching entirely to a digital recording chain just seems to make the most sense at this point, even though I’ll definitely miss the immediacy and tactility of working with dedicated sound and effect units vs. the rather abstract nature of a DAW.

So, it’s with real sadness that I’m preparing to bid farewell with what are truly some of my most cherished possessions. If you’re the sort of person who loves classic gear, check out eBay in the weeks ahead for some real bargains.

 

Selling Revolution? Not on Google!

I’ve spent large portions of the past few weeks working with Google’s product feeds–the big data files which provide them with the various items that appear under Google Shopping.

(Fun Fact: Everything you see under both Google Shopping and Bing’s Product listings are paid ads–neither service will show items which don’t directly kick back money for the click to the search company in question. This is why the shopping results seem much more limited in their results than the corresponding web searches).

A less fun fact is that Google has extensive algorithms for blocking content that “violates their system policies”. Since I’ve been attempting to upload simple lists of all the comics for sale on Atomic Avenue, it’s been interesting to say the least to discover what title names qualify instantly for blocking (in most cases, apparently immune to any sort of human review–not that we haven’t spent numerous hours begging for just that. The repeated answer is always that we have no choice but to remove the “offensive” material”).

Google refuses to explicitly confirm their algorithms for filtering, but after hand-reconciling the banned items from the more than 1.6 million comics we are attempting to list, I can say with some confidence that these are some of the low-lights of their often ludicrously broad–I’d go so far as to say “utterly defective”) algorithm:

  • Ridiculously, Google treats as offensive any comic title containing the word “Black“. (E.g. “The Black Knight“, “Black Ops“, “Black Panther“, “Black Widow“, “Batman: Blackgate“, etc.)
  • Same story for a variety of miscellaneous “angry” nouns: “Rage“, “Malice“, etc. Several issues of The Avengers, for instance, have been rejected since they include appearances by a character named “Rage“.
  • Sword and sorcery titles may be huge, but they’ll apparently have to get by on the sorcery alone. Any title containing the word “Sword” (e.g. “Savage Sword of Conan“), “Dagger” (e.g. “Cloak & Dagger“) is denied. Same thing goes with “Gun” and “Rifle“–even “Mace” (Sorry Mace Windu!).
  • Google seems to have a fear of books or products which mention armed combat. “Revolution” is consistently banned, as is “Uprising“. (Goodbye Marvel crossover events, as well as science-fiction titles). “Frontline Combat“, the classic E.C. war series also can’t be posted.
  • Muse” and “Pandora“? They’re not just bitchin’ female comic characters–apparently they’re also now the names of prescription meds and are automatically banned from posting (although apparently you can file an appeal to have these reconsidered).
  • Mental issues seem to be a touchy subject: Bedlam is banned, as is all mention of the Watchmen character Rorshach.
  • And then there are the weird, and strangely ominous ones. for instance, “Sentinel” is an automatic disapproval, whether it refers to the Marvel robots, the English sci-fi mag, or Captain America: Sentinel of Liberty. All banned.

It’s too early to say whether Microsoft (Bing/Yahoo) shares this similar–and rather odd, to say the least–set of exclusionary rules. I’ll update the post once I know how I do going through their catalog process.

As a postscript, Google has recently floated the idea of changing search rankings of news sites based on their deemed “truthfulness”.

It’s worth noting that this proposal for filtering the world’s news sites comes from the same folks who are currently banning the word “Black” from product names.