The Incomplete Turkey

No big surprise here: the number of viewers has remained constant for the past twenty years. Between 25 and 30 million people watch Macy’s Parade each year. Since there are just short of 300 million Americans, 1 in 10 Americans watches the Parade–9 out of 10 do not. This is a Great American Tradition, so I figured the numbers would be much higher. By comparison, last year’s Super Bowl (XLV) was the highest rated of all time–with 111 million viewers–more than 1 in 3 Americans.

For the whole Nielsen story, click here.

But wait! — Thats’ not the whole story! The oldest turkey feather in Nielsen’s graphic was 1991. What happened before 1991?

Turns out, the first parade coverage dates back to 1939, but that was experimental coverage by a then-experimental medium. In 1955, NBC started covering the parade (Nielsen’s turkey is missing 31 feathers, plus 2011).

I will contact Nielsen to solve the mystery of the missing feathers. Meantime, have a look at the small orange type just below Nielsen’s title (“Sum of Networks [NBC & CBS]…”) Turns out, the parade is a public event, so NBC’s rights have never been exclusive. CBS covers the parade without paying for rights. Over on ABC, there’s the Philadelphia parade, which has been on the air, locally, since 1966–it is also broadcast nationally, and claims bragging rights to the whole idea. It was Gimbels that invented the Thanksgiving Parade in 1920–before Macy’s glommed onto the idea four years later.


Siri, meet the family

The UK cover is more interesting than the US cover, which is, somewhat appropriately, covered with the repeated words "The Information."

James Gleick nearly won a Pulitzer Prize for a biography about Isaac Newton, and another about Richard Feynmann, a colorful physicist who pioneered nanotechnology and quantum mechanics. His best selling book (more than a million copies sold) is the step-by-step, scientist-by-scientist, idea-by idea story of chaos theory entitled Chaos: Making a New Science.

Gleick’s 2011 book is called The Information. it begins with the European discovery of African talking drums in the 1840s, a percussive idea he eventually connects to Samuel Morse’s dots-and-dashes telegraph code, and, we’re off on a long tale not unlike the best of James Burke’s TV series, Connections. Gleick takes us through the development of letters and alphabets, numbers and mathematics, numerical tables and algorithms, dictionaries and encyclopedias. These stories, and their many tangents, set us up for Charles Babbage whose boredom with the Cambridge curriculum in mathematics leads to an early, impossible-to-build, 25,000 piece machine, awesome in its analog, mechanical, Victorian design. This, then, leads to the further develop of the telegraph, now caught up in a new conception called a “network” that connected much of France, for example.

By the early 20th century, MIT becomes one of several institutions concerned with the training of electrical engineers–then, a new discipline–and with it, machinery to solve second-order differential equations (“rates of change within rates of change: from position to velocity to acceleration”). This, plus the logic associated with relay switches in telegraph networks, provides MIT graduate student Claude Shannon with his thesis idea: connecting electricity with logical interactions in a network. Shannon’s path leads to Bell Labs, where he works on the “transmission of intelligence.” By 1936, a 22-year old Cambridge graduate named Alan Turing had begun thinking about a machine that could compute.

Well, that’s about half the book. Now, things become more complex, harder to follow, dull for all but the most interested reader. The interweaving connects DNA and memes (and, inevitably, memetics, which is the study of memes), cybernetics and randomness, quantification of information, and Jorge Luis Borges’ 1941 conception of an ultimate library with “all books, in all languages, books of apology and prophecy, the gospel and commentary on that gospel, and commentary upon the commentary upon the gospel…”

Eventually we obsolete CD-ROMs (too much information, too little space), and create Wikipedia and the whole of the Internet. In the global googleplex, the term “information overload” becomes inadequate. And yet, Gleick promises, it is not the quantity that matters, it is the meaning that matters. After 420 pages of historical text, I’m still wondering what it all means–and whether the purpose is mere conveyance as opposed to deeper meaning or its hopeful result, understanding.

Bagging It

This was the year I bought an iPad and my wife bought a Kindle. Then, we went shopping, each of us in search of a slim, durable, protective case. Function matters more than fashion. Each device would require a snug fit. I needed something weather-resistant because I planned to carry the iPad to meetings, with or without an outer bag or case. To save on shipping, we tried to find one company to serve our needs.

After visiting a handful of retail stores, we visited a dozen websites. We found a great little company called SF Bags. We were impressed by Gary, the owner, who appeared in videos to explain each of his products. There were eight entirely unique iPad solutions, and the same number of Kindle solutions. Mostly, they were the same designs, each customized for the iPad, Kindle, the 11-inch Mac Air, the 13-inch Mac Air, and a lot of other portable devices, including videogames and digital cameras.

For her Kindle, my wife decided upon the red Slip Case for Kindle; there were five other color options. It cost $27.

I chose the Ultimate Sleeve Case for iPad2 in the vertical format (horizontal is pictured) with checkered “lead iridium” ($55) instead of brown leather trim ($60). I was smart enough to order it with small d-rungs, but not smart enough to order the Suspension Strap Mini ($22) or the Vertical Mini-Pouch ($25) first time around. now, use the three items together, in place of a backpack or shoulder bag, as a slim kit for iPad2, wallet, iPhone, earpiece, keys and a small pad and pen.

I also picked up a protective case for my wireless Bluetooth keyboard.

SF Bags offers a remarkable selection of well-designed, well-made solutions for lots of portable products. Their designs include well-thought-out features like slash pockets in just the right places, small inside pockets that snuggly protect iPhones and other devices, and other features that speak to the intelligence of their planning and product development. SF Bags seems to be meticulous In its manufacturing and quality control. (Isn’t it great when a small company exceeds expectations?)

My wife is happy with her Kindle slip case. I bought my iPad kit for function, but often find myself answering questions about where I found my bag. Now, you know.

Here's the horizontal bag with the mini-pouch attached. The inside of the pouch is lined with soft neoprene.


Picture from Bureau of Labor Statistics job outlook for teachers. Their caption: "Teachers play an important role in fostering the intellectual and social development of children."

The next industry that could be decimated by technology: teaching.

Will Richardson thinks, writes and teaches others about the use of technology in education. In this blog posting, Will responds to a rosy Wall Street Journal article about the online learning business.

The ‘yikes’ part: “In Idaho, Alan Dunn, superintendent of the Sugar-Salem School District, says that he may cut entire departments and outsource their courses to online providers. “It’s not ideal,” he says. “But Idaho is in a budget crisis, and this is a creative solution.”

Please read Will’s post.

FOLLOWUP: When I spoke with my father about Will’s post, he told me an interesting story about two of his teachers. I suggested that he write the story as a brief essay, and submit it to Will. He did, and Will published it.

Extremely Long Player

1980s: I’m buying lots of LPs.

1990s: I’m buying lots of CDs.

2000s: I’m downloading lots of music files.

2010s: I’m buying lots of LPs.

What’s going on? As record companies contemplate the end of CD production, LPs are gaining popularity. TIME magazine caught the trend early, but failed to mention activity in vast used LP stores (separate blog post, in the works).

For newcomers, or those whose memory was fogged by digital d-rays, here’s what you need to know…

You need a turntable, a tone arm, a cartridge, a stylus, some cables, a phono per-amp, an amplifier, more cables, and loudspeakers. Back in the day, all of this stuff was combined in a “record player.”

Here in 2011-12, it’s more complicated–and that’s without the USB connection to your computer.

One popular, convenient choice is Audio-Technica’s PL-120, available for about $300. It includes everything you need except the amp and speakers. And, you can connect it to your computer to create digital versions of your LPs.

Rega's RP1 Turntable, an audiophile choice.

If you’re willing to invest more money for better sound, the audiophile choice is Rega’s RP-1, which includes a superior tone arm, a better drive system (to spin the platter) and other features that contribute to a cleaner, more focused presentation. The cartridge (which typically includes the stylus) is an accessory–each cartridge design possesses unique sonic characteristics–is a separate purchase. Rega’s RP1 accessory kit costs an additional $200, and includes Rega’s Bias 2 cartridge and several useful accessories.

Audio-Technica's all-in-one, lower-priced USB turntable.

Better would be another favorite cartridge, Audio-Technica’s ML-440. With turntable, tone arm and cartridge in place, you need a phono preamp. At about $150, one good choice is Music Hall’s PA 1.2. I leave the choice of amplifier and loudspeakers to you–the old system stored in your basement or found in a good used stereo shop will be just fine. is an online store specializing in audiophile equipment, but a local dealer may provide both friendly advice and a place to listen before you buy.

How about a used turntable? Maybe from a reliable high-end dealer, but not from some random eBay source. Used cartridge? I wouldn’t do that. Instead, I would opt for the all-in-one Audio-Technica PL-120. But first, learn from:

Jerry Raskin’s Needle Doctor, which sells all sorts of cool stuff, not just needles!

Audio Advisor

Music Direct

1 in 25 Work as Creative Pros

Above, an elegant way to think about the global creative economy, as presented in a 400+ page United Nations report.

1 in 25 people–that’s the revised figure for 2010–work in creative industries in the U.S. More than doctors, lawyers, even accountants. Industry sectors above, details below.

In the United States, roughly 150 million people work full-time. Six million of us work in creative professions. We’re writers and performers; musicians and visual artists; marketers and strategists; architects and specialists who invent, improve, or bring ideas to life. In total, more people work as creative professionals in the U.S. than doctors (700,000), lawyers (800,000), accountants (1,300,000), and engineers (1,600,000) combined. The number of creative professionals exceeds the number of teachers (3,500,000 teachers pre-K through high school, plus 1,700,000 more who teach in colleges and universities).

Our output–which provides employment for lawyers, accountants, executives, retailers, and many others–is responsible for more than ten percent of the U.S. Gross Domestic Product.

A reasonable global workforce estimate would exceed 10 million creative professionals. Nations with significant creative economies include Germany, the United Kingdom, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Ireland, Japan, China, India, Canada, Australia, and, among countries with developing industries, Mexico, Thailand, Indonesia, Argentina, Singapore, and Chile. According to the United Nations Creative Economy 2008 report, the export value of creative in 2005 was over $300 billion, or about 2-3% of the global economy. (Yes, I am reviewing the 423 pages of the 2010 report to update these figures–overall, trends are up).

The long list of creative industries was nicely summarized in the 2008 U.N. report, presented at a United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. The orange version, above, makes it all that much more clear.

Within each of these clusters, the professional model is similar. Projects are developed, produced, and distributed. Mostly, revenues are generated through direct transactions with individual consumers (movie admissions; DVDs; iTunes downloads;physical goods such as jewelry), sometimes through subscriptions; or by advertising to consumers who receive goods and services by paying only a modest transaction fee (magazine subscriptions), or no fee at all (most internet sites; broadcast radio and TV).

You can download the 2010 UN report here. (Yes, I will update my 2008 numbers when time permits.)

Just My Type

US, UK covers - the UK version is more fun.

My dad taught me to appreciate the distinctions between one font and another. Before I finished high school, I knew about serifs, descenders, x-height, and Bodoni Bold. This was secret knowledge exclusive to graphic artists (and their attentive children).

Then, desktop publishing happened, and suddenly, everybody seemed to know about Baskerville, Times New Roman, Optima and Helvetica.

Fonts became cool. A movie was made about Helvetica.

Now, there’s a surpassingly energetic–and fun!–book about fonts, Just My Type, written by Simon Garfield.

In it, you’ll find the unfortunate story of Comic Sans, and the movement to eradicate its use.

I never thought much about the reasons why we have Helvetica, Ariel, Univers and Futura. And why I started to use Frutiger and Gill Sans in place of other sans serif fonts. Or why I never loved Brush Script or Souvenir. Turns out, each of these fonts is part of a story, either about technology’s progress or shifts in public sensibility or the renovation of a mass transit system (which requires signs of every size, plus maps).

Yes, this book is ridiculously geeky. No, there’s no reason why chapters must be read in order. Yes, there are lots of pictures–and examples that reminded me of our graphic past as defined by Gilligan’s Island, Obama’s first presidential campaign, the London underground, Letraset and Dymo tape, Pet Sounds, Penguin Books, Ikea, and T-Rex.

I wish I had the patience to read every story of every type font, designer and context. And I wish there were dozens of visual examples–more and more visuals to tell this very visual story.

“Absolutely, extraordinarily bad”

That’s how editor-in-chief Tyll Hertsens described the sound quality of  Beats by Dr. Dre headphones on the front page of this morning’s NY Times Business section (link below).

Yeah, they’re very heavy on the bass. And they’re best for music where bass drives the musical experience. And sometimes, if you listen loud, there’s distortion. On the other hand, Beats are fashion statement, and people wear them not only to listen, but to be seen listening.

Headphones as pictured (from the company website): $349. That’s a lot of money for a pair of headphones. Industry observers are impressed by the team of Dr. Dre and Monster Cable because they’ve opened a new market where price sensitivity matters less than lifestyle choices.

By comparison, a pair of AKG K240 Professional Studio Headphones cost $199.

If you have a pair of Beats, or manage to try a pair in a store, share your impressions.

Smaller than I thought

Just out of curiosity, I decided to explore the list of top U.S. newspapers by circulation.

Some things that I found interesting:

1. The top newspaper in the USA is not a general interest paper. It’s the Wall Street Journal, with a circulation of about 2 million.

2. The second largest paper is USA Today, and the third is The New York Times.

3. The daily circulation of The New York Times roughly equals the population of Rhode Island–just about 1 million people. On Sundays, the Times circulation equals the number of people in Idaho (1.3 million). And the NY Times is the biggest local paper in the USA.

4. Other big papers in the USA include The Washington Post, The Daily News (NYC), Chicago Tribune, and Chicago Sun-Times. Each is around the half million mark–roughly, the population of  our least-populous state, Wyoming.

Before this end-of-journalism web madness began, daily New York Times circulation was about 1.1 million in 1998. Not much of a change from today’s 1 million. In 1990–years before the internet’s introduction–The Daily News peaked around 2.3 million per day, but by 1990, circulation was down to 1.2 million, and now, it’s about half that amount. Based upon various conflicting, but helpful, sources, I believe newspaper circulation is down by around 1/3 since 1990–but that’s two decades ago, certainly plenty of time to reinvent an industry. In Chicago, that means 1 in 9 households gets a paper (either Sun-Times or Trib) every weekday. I’m curious whether that number was, say, 1 in 5 around 1960, or maybe even 1 in 3 around 1940. I’ll do some research on those details, and get back to you.

Regardless of the specific numbers, the trends are no secret. It’s clear that the music and newspaper industries made their technology decisions late in the game, limiting their options, struggling with their status quo for too long, allowing competitors to dominate. And, it’s pretty clear that the internet is a better way to deliver news than, say, newsboys standing on street corners. I wonder whether we still need print editions. And I wonder just how much energy, and paper, we spend printing, trucking and recycling millions of newspapers every day of the week. And on Sundays.

Bill Evans: Last & Found

Late in the summer of 1980, pianist Bill Evans played several trio sessions at San Francisco’s Keystone Korner. Marc Johnson played bass. Joe LaBarbera played drums. Evans knew he was dying, knew that these would be his last sessions. Fortunately, the sessions were recorded. Two weeks later, he was gone.

Twenty years later, in 2000, Milestone released a box of eight CDs, one for each evening’s performance. For the past week or so, I’ve been listening to the discs. (You can, too: I just checked, and you can buy them on Amazon. The link is below.)

The performances are wonderful. Evans’ work has always been described as lyrical, poetic, introspective, relaxed, and a kin to European salon music.

Everybody Loves Bill Evans is one of his most popular single albums–perhaps a place to begin before buying the more expensive box. In a review from a long-ago book about jazz, I wrote: “Classic 1958 piano jazz, played by a musician so widely respected that Miles Davis, George Shearing, Ahmad Jamal, and Cannonball Adderley signed their written praises for use as the album’s cover art. Most songs are confident variations on jazz standards like Sonny Rollins’s “Oleo” and Cole Porter’s “Night and Day.” Leonard Bernstein’s “Some Other Time” is also a highlight. Bassist Sam Jones and (unrelated) drummer Philly Joe Jones keep things moving. More distinctive are Evans’s unaccompanied solos, particularly “Peace Piece” and “Tenderly,” both haunting because of the pianist’s light touch, tiny flourishes, patience, and willingness to allow the piano to resonate.”

In fact, I rediscovered the Last Sessions box after hearing one of Evans’ duets with Tony Bennett on the radio. When the albums was recorded, Bennett was just beginning to taste a possible comeback, and it was this album that led to his remarkable second-round success. I wrote: “Bennett was in his mid-fifties when he recorded this album in 1975. HIs voice is a tad husky and a bit light on the high notes, but his endless experience shapes and sells every word of every song. This adds meaning and depth to “Some Other Time,” “Waltz for Debby,” and other titles that had been in Evans’s repertoire for almost two decades. Evans’s accompaniment is perfect, and his solos are magnificent, fitting ever so perfectly between Bennett’s verses (“Some Other Time” includes a particularly fine example). Some songs such as “The Touch of Your Lips” and “We’ll Be Together Again,” are generally romantic and often sentimental.” The album was called The Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Album.

There are lots of Evans albums, and most are still available. But the more I listen, the more I favor the Last Sessions box, partly for its intimate club feel, partly because he speaks directly to the audience from time to time, mostly because the work causes me to sit up and listen because it is so clean, so well crafted, and so compelling. Nicely recorded, too.

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