Monthly Archives: March 2017

Music Appreciation

PatI’m flying to Vegas this weekend to catch “Pat Benatar and Neil Geraldo: A Very Intimate Acoustic Evening.” I have been a fan of theirs since the 70’s and am thrilled to get to see them once again. Unlike so many other older artists who simply run on autopilot, Pat and Neil have just gotten better and better with age, reinventing themselves in fresh ways while still remaining unapologetically true to their rock hard roots. No longer having megastar status has actually freed them to be truly great. Rather than being carefully manicured by the contrived glitz of big concert venues, they truly shine in intimate settings where they can stroll out on stage and warmly greet the audience wearing sweat pants and holding Styrofoam mugs of coffee.

My upcoming concert trip inspired me to upgrade my music system. I used to have an admittedly insane $50K worth of audiophile equipment, but like many others I have gradually traded away all that great equipment for the convenience and unlimited access of the digital age. I know that many people are perfectly happy with their crappy ear buds (see here), and are convinced that high-end audio is just pretentious nonsense, like people who insist that a $1000 bottle of wine really is worth every penny. But whether you can hear it or not, to people who can and do appreciate fine audio, you get what you pay for.

While for a long time the very alluring benefits of digital libraries and streaming access have forced us to compromise on quality, the industry has made huge strides. The good news is that today most of us can now get really, really good quality for a very affordable price. You no longer have to invest $20K and dedicate a room to get very good audio that rates at least a B+.

But as a consequence, concessions to digital convenience has pushed the dream of an A+ quality experience even further out of reach. For a while, I feared that truly exquisite high end audio had been essentially killed by digital. But I am pleased that the industry is not remaining satisfied with mass market B+ audio. Streaming services have invested heavily in delivering high quality source material, and the traditional audiophile industry is catching up to provide new digital-friendly equipment that can take those who care enough to the heights of sonic rapture.

Yesterday I visited a local high end audio store here in Tacoma called Advanced Audio (see here). I have to say that the staff there were incredibly warm and friendly, not at all the cliché snooty types that all too often manage these stores. I picked up a Sonos Playbar for my television (see here). The audio is very nice for both music and movies. Certainly not audiophile quality, but excellent for the money with amazing ease of connectivity to all my digital equipment.

Victor, the owner of Advanced Audio, took me into a listening room to show off his combination of Sonos Connect, Auralic Altair, Macintosh MC275 tube amplifier, and small-format Focal Sopra N1 speakers. He let me listen to “Papa’s Roses” by Pat Benatar on the system. I’ve used this track as my reference piece for many years, along with a few others like “Big Love – Live” by Lindsey Buckingham. I know from experience that these songs simply get better and better as your equipment gets better.

I’ve auditioned Papa’s Roses on the best of the best and thought I knew how gorgeous it could be, but I was still blown away this time. I had never heard it reproduced this beautifully. It was like a heavenly orchestra of angels. The song was rendered with such exquisite detail as to bring tears to ones eyes.

I was particularly blown away because the source was streaming digital! It is very gratifying that the high end audio industry not gone the way of vinyl records. Instead, it has met the challenge to bring stunning quality to the digital world of music. Now it is true that if you want to experience this acoustic nirvana, you will have to fork out around $25K. But while out of reach for many, it is still good to know that it is out there waiting for you and yielding technical breakthroughs that will improve everything downstream.

If you decide to audition a high end system, I can offer some practical advise. While an expert like Victor can talk your head off with acoustic science and engineering, here are 10 simple guidelines to help you pick out the best system for you:

  1. Don’t be swayed by specs. They don’t matter in the final analysis. The only thing that matters is the listening test.
  2. Don’t be fooled by complexity. The best speakers I’ve ever found have been simple two-way speakers, not gimmicky contraptions with 38 emitters designed to wow the unsophisticated buyer.
  3. Bring your own source material that you know very well.
  4. Some systems only sound good with particular types of music. Unless you only care about a particular music type, audition a representative range of genres.
  5. Some systems only sound good with sufficiently high quality sources. This greatly limits what you can enjoy. If I cannot still enjoy my beloved but crappy-quality Nina Hagen recordings on a system, I don’t want it.
  6. If the salesperson won’t let you play your own source material, walk away. He or she is trying to cherry pick only that particular music that flatters the system and avoid music that exposes its flaws.
  7. Don’t be wowed by heavy bass. I don’t want a system that sounds like a woofer array in the trunk of a ’79 caddie.
  8. Look for natural balance, dispersion, and clarity that flatters all parts of the music. Every instrument should stand out clear as the clearest bell. You should hear fingers sliding on the frets, breath on the reeds, and the subtle reverberations of an actor speaking in a hallway.
  9. Test it at all volumes. A great system should sound full and satisfying at low volumes. It should also still sound great – and not tire you out – at 100+ decibels.
  10. Don’t be rushed. The only test that really matters is what I call the “can I walk away” test. Many systems will knock your socks off for a few minutes, then leave you fatigued and ready to enjoy some silence. A great system leaves you wanting ever more and more and more. You desperately want to play everything you own. You could listen for hours and not get tired of it. If you cannot stop listening, you’ve found the right system for you.

Claiming that the experience of true audiophile quality music enjoyment is just made up, is like claiming that watching Star Wars on your television is just as good as experiencing it at an extreme digital big screen 3D movie theater. Great music can only be fully appreciated with great music systems. And I am overjoyed that digital and audio technologies are today converging and synergizing to make that experience accessible to more and more people.

 

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Competition Improves Healthcare?

MedicalMoneyI really, really wanted to get to my backlog of scientific blog topics today, but was distracted once again by Shawn Spicer at his daily press briefing. In defending “Trump/Ryan Care,” he repeated perhaps a hundred times that “It is an economic certainty that increased competition unquestionably brings down costs.”

(Note that he uses the word “costs” but he presumably intends this to mean “prices.” Cost is really the cost of manufacturing a product. Price is the cost to the consumer. Price minus cost equals profit. I will use these words consistently in this way to eliminate ambiguity and confusion.)

Shawn’s assertion is a meme that is almost universally accepted in America as a fundamental principle, a given, but it is simply untrue. It is part of the falsely simplistic “Economics 101” nonsense that has been repeated so often that it feels like perfectly sound common sense (see here).

Our acceptance of false arguments like this manipulates us into adopting “free market” solutions that harm our own self-interest and shovels money from poor Americans to rich Corporations.

The reality is that the “free market” does not give a hoot about low costs or even about high quality and there is nothing inherently forcing it to provide the highest possible quality at the lowest possible price. Quite the opposite. Businesses in unregulated free markets will minimize cost (quality) and maximize price to realize the highest possible profit.

If their manufacturing costs are reduced through deregulation, they will not lower their prices to the consumer, they will enjoy higher profits. If they are forced to lower prices through regulation, they will lower their costs (quality) before lowering their profits.

But wait you say. Of course that is true and that is why competition works! If there is competition then if a business wants to survive they must deliver higher quality at lower prices than their competitors. Eventually we reach an optimum for the consumer.

Except that rarely works in the real world, and works least well in providing essential services that really matter, things we must have to live and work and even survive.

The example that is invariably given in idiotic Economics 101 courses is the lemonade stand. If Sally sets up a stand in her yard and charges $1 per cup, but then Billy across the street sees her making money and sets up his own competing stand charging $.95 for the same lemonade, then Sally must either increase her quality or lower her prices or accept less profit if she wishes to stay in business.

But in the real world, Sally and Billy would both quickly understand that getting into a price war is a lose-lose scenario in game theory. If they both just keep their prices the same, they both enjoy higher profits than if they compete. If Jimmy were to open up a stand in his yard and sell lemonade for $.50 at no profit, Sally and Billy would quickly buy him out and return prices to $1. Further, they would both lower the quality of their lemonade, thereby increasing their profits, right up to the point at which they lose sufficient customers to cause a net loss.

In reality, the free market optimizes for the lowest quality at the highest price the market will bear to maximize profits.

When I lived in India, I often had to use a rickshaw to get around. The rickshaw wallahs would see that I was a Westerner and smarmily quote me exorbitant prices for a ride. Now, there were at least 100 wallahs waiting around with nothing to do, all perfectly able to take me. But if I went from one to another they would all give me the same inflated prices. Even if I simply left and walked the 5 miles, none would budge. In that free market, like most, businessmen would rather lose customers than lower their prices. The wallahs all knew as big corporations well know, that I would eventually have to pay their high fees to someone and that benefitted them all much more than undercutting each other.

The last people who should be fooled into believing that competition lowers prices are Walmart customers.  Walmart literally destroys all competition and then, as essentially monopolies in their markets, they provide the lowest prices to their customers. Where is the “free market competition” argument here? Monopolies clearly can do way better. They have huge purchasing power and don’t have to pay advertising overhead.

So it is with essential services like healthcare in America. Free market competition will not force healthcare companies to lower their prices, improve their quality, and sacrifice any of their profits. Competition inherently segregates risk pools which particularly damages this industry. Deregulation will only allow insurers to work together to maximize profits by lowering their costs and raising prices to the highest level the market will bear, which in the case of essential healthcare is cripplingly high.

What we need in healthcare is not deceitful free-market snake oil, but a healthcare monopoly like Walmart. We need public healthcare that can create the largest possible nation-wide risk pool, negotiate the best costs, and take all profit out of the equation. Our free-market system has a vested interest in maximizing profits over patient health. These interests are simply not compatible and never can be (further reading).

 

 

 

Swarm the Trumpephant

You are hopefully wondering what you can do, if anything, to push back against the unfolding tin-pot dictatorship of Donald Trump (see here). The good news is that this President is particularly vulnerable in two critical areas. The first is his wallet. Money is all he cares about. The second is his brand, because that is what brings him his money.

trumpephantBoth of these vulnerabilities are at the mercy of us, the public. If we work individually but in sufficient numbers we can bring him to his knees like an army of ants swarming to bring down an elephant – the Trumpephant.

Trump is not really a great businessman. He doesn’t build or produce much of anything. The Trump hotels he pretends to own are mostly owned by others who just license his brand name. He is essentially just a brand marketer and his brand is his only real product.

For example, his newest hotel, The Trump International Hotel and Tower in Vancouver was actually built by a Malaysian businessman named Joo Kim Tiah (see here). Although Trump pretends to build and own these hotels, he does not. Mr. Tiah simply licensed the Trump name for branding and marketing. The Trump Hotel Collection just manages the hotel portion of the tower.

Reportedly, Mr. Tiah attempted to cancel the licensing deal as soon as Donald Trump ran for President but was unable to get out of his contract with the Trump Organization. This should show you just how vulnerable Trump is. All he has to sell is his brand and if that gold tarnishes, he has nothing left to sell to his major partners.

All we need to do is to taint his brand name. We, you and I, can do that. We just need to take the Trump name that he has worked so hard to make synonymous with luxury and quality, and instead make it inextricably linked with corruption, lies, and excess.

So, make “Trump” a part of your everyday language. Every time you wish to ridicule something or point out a poser or liar or charlatan or cheap excess, refer to it as a Trump.

“Wow, check out that pathetic Trump over there.”

“That guy was a pretentious idiot, I’m talking Trump grade.

“The Congressman must think we are complete morons, he tried to pull a Trump on us.”

“Wow he really messed up, an epic Trump up.”

“You she looked absurdly tacky in that dress, a total Trump.

“I wouldn’t be caught dead going in there. It’s so… Trump!”

You get the idea. Be imaginative, wicked, relentless, and merciless. We need to take away Trump’s only real asset by turning it into an overused joke – a derogatory expression that will endure for generations as a cautionary tale to those who would follow his example. We need to make sure that the next Joo Kim Tiah does not even consider signing a deal with the Trumps.

YOU can ninja this Trump brand anti-marketing every day. But you can also take direct action as well by boycotting companies that peddle his ridiculous Trump crap. Boycotting DOES work. We know that. And boycotting in this case is easy. Just keep track of companies that sell Trump shit. Simply search their site for “Trump” or check this spreadsheet (see here). There is even an app for that (see here).

For example, Amazon was petitioned for nearly a year to stop promoting Trump merchandise. They continue to do so. Now, I know you probably cannot stop using Amazon entirely, but you can still pressure them. On occasion, just go to their feedback page and send them an email saying that I am NOT buying my new <fill in the blank> from you because you continue to promote Trump. Do this for all the retailers you can.

Even if you only do this occasionally, it is still huge when enough people do it together. One ant nibbling on the Trumpephant does nothing, but together we can reduce it to a zombie skeleton in minutes.

Now I know are probably rationalizing that it’s unfair to punish retailers. But you’re wrong. Now that Trump is President, these retailers are no longer non-political when they continue to sell his crap. Amazon (as the largest example) is potentially currying favor with the White House by continuing to offer his junk. They also implicitly condone his activities by hawking his garbage. Don’t feel sorry for them, this is part of the territory.

And are you thinking that boycotting is unfair because Trump cannot extricate himself from his businesses? Too bad! That would be like saying that it’s ok if Melania were a Slovenian spy because, well, he can’t really just be expected to divorce her! But that’s exactly what he would need to do, or step down as President. Our President simply cannot make policy that impacts Amazon and other retailers without concern about a conflict of interest, any more than he could remain free of legitimate concern if Melania were a known Slovenian spy. If retailers sell his products, will he favor them? If they do not might he punish them? Do companies favor him simply out of fear that he might punish them? He is after all known to be singularly petty and vindictive. We cannot ever know for sure and every decision he makes has this inherent uncertainty. That is why his particular conflict of interest situation is deeply unacceptable and just one reason why Donald Trump is entirely unacceptable as President.

Yes maybe 50% of Americans voted for Trump knowing that he would have business conflicts while in office. So what? If 50% of America voted for a candidate with a spy-wife, we should not simply accept that situation either. If 50% of Americans voted for a slave owner, well that is why we have checks and balances – including direct action by the other 50%.

So, tarnish the brand as much as you can. Turn it into a sad cliché of a joke. At the same time boycott not only Trump crap, but all companies that carry Trump crap. Make association with his brand a “loser” for business partners and retailers and elected officials and for voters.

Oh yes, and keep organizing, protesting,  and pestering your representatives. Call them out and embarrass them for aligning with Trump. We can bring down this lumbering Trumpephant that is trampling all over all our great nation – if we all relentlessly piranha his thin orange hide at every opportunity.