Monday, March 31, 2008

SXSW '08: What Happened

I think it's very telling that the question people ask most when they hear you've been to SXSW is "What music did you hear?" Increasingly, that's the only reason people attend the music segment of the event, and maybe it's my preoccupations of the past couple of months, but it does seem, in a way, to be whistling past the graveyard.

I saw music. Not much, but I saw some. Some was good, some was not.

The first night, for instance, was almost a total disaster. As it turned out, the two main acts I wanted to see, the Slits and Charanga Cakewalk, were on at the same time. This is business for usual at SXSW for me; it's inevitable. I calculated that the Slits might be overcrowded and/or not so good, and Michael Ramos' Charanga Cakewalk record has remained one of my faves since it came out a couple of years ago. Trouble was, there was nothing I actually knew anything about happening before then. I parked my car (tip for those with autos at SXSW: the official Convention Center parking lot is only seven bucks, you get three ins and outs, and you can get your car any time of the night or day

although these signs are a little disconcerting), and set about finding the Rio, the club where Ramos would perform.

I found it, and a Danish "world music" band, Afenginn, was performing some grim fusion of musics they didn't seem to understand. The blond-dreadlocked frontman was particularly earnest. I did a U-turn and left. What now? There was an hour and a half to kill. Moping along to Congress Avenue, I decided to see what the Intuitive Music Orchestra from Moscow was all about. The Copa, the club where they were performing, was sort of dingy, and on stage a motley crew of time-warped hippies was surrounded by hundreds of "little instruments," basically noisemakers of various sorts. They were in the process of picking them up, tinkling or rattling them, blowing into flutes, and so on. Clearly this wasn't, as advertised, "world music," but instead something far worse: "free improvisation," a genre of music that can be fun to play, but pretty trying to listen to. Still, sometimes it rewards sticking with it for a while in case inspiration strikes.

Inspiration didn't strike. Inspiration seemed to be fleeing as fast as it could. Soon, so was I.

Soon, I was back at the Rio. Rupa and the April Fishes, a band whose CD I'd gotten shortly before leaving, was on. I hadn't had time to listen to the CD, but the premise seemed interesting. Rupa is a waif-like young woman of East Indian extraction who grew up in Iceland and France and was currently based in San Francisco. The band on the album was a nicely-mixed bunch of oddballs, so this could be interesting. But it wasn't. For one thing, only two of the band had made it to SXSW, a drummer and a cello-player. Rupa herself strummed the guitar and breathily intoned new-agey platitudes while the cello shrieked glissandos. I lasted a couple of songs, then went outside to await Charaga Cakewalk. Standing there, I found myself in the odd position of having various people walk up and show me their badges, thinking I was a doorman.

Finally Rupa & Co. left the stage to a smattering of applause, and I went in. Walking over the floor, I saw a wad of bills lying there. As I reached for it, a guy turned around, patting his pocket, and we both realized it was his. I fell into conversation with the guy, who told me he was in the cleaning fluids business back in England, but had used his profits to get into the music business, coming to Austin frequently and finding bands to manage. He was also a journalist. I sort of envied him, especially when a very attractive Texan woman joined him. They'd met accidentally the night before, and had hooked up. Some guys have all the luck.

Ramos had far more equipment than anyone else, which figured, due to his electro-goes-TexMex approach, and it took him a long time to set up. I wish I could say that the stage show matched the record, but while workmanlike, it wasn't particularly inspirational. Or maybe I was just tired or something; at any rate, I left after he performed because it was getting late, knowing that I'd be fried if I waited for 1am, when 17 Hippies were going to play. They had another showcase the next night, anyway, so I'd see them then.

And I did. There were some other acts I half-heartedly wanted to see on Thursday, but logistics were against me. Uncle Monk, the bluegrass duo Tommy Erdyeli of the Ramones is half of these days, was on, but the word later was they were terrible. There was also an Americana group, the Wilders, which I missed because they were on at the same time as the Hippies (who, being friends and neighbors, I didn't want to miss), and I also missed Susan Cowsill (who's usually great live) and a reunion of her family's band, the Cowsills, which was intriguing, but alas, both were on too early for someone who, like me, sees SXSW as an opportunity to grab a good dinner as often as possible.

The Hippies, I gotta say, were great. I got to the venue too early, and had to suffer through a guy named Vinicio Capossela from Milan, who embodied everything I dislike about Tom Waits in a relentless, over-adrenalized set. I thought he'd never stop, although once the Hippies took the stage with their own brand of enthusiasm, the mood lightened considerably. The Hippies' music is almost impossible to define -- world music from a yet-undiscovered world, folk music from a decidedly odd group of folk -- but they can win over audiences in an instant. Poor Christopher took a hit for the crew, getting bashed in the face by an accordion while dodging in their bluegrass-band-like microphone choreography, and bled from a wound above his eye for half the set. At the end, the band and the audience were both exhausted, and everyone was talking about them for the rest of the conference, which bodes well for their summer U.S. tour.

Friday's main attraction was the Ponderosa Stomp, which ran all night at the Continental Club. This is a praiseworthy event, which is held in April in New Orleans, run by a bunch of maniacs led by a guy named Dr. Ike, who find performers from the 1950s and '60s -- soul, country, and the odder corners of rock -- and present them in a huge all-day, all-night concert. They publicize it at SXSW with a mini-Stomp, with short sets by participating artists, and it's usually pretty good. Unfortunately, I only caught the end of Ralph "Soul" Jackson's set, which I heard was pretty good, and saw Barbara Mason, whose voice has never been great, and is still much like it always has been. I'd have stayed for more, but the "Flaming Arrows Mardi Gras Indians," who followed, were dire, not least because Dr. Ike's wife had somehow become a member. Lost for anything else to see, I headed back to the hotel, missing Little Freddie King, who followed the Indians, and who I heard was pretty good.

One of the problems that's plagued SXSW has been the trend towards various entities putting on parties during the day, only a few of which are aligned with the conference, but all of which drain attendance at the panels and interviews (about which more in a minute). I rarely attend them, but this year I had a good reason to: Jon Hardy and the Public, with whom I'd had dinner the night before, and who've applied two or three times to SXSW and never been accepted, were playing a party sponsored by his home town of St. Louis' big roots festival, Twangfest. I didn't envy them, driving all the way from St. Louis for a 45-minute set on what turned out to be a 90-degree-plus afternoon, but they acquitted themselves well. I'm not as fond of Hardy's current material, informed as it is by the breakup of his marriage ("Lotta competition there," said a friend. "Blood on the Tracks, Shoot Out the Lights..."), as I am of his absolutely unique, more surrealistic earlier stuff, and I hope he finds healing in what he's doing next and re-introduces more elements of what I think is his major gift as time goes on, but I certainly wasn't unhappy with the performance, held outdoors at Jovita's, South Austin's funky Tex-Mex restaurant.

That evening, I had dinner with Jason Gross and his friend Tim Broun, and, in keeping with Jason's usual manic schedule, wound up seeing the flavor-of-the-month, Duffy, a young woman from Wales who's burning up the British charts. It sounded like your basic MOR to me, lending credence to my suspicion that this isn't a very good year for music, although her single is okay -- but just okay. Leaving there, I caught the end of Andre Williams' set at the Continental Club, predictably raunchy, and then settled in for a set by Jon Dee Graham, an always reliable, always enjoyable performer.

And that was it for the music.

As for the panels, I'll be brief, because this post is already too long. The keynote by Lou Reed was downright weird, with him declaring "I've got a BA in dope, but a Ph.D. in soul!" at one point (um, perhaps we have different definitions of soul...), hyping his new DVD of Berlin to the teeth, and then going on a great rant about how we've all come to accept unacceptably low fidelity as the default. He was jeered in the press by this, but dammit, he's right. Sorry.

Immediately afterwards, the highlight of my SXSW: Thurston Moore interviewing Steve Reich. Moore did a phenomenal job of keeping the conversation going, and Reich was as personable as can be, parrying questions with great good humor, keeping things on a basic enough level that the curious non-classical majority of the audience could follow what he was saying, and making it utterly impossible for me to believe he's 71 years old. I really regret having missed the concert of his stuff Thursday evening, but there was no program available, and I wanted to cherry-pick what I heard. Also, because it wasn't his own group performing his works and because what was performed was earlier stuff, it somehow didn't seem as urgent to go hear it. I'd heard what I wanted from Reich that afternoon, and for that I congratulate Thurston Moore.

Jason did a great job with his blog panel, which I walked into just to let him know I was there, and stayed to bring myself up to speed on the "new rock press," which, unfortunately or not, blogs are. (Unfortunate because, as I've said earlier, they don't much allow for long-form writing and of course they don't pay). Just after that was a really inspiring panel entitled Boomer Power, from which I didn't expect much despite Bill Bentley's being the moderator, but which turned out to be incredibly thought-provoking. The thoughts it provoked will emerge in subsequent posts, I promise. Doug Mosurock also had a great panel on the revival of vinyl, although once again, I just showed up because I had a message for him and stayed to learn a lot. And finally, Margaret Moser predictably did a great job with her panel on 16 Magazine and the Birth of Music Journalism, in which we got to hear not only from former editor (and, among other things, Ramones discoverer) Danny Fields, but also former teen idols Susan Cowsill and Taylor Hanson, both of whom had hilariously scary stories about being marketed to young girls.

But one piece of wisdom I'm going to follow next year was voiced by musician/rights administrator Andrew Halbreich (aka George Carver), with whom I check in every year for a little nachas. "You know, " he mused, "music has for a long time defined itself as a counter-culture, but what I find interesting is that the Interactive conference -- where you didn't attend any panels, and you should have -- is much more of a proto-culture." He's right, and I'm going to need to bend my focus towards that next year. SXSW's directors have long been saying the whole thing is involved in a complex convergance, and I believe that to be true.

But there's always next year.

Next up: food and other follies in Austin and Montpellier.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Last Death (For A While)

I don't want to get too obsessively focussed on this topic, and I'm going to want to post some stuff about my stay here in Texas, but one thing that happened after SXSW had already started was that Harp magazine died. The poor bastards had already paid for a SXSW party, too, which must have been like going to your own wake.

I'll admit it: although I wrote for them a few years back, I never really got a handle on Harp, which seemed to me to be a No Depression wannabe without any of the latter magazine's intellectual firepower. The fact that they paid a whopping five cents a word might well have had something to do with that. As an Austin-based colleague commented to me the day the news got out "My first review, in 1973, I sold to Circus (long-gone mediocre rock mag of the '70s -- ed.) for $15. My last review for Harp I got $15 for. Only difference is what you can get for that fifteen bucks these days."

But over on the Crazed by the Music blog, Jason Gross of Perfect Sound Forever has posted the official statement about the magazine's shut-down (one which, to be honest, is at a slight variant from other stories I've heard from trusted sources), and the money paragraph is here:

"However, according to Glenn Sabin, Guthrie’s CEO, the publication struggled to become profitable. 'We purchased Harp in 2003, and it quickly became a first class product that was highly acclaimed for its often irreverent editorial approach and strong graphical package. Unfortunately, Harp’s critical acclaim never translated into sustaining commercial success. Harp’s lifecycle was ill timed with the precipitous decline of the music software industry, coupled with the consolidation of the consumer magazine newsstand business and rising paper and postage costs.'"

I'm having a little trouble with that last bit. Oh, the "music software business" means "records" or "CDs" or whatever, and the paper and postage complaint was also part of No Depression's problems. But what does this guy mean by "consolidation of the consumer magazine newsstand business?" I'm not disputing him; I'd really like to know what this phrase means. Not living in the U.S., yet attempting to write for its readers, I don't necessarily see the same things you do.

And a passing thought: if Harp had paid people a decent wage -- not a lot, but up to what other magazines paid -- might they not have attracted a larger readership for better writing and stood out from the crowd a bit more? Because I have to say, I stopped reading Harp long before they stopped sending it to me. It just wasn't very interesting. More interesting, perhaps, than Blender (also rumored to be in trouble) or Spin, but that's not saying much.

Anyway, one thing that came out of the various discussions and panels at SXSW was that there really isn't a consumer music magazine left, at least not one that pays. Maybe I really am better off writing this blog for free. That's a chilling thought...

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Magazine Of The Future?

I dumped out the contents of my goody bag from SXSW Interactive, and Hell fell out. I don't mean the deluge of swag -- one expects that -- but a large, glossy magazine. A travel magazine. A vision of Hell.

Everywhere, it's called. "The New Travel Magazine Made by You." I knew it was trouble the minute I saw that cover line.

Inside, my worst nightmares were fulfilled in spades. Oh, it's pretty. It's glossy. It even has a few ads. But my heart sank, and it's remained sunk. This thing is evil. The explanation is right there only page 8. Read along with me and see if you don't get creeped out, too:

How Everywhere works.

1) See the world
Visit wonderful places, have fun, take lots of pictures.

2) Document your trip
Select your best photos and tell us about where you went.

3) Upload
Contribute your travel tales and photos to

4) Peer review
The community votes on travel stories, photos, and favorite places.

5) Final selection
Our editors curate each issue from the best of the best.

6) Publication
Published contributors get $100 and a free subscription.

In other words, it's a blog. On paper. A very pretty blog on paper. And if it catches on, someone's going to be making crazy money.

Now, let me take a minute to explain why this is a very bad idea. This strikes to the heart of the whole neophilia thing I've been raving about, and I can just imagine Grant Alden's reaction when he reads this. I already know the reaction I got from a professional travel writer who's doing work she hates because she can't make a living being a travel writer. She's ready to pass out torches and meet me in the streets of San Francisco while we storm the Everywhere headquarters.

She and I, it turns out, had an identical vision at about the same time, before we were in e-contact: a travel magazine aimed at how the people we know travel. Not the "Paris on $5000 a Day" crowd that Conde Nast Traveler seems to target, but real people going to interesting places who want to learn about other interesting places to go. Superficially, Everywhere would seem to be that magazine, but it's not.

As I learned a long time ago, pure democracy is a very bad thing in the magazine business. There not only has to be a hierarchy, but there also has to be something of a dictatorship if the thing is going to work. This seems evil, but really it's not: nobody is an expert on everything. If you need your house rewired, you could, theoretically, do it yourself, but if you're not an electrician, my guess is you'll defer to an electrician's expertise and pay for it. And if you're an accountant, you might do your electrician's taxes. There's nothing wrong with this, is there?

There's something about writing, though, that makes anyone capable of creating a sentence think they can do it. They can't, any more than anyone can take a picture by pushing a button. You can write a sentence and snap a picture, but is either any good? So accountants account, electricians electrish, writers write, and photographers photograph. The writers and photographers put out a magazine, the electrician and the accountant buy it, and they rewire our houses and do our taxes.

Putting together an article is a very complex thing. While turning the pages of Everywhere, I came up with an example of how this works so I can show you what I perceive as the biggest problem with the admittedly seductive idea it puts forth, that a magazine "created by the world's smartest experts -- our readers" is doomed to mediocrity.

A few years ago, I did a story on Cracow. Let us say that a magazine or newspaper wanted me to go back there and do another one. Okay, first we have to come to an agreement: I'll lay out the dough for the travel, the hotel, the meals, and get receipts and send them to the magazine, who'll pay me back. In return, I'll give them a travel story about Cracow based on what I already know and what I'm going to learn about how it's changed since I've been there. Now, it's not ethical to take freebies from folks you're writing about, but the first thing I'd do would be to contact the Cracow Tourist Office and tell them what I was planning to do and when I was planning to do it. This opens some doors: I might be able to get a room -- which I'd pay for -- in a hotel I might ordinarily not have been able to get into. Cracow is dominated by a huge castle. Only a small number of tickets to it are available every day. I wouldn't hesitate to use my article to push my way to the top of the line on the day I needed to visit it if the travel folks could help, because it's the main tourist attraction and I'd have to report it. I'd want to see the brochures they put out, so I could see how they perceived the city, which would give me a foil for how I would see it. I wouldn't hesitate to ask them to make something available to me, to set up an interview (and provide a translator) for various important people, to give me an unfair advantage over the ordinary tourist -- that guy over there, sort of wandering around, who's going to upload his trip to Everywhere, for instance.

If you go to Cracow, you're going to see some unpleasant stuff. For one thing, right nearby -- your hotel can arrange a bus-tour -- is Auschwitz. There's no way I'd write a comprehensive travel story for an American travel magazine about Cracow without mentioning Auschwitz -- if only because for a lot of Americans who lost family there, it's a place of remembrance and prayer. I wonder if Everywhere would do a spread on Auschwitz. Or the controversy (now, I believe, settled) with the religious people adjoining it, hyper-conservative Catholics who were trying to hijack the site for their own purposes a few years ago. I couldn't not mention that, myself, because it has a larger resonance in contemporary Poland, which remains a place of pretty upfront anti-Semitism. On a somewhat lesser note, there are poor peasant women who come in from the countryside and sell cheeses out of baskets. They're everywhere, and you can tell at a glance that they're impoverished. I didn't even know what they were selling until I asked a Cracow resident, and he was embarrassed I'd seen them. But I'd want to report that, too.

Writing the article, I'd want to get in history, the major sites, places to eat, practical information, things to do and things to avoid, and then season this with some attitude. When I was there a few years ago, there were loads of tourist stalls in the Cloth Hall in the central square selling wooden statues of sad-eyed Jews, which appalled me because at that time there were only 300 real Jews living in the whole city. There were more wooden Jews than that in two stalls in the Cloth Hall! With Auschwitz nearby, a Jewish section of Cracow that was enthusiastically emptied under the Nazis, and the residual anti-Semitism, there's a rather sharp edge that any observant person's going to see, and needs to understand. It's part of the experience.

It's also nuanced. Everywhere's articles are tiny bites. The "big" ones take up maybe a page of type spread out over two pages, with pix. You don't get the impression that anyone who wrote them did a lot of research, because most people don't research their vacations, even when they do want to know a little more about what they're seeing. That's what I'd want this article to do, and you just can't do it in that amount of room.

The whole Facebookian "community" thing, too, is scary. Wooden Jews, Auschwitz, threadbare grandmothers selling cheese in the park...a bummer! So what you'd get from these folks would be a smiley-face story about the castle, the churches, and the pretty square. Maybe the good restaurants in the reconstructed Jewish quarter. The pictures would definitely pass: Cracow is stunningly beautiful. But the content would be, um, very superficial.

And so it turns out to be: without professionals -- except for a few who put together the section on Stuff and the Gridskipper ripoff section, and they work in the home office -- you get what you pay for. And you pay $100 and get a story that's worth just that. Not, likely enough, to pay for even a night at the hotel the writer stayed at, let alone the cost of getting where they were going. But who needs professionals? We're all professionals now! We have blogs instead of magazines, You Tube instead of television. The diminution of quality isn't even commented on.

So my travel-writing friend and I are out of jobs. As far as I can tell, my career is essentially over, by some sort of mandate I wasn't allowed to vote in. This (and its sister publication, a photo magazine called JPG) is the wave of the future: poorly informed people talking to each other. Ignorance will snowball, and nobody will care.

No, it's not going to happen that way. I'm going to resist, and I hope others do, too. The travel magazine I want to do may not happen (or maybe it will: I'll happily correspond with any professional interested in developing it, since I've sure thought about it enough), but I think the coming economic collapse in the United States may wake some people -- the right people -- up to the fact that you can't have amateurs in charge of things, whether they're foreign policy or magazines, and that the only way to turn things around is to let experts do what they do, even if it's only entertain and inform you. That's all I want to do, and I think I've proven over the years that I can do it. It's worth paying for (my Cracow story made me $1000 plus expenses, and it wasn't even as long as this post; someone like Conde Nast Traveller would pay substantially more), just as any expert's expertise is worth paying for.

A word to the wise, Everywhere: doing something doesn't make you an expert. And a hundred bucks is chump change.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Neophilia And Its Discontents

The end of No Depression is one thing, but this is getting ridiculous. Grant over there sent me an article yesterday about the Atlantic's new "web brand," The Current, which will crunch articles into 250-to-300-word little thingies.

If you have ADD, be warned: this post will be longer than that.

Now the Atlantic is one of America's leading magazines. According to the Wikipedia article, it was founded in 1858 by a bunch of famous writers and intellectuals and has been publishing ever since. Just what they expect to accomplish with this new venture I can't say, although they think they'll be able to attract more eyeballs and, presumably, sell more advertising. What they won't be able to do, needless to say, is explore anything they write about in any depth. And exploring things in depth has always been what they've been about.

This rush to the Web, and the parallel abandoning of print by both publishers and advertisers is a prime example of something I've chosen to call neophilia. Neophilia is probably defined as "love of the new," but I, well, I want to explore it in more depth.

Okay, look, I'm a guy, and, like a lot of guys, I like gadgets. I like new gadgets, too: I was grumpy about computers until I moved to Europe, when someone pointed me to Compuserve, whereby I could send e-mail. This meant I could also send articles to magazines and get them there in the time it took to send them, which, on dial-up with a 256k modem, was about two minutes. This revolutionized my life: I got an Apple Powerbook, and boy, was it cool. Not only did it do e-mail and word-processing, but it did a whole lot of other things, too. If Compuserve had let its customers do it back then, I could have accessed this newfangled Internet thing, and I burned to do so, but unfortunately it would be a couple of years until I could. I was, however, able to access bulletin boards, and almost found an apartment in Berlin using one. I actually did find one during that search because of the computer, though: my brother-in-law sent me an e-mail saying a guy he knew was moving out of one here, and I called the number he sent me and got the place. Just like that.

Once I finally could access the Internet, life got really interesting. There was all kinds of stuff out there, and I zipped around (as fast as one could zip with a 256k modem with Deutsche Telekom's heinous tariffs breathing down my neck the whole time) and found a lot of it. I joined the Well, and "met" a lot of interesting folks. In fact, I also met them in person (excuse me: IRL), and that was fun.

I got more gadgets, too: I fell in love with Palm Pilots, and am on my third one now. It's a great machine that has applications that allow you to figure out public transport (a great app called MetrO, which has the routes of hundreds of cities' bus, tram, and light rail lines), keep various kinds of lists, and store all your phone numbers -- and coordinate it with your computer.

There were gadgets I wanted to like, but didn't. Cell phones: I never saw the point. I now own one, and it's great for travelling, or when you're trying to coordinate things on the fly, but I keep leaving the house without it. Then there was the iPod. I'm a confirmed Apple-head, but I really don't need to convert all my records to MP3 files and carry them with me everywhere all the time. I just don't. Although now it appears that the iPod Touch may be encroaching on Palm territory (and Palm's done a terrible job of maintaining their OS), so maybe I'll use one when they figure that out -- just not for music.

Okay, so: I like gadgets. That's been established.

But, as the cases of the cell phone and iPod prove, not unless they improve some area of my life. Because it's new doesn't mean it's better. Or even that it's important. But there are those who figure that any new gadget has to be better because it's new.

Case in point: some months ago, Amazon introduced a gadget on which you could read books you'd downloaded from them. I'm not sure how it works because I took one look at it and recoiled in horror, but over on the Well, there are sufficient neophiliacs that a big fuss ensued. One guy actually said "I'm never buying a physical book again. This is it," or some such balderdash. Finally, someone who spoke neophiliac pointed out that the platform hadn't been established, and that just maybe this guy would download a bunch of books he couldn't read in ten years. Or maybe five years. Or maybe by the end of 2008. One wise old sage noted that he had to keep old computers around just to read documents he'd created in now-vanished software programs or now-vanished platforms. No means of converting them had ever appeared. (And I know what he means: all my e-mail correspondence prior to a given date is stored in Compuserve's proprietary format on a Mac OS which is no longer supported, and I have it all stored on...a ZIP disc!)

Someone who would seriously consider abandoning books for this new gadget of Amazon's -- or similar ones Sony and others are pushing -- is a neophiliac in need of intervention.

So, in my opinion, is someone who'd abandon nearly a century's worth of work on figuring out how to mechanically reproduce music so it sounded as close as humanly possible to live performance for MP3s, portablility or not. (I mean, do you really need to be entertained every moment of your waking life? Apparently some people are so shallow that they do.) Yet the neophilic rush to this new format is such that it has practically ruined the market for physical product, allowed free exchange of music files to the point where musicians are no longer able to make a living off of recordings (and don't say "make your money on the road" until you've clocked the prices at the gas station this morning), and sent the music business into a tail-spin. I'd be the last to argue that the record biz didn't deserve a shake-up, but when the little guys are falling as fast as the big guys, then something's clearly wrong.

And so is someone who'd abandon print for the Web. Sorry, but this makes absolutely no sense to me. First there are the issues of readability. I have to walk away from the computer a lot or risk my eyeballs feeling like they've been sandpapered. Some web design is absolutely awful: one of the web's best music magazines is a design horror, so bad that I rarely read it, which I feel bad about, because the guy who puts it together is really smart and has impeccable taste. I wish...well, I wish he'd edit a magazine instead. Or, better, in addition. There's the portability and durability: you can read a paper or a magazine or a book in places where you can't read the Web. On trains, for instance. We ride a lot of trains here in Europe. Or on planes. You simply don't have to worry about battery life with print. And the platform: I can, given other variables like the language it's printed in, read books printed hundreds of years ago, and so will people hundreds of years from now. Moreover, I can be sure no one's hacked the content -- at least once the thing's been published.

Then, as I mentioned last time, there's the issue of length. Some things are so complex they take a lot of time to explain, explore, or expose. You want to be able to check back, whether to verify who a given character is, go back to the beginning of an argument, check a fact or date, or whatever. That's just harder with a virtual document. And these complex arguments or expositions just don't crunch down into 250-to-300-word bites. Moreover, they're often very important, vital to understanding our world, our society, and the ideas that drive them.

This, I think, is something that's in danger of becoming, if not lost, at least far more scarce. And that's bad.

The paranoiac in me is forced to ask a question: who benefits from neophilia? And the answer comes ringing back: the gadget-mongers. And then I have to ask, why do they get to tell us what to do? Because they've made huge fortunes selling these gadgets? Does the future of music have to be dependent on iTunes? Does the future of our political discourse have to be dependent on the Web? Does the future of literature have to be dependent on what you can read on a screen? Do Apple, Microsoft, Google, and Amazon get to set the boundaries of our intellectual life?

Does everything have to be simplified into a compressed MP3 file, a sound-bite, a 250-to-300-word idea-bite?

Because if it does, we're in a heap of trouble.

I think there will be what the economists call a "correction," but I don't see it because the horizon is obscured by neophilia. I have to rely on gut feeling, and that's always scary when so many other guts are busy digesting what's new. I worry that it won't come quickly enough to save what I do for a living, what I've done for a living for over 40 years. Is my whole career, my whole body of expertise and skill, going to be sacrificed so that someone can sell silicon? We've already seen the damage lying memes can do: John Kerry's a traitor; Barack Obama is a Muslim (and, hence, a terrorist, as everyone "knows" all Muslims are). Without rational explanation, this sort of thing can run amok, and I believe that print plays a vital role in keeping rationality alive in a way that no other medium can.

Maybe I'm a grumpy old man, resentful at the coming new age, but somehow, I don't think it's that simple. There are those who benefit from keeping people stupid, just like there are those who benefit from compressing music into MP3 files. Both are dangerous, in wildly different ways, of course.

Naturally, I have a large stake in keeping print media alive. But I'd like to gently suggest that you do, too.

* * *

It's that time of year again, and I'm off to Texas Friday morning for SXSW. I'll try to blog some of that, just as I did last year, and I'll also certainly be blogging about the food. After SXSW, I'll fly to Paris and take the train to Montpellier. If all goes as I hope, I'll be looking for apartments that graduating students will be moving out of this summer, with an eye towards moving into one of them when they leave. With luck, I'll find one, and I'll also find enough new work to pay for it. Wish me luck. I'm more in need of it now than ever.