What is an MP3-CD Audiobook, Part 2 – Why We Still Love Our LPs

My blog post about MP3-CDs several years ago generated an unexpected interest – what was different about an MP3-CD audiobook? Did I need a special player? And how did they get an entire book onto one single disk? I answered the questions, but it bugged me that I didn’t answer them enough. And when I dug just a little deeper, I realized the answer might be why there’s such a resurgence in old-fashioned vinyl LP records (kids, ask your grandparents).

Format Development

Back in the 1980’s, as CD and digital technology was taking off, committees were formed to create the format, so that the technology could be used anywhere. JPEG, that familiar photo tag, was formed first, the Joint Photographic Experts Group (1986), and they set the coding and standardization of digital transfer and storage of still photographs. MPEG-1 committee followed a year later, the Moving Picture Experts Group, Phase 1, which included both video and sound. It remains the most widely compatible audio-visual format in the world, and we all know the MPEG-1 Layer III by its short form of  .mp3.

When CDs hit the market, they took off like wildfire. You didn’t have to worry about compact discneedle and dust scratches ruining the fidelity of a record, and even better, you could carry that music with you wherever you went, just like a tape cassette but without all the mess and rewinding. Not all musicians jumped on it, though. Just as John Phillip Sousa hated the invention of the record, Neil Young was one of the earliest critics of CDs and delayed putting his music onto digital format, as is David Crosby, two men who know just a bit about music and the recording industry.

The Battle for Quality

high res vs. low res imagesAnd here’s why: MP3-CDs use what’s called lossy compression, a form of psychoacoustics (your gold-star word of the day). What it does is reduce or eliminate sounds that the system thinks the human ear can’t hear, either because they’re out of normal frequency or other sounds might be louder and keep you from hearing them. Once all that “useless” noise is gone, the audio files are a LOT smaller – enough to fit that whole audiobook onto one or two discs. Of course, in doing so, you lose a lot of sound quality, like when you send a low-resolution photo over the internet, or use a cell phone inside a tunnel.

The Return of the LP

And for all those people who said LP records were dead, here’s why more than 14 million of them were sold last year (14% of ALL album sales).  By the early 1900’s, when records became a thing, they were made of shellac (that bug resin), had a wide, noisy, grinding groove (think of those 1920’s recordings), and at 78 rpm (the speed they spun at), you could get no more than 5 minutes of play to a side – no American Pie, no Thriller, and forget In a Gadda Da Vida. That lasted until 1949, when Long-Playing (LP) records came out on vinyl (good ol’ PVC). At a speed of 33 rpm, with a finer groove that runs almost a third of a mile, they played more than 20 minutes of music per side, with a much higher sound quality. Stereo, which recorded two channels and put one on each side of the same groove, giving you that left and right sound, came in 1957. In a vinyl record, the sound waves from the microphone are transferred directly by needle to a core, which is transferred to a metal master, which is then pressed into vinyl. A needle then rides the groove, transferring those same exact soundwaves to the speakers. With proper speakers and tuning, the result is a rich, deep, acoustic sound much more like live music. Listen to enough LPs, and you really can hear the canned music effect on a CD recording. There is no comparison if you are a music purist.

Vinyl is Final

So, what’s playing on modern LPs? Ed Sheeran’s Divide was a top seller in 2017, and the old/new sound track to Guardians of the Galaxy, Awesome Mix No. 1, but so were the classics – Sgt. Pepper’s by the Beatles, Abbey Road, Thriller, and still, forty five years later, the champion of staying power, with more than 1,000 weeks on the top-200 best-selling albums, STILL selling more than 8500 albums a week, Pink Floyd’s 1973 Dark Side of the Moon.Pink Floyd - Dark Side of the Moon album cover

For audiobooks, where one or two voices may recite a book in a calm, steady voice, you might not notice just how much sound is missing when you listen to it – enough to cut out six or seven discs worth. For music, I urge you to find a friend or a library that still has music LPs and players. Listen to the album (Dark Side of the Moon is amazing with serious headphones and a very dark room), and then listen to the digitally compressed MP3 files, missing highs and lows and the depth they provide. It might take a few tries, but you will start to hear the differences, and while MP3s are so fabulously convenient and almost foolproof, it just can’t compare to a good LP.

Fun fact: There is a gold-plated LP traveling the galaxy. Sent aboard the Voyager spacecraft in 1977 with recordings of Earth music, it is now more than 11 million miles away. MP3s only made it as far as the Space Station.

A Legacy of Spies

The other year, in preparation for a novel I hoped would have more intrigue and action than I was used to writing, I decided to break with my comfort zone and read a few spy novels to deconstruct the genre and see how the action was set up and paced. I’d read a James Bond novel once and was less than impressed; the movies I loved so much were horribly dull novels, and the book-Bond looked much more like Truman Capote than any pretty-boy actor.

I didn’t want to waste time, so I Googled “best spy novels”, and one of the top two on almost every list was John LeCarré’s 1974 novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, so that was the one I read first.

The lists were right. The book was brilliant, and I couldn’t put it down. After that I rushed out to watch the 2012 BBC film version, an incredible cast including Toby Jones, Gary Oldman, Benedict Cumberbatch, John Hurt, Tom Hardy, and more – which was still excellent, though some people prefer the 1979 mini-series adaption with Alec Guinness (that’s Obi Wan Kenobi to some of you). The strangest part was that, while reading the book, I had already cast Toby Jones in one of the roles in my head  –  but as Peter Guillam, though, not Percy Alleline as he was in the film.

Why so good? Well, see – like Ian Fleming, John LeCarré (real name: David Cornwell; spies aren’t allowed to use their real names to publish novels) was an actual British spy in World War II, so he knows the ins and outs and tiny little details of how the game is played, layers upon layers of secrets and trades and double-dealings. He’s lived it first hand, and that makes all the believable difference. He began writing novels in 1961 (Call for the Dead), but it wasn’t until his third novel in 1963, The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, that he hit the best-seller list and wound up quitting MI6 (the British Secret Intelligence Service) to pursue writing full time.

While all of us sit here and think, why would you quit being an awesome spy to write books?

But LeCarré certainly is good at it, with more than 24 novels to his name, almost all of them best-sellers. Several have been made into successful film adaptions, including The Constant Gardener (2005), starring Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1965) starring Richard Burton, and the recent delicious adaption of The Night Manager (2016), starring Tom Hiddleston and Hugh Laurie, a book that reads more like a James Bond adaption than a Bond novel does.

Unable to sit still in retirement, LeCarré, now 86, has pumped out yet another novel last year, A Legacy of Spies, a conclusion of sorts for George Smiley’s people, his ex-agent who keeps coming back. Pulling his best-loved characters from so many of his novels, LeCarré manages to weave them together with new characters in present-day, finding new depths and bringing new truths to light, even after 50 years. LeCarré shows that time has not diminished him nor his characters, and if you think you know how it will end, like all of his works, it’s pretty well guaranteed you don’t.

Give le Carré a try. If you like mystery, espionage, intrigue, and unraveling puzzles with characters who won’t let you go, then you’ll love his work. If you haven’t tried him, he’s a wonderful place to begin to explore the genre. For modern novels, he’s rather clean, without a lot of graphic violence or sex or language, perhaps making the stories even more remarkable. Start with Legacy of Spies and work backward, or start at the beginning and work forward. If you prefer to watch rather than read, there are more than ten films, five television adaptions, and four radio plays to keep you entertained. You’ll be so glad you did.

Embracing Earth Day

In January 1969, off the shores of Santa Barbara, California, on oil rig received a waiver to use a protective casing 61 feet shorter than Federal regulation allowed. The rig exploded with such force the sea floor cracked in 5 places. Three million gallons of crude left a 35-mile oil slick on California’s shores, and television brought images of ruined beaches and dying, oil-soaked animals into every home.

It was the flashpoint of the modern environmental movement.

So horrified were people that politicians banded together to pass the Environmental Protection Act (1970), the Clean Air and Water Act (1972), and the Endangered Species Act (1973) as they realized the impact pollution was having on the country. And spearheading that, as a result of that oil spill, Earth Day was born on April 22, 1970, to raise awareness and bring people together to discuss environmental issues.

The Troubling Truth

Earth in 1970 was a very sorry place. We knew we were in trouble since Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring brought toxic issues to the forefront in 1962, but we did little. Air pollution killed scores of people through respiratory disease (a 1952 smog inversion killed 12,000 people in London. A 1966 attack in New York City killed 168 people in just 3 days. Smog.) Factories, farms, and mines dumped waste everywhere. Love Canal was killing children with 30-year old toxic waste. The Bald Eagle, symbol of our country, was hovering at less than 500 nesting pairs remaining, and (by 1987) the California Condor would drop to 27 remaining individuals, due to DDT (which made eggs fragile) and lead poisoning. The dropping rates of biodiversity were becoming obvious.

Environmental Victories

And with all the discussion and science, changes began to happen. DDT was banned in 1972. Leaded gasoline was phased out in 1973. Lead-based household paint was banned in 1978. Flame retardants were phased out of infant clothing (because babies have such capacity to spontaneously combust after sunset). Pesticides were examined, and many were quickly banned from use. And amazingly, the Earth began to recover. Today the Bald Eagle is off the endangered species list, with more than 5,000 nesting pairs noted – I almost drove off the highway when I saw one sitting on a light post in the Catskills. A living, wild, Bald Eagle. A few California Condors have been re-released into the wild, with more than 400 individuals now living wild or in captivity. New trucks and buses have 99% fewer emissions than those in 1970. The Hudson River now has fish again.

A Long Way Still to Go

While Earth Day and a commitment to protecting our environment – and thus ourselves – has spread around the world, the world remains a very, very polluted place. Toxins from the 70’s still lurk in the oceans. Oil spills remain in beach sand and marshes. The US boasts more than 1300 Superfund sites for government clean-up – 26 in Connecticut, and a former one here in Cheshire. Around the world, developing countries lack regulations and power to deal with toxic waste – China’s air quality is deadly due to coal-fired factories belching out pollution. Africa is poisoned by heavy metal mining. India suffers from toxic manufacturing chemicals. Lake Karachay in Russia is the most polluted place on Earth: an old dumping ground for nuclear waste, standing on the shores of the lake will kill a human in no more than an hour – far more deadly than the radioactive Chernobyl or Fukushima disasters, which will haunt us for thousands of years to come. Microbeads are choking animal life. Pesticides believed to be linked to some forms of autism still hide in lakes, and toys, furniture, and clothing manufactured in Asia can still contain lead and chemicals long-banned elsewhere.

The Importance of Individuals

While we may blow off our green recycling bins and never return our bottles, those little things, combined, make a big impact. Recycling aluminum cans saves 95% of the energy needed to produce new ones from ore. One ton of recycled paper saves 17 trees, lessening the greenhouse effect. One ton of recycled plastic saves 16 barrels of oil – $1,000 per ton. Multiply that by all the people in your town, your state, your region – and think how that snowballs. So celebrate your cleaner environment on April 22. Plant a tree. Pick up garbage on the side of the road. Recycle your bottles. Take a walk and look at all the diversity of trees and flowers and birds around you, and breathe deep of air that doesn’t burn your nose and eyes and make you cough (does anyone else remember the stink of the Uniroyal plant when the wind would shift in 1970’s summers?) Marvel at the sight of fish in the Naugatuck River, where nothing survived before. A clean planet is in our grasp. Give a hoot, don’t pollute, and save paper by checking these books out from the library!

            

                                  

                                  

 

Little Starlings

I am a deep introvert. I’m perfectly fine talking only to the cat or TV. Hence, when my son was born, I figured if I didn’t start talking to him, he’d never learn to talk (my first mistake), and thus began thirty years of talking to myself and narrating what I’m doing.

Research published in the book Meaningful Differences, by Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley, showed a direct link between the number of words a child heard at home by the age of three, and their academic performance in Grade 3 (the age of 8). Children in poor/welfare homes heard, on average, 600 words an hour. Children of working-class homes heard 1200, and children of professional parents heard 2100. That racked up to children of professional parents hearing 30 million more words by the age of three than a poor child. So?

Exposure becomes verbal fluency. Verbal fluency is required for reading proficiency, and reading proficiency is required for academic proficiency.  The child who has minimal language is going to lag far behind on reading and academics.

How many words is your child really hearing?

Based on these studies, along comes VersaMe’s Starling, a handy-dandy little device that tracks just how many words your baby hears during the day.  It’s just a little clip-on star that records the number of words a baby hears, not the actual words (no one will hunt you down because of what you said when that [jerk] cut you off ). It’s convenient, easily rechargeable, and holds a charge for up to three days, so you don’t have to worry about plugging it in every night. It uses Bluetooth technology to report in real time to your smartphone, so you can track as you go. The clip is rather strong – the first day, it took my 14 month old 4 hours to wrestle it free, and by the next day, she wasn’t paying it any attention. It is fully waterproof, drool proof, and not particularly chewable, which was nice.

The first day we broke 10,000 words, the second day 11,000, and the third day for some reason, even though we went to a party with lots of people talking to her, it didn’t record, which was disappointing. Our best was 16,000.

Per day, 11,000 words seems like a lot, but when you figure the child is only awake 12-14 hours, and take out an average of three hours for naps, we didn’t even hit Middle-Class. Yet, I have a toddler who is off the charts in vocabulary and language skills.  Even the authors of the original study admit that quantity is nothing in the face of quality. Ten minutes spent reading a book with your child will go farther than three hours of TV.  And no, Starling can’t differentiate between people and TV.

Should you try Starling?

If you are a new parent with questions, if you’re the parent of a developmentally delayed child, if you’re just curious about yourself, then by all means give the Starling a try. It’s easy, it’s fun, and interesting to see the results. But remember, worrying about arbitrary marks isn’t good. Children, toddlers, babies all need critical down time to process all that information they’re learning.  Imagine someone following you around talking to you every waking second. You’d lock yourself in the bathroom for just 5 minutes of quiet. Your baby is no different. Language is important, but so is quiet alone time.

Starling is fun. It’s informative. Use it as an investigative tool, maybe increase some quality time or have an extra imaginary conversation on a play phone. If you want to try out a Starling, you can borrow one from the library.

For a helpful look on the making of brilliance and achievement, check out Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. For a fascinating look on the importance of auditory language, check out I Can Hear You Whisper: An Intimate Journey Through the science of Sound and Language (it’s not as sciency as it sounds), by Lydia Denworth. It’s awesome!

Tracking Black Panther

One of the more controversial topics in Hollywood is the concept of whitewashing – casting a white actor in a role meant to be Black, Asian, Native American, Latin, or other ethnic group. Some of the more egregious examples are Laurence Olivier (and Orson Welles) playing  Othello – in blackface, Ralph Fiennes playing Michael Jackson; Mickey Rooney (Breakfast at Tiffany’s), Katharine Hepburn (Dragon Seed), and John Wayne (The Conqueror) as Asians; Johnny Depp as Tonto (Lone Ranger); Tilda Swinton as an Asian man (Dr. Strange), or the one that ruined my childhood: finding out that Native American Iron Eyes Cody of the 1970’s Keep America Beautiful campaign was actually a man of Italian descent.

Big-Budget Black-Lead Films

In fact, serious big-budget black films are hard to come by. Indeed, most of the highest-grossing black-lead films are comedies (Eddie Murphy has 5 of the top 7, not including Beverly Hills Cop), despite some very top-quality dramas (The Color Purple, Fences, Moonlight, The Help, Soul Food). Yet Samuel L. Jackson – I’ll see anything he’s in – ranks number TWO on the list of actors with top box office revenues, pulling in a combined domestic gross of more than 7 BILLION dollars for his 126+ films (#1 is Stan Lee. He has a cameo in every movie he makes). Even Hollywood protested the lack of serious roles for black actors, and stirred a controversy over a glaring absence in Oscar nominations despite worthy black films, a problem starting to be rectified in 2017. Not great if you’re a black kid looking for role models. The Adventures of Pluto Nash just doesn’t cut it.

A New Superhero

Now, Hollywood may be on the verge of a true black superhero blockbuster with the release of February’s Black Panther, Marvel’s 18th release into its megahit superhero franchise. Following his debut in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, T’Challa – holding the title Black Panther – is the king of the fictional African country of Wakanda, who gains superpowers from a heart-shaped herb and connections to a mystical Panther God. When his father is assassinated in Civil War, T’Challa returns to Wakanda to discover his claim to the throne being challenged. T’Challa must team up with a CIA agent and the Wakanda Special Forces to prevent a world war.

The History of Black Panther

Black Panther was the first black comic book superhero, ever (1966), so early he predates the political party. Chadwick Boseman does a phenomenal job as T’Challa, and the movie promises to have the same serious craft and attention as the rest of the Marvel films. The previews are visually stunning, with rich ethnic textiles and cultural details that leap off the screen, drawn from no fewer than five different African cultures. Not only a superhero, but a culturally relevant one as well – which of course, immediately started another controversy whether or not the movie is celebrating African culture or trying to appropriate it. The movie was originally green-lighted in 2011, and the script approved in 2015. Hollywood doesn’t get better than this.

Of course there are now other black superheroes. Luke Cage’s TV series has had luke-warm reviews. As the XMen movies progressed, Storm played less and less of a role. Sam Wilson is a great sidekick, but no Captain America. Iron Man’s buddy Rhodey Rhodes/War Machine/Iron Patriot may be Don Cheadle, but he’s still just a sidekick called in when an extra guy is needed (at least, in the films). In Black Panther, black youth – and everyone else – may finally have found a superhero they can look up to, in full, serious, big-screen, big-budget glory, and he is Marvel-ous.