EdWard | Wednesday February 13th, 2013
“You know how every once in a while you’ll see an obit for an old movie star or politician kicking off at 90-plus after at least a decade in the rest home?” my friend Chris wrote me. “And you think ‘Gee, he/she was still alive? Who knew?’ That’s how I felt when I saw this.” “This” was an article in Ars Technica reporting that Sony had pulled the plug on the mini-disc. I’d sent it to Chris because there was a time when he was a real booster of that format, having converted all of his LPs to mini-discs, and urging me to do the same. And now this.
I’ll admit I was tempted to get one, not because of Chris’ advocacy, but because I had come to hate cassettes for recording interviews, and was working at a jazz radio station in Berlin where I had the opportunity to interview jazz musicians. A mini-disc would be far higher fidelity than a cassette, and we were all-digital by then anyway. But it turned out that our recording medium of choice was the DAT, and the couple of times I checked out one of the station’s DAT recorders, it drove me batty. Man, talk about complicated! And, as Chris noted later in his e-mail, mini-discs were tough little things, unlike DATs, which were simply higher-fidelity — admittedly much higher-fidelity — cassettes.
What DAT turned out to be perfect for was music: I knew a lot of musicians who bought DAT recorders and made records with them in their living rooms or practice rooms. This, of course, was before hard-disc recorders became available. I have one of those around here somewhere, and used it for some interviews for a book project that never happened. Again, a terrible user interface, to the point that if I find I have to do another project that’s dependent on interviews that have to be kept (instead of my usual method of either typing on the computer or writing on a pad), say, for archiving, I’m going to look into getting a better one.
But then, I’m a gearhead, like a lot of guys are. When I was a pre-teen my best friend’s father was into something called “high fidelity,” and was friends with a guy named Avery Fisher, who had a company that made amplifiers and FM tuners that reproduced music from records (and the occasional multiplex stereo FM broadcast) in what was for the day amazing sound. We hung out some at a high-fidelity store, where they tolerated us (and hoped to get my friend’s dad in as a customer), and one day they showed us a new gizmo they’d gotten in: it played a magazine-sized cartridge of quarter-inch tape, and RCA, who manufactured it, was going to start putting out operas and such in this new format. It made a lot of sense to me, and although it vanished shortly thereafter, the idea stuck with me, so that in 1967, when I was offered the use of a new machine that Philips had put out that took what looked like the same thing, only much smaller — a “compact cassette” — for a trip to San Francisco, I was able to record an entire evening at the Avalon Ballroom with it in surprisingly good fidelity. I was sold on cassettes, even though at the time they were impossible to find. (The tape, incidentally, mostly features Big Brother and the Holding Company with Janis Joplin, and is in a safe place waiting to be remastered).
Later, of course, I got a computer, and had impressed upon me the necessity of backing up stuff as often as possible. (In fact, my first encounter with a computer was an all-afternoon writing session with another writer who didn’t press Save the whole time — he’d just gotten the machine himself — and thus we lost the entire day’s work when the text just vanished for some reason. Poof!) Thus, I wound up with a thingy on my desk stuffed with floppy discs containing stuff I’d written, as well as all of my Compuserve e-mail correspondence. Whew! No disappearance of this stuff anytime soon!
But looking at this picture, I now realize I should have given this some thought. That big disc on the left? I’d owned a weird Xerox brand word-processor that ran those things. You’d “record” as you wrote, and you could edit and change misspellings before pushing a button, at which point the thing would act as a typewriter and type it out. (You could also use it as a typewriter and not record. Hey, it seemed like a good deal at the time). Its inutility became evident when I wrote an article and the editor told me not to type it out — he needed it in too much of a hurry — but to send the disc to him and he’d do it there at the office. Except…he couldn’t. Nobody could read it: Xerox apparently was the only place you could get it read, and there wasn’t time.
So when the Zip disc came along, I thought, great! It had a huge capacity next to a floppy, so you could store all kinds of things on it. I bought a Zip disc reader and backed up a lot of my stuff (including that all-important Compuserve e-mail). I’m sure by now you see the punch-line coming. I even bought a new computer back then, one which gave me the choice of either a Zip drive or a CD drive and I figured, hey, recordable CDs are expensive (and they were, back then), so I opted for the Zip. Which went out of business almost immediately. I don’t think I ever used the drive in the computer, now that I think about it.
Oh, and the Compuserve stuff? Along came the Internet and wiped out their proprietary network, not to mention the proprietary software that encoded all of that correspondence. I may even still have the Zip drive, for all I know, but I’ll never get to re-read any of my old e-mail.
I could go on telling this story, which has a few more chapters, but you see where it’s going. And it’s the story that comes to mind every time I’m tempted to store all of my stuff “in the cloud,” wherever that is. Oh, I know where — and what — it is, but I keep thinking of these server farms, which are being built every day, filled with machinery that’s going to have to be replaced sooner or later. I think about how easily a solar flare — or a nuclear explosion — could wipe the data on one or more of those server farms. Sure, they’ve been made ridiculously redundant, so that data’s not “lost.”
So take a Zip drive to lunch today, folks, and get flippy with a floppy. Enjoy your streaming music, the very definition of impermanence. If you’re looking for something to stream, may I suggest Debussy’s famed Nuages, which of course means clouds. Notice how the harmonies are light, lacy, changing, not settling. And hey, if all of this makes you want to curl up with a book and listen to music on a vinyl record, I’m not about to object.