Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Ideal Minimall

Large supermarkets I don't really like, with the exception of Whole Foods - and even then there is much in the middle of the store (organic toilet paper and the like) that I have no use for.  I tend to shop daily now - life circumstances change fast, with kids doing this and that, so it is hard to plan long-term, and I don't particularly want to most of the time.

For a few years an idea has been bouncing around my head - the 'ideal minimall'.  It would have four separate stores as its core.  One would be a good butcher shop, with a knowledgeable butcher and a wide selection of meats - quality meats, meaning no hormones, antibiotics, etc.  Local organic meats would be ideal, but that's probably not practical.  I'd also like to be able to find the kinds of things that supermarkets no longer seem to carry, like bones for making stock, or the more unusual organs (for that occasional haggis craving).

Next to this would be a greengrocer, a thing so rare that the term seems to be falling out of use.  A place to get quality vegetables, run by a person who knows something about them.  I would add fruit to this store as well.

The third store would be a fish market.  We have some fish markets in the area, and given the proximity to the sea and the existence of a local fishing fleet, these are pretty good.  The selection can be limited in some, and in others the staff doesn't seem to know as much as it should.  One of my favorites was one in Waltham, MA (I don't remember the name) which seemed to have 3 or 4 people working at all times, had a large selection, and was a place one could buy things like fishheads or lobster bodies for stock and stew purposes.  Of course there has to be enough business to justify the stock size, and enough turnover to maintain quality, so this might be difficult.  One think I love about Whole Foods is their seafood, which seems to be of high quality at every store - so I'm sure it's doable.

The fourth store would be a bakery.  Supermarket bakeries seem to bake premade or preformulated mixtures - I'm sure it guarantees uniform quality, but that quality isn't very high.  One of my fond memories from childhood is walking into a (good) bakery, and smelling the buttery sweetness that seemed to hang in the air.  A good bakery should do the full range of baked goods, from breads to cakes and pastry. 

Of course all of these stores would be able to handle custom orders, and ought to have knowledgeable staff that could offer advice as necessary. 

There might be other stores as well - a liquor store (perhaps more focused on wine than hard liquors) would be a nice addition, and a cheese/dairy outlet would be a fine addition, particularly if the products were from local farms.  A coffeehouse at one end of the minimall might provide a nice gathering place as well.

One could drive in to such a minimall and stroll from store to store, assembling a dinner.  One would likely have to make occasional trips to supermarkets for soaps, napkins, etc., but I think this sort of minimall might be quite an attraction.  One way to do it would be to find an investor willing to put up the money to buy or build the physical infrastructure, then lease to the individual markets, perhaps also with some equity in those businesses as well.  Such a plan would have to cover the contingencies of a market failing, or key personal leaving, but that shouldn't be insurmountable. 

Issues When Working With MP3s

I recently spent some time trying to put my collection of .mp3 audio files in better shape; this has been an ongoing project for years.  There really aren't any good tools to do it, which, given the popularity of that file format, is somewhat surprising.  I usually find myself doing one task in one app, then a different task in a different app.  Part of the reason I thought to write this post is to see if others have had similar experiences, or found solutions to some of the problems.

My ultimate, ideal goal is to have each .mp3 file be 'complete', with music, lyrics, album art, and credits for everyone who worked on that particular piece.  This would actually be useful - for example, one might want to listen to every piece of music Alan Parsons worked on (beyond the Alan Parsons Project).  One might trace careers of writers, producers, etc. if the tags were complete.

Another goal I've had is to attach years to each piece of music.  The goal would be to let me select music that I might hear on a radio station in a given year, say, 1977.  Of course radio stations play older music, so players really should have some algorithms for picking music from earlier times to add to the playlist.  But attaching years is a necessary first step.

This is harder than it might seem, because work is republished.  If one takes a CD issued recently, the dates attached to the album and the music will be recent, even if the CD is a re-issue of an older album.  The problem is worse with compilations - the dates are often determined by the ISBN of the CD, not the original issue dates of the music.

I've found attaching dates to be an interesting but laborious process - looking up a given song one might find much earlier versions, live versions, long versions, short versions for AM radio play, etc.  I try to use a date that reflects when I might first have heard it on the radio.  In part its interesting because some of the older versions show the evolution of the song.  For instance, while trying to date Taco's "Puttin' On the Ritz" I found that the song had been written by Irving Berlin in 1929, with several notable versions (Clark Gable 1939, Fred Astaire 1946) before Taco's version in 1983.  See for instance'_on_the_Ritz.  A surprising number of rock songs go back to early Blues songs of the 1910-1920 period, with likely earlier, but undocumented, roots.

Just managing the MP3s isn't trivial - take 'artist name', a category in pretty much every player or library app.  Now, should The Beatles be listed as "The Beatles" (which will sort with the "T"s), "Beatles" (which will sort well, but isn't the real band name), or "Beatles, The" (which kind of gets at both the real name and the right sort order).  Ideally player and library software should let you specify the name as "The Beatles", which is the correct artist name, but then show this in an alphabetical list under the "B"s, not the "T"s.   Almost inevitably one will have some songs in both categories, and the separation of B and T is such that it may be quite hard to notice this.

Some band names are listed inconsistently, e.g. Pinkard & Bowden or Pinkard and Bowden.  Some music pieces are by a particular band, but feature a guest artist - one would like this piece listed for both the band and the artist.  Then there are case issues, e.g. John McCutcheon vs. John Mccutcheon - these kinds of spelling variants creep in for a variety of reasons.  And, would one like to find the music of Carlos Santana in the "C"s or in the "S"s?  Add to this foreign names with accent marks (sometimes); bands which stay the same but make small changes to their names (e.g. John Cougar, John Cougar Mellencamp, etc.).  Semantically these should be grouped together, but they won't be.

For classical music I describe the composer as last name first, then first and middle names.  It's just how I think of classical music.  There may be other genres with other common guidelines as well.  And, while on the topic of classical music, I often tell my player to play in random order - but I really would never want to mix classical and, say, rock.  This isn't trivial to achieve; of course one may construct playlists of all classical or all rock, but then when one adds new music one must update these playlists.  The player foobar 2000 does some dynamic list assembly, which is a start.  It is a good player, but I have yet to fully tame it, and don't really have the time to dedicate to figuring it out.

Then there is 'genre': one player of mine has hundred of genres, many I just don't understand.  I don't know what "Trip Hop" is, nor how "Electronic" differs from "Electronica".  What I'd like is a smaller subset that isn't too ambiguous, and a way to constrain any new entries in the library to use one of the existing genres that I've found acceptable.  In the absence of this, I've taken to using a kind of 'path' approach, so that similar genres appear next to each other when sorted - so I'll have "guitar" (meaning guitar instrumentals), then "guitar: Spanish", "guitar: electric", etc. 

Then there is 'album': many of the songs I've got have appeared on multiple albums, e.g. the original release album and perhaps a 'greatest hits' album later on, or a different kind of compilation, perhaps one containing many artists (e.g., a Christmas album).  I would really like to link the song to all of those albums, but there is usually no way of doing this (short of keeping duplicate songs around).

'Rating': many players and managers keep ratings for songs in a separate database, not in the mp3 file itself.  I'm not sure why - perhaps because the ratings are personal, and the songs are assumed to be shared, though that makes little sense.  Every once in a while I'd have to rebuild the database for an app, and all of that information would be lost.  I find it to be very useful when putting together playlists, so I adopted a somewhat radical approach: I have subdirectories named "5", "4", "3", etc., and I move all the songs rated 5 into the "5" subdirectory.  If I have to reestablish the ratings in a given player I sort the songs by file path, then select all of those in the "5" subdir and set their rating to 5.  It takes a few minutes, but is far better than losing that information.

So - that's a quick list of issues I've had when trying to manage my mp3 library.  With all of the money and time that's been poured into the production and sale of these, I'm surprised no one has done a player or library manager that can handle all of these issues.  Foobar 2000 seems to come closest, but it's always doing something a bit strange, and I just haven't had the time to master its idiosyncracies.  I would very much like feedback on how others have dealt with these problems.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Government ≠ Society

There's much talk nowadays about the apparently irreconcilable differences between the Left and the Right. In nearly all of this talk I think one important, indeed central, point is missed. Acknowledging it will be a necessary first step in finding common ground, the sort needed to craft future policies with broad support.

Those on the Left argue that government should be used to advance social welfare in all its forms, beginning with providing basic necessities. One hears phrases like "No one should starve in a civilized society", or "Everyone deserves health care". These ends are pursued through various forms of legislation, taxation, 'redistribution' of income, etc.

Those on the Right (and by this I mean what people are beginning to call "Conservatives", or even classical Liberals) view government as a necessary but limited institution, largely because of the danger its power presents. As George Washington said, "Government is not reason; it is not eloquent; it is force. Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master." Liberty takes precedence over goals, however noble, because otherwise government power will eventually expand without limit. It is this outlook that is at the root of the Constitution, particularly the Bill of Rights, and of course has helped ensure basic freedoms for quite some time now.

Can these two views of government be reconciled, at least to the extent that policies may be found that are acceptable to both the Left and the Right? I believe it might be possible - that the social goals of the Left may be pursued while respecting the libertarian requirements of the Right. As the wealth of the world grows, enabling more and vaster collective social projects, it will be increasingly important to get this right.

I think the problem stems from confusing 'society', or even 'civilization', with the government. Without this distinction I believe we will be doomed to a relatively primitive stage of political development. This confusion shows up quite frequently, and few seem aware of it. A recent letter in the Wall Street Journal about Obama's health care proposals noted that some key ones should pass because "Society should guarantee basic health care". What struck me was the unwarranted assumption that " Society = Government". At first this seemed innocuous, perhaps because I'd heard statements like it for years; but on second thought it expresses a somewhat extreme world view, that government is the only significant social actor. Why would anyone think that? How did this idea get traction?

I know from local politics that the resources government has act as a great draw - for instance, for small nonprofits, getting funds from the government is usually much easier than raising them independently. Fund raising requires time, effort, expense, and offers no sort of guaranteed return. On the other hand, gov't are of such a scale that the lobbying efforts required are paid back many times over. Government is the one easily accessible institution that can provide this kind of support. Then there are projects seemingly possible only to something with the resources of the federal government: building the Panama Canal, going to the moon, etc. This is often mistakenly used as justification - because the government is the only actor capable of acting, that it should. In a society with relatively little wealth, it may indeed be the case that the government is the only entity with the resources for large-scale projects, but as the wealth of the citizenry increases, this is less and less true. There are many billionaires now; Bill Gates has a net worth of nearly $100 billion. Individuals such as this, and particularly groups of such individuals, are capable of marshalling resources comparable to that of many sovereign states.

What are the implications of declaring that "Government ≠ Society", not only philosophically but practically? This distinction may offer some surprising solutions, generally involving social actors capable of substantial efforts but without the coercive power of government.

Consider the following proposal - intended as an example more than as an actual policy proposal, though some variant of it might well be practical. Government functions are divided into two parts: the "libertarian core" and the "optional social support" components. Your tax bill is similarly partitioned; and you only have to pay the bill for the "libertarian core" part. You're encouraged and expected to pay the "optional social support" part as well, but it's not required. Whether you do or not (or the percentage of it that you pay) is public information.

This should satisfy the most libertarian citizen - no longer will state power be used to extract money from citizens for projects of dubious constitutionality. It might well satisfy the most progressive citizen as well, as it would remove the moral and constitutional barriers to many efforts to alleviate perceived problems. Would it work? Would people pay more than they were absolutely required to? They might if it affected how they were perceived in society, whether they were hired by certain companies, or their chances when running for office ("Candidate X always paid the bare minimum!"). And of course if it wouldn't work, if the citizenry rejected funding social initiatives dreamed up by politicians, perhaps that's a better outcome - a kind of national referendum on those initiatives.

One could modify this proposal in many ways to make it more practical and effective, but I offer it as only one of many possible innovations that might spring to mind once one has broken away from the idea that society's only agent is government. We may eventually look back and see that the separation of social reform efforts from government is as necessary a step as the separation of church and state, and for similar reasons: social reform is usually predicated on a particular view of what an ideal society should be, and there are a multiplicity of such views, just as there are different religious catmas and dogmas. In a free society these choices should not be made because of government coercion.

Until then, we face the issues that arise when the coercive power of the state is used to further questionable ends, often for political reasons. As Robert Heinlein said, "A government that robs Peter to pay Paul can always count on the support of Paul" - it is this sort of politics that can corrupt democracy.