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That’s Socialism!

December 21, 2010

I’ve been somewhat “art blocked” lately – haven’t managed to turn a page of any of my Bronzino or Florence books, save for the easy reading of the Leonardo’s Universe picture book.  Living by myself again and loving it, and I think I’m still coming down off the stress of rearranging my life.  I was at the café, tome in hand, pretty much every afternoon because it was easier than coming home and dealing with my living situation, and now that I have the luxury of coming home right after work every day and just resting, well, that’s what I’ve been doing.  This new arrangement means I’m reading more, albeit not doing my “homework.”  I read Stacy Schiff’s Cleopatra in about three days, and loved it.  (More on that tomorrow.)

Has anyone else noticed that you can no longer just "rate this book” on Amazon?  You used to be able to just go to the page for the book and click on the number of stars you wanted to give it, and check “I own it” if you’d bought it elsewhere, and be done – now you have to “share your thoughts with other customers” to rate it, creating a pen name and actually writing a review.  I’ve emailed Amazon and asked them why they’ve made this change; I’ll let you know what I hear (presumably after the holidays). 

MINUTES LATER:  I just got a boilerplate keyword-generated response from Amazon.  It’s another instance of how tone-deaf software can be:


I do understand your concern.

We created this feature so that you can let other customers know if another reviewer’s comments were helpful to you.

To rate someone’s review, simply click the "Yes" or "No" button after "Was this review helpful to you?" It is necessary to have a customer password in order to cast your vote. You will not need to worry about other customers contacting you about your rating, as our rating system is anonymous. Updated ratings will be reflected online within 24 hours.

If you are interested in other reviews someone has written, you may view them by clicking on their posted e-mail address. You can only access multiple reviews by customers whose e-mail address is posted. For example, you would not be able to access reviews by "A reviewer in Seattle."

To submit a review of an item on, visit the product detail page of the item and click on the link "Create your own review."

The most irritating thing in that mail?  Not the fact that it doesn’t address “my concern” at all, but that some idiot raised their hand in a meeting and made someone else insert that first-person phrase in the opening of a computer generated letter, as they babbled some CorpSpeak about how that was going to make me “feel more positive” about “my customer experience.”  Someday, there may be an AI that “understands my concern,” but I can guarantee you with absolute certainty that a form letter will never, ever do so.

I think there’s a post or two in the topic of “socialism,” the increasing tendency of corporations to force you into using their sites’ social networking features whether you like it or not.  I got a “Zune Pass” for $15 a month and I’m loving it – rather than spending two or three times that much a month on the classical music I use at work to drown out the awful silence of the cubefarm, I get access to a large library of albums which I can download and listen to as long as I’m paying my licensing fee.  One bothersome feature is the tendency to randomly drop certain songs from some albums, making them available as complete albums only through purchase – not a big deal on a John Mayer album, but quite a big deal on a classical album, where you lose a third of a work with a missing track.  Zune was actually ahead of iTunes in terms of socializing taste, inviting you to share your favorites with your friends and presumably improving your results thereby.  If you “don’t have any friends,” you get this semi-chiding message:


Well, it’s my right to be anti-social, dammit! 

Recently I’ve gone out on a jazz limb, making blind purchases at Recycled Records  which I may or may not like, and listening to them as I drive around, developing my own tastes as I go.  It’s quite fun, actually – yes, there’s the shortcut I could take of “sharing” the first few things I like (Chet Baker, the Great Ladies of Song, other non-dissonant or “difficult” jazz) with others online and getting a picture of what they like and going from there, but that’s bound to narrow my focus down to what already fits within my taste boundaries, rather than taking the “risk” of widening them by making more random purchases. 

“Socialism” has broken the power of the critic, upon whom you had to rely in the old days not only to know what was good, but what existed – if nobody reviewed an album by an artist with no advertising budget, it vaporized, barring a word-of-mouth sensation, but even that had to be distributed across the network of music writers first.  I used to rampage through (pre-metal) Creem, Rolling Stone, Maximumrocknroll (whose vast letters section was perhaps the original musical social network), to find what was out there.  There was nowhere to hear a one-minute sample of a song, save possibly at the record store.  We were fortunate in Reno to have Mirabelli’s Music City, run by two brassy blond twin older ladies, which carried albums by X and Gang of Four and early Clash as a matter of course – I wonder if there was some punk prodigy doing the buying, or if they just ordered everything that got reviewed in the bigger music mags.  Music was an adventure, not to get all “journey is the reward” or some such mystical hoo-hah.  I remember the two times the hair stood up on the back of my neck in a record store – the first time I heard the Eurythmics “Sweet Dreams” in Mirabelli’s, and the first time I heard Sinead O’Connor’s “Troy” in Tower Records on Market in SF.  That was admittedly “socializing” the music on the smallest scale, whoever was in charge of the turntable exposing the rest of us to greatness, and we “socialized” music amongst ourselves via mixtapes.  As the one making the most money as a clerk in an office, I ended up the tastemaker because I bought more records than anyone else in my circle and shared the results.  But whether it was someone else playing the song for me or me buying it “blind” and just listening to the whole album, open-eared and open-minded, there was a wide-openness to the experience that gets lost when you start relying on the “wisdom of crowds” to tell you how much you’ll like something similar to what you already like. 

Software is still not that good with taste – for instance, the Jack Reacher books by Lee Child are absolutely five-star experiences, fast and gritty and lean and fun.  But rate these books “five stars” on Amazon and you get recommended the (literally) assembly-line produced crap of “James Patterson,” who doesn’t even write his own books.  Child writes popular thrillers, and so does Patterson, but Patterson is shite.  I resisted buying Child’s books for a long time because I thought they were “like” the rest of the boilerplate crap airplane reading out there on the “thriller” shelf.  Only going out on that limb and experimenting (thanks to the consistent enthusiasm of the Times’ Janet Maslin for his work) let me find that outlier. 

The tripod on which taste has been built has always been threefold – your friends share what they love with you, critics you like and trust expose you to new things, and then there’s what you discover yourself, sometimes “by accident on purpose.” Sites like Zune and Rhapsody and others which allow you unlimited access free you of the financial risk of buying (unreturnable) stuff you might not like, and therefore free you to expand your musical horizons, but by accident on purpose is easy to abandon when the network is the solution, and “items you’ll love” are already found for you.


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