Karaoke: Live in Fear

A peculiar thing happens when you set up a karaoke machine at a party. At first, no one wants to approach it. Everyone, whether they have any interest in singing or not, is waiting for the first person to walk up there, pick up the microphone and start singing. No one wants to be that person — and certainly no one wants to be mistaken for that person. If the karaoke machine happens to be set up next to the liquor, then the shy partygoers are forced to either walk over to it with exaggerated nonchalance or simply refrain from getting another drink until someone begins singing. (Or worse, ask someone else to get a drink for them.) Observing this in action at a party this weekend, I began to speculate on how karaoke machines could be used to exploit natural social anxieties. I envision a safe disguised to look like a karaoke machine: those who weren’t frightened by it would likely be too repulsed to go near it. Karaoke machines could be used to hide stains or damage you wouldn’t want people to notice, or to dissuade guests from raiding your refrigerator. I would even guess that a karaoke machine in the bathroom would, if not scare people away completely, would at least instill a vague disquiet. Why is this here? they would wonder, eyeing the machine nervously as they wiped. Are we going to be singing karaoke later? They’d be so freaked out they’d completely forget to snoop in your medicine cabinet.

As for the experience of singing or watching karaoke, I realized this: karaoke is like jet-skiing, in that it is an enjoyable pastime for those actually doing it and a grating annoyance for everyone else. I have jet-skied and thought it was a blast. Yet watching jet-skiers roar across the placid surface of a lake, frightening wildlife and disturbing everyone’s peace, makes me angrily denounce the steady decline of civilization itself.

I have never sang karaoke. It’s bad enough I like jet-skiing.

My Day, Had I Been a Character in a Kung-Fu Movie

9:03

Arrived at office. Changed shoes, stopped at coffee machine and chatted with copywriter about her sons, one of whom is returning to live with her.

9:07

Entered office of Ran Bao-tu, Senior Creative Director and kung-fu master of unmatched skill, nobility and judgment, for morning conference only to find room in shambles and Master Ran lying sprawled on floor, severely beaten and on the brink of death. Cradled master’s head on my knees, imploring: “Who did this?”. Marshaling last ounce of strength, master weakly named Bai Tiao-man, leader of rival kung fu school Cobra Whisper, as his assailant. Master then croaked final breath, dying.

9:08

Swore revenge in the name of my ancestors on Cobra Whisper and its contemptible, craven master, Bai Tiao-man.

9:09

Began catching up on email.

9:19

Sent Outlook meeting request challenging Bai Tiao-man to combat to the death at 5:00 pm. Request was promptly accepted.

9:30

Met with members of Media, Production and PR teams to coordinate efforts on new brand rollout scheduled for next month. Received numerous condolences and expressions of sympathy on death of Master Ran.

10:18

On way to water fountain, chanced upon my counterpart in Marketing at Cobra Whisper, who disgraced Master Ran’s good name with vile falsehoods and insults. Confrontation quickly escalated into combat. Fight ranged throughout Accounting and Human Resources, ending in front of vice president’s office, where I finally bested my opponent with rapid combination of Crane Plucks Eggs from Nest and Swift Tiger Pounce.

10:22

Stood out in lobby alone, silently mourning Master Ran, a single stoic tear streaming down cheek.

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Mac OS X: The Lion in Winter

First of all, mea culpa: I was completely wrong about Apple’s pricing strategy for Mac OS X 10.7. That doesn’t bother me — it doesn’t even surprise me that much. I don’t believe Steve Jobs and company are incapable of error, but I do believe they know much more about running their business than I ever will.

But the fact that OS X 10.7 is being released to the public for the measly price of $29.99 (side note: what’s with the double-decimal pricing?) is a huge deal, and not merely because it will likely be the most successful — that is, the most immediately widespread — OS release Apple has ever had. It symbolically closes an era that began 16 years ago with Windows 95: the era of the retail software event. Back then, the country went crazy for Windows 95 in a way that hasn’t been seen since, well, the iPhone came out. People lined up for it, bought it in droves, gossiped and kibitzed and complained about it. A lot of people liked it, a lot didn’t (at least at first), but everybody had an opinion. Windows 95 was more than the tech story of the year: it was the heart of the tech universe, a symbol of how much more than mere technology computer software was becoming. And it was Microsoft’s baby.

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Mac OS X 10.7: How much for that Lion?

AppleInsider tells us that Apple is considering underpricing the next version of Mac OS X, due this summer:

This source, who has an unproven track record, claims that Apple higher-ups were pushing for an aggressive price point on Lion — an approach the company already employed with great success when Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard launched in late 2009. Snow Leopard debuted with a $29 price tag, and that strategy resulted in sales that doubled the previous record-setting launch of Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard.

The article goes on to note that Apple software released through the Mac App Store is often significantly cheaper than the same software’s boxed retail version, so there is a further precedent should Apple decide to go this route.

I plan to upgrade to Lion no matter what it costs, so I’d be delighted to get it for $20 rather than the customary $129. However, there are a couple of reasons why I won’t think this will happen:

1. Cheap now, cheap forever

It’s easy to make a product expensive and then gradually reduce the price. It’s much harder to start cheap and then get more expensive. Apple may not be forever inclined to effectively give away major releases of their operating system. It’s generally a bad idea to “train” the market to expect high value at cheap prices. Which leads me to the next reason:

2. Perceived value

Have you ever shopped for wine and found yourself selecting the second-least-expensive bottle? We like things to be cheap, but not too cheap, especially when it’s something to be enjoyed; we don’t like to feel as though we’re skimping on our own pleasure. Apple, of course, is all about perceived value, and their computers are marketed not just as powerful tools but as fun to use in themselves. Along with industrial design and a certain aspirational, clever-but-not-hip advertising approach, price has been one of the chief means by which Apple sets its products apart in the market. It’s not that the products are overpriced, for they usually compare quite favorably, even aggressively, with products of similar calibre. It’s that Apple doesn’t make cheap stuff. Even the entry-level Apple products, like the iPod shuffle, have a certain robustness and elegance that communicates that they were made with care — and not cheaply. (Apple got away with underpricing Snow Leopard by explicitly managing expectations. It was clear from the get-go that there was not a lot of user-directed innovation in that release.)

So I am guessing that Mac OS X 10.7 Lion will appear on Apple retail shelves for the customary $129, with the App Store version (it seems increasingly certain there will be one) offered at a modestly reduced price, say $79. If you’re selling “the world’s most advanced operating system,” after all, you ought to charge what it’s actually worth.

The Beatles Meet Cassius Clay, February 1964

Today Andrew Sullivan’s The Dish linked to a new tumblr called awesome people hanging out together. It lives up to its name. There are classic photos everyone knows, and quite a few I had no inkling of. It’s cool to see Jimi Hendrix greeting Janis Joplin (I can’t link to the photo itself) backstage — for all I know it’s the first time they ever met. Maybe the only time. Or Michael Jackson pretending to punch Mr. T — honestly, can you will yourself not to click that link?

One thing I was expecting to find, and did, was this:

There are lots of pictures of the Beatles clowning around with Cassius Clay, as he was still known then, and this one and the variations of it are the best known. It might not occur to you on seeing it that the Beatles and Clay had no idea who each other were. The photo opp was arranged by their respective handlers, who had some inkling of what it might mean to bring these two phenomena together: the British invaders who were taking over American popular music, and the African-American dynamo who, not content to redefine the sport of boxing, went on to create the template for mass-media sports celebrity — he had already started doing it when this shot was taken.

We see this photo now and marvel that it happened, that these five people ever occupied the same space together. It’s like an improbably real version of those cheesy prints that show Bogart, James Dean and Marilyn Monroe hanging out in the same pool hall. The Beatles and Muhammad Ali, to give him his proper name, are titans, figures who stand outside of popular history. It looked a little different to viewers back then. The Beatles were a teenybopper fad in February 1964, when they went to visit Clay as he trained for his first title fight. No one, perhaps not even the Beatles themselves, realized how pivotal their presence would be as the 60s took their strange, epochal course. And Clay was something of a nine-day-wonder himself, a braggart expected to have his clock cleaned by Sonny Liston. Probably a lot of people simply wanted it to happen, wanted to see the loudmouth get his comeuppance, just as a lot of people waited, and waited, for the Beatles to fall on their faces and prove how shallow and fleeting their presence in the culture really was.

But the Beatles went on to prove that rock music could expand beyond anyone’s preconceptions, taking politics, manners and culture along with it. And Ali proved not only that he was a great fighter — indeed, that he was as great as he said he was, which hardly seemed possible — but that a sports figure could be just as culturally radical, just as transformational, as any artist, politician, philosopher or pop musician.

It hadn’t happened yet. No one was seeing it coming. This is a photo of the moment before the plunge — before everything changed.