Monday, December 17, 2012

Tragedies Come in Many Forms

I went through the same reaction process as most of us on Friday — and by most of us, I mean Americans who didn't personally know anybody at Sandy Hook Elementary School or in the community of Newtown, Conn. — a mixture of grief and anguish and disbelief. I asked the same questions my coworkers asked: How do these things keep happening? Why children? What can we do about it? My thoughts moved, dementedly, to the mindset of the killer. What kind of person does one have to be to perform such brutal acts?

By comparison, I thought of all the people that I know that I consider genuinely "bad people." There aren't many, but I know a few. These are bad people because they have no respect for others and they intentionally hurt others' feelings for their own arrogant sense of wellbeing. These bad people would not do what Adam Lanza did on Friday, December 14. Not in a million years.

So how do we identify those that are at-risk of causing great harm without becoming increasingly paranoid, resorting to witch hunts of the mentally ill? The greater question, I now think, is should we?

Let's envision an alternate reality at the moment? Let's imagine that we successfully identified the key elements that caused Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris to enter Columbine High School with assault weapons in 1999. Let's assume that we found a way to address those issues — we banned assault rifles, we exponentially increased funding to mental health services, especially for young people. Whatever it is. And let's imagine that we haven't had a mass shooting since.

No Virginia Tech. No Aurora Movie Theater. No Fort Hood. No Sandy Hook Elementary.

We wouldn't know it, of course, but we'd see a decade and a half gone by without one of these tragic incidents. And we'd have saved over 250 lives.

If that number seems low, that's because it is. By comparison, it's lower than the number of Americans who die by taking legally-obtained prescription drugs every day. It's about twice the number of Americans who die every day in car accidents. You get my point.

This is not to say that mass shootings are not a problem. Indeed, they are probably among the most frightening issues we face in the U.S., specifically because they happen so suddenly and are so unpredictable. But, we should recognize that our fear and our dread is why we react the way we do, why we feel the urgent need to take action. We should not pretend that incidents like Sandy Hook are comparable in number to the deaths U.S. families see every day because of cancer, heart disease, medical accidents, poverty and car crashes.

These problems, as deadly and pervasive as they are, happen gradually, and are expected. As Heath Ledger's Joker said in The Dark Knight, "Nobody panics when things go according to plan. Even if the plan is horrifying." Behavioral psychologists will recognize the human ability to fear a mass shooting more than a fatal car accident, even when one is far more likely than the other. If I die in a car crash, my friends and family will no doubt find it tragic, but it will, at least, be "part of the plan." It will be something that happens often, and so not all that surprising.

The Sandy Hook incident is something else entirely. It is senseless, destructive, and has made the entire nation a giant congregation of temporary nihilists. That is why we want to prevent future atrocities so much. That is why the media focuses so much energy on it. It's because it tears us apart to our very cores. It affects the nation mentally in a way that no number of cancer deaths could equal. It makes us doubt the very society we inhabit.

I'm of the mind that we can never eliminate these events from taking place. We can ban assault weapons and provide better mental health and preventative treatment, and we should. But, there are over 300 million of us. People just snap sometimes. It's seemingly random and completely arbitrary. And it will happen again.

What I want is for us to recognize our own limits, recognize that the energy we put into our Sandy Hook response can be utilized to prevent real suffering in a host of other areas. All of us who are now donating to the affected families or sending letters of comfort to the community should remember this feeling every time we read another statistic like the ones I linked to above. The next time you read that preventable medical errors are responsible for 200,000 U.S. deaths every year, divide that by 26 and realize that it's the equivalent of 21 Sandy Hooks every single day.

Fortunately, many of these every day, "part of the plan" crises are preventable. If the grief we feel right now were harnessed for preventable issues across the whole year, imagine what we could accomplish, and the lives we would save.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Spotify vs. MOG

Spotify was pretty much the best thing to happen to me in 2011. It allowed me to listen to music I'd always heard about but never had the chance to check out, and opened up a huge music library to me at work so that I no longer had to drag dozens of CDs into the office (or spend time at home dragging and dropping hundreds of files onto a thumb drive).

Once I upgraded to an iPhone, I was able to make playlists on Spotify that I could listen to at the gym or in my car. For only $9.99 a month, I was essentially able to eliminate the need to purchase music independently at record stores or on iTunes or Amazon. While I do lament the loss of the "record-buying experience," we are undeniably living in an age when content, especially music, is freely acquired and shared. A service like Spotify can work with artists to make the process mutually profitable, and eliminate the need for major companies, in the form of labels, to tell the consumer what they should like.

As a general audiophile myself, however, I will always appreciate going to a record store and purchasing albums on CD and vinyl, but I realize this is not something most people will continue to do. The industry and artists will adapt, I have no doubt.

Once I became fully immersed in Spotify and started telling everyone around me how it had changed my life, I began seeing notices on Facebook about so-and-so listening to music on MOG, and tech writers began promoting it as the best music-streaming service available. I decided to sign up for a two-week free trial and make my own decision. Though many other bloggers have done this review, I am going to come at it from my point-of-view as someone who loves music and listens to it in multiple settings. I've made my decision based on several criteria, which I will detail below, and attempt to explain why I am sticking with Spotify as my music service of choice. I'll be comparing the premium accounts of both services.

Criterion #1: Music Library

Both MOG and Spotify have vast catalogues. MOG advertises that it has 14 million songs in its library, while Spotify simply says "millions and millions" on its website, though Slate says that Spotify held 15 million tracks as of July 2011, and they say they add 10,000 new songs every day. Either way, both libraries are incredibly vast and include almost everything you could want. I emphasize "almost" because, despite having enough music that it would take someone 80 years to listen to it all back-to-back, there were still artists and songs that are not available on either.

In fact, one of the main reasons I wanted to check out MOG is to see if there were artists available there that I could not find on Spotify. Sure enough, MOG does have certain major artists that Spotify does not, including Bob Dylan and Pink Floyd. That being said, I own every Bob Dylan record already, so those type of distinctions are of little concern to me. Neither service currently has Drag City artists (so, no Will Oldham or Joanna Newsom), and they both have a problem with De La Soul as well, apparently.

I've read that MOG has a better catalog of classical music than does Spotify. Undoubtedly, individual listeners will have differing opinions on this matter based on their tastes. For me, both have immense libraries that I could never get through in a lifetime, so this one is a tie.

Advantage: Push.

Criterion #2: Online Experience

Spotify is available in a desktop application and its main draw is speed and ease of organizing playlists. I have dozens of playlists in Spotify, some of them to store albums, others of mixes that I've created for fun. These mixes can be private or published for other Spotify users to subscribe to. This is a huge benefit, as even online publications such as Pitchfork can make public playlists of their Best Songs of 2011, for example. I can subscribe to this playlist, listen to it anywhere, and see who else has also subscribed. I'm amazed at some of the great music I've discovered by clicking through the playlists of others.

MOG's primary mode is within the browser, but it's pretty sub-par, so I'll focus my attention on their desktop application. (The problem with the browser mode is that I can't pause and play from my keyboard as I can with a desktop app, and I have to do that fairly often at work.) MOG's desktop app is preferable, as it doesn't slow down as the browser player does when you're working on other things. (Listening to MOG at work while playing Words With Friends is a no-go...not that I do that.)

The problem with MOG's experience is that you can only play from the "Play Queue" and searching for other music, you'll often click over and start playing something else when you didn't mean to. In MOG, I'm not even sure why playlists exist, because you can't play from them. I've tried many times, and you have to put all your music in a play queue before it will play. On Spotify, I can jump to any playlist and play directly from there. On MOG, if you double-click on the first song in a playlist, it will add only that song to your play queue, so the entire point of the playlist is nullified.

Advantage: Spotify

Criterion #3: Mobile App

Both Spotify and MOG allow streaming from a smart phone with a premium account. (Both premium accounts are $9.99, so it's a push there.) However, since you aren't always online from your phone when you're at the gym or in your car, you have to first select which songs you want to listen to ahead of time, and download them to your phone. With a premium account, MOG allows unlimited downloads and Spotify allows precisely 3,333 downloads -- that's essentially unlimited when you consider that you're on your phone selecting and de-selecting songs fairly often.

You have to have a wifi connection when you do the downloading, and it does take about 20-30 seconds per song. You'll want to make sure your phone stays active during this process, or else the app will freeze. It does drain the battery, but if you're doing it at home you can have it plugged in while you go. I've used both apps consistently in the past week, and once you have the music and it's playing, there's really no difference.

Advantage: Push

Criterion #4: Sound Quality

I listen to music primarily through headphones and on small Logitech speakers at home. I can only make the determination through what I read and what I hear, and this currently does not include a large home soundsystem. (I have large speakers which I use to listen to records and watch television, but I have no way to hook up a computer or phone to these, so it's an admittedly limited judgment.)

Most MOG tracks are in high quality 320 kbps CBR, which can actually be a little tricky if you have to listen through a browser at work. The bitrate is so large that the playback will stall if you're running other programs. That being said, it is of consistently high sound quality. Everything I've listened to on MOG sounds fantastic.

Spotify also provides 320 kbps quality, but only for premium accounts. Also, fewer of Spotify's available tracks have this quality than on MOG. When you're just listening in your daily life, you probably won't know the difference. Try playing "Niggas In Paris" back-to-back on headphones though, and you can tell.

Advantage: MOG

Criterion #5: Social Experience

As I mentioned earlier, the ability to share, mix and explore really puts Spotify over the edge for me. The experience actually reminds me of the fun I used to have making mix tapes for friends in the 90s. It's easier to do these days, allows me more music to work with, and I can actually see the results if someone subscribes to one of my playlists.

I prefer to turn off the "what I'm listening to" function by default, so my Facebook friends aren't forced to see every single track I'm listening to. However, sharing full playlists is easier and more manageable on Spotify.

Advantage: Spotify

There are some other intangibles, especially if you're not into paying for one of these services. Spotify does have a free option, where you can listen to 10 hours of music a week (for the first six months) with annoying commercials every few songs. MOG does not have a free option. For someone like me who spends plenty of money on music anyway, it's actually an economical decision to pay $10 a month. At $15 an album in the store, I only need to purchase eight fewer albums over the course of a year to make it cost-effective.

I'm going to stick with Spotify precisely for its ease and usability. If MOG fixes the issues I mentioned with its application and keeps its sound quality higher, it may be worth it in the future for me to switch. For now, however, Spotify wins and remains my music-streaming service of choice.