Paean to the Mix Tape

in cassettes on (#M1D5)
When I hear “stream” I think of piss.

You’ve got streaming audio, cloud repositories of millions of tracks, probably from more artists than you’d have time in a lifetime to fully appreciate, much less listen to a single time. This is as good as life gets, isn’t it? Any song you want, on any device?


After spending nearly a decade in a warehouse, a box of old cassette tapes and my old Walkman arrived on my doorstep. Even a decade ago cassettes were old technology, but I hadn’t gotten around to sorting and discarding them before moving overseas, and then they were forgotten. So suddenly, in 2015, I found myself sitting before a stack of mix tapes made as early as 1987. Some worked perfectly well, others were squealing messes that went straight into the trash. And let’s face it, in the age of digital media, the audio quality was truly degraded. I wouldn’t go back to the cassette era for any price.

But the mix tapes … wow. There’s no equivalent today.

Remember getting a bulky envelope in the mail at university, with a collection of songs some friend saw fit to put together for you? What a gift – the pleasure lasted for weeks as the new (or old!) songs became part of the new repertoire.

There was an art to the mix tape: sometimes you sent agreed-upon favorites, a collection of the commonly-enjoyed. Other times you wanted to show off a bit, expose your friend to the more exotic and esoteric stuff in your own collection. The trickiest mixes were those destined to a love interest. You had to scour your collection for the love ballads that expressed the right emotion, get the tone right, choose the exotic stuff that showed you were privy to a world only you knew (but would share, if your romantic overtures were accepted!) without choosing anything so weird that its impact would be the contrary.

Then you had to time it right: remember the pleasure of a mix whose last notes ended just as the cassette rolled to an end, or the embarrassment of excessive empty space at the end? Sometimes the songs would be cut-off at the beginning or end; others included a snippet of DJ voice-over from when you’d recorded it from the radio. Those were the fruit of calls to the local FM radio station with requests, a blank cassette poised in the player ready to record it should your request be granted.

Good mix tapes had to have a clever piece of artwork that wrapped the “track list” insert: you got these by poring through magazine covers and clipping an appropriately-sized square from some compelling graphic.

Listening to some of that old stuff brought back visceral memories of early fall evenings, walking home from the record store with a new purchase. I don’t have similar memories of the last digital track I downloaded.

To be sure, I’m not advocating a shift back to the age of cassettes. But creating, sending, and receiving mix tapes were a way of sharing music that has no modern equivalent. And streaming is a different world altogether. We interface with service providers now, not our friends; we are given recommendations by algorithms, not classmates. There are no more cassettes, no one clips magazine art, and no digital tracklist is constrained by the length of its magazine medium. Sometimes as we gain one thing, we lose another. I doubt mixtapes will return. But they sure were an important part of my youth. Same probably goes for many of you.

{This article first appeared at}

Review of the Happy Hacker II keyboard

in keyboard on (#JMXF)
It's hard to imagine a better day-to-day keyboard to put in front of a serious work computer. The Happy Hacker keyboard skips some of the novel innovations of other alternative designs, and focuses instead on two simple things: keeping as many useful keys as possible as close to the hands as possible, and relocating Control and Escape to positions useful for Emacs and Vim users. But those two things alone make this a super-natural keyboard to use for extended periods.

Read the rest at, aka my website.

An open letter to Barnes and Noble bookstore: your DRM system is driving me away

in drm on (#6W0N)
An Open Letter to Barnes & Noble:

Greetings. I've been a customer since I first decided to take the plunge and enter the world of digital books (e-books), and I made a conscious decision to buy from Barnes and Noble over Amazon for two important reasons: First, your epub format is an industry standard usable on a wide variety of devices when the books are unencumbered by DRM, and second, your web interface allowed me to download copies of my purchased books to my desktop for archiving and backup.

Two years later, I'm back to Amazon. Why?

First of all, the download feature was removed: I can only access purchased books via your web interface or on authorized devices. And those devices only stay authorized for as long as I have a valid credit card on file. Late last year my credit card expired and to my surprise, I was no longer able to read any of my purchased books. Sound like a bad deal to you? It did to me!

Secondly, though formerly it was possible to remove the DRM using my user name and credit card number (essentially within the bounds of fair use, I'd say), your new encryption algorithm makes it impossible for me to remove the DRM from purchased books and archive them. This may sound to you like the moral imperative that keeps publishers happy by preventing pirating. In reality, like most DRM schemes, it annoys honest, well-intentioned users while driving the real pirates underground where they continue to steal what they like, and with an increasing sense of moral vindication, too.

So I'm back to Amazon, whose books I can keep a copy of locally and decrypt using the serial number of my device. I'm not a fan of the AZW or MOBI formats, but they are easily converted.

It's simple: I invest big money in books I expect to keep forever, and I don't want to rely on your credit card policy or even on the fact that you'll be around: I want my digital files stored on my home device, where I can read it on whatever device I choose. The digital music industry learned this lesson ages ago, and even Apple has been selling DRM-free music for several years. I am not aware that it has led either to legal battles or the bankruptcy of any record labels.

I'm not afraid to root for the underdog, and let's face it, standing in the shadow of the likes of, you are the underdog. But when you're the underdog and provide poor quality service, you won't be around long. (While I'm at it, I tried to use your LendMe feature to share a book with my father, and it roundly failed to work: c'mon, these things matter!) There is room for radical innovation in this field: open up your systems, let consumers keep the things they buy: that's the way to carve out your niche in the burgeoning ebook universe. Get that simple advice wrong, and you'll disappear.

Good luck!

Randall Wood is the author of Moon Handbook Nicaragua, Living Abroad in Nicaragua, and the Dictator's Handbook: a practical manual for the aspiring tyrant. (The Dictator's Handbook is DRM-free, and sharing has led to increased sales).

The TypeMatrix 2030 Keyboard

in keyboard on (#5XWQ)
So on a lark, I decided to try out the TypeMatrix 2030 keyboard as well.

The thing costs less so it is no surprise to see it is not as well made as either the Totally Ergonomic Keyboard (TEK) or the Kinesis Ergo. But it's not a piece of junk, either: the keys are about the quality of a 2000-2003 era laptop, each slightly sculpted, with dimples on their surface to help your fingers find their way to important locations, like the home position. I typed on similar keys very happily on the Compaq Presario I used from 2000 to 2008, and while there are better alternatives now, the new fad with totally smooth, featureless, almost-slippery chiclet keyboards makes this a superior experience. That said, these are scissor-mechanism keys, not fully mechanical keys, and there's no question it doesn't feel quite as nice as a real mechanical keyboard like the TEK or anything sporting something like Cherry switches. On the other thing, this is my quietest keyboard, nice for when the kids are sleeping just behind me. Using either of the other two keyboards at night with sleeping kids nearby is a non-starter because of their clickiness, and this thing is silent by comparison – moreso with one of the skins in place!

I very much like the grid (non-staggered) layout, and the more I use my three fancy keyboards, the more I find it an improvement over the classic layout. {Read the rest at}

Review of the Totally Ergonomic (TEK) Keyboard

in keyboard on (#2WYF)
When you've bought your third expensive keyboard it's time to admit you have a fetish. Or that you spend most of your day glued to the business end of a computer. Or both! But face it: if you spend a lot of time writing, a decent keyboard is worth more than its weight in gold, for reasons of efficiency, health, and comfort alone.

I was in the mood for a keyboard built around a linear (not-staggered) layout, and a few reviews of the TEK ("Totally Ergonomic Keyboard") made it seem appealing. So I bought one and have used it for the past couple of weeks. Here are my conclusions, and a few notes of comparison with the Kinesis Ergo keyboard, which I also like and use daily.

Backing up FreeNAS to external drives

in freenas on (#2THV)
I love this little device: it's an iXsystems MiniNAS running FreeNAS 9.2, with tons of disk space, RAM, fast network connections, all on a low-profile device that uses precious little energy (30W). Nice! And having all my important stuff on one box not only gives me the freedom to screw around with my desktops but simplifies and centralizes the work that goes into backing up my information.

It's tempting to be lulled into security by a hefty NAS running the ZFS file system on RAID-6. Yes you've got some redundancy and a resistant file system. But RAID is not backup - a mistake too many make. And here I ran into some trouble. FreeNAS gives you tons of options for transferring zpool datasets around, and since it's networked you can rsync your heart's content to other systems, but what if you just want to back the stuff up to a hard drive locally? Like an external, USB hard drive? Turns out, there's a way, but it requires a bit of Unix-foo.

Fortunately, this is FreeBSD, so lots of things are possible. The rest is at my website,
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