Confessions of an addict

ipodLast Christmas I bought myself an 80 megabyte iPod. This was a bit of a cheat considering it cost more than the presents I got for my loved ones, but I bought it through the company and justified it that way. Although iPods look amazing they are a pain in the butt because in order to use them you must download iTunes, Apple’s software, and this takes up 80 megabytes. And iTunes has its own way of organising your music, which I have still failed to understand, and this bugs me as I spent a long time thinking up a good filing system for my music.

Normal MP3 players are much easier to use. They act like a memory stick and you can simply copy/paste music onto them. But I have yet to see an MP3 player that comes close to iPods in terms of design and functionality. Even though I hate them, and I disapprove of the fact that Apple has become a monopolising force over the US music industry, I have to admit they are brilliant and I have become addicted to them. And, like any addict, I have a love/hate relationship with my vice.

We went to Portugal recently to visit my brother Moona, his Romanian wife Monica and their two charming kids. They are building an eco house and I was keen to help out with some manual labour, short bursts of which can be therapeutic (you can see a slideshow of my pictures here). I was given the task of clearing out an old stone building which fell into ruin over 20 years ago. I was given a shovel and a wheelbarrow and I had to clear piles of old
tiles, rotten wood (soft as silk in places) and other debris.

Despite the fact that it was pouring with rain I really enjoyed my labour. Not only is it a welcome break from sitting in front of a computer all day, but you get a real sense of satisfaction. And I had my iPod. As I was shovelling dirt and manoeuvering the wheelbarrow through the garden I got lost in a world of old Jazz, seventies rock and Vangelis (one of the greatest and most underestimated musicians I know of). I worked happily, protected from the constant rain by my super-dooper Goretex jacket I had got from my friend Steve Gordon in Glasgow.

But there was a problem. Every child learns that water should not come into contact with electricity. Unfortunately it did and the rain seeped into the pocket of my super-dooper jacket, gradually filling it up, and by the end of the day my iPod was drowning. It made a few squeaky noises, a bit like a kitten might, beeped in protest and then died. I had
drowned it.

Back in Bucharest I knew I couldn’t claim it on guarantee, whatever tall tale I dreamed up. I knew that the people at the Apple shop would know that I had drowned it and that its death was my fault and not theirs. And that is exactly what happened, they took one look at it and sent me packing (I gave the carcass to my kids for dissection). I was surprisingly calm about the whole incident and couldn’t work myself up into a towering rage and argue
with them. I just knew I would have to get a new music player.

I visited Altex and the other shops where you can try out the various music players. But there was nothing that came close to iPod in terms of functionality and in the end I opted for an iPod Shuffle, which I consider to be the ideal music player. Not only is it cheap (just 30 Euro) but you can clip it onto the outside of your clothes and you can feel the main
controls really easily. You can operate the main buttons without looking, with just one hand, and this means you don’t have to stop what you are doing in order to hit pause or to turn up the volume.

My first MP3 player was made by Philips and in order to use the controls I had to hold it in one hand, look at the tiny screen, and push the buttons with the other hand. In other words it needed a few seconds of full attention and both hands. I had to stop whatever it was I was doing at the time. I never thought this was a problem until I started using the iPod, and now I wonder why all music players don’t just copy the brilliant functionality that Steve Jobs (the boss of Apple) has pioneered. After all the big companies seem to borrow style and design ideas from each other.

Whatever happened to the competition? Why can’t any of those big brands come up with a music player that has the functionality of an iPod Shuffle? I couldn’t find one single MP3 player that could be manipulated without having to use both hands. And where is the new Sony Walkman? I remember when Sony revolutionised music, 20 years ago, with its
portable tape player, the walkman, allowing us students to listen to our tapes on the move. I used to listen to mine when cycling to college in Liverpool. How far has Sony fallen now? They used to dominate this market. Now the only Sony Walkman you can get is an absurd phone where you need to fiddle like a pervert in order to play a song (and I personally hate those multifunctional phones; a phone is a phone and it shouldn’t pretend to be anything else.)

But I really don’t want to make this a rave review of iPods. I am not in the pay of the corporation (if only!). In fact, the more I read about Apple the more I dislike them. Although they develop incredible products — apparently due to Steve Job’s obsessive attention to detail — Apple has assumed monopolistic power over the US music industry
because iTunes has become the main programme by which Americans legally download music from the internet. When the record companies wanted to change the standard prices of music downloads (which Apple have set at 99 cents) they had to negotiate long and hard with Apple.

The point I am trying to make with this article is that Americans seem to be brilliant at turning great ideas into products that people all over the world want. They know how to harness initiative. I know this is common knowledge (we see their products every day) but if you think about what resources the competition have, and how simple these products are, it is all the more remarkable. How is it possible that American companies can dominate music players, fast food, soft drinks, not to mention software and the internet, when their economy and educational system are in such a mess?

They say a great idea is something that is so simple that others think “why didn’t I think of that?”. What could be more simple than adding a drop of syrup to a bottle of soda water? Anyone can do that at home and there are companies everywhere producing fizzy juice. But how is it that the Coca Cola Corporation have been doing this for over 100 years and they still manage to dominate the world with this product, incuding the fridges in every small Romanian village I have been to? I remember travelling in India 20 years ago and hearing that Coke had been banned by Mrs Ghandi, who was a nationalist, as it was in China and other socialist countries. Those countries are now awash with Coke. Probably the only country in the world which bans Coke is North Korea.

For years I had my own personal ban on Coke. I didn’t approve of the company or the drink. Luca, my 6 year old son, recently told me a story that I last heard heard in Scotland when I was a kid. He said, “if you leave a tooth in a glass of coke it will be gone by the next morning.” I remember believing this story when I was his age but now I told him it
was nonsense, that Coke had no more sugar than other juices and it was impossible. But he does believe that Coke is the worst soft drink and it is the only one he avoids. Do these childhood bans increase the allure of the stuff?

I have to confess that I have recently started drinking Coke again (to Luca’s disapproval) and I must admit that the taste is great. I remember Coke as the perfect hangover drink and there is something about the sharp and sweet taste that really does make it unique. No other fizzy drink I have tested is so refreshing — and this is bizzare considering it’s just a soda water with a blob of syrup and some caffeine thrown in. Surely anyone could make that? But the imitation colas always seem to disappoint, at least in my experience.

It is the same with McDonald’s Big Mac, Hollywood films and American software (Google and Microsoft in particular): these products are so attuned to what people want that they dominate the world. Some people think this is part of a global conspiracy in which the world is dominated by a small cabal of jews/masons/American business leaders, but I think it is because the Americans are unique in their ability to harness initiative.

It is interesting to compare America and Romania in this regard. How does Romania harness initiative? In short, it doesn’t. Initiative and enthusiasm (the one usually goes with the other) seems to be forbidden in Romanian schools, discouraged at university and scorned at the workplace. An attitude I have come across a lot in Romania is the view that you are not allowed to have an idea unless you are qualified to do so, in other words unless you are the boss, a university professor or an old fart. This has a disastrous effect on the economy as the Romanians, most of whom seem to be much more skilled and talented than their western counterparts, lack the confidence and support needed to develop their own ideas. Of course some do make it, but many more don’t and this is a great tragedy.

Anyone who has been to the USA will know how enthusiastic the Americans are. They are impressed if you can speak coherent English, they reward hard work, they recognise immigrants as a valuable resource who are far better educated than themsleves, and they openly encourage initiative. It is encouraged in school, the workplace and by the banks (or it was until the economy went down the drain). Companies like Facebook, Microsoft and Google were all set up by students who had a good idea.

The conclusion is simple; learn how to identify, encourage and harness initiative. This needs to be done in school, in the workplace and in government.

12 Responses to Confessions of an addict

  1. Ubu says:

    Actually, I think you got it wrong. I can’t find the Bloomberg article, but there it was claimed that Romanians were the most intrepid Eastern-Europeans, ahead of the Czechs, although their businesses were less profitable (understandable considering the geographical location, the infrastructure, the GDP, and stuff like that). Romanian culture is very individualistic and competitive, but the schools (like the State or the legal system) are French inspired, since the 1800. But that’s changing fast, as you may have noticed because of all the relative chaos.

    Look at highly competitive Romanian pop music scene for example, manele or tehno or house or whatever. They have great success all over Europe, especially in Poland, Russia, Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia, which is quite unusual, especially since they managed to have success with virtually no promotion or big names in the industry backing them up. Akcent have a great following especially in Poland, Morandi or DJ Project are listened all over Europe, and this year was the best yet with Inna, Edward Maya and Morris etc. Even successful singers (Bulgarian and Turkish for the moment) are being produced and have songs composed for them by Romanians.

    You give the examples of Facebook, Microsoft and Google but we have the same stuff around here, keeping the proportions because when starting a business in Romania you don’t have venture capitalists, the infrastructure, the huge and rich market. Also started by students were Interakt (now Adobe Romania), Gecad (who sold their ani-virus to Microsoft for 20 millions), BitDefender, Neogen, Norc (http://norc.ro/) or what’s now Ubisoft Romania etc. Their success will never match that of some start-ups from the US because Romania doesn’t have the huge market and the resources of USA, but they are highly successful nonetheless.

  2. Dear Ubu, I take your point and am happy to be proven wrong. I am really impressed that Romania’s music industry is so popular but not that surprisd as it is really dynamic and entrepreneurial, and what I like best is that “proper” Romanians, i.e. the intellectual elite, hate manele with a passion I have never understood. Is it a cover for prejudice against Roma? My view is that if people like that music then it is none of my business. But many people see it as some sort of cultural disaster. Also, I’ve always known that Romania’s cultural scene is incredible, full of imagination and power. I first noticed this with Romanian theatre, which I came across in Glasgow in the 90s, and I suspect this same energy is coming out now in films and music. But I also think my point is valid, which is that initiative and free thought is systematically discouraged by the education system. But there may be a good argument that you need to suppress people, stuff them full of facts, and only then can they really flourish….? Habar nu am

  3. serban says:

    rupert,
    this is a quick comment to your reply to the first comment…: if subculture is systematically favoured and fostered to the detriment of deeper more thought provoking culture is this not a cultural disaster? of course, defining subculture as opposed to culture is not straightforward nor is who is supporting what… but my feeling is that post-Communist Romania tends to import and imitate most of the time the not so desirable American features of cowboy economy and (sub)culture…

  4. Serban, that is a really interesting comment but I would like you to explain more about why you think the subculture could destroy a culture. From the outside (i.e. someone who doesn’t go out much) it looks like Romanian culture is in good shape, but this is just an impression. ciao

  5. Ubu says:

    I find the most part of the so called Romanian intellectuals extremely disconnected from Romania proper. They have no clue about what’s going on around them, even if they still live around us, they understand very little. They hate manele especially because manele are overtly and unashamedly non-Western and a Balkan wide phenomenon, while they desperately long to be Westerners and be recognised as such by Western people. Of course, a lot of those who hate manele are racially motivated. But manele, despite being perceived as a Roma invention and a monumental perversion of the lautrari tradition, are actually a direct descendant of the nameless bootleg music scene from the communist ’80s (let me give you an example of how that sounded http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5sI9QLkDI1Q).

    Now, regarding the school issue: I think is pretty clear that until recently, with the everybody is special and we could all be winners mantra, schools were places where one was expected to accumulate information and specialized skills required for survival in the fast evolving human societies. You can’t train initiative, leadership, risk-taking, the Army knows better, genetics are not very democratic. As long as the schools provide the information and skills required by the society (which is the major failing of the Romanian system at the moment), I don’t care if the “qualities” of the students are not nurtured. The entire childhood experience, playing with the other kids outside, “travelling” without supervision large distances from home, experiencing as much stuff as possible is far more valuable than being brainwashed and over-pampered in school and outside of it to believe you’re special, just like everybody else 😉

  6. Dear Ubu, I find your comments really interesting and you make points that are challenging and new for me. I have always found it bizzare why Romanian intellectuals hate manele so much but was never able to get to the bottom of it. In my experience, if you don’t like a certain type of music (and let’s face it, most music is crap) you don’t listen to it. Simple. And maybe you say as much if someone asks you, but why get so excited about hating a particular genre? I don’t like manele but I do admire its success and I do respect those people who like it, and they are the majority. It would be absurd to expect Romanians to keep listening to “muzica popular” ad infinitum (as well as intellectually approved foreign music). If the people like manele then so be it. No comment.

    I am sure you are right about the education issue too and my feeling is that we must judge by results. I have a 10 year old girl who we sent to the British School in Bucharest and although she was encouraged and pampered and nurtered she really didn’t work well at all, and we were really unimpressed. When the school moved to Pipera we took the opportunity to move her to a Romanian school in the centre. It is strict and unpleasant and she complains about being bored. But there is discipline and she does homework and has learned so much. We realise that it is so much better than the loose, flabby, sloppy, British system even if it is more unpleasant in almost every way.

    But is seems that the Romanian education system is losing its one quality, the discipline, and is being diluted by this “lets-not-push-the-kids-too-hard” British approach. Let’s hope you don’t end up like the US where the public schools are just places kids go to buy drugs.

    Tell me more about Manele. I should write something about it

  7. When Napster hit the internet and people started file sharing music for free without paying for it the music industry were not happy. They tried to stop it by prosecuting individuals or the peer to peer companies, putting digital rights management on CDs, etc. What the music moguls didn’t realise was that they could make a lot of money from back catalog music, and make money from individual tracks instead of relying on album sales. Apple sold the concept of iTunes to the music industry before they started selling the iPods. The format looked so good and came from such an established source that the main players (Warner, Universal, BMI, etc) that owned most music publishing companies in the world signed up to an exclusive deal with Apple. No other person or company had presented such a wonderful format for selling, searching and sorting music legally online. The next thing Apple did was to tie iTunes to the iPod. iTunes were only playable on an iPod.

    Steve Jobs didn’t create anything new but he marketed existing ideas and products into an irresistable package. So well that even Rupert complains when he’s cycling over the hills with a massive record collection in his pocket and he has to look down and use two hands, his eyes and a couple of marbles to select from a plethora of sounds – from the Chariots of Fire to the Tibetan throat garglers.

    Back in the day the record companies were paying hand over fist to get premium air play for certain tunes. There were middle men to pay etc etc. Now people are able to select music from all idioms across all eras without any real knowledge thanks to the power of the internet and sites like spotify, lastfm, youtube, and yes iTunes.

    Of course if you want to hear the real **** you’ll have to come to my house. That stuff’s still only available on vinyl!

  8. Coke question: why does it taste so much better out of a glass bottle?

  9. Alina says:

    Manele is disliked as a genre not just because of how it sounds. I do not agree that people don’t like this genre out of snobbery or because they want to be like the West; many love what we call muzica lautareasca, Gypsy music from all over the Balkans, Oriental sounds too.

    I believe many people feel strongly against manele, more than other music genre they might dislike, because they perceive it as another form of aggression. Manele bother me, for instance, when camping, in what would be – without their blasting – a nice and quite area; on the trams (most ring tones I hear on the mobiles are manele); in traffic (most music emerging from cars is, in my experience, manele).

    This type of music stopped being just a sound; it somehow became to symbolize the following: lack of respect for people around you, throwing garbage out of the car window, verbal aggression, lack of education but a feeling of self-worth as big as the Parliament Palace.

    I once heard from somebody who knew what he was talking about that this genre appeared in suburban areas in the 19th century or so. A few years ago I saw Trei Parale and they played a traditional manea which sounded rather nice.

  10. alex says:

    Coke question: if it’s hangover cures you’re after, can you as a patriotic Scot afford to neglect Irn Bru? If they drank that in out-of-the-way villages, the course of history would assuredly be different.

  11. Good point about IRN BRU and much as I appreciate the amber fizz it really doesn’t cut the mustard as a hangover cure. Coke rules. Also, IB isn’t available in Eastern Europe, which is a scandal.

  12. Marius says:

    I fully agree with what Alina said. Manele can be easily compared to low-quality gangsta music in the US (like snoop dogg) – it’s all about women, money, becoming rich without needing education, disrespecting the law, fake self-worth feeling etc.

    Actually, I think a good point can be made by analysing the lyrics of some manele.

    Author: Wonder Baby
    Title: I’m a luxury, I’m a ruby
    Some lyrics:
    I’m a luxury, I’m a ruby
    I’m full of diamonds,
    I’m a king, I’m a prince
    I have seven stars like in Dubai

    I’m chit-chatting with the scammers
    The wise-guys and the money lenders
    They talk, I listen
    I’m much cooler than them anyway

    (in the romanian version are actually a lot more gramatical mistakes than in my translation)

    This is manele. It’s not only this particular example, the great majority of them are exactly like this one. It’s a genre of music that promotes many negative values, and the worst issue is that many young people are heavily influenced by them.

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