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I, Cringely - The Survival of the Nerdiest with Robert X. Cringely
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Weekly Column

A Hurricane Named Sinatra: How to Take Your Data With You in an Evacuation, and How Apple Is Quietly Undermining the RIAA

Status: [CLOSED]
By Robert X. Cringely

Hurricane Frances is bearing down on Charleston, our third hurricane or tropical storm in a month, and the first one big enough to motivate the locals. While the conventional wisdom of old-time Charlestonians seems to center on getting drunk, then lashing themselves to some sturdy part of their houses, this storm has even old-timers scared and planning to evacuate. Me, too. If things continue to deteriorate, we'll load the kids and dogs into our minivan and sneak out of town. There won't be much space for computers in our escape vehicle, so I've been planning what to take along. It's an exercise worth doing even if you never face a hurricane. What if your house was burning down? What would you take with you given only a few minutes to prepare?

Talking to friends and neighbors, it's clear that nobody here is thinking much about this problem, but I make my living from this stuff, and the thought of being offline or separated from my data is impossible to consider, so I have a plan, and you should, too. The upside is that having a plan actually makes my life less stressful even when there are no pending disasters.

During my move from California, I jettisoned a lot of computer equipment, but still have several dozen machines if you include the historic ones. Frankly, I'm not sure what to do about the really old stuff -- the only computers I have that are actually increasing in value -- so this time I'm leaving them all behind, but packed in sturdy boxes and stored in a room on the first floor right behind an unused fireplace. I could put them in the cellar, but I'm told that got six feet of water during Hurricane Hugo in 1989, so forget that. The first floor will have to do since that should stay above water, and is still two floors below the roof in case that goes. I'm praying that the masonry chimney base will provide some protection, too.

Understand that our house was built in 1852 and has withstood 152 years of hurricanes AND the 7.6 earthquake of 1886, so chances are very good that no matter how bad the storm, the house will survive. But that doesn't mean one can be complacent. The hurricane failure mode for houses like mine works two ways. The roof can be ripped-off, for one. It is very hard to prevent roof failure though there is apparently some urethane gunk you can now spray on the underside of your roof to help it stick together. Our roof is steel and that gunk will apparently do us no good. The second failure mode is if flying debris (after Hugo our neighbor found someone's bass boat floating in his front garden, INSIDE the fence) penetrates a window or door, allowing wind inside to pressurize your house, which then explodes. I am not making this up. Fortunately, this problem is worse for modern houses. My house is so leaky that the idea of maintaining positive pressure inside is laughable. I have trouble just keeping varmints out, much less the wind. Still, we now have plywood ready to screw down over all the windows and doors just in case. The Makita is charging.

Given that my personal space in the Town & Country minivan is just enough for a briefcase, here's what I'm putting in mine. I'm taking my notebook computer so I can work on the road. I'm taking an IEEE 1394 FireWire external hard drive containing every operating system, language, compiler and application I care about, plus all associated data. The FireWire drive holds 250 gigabytes and I only have it about half full, which seems pitiful for having spent half of a lifetime doing this stuff. Finally, I have on my wrist a watch with a built-in 256 megabyte USB flash drive holding all my e-mail since 1993, everything I have written since the late 1980s, and a bootable Linux partition. So worst case, I can buy a new PC wherever we land, plug-in the watch and be up and running again in minutes with most of the stuff I need.

An alternative to all this, of course, is truly remote automatic backup. When I was less poor and we had houses on both sides of the country, I tried that for awhile, but could never seem to make it work. You can always get cheap server space to store 100 megabytes or so, but that's not enough for anyone anymore, except perhaps for my mother. One alternative would be to get a Google GMail account, with its one gigabyte limit, and just send myself the critical files as message attachments.

Of course, I hope Frances stays away from Charleston completely, though it is hard to wish disaster on other people. If the storm does go south of us, I'll be keeping a careful eye on the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, where the three surviving U.S. space shuttles are all sitting, unable to be moved, in a huge 1970s building rated only to withstand sustained winds of 115 miles- per-hour and gusts to 123. Frances is right now blowing at 140+ mph. The question whether the shuttle fleet can be made safe might be about to become moot.

Something else that threatens to become moot shortly (I can only write so much about a hurricane after all) is the Recording Industries Association of America, which, having failed in court to take out the peer-to-peer file-swapping companies, is now turning on music lovers and suing us one at a time. I wonder what percentage of your customer base you have to sue before all the other customers get disgusted and go away? I think the number is very small, especially if there is an alternate way to get music, which there now is. I'm not talking about file swapping, either, but about Apple's iTunes.

This point was made to me by a very astute reader, but I'm not afraid to steal, so here goes. The power of the RIAA and its members has always lain in money and marketing. The big record companies were able to pay large advances to top acts, and their marketing organizations were able to make small bands into bigger bands by aggressively promoting them and supporting tours. That was then. Today, technology has taken a lot of the cost out of recording music ,and I can make just as good a record at my house as I can make at Capitol Records. If you have heard me sing (I sang the theme song for "Plane Crazy"), you know this is true. So groups can now record cheaply, they can become successful locally, but the RIAA's advantage still lies with their ability to take a local group and push it to a national audience.

But then Apple announced its iTunes affiliate program, which works just like's affiliate program. If I write here that some book is fabulous, then put a link for you to order it from Amazon, well, Amazon would pay me a five percent commission on the sale. This all assumes, of course, that I'm smart enough to do something like that, which I'm not. Don't call ME Oprah. Well, Apple's affiliate program works the same way, paying a nickel to me if through my web site, you download some song I say is great.

This is the end of the RIAA and the big recording industry. Apple in the last year has signed deals with more than 300 independent record labels, most of them not big enough to do much promotion. But now they don't have to because that promotion will be handled by and every music web logger, now that they have a material incentive to make recommendations and print lists. If I recommend a song -- IF I JUST TYPE A FEW WORDS -- and a thousand people decide to download based on my recommendation, heck, I just made $50 bucks. This is like sending tens of thousands of record sales people out on the road except that they can sell anything THEY like -- any of the one million iTunes songs -- making them salespeople with real conviction and maybe even with good taste. Maybe.

The RIAA will love the added revenue from this program until it becomes clear that they've been supplanted, at which point, it will no longer matter. Like me hoping to stop a hurricane, there is nothing they can really do.

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