Friday, October 22, 2010

What's in that black disc, and why does it sing?

My volunteering duties at Thomas Edison's labs include a demonstration of Edison's favorite invention, the phonograph. While we have a bunch of disc turntables, the demo is always done on an earlier cylinder machine that's closer to the Old Man's original tinfoil phonograph invention.

I can remember seeing this demonstration in my younger days and being able to make a quick connection between the grooves on the cylinder and the grooves on the 45 rpm records I had at home. I can even recall making a crude record player with a pin and a piece of paper shaped in a cone. The physics behind the whole thing are really so simple that once explained, a child could do it him or herself. You could see the metaphorical light bulbs illuminating their minds as they got the concept.

Today what strikes me is how difficult that connection could be for kids who have spent their whole lives listening to CDs or computer files. The whole concept of a physical transference from a shaped groove, through a diaphragm that moves the air to form soundwaves... is gone. They press a button to start the sound process, but they don't see anything move, except maybe an animated status bar on a screen.

As we move farther and farther away from that actual tactile, physical representation of recorded sound, I wonder if the disc will become as exotic as it was when first introduced. Eventually, will children wonder at the miracle of sound coming off a round black piece of vinyl? Or, God forbid, will they eventually come to believe that the iPod represents the advent of recorded sound?

Thursday, October 14, 2010

As the world rejoices the rescue of the 33 trapped Chilean miners, the cynical part of me wonders how their experience will ultimately be trivialized by corporate America.

Because, as you know, we can't pass up the opportunity to turn a monumental success of the human spirit into a banal teambuilding exercise. This makes 'trust falls' look like child's play.

I'm saying this with a bit of experience behind me. Several years ago, at a company retreat, I was forced to join one of several teams that was attempting to determine what we'd do if our plane crashed in arctic Canada with limited supplies. My vote was to knock off the company lobbyist with dinner knives from first class, and use his carcass as bait for the polar bears we'd then trap and kill for meat and fur.

Not surprisingly, nobody wanted to be on my team the following year. And, of course, I was just kidding. I'd originally wanted to suggest cannibalism.

So how does the miner story apply to corporate life? Not surprisingly, some aspects of the ordeal could be very similar to the multi-day team meetings I've had to attend. You're trapped in a windowless room, able to communicate only with the other people in the meeting. Fresh air is scarce and resources are limited. Unappetizing food is provided sporadically. There's likely jockeying among the participants for status and power. Alliances are made, and eventually, as hope for rescue flags (at least in the corporate example), the tired group puts aside grievances to focus on the sole mutual goal of getting the hell out.

The Chilean miners are (at least from what we know now) the example of what happens when everyone pulls together. What would have happened if they hadn't? Well, they would have ended up the same way most corporate departments do: fractured, with plenty of backbiting and sucking up to management.

What did they have that corporate meeting-goers wouldn't? A lot, presumably. In today's cost-cutting, profit-enhancing business climate, notoriously-stingy corporate budget approvers would never sign off to sending actual entertainment (even the screen, projector and DVDs the miners got) to a sequestered group of employees. And let's face it... the rescue would probably be held off until the next budget cycle.