Pen Ultimate / Music in My Ears

About manliness, mechanics and the MP3.

Recently, for a variety of reasons - some external, some internal - I have found myself doubting my own masculinity. Don't get me wrong: These were not concerns of a physical or sexual nature, just existential doubts about how much of a man I am.

I did not try to ascertain the state of my masculinity, or "manliness," by checking how well I could flex my muscles or pump iron because I realize those mornings at the gym, sweating it out, are long gone.

I also decided against proving my manly prowess by making romantic (if that is the right word) conquests, and exhibiting the "hunter instinct" commonly ascribed to males. Indeed, upon reminding myself that I am happily married, and after taking into account my not-so-glorious past in this field - I did not pursue that path.

I deduced that the only way left for me to prove that I'm a man is to occupy myself with mechanical matters, which I've always enjoyed: In my case, that means investing my time and money in the pursuit of gadgets. I will state outright that of course there are many women who enjoy playing with gadgets, but I would venture to say that the fascination with them (gadgets, not women) is often thought to be characteristic of men, a throwback to their childhood. Indeed, this is the other thing that sorts the girls from the boys: Girls grow up and get a life. Boys will forever be boys, and they need their toys.

The object of my ostensibly male, mechanical preoccupation has lately been my MP3 player. "MP" is actually an abbreviation of another acronym: MPEG (Moving Picture Experts Group) - an international forum of about 350 experts from various fields, which was established in 1988 to set international standards for audio and video compression (i.e., storage of more digital information in less space) and transmission. Their efforts enabled further advancement of the revolution fomented by the Sony Walkman, which allowed people literally to carry their music around with them, by improving technology so that not one cassette or disc but an entire musical library could be packed into one gadget. The "3" stands for the version of technology involved in compressing the CD's digital information; of course, there's already an MP4 and an MP5.

When I got to the MP stage of my life - enjoying music by earphone via this diminutive device in my pocket - the first thing I did was to ascertain how to use the new technology to the utmost. By that time, I'd acquired a whole wall-full of CDs, about 1,200. But, unlike in the case of books, of which I have several thousand, which always makes people ask, "Have you read all of them?" - nobody has ever asked, "Have you ever listened to all of those CDs?"

Anyway I decided to exploit MP technology in order to carry my whole musical collection with me at all times. So, I acquired a device with a 16GB capacity, which would allow about 300 hours of music to be, literally, at my fingertips at all times.

I began to use my computer to convert and copy the tunes on my choicest CDs into the contraption (a process called "ripping"), and made it less than halfway through when I fell victim to one of Murphy's laws, which states: The expensive gadget you bought will malfunction precisely at the moment the warranty expires, in a way that makes it very costly if not impossible to fix. And Murphy has yet to be proven wrong.

Since the price of MP3 players goes up according to their capacity, and I simply couldn't live a moment without one, I had to buy myself another one, and the sooner and cheaper the better. This time, feeling guilty for so shamelessly indulging myself, I decided to make do with a more modest, 8GB device, with a capacity of a mere 150 hours of music: a small, sleek and stylish iPod (if I can't treat myself to an iPhone, at least I can afford that, to pamper the "i" in me), to which I started to transfer my music. After loading about 100 hours onto it - which allows for a lot of choice and for about five days and nights of uninterrupted music - I started to panic: I only had 50 hours of space left.

Then I started to understand what motivated Alexander the Great to embark on his conquests. I had an inkling of why people refuse to concede even one inch of territories that are in dispute. I realized that this is not a matter of what you have in hand: It is about having unlimited choice. As is the case with the CDs (and books) in my house, what is important is not the piece of music I am enjoying now: It's about the ability to have whatever I may fancy at my disposal at any given moment, about knowing I have the ability to listen to any piece of music whenever I desire. And about the feeling that I can augment my collection ad infinitum. Furthermore, I determined, this is all connected to being a man. After all, it comes with the territory - a man and his music.

While ruminating on this subject, I read up on the history of MP technology, and found that one of those involved in developing it was Dr. Karlheinz Brandenburg, who in the 1980s was doing post-doc work at AT&T-Bell Labs. He decided to fine-tune the algorithm for the MP (I'll spare you the details) by using a song called "Tom's Diner," composed and recorded by Suzanne Vega. He assumed, upon hearing the warmth of her voice, her vocal range and musical nuances that, "it would be nearly impossible to compress this warm an a cappella voice."

It turned out that it was indeed possible after all - and this is why Vega is thought by some to be "the mother of the MP3."

The song itself deserves attention: It is a monologue of someone sitting in a well-known diner in New York, on the corner of Broadway and 112th Street, whose exterior also figures prominently in the "Seinfeld" series. Some of the verses in it allow one to pinpoint the exact date when it was written: "I open / Up the paper / There's a story / Of an actor / Who had died / While he was drinking / It was no one / I had heard of / And I'm turning / To the horoscope / And looking / For the funnies."

Only the New York Post carried "funnies" in the '80s, and on its front page on November 18, 1981, was a story about how the body of actor William Holden was discovered in his room in Santa Monica, California two days earlier. Holden was diagnosed with cancer of the lungs, and probably tripped and fell while drunk, sustaining a wound to his head and dying a few days before his body was found.

Holden was a top talent who starred in some 70 movies, including "Golden Boy," (1939), "Sunset Boulevard" (1950), "Stalag 17" (in 1953, for which he won an Oscar), and "Network" (in 1976, and arguably the most relevant film made about the media). The fact that Vega's alter-ego in the song could have claimed that Holden was "no one I had heard of" proves yet again that sic transit gloria mundi. But that is another matter.