November 21, 2006

VHS logoWe can still read the Gutenberg Bible. It was printed in 1455, 551 years ago. I have a few books in my library older than 80 years, and they are still quite usable. I have books from my undergraduate days that I consult regularly — though more than 25 years old, they work fine.

So while books carry on, it’s a bit of a shock, to me, to see that VHS is dead. Daily Variety carried the obituary last week, but I just heard this morning, “VHS, 30, dies of loneliness”:

After a long illness, the groundbreaking home-entertainment format VHS has died of natural causes in the United States. The format was 30 years old.

No services are planned.

The format had been expected to survive until January, but high-def formats and next-generation vidgame consoles hastened its final decline.

“It’s pretty much over,” concurred Buena Vista Home Entertainment general manager North America Lori MacPherson on Tuesday.

VHS is survived by a child, DVD, and by Tivo, VOD and DirecTV. It was preceded in death by Betamax, Divx, mini-discs and laserdiscs.

Although it had been ailing, the format’s death became official in this, the video biz’s all-important fourth quarter. Retailers decided to pull the plug, saying there was no longer shelf space.

VHS is an acronym for “vertical helical scan,” which means little to most people. It’s obscure enough that when some advertising writer suggested it stands instead for “video home system,” that explanation replaced the truth in many histories of the format.

Wikipedia says the format was launched in September 1976, the month that Orrin Hatch won an upset victory over Jack Carlson in the Utah Republican primary on the strength of the only endorsement then-former-presidential candidate Ronald Reagan gave to anyone. Hatch went on to defeat three-term incumbent Ted Moss with a vastly underpaid press secretary. On November 7, 2006, 72-year-old Orrin Hatch won a sixth six-year term to the U.S. Senate. But VHS is dead. Hatch’s career in the U.S. Senate will outlast VHS.

In late 1978 I purchased a high-end cassette tape recorder to convert my vinyl records to a format that could play in my car. I had avoided the 8-track boom, and I thought cassettes would be the format for a long time to come. That cassette recorder wore out; I have two other high-end machines I use only occasionally. I have a few hundred cassette tapes that are too decayed to play. It turns out that magnetic recording tape only lasts about a decade before it becomes unusable. Fortunately I kept the vinyl records, and now I have software to convert them to digital, for conversion to CD or MP3 formats. It is difficult to find needles for the record players these days. Cassette players still show up in autos. VHS, on the other hand, joins Generalissimo Francisco Franco in the “seriously dead” column.

I delayed purchase of VHS player until about 1989, when stereo versions were reasonably inexpensive, and when most of the war with Sony Betamax was over. In schools today VHS is almost ubiquitous, finally. My principal had to argue hard to purchase DVD players just two years ago. New VHS machines were installed in many schools in the Dallas area just a year ago.

DVDs launched in the late 1990s, according to Wikipedia. DVD sales surpassed VHS sales in June 2003. Three years later, movie studios announced they would no longer put new movies on VHS for commercial sales, in July 2006.

I may be missing something, or perhaps digital other-than-DVD formats are already eclipsing DVD, but I do not think there is a core of DVD recorders and players available to allow home recording to the extent VHS recorders were used. Or, perhaps TIVO has filled the void.

Remember all the litigation about copyright protection and VHS? Remember the fight GO Video had to make a two-head, reproducing VHS machine? All mooted now.

Alvin Toffler was right.*

VHS is dead, but will any format live long any more?

Tip of the old scrub brush to Tombrarian.

* Among other things, Toffler said: “The illiterate of the 21st Century will not be those who cannot read or write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.”

He also wrote: “Future shock is the dizzying disorientation brought on by the premature arrival of the future.”

Egan’s Dust Bowl history wins National Book Award

November 21, 2006

The Worst Hard Time book cover, Houghton Mifflin image

Timothy Egan wins awards for his reporting and writing on a regular basis these days, it appears. He was part of a 2001 Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter team who reported on racial attitudes in America for the New York Times. Last week his book on the Dust Bowl won the National Book Award for Nonfiction: The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl (Houghton-Mifflin).

This period is not well understood by Texas history students, according to the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) tests of the past few years. Here’s a new book that should be incorporated into lesson plans for 7th grade Texas history courses, who will be coming into the Dust Bowl period sometime after the first of the year on most calendars.

Egan reads an excerpt of The Worst Hard Time for NPR here, and the site includes a link to the first chapter and other NPR stories on the Dust Bowl.

Other sources for lesson planning for this period should include Woody Guthrie’s biography Bound for Glory (book and movie), Steinbeck’s series on the Great Depression, The Grapes of Wrath (both book and movie), and Of Mice and Men (book and movie and more movies).

(New York Times book review of Egan’s book, here.)

History Pulitzers, where are they now?

November 21, 2006

Looking for books to put on my ad hoc list of top history books, for giving or getting, I took at look at the list of Pulitzer Prize winners in the history category, a list of books that dates back to 1917. (You may make nominations for the list here — please do!) Prizes for the past dozen or so years are all books I liked and have found useful. Some of the books, like Acheson’s winner from 1970, grew to be classics in some circles. But I was struck by how many of the books seem to have sunk from view.

Where are they now?

Here’s the Pulitzer website for the prize itself, where you can find lists for all the prizes; I reproduce the complete list of winners in history, below the fold.

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