Anachostic

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Tag Archives: hobbies

Farewell Half.com / Dream On

Yesterday, I learned half.com is closing.  I had one day of notice, essentially.  I had just purchased two things the previous day.  How did I not know this beforehand?

Today, I’m searching for news stories about the closure.  There aren’t any stories of significance.  Maybe 2 or 3 in second-tier tech news sites.  Then there’s a few stories about 6 months ago when the announcement was first made.  Included in those stories is a posting about someone who only found news of the closing in the help section of half.com, and no contacts at half or eBay would confirm the closing.  How weird.  Supposedly, the sellers were notified of the closing, but for whatever reason, the users and buyers were not.

So, the expected plan is for everyone to move their listings to eBay.  But as far as I can tell, eBay is not designed for the sale of media.  The whole design of half.com was that you searched for media, then you see who is selling it.  On Ebay, you would search for media and you get a bunch of listings selling that media.  Every listing would be created by each person, so there would be little to no consistency between them.  Amazon is better suited for sales of that nature, since they have a product, then they have sellers of that product.  It’s the same way that Amazon is not well suited to sell things that eBay excels at, like collectables and one-off unique items.

At some point in the future (not near or far future, somewhere in-between), I was planning on opening an online presence to sell my excess CDs.  Half.com was the frontrunner.  Now I have to choose between eBay and Amazon.  Or maybe Discogs, but I think the buyers would be more discerning there, which would require more effort.

Well, in the meantime, I have plenty enough going on to not worry so much about it, but it is sad to see one of the few physical media marketplaces close down.  You know what would be cool?  What if… Barnes and Noble, who isn’t doing all that well themselves, resurrected the Borders brand (which they bought in bankruptcy court) and re-launched it as a used media outlet. (I hate the word outlet in this instance, but juggernaut is a word that has to be earned).  I’m going to call this idea “Boarders” to prevent any confusion or lawsuits.

So here’s how I would see it operating.  We have to recognize that used media, whether it be books, CDs, DVDs, VHS, or cassette, has a low value – except to collectors.  So, understanding this, margins will be low across the board, no one is going to make a real killing at this.

So you’d start with an online store, structured mostly like half.com.  That’s the cheapest way to get things started.  People make their listings, sell their products and life goes on.  Admittedly, getting the momentum started so it looks like you have lots of items will be difficult.  To help in this, the tools to create listings will have to be top-notch.  Something like having a pre-populated database of UPC codes with product descriptions and stock photos.  Maybe have automated imports of structured files to batch add items.

That’s all well and good, but it’s just another vanilla ecommerce platform.  How’s that going to be an Amazon?  So let’s go to phase two.  Amazon is already at phase two, so nothing earth-shattering here.  Phase two is having Boarders warehouse the inventory.  The sellers use the site’s control panel to create a shipment of product to the Boarders warehouse.  This submision includes the item and the price at which they want to sell the product.  Then they box everything up with a printed submission sheet and send it.

When the shipment arrives, the warehouse worker scans the code on the submission sheet, then begins scanning barcodes on the incoming products.  The items get added to the sellers listings immediately.  I’m no logistics expert, but I’d assume the warehouse manages the inventory in the most efficient way.  The warehouse also gets notified when items sell and would ship them out efficiently as well.

I’m not going to downplay the expense of shipping and processing hundreds of books or CDs or DVDs for both the seller and Boarders.  That’s something that would need to be overcome by the beancounters.

Since we’re still having fun with this, let’s move on to phase three.  Phase three is physical storefront.  These could be built into existing B&N stores or could be standalone.  Stuff that was sent to the warehouses is bundled up and sent to various locations.  Why would the seller care where the product actually is?  All brick and mortar stores become warehouses.

Since these are low-margin sales, you need low-margin maintenance.  You also need to know your potential customers.  So for CDs and DVDs, what is needed is a clamshell container that holds the CD/DVD case and the disc separate, so they can both be inspected for condition without needing an associate to assist.  I would have to think about how books would be handled because buyers would want to see inside the book.  But anyway, back to disc-based media.  You also don’t want to have cashiers deal with opening clamshells and ringing customers up, so you would have a self-checkout machine that accepts the clamshell in a slot, scans the barcode, completes the sale, then releases the unlocked clamshells for the customer to remove and bag up their purchases.  The money goes off to the original seller and life goes on.

It’s just kind of a pipe dream.  Realistically, there isn’t enough potential profit to engineer a checkout machine like that, plus manufacture tens of thousands of cases to hold media that is selling for $1.00 or so.  Not to mention the cost of processing other people’s inventory and shipping it to storefronts.

Or maybe there is, somewhere.  Or maybe, there can exists a company that makes enough money to survive, and doesn’t have to make its owner a multi-billionaire.

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He Who Controls The Spice

This weekend, I picked up a couple of other CDs from my prime musical era: the 80’s.  It would probably be interesting to poll people and find out what they consider the best music of their life.  Based on anecdotal evidence I’ve seen, it would be the era in which a person became an adult, about when they were 18-21.  But that’s not really the point of this post. 

The thing I have discovered is that although we have all these eras of music: 50’s/oldies, 60’s/hippy, 70’s/classic rock, 80’s/glam/pop, 90’s/depression, and onward, each era has so much more than those generalizations I just assigned to them.  And even when you explore those other genres, they are still consistent with other genres of that era and also different than the same genre in other eras.  For example, Jazz in the 70’s sounds different than Jazz in the 80’s.  But Jazz in the 80’s still has that production sound of pop music the 80’s.  So the point I’m trying to make is that you can explore many genres within your prime musical era.  The amount of music just within your preferred era is staggering.  Believe me, I’ve been getting more and more daring and buying artists I only had a faint memory of.  The best way to describe the result of that effort is like filling in a puzzle of the entire musical landscape of the 80’s.  You see (hear) each album all in context and relation to the others and the era as a whole becomes more defined.  But that’s not really the point of this post, either.

I had to put those thoughts out first because I am curious abut the future (and a little about the past).  The 80’s could be the premier music moment in recorded music history, all due to the creation of the CD.  Because of the mad rush to upgrade past recordings to CD, then because of the eventual low cost of CD production, there is an overwhelming amount of music physically available on CD, both past and present (present meaning 80’s).

However, as we know, streaming is becoming the new standard.  Proponents of this format claim that it will encompass everything, where any music ever made will be available at a moment’s notice.  But will it?  It’s been shown many times over that an artist can simply refuse their catalog to be offered on a streaming service.  Not only an artist, but maybe an entire label.  If a label goes bankrupt, where do the rights go?  The music is only available when everything is working perfectly – and I wasn’t even meaning the technical bits working perfectly.

With our massively analytical society and our ROI-driven corporate environment, what are the odds that a streaming service would look at some particular music and see it isn’t being accessed enough or isn’t generating enough revenue, so it is just removed from the service.  It’s no longer available.  It’s not lost, just unavailable, which is pretty much the same thing to an end user.  I have seen news that some albums are no longer being released on a physical medium, therefore there is no way to own a copy of the music.  If this pattern accelerates, then there will come a time in the future where music can be lost.

Of course, none of this matters to me, because I’m still filling in the gaps of my era, but future generations will end up having a very spotty image of what music was like in their prime.  That would be a shame.

It’s Good To Be A Coder

While driving over the weekend, I had a humorous thought that I think I can stretch out into an extended joke.  The base premise of the joke is simple, just recaptioning an old comic strip to change the context of the comic and the dynamic between the characters.

So, to begin this, I need the original comic strips so I can deface them and make them funny in a different way.  I found the website that was hosting the comics and looked into what effort it would take to get these comics.

Here’s a small lesson in image thievery on the internet.  The most pedestrian way to get an image off the internet is to do a screen capture with something like Snipping Tool.  That route will burn you out in a matter of minutes.

The better way is to right-click the image and choose Save As.  This preserves the original image dimensions without any possible variance from lassoing.  However, web developers have gotten smarter about this technique and will do protective coding to prevent the unwanted downloading of their files.  One way to do this is to capture the mouse’s right-button click.  Other way is to overlay a transparent image over the other so when you right-click and Save As, you save the transparent image instead of the one you really want.  The most effective way is to show the image as a CSS background.  However, the truth is, if it’s in your browser, your browser requested the file and you can do it too.

To get around these tricks, you can use the developer tools built into most browsers.  They will allow you to look at the source code and find the URL of the actual image you want.  That is the path I originally took, finding the image tag, copying the URL into a new tab, then downloading/saving the image.  That lasted for about 7 images before it was too much effort.  Coders are lazy, and they write programs to do the work for them.

Looking at the URL for the image, it was a dynamic URL, not a static one.  It was similar to:

http://thewebsite.com/content.php?file=QXJlbid0IHlvdSBjbGV2ZXI/

At first, I was discouraged, because the file parameter just seemed to be a string of random characters.  There wouldn’t be any way to turn that into a reliable sequence to cycle through.  But the more I looked at the URL, the more familiar the text seemed.  I took a guess that the string was Base64-encoded, and my guess was correct.  Decoding the string resulted in another URL, although that URL was not accessible from the internet.  It was a page that “content.php” had access to, though. (Just as an aside, this programming design screams “security issues!”)

The decoded URL had a very understandable structure that would allow cycling through comics based on date.  It’s just that I would need to construct that URL, encode it in Base64, then pass the encoded URL as a parameter to the content.php address.

I fired up Visual Studio, added a datebox and a button.  I wrote 4 lines of code to construct the URL based on the date in the datebox, then download and save the image. Then I set up the button to decrement the datebox by a day and process the image.  Now, All I had to do was click a button over and over and the images would dump into a folder.  If I wanted to, I could set up a loop to cycle through images and I wouldn’t even need to click the button at all.  This was less than 15 minutes of effort.

And that is yet another example of the power that comes from being a programmer.

Collecting, For The Eyes And Ears

A co-worker of mine has recently fallen into the rabbit hole of sci-fi novels.  Every day, it’s read, read, read.  And because of that, it’s also become buy, buy, buy.  He does his research.  He knows all the prominent authors, their styles and topics and their bibliographies.

Recently, he’s been talking about “collections” and first editions with increasing interest.  As we discussed the viability of being a sci-fi novel collector, the parallels between his book collecting and my CD collecting became ever more obvious.  Here’s some of the connections I made:

  • Novels will move around between publishers.  Albums will also move around between publishers.  In both cases, the publisher determines the quality of the end product.  The artwork may be different between different publishers.
  • First editions of popular novels are just like first pressings of albums.  They are desirable by those that care and can command higher prices.
  • Both books and albums are reprinted in special collector’s editions, which collectors of each can have a great interest in.  Because the content is usually the same, the improvements are usually better packaging and bonus material (extra songs for albums, drafts or letters or forwards by the author’s peers for books).
  • Both can be turned into compilations and churned out for quick bucks by publishers.  Although I don’t know for sure, I suspect the royalties to the writers suck in all cases.
  • You can “remaster” a book with the same expected results as remastering an album.  You’ll have purists that hate the changes and progressive modern types that embrace the changes.  In the book world, they call it “revised and expanded”.
  • The collecting of this “old technology” is a mystery to the majority of the public.  The details of the versions and editions are lost on them.  “It’s all about the music”/”It’s all about the story”
  • You can find used copies of either at specialty used stores and save a lot of money.
  • You can also find digital copies of either for free (legality aside), but for a collector, this is insufficient.  The physical product is paramount.
  • When a collector starts “talking shop”, it sounds exactly the same; only the authors/bands and titles/albums are different.  They all have exclusive details and timelines and history, but they are completely interchangeable.

On the topic of money, he and I have both been doling it out.  Him maybe a bit more because he’s been buying new, where I buy used almost exclusively.  Yesterday, I gave him the opportunity to validate himself.  I asked if he wanted to visit my usual CD haunt during lunch.  I warned him it could be dangerous for me because the last time I was there, they had some very hard-to-find albums I wanted.  Being hard-to-find also means hard-to-justify-the-price.  I’ll spend up to $10 for a used CD I want, with gold CDs being the rare exception.

We get to the store and all the CDs are still available.  Six of them, priced between $18 and $25 each.  I ask him if I really want to do this, because it’s not gonna be cheap.  He replies that he is the wrong person to ask for support.  For both of our entertainment, I ended up buying them.  As the cashier rung up my $144 purchase of CDs, my co-worker, red-faced and grinning, beamed with delight that someone was behaving just as irrationally as he does with his books.

That Thing I Don’t Use

I can’t believe this.  The last post about my motorcycle is over three years ago.  Three Years.  And you know what it’s been doing in that time?  Sitting there.  Sitting outside.  I am a bad, bad owner.  And I’m not the only one who feels that way.

Today, I thought I would clean up the bike and maybe take it out for a ride tomorrow.  I had taken the bike’s battery out long ago (apparently very long ago) to prevent it from draining and dying (been there, done that).  But the battery still has a 95% charge, so I should be good to go.  I grabbed some rags and headed out to do some cleaning.  The bike is in understandably bad shape, having been left out in the elements for years.  I cleaned leaves out of various areas and then I found a hard-stop to my riding plans.  The fuel line has rotted and leaked gas out all over the place.  Sigh.

As I’m inspecting this issue, my neighbor comes over and asks what’s up.  I explain that I was going to try and clean up the bike for a ride and he tells me he’s noticed I haven’t been riding or taking care of my bike in a long time.  He wonders if I’m interested in selling it.  Apparently, he’s had multiple people ask him what’s up with the motorcycle in the driveway that never moves.  We chat a bit more and get talking about the fuel line.  My neighbor inspects it closely and says, yeah, it’s pretty much gone, you’ll have to replace that.  Should be pretty easy.  Then he pulls on the fuel line and finishes the job, breaking it off.  Well, I guess I have to fix it now.  Thanks.

As this is going on, a kid of one of my other neighbors comes over to see what’s happening.  Thankfully, the kid helps me get everything disassembled and disconnected (his dad has a motorcycle, too, so the whole family is handy).  I bought a new fuel line and it’s prepped for reinstall.  I’m leaving the bike all disassembled for now so I can get into every corner and clean it up.  There’s wasp nests all through it – wonderful.

On the topic of selling the bike, I threw out a random number to my neighbor.  The number is less than half the price I bought the bike for, which, given its current condition, is probably fair.  I don’t exactly want to sell the bike.  I love its styling.  It’s all paid off, registered and insured for the year, so it’s nice to have available should I want to use it.  But I haven’t used it for years.  Riding is generally a hassle because of the whole ceremony of getting ready and finishing up.  It’s not jumping in a car and leaving.

So, I’ll still attempt my cleaning and reassembly tomorrow.  We’ll see how I feel after a short ride as to keeping the bike or not.

As I finish this post, I just realized that the fuel line was only damaged at the one end.  I could have trimmed the hose and continued to use it instead doing of all this disassembly and replacement.  Maybe it’s for the best the whole fuel line was replaced.  Maybe I’m just an idiot.

Not What I Wanted, But…

In my last similar post, I picked up a cheap “vintage” stereo system. It was going to just a holdover until I released the major funds for a new full stereo system.  That release is probably being held up by the future planned redo of the living room.  And that’s a few rooms later, where I’m currently stuck in the master bathroom.  But anyway…

The new cheapo stereo ($28 to buy and $30 to repair) gave me radio and cassette tape capabilities.  To get any use out of it, I had to start buying cassettes.  That’s not really something I wanted to get into, but there I was.  I really wanted a CD player and had been looking for one that would match the style.  It needed to have a silver face to match and ideally have plenty of buttons.

That search was not as fruitful as I’d hoped, so I compromised and said I’d pick out a stand-in player until I found what I really wanted.  Today, I finally made that purchase.  It was all of $10, the same price as the tape deck.  It was a brand that I’d heard was well respected in that era, but one I’d never experienced before.

This is my new-to-me Onkyo DX-701, circa 1992.

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I have to say, when I first powered on the CD player and the display panel lit up, I grinned like an idiot.  It had been so long since I’d seen old-school digital displays like that.

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That might have even exceeded my fascination of playing cassettes and staring at the level meters.

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But, back to the CD player, the thing is built solid.  I’m sure everyone is used to the CD tray in their computer, a flimsy piece of crap.  The CD tray on this device is smooth and wobble-free.  It’s substantial.  The whole player was a little dirty, but I cleaned the heck out of it.  I took the cover off and found the insides to be completely dust free.  This was not a neglected piece of equipment stuffed in a closet or garage and I’m glad to give it a new life.

One little thing of note is that all three of these devices have physical power buttons.  You know how everything now is a soft power button – push it and it toggles the power, no tactile difference between on and off?  These devices all physically move metal contacts in a switch to toggle power on and off.  You feel the detent when the button is on (it remains in) and you feel it spring back out when you power it off.  It’s a minor thing, but it’s also something you don’t experience anymore.  It feels like quality.

Sonically, it’s incredible.  If I plug into the headphone jack on the player itself, dead quiet.  My MCS amp has an audible noise floor, but to its credit, I can’t turn the volume past about 5% without serious discomfort.  With great power comes a great hissing noise floor, apparently.

So, at this point, I can relax and wait for the right silver-faced CD player to cross my path.  And, where can you get a full stereo for under $100?

The Thrill Of The Hunt; The Agony Of Defeat

I have a few particular traits that work together and are beneficial to my wants (not needs).  They are: a love of driving, a strong sense of frugality, the thrill of the hunt, perseverance in the face of monotony, and a hobby of CD collecting.

I had the day off work, so last night, I have planned out a mega-run of 28 thrift shops to accomplish.  I expected up to 30 percent of them to be out of business, so maybe I’d get 20 stops in as long as I could keep going.  This is pretty much unprecedented in my exploration history.  Even back almost two decades ago, when I would do such mega-runs for pawn shops, I would never try to hit 10 in one go.

This trip is a solo run.  Even though the GF shares a lot of the same traits I do, this will be a level of monotony I wouldn’t wish on anyone else.  And taking a passenger on such a trip would be borderline abusive.  And, at points, it was very trying – self-abusive, possibly.

I started at 8:30 in the morning, hoping to get to the first store at 9:00 when they should be just opening up.  Well, that didn’t go well.  The first store didn’t open until 10:00.  I wasn’t going to sit there for an hour, so I moved on.  The next shop had a “be back at” sign that was set for 4:30, whatever that means.  Then I had a string of DNFs (geocaching speak for Did Not Find) and when I did find an open shop (a few were closed for the holiday season), I didn’t find anything worth buying.

Finally at stop #13 (13!!!), a Goodwill, I found 2 cds I wanted.  I thought my luck was turning, but then hit another DNF.  I had pre-programmed my GPS with multiple stops as a single route and I was out of stops for that route, so I made a random stop at a pawn shop to enter the remaining stops.  When I went into the pawn shop out of curiosity, I was surprised to see a rather large section of CDs.  I worked through the shelves in short order and came away with two more CDs, one of which was a target CD – highly unexpected.

I get up to stop #19 with no luck in finding stores or CDs.  It’s 2:00 now and I’m hangry.  I planned this to be a stopping point for food, but I was also about 2 hours behind schedule.  A short stop at Fuddruckers to recharge and I’m back on the hunt.  Despite the exponentially increasing traffic, I amazingly completed all the stops, but sadly, I gained nothing more for my collection.  I could have stopped after lunch.  I battled my way home through Friday rush hour traffic and got home around 6:30.

So, that’s the sad stats, there.  28 stores in 10 hours to acquire 4 CDs.  Not the most efficient way to spend a day.

Being The Best You Want To Be

On a forum I frequent, a question came up wondering why there are people who do not aspire to find and appreciate the best sound quality possible.  The answer is probably obvious on the surface – it’s just not something that interests them.  Like some people don’t have a care for paintings or photographs, or interior design, or anything else a person could be passionate about.

But on another level, on my level, what about people who do like music, but don’t like crappy sounding audio systems?  There’s a few sub-questions in there, like: Why don’t you have the best-sounding stereo possible?  Why don’t you own the highest-rated-in-terms-of-sound-quality CD for each of the albums you own? Why aren’t you into vinyl?  Why aren’t you also up in arms about people settling for MP3 and earbuds or playing music through their phone’s speaker?

Because I used to own a dedicated stereo system and because I plan to own one in the coming future, I felt that I needed to consider this question.  There is a certain “floor” of quality I insist on, but as far as a “ceiling”, I can’t be sure.

Regarding playback systems, I am not compelled to buy $3k speakers or $6k amplifiers to get the sound quality I require.  At the same time, I can’t really tolerate a $100 sound system either.  I swap out the stereo in each car I get, always to an improvement.  Despite having sound systems at the house, none of them are really satisfying.  My home theater system is a booming, bass beast – not good for music.  I have a couple small speaker docks that are ok for background music, but not for listening.  My best sound system is my computer running through my Event studio monitors.  Next year, I’ll get my listening system for the living room.

When I do buy my stereo, I’ll be buying what my budget allows from a quality brand.  For a true audiophile, this wouldn’t be satisfactory.  Consumer brands have lots of quality problems, and they would be able to identify what they are.  I wouldn’t, and I wouldn’t be able to tell by listening either.  After all, I don’t have any opportunity to compare systems, since I don’t have any friends (with stereo systems). Neither do I have the money to swap out components to try and make small to moderate improvements that I may not even notice.  So, what I have is what I hear and what I will enjoy.

As far as listening goes, I’m not sure I have the ear to be an audiophile.  I can identify obviously bad sound (like my theater system), but after a certain point, I can’t identify differences.  I can say that I don’t like it, but I wouldn’t be able to explain why.  More discerning people could say it was because of compression or eq or “presence” and some of the best could say it was because of speaker placement or wiring or the amp’s power supply.  I can’t do that.

The last piece of the loaded question is why not take the time to evaluate different masterings of albums to have the “best”?  My current stance is to own a version as close to the original as possible.  Before, I didn’t really have a position.  I’d just buy whatever was available.  I’ve decided that the original mix/mastering is the authority.  That’s what people liked.  A remaster is not a re-release.  It’s not like an album from 1986 is going to re-enter the charts because it was remastered.  All remastering is for existing fans.  It’s like version upgrades of software.

A Little Bit Of Tim Taylor In The Kitchen

Thanksgiving is almost here and that means it’s time for cooking.  I believe I probably think like most guys in that in order to do something properly, you have to have the right tools.  If you don’t exactly know what the right tools are, it’s best to just have all the tools.

And so, in this year, I’ve been building up my kitchen tool chest.  I pitched my ad-hoc cookware and bought a brand new starter set of pots and pans.  Then I augmented that set with a couple more small pots, for flexibility of course.  And last night, I saw two more pieces from the same model line (in the same color, too!).  I hadn’t ever seen them before, and I wasn’t entirely sure I would ever see them again, so I picked them up.  Now I own a stock pot and a deep sauté pan.  Will I ever use them?  Better to have and not need than need and not have.  Clearly, a man composed that line.

That’s not the only thing I’ve done in my tool refresh.  I pitched my dinnerware and bought all new, matching pieces, including things I shouldn’t need, like a serving bowl, a platter, and a gravy boat.  And although my meals are typically for one, I have 4 large plates, 4 small plates, 4 bowls, 2 additional large bowls, and 2 more additional small bowls.  I like soup and salad, but still, that might be pushing it.  I have the additional plates and such in case I have guests.  ha ha ha ha

I also swapped out my flatware.  Just because.  The old set was over 10 years old, and a change was needed.  Also, more knives.  I have two carving sets.  I have multiple whisks, multiple peelers, multiple strainers, multiple cutting boards, multiple crock pots, and more wooden utensils than I can use in a week.  More mixing bowls than I expect to realistically use, but they’re in all different sizes, so I will have the perfect size bowl for whatever it is I plan to do.  You need to have the right size tool for the job, right?

Last night, when I picked up the most recent pot and pan, I made the joke that I was a “completist”.  But then I looked up the definition, which is: “an obsessive, typically indiscriminate, collector or fan of something.”  That doesn’t sound fair.  It’s not an obsession, nor is it indiscriminate for me.  For one, it’s opportunistic. (This also applies to my CD collecting.)  Also, my purchases serve a purpose.  I’m not exactly acquiring these things for the sole purpose of having them.  I do intend to use them when there is a legitimate need.  I just need to create that need.

More Space; Going Vertical

Well, as I last mentioned, it’s time to grow the CD storage.  It cost just as much to buy a new storage tower as to build one, so I went the pre-built route.

After the new tower arrived, the first step was to clear out the old tower.  Surprisingly for me, I gave some thought as to the stacking of the CDs so I would be able to put them all back into the new tower in order.  Unload from Z to A, then reload from A to Z.

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The new tower has shelves that are pretty much the same width as the old tower, but there are two additional shelves to work with.  Those, times four sides, gives me 8 more shelves worth of space.  Compared to the old tower, the new one is quite impressive.

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Replacing the CDs, I was able to leave space on every single shelf, and even with that, I had almost two free shelves at the end.

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In all, quite a nice upgrade.  And if I manage to fill that, I have the old tower I can start using again.