Monday, July 16, 2018

49

7 x 7. Luck x luck?

1. Bad Things Happen

About two months ago, one of my colleagues was stopped in traffic, sitting in his car. He was rear-ended by a van traveling at 60 mph. His car was destroyed, hit so hard that it also destroyed the car in front of him. He survived with, relatively speaking, few injuries. Many broken ribs and the attendant punctured lung. A fractured vertebrae. They say he is lucky to be alive. As he lies in his hospital bed, hammering his morphine button and trying not to breathe, it is not clear how lucky he feels.

I can relate. Much of this year has been spent dealing with a serious problem of a most unlucky nature. Nobody hears the details and says "you are so lucky!"

At the same time, many elements related to this problem have gone my way. Given my situation, I would say I got lucky. I even ended up with a new old friend, which is a remarkable trick.

Metaphorically speaking, I get to walk away (for now), under my own power, looking more or less the same. Not without some damage on the inside, though. I am keenly aware of life's color, now more vivid than ever, but I lament that my ability to perceive that color has been subtly dulled, perhaps permanently.

49. It could be worse.

2. What Matters

Economy forces clarity. When you can only keep a few things, you figure out what you consider important. When you only have enough time or energy to do a few things, you focus on the critical tasks. Moments become hours, hours become days, days become weeks. The time scale expands and you realize you always only have enough time and energy to do a few things. So you think about what matters most.

Who do you want to see? What do you want to do? Something productive? Something fun? Should you build memories for others or yourself? They'll all be lost eventually, like tears in rain, but like sakura blossoms, that just makes them more beautiful and essential. We spend our lives writing in sand. The wind and waves will come.



You might look at what you have achieved in your life and wonder if any of it matters.

Zoom out far enough to see the biggest picture and the answer is "no", at least, not to the universe, or most people on earth. What about at a smaller scale? Did you make a difference? Maybe not to "the world" or "millions of people". But perhaps you affected the lives of a few people.

You hope those people remember you, and that perhaps they will themselves try to have a positive impact on the lives of those around them.

You hope you have a few more chances to make that difference. You know what matters to you, and resolve to be better, more focused, more productive. But also to appreciate the reality of life and the patience it requires.

49 suggests perhaps what matters is what you choose, how you react, how you live, in the moment and overall. Or perhaps you have no idea what matters, and you are just grasping in the dark. You don't understand a thing.

49 says "But then again, who does?"

3. Who Are You

I spend time wondering what happened to people I used to know and lost touch with. A list of faces and names to chase down on the internet.

I gaze out the hotel window at the trees, drooping in the humidity and heat. I have come a long way to see some old friends, tell them some stories about who I am today, and learn who they are.

We all have a self-image, an idea of who we are. We are what others perceive us to be, or we are the sum of our actions in life, or we are whoever we say we are.

I wonder what people see when they look at me now. My core remains largely unchanged from my teenage years, for better or worse. I think I've gotten better at being a decent person, though I still have a long way to go. I still feel vital, though I can feel the years weighing on my shoulders a bit more. More experienced. Wiser?

Soon I will be 49. Who am I? Still a musician, for one thing. A student, for sure. Perhaps still a teacher of sorts. I am a writer. A worker. A husband. A middle-aged white guy. Boring. Fascinating. Generous. Talkative. Introverted. Creative. Derivative. On balance, someone good?

4. Every Moment

I am awake and alert, even if I do not want to be. 90 minutes ago, I could barely keep my eyes open, but now I cannot get comfortable. I quietly struggle so as not to disturb my love, sleeping by my side.

My skin is acutely sensitive. Moving my hair hurts. Clothes dragging across my skin is sublime, almost painful. Physically, it is like I have had a layer or filter stripped off, or that a gain control in my nervous system has been cranked up.

Not just physical, either. Emotionally raw. I find myself on the verge of tears at odd moments, and occasionally euphoric.

I swallow, and my throat hurts. Sore. Dry. Have I ever been so acutely aware of my body for so long? I think of the hours I have spent pushing myself physically. I do not recall even mile 12 in a long run reminding me of the meat-sack I live in so much.

I wish it were raining. I miss the sound of the raindrops on the roof and windows. I cannot remember the last time I saw rain.

Eyes half-open, conscious. This is a part of life, too. I try to relax my body, hoping my leg does not start twitching. I try to quiet my mind, wishing the fragments of songs repeating would just fade out, along with the shards of memories and ideas. Perhaps all of that brain noise is constantly there, a kind of mental tinnitus obscured by daily consciousness, and brought to the foreground only in the sensory deprivation of the small hours. How do I ever get anything done?

I try to embrace the insomnia, to appreciate what it means to sleep deeply. Just as I try to embrace illness to appreciate health. This restless intermission, this is a part of life. The future is uncertain, and this quiet, peaceful minute could be one of the better things ahead.

It still sucks, and I wish I was sleeping soundly. But at 49, I have a new understanding of how precious every moment is.

5. Decayed, Decayed

In 2007(!), I realized I had no time to waste, and returned to writing and recording with a new sense of freedom and urgency. The first album I made was "Decayed, Decayed", a look back at 2 decades of making music and life, and a look forward as well.

The title track:

It’s 20 years since this started up
Let me tell you how it was:
a 4-track Radio Shack tape deck
Hissing overdubs
I tried to get it down
Record what I had to say
I thought I had all the time I wanted
Somehow it got away

Decayed, Decayed

There were so many big plans for me
They all told me I was Great
13 years of experiments and studies
I finally escaped
4 years I lived in winter
9 in L.A.
Everything used to work just fine, now it’s not OK
Broken bones won’t heal
This broken heart can’t feel
And scars (some self-inflicted) on skin rashed and peeled
My knees crackcrackcracking
My mind…lagging
My guts slowly rusting
Hair thins and turns gray

Decayed, Decayed

It’s just a matter of time 
You see you’re already in line
The short straw in your hand is previously defined
With every breath you draw into your gasping chest
Think of how sweet it tasted
And all the time you wasted
Was it worth it in the end?
Would you do it the same if you could do it again?
Doubts and questions piling up
Endlessly replayed

Decayed, Decayed

The laws of physics simply state the case:
Entropy wins.
Everything fades.
There is no escape.

I walk beneath cherry blossoms listening to the rain.

6. In Lieu of Gifts

If you like having me around, if I have made a difference in your life, do me a favor: 


She is brilliant and hard-working. An embodiment of values I hold dear, and the kind of person we should all aspire to be: someone who has taken her powerful intellect and relentless drive and focused it on service, on keeping people like you and me alive. 

She is quite literally the reason I am able to celebrate being 49, and have a good chance of being able to celebrate 50-55 and beyond.

7. Lucky

Like many years past, I am sitting in a comfortable chair, coffee nearby, and music playing on the stereo. I am writing about this year, today, myself. I write for the same reasons some people dance, I suppose. Because it feels good. Because I hope nobody is watching. Because I hope someone is watching. Because I want to while I still can. Because I still can.

At 49, I am lucky enough to see some dreams come true, and wise enough to be careful what I dream about. I have also seen nightmares made real. The knowledge that there is no "waking up" can be the scariest part of all.

There are plenty of bad things one could focus on. The state of the world. Statistics, science, numbers. Damage and pain, now and in the future. What does that get you?

I do not want to ignore or minimize the bad things out there. But at 49 I want to spend as little time as possible upset by things I have no control over.

I tell myself to focus on what I know to be true, rather than spiraling down about what might happen. It is not easy. That is as good an indicator as any that it is the right thing to do.

I am lucky. Lucky to be here, to be awake and alive, to see the sun come up, to get one more day. I hope to see some of my friends later today, and more of you in a few weeks.

Happy birthday to me.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Spotify, Steam, and YouTube: Curation Failure

It is 2018, and the world seems to be moving backwards in terms of speech. Despite, or perhaps because of, a continuing coarsening and dumbing-down of the culture, people seem more likely than ever to take offense at language, media, and even behavior that either would have been unremarkable a few years earlier or seems allowed or uncontroversial in other contexts.

The consequences for saying the wrong thing? Economic exile. You lose your job, and may not be able to get another one. There are countless examples, from Roseanne Barr's recent horrific Twitter eruption to Samantha Bee's vulgarity to your Facebook feed being filled with people demanding that posters or people in videos be identified so their employers can be pressured into firing them.

We seem to want speech (if not thought) to be aligned with a kind of corporate mindset, Get in formation. Say the right things (silence is complicity). Non-compliance is not tolerated. 

It is not surprising then, that media companies are rushing to check themselves before the searchlight and Internet Outrage Cannon is trained on them.

Spotify: Having it both ways

Spotify floated a trial of policies around "hateful content" and "hateful conduct". It quickly walked it back after strong objections and threats of content takedowns from artists.

Spotify had stated they would remove, or at least not promote, music that...
expressly and principally promotes, advocates, or incites hatred or violence against a group or individual based on characteristics, including, race, religion, gender identity, sex, ethnicity, nationality, sexual orientation, veteran status, or disability.
I have to assume Spotify's intent was to have a way to kick things like Nazi punk (an actual genre) or ISIS-core (hopefully not an actual genre) off the platform. But Spotify is a global company, and is trying to keep all the world's music up on its service. It has over 50 million songs in its database, and exercises no editorial control over submitted content. 

And unfortunately for Spotify, there's a lot of music that could fall under their stated policy. Hip-hop -- one of Spotify's most popular genres -- has a number of acts (especially some of the older stuff) who have lyrics that are anti-gay, anti-Semitic, and/or endorse violence against women. There are plenty of rock acts, too. 

Spotify went a step further. They said they'd even block or at least refuse to promote (non-offensive) content from people who had behaved badly -- so-called "hateful conduct". Their test case here was R. Kelly. Presumably they were trying to give themselves a way to pull down content by whoever is currently screwing up so that Spotify could avoid any kind of boycott.

But this policy also quickly becomes difficult to operate with any precision. Is Spotify going to decide what crimes merit banishment? Any crime? Felonies only, or misdemeanors? What about things that are crimes in one country but not another? What about content that was made well before the act did anything objectionable? (a good example here would be Bill Cosby, whose early comedy albums are squeaky-clean and considered landmark comedic works). What about allegations, rather than convictions?

It's worth noting that R. Kelly has never been convicted of any crime. In fact, he was tried and found not guilty, so as far as the government is concerned, he's clean. 

Or what about content where some of the people have done something wrong, but others have not (like producer Dr. Luke and Kesha). Dr. Luke has not been found guilty of anything, with some lawsuits dismissed and others in progress. But apparently that doesn't matter. Even if you personally had a good experience with him and say so, you and anyone associated with you might get into trouble. Do you pull down the records he did with Kesha? Doesn't that hurt her more than him?

There are plenty of artists who have confessed to or endorsed all sorts of bad conduct in interviews. They have boasted about treating women poorly. Frequently abused drugs and alcohol. Driven faster than the speed limit. Driven while intoxicated, and/or killed people in drunk driving accidents. Committed crimes ranging from selling drugs to gun violence to murder. And if you want to include artists who have just been accused of bad behavior, well, that list gets long fast.

Spotify is also trying to have it both ways with their half-step of "well, we won't take the content out of Spotify, but we will refuse to promote it on the homepage or in our editorial playlists". Really, Spotify? So you feel bad about it, but not so bad that people shouldn't be able to get it? That seems like a rather weak approach, calculated for some marketing value only.

Let's be clear: if you think the content is objectionable, either due to what the content promotes or the alleged actions of the creators, why would you make it available at all? By doing so, you are putting money in the creators' pockets, and (at least by the logic of our current era) thereby endorsing this behavior. You are complicit. You are aiding and abetting.

At least Spotify is trying to exercise responsibility for what they offer, albeit in a clumsy and conflicted way.

Steam: Caveat emptor

Steam, the iTunes Music Store of video games, similarly ratcheted up a policy of "no pornography" to include material it had not previously covered, and then apparently, backed off, before creeping back to cover some of it again. Or not. It is hard to tell, and the inconsistency is part of the problem (the blurry guidelines are the other).

In Steam's case, they ran into a bunch of complaints from the LGBTQ gamer community, who claimed the material in question (so-called "visual novels") were important to them, as a safe space to explore their issues, as well as being the genre and medium that catered to them.

Steam's hand-wringing seemed particularly hypocritical in that they targeted sexual content, and yet have zero problems with the casual, extreme, graphic violence that is commonplace among many video games.

Then, Steam threw in the towel. After analyzing the problem, they have simply decided that, rather than curate what is sold in their store, they'd rather just "enable" developers to have the freedom to put out anything, as long as it is not, in Valve's opinion (emphasis added) "illegal or straight up trolling".

Let us ignore the unfortunate use of ambiguous slang for the moment (one wonders if "trolling on the down low" would be OK, or if we have a mutually agreed-upon definition of "trolling" that navigates parody, commentary, and so forth). Let us also ignore Valve's ability to judge whether or not something is "illegal".

The real disappointment here is that the world's biggest game store (and potentially, soon, the biggest software store) doesn't care what it is selling, as long as you are buying. They have abdicated any responsibility for what is in the store, leaving themselves a flimsy back door to dump content when there is a PR incident.

They do not have to spend any time or money looking at their own merchandise. They can dodge blame (just like the gun industry) and say "Hey, we didn't make it, we just sell it. It may or may not reflect our 'values'. Don't buy it if you don't want it."

It seems only a matter of time before this blows up in their faces. But more importantly, it suggests that they feel their massive market dominance as a platform carries with it no responsibility whatsoever. Or perhaps, worse, they feel their influence obliges them to do nothing in the name of "freedom" for creators. So they provide a means for people to monetize hateful, sloppy garbage. Caveat emptor.

Fortunately, the gaming press seems to think Valve is making a bad call here.

YouTube: A monster machine

Steam's situation leads one to reflect that perhaps we should not be offering a megaphone and platform for anyone and everyone. YouTube all but confirms it.

YouTube has been wrestling with issues similar to Steam. YouTube has always taken a view that it is at its best when exercising zero editorial control over what people are posting. So it doesn't. No human being looks at the content being submitted, other than the submitter. There are some rudimentary tests, but not for anything like "values", it's simply to make sure that whatever horrible video being posted doesn't infringe the copyrights of the big media players. There's your "values".

So people go to work, and quickly learn that the best content is the "worst" content. Things that are deliberately shocking, outrageous, and not the kind of thing you would find on any 20th century "network". Due to the nature of internet platforms and our own human nature, we have ended up with "creators" like Logan Paul and Lil Tay. Perhaps Penny Arcade said it best:

They made a kind of monster machine, with every possible lever thrown towards a caustic narcissism, and then they pretend to be fucking surprised when an unbroken stream of monsters emerge.

YouTube has allowed people to blast their most awful "thoughts" and actions worldwide, and have them preserved forever. Great job, gang. You made the world a little or a lot more terrible, and you are making money from it. (And that is to say nothing of the endless stream of copyright violations that also fund YouTube's business).

Perhaps unsurprisingly, there is some pushback. A recent example is that just last week, London police have asked YouTube to take down some music videos, because the police feel they are glorifying or encouraging knife crimes. While there might not be any evidence the videos are contributing to knife crime per se, it is obvious they are amplifying the culture in which it thrives, and that at least some of the crimes have been inspired by, if not predicted by, the communications happening in the videos.

I am a big supporter of freedom in the arts. But it seems hard to defend "art" where the singer says (roughly) "Tom, that's my friend Jimmy in the back and he's going to stab you until you are dead", and then Tom is found dead from stabbing and Jimmy is found holding a bloody knife and says "yeah, I stabbed Tom until he was dead."

That seems more like terrorism, and not all that different from Al Qaeda or ISIS ranting about killing non-believers. (It doesn't help that the music is really uninteresting).

Like Steam, while simulated violence is totally fine for YouTube, anything approaching simulated sex is not. I guess you have to pay for HBO or Cinemax (if you want it fancy and artistic) or just go looking on Tumblr or PornTube (if you want it free and real).

Unlike Steam and Spotify, YouTube has never indicated it would try to police any of its content, and is only reluctantly doing so in the face of legal pressure. And for the first time, YouTube is also facing challenges to the "safe harbor" laws that allow it to ignore the content it hosts.

Minding The Store

Prior to the internet's creation of stores with infinite shelf space, people who sold physical goods had to make choices about what to carry. Every item in the store occupied space that something else could be using. Stores chose based on what would sell or attract people to the store. They also made choices about what kind of institution they wanted to be, and what kind of customers they wanted to have.

Jeff Bezos famously remarked that his biggest mistake was branding early Amazon as "The World's Biggest Bookstore" instead of "The World's BEST Bookstore". He felt the promise of having every book was an expensive distraction, especially when very few books account for the majority of sales. It is the same in every other media vertical.

Perhaps the solution is for the internet's virtual vendors to shoulder some more responsibility and actually choose what goes up. Maybe the world doesn't need every single song, game, or video available in the biggest stores. Niche tastes can look in niche places. It is not difficult to find things on the internet. All that extra junk is not really driving revenue for any of these businesses, and it seems like it just adds risk and gives voice and legitimacy to some questionable ideas.

Us

Of course, all of this willful ignorance and amplification of idiocy for profit says something about the platforms like Spotify, Steam, and YouTube. But it says worse things about us. Because we are the people filling our brains, hearts, and souls with this "content".

The impulse to limit what content or media people can consume has been around for a long time, frequently driven by concerns about the negative influence of the content and/or media on youth. If you can think of a medium, it has likely been accused of corrupting youth: The internet. Video games. Television. Role-playing games like "Dungeons and Dragons". Movies (usually the kind with sex, but occasionally the kind with violence). Radio. Rock music/hip-hop/jazz. Comic books. Novels (I am not kidding). Probably Greek drama and cave paintings.

On the one hand, a whole bunch of research has shown media consumption has, at most, minimal effect on people's behaviors (and there's a lot of uncertainty about whether consuming violent media makes people more violent, or if people with high tendencies towards violence prefer more violent media).

But we also know "you are what you eat", and speak frequently about how media "changed our lives". It is sometimes intended as a joke, sometimes as hyperbole. But still.

Does consumption of media, of art, have no effect at all on us? If it does have no effect, well, sorry, artists. You've been wasting your time. But if it does have an effect, even small and/or temporary, the implications seem obvious.

It would mean the entire production chain -- artists, businesspeople, distributors, etc. -- have a responsibility to think about what they are putting out there, wrap it in warnings, and make sure it is only consumed by those of appropriate age.

It would also mean that we, as individuals and media consumers, have a responsibility to think about what we put in our heads.


Friday, June 08, 2018

Anthony, Kate, and Life

After a long night of restless tossing and turning, I sink into a chair with a cup of coffee I can barely taste. And I read that Anthony Bourdain is dead, and start tearing up.

Anthony Bourdain was your cool friend -- the one who always seemed to know things you didn't about places to go or good food or great music or what really goes on in the kitchen. It was like he had figured everything out. This interesting person with a fun, fascinating, challenging job that he created, who could live more than comfortably doing exactly what he wanted. Who wouldn't want to hang out with someone like that? Who doesn't dream of being someone like that?

Bourdain said, of his life:

I travel around the world, eat a lot of shit, and basically do whatever the fuck I want.

His eyes, his taste, his work, and his writing said he was restless. He periodically reinvented himself and adjusted what he did for a living. Today I find myself wondering if all that was less about curiosity and more about fear of standing still, or just not liking what he woke up to every morning. Maybe it will be different in another country. Maybe it will be different tomorrow. Perhaps he just found himself at a place where he saw no more reinvention, no futures, no more places to go to, only places to run from.

Bourdain seemed to hunger for life. He was an avatar of, and an advocate for, enjoying life's pleasures. To see him, of all people, decide that it wasn't worth getting up tomorrow for another bite of something delicious and new is heartbreaking.

Worse, I find myself wondering if he still knows something we don't.


Kate Spade, too. Another person who seemed to have set herself up in a life most of us aspire to. Starting and running a successful company making beautiful things. In her case, at least, there was some history and suggestion of depression. It is still tragic, but at least has a clearer cause.

Their suicides are shocking. We assume both of these people had near-ideal lives, complete with loved ones and children. Even if they found themselves under too much pressure or not enjoying things anymore, we believe they could just cash out, retire, and spend the rest of their days in comfort, doing whatever they pleased.

Bourdain said "Life is complicated. It's filled with nuance. It's unsatisfying."

Our society tends to conflate happiness with satisfaction. Similarly, it also tells us that both happiness and satisfaction are destinations, and you can arrive if you only have enough money to pay the fare.

But research and our own experiences tell us this is not true. Happiness is fleeting, and satisfaction often unrelated. There's arguably nothing worse than being happy but profoundly unsatisfied.

Happiness and satisfaction aren't destinations. They are paths, ways of living. You have to get up every day and put your feet on them. And you will find throughout your life that the directions keep changing. What got you there yesterday may not be what gets you there today, or tomorrow, or 5 years from now. That is part of the deal, and part of the joy of living.

Anthony and Kate were just like you and me. They woke up every morning to the realization their lives weren't what they expected them to be. But they also knew their lives were better than they could have imagined. And still not right, not enough, not OK.

These sudden, voluntary ends are particularly poignant for me. Of late, I am painfully reminded of how precious every moment, every sunrise, every day, every sunset is. We might all wake up not exactly where we want to be, but every new day is a chance to try again, to try to find ourselves and the lives we want.

I will take every uncomfortable, thrashing night, every bleary morning, every boring meeting, every minute of traffic right alongside every trip to a new location, every new flavor, every dream.

I want it all, I want it, I want it, I want it. Give me every minute, because there is nothing else. Watching others decide "nothing" is preferable is wrenching, especially when they were so full of so much good life and love.