Tuesday, October 20, 2020

That's What We Do: Winner, SF Independent Short Film Festival, 2020

Lauren Tabak (also known as "Elle Empty") and I wrote a song together earlier this year: "That's What We Do", another in a long series of collaborations.

Lauren is an extremely talented filmmaker and shot a great short film for the song. Her music video just won an award in the San Francisco Independent Short Film Festival. 

Congratulations, Lauren!

Check out the award-winning work below:




Friday, October 09, 2020

The Duke University Talent Identification Program (1980 - 2020)

After 40 years of serving gifted and talented children, Duke University has abruptly terminated their highly-regarded Talent Identification Program (TIP), laying off all employees of the non-profit organization. Like many other educational programs, TIP suffered from the loss of revenue from canceling its summer residential programs due to the pandemic (and perhaps Duke deciding they'd rather have a different type of summer program).

This is terrible news for the kids, and for gifted education. It is also extremely unfortunate for the hardworking staff who kept the program running, and now find themselves unemployed.

It is a devastating loss for me as well. TIP changed my life twice, and saved it once. 

As a student, the 4 summers I spent at TIP were major defining experiences of my life. The person I am today was greatly shaped by my time there, and the students and faculty I met. Many of my TIP friends remain my closest and best friends today.

As a teacher, TIP reminded me of the person I had forgotten I was, and the person I had forgotten I could be. My first summer teaching inspired me to leave Los Angeles for San Francisco. Teaching at TIP also reinvigorated my passion for music, after a decade in L.A. had nearly killed it. Several of my former students have gone on to either make music their vocation, or their passion, and I am still in touch with some of them. Several of the instructors I met during that time remain good friends as well. 

One of my TIP friends saved my life. A story for another time, though some of you have already heard it.

I have written about some of my TIP experiences here as a student and as an adult occasionally, but perhaps not as much as I should. 

Today's news is roughly equivalent to finding out that your childhood home, your high school, and your alma mater all burned to the ground. I am heartbroken over the loss of something so important to me, sympathetic to the dozens of TIP employees who have been laid off, and sad for all the gifted kids who will never have the TIP experience.  

Thank you for everything, TIP. 

There are so many special people I met through TIP as a student and teacher I can't even begin to list them all. I am sure all of them are feeling the same terrible sense of loss I am. 

Thank you, Dr. Sawyer, for your persistence, belief, and hard work. TIP would never have happened without you.

Thank you Dr. Greg Kimble, Mark DeLong, Angela Teachey, and all the other tremendous instructors and teaching assistants who both saw our potential and put up with our adolescence.

Thank you Deborah-Kay Hughes, Shawna Young, Vicki Rennecker-Nakayoshi, Tasha Martin, Brian Cooper, Ramon Griffin, Vicki Stocking, Hollace Selph, John Pollins, Lynn Daggett Pollins, Pamela Clinkenbeard, and the countless other hard-working people who kept TIP's back offices running.

Thank you G. Stanat, Glen Borg, Art Shepard, and all the RAs. You were role models of the best kind, and provided a different, but equally important kind of education out of the classroom for your young charges.

Tuesday, October 06, 2020

Edward Van Halen (1955 - 2020)

Eddie Van Halen died today from throat cancer. He was 65 years old.

Ed, The Musician

Eddie Van Halen and his brother founded the band that shared their last name in 1972. Eddie made his name and his fortune writing songs and playing guitar in that band, whose self-titled first album was released in 1978.

Ed was a guitar hero, and still frequently tops lists of "best" and "most influential" players. He is credited with inventing two-handed tapping, a visually flashy technique where players tap the strings on the guitar's neck with both hands. It is itself a logical extension of the "hammer-on" and "pull-off" techniques, but Ed did it first, producing blazing runs of 16th notes and inspiring generations of teenaged players. 

His playing had a style, which, while squarely in the "hard rock" camp, was broad and unique. Ed seldom just hit a basic chord and let it ring. He wrote interesting guitar parts that covered a space between chords and single notes.

Eddie Van Halen's playing also had great feel. Despite his considerable chops, Ed's playing always felt loose, fluid, and effortless. Like a true master, he makes it look easy.

Ed also cared a lot about guitar sound and guitar technology. He famously discovered that by starving his tube amps of current using a "variac", he could get the sound he wanted from his amp. He developed his own "brown sound", a unique, distorted guitar tone that retains dynamics and detail. He also had a shimmering clean tone, all enhanced by bits of "jape" -- his term for his effects, a tape delay, phasing, flanging, and chorusing, deployed as he liked.

He built his own guitars from parts, with a deliberately raw and primitive aesthetic, offset with his bold home-created striped paint jobs. He was constantly tinkering with different ideas.

He was also a solid piano player. Many of his songs were written on keyboard first, and a number of Van Halen's biggest hits were driven by keyboard, rather than guitar -- notably "The Cradle Will Rock", "Jump", and "Why Can't This Be Love"

Ed was more than a riff generator, he was a songwriter. Yes, he created those intricate and interesting guitar parts, but he often wrote the vocal melodies and harmonies, too.

He also famously contributed the guitar solo to Michael Jackson's "Beat It"...the subsequent success of "Thriller" kept Van Halen's own album 1984 from the #1 slot, and Eddie's brother Alex never let him forget it. 

Ed also played rhythm guitar on Thomas Dolby's Astronauts & Heretics album, on the tracks "Eastern Bloc" and "Close But No Cigar".

Ultimately, his music brought happiness to millions of people, and his playing has inspired guitar players for over 40 years. Few people have ever had that kind of impact, and it is difficult to imagine anyone else having that kind of impact in the future.

He Gave Me A Guitar

I met Ed in the late 1990s. I was working for an audio technology company, managing their professional products. I was working from the Mountain View office when the receptionist told me there was an "Edward Van Halen" on the phone to talk to me.

I looked around the office and said "very funny, guys...sure, put 'Mr. Van Halen' through." Once I heard the voice on the other end of the phone, I instantly knew it was actually him. He wanted to try out some of our products in his 5150 studio at his compound in the canyons between Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley.

A few days later, I dropped the gear off and was quickly hurried off the premises by the chief engineer. But about a month later, when I returned to pick up the demo unit and drop off the units he purchased, Ed came rolling up in a golf cart, wearing cow-print pajamas. It was close to noon, and he looked like he had just gotten out of bed.

He introduced himself ("Hi there, I'm Ed!") and we talked for a few minutes. He said he thought I was going to be older. He asked me if I played guitar. I told him I did. He smiled big, and walked over to his garage. 

As he pulled the hinged door open, he said "I wanna give you a guitar and an amp!" I was stunned. He said "I am really proud of this guitar, it's my favorite one I've worked on." He pulled out a plastic case, set it down on the driveway pavement, and opened it up. I was looking at a Peavey EVH Wolfgang, with a sunburst top. He said "It's yours, man...lemme get you a stack, too".

He started pulling out a complete 5150 amp stack: a tube head and 2 4x12 cabinets. 

I told him "I never in a million years would have believed I'd be standing in your driveway while you hand me a guitar." He just smiled that goofy smile of his and said "the amp doesn't sound good unless you turn everything up to the max." I assured him I would.

I couldn't even fit it all in my car, and left the 2nd amplifier cabinet at his place. I drove home in silent shock. "Eddie Van Halen just gave me a guitar." I never did go back for the bottom cabinet.

Of course, when the team at work found out about it, they were incredibly jealous.

I still have the guitar. I didn't have him sign it, as I thought that would have just been tacky. Though it is both valuable and desirable, I will never sell it.  It's not a collector's item, I play it. It has a few dings and scratches. It is one of the nicest-playing guitars I have, with a comfortable (for me) short(er)-scale neck. 

It has a "D-Tuna" that lets you instantly change to a drop-D tuning, along with an Ed-approved Floyd Rose vibrato system. The dual humbucker pickups and overall sound of the guitar mean it serves as my "hard rock" guitar. The EVH fills the space in my collection that a Les Paul might normally occupy for other guitar players.

Thank you for the music and the guitar, Ed.

***

Some examples of his work follow.

"Eruption", perhaps his best known display of his technique:


"Hear About It Later", one of my favorites, showing off his musicality and playing range:


And of course, "Jump" -- Van Halen's biggest hit, which mostly features the guitar hero playing a synthesizer:

Monday, October 05, 2020

The Oldest Song


History.com notes:
...the oldest musical composition to have survived in its entirety is a first century A.D. Greek tune known as the “Seikilos Epitaph.” The song was found engraved on an ancient marble column used to mark a woman’s gravesite in Turkey. “I am a tombstone, an image,” reads an inscription. “Seikilos placed me here as an everlasting sign of deathless remembrance.” The column also includes musical notation as well as a short set of lyrics that read:  
“While you live, shine / Have no grief at all / Life exists only for a short while / And time demands its toll.”

Wise, and well-translated, as it preserves the feeling and a rhyme.

Thursday, October 01, 2020

Leaving Social Media

I am leaving social media*, and you should, too.

*I will keep my accounts active rather than deleting them. As someone who works in what is described as "tech", it is simply not practical to not have them. I will continue to post outbound notifications about album releases from my various musical projects and the occasional blog post, but my days of frequently checking my accounts, posting links, and commenting are done for now, and hopefully for good.

Social media is a bad idea and a worse business model. I am tired of contributing to it, and I am tired of being assaulted by it. 

By "bad idea", I mean it is actively harmful to us as individuals and society to offer a platform for anyone and everyone to broadcast without curation or vetting. Particularly when the craziest and worst ideas are put in the same frame and given the same presentation and weight as the most banal personal trivia and serious journalism. This alone has damaged democracy and eroded our sense of common truths and purpose. 

As a business model, it is also terrible. People are now using social media as a daily newspaper, because it is free and "personalized". Social media repurposes other people's content (including yours) and monetizes them with its own advertising. 

Social media has contributed to the impoverishment of serious news organizations and helped enable and empower garbage pseudo-news providers from OANN to chumbox companies to meme farms. Every time we post on social media sites, we are working -- for free -- to make people like Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey even richer. They are definitely getting the better end of the deal, which is why they're multi-billionaires and you're worried about feeding your family.

The resulting data and databases are used in ways we can barely comprehend or believe by private companies. Worse, the information is being acquired by governments and used for everything from facial recognition databases to behavioral profiling to vetting who is allowed in or out and what they can do. If you think Trump's America is rough for some people now, wait a few more years and see what they do with this stuff. And if you're a "Republican", imagine what your nightmare Democratic candidate will do with unfettered access to your "private" life. 

Your employment is already at risk. The wrong kind of post will cost you your job, as the mob demands your employer give you the boot. Your employer will comply, firing you not "for your views" (which might be illegal) but because the mob scene / boycott is causing a distraction and bad press (and this, so far, has been totally legal).

Setting all that aside, social media has become permanently corrupted by businesses and state actors. A few years ago these efforts were clumsy and barely effective. They are now good enough to achieve their primary goals (manipulating how you feel, gathering information, and fomenting dissent, cynicism, and helplessness) with a mix of human actors and bots. Soon, machine-generated profiles will overwhelm us all, indistinguishable from friends-of-friends. It is already a safe bet that most of what you read on social media is false and posted with an ulterior motive. Within a few years, it is a certainty.

I am tired of contributing to these sites and these problems. I am done working for free, done giving my ideas and information to big platforms that enrich themselves from my work, while simultaneously using against me and my friends. It does not make me happy. And it makes bad people rich.

I am tired of spending so much time engaging with it. Tired of arguing with distant relatives and people I barely remember from high school and college, some of whom are merely ignorant and some of whom have had their brains rotted by toxic media...and as bad as my friends and families are, your friends and families are so much worse. 

I am tired of the daily assault. Today I opened Facebook's new design. Pitch-black. I can no longer choose to see "most recent", so I am subjected to whatever Facebook vomits at me. Two giant video ads for services or products I already use, followed by a string of posts from friends freaking out about the state of the world, likely getting pushed up because the comments are exactly what you'd expect: a third of people outraged because the original post isn't focused on "the right things", a third of people recycling Fox "News" tropes from 20 years ago, and a third of people making jokes, or cynical comments. Then pictures of food or cats or memes. It's an endless "feed" of bile and sugar. 

I have been primarily referencing Facebook, but it really does not matter which site I am talking about. You might not use Facebook, but think Instagram is OK. For starters, Facebook owns Instagram. They're the same company, same model, same problems. Go to Instagram if you want to feel insta-bad at the stream of curated, empty fabulousness coming from people there.  And the less said about Twitter, the better. If the people that owned it and worked there had any decency, they'd have shut it down years ago. They're enabling the disinformation war and have been for years.

I tried not to take the bait, to refrain from commenting, to avoid feeling outraged. I failed. I let the darkness get to me, and get in me. 

So I am done. You should think about doing the same. 

Social media offers nothing that you cannot get in other ways. Call someone. Send an email. Read or write a blog. Subscribe to a news site. 

I hope you will stay in touch. I am not hard to find, and most of you have my email address, if not my phone number. You may see a bit more activity here -- I may try posting daily or weekly on the blog instead of on social media. 

***

If you want to read more about why social media is so bad, there are a pile of great books and articles:

10 Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, Jaron Lanier, 2018

Who Owns The Future?, Jaron Lanier, 2013

You Are Not A Gadget, Jaron Lanier, 2010

Likewar: The Weaponization of Social Media, Brooking and Singer, 2018

The New York Times has written extensively about many of the issues with social media. 

Monday, September 28, 2020

Life in the cyberpunk dystopia

“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” 

That is the opening line of Neuromancer, by William Gibson, the defining novel of the science fiction movement that came to be known as "cyberpunk". A brief, fleeting moment, when literature -- science fiction, at that! -- was cool.

Neuromancer was first published in the summer of 1984, bringing the fiction of cyberpunk dystopias to life in people's imaginations. Thirty-six years later, in the summer of 2020, we are all living in it. Some of the technological details might be off, but the general contour has proven unfortunately realistic.

The dead television sky outside my window is the result of hundreds of wildfires, themselves caused by a terrific lightning storm, itself indirectly caused by global warming (28 trillion tons of ice gone since Gibson's novel was published). Nearly every cyberpunk dystopia features catastrophic environmental damage. Blade Runner. Neuromancer.

The governments that aren't explicitly authoritarian or overtly corrupt are compromised by massive, multi-national corporations that seem to be above the law and simultaneously manipulating it, even as they enrich a small few while the underlings scheme and toil -- and are locked into lifetime employment even as their employers practice espionage and try to pry employees out (or collude to prevent it). Facebook. Apple. Amazon. Google. 

The world is trapped at home by a catastrophic pandemic, with no known cure, which may have come from China and been spread by global commerce. Everybody's on the internet, which is used to manipulate people's knowledge and emotions in ways they cannot comprehend and will not believe.

I could post any number of images of our current cities, like this one of Shenzen:


This is the world we live in. 

Even my job -- I'm working for a company that trains surgeons in VR. One of the projects we're working on involves the surgeon positioning a robot to assist with the operation.

Or just look outside:

We might as well start dressing for it.

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Here Come The Bundles: Big Tech, Big Revenues, Good Enough Products

As I predicted many years ago, the tech titans are starting to roll up their various media services into cable TV-style bundles and push users into them.

Apple recently announced "Apple One", their first bundle. The only differences between Apple's subscription brochure and the cable companies' is that Apple's has slightly less terrible visual design and far fewer items on it:


The Ars Technica article linked above correctly identifies all the key strategic elements: Apple's revenue from devices is waning, as they both hit saturation of markets and continue to produce less-than-revolutionary products. Service and subscription revenue is one way to offset that. Additionally, many of its services have not been particularly successful -- knowledgeable people inside and outside Apple have pointed out that, historically, Apple doesn't seem to understand or "get" services.

Music is considered an exception, but this is less about Apple's "brilliant" service (which is no different than any of the other services) and more about the fact that it is a music service, tightly integrated with Apple's devices. It has finally achieved decent numbers because it's Apple's music service, and people still like music.

Bundling is an easy way to generate revenue and drive overall numbers for its various services higher.

Amazon already has an annual subscription service -- Amazon Prime. For your money, Amazon gives you faster shipping, plus a video service, a music service, and some other stuff. It's been a money machine for Amazon since it launched.

Like cable TV, part of what makes these services work for businesses is they can lump in a whole bunch of inexpensive-to-produce things people probably wouldn't buy separately and make some money on the pile. Bundling also effectively allows companies to charge more money for the services people do actually want, and does this by throwing a bunch of things they probably don't want on the table, like an infomercial ("You get the knives, you get the scissors, and you get the plates!").

For example, Amazon's big news is they are adding podcasts to Amazon Music, as a kind of micro-level implementation of bundling (adding podcasts to music) that should help their macro-level implementation (adding Amazon Music to a bunch of other things).

Podcasts aren't exactly revolutionary, but they are cheap to make, and cheap for content aggregators to add to bundles. In most cases, the podcasters themselves aren't getting paid anything (though I am sure there are exceptions, for the handful of top players), other than Amazon (or whoever) telling them "let us do this and you can reach a huge new audience!" For many podcasters, who generate revenue from advertising, a larger audience is all that matters (even if someone else is monetizing it and cutting them out of it).

So unlike music, where these companies are getting charged an arm and a leg, with podcasts, service companies scoop them up for free and are able to charge users a subscription fee for them. This is just like cable companies charging you for replicating over-the-air channels -- you could get this stuff for free, but isn't it just easier to have it on your cable box? Just pay for the free stuff! So you do.

At least in the short term, it will appear to be a good deal for the customers: "Well, I would pay $X anyhow for [music / faster shipping], so all the rest of that stuff for just a few bucks more seems like a great deal!"

But inevitably, over time, even more less-than-useful and less-than-amazing services will get added to these bundles and the price will go up. The price of the stand-alone services will also rise. Those increases will be used to offset the losses from decreased revenue coming from lower bundle rates, and will simultaneously encourage more users to get on the bundle.

The end state in a few years will be just like cable TV: the tech companies will hit the maximum amount of money people will tolerate in a monthly bill, with just enough "good stuff" against a pile of things they probably aren't using or aware of. Most people won't use most of what's in the bundle, but in aggregate, all of the services are probably getting used by someone. 

One 21st century tweak to this model: the smarter companies will facilitate add-ons of popular services to their bundles. Just like you can sign up for HBO through your cable company, you'll soon be able to sign up for HBO through Amazon or Netflix through Apple (you can already do this for some services on some platforms! Feel free to swap out different services and platforms here).

The meaner companies ones will make going through their bundles the only way you can access those services on their platforms, and will effectively use services that aren't theirs (such as Netflix) to help lock you in to their bundles.

This isn't necessarily bad. Successful services can effectively subsidize less-successful ones (so video keeps books alive), and the constant revenue can help both services and content creators take some modest risks to develop new services and content. Depending on the deal structure, it might even mean some of these less-popular services actually get more revenue than they might otherwise. It will certainly offer more exposure.

Bundles represent a triumph of "good enough". "Good enough" is a hallmark of subscription services, particularly media-based ones. Most people don't want to watch a specific show or movie -- they want to "watch something". Big aggregated services are great at that, and when you lump a bunch of them together, you get that effect of "eh, it's good enough, I'll buy it" across the entire bundle.

I have tried most of the components in most media companies' bundles. They're...fine. Uninspired, but totally competent. Some have made marked improvements over the last several years, evolving from "embarrassingly poor" to "OK". Others have maintained their adequacy. 

One can envision a world where the devices are more explicitly subsidized or "free" if you are willing to subscribe to particular packages, much in the way most people pay for their mobile phones as part of their service plans. Arguably Amazon already does this with its Fire tablets, which are dirt-cheap but basically designed as "buy stuff on Amazon" machines.

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Napster, Oxycontin, and Ethics in Business

Rock and Roll

When Napster launched in June of 1999, it had a dramatic impact on the music business. Shawn Fanning, Napster's creator, wanted easy sharing of people's personal music files. He elided the difference between what had been the common, small-scale exchange of free (and technically, illegal) music via mixtapes or CD-Rs (painstakingly made by one individual for another, one copy at a time, in real time or close to it) and what Napster offered: industrial-scale, wholesale copying of entire libraries, effectively instantaneously, from one user to countless unnamed strangers. 

By choice, ignorance, or both, Napster's creators simply and blatantly ignored laws and ethics. Napster rapidly grew from a few college dorm rooms to a worldwide phenomenon. Music business revenue took a nose-dive for years, and now, two decades later, has only begun its recovery. An entire generation of music fans grew up thinking music is, or should be, free and of terrible quality. The effects of Napster's initial disruption of the music business continue to this day, though the original Napster itself was an early casualty of the music wars, and the brand only survives as an ironic ghost of its former self, pasted over Rhapsody -- a service originally created to fight it.

Many people feel Napster's biggest innovation was its focus on digital files (and user-ripped and -hosted files, at that!). This familiarized millions of people with MP3s and the idea that music could be divorced from a physical format. Unfortunately, it also familiarized people with poor quality, no liner notes or metadata, and music as having no value, but that's not the point here.

However, Napster's real innovations had little to do with the music business. Napster was the first time I can recall a company and product being so transparently disingenuous and dishonest about its purpose.

Shawn Fanning was quick to call Napster a "file-sharing service", immediately and deliberately conflating the concepts of "sharing" a file on a network (which makes copies available to anyone) and "sharing" something like a sandwich. This framing had the effect of allowing bad faith arguments about "isn't sharing good?" (which, in its reference to guidance provided to unruly young children, provided an early inkling of how many tech companies would realize that infantilizing branding and messaging was a path to success) and smug follow-on discussions about "well, actually I'm doing artists and labels a huge favor by helping other people discover all these great artists and records!"

The people behind Napster knew what they were doing was illegal and unethical, and they did it anyway. And millions of people (including me) downloaded files, often because it was the only way to acquire some hard-to-find music.

Napster was one major factor in the catastrophic change and decline of the music business. Napster's existence was also a key driver for the creation of Rhapsody, which led to the streaming music business that now accounts for 2/3 of all revenue for the music business.

Napster threw out the rules because it was easier than abiding by them. Rhapsody and subsequent services have had a much more difficult time, not just because they followed the rules or wrote new ones, but because Napster's actions caused so many bad feelings towards "tech".

I visited the illegal Napster during its heyday. It had a couple dozen young people jammed together at long tables in cramped rooms, like seamstresses in a sweatshop. Several had been dissuaded from attending college in favor of working for nearly no money at this hot new start-up. A major venture capital firm had invested a ton of money in this dorm-room project that was now a company clearly breaking the law as their primary business model.

I thought about all the people involved. Did they know what they were doing? Was it just about the money? Did they feel they were going to force some kind of positive change? And for whom? Who would choose to work there? 

What would you have done?

Drugs

There are many companies we could move to for the next connection or step. Uber or AirBnB, for example, who have tried to rapidly build businesses by ignoring regulations imposed on taxis and hotels, and have ended up stumbling into the kinds of problems that led to those industries being regulated in the first place. 

These services (and their many copycats) try to keep a straight face while literally repeating Napster's "sharing" playbook and terminology, and by leveraging how people don't like paying for stuff, particularly in regulated environments, and finally a desperate and completely bogus "think of the poors we're helping survive" messaging around enabling families and workers at the margins to "make extra money", despite everyone involved knowing the vast majority of business and revenue are driven by pseudo-professional operations.

However disingenuous their messaging, these companies are continuing to face social, legal, and political backlash. As cynical and skeptical as I am of their approach, even I will acknowledge that, once appropriately regulated, they may have a place in society.

But Napster, and the "sharing companies", for all their damage, never destroyed anyone's lives at scale. You cannot say the same thing about Purdue Pharma, the Sackler family, and Oxycontin.

Oxycontin is a wonderful drug. It is a strong painkiller, and for people who have suffered serious and debilitating injuries -- life-threatening car accidents, cancer, and the like -- it can be part of healthy treatment and recovery. One of the minor tragedies of this whole scandal is that a useful and helpful medicine is now tainted and much more difficult to use for legitimate purposes.

Oxycontin is also incredibly addictive, as anyone who has had to take it for a while will attest. 

2019 saw a good deal of solid news reporting about exactly how Purdue Pharma, under direct orders from its controlling founders, the Sackler family, aggressively pushed sales and distribution of Oxycontin. Read nearly any of the thoughtful, well-reported, long pieces about it and you will learn how easy it was to acquire and abuse, how inexpensive it is to manufacture, and how difficult it is for people to kick it.

You will also read about how the Sackler family, despite having made several fortunes from its success, wanted still more money. The Sackler family aggressively pushed Purdue Pharma to move more pills through the system. While their behavior is reprehensible, I want you to pay attention to the next link in the chain.

The Sacklers were directly benefitting from the massive success of Oxycontin. They made oceans of money, and would directly benefit from more sales. But the Sacklers themselves weren't the ones operating the business, manufacturing and shipping the drugs, pressuring the sales reps, hustling the doctors, looking the other way at pharmacies, and so on.

The Oxycontin epidemic was the result of a chain of thousands of workers choosing to do the wrong thing, day after day. That wrong thing could range from straight-up law-breaking to bending rules or ignoring process to simply looking the other way. Because that is what they were being instructed and paid to do. Or because it was easier than not doing it. Or because they didn't want to lose their jobs (perhaps for selfish reasons, like enjoying their lifestyles; perhaps for more critical reasons, like desperately needing health insurance).

Thousands of people have died or damaged their lives due to the over-prescription, abuse, and excessive availability of Oxycontin. The Sacklers bear responsibility. But so do all the other people at Purdue Pharma, the doctors, and the pharmacies who simply went along with it, even when they knew things were somewhere between "not right" and "very wrong". 

How many of those people considered how their short-term actions would be potentially wrecking the lives of other people?  How few needed to stand up and say "stop", or just ask a few questions, to have an impact? As I read article after article about Purdue Pharma, one of the most disappointing observations was how few people even tried to stop it, and how many just went along with it, either out of their own small-scale greed or simply fear. 

What would you have done?

Bad actors in business have been around as long as business has been around. But there is a difference between systems that enable single unethical individuals (look to Bernie Madoff or various other Wall Street bandits) and systems that rely on the unethical behavior of entire organizations and supply chains.

You Have A Choice

Most of us aren't captains of the ship or in command of vast resources. We are part of a larger organization. But as Mike Monteiro reminds us, "ethics cannot be a side hustle." By taking a paycheck, by showing up every day, we are complicit in what our companies are doing. If you are reading this blog, you have the luxury of choice to a degree much greater than most experience. 

You can change your organization from within. You can ask tough questions. You can fight. And you can leave. In my career, I have done all of the above.

One of the more interesting and inspiring things I read this year was "Ruined By Design: How Designers Destroyed The World, and What They Can Do To Fix It", by Mike Monteiro. Mike is a designer, famous for his "Fuck You, Pay Me" speech, and for his strong opinions about good design and good designers. I have had the pleasure of making his acquaintance.

Monteiro's book is potent, if occasionally profane and digressive. But his main points are simple and clear, and can (and should) be extrapolated to workers beyond designers: Our work has impact beyond our immediate selves and our companies. We have an obligation to think about that impact, to act responsibly and ethically, and to do something about our work if it is not responsible and ethical.

Mike Monteiro - Ruined By Design

I strongly recommend it for any of you who work for a living. This becomes especially vivid against the backdrop of our current political and media climate. It seems far too many people have decided that doing harm or lying for a living is fine if the pay is good. I spent a good chunk of the last 12 months wrestling with these issues myself. My initial entry into the VR industry was driven by a desire to have a positive impact, and my subsequent job changes informed by that thinking.

Post-Script

I have spent years legally replacing every file I downloaded from file-sharing networks, either buying vinyl, CDs, or files as I can find them. I have purchased DVDs and Blu-Rays of movies and TV shows as they have become available. I have a short list of remaining purchases. I remain ready to offer my money to people when they make their content available.

Ironically, what's left of Rhapsody ended up buying the Napster brand a few years back, and replacing their own branding. So Napster "won".

The Sacklers threw Purdue Pharma into bankruptcy in late 2019, due to the impending lawsuits. Another example of how corporations allow people to reap positive returns for themselves and avoid negative repercussions. Reporters continue to uncover more about the history of their business dealings. One of the Sacklers died.

The Sackler family has proposed a multi-billion-dollar settlement, in exchange for preventing any other suits from going forward. That seems like a lot, until you realize the family themselves made $13 billion from their actions, so it's a trivial amount of money for them. Meanwhile, the money they'd surrender would be diffused over at least 30,000 people plus their attorneys.

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Albums of Influence: Zero Summer Game (1990) by Anu

As I write this, it is the summer of 2020 -- the summer of the virus. It has been a negative space. Nothing. A zero. A time I have tried to fill with creativity and distraction. It has reminded me of another summer, 30 years in the past, the “zero summer” of 1990. 

Album cover for MP3.com re-issue of "Zero Summer Game", 2000
Album cover from the MP3.com re-issue.
Photo by Amanda Erlanson

If we are defining “albums of influence” as records which changed my life, or how I thought about music, or meant something to me, or were memorable, or all of the above, then one album stands above all others in my life. My first solo album, written and recorded in the summer of 1990: "Zero Summer Game".

The summer of 1990 was special for me. In retrospect, it was one of the happiest times in my life.

In early June, I was home from college, between my junior and senior years. My parents were away for most of the season, traveling. My brother was at Outward Bound. I was in the house, alone. 

The house was beautiful and spacious, set below and back from the private drive by a long and steep driveway. The backyard backed up to park land. The street fed into a small suburban neighborhood of mostly unpretentious homes.

What had been my bedroom was now my brother’s. What had been his room was now the “guest room”, redecorated, and that would be where I resided. It felt like a hotel suite, even after I had set up my stereo and unpacked my few bags. What little of my things remained were unceremoniously piled in the closet. I was now a guest in what had been my home.

The weather was typical for Northern Virginia summer: aggressively hot and humid. The skies would darken periodically, but the rain largely refused to provide relief.

After a few days of sleeping off my college fatigue and nights watching rented VHS tapes, one day I went to the basement library of the house. One wall was mostly windows, looking out onto the woods. It was a big room, mostly empty but for bookshelves, a table, and a place to sit and read -- and I set up my recording gear:

One night, after dinner, I went downstairs, flipped on the TV, and started noodling around on my guitar. Inspired by a music video, I started writing on a song of my own. I stayed up for hours working on it, programming drums, making a bass part, writing two guitar parts, lyrics, and lead and background vocals. Home alone, I felt uninhibited about singing loud and trying new things with my voice. I even put in a guitar solo. I went to bed around 3 am.

The next day, I rolled out of bed and hit play on the cassette deck in my room to listen to what I had done the night before. It was...good. I had written and recorded a good song. I wondered if I could do it again.

And so the “zero summer” of 1990 began.

Days, I would get up around 10 or 11. I didn’t drink coffee in those days. I’d let the dog out, and have water or juice. I’d microwave something -- oatmeal, eggs, a sausage biscuit. I would glance at the newspaper.

At some point, I’d exercise. Maybe I’d go to the gym, pushing myself hard in the way that only young adults can, hiding from the heat in the air-conditioned fitness complex. Or I’d go for long runs in the swampy heat of the DC/NoVa summer, threading through the suburban side streets between my house and the high school I had attended. Over rolling hills, past churches, down sidewalk-less black streets. I had a plastic digital watch that would beep and provide a pace.

I would drive to the video store and swap watched VHS tapes for new ones. The car’s steering wheel would be almost too hot to grab. I would blast the AC with the sunroof cracked, music playing as I drove through the McLean streets.

My friends would call. Let’s hang out. Or go on a date. I had a few young women I saw sporadically. I went to the movies a staggering 35 times. But I remember that I really just wanted to stay home, writing and recording songs. I didn’t drink alcohol in those days either, so I had plenty of energy and focus.

Each night I went downstairs to my makeshift studio space, I would finish a whole song. I quickly decided this record would have a theme or a concept, and that concept would be the very summer I was living. I wrote about myself as a character, and lived my life as the character I was writing about. I thought of a Laurie Anderson quote: “This is the time, and this is the record of the time”. Those ideas began to inform the record, and once I had a few songs done, it helped guide me to finish the rest. 

I had written songs before, but the summer of 1990 saw me taking things to a new level. Melodies became more intricate. Chord progressions evolved. There were bridges. I even put guitar solos on many tracks, as I had learned the unified neck and wanted to push myself. 

I spent nearly the entire month of July living in Tokyo. I had planned to spend the summer in Taiwan teaching English, all arranged by my friend Andrew. But days before our planned departure, all the plans came apart. My parents, anxious to have me gone (and perhaps for me to have some kind of adventure) insisted I had to go somewhere. Some frantic phone calls later, and I was on a plane to Tokyo, with one suitcase, a guitar, and about $500.

The full story of my Tokyo adventures is best left for some other time. I did take a cassette of my rough mixes with me, which I promptly lost at a nightclub dancing with some girls I met. Most days I spent some time writing songs and practicing guitar.

I returned to the USA and again, the house was mine alone. I returned to my work plan. I went to the movies. Once or twice I went into DC to hang with my friends there. Had a few memorable nights at Poseurs, my favorite dance club (where, underage, my admittance was never guaranteed). One special night in Georgetown where a woman asked me to dance.

All of those feelings and experiences went into the record. There were songs about people I knew, coded and secret. There were songs where I got weird, adding strange sounds or switching time signatures. I tried different types of guitar orchestration. One song was an e-bow orchestra. Others used no chords. On the title track, I played a spiral pattern on the neck, and thrilled at how perfectly it fit, as did using a 3-bar phrase instead of a typical 4-bar phrase for some sections.

Listening to the record today, it is rather amateurish. The mixing is terrible. The vocals are wobbly. The guitar playing is rudimentary. But the record still has a unity and consistency. It sounds like an album, not just a bunch of songs. It tells a story, and it is very much the story of that summer. 

It was a true DIY project -- I wrote, played, mixed, and recorded every note. Every song was a “real song” -- fully developed, with melodies, chords, lyrics, and ideas. Each was part of a larger whole. Sequenced carefully, varying in tempo and feel. 

As noted in the 2000 MP3.com reissue, these songs "haven't held up all that well over the years, but they do mark an important step in my development as a songwriter. At the time, I was very proud of this work." Even if nobody else listened to it, liked it, or understood why I made it, or what it meant to me. I knew I could make records myself, and I knew that I absolutely loved doing it. 

I am much better at music now -- better at writing songs, recording, playing guitar, singing. But no matter how good I get, and how satisfied I am with my work, none of it will compare to how accomplished, successful, and excited I felt at the end of the zero summer of 1990.

I think about that summer often. I realize that in many ways, I have tried to re-create pieces of that total experience at various points in my life. 2020, the summer of the virus, is one example. One could look at my upcoming “Paper Life” record as a kind of answer to “Zero Summer Game”, though it was not directly intended as such.

Not long ago, I dreamed I was back there, running through the neighborhood at night. I can feel the hot, sticky, evening air evaporate as I slide open the glass door at the back of the house and walk into the air conditioning. 

A few times, I have driven back through those streets, wondering at how far I have come. I roll through the old neighborhood, peering down the hill at the house I lived in for a brief time. 

Paste-up used for inside cover of original cassette release
Remains of the original paste-up used for the inside cover of the original cassette release of "Zero Summer Game", taken not long after I finished the project. Polaroid(!) photograph by Joseph Kirk.


Sunday, September 06, 2020

Changing computers

Few tasks in life present me with the kind of broad, constant anxiety I feel when migrating to a new computer.

I am in the process of one of these migrations as I write this -- countless progress bars move imperceptibly in the background, as hundreds of thousands of small files are copied from an aging mechanical hard drive to a new solid-state drive. 

I am always worried I am forgetting some critical bit of data or software, that next week I will go to look for something and realize I neglected to think about one particular application or folder or license or something. Or that one or both machines will simply stop working.

The last time I switched to a new computer was over 5 years ago. For the first time in 20 years, I had purchased a custom-built and pre-assembled computer, instead of building my own, like a straight player. At that time, I made decisions with the intent of making this process easier in the future -- all of my critical data is (supposesed to be) on a single hard drive, which I can simply remove and plug into the new system, where it will be copied to a newer, faster, more reliable drive, and then left there as a back-up or vault.

But of course, it is never that simple, is it? Windows or Mac, there are always problems. Software scatters important files everywhere -- configurations, presets, preferences. Some of these are simply tedious to recreate. Others require detailed notes and hours of work. 

I have a Trello card I thought was comprehensive, but I keep adding things to it. Cubase templates. Deauthorizing plug-ins. Enormous digital sample sets. I guess I need all that stuff?


The first computer in a place I lived was the family Apple ][. The day it arrived, there was a massive thunderstorm and the power went out in our house. But the family was so excited that we assembled the machine by candlelight. Over the years that machine would get modifications -- I wired in an external speaker. We added disk drives and a video card. 

In college, I switched to the then-new Macintosh, as required by my school (and graciously deeply discounted by the manufacturer). Graphical user interfaces. A mouse. A fundamentally network-based computing experience, complete with email, chat, server storage, and network printing. Way ahead of its time. 

After my college Mac was stolen in an apartment robbery, I switched to PCs, and spent the 90s learning the ins and outs of Intel's 8086-based architecture and the rapidly evolving world of Microsoft Windows. My first PC ran Windows 3.1, which lived on top of DOS and had its own separate arcana to master: The ISA bus. Autoexec.bat tweaks. Resolving conflicts between devices. 

I'd build a new machine every few years as processors leapt forward in speed and capability - 386 to 486 to Pentium to Pentium II and beyond. Graphics went from CGA resolutions (16 colors! 320 x 200!) to VGA to SVGA to a dizzying array of variants, finally adding primitive 3D graphics, which often required their own separate cards. I spent a lot of time at Fry's Electronics.

I'd recycle some parts (CD-ROM drives had a good run) across machines and discard other technological dead-ends. SCSI drives are indeed fast and cheap, but they sound like jet engines at speed and run nearly as hot. Firewire might have been technically great, but was never really supported on the PC.

One time I wired up the power switch wrong, and when I turned my PC on for the first time, blew the breaker for the house -- perhaps the most dramatic thing that could have happened when I pressed the button.

But most of the time, those initial boots are the opposite, and are disappointing non-events. I push the button. Nothing happens. No beeps. No POST (power-on self test). I sit there, back hurting, knuckles bleeding and bandaged from scraping across sharp components and case edges, and start wondering what the problem is. Wiring? Badly seated card or CPU? Insufficient power supply? Did you fry something?

Eventually I would figure it out. The sense of fragility of the complex machine diminishing exponentially over successive successful boots. I'd stare at the deep blue of the various Windows configuration screens updating, tweaking, waiting. Within a week or two, the new machine would hit its stride, and worries would fade into the background.

So it shall be with this new beast. The progress bar tells me it has over 65,000 files to go. Time remaining: More than 1 day. 



Monday, August 10, 2020

My New Job

Today I start a new job: Vice President of Product for Osso VR.

Osso VR uses virtual reality to train surgeons. I have commented previously about the incredible potential of modern technological tools. I am excited to apply these tools in such a clearly positive way.

This job is a new direction for me. Rather than digital entertainment, I am effectively working in the medical sector. My own recent experiences with the health care system in the United States, coupled with a desire to have more tangible positive impact in the world, led me here. 

Some of my friends who are doctors also inspired me to consider this line of work: Andrea, David, Tina, Velouette, and particularly Sue.

Given the current state of the world, helping people be healthier seems like a good thing to do, and a fitting use of my time and skills.

This job is also a return to start-ups, after a long time working for a big Fortune 500 company. I am excited about having a more hands-on role and working with a small group of smart, motivated people.

As expected, I got this job through a personal introduction, via my friend Cindy, in whose debt I remain.

I would also like to express my thanks to my friends who provided support, advice, and wisdom, particularly Iran, Jeff, Janin, Maryann, Patricia, Thomas, and JP.

A special thank you to Kelli Richards for her advice as a trusted advisor and thought partner.

You can see founder and CEO Justin Barad talking about Osso VR in this TedX talk:

Thursday, July 16, 2020

51

Life continues to surprise and change.

This is a somewhat funny thing to think after life has been nearly the same, day after day, for 4 months. The pandemic feels like something I have been mentally and physically preparing for, but it is still a challenge.

I wake. It's 8 am, or thereabouts. I lay in bed, relishing how relaxed I am, my leg and back blissfully free of complaint for the moment. I think about my plans. 

I am 51 today. Who would have thought it would look like this?



I don't just mean the physical aspects, of course. My hair hasn't been this long in at least 20 years. I mean the bigger picture. I don't really know what I thought life would be like at this age, whether forecasting from my teens, my 30s, or even last year. But I never imagined any of this.

I put on some music while I drink a coffee. I treat myself to some Dynamo donuts. It's only this day once a year, and only this specific day once ever. Recent events have reminded me you need to enjoy the things you like while you can, because you never know when you can't ever again.

I read email, the news, and finally, Facebook, scrolling through birthday wishes. I write in my journal. I ran yesterday, so I don't have to do that today. I put in some laundry, and clean up the kitchen. 

I spend the day like I have for the last several months: I work on some music. I apply for some jobs. I play some games. I putter around the house. And I talk to friends.

I scheduled a 2.5 hour Zoom with over a hundred invited people for 4:30. I figure I can have a virtual birthday party. I am pretty sure it is going to be a disaster, if anyone even shows up. 

But it is not a disaster. It's actually wonderful. By 4:45, there are 10 people on, some of whom know each other, some of whom do not. People cycle in and out.

I talk to some friends I haven't seen since 1985, 1987, 1990-something. I talk to some brand-new friends. I sing a couple of songs. We catch up. Iran does a live demonstration of how to make her Manhattan.

For someone who has so much personal mythology around being isolated, alienated, and alone, I sure seem to have a lot of wonderful friends. It is an emotional experience, and before I know it, the official end time has passed and we continue for another 30 minutes. Finally, I'm talked out and starving. I bid farewell and shut it down as the sun sets. 

I reflect on my life. Nobody is happy about the state of the world. It seems clear there is no going back to what life was like a year ago, or four years ago. The future remains murky. We are all trapped in a kind of long present. Based on what I'm reading, we will be here for a while. If we're lucky. 

But I don't mind. If this is my life, I'm going to figure out how to enjoy and appreciate it. I no longer take it as a given that I, or any of us, will be here in 2 weeks or 2 years. 

That realization makes every day more special and more precious. This could be the last good one, or the last one. I stay up late, thinking of my friends, squeezing every last moment out of the day.

Maybe I didn't get to see my friends in person, and maybe it was only slightly different from any one of the last 100 or so days. I didn't go out for a fancy dinner, and I only had one drink. I'd still say this was one of the best birthdays I have ever had. 

The only profound philosophical insight I can offer this year is "it is good to be alive, enjoy it while it lasts."

Happy birthday to me. 

Saturday, July 04, 2020

America 2020

One of the many unfortunate effects of the American political right is that displays of traditional affinity for America -- the flag, stars and stripes, and so forth -- almost certainly indicate the person displaying them is a right-wing partisan, which means they have an extremely poor grasp of the values of this country, and a lack of understanding of its founding principles.

It is also unfortunate that the left has turned to a narrative locked into notions and phrasing of American being fundamentally premised on bad actions and ideas. This inevitably leads to a mindset of “burn it all down” rather than “make it better”. 

Unlike the majority of Americans, I have traveled extensively and spent time in many other countries. America is neither as perfect and great as the right wing believes it was, nor is it as fatally flawed as many on the left argue. 

Paraphrasing Churchill, “America is the worst country, except for all the others”, or as James Baldwin said, "I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually."

***

This photograph captures America in the present moment:


These two right-wing Americans (you can tell, because they’re rich, white, obese, and waving guns indiscriminately) burst out of their replica Gilded Age home (that massive home of theirs is almost too on-the-nose) and pointed guns at the people walking by.

Yes, it is true the protesters were trespassing on a private street in a private community (details that, again, would have been stricken from fiction as too on-the-nose). The protesters were not, however, directly threatening the couple. But the couple were so scared they came running out barefoot, carrying guns. 

While it isn’t clear whether or not the guns were loaded, it is clear the couple violated all of the basic rules of gun handling for the entire encounter -- in the various photos, you can see them holding the weapons improperly, fingers on the trigger, not looking where the guns are pointing, and pointing the guns indiscriminately.

This is America, 2020. Scared rich people race out of their Gilded Age palace to threaten people walking by -- people who are protesting, among other things, improper policing. I don’t think the couple in the photo look strong or brave. I think they look pathetic, ridiculous, and laughable. 

And if the crowd had turned on them, I suspect they wouldn’t have gotten more than a few shots off before being overwhelmed. 

In the aftermath, the couple have become darlings of the American right wing, with loathsome Congressman Matt Gaetz proclaiming to his fellow G.O.P. fans “this is all of us”. Indeed, they are. Scared, reacting inappropriately, living in a lame replica of the Gilded Age, and about to be either passed by (if they're lucky) or overrun by the people. 

Part of the problem with this particular slice of the American right is they don’t see a need to protest the government or the police. These aren’t people who voted for Trump out of “economic anxiety”, or overt racism. The system is working great for them, as long as the rabble stay out of their private neighborhoods. 

This year, America has come closer to facing some of its major social problems. Trump aside, the previous ways of dealing with and thinking about racism, income inequality, and the relationship with the governments (local, state, and federal) and the people must all be re-evaluated and substantially improved.

I would like to be optimistic. But people are so polarized and dogmatic. I hope we are able to move to a place of compromise and forward momentum.

***

America is big, but we are not the biggest. We are not isolated, no matter how many walls we build. We The People are also just people, like the citizens of every other country.

We breathe the same polluted, CO2-heavy, virus-laden air as the rest of the world. We cook under the same sun. We wade into the same acidifying, warming oceans.

America has done many wonderful and horrible things. Aside from our own internal issues, we must also come to terms with being part of the globe and planet. The current administration has done much to turn us away from the rest of the world, damaging alliances and reputation. I hope we are able to return to the table and become productive global citizens.

I see the same issues at the personal level. It is easy for each of us to focus on our own problems and concerns, believing them to be of critical importance, refusing to acknowledge those around us. There are far more people who aren’t us than there are us. Remembering we are all one people -- E Pluribus Unum, or perhaps a different read of “We The People” -- would do all of us some good. 

They call this holiday “Independence Day”, and we think of it superficially as celebrating “freedom”. For some, this seems to be interpreted as “freedom from having to care or think about anyone else”. That isn’t freedom, it is the solitary confinement of selfishness.

The weeks-long fireworks in the wee hours confirm people’s ongoing misinterpretation. Car alarms go off, and NextDoor and Facebook message boards are filled with people insisting they’re celebrating and freedom-ifying, talking about their “stress” at being asked to stay home during a global pandemic. They ignore and belittle the rest of the community, who just want to sleep at night without being woken by explosions.

The pandemic itself is a further reminder and indicator of these issues. The best way to act is a way that takes care of everyone around you, even at some personal cost. If everyone did this, we’d get the virus under control quickly. The governments could and should help. 

You know what has happened instead, and the results over the next few months, if not years, will be grim. 

None of us are free until all of us are free. We, The People. E Pluribus Unum. 

“I love America...I just want everyone to have health care and drive electric cars”
-- Tina Fey

Happy birthday, America.