Friday, October 24, 2014

The Wearable Parasite

1. Get It On

The “next big thing in computing” isn’t big at all, and it doesn’t look a lot like computing. It looks like nerd gear - weird glasses or a calculator watch. As innocuous and friendly as “wearables” seem, something about them chafes. I worry that once on, they will quickly become difficult to take -- or turn -- off.

You hold this in your hand, then press it against your face.
In the last few years, computers have multiplied and appeared at all levels of society in the guise of smartphones. Latest estimates suggest smartphone penetration is at 66% of US mobile users.

Smartphone use grew by a staggering 25% between 2013 and 2014, with 1.76 billion people now carrying around small computers everywhere.

These numbers are even higher in developed countries, where soon more than 50% of people will have at least one smartphone.

The old, big computers were used by government or business for the most difficult and important tasks. Humans use these new tiny computers for everything: Communicating with voice and text. Looking up information and finding answers. Buying things. Recording the world around us. Entertainment. Directions.

After just a few short years, small hand-held computers have become so common they are almost invisible, ubiquitous, and indispensable.

But even these devices are still an intermediate larval stage of computing technology. Historical and current industry trends make it clear: The wondrous shiny black rectangles we all carry will soon disappear. They will undergo a kind of metamorphosis, and move onto us in the form of “wearables”.

The Apple Watch
Several factors are driving the evolution of computing to wearable form. The simplest is market forces: Apple, Google, Amazon, Samsung, and all the other technology titans need to keep selling things to survive.

The 18-month smartphone turnover doesn’t drive enough growth. With smartphones reaching saturation points in many markets and tablets not far behind, something new is needed.

Enter wearables: Initially extensions of computers, and soon full computers themselves, that you don’t go to or sit in front of or hold. Instead, you put them on your body. You wear them.

Google has Google Glass (for your face) and Android Wear (for your wrist...so far). Apple has the “Apple Watch”. Companies like Oculus and Sony are developing virtual reality headsets for your head, eyes, and ears. Fitbit and Jawbone have crude “fitness trackers” that sit on your wrist or in your pocket, with Apple building similar functions directly into their mobile operating system (and Google sure to follow).
 
By re-framing technology not as a tool, but as a fashion item, these companies open the door to selling multiple devices to people. You may not need 5 different hammers, but how many pairs of shoes do you have? How many pairs of glasses?
Google Glass with fashion frames

If you’re reading this article, odds are you already have at least one smartphone and at least one laptop or desktop...and you probably have a smartphone, a tablet, a laptop for work, and another computer at home.

That’s 4 computers right there, and “whether or not it goes with your outfit” hasn’t entered the picture. Yet.

Another reason is convenience: People like having their hands free. Smartphones are great, but they require the use of one or both hands, and typically full visual attention. This is distracting for the user, and makes use of the device obvious. It’s hard to use a smartphone discreetly, or without gazing directly at it, and that imposes social costs.

More convenience: Even though mobile phones are the last thing people see at night and the first thing they reach for in the morning, people still forget them because the phones are literally not tied to them. Once you are wearing your computer on your body somehow, as a watch, eyeglasses, or underwear, you are less likely to forget it somewhere. You want your computer -- which is your contacts, your calendar, your memory, your camera, your work, your entertainment -- with you all the time.

The companies making the computers want it with you all the time, too. Finally, this evolution is being driven by a collective industry and consumer desire for more computing and network access - more frequency, more depth, more intimacy.

These new platforms will offer new ways for computers to “help” us - to tell us what we want, to tell us what to do, to literally hold our hands.

 I have a latest generation smartphone. I wear a fitness tracker. I work in the technology industry. And yet, I find these wearables increasingly uncomfortable.


2. What Is A Parasite?

A parasite is an organism that lives in or on a host organism and benefits by deriving nutrients at the host’s expense. You can immediately think of examples that gross you out a bit: Ticks. Lice. Tapeworms. Fleas. Leeches. Nearly all inherently repulsive. There are even creepier, worse examples. Many parasites actually redirect the behavior of the host to do things the host would not normally do. It might make the host engage in very dangerous behavior, or expend resources in finding ways to feed the parasite. This is some serious nightmare fuel. I look down at the tracker encircling my wrist. It resembles a large black worm.
The Jawbone UP fitness tracker
I think about the woman I saw driving on the freeway last week, with her offspring in the back seat. At 60 mph, in rush hour traffic, she was staring at her phone. Or the parents at the park, now staring at their smartphones more than their children, who merit only the occasional glance. People who drive off the road because Maps told them to, even when those directions were obviously wrong. Dangerous behavior.

I think of the businessmen and women I see in airports, sitting on cold dirty floors, with a power tendril extended from their device into the outlets previously used by cleaning staff. Prior to smartphones, nobody would ever do something so undignified.

At restaurants, I look around and see people staring at screens, not other people. Even in movie theaters -- when you’ve literally paid a premium to stare at one screen -- people are staring at their phones instead. Things they would not normally do.

The analogy extends in more disturbing ways. The parasite’s favorite strategy is known as “parasitic castration”. This lovely phrase means the parasite destroys or damages its host’s reproductive abilities in order to divert resources from the host’s reproduction and funnel them to the parasite and its offspring.

You strap the Oculus Rift to your face, over your eyes
Maybe the Apple Watch isn’t there yet, but tech companies including Apple will now pay women to freeze their eggs -- to put a woman’s own reproduction on ice in favor of the company’s growth . This is positioned as (and “intended” as) a benefit to the woman and her family.

Some parasites redirect their host’s sexual behavior. Aside from how the latest wearable technology becomes a status symbol, used by humans to evaluate a mate’s desirability, there’s a direct imposition of this technology as mediator of sex in the form of apps like Tinder and Down.

At least that's still sex with another human. The virtual reality headset crew has been discussing "teledildonics" for decades. Having sex with machines is still in crude stages, and still a kink, but it’s easy to see it evolving rapidly to being equivalent to masturbation in every respect, and eventually preferable to dealing with messy humans, in much the same way we’d rather go to an ATM than deal with a bank teller.

“Wearable” begins to take on a new meaning.

I think about the massive redirection of resources to reproduction of these computers. There were nearly 2 billion smartphones sold in 2013. Smartphones barely existed 6 years ago. When you factor in all the smartphones made, humans have already produced more computers in the last 5 years than there are humans alive today. Our time, resources, and energy, all going to help these “creatures” reproduce and evolve. The addition of (or shift to) wearables only accelerates this growth.

If you’re not working in or with tech, you’re not a part of the growing, lively, evolving economy. Even jobs that don’t seem directly related are either becoming mediated by, or replaced by, wearable technology. Your personal trainer becomes a black band around your wrist, and it’s always reminding you to work out. Your car driver is now guided by a mobile device or headset, and dispatched by algorithm. Your hotelier, your food delivery, your grocery store -- technology is already in the middle, and reaching further out.

These wearables are parasites. We’re not wearing them, they’re wearing us.

3. Hard To Swallow

This external parasitism is only the beginning.

The Epidermal Electronic System (EES)
These computers will also move inside us in various ways - we’ll swallow them, embed them under our skin, and attach them to our bodies in ways only imagined in science fiction. Early implementations already exist. We’ve already started.

Not only will computers be inside of us, we’ll soon be inside of them in a reprise of computing’s earliest building-sized days.

Our skies will be filled with swarms of autonomous drones, ranging from microscopic to bird-sized, all networked and equipped with visual and auditory sensors.

Our homes, offices, and vehicles will become one big network.

 We already wander through a web of near-constant wireless connectivity. As the “internet of things” propagates and expands, the world becomes our computer hive, and us the insects within it.

For the moment, we still have a choice. We can put the phone down, take off the glasses, unshackle ourselves from the watch.

But soon, once the computers are deep inside of us, or we become more fundamentally attached to them, we will no longer have the option to remove them, and perhaps not even the option to turn them off.

The worm on my wrist rattles. That means its battery is low. I open my bag, find the custom adaptor I carry for it, and plug it into a nearby outlet. A green light slowly pulses, as though it is sleeping softly while sucking electricity from the grid. It will rattle again when it’s full, and I am supposed to put it back on.

I wait patiently.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Most People Don't Care About Musician Income

This article summarizes it nicely: Most people don't care about musician's income from streaming services, or elsewhere.

There are a few simple reasons. One is the perception that musicians fall into one of 2 categories:

1. You are a rock star, flying around in a solid-gold Lear jet, making millions, living large, for "not doing that much", working a few hours a day. As Dire Straits said, "That ain't workin', that's the way ya do it. Money for nothin' and your chicks for free."

In this case, you're doing so well already that it shouldn't matter if a few people steal your music, because you're already rich.

2. You suck. Either your act just isn't good enough, or you haven't put in whatever "hard work" is required to build a fan base and "make it". And it's probably the former.

In this scenario, not only do you not "deserve" any money, but your music probably isn't even worth stealing, and you should be thrilled if anyone even listens to it.


In general, regardless of what you do, if you start a conversation with anyone saying "man, my job is so hard and I am so underpaid", you are unlikely to get a response of "you are so right, I agree, your life is so much harder than mine, it is so unfair".

You are far more likely to get a "welcome to the world, son", or a diatribe about how you actually have it far easier than me/teachers/someone else. When was the last time someone told you their job was easy and/or they were paid too much?

It gets worse.

Reading the article, you'll see that only 60% of consumers said they felt music was worth paying for. At all. That should make everyone in the music business extremely worried.

Some of this is the music businesses' own fault: they've spent years allowing many free music services on the internet and elsewhere to provide more than enough free music to satisfy fans. Major artists have given away singles and albums.

Years of mixed messages about the legality of downloads and streaming, companies being "illegal" and then legal, and blogs and websites offering authorized and unauthorized downloads have confused customers while simultaneously setting the expectation that if you want free music, it's out there, and probably legal.


Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Max Friedenberg, 1968-2014

Max Friedenberg died a few days ago. He was 45 years old.

Max was my friend. At Langley High School, he was the singer for my first real band. Max taught me a lot about performing. I became a singer and frontperson in no small measure because of how easy he made it seem. I learned to write songs in a band with him (and Darow Han, Howard Olsen, Spencer Lamb, and Brian Johnston). Max made me realize that songwriting wasn't impossible -- you could write a song right now. "C'mon, let's do it. I have an idea." And then we'll write another one, whether this one is good or not.



Max was charming and funny. Well-liked, and well-known in school. The sort of guy who'd stop the bullies with humor, and give you a ride home.

We dated some of the same girls in high school. If I remember correctly, we even simultaneously dated sisters. We hung out a bit less after he went off to American University (he was a year ahead of me).

When I was in college and starting to plan my move to L.A. to make it big in the music business, Max was already there, again, years ahead of me.

Max was the lead singer for a band named Clyde (Scots/Gaelic for "heard from afar", and thus, presumably loud and powerful). Clyde were a sort of Christian Red Hot Chili Peppers. They were playing shows with bands like Fishbone, No Doubt, Jane's Addiction, Thelonious Monster, Mary's Danish, Hole, Lock Up (Tom Morello's pre-Rage band) and pretty much everyone else. You may not recognize all of those names today, but in the early 1990s, that was a "who's who" of the L.A. scene.

Clyde had made their own album, produced by Earle Mankey. Geffen and Elektra were in a bidding war for them. The band was regularly packing and selling out clubs like the Roxy and the Whisky A Go Go.

Max said "no problem, man, I'll show you around. It'll be great. We'll get you guys to open for us".


And then, just a couple months before I was going to graduate and move out there, Max called me up. He sounded different on the phone.

He told me he'd had a mental breakdown. Moved back in with his parents in DC. He asked if I could come by and visit.

I hung out with Max at his parents' home before I went off to L.A in the summer of 1991. He wished me luck, and said he'd hoped to get back out there at some point. I found my way to and around L.A. without his guidance and wisdom. A story for another time.

Max was hospitalized and eventually diagnosed bi-polar. He had to quit his band, just as all of his years of work were about to pay off. The once in a lifetime shot, un-fired.

I think about how difficult it must have been for Max to step down from that kind of moment and pressure and chance.

Perhaps even more difficult, he had to wrestle with this: He thought he had a divine vision, a God experience, something that forever changed his life and worldview. That experience led him to convert to Christianity and power Clyde. Now the doctors were saying "all that stuff you thought was god -- and maybe all of your creativity -- was actually just mental illness."

I can't think of too many things more heartbreaking. I wove a modified version of that and our other experiences into the back-story for Sid Luscious and The Pants, as a way to pay tribute to my friend, and immortalize our days together .

Max moved to New Mexico in 1992 and had resided there ever since. He stopped doing music in favor of painting. In his words:

I became devoutly secular, thanked God for His time, but left Him with the rest of the band. I became a Buddhist. Later, I dumped Buddha for Philip K. Dick. Later I dumped Philip K. Dick and now I'm into Roger Penrose and Douglas Hofstadter...all else I can say is "the band broke up, but I stayed together."

Not long after I wrote a long piece about our Langley days, influences, and "Where Are They Now" in 2012, Max and I reconnected.

If you scroll down to the end of that piece, you can read some comments that Max wrote about his situation. He talks directly about his bipolar disorder, and his ongoing struggle with depression.

In our email exchanges, Max told me he was writing lyrics and songs and thinking about getting back into music. Perhaps we would even collaborate again.

I regret not leaping at that chance when it was offered. I regret not visiting my old friend.

Max, I wish you well on your journey. Thank you for your friendship. Thank you for the music.

Max, singing at Langley High School (1987).

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Apple, U2, and Hubris

By most accounts, Apple and U2's release of the new U2 album during Apple's Watch announcement was a disaster.

Now, a few weeks later, we can safely approach the wreckage. Surveying the smoking ruins, one comes away thinking "It didn't have to turn out like this."

Instead of being excited and grateful about a surprise free new album from one of the world's biggest bands, the media and public responded with a sense of outrage.

Instead of thanking Apple and U2, people demanded ways to purge the gift from their collections, and Apple dutifully responded.

10 years ago, Apple and U2 had a similar team up and event, based around the announcement of the U2 iPod. It was sort of weird, but still made sense, and was far more successful.

What happened? What's changed?

10 years is a long time for a person. It's even longer for a pop act or a company. In that 10 year period of time, Apple went from being a scrappy underdog having success in the music business to being the music business. Apple rose to be the best-funded company in the world, and has become the dominant market leader in a number of categories. And Steve Jobs died.

U2 went from being a band with a promising late-career comeback (started with 2000's "All You Can't Leave Behind) to a typical late-period band appealing only to its hardcore followers while mainstream audiences move on.

Perhaps more importantly, the world changed around Apple and U2, and they were both blind to the implications. They've both become out of touch with the world around them.

The result was that Apple and U2 made some obvious, avoidable mistakes.

Mistake: No reason for this collaboration other than promotion.

When Apple and U2 collaborated last time, there was a new U2 album and a special hardware product. That sort of project would have been perfect for an album giveaway, especially back 10 years ago when purchased downloads were less commonplace than they are today.

This time around, there wasn't any clear connection. Apple announced some software upgrades and a watch. There was no U2 edition of the watch, or anything else. It was just bizarre: "here's the exciting product you've been waiting for...oh, also, here's U2 playing live and a free album."

People instinctively understood this was empty spectacle. Apple probably expected the performance and free album giveaway would attract lots of attention (and it did, just not the kind they wanted). U2 probably expected everyone to be grateful or thrilled they were getting a free album, and U2 could claim they shipped 500 million copies, just like Jay-Z went immediately platinum thanks to Samsung.

But there was no obvious connection between the two events, and that made it seem cheap.

Mistake: They didn't ask permission. 

Both Apple and U2 assumed that people would be thrilled with having the new U2 album inserted into their collections. 

People weren't thrilled. People felt violated and creeped out, as if Tim Cook and Bono had broken into people's homes and left a copy of the album on their pillows with a note that said "We are watching you. Enjoy!"

Early on at Rhapsody, it became clear people considered their virtual collections and disk space (PC and mobile) to be their property. People became really angry when that property was tampered with. I find it astounding that Apple, with all their research and "understanding what users want", did not see this coming.

That forcing of the gift not just onto people, but into their library, chafes. It's like coming back to your car and finding flyers under your windshield wipers. Or having people on the street pushing brochures at you. You feel as though your personal space is being violated, and you immediately discount whatever's on offer.

I likened it to how many San Franciscans feel about the SF Examiner, a paper that seems almost maliciously delivered every Sunday, and cannot be stopped, short of legislation.

The easiest solution is also rather simple, and what's known in the industry as an "opt-in": They should have offered the album to people for free, and had users that wanted it to click on a button in order to get it.

They didn't do this. Probably because they wanted the bragging rights of "moving" 500 million albums. Or possibly because they were just tone-deaf, and assumed "of course everyone would want the new U2 record!"

Mistake: Insufficient Messaging

I actually like U2, and was really excited to hear the new album. I am also something of a digital music business expert. I started iTunes and went to the store to look for the album. It wasn't available in the store. I couldn't even find it on the home page of the iTunes store.

It took me about 20 minutes of poking around before I realized that Apple and U2 had literally just "added it to my collection", and on my work machine, that's over 6000 songs. There was no playlist or badging or other indication. It just magically appeared, and then got lost with all my other music.

And if you weren't someone who actually followed Apple's press announcements (but left your iPhone and iTunes at default settings), the album's songs would be mixed in with whatever else you were playing in shuffle mode.

This is a terrible experience, across the board. Why give someone a gift without explicitly handing it to them, wrapped up, with some ceremony? Did Apple and U2 really believe they were so important that all 500 million people would be paying attention to these announcements?

This could have been mitigated with email, in-store messaging, and perhaps some other in-iTunes guidance for how to find and play the new record.

Mistake: Totally Free * 500 million copies = 0

There are plenty of artists and pundits who claim the "music business" has been devaluing music for years.

Here comes Apple and U2 - a company that represents about 2/3 of the music business now, and one of the world's biggest bands. They immediately take a record with clear, tangible value - 5 years of work, from a major artist - and dump 500 million copies on the world. That's like 5-10 times the number of copies Michael Jackson's "Thriller" sold. Should be great, right?

Well, for one thing, they immediately demolished the concept of scarcity. There was nothing to be gained by saying you heard the new U2 record. You literally couldn't get away from it. It's already on your phone. Just like everyone else's. If everyone has something, it is literally commonplace, unexceptional, mundane.

It has been said that what is free has no value. Apple and U2 took a new album by a major artist and made it feel about as valuable as a piece of junk mail. This is devaluing music taken to a new level. If U2 won't charge people for its new album, why will anyone pay for anyone else's record?

Rumor has it U2 was paid about $100 million for the album. At 500 million copies, that's 20 cents a copy. Think about that, all you struggling artists. That's the bar now, lowered by these 2 industry titans. How's Spotify looking now?

I'm not sure what the bigger mistake was: giving it away for free, or giving away 500 million copies.

Mistake: No matter how good the album was, it felt disposable.

All of this completely obscures any reasonable comment one could make about the album. U2 instantly forces people to grade them on a curve: is it good or bad "for a free album"? Is it even a real record? Most of the charts services say no!

Regardless, since this was delivered to people unasked, it feels inconsequential and trivial, perhaps not even worth the time it takes to listen to it once.

The result here is that the only people who will buy this new album are the die-hard fans...and U2 has even alienated some of them, because many people buy their music in digital form. And those people already have a free copy.

Most phones and other devices people buy come with some free intellectual property. Phones often have 10-30 songs by no-name aspiring artists, or credits to download or stream some barely recouped almost-blockbuster movie.

People typically recognize this for what it is - cheap content filler designed to raise the perceived and marketable value of the phone. But nobody cares, because it's unasked for and inessential.

Courtesy of this promotion, Apple and U2 immediately made U2's new work feel just like that.

Hubris

Both the teams behind Apple and U2 were likely convinced they were going to succeed, that these big expenditures were worth it. They never questioned whether or not the rest of the world felt and thought like they did.

Apple is no longer a scrappy, rebellious, cool company. They've grown up, and become a kind of fascist gray monolith. Their recent acquisitions of companies like Beats and fashion designers suggests they are moving in some very different directions. For one thing, they believe they can talk you into wearing a $350 calculator watch because they say it's cool.

U2 is also long past their prime. I am sympathetic. It's hard to have a long career being creative, relevant, and popular. They've done about as well as anyone could. As a fan, I'd love to hear new music from U2 that excites me, since the last record of theirs that I really loved came out in 1997. Still, their last several moves (including relocating for corporate tax purposes) seem really at odds with the image they'd like to project.

I can see how Apple and U2 thought this would work out, as they sat in fancy conference rooms hammering out their spectacular deal. A combination of "aren't we clever and brave", Shelley's Ozymandias, and a genuine desire to do something fun and cool.

Instead, it felt like your out-of-touch grandparents giving you a terrible CD for a birthday present because they heard you're into rock music.

I watched the whole thing live. With the sound off, it looked like a bunch of old white men desperately trying to remain cool.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Ferguson, 9/11, and Police

The events currently unfolding in Ferguson are astounding and revealing. While race is a major element of the problems there, the situation in Ferguson has also made dramatically clear how far the United States has moved from its theoretical ideals of liberty and freedom, and how broken policing has become.

Within the last few days, freedom has been erased, dissent has been suppressed, journalists have been detained for no reason and assaulted and/or threatened by police. From where I sit, police have become unrecognizable.

Look at this now-famous photo:

What do you see?

I see white men pointing weapons at a single black man. I see soldiers, not police. I see hidden faces for authority, which means no accountability. I see overwhelming force being deployed inappropriately. I see at least 2 assault weapons pointed at an obviously unarmed man with his hands up. I see a man retreating while authority advances on him.

There's another photograph taken from behind the guy in the blue shirt which shows there are actually even more police pointing their guns at him, and in every direction.

Who are these "police" keeping safe? Who are they serving and protecting? It sure as hell doesn't seem to be the residents of Ferguson.

It is not much different than what happened with the Occupy protests in Oakland and elsewhere. But unfortunately at this point, the disproportionate military-style response to protest seems to be the default, rather than the exception.

Masked, militarized police firing teargas and pointing weapons at the Occupy Oakland protestors

A few days ago a man claiming to be a police officer wrote an astounding Op-Ed piece basically saying "if you don't do what I say, expect to get a beatdown." This disgustingly ignorant and inappropriate view of police power is not limited to the police. Many citizens -- especially those who have had run-ins with the police before -- have the same viewpoint. The (ignorant) media even espouses this reaction.

So even though We The People have rights in theory, in practice we all start to believe we should just shut up and keep our heads down. Well, the whole point of having rights is not theory, it is that you can exercise them in practice.

How did we end up in this kind of America?

We built this dystopia ourselves.

In the wake of 9/11, America had a full-on freak-out. Whether justified or not, the panic and fear in the people and the leadership started America down a path of rolling back liberty in the name of security.

Within a decade, the government started openly torturing people, suspending habeus corpus, ignoring due process, spying on its citizens, killing its citizens without trial, and militarizing police forces.

Because We The People said nothing and did nothing, we condoned this behavior implicitly. In some cases, people encouraged it explicitly. In our terror, we ran to our appointed leaders and said "do whatever you need to, just please, keep us safe!"

Do you feel safer yet?

Do you think the citizens of Ferguson feel safe? The police threaten to kill them. The police roll through town in tanks, blasting Orwellian proclamations that "your right to assembly is not being denied", while demanding people get back in their homes. And then shoot teargas at their homes. And then, not long after that, the police do actually remove the right to assemble.

Do you think the people in the Occupy protests and the cities that hosted them feel safe? While some protests turn(ed) violent, the role of the police in escalating the situation cannot be understated. The police didn't arrest people en masse. They turned up in their riot gear, turned on the klieg lights, and started firing tear gas.

Did you know that tear gas is technically a chemical weapon, and that it is not "allowed" for use in warfare?

The police claim everyone is "resisting arrest" or "going for my gun". Uttering these magic spells now gives the police the power to do anything: detain you (without charges), beat you, or just shoot you dead in the street.

Do you feel safer yet?

Cameras everywhere are not the answer, though many think they are. Cameras only provide selective truth. Relying on cameras reduces or negates the value and truth of eyewitness testimony. We enter a world where it's only true if it was recorded (pics or it didn't happen!). And cameras don't protect. They just document the damage after the fact, which is cold comfort if you're beaten or shot. Cameras address a symptom, and not the problem.

The right solution is stopping these problems before they start. People shouldn't need the Panopticon or the eye of God on them to behave. Cameras everywhere corrodes liberty.

The police have lost the trust of the people, and the people have lost the trust of the police. I have no solutions to offer, but I am sure that mutual trust will take a long time to restore.

Every time we shut up and do what the cops say without asking questions or exercising our rights, we embrace tyranny. Every person out there who blindly supports the police without knowing what their rights are is quite literally an enemy of freedom, an enemy of the founding fathers' America. Every time we allow this behavior, we move closer to being the next target on the police's list.

Soon, even questioning any of this becomes cause for suspicion, and eventually, a crime.

Maybe you can look the other way for now because you've got the right color skin, or because you've got money. But sooner or later, it will be your door kicked in by the SWAT team, you looking down the barrel of those guns, and you being shaken down for cash. Will you feel safe then?

Monday, August 11, 2014

Robin Williams

I met Robin Williams once.

He was in Jamaica, shooting "Club Paradise" at the resort where my family happened to be staying.

I went up to him one night and I said "Hi. My name is Anu. You made my life very difficult."

Without missing a beat, he smiled and said "Sorry. There's a lot of kids named Mindy who had problems, too."

Thanks for the laughs, sir.

The Sharing Economy Gives Me The Jim-Jams

Would you get into a car driven by a total stranger? Would you give total strangers keys to your home while you're on vacation for a few weeks? Would you like The Internet to tell you what it thinks of who you are and how you live your life?

Most reasonable people would say "No!" But the new sharing economy says "LIKE!"

Share Your Disruption

Over the last few years, several new "disruptive" businesses have emerged, with variations on a business theme. Companies including AirBnB, Uber, and Taskrabbit have emerged. Along with others, they've been lumped into a movement known as the "Sharing Economy".

The sharing economy is creepy, dystopic, and it gives me the jim-jams.

These sharing companies all have a few things in common:

  • They use mobile phone apps and websites as their method of access
  • They all act as "clearinghouses" or dispatchers, skimming profits off of every transaction while steadfastly ignoring or denying most liability and responsibility, and not actually "employing"  any of the people or owning any of the assets used. They're middlemen.
  • They typically ignore, avoid, or subvert regulations and laws that have constrained similar businesses.
  • All the hype aside, none of these companies are really "tech companies". Their innovation is typically limited to cute names and nice-looking app design. In other words, the emptiest of marketing, coupled to a billing platform.
  • You could get most of what they offer done with a Craigslist search. 

What's Wrong Here?

Recently, the CEO of AirBnB appeared on the Colbert Report. He told a mildly charming story about how he founded his empire: He and his roommate were short on rent in San Francisco, so they (almost certainly illegally) sub-let their apartment during a convention. The proverbial lightbulb went on, and AirBnB was born.

These guys straight-up broke the law. That's not uncommon for young people desperate for cash. But is that model (breaking the law!) and mindset (do whatever you need to for cash!) something we should scale up?

Disrupting Regulation By Ignoring It

The most immediately contentious element of most of these new sharing businesses is their disregard of existing regulations. Uber, Lyft, Sidecar, and other car-sharing services are taxi or limousine services in every way that matters. They refuse to admit it publicly. Privately, they morph from one thing to another depending on where they're operating and which officials they're talking to. They'll claim to be one kind of service in one city, and then claim the exact same business is a totally different kind of service in another, just to avoid regulation.

There's two problems here.

One problem is these regulations the sharing services are ignoring were put in place for a reason. Maybe society only wants a certain number of cabs on the street, or wants the drivers tested, insured, and certified. Maybe you don't want a hotel (or several) on your block or near your kid's school. As a democratic society, these regulations and laws were things We The People wanted, voted for, and implemented. If we don't like the results, change the laws.

It's as though the AirBnB CEO said "my roommate and I were having a hard time making rent, so we sold drugs. It was awesome and we made a lot of cash. So we started an app for people to buy drugs from us!"

To be clear, the new sharing economy literally makes you agree they have no liability for your injury or death. And when you scratch the thin veneer of cute-and-cuddly-and-harmless-and-hip these companies all desperately try to project, you will see the same corporate law-speak and cash-think underneath. They aren't in this to make your life better. They're in this to make their lives better, chiefly through taking your money.

Government moves slow. It hasn't cracked down on some of these businesses because of bigger problems, the sudden massive scale of the opportunity, and short-term thinking about how some of this business might be "helping" people get by. It's not wise, and sets a bad precedent of ignoring law when it's convenient.

The other problem is this selective law enforcement is patently unfair to existing players in the market. The taxis, hotels, and restaurants that followed existing laws at great expense and inconvenience are now having to compete with a flood of new players who haven't made those kinds of investments and don't feel bound by such old-fashioned concepts. How is that right? Why does booking through a website or iPhone suddenly change the rules for some people?

I have little sympathy for the government here as well. Instead of moving swiftly to prosecute flagrant violation, most governments have waited too long to maintain any moral high ground, and then in the face of a small group of loud people, bent and tortured laws to find a way to say "well, maybe if you cut us in". It's the worst possible outcome.

Professionals Still Win

These services are being pitched as ways for "regular people" or "hard working families" to make "extra money" or, in the inevitable press releases, to "make ends meet".

But these are cherry-picked anecdotes, and the reality is the professionals are rolling in and will dominate the space. Some hotels are already putting some rooms up. There are already cases where traditional rental units are being yanked off the market for far easier and more lucrative "sharing". The people who do this full time are thrilled - less regulation, less oversight, less hassle, more money.

Same goes for the car services. Not everyone has an Uber Black-ready ride. I guess you can always strap a moustache on and go on Lyft. Still, the closer you already are to professional grade at what you do, the more business you're going to get.

Ultimately, this economy will be like any other economy. Aside from a few outliers, the winners will be companies who leverage resources you don't have to push you to the margins.

Even if you "win", it's still a far cry from an actual living.

Reputation Sucks

Reputation is a terrible and creepy way to measure anything. Reputation isn't built on facts.

Reputation is literally "what a bunch of other people say or believe about something". In other words, it's not the truth, it's Family Feud.

Reputation can be easily gamed by those with a lot of cash and few scruples. Think about the problems with eBay, or the accusations of extortion or gaming leveled at Yelp. Now imagine those weapons being trained on you, because the guy you took to the airport wants a discount.

It will be bad enough when you can no longer trust the reputations of the services or businesses you patronize through these new apps (because they're paying firms to game up their scores).

It will be worse when or if you decide to participate in this new economy yourself, and find yourself with no reputation when you start out (if you're lucky), or more likely, with a negative reputation built on terrible and totally false feedback.

As Joan Jett said, "I don't give a damn about my bad reputation". But in the brave new world of the sharing economy, you won't be able to participate casually. You'll either be completely excluded as a buyer or seller because you have no reputation, or you will have to invest significant time and effort into "reputation management", and the sketchy, shady world of borderline extortion that accompanies it. (Note to self: next million-dollar idea is "Better Business Bureau", but for people).

Managing your public reputation is different from investing time in actually being a good customer or vendor. You will be expending resources simply to adjust what other people think of you, or what other people think about what other people have thought about you.

It's inefficient, and it's creepy.

For example, here's a new app that lets you avoid neighborhoods with a bad reputation. People are saying it is racist, partially because it is based on reputation and not facts (though I suspect it probably doesn't matter where the "data" comes from).

Go read any site built on reviews. There's always someone with a one-sided tirade about how someone done them wrong.

Shadow Work

In 1981, Ivan Illich coined the term "shadow work" for unpaid labor in the form of self-service. The classic example is self-checkout at the supermarket. This is a job that (until recently) people were paid to do. When you choose self-checkout, you are doing that job yourself, for free. The workers don't get paid. And you don't get paid for performing said labor. Once you start looking for shadow work, you will see instances of it everywhere.

The new sharing economy takes shadow work to a new level. Now it is not enough to own or have something like a place to sleep or a form of transportation. Now you must become a rental agency for said assets, or you'll be "missing out".

How do you feel about that? Only the very wealthy will be allowed the luxury of owning things and not renting them out to strangers on the side. The slightly wealthy will hire people to manage the renting for them. It's still work, either way.

You can expect some...interesting experiences, or at least memorable ones from your new job(s).

From Optional to Mandatory

In the post-World War II economy, some households became 2-income families. These families enjoyed some prosperity relative to single-income folks, for obvious reasons. And for several decades, this was a path families could use to add greater flexibility or wealth.

But over time, the world changed and this became expected, and then for many, required. And one day, people realized that instead of having "one job to stay afloat, and one job as backup", they had "two jobs required to stay afloat". No backup. Now you're at risk all the time - you need both people to stay healthy and working.

The two-income household became mandatory, not optional.

This is the future of the sharing economy for many, especially at the lower end of the economic spectrum. You'll be balancing multiple part-time jobs just like today, but now you'll also be balancing "sharing" any asset you can get your hands on and maintain.

And you'll be competing against the professionals (who will be more experienced, more skilled, and have lots more positive reviews) in an unregulated, reputation-based economy. Good luck!

The End of Privacy

Just when I thought it couldn't get worse, I read this article. The author understands (and shares) the concerns I am stating here. However, they come to a different and somewhat more disturbing conclusion, which is that you might as well rush out there and embrace all that shit, and get ready for the trolls, because once they've doxxed you and are calling your house and harassing you 24/7 online, you'll be stronger, baby!

And once we've all given up privacy and are sharing everything we do with the entire wide world, well, then the world will just be a way better place, right? No. Not at all.

Aside from a complete loss of privacy, you'll also be facing the entire world as a mob all the time. Large mobs are not known for tolerance, clear thinking, or standing up for the outsider. They're violent, reactionary, and frequently target the wrong things for the wrong reasons. And now they're your judge, your banker, and even your boss.

The Jim-Jams

Perhaps it's just a passing fad. Maybe a few more bad stories and things will correct a bit. The sharing economy will be constrained and fill some market niches without swallowing everything.

I don't know. Maybe people want to pay $470 for an 11 mile cab ride during a period of peak demand.

But in America, where poverty is frequently framed (if not perceived) as a deficiency resulting from laziness, people will argue the best solution to poverty is to simply make it easier for everyone to work harder, and in ever "innovative" ways. That has not worked out so good yet for the workers, and has become an excuse for the plutocrats to become wealthier, even as we all work longer and harder for less pay. The thought of that mindset reaching further into our cars, our homes, and our very lives is chilling.

Musicians and other artists have seen what happens when big business shows up with a package marketed as "sharing". How did that work out for them?

The new sharing economy companies are directly and indirectly attacking industry regulation. Maybe you think that's a good thing. Maybe a little of it even is. But I would prefer that we all have a voice in those regulatory changes. Those laws were all passed for a reason, and I'd trust We The People over any of these companies any day of the week.

The new sharing economy gives me the jim-jams. It won't be optional. It will become compulsory, both to stay afloat, and because not participating will starve you of precious "reputation". Without avid participation, you will enter a downward spiral.

Participation itself will erode your autonomy, your privacy, and your ability to be yourself. What is at risk? Literally your life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.

Gotta go, my Uber is here!

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

45

Patience.

The 12 months since my last birthday split into two halves: "hurry up" and "wait."

The hurrying up came to a close at the end of 2013, a particularly challenging year.

In 2014, the waiting started.

Some of that waiting is about to end, so that a different kind of "hurry up and wait" can begin.

I have been carrying a tremendous weight on my shoulders, particularly the last 6 months. I am not allowed to discuss it. Along with the problem itself, the forced silence means I cannot turn to anyone for support, inspiration, or solace. In some cases, I have to deceive people I care about.

That burden has negatively affected nearly every part of my life.

I am smart, and I have the merciless, pitiless gifts of insight and memory. I catalog the mistakes, missed opportunities, flaws, gaffes, moments of laziness, all I've done wrong. What else could I do? What could I have done? When will it get better?

"That's what they pay me for."

***

I go stand-up paddleboarding for the first time. I am nervous, worried about falling in. But balancing turns out to be easier than I thought. I glide across the ocean, calm enough to be fun but choppy enough to remind me to be careful.

I move past the harbor seals, pungent and still in the morning air. I look at the odd collections of houseboats and stare across the bay, with clouds reflected in the water.

The weight begins to lift. Under the clouds, there is an epiphany: It is not all my fault, and not even about me. Really. I am a small bit of flotsam in the midst of the larger tempest. The wind and waves push against you, and maintaining your forward momentum can be difficult. Sometimes it is all you can do to not fall in, sometimes you can barely move forward.

There is a peace and stillness within and without, and a beautiful moment of clarity. I hear the water slapping the underside of the board.

My arms are tired, but I feel good. Try new things. Stretch. Get out of your head. This is good.

***

My wrist buzzes at 5 am and I slide out of bed as quietly as possible. Iran is awake, and gives me a smooch.

"Happy birthday!"

I fix an espresso and then head out for a pre-dawn run. My shoulder has been killing me the last few days, and raising my right arm is difficult.

I try not to think about it as I run intervals for an hour. It's not hurting too bad today, but it has been a few days with no obvious injury source, and I'm getting a little worried.

Later, there are birthday sweets at work and a fun lunch with the team. I laugh and smile, and I realize it feels like forever since I last did that.

The remainder of the workday, I am mostly busy enough to be distracted. I leave at 6:30 for a nice intimate birthday dinner, my shoulder complaining as I weave through rush hour traffic on the motorcycle.

I am worried about being late, but arrive just on time, with Kojak parking as a birthday bonus. Took a while, but it worked out OK. No need to be anxious, right?

***
At last, Atlas. Alas!

Atlas was the primordial Titan who held up the celestial spheres. Not just the earth. The whole universe.

He fought the power, and he lost. Bearing the weight of the universe on his shoulders was his punishment.

He is also the titan of astronomy and navigation.

Atlas governs the moon, which is important to Cancers.

The "Atlantic Ocean" derives from his name.

He is a symbol of endurance.

***

Maintaining your forward momentum can be difficult. I haven't recorded an album in a few years. I haven't performed in a long time. I haven't even written anything here for months. I've been doing stuff — playing games, writing manuals, noodling around. Thinking. Waiting. Sometimes that's just what you have to do.

At a certain age, you begin to realize you must be careful — you can push too hard, carry too much. There are consequences.

A friend of mine 10 years younger than I am suffered an aneurysm. He's in the hospital right now. I can barely stand to read about it. I send a nice card. And money.

"My life isn't so bad". I try to remind myself of this.

How we handle the struggles we have — big or small — isn't that what defines us? Isn't struggling the essence of being alive?  We already know how the game ends. The odds are against you and insurmountable from day 1. How will you play? Will you play at all? Be a sore loser?

In the face of adversity, all you have is the elegance of your behavior.

***

The anti-inflammatory medicine destroys my sleep. I know it's not a mechanical problem. The muscles just aren't firing. Research and testing quickly provide a solid diagnosis, which awaits a likely and perfunctory confirmation from a specialist.

I think about all the possible root causes. Was it the constant weight on one shoulder? Paddleboarding? The pull-up stretches? Sleeping wrong? Too much computer? Bad posture? Carrying too many heavy things overhead?

I catalog my life, wondering what I should have done differently, or in different quantity to prevent this.

Will I get better? Probably. But with this kind of injury, you just have to wait. Might be a month. Might be 2 years.

"One day you'll wake up and be just fine."

Or maybe not.

Patience.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

We're all DEVO

1. The Sunset Strip
"Here's to Bob Casale." Michael and I clink our glasses of infused bourbon, a few doors down from The Roxy and what used to be Tower Records. Bob Casale died today. As I read about this at my work computer, I am moved nearly to tears.

I never met Bob. But I did meet Mark. And Gerry. Back when I sold audio gear for a living. Somehow I managed to get a meeting with them at their house studio up in the hills, before they moved to Mutato Muzika. I remember they had a Fairlight in the hall and bits of it in the bathroom. They were super nice. They gave me a copy of Hardcore Devo Vol. 2 and signed it.

Michael and I catch up. We talk about music. We talk about our music-related jobs. When we first met, we were both aspiring musicians, flush with youth and our own mutual darkness. That was...20 years ago. At least. Now our blackness has faded to gray. We've got some divorces between us. But we're still playing and perhaps more confident as musicians than ever.

After dinner I drive east down Sunset, past the giant tennis-ball green building that used to be Mutato Muzika (and was a bank before that!). I want to stop and take a photo to memorialize Bob. But it's a nightclub now, and there's no parking to be had, and no photos to be snapped. That's OK. Dr. Tahuti Bonzai took a much better one than I could anyhow. Funny, I met him around the same time I met Michael. Life moves in circles sometimes.



I got up at 3:45 this morning. I'm in town for about 40 hours. Got a lot to do. Last time I was here, I ended up leaving without my singing voice. Oddly appropriate, I suppose. Things are mostly better now.

2. DKO
I think of my brother's band, Don Knotts Overdrive. Favorably compared in the late 90's to DEVO, one of their many high points was contributing a cover of "Snowball" to the "We are not Devo" compilation.

I think Alexandra Patsavas helped get that project off the ground. She's the hottest music supervisor in the business now.

I bought it, I listened to it. DKO kicked everyone's ass on the disc, just like they did on the Exene-helmed one where they did "Relax" by Frankie Goes To Hollywood.

For a good 5 minutes or so, DKO was the hottest band in Los Angeles. Old story. They got signed, made a record, got sued by the record company, broke up. The end. But before that, they played almost every stage in LA.

I walk and drive past some of them. The Roxy. The Whiskey. The Teaszer (now a dead restaurant). Doug Weston's Troubadour. Lucinda Williams is playing there tonight. I'm sure nobody remembers DKO in this town. Today, though, most bands are at least paying some lip service to DEVO.

3. The 80s
It's the pre-internet age. The time when blurry dubs of VHS tapes and cassettes were how most culture disseminated. Slowly. You'd hear about celebrity deaths first as rumor, before confirmation by Entertainment Weekly or Tonight or Rolling Stone or Spin.

DEVO is mythic. You don't hear them on the radio. Their records are hard to find. A few kids might have one on vinyl. At a party, someone is showing their video. It's riveting, even more so than the girl in the sweater I'm trying to put the moves on. The imagery is primitive, but somehow they manage to convey so much about sex and life that other artists barely get to.

I'm still learning to listen to music, to understand how artists can mean more than one thing at a time, and how they can mean 2 contradictory things at the same time. Devo helps me understand how music can be silly and serious, mean and funny, pop and weird, commercial and a failure. Maybe I learn these lessons too well. Or not well enough.

But whether they sang about sex or politics or whatever specific things they did in Reagan's America, they are hooky and catchy and different and weird. And I love it.

4. "The Future"
DEVO was often lumped in with Kraftwerk as part of some "synth pop future". Both bands had strong visual aesthetics, wore costumes, and made "concept" albums with strong themes.

In the decades that have come along, Kraftwerk's star has only risen, despite them not making new music for years (and that a pale shadow of their classic albums). Kraftwerk plays "serious" art galleries like the Tate, with only 1-2 original members, playing their old repertoire and showing self-consciously primitive videos.

DEVO was considered the joke band. Wacky hats! Look at those funny moves! Comedy!

Yet as I look at the 2 bands now, Kraftwerk increasingly seems like the joke band, as their "vee ahr robotz!" shtick ossifies into self-parody. They haven't made any great music in 30 years, and at this point, we are chronologically as far from Kraftwerk and their innovations as Kraftwerk was from Glenn Miller when they started.

Devo, on the other hand, look more like prophets every day. Their bitter espousal of "devolution" seems all too accurate in a world where a majority of Americans literally reject evolution.

As we rush headlong into the hot, gassy future we've prepared for ourselves, the surviving members of DEVO take no pleasure in being right.

6. Are We Not Men?
When I met Mark and Gerry, I said something to the effect of "nobody really got you guys. The mainstream never understood what you were really saying."

Gerry quickly corrected me. "They got it," he said. "They just didn't like it."

Their loss.

Thank you for the music, Bob.


Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Music Business Thought of the Day: Look to the Book

Been reading this New Yorker article about Amazon and the discussion around book pricing.

Reminds me a lot of the endless music debates.

Always-wonderful MetaFilter offered me this comment (via user mittens):
"...The insistence on seeing books as a high-margin item is damaging, both to the book business itself, as well as to readers, and literacy generally. Libraries, used bookstores, and thrift shops are full of people who are proving the point that new books are priced too high...and those are just the people who are committed to finding the book at that low price point already, it doesn't include all the readers who could be enticed to buy at a cheap enough point if wide selection and ease of ordering were also guaranteed."
Substitute "music" for books. What's different?