Friday, November 11, 2016

The 2016 Election: tl; dr

Jonathan Pie covers some of the same ground of my previous piece in a powerful way. Worth six minutes of your time. Contains bad language:

The 2016 Election: How This Happened

"All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing" 
-- Edmund Burke
I knew by 6:30 pm Pacific Time that Clinton was going to lose, and lose badly. Shocked, I watched my former classmate Jake Tapper on CNN until almost 11, then stayed up longer reading. I didn't sleep that night, tossing and turning while my brain kept wrestling with the same question everybody else is asking:

"How did this happen"?

The answer is disappointingly obvious:

Trump won because Clinton didn't get enough votes.

I mean that quite literally. Here's a chart:

 Original Chart Source

It shows that the number of Republican voters has been basically constant for the last 3 presidential elections (Obama 1, Obama 2, Trump). But look at the Democratic voters! That is an incredible drop-off, and it happened during this "most important election of our time".

(Yes, there are some "bad" things about this chart, like it doesn't start at zero. It's also not adjusted for population growth. Doesn't matter or affect the assertion.)

Here are some more stats from Wikipedia (all numbers are thousands):

FloridaPennsylvaniaMichiganWisconsin
DemRepEst. PopDemRepEst. PopDemRepEst. PopDemRepEst. Pop
20084,2824,0463,2752,6552,8722,0481,6271,262
20124,2374,16319,3602,9802,68012,7702,5642,1159,8851,6141,4085,725
20164,4854,60520,2802,8452,91212,8152,2672,2799,6551,3821,4095,783
Difference248442920-13523245-297164-230-232158

In these 4 "battleground states", the Republican voter turnout was slightly higher, but in all cases, the Democrat voter turnout was lower, and in most cases, substantially lower than the previous election, even when adjusted for population changes.

The Clinton campaign failed to get people -- Democrats, "her" people --  to turn up and vote. That's why she lost.

The Republicans didn't turn out in massive numbers. They pulled more or less the same voter count they pulled for the last 2 elections, both of which they lost handily. They had the same pull, played the same game. The Democrats just didn't show up.

Why didn't people turn up to vote for Hillary Clinton? I think these factors were primary drivers:

  1. The Candidate
  2. The Campaign
  3. The Culture

The Candidate

Clinton and the Enthusiasm Gap. She was extremely unpopular on the right.

But Clinton was also unpopular on the left, with people resenting her for beating Bernie Sanders, unhappy with her previous stance on gay marriage, support for war, Wall Street ties, and more.

"Another Democrat". At best, Clinton came across like the worst of the late 20th-century Democrats like Dukakis or Kerry: boring, stiff, ineffective.

At worst -- thanks to decades of Republican smears and her own bad judgment (and history of same) -- Clinton seemed possibly corrupt and definitely embodying the Washington establishment, with a track record of saying whatever she thought was most politically expedient. The anti-Trump, in every way.

Overconfidence. Plenty of people including Hillary Clinton (and polls) thought she had it in the bag, and "besides, my vote doesn't matter". This is in stark contrast to Obama's two campaigns, who were hell-bent on getting out the vote and treating it like the urgent mission it was.

Plain old laziness. 8 years of Obama's presidency made people forget what happens when you lose the White House. The GOP and the Trump campaign, on the other hand, were on a crusade.

I do believe current social media culture amplified the above effects substantially.

The Campaign

Clinton ran a weak, uninspiring campaign without a clear message or takeaway. I'm not just talking about the literally passive slogan "Stronger Together" (no verb!), but the meta-message, which was...what? "I'm a woman?" "I'm not Trump?" "More of the same?" There was nothing for people to grab onto.

Or worse, what people could grab onto was disappointing: "More of the same". For those who voted for Trump, that message was interpreted as "We still don't care about you. We still don't understand you. We still don't want to try. We're keeping the system we have. And we still think you're deplorable." Which is not how you add people to your flock. Intentionally or not, Trump was able to scoop up people by saying "I will fight for you."

But none of that should have mattered for Democrats or most people, because even if you didn't find Clinton "inspiring", even if your response to her was tepid, she at least was not the candidate saying "I'm going to register all Muslims. I'm going to jail the opposition. I'm going to silence the press." and so on. By staying at home and not voting, Trump was handed the election.

Clinton and her team had (supposedly) decades of experience at this and were supposed to be experts, especially compared with the Trump campaign's n00b crew, which came up with this logo:


...and still, despite running against the objectively worst candidate in 30 years, Clinton and her team were unable to get people into the voting booth.

Don't beat yourself up for not donating. Hillary Clinton had plenty of money (like Romney), more than Trump. Trump spent half of what Clinton did per electoral vote. Her campaign was well-funded, and was supposed to be well-staffed and well-organized.

The Invisible VP. Without knowing much about Tim Kaine, I can say Clinton's campaign basically make him appear as so much wallpaper, saying nothing and having no personality. Contrast with Joe Biden or Sarah Palin. Kaine was a choice that basically said "Nothing to see here. Show's over there, folks". He added nothing. As someone else noted, Clinton could have made some really bold choices, like picking another woman as a running mate, or picking someone really far left (to lock in the liberals) or even more center (to pull in more on the right). Instead, she went with "invisible".

How bad was the campaign?

Well, for one thing, Barack Obama and the Democrats led the bail-out of the US auto industry in the heart of all those red states. The Democrats saved thousands of jobs, entire cities, and arguably the entire US economy. How come those voters weren't constantly reminded of that? Does anyone thing Mr. "You're Fired" would have saved them?

For another, the GOP and their economic and political policies are directly responsible for literally poisoning the well in Flint, Michigan, and guess who Flint and Michigan voted for? (Hint: Not Hillary Clinton. Go look at that first chart again. Nearly 300,000 fewer Democratic voters in this election than the last one). That is astounding.

Mitt Romney:
Actual billionaire who made money by firing people.
I remain irritated with the left for their inability to address these kinds of issues. How does the left -- the party of unions, universal healthcare, and taxing the rich -- get painted as the "out of touch elite", while the party who cuts taxes on the rich, slashes benefits, and whose last 2 candidates were actual billionaires who made their money firing people (Romney and Trump) get painted as the party of the "working man"? Gross incompetence.

Globalization was supposed to produce dividends, some of which were to be used to help displaced workers. We all dropped the ball on that, and we're paying the price.

I think Trump voters said "well, the Democrats haven't helped us, and Trump is a big "f___ you" to the GOP and the Democrats too, so I'm voting for him." I think that dissatisfaction with the current political system and the economy drove a lot of those Trump voters.

The Culture

I do not think sexism and racism in America are the primary reasons Trump won. Yes, of course those things exist, and were probably factors for a fringe minority, but that minority of people voted, and voted Republican in the last 2 elections.

Again, the numbers do not show any kind of Republican "surge". Trump got fewer votes than Mitt Romney did. You could argue for every neo-Nazi that voted for Trump, there was a center-right "reasonable" Republican who stayed home. Democrats would have still won if they'd just shown up.

More importantly, for those who keep wringing their hands about the sexism, racism, etc, look at this race and gender data about who voted and how:

52% of white women voted for Trump.
33% of Latino men voted for Trump.
13% of black men voted for Trump.

They likely voted for Trump despite the bad things he said, because they felt he spoke to them somehow. However bothered they were (or weren't) by Trump's words and deeds, those surprising numbers still preferred Trump to Clinton. Let that sink in for a moment.

You have to be extremely cynical and/or condescending to attribute that to "stupidity" or "they were fooled" or "they hate themselves". Or you have to believe that hatred is extremely quick to grow (and deep), because...

This is more or less the same country that elected Barack Obama twice, by large margins (again, see the first chart up top).

I don't think the country has, on balance, become more sexist/racist/whatever despite Trump's campaign. I do think Trump's awful behavior did let the John Birchers, KKK sympathizers, and other lunatic fringe feel like they didn't have to hide anymore, especially when coupled with the awful media.

But people with those beliefs didn't massively boost the GOP voting base. GOP turnout was basically the same. Democrats didn't vote.

Put another way, this wasn't a "victory for sexism and racism", this was "those who oppose sexism and racism decided it wasn't worth voting for in this election."

But let's dig into that for a moment.

First, there are a bunch of people who are decrying people who voted for Trump thusly: "How can you vote for a candidate who says such awful sexist and racist things? Who does such awful things? Voting for him is an endorsement of all that awful stuff."

The response from those who voted is "Well, he doesn't really mean it, he's just doing that to get elected." Or they say "well, he's the guy my party picked, so I'm voting for him". Or "I'm voting for him despite all that because I think he's ultimately better for other, more important reasons" (like "he represents change"...does "Change" sound familiar?).

And then I'd remind you that, during the campaign, Democrats frequently noted that Hillary had said things she didn't mean (anymore, such as her position on gay marriage). She'd supported things Democrats didn't like, including a more hawkish position on war and drone strikes, and being too cozy with Wall Street and big business.

And they were still voting for her -- and thus endorsing all of that -- because, well, she didn't mean it, or she was just doing that to get elected, or that she was the person the party picked, or that you were voting for her despite all that because... See?

The left's position of "if you don't agree with what we say and how we require you to say it, you are a racist, sexist, misogynist bigot" is not particularly welcoming, helpful, or constructive. I believe reaction to that attitude is part of Trump's appeal and his win.

Some of you reading this are applying that attitude to all of the people listed above who voted for Trump.

It's not so much that people are all those bad things (sexist, racist, misogynistic, bigoted) -- though of course, that behavior does exist and there are some truly awful people -- it's that nobody likes being scolded in that way , to that degree. Especially not for what they perceive as ordinary behavior, like expressing their opinion and speaking their mind, or at least previously tolerated, behavior like cracking jokes.

It instantly alienates allies and makes the opposition even more hostile. It's also toxic to debate, thought, and the other things that the left is supposed to embody and support.

I have watched many of my friends make fun of Trump's (and other GOPers') gender, appearance, and name, and it is painfully easy to see how completely indistinguishable it is from the right doing the same. Except when the right does these things, it's unacceptable, and when the left does it, it's "just a joke" or justified in some other way.

The left's insensitivity and lack of self-awareness towards how they treat those that disagree with them (while demanding sensitivity from same) is staggering, and it is a real problem.

The left has focused on making sure people respect "identity" and "feelings". But "uneducated white men" (and really, anyone who disagrees with the left on anything) have feelings and identity, too, and in a truly equal world, that also deserves to be respected and understood, not denigrated.

I believe some Trump voters felt this instinctively: "How come I have to respect them, but they don't have to respect me?" "How come it's always 'white guys are the worst' and I can't say something about someone who treated me bad or that I don't like?"

Yes, Trump and the right played on the sexism and racism of their supporters and America at large. The numbers show it didn't really do much for them. Trump got fewer votes than Mitt Romney did.

Conversely, Clinton and the left arguably said "you are sexist and racist if you don't agree with us". And it appears to have driven away some of those who previously supported them. Clinton got fewer voters to turn up for her than Obama did in the last 2 elections.

The left has some reckoning to do here, both with that hypocrisy and the one-downmanship that leads to arguments about who is the worst off/most victimized and therefore most righteous...and that anyone else's complaints, thoughts, or opinions aren't valid. A good example of how destructive and uncomfortable this gets was the Black Lives Matter vs. Bernie Sanders conflict.

Because Left, if you don't win, you don't get to do anything, and you risk losing all your progress. You need to do what it takes to win. That means being accommodating and welcoming. It means compromising, and not just on policy issues. It means real tolerance, not just of those who agree with everything you say and how you want them to say it. Increasing dogmatism and rigidity of thought and ideology makes you more like the Rick Santorum wing of the GOP, but with different rules, and I don't think that's who you are or what you want.

What Else?

I think these remaining factors played a role in Clinton's voter failure, but were less significant than people are believing:

Voter Suppression. The GOP's gerrymandering and voter suppression enabled by the shameful repeal of the Voting Rights Act ultimately decreased minority votes by 10-25% in some states. Those are significant numbers, but a strong get-out-the-vote strategy in those areas could have overcome that AND made Clinton look like a hero. And in the big picture, getting out the vote overall would have overwhelmed the suppression in a few states.

It's not like we didn't know about the gerrymandering or voter suppression in advance. That stuff was public and months out from the election. More should have been done.

3rd-Party Candidates. I don't think every person who voted for Johnson or Stein represented a lost vote for Clinton, but it sure didn't help. The race would have been closer without them in it, obviously, but the margin is likely insufficient to tip the scales.

I remain frustrated with anyone who "protest voted" or actually preferred either of those two objectively terrible candidates: "What is Aleppo?" and The Doctor Who Didn't Believe In Vaccines.

More importantly, the 3rd-party candidates and those who voted for them represent how uninspiring Clinton was for the masses, and how the Democrats just did not have their act together.  You didn't -- and don't -- see this kind of fracturing or erosion on the GOP side, and when it happens (Tea Party), the upstarts are immediately co-opted (assuming they weren't astro-turf to begin with) to make that party "stronger together".

I'll write it again: The Democrats just didn't show up to vote...and some that did voted 3rd-party (but not enough to make a difference).

The echo chamber of social media kept people from really understanding perspectives outside of their own bubble. This same thing clobbered Mitt Romney in the last election.

I see lots of parallels between the Obama/Romney election and the Clinton/Trump election: The confidence of the wealthy establishment candidate against the "upstart" fighting for the people. Romney was blindsided on election night, too. And he also made a dumb comment about the opposition's candidates in the run-up to the election.

The media and their general abdication of responsibility for "telling the truth" and "educating people" in favor of clickbait and panic-generation. This is also our fault, for demanding all our news be free (as in beer), entertaining, and unchallenging. We killed all our newspapers, felt that MSNBC was a fine "Fox for the left", and that having a "Fox for the left" is actually a good idea (it's not).

Of course, the real "newspaper" is Facebook now, and it's full of lies and distortions and completely unaccountable for any of it. And yet, it's how we're all getting our news.

In Closing

"I can't believe Trump won! How did this happen?"

Too many Democratic voters in too many states didn't even bother to vote. At all.

For all Trump's awfulness and all Clinton's greatness, that's how unmotivated they were. Perhaps now the consequences are starting to become evident, the mid-term elections will be different, and perhaps even the next presidential election. I am increasingly skeptical, however.

So, a message to anyone who didn't show up to vote:

All y'all had to do was show up and vote...and most of you are smart enough to figure out how to vote by mail, so you didn't even have to get off the couch. 

And you didn't. You know who you are.

Now, in the aftermath, what do you do? You can march in the street or wear a safety pin or change your Facebook icon. You can volunteer and give money. You can tell yourself you're doing something.

You can blame her. Blame "them". Blame the media. Blame Facebook. Blame Russia.

Doesn't matter. You didn't even vote. You didn't exercise the one right that our nation was founded on, that we've fought wars over, that people have died for. 

You not only lost, you didn't even try. You did nothing.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Leonard Cohen (1934-2016)

Leonard Cohen has died at the age of 82.

Mr. Cohen was the real deal. A brilliant songwriter who fused simple, memorable, hymn-like melodies to lyrics filled with poetic imagery and a wry and dark sense of humor welded to an inescapable sadness.

You are probably familiar with at least some of his work, including:

"Suzanne"
"Bird On A Wire"
"So Long, Marianne"
...and of course "Hallelujah"

Those are the "big hits" from the early days, covered and performed by many an artist, though often missing the subtleties of his wit and delivery. This early work was on a personal scale, and captured something essential about relationships and life.

I loved you in the morning, our kisses deep and warm
Your hair upon the pillow like a sleepy golden storm
Yes, many loved before us, I know that we are not new
In city and in forest, they smiled like me and you
But now it's come to distances and both of us must try
Your eyes are soft with sorrow
Hey, that's no way to say goodbye

Like David Bowie, Prince, and Tomita (who have all died this year as well), Cohen was a massive influence on me, and remains a favorite. In my opinion, he was a far greater talent than Bob Dylan (to whom he was compared).

Cohen's public persona wasn't flashy. It was serious, mature, understated. More Frank Sinatra than Elvis Presley. He wasn't "showy", he didn't play to the cheap seats. He got up there and did his thing, and didn't need to spit fire or blood or smash guitars to make you feel something.

One of the first pieces of music I ever heard was his song "Suzanne", done by both Judy Collins (on her 1966 "In My Life" album) and Neil Diamond (on his 1971 "Stones" album), and both of which my father owned and played. I am also pretty sure my Dad played this on guitar and sang it to me.



I rediscovered Cohen in the late 80s as I filled in my musical education at college, his world-weariness and bleak wit a perfect fit for my sophomoric depression.

Originally a kind of folk-rocker, it was around this time Cohen experienced a kind of renaissance among the post-punks, and was covered on several different tribute albums in the late 80s/early 90s.

By then, Cohen had also traded in his acoustic guitar for (deliberately) semi-cheesy synths and drum machines. He was even dating Rebecca DeMornay, who produced his album "The Future".

I studied him more intensely in the 90s as I was learning to write songs, marveling at how he could make something so beautiful out of such simple pieces, and how deeply shaded and well-constructed his lyrics were.

His backing tracks seemed both deliberately minimal, something of a joke, and kind of sleazy, but arguably even better-suited for conveying his lyrics, both conveying the ridiculousness of the 80s machine and presciently anticipating our impending technological future.

By now Cohen was also old enough and experienced enough to be not just cool, but beyond cool. He posed on the cover of "I'm Your Man" with a half-eaten banana in his hand, looking like he just stepped out of a French New Wave film. Why a banana? Andy Warhol. Phallic joke. Maybe he was hungry. Who knows. But he pulled it off, and it was amazing.

Great songs from this era are numerous:
"I'm Your Man"
"Everybody Knows"
"The Future"

Cohen still wrote about personal stakes and relationships, but his work from this time began to get more political and focused on the world at large:
Everybody knows the dice are loaded
Everybody rolls with fingers crossed
Everybody knows  the war is over
Everybody knows the good guys lost
Everybody knows the fight is fixed
The poor stay poor
The rich get rich
That's how it goes
Everybody knows 



"I'm Your Man" is a great example of how he can inflect his lyrics just slightly and keep things a little off-kilter, hilarious, and sad. It's romantic and creepy and depressing:

If you want a lover
I'll do anything you ask me to
And if you want another kind of love
I'll wear a mask for you
If you want a partner, take my hand, or
If you want to strike me down in anger
Here I stand
I'm your man 
If you want a boxer
I will step into the ring for you
And if you want a doctor
I'll examine every inch of you
If you want a driver, climb inside
Or if you want to take me for a ride
You know you can
I'm your man 
Ah, the moon's too bright
The chain's too tight
The beast won't go to sleep
I've been running through these promises to you
That I made and I could not keep
But a man never got a woman back
Not by begging on his knees
Or I'd crawl to you baby and I'd fall at your feet
And I'd howl at your beauty like a dog in heat
And I'd claw at your heart, and I'd tear at your sheet
I'd say please  
I'm your man
And if you've got to sleep a moment on the road
I will steer for you
And if you want to work the street alone
I'll disappear for you
If you want a father for your child
Or only want to walk with me a while across the sand
I'm your man
...and if all of that weren't clever enough, as the song fades out, Cohen starts the lyrics over again from the top, suggesting that the narrator is making this pitch to a different woman passing by, having been rejected or ignored by the first. Brilliant. Perfect. Subtle. Cool.

Some of my best songs from this period were attempts to emulate his literate writing style.

In 2001 Cohen started a late period to his career, blending his previous ideas and achieving a kind of distilled version of himself. Every record had great, timely songs, such as "My Secret Life":
...I smile when I'm angry
I cheat and I lie
I do what I have to do
To get by
But I know what is wrong
And I know what is right
And I'd die for the truth
In my secret life
...
Looked through the paper
Makes you wanna cry
Nobody cares if the people
Live or die
And the dealer wants you thinking
That it's either black or white
Thank God it's not that simple
In my secret life 
I bite my lip
I buy what I'm told
From the latest hit
To the wisdom of old
But I'm always alone
And my heart is like ice
And it's crowded and cold
In my secret life

As perfect as those lyrics are, they're even better when Cohen sings (or perhaps, more accurately "sighs") them to his perfect little melody and groove:


Cohen's final record was just released. "You Want It Darker" is a fitting send-off. Cohen himself had said he was ready to go and on the title track, he sings "Hineni, Hineni, I'm ready, my lord". At 82, it's hard to say "too soon", but I miss him already.

It is difficult to imagine any modern pop singer demonstrating this level of artistry. They just don't make them like this anymore.

I like a lot of music most other people don't, but almost everyone can appreciate Leonard Cohen. If you've never heard him before, great starting points are his early collection "The Best of Leonard Cohen". For later stuff, his 2014 "Popular Problems" is just about perfect.

Thank you for the music, Leonard, and thank you for all you taught me. I am in your debt.



Thursday, September 15, 2016

Reflection book available again

Due to an oversight on my part, the book (and PDF) designed to accompany "Reflection" was not available for purchase. This has been corrected, and it can now be ordered!

Monday, July 25, 2016

Obsessing over Ghosts: Pokémon Go and Twitter

Twitter has recently been in the news as people have been demanding "something" be done about harassment due to terrible things people have been tweeting about Leslie Jones. All of this is happening against the background of the sudden appearance of Pokémon Go.

Pokémon Go

Pokémon Go is an augmented reality mobile game. It launched a few weeks ago and had the desired effect: Nintendo's stock soared, and for a time made it more valuable than Sony.

The game is an astute combination of 90s nostalgia (if you're under 35, you probably really cared about Pokémon at some point), mobile phones, and the increasingly mainstream elements of virtual goods and virtual and augmented reality.

As might be expected from a highly-targeted mobile game, people are behaving badly. They're looking for imaginary creatures at inappropriate locations. They're not watching where they're going. They're doing obviously dumb things. And in our current world, not everyone can be wandering around in unusual locations without attracting attention. We haven't seen any violence associated with the game yet, but it's really just a matter of time. Much like distracted drivers, people are so intent on finding these electronic ghosts they're putting their actual lives (or at least dignity) at risk.

In the early 2000s, I did some product design work for a company that was going to sell virtual goods for avatars. It felt too early (and it was) but not long after that, young people quickly accepted the concept of virtual goods. And not long after that, somewhat predictably, people started committing crimes to get virtual goods. Some of these were 100% online scams, some were old tricks with some new twists, and a few were straight-up beatings until the user gave up their password. The Korean government had to ban trades of virtual goods for real money.

The surprising part is people are investing such effort into things exist only as ideas and bits on servers. None of it is real.

***

Twitter is [mostly] stupid

Lifting A Dreamer
(a.k.a. Twitter Fail Whale)
by Yiying Lu
Twitter is (mostly) stupid. This is not a particularly new thing to note -- others have said this before. I've said it before. But it bears repeating and dissecting.

There is nothing special about Twitter. It is a website. An email list. Instant messaging. Twitter creates no content of its own. It offers no unique functionality. Its product design is janky and impenetrable.

Even its much-tauted "community" is a mirage, or perhaps most accurately, many mirages. Who uses Twitter and for what has changed over time, both as the company pushes for larger audience and acceptance and the early adopters leave for more interesting and useful tools. 

The hashtag is a prime example of the cultural workarounds required to "use" Twitter. You know it's bad design, a racket, or both when there are entire consulting industries built on helping educate you on how to properly #DoItRight and not be a #Loser.

Worse is when normal writing is broken into a series of bite-sized chunks, posted sequentially. Reading them is akin to listening to someone give a speech after they've run a marathon, or while they're drinking half a glass of water after every sentence. It's tedious, breaks the flow of language, and is a kind of textual hand held up that says "don't interrupt, I'm not finished yet".

Twitter's 140 character limitations aren't some sort of artistic liberation. They force everyone to write in a pared-down way that strips language of nuance and style. It fosters a sophistication and pithiness on par with a bumper sticker. Then again, plenty of people think bumper stickers are funny and insightful.

When I read Twitter, I see an endless stream of "LOOK AT ME!" That's really all Twitter is: people wanting someone to pay attention to them, to acknowledge their clever quote or their clever repetition of someone else's quote.

Even my own tweets fall into this trap. I think it's a fundamental part of the form. You can't write, you can just scribble short notes.

I remain amazed that Twitter has, through sheer force of corporate will, become a place people care about. There are people (including some people I greatly respect) who take Twitter seriously, and post there regularly. There are people who feel Twitter has enabled strong cultural movements and helped revolutions. I find that scary and sad.

It's a corporate website, and not a particularly successful one. Twitter's feed of writing from the people you follow mixes in advertising, which has the effect of turning everything -- including those important messages from your cultural movement and revolution -- into grist for selling whatever stuff Twitter is monetizing. You might be fighting The Man, but if you're using Twitter, you're literally working for The Man.

***

Fear of Ghosts

I ain't afraid of no ghosts.
It is said Twitter has a harassment problem: it's easy to create anonymous accounts and send horrible things to people, or write horrible things about people that "everyone" can read.

These capabilities are actually a fundamental part of Twitter's design. The same things people are complaining about are part of why Twitter has grown into its current incarnation: It affords easy, quick, instantaneous communication across groups; and its limitations and social structure encourage people to be provocative and make big statements with the hope of getting followed, RT'ed, shared, noticed.

It should be no surprise that, like everywhere else on the Internet, anonymity + megaphone = terrible behavior.

Leslie Jones repeated some of the awful things people had written about her and identified the accounts that said these awful things, and then requested some action be taken. [Note: I think Leslie Jones is funny and talented; I have not seen the new "Ghostbusters" movie]

Harassment is not a new problem for Twitter. It's been an issue more or less since the platform launched. Why is the harassment of this one public figure (a comedic actor, no less, someone hardly unused to public abuse) such a big deal, and why now?

People have been writing awful things about other public figures on Twitter for a long time. People have been writing awful things about non-public figures, too. When you're a celebrity, part of the job is putting up with people being terrible and saying mean things. That doesn't make it hurt less (and in fact, for many celebrities, who have a deep need for affirmation, it can hurt more). However, it is indicative of Twitter's priorities and general maturity that they will take action to defend a famous person and not the ordinary people being harassed on a daily basis.

Twitter continues to have an arbitrary and weak policy regarding communications on its platform. One might argue that is OK. It's very dangerous for any communications technology to classify behavior or speech as "unacceptable". Everything is "unacceptable" to someone. You're not entitled to free speech in private venues, but Twitter is designed to feel like a public venue, and encourages people to think of it that way.

So you end up in a world where speech is curated and curtailed. "Please leave only positive feedback, or at least only say mean stuff about the people and things we don't like." With the "we" being whichever group is steering Twitter's culture at the moment. 

There's an evolution that happens quickly: groups who want to say offensive things begin speaking in code, and then the code is banned, too.

The step beyond that is getting banned from Twitter for things you said somewhere else...and then pre-emptively disallowed from joining (Should ISIS have a Twitter account? Monsanto? Fox News? Howard Stern? Rush Limbaugh? Noam Chomsky?). This sort of "bleed" and general enforcement of a corporate behavior and mindset is increasingly spreading. Say the wrong thing in the wrong place and you'll lose your job as well as your Twitter account.

I don't know how aggressively Twitter should police what its users are saying. It reminds me a little of a child's playground, where the kids keep running up to the teacher or parent and asking them to do something about the other kids being mean to them. Sometimes, that's just the way it is on the playground, and you either ignore the mean kids, fight back, or leave.

Appealing to The Man to fix it  feels strange and wrong. Worse, I think having that mindset and taking that kind of action is fundamentally disempowering -- it presupposes we cannot handle it ourselves, are not resilient, and must appeal to a "higher authority" -- and that higher authority is corporate. It is The Man. We've already lost, and lost more than the playground fight.

What seems like a better solution is what Twitter did: ban users who are being abusive. The sad thing here is the person they banned had been an abusive jerk for years. He was a legendary abusive jerk, and one whom Twitter had "verified' an account. So he was an official, verified, legendary abusive jerk. Until he made terrible racist comments about a black actress in a just-decent comedic remake of an old 80s movie. That was apparently over the line.

But everyone Twitter bans can create another account. Or have other people post their garbage. Or continue to write mean things on Tumblr or Facebook or Snapchat or Instagram or Reddit or whatever other internet service people use to communicate.

And of course, to hear the troll tell it, he was trying to prove a point, and Twitter took the bait.

Banning people for speaking their mind (as horrible as it is) means Twitter isn't a communications medium, it's just a community, and one that will enforce a mindset by exile. This is great news if you agree with how these bans happen. It's really bad news when governments, corporations, or other powerful public figures (Donald Trump? Hillary Clinton?) start demanding people get banned from Twitter for being unmutual.

It also raises questions about who gets to wield the banhammer and with what criteria. These questions have no good answers, particularly for private companies.

Finally, banning people doesn't solve the problem. Because the problem isn't the offensive speech. The problem is the people and the particular mindset that produced the speech in the first place. You can make them virtually shut up and kick them out of the clubhouse. They'll go start their own clubhouse and simmer, and the culture in each clubhouse becomes a little more insular (and stable). Banning literally and metaphorically ends the conversation, and there are only a few directions for conflict to go when words stop.

Perhaps a better solution is simply this: Remind yourself that Twitter isn't real. It doesn't exist. It's not a real place. And whatever is scrawled there does not matter one bit. That also means the praise you get on social media is as insignificant and unimportant as the hate. 

Instead of valuing, fearing, and chasing electronic ghosts, perhaps we should focus more on what's real.

***

Some of you will point out that I have at least one Twitter account. This isn't because I think it's good. In my career as a digital media expert, I am required be aware of and understand things of significance on the internet. Twitter can be fun, like Pokemon Go, but I don't play it much.

Friday, July 01, 2016

Isao Tomita (1932 - 2016)

Tomita




Isao Tomita was a remarkable musician. Inspired by Wendy Carlos' synthesized Bach success, Tomita took on more orchestral pieces with more elaborate arrangements and added his own aesthetic and attention to detail. His list of famous synthesized covers includes "Firebird", "The Planets", "Pictures at an Exhibition", and several of Debussy's pieces.

Today, "one-man bands" building entirely synthesized records in their own personal studios is commonplace, but back when this album came out, it was an incredible achievement. All the more so when you realize how primitive the equipment was, and how rich and detailed Tomita's sounds were. And of course, all of his synthesizers were monophonic, too.

His "Kosmos" was one of the first records I heard, and as the years have passed, I have come to realize it left a very deep impression on me.

"Kosmos" was released in 1978. I was 9 years old, and already a hyper-cerebral nerd.

I studied this massive gatefold record intensely. I noted the trompe l'oeil hinges on the spine of the gatefold. How the cover image was itself an image set onto the "steel" of the rest of the art.

The interior of the gatefold showed Tomita sitting in front of his massive Moog modular system, fading into a desert vista, showing you  how he saw sonic landscapes.

The record also featured fantastic liner notes, with Tomita explaining each of the pieces, why he had chosen them, and what they meant.

It also included a comprehensive and fantastic gear list. My mind was blown reading that this record had been made using things like the "Eventide Instant Phaser" and "Roland Dimention IV". Just reading the names of the equipment was exciting.

The record itself was fairly broad. Aside from the somewhat pandery/commercial "Star Wars" theme by John Williams, the album includes a wide range of composers: Bach (Ich Ruf;zu Dir, Herr Jesu Christ/BWV 639, used for "Solaris"), Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries", Charles Ives' "The Unanswered Question", a bit of Grieg's "Peer Gynt", and Rodrigo's "Aranjuez" (which Miles Davis had also transformed).

I was initially attracted to it because of the novelty of synthesizer sounds, and because it had a version of the "Star Wars" theme on it. But the mystery and emotion in all the other pieces made an impact as well, and nearly all of the pieces on the record ended up being discussed in my "history of 20th century music" class at TIP.

The record sounds both dated and timeless, a strange take on a strange selection of pieces that somehow fit together nicely...though these days I always skip "Star Wars".

Whether great or cheesy, this record became a part of my musical identity in fundamental ways: The sonic exploration, the love of "weird", the melodicism, the space (in every sense of the word). It was an explicit reference when I was working on my first few Captain Kirk records.

Thank you for the music, Tomita-san.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

My Prince Stories

1. In The Studio

I never met him, but I got very, very close.

In the early 90s, I had a job working at a big-deal top-flight recording studio in Los Angeles. It was a terrible job that amounted to being a glorifed go-fer taking a lot of abuse. Clean the studios and the bathrooms. Move cars. Fetch lunch. Coil cables. Get yelled at.

The benefits? You got to stand next to and occasionally touch some (then) incredibly expensive and rare gear, and if you stuck around long enough, you might get promoted to be a 2nd engineer assisting on a session, and eventually "engineer". (Dear reader, this did not happen for me.)

The other benefit? You were close to some very talented and creative people while they were working. During my relatively short tenure there, that list of talented and creative people included Seal (with Steve Lillywhite!), Guns N'Roses...and Prince.

Prince worked all the time. When he'd show up, he'd lock himself in the studio and work like crazy. A typical day, I'd get a phone call at the front desk and it would be his handler, who would say "Prince is coming in at 10 am." So we'd start hustling, organizing, getting flowers in place, getting the candles and lighting ready, all dialed in with the tape on the reels by 9.

10 passes. No Prince. Then 11. Then 12. Into the afternoon. No Prince. No lunch either, because he might show up. Finally, around 4 or 5, handler calls again. "Prince isn't coming in today." OK. Back in the room, snuff out the candles, clean up, take the tape down, get everything re-set for tomorrow.

I go home. Phone rings at like 10 PM. "Prince is on his way to the studio, he'll be there by 11 pm." Hop in the car, hustle back over, get everything set up again.

11 pm passes. No prince. Midnight. 1 am. Shortly after 2 am, Prince's custom-painted and -designed BMW rolls up to the coned-off area in front. His bodyguard comes in, checks that everything is clear between the front door and the studio door. Prince whooshes in, beelining for the studio. He's wearing a very typical Prince outfit. He stops at the studio door, and says "Everybody get out, I'm working alone tonight."

So then everyone leaves, me included. He literally works alone in the studio all night. We carted out more tapes of final mixes than I can count. Some of it has been released. Some of it hasn't.

2. The Guitar

As one of the new people on the team, I got assigned the graveyard shift. I was there, largely cleaning, tidying up, making sure everything was ready for the next day and that nobody breaks in.

Most of the time, Prince was not there. Nobody was there. It was boring, exhausting, and tedious, the hardest part of the job being staying up until dawn (and then hoping you didn't get double-shifted because the other runners partied too hard the night before while I was working).

So one night I'm sitting there, at like 3 am, and I realize that Prince's guitar -- you know the one, the "Cloud guitar" from Purple Rain -- is sitting in his studio, plugged in to his rig. I could go play it.

I walk into his studio, through the control room, and I see it is there, on a stand, lit in the recording room. His guitar. The peach one.

It's 3 AM. There's nobody else in this enormous building.

I reach out for the guitar, and I stop.

I am convinced that no matter how carefully I treat this instrument, no matter how I return it to the stand, Prince will just KNOW.

Like a fairy tale, he will walk in. His back will stiffen. He will say "Someone played my guitar last night."

And then, like the Terminator, he will sense it is me. And he will point his finger at me and say "it was him. He played my guitar." And that will be the end.

So I don't play it. I just stand there for a moment, as close to Prince as I'll ever get. And then I turn around and walk out, hoping that The Purple One doesn't sense it.

3. Seal

Prince happens to be working in one studio at the same time that Seal is working on his follow-up to his first album in another room.

Seal is a huge Prince fan. I mean that in every sense. Seal is a tall guy (6' 4"), and Prince relatively compact (5' 2"). Seal wanted to meet Prince, and I was tasked with finding out if this was "OK".

Of course, it was NOT OK. I was told that Prince was not going to meet Seal.

Seal was not to be deterred. The door to Seal's studio was right by the front door of the facility, and Prince had to walk right by it to leave. So Seal hides behind his studio door, peeking out, waiting.

Sure enough, at around 6 pm, Prince is getting ready to leave. Prince's bodyguard clears the hallway, and gives Prince the "all clear" sign. Prince starts walking briskly down the hallway, his bodyguard following close behind.

It's maybe 20' of walking. Right before he is able to exit, Seal bursts out of his studio, blocks the way, and says to Prince "I'm a huge fan, I just wanted to say hello and that I love your music."

Prince freezes, stares up at Seal, and says a clipped "thanks", as he tries to fumble past through the door while the bodyguard rapidly closes the distance and gives Seal a look between "I'll kill you" and "not cool, bro, not cool at all".

After Prince leaves, Seal is smiling and laughing.


Prince

Prince

Prince Rogers Nelson was an incredible musician by any standard.

He could play guitar, bass, drums, and keyboards with great proficiency. He was a restless and creative composer who quickly pushed himself out of one genre into another and eventually moved into his own genre altogether. He was a challenging bandleader who forged strong links between his players and made sure that his band could play all the parts he wrote perfectly, and dance while doing it.

Prince wrote hits, and not just for himself. His songs provided number 1 or top 10 hits for countless artists in his 80s heyday, including Sheena Easton, The Bangles, The Time, Sinead O'Connor, Chaka Khan (!) and of course, Sheila E.

Prince's songs were smart. He might be rude, he might be naughty, he might even be dirty, but never, ever dumb musically or lyrically.

Like many of the other musicians that influenced me, Prince was an "I do it all myself in the studio" person, who wrote, played, produced, and recorded. His use of technology became a signature, not a gimmick. Prince pulled distinctive sounds out of otherwise banal instruments -- his pitch-shifted Linn drum beats and squealing guitar tones are unmistakable. And then there's that fantastic voice, capable of moving from a whisper to a scream, from a cartoonish low register to an angelic high.

Prince had a very particular personal muse he was chasing. Prince sang about love and sex, god and earthly matters, and he did it his way: frank, obtuse, weird, and beautiful. His albums weren't overtly concept-y, for the most part, and still they had themes and palettes and vibes.

His run of classic albums, starting with "Dirty Mind" and running up through "Lovesexy", is hard to top. The depth and range of songs is remarkable, and his best albums take you from hopped-up dance-along hooky pop songs to steamy slow-jams, always with a few bizarre detours. It never feels artificial or stagey.

Prince was an artist that all of my friends could appreciate, whether new waver or punk rocker or mainstream person or whatever, everyone knew Prince was amazing. His music could start a party, and his albums were always good for listening in intimate situations.

Prince was "the real deal", a musician's musician who could talk about and appreciate artists ranging from Gary Numan (whom Prince said was "a genius") to Joni Mitchell (who Prince often cited as his favorite musician of all time).

In some ways, Prince was the opposite of Bowie. Prince was always PRINCE -- there was no other mask, no other costume -- but who Prince was kept changing, as he aged and the world moved around him. Unlike, say, Madonna, Prince managed to get older while retaining some dignity, and was comfortable being an amazing musician  without having to constantly be in the spotlight or on magazine covers.

I kept listening to albums after 1989's disappointing "Batman", wishing he would make something else I liked. He would occasionally bust out an incredible hit, just to prove he could whenever he wanted. But his music in the 90s and beyond, while competent, lacked the weird fire that his earlier stuff had.

I doubt it is because he got "worse" at music. I think instead he simply decided he didn't care about pleasing anyone but himself, and what pleased him was different than what pleased me. Nothing wrong with that, and even when I didn't like the records, I could always appreciate the skill and craft.

Goodnight, sweet Prince. We shall not look upon your like again. Thank you for the music.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Bowie

I am deeply saddened to hear of David Bowie's death. He was a tremendous influence on my life as a musician and as a person.

I had little familiarity with his music before "Let's Dance" came out -- I was a freshman in high school -- and that was when I first really heard and appreciated him. I dug into his back catalog, discovering how inventive, great, and different his music was. Not just different from what else was out there (though that was always the case), but how different his records were from each other. Most artists struggle to break through and then spin variations on that successful theme for the majority of their career. Not Bowie.

While David Bowie's work does have recurring themes and favorite tropes, he never really repeated himself the way most musicians do. ("Ziggy"/"Aladdin" and "Low"/"Heroes" are about as close as he gets to repeating himself, and I'll give him a pass because those were rich veins to mine, and he still managed to evolve.)

Bowie made total artistic statements with his records, changing his image to reflect the music and vice versa. It was a potent combination and made me think about "albums" and "songs" as more than just sound. He was both original and more than willing to reference many other artists and works.


After the huge success of "Let's Dance" faded ("Tonight" is underrated, by the way), Bowie got weird. With hindsight, the "commercial failures" of his late 80s/early 90s output seem more like initial explorations or warm-ups for the increasingly adventurous records he'd make for the rest of his career.

In this respect -- achieving mainstream acceptance, then turning around and walking off into the arty wilderness --  Bowie was very much like Scott Walker (who he greatly admired) and David Sylvian (who owes a great debt to Bowie). This, too, became something for me to learn, understand, and emulate.

He was financially successful as an artist, and again an innovator here, with "Bowie bonds". But his true success is in the tremendous cultural impact he had. Many artists (if not entire musical genres), including some of my favorites, owe their entire careers to bits of things Bowie did once and put aside. That's not a slight to these artists and their music, but rather an indication of how much territory Bowie covered.

He also had great impact in my peer group. His music and different guises spoke to many of my friends, with different messages for each of us. Which Bowie did you like? We shared our favorite albums, turned each other on to his different phases, and anticipated his future releases. I think of periods in my life and remember which Bowie albums I was into at the time.

I find myself surprised at how deeply I feel the loss of his death, fighting back tears all day long. Perhaps it is the suddenness. Like his recent work, his passing was unexpected, seemed ahead of its time, and most people don't like it.

This time, not liking it is the correct response.

Thank you for the music, David. I miss you more than I thought possible.


***

For those who have never heard David Bowie at all, or heard him beyond the hits, or are curious, I compiled a list of my favorite tracks from nearly all of his major albums. Even when David Bowie is singing someone else's song, it becomes his.