Tuesday, July 16, 2019

50

Yesterday

50 years ago today, the "moonshot" was launched. My grandfather and father both contributed to the Apollo 11 mission, which remains a unique and shining moment in human history.


50 years ago today, I was born.

At the time I was born, America still had a telephone monopoly. Telephones had rotary dials. Microwave ovens did not exist. VCRs had not been invented, and there were only 3 major TV networks. No cable TV. FM Radio was just about to displace AM as the preferred listening system. Computers were the size of entire rooms, if not buildings, and were only owned by governments or corporations. A new TV show called "Sesame Street" was about to debut.

Shortly after I was born, Richard Nixon signed the "Economic Stabilization Act of 1970", which allowed the government of the United States to control prices, rents, wages, salaries, and more -- a level of government interference (by Republicans, no less!) that is nearly unimaginable today. My father worked for the Cost of Living Council, which was the agency that handled this policy. That agency was headed by Donald Rumsfeld.

The early 70s were also when the Ecology movement in the USA started. The federal government passed many critical bills aimed at cleaning up our nation's air, water, and soil.

I saw my first computer when I was in 2nd grade, and we had our first home computer (an Apple ][+) about 2 years after that. I grew up with computers, and I have watched them shrink, multiply, and embed themselves in all facets of our lives.

When I think about that span of time and all those changes, I try to keep some perspective. 50 years from when I was born was 1919. The world and lifestyle of 1969 was greatly removed from that of 1919, far more than 1969 is from 2019.

Technology has advanced. Jets are bigger, cheaper, and faster...though the Concorde no longer flies, and was the fastest of all. Computers are everywhere, too numerous and cheap to count. Nearly every modern convenience has become less expensive and more commonplace. I take too much of it for granted, even as I marvel at the latest gear.

Unfortunately, that kind of progress has not extended to taking care of the environment. The end of the 1970s oil shocks led directly to the Big 80s and the return of gas-guzzling cars and the creation of the SUV. The near-disaster at Three Mile Island and the actual disasters at Chernobyl and Fukushima put the world off nuclear power, though countless other disasters at places like the Deepwater Horizon should remind us of the slow death and damage caused by fossil fuels.

When I was born, the global population was a mere 3.6 billion. It is closer to 7.7 billion now. It is hard to imagine any aspect of our lives changing until there is no alternative. Even then, it will take time.

I have seen a lot. I have a hard time imagining what the next 50 years will look like. I hope I get to see some of it.

Today

I am 50 years old. Not that long ago, it wasn't all that clear I would even make it this far. Every day is a gift. I am trying to see it less as a marker and more as a victory or achievement.

Look around you at the things in your life. Find one that's been with you a long time. What kind of shape is it in? Faded? Scratched? Dinged? Broken? Repaired? Worn? Obsolete? In need of repair?

If you're lucky, despite (or perhaps because of) all that, you still love it. You've at least kept it around, out of inertia or fear, if not love and affection.

Our lives are like that. Contrary to much philosophy, we are our bodies -- we cannot and do not exist without them. Those bodies are physical objects, subject to the humiliations of aging and entropy. There is no escape.

I am lucky. I am still in relatively good shape in every sense. Though I can -- and sadly, do -- enumerate my many flaws and think about what I have lost, and what I could save or gain. I weigh all this against simply enjoying life and being grateful for the bounty I do have. I still have enough -- enough vision, hearing, voice, hair, and on good days, some wit and humor.

50. I sigh and shift in my seat, various parts aching. It has been a challenging year, more challenging than the previous one. I have wrestled with after-effects and the inevitable "well, now what?" as parts of my life have changed and continue to change. Nothing lasts forever.

I consider my life at present. This milestone is intersecting with a few others. Things are in motion, like it or not. But motion and change are the stuff of life, and lack of those things is death.

My wife tells me I should celebrate. It is better than the alternative, in every way. Better than mourning. Better than not turning 50.

If there is one benefit to getting older, it is a growing awareness of my own capabilities and how much things are worth to me. I know what is out of reach, and what could be in reach if I were willing to pay the price. I think I know what is important to me. That is significant.

Some years ago, my friend Stan captioned a photo of me with a quote that said something like "blessed is he who has won understanding of the nature of things". Back then, I definitely didn't deserve such attribution. I still aspire to be worthy of it.

Tomorrow

There is still so much to do, and that includes some doing nothing. I am working on music and writing. New projects. Trying to spend time with friends. The last year was a stark and sobering reminder to enjoy the people around me before we move on. 

I have planned carefully for the future, and now I am working to make sure I enjoy life a little more in case that future fails to arrive for whatever reason. 

I expect a few changes in the next year. A new job, for one (I'm looking, so please keep an eye out for me). I look forward to the adventure. Thank you for being here with me.  


Tuesday, April 02, 2019

Keith Flint (1969 - 2019)

Keith Flint has died at the age of 49.

I first encountered Flint the same way most Americans did: through Prodigy's hit song "Firestarter". The video and song are striking, and Flint dominates the track and visual language. He doesn't look like a typical rock star -- he's too bald, his dance moves are too naive and instinctual. His "singing" isn't going to win any awards with the rockers or the hip-hop crews. But he still makes an impression.



In the mid-90s, I was living in Los Angeles, aspiring and striving as a professional musician. A few years prior, in 1991, Nirvana and grunge had laid waste to the dominant hair metal scene, and seemingly overnight redefined what was cool (and thus, what everyone wanted to copy and/or sign).

But grunge was from the Pacific Northwest, and no L.A. bands could come up with a sufficiently authentic and credible version of grunge quickly. The resulting rock void in L.A. was filled with funk-metal. Every act wanted to be the Red Hot Chili Peppers or Nirvana, or both (the band that did that best was called "Rage Against The Machine", and this same drive led to Korn, Limp Bizkit, and other contenders). It felt like rock was fumbling around, increasingly looking to refined versions of the past.

Even groups that clearly weren't grunge (like the sublime Failure) got lumped in with the flannel brigade because, well, they're a rock band that isn't funking around and has buzzy, grinding guitars.

I was living in a small house in Sherman Oaks, near the famous Galleria mall. It was not the happiest time in my life. Even though I was only in my late 20s, I felt obsolete and out of touch. I didn't understand or like most of the music my friends were listening to. I didn't like much of the music I was trying to make, either. I was fumbling my way through the rubble of one relationship and into the minefields of others.

Aside from "Nevermind", the other record from the early 90s that most affected me was Aphex Twin's "Selected Ambient Works 85-92". It felt both retro and futuristic, and the anonymous blankness of the artwork and music added to the mystique.



A new electronic movement had started in music, from a variety of places, enabled by continuing evolution in music technology. And by the mid-90s, "electronica" was considered the Next Big Thing.

"Wipeout 2097" cover by Designers Republic
The then-new PlayStation had a game called Wipeout 2097. This was a futuristic racing game that managed to become a 90s touchstone. The cover was created by the legendary Designers Republic. And the game had an exciting music soundtrack featuring The Future Sound of London, Fluke ("Atom Bomb"!), Photek, Underworld...and "Firestarter", by The Prodigy.

"Firestarter" felt more like punk than Green Day or most of the other re-punk bands of the 90s. Flint's charisma and vibe helped make The Prodigy seem like rock stars, not another faceless electronic artist. I am sure that is part of why Madonna's record label wanted to sign them.

And so The Prodigy and Keith Flint had their moment, and for a bit there, they were not just the Next Big Thing, but an actual Big Thing. They had solid album sales initially (and scaled for the time, which was a nosedive for the music business), and a decent amount of buzz and press.

They were so big I got hired to create a sound-alike of one of their songs for a low budget TV show (and, parenthetically, got fired for "sounding too much like The Prodigy").

It was one of those moments where you could feel the wave rising. Here comes the future, and everything is going to change. Rock, already stumbling around like it had been hit by a car, was about to die, and something else would replace it. The millennium was drawing to a close. We could all transform into something new, join the still-new internet, embrace tomorrow.

U2 could see it coming, and proudly or desperately talked up all the new electronic artists they were into and influenced by as they crafted their brilliant but underrated "Pop" (which would be the last great album they'd make).

Hell, even Bush -- who had cloned Nirvana's blueprint of a smash success first album followed by a less-successful Steve Albini-produced second, turned to "electronica" as an influence for their third "The Science Of Things" rather than continuing to follow the inevitable dead end Nirvana and rock seemed to offer.

But the wave receded. And then the electronica moment passed by. Prodigy didn't recoup, their album sales disappointing despite tons of press both positive and negative (the video for "Smack My Bitch Up" aimed for "controversial" and ended up being considered merely exploitative and in poor taste). Big act after big act whiffed their album numbers. Even the much-loved Daft Punk's sales disappointed, and as always, public attention moved on to other things.

Flint and The Prodigy kept making records of varying quality, but most people stopped caring. The electronica revolution fizzled, and hip-hop and pop resumed their chart dominance. Flint ended up owning a pub, and occasionally working there. Supposedly he fined people a dollar every time he tended the hearth and someone made some kind of "Firestarter" crack. And then he gave the money to charity.

I am 49 years old, the same age as Keith Flint. My back hurts. Many days have struggles, physical and mental. I think about my own past. Everything seemed easier, better. I was better looking, faster. The world was all possibilities and upside. Everything was going to change, and for the better.

Flint had a troubled childhood, and a challenging life before The Prodigy's sudden success. Having dreams not pan out, and then having life go on can be challenging.

It must have been difficult to look back at work he did 20 years ago, and be constantly reminded of that "almost", and have the younger, less-broken version of himself be the thing he was constantly compared to. I don't know enough about his life to know if he ever found peace or happiness, or if the pain that helped create his musical persona continued to run through the tunnels of his heart and mind until he could take no more.

I see the news. I watch the "Firestarter" video again. I think back on those Los Angeles days in the 90s, when all the world seemed ripe for the burning, and we ran through the tunnels at night, shouting, dancing, leaping, laughing, and singing for the sheer love of life.

Thank you for the music, Mr. Flint.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Scott Walker (1943 - 2019)

I haven't even finished writing about the death of Keith Flint, and now Scott Walker is dead. He lived a full, rich, and rewarding life, but like Bowie (who was a huge Scott Walker fan, covering his "Nite Flights"), it still feels too soon for such a talented artist.


Walker remains a role model for growing up and growing old as an artist. As a young man in the 60s, he was a pop star, briefly bigger than The Beatles. He loved it until he hated it.

He discovered and covered Jacques Brel, with his first single as a solo artist the shocking "Jackie". The record's perfect late-60s production, strings, and Walker's beautiful voice rub up against the lyrics, whose criticism of show business would end up being Walker's blueprint:

...all my bridges I would burn
And when I gave them something they'd know
I'd expect something in return
I'd have to get drunk every night...

As Walker began doing what he really wanted, the little old ladies who had loved his big voice and string arrangements abandoned him in droves. His personal statement of artistic intention was "Scott 4", which came out in 1969 and was a complete commercial failure.

Walker responded by spending 5 years making thoughtless records aimed at the market and satisfying his contract, and consoled himself with alcohol.

The Walker Brothers re-formed in 1975, and made 2 records much in line with their previous pop work. In the middle of making their 3rd album, they found out their record company was going bankrupt, and the Walker Brothers decided to go out with a bang, doing what they wanted. Each member contributed and sang 4 songs. Scott had the first 4, which created a stunning suite and statement about future intentions. That album, "Nite Flights", sold terribly, and the band broke up at the end of 1978. But Scott's 4 songs made many people sit up and take notice.

In 1981, Julian Cope created a compilation, modestly titled "Fire Escape in the Sky: The Godlike Genius of Scott Walker", which re-kindled some interest in the singer.

And in 1984, he issued a new solo album, "Climate of Hunter". He would go on to release just 3 more records in a 30 year period, each more challenging than the previous.

He was a tremendous talent. Easy to respect, harder to enjoy.

A few years back a wonderful documentary called "30 Century Man" was released about Scott Walker, and it covers everything you really need to know.


The New Yorker beautifully describes the power of Scott Walker's music, but you should really hear it for yourself. It is the sound of a pop musician becoming an artist, of someone growing more confident in following their own muse off into the hinterlands. It is Art, and is simultaneously brilliant, dark, hilarious, timeless, and modern.

Walker's "30 Century Man" is a deceptively simple song that still has something strange, dreamlike, and off-kilter about it. I performed it at my 40th birthday party:



The intro of my song "Blue The Light" is a nearly straight lift of the introduction of "The Electrician" by The Walker Brothers, a brilliant example of Scott beginning to go modern and get weird as he sings about government torturers:


I shamelessly ripped off his cover of "Blanket Roll Blues" (featuring Marc Knopfler on guitar!) for my own song "The Crossing":


It is difficult to pick individual songs that represent the best of Walker's particular late-period genius, but "Jesse" is a fine example of his late period. It's "about" 9/11 and Elvis' stillborn twin brother:


This short film made for "Brando", a collaboration between Scott Walker and Sunn O))) provides perfect visual accompaniment for his disturbing aesthetic:


But perhaps my favorite is "Tilt". A cowboy nightmare, the song encapsulates Walker's sensibilities and vision.

"He was so strong, he was so bold...when they made him, they broke the mold..."


Thank you for the music and the inspiration, Mr. Walker.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Tim Reynolds

Music is meant to be heard, and every band needs fans. When I was in college, the biggest fan my band had was Tim Reynolds. I just heard Tim passed away a few days ago. He was 50 years old.

Tim Reynolds
From the time I met him in 1987 until the last time I saw him a few years ago, Tim was kind and caring, a "salt of the earth" guy. He was also one of the hardest-working people I knew. He worked part-time the entire way through college, and helped run our campus radio stations.

Tim loved radio, music, and their respective businesses. He went into the broadcast business in various flavors, eventually starting his own consulting firm. He remained involved with Dartmouth's radio station for many years, advising them, and helping them secure much-needed funding for upgrades and the transition to streaming.

Tim was an unabashed fan of "uncool" music. He loved late 70s FM rock like Styx, Foreigner, Journey, and Billy Joel, despite (or perhaps because) its lack of fashion. As he grew older, he also became a big fan of country music, and after moving to Nashville, became a well-known supporter of up-and-coming artists.

He was a big supporter of my early music efforts in college. Tim ran sound for us (getting paid as much as we did), and frequently helped us move gear and book gigs. He was always encouraging.

Tim also had a notoriously off-color sense of humor. He wasn't a showboat, but he certainly could have had a career as a Howard Stone-ish "shock jock" if he'd wanted. Instead, he'd just make that funny face that his friends all knew well, move his eyes a bit, and tell us another joke that would get you fired these days. Never mean, though.

Tim was also great about keeping in touch -- we would frequently meet up during trade shows at CES, though perhaps not as much as either of us would like.

He was a wonderful human being with a big heart. His passing makes the sun a little darker, and all the world's music sounds a bit sadder. I miss him terribly.

Thank you for the music and support, Tim. 

Tim Reynolds, far right, in one of the only photos I have of him, circa 1990
L-RL Mark Graham, Chris Haines, John Goodchild, Tim Reynolds

Saturday, February 16, 2019

+1

-1 Day

The phone rings. The car shop tells me I need $3,500 in repairs. 2 days ago, the car was running fine. Yesterday, it started idling poorly. They tell me it's not a defect, recall, or covered by warranty, and that sometimes bad things just happen.

I don't have time right now to go through all the math to figure out whether or not a new electric car would be, on balance, a better environmental choice than just fixing my gas-burner. Or to figure out which car I would get. I tell them to do the work, and remind myself to look into alternatives.

I often say there are two kinds of problems in this world: the kind of problem you can solve by writing a check, and the kind of problem you cannot solve by writing a check. I hope all of my problems are the solvable-by-check kind. And for the moment, I can write that check.

In the Lyft on the way to pick up a rental car, I observe the other drivers. It is raining. They are honking their horns, impatient. Passing on the right, pulling illegal left turns from the center lane in front of cars they feel are going too slow. Zippering through traffic, making driving more dangerous for everyone so they can gain 30 seconds or a few car lengths before traffic clamps down on everyone. What can be so important? I often think that the young men driving like this must have never really experienced tragedy or consequence.

At dinner, a friend shares some life-changing news. I am reminded that everyone is wrestling with so much that we cannot see.

-1 Year

I tend to plan for the worst and hope for the best. This usually means I am somewhat prepared for most bad outcomes, and can be pleasantly surprised the rest of the time.

I left my car in the 5th and Mission garage and walked to the doctor a few blocks away. I listened to music on the way there and tried to think positive. 8 AM on Valentine's Day? Rough time for a doctor's visit.

I heard what I expected. I took notes. I didn't cry. I didn't shake too much. I tried to keep it light and stay focused. This has to be a rough gig for the doctors. The least I can do is try to make it easy for them.

Less than an hour later, I was back in the garage, walking to my car. I saw a van parked precariously close to it, backing out and coming within a half an inch of hitting my car. As I am frantically waved at the driver to stop, a woman pulled around in a car and, impatient, started yelling at both of us that she needed a spot.

I turned around, walked over to her car, and explained that I was leaving, and trying to prevent this guy from hitting my car. If she could wait 60 seconds, she could have my spot.

She swore at me, flipped me off, and sped into the depths of the garage, her child in the seat next to her.

On the way home, I thought about that woman. What was going on in her life that made her act like that? I observe the constant nastiness, selfishness, and short-sightedness of so many around me. I wonder what burdens and stresses they must be carrying.

I think of what Nassim Nicholas Taleb says: "Your last recourse against randomness is how you act – if you can’t control outcomes, you can control the elegance of your behaviour."

Shadows and possibilities and numbers loom in my head. The distant future collapses to the next week, the next day, the next hour. "Get to the next screen". Stress makes me focus intensely.

I hope for the best. I plan for the worst.

-1 Hour

On the way home from work, the rain finally stops. The sun breaks through the gray clouds that have covered San Francisco for the past several days. The constant downpour and darkness have been getting to me. And today has been unexpectedly emotionally charged.

For a moment, I consider pulling over to the side of the road and howling across the Bay "I AM STILL HERE!"

But I know the gods do not respond well to that kind of hubris. And it's cold.

Instead, I drive home, and I write this.

Tuesday, January 01, 2019

2018 In Review

2018 seemed to have a recurring theme: Running out of time.

The highlight of 2018 was a party I threw for my 49th birthday. A hundred of my friends converged in one spot for a few hours. I played them a few songs. They ate, drank, and made merry. I got to see friends from every major era of my life meeting, talking, laughing. I wished it would never end, but of course, eventually, it is always time to go. I was exhausted when it was over, and realized I hadn't eaten any food and had only had one drink. I just ran out of time. 


Perhaps most significantly, the scientific community raised the alarm about climate change in clear and certain terms. We are quite literally running out of time to stop destroying our one planet. We should all think about what we can do to change our own lifestyles and change others minds. If we cannot all move global culture in a new and sustainable direction, humanity will begin to suffer in a few decades and may not survive too many more. 

This was brought home quite clearly during the massive California wildfires: we need a healthy environment so we can live. For nearly two weeks, the blackened skies rained ash. The San Francisco Bay Area air was dangerously unhealthy. Stores ran out of masks and air purifiers. Headaches and health problems ensued. It seemed like it would never end. By the time the fires were finally controlled and the air began to clear, we had all seemed to get used to it somehow, even as we complained. 

People have some legitimate concerns about the economic effects of fighting climate change. But climate change itself makes us run out of money as well as time. The Camp fire alone is estimated to have caused $7-10 billion in losses, to say nothing of long-term health damage.

The ongoing metaphorical fire in American democracy and government showed little sign of containment, however. Trump is still in the White House, still compromised, and still smashing whatever he can. It is increasingly difficult to deny how harmful he and his policies are, or to ignore evidence that he is in some way motivated by foreign interests.

Trump's election also seems to be somewhat enabled by the continuing reliance on social media, which only became more toxic and useless in 2018. The best non-fiction books I read in 2018 addressed these topics head-on: "Likewar" by P.W. Singer and Emerson T. Brooking and "Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now" by Jaron Lanier. Both are highly recommended, and quite thought-provoking. 

I could come up with long list of dark and depressing news stories -- I suspect you have your own "Greatest Hits". 2018 was also a year in which I found myself turning away from the news more frequently, both because it was such a downer and because, whatever the format or provider, I found myself seeing too much of the machinations, business models, and agendas behind the scenes to not have cynicism seep into my interpretations of what was covered and how. The biggest "innovations" and influences in news for the last 20 years have been Fox News, the comments section of the internet, and social media. It is difficult for me to think of too many things more depressing.

For me, the year itself seemed to rush by. Most of my year was occupied with a serious illness, which dilated time in all directions. I am reluctant to focus too much on all this, as it is both tedious and terrifying, but when people ask "how was your year?" or "what did you get up to in 2018?", that part of it looms large.

I have been quite lucky so far, and I hope that luck holds out. Some of my dear friends have not been as fortunate, and they are in my thoughts daily. 

My own experience brought me back in contact with an old friend I had not seen in 35 years, which is a wonderful gift. It also served as a reminder that who we are and how we treat other people matters in ways that can be hard to predict, and that our actions echo into the future.

DBA - EP01
I managed to write a decent amount, averaging a post every two weeks here, some of which I thought were good. I hope to keep writing more in 2019.

I also finished a number of music projects that had been stewing for a while. 

The EP I worked on with DBA was completed and released. This modern rock album is one of the first collaborations I have done in a long time. It was refreshing to return to my roots as a synthesizer player and not have the burden of being the bandleader and primary creative force. 

"EP01" is available on Bandcamp and iTunes as well as popular music streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music. 

Pantemonium! -
Sid Luscious and The Pants
After 12 years of work, the new Sid Luscious and The Pants record "Pantemonium!" is mastered and ready for release, as soon as the CD artwork is completed. 

"Pantemonium!" has been a long time coming. It features some great contributions from Pants past and present. Steve Mason adds cello, Rich Trott adds piano, and Mark Erickson adds lead guitar to "Finale", perhaps my favorite song on the record. Maryann Faricy gets to sing lead on "Someone Close". 

My high school friends Darow Han and John Hong made contributions to a tribute to our friend Max Friedenberg on "To The Max", and the record was mastered by another high school friend, Christopher Davidson. Their contributions added layers to an album whose themes focus on wrestling with the past and nostalgia.

The first track, "One Life", gained new resonance for me throughout 2018:
"It sucks getting old, or so I'm told...but baby, don't believe all you hear..."

I am glad to have it finished so I can move on to other things. I am also quite proud of it and hope you enjoy it. I am currently planning on releasing it on Valentine's Day, 2019. 

End.Game. - Luscious-235
This year also saw the completion of another collaboration, this one with Brian Ward. Our band Luscious-235 combines the 80s sensibilities of Sid Luscious with U-235's synthwave and electronica. Our debut album "End.Game." is available now. 

This record is one of the best things I have done. I started working on it at the end of 2017 and finished it this year. We commissioned John Karborn to create the front cover. My friend John Hong played some amazing saxophone on "Better Off Dead". 

Head on over to Bandcamp and pick it up. And for those of you with record players, we are also doing a limited edition vinyl run.

I face 2019 with cautious optimism. I am ready, even as I hear the clock counting down.


Saturday, December 29, 2018

James Calvin Wilsey (1957 - 2018)

James Calvin Wilsey died on Christmas Eve this year of a heart attack. He was 61 years old.

Originally the bass player for San Francisco Bay Area punk band The Avengers, Wilsey was best-known as the lead guitar player on the first three (and best) Chris Isaak records. His beautiful modern/retro tones and tasteful playing gave Isaak's heartbreak songs depth and mystery.

Wilsey's playing inspired me to return to the Fender Stratocaster in the late 80s, and remained a touchstone for elegant, restrained playing. I was lucky enough to see him play live with Chris Isaak in 1991. A rare talent and the real deal.

Thank you for the music and the inspiration, Mr. Wilsey.

"Kings of the Highway"


"Blue Hotel"


and of course, "Wicked Game"

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

2018 in Music

Album of the Year

Low - "Double Negative"

2018 was a rough year for everybody. Everything seems to be falling apart -- our society, our government, our environment, our relationships, our health. We are beyond outrage and into a kind of fatigue and resignation.

Low made a record both timely and timeless, something that sounds like this moment feels. It is a masterpiece of production and songwriting, and the fusion of same. 

"Double Negative" sounds only vaguely like Low's previous records, and nearly nothing like anything else out there today. It is a bold, thrilling work. The melodies are memorable and strong, and it hits slow, hard, and unrelentingly.

It is an album, rather than a collection of songs, and best appreciated listening from beginning to end. It is also dark, disturbing, and by far the best thing I heard this year.

The lyrics are frequently overwhelmed by the music, but that adds to the sense of weariness, confusion, ambiguity and mystery.

"Always Trying To Work It Out" offers a good sample...



But even better is this triptych of the first three songs on the album: "Quorum", "Dancing and Blood", and "Fly":


"Double Negative" is a remarkable piece of art, and the first music in a long time that really stopped me in my tracks.

Notable

Angelique Kidjo - "Remain In Light"

It is rare for a cover of an artist's best-known work to be as good as, much less surpass, the original. Rarer still for an entire album of covers to do the same (for proof, see notable attempts by artists including David Bowie and Duran Duran).

Angelique Kidjo's cover of the entirety of Talking Heads' "Remain In Light" manages to shine new light on the original, and transforms the music from its jittery new wave origins to transcendent pop. This could have been a disaster, but from the minute you first hear her sing "Take a look at these hands...", you know you are in for something great.

There's all kinds of meta-narrative and layers for those who want to focus on identity issues -- Talking Heads were a kind of epitome of white New York hipsterdom, and led by a man. Contemplating how their Africa-influenced music has reclaimed by a black African woman may add to your enjoyment.

Regardless, this is the best kind of pop music -- joyful, powerful, fun, and with a slightly subversive undercurrent:



And of course, "Once In A Lifetime":



While I didn't listen to as much new music as I would have liked this year, 2018 brought a lot of disappointment. Anticipated new albums by a whole range of artists, including Aphex Twin, Robyn, Smashing Pumpkins, and more turned out to be less-than-compelling.

Many new artists hyped by the blogosphere and new machinery of promotion were just terrible, or were Johnny One-Note acts making their effort at being contemporary pop stars, which these days is frequently more about Twitter and celebrity stuff than writing memorable songs and performing them well. (I know that makes me sound like an old person, but it is hard to believe any future artists will be covering the current crop of hits. Also, I'm old.)

There were also a few artists who made work so challenging it defeated me, either because it was too hard to listen to or too incomprehensible or just...unpleasant. An example is the new album "Pastoral" from Gazelle Twin. A powerful, detailed work of art about the current state of the UK, with plenty of brilliant references right down to the glitchy album cover. But most of it sounds and looks like this:


It's undeniably great, but it gives me a headache, and I feel like I'm enduring it, not appreciating it. Given the subject matter and themes, that may be the point. But I'd rather put that Low record on any time.

Even the "new" old-stock Prince album was more of a "huh, that's interesting" than revelatory experience, though it is always great to hear him put a different spin on songs you know. Stripping away his trademark production only reveals how talented he really was:


...but in the end, this is the sound of an artist rehearsing, warming up, playing around, not a masterwork in and of itself.

Brian Eno dropped a brick of an ambient compilation this year with "Music For Installations". The deluxe vinyl box cost more than $200, came with a glass-covered book, and included 9(!) LPs, but despite the heft and length of the compilation, I found it somewhat inconsequential (unfortunately, like much of his recent work). It is/was still nice to listen to on Spotify.

But for ambient / electronic stuff, I found myself returning frequently to a new album by Tangerine Dream: "Quantum Dream". Edgar Froese, the founder, died back in 2015. But like the Ship of Theseus (or perhaps KISS), he had been steadily replacing members over the years. The current line-up of Tangerine Dream includes notable modern synthsters Thorsten Quaeschning and Ulrich Schnauss with violin player Hoshiko Yamane.

They may not have any "original" members, but they built this new album on ideas Froese had left behind, and it plays like a historical survey of synthesis and the so-called "Berlin School". Classic analog textures and motifs mix with digital tones, producing a modern space music that references the past while sounding contemporary. I found it enjoyable while working, running, or gaming.

Here's the new line-up doing "Identity Proven Matrix" live in the studio:


Good for fans of synth music and the "Stranger Things" soundtrack.

I look forward to hearing what 2019 has in store.

Thursday, December 06, 2018

Pete Shelley (1955 - 2018)

2018 continues to be a challenging year: Pete Shelley is dead.

Pete Shelley (known offstage by his real name of Peter McNeish) is best known for co-founding and leading Buzzcocks, a landmark and long-lived punk band. Buzzcocks' influence can be felt and heard in nearly every "punk" band that you've heard on the radio, particularly Green Day and their descendants (and The Descendants).

Shelley wrote many of the band's songs, and his sense of melody and ability to write hooks enabled the band to burn furiously and brightly for several years, releasing 3 astounding albums between 1978 and 1979: "Another Music From A Different Kitchen", "Love Bites", and "A Different Kind Of Tension". During that time they also recorded a pile of incredible singles, later compiled on "Singles Going Steady".

My friend John Hong turned me on to Buzzcocks in high school, and in college I went through a period of several months where they were all I listened to. I studied the songs and marveled at their perfect, simple construction.

Not long after that, I had the opportunity to interview Pete Shelley for my college radio station. I am somewhat embarrassed to note that I went full Chris Farley on him, and was barely able to stammer out questions not much better than "Remember when you wrote 'Nostalgia'?...THAT WAS AWESOME!" Fortunately, Pete was a good sport and handled his 10 minutes like a true professional.

Buzzcocks' songs showed a tremendous degree of versatility, and managed to make heartbreak and depression catchy and endearing. If you have to pick one song to sum up his brilliance, it is the instant classic "Ever Fallen In Love":




A close second would be "Why Can't I Touch It", which is barely punk (as currently thought of), and has the same wistfulness and longing. Another instant classic:



Pete Shelley's musical range is much broader than even Buzzcocks' broad punk. Shelley started out making vageuly kraut-rock-ish electronic music, and had some solo success with proto-synth pop, most notably the gay club anthem Homosapien:



"Telephone Operator" is almost industrial:




Thank you for the music, Pete.

[Buzzcocks and Pete Shelley's music can be found on most digital services]

Monday, November 19, 2018

Are We Doomed? Part 3: What We Must Do

A number of you commented on my previous posts in this series. Almost without exception, you said "you're not wrong, but this is really depressing."

Yes, it is depressing. That does not mean we are allowed to give up. In my conversations with all of you it has become clear to me that we are morally obligated to try, whether or not we think we can succeed. We must do something.

The current California wildfires are reminders of the unpredictable effects of climate change, and simultaneously a glimpse of an atmospherically compromised future. This is the road we are currently racing down, and it is up to us to change course.

"If you're not part of the solution, there is no solution" -- Jaron Lanier


We Must Change Culture

Our top priority is to change the global culture. This will enable governments to pass laws and implement programs required to slow the rate of climate change and mitigate its effects. It will also enable us to change the government, if and when it is required.

We must change culture so that everyone is thinking about carbon reduction and environmental conservation. We need to get people thinking about modifying their lifestyles to abandon gasoline, look for solutions to carbon problems, to contribute to solving problems, minimizing behaviors, technologies, and industries that create the problems, and take active steps to pass laws reinforcing the above.

It doesn't have to be 100%, everything all the time. It is sufficient to get people thinking about these issues the way they think about their weight, health, social media, or celebrities.

It will not be easy, but we can do this. It is possible to shift global culture and laws with concerted effort over time. As an example, in our lifetimes these same kinds of efforts have resulted in dramatic shifts in LGBTQ rights and acceptance. That progress may feel somewhat fragile at the current moment, but it is undeniable and significant. Culture and governments have shifted. It can be done.

There are other examples of rapid societal change you can think of: Smoking has drastically declined and is socially unacceptable in many places. Smartphones are barely 11 years old, and they have become ubiquitous and modified definitions of acceptable behavior. Seat belts. The switch from leaded to unleaded gasoline.

The same tools that have been used to cause problems or distract us -- social media, mob mindsets, technology, fads and fashions -- can be applied to this problem.

We do not have to get to 100% and perfect. Every little bit will help make the future less terrible and more bearable. We must keep our eyes on the most ambitious goals, but every positive change we can make, every half-degree of improvement will mean real benefits.


Change The Government

This is a part of changing the culture, and vice versa. The scale of the environmental problem requires long-term strategy and effort, in much the same way the GOP has worked to stack the deck in their favor in the USA. This cause is far more righteous.

We need to get elected officials at all levels of governments in all nations who will start this process. We must change the government to be able to pass and enforce the laws required to change the behavior of people and corporations. This is one of the reasons we have governments in the first place. It is possible for these types of changes to have real impact. Look at things like the removal of tetra-ethyl lead from the fuel ecosystem, the banning of smoking in public places, or phasing out of chlorofluorocarbons.

Changing the government is essential because it is the only way to get all of the people on board. We will need carrots and sticks to make behavioral changes: penalizing those who refuse to comply, and smoothing the way for positive change with expenditures and incentives.

Push for Legislative Solutions

At a minimum, we need governments to do things like:

  • Ban carbon-emitting vehicles and subsidize a transition to zero-emission vehicles
  • Shut down carbon-emitting power plants and massively invest in renewable power
  • Start multiple Manhattan Projects and Moonshots for carbon extraction and capture
  • Fund and encourage research into methane extraction and capture
  • Look for other programs that can mitigate climate increase (such as requiring all roofs to be painted white, subsidizing relocation out of lost areas, and otherwise encouraging responsible behavior)
  • Do more research to figure out what else can be done
  • Make foreign aid available for (if not contingent on) assisting other countries in similar transitions
  • Raise taxes and/or incur debt to fund the above

This will require constant lobbying of one form or another. These are controversial and huge programs, to say the least. They won't even be considered at first. It will take multiple concerted efforts over the next decade.

Get Money Out of Politics

For the USA, Citizens United has to be overturned, or laws passed which nullify it. Money corrupts, and we divert far too many of our resources into political races, which provide no real tangible benefits. It's like setting the money on fire, and the problem has become worse in recent years.

If money is speech (the argument which "won" Citizens United), it means that we do not all have equal speech, and corporations, plutocrats, and unaccountable SuperPACs have more speech than you or I. That's un-American and must stop.

We are wasting resources (time, money, and energy) to build bigger and bigger ads. All this investment hasn't produced better government. Arguably it has had the opposite effect, and forced politics and its coverage to become a horrific hybrid of entertainment and sports.

At least in the USA, this will be a difficult thing to accomplish. Many other countries are way ahead of us. This is one component required to get our elected representatives to stop focusing on raising millions of dollars and instead focus on saving millions of people.

Give Money to Candidates and Causes

As noted, we desperately need to get money out of politics (among other things, it means everyone's ability to speak isn't equal). But until we win and are able to enact those changes, money matters. Put your money where your mouth is and support candidates and causes, whether they are in your region or just swing districts.

The Koch brothers are doing it, and it has worked out great for them. What are you doing?

Unsurprisingly, it is extremely easy to make donations for political campaigns and causes. It is effortless and can have real impact.

The competition is rough here -- there are a lot of wealthy Republicans anxious to stay wealthy at any cost. They have more money (and thus more time, and more of everything) to reinforce the status quo. They will continue to try to outspend us. Regardless, we can make a difference.

Run for Office

Seriously. If you're reading this, you're smart and educated. We might joke those things are disadvantages, but this is part of the culture we must change. Who better than you? And absent people like you running, well, you see who we get.

You understand what the stakes are, and you are already less concerned about a long, celebrated career as a politician than getting important things done, which already means you are more qualified than many of the people who run.

Consider it. Do it.


I Need Your Help

I have never been a superlative member of our cohort. I am smart, but not the smartest. I am disciplined, but not the most disciplined. I am creative, but not the most creative. I have accomplished things, but I am far from the most accomplished. That is where you come in.

If you are reading this, you are already in a position to do something. You are intelligent, connected, and of some means. Spend some time thinking about how you can help save the world by changing the culture.

I have already reached out to some of you directly and will be doing more over the coming weeks. You all have unique expertise and skills, and we need a multi-disciplinary approach. This is not a question of one solution or approach. Our survival depends on relentless implementation of multiple solutions, large and small. There is no one right answer. Rather, it is all of us coming up with and implementing small pieces.


See What You Can Do In Your Organizations

Does your university have a Manhattan Project or research team devoted to some of the major problems, such as carbon extraction and capture, geoengineering, economics, or social change? Why not? Ask them. Whether you are on faculty or an alumnus, make it clear to the people you talk to how important this is. Schools do not have to devote all of their resources to this, but they must be devoting some of them. There is no point in educating people if there is no future.

Similarly, it is almost certainly today's high school and college students who will both bear the brunt of the effects and who can have the most impact in terms of developing solutions, working on breakthrough technologies. If you are one of those young people, it is up to you. You will have to live in the world through times of great change. If you are a parent or friend of these young people, talk with them. Encourage them to think of themselves as a critical and active part of the solution, rather than a passive part of the problem.

They don't all have to become scientists or engineers working on climate technology. But we need many more young people focused on how their work, whatever it is, helps to solve this problem.

How about your company? Many of you reading this are working for titans like Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, and Tencent. These companies have all-but-infinite amounts of money and have all embarked on non-core-business projects. Talk to people internally and see if it is possible to get something going, or if something is already going. It almost does not matter what problem you are taking on, but take on something. Delivery. Conservation. Electric vehicles. The power grid. Education. Anything.

Environmental catastrophe is bad for shareholder value, and many of these solutions can be good business.

Talk to your community. Whatever social groups you are in, religious or otherwise, talk to people. Get the word out. Talk to your friends and family. Not just once. This needs to become a part of our regular conversations with everyone.

It is easy to want to look away. We can no longer afford the luxury of doing that 24/7. We have to get everyone thinking about these things.


Individual Actions

Individual actions and sacrifices are not enough to save the planet. We need culture and government to compel everyone to get on board. But individual actions have other benefits: They help spread the cultural message, turning each of us into messengers and influencers. They will also serve as reminders and help you feel like you are doing something.

Here are some examples of things you can do, or at least talk about. Many of them will be controversial, and I doubt any of us will be able to or want to do them all. I am sure you can come up with better ones.

Move.
Move someplace where your vote matters, or where you can effect change in the mindset of those around you. Don't preach to the choir. We need to change minds.

Take a look at projections of sea-level rise. Are you going to be OK? Do you want to live in areas that are disrupted over a few years? (Probably not...) Beyond that, there's desertification and other impacts of climate change.

Try to live in places that are walkable, or easily accommodated by the current range of electric vehicles. Avoid going off the grid unless you are committed to being totally self-sufficient...and then be prepared for anything that can happen.

Move as soon as you can, if you must. It will only get harder. The real estate market for your place may not be great, but it will be worse when it's sitting in a foot of water.

Have as few children as possible.
Preferably zero, but one is OK. Aside from general overpopulation, the modern Western lifestyle contributes extensively to our problems. Plus, consider what type of world these children will inherit. Pets are better than children in terms of environmental impact, but only just.

Drive your car as little as possible. When you need a new car, buy an electric vehicle.
Personal vehicle emissions are a major contributor to carbon emissions, and due to the distributed nature of the problem, it is hard to solve. The best thing you can do is just not drive, especially if your car has low fuel efficiency and high emissions.

If you know you need a new vehicle, go electric. If you don't absolutely need a new car right now, the benefits of buying a brand-new electric vehicle are somewhat muted -- 12%-15% of a car's total environmental impact comes from its production. The longer you wait, the better these vehicles will get, in every sense. Consider used EVs as well.

I recognize that our whole society in most of the USA is built around personal automobiles, and that simply stopping driving is not feasible for many of us (myself included) in the near term. That is OK. Do your own audit and think about what you can do. Can you work from home one day a week? Carpool? Have things delivered instead of driving to pick them up? (It's far easier for stores and companies to buy a fleet of electric vans and service many people).

Be mindful of air travel.
Like curtailing personal travel, I recognize this is difficult for all of us. There are not many good alternatives to air travel, and whether it is business or visiting relatives, sometimes you simply must do it.

But keep in mind that air travel is quite damaging to the atmosphere, as the emissions occur at high altitude. Consider alternatives, and consider purchasing offsets (even though they are not directly or actually solving any problems). Yes, it will make your trip more expensive. It should.

Eat less meat.
Particularly beef. But in general, eat less meat. It requires more fuel to make. Even consciously dropping meat one day a week will have positive impact.

Consume and use less of everything, particularly brand-new stuff.
Making stuff is part of the problem, and relentlessly needing new stuff has incredible impact, between manufacturing, packaging, shipping, and distribution.


Get off social media...

...or at least use it sparingly and carefully. You can read Jaron Lanier's book for a bunch of arguments (the book is OK but the arguments are compelling), but you already know the problems: It's full of hate and lies, and those base emotions are monetized by companies that have every incentive to keep it awful. It is designed to (and will successfully) manipulate you.

Social media played a critical role in electing Donald Trump, and continues to provide fodder for the worst elements of our current society. Social media contributed to the horrible violence of recent weeks.

More importantly, social media is fake, but it makes you feel like you did something. When you change your picture frame or re-post an article or type an angry response to someone else's angry comment, the energy you could have applied to real change in the real world dissipates.

Social media can have real effect on culture, but that effect comes from big movements of information driven by corporations and governments. It's 21st-century television, in the worst way. 

We will figure out a way to harness it eventually, but for now, just stop. Don't engage with the trolls. Don't use it to get your news. Cull your friends list ruthlessly. Stop reading anything except what your friends post. Don't engage with the horrible "friends" of your friends. Limit your exposure.


Do something

Stop whining. Stop complaining. You are right, it is not fair. But that's life. The other team doesn't care how you feel. In fact, if anything, they want you to whine and complain rather than doing anything meaningful.

There is nobody else. We cannot wait for some deus ex machina to appear and suck all the carbon out of the atmosphere. It is up to us. I am not saying we all have to go live in the woods somewhere. But one way or another, life is going to look very different in 10 and 20 years. Are you OK with sitting back and letting the worst things happen? Or will you try to do something?

Think it over. Talk to me. Talk to each other. We have just enough time. The clock is ticking.

Friday, November 02, 2018

Charles Bobuck / Hardy Fox (1945 - 2018)

Charles Bobuck, a.k.a. Hardy Fox died recently.

He was a co-founder of The Residents and their primary composer for most of their existence. Amazon Prime is currently offering streaming of the documentary "The Theory of Obscurity", about The Residents. While The Residents intentionally keep nearly every aspect of their creative process secret, including who does what, Hardy Fox was clearly a significant contributor to every aspect of The Residents. He will be missed.


The Residents were deeply influential on my ideas about creativity, art, and music. Another in a series of "if they can do it, maybe I can, too" people. The Residents made music that was strange, outsider-y, and completely unique. They said "do what you want, how you want, do it now, and make it work. Audience is irrelevant. What matters is being interesting and following your Muse."

They could make things that were spectacularly ugly and things that were surprisingly beautiful. Their albums were charged with ideas and concepts, always driven by overarching themes and ambition, without regard for whether or not the results would be "catchy" or "cool", which of course makes them instantly cool and interesting.

The Residents also quickly realized that you needed some kind of business sense in order to keep making the art they wanted the way they wanted, and they managed to do it, arguably creating the template for nearly every subsequent indie label and act.

The Residents were making music videos before there were music videos. They made their own records, their own label. They made fascinating CD-ROMs, back when that was going to be a thing. They were always pushing the boundaries of musical art.

My brother and I "discovered" The Residents together in the 80s as part of our musical self-education and interests in the unusual. We picked up every album we could, and managed to catch them on the "Cube-E" tour. I marveled at how unique every one of their records was, and how rapidly they changed and evolved.

I used to play "Third Reich N' Roll" when I needed to drive my college roommate out. It never failed. I still think The Residents' version of "Satisfaction" is better than Devo's.

Even now, I am not sure I can say I love their music -- much of it is still "wrong", and jarring, and just shy of pretty. But that only makes me respect them more. I have no doubt after all this time, they could absolutely make whatever kind of music they want. The longer you work, the harder it is to stay unique and different.

They don't make them like Hardy Fox anymore. Thank you for the music, sir.

For those who haven't heard them before, here's a small selection:

"Perfect Love" from The Commercial Album. Arguably The Residents' best overall work, "The Commercial Album" was a layered and beautiful response to criticism of their work as "uncommercial". They made 40 1-minute long songs -- the length of a commercial. On the CD release, they told people that since pop songs were 3 minutes and usually consisted of the same stuff repeated, you could just repeat these songs 3 times each. And that the disc was great in "shuffle" play.

The Residents also made fantastic little movies for several of these songs.



"Hello Skinny" from Duck Stab. Perhaps the definitive "Residents" track from their best collection of songs, this creepy song was coupled to an even creepier video.



"It's A Man's Man's Man's World" is from an abbreviated series of releases The Residents did pairing American composers -- this was "James & George" -- James Brown and George Gershwin. A fine example of The Residents taking someone else's familiar music and rendering it strange and almost unrecognizable.

Monday, October 22, 2018

We are doomed. Part 2: The internet.

At the start of the 20th century, humanity experienced remarkable technological change, at a speed and scale that is difficult for our contemporary minds to comprehend. Science and new inventions redefined what was possible. Within a few years, we had electric light, the telephone, radio, and flight.

For a brief moment, it looked like this technology would usher in a utopia. Then World War I happened, and every single new technology was turned into a horrific weapon of war.

The internet and social media are no different. For a brief moment, it looked like this technology would usher in a utopia. Information would be free. Artists would finally flourish, with the ability to distribute their art, instantly, worldwide. All the world's knowledge would be available to everyone equally. Rapid dissemination of truth would hold governments accountable, and topple unjust regimes. Greater understanding would bring peace and prosperity.

You know how it all turned out. Social media has become a weapon of war and a tool of oppression. Truth loses out to rapid dissemination of disinformation. Knowledge drowns in a sea of trivia. 

Removing the middlemen and gatekeepers allowed anyone with a voice to reach millions. We didn't get brilliant new artists or any insights that traditional media wouldn't support. We got Logan Paul and Lil Tay and Alex Jones, and new channels for the existing media companies to dominate or push the same old stuff they'd been pushing.

Truth shatters into a million mirror-bright shards, and we grab the one that reflects the world we already wanted to see.

We Are Stupid

Humans have frequently developed technologies which exceed our ability to wield them safely and responsibly, and seldom manage to keep them under control, no matter the cost. Everybody knows smoking is terrible for you, and yet people still do it. And then we find new ways to smoke. We make cars that require a high degree of skill to operate, and then people operate them while texting and distracted or drunk or just plain badly, and shrug as the exhaust poisons our skies and people die in crashes. We create foods that have nearly no nutritive value, but are such potent combinations of things we find irresistible that we all become fat and unhealthy.

Social media is no different. By intentional design or simply market forces, we have built systems that exploit humanity's cognitive biases. We increasingly gravitate towards those who agree with everything we espouse and shun those who do not. We forward articles after glancing only at the clickbait headline, pleased that it confirms what we already believe. We do not read critically. We do not check the sources.

Some of us think we're smarter, and cynically or darkly say "well, it has always been this way" or "the media is just a business, you know" or "I don't trust anybody".

Maybe you are one of the really smart people. You have your social media settings dialed in to keep things relatively private. You do the work of pruning and maintaining your friend list. You try to read things critically and carefully. You don't forward garbage. But you still occasionally comment on other people's articles, and find yourself drawn into unwinnable internet arguments.

You have also already handed over your information to companies that have proven to be terrible stewards of that information. Even if you haven't given them everything, they will either create a shadow profile, or their entire business is built on building unauthorized profiles of you that you cannot even see.

Maybe you aren't the problem, but your family and your terrible "friends", with their beyond-ignorant comments, their re-posting of the fake Ray-Ban discount, and their poor grasp of language and logic, most certainly are. They're in your network.

And there are far more of them than there are of you.

We are just too stupid to handle social media. Social media is the Doritos of the mind, and we are all crunching our way through a bottomless bag, unable and unwilling to stop. And just like excessive consumption of junk food leads to physical problems, consumption of mental junk food leads to mental problems.

That junk food has replaced the daily newspaper and evening news for most people, and has become the front end and frame for news for everyone else. Social media and its pandering has infected the news, forcing even institutions like the New York Times to resort to click-bait headlines, gimmicks, and "engaging with their audience". Maybe that's good. No, I just read some of the comments. It's not.

The Technological Assault On Truth

Aggressive use of social media to spread things that are obviously untrue is bad. But figuring out what is untrue is about to get far more difficult.

In 1985, I read a great article in Whole Earth Review about a new program called "Photoshop", and how it was "The End of Photography as Evidence of Anything. This was well before digital cameras rose to prominence. So far, we believe most official attempts at faking photographic evidence have been clumsy and easily detectable. That may be due to the fact that undetected fakes raise no alarm.

Even when we know what we are looking at is doctored (every magazine cover and many images within), we still almost instinctively accept it as true, no matter the harm. And again, even if we know this technology ultimately makes us feel bad, we do it to ourselves. Manipulated imagery becomes the norm.

And that is before further technological amplification and complication. Artificial intelligence is now being applied to create not just convincing photographic images, but astounding video footage. It looks real, but it isn't. Deep Blue begets Deep Fakes.

We have already observed how quickly blatant untruth races through our social media. I am sure deep-faked video will be far worse. At least for the moment, careful observation of the video and comparing against facts reported by reliable media can quickly extinguish faked video. But within a few years, techniques will have improved (driven by Star Wars and Marvel movies, no doubt) and the increasingly overwhelmed (and discredited and ignored) media won't be able to keep up with the volume of garbage "truth" flooding into our screens.

You Are The Botnet

Once computers were networked, hackers created viruses that could subvert the machines. First, they copied information, or held it for ransom. Then they began using the machines as part of concentrated attacks on other targets. In other words, without your knowledge or consent, your computer was turned into someone else's weapon.

Social media is doing the same thing to your social presence, and your mind. You are being used as someone else's weapon. This is not just for disinformation, it is for influencing elections and even the course of actual armed conflicts. Social media posts and data move Overton windows (or their equivalents) and help regimes decide what is and isn't acceptable, or what to target next.

Agents and actors post, and then legions of bots amplify that message, causing it to go viral and appear in everybody's feeds, which the news dutifully reports ("Some people on Twitter are saying..."), further legitimizing and amplifying the propaganda. The gullible are gulled, the rest of us are impacted.

Beyond the actual computer network, constant exposure to The Big Lies erodes people's sense of truth. Bias and doubt slip in. You cannot help it if you are surrounded by the noise. Like radiation, that misinformation is getting into you, whether you like it or not.

Even if you have hardened your computers, social profiles, and minds to a point where you believe you are not easily manipulated, remember there are over 3.2 billion people on the internet -- half the world's population. It only takes one person to infect every computer on your network, and only one of your "friends" to amplify garbage posts through your network.

Your actions do not matter. The idiots rule, or at least enable the Koch brothers, ISIS, and Putin to rule.

China Is The Future

Just as China's repressive autocracy suggests how governments will likely respond to catastrophic climate change, China's Orwellian Social Credit System points the way to our societal future. Individuals and businesses will be coerced and controlled in ways that were previously unbelievable.

The system uses 200 million surveillance cameras connected to facial recognition systems to identify people, and then matches that against financial, medical, legal, and other records. It looks at what you do, and it scores you. Take public transit? Maybe you get 5 points. Good boy. Play video games for too long? Buy the wrong products? Lose 5 points, you slacker. 

High scores might get you nice perks, like free recharges of your mobile phone at a coffee shop or low-interest loans or a great new job. Low scores might get you fined, have your internet speed slowed down, prevent you from getting a job, restrict your ability to travel, have the police come by, or even have you imprisoned or dragged off for "re-education", if not being forced to issue a public apology.

In true grade-school-classroom fashion, the system doesn't just score you, it scores your friends and family. So if you do something really bad, like post something negative about the government, it doesn't just decrease your score, it decreases the scores of the people in your network. So they will all pressure you to get with the program.

Before you dismiss this as science fiction or speculation, you should know China started implementing this in 2015, and expects to have their entire population of 1.4 billion people registered by 2020. That's in less than 2 years.

The Chinese government says the goal is algorithmic governance, which will "allow the trustworthy to roam freely under heaven while making it hard for the discredited to take a single step."

The United States already has secret scores driven by mysterious criteria that exercise massive control over our lives: credit scores. These scores were developed by three private companies who build your profile without your consent and (until laws were reluctantly passed) would charge you to tell you where you stood. These scores determine what kinds of loans you can get, and thus what kind of house or car you can buy. Some landlords use them to determine whether they will rent to you. Some employers use them to determine whether or not you are trustworthy enough to hire.  We are already used to it.

Not that long ago, if you had asked most people to post who their friends were, what they liked, where they were going, and their political opinions in a public square, they would have looked at you like you were insane, or said "that's private", or wondered which government agency you were working for. They would have thought something was off about you.

Today, it is those who do not participate in social media that seem off. We treat those who don't participate with the same mix of pity and reverence we afford those who say "I don't drink".

China has gamified compliance and oppression. Given how rapidly and completely humans have fallen for both social media and the gamification of everything else, I suspect it will be incredibly effective.

We Are Doomed

We have already allowed social media to ensnare us all, and it has allowed us to polarize our society in frightening ways. Is it social media's fault, or ours?

For the moment, you have a choice to not participate. You can follow the recommendations of Jaron "don't get rich off technology like I did" Lanier, and delete your social media accounts.

But sooner or later, you will have no practical choice and will be required to be part of the system. It might be like China, where the government forces you in, or it might be a more capitalist system where your social media profile (or lack of same) makes it difficult to get a job (because your prospective employer can't stalk you) or cross borders (because Homeland Security cannot check up on you), or get a loan or find a place to live.

And then the very systems that promised to allow us to express our truest selves openly and freely will be used to force us all to smile, think corporate, and be mutual, lest the hammer of Big Brother fall on us. 

We already punish thoughts expressed on social media that deviate from our tribal party lines, whatever they are. You can (and will) lose your job for something you post outside of (and unrelated to) work. We don't need the government to start, we have done it to ourselves.

As we are destroying our physical environment, we are also destroying our intellectual environment. We have taken the most potent tools for truth and knowledge and turned them into weapons of deception and ignorance. We cannot help ourselves.

Should we somehow manage to avoid impending ecological catastrophe, I remain doubtful we will avoid the information catastrophe.


Monday, October 15, 2018

We are doomed. Part 1: The world outside.

The recent United Nations report on global warming is clear and unequivocal: Carbon emissions caused by human activity are warming the planet, and -- unless dramatic, unprecedented measures are taken within the next two decades -- that warming will cause catastrophic damage to the environment and our civilization. Hundreds of millions of people will face extreme heat, drought, floods, famine, and poverty.

The report is notable for several reasons. For one, the timeline is much shorter than previously thought. Previous research indicated the world was facing serious trouble due to carbon emissions, but that the effects would not kick in for 50 - 100 years. Instead, the recent report finds this will  begin to happen within our lifetimes.

The report also challenged existing climate research by concluding that a much lower degree of warming -- 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit -- would be sufficient to cause damage. This is a lower threshold than previously estimated.

The research is sound, and the conclusions sobering. We have much less time than we thought, and much less margin for error.

I do not believe we will make it.

To date, nearly everything climate researchers have predicted is happening. As individuals, as a nation, as a species, we have demonstrated an inability and unwillingness to change a thing. Instead, we run faster towards the cliff's edge.

For much of human history, the failure to mitigate carbon emissions lay in ignorance. We did not know it was going to be a problem. By the time of the ecology movement of the 1970s and research into the 1980s, smart people began to suspect and figure out what was happening. That was over 30 years ago. This depressing but complete article from the New York Times Magazine covers it well.

We also did not comprehend how much sustained and rapid population growth would compound these climate issues, especially as less-developed nations like China took large and quick steps to modernize.

Now, even in the face of all-but-incontrovertible facts and research, we face self-made obstacles, to say nothing of the megatons of carbon already in the atmosphere.

Our society has tremendous inertia. The rapid changes required to avert catastrophe would be a tough sell under the best of circumstances. Given current realities, I believe it is all but impossible.

The Grid and The System

Massive investment in changing over the power grid is required. Coal has to virtually vanish, replaced by solar, wind, nuclear, and other non-emitting sources. Building new power plants is a glacially slow and excruciatingly expensive process, frequently beset by environmental concerns (think of the owls! think of the waste!) which now seem trivial against the stakes of the problem, NIMBYism, and a general disagreement over what kind of power should go where. Here in the USA, we have been able to coast for nearly 100 years on the massive infrastructure work implemented by the TVA and other huge government projects that wired our nation in the 1920s. It is inconceivable in our current moment that we would have the will to do something similar.

The entirety of the gasoline-powered transportation world must change. People need to drive their gasoline cars, trucks, planes, and boats much, much less. Everyone needs to shift to electric vehicles as quickly as possible, and those vehicles need to get their electricity from non-emitting sources.

We have to get nearly every existing car and truck off the roads within 20 years. We need to change how people think about jets and boats and lawnmowers and chainsaws and dirtbikes and portable generators.

It will be expensive -- the governments will need to subsidize this change, through some combination of vehicle buy-backs, incentives on new cars, and penalties for continuing to drive emitting vehicles. There will need to be credits and incentives to shut down gas stations.

Every single living person will need to change their habits. This may be less of a hit for urbanites in high-density areas with lots of public transportation, but there will still be changes for them, regardless. It will mean a dramatic, profound shift for suburbanites and rural folks, who rely on personal gas-powered vehicles for everything.

Petroleum infrastructure is fundamentally built into and drives our modern society. Gas stations. Gas trucks. Storage. Refineries. Drilling sites. Pipelines. All of that has to be shut down, and replaced by clean power infrastructure.

Even people's diets must change. Production and consumption of meat, particularly beef, has substantial environmental impact. In America, we can't get people to change what they eat, even as it bloats and kills them. Americans aren't going to stop eating cheeseburgers, even if "their" president tells them to.

Perhaps more dramatically, people should stop having so many children, as the absolute population load is a huge contributor and multiplier of existing bad effects, and the Western lifestyle contributes more than anything else.

At a high level, I have long thought that part of the climate change problem was that small, short-term individual actions -- driving to work today, eating a burger for lunch, accepting the power that comes out of your wall without question -- collectively add up to a large, long-term problem. It is extremely difficult to get people to change their behavior under those conditions.

The People and The Governments

Government is not going to save us. Government is us, and we are the problem. Humans are not good at comprehending large numbers, or the idea that the drop they individually contribute becomes to an ocean of trouble. People in the USA do not even believe their vote matters. How can you possibly convince them to take on further inconvenience?

All of that assumes there is political will and force to make these changes happen. Instead, at the present moment, the United States government is some combination of captive to oil-and-gas industry donors like the Koch brothers, short-sightedly stuffing their pockets with money (as though that will hold back the sea) and too afraid or too stupid to understand and accept the truth of the problem. Our representatives don't believe climate change is a real problem, or won't let themselves believe it is a real problem, or are paid by special interests to deny it is a real problem

The United States is one of the top two contributors to greenhouse gases, and has been for decades. And yet we will do nothing to solve this problem, nothing to help. Indeed, we will continue to argue the science is fraudulent or bad, that it isn't real, or that everyone else must go first, or that some yet-to-be-invented magic technology will fix everything, even as apocalyptic storms shred the country and Florida sinks under the sea.

But for a moment, imagine the USA did the right thing. Do we really believe the rest of the world will follow? That China and Russia will sign on, follow the USA, and enact similarly radical changes in their countries?

One might have imagined the EU capable of something like this, but infected with nationalism, it only takes one right-wing ideologue to tell the idiots what they want to hear and prevent it from happening. Success for that destructive model in one nation just makes it difficult for every other nation -- Why should Spain sacrifice when Britain is not doing a thing? Then you must face the Third World and explain to them why they can't have cars and jets and gasoline.

We Are Doomed

There is little to be done. Your individual actions contributed to this problem, but now even the most radical change on your part will do little to halt it, given how easy it is for the rest of the country (if not the world) to undo whatever benefit you are providing.

There are 7.4 billion people in the world.  Your actions do not matter.

Some will argue this post and others like it are a way to continue to do nothing, to justify refusing to change lifestyles. Perhaps. 30 years ago, everyone assumed we would fix the problem later. Now, as the clock runs out, we blame the past for everything -- for making the systems we are trapped in, for not doing anything, for not making gentle turns when they could still be made.

We could have done something, and we chose not to.

We could still do something. We will choose not to.

The most likely scenario is everything the report describes: extreme heat, drought, flooding, famine, and increased poverty, accompanied by nearly endless war (over land, water, food, and resources) as the global economy shrinks in reaction to ecological disaster and mass migration. It will hit the poor hardest, but it will hit all of us.

Every country will go some flavor of authoritarian, China-style, as it is the only way to force the population to do what is required to survive. We will all lose our "freedom" in exchange for "survival". The global order will fray as every nation locks its doors in a futile effort to protect itself, as though tariffs, walls, and guns could stop the carbon-laden air from drifting across their borders.

Recent events have reminded me that nothing lasts forever. Everything dies, including societies. Humanity will likely survive in some form, but it is difficult for me to envision what the other side of this inflection point looks like.

I am afraid I will live long enough to find out.