Monday, January 31, 2022

Jon Appleton (1939 - 2022)

The world is a little quieter today. Jon Appleton has died. He had just celebrated his 83rd birthday on January 4.

I met Jon, or "Professor Appleton", as I knew him, when I was a student at Dartmouth College. Jon taught music, and in particular, "electro-acoustic music", which was exactly the kind of weird, technology-enhanced noise I wanted to learn more about.

Jon was patient with me, at a time when I had more ambition than skill, and more interest in making rock music or what he called "disco shit" rather than serious art music.

My first class with him was a large survey class -- Music 3. It was my favorite class that year by far. I would go on to take any and every class I could with him, including an independent study course for which I received a special commendation.

Jon thought I had potential and talent, and his statements to that effect were the kind of encouragement and validation I was starved for. I was eventually invited to be the first undergraduate to be allowed to take classes at the graduate level, as part of his brand new electro-acoustic music graduate program.

His impact on my musical education is hard to overstate. He helped expand my compositional horizons, my ear for textures, and my sense of what was allowed. He encouraged me to try new things, to experiment, to play, and to be rigorous.

One of my favorite classes found him throwing out the syllabus a few weeks in, saying "I don't think this is working, what do you all want to study?" We ended up learning about songwriting, melody and other forms of pop composition. I can still hear him singing and playing "Why Don't We Do It In The Road?" by The Beatles and analyzing how the song was put together. 

Many of Jon's other students went on to become composers and professors of music themselves, including Paul Botelho, Ted Coffey, and Michael Casey (who now heads up the Dartmouth Digital Musics program!). I would also work with another friend and former student of Jon's, Tim Schaaf, at PlayStation.

Jon was a unique individual. He had strong opinions about everything -- music, people, the world -- and he was not shy about voicing them. He stood up for what he believed in. He was also kind, warm, and had a quirky and unusual sense of humor.

Jon was extremely intelligent and creative. In addition to English, he spoke French, German, Japanese, Russian, Spanish, Swedish, and Tongan. He made weird videos that would have made him a TikTok or YouTube sensation, had those things been available back when he was creating them.

Jon was also an emotional and passionate person, married multiple times. He felt things deeply and strongly, to the point that he abandoned at least one composition I knew him to be working on because it was turning out to be too sad.

Jon mostly worked in what was called "electro-acoustic music", a serious music genre focused on timbre and construction. Jon's earliest pieces were musique concréte, when tape machines and oscillators were the only way to compose, and then adopted the then-new analog subtractive synthesizer and early computer tools for music composition. 

Dissatisfied with their limitations, he helped create the Synclavier -- the world's first digital synthesizer, and helped make sure it would be able to go beyond "disco shit" and do micro- and macrotunings, sample, record, and edit, sequence at high resolution, and have multiple synthesis methods. 

These are all things we take for granted today, but they were unheard of on any instrument in the late 70s and early 80s when he and the rest of what became New England Digital began to work on it. It is a sign of progress that this device, which cost $500,000 in 80s dollars can now be purchased in an emulated version for your computer or phone for a few bucks.

And it was used for some pop music, by Michael Jackson (the intro to "Beat It" and a bunch of Thriller), Sting (Nothing Like The Sun and other albums), Trevor Horn, Laurie Anderson, Duran Duran, and countless other artists you and I love. Frank Zappa was a big Synclavier fan and perhaps the best example of an artist bridging popular and serious with it.

Appleton himself was fast and creative on the Synclavier, and used it to compose a number of beautiful and interesting pieces. In his later years, Jon returned to writing traditional tonal music for piano, choir, and strings. 

Jon was an inspiration to me and countless others. I created and taught my own 20th century music class inspired by what I learned from him and how it changed me. I continue to teach songwriting and compose in no small measure because of him. I use the things he taught me every day.

I am grateful to have been his student, and later, his friend. I saw him all too briefly back at Dartmouth to celebrate his retirement back in 2009, and a few times here in San Francisco as he was passing through. 

Thank you for the music and the wisdom, Jon.


You can find some of Jon's work on various streaming services, music stores, and YouTube.

Here is one of Jon Appleton's pieces for Synclavier:

A short documentary about Jon from 2011:

This interview with him from 2020 highlights his sense of humor and his personality:

Friday, December 31, 2021

2021 In Review

2021 felt like a sequel to 2020's slow-motion apocalypse: it recapitulated the main events of last year to diminishing effect and a tired familiarity. This was a larger reflection of many of our individual days, which seem to be copies of previous ones.

There were notable exceptions. One day I received a text message from a dear friend who told me they were in the hospital and not likely to survive the night. I called. We talked briefly, and they told me they loved me, and said goodbye. Mercifully, they survived. But that was 2021 for some of us.

Another dear friend had a similar situation with their children. Again, mercifully, they all made it, and we were able to celebrate survival and life in person.

Some of my other friends with serious illnesses continued to thrive, a miracle in itself. Some of my friends got COVID. Being vaccinated, they all survived 2021.  

But not everyone did. Saddest of all was the loss of 3 friends to suicide in the last 6 months (and a 4th in 2020). One from high school, one from my LA and early SF days, and one from recent times. I spent a lot of time thinking about them, and the families and friends they left behind. I fear this is something we may have to get used to.

As for me, my days felt like variations on a theme. I woke around 7, and had some coffee while trying to read as little news as possible. That news was also consistent: Pandemic grinds on. People don't want to wear masks or get vaccinated. Trump's insurrection reverberates with little consequence. The GOP continues its campaign of undermining democracy in favor of oligarchy. The Democrats continue to focus on mostly the wrong issues with the wrong strategies. The climate continues to cause problems. All presented in a way algorithmically designed for maximum emotional agitation. Then you can read or leave comments and further increase agitation and engagement. 

At 8, my workday began, videoconferencing for at least half of most days. Emails and documents and staring out the window, trying to get myself to engage and care, even as it sometimes felt pointless and silly. 

I ran in the park, managing somewhere between 15 and 20 miles per week, with just a few weeks out for overuse injuries. These runs kept me sane. Flying through tree-lined paths, leaving stress and worry behind, listening to music. I would dream about them on my good sleep nights. 

Or I would work out at home, lifting some weights in the garage and doing body exercises indoors. I managed to stay in decent shape this year, and my overall health is good for a man of my age. I do miss the equipment at the gym, and I wonder when or if I will find a new facility.

Evenings were simple -- dinner, some TV, some computer, a book, bed. Then do it all again. All contained within our humble but comfortable home. I found myself wishing for at least one big, open, empty room in which I could exercise or meditate.

That desire for space meant I also continued to contemplate leaving San Francisco, and perhaps the Bay Area. If one can "work from anywhere", why live in the most expensive city in the world, with all of its problems?

Of course, the answer is "work from anywhere" isn't really happening or reliable, and I still have hope life will return to something approximating the pre-pandemic era where we can see friends and eat inside without fear of dying. 

I finished up a new record this year -- a goth rock project -- which should be released in a few weeks. I am excited about this album. It sounds great, and I think the songs are good. It has had a long gestation phase that I think has been worth it. Special thanks to Christy for her patience and creativity. 

On the other hand, it has been nearly 2 years since I played live with The Pants. Our rehearsal room sits dark, with the rent about to significantly increase. For now, we will keep it going. I miss playing music with other people.

Song Club filled that gap a few times over the summer, either over Zoom or with a few in-person sessions during that brief moment when we thought the pandemic might be ending. I am particularly grateful to my songwriting friends, who inspired me with their creativity and helped me learn more about music in general. 

I also spent a lot of time checking in with friends both new and old. Even on days where my videoconference fatigue was high, even a brief talk with these people left me feeling energized and at peace. I do not know if these chats, calls, and emails were helpful for any of you, but they absolutely were for me. I even managed a few in-person lunches in outdoor environments.

I managed to see both my father and brother, who passed through SF with their families briefly. Special and memorable moments, over too soon. 

We managed a few much-needed upgrades for the house. The year began with a new furnace, which has kept us comfortable during the SF cold. We also managed to get a new refrigerator before our previous one failed. Given the supply chain issues, this was a significant accomplishment. We had our kitchen floor refinished, after a chemical spill damaged it. And had some (not all, unfortunately) gutters and drains repaired in time for the end-of-year big rains.

But through all of that, life has also been difficult. The ambient stress of the pandemic, environmental disruption, political chaos, and just getting by has been a lot to handle. 

Physically, I am still dealing with some after-effects of serious illness and some ongoing difficult-to-eradicate health issues. Sometimes even getting a good night's sleep has been difficult. I spent a decent amount of time in doctor offices this year. I managed to find a massage therapist and get a few sessions in before the pandemic clamped down.

I also made a lot of progress with my therapist. If the pandemic has one silver lining for all of us, it is that now, many therapists are set up for videoconferencing and are thus both more easily available and able to reach patients in far-away locations, which allows for some demand balancing. 

It has been extremely beneficial for me, if painful and difficult at times. If you are even considering it, I would encourage you to go ahead and find someone to talk with. 

2020 had some notable highlights -- We got all 3 of our vaccination shots, a medical miracle. My better half managed some travel before things got bad again. We have jobs that we can tolerate. There were a few beautiful hikes. Some sublime cups of coffee. Conversations with friends. 

But it has been difficult on every level. As the days drag on and repeat, there is also a slowly growing sense of pointlessness. I understand it, but it does not make it easy.

I am grateful for all of you. Perhaps 2022 will find me writing a bit more. I intend to invest a bit more time in creativity this coming year. See you then.

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Mike Hoffman (1985 - 2021)

My friend Mike Hoffman died a few days ago. He was 36 years old. 

I met Mike when I was working on PlayStation VR. His desk was right in front of my office. He was always there when I arrived, and always still there when I left. His long hours and good cheer made enough of an impression that I talked to his managers to acknowledge his efforts.

Mike genuinely loved his job, loved games, and loved his colleagues, particularly his pod of Nate, Josh, Annette, and Paul. They were a fantastic and funny group. Their banter often had me cracking up in my office, even contemplating writing a sitcom about them and their adventures. Perhaps something similar to Mike's beloved "Community".

I got to know Mike during my time at PlayStation. He was a kind man, and passionate about social justice issues. We frequently had lunch at the office cafeteria and talked about the world, life, and our respective creative pursuits. 

When he wasn't rhapsodizing about one of his favorite shows or movies, he would be entertaining us with terrible jokes, including his famous skateboard trick.

He was a good friend, and a rare combination of someone who is fun to be around, but who also wasn't afraid to engage on a deeper and more serious level. I wish I had more people like him in my life.

I met Mike for lunch in the city at the end of August, just about 6 weeks ago. He seemed in good spirits, and we had a wonderful catch-up, enjoying the blue San Francisco skies, a long and heartfelt conversation, and tasty food. We vowed to do it again soon. 

Mike, I am so upset it is not going to happen. I wish you could have reached out to any of the many, many people who love you, just for a moment.

Instead, we are now reaching out to each other, trying to help, listening, sharing memories. The sort of thing I think you would have done, had you been in our miserable, heartbroken shoes. 

As Anthony might say, "How dare you!"

I miss you.


Saturday, July 24, 2021

Brian Johnston (1969 - 2021)

My friend Brian Johnston died on Tuesday, July 20, 2021. He was 52 years old.

Brian Johnston, in a recent photo
Brian was an artist, making both music and visual works. He was also active in trying to reform and modernize his church, and started a site to help others struggling to reconcile their faith and their lives. While I am not religious at all, I deeply respect Brian's drive to make things better and provide support for others.

I met Brian at Langley High School when I was a junior. We bonded over music and synthesizers.

Brian had an Ensoniq Mirage, the first "affordable" digital sampler. I had a Casio CZ-101 and a drum machine. Together, we started a synth band project, called The Panther Moderns, the name stolen from William Gibson's "Neuromancer".

We got a spot in the high school talent show that year, and performed a cover of Faith No More's "We Care A Lot". It was my first time performing as a lead singer, and my first time performing in a rock band. It was a life-changing experience.

That one performance led to my being asked to join Darow Han's band. Brian would go on to join Jesus Wept. We remained friends through high school, hanging out, and going to each other's shows (when we weren't playing at the same ones!).

I remember Brian as a thoughtful and relatively quiet guy, with sad, expressive eyes and a kind of Nicholas-Cage-in-Valley-Girl charisma and emotional core. He was also very funny when he wanted to be.

The author (l) and Brian Johnston reprising "We Care A Lot" in 1987.

Over the last decade or two, Brian and I communicated once or twice a year, usually over email. A few years ago, we had discussed starting a new collaboration, an updating of our original synth duo project. Our responsibilities got in the way for both of us, and after some false starts, we reluctantly agreed it wasn't the right time. 

I wish I had more time with him, to hear more about how he was doing, to make more art together. I am grateful for the time I did have, and for his inspiration and life-changing impact. 

Thank you, Brian.

Brian is survived by his wife and six children. You can make a contribution here.

Friday, July 16, 2021


A lot can change in a year. 

The author, July 16, 2021

Today, July 16, 2021, we have vaccines, true miracles of modern science. We have a new administration.  Rather than uncertainty around lockdowns, we face uncertainty about what "re-opening" means, and what it looks like.

I can point to a few new decorations in the house, a place which I have never appreciated more than the last year. New bins to store my clothes, neatly folded. A shoe stand by the door, which makes me strangely happy. 

At a smaller scale, there's me. My hair is longer than it has been since 1988.  I have a job. I'm reasonably happy, particularly compared to how I was feeling last summer. I am in good, even great physical shape, even if the doctors want to adjust a few things. 

I have also been working on some longstanding personal issues, and making slow progress and gaining awareness. 

It has been an unquestionably productive year, filled with music and long conversations with friends. 

A year can also pass without much changing. 

Like many of you, the slow fade of the pandemic has meant a gradual change in the days, rather than some kind of abrupt snapping back to "normal". I got my vaccines as soon as I could, some months ago. Little has changed, other than me no longer worrying about dying from COVID.

The days are largely as they were last year: I get up, have some coffee and listen to music, get on a Zoom at 8 am, try to work, get some exercise (running 20 miles a week in the park! bodyweight exercises at home!), eat some dinner, watch a little video content, try to get to bed at a reasonable hour. Maybe there's some guitar or synthesizer in the mix. Repeat.

I try to avoid the shrieking of the news. It's just gonna bring us down, man. I read a few books, work on my personal issues. Maybe I write a bit, or even meditate. Talk to my friends. 

My daily routine became a work of art, with tasks polished and optimized, at times seeming like there are more of them than ever. I cannot recall going to sleep ever being so complicated (or so important).

The environment is still in big trouble. Arguably, so is American democracy. But the sky is blue (when it's not slate gray) and beautiful here in San Francisco.


I am consciously trying to move forward. There is no "going back" for any of us, no going back to before Covid or Trump or middle age or whatever. There is only "what are you going to do now, today?" What does the future hold?

It is starting to look like there will be no clear end to the pandemic. Between variants and the incomprehensible unwillingness of a significant minority to refuse vaccination, I suspect COVID will just keep going, like an underground coal mine burning or a a tire fire, for years to come. 

It is too soon to say how or if the changes to work, business, and life will persist, but it seems clear it will never be exactly like it was in the 2010s. That is not necessarily a bad thing. 

I look at the pandemic and think about what it might suggest for the future. If we cannot get people to take the simplest measures -- wearing a mask, getting a miraculous, free vaccine (we'll pay YOU to get it) -- to save themselves and their loved ones from something that could kill them and their loved ones in a matter of weeks, how will we get them to make more difficult sacrifices to mitigate or deal with climate change? I guess we will find out. 

The world turns. We move forward.

People think I really love the 80s. I guess I do to some degree. I have some fond memories of people, places, and music. But I feel the same way about the 90s and the 00s and the 10s. And even what I remember of the 70s. 

But I am really trying to love today, right now, this moment, and worry less about tomorrows to come.

I think about what I want to do, who I want to be. Who can I help? What can I make? How can I make a positive difference?

These are the things I am thinking about today.

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Juul, The Box, and Your Choice

A few years ago, I got a call from a recruiter. I always take calls from recruiters. You should, too. You never know what they're going to be offering, and it is a chance to learn something and make a good impression.

But right away, I was suspicious. The cheery caller was asking me if I was "EXCITED TO WORK ON THE FASTEST-GROWING PERSONAL ELECTRONIC DEVICE IN HISTORY!!"

The combination of vagueness and hype kicked my cynicism and skepticism into high gear. Eventually the recruiter indicated the company was, in fact, Juul, and the "device" was their electronic cigarette/vape system. 

They were looking for a fairly senior product person. Unsurprisingly, they were having difficulty finding someone. For what I thought were obvious reasons.

This was a few years ago. Juul is back in the news today because they've just been hit with a $40 million fine. For a company that had been valued at $38 billion, this is nothing. It's a parking ticket. 

Read this great article from The Verge and you will understand what kind of company Juul was and is. The kind of company that brazenly ignores not just existing law (like, say, AirBnB, Uber, or the scooter goons), but the kind of company that ignores explicit directives from regulatory agencies, using the calculus of "we probably won't get caught, and we might get big enough that it won't matter if we do, and if we don't, we're probably out of business. So fuck it."

The kind of company that, it is alleged, knew its pods might be tainted, and sold them anyway.  

And then Juul decided to take money from the cigarette industry! Any notions of "we're the good guys" were cast to the wind as they aligned themselves with an industry that pioneered the kind of disinformation which will likely doom humanity to a climate apocalypse, and absolutely knew their business model included use by kids.

For their part, Big Cigarette (represented here by Altria), did about what you'd expect. In typical old, big, dumb, slow fashion, they underestimated the market, failed to compete effectively, and then just took the lazy approach of "let's just buy 'em!". And they somehow managed to screw that up, buying Juul's problems, but not keeping the people, signing a desperate, thirsty deal.

It has not gone well.

That story -- of an old, big, dumb, slow company whiffing an acquisition -- is hardly new. Nor is the story of a company selling out.

I'd rather focus on Juul itself, and the kind of people who went to work there. Everybody knew what their business model was: getting people, including kids, addicted to their proprietary nicotine delivery system.

Who thinks "yeah, I'm OK with that, as long as I get paid"? It turns out a lot of people were. They did well for themselves, and then split, cash in hand.

Those people can tell themselves they aren't actively contributing to the problem anymore. But they helped create a barely-regulated industry that has spawned a legion of bad actor companies. Coupled with the current "ignore the law" mindset in corporate American and the public at large, we now live in a time where it seems anything goes.

As for me, I told the recruiter there was no way I was going to go work for a company like Juul, whose business model was fostering addiction.

The recruiter told me the "real mission of the company was to help people quit!" I managed not to laugh, but I asked the recruiter if Juul's board of directors was really steering the company with the intention of seeing market size decrease quarter over quarter, year over year. If that was their guidance and their KPIs. If I would be rewarded for reducing usage.

I didn't have to listen for their answer. I already knew the truth: Of course not. All the investors and all the board members (and perhaps the employees) were banking on plenty of people including kids getting hooked, and monetizing the tar out of it. At every step where they could have done the right thing, they went for the money instead.

One wonders how they would feel if it were their spouses or children ripping hits of this garbage, unable to stop.

Juul is just one company, and between Altria's cluelessness and the exodus of talent, they will likely survive as an empty brand (perhaps for traditional cigarettes! Or flavored booze!), if at all. 

But their legacy and impact linger, like a ghastly cloud.

One day, it may be your phone or doorbell ringing. Maybe it will be a social media company. Or some kind of mobile gaming gambling venture. Or a new wirehead start-up. They'll offer you lots of money. An equity stake. A juicy title. Everything you want. You just have to overlook a few things, like how you feel, or your sense of right and wrong, or the people you will be hurting.

How will you respond?

Yeah, we all have to make a living. Is it OK to do it at the expense of everyone else?

I am reminded of the short story "Button, Button", its adaptation into a Twilight Zone episode and later, the great movie "The Box". Maybe you can make a million by painlessly, effortlessly killing someone you don't know, but inevitably, the shadowy man leaves, looking to find someone who doesn't know you. 

Image by Casey Chin, for WIRED magazine

Sunday, February 14, 2021


3 years later, I am still here, but I find myself in a very different world.

Enough has been written about 2020 that a full review is unnecessary here. However, between things including government problems, social unrest, the pandemic, climate change, and human behavior, the world isn't ever going back to how it was last year, or even in 2017. 

I have my own additions to that list of upheavals and shifts: a new job in a new industry, physical changes, and ongoing adjustments (and hopefully improvements) in my mental outlook. Everything is different now, like it or not. Of all the possible futures, this is the one I got.

It is not what I imagined. A year-long echoing reverberant pause. I am glad for it, if not the circumstances around it.

Yesterday, I was having a socially-distanced, masked walk with a friend through the park. I was talking about how my outlook on life has altered over the last few years. About how important it is to find a way to make your life bearable, pleasant, and fun right now, and not just plan for some future finish line.

The last few years and 2020 in particular have underscored the importance of planning for catastrophe, of being responsible and building a robust life prepared for bad things to happen. But they have equally highlighted the necessity of building a life you can enjoy every moment and every day as you journey through it.

Because there may not be a tomorrow, at least not one that you recognize. Today could be the best day of the rest of your life. 

I spent a lot of time thinking about that over the last 3 years, as changes big and small happened in my life. I say "happened" because much as I might aspire to some kind of control, most of the big ones weren't up to me. I tried to make the most of it all, even or especially the difficult changes.

Life is good, but it is also tough. For me, for you, for everyone. We are living through a global catastrophe on a scale not seen in a hundred years. Sometimes, reminding myself of that helps.

The enforced break has given me time to focus, to calm down, to take stock. I have a lot going for me. The work I've put in during the pandemic means I'm in great shape for a person of my age, if not in general. I have a job I like, and feels like I am making the world better (or at least less bad). 

But all this time has also underscored the routine in life, in every sense. As a function of age and the pandemic, I find myself distracted, unable to concentrate. Or wondering "Is this it? What is the point?" Even if today is a really good day, living it repeatedly produces diminishing returns. I doubt I am alone in feeling this way.

But even with all of that, I am more at peace than I have ever been (at least in some moments). And I am still here. For that, I am grateful. 

Thursday, December 31, 2020

2020 In Review

2020 was the year everything broke. It was also a year that showed us how we would deal with the breaking.

As I write this, my house is growing colder: the furnace broke a few days ago. It will be weeks before we can get it replaced. Last month, the hot water heater failed. I have already ordered a new refrigerator, and hope the teenager in the kitchen can hang on for a little longer until its replacement arrives. Nothing lasts forever, not even durable goods like appliances. Fortunately, these have all been the kinds of problems I can solve by writing a check.

If only the problems of the world were addressed so clearly and easily.

The COVID-19 pandemic broke the world this year, killing millions of people and infecting millions more. Most countries responded responsibly, asking for masks, imposing shutdowns, and providing some support for people and businesses.

The United States, under the Trump administration, responded fitfully, inconsistently, and ineffectively. At times it seemed the Federal government was doing everything it could to make things worse -- asking states to bid against each other for PPE, shipping supplies to other countries and then buying them back at inflated prices, failing to lead, spreading chaos and misinformation. It is what we all expect from the Trump administration: a toxic mix of incompetence and malice, and a dearth of support for affected people (while the conversation is always focused on economics and businesses).

And yet, it could have been worse. Most states did the right thing, and most of us have done our part. It hasn't been easy for anyone, and has been particularly hard for some. 

One of my friends sees all of this as a positive sign for combating climate change. She encourages me to focus on how sustained government and personal action went from impossible to possible to something close to normal. Certainly none of us could have imagined governments and our jobs asking everyone to stay home, to not travel by car or plane, and providing some incentives and help for doing it. The positive environmental impact was real. If nothing else, it was good practice for sheltering-in-place from future heat waves and toxic clouds.

I wish I shared her complete optimism. In those same events, I saw signs of how dealing with climate change in any meaningful way is all but impossible. When faced with a threat that could clearly and obviously kill in a matter of weeks, many people refused to accept the simplest of inconveniences: staying home when possible, and wearing a mask when they must go out. 

People weren't just noncompliant, they were aggressively noncompliant, attacking and even murdering people who merely asked them to mask up or leave. There were protests and counter-protests, nearly all driven by the American right (themselves possibly manipulated by their usual masters: plutocrats from this country and propagandists from others), complete with yelling, gun-waving, and threats of violence. If people get that upset about staying home and wearing a mask to protect themselves from illness or death, how will they ever accept "buy a new car, drive it less, and change your life"? I cannot believe they will, at least until their demagogues, the plutocrats, and the rest of the world decide they should. 

Living in California, the realities of climate change became unavoidable in the summer as the state burned. The skies turned orange, ash rained down, and the oppressively hot air became toxic. This was especially bad if you don't have air conditioning at home, and the pandemic lockdown kept you from an office, restaurant, or movie theater. A grim taste of future problems, and one that sent me and others into a dark place for several weeks. 2020 was one of the warmest years on record. It just felt like one thing too many to deal with.

I grew weary of reading about Trump, who was impeached this year. Much of that was due to his behavior: his tantrums and lies, and his policies that were ineffective, cruel, or both. The most tiring thing about Trump was how everyone continued to demand outrage about him and his team. We knew who Trump was months before he was elected. By now, the best thing we could do is plainly and simply call out his behavior for what it was and move on. The constant gasping and shrieking played into his goals and his desire for attention. 

That same restlessness and frustration boiled over repeatedly throughout the year during protests and counter-protests around police brutality. Somewhat predictably, the media has reduced the issue to one side wanting to completely abolish the police and the other side thinking the cops should be more like Judge Dredd. We cannot even dismiss this as caricature, because there were ample think pieces from left and right that said "actually, that's exactly what we need". 

As battered as American democracy was, and despite continued efforts by the GOP to subvert voting and the actual election, it would appear the system is not completely broken yet, and Joe Biden will be president in a few weeks. 

I gave up social media (to the extent possible). This was partially driven by the Trump fatigue mentioned above. I got tired of seeing acquaintances or their friends saying dumb or dangerous things. Over the last 4 years, my feeds have grown angrier and more annoying, with misinformation covering everything and coming from everywhere, while the advertisements have become more targeted and relevant. I finally began to see the mechanism for what it was: an endless cycle of emotional manipulation designed to soften us up for the advertisements. Like TV, except we're doing all the work of making and producing the dramedy, and watching it nonstop. I just don't want any of it taking up space in my brain anymore.

We lost Neal Peart, Eddie Van Halen, Harold Budd, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Chadwick Boseman, Kobe Bryant, John Fletcher, and many other talented people this year. 

I had my own personal challenges and victories in 2020. I spent the first half of the year looking for a job, teaching a songwriting class online, and writing new music. I struggled with the burdens of pandemic life. I released a new album that I am quite proud of, and have 2 more collaborations close to finished. Productive!

By August, I found a new job and have been enjoying the novelty of the work and the remote work experience. A huge win, particularly when unemployment is rising and the economy crumpling.

2020 was also a year of stasis, of being house-bound, of feeling stuck. I canceled the gym membership I have held for something like 15 years. I left the house a handful of times, mostly for doctor appointments. The boundaries of pandemic life became clear.

The days were largely the same. Get up, drink some coffee. Stare at a screen. Maybe go for a run in the park. Stare at a screen. Putter around the house. Do something to distract myself -- clean, write, read, play a game. Eat dinner. Have a drink. Stare at a screen. Try to sleep. 

I made an effort to talk to friends almost every day, for my own well-being (and perhaps theirs). I am grateful for the connections and they helped me get through the days. As fun as that was, it also underscored how little was going on in our lives. "What's new?" Well, not much. 

Then again, given the kind of "new" 2020 was dishing up -- pandemics, murder hornets, political catastrophe -- here's a great summary in an easy-to-digest form -- perhaps "nothing new" is what we needed.

I have learned to refrain from statements like "it can't possibly get worse". While I look to 2021 with optimism and hope, the reality is that at least the first half of it is likely to look a lot like 2020. I expect continued pandemic problems, civil unrest, a burning hot summer, and more. I hope you will join me for it!

Tuesday, December 08, 2020

Harold Budd (1936 - 2020)

Harold Budd has died. He was 84 years old.

Mr. Budd was my favorite composer and musician, and made my favorite record. Since discovering his music, I have listened to his work more than any other musician, hearing something by him almost every day.

His music is beautiful and peaceful. It can appear more simple than it actually is, however. Budd was a serious composer, and many of his pieces use compositional techniques not often seen in modern "ambient" music, like mirror canons.

Budd's work is also distinguished by its carefully calibrated emotional sensibility. It isn't cloying or saccharine, the way much new age or ambient can be. Nor does it induce a sense of impending doom or pure minor-key sadness the way "dark ambient" attempts. For me, his work always had the right balance of tranquility and focus, of melancholy and remembrance. 

I have written about his music before, and nearly every album he released ended up in my top picks for that year. While he is somewhat unknown outside of ambient or other specific music circles, you may have heard his music in the recent HBO mini-series I Know This Much Is True, or in movies including "Mysterious Skin" and "White Bird In A Blizzard", collaborating with Robin Guthrie, with whom he had just released a new album last week, on December 4, 2020: Another Flower.

If you have not heard his work, fire up your music subscription service of choice and check out "The Pearl" or "Jane 12-21". 

Budd worked with a number of great musicians including Andy Partridge of XTC, John Foxx of Ultravox, the aforementioned Robin Guthrie (and Cocteau Twins, on "The Moon and The Melodies"), and famously, Brian Eno.

I was fortunate enough to catch Harold Budd in a wonderful live performance in 2018. The concert was magical, dreamlike, and perfect. It was a special moment in an otherwise terrifying and trying year. In a beautiful auditorium inside the Toledo Museum of Art, I and a few dozen (at most!) other fans heard one of his earliest pieces and some of his most recent. At that moment, I felt I could die a happy man. 

Nobody lives forever, and at 84, Harold Budd had a long life and a productive career. Still, I mourn his loss. He was continuing to work and compose his memorable and unique music, and there was every indication he would keep going. He was a guide for how to age gracefully while continuing to compose and work.

2020 is terrible. Thank you for all the music, Mr. Budd.

Saturday, November 07, 2020

Repairing the Union: Next Steps

At the time of this writing, Joe Biden is being declared the winner of the 2020 Presidential election. Congratulations, everyone. After four years of Trump's ineptitude, terrible ideas, and GOP compliance with the same, and with a record-breaking amount of cash consumed by the election cycle, we just barely managed to solve the previous election's problem. You voted. Great job.

However, big problems with our country and world remain. To address those big problems, we must fix problems with our government, and we must start right now. Here are a few suggestions for places to start:

1. Get money out of politics, and undo Citizens United

This will require a constitutional amendment, thanks to Supreme Court rulings. Because of Citizens United and previous Supreme Court decisions dating back to 1976 (if not earlier), the United States is currently stuck with the idea that "money is speech". As a result, the courts are reluctant to put limitations on the amount of money/speech around elections, and has resulted in "dark money", superPACs, and the extremely wealthy having more speech than everyone else. 

This is clearly unfair and absurd, and we have seen the results. For one thing, it means a bunch of wasted capital every few years. Given how rich the ultra-rich have become, the cost of buying politicians and elections is trivial for them, and the resulting tax breaks and other law changes mean they will actually make money on the deal, and We The People will pay for it. 

They don't even have to buy very many people. Mitch McConnell will do just fine, or a few swing votes.

As noted, because of Supreme Court decisions, we will need a constitutional amendment to address this issue. 

Nearly every other responsible democracy in the world has strict and meaningful limitations on money in politics. Until the United States takes similar steps, the ultra-rich will effectively control our government.

2. Moot or abolish the electoral college

The popular vote this time was not close. It is absurd, even offensive, that with a margin of millions of votes, we have to hang hopes for democracy on a few thousand voters in a few states. It is also absurd and unfair that those same few states are pandered to, election after election, while the rest of the nation is taken for granted.

Put another way, Trump lost the popular vote by millions last time and won the electoral college. Biden won the popular vote by even more millions than Trump lost and won the electoral college by the exact same number of electoral votes. The electoral college is absurd and unfair in the 21st century.

This will require either more states joining the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact or a constitutional amendment. The former is much easier than the latter, but is still a huge push. 

Until the electoral college is addressed, every election will see candidates courting the same few states, and our national policies warped by and dragged towards those unrepresentative states' current political leanings and issues. 

3. Find or cultivate compelling Democratic candidates

The GOP has been engaged in a decades-long plan to stack all levels of government (local, state, and federal) with Republicans. They built infrastructure, training, funding, and recruiting systems, and have achieved their goal. Among other results, this has given them relatively young "thought leaders" (and I use both words loosely here) like Matt Gaetz, Paul Ryan, Rand Paul, and Trey Gowdy. They both act as the face of the party and remain operational for a long time. The same is true for judicial candidates and many other government workers.

Until the recent arrival of Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez and The Squad, there have not been comparable people in the Democratic party, leaving aging Boomers like Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer to represent the party to the American people. 

Schumer, Pelosi, and the other older people have done a fine, even great job. However, their very history makes them a target for both the right (too liberal!) and the left (not liberal enough!), and at certain point, they cannot help but seem like irrelevant olds. 

Perhaps most distressing is looking at the last two Democratic Presidential candidates. Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden. Neither of them are compelling, powerful, or charismatic in the way that Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, or, frankly, Donald Trump were when they were running. 

Both Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden are old now, and were old when they were running. Again, their extensive service and record of getting things done over decades means both the right and the left targeted their achievements, as both too liberal and insufficiently liberal, respectively.

Part of the job of representing and leading people is inspiring them with your personal presence and vigor. The Democrats must find and cultivate better figureheads for their party. I find it hard to believe after all this time the current crop is the best we can do. The GOP seems to be able to find horrible, kooky people who are still engaging on camera and in public. 

Among other things, dear reader, perhaps you should consider getting involved in local, state, or federal government. 

Until the Democrats are able to consistently put compelling and young people out there, they will face an uphill fight every time, sometimes from within their own party. 

4. A compelling Democratic platform and message

I have read many Op-Eds, articles, and screeds about What's Wrong With America, and Why Wasn't Trump Rebuked? and so on.

The vote is not that surprising if you acknowledge that what you think is important is not what some of these voters think is important. Put another way, how successful do you think this conversation is?

D: If you don't support my platform and everything I say, you're a racist!

I: Well, what's your platform?

D: That your entire system, and everything you have, do, and say is racist.

For starters, that isn't going to win you any friends or converts. 

More importantly, if the last few decades have taught us anything, it is that broad shaming doesn't work. Shaming now only has power in your particular in-group. And you're not going to get anyone to join pre-shamed. (And if you have no shame, or if you take pride in being shamed by "the bad people", this tactic is at best ineffective and at worst activates and empowers the opposition).

If you want to win people over, start with a vision and a plan. Do something. Make their lives better. Show them how great Heaven is before you threaten them with Hell. 

The most dismaying thing about the last couple of elections (if not that last several years of government) was the substitution of identity for policy. As a people, government, and nation, we are defined far more by what we do than what we say. 

We need a policy vision that addresses people's lives and reality. Liberals failed to take the proceeds from globalization and help the people it displaced. That failure tainted beneficial policy. Do not make similar mistakes. 

Put people back to work (when it's safe!) with a massive infrastructure plan. The next time people talk about how ineffective government is, tell them "It built these roads. It built these airports. It built the water system. It electrified the entire country. It built the Post Office." These investments all need care and upgrades. These and similar aspects of our life are so fundamental and ubiquitous they are like air -- we take them for granted until their absence or degradation, and then we see how indispensable they are. 

Don't just throw money at people. Throw jobs at people. Throw improvement at people. Talk about and point to achievements and wins by your side, and talk about failures by the other side. The GOP has done little over the last several years other than give more money to rich people and try to take everyone's healthcare away. I am still amazed this isn't a bigger issue for everyone.

5. The Senate

As currently configured, the Senate is no longer an accurate, balanced, or fair representation of the American people or states. The GOP has again engaged in a long-term campaign to lock in a permanent Republican majority, and so far, they are succeeding. They have leveraged loopholes and peculiarities of various systems (and the Senate itself) so that their modest margin produces outsize benefits and results.

This must be undone, for basic fairness, and for more pragmatic concerns. 

Democrats are unlikely to hold the Senate itself for long, if at all. So we may need another constitutional amendment to make this work.

Another option is to finally admit both Puerto Rico and Washington, DC as states. This won't address the existing unfairness directly, but rather add more states that haven't been gerrymandered or compromised (yet) to dilute the effects of the GOP's regime. This isn't as radical a solution as one might think -- both territories are clearly qualified to be states. It's high time. 

Regardless, given the Senate's relative power and similar relative unfairness, the end result is that a small number of unrepresentative Americans effectively set the agenda and laws for the rest of the country. The founders could not have envisioned population distribution and disparity on the scale currently seen. The Senate must be rebalanced, one way or another. 

In Conclusion

I don't expect all of these things to happen. I don't even expect one of them to happen. But it is important for us to acknowledge the scale and scope of the fundamental issues we face in making our democracy more fair for more people. 

Sunday, November 01, 2020

Remarks on the end of TIP

[The first wave of TIP students held a Zoom gathering this weekend to mark the end of the Duke University Talent Identification Program. I was given the honor of providing the opening remarks, which are reproduced following.]

Thank you for joining today, and for giving me the opportunity to address you all. I wish it were under different circumstances, but I am grateful all the same.

I last spoke at a large TIP gathering in 2011. It feels like a lifetime ago — so much has changed for us as individuals, and as a society.

These last few years have been personally challenging, this one in particular. TIP’s end is one more grim casualty of 2020.

I feel a deep sense of grief and loss at the news of TIP’s closure because of what TIP did for me. It had a direct and transformative impact on my life. Not just as a teenager, but as an adult as well. 

I think about how many of you were friends then and are still friends now, because of the special connection we shared at a critical moment in our lives. I think of how those friendships have persisted and grown as you have turned into such remarkable people. It is difficult for me to fully convey how important you all are, and how much I treasure these relationships and how they have enriched my life.

I also grieve the loss of what TIP represented and meant. The best days of my youth, if not youth itself. The joy of running fast and free, physically and intellectually. The sense of endless possibility and discovery. TIP’s ongoing existence made it easy to tap into those feelings. Seeing first-hand how TIP still had a similar impact on kids decades later provided a sense of continuity and community. I was proud to support the organization and deeply gratified to see its mission continue.

I acknowledge any experiences I would have had during those critical summers of my youth would have likely been transformative and defining, and that friends I made during that time would be important. But I didn’t have just any experiences or meet just any people. I went to TIP. I met all of you.

Beyond personal significance, I am dismayed at the loss of what TIP actually was to the larger world: a program to identify, support, and cultivate talented kids. Particularly those who needed some kind of help, or were in difficult or isolated environments. 

40 years after TIP’s founding, our society is more aware of people, particularly kids, who are different, unusual, or gifted. We may not be achieving the level of attention and care we strive for all the time, but at least there is more recognition of special needs for individuals. That is a significant improvement from what many of us experienced as children at home, in school, in life. 

Some of that is directly attributable to the work of TIP and similar programs. Some of it is because of people like you, who grew up and tried to make the world a better place for those who followed.

There are also more resources for gifted kids, their parents, and educators now, and those resources are more widely available. Again, at least partially thanks to TIP, which set an example, inspired, and provided materials and programs. And thanks to some of you, who became educators, researches, and writers yourself.

The internet has also played a significant role. The internet has made it easy to distribute knowledge and materials related to gifted education. There are videos and classes and online programs, all easily accessible.

The internet has made it easy for people to feel less alone, to find others like them, and stay connected in ways we perhaps only dreamt of 40 years ago, when a long distance phone call cost nearly $1.50 per minute in today’s dollars.

But as COVID and social media have shown us recently, the internet, for all its wonders, is not nearly as good as real life. The virtual world can be superficial, hollow, and unsatisfying, if not actively harmful. Not all people possess the self-discipline required to succeed in fully digital education experiences. Not all people even have access to the technology, much less the training, to fully take advantage of what is offered.

Real life, real connection, is better. There is something special that happens when you bring people together in one place with a common cause. We felt it on East Campus 40 years ago. We felt it at the reunions we have had. 

That spark of connection is essential, vital, and worth cultivating. I notice how it is muted as I address you now, over the internet. I am deeply saddened knowing it has been extinguished for future students.

After 40 years, TIP had obviously changed quite a bit. The program was much larger, for one thing, and reached far beyond Duke. The kinds of classes on offer had changed as well. Less hardcore. No more college or high school credit, for better or worse. Less freedom for the kids. More structure. Traditions. Rules. It had become a much less stressful and improvisatory environment. That is probably a good thing. Probably.

As one of you pointed out to me, TIP’s existence and success as an institution meant that it had become a kind of checkbox for college applications, with some students doing it solely for that reason.

On balance, I think that’s all OK. The world has changed quite a bit as well. Ideas about what’s acceptable and appropriate for kids have changed, too. Perhaps TIP was a kind of mirror, reflecting ideas and ideals around gifted students. Over time it had to change, as our own reflections have over the last 40 years. 

But despite TIP’s influence and society’s improvements, one core aspect of TIP’s mission remains unfulfilled: Supporting underprivileged kids. Students who don’t come from backgrounds or environments like I did, where schools had decent (for the time) gifted programs. Or parents who could afford to invest in their children’s potential, like mine did. 

Over the last 40 years we have seen our society become less equal. TIP had increased its efforts to reach those under-served kids. I commend that ambition, as I wish they had done even more.

And ultimately, that is where I most keenly feel the sadness and mourn the loss. Not for our shared past. Not for the compromised present. But for the possible future.

TIP wasn’t perfect, but it existed. It tried and sometimes succeeded in achieving lofty and ambitious goals. Like us. 

I missed it terribly when it was over for me. I miss it even more now that it is over for everyone.

Thank you, Dr. Sawyer, for creating this experiment and bringing together all of these people for so many years.

Thank you to Dr. Greg Kimble and Mark Delong and Dr. John Kane and the countless other instructors and TAs who spent their summers (if not entire years) making TIP happen.

Thank you, Deborah-Kay, Shawna, Tasha, Vicki, Brian, and the other staff who kept the program running, growing, and thriving for so many years.

Thank you Andrea, for your tireless efforts in building and maintaining our 80s alumni group. Thank you Jonathan Wilfong, as well. 

Most importantly, thanks to all of you for participating then and now.

You all have made a difference in my life, and the lives of many other people. 

Verbally and mathematically precocious youths rule.

Friday, October 30, 2020

Paper Life is now available!

Paper Life, my latest solo album, is now available on Bandcamp. $5, and it includes a PDF of liner notes and lyrics. The album will appear on the various streaming services over the next few days.

About Paper Life

In 2019, I reconnected with a musician I had worked with in my Los Angeles days. We talked about working together on something that spoke to the lives we had now, decades later, while musically referencing the 1990s.

Distorted guitars. Early samplers. Drum loops. The big electronica wave that didn't happen. Shoegaze. Artists like Curve, The Crystal Method, Filter, Garbage, Goldie, Hooverphonic, Massive Attack, Morcheeba, Nine Inch Nails, The Prodigy, Republica, Roni Size, Slowdive. And of course, the entire grunge class of the early 90s.

He was not able to collaborate, but I liked the ideas and it became a solo album. The pandemic happened, and that ended up informing the record as well.

I have described Paper Life to my friends, somewhat jokingly, as my "mid-life crisis depression record". That is both completely true and untrue, as all the best stories are. I also think its is simultaneously one of the catchiest and darkest solo records I have made. 

Paper Life is damaged, distressed, digital, and distorted — a mirror of life in 2020.


Recorded by Anu at Blue Moscow in California, 2019 - 2020
All songs written by Anu Kirk, © 2020 Erich Zahn Music (ASCAP)

Mastered by Michael Hateley for Lotus Mastering

Album art design by Iran Narges

Thank You

Robert Ptak for the inspiration, friendship, and Artificial Joy.

Matt Gramly for building the guitar I used for nearly all of this record.

Iran Narges. Liz Yelamos. Geoff Geis. Stan Fairbank. Thomas Muer. Rich Trott. Mark Erickson. Maryann Faricy. Clint Woods. Holland Campbell. Brian M. Ward. Christy Phoenix. Xopher Davidson. John Hong. Michael James. Chris Fudurich. Louis Figueroa. Steve Mason. Brian Ward. Jon Appleton. You helped make this record better.

Gold stars: Dr. SS Yom. Dr. Katherine Yung. Kristin Bond. Dr. Yue Ma. Laura Habich.

Thank you for listening.

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

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

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

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

Congratulations, Lauren!

Check out the award-winning work below: