Sunday, February 14, 2021

+3

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.

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.

Credits

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:




Friday, October 09, 2020

The Duke University Talent Identification Program (1980 - 2020)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you for everything, TIP. 

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 06, 2020

Edward Van Halen (1955 - 2020)

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

Ed, The Musician

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He Gave Me A Guitar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you for the music and the guitar, Ed.

***

Some examples of his work follow.

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


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


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

Monday, October 05, 2020

The Oldest Song


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

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

Thursday, October 01, 2020

Leaving Social Media

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

Who Owns The Future?, Jaron Lanier, 2013

You Are Not A Gadget, Jaron Lanier, 2010

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

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

Monday, September 28, 2020

Life in the cyberpunk dystopia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


This is the world we live in. 

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

Or just look outside:

We might as well start dressing for it.

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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