Saturday, December 29, 2018

James Calvin Wilsey (1957 - 2018)

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

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

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

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

"Kings of the Highway"

"Blue Hotel"

and of course, "Wicked Game"

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

2018 in Music

Album of the Year

Low - "Double Negative"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Angelique Kidjo - "Remain In Light"

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

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

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

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

And of course, "Once In A Lifetime":

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I look forward to hearing what 2019 has in store.

Thursday, December 06, 2018

Pete Shelley (1955 - 2018)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Telephone Operator" is almost industrial:

Thank you for the music, Pete.

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

Monday, November 19, 2018

Are We Doomed? Part 3: What We Must Do

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

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

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

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

We Must Change Culture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Change The Government

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

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

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

Push for Legislative Solutions

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

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

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

Get Money Out of Politics

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

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

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

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

Give Money to Candidates and Causes

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

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

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

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

Run for Office

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

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

Consider it. Do it.

I Need Your Help

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

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

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

See What You Can Do In Your Organizations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Individual Actions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Get off social media...

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

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

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

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

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

Do something

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

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

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

Friday, November 02, 2018

Charles Bobuck / Hardy Fox (1945 - 2018)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 22, 2018

We are doomed. Part 2: The internet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

We Are Stupid

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Technological Assault On Truth

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

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

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

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

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

You Are The Botnet

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

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

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

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

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

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

China Is The Future

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We Are Doomed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 15, 2018

We are doomed. Part 1: The world outside.

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

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

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

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

I do not believe we will make it.

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

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

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

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

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

The Grid and The System

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The People and The Governments

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

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

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

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

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

We Are Doomed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 16, 2018


7 x 7. Luck x luck?

1. Bad Things Happen

About two months ago, one of my colleagues was stopped in traffic, sitting in his car. He was rear-ended by a van traveling at 60 mph. His car was destroyed, hit so hard that it also destroyed the car in front of him. He survived with, relatively speaking, few injuries. Many broken ribs and the attendant punctured lung. A fractured vertebrae. They say he is lucky to be alive. As he lies in his hospital bed, hammering his morphine button and trying not to breathe, it is not clear how lucky he feels.

I can relate. Much of this year has been spent dealing with a serious problem of a most unfortunate nature. Nobody hears the details and says "you are so lucky!"

At the same time, many elements related to this problem have gone my way. Given my situation, I would say I got lucky. I even ended up with a new old friend, which is a remarkable trick.

Metaphorically speaking, I get to walk away (for now), under my own power, looking more or less the same. Not without some damage on the inside, though. I am keenly aware of life's color, now more vivid than ever, but I lament that my ability to perceive that color has been subtly dulled, perhaps permanently.

49. It could be worse.

2. What Matters

Economy forces clarity. When you can only keep a few things, you figure out what you consider important. When you only have enough time or energy to do a few things, you focus on the critical tasks. Moments become hours, hours become days, days become weeks. The time scale expands and you realize you always only have enough time and energy for a few things. So you think about what matters most.

Who do you want to see? What do you want to do? Something productive? Something fun? Should you build memories for others or yourself? They'll all be lost eventually, like tears in rain, but as with sakura blossoms, that just makes them more beautiful and essential. We spend our lives writing in sand. The wind and waves will come.

You might look at what you have achieved in your life and wonder if any of it matters.

Zoom out far enough to see the biggest picture and the answer is "no", at least, not to the universe, or most people on earth. What about at a smaller scale? Did you make a difference? Maybe not to "the world" or "millions of people". But perhaps you affected the lives of a few people.

You hope those people remember you, and maybe they will also try to have a positive impact on the lives of those around them.

You hope you have a few more chances to make that difference. You know what matters to you, and resolve to be better, more focused, more productive. But also to appreciate the reality of life and the patience it requires.

49 suggests what matters is what you choose, how you react, how you live, in the moment and overall. Or maybe you have no idea what matters, and you are just grasping in the dark. You don't understand a thing.

49 says "But then again, who does?"

3. Who Are You

I spend time wondering what happened to people I used to know and lost touch with. A list of faces and names to chase down on the internet.

I gaze out the hotel window at the trees, drooping in the humidity and heat. I have come a long way to see some old friends, tell them some stories about who I am today, and learn who they are at this moment.

We all have a self-image, an idea of who we are. We are what others perceive us to be, or we are the sum of our actions in life, or we are whoever we say we are.

I wonder what people see when they look at me now. My core remains largely unchanged from my teenage years, for better or worse. I think I've gotten better at being a decent person, though I still have a long way to go. I still feel vital, though I can feel the years weighing on my shoulders a bit more. More experienced. Wiser?

Soon I will be 49. Who am I? Still a musician, for one thing. A student, for sure. Perhaps still a teacher of sorts. I am a writer. A worker. A husband. A middle-aged white guy. Boring. Fascinating. Generous. Talkative. Introverted. Creative. Derivative. On balance, someone good?

4. Every Moment

I am awake and alert, even if I do not want to be. 90 minutes ago, I could barely keep my eyes open, but now I cannot get comfortable. I quietly struggle so as not to disturb my love, sleeping by my side.

My skin is acutely sensitive. Moving my hair hurts. Clothes dragging across my skin is sublime, almost painful. Physically, it is like I have had a layer or filter stripped off, or that a gain control in my nervous system has been cranked up.

Not just physical, either. Emotionally raw. I find myself on the verge of tears at odd moments, and occasionally euphoric.

I swallow, and my throat hurts. Sore. Dry. Have I ever been so acutely aware of my body for so long? I think of the hours I have spent pushing myself physically. I do not recall even mile 12 in a long run reminding me of the meat-sack I live in so much.

I wish it were raining. I miss the sound of the raindrops on the roof and windows. I cannot remember the last time I saw rain.

Eyes half-open, conscious. This is a part of life, too. I try to relax my body, hoping my leg does not start twitching. I try to quiet my mind, wishing the fragments of songs repeating would just fade out, along with the shards of memories and ideas. Perhaps all of that brain noise is constantly there, a kind of mental tinnitus obscured by daily consciousness, and brought to the foreground only in the sensory deprivation of the small hours. How do I ever get anything done?

I try to embrace the insomnia, to appreciate what it means to sleep deeply. Just as I try to embrace illness to appreciate health. This restless intermission, this is a part of life. The future is uncertain, and this quiet, peaceful minute could be one of the better things ahead.

It still sucks, and I wish I was sleeping soundly. But at 49, I have a new understanding of how precious every moment is.

5. Decayed, Decayed

In 2007(!), I realized I had no time to waste, and returned to writing and recording with a new sense of freedom and urgency. The first album I made was "Decayed, Decayed", a look back at 2 decades of making music and life, and a look forward as well.

The title track:

It’s 20 years since this started up
Let me tell you how it was:
a 4-track Radio Shack tape deck
Hissing overdubs
I tried to get it down
Record what I had to say
I thought I had all the time I wanted
Somehow it got away

Decayed, Decayed

There were so many big plans for me
They all told me I was Great
13 years of experiments and studies
I finally escaped
4 years I lived in winter
9 in L.A.
Everything used to work just fine, now it’s not OK
Broken bones won’t heal
This broken heart can’t feel
And scars (some self-inflicted) on skin rashed and peeled
My knees crackcrackcracking
My mind…lagging
My guts slowly rusting
Hair thins and turns gray

Decayed, Decayed

It’s just a matter of time 
You see you’re already in line
The short straw in your hand is previously defined
With every breath you draw into your gasping chest
Think of how sweet it tasted
And all the time you wasted
Was it worth it in the end?
Would you do it the same if you could do it again?
Doubts and questions piling up
Endlessly replayed

Decayed, Decayed

The laws of physics simply state the case:
Entropy wins.
Everything fades.
There is no escape.

I walk beneath cherry blossoms listening to the rain.

6. In Lieu of Gifts

If you like having me around, if I have made a difference in your life, do me a favor: 

She is brilliant and hard-working. An embodiment of values I hold dear, and the kind of person we should all aspire to be: someone who has taken her powerful intellect and relentless drive and focused it on service, on keeping people like you and me alive. 

She is quite literally the reason I am able to celebrate being 49, and have a good chance of being able to celebrate 50 - 55 and beyond.

7. Lucky

Like many years past, I am sitting in a comfortable chair, coffee nearby, and music playing on the stereo. I am writing about this year, today, myself. I write for the same reasons some people dance, I suppose. Because it feels good. Because I hope nobody is watching. Because I hope someone is watching. Because I want to while I still can. Because I still can.

At 49, I am lucky enough to see some dreams come true, and wise enough to be careful what I dream about. I have also seen nightmares made real. The knowledge that there is no "waking up" can be the scariest part of all.

There are plenty of awful things one could focus on. The state of the world. Statistics, science, numbers. Damage and pain, now and in the future. What does that get you?

I do not want to ignore or minimize the darkness out there. But at 49 I want to spend as little time as possible upset by things I have no control over.

I tell myself to focus on what I know to be true, rather than spiraling down about what might happen. It is not easy. That is as good an indicator as any that it is the right thing to do.

I am lucky. Lucky to be here, to be awake and alive, to see the sun come up, to get one more day. I hope to see some of my friends later today, and more of you in a few weeks.

Happy birthday to me.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Spotify, Steam, and YouTube: Curation Failure

It is 2018, and the world seems to be moving backwards in terms of speech. Despite, or perhaps because of, a continuing coarsening and dumbing-down of the culture, people seem more likely than ever to take offense at language, media, and even behavior that either would have been unremarkable a few years earlier or seems allowed or uncontroversial in other contexts.

The consequences for saying the wrong thing? Economic exile. You lose your job, and may not be able to get another one. There are countless examples, from Roseanne Barr's recent horrific Twitter eruption to Samantha Bee's vulgarity to your Facebook feed being filled with people demanding that posters or people in videos be identified so their employers can be pressured into firing them.

We seem to want speech (if not thought) to be aligned with a kind of corporate mindset, Get in formation. Say the right things (silence is complicity). Non-compliance is not tolerated. 

It is not surprising then, that media companies are rushing to check themselves before the searchlight and Internet Outrage Cannon is trained on them.

Spotify: Having it both ways

Spotify floated a trial of policies around "hateful content" and "hateful conduct". It quickly walked it back after strong objections and threats of content takedowns from artists.

Spotify had stated they would remove, or at least not promote, music that...
expressly and principally promotes, advocates, or incites hatred or violence against a group or individual based on characteristics, including, race, religion, gender identity, sex, ethnicity, nationality, sexual orientation, veteran status, or disability.
I have to assume Spotify's intent was to have a way to kick things like Nazi punk (an actual genre) or ISIS-core (hopefully not an actual genre) off the platform. But Spotify is a global company, and is trying to keep all the world's music up on its service. It has over 50 million songs in its database, and exercises no editorial control over submitted content. 

And unfortunately for Spotify, there's a lot of music that could fall under their stated policy. Hip-hop -- one of Spotify's most popular genres -- has a number of acts (especially some of the older stuff) who have lyrics that are anti-gay, anti-Semitic, and/or endorse violence against women. There are plenty of rock acts, too. 

Spotify went a step further. They said they'd even block or at least refuse to promote (non-offensive) content from people who had behaved badly -- so-called "hateful conduct". Their test case here was R. Kelly. Presumably they were trying to give themselves a way to pull down content by whoever is currently screwing up so that Spotify could avoid any kind of boycott.

But this policy also quickly becomes difficult to operate with any precision. Is Spotify going to decide what crimes merit banishment? Any crime? Felonies only, or misdemeanors? What about things that are crimes in one country but not another? What about content that was made well before the act did anything objectionable? (a good example here would be Bill Cosby, whose early comedy albums are squeaky-clean and considered landmark comedic works). What about allegations, rather than convictions?

It's worth noting that R. Kelly has never been convicted of any crime. In fact, he was tried and found not guilty, so as far as the government is concerned, he's clean. 

Or what about content where some of the people have done something wrong, but others have not (like producer Dr. Luke and Kesha). Dr. Luke has not been found guilty of anything, with some lawsuits dismissed and others in progress. But apparently that doesn't matter. Even if you personally had a good experience with him and say so, you and anyone associated with you might get into trouble. Do you pull down the records he did with Kesha? Doesn't that hurt her more than him?

There are plenty of artists who have confessed to or endorsed all sorts of bad conduct in interviews. They have boasted about treating women poorly. Frequently abused drugs and alcohol. Driven faster than the speed limit. Driven while intoxicated, and/or killed people in drunk driving accidents. Committed crimes ranging from selling drugs to gun violence to murder. And if you want to include artists who have just been accused of bad behavior, well, that list gets long fast.

Spotify is also trying to have it both ways with their half-step of "well, we won't take the content out of Spotify, but we will refuse to promote it on the homepage or in our editorial playlists". Really, Spotify? So you feel bad about it, but not so bad that people shouldn't be able to get it? That seems like a rather weak approach, calculated for some marketing value only.

Let's be clear: if you think the content is objectionable, either due to what the content promotes or the alleged actions of the creators, why would you make it available at all? By doing so, you are putting money in the creators' pockets, and (at least by the logic of our current era) thereby endorsing this behavior. You are complicit. You are aiding and abetting.

At least Spotify is trying to exercise responsibility for what they offer, albeit in a clumsy and conflicted way.

Steam: Caveat emptor

Steam, the iTunes Music Store of video games, similarly ratcheted up a policy of "no pornography" to include material it had not previously covered, and then apparently, backed off, before creeping back to cover some of it again. Or not. It is hard to tell, and the inconsistency is part of the problem (the blurry guidelines are the other).

In Steam's case, they ran into a bunch of complaints from the LGBTQ gamer community, who claimed the material in question (so-called "visual novels") were important to them, as a safe space to explore their issues, as well as being the genre and medium that catered to them.

Steam's hand-wringing seemed particularly hypocritical in that they targeted sexual content, and yet have zero problems with the casual, extreme, graphic violence that is commonplace among many video games.

Then, Steam threw in the towel. After analyzing the problem, they have simply decided that, rather than curate what is sold in their store, they'd rather just "enable" developers to have the freedom to put out anything, as long as it is not, in Valve's opinion (emphasis added) "illegal or straight up trolling".

Let us ignore the unfortunate use of ambiguous slang for the moment (one wonders if "trolling on the down low" would be OK, or if we have a mutually agreed-upon definition of "trolling" that navigates parody, commentary, and so forth). Let us also ignore Valve's ability to judge whether or not something is "illegal".

The real disappointment here is that the world's biggest game store (and potentially, soon, the biggest software store) doesn't care what it is selling, as long as you are buying. They have abdicated any responsibility for what is in the store, leaving themselves a flimsy back door to dump content when there is a PR incident.

They do not have to spend any time or money looking at their own merchandise. They can dodge blame (just like the gun industry) and say "Hey, we didn't make it, we just sell it. It may or may not reflect our 'values'. Don't buy it if you don't want it."

It seems only a matter of time before this blows up in their faces. But more importantly, it suggests that they feel their massive market dominance as a platform carries with it no responsibility whatsoever. Or perhaps, worse, they feel their influence obliges them to do nothing in the name of "freedom" for creators. So they provide a means for people to monetize hateful, sloppy garbage. Caveat emptor.

Fortunately, the gaming press seems to think Valve is making a bad call here.

YouTube: A monster machine

Steam's situation leads one to reflect that perhaps we should not be offering a megaphone and platform for anyone and everyone. YouTube all but confirms it.

YouTube has been wrestling with issues similar to Steam. YouTube has always taken a view that it is at its best when exercising zero editorial control over what people are posting. So it doesn't. No human being looks at the content being submitted, other than the submitter. There are some rudimentary tests, but not for anything like "values", it's simply to make sure that whatever horrible video being posted doesn't infringe the copyrights of the big media players. There's your "values".

So people go to work, and quickly learn that the best content is the "worst" content. Things that are deliberately shocking, outrageous, and not the kind of thing you would find on any 20th century "network". Due to the nature of internet platforms and our own human nature, we have ended up with "creators" like Logan Paul and Lil Tay. Perhaps Penny Arcade said it best:

They made a kind of monster machine, with every possible lever thrown towards a caustic narcissism, and then they pretend to be fucking surprised when an unbroken stream of monsters emerge.

YouTube has allowed people to blast their most awful "thoughts" and actions worldwide, and have them preserved forever. Great job, gang. You made the world a little or a lot more terrible, and you are making money from it. (And that is to say nothing of the endless stream of copyright violations that also fund YouTube's business).

Perhaps unsurprisingly, there is some pushback. A recent example is that just last week, London police have asked YouTube to take down some music videos, because the police feel they are glorifying or encouraging knife crimes. While there might not be any evidence the videos are contributing to knife crime per se, it is obvious they are amplifying the culture in which it thrives, and that at least some of the crimes have been inspired by, if not predicted by, the communications happening in the videos.

I am a big supporter of freedom in the arts. But it seems hard to defend "art" where the singer says (roughly) "Tom, that's my friend Jimmy in the back and he's going to stab you until you are dead", and then Tom is found dead from stabbing and Jimmy is found holding a bloody knife and says "yeah, I stabbed Tom until he was dead."

That seems more like terrorism, and not all that different from Al Qaeda or ISIS ranting about killing non-believers. (It doesn't help that the music is really uninteresting).

Like Steam, while simulated violence is totally fine for YouTube, anything approaching simulated sex is not. I guess you have to pay for HBO or Cinemax (if you want it fancy and artistic) or just go looking on Tumblr or PornTube (if you want it free and real).

Unlike Steam and Spotify, YouTube has never indicated it would try to police any of its content, and is only reluctantly doing so in the face of legal pressure. And for the first time, YouTube is also facing challenges to the "safe harbor" laws that allow it to ignore the content it hosts.

Minding The Store

Prior to the internet's creation of stores with infinite shelf space, people who sold physical goods had to make choices about what to carry. Every item in the store occupied space that something else could be using. Stores chose based on what would sell or attract people to the store. They also made choices about what kind of institution they wanted to be, and what kind of customers they wanted to have.

Jeff Bezos famously remarked that his biggest mistake was branding early Amazon as "The World's Biggest Bookstore" instead of "The World's BEST Bookstore". He felt the promise of having every book was an expensive distraction, especially when very few books account for the majority of sales. It is the same in every other media vertical.

Perhaps the solution is for the internet's virtual vendors to shoulder some more responsibility and actually choose what goes up. Maybe the world doesn't need every single song, game, or video available in the biggest stores. Niche tastes can look in niche places. It is not difficult to find things on the internet. All that extra junk is not really driving revenue for any of these businesses, and it seems like it just adds risk and gives voice and legitimacy to some questionable ideas.


Of course, all of this willful ignorance and amplification of idiocy for profit says something about the platforms like Spotify, Steam, and YouTube. But it says worse things about us. Because we are the people filling our brains, hearts, and souls with this "content".

The impulse to limit what content or media people can consume has been around for a long time, frequently driven by concerns about the negative influence of the content and/or media on youth. If you can think of a medium, it has likely been accused of corrupting youth: The internet. Video games. Television. Role-playing games like "Dungeons and Dragons". Movies (usually the kind with sex, but occasionally the kind with violence). Radio. Rock music/hip-hop/jazz. Comic books. Novels (I am not kidding). Probably Greek drama and cave paintings.

On the one hand, a whole bunch of research has shown media consumption has, at most, minimal effect on people's behaviors (and there's a lot of uncertainty about whether consuming violent media makes people more violent, or if people with high tendencies towards violence prefer more violent media).

But we also know "you are what you eat", and speak frequently about how media "changed our lives". It is sometimes intended as a joke, sometimes as hyperbole. But still.

Does consumption of media, of art, have no effect at all on us? If it does have no effect, well, sorry, artists. You've been wasting your time. But if it does have an effect, even small and/or temporary, the implications seem obvious.

It would mean the entire production chain -- artists, businesspeople, distributors, etc. -- have a responsibility to think about what they are putting out there, wrap it in warnings, and make sure it is only consumed by those of appropriate age.

It would also mean that we, as individuals and media consumers, have a responsibility to think about what we put in our heads.

Friday, June 08, 2018

Anthony, Kate, and Life

After a long night of restless tossing and turning, I sink into a chair with a cup of coffee I can barely taste. And I read that Anthony Bourdain is dead, and start tearing up.

Anthony Bourdain was your cool friend -- the one who always seemed to know things you didn't about places to go or good food or great music or what really goes on in the kitchen. It was like he had figured everything out. This interesting person with a fun, fascinating, challenging job that he created, who could live more than comfortably doing exactly what he wanted. Who wouldn't want to hang out with someone like that? Who doesn't dream of being someone like that?

Bourdain said, of his life:

I travel around the world, eat a lot of shit, and basically do whatever the fuck I want.

His eyes, his taste, his work, and his writing said he was restless. He periodically reinvented himself and adjusted what he did for a living. Today I find myself wondering if all that was less about curiosity and more about fear of standing still, or just not liking what he woke up to every morning. Maybe it will be different in another country. Maybe it will be different tomorrow. Perhaps he just found himself at a place where he saw no more reinvention, no futures, no more places to go to, only places to run from.

Bourdain seemed to hunger for life. He was an avatar of, and an advocate for, enjoying life's pleasures. To see him, of all people, decide that it wasn't worth getting up tomorrow for another bite of something delicious and new is heartbreaking.

Worse, I find myself wondering if he still knows something we don't.

Kate Spade, too. Another person who seemed to have set herself up in a life most of us aspire to. Starting and running a successful company making beautiful things. In her case, at least, there was some history and suggestion of depression. It is still tragic, but at least has a clearer cause.

Their suicides are shocking. We assume both of these people had near-ideal lives, complete with loved ones and children. Even if they found themselves under too much pressure or not enjoying things anymore, we believe they could just cash out, retire, and spend the rest of their days in comfort, doing whatever they pleased.

Bourdain said "Life is complicated. It's filled with nuance. It's unsatisfying."

Our society tends to conflate happiness with satisfaction. Similarly, it also tells us that both happiness and satisfaction are destinations, and you can arrive if you only have enough money to pay the fare.

But research and our own experiences tell us this is not true. Happiness is fleeting, and satisfaction often unrelated. There's arguably nothing worse than being happy but profoundly unsatisfied.

Happiness and satisfaction aren't destinations. They are paths, ways of living. You have to get up every day and put your feet on them. And you will find throughout your life that the directions keep changing. What got you there yesterday may not be what gets you there today, or tomorrow, or 5 years from now. That is part of the deal, and part of the joy of living.

Anthony and Kate were just like you and me. They woke up every morning to the realization their lives weren't what they expected them to be. But they also knew their lives were better than they could have imagined. And still not right, not enough, not OK.

These sudden, voluntary ends are particularly poignant for me. Of late, I am painfully reminded of how precious every moment, every sunrise, every day, every sunset is. We might all wake up not exactly where we want to be, but every new day is a chance to try again, to try to find ourselves and the lives we want.

I will take every uncomfortable, thrashing night, every bleary morning, every boring meeting, every minute of traffic right alongside every trip to a new location, every new flavor, every dream.

I want it all, I want it, I want it, I want it. Give me every minute, because there is nothing else. Watching others decide "nothing" is preferable is wrenching, especially when they were so full of so much good life and love.

Monday, May 28, 2018

Albums of Influence: The Pearl by Harold Budd and Brian Eno

This is my all-time favorite record.

I have loved it since I first heard it. I have it on vinyl and compact disc. I carry a copy of it with me on my phone and on nearly every device I own that plays music.. It is in my car. I want it played at my funeral. I have listened to it more frequently than anything else, and have periodically barred myself from playing it so I don't burn out. My wife is sick of hearing it.

"The Pearl" is an album of piano music, some electric piano, some acoustic piano. There are field and nature recordings, sound effects, and processing. Perhaps a synthesizer here and there. Some of the pieces are structured, albeit obliquely, without the clear delineations that mark so many compositions. Some of the pieces are through-composed or improvised. The 11 tracks are all in the 3-5 minute range, never outstaying their welcome or growing boring. I do not think I have ever skipped one partway through.

 There are no vocals, no pop songs, no hooks, no soaring choruses. "The Pearl" is not catchy, ugly, or dissonant. It is not "challenging", and is rather easy to listen to. In those respects, it is quite different from many other records that I respect and/or love.

It is beautiful, mysterious, dark, melancholy, subtle, and perfect.

"The Pearl" was recorded in 1984 by Harold Budd and Brian Eno, with Eno and Daniel Lanois co-producing. Budd and Eno had made a similar record in 1980, the nearly-as-good "Ambient 2: The Plateaux of Mirror", and "The Pearl" is a refinement of those ideas.

Eno, of course, is thought of as the father of ambient music. He is well-known for his work with many great artists and bands, including Roxy Music, David Bowie, and U2, and his life, works, and thinking are well-documented.

Harold Budd is less famous, but I find him fascinating. This interview from 2017 offers some perspective on the unique and fascinating mix of experiences that brought him to The Thing He Does.

Harold Budd, 2014
Budd is a man of interesting contradictions. He freely admits that he is not a good piano player, capable of only playing in the distinctive style of his pieces. He has also said that he hates pianos, and thinks they're ugly and aesthetically offensive. When he got rid of one one in his house, he said every morning he would have his tea, look over at where it had been and think "thank god that goddamn piano isn't there". And yet, he has created more than a dozen albums of what can best be described as beautiful piano music.

For a pianist who makes ambient music, Budd originally wanted to be the world's greatest jazz drummer, and spent some of his youth playing drums with the legendary Albert Ayler while in the Army.

Unlike Eno, Budd comes from a serious compositional background, but says he doesn't listen to music, and doesn't like composing. He has no instruments in his house, because he never gets the urge to play music. He draws his inspiration from visual art. He comes up with the titles of pieces first, and writes the music later.

In 2004, Budd said he was retiring (to my great disappointment). But a year later, he started a streak of writing, recording, and releasing albums that saw him put out more work in his "retirement" than he had before he retired! Not only that, but I find his recent releases superior to most of the records he put out in his early days.

In addition to his work with Brian Eno, Harold Budd has collaborated with Robin Guthrie (of Cocteau Twins), Cocteau Twins themselves, Andy Partridge (of XTC), Clive Wright (of The Avengers), and John Foxx, among other musicians.

Budd is now 82. His last released album was 2014's lovely "Jane 12-21", following "Jane 1-11" in 2013. Supposedly there's a third in the series coming. I am looking forward to it.

"The Pearl" is my favorite record of all time, and Harold Budd is my favorite musician. I have made my own ambient music, frequently (too) derivative of my influences. While I still write pop songs with blocky and clear structure, big choruses, and vocals, I hope to eventually be skilled enough to create the kind of suggestive beauty that "The Pearl" seems to effortlessly provide.

As I approach 50, it seems easier to see myself making beautiful, quiet, instrumental works like this than continuing to craft club-ready rock anthems or dark alternative concept albums.

"The Pearl" was another record that showed me how music can be beautiful. It can be timeless and free from any genre (or simply defining its own genre). It continues to suggest new ways of composition, free from grids, rules, "-isms", and tradition. Budd himself shows a compositional path that seems vital into old age, and without mastery of any instrument.

If you have never heard "The Pearl", it is highly recommended, and available for purchase as a CD or downloads from Amazon or iTunes, and is available on all major streaming services.

If you want more Harold Budd, comparable or similar works include:

  • "Ambient 2: The Plateaux of Mirror" by Harold Budd and Brian Eno.
  • "Translucence/Drift Music" by John Foxx and Harold Budd, which continues in the Eno direction.
  • "Bordeaux" by Harold Budd and Robin Guthrie, which adds Guthrie's guitar playing to Budd's keys.
  • "Jane 12-21" by Harold Budd, which is a kind of survey of Budd's style.