Thursday, December 31, 2020

2020 In Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 08, 2020

Harold Budd (1936 - 2020)

Harold Budd has died. He was 84 years old.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 07, 2020

Repairing the Union: Next Steps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Moot or abolish the electoral college

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

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

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

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

3. Find or cultivate compelling Democratic candidates

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. A compelling Democratic platform and message

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

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

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

I: Well, what's your platform?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. The Senate

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

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

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

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

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

In Conclusion

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

Sunday, November 01, 2020

Remarks on the end of TIP

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Verbally and mathematically precocious youths rule.

Friday, October 30, 2020

Paper Life is now available!

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

About Paper Life

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

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

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

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

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


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

Mastered by Michael Hateley for Lotus Mastering

Album art design by Iran Narges

Thank You

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

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

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

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

Thank you for listening.

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

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

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

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

Congratulations, Lauren!

Check out the award-winning work below:

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 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 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.

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Napster, Oxycontin, and Ethics in Business

Rock and Roll

When Napster launched in June of 1999, it had a dramatic impact on the music business. Shawn Fanning, Napster's creator, wanted easy sharing of people's personal music files. He elided the difference between what had been the common, small-scale exchange of free (and technically, illegal) music via mixtapes or CD-Rs (painstakingly made by one individual for another, one copy at a time, in real time or close to it) and what Napster offered: industrial-scale, wholesale copying of entire libraries, effectively instantaneously, from one user to countless unnamed strangers. 

By choice, ignorance, or both, Napster's creators simply and blatantly ignored laws and ethics. Napster rapidly grew from a few college dorm rooms to a worldwide phenomenon. Music business revenue took a nose-dive for years, and now, two decades later, has only begun its recovery. An entire generation of music fans grew up thinking music is, or should be, free and of terrible quality. The effects of Napster's initial disruption of the music business continue to this day, though the original Napster itself was an early casualty of the music wars, and the brand only survives as an ironic ghost of its former self, pasted over Rhapsody -- a service originally created to fight it.

Many people feel Napster's biggest innovation was its focus on digital files (and user-ripped and -hosted files, at that!). This familiarized millions of people with MP3s and the idea that music could be divorced from a physical format. Unfortunately, it also familiarized people with poor quality, no liner notes or metadata, and music as having no value, but that's not the point here.

However, Napster's real innovations had little to do with the music business. Napster was the first time I can recall a company and product being so transparently disingenuous and dishonest about its purpose.

Shawn Fanning was quick to call Napster a "file-sharing service", immediately and deliberately conflating the concepts of "sharing" a file on a network (which makes copies available to anyone) and "sharing" something like a sandwich. This framing had the effect of allowing bad faith arguments about "isn't sharing good?" (which, in its reference to guidance provided to unruly young children, provided an early inkling of how many tech companies would realize that infantilizing branding and messaging was a path to success) and smug follow-on discussions about "well, actually I'm doing artists and labels a huge favor by helping other people discover all these great artists and records!"

The people behind Napster knew what they were doing was illegal and unethical, and they did it anyway. And millions of people (including me) downloaded files, often because it was the only way to acquire some hard-to-find music.

Napster was one major factor in the catastrophic change and decline of the music business. Napster's existence was also a key driver for the creation of Rhapsody, which led to the streaming music business that now accounts for 2/3 of all revenue for the music business.

Napster threw out the rules because it was easier than abiding by them. Rhapsody and subsequent services have had a much more difficult time, not just because they followed the rules or wrote new ones, but because Napster's actions caused so many bad feelings towards "tech".

I visited the illegal Napster during its heyday. It had a couple dozen young people jammed together at long tables in cramped rooms, like seamstresses in a sweatshop. Several had been dissuaded from attending college in favor of working for nearly no money at this hot new start-up. A major venture capital firm had invested a ton of money in this dorm-room project that was now a company clearly breaking the law as their primary business model.

I thought about all the people involved. Did they know what they were doing? Was it just about the money? Did they feel they were going to force some kind of positive change? And for whom? Who would choose to work there? 

What would you have done?


There are many companies we could move to for the next connection or step. Uber or AirBnB, for example, who have tried to rapidly build businesses by ignoring regulations imposed on taxis and hotels, and have ended up stumbling into the kinds of problems that led to those industries being regulated in the first place. 

These services (and their many copycats) try to keep a straight face while literally repeating Napster's "sharing" playbook and terminology, and by leveraging how people don't like paying for stuff, particularly in regulated environments, and finally a desperate and completely bogus "think of the poors we're helping survive" messaging around enabling families and workers at the margins to "make extra money", despite everyone involved knowing the vast majority of business and revenue are driven by pseudo-professional operations.

However disingenuous their messaging, these companies are continuing to face social, legal, and political backlash. As cynical and skeptical as I am of their approach, even I will acknowledge that, once appropriately regulated, they may have a place in society.

But Napster, and the "sharing companies", for all their damage, never destroyed anyone's lives at scale. You cannot say the same thing about Purdue Pharma, the Sackler family, and Oxycontin.

Oxycontin is a wonderful drug. It is a strong painkiller, and for people who have suffered serious and debilitating injuries -- life-threatening car accidents, cancer, and the like -- it can be part of healthy treatment and recovery. One of the minor tragedies of this whole scandal is that a useful and helpful medicine is now tainted and much more difficult to use for legitimate purposes.

Oxycontin is also incredibly addictive, as anyone who has had to take it for a while will attest. 

2019 saw a good deal of solid news reporting about exactly how Purdue Pharma, under direct orders from its controlling founders, the Sackler family, aggressively pushed sales and distribution of Oxycontin. Read nearly any of the thoughtful, well-reported, long pieces about it and you will learn how easy it was to acquire and abuse, how inexpensive it is to manufacture, and how difficult it is for people to kick it.

You will also read about how the Sackler family, despite having made several fortunes from its success, wanted still more money. The Sackler family aggressively pushed Purdue Pharma to move more pills through the system. While their behavior is reprehensible, I want you to pay attention to the next link in the chain.

The Sacklers were directly benefitting from the massive success of Oxycontin. They made oceans of money, and would directly benefit from more sales. But the Sacklers themselves weren't the ones operating the business, manufacturing and shipping the drugs, pressuring the sales reps, hustling the doctors, looking the other way at pharmacies, and so on.

The Oxycontin epidemic was the result of a chain of thousands of workers choosing to do the wrong thing, day after day. That wrong thing could range from straight-up law-breaking to bending rules or ignoring process to simply looking the other way. Because that is what they were being instructed and paid to do. Or because it was easier than not doing it. Or because they didn't want to lose their jobs (perhaps for selfish reasons, like enjoying their lifestyles; perhaps for more critical reasons, like desperately needing health insurance).

Thousands of people have died or damaged their lives due to the over-prescription, abuse, and excessive availability of Oxycontin. The Sacklers bear responsibility. But so do all the other people at Purdue Pharma, the doctors, and the pharmacies who simply went along with it, even when they knew things were somewhere between "not right" and "very wrong". 

How many of those people considered how their short-term actions would be potentially wrecking the lives of other people?  How few needed to stand up and say "stop", or just ask a few questions, to have an impact? As I read article after article about Purdue Pharma, one of the most disappointing observations was how few people even tried to stop it, and how many just went along with it, either out of their own small-scale greed or simply fear. 

What would you have done?

Bad actors in business have been around as long as business has been around. But there is a difference between systems that enable single unethical individuals (look to Bernie Madoff or various other Wall Street bandits) and systems that rely on the unethical behavior of entire organizations and supply chains.

You Have A Choice

Most of us aren't captains of the ship or in command of vast resources. We are part of a larger organization. But as Mike Monteiro reminds us, "ethics cannot be a side hustle." By taking a paycheck, by showing up every day, we are complicit in what our companies are doing. If you are reading this blog, you have the luxury of choice to a degree much greater than most experience. 

You can change your organization from within. You can ask tough questions. You can fight. And you can leave. In my career, I have done all of the above.

One of the more interesting and inspiring things I read this year was "Ruined By Design: How Designers Destroyed The World, and What They Can Do To Fix It", by Mike Monteiro. Mike is a designer, famous for his "Fuck You, Pay Me" speech, and for his strong opinions about good design and good designers. I have had the pleasure of making his acquaintance.

Monteiro's book is potent, if occasionally profane and digressive. But his main points are simple and clear, and can (and should) be extrapolated to workers beyond designers: Our work has impact beyond our immediate selves and our companies. We have an obligation to think about that impact, to act responsibly and ethically, and to do something about our work if it is not responsible and ethical.

Mike Monteiro - Ruined By Design

I strongly recommend it for any of you who work for a living. This becomes especially vivid against the backdrop of our current political and media climate. It seems far too many people have decided that doing harm or lying for a living is fine if the pay is good. I spent a good chunk of the last 12 months wrestling with these issues myself. My initial entry into the VR industry was driven by a desire to have a positive impact, and my subsequent job changes informed by that thinking.


I have spent years legally replacing every file I downloaded from file-sharing networks, either buying vinyl, CDs, or files as I can find them. I have purchased DVDs and Blu-Rays of movies and TV shows as they have become available. I have a short list of remaining purchases. I remain ready to offer my money to people when they make their content available.

Ironically, what's left of Rhapsody ended up buying the Napster brand a few years back, and replacing their own branding. So Napster "won".

The Sacklers threw Purdue Pharma into bankruptcy in late 2019, due to the impending lawsuits. Another example of how corporations allow people to reap positive returns for themselves and avoid negative repercussions. Reporters continue to uncover more about the history of their business dealings. One of the Sacklers died.

The Sackler family has proposed a multi-billion-dollar settlement, in exchange for preventing any other suits from going forward. That seems like a lot, until you realize the family themselves made $13 billion from their actions, so it's a trivial amount of money for them. Meanwhile, the money they'd surrender would be diffused over at least 30,000 people plus their attorneys.

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Albums of Influence: Zero Summer Game (1990) by Anu

As I write this, it is the summer of 2020 -- the summer of the virus. It has been a negative space. Nothing. A zero. A time I have tried to fill with creativity and distraction. It has reminded me of another summer, 30 years in the past, the “zero summer” of 1990. 

Album cover for re-issue of "Zero Summer Game", 2000
Album cover from the re-issue.
Photo by Amanda Erlanson

If we are defining “albums of influence” as records which changed my life, or how I thought about music, or meant something to me, or were memorable, or all of the above, then one album stands above all others in my life. My first solo album, written and recorded in the summer of 1990: "Zero Summer Game".

The summer of 1990 was special for me. In retrospect, it was one of the happiest times in my life.

In early June, I was home from college, between my junior and senior years. My parents were away for most of the season, traveling. My brother was at Outward Bound. I was in the house, alone. 

The house was beautiful and spacious, set below and back from the private drive by a long and steep driveway. The backyard backed up to park land. The street fed into a small suburban neighborhood of mostly unpretentious homes.

What had been my bedroom was now my brother’s. What had been his room was now the “guest room”, redecorated, and that would be where I resided. It felt like a hotel suite, even after I had set up my stereo and unpacked my few bags. What little of my things remained were unceremoniously piled in the closet. I was now a guest in what had been my home.

The weather was typical for Northern Virginia summer: aggressively hot and humid. The skies would darken periodically, but the rain largely refused to provide relief.

After a few days of sleeping off my college fatigue and nights watching rented VHS tapes, one day I went to the basement library of the house. One wall was mostly windows, looking out onto the woods. It was a big room, mostly empty but for bookshelves, a table, and a place to sit and read -- and I set up my recording gear:

One night, after dinner, I went downstairs, flipped on the TV, and started noodling around on my guitar. Inspired by a music video, I started writing on a song of my own. I stayed up for hours working on it, programming drums, making a bass part, writing two guitar parts, lyrics, and lead and background vocals. Home alone, I felt uninhibited about singing loud and trying new things with my voice. I even put in a guitar solo. I went to bed around 3 am.

The next day, I rolled out of bed and hit play on the cassette deck in my room to listen to what I had done the night before. It was...good. I had written and recorded a good song. I wondered if I could do it again.

And so the “zero summer” of 1990 began.

Days, I would get up around 10 or 11. I didn’t drink coffee in those days. I’d let the dog out, and have water or juice. I’d microwave something -- oatmeal, eggs, a sausage biscuit. I would glance at the newspaper.

At some point, I’d exercise. Maybe I’d go to the gym, pushing myself hard in the way that only young adults can, hiding from the heat in the air-conditioned fitness complex. Or I’d go for long runs in the swampy heat of the DC/NoVa summer, threading through the suburban side streets between my house and the high school I had attended. Over rolling hills, past churches, down sidewalk-less black streets. I had a plastic digital watch that would beep and provide a pace.

I would drive to the video store and swap watched VHS tapes for new ones. The car’s steering wheel would be almost too hot to grab. I would blast the AC with the sunroof cracked, music playing as I drove through the McLean streets.

My friends would call. Let’s hang out. Or go on a date. I had a few young women I saw sporadically. I went to the movies a staggering 35 times. But I remember that I really just wanted to stay home, writing and recording songs. I didn’t drink alcohol in those days either, so I had plenty of energy and focus.

Each night I went downstairs to my makeshift studio space, I would finish a whole song. I quickly decided this record would have a theme or a concept, and that concept would be the very summer I was living. I wrote about myself as a character, and lived my life as the character I was writing about. I thought of a Laurie Anderson quote: “This is the time, and this is the record of the time”. Those ideas began to inform the record, and once I had a few songs done, it helped guide me to finish the rest. 

I had written songs before, but the summer of 1990 saw me taking things to a new level. Melodies became more intricate. Chord progressions evolved. There were bridges. I even put guitar solos on many tracks, as I had learned the unified neck and wanted to push myself. 

I spent nearly the entire month of July living in Tokyo. I had planned to spend the summer in Taiwan teaching English, all arranged by my friend Andrew. But days before our planned departure, all the plans came apart. My parents, anxious to have me gone (and perhaps for me to have some kind of adventure) insisted I had to go somewhere. Some frantic phone calls later, and I was on a plane to Tokyo, with one suitcase, a guitar, and about $500.

The full story of my Tokyo adventures is best left for some other time. I did take a cassette of my rough mixes with me, which I promptly lost at a nightclub dancing with some girls I met. Most days I spent some time writing songs and practicing guitar.

I returned to the USA and again, the house was mine alone. I returned to my work plan. I went to the movies. Once or twice I went into DC to hang with my friends there. Had a few memorable nights at Poseurs, my favorite dance club (where, underage, my admittance was never guaranteed). One special night in Georgetown where a woman asked me to dance.

All of those feelings and experiences went into the record. There were songs about people I knew, coded and secret. There were songs where I got weird, adding strange sounds or switching time signatures. I tried different types of guitar orchestration. One song was an e-bow orchestra. Others used no chords. On the title track, I played a spiral pattern on the neck, and thrilled at how perfectly it fit, as did using a 3-bar phrase instead of a typical 4-bar phrase for some sections.

Listening to the record today, it is rather amateurish. The mixing is terrible. The vocals are wobbly. The guitar playing is rudimentary. But the record still has a unity and consistency. It sounds like an album, not just a bunch of songs. It tells a story, and it is very much the story of that summer. 

It was a true DIY project -- I wrote, played, mixed, and recorded every note. Every song was a “real song” -- fully developed, with melodies, chords, lyrics, and ideas. Each was part of a larger whole. Sequenced carefully, varying in tempo and feel. 

As noted in the 2000 reissue, these songs "haven't held up all that well over the years, but they do mark an important step in my development as a songwriter. At the time, I was very proud of this work." Even if nobody else listened to it, liked it, or understood why I made it, or what it meant to me. I knew I could make records myself, and I knew that I absolutely loved doing it. 

I am much better at music now -- better at writing songs, recording, playing guitar, singing. But no matter how good I get, and how satisfied I am with my work, none of it will compare to how accomplished, successful, and excited I felt at the end of the zero summer of 1990.

I think about that summer often. I realize that in many ways, I have tried to re-create pieces of that total experience at various points in my life. 2020, the summer of the virus, is one example. One could look at my upcoming “Paper Life” record as a kind of answer to “Zero Summer Game”, though it was not directly intended as such.

Not long ago, I dreamed I was back there, running through the neighborhood at night. I can feel the hot, sticky, evening air evaporate as I slide open the glass door at the back of the house and walk into the air conditioning. 

A few times, I have driven back through those streets, wondering at how far I have come. I roll through the old neighborhood, peering down the hill at the house I lived in for a brief time. 

Paste-up used for inside cover of original cassette release
Remains of the original paste-up used for the inside cover of the original cassette release of "Zero Summer Game", taken not long after I finished the project. Polaroid(!) photograph by Joseph Kirk.

Sunday, September 06, 2020

Changing computers

Few tasks in life present me with the kind of broad, constant anxiety I feel when migrating to a new computer.

I am in the process of one of these migrations as I write this -- countless progress bars move imperceptibly in the background, as hundreds of thousands of small files are copied from an aging mechanical hard drive to a new solid-state drive. 

I am always worried I am forgetting some critical bit of data or software, that next week I will go to look for something and realize I neglected to think about one particular application or folder or license or something. Or that one or both machines will simply stop working.

The last time I switched to a new computer was over 5 years ago. For the first time in 20 years, I had purchased a custom-built and pre-assembled computer, instead of building my own, like a straight player. At that time, I made decisions with the intent of making this process easier in the future -- all of my critical data is (supposesed to be) on a single hard drive, which I can simply remove and plug into the new system, where it will be copied to a newer, faster, more reliable drive, and then left there as a back-up or vault.

But of course, it is never that simple, is it? Windows or Mac, there are always problems. Software scatters important files everywhere -- configurations, presets, preferences. Some of these are simply tedious to recreate. Others require detailed notes and hours of work. 

I have a Trello card I thought was comprehensive, but I keep adding things to it. Cubase templates. Deauthorizing plug-ins. Enormous digital sample sets. I guess I need all that stuff?

The first computer in a place I lived was the family Apple ][. The day it arrived, there was a massive thunderstorm and the power went out in our house. But the family was so excited that we assembled the machine by candlelight. Over the years that machine would get modifications -- I wired in an external speaker. We added disk drives and a video card. 

In college, I switched to the then-new Macintosh, as required by my school (and graciously deeply discounted by the manufacturer). Graphical user interfaces. A mouse. A fundamentally network-based computing experience, complete with email, chat, server storage, and network printing. Way ahead of its time. 

After my college Mac was stolen in an apartment robbery, I switched to PCs, and spent the 90s learning the ins and outs of Intel's 8086-based architecture and the rapidly evolving world of Microsoft Windows. My first PC ran Windows 3.1, which lived on top of DOS and had its own separate arcana to master: The ISA bus. Autoexec.bat tweaks. Resolving conflicts between devices. 

I'd build a new machine every few years as processors leapt forward in speed and capability - 386 to 486 to Pentium to Pentium II and beyond. Graphics went from CGA resolutions (16 colors! 320 x 200!) to VGA to SVGA to a dizzying array of variants, finally adding primitive 3D graphics, which often required their own separate cards. I spent a lot of time at Fry's Electronics.

I'd recycle some parts (CD-ROM drives had a good run) across machines and discard other technological dead-ends. SCSI drives are indeed fast and cheap, but they sound like jet engines at speed and run nearly as hot. Firewire might have been technically great, but was never really supported on the PC.

One time I wired up the power switch wrong, and when I turned my PC on for the first time, blew the breaker for the house -- perhaps the most dramatic thing that could have happened when I pressed the button.

But most of the time, those initial boots are the opposite, and are disappointing non-events. I push the button. Nothing happens. No beeps. No POST (power-on self test). I sit there, back hurting, knuckles bleeding and bandaged from scraping across sharp components and case edges, and start wondering what the problem is. Wiring? Badly seated card or CPU? Insufficient power supply? Did you fry something?

Eventually I would figure it out. The sense of fragility of the complex machine diminishing exponentially over successive successful boots. I'd stare at the deep blue of the various Windows configuration screens updating, tweaking, waiting. Within a week or two, the new machine would hit its stride, and worries would fade into the background.

So it shall be with this new beast. The progress bar tells me it has over 65,000 files to go. Time remaining: More than 1 day.