Posted on | May 14, 2013 | No Comments
In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell examines “success” and the societal factors that go into determining it. He deconstructs concepts like innate intelligence and natural ability. He examines how the year of your birth affects your life prospects, whether math skills are teachable, and how people born in certain months typically end up doing better in school and certain athletic endeavors. He also discusses the theory that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master a skill.
Outliers isn’t Gladwell’s best book, but I still enjoyed it. So when I had an opportunity to see him discuss it at Town Hall in Seattle a while back, I jumped at the chance. I’d heard a few recordings of Gladwell giving talks, and he seemed like such a natural speaker—articulate, funny, and fluid. But evidently, this is not an inborn gift. It’s the product of intense preparation: Gladwell writes out each presentation, revises it, and then practices until he has it completely memorized.
All of Gladwell’s hard work was certainly in full effect during his talk at Town Hall. He effortlessly worked through a series of stories from Outliers, adding commentary and jokes to keep things rolling along smoothly. Towards the end of his talk, he turned to the subject of personal motivation, asserting that while society’s exceptional performers certainly possess natural ability, the thing that separates them from the pack is their willingness to “do the things that other people won’t do.”
To illustrate this point, Gladwell related an anecdote contrasting two pro golfers: Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson. It seems to have been drawn from an on-line exchange between Gladwell and ESPN’s Bill Simmons. Here’s the salient portion of their exchange:
I was watching golf, before Christmas, and the announcer said of Phil Mickelson that the tournament was the first time he’d picked up a golf club in five weeks. Assuming that’s true, isn’t that profoundly weird? How can you be one of the top two or three golfers of your generation and go five weeks without doing the thing you love? Did Mickelson also not have sex with his wife for five weeks? Did he give up chocolate for five weeks? Is this some weird golfer’s version of Lent that I’m unaware of? They say that Wayne Gretzky, as a 2-year-old, would cry when the Saturday night hockey game on TV was over, because it seemed to him at that age unbearably sad that something he loved so much had to come to end, and I’ve always thought that was the simplest explanation for why Gretzky was Gretzky. And surely it’s the explanation as well for why Mickelson will never be Tiger Woods.
On Mickelson and Sports Lent, I remember watching one of those 20/20-Dateline-type pieces about him once, and he was adamant about remaining a family man, taking breaks from golf and never letting the sport consume him … and I remember thinking to myself, “Right now Tiger is watching this and thinking, ’I got him. Cross Phil off the list. This guy will never pass me.” The great ones aren’t just great, they enjoy what they’re doing – that’s why MJ’s first retirement always seemed genuine to me. He had pretty much mastered his craft, and the media was wearing him down, and then his father was murdered, and for the first time in his life, basketball was looming as a chore for him. And he was smart enough to get away and recharge his batteries. I always respected him for that. Well, unless the real reason he “retired” was because of his gambling problems and an ominous “You screwed up, you’re gonna walk away for 18 months, and we’re gonna pretend this entire discussion never happened” ultimatum from commissioner Stern.
But I think there’s a certain amount of professionalism that needs to be there, as well, because there will always be days when you don’t feel like doing your job, and those are always the true tests. Halberstam has a great quote about this: “Being a professional is doing your job on the days you don’t feel like doing it.” I love that quote and mutter it to myself every time I don’t feel like writing because my allergies are bothering me, or my back hurts, or my head hurts, or there’s some random dog barking, or any of the other excuses I use when I’m procrastinating from pumping out something…..
I’ve thought a lot about this exchange since Gladwell’s talk at Town Hall (which happened before all of Woods’ marital issues hit the tabloids). At that point, Tiger’s image was untarnished. He was the 21st century, American, corporate ideal writ large in the sporting context—the guy with the entire world in the palm of his hand, the consummate competitor, the guy with the surgical focus, the guy who always puts winning first and eats guys like Phil Mickelson for lunch. In short, the guy who elicits a powerful man crush in the likes of Gladwell and Simmons: The guy who is willing to do what other people won’t do.
But back to Town Hall. As Gladwell was discussing Woods and Nickelson that night, I felt a powerful ambivalence welling up inside of me. Part of me is no less prone than Gladwell or Simmons to forming hero worshipping man crushes on high achieving dudes like Tiger Woods. So I get that impulse and its appeal.
Another part of me could barely hold myself back from standing up in the auditorium and shouting “No, that’s Bullshit!” Why do we venerate people like Tiger Woods, when it’s so obvious how unbalanced he is? Sure, he works hard. Sure, he’s good at what he does. Sure, he’s a winner, a champion. But what makes that inherently virtuous? What does his approach cost him and the others around him?
Isn’t there a shadow side to approaching life the way he does, particularly when the facade of Tiger can’t possibly be real? Hasn’t this story played out the same way enough times already? Whether it’s Tiger, Mark McGuire, Sammy Sosa, Roger Clemens, Alex Rodriguez, the Paterno/Sandusky Penn State scandal, or the recent Lance Armstrong revelations, I always wonder, “Does it really have to play out this way again?”
Is encouraging people to be more like Tiger, or JoePa, or Lance really the best thing for our culture and the health of the world at large? Can’t you smell that Schadenfreude laying in the grass, just waiting for its moment in the sun? Isn’t Phil Mickelson the one we should venerate, even if he isn’t quite the competitor that Tiger is? Isn’t he the one who is actually doing it the right way, who has a healthier perspective, the one who hasn’t sacrificed all of his humanity to the alter of achievement?” Or does none of that matter?
I don’t think I’m alone in this reaction. Indeed, as a society, we seem deeply ambivalent about this stuff. On the one hand, we have a tendency to treat people like Tiger Woods as if they were modern-day gods of Greek Mythology, with their outsized personalities, grand exploits, and superpowers. Many of us long to be like them. We fancy ourselves kindred spirits, working hard towards the moment when we’ll get our turn to claim our place in the sun and be recognized for our greatness. On the other hand, many of us also secretly enjoy it when people like Tiger fail, for somehow it validates that even if we never match Tiger’s worldly fame and glory, we’ll always have him dead to rights on matters of rectitude.
And in that moment of cognitive dissonance, whether implicitly or explicitly, we question the dominant success narrative of our culture. We remind ourselves that there are a lot of different kinds of success in this world, and the sort of success that Gladwell discusses in Outliers is of a very particular sort: success in the classroom, success on the athletic field, success on the big stage, success in the public sphere. Success at things with a clear, easy to measure metric attached to them. The sort of stuff that Corporate America is obsessed with, which probably explains why Gladwell has become such a popular speaker in those settings. (The day before his Town Hall talk, Gladwell gave the same talk on the Microsoft Campus in Redmond.)
Most of us righteously agree, at least for a minute, that maybe it’s not such a good idea to elevate this sort of success over all the other kinds. For venerating the “people who will do what other people won’t do” is saying that the end result is always more important than the process used to achieve it, and the main thing that gives any of us value is what we produce, irrespective of how it affects other people or makes us feel.
There’s very little room for friendships, familial bonds, empathy, or open-ended intellectual curiosity. It’s all about the bottom line, including the children we conceive and raise. If they don’t achieve in these terms, then the parent has to feel bad about that process too, even if the kid ends up having a relatively happy life, filled with loving relationships, cool experiences, etc.
But even at our most righteous, we can’t quite shake another discomfiting thought: Maybe this is just the ugly truth of how things really are, and most of us just don’t want to see it. Maybe all that stuff about work-life balance, caring about your fellow man or woman, and doing things the “right way” is just lip service, or bourgeois ethics designed mostly to maintain the status quo and keep the have-nots from catching up with the haves.
Or maybe these principles are a luxury that incumbent elites can afford, because the original sins of their forbearers, the ones that brought them to their current elevated station and continue to benefit them, have been erased by the passage of time.
In the three installments of the Godfather, Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone longs for legitimacy, to be clean, unsullied by the past sins of his father, like Kay (Diane Keaton), his WASP wife, and the WASPs he presumably went to college with. But of course their cleanliness is probably just an illusion too. Their power and privilege, so seamless and clean, is simply a function of more time and distance from the sin. Each progressive generation gets more abstracted from it. The provisional antecedents of the power become more obscured, the existence of the power more reified, until it is simply the default setting.
Everyone who lacks the benefits of incumbency faces the same dilemma faced by Michael’s father, Vito Corleone (Robert Dinero), in Godfather II. They don’t necessarily have the luxury of principle if they want to get ahead. All Vito wanted was to feed his family and make a good life for them in the new world. He didn’t set out to be an organized crime boss. He begins his time in America as a casualty of the Sicilian Mafia wars. But eventually he sees the situation for what it is: a no-win Kobayashi Maru scenario. And like Captain Kirk, he transgresses established ethics and societal norms, choosing “to do the things that others wouldn’t do,” break the existing rules, and “win” the game (“It’s not personal. It’s just business”).
From the looks of it, Vito is in good company. Whether it’s Mark McGuire, Barry Bonds, Lance Armstrong, and their buddies taking performance enhancing drugs in the world of sports, or rock bands using performance enhancing drugs like speed and Cocaine on the stage, there’s a lot of transgression going on. John Calipari keeps taking teams to the Final Four. He may not be honest. He pushes the envelope on the rules. But he’s a winner. His players make it to the NBA, and winners write the history.
Besides, aren’t the sanctimonious rules of the NCAA just so much hypocrisy anyway. Aren’t they just empty piety covering up the way college athletes are exploited by a system that pays them very little and profits greatly on the back of their talent and effort? Or are all apprenticeships like that, inherently exploitative? If you work in a lab as a post-doc fellow, you’re probably not getting compensated the true worth of your knowledge and talent either. But perhaps that is part of the learning process. Perhaps the deprivation and uneven power dynamic is part of what creates an environment in which people are more likely to respond to coaching and instruction. Hard to say.
Undoubtedly, Gladwell might respond to my criticisms by asserting that he’s not advocating that people behave like Tiger Woods or Lance Armstrong. He’s just reporting that successful people like Tiger Woods “do the things that other people won’t do.”
That’s a fair point, and Gladwell is certainly not alone in making it. Indeed, David Sedaris’s “Four Burners Theory” covers similar ground. `But even if Gladwell isn’t explicitly advocating that people behave in this way, the message is clear. Hell, it’s clear from Gladwell’s own conduct. He’s one of those guys too. He writes and then re-writes the presentation. He memorizes and rehearses it until it’s seamless.
Most people don’t do that. The people who do aren’t like the rest of us. They’re rare. And because they do the things that other people won’t do, they also tend to play by a different set of rules than the rest of us (even when they pretend this isn’t so). Probably, like the gods of Greek Mythology, they always have.
Perhaps this is just more obvious in today’s media environment than it used to be. For nothing remains a secret very easily anymore and the media rarely protects celebrities today like it sometimes did in the past. Particularly since the Vietnam War and Watergate, a lot of us have become cynical to the core. We’re just waiting for some dark shadow revelations to emerge from a story that seems too good to be true. And we’re always primed to tear the veil off of everything, because we can’t believe that anything, no matter how good it seems on the surface, couldn’t have something rotten lurking inside it.
Case in point: Here in Seattle, rookie sensation, Russell Wilson, burst onto the scene this past NFL season, quarterbacking the Seahawks to their best season in years. Like Tiger and Lance before him, he seems too good to be true. He always says the right sports clichés and does the right things (e.g., “the separation is in the preparation”). But as much as you want to feel good and embrace the Russell Wilson story all the way, it’s gotten hard to do that, because your heart has been broken so many times. So you’re just waiting for an unimaginably heinous story to break about a domestic violence situation between Wilson and his wife or allegations that he has been molesting 8-year-old boys at the local Children’s Hospital he visits every week.
Makes me sad to think about it. But how can you not think about it when things like this seem to happen almost every few weeks? I started writing this piece not long after the Tiger Woods scandal broke. Then it got stalled. The Lance Armstrong revelations inspired me to pick it back up and work on it more. In between those two events, we had the Penn State scandal, the Suzy Favor Hamilton scandal. Since then, there have been more allegations about Alex Rodriguez using PEDs. Who knows what will be next?
Maybe Gladwell’s next book should be a look at the psychology of high achievers such as himself. Perhaps then we could better appreciate how the tendencies that allow a person to “achieve” in one area of life increase the likelihood that they will transgress societal norms in other areas. And with this knowledge, maybe we’d get clear once and for all that Charles Barkley had it right about not being a role model. Then, we’d be less inclined to elevate these people so unrealistically in the first place.
At the same time, perhaps it would also allow us to focus more attention on those areas of achievement that Gladwell has excluded from Outliers. For most people don’t get 10,000 hours of training when they begin the process of rearing children. Yet, some people manage to be better than other people anyway. Some people build and nurture a wide community of friends and associates (“Connectors” to use a term from another Gladwell book). Some people are always there in a crisis when a friend needs an understanding ear or help up off the carpet after they’ve fallen down. But only in rare circumstances are the accomplishments of these people foregrounded.
As former NFL coach Tony Dungy apparently has said, “Integrity is what you do when no one is watching; it’s doing the right thing all the time, even when it may work to your disadvantage.” Those words have got a pretty good ring to them. They definitely don’t describe the Captain Kirk, Kobayashi Maru scenario from the Starfleet Academy. But they do describe the Mr. Spock Kobayashi Maru scenario from the Wrath of Kahn.
There, faced with a no-win situation, Spock can’t just reprogram the computer simulation, change the background constraints, and prevail. Instead, he must sacrifice himself, so that others may survive. That’s a mighty high bar. Most of us don’t ever reach it. But it’s something to strive for.
Indeed, while I’m not a religious person, it seems like our faith (wherever we may find it) is what inspires and supports us in striving to act with integrity—even when nobody is watching, even when we never get a gold star, and even when so many messages in the culture make us feel foolish for doing so.
It’s a good thing that a lot of people still seem to have this sort of faith or we’d be really screwed. But sometimes it still feels like an endangered species that is being asked to carry too much of the load. And I worry about what may happen if we don’t collectively work harder to re-factor our priorities and foreground the values that support this sort of faith. For living these values doesn’t just ask us to do what other people won’t do. It also asks us to do things that many people don’t do.
They’re not necessarily the same things that Gladwell is talking about in Outliers. But they definitely pose their own challenges. Often, they are even harder than doing the things that people like Tiger Woods and Lance Armstrong do to excel in their respective endeavors (i.e., deferring short-term gratification to achieve something bigger in the long-term). For at least in this life on earth, there isn’t much glory attached to doing the difficult integrity things that a lot of other folks don’t do. And that’s kind of a shame, because these seem like the things that actually deserve the most glory and attention.
So maybe one of these days, if we’re lucky, somebody will write a contemporary, best-selling book venerating people who have managed to do well these less sexy, but no less important, things.
Maybe they’ll write out a great speech based on the book and revise it until it shines. Maybe they’ll memorize their speech. Maybe they’ll be booked to give it at places like Town Hall and Microsoft. Maybe it will become a sensation and inspire a more public conversation about how the rest of us can better emulate the people described in the book.
In the mean time, I guess the best we can do is have that sort of conversation ourselves with the people we know, however imperfect or unpolished it may seem, and try to live those ideas everyday, even when nobody is watching. From small things (big things one day come).
- In the wake of the Lance Armstrong mea culpa, it was heartbreaking to hear the story about Armstrong telling his son, who defended his honor, that he had lied to him about his PED use. ↩
- The “Four Burner Theory” encourages us to look at our lives as a stove with four burners. Burner one represents family. Burner two represents Friends. Burner three represents health. Burner four represents career. According to Sedaris, to be good at one of these areas of life, you must turn down the flame on one of the other burners (e.g., to be really good at career, either friends, family, or your health needs to be mostly ignored). To be great at one of these areas of life, you must turn down the flame on two burners. So it might be possible to be great at career and keep the burner of family on. But you’ll probably need to turn off the burners of health and friendship. In my experience, many people do end up turning down one burner to focus on the other three. But only a select few, the “people who will do what other people won’t do,” can stomach losing two of the four burners. ↩
- It’s a little crazy that former Olympian (and fellow UW-Madison Badger) Suzy Favor Hamilton, could embark on a secret career as a high-priced escort and believe that if she shared her real identity with clients it would nevertheless remain a secret. But on another level, while perhaps a bit naive, maybe it wasn’t completely crazy to think that people would keep it in confidence (or at least mostly in confidence). Probably, the story didn’t leak out because one mean dude called TMZ. It was more like somebody used her services, bragged about it to a buddy and told him not to tell anyone else. Of course, that buddy had to tell at least one other person. Eventually, along that chain, the message of discretion was lost. The rumor got into the hands of somebody with a monetary interest in determining whether it was true. With a little digging, they determined it was true. The rest is history. ↩
- More Suzy Favor Hamilton, because her story is so rich and, well, she’s a fellow UW-Madison Badger. In addition to being a world class middle distance runner, she apparently also became a top-ranked escort. Undoubtedly, her decision to get into the escorting business was driven by a lot of different things. Other than noting that this isn’t something that most upper-middle class professional women do, I’m not here to judge her actions or motivations. But one thing seems clear from the news accounts. ↩Once she committed to being an escort, she was in it to win it. She wasn’t going to be a mediocre escort. And I wonder if the competitive aspect of that business was one of the draws for her. For while she could no longer use her body to strive to be the best middle-distance runner in the world. being the top-ranked escort in Vegas was apparently still a realistic possibility. As dude pushing 50 myself, I can tell you that best “beer gut” is about the only body-related competition where I’d have any realistic shot of being top-ranked. So however weird it might seem to a lot of people, attaining top-ranked escort status in Vegas as person over 40 is something that most people could never do even if they wanted to. Therefore, whatever one thinks about the propriety of her actions, I don’t find it that hard to understand how they filled a psychological need for Favor-Hamilton.
Posted on | April 10, 2013 | No CommentsThe Internet can be very strange. It can also be very sad. Yesterday, I received a calendar alert in my e-mail inbox informing me that today is the birthday of Yancy Noll.
In and of itself that wasn’t strange. Windows calendar sends those alerts out all the time for various friends of mine.
The thing is, I don’t know Yancy Noll. The only reason I know his name is because he was was shot dead in his car on September 3, 2012. At first they thought it was a road rage incident up in Lake City. But now there’s some thought that it might have been a thrill kill.
I think Noll would have been 44 today. Google indicates that people thought he was a good, kind-hearted dude. It also indicates that he was a wine steward at the Broadway QFC. I guess he must have been a work buddy of another friend of mine who also worked in the wine department there.
Probably, Noll ended up in my address book because we were both included on some group e-mail from that buddy. So perhaps I did meet Yancy once or twice, maybe at my buddy’s bachelor party or at his wedding. Or maybe he sold me wine
His birthday must have gotten on my calendar because he included it as part of his hotmail or Windows live profile. (Memo to self and everyone else: Make sure you know what those privacy settings mean on your web services. Otherwise, who knows where your birthday alerts will go?)
In any event, while I didn’t really know Yancy, I wanted to send my thoughts and prayers to any of my friends who did know and love him and honor him on his birthday. He left this world way too soon under very unfortunate circumstances. At the end of the day, it’s cold comfort, but let’s hope his killer is brought to justice.
Posted on | August 22, 2012 | 1 Comment
(Poster above by Ed Fotheringham. Printing by the Vera Project. There are still a limited number of posters for sale. Proceeds go to Music for Marriage Equality. Starting on August 27, 2012, you should be able to buy one at www.music4marriage.org. Nice, professional, B&W photos below by Niffer Calderwood. Video by Chris Swenson. Blurry color photo of Ed Fotherginham’s feet by me and my Droid Incredible.)
I saw an impromptu reunion of the band Flop last Saturday night in the living room at my buddy Whiting’s house. For those who don’t know them, Flop was a band from the era of the Seattle grunge explosion, but never quite of the Seattle grunge explosion. They made three great full-length records, filled with melodic pop/punk. Then they disbanded around 1995.
In a alternate universe, destiny might well have delivered to Flop the fame that Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Soundgarden received in ours. Meanwhile, Kurt Cobain, after years spent touring and trying to make it in the music business, might have put his art skills to use and stumbled into a successful career in web design, all the while continuing to play music shows and release records of great quality.
But in our universe, that fate belongs to Rusty Willoughby: art director by day, musician and songwriter 24/7/365. Whether with Pure Joy, Flop, Llama, or his most recent project, Cobirds Unite, few Seattle musicians have matched Rusty for longevity and consistent quality of output. Indeed, the Cobirds Unite album is easily one of my favorite records of the last 5 years.
Rusty may have never amassed a fan base comparable to that of the icons of grunge, but his audience remains passionate and loyal, a fact that was plainly evident last Saturday night. People were in high spirits, and Rusty, Bill, Paul, Nate, and Dave did not leave them disappointed.
The show somehow managed this amazing trick of being filled with wonderful nostalgia while simultaneously remaining absolutely rooted in the now. Maybe it was having everyone packed into such a small space (a great call on Flop’s part). Maybe, because Rusty’s current songs are still so great, nobody had to feel secretly sad that all the good stuff was in the past. Whatever the reasons, Whiting’s living room felt refreshingly devoid of ironic self-consciousness.
This, in and of itself, was notable. For few in the annals of history have wielded the protective shield of cynical, self-aware, irony more proudly and completely than the people of my generation. Boomer hippies have their free love, patchouli, tie dye, consciousness raising protest marches, and self-righteousness. We have our irony.
If I had any doubt about just how much our ironic outlook marks us as creatures of a particular time and place, a recent weekend spent amongst the sincerely earnest young songsters at the Doe Bay Music Festival made it plain for me again.
But last Saturday there was no one foot in the water and one foot on the shore. Everyone in the room seemed to want to be there all the way. And they looked like they belonged there too. Scanning the proceedings, I had an odd sensation, as if somebody had taken a picture of a house party from 1992, put it in Photoshop, and applied the “middle-aged” filter.
I know that probably doesn’t sound very attractive in the abstract. But it was really quite awesome in the flesh. The years had not transformed anyone into a sad, unrecognizable caricature of their younger self, and Flop was still great too. Yes, there were some bald heads and grey hair. But cosmetics could not obscure the unbroken thread running from Whiting’s living room all the way back to where it all started for Flop years ago in a shared U-District house.
There was no bittersweet paradise lost vibe. There was only a joyful feeling of renewal, as we reconnected at the most basic and visceral level to what for many of us is the formative, shared-cultural experience of our generation, our storefront church, our Festival Express: the small-scale rock show–band and audience crammed together, wall between them destroyed, pulsing and undulating as one, senses completely immersed in the moment.
I’m not sure how the night could have been any more right. For my people have always been mostly about little cultural moments like this, shared with our immediate community, in places like basements and living rooms. We might not have invented doing it yourself, but our most significant cultural contribution has probably been making it something that everyone throughout the world immediately understands when they see the letters “DIY”.
The ethos of DIY is a modest one. Rarely, does its reach exceed its grasp. To a large extent, it exists in opposition to the grandiose. Indeed, it was probably observing the very public foibles of the Greatest Generation and the early Baby Boomers that led many of us to cling so tightly to the more modest goal of keeping things real enough that they don’t get too overblown and polluted.
Perhaps, it’s fair to criticize our lack of grand, widescreen audacity and ambition. But on the other hand, our DIY ethos seems to have aged better than tie dye and patchouli.
And that’s no accident. It was by design. For metaphorically speaking, DIY isn’t one particular suit of clothes or a specific fashion trend. It’s whatever you happen to be wearing at the moment you decide you’re going to get off your ass and do something, however small or personal it may seem in the grander scheme of things. In this regard, DIY is a timeless outfit that’s always in style.
Over the last 30 years, we’ve helped grow a lot of cool stuff out of the DIY soil. Even if it wasn’t a stated goal to begin with, some of it has changed the world. In the process, we’ve acquired power. Many among us are now the Man or the Woman.
So it’s both foolish and impossible to pretend that we are still part of some sort of underdog insurgency. Our sensibility is everywhere, in all kinds of improbable places, like State Farm Insurance commercials and sports talk radio.
Indeed, it increasingly feels like the entire mainstream is populated with people like us, cultural omnivores, making sly references to things like Gilligan’s Island; John Cage; Rush; Miles Davis; the Three Stooges; Apocalypse Now; and Tony Orlando and Dawn. It’s not just for margin dwelling hipsters anymore.
That can be pretty weird to contemplate sometimes. But still, even in middle age, a different thread also remains, one running slightly under the surface, but nevertheless hardwired into our collective identity. We don’t seem to know any other way than to keep going back to the DIY soil, wherever we may find it.
When in doubt, go to the basement, the living room, the practice space, the workshop, the drawing board, the word processor, or wherever else you do your thing. Make something.
Why? Because you want to. Because you have to. Because the act of doing it feels good in and of itself, even if the process ends up being more important than the outcome in the grand scheme of things. Express yourself. Remind yourself that you are still alive. In doing so, maybe help remind your friends and family that they are alive too.
That’s what Flop invited us to do with them so joyfully last Saturday night, put our hands in that dirt, rub it on our sweaty, beer-soaked faces, and remember something that has shaped so much of what we’ve done to date: No matter how much our worlds may change, with careers, kids, and lots of other cool (and not so cool) distractions and responsibilities, that soil remains ours to work in. We don’t need anyone’s permission to sow our seeds there. All we need is a little inspiration, the tools at hand, and the will to follow through.
Posted on | May 3, 2012 | No Comments
In response to the Pulitzer Prize winning Eli Sanders and some other folks, Brendan Kiley posted Two Additional Notes on Violence vs. Vandalism on the Stranger’s Slog this morning.
Once again, his post engendered a bunch of comments. At #84 in the comment thread, Brendan posted the following:
Again: I *do not advocate* any of this stuff. But I do not believe that vandalism and violence are the same thing. Smashing a person and smashing a window are both scary, but they are not moral equivalents and should not be regarded as such.
I’m surprised by how difficult that idea seems to be for some of you.
I agree with Brendan. Vandalism does not always imply violence. But as I said yesterday, vandalism and violence are both acts of aggression.
Along the continuum of aggression, violence is morally worse than vandalism. An act of violence always intends violence as its outcome. An act of vandalism, on the other hand, does not necessarily have this intent.
Nevertheless, the possibility of violence is almost always imbedded within acts of vandalism, and the two have often walked hand in hand throughout human history.
That’s why people commonly lump vandalism and violence together. And that’s why many people believe that the moral distance separating these two categories of action isn’t wide enough to be conceptually meaningful most of the time.
One of my problems with vandalism is that too often its perpetrators don’t consciously appreciate the possibility of violence embedded in their act of vandalism.
Instead, their vandalism has an aura of being mildly transgressive but mostly harmless, as when high school students drive around the suburbs kicking down people’s mailboxes.
The risk of getting caught is part of what makes it exciting for the vandal. But embedded in the fear of "getting caught" is also the unconscious knowledge/fear that "getting caught" might also mean "getting hurt," if the wrong person happens to do the "catching."
How many people have heard a story about about some kid who was out throwing snowballs at cars, hit a car with a snowball, the car stopped, a dude got out, chased the kid down, and put a whipping on him. It wasn’t an everyday thing. But these stories underscored the riskiness (and enhanced the thrill ) of partaking in this activity.
(So the violence embedded in the vandal’s act might not be violence on someone else. It might be violent retribution visited upon the person doing the vandalism.)
There’s a lack of empathy at the root of most vandalism. Perhaps the people who put the rocks through Mayor Mike McGinn’s window did not intend to do violence to McGinn and his family. But they also didn’t really show much empathy for what the experience of receiving those rocks might mean to them. In that moment, McGinn and his family weren’t people. They were just abstract symbols.
Sure, it’s different when the window is at Niketown. A multi-national corporation doesn’t have feelings. As someone else in the comments thread on Brendan’s post said: “Corporations are made of capital; people are made of carbon.” But there are carbon life forms who work and shop at Niketown. These people do have feelings. One of them could have been hurt. Somebody will have to clean up the damage. Somebody could be hurt in the process of doing that too.
There was similar property damage in San Francisco’s Mission neighborhood a couple of days ago. Every storefront involved was not a Niketown. Some shops were small businesses made of both capital and carbon, capital they may not be able to replace. But as with the Seattle property damage, at the point of impact, those people with those businesses were just symbols. In the process of making their statements, the political vandals stripped these people of their humanity.
People doing politically motivated property damage tend to be justify themselves by using the following logic:
"My vandalism is a high-minded symbolic statement. It’s no immature thrill seeking stunt. Besides, it’s minor small potatoes compared to the atrocities promulgated by the people and groups that I am protesting against. What about Mitt Romney, Bank of America, the IMF, and the US Army in the Middle East? These people and groups are hurting people. These are desperate times. People need to know we are serious."
And that’s all true. There are many cold, empathy-challenged, border-line (and actual) psychopaths who hold power in our world. They hurt a lot of people. But when we stoop to their level of non-empathy, we become them.
So while violence and vandalism are not morally equivalent, they are morally linked by the lack of empathy that is at the root of both them.
People who appreciate this linkage tend not to perpetrate vandalism. Conversely, people who perpetrate vandalism often don’t seem to understand (a) the real harm it can do to other people, even if these people don’t get whacked upside the head; and (b) just how easily it can slide into something violent, where somebody does get whacked upside the head (or worse).
Few people ever signed up for a revolution the goal of which was to liberate other people to run amok on the streets and lay waste to anything that might catch their fancy (including other people’s stuff).
Most people are motivated by a desire for security and some semblance of order. This is what frees them to think about and do other stuff besides protect themselves, their families, and their stuff 24/7/365.
Maybe sometimes violence and vandalism are the only way to get to that place. But to my mind, usually they aren’t. More often than not, this sort of approach and response just continues a cycle of aggression and violence.
So like Brendan, I don’t condone either vandalism or violence. But unlike Brendan, I’m not sure that trying to highlight the moral distinction between the two in this context is particularly useful either. Even if they’re not equally bad, they’re both bad enough that they should be avoided.
Posted on | May 2, 2012 | 1 CommentIn today’s Stranger, Brendan Kiley has a thought piece about yesterday’s May Day activities in downtown Seattle entitled Why All the Smashy-Smashy? A Beginner’s Guide to Targeted Property Destruction.
In that piece, Brendan draws a distinction between “violence” and “vandalism,” suggesting that the news media too often lumps these two things together under the singular heading of “violence.”
While I agree that Brendan’s distinction may well be worth considering, particularly at the level of theory, I’m not surprised that people typically link the term “vandalism” with the term “violence.”
Here’s why: Both vandalism and violence are forms of aggression. Yes, they take place along a moral continuum. Violence is worse. But when people, animals, etc. are nearby, the distance between vandalism and violence can be very short indeed.
Most people are cognizant of this reality. They know that once you let out the genie of aggression for whatever purpose, righteous intentions may not be enough to prevent a situation from careening into violence.
When I was in school in Madison, Wisconsin back in the mid to late 1980s, there was a fruit smoothie stand on the Library Mall called “Loose Juice.” It was owned by a guy named Karleton Armstrong. On August 24, 1970, Karleton, his brother and two other dudes blew up the Army Math Research Building at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
It was intended as an act of vandalism or targeted property destruction to use Brendan’s terminology. Karleton and his cohorts tried to make sure that nobody was inside.
But a post-doctoral fellow named Robert Fassnacht apparently didn’t get the memo. He was in the basement doing research that night, trying to wrap some stuff up before starting his family vacation. When the building blew up, he was killed.
Karleton and some of his cohorts went to jail (one of the four dudes is apparently still at large). When he got out, he opened the smoothie stand.
Karleton made a good smoothie called the Dick Gregory with strawberries and bananas. He seemed like a humble, soft spoken dude. I’m sure his intentions were good back in 1970. But his act of targeted property destruction killed somebody. That was real. That was violence. That he intended something different didn’t change the outcome.
This reality was hammered home for me years later here in Seattle. A distant cousin of mine came to visit and pinged about having lunch with my brother and me. We met him and his wife at the Saigon Bistro above the Viet Wah in the I.D..
My cousin was older than us, and we didn’t know him really at all. As we talked, it turned out that he had attended grad school in Madison during the late 1960s and early 1970s.
I made a comment about that era being crazy times. I think I must have referenced the Math Research Building blowing up and how Karelton had the smoothie stand on the Library Mall while I was in Madison.
When I said that, my cousin tensed up a little. “The guy who was killed in that bombing was a friend and colleague of mine. He had a wife and young kids.”
That put a razor sharp edge on things. Maybe Karleton had had a weird life he didn’t expect, blowing up a building, going to jail, selling smoothies, and later owning a deli called the Radical Rye on State Street in Madison. But he was still alive. My cousin’s friend was dead, and his kids never got to know their father.
My take away: Any time you move into aggressive destruction mode, you create a risk of hurting somebody. In an urban environment like downtown, where there are a lot of people around, that risk goes up.
Probably, the most brutalizing aspect of modern capitalism is the way that it turns people into abstractions on a spreadsheet. Philosopher Kings of the market make decisions that don’t take the human costs into account and a lot of people suffer. Generals and government officials do the same thing on the battlefield.
But when “anarchists” do targeted property damage vandalism, they’re kind of just fighting one immoral approach with another one. They replace the spreadsheet with some sort of theoretical revolutionary framework. But they’re still trying to play the role of Philosopher King, taking their cues from a place of abstraction, where the human costs of their actions don’t seem any more well considered than the actions of the people they are protesting against.
Sure, the wine in their glass may be different, but the glass itself is the same. It’s the same pattern of thought. It’s the same psychological impulse. It’s two wrongs don’t make a right.
To me, this is the power of non-violence. It mostly avoids this mirror imaging problem. It’s a different kind of vessel entirely. Yes, it is slow. Yes, it requires lots of discipline. No, it is often not emotionally satisfying. But like interest compounding, if people can stick with it long enough, it’s been known to add up.
Posted on | December 25, 2011 | No Comments
I’ve had a K-Mart radio for over 30 years now. It receives AM, FM, and shortwave frequencies. It was made in Japan before that was a compliment. Nevertheless, it aspires to be hi-fidelity, with knobs and switches for bass, treble, volume, and loudness, plus a separate woofer and tweeter. It even has inputs on its side for things like microphones and electric guitars. Yes, I have played guitar through it.
A while back, a housemate of mine moved out and took the boombox from our kitchen. After months of cooking without music, I remembered the K-Mart radio, dug it out of storage, and put it back into service. Worked like a charm. No CDs, cassettes, or MP3s. Just whatever’s on the terrestrial airwaves when you power it up.
Around 1975, my dad gave both my brother and me one of these radios for Christmas. For me, it replaced an old tube table radio that had originally been my grandmother’s. That radio had a cool orange light on the front of it and wood on the sides. But it was on its last legs. As it heated up, the volume would drop until you couldn’t hear much of anything. It also didn’t have good AM reception. So I couldn’t listen to WLS, the Top 40 station from Chicago. But I did listen to Champaign’s WLRW Solid Gold FM on it: “Poison Ivy,” “Charlie Brown,” “Rag Doll,” and things like that. Strange to think that those oldies were younger in 1975 than the K-Mart radio is now.
I come from a mixed faith marriage. My mom is Episcopalian. My dad is Jewish. There are undoubtedly a lot of reasons why the faith of the mother determines the faith of the child in Judaism. But one reason might be that women are often the ones who maintain the family cultural traditions. That was pretty much true in my family. Perhaps because of the mixed marriage, I got very little traditional religion growing up. We never attended church or temple. Mostly, we worshipped in the Church of Dissonance, which really wasn’t a place as much as a way of being. But that’s a subject for another time.
We did, however, celebrate Christmas. Presumably, my mother was the instigator of this. As a very little boy, we went at least once out to Oakland, California to celebrate it with her mom. Probably, there were more times before that. But I don’t remember them. Maybe we celebrated it for Grandma’s sake. I don’t know. But when I was 5, Grandma died, and we kept on celebrating Christmas. So it either meant something to somebody, or by that time the habit was formed. The Londons are nothing if not creatures of habit, and Christmas certainly helped organize our yearly consumption of consumer durable goods. It also gave me one less thing to feel like a freak about (let’s just say that most of the kids I knew growing up did not worship in the Church of Dissonance).
Kids and Christmas are a very comfortable fit. At least that’s how it’s always seemed to me. Everyone is happy to see kids. People give them things. And why wouldn’t people give them things? Kids really make Christmas fun. They embody the joy of the season. Even today, it’s easy to please a kid with less than ten dollars. Try really pleasing an adult with less than 10 dollars. It’s virtually impossible. Only a kid delivers that much positive feedback for ten bucks.
As a kid, I didn’t think much about Christmas. It was just something we did. Consequently, I never really considered the possibility that my dad, the Jewish guy, might have a more complicated relationship with the holiday than I did. Of course, in retrospect, it’s clear that he did.
On the one hand, my dad definitely had the outsider’s anthropological curiosity about Christmas. In the late 1950s, he wrote an opera about Santa Claus to complete his Ph.D. in music composition. And in the 1970s, he composed a suite of Christmas music under the pseudonym “Bjørne Enstabile”. (Maybe he determined that since Irving Berlin had written a famous Christmas tune, it was a rite of passage for all Jewish composers to try their hand at writing one too.)
On the other hand, I think celebrating Christmas was always a little bit weird for my dad, like getting an invite to an annual party you have routinely been excluded from in the past. Even if the party is pretty fun, you never completely shake the sense that there’s something a little wrong about being there.
I’ve dated a few Jewish gals over the years, and on a couple of occasions they celebrated Christmas with me. While I don’t want to project too much of their experience with Christmas onto my dad, talking with them about it did provide me with at least a little bit of third party Jewish perspective on what it feels like to participate in the Christian rituals.
My takeaway from these conversations? Dad liked the family togetherness of Christmas. He seemed to like that low budget positive kid feedback part too. But he was nevertheless ambivalent about the holiday, and he expressed this ambivalence each year by putting off his Christmas shopping until the last possible moment.
Typically, the drill went something like this: Finals would end a few days before Christmas at the University of Illinois, where my dad taught music theory and composition. Then on December 23 or December 24, my dad would go have a few afternoon drinks, maybe with his friend Salvatore Martirano, maybe with some other folks, maybe alone. I don’t really know. But having some drinks was usually involved. Then he was ready to head off and do some Christmas shopping.
The year of the K-Mart radio was definitely a Christmas Eve shopping year. In fact, I think it was an unprecedented Christmas Eve night shopping year. This is probably how K-Mart got involved. Under normal circumstances, it wouldn’t have been dad’s go-to shopping destination. But it was one of the few stores open late on December 24th. So he didn’t have much of a choice.
The K-Mart in Champaign, Illinois was on Bloomington Road near Prospect Avenue (it’s a Home Depot now). From our house on West Hill Street, you drove north up Prospect across the railroad tracks, past Unc Blacker’s Tavern (“Coldest Beer in Town”), Top Boy Hamburgers, Putt Putt Golf, Dairy Queen, Shakey’s Pizza , Dog and Suds, and Foremost Liquors. I think there was a Red Lobster up there too.
We didn’t live far from the K-Mart, maybe a mile or two away. Once I got to junior high school, I biked it pretty regularly (indeed my junior high school was between our house and the K-Mart). But it was definitely in a different part of town. Our neighborhood sort of defined the northern edge of the nicer part of Champaign. It was nothing fancy, but it mostly consisted of reasonably well-kept, middle class, single family homes. As you headed north out towards K-Mart, things got progressively more low rent and run down. If you headed due east from K-Mart, you eventually found yourself in a poorer, African American part of town. And if you headed due west, you’d find a lot of poor and lower middle class white folks.
Whatever their ethnicity, these people were the regular customers of the K-Mart. And that Christmas Eve night was no exception. My dad later painted a rather bleak picture of the scene: people struggling under the dingy glow of the fluorescent lights to get some last minute shopping done with whatever cash they’d managed to scrape together before the impending deadline–many of them undoubtedly hoping their meager budget would be enough to win some positive feedback from their children.
Dad, the tipsy, middle-class academic, was most definitely a tourist in that sea of desperation. But he was not a stranger to it. He’d grown up poor in Philadelphia during the Great Depression. While he never said so explicitly, I’ve wondered whether the scene conjured up some unhappy childhood memories for him. All I know is that he never hit the K-Mart on Christmas Eve night again. And he rarely went to K-Mart at all after that.
So this night was different than all the other nights. It was like a higher power drew my dad to the radios. For they were of a quality rarely encountered at K-Mart before or since that day. I can’t remember anything else I received for Christmas in 1975, but the K-Mart radio left its indelible mark almost immediately. How different our lives would have been if dad had not gone to the K-Mart that night.
The day after I got the new radio, I was a little more of my own person than the day before I got it. Receiving it was like encountering Martin Luther’s 95 Theses during the Protestant Reformation and contemplating for the first time the possibility that no sacerdotal middle man was necessary to convene with the divine. Suddenly, I had my own direct connection. Now, it was about me and my peers. What did I like? What did we like? Who was cool? Who wasn’t? Before too long, we had our own cultural theology.
Of course, thinking about it almost 40 years later, my illusions of autonomy seem pretty quaint. Even if the K-Mart radio took my parents out of my cultural loop, there were still plenty of adults in the abstract ether of the mass media, constructing and structuring most of what we kids consumed. Sure, there was a symbiotic feedback loop. These people were eager to see what we liked, because their livelihood depended on it. But ultimately, it was a very top down system of dissemination with an incredibly powerful supply-side filtering mechanism. Many were called. But we only heard the very few who were chosen by the gods of the mass media.
Today, we live in an era of media fragmentation. Choice and individuality are buzzwords. The old enforced scarcity of mass media and supply-side filters has given way to a networked, hyper-abundance of digitized culture products. Often, it feels like almost everyone is both a publisher and a consumer.
Contemporary kids embrace a cultural theology far more radical than anything we could have conceived of in the 1970s. Many aren’t just skeptical about the privileged role of the sacerdotal middle man. They question the entire notion that any divine “other” exists outside the confines of the peer-to-peer Hive Mind.
Devices like the iPod allow people to carry tens of thousands of songs around in the palm of their hands. To anyone born before 1980, having easy access to such a huge archive of recorded music feels like an episode of Star Trek. All you have to do is say “Computer, play me some John Coltrane, Chuck Berry, Mississippi John Hurt, Minutemen, Hank Williams, Nick Drake, Death Cab for Cutie, and Soul Asylum.” A few moments later you’re listening to it.
In the face of this abundance, the shuffle feature has become a popular tool for addressing its challenges. Don’t know what to choose? Put it on shuffle. Who knows what it will play next? When shuffle does a good job, one may even entertain the possibility that the algorithm is tapping into something divine. But this is an illusion. Ultimately, all the control remains with the user. Don’t like the song that comes up in the shuffle? Skip it. Or put on your own customized play list. In the end, each iPod user has the godlike power to craft their own personal pop cultural experience.
That sort power seems pretty great in theory. But in practice, wielding it can be rather overwhelming. Barry Schwartz’s book, The Paradox of Choice, eloquently addresses this conundrum. More choice, he argues, doesn’t necessarily mean more happiness. Often, it leaves people drained and dissatisfied. So many choices. So many what-ifs after a choice is made. Did I really make the best choice? Maybe I should have gotten the Chipotle, Cool Ranch Doritos instead of Extra Spicy Nacho Cheese.
This problem is particularly acute in the context of music consumption. So much old music is easily available and so much more new music is constantly being released. It’s like trying to drink from a high-pressure fire hose. Gerald Casale from the band Devo recently addressed this in an NPR interview: “What’s happened is that so many CDs are put out per month, possibly 10,000 a month. Nobody can possibly even know half the music that exists out there.”
For the people who try to keep up with current releases (e.g., critics and super fans), it can feel less and less like it’s about the pleasure of listening and more and more like it’s about just trying to find a way to process the never ending stream of data.
One wouldn’t want to miss out on some important new release. Yet is any release important anymore? How do you even locate and contextualize various releases when there’s such a glut of old and new music floating around in the big atemporal reservoir of song.
Radio, of course, doesn’t work like this. It’s less about control and more about collective experience. As my buddy Pete Sheehy put it to me a while ago, “a radio is a wePod not an iPod.” Everybody gets the same playlist and the same three choices when they tune into a radio station: (1) listen to it, (2) change the station, or (3) turn it off. That’s not a lot of choices compared to an iPod, especially given the limited number of terrestrial radio stations in most markets.
But even with these limitations, radio remains a great deal. It gives you the music for free, and it simply asks you to keep listening when the commercials come on (or the sponsorship messages, or the pleas for donations). Evidently, enough of these commercials have been listened to year-in and year-out to keep the business model viable for many decades.
Probably, I’m just getting old and nostalgic, but I often prefer letting someone else choose the playlist, especially if they are good at it. Compared to the average shuffle mix on an iPod, the classic top 40 of the 1960s and early 1970s still provided a more cohesive mix. Whether it was Motown, British Invasion, Stax/Volt, or San Francisco Psychedelia, if it made it on the top-40 in this period, there was something catchy and pop at its core.
Hell, the same could probably even be said about the average 1970s free-form station. There was a human filter involved, somebody with judgment. There was also the knowledge that a bunch of other folks in your town were listening to the same thing at that very same moment that you were.
When I first visited Seattle in the summer of 1990, my brother had KCMU on in his house (the predecessor to KEXP for any youngsters or Seattle newcomers reading this). As we moved around his Capitol Hill neighborhood, it seemed like every business we entered also had it on.
Fugazi was scheduled to play a show at some movie theater in Seattle’s Lake City neighborhood that has long since been razed for condos or something. Riz Rollins was the afternoon DJ then, and on the day of the Fugazi show, as he talked about it on the air, it really felt like Seattle was a very small town and everybody who lived there was going to be attending the show that night. I found that astounding, especially in a city the size of Seattle.
At that moment, I was reminded of the power of the wePod, and I understood why Seattle’s vibrant music scene was fast becoming an international phenomenon. Along with local music magazine “the Rocket,” KCMU was taking the energy of the local scene, aggregating it, amplifying it, mixing it with complementary stuff from the world outside Seattle (like Fugazi), and reflecting it back to the local community. All you had to do was tune in to be a part of it.
Today, social networking sites like Facebook seem to offer a richer platform than radio for aggregating and sharing these sorts of social experiences. So perhaps we don’t need radio as much for that anymore. But as I celebrate another year with the K-Mart radio, let’s not prematurely write off the venerable wePod either.
Sure, its status and cultural relevance may have declined somewhat in recent years. And it certainly has its flaws (the present state of most commercial radio offers ample proof of that). But in the right hands, a radio can still change your life, just as it changed mine that Christmas morning many years ago.
Everyday, staff members at stations like KEXP continue to drink deeply from the fire hose of cultural production, distill it, and beam the results back to the people. In doing so, they reaffirm that a carefully curated set of music provides an unparalleled opportunity to sidestep the noise and commune with the divinity of the pure signal.
Posted on | October 6, 2011 | No CommentsI’m not sure I’ve ever mourned the passing of a big corporate CEO before. I don’t expect I’ll mourn the passing of another one anytime soon either. But I am mourning the passing of Steve Jobs today. Apple Computers has always had a different sort of relationship with its customer base than most other large companies. Indeed, many Apple computer users are more like acolytes than customers, especially those of us who have a multi-decade relationship with Apple and its products.
I have a vivid memory of my first encounter with the Apple II, at the house of a friend of mine in around 1980. I had more computer experience than most people at that point, having logged many hours on the PLATO mainframe system at the University of Illinois during 8th and 9th grade in the late 1970s. My dad was a professor at U of I, so he was able to get a sign-on for PLATO. He let me and my brother use it, and use it we did.
The PLATO system was very advanced for its time, with powerful graphics and multi-player games that didn’t see the light of day in the mainstream until years later. The Microsoft flight simulator was a direct descendent of a simulator developed for PLATO. Ray Ozzie, most recently the technology guru at Microsoft, was a computer science student at U of I during this time and developed a notes program on PLATO. Later, it became Lotus Notes. Looking back on it now, most of the central attributes of the modern Internet were already in place on the PLATO system in the 1970s. But I’m digressing. Sorry. Just trying to establish some context. Let’s get back to the Apple II.
Honestly, compared to PLATO, the Apple II seemed pretty weak. It had a grid based Star Trek/Space War game similar to one I’d played on PLATO. But this was a really basic game compared to some of the games on PLATO, like “Empire” or “Avatar.” Nevertheless, the idea that a computer was now affordable enough that you could have it in your house, well, that was still really cool. I wished we had one at our house. It was also clear that the Apple II kicked ass on the computers I had seen in the Radio Shack store in the North Randall Mall. Everything about the Apple II seemed better: the way it looked, the Apple logo, the advertising. It was all cool, and it definitely made Apple seem like a club you wanted to be a part of.
By 1983, IBM was starting to steal Apple’s thunder with its “Personal Computer” (“PC” for short). Not long after that, Asian PC clones starting coming out, running Microsoft’s MS-DOS operating system. The personal computer stampede was on. My dad bought a Sanyo PC clone at Christmas time in 1983. It had a single 5.25 inch floppy drive and maybe 128K of RAM. It came bundled with MS-DOS, Wordstar (word processor), Calcstar (spreadsheet), and Datastar (database manager). He bought a daisywheel printer to go with it. So all the printed output looked just like an IBM typewriter.
While I was home on holiday and summer breaks, I learned how the Sanyo PC clone worked. The lack of games was a drag, and the thing did not scream fun. But the word processor was a revelation. I had a lot of writing to do for school, and this was just the utilitarian tool I was looking for. All of a sudden, I could write with ease. No more left-handed pencil smudges, illegible script and multiple cross-outs. Suddenly, the writing process had a heretofore unimaginable level of plasticity. I could write and edit at the same time (just like I’m doing right now). This was huge.
In the fall of 1984, when I headed back to University of Michigan, that Sanyo machine came with me. My dad got a newer Sanyo with two floppy drives. At that point, I was pretty much the only person I knew who had a computer. My housemate, Bill Potter, had studied computer programming in high school, and he was much more technically inclined than I was. He dug right into the manual and figured out things that were beyond me, like batch files and using Datastar and Calcstar. I definitely learned a lot of stuff from him. But mostly I just wrote numerous history papers and my senior honors thesis, feeling very technology forward.
Up to this point, I only had a rather dim awareness of the Apple Macintosh. I had seen the big 1984 commercial during the Super Bowl and perhaps some pictures in magazines. But it wasn’t until late 1984 or early 1985 that Macs started appearing in increasing numbers on campus, both in computer labs and in student dorm rooms. I think Apple may have instituted favorable education pricing around this time to try and jump-start sales of the Mac amongst college students. Or maybe this new innovation was just finally arriving in the midwest.
At first, I dismissed the GUI of the Mac, much like command line junkies before and since. But then one night, I found myself in the dorm room of Phil Dürr (later a guitar player in the band Big Chief of Detroit, Michigan and SubPop Records fame). He had a Mac and he was playing with the program MacPaint, drawing on the screen, typing text, changing font sizes and doing all kinds of stuff I’d never seen a computer do before. Creative stuff. Fun stuff. This was not just a utilitarian writing tool. It was clearly a lot more. It was like PLATO, only it had even more to offer, especially its grayscale graphics.
Notwithstanding that reality, I stuck with my utilitarian Sanyo for quite a while after that encounter with the Mac. First and foremost, I didn’t have the coin to switch. Moreover, while MacPaint was cool, I didn’t have much of a use for it, beyond thinking it was cool. MacWrite was certainly a functional word processor, but it wasn’t a huge step up over Wordstar in terms of functionality (indeed it might have been a step back in many ways). My daisywheel printer had better quality output than the dot-matrix ImageWriter printer that was bundled with the Mac. Nevertheless, the seed of Mac had been planted in my head.
When the Mac II came out in 1987 or so, my dad picked one up. It had a then unheard of 40MB hard drive. He had to drive down to Columbus, Ohio from Cleveland to pick it up. Some electronic music students from Ohio State loaded an ass ton of different software onto the hard drive of the Mac II. But it was in no discernible order. Home on a break, I spent hours exploring all the stuff on that hard drive. Yeah, I know it’s smaller than the size of 10-15 average length mp3s. But at the time, it felt like a massive, almost infinite library of stuff. Subsequently, he also got some early MIDI sequencing software (Professional Performer), an early two-track Pro-Tools editing system, and a 500MB external SCCI hard drive to store digital audio on. That was some mind bending stuff in its time.
About a year after my dad got his Mac II, I stopped working on my Sanyo at home and started writing papers on the Mac SE/30s they had in the computer lab at the University of Wisconsin (where I was in law school). I really started digging into Microsoft Word and appreciating its GUI and WYSIWYG layout. They also had a laser printer in the lab, and I really liked the typeset looking output you’d get with it if you used Times font. At that point, I’m not sure I would have said that MS Word was better than Wordperfect 5.1 on the PC. But it was definitely growing on me.
I finally got my first mac in 1991. It was a used Mac II, purchased from Pre-Owned Electronics, in the Boston suburbs. Like my dad’s, it had a 40MB hard drive. When I moved to Seattle in 1992, I purchased a Personal Laserwriter NTR at Ballard Computer (now a Thai restaurant). Having my own laser printer was, of course, a revelation. Like most Apple hardware, the printer was very well built. I used it for well over 10 years. Even after Apple discontinued the Localtalk standard, I bought an adapter that allowed me to hook it up via Ethernet. It just kept on chugging through a series of new Macs. There was a Mac IIvx (100MB hard drive), a Performa 6230 (1GB hard drive), a Beige Powermac G3 (10GB hard drive), a Powermac G4/400 tower (40GB hard drive), which I’m still using, and the Macbook I’m typing this on (250GB hard drive). I also got an iPod Touch 16GB when I bought the Macbook. This handheld device probably has more computing power than my first three or four macs combined.
That’s 20+ years of personal computer use in one long paragraph (almost my entire adult life): 20 years of writing, reading, making music, listening to it, drafting contracts, watching video, and so much more. Steve Jobs played a huge role in shaping the technological contours of all that. His work empowered me to do my work. So his passing definitely feels personal to me.
Where most other people in the computer industry somehow never seemed to get things quite right, Jobs usually did. He seemed to have this innate sense of what good is. I don’t know why this sense is so hard to come by. But it is.
I’ve interacted through the years with a whole lot of musicians, artists, and other creative people. Many of them are very skilled. But only a few of them also seem to have this innate sense of “good.” These are usually very special people. If they make or record music, you want to hear it. If they do interior design, you want to spend time in that space. If they build something, you want to use it. If they cook something, you want to eat it.
Often, I think, these kinds of folks tend to work in smaller, more individualized environments, where they can do their thing and avoid butting heads with people who don’t get it and never will. That Steve Jobs didn’t do this makes his accomplishments even more impressive. He somehow managed to imprint his sense of what “good is” onto a large, global organization.
Was Jobs often an asshole? The public record would indicate that the answer is “yes,” Was he a hard guy to work for? That answer also appears to be “yes.” Was he a bad manager of people? At least as a young man, yes. Did he get better at this with age? Perhaps.
But that’s all inside baseball stuff, and as consumers most of us aren’t amateur business ethicists (even if we should be). We’re concerned with outcomes, not process. We don’t usually spend a lot of time examining how the sausage is made. We just eat it, evaluate it, and enjoy it when it’s good.
The Jobs sausage was very good indeed. It will be missed.
There’s at least one major thing that Jobs got just as wrong as everyone else in the computer industry: the labor practices in the Chinese factories where Apple builds its products. This is a significant black mark on Jobs’ legacy and the legacy of the computer industry more generally.
Of course, most of us consumers in the West are complicit in this as well, placing outcomes over process, and tacitly accepting the Faustian bargain of modernity, that visionary leaders like Steve Jobs invariably carry out their grand utopian projects on the backs of abstracted, anonymous little guys.
As Marx and Engles put it so eloquently in the Communist Manifesto, “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.” In short, this modern world is a dirty business. (See the work of Marshall Berman for a more thorough and eloquent discussion of these matters.) ↩
Posted on | September 21, 2011 | No CommentsIf you’re like me, you may not be super excited about the recent changes to Facebook’s home page. I have simple needs. I just like seeing the most recent updates from all my friends in chronological order with the newest posts first.
I don’t need Facebook telling me what posts it thinks are most important and putting them at the top of the feed. I can figure that out myself. I don’t need that ticker either, with it’s crazy pop-up windows.
After a little tinkering tonight, I think I happened upon a workaround to address these annoyances and reclaim much of the “Most Recent” feed functionality of the old Facebook layout.
It’s not a perfect solution and a bit of a pain to set up, but it gets rid of the ticker, puts all your friends’ updates in the feed, lists them in chronological order, and doesn’t require installing a browser extension, Facebook apps, or anything.
Here’s what you do:
1. Go to the list menu in the left sidebar and create a list.
2. Call it “everybody” or something like that.
3. Add all of your friends to the new list (this will be pain in the ass if you have a lot of friends–that’s where the time and elbow grease come in).
4. In the left sidebar under the lists heading, click on your new “everybody” list so you see that view.
5. Note that there is no ticker on the right hand side. You should also be seeing a chronological view of all your friends’ updates in your feed.
6. Click on the upper right hand corner of that view where it says “manage list.”
7. Select “Choose Update Types.” This will allow you to decide what kind of stuff you want in the feed. I chose everything except game notifications.
8. You might consider bookmarking this view. Then you can use it as your replacement FB home page, since you can post updates, etc. from this view just like the default home page.
Anyway, I hope this is helpful. I guess we’ll see how long it lasts before the overlords at FB change things up again.
Posted on | March 14, 2011 | 1 CommentI’ve been to every SXSW since 1995. Sadly, my streak ends this year. Since I can’t be there, I thought I’d share a few things I’ve learned through the years with those of you lucky enough to be going.
If you’re playing down there, I assume you’ve already gotten some extra day party shows booked, etc. (but not too many of those I hope). I’m not going to cover that sort of stuff here. These tips are more about the spectating/networking side of the festival. They start practical and get progressively more philosophical.
1. Wear comfortable shoes. Everyone wants to look cool down there. But you will be doing a lot of walking. So bring some shoes you know will be good for that. You don’t want to be breaking in new shoes down there.
2. Be prepared for any weather. Best case scenario, it’s shorts and t-shirt weather. But sometimes, it’s Seattle in the winter weather. Lots of stuff happens outside at night, even when it’s 50 degrees. It’s good to have some layers and gloves. Bring some sunscreen too.
3. Try to eat a good meal at the start of the day. There’s a good chance you will start drinking by 2:00 in the afternoon (or earlier) and keep drinking until 2am or 3am each day of the festival. Put something in your stomach first. In the flow of things, it’s easy to forget to eat. Or there may not be food available right at the moment you realize that you need some. Remember to drink water too.
4. Don’t ignore people from your town. Paradoxically, SXSW is a great place to meet people from your hometown. In your hometown, it’s easy to just stay in your own little silo, interacting with the same people all the time. At SXSW, everyone is a fish out of water, and people from your town are much easier to spot and often more open to interacting, even if you’re not from their little part of the scene.
It’s easy to think that SXSW is mostly about connecting with people from other towns. And it’s definitely useful for that. But if you aren’t already super successful in your hometown, you’re missing a great opportunity to build your local network too (a network I might add that will probably be more useful and important in the early stages of your project than your out-of-town network).
Connections made in Texas often resonate for many years. I know I’ve made some great friends down there through the years.
5. Don’t be afraid to head off on your own. Moving around an event like SXSW with a big group of people is a major exercise in cat herding. In this situation, you have two choices: (A) stick with the group and don’t worry too much about where you end up; or (B) head off on your own and go exactly where you want to go.
Option “A” can be a fun and really rewarding experience. Often, you end up checking out some stuff you never would have gotten to on your own. But don’t be afraid to choose option “B” sometimes too. It will probably lead to a magic moment. It’s perfectly acceptable to leave the group at SXSW and strike out on your own. Nobody will be offended. Besides, with cell phones, foursquare, etc. it’s not that hard to reconnect with your posse later.
6. Spend some time in the corners. Every year there are going to be some buzz shows that everybody seems to want to go see. Try not to get too fixated on those shows. If you really want to see one of them and you have a badge, go for it. Those can be special shows. But don’t be afraid to look for stuff in the corners too, off the beaten path. That’s probably where the next big thing will really be happening. It’s also where you are more likely to have a transcendent experience watching a seasoned veteran playing at the festival for the love of the game as much as anything else. These artists are the opposite of the next big thing. But they are still the real deal. They’ll help remind you why you love music, and they might just change your life too.
7. Never assume somebody is unimportant. There are a lot of people down in Texas. Some of them are very important right now. It’s natural to want to focus on connecting with them, because they seem like the most obvious people who can help you. But remember, there are also a lot of people down there who aren’t important right now, but who may be very important a few years from now. If you treat them badly now, you’ll burn a bridge before you even realize you ought to be building one. So don’t be a dumb-ass. Have a little grace.
8. Value quality over quantity (and be open to meaningful coincidences). The festival is not a contest to see who gets the most business cards. There are no clear metrics, and its value isn’t always obvious. It could be years before you fully appreciate the value of something that happened at SXSW. So focus on the quality of your experiences and interactions, not just the quantity. You never know where that might lead you.
Let’s say you meet this gal down in Texas. She doesn’t seem like anybody. She’s just friends with somebody else you’re hanging out with (maybe they were friends from college). She says she books a few bands where she lives in North Carolina. You’ve never heard of any of them, but you’re not a dumb-ass, so you treat her with respect anyway. After the bar closes, you, your buddy, and the gal end up getting tacos on the street, stumbling down Red River past Emo’s on the way to an after hours affair. You folks have a lot of fun at the after hours party, cracking each other up. It feels like you have been friends for years, not just 3 or 4 hours. So great.
Three years later, the gal is booking a really successful rising star band from North Carolina. You’ve kept up with her on Facebook through the years, and she’s always been interested to hear the music you’re making. You had drinks with her at SXSW last year when you saw her down there, and you laughed your asses off again.
About six months after that last round of drinks, she pings you out of the blue. She thinks your band would be a good fit for the northwest leg of the tour she’s booking for that rising star band. Would you be into doing it? You didn’t even have to pitch her on the idea. She pitched it to you. Fucking “A” yes that’s a good idea.
No tacos, no after hours party, no laughing your asses off? No northwest tour with her rising star band. Seems like random good luck, right? But it’s not completely random. It happened because you embraced that moment and helped make it memorable for everyone involved.
You could have spent that time scanning the room trying to figure out if there was somebody more important to chat up. Instead, you opted for quality. Good call.
Posted on | June 13, 2010 | 1 CommentOver on his blog, Seth Godin just made this post about the perils of spending all your time looking for a magic lottery ticket. More than most people, Seth has the ability to really distill things down to the essence. He had a post a while back called Barry Bonds. It’s a favorite of mine, and I’ve shared it many times with various people I know trying to make something happen in the music business. His magic lottery post is kind of like the sequel, and well worth reading.
You can spend so much time looking for that powerful person who is going to change your life that there’s not much time left to do the work that might actually get you somewhere someday. In my lexicon, the search for a magic lottery ticket is a particularly deluded and futile airpower strategy.
It’s not that powerful people don’t swoop in and help make low profile people better known. That does seem to happen pretty regularly. It’s just that most of these low profile people are a lot less low profile than you realize. That whole overnight sensation 10 years in the making thing is almost always true.
When “unknown” bands get elevated after a music conference like SXSW, they’re rarely really “unknown” to music biz insiders. Probably, they have been busily working on the ground for years to connect all the dots that lead up to more powerful people taking 15 minutes to see their band play in Austin. In Seth’s lexicon, they’ve been building their tribe. To use my lexicon, they’ve built a good ground game.
From the outside looking in, it looks like they just found a Magic Lottery Ticket. But that’s an illusion. For the project was actually built to grow even if Oprah never showed.