Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

Media’s Absentee Landlords   Leave a comment

April 1, 2018

    Most people of a certain age can probably recall their discovery of the first local newspaper carrying their favorite comics. It almost doesn’t matter what those comics were, as there was something for everyone. I never read Prince Valiant. Too cheesy. I did read Blondie but felt it hit a little too close to home. Beetle Bailey. Fun. Peanuts? My ‘peeps’. Li’l Abner? Could have been one or two of my neighbors. Hi and Lois? Too vanilla. I’d follow some or all of these in glorious black and white during the week, and on Sunday, magically, we found that they had all erupted into living color. We were too young to understand that the comics had two reasons for existing. First they were entertaining. Second, they trained children (future subscribers) to get into the habit of reading the daily newspaper.

Growing up in Milwaukee we had two choices. There was the morning Milwaukee Sentinel and the evening Milwaukee Journal. I was one of those “paper boys” who got up early in the morning, picked up my bundles of Sentinels and delivered them to homes along my streets on the south side of Milwaukee. I earned more money than my days of setting pins at the local bowling alley, but after a year or so decided the little bit of income it provided wasn’t worth the effort. Besides, I was part of a 4-piece band which gave me more spending money than the paper so, hey, why not stay with rock ’n roll.

The Milwaukee Sentinel had long been a money-loser for William Randolph Hearst’s empire. Matthew J. Prigge wrote in the March 2016 Shepherd Express “Hearst hung on to the Sentinel, losing money every year, until his death in 1951. Hearst Publishing continued ownership until a strike in 1962 shut the paper down for six weeks. With Hearst Publishing prepared to fold the paper altogether, the Journal Company stepped in at the last moment and—feeling that Milwaukee needed more than one voice in its daily news—offered $3 million for the sheet.” For the next 30 years the papers continued to be published as separate entities, only to be merged into a single paper—the Journal-Sentinel—in 1994. Milwaukee wasn’t the only city to become a one-newspaper town. As the century turned, cities all over the country saw their two-newspaper towns become one newspaper towns, and many smaller cities and towns watched as their local papers shrunk, merged, or closed down altogether. Print media was becoming increasingly concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer publishers.

Radio and television suffered a different fate. The Federal Communications Commission has long been the radio and TV regulatory arm of the federal government. For most of the post-war period (beginning in 1953), companies were allowed to own no Puppet CR (1)more than one AM, one FM, and one TV station in any one media market. Furthermore, they were limited to a maximum of seven of each nationwide. Period. The original 7-station limit was to prevent any one company from having undue influence over the American public by dominating the media, locally, regionally, or nationally. During the 1980s this restriction was seen as “heavy handed”. Under the Reagan administration the FCC saw fit to allow companies to own as many as 12 AM, 12 FM, and 12 TV stations. Got the math: companies could now control 36 broadcast outlets nationally. With a straight face and a nod to George Orwell, in 1984 the government told us that fewer companies owning more stations would “encourage media competition”. The FCC concluded that the concentration of media in fewer hands posed “no threat to the diversity of independent viewpoints in the information and entertainment markets.” The new rule included another trigger. In 1990 the FCC would further relax the broadcast ownership by any one company to, well, unlimited. A little more than a decade later alarm bells began going off. According to Deadline Hollywood, by spring 2007, “91% of the total weekday talk radio programming was conservative, and only 9% was progressive. . . .” And those numbers are more than a decade old.

Obviously media consolidation has done nothing for diversity. iHeart Media now owns 845 stations in the United States. Cumulus Media owns 500 stations. Other companies like Entercom, Cox, Clear Channel, and CBS, are approaching another 1000 stations in total. Both iHeart and Cumulus are operating in bankruptcy, and bankruptcy means there will be little interest in balanced programming or local concerns, and more interest in cutting costs. As management focuses on “efficiencies”, many of these corporate-owned radio stations will have little or no staff in the cities and towns they serve, enabling them to save money by doing away with local hosts, local news, and local weather. The “local” newscast you hear in Topeka might be coming from a voice in Chicago. And that’s on top of corporate ownership that caters to the expansion of a conservative audience mind-set. Then there’s Sinclair, the conservative broadcast business which is expanding (perhaps soon to own 200 television stations) and vying with Fox to become a kingmaker in American politics by shaping and supporting conservative opinions in the vast majority of American media markets.

This is not meant to be a sentimental look at ‘the good old days’, or an exercise in hammering large corporations. It is rather a recognition that as technology continues to evolve we need to hold precious those things that we’ve come to appreciate including the importance of local radio stations, newspapers and magazines, with local information, prepared by local people.  The adage to “Think Globally, Act Locally” has never been more appropriate.

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Driverless Vehicles. What Could Possibly Go Wrong?   Leave a comment

February 1, 2018

For virtually all Americans, from Baby Boomers to Millenials to Gen-X to Gen-whatever, driving is a right of passage. Growing up we transitioned from the back seat, to the front seat, to the drivers seat. Most of us learned to drive in our parents’ car (taught by them), and at some magic moment began to “borrow” that car for our own use. Eventually we got jobs and began buying our own car, van, or motorcycle.

Those first 3-4 years of driving had their great moments—“hey babe, wanna go out tonight? I’ll pick you up in my (mother’s) car.” Obviously the word “mother’s” was lost in a cough or was left unspoken so that we could perpetuate the illusion that it was our car. Spoiler alert: our dates knew whose car we were driving. If not right away, once they sat down on those plastic seat covers, they knew. But it was usually an unspoken truth. After all, if we were going to use our parents’  car for all the purposes that God intended, i.e. necking (etc) and lugging my band equipment around town, no one was really fooled (or really cared) about whose name was on the pink slip.

By the time I moved to New York in 1990, I had already gone through 10 pink slips of my own. And I was grateful that I learned to drive in some of the most formidable training grounds on the planet: Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Cleveland, Detroit, Dallas, and San Francisco. And while traveling on business I even tempted fate and rented cars in Dublin, London, Paris, Amsterdam, and Frankfurt. I’ve always believed it was my ability to navigate the Hollywood Freeway, The Cross-Bronx, and the Kennedy Expressways that prepared me for driving anywhere.

Honestly, I never had an accident driving in Europe. That being said, I’m certain there remains a wheel cover from a 1988 Hertz car lying in the middle of a traffic circle somewhere in Scotland. Traveling as much as I did I became more and more comfortable letting someone else do the driving. In New York City, that included becoming a near expert on the quickest way to go from Point A to Point B.

In the mid-1990s my office was on 57th and West End in Manhattan (near the Hudson River). From that vantage point I learned the best way to get to the Battery, Grand Central, upper west side, or anywhere else in the city based on two factors: the weather maxresdefaultand the time of day. Some days taking a cab was fastest, other days the subway, still other days a city bus, and believe it or not walking was an option. There were also gypsy cabs. These were drivers, usually without a hack license, using a borrowed Lincoln or Cadillac, cruising the streets looking for a fare. (That sort of entrepreneurship was illegal then and probably is still illegal.) If I was wearing a suit and a topcoat while walking, it wasn’t unusual for some enthusiastic driver in a Lincoln to make a u-turn in the middle of 57th Street during rush hour, pull up along side me and ask, “hey, you need a ride?”.

Needless to say, I’m far less adventurous now, than I was in those days. Even when we drive to San Francisco, we usually leave the car wherever we’re staying and get a Lyft car to carry us from “A” to “B”.  (I avoid Uber.*) I’ve grown to like Lyft’s service and find that it’s actually comparable or preferable to the hassle of driving, parking, and driving back. But we are, once again, moving into uncharted territory.

So now we’re being told that driverless vehicles are going to be the rage. Really. Apple, Google, Tesla, Amazon and others are well into development flyingcar_thinkstockof driverless technology. I’m not quite certain I’m going there yet. Perhaps there may soon be an application in the city, but sitting in the backseat of a driverless vehicle moving along Van Ness during rush hour is not really appealing.

Driving around Mendocino County should give all of us pause about the reality of driverless vehicles. Think about driving—strike that—riding in a driverless vehicle from Jetsons 20150324162939-jetsons-futuristic-future-cartoon-children-kids-80sJenner to Gualala; or Gualala to Elk. Hell, given the potholes, the wildlife, and the twisting and turning of our roads and highways, I doubt it’s a good idea to go driverless from Sea Ranch to Gualala.

The techies believe that driverless vehicles will be the next big thing. Near term, in rural America it’s probably more likely that driverless vehicles will do for transportation what the 8-track tape did for vinyl. (If you know what an 8-track tape is, you get it. If you don’t, ask someone ten years older for an explanation. In short, 8-tracks were awful.)sleeper

Google is experimenting and acknowledges at least one accident. Tesla, too, acknowledges at least one serious accident: a  fatal encounter. In 2016 the driver of a Tesla Model S car was killed in a road accident after its Autopilot failed to recognize an oncoming truck, as reported in the online edition of DeZeen in July 2016. “According to the Florida Highway Patrol report, the Tesla’s windscreen hit the bottom of the trailer as it passed underneath, and the car kept going, leaving the road. It continued, striking a
fence, crossing a field and passing through another fence before finally hitting a pole about 30 metres south of the road. In a statement on Tesla’s website, the company explained that the vehicle’s sensors, which help to steer the car by identifying obstructions, had failed to recognize ‘the white side of the tractor trailer against a brightly lit sky’.” Oops. Sorry about that.

Having thoroughly explored a number of scientifically-based ideas about future transportation—The Jetsons, Lost In Space, Sleeper—I think I’m going to handle the driving for the foreseeable future.

David Steffen

© 2018 David Steffen

*If you’re interested in why I don’t use Uber you can search for a blogpost of mine at Jazzdavid.wordpress.com.

Posted March 18, 2018 by Jazzdavid in Government, History, Technology, Uncategorized

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Lobster, Privacy   Leave a comment

“Peekaboo. I Can See You”
December 1, 2017

 

     I can’t remember the moment I first tasted lobster—or “lopsta”, as I learned the correct pronunciation while living back east—but I truly enjoy it. Broiled, fried, steamed, if it’s the real deal from the coast of New England, I’m there. Unfortunately, Maine lobster is $30-$50 per pound in restaurants. (The Palm Restaurant, famous for steaks and lobsters, is reportedly currently charging $75 for a 3-pound Nova Scotian—not Maine—lobster.) Needless to say it’s been a long, long time since I had dinner, much less order lobster at the Palm; it’s simply too pricey for most of us. As an alternative to dining out, there are deals on the internet where you can order live lobsters, at a much lower price, and get them shipped to your home. But then you have more issues.

 

     I recall a New Years Eve get-together twenty years ago where everyone knew lobster was one of the food items for our celebration. I ordered live lobsters from Maine, shipped to our home in Connecticut. Once the carton was opened, the enthusiasm of friends and family quickly waned; they didn’t even wish to look at the living creatures. Comments were swift in coming. “You’re really going to kill them? I can’t eat him, her, them.” As for me, I looked the lobsters in the eyes, and carefully explained about the pot,Happy-lobster-cartoonREV the steam, butter, sauce, and their expected place on the table. In reality, lobsters seem to lose interest when they understood that they’re not ‘coming to dinner’, but rather ‘were to become dinner’. As I couldn’t send them back, I persevered and cooked them. No one else ate the lobster that evening.

 

     From a physiological standpoint, whether lobster or fried chicken, everything we intake (eat), travels along our internal highway, on its way to an eventual “outflow”. All of this brings me to something I recently read.

 

     It appears that lobsters (and other menu items) may need to get dressed up so that they can smile for the camera during digestion. In an article titled “FDA Approves First Digital Ingestion Tracking System Med”, the Associated Press reported that the Food and Drug Administration “has approved the first drug in the United States with a digital ingestion tracking system.” That’s right. Swallow this little pill and not only may it make you feel better or cure what ails you, but in theory your doctor or primary care provider will be able to determine the exact location of that pill. I am not making this up. The pill, or as it’s referred to by the drugmakers—the “digitally enhanced medication”—sends a message to a sensor on a wearable patch somewhere on your body. At first glance some might shrug and say, “so what, big deal.” However, given what the Russians have been doing for the past few years, it’s entirely likely that the Kremlin will be able to track my lobster dinner as it travels through me. Let’s be honest. It might also be tracked by the FBI, the NSA, or the CIA (the CIA in Langley, Virginia, not the CIA cooking schools in Hyde Park, New York, or St. Helena, California). If the Russians, or anyone else got hold of Hillary’s emails, it would seem like a small task to read the information traveling through me and stored on a patch.

 

     I’m one of those people who’s been reluctant to send my saliva (and $60-$100 or more)
to companies like 23 And Me to have my DNA analyzed. I’ve long maintained that I am DNA 01EXPpart-English and part-German, based on my mother’s description (with her emphasis on “English”). Besides, I’m just not that curious about my exact makeup, due to a couple of factors. First, I don’t care if the analysis shows me to be 30% English, 16% German, 21% French, 13% Martian, and 20% cheddar cheese (although my friends believe this last one is quite probable). The prospect of my DNA being analyzed, and subsequently used to evaluate, compare, contrast, and categorize me and other people into very specific groups is not compelling to me either. DNA 02EXPMore to the point, it’s my belief that these DNA-companies will in all likelihood sell and resell my DNA information to other companies or worse.

 

     Two billion (that’s ‘B’: billion) people, 27% of the planet use Facebook each month. And if we haven’t yet learned about Facebook’s business structure, it’s high time we did. Simply put, the more information we put on Facebook the more clicks are generated on Facebook as our friends, family, and our social and business connections check in with us. And every click, each and every piece of data, is stored in Facebook’s database, forever. You, too, add to the clicks as you check out the pages of friends, family, total strangers, and cats. Here’s a simple example. That cat video you just watched is another click captured by Facebook. While you enjoy the cat, Facebook is capturing your viewing as data to be sold and resold to advertisers, marketers, and “interested parties”. It is no coincidence that once Facebook knows that you like cats you suddenly begin receiving offers for cat sand, cat food, cat toys, cat brushes, cat clippers, cat clothes, cat beds, cat medicines, and so on.

 

     DNA contains the fundamental and distinctive characteristics of who we are. DNA testing services are, I believe, a variation of the Facebook model.  So just what do I believe the DNA companies will do with our information? Sell it. And if they don’t sell it, someone will gain access to it. Some people don’t care if their information, including DNA, is sold and resold, and I’m fine with that. For me, if DNA companies want my DNA, they can pay me for it. Privacy should be close to sacred. But private data is not always DNA Helixsecure. Ask Equifax. Between May and July, 2017, the Social Security numbers, birth dates, and home addresses for up to 143 million Americans were hacked. Oops. Yet, consider this little 40 word section from one DNA company’s Privacy Statement:

 

“As our business continues to grow and change, we might restructure, buy, or sell subsidiaries or business units. In these transactions, customer information is often one of the transferred assets, remaining subject to promises made in then prevailing privacy statements.”

 

     My interpretation of this could find the following chain of events: A corporation in the United States owns a DNA Company, collects a $99 fee, analyzes the DNA and sends you or me the results. They also retain the information. Forever. Twenty minutes or twenty years later, the corporation sells its DNA business to another corporation headquartered in, say, Tajikistan. The individual’s DNA will be, according to the above quote, one of the transferred assets. The buyer (new owner) will now have access to all of the DNA information collected to that point. The primary languages in Tajikistan are Tajik and Russian. Who might tap into that DNA database? Mmmmmmmm.

Old Shoes: The Value of Things   Leave a comment

November 1, 2017

 

I have a pair of Cole-Haan loafers that I swear are the most comfortable shoes I’ve ever worn. Dennis, our local shoe-repair expert appreciates the shoes far more than anyone in my family. He once asked how long I’ve had them. I quietly whispered “well I bought them in 1988.” I think he liked the idea that I was still wearing them, and I’m grateful he continues to bring them back from the dead every few years. What about you? How Shoes IMG_0341about that pair of comfortable (and tattered) slippers you continue to wear? Or that ratty shirt? Things that bring us some measure of personal comfort are not to be lightly dismissed. Which brings me to public radio. Sometimes it feels as if public radio is like those old shoes of mine. Eminently comfortable.
I met then KZYX GM Belinda Rawlins in 2007 and was surprised to find myself working for her a year later. Me, in public radio. But it was stimulating, since KZYX was not a mega station (like KQED in San Francisco) but a truly local idea. Some national content, yet the majority of the programs then and now created by people right here in Mendocino County. And like the county itself, the local programs seem born of the towns, roads, hills, valleys, and rivers; reflecting the wide breadth of taste, interests, and topicality.
As a listener, we’re comfortable that Morning Edition turns up every morning, or that Terry Gross brings us a bit of Fresh Air every day. And we take for granted a group of almost 100 dedicated (and unpaid) volunteers who create local programs of local interest; friends and neighbors talking about their vegetable gardens, or bringing us a local view on politics, or food, or the environment. There’s music for every taste, from almost every genre (well no barbershop quartets. . . .) They do this for the pride and love of what they’re doing, and for the audience.
It may be difficult to acknowledge but far too many of us take public radio for granted. After all, ‘it gets tons of money from the federal government’ (untrue), ‘it costs nothing to operate’ (also untrue), or ‘everyone else pays for it so I don’t need to.’ This last idea is interesting because in reality, only one-in-ten listeners contributes to public radio. Line up ten random public radio listeners from the Mendonoma coast and the odds are you’ll find that only one of them supports a public station with a financial contribution. There are some essential qualities required to work in public radio. For example, you must be self-motivated, willing to work long and weird hours (often at the same time), and believe in what your doing. You might accept that those traits apply to every job, and perhaps they do. But one of the realities of public radio is the fact that the wolf is regularly at the door. Not always, but he makes an appearance once or twice every year, so everyone understands that public radio is fragile, always a little on the edge.  But we love it and believe it’s worth the long hours, the modest pay, and the angst. We all learn to perform a myriad of jobs at a station like KZYX. I’m ostensibly working on the business side, but on any given day at any time I often find myself in the studio helping out on the air. Or answering the phones. Or cleaning the station’s bathroom; or picking up a volunteer who’s stranded on highway 253 halfway to Ukiah. You name the job, and every staffer has done it at one time or another, and continues to do so. And so it was on the evening of Sunday, October 8.
Our Sunday night volunteer programmer began receiving calls from listeners about a fire in or near Redwood Valley. Anyone and everyone who called in to the studio late that night spoke with Bob, who then passed along the anecdotal information to the rest of the listeners. I emphasize ‘anecdotal’ because there were few official reports available. By Fire XMTR 2 22310605_10154962401007967_7592346504480456810_nMonday morning many of us were at the Philo studios providing non-stop information to our listeners. Some time that morning Jeffrey Parker, the station’s General Manager, created a shared online document enabling all of us to add information as we received updates by email, internet, text, and calls from the sheriff, police, highway patrol, volunteer fire departments, Cal-Fire, officials throughout Mendocino, Lake, or Sonoma County, and our listeners. Our news people were shuttling between locations on either side of Highway 101, gathering information from Laytonville to Hopland. And we heard from local residents who wanted to share details gleaned from conversations with local authorities. At one point that shared document of information ran more than twenty pages, totaled almost 3000 words, and enabled us to get fresh information to our listeners quickly.
As the days passed we knew that, absent an unexpected rain shower, this fire was going to be with us for another week or more. Every volunteer programmer (and the paid staff) took time every hour (and sometimes more often) to get the information out. Fire XMTR 3 22366841_10154962401507967_8710817202782215739_nNumerous people contacted us on a borrowed phone or by email to tell us their stories. Some cell networks weren’t working, yet some landlines remained active. Internet access was beginning to disappear in many areas, whether it was via satellite dish or cable. Then it got real scary. We were receiving multiple reports of (and from) people who were in the midst of preparing to leave their homes for safer areas, who turned toward the edge of their property and realized they were now out of time. They jumped into their car or truck or bus and hightailed it toward what they hoped would be safer ground. This fire was devouring grasslands, woodlands, sheds, storage facilities, homes, farms, and commercial businesses. Everything and anything in the way was likely to be damaged or destroyed. Over almost two weeks, our staff and volunteers stayed at it. At this writing, the fires are now contained or completely extinguished, but the devastation and rebuilding of lives and property begins.

That two weeks of manic efforts on everyone’s part is exactly what public radio is about. Serving everyone in our listening area, not just our members. It’s worth keeping that in mind as we consider just how public radio can be supported. We were fortunate that there was no major damage to the station; the fire came oh so very close to one of the KZYX transmitters but fortunately there was very little apparent damage to the station’s equipment. That’s in stark contrast to the obvious devastation throughout northern California. Everyone affected will need help. And along the way, if you can consider throwing some money toward your local public radio station, that might be a good idea as well.

David Steffen

© 2017 David Steffen
top: those shoes…..
middle: fires across Redwood Valley
bottom: transmitter site.

 

Of Rabbit Holes and Bubbles   Leave a comment

July 1, 2017

      I enjoy the internet. I make use of the internet. I don’t worship it and I’m reasonably certain I could live without it. Well, much of it. As the music industry changed in the 1980s and 1990s, I was within that business, allthewhile observing as technology and the internet began driving ever more  change. And much of it was unnerving to those of us who made a living helping unknown recording artists become successes, and successful artists become superstars. By the time I moved to New York in 1990 the change was even more pronounced, and within that decade a newly-formed company was getting attention.

MP3.com was a 1997 startup that drove record labels crazy, and record store owners even crazier by selling music directly to consumers, bypassing much of the established music-business order. Happily for me, at that moment I had already moved from business to academia to complete my BA and go on to graduate school. While teaching college students about music and the music business (to help pay for my own college and grad courses) I tested the changing and turbulent business waters by purchasing a new album as a download from MP3.com. (I also chose to get a CD copy as well.) The group was Red Delicious and the motivation was a song titled “Casualties”. I loved the recording but I was also learning the power of the internet to interrupt the status quo.

While MP3.com was an exciting startup, nervous recording industry leaders were aghast. Their place as gatekeepers of new music in the century-old music business had reached a moment of truth. With the approaching millennium change was more than inevitable; for some record label people it seemed like a non-stop runaway freight train was headed straight for their wallets. MP3.com, Napster, and the iPod would signal how the “new” music industry would evolve. Marketing people400px-Down_the_Rabbit_Hole copy would figure out which pieces of the business to embrace and exploit, and they would make their choices hand-in-hand with the new technology in a post-millennium internet age.

One of those emerging tech companies was YouTube. Founded in 2005 it was acquired by Google in 2006, assuring its future and making YouTube’s founding multi-millionaires even wealthier. The new company seemed perfectly fit for America’s ever increasingly narcissistic predilection. A regular feature on host David Lettermen’s Late Show on CBS, “Stupid Pet Tricks”, was about to give way to an infinitely larger audience. For example, with YouTube, cats (and their lesser intellectual support system, i.e., humans) had an infinitely larger venue to display both the cute behavior (cats) and the idiocy (humans), all to create a nano-measure of fame. And yet, this month I found myself caught up in my own YouTube moment. To get there, I had to jump into a rabbit hole. Just in case you are unfamiliar with the current application of the phrase, it is strictly metaphorical. Here are the basics. You look at something—almost anything—on the internet and are then presented with serial distractions. Kathryn Schulz described the phenomenon far more eloquently in a 2015 column in The New Yorker:

“Those online rabbit holes, while wildly variable in content, take recognizable forms. One is iterative: you’re settling down to work when you suddenly remember that you meant to look up that flannel shirt you saw in a store but couldn’t find in your size, and the next thing you know, it’s two hours later and you have scrutinized two hundred and forty-five flannel shirts. Another is exhaustive: you go in search of a particular fact—say, when Shamu debuted at SeaWorld—and soon enough you are well on your way to compiling a definitive account of captive killer whales. A third is associative: you look up one thing, which leads to looking up something distantly related, which leads to looking up something even further afield, which—hey, cool Flickr set of Moroccan sheep.”

STINGEDDYBENJENrev (1)     So I found myself on YouTube looking for a piece of music because a friend of mine, knowing my taste, had suggested I hear a particular performance. Having found the artist I listened to 8-10 tracks, including her performance of Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing In The Dark”. Terrific version. But then, it got me thinking that I’d like to hear other cover versions of Springsteen songs. Click. Click. Click. Click. Suddenly I found myself watching a string of clips from the 2009 Kennedy Center Honors. There was Sting singing “The Rising”; followed by Eddie Vedder performing “My City of Ruins”; and then a duet of “I’m On Fire” featuring Ben Harper and Jennifer Nettles. These three clips are stunning in the arrangements, production values, and sheer delivery. Stunning. But there was more.

The Kennedy Center Honorees that December were, in addition to Springsteen, Grace Bumbry, Mel Brooks, Dave Brubeck, and Robert De Niro, and all five were clearly deserving of the honor. But there were a couple of other images that caught my attention. Sharing the box in the Kennedy Center that evening with the five honorees were two other people worth mentioning. Earlier this year they completed an extraordinary performance of their own. Michelle+Obama+Dresses+Skirts+Strapless+Dress+g84EM1pX9TZxNot a performance, rather, a journey. From impossible, to highly improbable, to might just happen, to reality. They succeeded.  And on January 20, 2017, their life changed again as they moved from public housing to a private residence.

Seeing the images of the Obamas from a December evening almost a decade ago was an emotional moment. It made me come to grips with just what a bubble we’ve been living in for the past eight years. It was not one of those ‘clueless’ bubbles, but rather a bubble that a majority of Americans gladly embraced. It was a good thing. The bubble that enveloped us was with an American president and his wife who spent eight years bringing dignity, humor, grace, pride, and ideas to Washington, D.C. There were successes and mistakes. But unlike most other presidents of the past half century, there were no scandals, no crazy behavior, no new wars. And let’s not forget that Barack and Michelle Obama arrived in 2009 to assess the almost total collapse of the American economy they inherited and nurture it back from the brink. The current occupant of that same unit of public housing that the Obamas left behind makes it clear how much things have changed. And not for the better. Perhaps going down a rabbit hole from time to time isn’t such a bad idea after all.

David Steffen

© 2017 David Steffen

 

Honey, It’s Always About The Sax   Leave a comment

Back on Baker Street

September 1, 2016

I’m a passable musician, which means I play just well enough these days to be acceptable, i.e. sufficiently proficient to pass myself off as a musician. This is not meant to be some self-deprecating, aw shucks sort of evaluation. As the character of SFPD detective ‘Dirty’ Harry Callahan once stated, “a man’s just got to know his limitations”. Don’t get me wrong. My days of playing guitar, electric bass, and piano were thoroughly enjoyable, but surrounded by so many talented musicians over the last thirty-plus years I’ve chosen to spend more time listening to others, and less time applying my talents to any instrument.

Over the years I’ve picked up other’s instruments as often as my own, usually to help a friend move his stuff from apartment ‘a‘ to apartment ‘b’. Although having never taken a saxophone lesson or attempted to play the sax in some random moment, just picking up a friend’s alto sax provided a bit of an epiphany. The design, the aesthetics, the mechanical features ooze an obvious sensuality. One’s eye can unexpectedly travel from the mouthpiece, down the neck to the bow and up to the bell. Between the beginning and the end of that journey there exists a landscape with reeds, keys, screws, pins, tone holes, guards, and probably a myriad of other components I didn’t know were there. And when the saxophone is played by someone who knows what they’re doing, the sound that comes out of that bell hits you. It’s like a massage, where a qualified individual plays various parts of your back to make your senses come to life. Music can have that effect. It reaches into your being without coming in physical contact. And certain recordings or live performances can pass through the dermis and take up residence, even if just for five or ten minutes at a time.

The saxophone is certainly not the only instrument that can evoke feelings, including those of an erotic nature but it is, perhaps, more likely than other instruments to strike a nerve. With all due respect to my friends who are fabulous on the guitar, or the piano, or the bass, or the drums, or any other instrument, it ain’t about your musicianship. I was fortunate enough to see the late Clarence Clemons perform with the E Street Band on four occasions, and still appreciate hearing him wail on Springsteen’s catalog of recordings. But seeing him on stage you know this man and the saxophone were one complete

candy-dulfer

Candy Dulfer

expression of great music. The Dutch jazz musician Candy Dulfer is another player who can speak through her instrument, creating a perfect mood as exemplified in the title track from the film score for Lily Was Here (1989). Or Tim Cappello stepping out on “We Don’t Need Another Hero”, Tina Turner’s hit from the film Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1985). These players may not be in the same stratosphere as John Coltrane, but Coltrane wasn’t like these players either. Clearly the artistry in A Love Supreme resides in another realm from tracks like “Born To Run” or “Lily Was Here” or “We Don’t Need Another Hero”. Yet music, happily, is not a zero-sum game. We’re allowed to like a variety of styles, multiple genres, many musicians, and so on.

As 1973 began, A&M Records looked like it was starting the year off right. One of the first A&M singles released that year was “Stuck In The Middle With You” by Stealers Wheel, the UK duo of  Joe Egan and Gerry Rafferty. The track was a worldwide hit. Here in the States the single debuted at #86 in Billboard on March 3, 1973, peaking at #6 on May 12. The band never repeated that success, and reportedly spent the next three years fighting about records, royalties, creative differences—you know, just another day in the music business. But one-half of the band hit it big almost five years to the day later with the release of the single “Baker Street”. Gerry Rafferty’s solo recording peaked at #2 on June 24, 1978 and stayed there for six weeks. To be sure, #2 wasn’t bad, but still the single deserved better. Unfortunately it was the dawn of the dance/disco age, and Rafferty got stuck behind a #1 hit by Andy Gibb. Gibb’s brothers had a band you may have heard of: The Bee Gees, and the Bee Gees were on a hot streak due primarily to the success of the 1977 film Saturday Night Fever. Nevertheless brother Andy’s totally forgettable hit “Shadow Dancing” kept “Baker Street” from reaching number one for those six weeks, and Billboard Magazine and the American public should be forever embarrased by that bit of music history.

“Baker Street” was a moment in time. Rafferty (who died in 2011) had penned a terrific song. The message of the song included common themes many of us have experienced, as reflected in the lyrics (below). But the recording is memorable for more than the lyrics, the rich guitar, the

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Gerry Rafferty

synthesizer, and the other rhythmic elements. What got everyone to pay attention was the saxophone. As the track begins, the instrumentation is almost ethereal for 20 seconds or so, and then that alto sax lights up the experience for another 30-40 seconds. Rafferty doesn’t begin singing until we’re one minute into the track; after a minute of Rafferty, the alto once again opens up. And that’s the basic rotation of the six minutes of music:

Instrumental•vocal•instrumental•vocal•instrumental•instrumental •instrumental.

You get the drift. Rafferty is the recording artist and the songwriter, and the driving force behind the project. Yet the real star of “Baker Street” is Raphael Ravenscroft (1954-2014), the then 23-year old saxophonist, hired as a studio musician. During the recording

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Raphael Ravenscroft

session Ravenscroft “only” created the riff that almost 40 years later continues to instantly identify the recording as “Baker Street”. He earned union scale of about $50 (£27) for the session, and yet it is his sax solo that provides instant recognition when we hear “Baker Street”. The recording would be significantly less without Ravenscroft.

If the saxophone has been heretofore a bit under-appreciated in your world, expand your horizons. Consider what this instrument brings to the performance, to the recording. Whether it’s Clarence Clemons, Candy Dulfer, Tim Cappello, or Raphael Ravenscroft, without their contributions, these recordings—at the very least—would have been less than they are. Like chocolate ice cream or lobster tail, a Chevy Camaro or BMW, or a glass of Coca Cola or wine at sunset on the Mendocino Coast, we know the good stuff when we taste it, drink it, drive it, savor it or hear it. Enjoy it now. Go back and listen once again, or discover a recording you should know. There’s no time like the present and few recordings are as durable and as wonderful as “Baker Street”.

David Steffen

© 2016 David Steffen

He’s got this dream about buyin’ some land

He’s gonna give up the booze and the one night stands

And then he’ll settle down, it’s a quiet little town

And forget about everything

But you know he’ll always keep moving

You know he’s never gonna stop moving

‘Cause he’s rollin’, He’s the rolling stone

And when you wake up it’s a new morning

The sun is shining, it’s a new morning

And you’re going, you’re going home

The Roaring Current of Change   Leave a comment

The Roaring Current Of Change

August 1, 2016

Working with successful musicians for three decades, I learned a great deal about the changing nature of music and technology. For instance, when I began marketing music, I entered a record  industry that was dominated by the LP vinyl record.  By the time I began teaching grad students in 1998, the music industry was in another transition: CDs to digital downloads.

One of my lectures to those students at New York University focused on technological change, and how to recognize change,and then adapt, adopt, or ignore it. Between the start of the recording industry (1889) and 1950, consumers had two choices: cylinders (through the 1920s) and discs; the latter became those heavy 78-rpm records our parents or grandparents owned. In post WWII America, the pace of change began to accelerate. During the next 50 years the recording industry went from mono to stereo to multi-track, and consumers had more than 20 choices including vinyl singles and albums, a variety of tape formats, then DATs, compact discs, DVDs, and MP3s.

As I began writing my first book* I recalled attending a lecture some twenty years earlier where I first heard of Alvin Toffler. (The author died June 27th). Toffler, in his 1970 book future_shockFuture Shock picked up a cue from economist and futurist Kenneth Boulding, and put forth the idea of the accelerated rate of change in society, and its impact on the human race. Although written half a century ago (and mindful of we who travel at a slower intellectual speed than Toffler or Boulding,) I present his illustration. Toffler wrote that the Twentieth Century

“‘. . . represents The Great Median Strip running down the center of human history. Thus [Boulding] asserts, ‘The world of today . . . is as different from the world in which I was born as that world was from Julius Caesar’s. I was born in the middle of human history. To date, roughly, almost as much has happened since I was born as happened before.’

This startling statement can be illustrated in a number of ways. It has been observed, for example, that if the last 50,000 years of man’s existence were divided into lifetimes of approximately sixty-two years each, there have been about 800 such lifetimes. Of these 800, fully 650 were spent in caves. ZOMBIE 54d1c448004ee_-_esq-ape-man-dwiqis-zombiesOnly during the last seventy lifetimes has it been possible to communicate effectively from one lifetime to another—as writing made it possible to do. Only during the last six lifetimes did masses of men ever see a printed word. Only during the last four has it been possible to measure time with any precision. Only in the last two has anyone anywhere used an electric motor. And the overwhelming majority of all the material goods we use in daily life today have been developed within the present, the 800th, lifetime.”

In the 1970s Gordon E. Moore put forth a theory that became an accepted axiom in the tech industry: Moore’s Law. The shorthand version is this: “Computer processor speeds or overall processing power will double every two years.” When we use a computer to search the internet, or to save a document, or to copy a data file, or to connect to a network, speed is almost everything. For those who remember the days of dialing up Prodigy, CompuServe, or AOL while using a 1200 baud modem, we learned to be patient. Then we upgraded to a 2400 baud modem and thought, “Holy shit, this is soooo fast.” It really wasn’t but in relation to that 1200 baud modem it was almost Star Trekian. Now consider the 2400 baud modem compared with today’s basic DSL broadband connection. Using DSL, a 20mb (megabyte) data file will download in about 9 minutes. With a 2400 Baud modem the file would download in 18 HOURS. Moore was proven correct, at least for the next thirty years.

News media, social media and online discussions have not been immune to the impact of speed. More and more people can find information, and find discussions in which to participate. In 1990 Michael Godwin developed Godwin’s Law of Nazi Analogies: “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.” He makes the point that the Nazi/Hitler reference occurs regardless of the discussion’s topic or scope. And ultimately the comparison shifts from an online discussion and goes mainstream. On December 8, 2015, the New York Daily News, not a fan of Donald Trump, ran a story by Shaun King titled “Donald Trump Has Gone Full Blown Nazi On Us”.  King’s opening paragraph got right to the point: “As Donald Trump’s lead in the polls continues to grow, so does his bigotry, sexism, xenophobia—so bad, in fact, that major media outlets have taken to comparing the billionaire blowhard to Adolf Hitler, another narcissist who managed to make millions of people feel increasingly unsafe.” Clearly, more people having access to a discussion does not necessarily assure an elevated level of discourse.

In the 1960s, anti-drug efforts included the phrase “Speed Kills”. It was used to warn people about the abuse of methamphetamine hydrochloride, best known by one of its trade names, Methedrine, aka “Speed”. Decades later safe driving advocates adopted the same phrase to encourage drivers to slow down: “Speed Kills”. The message today is not as literal or as oblique as some might think. In theory, a fast internet requires less time for us to sit on our hands and wonder what we’ll be reading when the page finally finishes loading. Today the pages load quickly, if not instantly. All of that increased internet speed provides the time to help reinforce one’s core beliefs, since it’s easier to quickly find people with whom one agrees. Far too many people enter an informed myopia. For example, observing the crowds adoring a self-aggrandizing ass like Donald Trump speaks volumes about how all of that increased internet speed helps many buy-into the snake-oil Trump is selling: xenophobia, religious bigotry, sexism, race-baiting, misogyny, birtherism, racial profiling, jingoism, and more. Google, Facebook, and other social nets develop algorithms in an attempt to “please” their users by giving them primarily (or only) information that the computer determines is “what they want to know”.

Social media strategist John McElhenney put the echo-chamber like this: “We’ve heard it called many things: Confirmation bias. Influence bubble. Like-minded people flock together. Some interesting data is being pulled from the clouds to determine the linkage between us and our political views. And even more data is being organized and sold to allow businesses to sell you more products and services. Ad infinitum.” Make no mistake. Politicians and political organizations are selling something and they hope you’re buying.

Senator Ransom Stoddard, in the film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, comes clean to the local newspaper editor about the shooting of the outlaw Valance but the editor decides to not print the true story. The senator asks him, “You’re not going to use the story, Mr. Scott?” to which the editor replies “No, sir. This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Many people in this information age may get more information from more sources, but they tend to select or are guided to like-minded sources. Inevitably, rumors and lies become fact and truth, reinforced within a noisy echo chamber. It’s all part of what Toffler called the roaring current of change. And it’s up to each of us to stop look and listen. We must get outside of our bubble, outside of our comfort zone, and engage.

David Steffen

©2016 David Steffen

*From Edison To Marconi: The First Thirty Years of Recorded Music

 

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