Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

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

Ravenscroft530c5e568e184129630f6a706700eb04

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

 

Credit Where Credit Is Due   Leave a comment

 

Stay Local Every Time That You Can

April 30, 2016

As the last area of the continental United States (at least the “lower 48”) to be explored and developed by Europeans, this part of the new world generally finds itself at the leading edge of movements and trends. We’re not always certain that this is a good thing. For example, consider the adoption (in the ‘70s and ‘80s of the mullet hairstyle which, believe it or not, can be traced to the writings of 6th century historian Procopius of Caesarea. More recent anthropological evidence tends to credit David Bowie, Rod Stewart, Billy Ray Cyrus, Joan Jett, and Paul McCartney (among others) for sporting the hairstyle, and with typical Paul_and_Linda_McCartneyrock-star influence, convincing a young audience with questionable judgement that this was a good idea. While still seen in some parts of the country (including northern California) the style has thankfully fallen distinctly from favor. It’s just a matter of time until—like the Shasta Ground Sloth—it disappears completely from North America. [If you’re in doubt, note: Losing the sloth? Bad. Losing the mullet haircut: Good!] We can expect that sometime in the future, the remains of a human with a mullet will be, like the sloth, found only in and around the La Brea Tar Pits where future generations of inquisitive young scientists might exclaim “Look mom, in the goo; a mullet-man from the 20th century. Wow.”

For those of us living along the south coast of Mendocino County, traveling to the city via the Golden Gate Bridge is a journey of three hours or more, depending on [a] our knowledge of some backroads and short-cuts (no, I can’t share the secret routes so don’t ask), [b] the annual increase in traffic in Sonoma and Marin, and [c] the ever present road construction of Highway 101—resurfacing, widening, repairing. In fact I overheard a conversation at a restaurant in Sausalito last week, where two couples were discussing moving out of Marin entirely: “Dahhling, the traffic here is, oh my god, just like L.A.” Clearly she hasn’t driven through, in, or around Los Angeles lately. Nevertheless I get her point. Many of us on the Mendocino coast talk about Santa Rosa traffic the same way, as if it’s the equivalent of attempting to catch a flight from LaGuardia by crossing midtown Manhattan on a Friday afternoon.

Trends are low on the list of most visitors to the area. When traveling up here most tourists seem pleased with the local business offerings: sandwich shops, restaurants, hardware stores, grocers, inns, office and business support, wifi, music stores, book sellers, and more. Besides, most are here for the legendary views along Highway One. Nevertheless, for those who crave Taco Bell, Safeway, Holiday Inn, and Home Depot, they are all represented in the county. They’re just not present along the Coast Highway from Bodega, the Russian River, and Jenner on the south, to Little River, Mendocino Village, and Caspar to the north. Those American icons of fast food and warehouse consumerism are as hard to find here as the Shasta Ground Sloth. Most locals and visitors like it that way, and most of us happily recommend a local business to fill the travelers’ needs.

We’re not perfect. Too often, like being afflicted with a facial tic, some locals will let slip a corporately-programmed response. Do you recall the scene in A Christmas Story, where the Macy’s Santa asks Ralphie what he’d like for Christmas? Overwhelmed by the moment Ralphie blurts out “a football” instead of his real desire for a Red Rider BB Gun. When you’re not prepared to answer the question, you never know just what will come out of your mouth. We are, as I suggested, inundated with advertising, images, slogans, and brands, which means we must think about a response. And yet, many of us moved up here to—in varying degrees— get away from corporate brands, and 21st century uniformity. Or at least that’s what we like to tell people.

Having lived in Mendocino County for a decade, I regularly observe members of the county’s population—those in the media and out—answering a question with their own pre-programmed response. For example, authors flogging their books during an interview on the radio say “my book’s available at Amazon” possibly in a mistaken belief that there are no retail bookstores left. And the radio hosts reflexively echo the “go to Amazon” theme as if they are suffering from Tourette’s. It’s like being asked for a recommendation for having lunch in Gualala and replying, “I hear Commander’s Palace in New Orleans is really good.” A well-trained parrot could do as well.

I’m here to say No More. I’ve decided to take a page out of StateLibQld_1_89868_Revival_meeting_at_the_Olympic_Theatre_in_Charters_Towers,_1912the tent revival handbook. So let me hold the Lighthouse Peddler in my left hand, and raise my right hand. From now on you are healed. Henceforth you will happily and faithfully extol the virtues of shopping, staying, and spending locally. Brothers and Sisters, as you return to your daily lives, go forth and spread the word. Look into the eyes of friends, family, and strangers alike. Offer your countenance, softly smile, and tell them that a new day is coming and the time is nigh. As a good book says, “there is wisdom, beauty, and blessings in spending your money locally.” Besides. As my old friend Arnie Orleans might say, ‘it couldn’t hoit.’

David Steffen

©2016 David Steffen

 

STEM. Creating A Minion Nation   Leave a comment

The GOP and Stalin Agree: Ideas Are Unnecessary

March 31, 2016

Today’s journalists love acronyms. They provide writers with a type of shorthand which also (they hope) suggests they know so much more than the reader. Just a few years ago BRIC, for example, was a hot topic; writers, politicians, and economists all jumped on the bandwagon to declare that these countries—Brazil, Russia, India, China—constituted the new economic bloc to be reckoned with. BRIC was introduced by Goldman-Sachs as a bit of economic futurism. It downplayed the potential strength of Europe and North America, and simultaneously projected the sunny economic potential of the BRICS (South Africa was added later, hence the ”S”.) In any case, BRIC(S) gave journalists a clever word that dripped with a certain lingual superiority, as they became de facto cheerleaders for the moneychangers pushing this nirvana-to-be scenario. A little more than a decade later, all that shiny Goldman-Sachsian predilection is not, well, so shiny. Fortune—not known as a mouthpiece of the proletariat—offered this grim assessment:

“There was a time, not so long ago, when it seemed the rugged promise of the globe’s economic frontier could be summed up with a simple acronym: BRIC. To investors and corporate prospectors alike, Brazil, Russia, India, and China were like Gold Rush towns high in the hills—deep, rich veins of commerce that could be tapped by anybody quick enough, industrious enough, and brave enough to stake a claim.” . . . “Yet as much as we might celebrate the concept of BRIConomics for its insight and uncanny timeliness, it is time now to put the thing to pasture. As quickly as the world transformed at the start of the millennium, it is changing again.” In short, Fortune’s view was that China’s economy was growing at the slowest pace in nearly a quarter-century, that “scandal-plagued Brazil” was on the edge of recession, and a declining appetite for oil coupled with economic sanctions and poor policy “have Russia reeling”. No Chia pets, hula hoops, pet rocks, or other dynamic economic stimulants on the near horizon to foster a quick reversal of fortunes.

Which brings me to STEM. Like the gushing embrace of BRIC, STEM is the new flavor of the month with many GOP politicians. This acronym is shorthand for a clever distillation on education: Science, Technology, Engineering, Math. To them, STEM is what really matters. On the surface there is nothing wrong with placing an emphasis on these core subjects. However, politicians are attempting to make this a zero-sum game. When the pool of education money is finite, then increased emphasis on one aspect of education means a decreased emphasis on the other. Who needs those silly history lessons—that’s all old stuff anythway. All about dead guys. And foreign languages? English has worked for me. Literature? What can I possibly learn from Shakespeare or Voltaire. Before you think that this is as cartoonish as the images of someone walking through the financial district holding a sign declaring “the end is near” consider the loud voices in the GOP. For a political party often complaining about government overreach, as in dictating what we will or won’t do, consider this from the New York Times, about the efforts of some of the darlings of the right:

• Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin suggested in February that “students majoring in French literature should not receive state funding for their college education.”

• North Carolina Governor Patrick McCrory is on record as declaring “If you want to take gender studies that’s fine. Go to a private school, and take it,” McCrory said. “But I don’t want to subsidize that if that’s not going to get someone a job.”

• Republican presidential candidate Senator Marco Rubio was unequivocal: “Welders make more money than philosophers . . . . We need more welders and less philosophers.” [Note to Marco: It’s “fewer” in this context, not “less”.]

• Florida Governor Rick Scott said “We don’t need a lot more anthropologists in the state. It’s a great degree if people want to get it, but we don’t need them here.”

At the very least this is gross naiveté on the part of these and other politicians. A far more likely scenario is that we are viewing a GOP effort toward social engineering; creating a society able to write code, but unable to connect the dots between political decisions and unexpected outcomes. An extreme example might be, if we study physics and nothing else, we can, among other things, learn how to make a nuclear weapon. If we study the humanities as well, we can learn about the outcomes of using nuclear weapons: after atmospheric testing in the Pacific, after the accidents at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima, and after the original Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, nuclear weapons can be bad.

When I returned to college in the 1990s, I chose my school carefully: that is to say, I found the nearest 4-year college. At Fairfield University, a Jesuit school, I gained knowledge and I honed my skills in critical thinking. It may have been a happy accident for me that Fairfield University was nearest to me in Connecticut, a 30-minute drive from my home. After all, the Jesuits have been honing their own skills through four centuries of education for both the religiously devoted and the laity. Ignatius Loyola’s ideas became the fundamental building blocks for the Society of Jesus, which began, not surprisingly, building schools. For all of their bravado about devotion to Christianity, the GOP in general, and those lay-pontificators above seem to miss the point. It’s about humanity stupid.

The Rev. Jack Butler of Boston College describes a Jesuit education as having six core elements. In short, [1] Care of the person, [2] Experience, [3] Liberal arts, [4] Mission, [5] Service of justice, [6] Anticipatory joy.

Butler’s more detailed descriptions are in an article titled “What is Jesuit education?”, and it is worth reading. When talking about the Liberal Arts—and central, in my opinion, to the STEM conversation—Butler offered this:

“Ignatius Loyola said that if individuals follow their desire, they will find God. In order to find that desire, Butler said, students need a broad basis of knowledge from which to begin seeking. Another reason that Jesuit education emphasizes the liberal arts is so that students can find God in all things. And finally, Jesuits believe that students should be able to converse on a range of topics.”

I’m not here to advocate for religion in general or a Jesuit education in particular, although I believe there is real value in what they offer. I am, however, against a new brand of social engineering that creates only the worker bees who can labor for the wealthy: you make the honey and we’ll handle the money.

Bevin, McCrory, Rubio, Scott, and so many other Republicans believe that history, philosophy, religion, literature, art, gender studies, music, anthropology (and others) are superfluous, non-essential to the knowledge intake of students. It’s a myopic view that could only be promoted by members of a ruling class. I’m reminded of the USSR’s infamous leader Joseph Stalin’s philosophy of ideas. While not a comparison to Rubio, et al, Stalin offered this nugget: “Ideas are more powerful than guns. We would not let our enemies have guns, why should we let them have ideas.”

David Steffen

© 2016 David Steffen

Uber Vs Lyft: Competing For Customers Takes More Than Size and Arrogance.   1 comment

On The Value of Being Valued

July 25, 2015

Most of us are familiar with the word “uber” (with or without an umlaut.)  It may only have been wishful thinking to assume that Uber selected the company name as innocently as anyone might imagine. “Uber”. Cute. Playful. Says a lot or means nothing. Having read the fall 2014 BuzzFeed story about the posturing of Uber executives, my thoughts evolved from a benign warm and fuzzy reaction t the name (and, by extension, the company), and gravitated to images more closely associated with black & white movies from post-WW II Hollywood. I started seeing it less as a group of cheerful, folksy, responsible drivers operating vehicles in a point-to-point transport service, and instead envisioned a company bent on accumulating information and utilizing it much like the NSA. I’m no fan of Edward Snowden, but I momentarily longed-for a Snowden-like individual within Uber (the company) who would take a thumb-drive loaded with über-classified Uber documents and bare the company’s secrets to the world.

The story in BuzzFeed (and carried widely,) was less focused on a rising company, and more on a darker internal culture that might be developing within this burgeoning transportation mega-corporation. Was Uber flexing its tech-savviness into shaping its press through intimidation? Unhappy with an article written by Pando’s Sarah Lacy, Uber’s Senior Vice President of Business, Emil Michael, went public with his displeasure, as recounted by BuzzFeed Editor-in-Chief, Ben Smith:

Over dinner, [Michael] outlined the notion of spending “a million dollars” to hire four top opposition researchers and four journalists. That team could, he said, help Uber fight back against the press — they’d look into “your personal lives, your families,” and give the media a taste of its own medicine.

Here we go. A pissed-off executive threatening the media. It’s an old story with a 21st-Century spin. You don’t like the press? Buy a media company. You’re unhappy with a story? Attack the journalist(s). While I won’t get between the executive (Mr. Michael) and the journalist (Ms. Lacy), I’m constantly surprised by corporate executives who, unhappy with a story about them or their business, appear more interested in polishing a turd than making certain the company is being a responsible corporate citizen.

I recall a conversation in the early 1980s which seems relevant. A very senior executive at a (then) major record label in the American music industry requested that his LP manufacturer (and distributor) send him samples of some recent releases. When the box arrived, it was obvious that these records had been sold and returned, or mishandled at the record pressing plant, or dropped, opened, resealed. The point is, they were anything but freshly-pressed, factory-sealed, pristine examples of the vinyl albums. The label executive mentioned the poor condition of the LPs during a subsequent conversation with the president of the larger corporation. His response was “you should have called me. They know how to handle my requests.” He didn’t care that the LPs, the product he was manufacturing and distributing, arrived in poor shape; after all, his LPs always arrived in perfect condition. The bottom line thirty years ago? Any daily shipments were subject to the importance of the person making the request. Fast forward to 2014 and Uber. Had Mr. Michael taken the time to investigate the unflattering story by journalist Sarah Lacy, he might have learned something about his company, his product, himself, and how to continue to shape the company into one which the employees, stockholders, drivers, everyone, would be proud to work for, invest in, become a part of, and support. He might have taken a different approach to Uber’s developing company culture.

People inside Uber were delighted that they could track passengers, follow their every Uber move, and potentially use the collected data as some form of marketing edge, or perhaps for retribution. When Uber launches their service in a new city they apparently throw a party for the local power geeks. At this “launch event” attendees get a look at what Uber calls God View. (No arrogance there….) According to Forbes Magazine writer Kashmir Hill, “Uber’s “God View,” which lets them see all of the Ubers in a city and the silhouettes of waiting Uber users who have flagged cars. When it’s anonymous, it’s a cool trick. But Julia Allison, an attendee at a launch party in Chicago in September 2011, says Uber treated guests to Creepy Stalker View, showing them the whereabouts and movements of 30 Uber users in New York in real time. She recognized half of the people listed and texted one of them, entrepreneur Peter Sims, revealing that she knew his current whereabouts. He was pissed when he found out, eventually quitting the service because he felt like he could no longer trust it.”

“Creepy Stalker View” remains an issue. As recently as June 22, 2015, Uber was once again being called out for its penchant to invade everyone’s privacy: “The Electronic Privacy Information Center wants the Federal Trade Commission to investigate Uber’s new privacy policy, which gives the company the right to track users even if they’re not currently using the Uber app.” Julia Allison was right: Creepy.

Until recently I had not yet tried Uber or any of these new-tech taxis, but already my thoughts were to find an Uber alternative. A few weeks ago I was in San Francisco visiting our daughter. We were going to take a car from the west end of the city to the Embarcadero (on the Bay), and my daughter had both the Uber App and the Lyft App on her iPhone. Having had a conversation about Uber, she went with Lyft. Our ride was the experience you’d hope for. Simple, easy, on time, pleasant drivers. The only thing missing was Uber and Mr. Michael. Thank goodness.

David Steffen

© 2015 David Steffen

Coastal California and The Dogs of War   2 comments

Coastal California and The Dogs of War
(A Commentary and an Update)

August 31, 2014

For most of the past ten years, my family has spent our vacation time in Hawaii, specifically on the Maui Coast. After years of travel to many destinations we’ve found that saving for an annual visit to Maui has been more than sufficient as a destination to recharge our batteries. For those who can’t or don’t go to Hawaii, I’m not writing to impress anyone or to elicit any sympathy or derision; rather I’m writing to draw a comparison to the beautiful coastline of Hawaii’s islands, and the beautiful coastline of California. It’s the latter coast where I spend most of my time, living in Mendocino County. Having driven almost every one of its 656 miles—from Dana Point to Leggett—there are few highways as beautiful as California’s Highway One, particularly when you get north of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge.

Earlier this year we visited friends in southern California, and were reminded of the beauty of California’s urban coast, that part of Highway One with homes and businesses vying with surfers and swimmers for the beauty and a bit of personal respite. There seems to be a constant battle between visitors to the beaches, and those California property owners who continue to block access to “their personal beaches”. Unlike Hawaii, which has defined and enforced access as a right of everyone in the islands, native and haole, resident and visitor alike, California has a desire to provide access but it apparently lacks the legal cojones. In Hawaii, the University of Hawaii’s SeaGrant program reminds us that the “public has a right of access along the beaches and shorelines in the State situated below the “upper reaches of the wash of the waves.” (Follow this link to the relevant legislation). In short, anyone/everyone on the six primary-destination islands—Maui, Kauai, Oahu, Molokai, Lanai, Hawaii—can get to the beach.

In California it continues to be more difficult to ensure public access, at least in a few places. Many of us have read about the battles in Malibu, with the über-wealthy attempting to seel-off debate and seal-off the beaches, water, and endless views. Beyond the good news in Hawaii is a California that still wants to be heaven and haven. Much of the beauty in California is heavenly; some of the crass haven-building by those attempting to insulate themselves from the great unwashed is insulting and a visible demonstration of the contempt the 1% has for everyone else. As a 2012 Los Angeles Times editorial put it, “A recent report by the California Coastal Commission showed that some progress has been made across the state in improving access to the 1,100-mile shoreline, whose wet sands and craggy tide pools are part of the birthright of all Californians and cannot be privately owned below the high tide line.”  I love the phrase ‘part of the birthright of all Californians’. Nevertheless, and note another phrase above—“some progress”. Only some.

Our local newspaper, the weekly Independent Coast Observer (and other papers including SFGate) carried an Associated Press story by Juliet Williams about (here’s a surprise) a dot-com billionaire blocking beach access to those not in his circle of friends, or without the requisite billions of dollars to buy their own piece of exclusive (and to hell with everyone else) coastal real estate. “The public had access to Martins Beach for decades through a private access road, but it was closed after Silicon Valley billionaire Vinod Khosla bought a 53-acre parcel next to the secluded cove in 2008 for $32.5 million.” I have nothing against the dot-com world (although people in Los Angeles and San Francisco may feel differently as neighborhoods gentrify and inevitably expel less-tony residents.) But the fight for access to Martins Beach is emblematic of the two Americas. Rebecca Solnit was featured in a December 2013 article in Bloomberg’s Business Week on just this topic. Solnit has waged her own Paul Revere-esque written ride as a 21st Century town crier alerting the masses to the impending “them and everyone else” transition our country seems hell-bent on allowing to happen. It was prompted by the appearance of the Google buses, those dot-com limousines whisking techies along the highways and byways of the Bay area to the comfortable cocoon of Google’s offices. God-forbid they should be forced to mingle with the rest of society. Brad Wieners wrote in Business Week that  “. . . Rebecca Solnit was also among the first to cast the Google bus as a symbol of disparity and discontent in the San Francisco Bay Area. Writing a year ago, she described the big, luxury coaches that ferry employees from San Francisco and Oakland south to Google (GOOG) headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., as ‘gleaming white, with dark-tinted windows, like limousines, and some days I think of them as the spaceships on which our alien overlords have landed to rule over us.’”

Like those of us who’ve had a personal experience meeting a Glasshole—that marvelous and entirely appropriate euphemism for almost anyone wearing Google’s high-tech glasses in public—we continue to receive a daily dose of our changing America. Much like India’s long reviled caste system, we are being slowly but inexorably moved into America’s new lower/lowest caste. We are becoming members of this country’s “unwashed” economy. Ever-decreasing income, wiped out by ever-increasing costs-of-living. And if it’s not bad enough to work hard to keep from falling behind, we’re now also told to “keep off the beach”.

Recalling the famous headline from 1975, if the New York Daily News were writing the beach closing story today for its front page, I have no doubt the headline would read: Khosla to Californians: Drop Dead. Returning to the article that motivated me to write, it’s clear that another overlord has landed. History, precedent, and good manners have no weight here. It’s up to the California legislature and Governor Jerry Brown to return Martins Beach and all California beaches to all of the citizens of California.

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This is to the reader who asked me about a quote from the film The Dogs of War. The film’s hero and New York City resident Jamie Shannon has a guide take him through the jungle of the fictional African country of Zangaro. His guide babbled on in a local dialect, apparently berating Shannon and embracing the absolute power of Zangaro’s leader to do whatever he wishes. After a brief moment’s thought, Shannon informs the guide that “In my jungle, you’d be just another asshole.”

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Author’s note: The above essays are completely unrelated.

© David Steffen 2014

Posted August 31, 2014 by Jazzdavid in Education, Government, History, Technology, Uncategorized

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