Category Archives: Media

When librarians experienced a moral panic about digitization

This post originally appeared behind the firewall of my workplace.
Chip Conley is the singular member of AirBnB leadership who is older than 50. He’s called a “modern elder.” In a Harvard Business Review Conley talks about what his experience in a decades-long career can bring to his much-younger teams. I totally get it. If business cards were still a thing I’d be half-tempted to have Modern Elder on mine. Perhaps printed in Souvenir, a font ubiquitous in the 1970s.

An unexpected benefit of my lengthy career is I can remember reading things that to my younger peers would overlook as mere footnotes — dusty artifacts from before they were born. I was listening to a recent episode of the outstanding podcast 99% Invisible, and an account of a battle in the mid-90s between the author Nicholson Baker and public libraries. I distinctly recall reading his essay in the New Yorker Magazine cited on the podcast. It was so persuasive at the time that I debated its contents with a neighbor of mine at the time, who was a Milwaukee librarian.

The thesis of the piece was that the digitization of library card catalogs was leading to the degradation and destruction of the single most important document a library holds … Namely the reverently annotated and cross-referenced cards in the physical catalog.

You should really listen to 99% Invisible in general, but especially this episode.

TL;DL [too long; didn’t listen]

Baker admits he wasn’t taking into account the internet, and the ability of library systems to use other means to track and curate their collections — including the use of AI.

But I do hope you give it a listen. It includes an account of a clash of cultures within the San Francisco Library System, including a band of rogue librarians returning to their workplace in the dead of night to rescue books they felt were too precious to cull from the shelves, and an education in the acronym libraries use for the protocol of weeding out books, called MUSTY:

M — for Misleading, or factually inaccurate
U — for Ugly
S — for Superseded by a new edition or a much better book
T — for Trivial
Y — for Your-collection-has-no-use-for-this-book

That last letter is of course irrelevant, but any library habitue will understand why the opportunity of using MUSTY for getting rid of old books is too delicious to resist.

Happy listening — and reading!

An Aural Alchemy

The nineties had some exciting music. I could say the same for right now, but the difference is today you can experience that excitement at almost zero cost. As I type this I’m listening to something on Spotify, a cut from a Philip Glass album released thirty years ago. Thanks to streaming music services, my cost-per-minute-of-enjoyment is just pennies.

Not so back then. And because of the steep cost of owning music CDs before Napster kicked off a music distribution revolution, and also because of a personal lack of friends into neo-classical music — and also because I was a pretty broke small business owner with a tiny music-buying budget — I went through the early nineties completely ignorant of Mr. Glass’s work.

Ignorant of him — until that night.

I was living in Milwaukee, trudging through a gentle, sloppy snowstorm, heading to an East Side grocery store. My Walkman was keeping me company, set to FM radio mode, and tuned into WMSE. You need to know that back then WMSE was a college radio station that was particularly … er … college radio.

This meant you were listening not only for the music and news, but for the gaffes of student volunteers learning as they went along. Chaos could break out at any moment.

This was New Music Night. Every college radio station back then received boxes of sample LPs they could play at will, without royalty. The young man spinning vinyl that night must have grabbed the Glass album and plopped it on the turntable knowing as little about the composer as I did.

The excerpt below was recorded in the mid-seventies, but in my memory the sound that night resembled this:

What followed was some of the most repetitive, profoundly annoying music I had ever heard. It was also casting some kind of a spell on me. I almost walked past my destination. Instead I stood outside, eager for what happened next.

I didn’t have to wait long. The young man stopped the song mid-drone. No needle-scratch, but just as abrupt.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

A new song — by a different artist — filled the silence.

Mind you, I had heard New Music Night cuts over the years that were real doozies. One example: a PIL “song” that sounded like a buzz saw over the screams of the band’s leader, Johnny Rotten. And yet this night was the first and last time I heard a song abruptly stopped, and an apology extended.

Now I’m listening to a Philip Glass cut that could easily have been what disturbed the snowy peace. How interesting that new music, like a new clothing fashion, soon becomes familiar and even welcome!

I hope, Dear reader, you too experience the pleasure of hearing with new ears the things that once confounded you. It’s a gift of our extremely flexible brains, an alchemy that can turn a lump of aural coal into a diamond.

FilmStruck: Can you ever forgive me?

Friend, Romans, cinephiles, lend me your ears. I am here not to praise FilmStruck but to bury it. This is not a popular opinion. The near consensus after the announced plans to shutter the movie streaming service, three weeks ago, was one of mourning. For good reason: It’s an exclusive source for many foreign, classic and independent films, including The Criterion Collection.

And since the announcement I’m reminded of how sad I’ll be if I never see many of its films, or see them again. Because that truly is the power of great films. You want to see them more than once.

Two examples: I was saddened to realize that most of the wonderfully innovative films by auteur Mike Leagh, including my favorite, Life Is Sweet, are not available for streaming elsewhere. Nor is the film that introduced me to writer / director Nichole Hoffcenner, Walking and Talking (and also to the performances of two fresh-faced unknowns whose names you may recognize, Catherine Keener and Liev Schreiber).

And — Oh no! — There goes my chance to rewatch the wonderful performances and grungy farce that made Withnail and I an art house masterpiece. I’m especially grateful to that film for introducing me to Richard E. Grant (left in the still, with a Trumpian-length necktie).

I’m tormented by these losses, and the FOMO of all the other classics in the archive. When I subscribed to FilmStruck (and I did subscribe, for a full year, twice), those films I listed were just three in my watchlist of over 100.

Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Now, I simply have to relish new performances by these actors, including a film I cannot wait to check out. It has Richard E. Grant doing what he does best — playing a slimy reprobate — and from what I’ve heard does it so well he’ll assuredly be nominated for a long overdue Oscar nomination:

(And, Hooray! Nicole Holofcener co-wrote the film!)

So I’m grieving. But why haven’t I joined the chorus of people chiding FilmStruck’s owners for making a terrible decision? Because I think, although preventable, this service’s money losses led to a logical decision.

Not that they’re off the hook. Far from it.

I subscribed and cancelled twice to this service because it was terrible. Here’s how I responded to an article in Slate about its demise:

I handed FilmStruck a stack of ones (well, virtually … over 100 of them), twice, yet I never got to stream a single film of theirs to conclusion.

Also, when I would return, to see if I could complete a film that was cut short due to the dreaded buffering “progress wheel,” the film would start at the beginning.

It’s simplistic to say that the owners of FilmStruck, Turner Classic Movies, are being mean. It’s more accurate to say they have been, since the beginning, extremely negligent, which has led to the red ink they’re now using as their excuse to close the project.

By refusing to upgrade their streaming service when they received my — and I’m sure many other — detailed emails explaining how I was cancelling because they needed to fix their technology, they proved themselves not so much art-haters as tech-newbies.

FilmStruck, for its retrograde user experience, deserves to be in the same ash heap of tech history as Blockbuster and MySpace. We can only hope the films can one day rise phoenix-like, so I can get my Withnail fix.

Civil is down but not out: A blockchain failure to launch

I learned about Civil through a podcast. If you know me well this will not shock you. I make a steady diet of podcasts, and many are about emerging technologies. The ZigZag podcast series, by Jen Poyant and Manoush Zomorodi, is one of the most entertaining and educational in my playlist. A bit of a spoiler if you just started the podcast: The Civil launch that they chronicle has not gone smoothly. In fact, Alas, the Blockchain Will Not Save Journalism just appeared in the New York Times. I posted a rebuttal, but first, about ZigZag …

Here’s a sample episode to get you hooked:

I posted this rebuttal on Facebook but wanted to share it beyond that closed — and deeply flawed — social network:

“I disagree with this article about the death of a blockchain-authenticated newsroom. The TL;DR of it is it can’t work because it needs ordinary people to buy tokens, not to make money but to participate in fact-based journalism — and — people don’t understand it. Although it is hard to grasp, that doesn’t make the concept flawed.

“A dozen years ago I read about this new thing called Twitter. It predates the social medium within which I’m typing these words. I investigated it with curiosity and healthy skepticism. My conclusion? It will never scale because it’s too hard to grasp.

“I was wrong about Twitter, and this author is wrong about an actual antidote to Twitter and Facebook. That is, Civil’s mission is to take away the lies and the ads that, respectively, muddy political and social discourse and mine our behavior for profit.

“The Civil token sale did not succeed, to a great extent, because it was the very first widely-promoted public launch of a non-currency blockchain application. Like many of the first rockets we built in our efforts to walk on the moon, at the end of the countdown it sputtered and failed. That in no way clouds the virtue of the mission, or the viability of the technology.

“It just means these brave, hopeful defenders of good journalism need to go back to the drawing board.”

This year’s NPR Austin 100 includes impeccable break-up advice

NPR’s Austin 100 is a curated collection of new music from SXSW. I’ve never been to this Austin-based music festival, but I look forward to the annual playlist as eagerly as many await March Madness. And contrary to what’s supposed to happen with age, my tastes aren’t narrowing. I’m actually finding more to love in the collections every year. In 2015, the first year I started downloading the 100 songs, I kept only 27 — An hour and 42 minutes of listening.

This year, the hit-rate for me is up to 85 percent: A little over five hours of diverse new music. I’m sure there will be other songs from the 2018 collection that will go into heavy rotation, but here’s my initial song crush: Lucy Dacus delivering a small masterpiece on coping with a broken heart.

Arresting Lyrics In An Addictive Melodic Package

Two things will strike you about Night Shift. First, the lyrics. There isn’t an unnecessary word or phrase, and not a single cliche. Instead, you feel the hurt, as she recounts a meeting with a recently lost love in a coffee shop. You imagine this meeting was suggested by her ex to assuage guilt over cheating that led to the break-up. Or maybe it was just love that faded. When you’re still in its throes, even just the other person falling out of love can feel like an unthinkable betrayal.

Don’t hold your breath, forget you ever saw me at my best
You don’t deserve what you don’t respect
Don’t deserve what you say you love and then neglect

Regarding the second striking aspect of the song, I can be far less articulate. I’m a word guy, not a trained musicologist. But the structure is stunningly crafted, and makes the impact of her lyrics all the greater.

Yes, it builds, as a lot of modern pop songs do. Dacus starts with a simple, quiet folk melody and proceeds to a crashing, crunchy guitar crescendo. That’s nothing new. But this song does things differently. Since it caught my attention I’ve listened to it perhaps two dozen times — first for pure enjoyment, but then to try to grasp its magic. I needed to crack the code!

Which brings me to today. During a long, chilly walk, I was determined to listen to as much of my edited playlist as I could. But that damn song. I kept hitting replay on it. I finally surrendered and just tapped the Repeat Single button.

What followed was perhaps a dozen more listens. And possibly some hearing loss.

The melody appears to my untrained ear to change at three points, not counting a bridge just before what I guess you’d call the refrain. But this stunning refrain caps the end of the song instead of connecting separate verses. Dacus’ booming finale is a top-of-her-lungs declaration of Screw it! I’ll get over this — and you. Eventually.

You may disagree, but I find it to be a perfect song.

This isn’t the first time I’ve admired Lucy Dacus’ music. She was featured in the 2016 Austin 100. Here is that song. I’d like to believe it’s a new genre of anthem, dedicated to chubby girls or bookish girls, who are clever, smart … yet always overlooked:

My Own 2018 Austin 100 Curation

If you’re interested in what else is turning my crank from SXSW this year, here is my 79-song playlist in no particular order. It’s six songs short of my full list because, I’m guessing, a handful of artists did not agree to be on Spotify.

Enjoy.

Photo credit: Style Weekly piece on her. You should read the article.

Tips for career-building reading in 2018

This blog post originally appeared in an Accenture Careers blog.

Building your career in 2018? Or perhaps you’re looking to make a change in your current situation. Either way, you may be surprised to learn how educational and inspirational your reading list can be.

Here’s a recommended reading list to get you started. The list is curated by me and a few of my friends and colleagues.

Let’s get started

To begin, I’ve put together tips on how to get the most value from your reading time. Let’s call it a Reading List User’s Guide.

  1. Choose books as wisely as you choose friends. Author and entrepreneur Jim Rohn once wrote, “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” The same can be said for the authors you welcome onto your bookshelf or into your Kindle. In many ways, I consider authors I respect actual friends. For instance, early in my career, when I had my own direct-response consultancy, I would silently thank Peter Senge for what he had taught me. I would walk into a potential client’s business for the first time and apply the knowledge I gleaned from reading his book The Fifth Discipline, which focuses on how organizations “learn to learn.” I would look around at office dynamics and know with surprising accuracy just how much of a “learning organization” I was observing. No company is perfect, but Senge had trained me to see the extent of each organization’s “learning disabilities”—and by extension, whether they would be good customers for what I was selling. Now, that’s a valuable friend!
  2. Ask if popular books have truly earned their status. Good business books, like good speeches, should provide a strong mix of inspiration and education. Ask friends who have read a particular book what specifically they learned, or how they were moved. Listen closely to their answers. Much of the business world is ruled by groupthink, “FOMO” (fear of missing out) and trying to impress. Those impulses aren’t good enough reasons to read a book, even if it’s the one “everyone is reading.” It’s a surprisingly rare business book that deserves its popularity. I’m thinking of books like The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, which rode best-seller lists for literally years, and remains one of the best-selling non-fiction books of all time.Don’t be put off if your friends talk more to inspiration than education. The same year I first read (and learned a ton from) “7 Habits,” I was also deeply inspired by a different book, called The One-to-One Future. It was in the very early days of CRM (customer relationship management). And boy, did it inspire! It literally caused me to change my career path, a decision that is one of the best of my life. Last year, I derived similar inspiration from another book, The Business Blockchain. I haven’t changed my career yet, but you never know! (And thanks to Accenture’s deep involvement in blockchain, a lateral move within our organization isn’t out of the question for me.)
  3. Vary your reading diet widely. Non-fiction books don’t have to be formally about business to help you with your career. When I read Dr. Deborah Tannen’s You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation, I realized that I wasn’t communicating clearly with roughly half the professional workforce (i.e., women!). By an embarrassing coincidence—and as though the world had a painful lesson to teach me—just as I was about to start the book, I nearly lost a client because she gave her instructions in something Tannen calls “rapport speak,” while I was hearing her through the filter of “report speak.” I screwed up an assignment and only realized how it happened after reading and internalizing the book. How’s that for valuable career advice!
  4. Read the way you learn. Educational research teaches us that humans have preferred ways of learning. You may not take to the written word. Today, that shouldn’t hinder you. Don’t pay attention to those who stigmatize “hearing” a book instead of reading it. If audiobooks work for your style and your schedule, go for it. I’m currently “reading” a book in three different formats at once. I have a hardback copy of Ron Chernow’s dense Alexander Hamilton for the tactile pleasure of its pages, and its many illustrations, paintings and drawings. I also have an e-book copy to read when I’m traveling, since the hardcover takes up a lot of luggage space. And finally, I have an audible copy, for when I’m working out or taking long walks. I did something similar, and for similar reasons, when reading the outstanding Thinking, Fast and Slow by Nobel Prize in Economics winner Daniel Kahnemann. Remember what I said about authors being like friends? Just like real friends, sometimes, once you deem them worthy, you invest the time and money needed to spend time with them. Good books, like good friends, are worth it.
  5. Use books to focus your thinking. To paraphrase the late David Foster Wallace in his famous “This Is Water” college commencement address (Google it; you’ll thank me), the worst cliché of such speeches is, “An education isn’t about filling us with knowledge but about teaching us how to think.” It’s easy to find that insulting. It’s not. He points out that “how to think” is not so much about the capacity to think, but the choice of what to think about (getting us back to point 1, above). Books that help us build our careers direct our thinking in important directions. This is crucial, because there is a lot of other stuff that really doesn’t matter. They’re distractions preventing us from doing great things.

More Reading Recommendations

So, in crowdsourcing my network, I’ve compiled a list of reading material that will both educate and inspire. Mine are sprinkled throughout the five points above. Happy reading.