CatSynth Pic: Mr. Maximillion, JoMoX Alpha Base, Novation Peak

Mr. Maximillion with JoMoX Alpha Base and Novation Peak

Mr. Maximillion returns, this time with his JoMoX Alpha Base and a Novation Peak synthesizers.  Submitted by our friend Charles Whiley via Facebook.

Mr. Maximillion has quite the synth collection, and we always look forward to seeing more of it.

Voltage and Verse: Ruth Weiss/Doug Lynner/Hal Davis, Pitta of the Mind, Ramon Sender at Adobe Books

It’s been a busy season for Pitta of the Mind!  We had three shows in the span of two months, beginning with our blue set at Pro Arts and culminating with ¡Voltage and Verse! at Adobe Books in San Francisco.  You can get a taste for the show in our CatSynth TV video.

It was an honor to once again share a bill with ruth weiss.  A Holocaust survivor and founding member of the San Francisco beat poet scene in the 1950s, she is still going strong, performing and supporting local institutions and artists.

Maw Shein Win, ruth weiss, Amanda Chaudhary

We were glad to see that she is continuing her collaboration with our friend and synthesizer virtuoso Doug Lynner.  Together with log percussionist Hal Davis, they performed a set of poetry and music that simultaneously evoked earlier eras and the latest electronic experiments.  Davis’ log drum provided an expressive metronome, undulating between a trot and a gallop.  Lynner’s synthesizer lines filled in the spaces, sometimes with rhythmic appeggios and at other moments with long eerie drones.  The synthesizer timbres and phrases complemented the words in multiple ways, sometimes underpinning the narrative in the manner of a good film score, at other times emphasizing the rhythm of the words and making them into a musical whole.

ruth weiss and Doug Lynner

Our Pitta of the Mind set was part of a month-long celebration for the release of Maw Shein Win’s new book of poetry Invisible Gifts.  The book is divided into four sections based on different colors.  This works perfectly for our use of color themes in our performances.  For this night, we chose silver and performed selections from the silver section of the book.  There were some familiar poems that we have performed before, and some that were new to me.  There were a variety of styles and subjects in the words that inspired different musical backings, from jazzy electric piano (my favorite) to abstract synthesizer explorations.  I was able to reuse some of the modular patches I had developed for my recent show in Portland and make them work with the rhythm of the texts.

Pitta of the Mind

Maw and I have performed together so many times now that it has become almost second nature to realize a new set; our three shows this season went off (nearly) flawlessly, and have been among the best we have done in our nearly seven years of collaboration!  We have developed a toolset and pallete of instruments (including the Nord Stage and Prophet 12) and sounds that we can quickly turn to with each new text, which makes the process of learning new pieces both simple and fun.  I certainly hope we can keep up the momentum in the remainder of the year, even as I turn my own attention to other musical projects.

In between our set and weiss/Lynner/Davis, we were treated to a presentation by Ramon Sender.  Sender was a co-founder (along Morton Subotnick and Pauline Oliveros) of the San Francisco Tape Music Center in the early 1960s, but on this evening he regaled us with stories of his time at the Morning Star and Wheeler ranches in Sonoma County in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  Morningstar, founded by Lou Gottlieb, was a radical experiment in communal living, populated by an interesting cast of characters along with folks who “commuted” between San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district and the ranch west of Sebastopol.  It only existed in its communal form for a short period of time before being shut down by Sonoma County. Sender and others then moved to the nearby property of artist Bill Wheeler, who followed Gottlieb’s lead and opened his ranch as a commune open to all.  I found myself fascinated by Sender’s stories, and would love to learn more about the history of the area and these communal experiments.

It was a fun night of music and words that lived up to its billing, and I certainly hope to have a chance to perform with everyone again.  And thanks to Benjamin Tinker and Adobe Books for hosting the event!  Please support your local bookstores and performance spaces.

[Photos not marked “catsynth.com” in this article courtesy of Maw Shein Win.]

Forced Togetherness Fridays: Open Floor Plans and Sexism


[By Mozilla in Europe (Flickr: London Workspace) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons]

Open floor plans are de rigeur in the high-tech industry, but they have also become trendy of late in other industries as well.  The are loved by some, hated by others. On a purely aesthetic level, I quite like open-floor-plan spaces.  After all, CatSynth HQ is a two-level open-plan space.  When they are modern, with lots of light, air, glass and metal, they can be quite beautiful and inviting.  The example from Mozilla’s UK office that opens this article is one such example.  On the other hand, some can just be boring and utilitarian, as if someone just took an old office space and knocked out some walls.


[By Benn (https://www.flickr.com/photos/benn/196447297/) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons]

Aesthetics aside, the problems with open plans aren’t the spaces themselves.  It’s what happens when you put a lot of people in them.  For some, a busilling hive of activity with constant access to other people can be a boon, but for many is a source of intense anxiety and can feel even more confining than a small private office.

The problems of open office spaces can be especially challenging for women.  As reported in this article in Fast Co Design, the open design combined with everyday sexism can exacerbate the difficulties or challenges that women face in the workplace:

Fascinatingly, the study did not start out as an examination of gender specifically–it was meant as an examination of how workplace culture shifts when office design changes radically. It was only when Hirst, who conducted interviews on-site and spent a lot of time observing the workplace, began to feel pressure to dress in a more feminine way herself that she began to wonder about it. “She was surprised by the unusual amount of care she took over her own appearance, a degree of self-consciousness that she found burdensome as time progressed,” the researchers write. “To ‘fit in’ with the modern, clean aesthetic of the building itself and a dress code that was widely adopted, she departed from her usual preference for wearing jeans and no makeup; adopting a smart trouser suit and putting on makeup.”

Many of the examples in the main article as well as a follow-up featuring stories from readers focus on the extra pressure women feel about their appearances in these environments.  Interestingly, my own experience is somewhat different, but retains the overall sense of pressure.  I usually dress up and always wear makeup for the office, because I enjoy it and it makes me feel good.  But I do feel very self conscious in the open spaces in different ways.  First, I am worried about how mistakes or faux pas may be visible.  And in the world of high-tech, the almost religious embrace of casualness and the way many men, even in leadership, treat their slovenly appearance as a badge of strength or honor, can add subtle pressure.  As a woman, does one fit in, trying to be “one of the guys”, or be oneself and stand out in the sea of casualness?  I could write an entire article just about attire and dress codes – and I will – but there are other forms of sexism at work in open spaces as well.

The biggest problem that I have observed is the lack of privacy, even the privacy to conduct one’s own work efficiently, or conducting those aspects of personal life such as doctors’ appointments or things with family and children, that one has an expectation, even a right, to do from the office. Some companies, including ones where I work, sometimes set aside small spaces, either completely or just slightly enclosed, but it may not be enough, as one reader, Jean A., related:

The open office layouts I’ve sat in have both had ‘privacy’ rooms available, though these tend to be used as one-on-one meeting places almost as frequently as they are used as rooms in which individuals can call someone or even just take a brief rest. One thing in particular that I have noticed is that I like to be able to schedule doctor’s visits (for myself and my mother, whom I care for) while viewing my work calendar so that I can try and avoid missing meetings, but there is really no way to effectively do that privately in an open office floor plan. I have to drag my laptop into the privacy room, hope that the wireless works in that room (which it only rarely does)…

Another reader describes how the lack of privacy in open spaces can exacerbate workplace bullying, as described by reader Elizabeth G:

“The open plan office was in a college and not only was it very exposing as the managers were in a mezzanine level and looked down on us but the desks were butted up against each other and in rows. There was absolutely no privacy, and judgments about folks were made that amounted to a kind of covert bullying. Any absences from the room were noted and commented on. There were two small meeting rooms but they required booking. There was no room to spread documents out if you needed to and anyone could see what was on your screen. Most of us adopted a kind of blindness/deafness to our neighbors. It was also noisy at times, which impacted our concentration or ability to conduct telephone calls. I stuck it out for a year but was relieved to leave.

I have myself experience the stress and drain that comes with the lack of privacy in open spaces, the constant feeling of being watched.  I have also had to deal with novel types of bullying that are rarer in closed spaces.  On several occasions at multiple companies, I found myself chatting with a colleague about a technical matter related to a task at hand, only to have a male colleage come charging over and offer his unsolicited opinion – the ubiquitous and annoying phenomenon of mansplaining.  Sometimes he would be wrong because of missing context, but this did not stop a confident and overbearing manner, which crosses the line into bullying.  One particular egregious example involved my explaining an iOS-specific design requirement to a colleague working deliving a graphic, when suddenly a business-focused male coworker came over and erroneously explained why I was wrong – on top of this, he didn’t even address me directly, just my male colleague at the neighboring desk.  Similarly, some workplace bullies (invariably male in my experience) will use the open space to verbally corner or humiliate a co-worker, something that is unpleasant even behind closed doors, but far worse when it is in view of the entire company.

Then there is the simple problem of constant distraction.  As someone who is trained to use her ears critically, it is difficult to not be distracted by constant conversations happening in an open space, some of which can even be amplified by the acoustic properties of the space.  It is possible to filter them out metally, but this takes a lot of energy that is then drawn away from actually getting work done.  Many companies, including the one I described in last week’s article, have taken to offering noise-cancelling headphones to workers.  While it does cut down on noise distraction, these is merely a band-aid on the problem, and a band-aid that can itself lead to other problems like ear fatigue.

These and other issues, not surprisingly, can lead to increased anxiety.  And while men and women both face anxiety in the workplace, women face the additional challenge of being scrutinized for any display of emotion or “losing one’s cool.”  Open floor planes often leave very little place to work out anxiety, take an emotional break, or simply hide when necessary.  There is the bathroom, and there is going outside.  I use both strategies, including going for long walks away from the office – something that itself can be scrutinized in places that prize forced togetherness.  Readers in the follow-up article also releated similar stories, and in this quote from Emily S:

“I was one of three women at the company. I struggle with anxiety, and the cramped, nowhere-to-hide office layout made matters worse. When I felt an anxiety attack coming on, I would walk a block to a hotel around the corner and hide out in their basement bathroom until things subsided.

“It wasn’t until after a few months of working there that I mentioned this to my other female coworkers and found that they, too, had ‘hiding spots.’ One had a sibling who lived nearby and would go to his apartment, another would go to a department store a few blocks away.

“When I left the company, I made a note in my exit interview that the office setup exacerbated my anxiety and suggested that more consideration be given to employee mental health. I’m not sure if anything changed, but I do know that in my current office–still an open floor plan, but much larger–where there are places to escape to (like sofas, or a phone booth), I’m much happier.”

Of course none of these issues are unique to open floor plans, and many aren’t caused by them.  Sexism and bullying is rampant in a great many environments including the virtual world.  But an open work place where one feels trapped in the gaze of others can make it far worse.  Like Emily in the last quote, I look to companies that offer a variety of heterogenous spaces, some private, as well as opportunities to be remote from co-workers.  And I appreciate companies that put a priority on their workers’ mental health and well being as part of their operations.  It remains to be seen how that plays out in particular in the “forced-togetherness-as-virtue” tech industry, and whether some firms move away from open plans towards more variety of spaces.

CatSynth Pic: New Eurorack From ALM

Via matrixsynth, we have this announcement from ALM of a new module that was revealed at Superbooth 18.

Sadly, we were not able to attend Superbooth – hopefully next year.  But we did find this video about that included an overview of ALM’s new offerings, including the Quaid Megaslope.

Wordless Wednesday: California Street, San Francisco

California Street

Plaza of 550 California Street, at Kearny Street, San Francisco.

CatSynth Pic: DSI Evolver

Handsome tabby cat with an Evolver from Dave Smith Instruments.  From anika_or on Instagram.

I will confess I haven’t been using my Evolver as much of late as I used to.  It’s probably time to take a fresh look at what it has to offer.

 

CatSynth Pic: Sequential Prophet 6 and DSI OB-6

Black Cat, Prophet 6, OB6

This is one lucky cat, with both a Sequential Prophet 6 and an OB6 from Dave Smith Instruments.  And the keyboard versions at that 😻

Photo by Jon Sellers via the Facebook group Synthesizer Freaks.

The two instruments are quite similar in layout and overall architecture but have distinct sounds and other characteristics.  The P6 is a classic Prophet. while the OB-6 has the distinctive sound of its Oberheim filters.

You can read our past NAMM reviews of the P6 in this post, and the OB-6 here.

Cat Cartoonists on #NationalCartoonistsDay

 

The fifth of May marks a great many things. It is the birthday of Karl Marx – indeed, today marks his bicentennial! It is also a day when many Americans inexplicably get drunk and culturally insensitive in celebration of the Mexican defeat of the French Empire in the town of Puebla. And finally, it is National Cartoonists Day.  And in honor of this occasion, we celebrate many noted cat cartoonists.

We begin with B Kilban.  An artist originally from Connecticut, he got his start as a cartoonist here in San Francisco, drawing for Playboy.  It was at Playboy where his distinctive cat cartoons were discovered by editor Michelle Urry.  This led to his most well-known book, Cat.  You have probably seen his cats both in formal cartoons and adorning many products.  Kilban passed away in 1990, but his legacy lives on through his books and syndication of his images.  You can find out more at his official website www.eatmousies.com.

 

 

Of course, an article on cat cartoonists must include Jim Davis, the creator of Garfield.  Davis grew up on a farm in Indiana with his parents, brother, and 25 cats.  While the main human character in Davis’ cartoons, Jon Arbuckle is also a cartoonist who grew up on a farm, the spoiled and overweight Garfield seems nothing like a farm cat.  Indeed, his disdain for the concept of catching mice is a frequent topic of the strips.  Many an orange male cat has been named “Garfield” in the character’s honor.

 

 

One of the best-known works of Japanese manga artist Makoto Kobayashi also features an orange cat. What’s Michael? chronicles the adventures of a shorthair tabby named Michael and his many feline friends.  It was originally released in serial form in Japan’s Weekly Morning manga magazine, but it now available in the U.S. as well via Dark Horse Comics.  The stories are a mix of the mundane and surreal, with Michael sometimes appearing differently than the orange shorthair title cat, and sometimes even dying in certain episodes.

 

New Yorker cartoonist George Booth is best known his complex doodle-like cartoons featuring befuddled humans and their pets.  They are a mainstay of the magazine and synonymous with the “New Yorker style” of cartooning.  While the animal most frequently featured in his work is a fat dog with big ears, there are often cats as well.

 

 

And then there is Fritz the Cat, created by the legendary R. Crumb.  Fritz originally appeared in Crumb’s homemade comic book “Cat Life”.  Originally based on the family cat, Fritz became anthropomorphic in later iterations, evolving into the hedonistic con-artist character that was a mainstay of underground comix in the 1960s.  Fritz’s adventures in a New York-like mega-city populated entirely by anthropomorphic animals often devolved into chaos with unusual sexual escapades.   In the 1970s, Fritz the Cat was made into an animated feature film by Ralph Bakshi.

 

 

 

 

Fat Freddy's CatAnother underground comix artist Gilbert Shelton created a well-known feline character.  Known simply as “Fat Freddy’s Cat”, he initially appeared in Shelton’s Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers strip about a trio of stoner characters in the 1960s before getting his own strip.  A standalone series, The Adventures of Fat Freddy’s Cat was published in the 1970s and expanded in a 1980s release.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Joann Sfar is a French comics artist.  Influenced by the European comics artists of the 20th century including the great Moebius (Jean Giraud), he has a distinctive style that is at once more realistic and fanciful.  One of his most well-known series is The Rabbi’s Cat, first released as a comic book in 2005 and later adapted into a film in 2011, which he directed.  The main feline character is a cat who has the ability to speak and lives with a rabbi and his daughter in the Jewish community of 1920s Algeria.  Sfar’s Jewish heritage runs through many of his works, but no more directly than in The Rabbi’s Cat.  In addition to the books, we at CatSynth recommend seeing the film (which is gorgeous) in the original French.

 

 

 

 

Another classic of feline cartoons is Krazy Kat, by George Herriman.  It had a long run as a comic strip in American newspapers from 1913 to 1944 when Herriman died.  The strip was based around the ostensibly simple cat-and-mouse trip, with the cat named Krazy being taunted and tormented by a mouse Ignatz who is often shown throwing bricks at Krazy’s head.  Krazy speaks in a very stylized mixture of English and other languages and is of indeterminate gender – though inexplicably smitten with Ignatz.

And finally, we would be remiss if we did not include our very own J.B., author the Mensa Cats series that appears right here on CatSynth.

You can see many more episodes of the Mensa Cats on these pages via this link.  We also encourage interested reads to find out more about all the artists discussed in this article and to read their comics.

Forced Togetherness Fridays: Quiet and Independent

The job-search and interview process is often full of strange twists and turns, and you often can’t tell in advance which company and role will end up being “the one”, and which ones won’t.  Even within a single job interview, that can be the case, as in the story told in this week’s article.

The office, a loft space in an older building, was gorgeous.  It was bright and minimalist, with lots of glass and metal details.  The furniture in the waiting area had a mid-century modernist vibe.  There was definitely an integrated aesthetic to the place – even extending into the bathrooms – and it was one that I liked.  There were also some concerning signs.  It was crowded, and particularly in the engineering sector, people seemed to be sitting a little too close together for my comfort.  I got the sense during the interviews that collaboration was highly valued – they even seemed to be proponents of the dreaded practice of pair programming in which pairs of software engineers formally work together on a problem.  Now there is nothing wrong with working together, getting an extra pair of eyes on a piece of code, but only when it’s informal and infrequent.

But the technical portions of the interview put me at ease.  The questions were challenging and esoteric, but I was able to handle most of them, even surprised my interviewers in getting a couple of tough Android questions right.  As a bonus, the interviewer from outside the domain asked questions about mathematics and high-performance signal processing which gave me a chance to show off a bit.  So when I got the call back a day later from the recruiter that I had impressed them technically and that they wanted me to come back in for the next steps I was excited and put aside my concerns.  The next steps involved having lunch with the Android team and meeting one of the co-founders.  The lunch went well – it was great to see that my potential teammates included two other women – and I felt relaxed, even a bit boisterous as they asked about my music and such.  The meeting with the co-founder/CTO was a more serious affair, but also positive.  He had an affable but businesslike and direct manner, and at the conclusion of our conversion he said he could see me working there – he also shared that while they offered lunches, as a policy they did not offer dinners, as they wanted to encourage people to go home and spend time with their families, etc.  This seemed sober and civilized, especially in comparison to where I had come from before.  And a final boost of confidence came as I was leaving and ran into the interviewer from the first round who had asked me the mathematics and low-level computing questions – he said he was definitely pulling for me.

There was only one more step: meeting the other co-founder/CEO, whose main focus would be to test for cultural fit.  I had some trepidation about that, but I respected their process, and I felt good enough about the previous rounds that I wasn’t too worried.  As soon as he entered the conference room where I was waiting, I could tell this was going to be very different.  Compared to everyone else I had already spoken to, including his co-founder, he had a very awkward manner.  He seemed to avoid eye contact with me, and his voice had a very flat contour – classic characteristics of someone who is “on the spectrum”, at least in the popular imagination.  It’s always a little weird for me to be more expressive one and the one who carries the energy for the conversation, but I did my best.  However, when in the middle of talking about myself and my work I mentioned that I like to work “quietly and independently” his body language went from flat to sullen.  He then asked what I meant by that, and I tried to answer truthfully and analytically, but it was clear this was the wrong thing to have said.  “Quiet and independent” was not going to be a cultural fit.  And a few days later, I got the notice that I was turned down.  They did not cite a reason or give any feedback, but it was clear in my mind that it most likely came down to those three little words “quiet and independent” in that last interview.

The question remains why?  Why would a culture of hyper-collaboration, proximity, and interaction trump getting things done?  I don’t have the answer to that, but I suspect they saw my professed independence as a liability for their organization.  A bit more sinister, I was left wondering if my response was seen more negatively because I was a woman.  I have observed that cultures that put a premium on teamwork and collaboration seem to expect women to be “even more so”; and that women are treated more severely for being contrarian or pushing back.  Again, I don’t know whether that played a role in this instance, but there were other instances where it most certainly did, and I will share in a subsequent article.

As for this particular job search, the same day I was notified that I was turned down for this position, I had an interview for another that led to an offer that turned out to be one of the best overall work experiences I have had.  As I said at the start, you never know how things will turn out.

Star Wars Day: Tookas in Forces of Destiny

Last year on May the Fourth, we shared a bit about felines in the Star Wars universe.  In particular, the many species of tooka, a small animal with cat-like appearance and behavior that was featured in both the Rebels and Clone Wars animated series.  Tookas also make an appearance in the new Forces of Destiny animated shorts.  In one episode, Jyn Erso saves and befriends a tooka that has adopted by a girl as a pet.

We at CatSynth love these short videos in the Forces of Destiny series.  Most of the attention has gone to their featuring of the women in the franchise, but they also cleverly weave together characters from different stories over the timeline.  We will have more to say about this series in a future article.  But for now, May the Fourth Be With You! (Oy vey!)