The flag we see every day out the window from CatSynth HQ. We wish all our fellow Americans a happy 4th of July (Independence Day)!
(Shot on an iPhone using Hipstamatic Lisbon Pack)
Meet Shadow and Brodie, two new synth-cat friends. Here we see them singing along to a tune played on an M-Audio Axiom keyboard controlling an off-screen synth or software instrument.
Submitted by Anne Corwin via our Facebook page.
It’s been a stressful few weeks for us at CatSynth. Not bad per se, just stressful. During times like this, I often lie down to reduce psychic entropy and practice disintegration of thought. And Sam Sam is often lying down next to me.
Like most cats, Sam Sam is quite good at napping. One might even say she is an “expert sleeper”, but that might cause confusion with one of the modular-synth manufacturers we sometimes feature. She does have her own unique way of curling up, though, pull her tail close to her head and sometimes even grabbing it with her paw. It’s adorable, and it never fails to make me smile.
She enjoys the soft blankets, either the burgundy or gray. But she almost always chooses the same corner of the bed. This is not surprising, as all of us at CatSynth are creatures of habit.
We hope you all have a relaxing and enjoyable weekend. For us, it will be a bit stressful once again, but with very focused study and practice on both the technological and musical fronts. But I will do my best to keep Sam Sam’s example in mind as I work through it. We can learn much from our cats!
It’s been a little while since we last attended Church of Thee Super Serge at Robotspeak in San Francisco, but we made a point of going this past weekend. For those who have not been there or read our past reviews, it’s an almost-ever-month show on a Saturday afternoon with live hardware-synthesizer performances. As the name suggests, some acts do include Serge synthesizers, but it is not required, and a wide variety of instruments are used. All three sets are featured in our most recent CatSynth TV episode.
The first set featured Lx Rudis performing on an Oberheim Xpander, a somewhat underappreciated instrument from the 1980s.
At its heart, the Xpander is a 6 voice analog synthesizer, but with a complex array of digital controls that can be programmed and applied independently to each voice. Lx Rudis took full advantage of these, especially the LFOs and lag generators, to create subtle and minimal metric patterns. He constantly moved voices in and out, configuring them on the fly, in a way that was very expressive and musical. I particularly liked the sections which had staccato rhythmic textures against slowly moving timbres deliberately out of sync with one another.
Next up was Franck Martin, who performed a solo set on a modular synthesizer with several standalone instruments.
Martin’s setup included a Moog Subharmonicon, which he built while attending Moogfest this year (we at CatSynth are a bit envious), as well as a DFAM (Drummer From Another Mother). There were also additional voices provided by Braids and Plaits modules from Mutable Instruments that he could bring in and out using a touch-plate interface. The result was a slowly changing beat pattern with an eerie inharmonic voicing and gentle undulation.
The final set featured our friends Gino Robair and Tom Djll teaming up as the brilliantly named Unpopular Electronics.
They had a wide variety of gear, including Serge panels in addition to Eurorack modules and standalone instruments from Bugbrand and others. In addition, Gino had an interesting small case that included touchpads.
The music was frenetic and intense, an avalanche of pops and hits and loud cloudlike tone clusters. And there were trumpet sounds entering into the mix at various points. But there was an exquisite detail to the madness with changes among the different instruments and sounds, and musical pauses and rests before the pair dived back into the frenzy. There were also many moments of humor and not just Djll’s book about why there aren’t any Zeppelin-style airships in the United States.
In between sets, it’s fun to browse around Robotspeak and see what’s for sale, or on display in the big glass case.
It’s also quite dangerous, as I am often tempted to leave with another module or instrument. On this occasion, I exercised restraint, but probably not next time…
Multiple friends and readers have noted the similarities in my observations and critiques of “forced togetherness” in the tech industry to the eponymous tech giant in The Circle, Dave Eggers’ 2013 novel. So in today’s edition of the series, we examine The Circle more closely, and what we can learn from its example. We are going to focus specifically on the Eggers novel and not the film adaptation starring Emma Watson and Tom Hanks – and there will be some spoilers, though we won’t give away the ending.
The Circle chronicles a critical stage of the evolution of the company of the same name, as seen through the eyes of a young newcomer, Mae Holland. The book can largely be divided into the overlapping stories of Mae’s experience working inside the company, and the larger implications of The Circle’s ambitions and vision on society as a whole. The two are intertwined, as The Circle intends to remake society into a utopia based on its own internal culture. But that internal culture, especially in the novel’s first act, is what most concerns us here.>
We first encounter Mae, a recent college grad, as she is leaving behind her dead-end job in her tiny hometown in the Central Valley. The town, Longfield, is described as being halfway between Fresno and Tranquility, suggesting that it might be modeled after the real town of Kerman, California. But I digress. Mae scores an opportunity to work at The Circle via her friend and former college roommate Annie, who is a senior member of The Circle’s leadership focusing on regulatory issues.
The company’s campus has details that could easily have been drawn from the real-life headquarters of Google or Facebook. Similarly, the company’s culture seems like Google or Facebook on steroids. There are food and recreational opportunities everywhere, including regular parties and over-the-top live entertainment from well-known bands. Indeed the fitness, medical facilities, and cafeterias seem mundane compared to the over-the-top cultural aspects that scream “forced togetherness.” It is clear from the start that the goal is to keep Circlers on campus as much as possible, whether or not they are working or playing. Perhaps this hit a little closer-to-home for me than other readers, as I see this as the most cynical and insidious aspect of tech-company culture.
We see the culture of The Circle seeping into Mae’s actual job, which is as a customer-experience agent. The job itself is straightforward and reasonable, she answers questions from clients (think folks like us who sometimes buy Facebook ads, incorporate Paypal payments, etc.). Clients can rate her service, and that is factored into her job performance, with the goal to get as close to a 100% rating as possible. She also gets pinned to clients she has previously helped, allowing her to develop relationships with them. There is a steady queue of incoming requests. Stressful and high-pressured, perhaps, but nothing out of the ordinary for work. Things get darker as Mae discovers that her social participation in life at The Circle is judged as significantly, of not more than, her job performance. After neglecting to set up her social profiles (similar to a Facebook profile but with internal-and-external facing personae), she is chastised by the annoyingly perky social-media representatives who come to make sure she follows through and sets it up. She is scolded for not being on campus over a weekend. Mind you, not that she wasn’t working, but that she wasn’t present. When she explains that she was visiting her parents and her father’s multiple sclerosis, the topic turns to why she hasn’t joined any Circle online groups for children of people with MS. Even her solitary joy of kayaking is questioned by one of the representatives, who not only pressures her to join kayaking-enthusiast groups but even suggests they should do so together as this is a passion of his as well. Later on, Mae is called into her boss’ office who says she is doing a great job but then gives her a serious dressing down about the fact that she is falling behind on social media participation – people at the Circle are ranked by a social-media participation score. Again, she is scolded for being off campus, visiting her family, and missing yet another “awesome” party.
While reading all the social pressure and lack of personal autonomy being thrown at Mae, I felt my own heart race and my own anxiety levels rise. Here was everything I rail against in this series, taken to its utmost extreme. Don’t get me wrong, the campus is amazing and beautiful and full of opportunities – and the fact that Mae’s father finally has access to state-of-the-art care for his MS is great. But these benefits come at the cost of a lack of boundaries and personal autonomy, things we learn are anathema to The Circle’s vision and business model as well as company culture.
Things come to a head in both the business and personal aspects. The Circle has developed tiny low-cost and low-powered HD camera that can be placed anywhere or on anyone. They launch an initiative to have elected leaders “go transparent”, i.e., wear a live-streaming video camera at all times. Meanwhile, Mae’s job is going well as she determines to rise to the top in the company’s social-media rankings, but her life back home is falling apart. The cameras and such are quite intrusive for her parents, and her ex-boyfriend (and professional Luddite) Mercer breaks off his contact with her after her attempt to promote his deer-antler-chandelier business backfires spectacularly. This leads her to seek solace in her one solitary joy, kayaking. It’s late and she steals a kayak from her friends who run a small rental business. It is foggy that night, but she paddles out far into the bay and ends up near the real-life Red Rock Island and Richmond-San-Rafael Bridge. I could see myself seeking out a similar solitary passion in such a stressful situation, such as a “fun with highways” trip. Unbeknownst to her, there was one of The Circle’s tiny cameras near the kayak shop, and her entire caper is recorded and seen by the company’s leaders. Not only does this get her in trouble for potentially committing a crime, it also leads to another round of recriminations about her autonomy and distance from the rest of the company.
As Act 1 of the novel comes to a close, Mae makes a fateful decision to salvage her career by going “transparent.” Act 2 follows the transparent Mae has she live-streams life on the campus and gets intertwined with things darker and darker about The Circle’s dystopian ambitions, which include a devotion to transparency and demonization of privacy. Forced-togetherness becomes not just part of the company culture, but the vision for society as a whole! Everyone connected at all times, full transparency, no boundaries, no privacy. This ghastly possibility is what The Circle promotes as a utopia.
When Mae was suffering under the cultural pressure of The Circle in Act 1, she remained a sympathetic character. But as she embraces The Circle’s internal and external vision, she becomes a much less sympathetic character, and I began to distrust and even detest her. But at the same time, her ex Mercer, who is set up as the skeptical foil to The Circle’s vision, is not particularly likable, either. He is a self-righteous prig. Indeed, in the end, there is not one character who comes out positive. Dislikable and untrustworthy characters are a mainstay of Eggers’ fiction and make for great reading. But in this cas,e they hit close enough to home to be rather disconcerting.
It is, of course, important to remember that The Circle is fiction. None of the campuses I have visited, none of the businesses I have seen in depth, are nearly as sinister, though each has aspects that could lead to The Circle, both inside and out. I hope we can figure out how to balance these competing challenges and they become closer to reality without going completely to the extreme in the other direction. We don’t want to become Mae, but we shouldn’t have to become Mercer to avoid becoming her. The technology is amazing, as long as we retain control and autonomy around it. And we see this playing out in real life right now (e.g., consider the recent privacy scandals involving Facebook) and with increasing public awareness. So there is hope.
The Murphy Windmill in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco.
You can find out more about the windmill and its history at outsidelands.org
Those who follow our Instagram are regularly treated to photos and videos of Sam Sam and her adventures around CatSynth HQ. For those who don’t, we can assure you that she is doing well and is being spoiled rotten.
Sam Sam has made this blanket one of her favorite spots for napping and relaxing. It is quite warm and soft. In this video, we see her kneading it and purring up a storm.
It’s good to be the cat!
Here we see her posing with our Korg Volca FM sytnhesizer.
This photo was taken while preparing for our recent video on the Volca FM, which you can check out on YouTube. One of the nice things about these small battery-powered synths like the Korg Volcas and the Roland Boutiques is that we play them on the bed. And if I’m there playing a synth, reading, or napping, Sam Sam is likely to follow.
We hope you have a fun weekend, however you define it. And if you are Instagram, please do follow us 😻.
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.
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.
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.
After several years, we at CatSynth are resuming our tradition of sharing wild cats on earth day. Those who follow our Facebook page are regularly treated to photos and videos of wild cats. We share a few favorites, along with some of our own.
A personal favorite of ours is the fishing cat (Prionailurus viverrinus). It is unique in that is adapted for swimming and hunting in the water. The sleek fur, streamlined shape, and folded ears attest to this adaptation.
The fishing cat has discontinuous populations in rainforests of South Asia and Southeast Asia. It is listed as Vulnerable, primarily due to habitat destruction. The Greensboro Science Center in Greensboro, North Carolina, recently posted this video featuring a mother fishing cat teaching her kitten their aquatic heritage.
Another lesser-known cat is the oncilla (Leopardus tigrinus). It is among the smallest of wild cats, similar in appearance to but significantly smaller than the well-known ocelot.
The oncilla lives throughout Brazil as well as the highland tropical forests of Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru. There is even a recorded separate population in Panama. It is listed as Vulnerable in IUCN classification, mainly due (once again) to habit loss.
Both of these cats and many others have a similar spotted look that works well in their forested environments. Our old pal the Pallas cat (Otocolobus manul), also known as the manul, is quite a different beast altogether. It has a squat shape, fluffy fur and a gray color that are suited to its cold rocky environment in Central Asia. Here is a manual I encountered at the Prospect Park Zoo in New York some years ago.
More recently, we attended the Feline NightLife at the California Academy of Sciences, and got to see many wild cats courtesy of Safari West, including this beautiful serval.
While not endangered, servals have been frequently been captured and bred as exotic pets. They do, however, remain wild predators and their domestic captivity usually goes badly for human and feline alike. As our host from Safari West said, “they do not make good pets, but they will eat good pets.” Below is a “cat” that actually is not a cat at all, but a separate genus, the genet. If they had not told me, I might have guessed it was a fishing cat.
Sadly, Safari West was affected by last year’s devastating Tubbs fire in Sonoma County. Several structures burned, and the co-founders lost their own home. Fortunately, most of the property was spared and the animals all made it through the conflagration safely, and Safari West reopened for tours and programs in late November. You can read more about their experience (and find out how to support them) here.
We conclude with our friends at ISEC Canada, an organization dedicated entirely to the conservation of small wild cats. They have many projects underway, including a study of the black-footed cat, another lesser-known small wild cat from southern Africa. It’s esimated range covers parts of Namibia, Botswana and South Africa.
The black-footed cat is adorable, and its face closely resembles many housecats. But once again, this is a wild animal and does not belong in a domestic setting. We applaud the work of ISEC Canada and other organizations who study and help to preserve them in their wild habitats.