Forced Togetherness Fridays: Rainy Afternoons

A rainy afternoon like this one at HQ can be a delight.  Listening to the polyrhythms of the droplets outside, the gray sky and the shadows, all from a warm comfortable space with a purring cat and favorite music.  It can be a great time for focusing on creative projects, or just lying around and experience the “disintegration of thought.”

Rainy days at an office can be more challenging, especially when said office is one of the worst offenders of “forced togetherness.”  I retreated into my work, getting better acquainted with the Swift programming language and listening to music on my headphones using the mobile music-play I was tasked with building.  To this day, I associate Shuggie Otis’ “Strawberry Letter 23” with rainy days and the mental and personal space I created for myself.

In my mind, I was in a dank 1970s wood-paneled den with a stereo with large speakers – maybe a lava lamp or two – as the gentle rain outside provided a foundational background noise.  A bit melancholy but also happy and contented.  I also played a lot of Ornette Coleman on our app as I was building and testing it.  It was no accident that Lonely Woman rose in the play statistics against the insipid contemporary pop tunes form our top charts and staff picks.

Another aspect of rainy days at this particular office was that our external network often went down.  It is rather difficult to work at or run a technology company without internet, so this logically led to an exodus with most of us working from home the remainder of the day.  On one occasion, one of the co-founders exhorted us all to come with him to his apartment building with the selling point “we have a rec room!”   This was quintessential forced togetherness, as it is unclear what possible benefit a rec room would have to do with getting our work done.  Now I don’t know what was going through his mind – perhaps he was just lonely, and maybe he even thought he was being generous – but it was par for the course for a company whose culture seemed about hanging out together.  This was, after all, the same company with the coercive lunch behavior that I described in the previous installment of this series.  Even before joining, when I balked at an embarrassingly low offer, part of their response was a series of emails and links to blog posts of them hanging out and partying, presumably intended to show me “how cool they were.”  This should have been a red flag, but I did not take the warning.  A bit older and wiser, I do take such warnings very seriously now when I evaluate business and career opportunities.

However, it still remains an open question as to why young companies, particularly with young founders, tend to put such a premium on togetherness to the point where others are pressured to participate.  We will continue to unpack this in future installments of this series.

RIP Cecil Taylor (1929 – 2018)

We learned yesterday of the passing of another of our musical heroes, Cecil Taylor.

This segment of solo piano demonstrates how his playing is incredibly complex but remains thoroughly musical.   The fast runs contain a unique contrapuntal language.  And more importantly, there is phrasing, contour, and emotion that unifies the performance.  Taylor had an uncanny ability to combine European classical tradition, jazz, and other African American influences into a unique musical language that he dubbed “black methodology”.  This quote from poet and critic A. B. Spellman, included in the official New York Times obituary, sums it up well.

“There is only one musician who has, by general agreement even among those who have disliked his music, been able to incorporate all that he wants to take from classical and modern Western composition into his own distinctly individual kind of blues without in the least compromising those blues, and that is Cecil Taylor, a kind of Bartok in reverse.”

 

It is hard for me not to compare Taylor with another contemporary of his, Ornette Coleman, who passed away in 2015.  Coleman is one of my favorites – Taylor takes the level of complexity to another level.  Both remain huge influences.  We leave you with this recording of “Calling It the 9th”.

 

Marlon Brando

Marlon Brando is a controversial figure in contemporary circles, but we did some great movies a long time ago (followed by some not-so-great ones, then a couple more classics, and then some really awful ones). But his work has intertwined with many things at CatSynth over the past couple of years. Consider this cartoon by J.B. (Jason Berry), part of our extended Mensa Cat series.

Marlin Brando

We leave the joke as an exercise to the reader. 😸

There is also the tune “Marlon Brando” initially composed by Jason Berry for Vacuum Tree Head, which I redid for my own band CDP.  Here is a live performance of us playing it at the Make Out Room in San Francisco.

CDP Marlon Brando May 1 from CatSynth on Vimeo.

And finally, our friends at the Cat Museum of San Francisco shared this feline photo today.

Passover Synth Jam with the Matzoh Man

The Matzoh Man returns for Passover on CatSynth TV, this time accompanied by a Minimoog, Roland VP-03 vocoder and our trusty Nord Stage EX.

The Dayenu song is a tradition on Passover.  The word dayenu approximately translates to “it would have been sufficient” and is used as a phrase of gratitude for each of the miracles recounted in the Passover Hagaddah.

Chag Pesach Sameach!

Forced Togetherness Fridays: Beyond Zucktown

Facebook has been in the news quite a lot of late.  None of it for good reasons.  But buried amidst the articles on data privacy and the Cambridge Analytica scandal I found the story “Welcome to Zucktown. Where Everything Is Just Zucky.” in The New York Times. Basically, it discusses Facebook’s plans for a new community adjacent to its Menlo Park campus, with housing, shops, and such.

CA Highway 109As seen in the above screenshot from our Highway☆ app, Facebook’s campus is at the remote northern edge of Menlo Park, straddling the Bayfront Expressway (California Highway 84).  Even by the standards of sprawling Silicon Valley campuses, this one is isolated, with access primarily by car or company busses.  The proposed development, which is formally called “Willow Village” (Facebook dislikes the nickname “Zucktown”)  would be to its east, between CA 84, Willow Road (unsigned CA 114) and University Avenue (unsigned CA 109), and adjacent to the neighboring town of East Palo Alto. While ostensibly an open community with public access and some affordable housing units, it is clearly being designed for Facebook employees.  And although the benefits of living close to work – and cutting down on commutes – are abundant, there is a difference between living near work and living in work.  And that is why it touched a raw nerve with me.  One of my main critiques working the industry, besides the subtle but rampant sexism, is what I call forced togetherness.  In the culture of many tech companies, it isn’t enough to do good work every day or even work long hours.  There is tremendous pressure, implicit or explicit, to be socially present at all times, to treat the company as one’s community, one’s “life”.

Forced togetherness comes in much smaller ways than planned communities of coworkers.  At a previous job of mine in 2014 at a tiny startup, everyone ate lunch together almost every day.  Ostensibly, it was supposed to be Monday, Wednesday, Friday, but it quickly became clear that Tuesday and Thursday were expected as well.  One day early when I politely passed on lunch – and was looking forward to going out by myself for a little bit – the CEO seemed perplexed and kept trying to offer one option after another for ordering lunch in.  I had to finally just say “Look, I’m a big girl, I can feed myself!”  This was met with some quiet and awkward laughter.  It’s not that lunch was mandatory, but there was a social expectation, and implicit coercion, that eating together was the right thing to do.

I have come to look for red flags in this regard.  In my current job search, another very small company reached out to me with an interesting opportunity.  But they were located in Redwood City.  I have more than once stated I would sooner move back to New York than take another job on the peninsula – but I played along and politely explained that I prefer to work in San Francisco proper, but did they have flexible or remote work options.  I got the following reply.

We do not do remote. It hinders the culture of the company we are building and we love hanging out with each other.

There are many good reasons that some companies require employees to be on site.  But what this message told me was that the policy was based not on a business or practical necessity, but on a virtue, a belief that this is how people should be.  It says they are more interested in a culture based on “hanging out with each other” than on “getting things done.” It says that to succeed in that culture, one must be someone that they like to hang out with.  And this suggests how cultures of forced togetherness go beyond just wiping out the boundaries between work and the rest of one’s life, but also how the monoculture of Silicon Valley is perpetuated.  If one is looking for “people we love to hang out with”, one is probably going to hire people that share a similar set of backgrounds, styles, and personalities.  Hence, we find bands of mostly young men of white, Indian, and East Asian backgrounds who perpetuate college dorm life into their post-collegiate adulthood.

Of course, these are just simply two anecdotes, along with the concept writ large in Facebook’s Willow Village.  I hope to dive deeper in these phenomena in future articles for the “Forced Togetherness Fridays” series, along with some positive stories of how things can go right instead of wrong with only a few cultural changes.  And I welcome thoughts from others as I move forward, either sharing your own stories of forced togetherness in the workplace, or even counter-arguments in its favor.  Until then, I plan to enjoy some quiet time working hard, by myself with just my cat for company.

#MarchForOurLives San Francisco

Yesterday, countless people joined March for Our Lives in communities all across the United States and internationally.  We at CatSynth attended our local rally and march here in San Francisco and created this video of the experience.

March for Our Lives is part of a larger movement protesting gun violence and gun safety, especially as it affects our youth.  This has been bubbling for a long time, but it erupted in a full-fledged movement after the tragic shooting at Stoneman-Douglass High School in Parkland, Florida.  The students who survived the shooting immediately spoke out forcefully against the seeming intransigence of leaders in the face of gun violence and have since been joined by countless other young people as well as those of us who are a bit older and support their message.  It culminated in the events yesterday, where hundreds of thousands participated.  There were a variety of opinions, from simple common-sense measures like banning specific devices and background checks to entirely abolishing the Second Amendment.  But what united them is the idea that continuing to do nothing is unacceptable and must change.  There was a modest success in Florida in the wake of the shooting, but it remains to be seen if more action comes from this.

We at CatSynth strongly believe that we need to do a lot more to reduce gun violence – and increase gun safety – in the U.S., and that cultural intransigence in some segments is no excuse.  But we will save a detailed opinion for another time.  For now, we leave you with the speech by Emma Gonzales, who with her fellow Parkland students have become the faces and consciences of this movement.

RIP Bento, the Keyboard Cat

This is such heartbreaking news.  Bento, the Keyboard Cat has passed away 😿

His humans made this wonderful tribute to Bento and his legacy, including many classic clips; and a sweet story about how he was a source of inspiration for his human companion, Charlie Schmidt.

Bento was actually the second Keyboard Cat.  The original, Fatso, also lived with Schmidt but passed away in 1987, long before the age of internet memes.  You can read more about the story of Fatso, Bento, and Schmidt at the Keyboard Cat Wikipedia page. Like my cats, Bento was a shelter cat and became a public face for the Shelter Pet Project.  We saw him featured in billboards and bus stops here in San Francisco.

Keyboard Cat has always been a favorite of mine – how could it not, given the combination of interests.  We always had fun with the early “play him/her off” videos, and it became a frequent tag-line of mine to say “You have been played off by the Keyboard Cat”, especially when someone loses a political election.  I wish we had been able to cross paths in person.

We at CatSynth extend our sympathies to Charlie Schmidt and the rest of Bento’s family.  Rest in peace, Keyboard Cat, you have been played off. 💕

Sick Days, Sam Sam, Studio, and Superb Owl

It’s been a slow recovery from our latest bout of this year’s influenza and “NAMMthrax,” but we are getting there slowly.   Indeed, I have been well enough to spend more time working in the studio again.  Of course, if I am in the studio there is a good chance Sam Sam will be there, too.

Sam Sam in the studio

It’s always a delight to have her around.  I think she is getting used to all the weird electronic sounds just as Luna did.  As a more social cat, I think she mostly just enjoys being near the action.  I do sometimes feel guilty when she gets comfy under the main console and I want to use the Nord.  It’s a studio musician’s version of the cat-in-lap dilemma.

We are going to move forward with some video and music work today, as body and energy permit.   We are also doing our part for today’s mass ritual here in the United States with our Superb Owl.

We hope you all have an enjoyable day, however you chose to fill it!

Women’s March 2018 in San Francisco

Today marks one year since Trump took office and one year of resistance to current regime (which seems like a more appropriate word than “administration” under the circumstances). To mark the occasion and kick off another year of resistance and civic/political engagement, we at CatSynth took part in the Women’s March.

Thousands gathered on a chilly but clear day in San Francisco’s Civic Center for a YUGE rally, before marching up Market Street towards The Embarcadero. Here are a few scenes, including a few of the many colorful signs.

And here is our video documenting some moments from the event.

Marches like this of course just an initial step.  The most important steps will be continued political engagement, especially but not limited to voting in a better set of leaders in 2018.  We will see how things unfold.

 

Fun With Highways: Downtown Atlanta on #MLKDay

It remains to be seen whether this Martin Luther King Day is more surreal than last the one last year. But in the meantime, we take a virtual trip to downtown Atlanta in the vicinity of the historic and social institutions celebrating Dr. King’s legacy.

Georgia State Route 10The Downtown Connector carries Interstates 75 and 85 through the heart of the city, with downtown Atlanta to the immediate west. Aesthetically, we at CatSynth have a fondness for urban freeways, but we cannot ignore how the adversely affect neighborhoods and displace residents. The Downtown Connector cut the Sweet Auburn neighborhood into two. The historic neighborhood is also bounded by the Freedom Parkway (Georgia State Route 10) to the north, and Blue Line of MARTA to the south, which serves the district via delightfully modernist King Memorial station.


[By Keizers (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons]

Sweet Auburn is Dr. King’s neighborhood. His childhood home is at 501 Auburn Ave. The Ebeneezer Baptist Church is about a block or so away. The Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Park covers these and the space in between. On the south side of Auburn Avenue is the King Center (formally, the King Center for Nonviolent Social Change). Martin Luther King Jr’s tomb is on the site. But it is also worth noting that the King Center is not simply a museum, with ongoing research, education programs, and activism.


[User:Sjkorea81 [GFDL or CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons]

Many of us are perhaps approaching this day with bated breath, hoping a certain openly racist leader with a tendency to make everything about himself doesn’t make things even worse than they already are. But it might be better to reflect on some of King’s darker words that seem prescient in the moment, such as the Mountaintop Speech or “It’s A Dark Day In Our Nation” (primarily about the Vietnam War). We leave this as an exercise to the reader.

See more of Atlanta and many other fine places across North America in our Highway☆ app, available on the Apple App Store and Google Play Store.

Highway☆ on Apple App Store .   Highway☆ for Android