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”.

 

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. 💕

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.

 

Highway☆ 1.2.0 now in the Apple App Store!

We are excited to announce the release of Highway☆ 1.2.0 for iPhone and iPad!  It is available in the Apple App Store.

This new version includes some of our most requested features.

  • Switch between map and satellite views.  This saves battery and bandwidth on the road.
  • Sometimes connectivity on the road can be poor or non-existent.  Highway☆ now matches missed routes once connectivity is restored.

Highway☆ Map Mode  Highway☆ Satellite Mode

There many more features we have in store, but for the moment we turn our focus to the 1.2 version for Android.  And we are looking forward to putting the app through its paces on our upcoming road trip to NAMM 😺

Highway☆ on Apple App Store

Fun with Highways: Gadsden, Alabama

Alabama remains a somewhat mysterious place to us at CatSynth – it’s one of only six states I haven’t yet visited. We did take fellow readers on a virtual drive of the state during our 2012 Primary Highways series. Today our virtual trip heads north from Birmingham on I-59 towards the town of Gadsden, Alabama.

Gadsden is the largest town in and the county seat of Etowah County and has a population of about 35,000. To put this in perspective, it’s a little over half the size of Santa Cruz, California, where CatSynth began. But unlike Santa Cruz, Gadsden boasts its own Interstate highway, I-759. It begins at an interchange with I-59 west of town and then crosses a long causeway of a wide section of the Coosa River before ending a junction with US 441 and Alabama State Route 759.

US 441 (Rainbow Drive) continues northward along the Coosa River, passing by the revitalized downtown area bere a junction with US 431 and US 278. It now includes galleries, boutiques, institutions like the Gadsden Museum of Art and the Mary G. Hardin Center for Cultural Arts, and a park along the Coosa River.  The museum has a current exhibition Intersection from Highway 90 that looks quite interesting.

Image result for gadsden art museum Mary G. Hardin Center for Cultural Arts
[Mary G. Hardin Center for Cultural Arts]


[Spirit of American Citizenship Monument along Coosa River. By Prestinian at en.wikipedia (Transferred from en.wikipedia by Ronhjones) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons]

Heading back south on US 441 to the interchange with I-759, we come to an altogether more pedestrian institution, the Gadsden Mall. The mall itself seems like a bit of a throwback to the 1970s and 1980s, with textured concrete siding that doesn’t quite rise to the level of brutalism; and with Sears (Sears?!) as an anchor along with Belk, a southern department-store chain. The mall is now somewhat infamous as the haunt of a certain Etowah County assistant district attorney named Roy Moore, who was known by locals to cruise the mall for teenage women, leading to what was at least an informal ban from the mall (or as one victim put it “he was run off”).

Reading the stories of the women in this New Yorker article and AL.com are chilling, and our thoughts are with the victims who told have come forward to tell their stories. This guy is at the very least a serious creep, and worst a serial pedophile and sexual predator. But the other thing that baffled me in both articles was how this was an open secret of sorts in Gadsden. People know about and clearly disapproved of his behavior. So how did he rise from local creep and pedophile to the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Alabama twice? Why didn’t the people of Gadsden warn the rest of the state about him?

Looking back at Moore’s electoral history, he did face scrutiny and lost multiple elections, including for County Judge and later for Etowah County District Attorney. It was only several years later that he was appointed to the circuit-court seat he had earlier lost. Again, one wonders how he passed the background checks. But with the power of incumbency and his fiery extreme-Christian rhetoric, he was able to the gain election to the seat and eventually to the State Supreme Court, where he was removed twice for defying court orders in the name of his extreme brand of religion.

It is the last point, his extreme theocratic views on religion as law and his bigotry towards just about anyone who doesn’t share his beliefs, especially to the LGBTQ community and even towards Jews, that made him abhorrent long before the charges of sexual abuse and predation arose. The charges should alarm those who claim to share his “Christian” beliefs, but if anything it seems to have had the opposite effect, with some doubling down in their support in that siege mentality that seems to be universal among the religious right as well as many white nationalists and supremacists. Like Trump, he has become a symbol for the inchoate rage in many communities across the country.

I know the last thing the people of Alabama want is some liberal Jewish New Yorker telling them what to do or how to vote. I do hope they do make the right choice and reject this man who is so awful in so many ways from representing their state. Regardless of the outcome, I am sincere in my desire to hopefully visit Alabama soon, explore and play some music shows. Any leads or suggestions in this regard are welcome!

See more of Gadsden Alabama and many other fine towns 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

Almost Wordless Wednesday: Smokey SF

Smoke and haze in downtown San Francisco

Smoke and haze in downtown San Francisco, looking up Ellis Street from a building on Market. You can see what this view looks like under better skies here.

After a couple of relatively good days, the air quality once again took a turn for the worse. As bad as it is, it’s nothing compared to what our friends to the north have gone through with the terrible fires, and our thoughts are with them as they recover.