January 21st, 2015

I worked on a project for a few hours after work today. It felt really good to finally push some thoughts out. I was on a roll – lost in some jazz record recommended by Twitter, free-flowing through a kind of giddy atmosphere. I didn’t think. I just wrote. I just wrote, and then I wrote some more, and then I had a lot of words and I was happy and the sun returned to the sky and everything was beautiful again.

I took a break. I looked at my fantasy basketball team. I looked for another jazz record.

I returned to read through everything, and realized it was time to cut loose. Because the sun was gone now. This shit was horrible. Trite. Without passion or logic. Oof.

And yet, I still felt pretty good. It’s weird how the exercise of intense writing – unbridled spillage, really, with no real place in the world – can fail so spectacularly, yet still end up as valuable as publishing something fantastic.

There are a lot of clogs in our head. When they’re flushed out, they are often gross and unusable. Gotta keep flushing them out, though. Gotta keep flushing them out and throwing them away.

So I dismissed my day’s output. I filed it away. For later, maybe. Probably forever though.

And then the my internet connection disappeared. I packed up and went home. Exhausted from writing thousands of words. Refreshed that I decided to keep none.

Category: Writing

December 16th, 2014

I am not a collector in the most common sense of the word. I rarely care about free market value. I only care about personal completeness.

An example: I do not buy expensive records. I guess I collect vinyl by the strict definition of the word, but I do so for a specific reason: I like it, and I like music, and I like the bands I like.

My rarest record might be worth nearly $40. I suck at collecting.

It’s cool. My dedication comes from a different point: I’m in this to pay my respects. I’m repurchasing my favorite albums on record because I feel affinity toward them. These are physical manifestations of my life in music. I collect not to invest, but to celebrate.

For a while there, though, that was harder than it sounds. Several of my all-time favorite records had not been released on vinyl in decades, meaning their cult-status had driven prices up to $150 or more. The market dictated that Modest Mouse’s first two full length albums were worth somewhere around $300. And good luck finding those They Might Be Giants records.

But, as with all good things, patience paid off. Let’s all thank the concept of Record Store Day (and the upcoming 20th anniversary of most of the records you might have liked in high school or college) for a bevy of re-releases and new deluxe versions of great records. That $300+ market for those Modest Mouse records died when both were re-released. And this past Black Friday Record Store Day saw the re-release of one of TMBG’s most beloved full lengths, Flood, paired with an earlier re-release of Apollo 18.

What’s old (and expensive on eBay) is new again. But we’re not all the way there, yet, and there are records I still wish I could find at reasonable prices.

Indulge me for a moment: I’m list-making.

  • Mike Watt, Ball-Hog or Tugboat?
    HIGHEST PRICE: $50.09

    Watt’s first solo album was more of a who’s who of late grunge, featuring Watt on various instruments backed (and fronted) by everyone from J Mascis to Thurston Moore to Eddie Vedder. It’s an eclectic slab of music, highlighted by former 120 Minutes standby “Big Train,” which has also become one of the most requested songs on my kids’ Rdio playlist.

  • R.E.M., Automatic for the People/Monster/New Adventures in Hi-Fi
  • LAST PRESSING: 1992/1994/1996
    HIGHEST PRICE: $62.29/$82.72/$350.00

    The mid-to-late 90s brought R.E.M.’s biggest hit, biggest disappointment, and last great album – all in order. Yet, finding these records is difficult, if only because they came at vinyl’s lowest point, when CDs were king. (I also really like Monster, so there’s my dirty secret.) The current cycle R.E.M. is on focuses on re-releasing vinyl on the 25th anniversary. We’re just three years from that Automatic re-release… and still seven away from seeing New Adventures.

  • Promise Ring, 30° Everywhere
    HIGHEST PRICE: $125.00

    Emo as hell, yet underproduced. This isn’t the Promise Ring album you’ve heard of, but it’s their debut, and it’s still my favorite. Good luck finding any of those old mid-to-late 90s emo records, most often sold to young punks at 50-person shows.

  • Ugly Casanova, Sharpen Your Teeth
    HIGHEST PRICE: $180.00

    We got the major Modest Mouse albums re-issued, how about the only official album from Isaac Brock’s side project, Ugly Casanova. Just as sought after as the previously unfindable Modest Mouse records, Sharpen Your Teeth still nearly get into that $200 range.

  • Frank Black, Frank Black/Teenager of the Year
  • LAST PRESSING: 1993/1994
    HIGHEST PRICE: $122.56/$246.66

    After The Pixies and before The Catholics was Frank Black’s most visible solo records – I’m a gigantic fan of Teenager of the Year, but most people go for the first, self-titled record. For an artist that waxed poetic about Pong and UFOs and spies, it can’t be long before his early solo work shows back up on the scene.

  • Jets To Brazil, Orange Rhyming Dictionary/Four Cornered Night/Perfecting Loneliness
  • LAST PRESSING: 1998/2000/2002
    HIGHEST PRICE: Unknown/$49.99/$99.99

    I dunno. I like Blake Schwarzenbach. But unlike Jawbreaker, there are no former band members actively promoting and spearheading the cause for the Jets to Brazil discography.

Everything old is new again, and that’s exactly how the record industry works. You give a band a reason to re-press some vinyl, these days that’s as good as a bundle of cash. The only people who miss out are those who are too slow to snatch up some classics.

And those poor souls with $300 records on eBay. Sorry, dudes.

Category: Music

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November 12th, 2014

“Eleven plus 24 is what?”

The conversation skirted around the question, no answer forthcoming. A mother spells out each equation, her son blurting out answers, hoping for approval, excited at the process but ready to be finished.

“Eight plus eight times four is what?“

Another one blurted out, frustration rising in both. Eight plus eight is sixteen she says, forcing the answer, despite its accuracy. Multiplication comes first, after all. She’s leading the witness, your honor, and all of that. Insecure comments about a hundred other things while this math problem floated in air. Will I need to take a shower tonight. I found a quarter earlier today.

You won’t tell anybody about earlier, right.

“Seven times nine is what?“

The right answer comes, but the mom questions it. He answered too fast. He answered without thinking. She says no, but stops. Oh you’re right. Can you make the numbers look nice. Could you sit still. I will quiz you on these harder ones.

There is a patience and love between the two of them that I don’t yet see in myself. It is clear that neither enjoys fighting through these math problems, but both are dedicated to doing their best – in spite of the fight, away from the distractions. Through the white noise between them, one constant signal gets through. Different frequencies with one constant code. dot dash dot dot, dash dash dash, dot dot dot dash, hold on stop please look at me.

“Who created … who created the periodic table of elements.”

Dmetri Mandolin. Close enough to count. He’s only eight, maybe nine, and Mendeleev is an unfair name. Every science question is answered in split seconds as he wanders around the room, unable to sit still, unable to settle. This isn’t math. He knows this stuff, and that’s how life is. You know things or you don’t. You are good at this and you are bad at that. Only the smartest understand their limits – the rest of us keep trying to fill in the gaps as though perfection is possible.

“Thank you. When you get home, we have to finish this homework.”

He’s out the door before she can finish. She sighs. They have conquered another day.

Category: Education, Overheard

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October 21st, 2014

The first time I spoke in front of a crowd was on what was then the largest stage in the content strategy industry: Confab, in Minneapolis.

It was 2012. I was about to drop Fugazi references and pictures of my great grandmother’s cookbook and surprisingly no fart jokes. I was hoping not to shit myself, to be honest. I had somehow attracted a standing-room only crowd, despite no one knowing who the hell I actually was.

I swallowed. And the first thing I said was a complaint.

“I just realized I missed cupcakes.”

Snack time had just occurred. There were cupcakes. Fun fact: I don’t really care about cupcakes. I think they’re fine, and I will eat them when I am offered, but there’s no way I cared more about cupcakes at that moment than, say, the integrity of Keynote or the status of my zipper or whether or not I might actually throw up right there in the middle of that conference room carpet.

But I talked about cupcakes. That’s what I did.

I started my talk. I nailed a few jokes. I started capturing the audience. I thought, “this is going well.”

And then, Jared Spool brought me a cupcake.

And I thought, “Well.”

“I guess this talk is going to go okay.”

And it did. I killed. I may have peaked early in life, presenting my best right from the get go. I may have notched a little mark in Confab history by being the annual “Where Did That Speaker Come From?” of the 2012 conference. I may have realized I did okay once I had stopped shivering in my hotel room from the “speaking shakes.”

I don’t remember any of that. I remember, instead, two things.

1. Dan Eizans audibly laughing as the only person who got the Fugazi joke.

2. Jared Spool bringing me a cupcake.

To risk sounding macabre, it’s all been downhill from there, folks.

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October 6th, 2014

I start from one side of the house and move toward the kitchen.

I make our bed. I put away our clothes. I open our shades. I help the kids with their rooms. (No, let’s be honest. I should help the kids with their rooms, but instead I lack patience – instead, I just do the rooms myself.)

I pick up the living room. I pick up the kitchen counters, one at a time. I pick up the dining room so I can pick up the far counter so I can pick up the near counter so I can finally have space to place the dishes as I wash them. Right to center to left to away, dishtowel over my shoulder, a single to-do pile growing in the corner, a stack of items ready for a commute to the basement where I will finally run out of energy and give up. Tomorrow, I will tackle that stuff. Tomorrow, I will head downstairs.

And then, with a few hours before bedtime, I relax in a house that has not been cleaned as much as it has been returned to its inactive state.

Forgive me for this horrible metaphor, but every person is kind of like a box of spaghetti noodles: a spindly mess of emotions and issues tied together by the flimsy paper box of life. They’re only unbroken when we handle them with care. Beat that life around a bit and everything’s a mess inside. And you can tell everything’s a mess because there’s that little plastic window. Open up the box and everything goes everywhere, crisscrossing and broken, never to close in the same way again.

So we struggle to keep things together. We try to make sure everything is in place. We long for organization like you see in those interior design magazines, and we envy those who can make messes look rustic and honorable. If I was stronger, I could let things spill all over. I’m not. Instead, I tuck things in corners and stack them in piles and assume that, yes, I’m really fooling everyone. That no one sees the dust in the corner. That no one realizes they just stepped on old Play-doh.

And then, at the end of the day, I cannot clean anymore. I have to keep living. We all wake up and take everything out again, ready for the day. We leave and take our lives away from all of that stuff I had put away the day before. All of the stuff we hide until we’re ready to use it.

Kerrie always wonders why I’m so obsessed with making the bed, even if it’s just a few hours before bedtime. I just do it. Because I have a weird need to reset before things get messed up again.

This is not an essay on cleaning. This is an essay on our constant need to be put together. The cleaning stuff is my life as much as it’s a metaphor for our lives.

We don’t clean and organize so we can be perfect. We clean and organize so the messes are more defined. More contained. We keep the right things in and we let the right things out and we attempt to shape the way we’re perceived by fooling people into believing we’re all put together.

Put together, right? Like anyone really is. Like anyone’s ever gotten their shit in order like those design magazines. And, to be honest, I’m not sure I’d like anyone who has.

Come on over sometime. I promise I’ll make an attempt to put away the laundry, but I can’t promise I’ll have vacuumed. I’ll notice, but chances are you won’t.

And so life goes on, normal as always.

Category: Random

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July 7th, 2014

I joined Facebook on October 24, 2006, on my 28th birthday. Why I joined is pretty boring: I joined because it was the thing you did. I joined because I wanted to be part of a larger society, and it was this network that allowed me to reach out to all of those people I had long forgotten or missed since graduating from high school.

In the seven-plus years that followed, I saw Facebook go from what felt like the newest version of MySpace to a multi-billion-dollar company that relied on my data and the data of those around me to sell ads, curate content, and promote events and causes from those who are marginally close to me. My friend number went up and down and up and down. I struggled to maintain relevance, gave up trying to be heard, pared back my social circle, and fought with what had become a more and more irrelevant feed.

I got tired of Facebook – of the site’s weird algorithm and of my network’s passive aggressive messages, but I couldn’t let it go.

My relationship status with Facebook? It’s Complicated.

News Feed: Most Recent (A History)

I was like everyone else when Facebook launched: thrilled with the ability to connect with people around me, to share my thoughts and likes, to get closer to people I had only met a few times, or strengthen the bonds between old friends and far-away family members. Facebook was a way for me to live globally, to move beyond Sioux Falls without losing my community.

But, each year, that freedom shifted. Pages were downplayed. My feed was shifted out of order. The idea of a “News Feed” shifted from a river of current content to a curated web of what an algorithm though I wanted to see. And while I love how algorithms have created better search results and more relevant sidebars and a feeling that I can make quick scans of content without subjecting myself to everything, I still have fundamental issues with someone doing that to my friends and family.

When “News Feed” became a euphemism for robot-curated content, I felt betrayed. “Most Recent” became the only way to see a real-time feed of news from your friends. When “Most Recent” was further buried – a seemingly defensive mechanism to force users lock step into algorithm – I felt angry. And when news of emotion experiments surfaced last week, I felt exhausted.

Listen, I get it. I’m getting dramatic and railing against a corporation that is responsible for thousands of jobs and has business goals and all of that. I’m raging against a machine and not offering any answers.

But the content presented by Facebook isn’t just a series of stories written by authors I don’t know, or videos pitched based on what I most recently read. It’s the life and thoughts of the people I know. For some people, it’s the equivalent of a conversation at the bar, or a look into a diary. It’s personal. It’s not anonymous; it’s deeply connected in a way that no other network can claim.

If Facebook actively wandered into a face-to-face conversation and assumed the best lines, rearranging them for maximum impact, what would we think? If they took our stack of Christmas cards and determined who would be the best recipients, what would we think?

The Public Dislikes Facebook’s Link

So then this whole Facebook social experimentation thing happened. To very grossly summarize, Facebook’s research department was using the feeds of 700,000 Facebook members to perform experiments on the effects of positive or negative comments. (“Emotional contagion through social networks,” it was called.) What do we do when things are going great – or horribly? Were we more likely to post if we saw positive things in our feed? Were we less likely to share if we saw too many negative posts?

Rightfully so, Facebook opponents rose up in arms. This was thought experimentation without consent, the flimsy (and vague) terms of Facebook’s terms of service used as some kind of crutch. Who was Facebook to control the output of my friends and family, of my feed, of the organizations I chose to follow? Who was Facebook to use my data in a way that was less than ethical?

In the midst of the discussion, we talked about the morality of A/B testing, the separation between social networking and marketing, and the possibility of opting in to data mining and experimentation. We talked about best practices in research. We talked about “business as usual.” We talked about how maybe we were just blowing this out of proportion.

That last point stuck with me – in the grand scheme of things, is this really something I wanted to raise my ire about? In the grand scheme of things, does this really matter?

Do I care?

Disinterest Has Sent You a Friend Request

I’ll be honest: I don’t. I don’t care about the experiments. I don’t care about the data they’ve used, because I assumed they already used it. I’ve threatened to quit over it before, but I haven’t. Which shows I probably don’t care. Not really.

I do care, however, about Facebook’s assumption that they know better than I do what I want to look at.

As danah boyd writes in her wonderful article about the growing anxiety around data manipulation, “What does the Facebook experiment teach us?”:

I get the anger. I personally loathe Facebook and I have for a long time, even as I appreciate and study its importance in people’s lives. But on a personal level, I hate the fact that Facebook thinks it’s better than me at deciding which of my friends’ posts I should see.

This was never an issue of experimentation and consent – this was a clear reminder of what I don’t like about Facebook. This was not the straw that broke the camel’s back, but a catalyst for my justification. This was what would send me, finally, after years of threats, away from Facebook.

Facebook’s algorithmic adaptation of my friends’ lives is a model unlike any other used on the web. News sites and blogs use algorithms to force certain stories to the top, but that is the type of editorial curation we expect from a journalism source. Search uses algorithms to assume solutions, but in those case we’re typically not sure of the solution we’re looking for in the first place.

But this? This is full-scale reinterpretation of actual lives: a kind of dramatized version of my social circle, like a classic book being remade into a film with a happier ending and a few extra sex scenes. This is not what I signed up for; I signed up for the full feed – the flaws, the bumps, the happy and the sad. Internet, you can go ahead and curate and editorialize the things that are not directly connected to me: the world of search, the editorials on TechCrunch, the assumptions of movies I might want to see.

Just don’t fuck with my friends.

Corey Vilhauer Has Updated His Relationship!

The reason I still cling so closely to Twitter is that they do not depend on Facebook’s algorithms of assumed value – that I need someone else to filter through my friends’ thoughts, like a warden pre-screening an inmate’s mail. Twitter gives me a running feed of everything my friends say. It is up to me to negotiate that feed – to pare it down and curate in order to retain some value. Instagram does this too – it’s just every picture from every friend – and despite the hypocrisy of fighting Facebook and keeping Instagram, I’m still okay with Instagram.

Facebook is where the worst opinions are surfaced. It’s where platitudes go to die, where everyone has an opinion, where long rambling diatribes are all the rage, where companies compete to pay their way to my heart and friends compete to gather sympathy. This is not the fault of Facebook. This is not the fault of my friends. This is simply what the ecosystem has become, and it is an ecosystem that I no longer feel the drive to be a part of.

Yeah. The experiments matter. They are news that we need to focus on. They are a betrayal of trust, and while most people don’t care (and only a very small portion of people awere actually affected) they still represent the first step toward wanton abuse of personal data.

But the experiments are not why I’m quitting Facebook. They are just the reason I remembered to do it in the first place.

Category: Technology

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July 5th, 2014

“This must be what the Londoners felt like during World War II,” I said to a friend last night.

She corrected me and said, no, actually, they were probably scared shitless, and we’re just sitting in the backyard. We fully understand that they these are just fireworks. They will not harm us. They will not take our home or family or country.

Yet, as the third straight night of slow rumbles lull me to sleep – booms and crashes off in the distance, seconds apart, like we’re living in the suburb of a warzone, with lights flashing and the occasional close rock of noise, our dog ruffing and huffing as if he too thinks it’s a warzone – I still find it unsettling.

It’s a miracle that our children have already fallen asleep, but they haven’t watched the war movies I have. It’s a weird way to celebrate our nation’s birthday – by recreating the hell that our country went through to get to this point.

Then again, I don’t care about motorcycles or power tools or heavy machinery. Neither does our dog. We’re just built to lie in the dark and remember that this is all part of being free. Free to blow things up. Free to enjoy a little release. Free to feel anxious, forever, for always.

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