Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Spotify: What to think?

The moment I started paying $10/month for Spotify Premium, my non-conscience-based incentive to buy CD's dropped to roughly zero. For instance, when I was visiting family in Chicago I discovered a great jazz saxophonist named Ari Brown. While listening to him, I looked him up on Spotify, and found the same album he was selling there at the show. That scared me, because it brought home the impact that disincentivizing must have on the artist. So I made a point to buy a copy of the CD later. Even though I had no intention of playing it. I wanted to support his work.

Lately I've been discovering a bunch of female jazz singers on Spotify, and again... no incentive to buy their CD's. Which makes me think I should be buying their CDs. I figure that if no one does, then there's no way the Spotify model is sustainable, which means independent artists can't possibly make a living.

But I had a conversation yesterday that made me even more angst-ridden. Someone pointed out that Spotify gives the musician publicity, and that musicians have always made most of their money from concerts, and merchandise sold at concerts. The artist makes virtually nothing from CD sales, except for those at the concert.

So what's a guy to do? Should I even be worried about Spotify at all? And if I am worried about Spotify, what can I do in lieu of buying CD's? Make a direct contribution to the artist? I don't know of any commonly accepted means by which to do that. It would be awesome if someone made a "Spotify Offset" app, which would give the user an option to pay an additional $10/month distributed proportionally among, say, the ten artists they listen to the most, but I don't see that happening.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

"Can we agree on this much?" Part 2: Gratitude

Recently a friend posted the following expression of gratitude for her good fortune. I found it not only inspiring, but emblematic of the humility that I find so valuable, and so lacking in atheists and agnostics. If you're going to read this piece, please read her words.
It never fails to amaze me that, when I have something deeply, soul-baringly important to say, I am at a complete and utter loss as to how to say it. Words just seem kind of... paltry, you know?

But here goes.
The exuberance with which God has showered our family with blessings over the last few months has been breathtaking. I look back now on the fear that accompanied our transition out here; yes, we knew that, without jobs lined up for both MJ and I, we were taking a massive chance with a 50-50 chance of complete and utter failure. Still, we approached it thoughtfully and prayerfully, and felt that moving was the right thing to do and the next step in God's plan for us. We knew that we would be stuck in a holding pattern if we stayed in NYC, even though the thought of leaving our friends there was heartbreaking.

So we jumped. We relied on the generosity of our families and our friends for support, and we jumped. And the blessings started to pour down.

MJ was brought on as an assistant in a friend's studio, because that guy's regular assistant just HAPPENED to get another gig elsewhere for a few months. It happened at JUST the right time for us. Then, after months and months of legwork and talking to this person and that, his transfer to an LA-area Apple store came through. He had (has) enough work to keep him working 7 days a week, should he want and need it.

We found an apartment, comfortable, safe, and clean, in a great neighborhood with really nice neighbors.

We found a dealership that would allow us to finance a safe, reliable, quality vehicle, even though at the time we had very little income.

We (well, I, at least) fell in love with the pace of life in LA, such a welcome relief after the constant SCHNELL SCHNELL SCHNELL of life in New York with a child.

We found a great little preschool that we could afford, where Colin can learn in a safe and clean environment, with lots of personal attention and LOTS of running around to use up his abundant energy.

And: I FOUND A JOB. One that I enjoy! For a company that I have an ENORMOUS amount of respect for. I absolutely love working here - and the fact that I can even say that is a miracle.

Listen, I know that many of these things could be chalked up to our own doing. And maybe some of that is true. After all, no risk, no reward, right? By jumping, we made space for these blessings in our own life, and the universe filled the space. Or, you could say that we did all the legwork ourselves in the years before this one where we worked diligently and learned a lot.

But I am under no illusions about the job market, either here or anywhere else. What I do for a living isn't rocket science, people. There are tons of awesome, intelligent, thoughtful, fun, capable, EXPERIENCED people looking for jobs doing EXACTLY what it is that I do. And they've put in the work, too. When you boil it down, getting a job as an admin almost comes down to luck: being in the right place at the right time. And HOLY LORD, am I ever grateful that God put me in the right place at the right time. And he's done that for ALL of us! Colin, MJ, and I; all three. Truly, it feels miraculous.

To be clear: I'm not saying this because I feel like I HAVE to (or else...!); I am compelled to share my gratitude, because God's goodness to us overwhelms me. I can't believe I doubted. That said, even if NONE of the above had transpired, I would still be grateful for life, for our family, for love. And I look forward to what He has in store for us.

If you've made it this far: thanks for reading. I'm grateful for YOU, too.
There's a line in an Alanis Morissette song that has echoed in my ears since 1995.
I am fascinated by the spiritual man
I'm humbled by his humble nature
That's how I felt when I read my friend's words. My friend understands that she exists in a social context, and that circumstances and luck play a part in her good fortune. My friend understands that gratitude is as vital as the air we breathe, and that only with humility can gratitude find its full throat.

My friend has a skill that I find terribly difficult. And I know I'm not alone.

Hey, liberals and atheists! Let's play a fun game!

Think about how the far right insists that anyone can make it in this country; that they would have been just as successful had they been born into different economic and social circumstances. Think of how they can't ever admit that vicissitudes of birth and luck play a part. Aren't they nuts? Isn't it crazy-making?

Now think about our people... my people. Think about the last time you heard an atheist scoff at the word "spirituality". Think of the scorn they heaped on the very idea that a higher power could have played a part in a person's prosperity. They're so angry about the sins of religion that they've embraced binary thinking. To them, the notion of gratitude toward God is nothing but risible.

Yeah. That's right. They're doing the same thing. The far right denies that a social cushion might be useful. The far left denies that any acknowledgment of a higher power might be useful. In each case, they're snarling "No, I'm responsible for my life. All the good things that came to me, came from my hard work."

Yeah. I know what you're thinking. "But it's not real! Sure, religion helps them, but social animals benefit from psychological support systems! They think they're getting blessings from God, but they really did it! They're invoking imaginary forces!"

I agree.

And I don't give a shit.

I care about useful people. Useful people have useful attributes. And I do not give one half of a rotten rat's ass where those attributes come from.

In my experience, religious people have gratitude and humility. Those are valuable commodities, and ones that we lack. We need those attributes. We need them. Why? Simple. For each of us, strength is weakness.

The positive attribute of humility can be perverted into unthinking ideological and financial commitment. It is a fact that dollars in collection plates in the United States fund the murder of gay people in Africa.

The positive attribute of reliance on humanist notions can be perverted into the most dangerous of all human attributes: self-righteousnes. I look around, and I see atheists behaving as though religious people belong to a different species. And dehumanization is the first step on the road to evil.

We need their humility, and they need us to show them the dangers of humility. They need our self-reliance, and we need them to show us the dangers of self-reliance. They need us to say "Hey, friend, you might want to think for yourself." We need them to say "Hey, friend, you're being a bit of an asshole."

If you're not sold on this idea, that's cool. Don't believe me. Believe Rachel Maddow, who is all the awesome. Watch her magnificent recapitulation of the 2012 elections below, or just read the excerpt I've transcribed below it.

...Listen! Last night was a good night for liberals and for Democrats for very obvious reasons, but it was also possibly a good night for this country as a whole. Because in this country we have a two-party system in government. And the idea is supposed to be that the two sides both come up with ways to confront, and fix, the real problems facing our country. They both propose possible solutions to our real problems, and we debate between those possible solutions. And by the process of debate, we pick the best idea. That competition between good ideas from both sides about real problems in the real country should result in our country having better choices, better options, than if only one side is really working on the hard stuff. And if the Republican party and the conservative movement and the conservative media is stuck in a vacuum-sealed, door-locked spin cycle of telling each other what makes them feel good, and denying the factual, lived truth of the world, then we are all deprived as a nation of the constructive debate between competing feasible ideas about real problems.

Last night the Republicans got shellacked, and they had no idea it was coming. And we saw them in real time--in real, humiliating time--not believe it even as it was happening to them. And unless they are going to secede, they are going to have to pop the factual bubble they have been so happily living inside, if they do not want to get shellacked again. And that will be a painful process for them, I'm sure, but it will be good for the whole country: left, right and center. You guys, we're counting on you. Wake up.

There's real problems in the world. There are real knowable facts in the world. Let's accept those and talk about them and how we might approach our problems differently. Let's move on from there. If the Republican party and the conservative movement and conservative media are forced to do that by the humiliation they were dealt last night, we will all be better off as a nation. And in that spirit, congratulations everybody. Big night.
See what I'm talking about? Democrats and Republicans bring ideas to the political table, and around that table we, in our best moments, craft dialectic. Religious people and non-religious people bring ideas to the theological table, and around that table we, in our best moments, craft dialectic.

That we might someday have a world without religion is a darling of atheist ideology, and I think it's toxic. We should not wish for the extinction of religion. If religion goes extinct, all those precious attributes those people carry, like water droplets in a bird's breast feathers, go extinct. Don't presume to think we carry everything we'll ever need as a people. And don't you dare pretend they have nothing to teach us. We need what they have. They need what we have.

We need each other.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

"Can we agree on this much?" Part 1: Empathy

The other day, the song "The Water is Fine" came on the radio as I was driving. If you're going to read this piece, I recommend watching the video or just skimming the lyrics so that you have context.

As a recusant lover of shitty pop music, I enjoyed it well enough... for twenty-five seconds. Then the singer got to the bit where he proclaimed that he "won't get vaccinated", and my brain experienced the equivalent of tapping the brakes of a front-wheel-drive car on an icy road. The cognitive dissonance was potent. In the middle of a song that, on the surface, seems to espouse progressive values, the quintessence of anti-progressiveness reared up. Immediately I saw the character in the song as reveling in his own stupidity and ignorance.

My reaction worried me. It felt like a knee jerk. Did I think what I thought because it was a reasonable thing to think, or did I think what I thought because I was toeing the party line? Was I enjoying the feeling of superiority? Was I merely being a good little liberal?

Most worrisome was the thought that I might just be a hypocrite. After all, I'm a gay rights advocate because I wish religious zealots and would-be arbiters of morality would just leave people the hell alone and let them live their lives. Isn't that exactly what the character in the song is saying? Are liberals who pressure people to vaccinate their kids guilty of the same conceit as conservatives who pressure gay people to stay in the closet?


In the case of vaccination--and in most other cases--liberals have empirical evidence on their side. Getting your kid vaccinated is demonstrably beneficial to the medical health of your community. Not getting your kid vaccinated is demonstrably harmful to the medical health of your community. No like correlation exists between gay people being openly gay, marrying each other and having children, and harm to the community.

Support for mandatory vaccination legislation is substantive. Support for anti-gay legislation is not.


Liberals who pressure people to vaccinate their kids, and conservatives who pressure gay people to stay in the closet, are responding to the same human impulse. 

Conservatives see a behavior, and they think "I need to legislate against that behavior because it harms the fabric of society." Liberals see a behavior, and they think "I need to legislate against that behavior because it harms the fabric of society." Conservatives base that assertion on emotion. Liberals base it on empirical evidence. Yet in both cases, emotion undergirds the assertion.

We want control. We don't like being controlled.

Can we agree on that much? Without validating the other side, without giving one inch to their behavior, can we agree on that much? Because if we can't--if we can't agree that the other side is composed of human beings just like us, and that their behavior arises from the same human needs as our own--then we lack empathy utterly. And without empathy, what the hell are we doing here?

Movies Are Dumber Than Comic Books

So I noticed something this morning. Movies are dumber than comic books.

Comic books have gained legitimacy in the public perception during the last thirty years, but we still have not shed the cultural inertia whereby the average person thinks comic books are for kids, but movies and television are just dandy. I've long found this fascinating, since the vast majority of TV shows are dumber than a bag of hammers: far less intellectually challenging than most comic books in terms of vocabulary, artistic effort and dramatic structure.

I'm thinking of this because of a few WTF moments in the movie "X-Men: Days of Future Past", all dealing with Magneto's powers. For those of you who don't know, Magneto is "The Master of Magnetism". He's a mutant, and his mutant power gives him the ability to create ridiculously powerful and precisely modulated magnetic fields.

So there's this scene where Magneto levitates some steel railroad tracks, shreds them into fine wires, and insinuates them into the innards of some giant anti-mutant robots that are being transported by train, because comic books. At this point, I was all "Cool! The robots were made out of non-ferrous materials (Don't ask. Comic books, remember.) so that he can't control them, but he's going to get around that by lacing them with metal so that he can puppet them."

But then the wires snake all the way into the heart of one of the robots, and... connect to the processor. And the processor lights up, and the robot's eyes light up.


Magneto controls magnetism. He's not a damned IT savant. Even if he could produce an electrical current in the wires (Yeah, it's actually not impossible; electrical fields induce magnetic fields, and vice versa, so you could produce precisely modulated electrical signals with precisely modulated magnetic fields) but Magneto doesn't know how to talk to computers. There's a big damn difference between controlling magnetism and... and... being freakin' C-3PO.

Later in the movie, there's a similar moment, when Magneto swipes his hand over a security card reader and fools it into letting him through. And again... WHAT??? Yeah, it's a magnetic card reader, but the magnets are there to read a damned security code. Control over magnetism would do nothing in that case.

Why am I blathering about this? Simple. This would not happen in a comic book.

Yes, comic books are ridiculous and often slapdash, poorly-written, poorly-drawn affairs. But a lot of them aren't. And, in general, the writers strive for an internal consistency that is superior to the internal consistency in movies. Movie directors can wave their hands and mutter "because magnetism", and the average movie audience will accept it. Movie directors can get away with that.

Comic book writers can't get away with such shoddy work. Comic books aren't that dumb.