music: Look Now, a great Elvis Costello album

Slate’s Carl Wilson said it well “Elvis Costello’s New Album Is His Best This Century”

Yes it is. Look Now has the horns and backing vocals of Punch the Clock, more Bacharach collaborations like Painted from Memory, varied production that echoes (faintly) Imperial Bedroom. Those are great albums, so approaching their heights is excellence.

After the fed-up nihilism of 2008’s Momofuku (definitely missing a ‘c’) in a music biz where a popular album sells 15,000 copies and is guaranteed not to make back its production costs unless you recorded it in your bedroom, fans assumed we’d forever have to settle for hit ‘n’ run collaborations from Elvis. This is a bloody miracle!

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music: Corduroy transcends Acid Jazz

I somehow found out about Acid Jazz in 1992 entirely through a few compilation CDs.

One of them (100% Acid Jazz) contained an effervescent funky pop song called “Mini” by Corduroy, about… the Mini car.

I like the way your eyes light up in the dark, I like the way it don’t take much for you to start. Mini! No one takes me further than you

(The song cries out for a music video,and there was one, but sadly the Internet only has a partial poor quality capture.)

Who is Corduroy? What else did they record? At the time the internet couldn’t tell me, and they had no albums in my local record stores.

Friends’ adventures with their Mini reminded me of the song, and now of course obscure bands aren’t so obscure. It turns out Corduroy is a strong English band with an intriguing mix of retro soundtrack style and acid jazz chops. “Mini” is from the 1994 album “Out of Here” on the Acid Jazz label (talk about pigeonholing!). Other tracks are also strong, but some are so tight they’re airless. The title song is a gentle getaway song with a perfect piano solo from Scott Addison.The End of the Rainbow” has a killer intro they smartly repeat for the bridge, then lays out into a weak funky jam. “January Woman” borrows the opening chords and guitar sound of Steely Dan’s “Green Earrings” off The Royal Scam to fine effect.

The next album, 1997’s “The New You!“, is even better. Less constrained by tight funkiness and with better songs. Most songs start with an atmospheric intro then head in a different musical direction. Their lyrics still aren’t the best, but the songs have allusive phrases – “Season of the rich”, “This is supercrime and it happens all the time” (a song about trying to get a refund for a broken hi-fi!), “The hand the rocks the cradle rules the world,” “Tomorrow you will be a designosaur,” “Be an evolver!” etc. The instrumentals are good too, “Data 70” sounds like a 1970 caper movie soundtrack, ending with the same explosive riff as the Mission Impossible theme song, all bongos and horns wailing. In particular “Fisherman’s Wharf” is fantastic, a loving homage to Mike Post’s cop theme songs “Hill Street Blues” and “The Rockford Files.” It has police radio chat and sirens to start, seagulls near the beach, and even a faux NBC logo sound at the end. But it’s not kitsch, it’s just great.

The band returned after a 17-year break with the wonderful title “Return of the Fabric Four”, more of the same but not as magic.

So the one hit wasn’t just a flash in the pan. This makes me want to redouble my efforts to track down other B-sides and mystery artists, like Cooly’s Hot Box from another acid jazz compilation, Giant Steps Volume One, and the legendary Radio Arabesque.

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Minox James Bond off-hours camera

Minox 35GL and case

A mini-classic

Minox was moderately famous for making a tiny spy camera using 16mm film. But they also made the smallest 35mm camera in the world (100 x 61 x 31mm or just 2.4″ tall), and I owned several as each broke or Minox made small improvements.

The original flash wasn’t too bad, but it ate through batteries. The second-generation flash took four at a time and is bigger than the camera! So to carry the pair with me I used a purse (!). LEDs are an incredible breakthrough in so many ways.

Minox 35 GL and various flashes

So L.A. with all the flash

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Switched from Monkeybrains to Dreamhost

Meet the new host, much like the old host.

Alex and Rudy at Monkeybrains are great folk, I was happy to give them money to handle e-mail and host this site and some others (but not, sigh, lost to domain squatters). Monkeybrains is clearly less interested these days in being an ISP to small fry. Years ago they told me I would be better off paying them for a small VPS (virtual private server, basically your own computer in the cloud), but when it works shared hosting saves you some admin hassles.

sftp (secure file transfer) broke, at which point I gave up. I was already administering my WordPress site in the clear without https, but transferring files without a password was just too insecure

Anyway, Dreamhost shared unlimited hosting seems a good deal, so I signed up. Their in-house control panel is a bit funky but I can figure it out. It took a while to make the transition. Here are the cleaned-up steps, I wasn’t this organized.

  1. wget our sites to pull down all the web content that is reachable starting at the top (i.e. what Google does when it crawls, or “spiders,” a web site).
  2. Delete all the retrieved “files” that weren’t static content, such as WordPress blog posts, generated RSS feeds, directory listings, etc.
  3. sftp the static images that WordPress manages from /wordpress/wp-content/uploads/, plus a few other files that were on the site without being linked to.
  4. This still left hundreds of files that were on the old web sites that aren’t on the new host – e-mail me if you’ve lost access to some beloved item.
  5. sftp all that static content (I used KDE’s fine Krusader split-pane file explorer) up to Dreamhost.
  6. Admire it in temporary mirror sites.
  7. Move all our e-mail off old IMAP server to local folder (pretty good instructions).
  8. Change our domain’s DNS records to point to Dreamhost. At this point e-mail to our domains and requests our web sites flowed to Dreamhost.
  9. Enable https using free Let’s Encrypt certificates (yay!).
  10. Re-add new/old e-mail accounts now at Dreamhost.
  11. Futz around with /etc/hosts so I could access both old WordPress site and new one simultaneously.
  12. Run WordPress export from old site.
  13. Realize that Dreamhost puts all the WordPress admin files in the root of your web site, which isn’t ideal and doesn’t match my old site, so move all those files into a /wordpress directory (instructions).
  14. Tweak index.php and .htaccess to reflect the WordPress reorganization.
  15. Recreate the skierpage user on new WordPress site, install a plug-in and the Twenty Ten theme I was using on the old site.
  16. Import the XML file of the old site.
  17. Write this!
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music: compare and contrast

The most excellent Brandon Harris asked his followers for musical “must pick one” binary choices. My thoughts (I refuse to pick!):

Johnny Cash or Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson or Prince

Both choices are earthshaking performer vs. musical creator.

MJ delivered two faultless albums and many great songs, but he never made anything so unique as e.g. Anotherloverholeinyohead.

Beatles or Rolling Stones (or anyone)

If you listen to the Beatles’ albums in sequence, around Rubber Soul they unfold wings and soar higher… and keep doing it for five albums. I think musical groups throughout the seventies struggled with “okay they’re on Mount Olympus, what the f*** do we do down here?” Rock even harder, go back to roots, go further with progressive rock, import the jazz they never did to make jazz-rock or jazz-funk, and explore performance they abandoned with glam rock, UFO stage sets, etc.

Duran Duran or Adam and the Ants

Duran Duran made more good songs, but Adam and the Ants were hugely influential in Europe. Duran Duran wanted everyone to become a fan, while Adam and the Ants explicitly made hermetic music for its tribe (“that music’s lost its taste, so try another flavor – Ant music!”, “A new royal family, a wild nobility We are the family … Antpeople are the warriors, Antmusic is the banner”). It encouraged bands to be more niche, more extreme, and many genres bloomed: new romantics, electropop, deep jazz, Northern soul (Dexy’s Midnight Runners), ska …

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disintermediation: The end game for retail, and how you can profit

It doesn’t make any sense for 50 merchants to be selling the (allegedly) same battery or memory card through Amazon. Most ship through Amazon or even commingle items, so the robot pulls your order from one shelf filled with all those merchants’ supply of the same item! The only way a seller can be much cheaper than everyone else is if it sells stolen, refurbished, or fake items.

Two things will happen.

  1. Manufacturers will sell direct through Amazon, getting rid of useless middlemen that add no value and only give them a bad reputation.
  2. Amazon Basics will expand. Last time I bought rechargeable batteries I didn’t waste an hour ignoring the 5-star reviews to read all the horror stories of dead fake repackaged batteries, I just ordered Amazon Basics and got working batteries in frustration-free packaging.

Also, there are thousands of Chinese manufacturers making good products desperate to make a name for themselves and escape the nightmare of contract manufacturing for once-mighty brands that are squeezing them to cut corners. Folks, learn Chinese and help Happy Dongfeng Best Factory market its products. “Here’s why our $6 USB charger is better than the others.”

I expressed these ideas a decade ago in my perspicacious “disintermediation” series of posts (ordering directAmazon should be/buy UPS , universal spiff). Yet Jeff Bezos still hasn’t contacted me to discuss them over a power breakfast…

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computers: my legendary Herman-Miller Levity standing desk

For months I tried to give my old adjustable desk to a museum, or at least to someone who has a use for it. It’s the Levity by Herman-Miller, an impressive piece of late 90s office design. It goes from

knowledge athlete at work


Herman-Miller Levity in standing mode

The backstory

I’ve stood to work at a computer for decades, long before it was trendy. I set up computers on lab racks, I put file cabinets on my desk to lift up monitors, I raised cubicle desk surfaces as high as they could be mounted.

Then in 1999 the great furniture company Herman Miller announced the Levity desk, designed by Richard Holbrook. Finally a computer desk that could be adjusted to different positions! This was a hard problem back then because computer monitors were all CRT (cathode ray tube) designs, and big ones (over 20 inches) could weigh hundreds of pounds. To address this the Levity desk incorporated hundreds of pounds of counterweights:

Herman-Miller Levity desk with the weight stack visible

I assume these first three photos are copyright 1999 HermanMiller.

You can see the stack of weights below the desk behind the smoke-gray plastic cover. This is a weightlifting apparatus linked by pulleys to a work surface.

The desk got a lot of attention and won a Gold Award at NeoCon for Innova-
tion, and was included in the Workspheres exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. But then the desk took two years to ship, I think due to OSHA workplace safety concerns. If you put a heavy monitor on the desk without counterbalancing it, it might slam down on you while adjusting the height; conversely if you took heavy stuff off the desk without changing the weight stack, it might shoot upwards to punch you in the jaw. Herman-Miller added a balance indicator to warn if the desk is out of balance, earthquake straps to secure the computer monitor, and lots of safety warnings:

Herman-Miller Levity desk level adjust

is it safe to adjust the height?

So I finally took delivery in 2001, paying $3,600 for the desk. (!!) A lot of money, but I spent more hours at this desk than I did sleeping, so money well spent. The thing worked really well.

Herman-Miller’s concept for the desk involved moving it around in space as well as up-and-down. The brochure talks of “knowledge athletes” (gag me with a spoon!) moving their desks around to form ad hoc workgroups, and the Levity line included two kinds of carts for trucking your computer workstation around along with the desk to work on projects with other knowledge athletes. In the real world, the office furniture supplier rolled the desk into my cubicle at work, where it stayed put until I changed location in corporate reorgs. The Levity is a quarter circle with a 4 foot radius, so it fit perfectly into a 8×8 foot cubicle built of 48″ panels: just remove one desk surface. Then my company downsized our veal fattening pens to 42″ panels; the symmetry was gone, but I made it work.

my Levity desk, 20 years later

I eventually brought the desk home where it saw use as a sit-to-stand desk for a laptop plugged into an external Sony GDM-F400 monitor. You can see the collision of the designer’s Platonic form with the real world: all the cables that a desktop computer requires, for power, microphone, computer speakers, Ethernet, in addition to the transformers for the two lit workholders. My Levity came with a black zippered sock for cable management but it’s impossible to organize all the cables in one place.

A beautiful white elephant

In retrospect it’s obvious this 380 pound behemoth was a dead end. Flat lightweight LCD monitors were already available and dominated boxy CRTs by the early 2000s. Meanwhile so-called “knowledge athletes” were carrying lightweight laptops around, and the need to support hundreds of pounds of weight vanished. Desks no longer needed to be several feet deep to permit a big CRT.

Some day I’ll write about all my other adjustable desks: the Biomorph Exo home desk (as advertised in the back pages of WIRED magazine), the ConSet wall-mounted motorized column I added to a custom work surface, the lightweight Ergotron WorkFit-C desk I last used at work that weighs a sixth of the Levity, …

Postscript: yours for $25, a steal!

After giving up on museums, I offered it for sale. I was briefly excited by someone offering one for sale in 2016 for  $1300 ! and someone else claiming in comments “This desk is worth upwards of 5,000$ if its mint. Hunt around carefully before you sell it low ball. I … sold one for 6500 and got > 5k$ after agent commission.” But I didn’t get a single bid on eBay at $300. I got lots of interest on Craigslist until people realized just how big a 4-foot quarter circle is and how hard it is to transport a 350-pound piece of furniture. Finally someone with a trailer and a loading ramp bought this classic for $25. (And an artist paid $20 for the monitor to directly drive its cathode-ray tube like an oscilloscope in an art piece.)

Related pages

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science: how can DNA do so much?

Every time I’m in a doctor’s office and see an anatomical poster showing the shape of the bones in your ear, or the five layers of the cornea and the custom oil ducts that keep it lubricated, or the name for every bump and wiggle in your intestines, and realize the Adobe Illustrator file for that one structure is bigger than the entire DNA that built it and there are 500 more anatomical posters to go, I start banging my head on the wall.

How does less information than on a Britney Spears CD (3 billion base pairs each storing two bits of data – A, C, G, or T – equals 750 MB) encode not just the basic biochemical operation of cells, but also cell division (Christmas light spaghetti ball separates into 23 chromosome pairs and is pulled apart… How?), then all the detailed anatomy of differentiated cells on all those posters, plus higher-order effects such as neurological development, and then behavior? I mean, WTF?! And every cell has the same DNA, yet the same instructions somehow produce completely different structures of cells that do completely different things in different parts of the body. And when some species gains a new feature, like a complex instinctive ability or an advanced brain with the capacity for language, no new chromosomes or DNA is added; the same string of base pairs gets pressed into doing novel things along with everything else it’s been doing.

I once asked an eye Dr. He gazed into the middle distance, pointed skyward, and said “God.” But we see all this incredible machinery that clearly does the work (DNA makes RNA produces string of enzymes which becomes a protein); simply invoking a God of the gaps to paper over our lack of understanding of the details is unsatisfying.

I regularly Google “how does DNA produce structure?” but the search results overwhelmingly address “what is the structure of DNA?” (i.e. its famous double helix) instead.

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music: stupidly great and in love

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Setting up a global guarantee

One of the sweetest love songs is “Wonderful World,” written and performed by Sam Cooke (who rewrote the original Lou Adler & Herb Alpert song). Go listen:

Don’t know much about geography
Don’t know much trigonometry
Don’t know much about algebra
Don’t know what a slide rule is for

But I do know one and one is two
And if this one could be with you
What a wonderful world this would be

Beautiful! The acknowledgment of failure gives the song its power. There’s knowing things which not everyone can do, but there’s also knowing an emotional truth which no one can gainsay. Merely being together would make the world wonderful, with the derivation from 1+1=2 left to smarter minds.

The song doesn’t glamorize dumbness; in a beautiful third musical motif, knowledge is a route to winning love:

Now, I don’t claim to be an A student
But I’m trying to be
For maybe by being an A student, baby
I can win your love for me

Cooke beats himself up some more about what he doesn’t know:

Don’t know much about history
Don’t know much biology
Don’t know much about a science book
Don’t know much about the French I took

This is almost painful to hear, but that punishing enumeration of failure makes what he says he knows in the upcoming chorus unchallengeable. In the second chorus it was enough to be together with the beloved, but that’s not quite enough. He’s completely open and direct:

But I do know that I love you
And I know that if you love me, too
What a wonderful world this would be

He links the undeniable truth of his own feelings to knowing a brave conditional; again the logical proof is up to smarter people. If the song opened with this it would be a weak plea to return his feelings; instead, everything he admits he doesn’t know sets the scene for this to feel like a true statement about the world. Just love him back, not for yourself, but for global nirvana!

Simpleton with untold E-$$$

29 years later, Andy Partridge of XTC wrote a song with a similar basis, “Mayor of Simpleton.” Go listen:

Never been near a university,
Never took a paper or a learned degree,
And some of your friends think that’s stupid of me,
But it’s nothing that I care about

Well I don’t know how to tell the weight of the sun,
And of mathematics well I want none,
And I may be the Mayor of Simpleton,
But I know one thing and that’s I love you

This is a delicious homage to Sam Cooke with the same wistful acknowledgement of no book learning, while knowing the same undeniable truth of “I love you.” But Andy Partridge isn’t as sweet, he’s already set the relationship in a wider social world that Cooke only references indirectly with the implied school setting. Where Cooke offers a conditional wonderful world without exploring it, leaving the music to conjure up sweetness and warmth, Partridge makes an explicit promise in a third musical motif:

When their logic grows cold and all thinking gets done,
You’ll be warm in the arms of the Mayor of Simpleton

Again like Cooke, in a fourth motif the song doesn’t glamorize dumbness. But Partridge goes on to point out the subterfuges he doesn’t have access to:

I’m not proud of the fact that I never learned much,
Just feel I should say,
What you get is all real, I can’t put on an act,
It takes brains to do that anyway

Then “Mayor of Simpleton” goes into overdrive. At the same point in the song where Cooke reuses his chorus to offer a conditional wonderful world for love returned, Partridge comes in low and direct, reusing his opening motif for his own conditional with a completely different allusion:

If depth of feeling is a currency,
Then I’m the man who grew the money tree,

Here I reliably start crying, in awe of the songwriting chops and the emotional depths he’s sounding. He maps love onto an uncomfortable hard axis of money, then immediately and utterly transcends it with the organic mysterious three-dimensional “money tree” he and/or his feelings have grown. Like Cooke’s guarantee of “if you love me back -> wonderful world” , this only works because of everything else in the song up until now; if the song started out “I love you like a million-dollar tree” we’d be left cold.

Again Partridge turns to the smart set he’s up against:

Some of your friends are too brainy to see,
That they’re paupers and that’s how they’ll stay

By 1989 the culture of greed and money was in full swing in Britain, so the allusion is powerful and extends the reach of the song beyond just romance. The personal is political. But when that’s all done you’ll be warm in his arms. One of the best songs of all time, let alone best love songs.

The heavyweights chime in, sort of

Paul McCartney and Sting also tried to link dumbness and love, with Wings’ “Silly Love Songs” and The Police’s “De Do Do Do De Da Da Da.” They acknowledge their difficulty in expressing the wonders of love but they’re too pompous to bluntly state how dumb they are before saying something simple.

Listen to Silly Love Songs:

You’d think that people would have had enough of silly love songs
I look around me and I see it isn’t so
Some people want to fill the world with silly love songs
And what’s wrong with that
I’d like to know
‘Cause here I go again
I love you, I love you
I love you, I love you

It’s a love song that’s also a meta song about songwriting, which inevitably distances it from the emotional lives of us non-songwriters. Like Cooke and Partridge, McCartney says “I love you”, but it’s not struggling against any personal failing beyond his embarrassment at blurting it out.

In a lovely second bridge, McCartney bumps up hard against the problem:

How can I tell you about my loved one
How can I tell you about my loved one
How can I tell you about my loved one
How can I tell you about my loved one

The repetition is magnetic but hold on, McCartney seems to be talking to a different person than his beloved! If only he’d been able to fit “How can I tell you about my love for you, my loved one” into the line, the song would be immeasurably better.

In a marvelous background line as the song rebuilds around its bass line, Linda McCartney alludes to the depth of feeling:

I can’t explain the feeling’s plain to me, say can’t you see

Now he’s bounced the problem to her, but that leaves us on the outside humming along to a song about the incoherent intensity of their feelings for each other. And although no one can blame their inability, not explaining isn’t a patch on having a dunce unexpectedly unleash “If depth of feeling is a currency, then I’m the man who grew the money tree” to leave no doubt.

Listen to De Do Do … etc.:

A reliably gorgeous Andy Summers intro sets up the song. Sting says he’s having trouble, but immediately uses clever talk to reassure us and himself that he’s not to be blamed for inadequacy:

Don’t think me unkind
Words are hard to find
They’re only cheques I’ve left unsigned
From the banks of chaos in my mind

And when their eloquence escapes me
Their logic ties me up and rapes me

(The “rape” talk is cringeingly awkward now, it was merely uncomfortable back in 1986.)

De do do do de da da da
Is all I want to say to you
De do do do de da da da
Their innocence will pull me through
De do do do de da da da
Is all I want to say to you
De do do do de da da da
They’re meaningless and all that’s true

Sting said to Rolling Stone “I was trying to make an intellectual point about how the simple can be so powerful. Why are our favourite songs ‘Da Doo Ron Ron’ and ‘Do Wah Diddy Diddy’?” That’s a noble meta-songwriter aim like McCartney’s, and the song beautifully implies all its nonsense words are just “I love you.” But Sting doesn’t set the translation of his feelings into Klingon subtitles against anything that would give it emotional heft. The wordless instrumental break is an opportunity missed.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

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music: talent overload on Aretha Franklin recording

“Until You Come Back to Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do)” is a perfect pop song, then check the personnel and it’s not surprising – the talent involved is off the charts. Co-written by Stevie Wonder; Aretha’s own gorgeous piano intro then Donny Hathaway on electric piano; Jerry Wexler and Arif Marden producing; Chuck Rainey on bass, Bernard “Pretty” Purdie nailing those knocks on your door and taps on your window, Hugh McCracken on guitar (Steely Dan hired all three chasing the same magic); almighty background vocals from Cissy Houston and more; WTF, Eumir Deodato doing the arranging?!!

I notice Arif Marden produced many of the R&B songs I’m enjoying, from the ’70s through the ’90s: Average White Band, Chaka Khan, Scritti Politti, …

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