Wednesday, October 7, 2009

On sharing

Mike Doughty’s new album, Sad Man Happy Man, came out this week.  Mike has been one of my favorite singer/songwriters for years, so I have to pick up a copy.  Only one decision is preventing me from finalizing my purchase: Should I buy the physical CD or the mp3s?  There are a number of arguments for one side or the other, but for some reason I’m really focusing on one thing: Do I want to own a piece of plastic that will eventually end up in a landfill, or do I want to own the rights to data files that provide a lower fidelity experience but don’t require the manufacture and eventual disposal of physical materials?  Sure, it’s convenient that so many mp3s can fit on a portable player, but the environmental benefits of digital music files shouldn’t be ignored.

Music files can be purchased in innovative ways these days, too., for example sells web songs, which play in your browser and only cost 10 cents.  Basically, Lala is selling rights to the music rather than music itself.  You can listen to your music as much as you want, and you don’t even need room in your apartment or on your hard drive to store the product.  (Bonus: Lala will also let you listen to any song in its catalog one time for free, and all users get their first 50 web songs free.)  In a way, it’s music as a service rather than a product.

I’m a big fan of this idea, mainly because it means people get to own less.  Car sharing companies like I-GO and Zipcar let people get by without owning a car.  Tool-lending libraries are springing up in cities nationwide.  Hell, I’m still surprised that so many people buy DVDs when movies are so cheap to rent via Blockbuster, Netflix & iTunes.

Well… I just bought Sad Man Happy Man on CD through Amazon, and it arrives in a week.  I’m sure it’ll spend the next month in heavy rotation on my computer, interspersed with my newly purchased web songs.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Pop curators

Pitchfork Media recently published a list of the top 500 songs of the millennium, along with several other retrospective lists covering the past 10 years.  These “top x” pop culture lists are bullshit in most cases, since the lists imply that the authors are definitive authorities on purely subjective matter.  These lists might be relevant if they were compiled as “most influential,” simply because influence is easier to assess than quality (though it’s still a fuzzy science).  Instead, they usually come across as snobby and irrelevant.  Also, the evaluation criteria is usually unpublished or nonexistent; if Pitchfork posted their criteria somewhere, I couldn’t find it after about 10 minutes of searching.

Still, I don’t mind throwing out the rankings and using this list as a general guide to the music of the ‘00s.  Ryan McGinness, one of my favorite visual artists, has a great quote from a 2005 interview in Giant Robot in which he discusses the role of the curator.

Everyone has a word processor and can cut and paste, so that has created more "writers."  With digital video you have more "filmmakers."  We have "musicians" who can't even read music.  Ultimately, when you broaden any field, the whole of the output becomes diluted, and it's more and more difficult to separate the extraordinary from the average.  This is why the role of the curator or DJ is becoming more and more important.

I trust Pitchfork as a filter through which I get my music, but the whole “official list” thing really gets under my skin, no matter what the context or medium.

Sometimes I wonder if young people are so compelled to passionately argue over & defend their preferences in music, movies, art, etc. because these are the few areas in which they can claim “expertise.”  In our 20’s, most of us aren’t really experts in anything, so we have to construct pride in areas of personal preference - which is easy to do since our preferences can never be objectively proven or disproven.  Not saying this is the case for everyone, just speculating that this is a factor for some.

And of course, since I felt compelled to write a blog post about a pop music list, I’m obviously not above this behavior.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009


In July, I went to Paris.  Physically and mentally.  And with my girlfriend.  Amazing Paris comic journal courtesy of Lucy Knisley.

Lengthy vacations allow us to pull up the anchor and drift for a bit.  The difference between today’s Johnny and June 2009 Johnny is probably greater than the difference between June 2009 Johnny and the Johnny of one year prior, and not just in fromage content.

As such, New Johnny’s in charge now, and he’s plotted a new course for the ship.

For starters, I’m cleaning house.  Earlier tonight, I dropped a load of clothes and rarely-used household items at a local non-profit resale shop that funds LGBT services.  (If anyone needs a white noise machine or a shaving cream warmer, hit up the Brown Elephant on Halsted.)  More of my apartment detritus is going up on eBay later this week.  A friend is stopping by tomorrow to pick up half a dozen dress shirts that have been too big for my scrawny frame since the first day I bought them; their departure is long overdue.

I’ve also begun making changes in my computer use.  Patton Oswalt said in his recent AV Club interview, “You can replace the internet with five really smart friends,” and wow, there are a lot of things I like about that brief quote.  As a technophile, mitigating my habitual and at times junkie-like interaction with personal technology is a difficult and evolving process, but I’ve made a few inroads.  One big help: Leechblock, a Firefox extension that lets you lock yourself out of websites you choose, during time frames you choose.  I’ve configured it to keep me away from Gmail, Facebook, Twitter, and several other sites after 9 PM.  It also locks me out of certain sites after a time limit of my choosing; this keeps me from spending all day on 4chan or some other such internet sinkhole.  Per Aldous Huxley via Neil Postman, I’ve ruined many hours on the internet, and I’d really, really like that to stop.

This post will have to end here.  I’m approaching the dangerously recursive territory of losing sleep to spend time on the computer writing a blog about how I should spend less time on the computer.

Monday, June 22, 2009

In Which I Am Maybe Unmasked As Sexist?

Last week, Lucy told me about The Bechdel Rule, and I’ve been fascinated by it ever since.  Actually, I’m not fascinated by the rule itself, but rather by how powerful a statement it makes despite its simplicity.

Alison Bechdel is a comic artist, creator of the long-running strip Dykes To Watch Out For and the autobiography Fun Home, which was nominated for numerous awards and appeared on many of 2006’s best book of the year lists.  The Bechdel Rule, as it is informally named (though Bechdel credits a friend with the concept), appears in a DTWOF strip circa 1985.  Two lesbians are walking past a movie theater, and one shares her criteria for seeing a movie.  “One, it must have at least two women in it who, two, talk to each other about, three, something besides a man.”

Sounds simple, right?  OK, everyone reading this right now: try to think of how many movies you’ve seen that meet these three criteria.

I’ll tell you right now, that number is pretty small in my case.  When Lucy & I scanned our DVD collection, we found four (4!) movies out of roughly 50 or 60 that stood up to The Bechdel Rule.

One conclusion that was immediately apparent was how my demographics – white male from the suburbs – affect my choice in movies.  Of course, there are other factors at work, such as the type of movies Hollywood makes, which movies are selected for screening by local cinemas, etc.  Still, I feel vaguely guilty over my somewhat sexist entertainment track record.

This train of thought is like an offshoot of the current controversy over some statements made by Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor.  She’s discussed how her background informs her decisions as a judge, and for some reason this is a big deal?  Where was the outrage from the Right when Samuel Alito said the following during his confirmation hearing:

When I get a case about discrimination, I have to think about people in my own family who suffered discrimination because of their ethnic background or because of religion or because of gender.  And I do take that into account.

That quote was recently used in a article; hit the link to see Alito’s full statement defending the empathy he draws from his personal background.  In fact, just read that whole article: like The Bechdel Rule, it’s short, but it packs a punch.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Support autism research!

Last May, I joined 17,000 walkers on Soldier Field for Chicago’s Walk Now for Autism.  Together we raised almost $1.5 million to support autism research and to raise awareness about this increasingly common disorder.  (One in every 150 kids born today is diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder.)  I was proud to raise $400 in honor of my older brother, Luke, and I’m really grateful to all those who contributed to this cause.  Seriously!  So grateful!

This year, I’m trying to push myself a little further.  My brother Tyler and I have set a combined goal of $1,000 for this year’s event.  If you take a look at our current total, you’ll see that we have a long way to go (on account of the fact that we haven’t promoted this thing at all so far).  Please help us reach that goal!  Anything you can give will be appreciated, probably more than you’d expect.  I will appreciate you so much that it might make you a little uncomfortable.

Please donate to my page here:

Yes, I know that the minimum donation you can make on the site is $20.  If you can donate $20 or more, AWESOME, thank you!  If you want to contribute a smaller amount, I will still think you are a rad person.  You can use the printable donation form to mail your payment, you can send me money via PayPal ( and I can donate it for you, or you can bring a donation to Lucy’s table at the Stumptown Comics Fest in Portland, OR, this weekend, where I’ll be working as a booth babe.

Thanks in advance for your help!  The walk is on May 16th, I’ll be sure to post an update before then.

Chicago Walk Now for Autism 2009 home page

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Big news!… that I can’t talk about right now

Hi, everyone.  I have some big deal, hot shit, life-altering news that I’d like to talk about, but it’s in my best interests not to go postin’ all over the interwebs about it.  Alas, this is a teaser post.  Individual inquiries about said news, addressed directly to me via email or face to face, are welcomed.

Since the news hit, I’ve been indulging in two of the biggest technology-enabled time wasters in existence: Facebook and Twitter.  Neither of these fads really caught on with me until I started desperately seeking distractions.  Boy, do I ever understand them now.

I also got my hands on Final Fantasy XII for PlayStation 2 – or rather, it got its hands on me.  It sucks me in for 3- or 4-hour stretches from which I emerge bleary-eyed and delirious.  I’m filled with shame at the amount of time I’m investing in an activity that provides me with no value.  It’s not even like I find it very entertaining, which should be the sole motivating factor for playing a video game.  I’m simply driven by a sick compulsion to complete the game’s assigned tasks one at a time, to enjoy that gratification of achieving something.  The hardcore role playing gamer in me just loves watching my characters’ numbers (strength, vitality, etc.) go up.

My whole point in starting a game of FFXII was to indulge myself for a little while, but I’m not enjoying it the way that I’d hoped.  Hard to say if this is due to the caliber of the game or to my inability to let myself enjoy something that doesn’t make me a better person – and God, what a lame person I’d be if the cause turned out to be the latter.  Enjoying something for enjoyment’s sake is what indulging is all about.

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Hey, I’m going to be in Pittsburgh this weekend.  What should I do there?

Thursday, March 5, 2009

The burden of choice

Lately I’ve been mining the archives of presentations at the annual TED conference.  Each 20-minute talk addresses a subject from the field of technology, entertainment, or design, and many are presented by geniuses: Stephen Hawking and Frank Gehry’s talks are lined up in my downloads right now.  Three of the talks that I watched recently share a common theme: choice.  Their juxtaposition in my queue was coincidental, but maybe I selected them through a subconscious desire to excuse my occasionally lousy decision-making skills.  (I tend to vacillate endlessly and research exhaustively when presented with an important decision, such as which new brand of toothpaste to try.)

Barry Schwartz – The paradox of choice

More options don’t always result in greater satisfaction.  In this talk, Schwartz discusses the hidden costs that come with freedom of choice.  In his words, they are:

  1. Regret and anticipated regret
  2. Opportunity costs
  3. Escalation of expectations
  4. Self-blame
There’s an excellent anecdote in there about buying jeans that illustrates his point perfectly.

Malcolm Gladwell – What we can learn from spaghetti sauce

Gladwell explains how experimental psychologist Howard Moskowitz handles the difficult task of figuring out what we want when we don’t really know what we want, and how companies use the results to provide us with choices that didn’t previously exist.

If I asked all of you, for example, in this room what you want in a coffee, you know what you’d say?  Every one of you would say, “I want a dark, rich, hearty roast.” … What percentage of you actually like a dark, rich, hearty roast?  According to Howard, somewhere between 25 and 27 percent.  Most of you like milky, wheat coffee.  But you will never ever say to someone who asks you what you want that I want a milky, wheat coffee.

David Pogue – When it comes to tech, simplicity sells

Pogue argues convincingly that extra features commonly hurt tech products.  I agree wholeheartedly, as this idea has fueled my recent interest in interaction design.  My favorite part comes at the end, when Pogue praises the latest version of his favorite speech recognition software.  The new version added no new features; the company just greatly improved the speech recognition accuracy and made the software much more enjoyable to use.

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PS – Our houseguests this week are Lucy’s comics friend Erika Moen (who does the fabulous webcomic DAR, please check it out) and her husband, Matt Nolan.  To see Erika interview Lucy, check out The Erika Moen Show on Ustream.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Stories of the Road, issue 33: The Great Gray North


This blog post is long overdue, but with good reason.  My latest client is headquartered in Vancouver, a city that's been on my top destination list for quite a while.  I was determined to make the best of my time there, thus I resolved to spend my weeknights seeing Vancouver rather than writing about it.

I'm never sure how much my feelings about a new city are influenced by my predispositions.  I've long imagined Vancouver as a Canadian San Francisco, so I had an easy time spotting similarities: the waterfront geography, the West-coast attitudes, the seafood-heavy menus.  There was even a dense fog (which the locals repeatedly assured me was uncharacteristic) languishing in the streets for most of my stay, reinforcing the impression that Vancouver was separated at birth from its American counterpart.

Vancouver's air is charged with the same ineffable energy found in other distinguished metropolitan locations.  I felt it as I walked to pick up dinner after work, wearing a smile that seemed to spring from my chest cavity.  I'm not a spiritual man, but I'm positive that some cities radiate a metaphysical verve yet undefined by science.

The travel requirements for this project were aggressive: Sunday night arrival and Friday afternoon departure for four weeks straight.  Lucy flew in for a ski weekend in between.  I tested my snowboarding skills, which were almost so rusty as to be worthless.  After three hours of scraping down the face of Grouse Mountain in thrift-store snowpants, my ass was ready to mutiny.


The food quality was top notch throughout town.  The sushi restaurant population downtown seems too large to be sustainable.  I never had a bad piece of fish in my time there, and I'm certain that my blood now contains enough mercury to manufacture several thermometers.  Oh, and let's not forget the poutine.


Why hasn't America appropriated this dish yet?  It certainly meets our minimum legal requirements for sodium, cheese, and fried food content.

Kudos to monstro (AKA Steve Wolfhard) and his friends for showing us a good time at Gyoza King.  Lucy drew a fantastic Vancouver travel journal when she vacationed with her dad last fall, so I have to plug it one more time.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Externalizing my brainwaves

For starters, new blog with zee puppets.


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It's a new year, folks!  Did you rock in 2008?  Did you suck?  Yes, you sucked?  Is it time to stop sucking so much?  There are a number of things I'd like to work on in 2009: regrowing an attention span, not being a jerk to my mom when she asks me computer questions (ugh, so bad at this... sorry, Ma), getting more sleep like I promise myself I'm going to do EVERY SINGLE YEAR...

I'd also like to do a better job getting my thoughts in order.  These days, it feels like I keep ideas in too many places.  Here are some (not all) of the ways that I'm recording the thoughts that are worth saving - in other words, these are notes about my notes.


Text files (Google Docs & Microsoft Word)

All-purpose, simple, effective.  I use them for all sorts of lists, like words I love (most recent addition: zaftig) or blog ideas.  Lately I'm using Google Docs more often for the simple interface and the ability to view the files at any time from my iPhone.


Mind maps

Long my preferred method of choice for taking notes at work, via the freeware Java application Freemind (shown in the screenshot).  Mind maps make connections between ideas much more visual.  They're perfect for concepts with a hierarchical structure, which might be why I've found them so useful for tracking projects at the office.


Google Notebook

Great for capturing info on the web, especially with the Firefox Google Notebook extension: highlight some text, right click, and choose "Note this"; the text is recorded in your notebook, along with the web page title, a link to the page, and the date the note was recorded.  Tagging and search capabilities help you track things down, so you don't lose track of that great Churchill quote you wrote down a few months ago.


legal pads

I keep one at my desk and one on my nightstand for writing down the stuff that pops into my head right before falling asleep.  It's easier to relax when you don't have to worry whether or not you'll remember to add gummy bears to the grocery list for your fancy dinner party tomorrow; write it down and fall asleep with a clear mind.


back pages of books

Only done this a few times with my non-fiction reading.  It's nice having the notes on hand whenever I'm reading, and I try to fit them all on a single page that I can reference quickly.


I'm really interested to hear anyone's suggestions on this topic, so fire away.

Stories of the Road returns soon with a new international edition!