Archive for the ‘family’ Category
Help my 17-year-old see Beyonce’s sister (in which Jimmy begs for help in an uncharacteristically direct fashion)
Hi Internet friends. It’s Jimmy. I need your help. Again.
You helped me once before. Back in late 2008, I wrote Ida Maria and how the Internet might be able to help me make a 12-year-old girl happy, in which I begged for ideas on how to help my daughter Lydia get in to see an artist we love, Ida Maria, even though Lydia was nine years too young to get into a 21-and-over gig. We got some advice from friends and from kind strangers at Idolator, and eventually a high-level meeting of two wonderful singers took place.
Four-and-one-half years later, Lydia wants to see Solange Knowles at the Paradise next week. Alas, she is 11 months too young to get into the show, which is 18+. I had heard of a state law asserting that those under 18 can get into 18+ shows as long as they’re accompanied by a legal guardian. I asked a manager at the ‘dise about this and she said no way. I’ve asked some friends and friends of friends who work or worked at various clubs around town; some say they vaguely remember the rule but can’t cite it definitively. Google, for once, has not been helpful.
In some ways, it’s easier to get a club to let a 12-year-old into a show she’s much too young for than to let in a 17-year-old who’s only a bit too young. The various attempts to get her in — not all of which I’ve listed here — have not worked. If anyone has any ideas — and if anyone is owed a solid from someone at the ‘dise or Live Nation — please get in touch with me. It would keep my daughter’s faith in me and my faith in the Internet. So, Internet friends, any ideas?
I will post major progress here and minor progress on the Twitter. As my buddy John Lennon used to shout, Help!
UPDATE: We got in!
My daughter, a cult guitarist, and how journalists can become semicompetent programmers, pretty much in that order
Warning: this is a much longer post than what usually shows up on this blog, but it’s an attempt to answer an important question I get asked all too regularly.
I was in the living room, listening to Lydia’s computer in the dining room. She was listening to “Hammond Song,” my favorite performance by the Roches, and I was lost in Robert Fripp’s guitar solo. After that, I was hungry to hear some more Fripp (the only other Roches song I felt like listening to was “Losing True,” which moves me but is damn near the same song as “Hammond Song” so I passed). I’ve enjoyed Fripp’s work with other people (Bowie, Blondie, Talking Heads) although I’ve never owned a King Crimson record. I saw Fripp live twice in the early ’80s, once at Irving Plaza leading his sharp, funky League of Gentlemen, once six months later at a WXPN benefit in Penn’s Houston Hall, when he was in Frippertronics mode. And that joint interview he did with Joe Strummer around the same time had an enormous influence on me as a beginning interviewer of rock stars.
I looked up Fripp on Spotify and was greeted not by music, but a recording of a keynote address he gave to a conference of motivational speakers, among them his sister. I found the talk engaging, adventurous, and practical; if you have Spotify, check it out.
Among many other gifts, the talk offered a great contradictory lesson. Several times during it, Fripp talked about how important it is to work with people who are better than you. True, and I try to do that whenever I can, but Fripp delivered insight after insight during the talk; he wasn’t learning from anyone else there, he was helping everyone else there. It’s a lovely, humble talk about mastery.
As I continue to get not younger, I understand more and more the value of surrounding myself, both in my work life and in my life life, with people who are better than me. But every now and then I get the chance to help someone else — I have learned a few things — and this blog gives me a chance to pass on what I’ve learned publicly. Here’s a question I get asked at least weekly, both by fellow veterans and newcomers to my profession: I’m a journalist and I’d like to continue being employed as a journalist. Everywhere I read that an employable journalist is as competent with 0s and 1s as I am with nouns and verbs. Does that mean I need to become a computer programmer?
Back when I helped out at GNN, O’Reilly’s early online service, and Delphi, the first of many online services that Rupert Murdoch’s ownership ruined, I thought there might be a brief opening for an editorial person who “got” the web. (Fortunately, almost two decades later, that window hasn’t closed yet.) One of the ways I’ve been able to make a go of it has been to learn how to program.
The idea is to make computer programming one of the tools in your journalistic kit, something that makes it easier for employers or clients to work with you. I once pitched a project conducting an online survey for a syndicated research firm and one of the reasons I got the gig was that I was able to do the whole project myself, not just designing the survey and interpreting the results, but also getting a working survey onto the web. These were in the pre-SurveyMonkey days when you needed to be able to do some grunt-level coding (in that case, in Perl) to create an online survey. I did plenty more work with that company in the years that followed; most of it was straight editorial, but knowing I could solve a technology problem independently made my client more comfortable keeping me around.
Although there are particular skills a programming journalist needs, what the ability to code offers a writer more than anything else is a way, an approach, even more than specific, problem-solving skills. To be a competent computer programmer, even for relatively simple web-based programs, you have to be able to break down a complex problem into small, manageable pieces. That’s a career skill, a life skill, and it’s something that programming forces you to do if you want to get any good at it. I’ve never been able to code for hours as if under a spell, which professional programmers can do easily. I can get into that zone as a writer, but not as a programmer. As someone who’s more journalist than programmer, that will likely be the case for you, too, so you will not spend hours under headphones, able to keep disparate parts of a large coding matter in your mind at the same time. You’ll break your pseudocode into small, manageable chunks, and then go from pseudocode to real code.
And chances are you’re not just writing code, you’re editing code someone else has written. Whatever problem you’re trying to solve as a programmer/journalist, there’s a very good chance that you are not the first person who’s had to solve this problem. Any popular language you are working with will have repositories all over the web of publicly available code that can solve at least part of your problem with only minimal customization, and, more important to your development, show you how other people approached the same issues. Curious journalist/programmers don’t just paste in code; they read it over — just like a beginning journalist reads John McPhee or Robert Caro — to learn how the pros do it. Then they make their own way.
That’s how you might want to proceed conceptually. Here are some admittedly idiosyncratic recommendations regarding what particular skills a journalist/programmer could use. (And I mean use practically. My favorite language to work in, the Lisp dialect Scheme, as taught in the beloved wizard book, is a learning language only. I’m more likely to get paid as a theremin roadie than as a Scheme programmer.)
The foundation: HTML/CSS/HTML5. Thanks to visual tools, journalists can work in web publishing with minimal exposure to HTML (Hypertext Markup Language). That’s not a good thing; it prevents journalists from knowing even the rudiments of the platform they’re working on. It’s hard to produce a vivid sound recording without knowing how to work a physical or virtual mixing board; similarly, how can you make your story work best on the web, tablets, and mobile devices if you don’t have a basic understanding of what the formats can do? HTML isn’t even full-fledged coding. It’s more page layout. Understanding HTML is not much harder than understanding how to use early DOS word processors like WordStar and XyWrite, programs that made you explicitly underline, etc.
The two steps after HTML are CSS and HTML5. CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) gives more precise layout tools and makes it easier to separate content from layout. HTML5, the latest version of the HTML standard, is still under development, but it’s already being used on many websites and in many web applications, particularly those aiming for tablets and mobile devices. There are an avalanche of useful new commands in HTML5 that make it much easier to integrate multimedia (HTML5′s ability to do this is one of the reasons Adobe’s more cumbersome Flash format is going away).
You don’t have to memorize too much HTML(5)/CSS syntax; there are plenty of online and offline resources. And don’t worry about learning explicitly what every last command parameter can do. The key is to know what tools are available and have a general sense of which one will get you out of which types of problems. You don’t have to know everything; you’ll know when you know enough.
You also need to know how to manage a database. In the late ’90s, when I got serious about educating myself as a journalist who could program, I became a great fan of Philip Greenspun, particularly his book Philip and Alex’s Guide to Web Publishing. In addition to being a physically beautiful object (Greenspun is an accomplished and very opinionated photographer), the Guide spelled out what anyone who had aspirations of becoming a web programmer had to know. Greenspun’s knowledge and style placed his book high above the “Teach Yourself TK in 21 Days” books that were popular at the time. He was rigorous, he was funny, and his approach made you want to learn. In particular, he showed why being able to manage a database was the key to building and maintaining any real website. That’s still the case: the fancy content management systems journalists use today, from bare-bones blog-building systems like WordPress to the more bloated “enterprise” systems, are customized databases. Many database systems are built around SQL; Greenspun has a guide to SQL, too, but don’t attempt that before you’ve got a good grounding in web technologies.
Finally, learn one language, any language (parenthetical removed; see why in the comments). There are plenty of arguments for learning plenty of different languages, but I think journalists entering the word of programming are best-served by learning Python. The tools you pick up are reasonably transferable to other languages, Python is built into OS X so you don’t have to install it, and how can you dislike a language with metasyntactic variables (spam and eggs) that clearly came from Monty Python?
Best of all, Python is a strong learning language. MIT uses it to teach people how to think like programmers. You can download the course text, How to Think Like a Computer Scientist: Learning With Python, to get a sense of how Python is a useful vehicle for starting programming. Python is also used as the entry language for my alma mater O’Reilly’s useful and entertaining Head First series for new programmers. Python is a powerful scripting language for web apps, but for someone who intends to be a journalist first and a programmer second (or tenth), it’s just a smart way in.
I am far from a professional programmer. Folks hire me because of my editorial and consulting skills, not because I can code kickass regular expressions (I can’t). But learning how to program lets me understand a problem from more sides and makes it more likely that I can help a company figure out how to solve it. Learning how to program has helped me and I hope it helps you too. I also hope this answers the question of how to become a journalist/programmer adequately; I’m going to point people who ask me that here from now on.
Even if you’re a journalist who never wants to write a line of code professionally, you can become a better digital journalist if you understand the technologies without which no one could ever experience your journalism. And the best way to understand is to do. One of the aspects I enjoyed most of the Robert Fripp talk I wrote about at the top of the post is that it captures the joy of learning something, getting better at it, and mastering it. While I was finishing this post, I heard the Roches’ “Hammond Song” coming from another room once again. But my daughter wasn’t listening to the Roches anymore. She had mastered the song and now she was singing it herself.
On Friday night, Jane, Grace, and I went to a party to celebrate the return of our friend Scott from a year in Kuwait and Iraq. Rita, Scott’s wife, asked us to bring some toiletries and entertainment that they would send on to those remaining in the war zones. So we bought some soap and contributed some music.
It was fun trying to think of music that could appeal to different groups of people. The Beastie Boys might please the kids, Robert Plant and Alison Krauss might delight the olds, and, really, who doesn’t love The Sandinista Project? I had doubles of some solid recent records that I included as well; I expect they’ll all find good homes.
As I was assembling the discs late Friday afternoon, it hit me that, with one exception — a piece about the return of Moktada al-Sadr to Iraqi politics that floated across my news feed that morning — I hadn’t thought about Iraq or Afghanistan, where hundreds of thousands of American troops are at risk, all day. I pride myself on being “informed,” but it was another day in America when there was a war going on (hello, two wars going on) and, except for the sliver of people in this country whose lives are directly affected because they have friends and family in the game, we don’t have to confront evidence of what is happening in our name around the world. I hate these wars, and I will be happy when the day comes when the reason we’re not thinking of the wars is because everyone we’ve sent to them, like Scott, is home and safe. Sending excess CDs and sparing a thought for them feels insufficient, but complaining about the wars a few times a year on one’s blog is insufficient, too.
The high point of the party (aside from seeing Scott back and not having to make dinner) was dancing. We couldn’t get Grace interested, but Jane and I danced for a while, something we don’t do enough. I am not a particularly good dancer but no matter how self-conscious you are (and by “you are,” I mean “I am”), you’ve got to drop it and give in to the music if you’re going to be a good partner. Dancing, especially to a song you’ve moved to for decades (“Love Shack,” some Motown stand-bys), can trick you into thinking that everything is OK for a while. But here’s the thing: it’s not a trick. While the music is on, everything is good. Maybe if we keep dancing, everything will stay OK.
When the kids were younger and more easily refocused when they were unhappy, I used to call everyone into the same room for a dance party that would, in short time, cheer them up, turn them around. I would look ridiculous when I started, but eventually the others would join in. DJ, heal thyself. Turn it up! Don’t stop! Where’s the iPod?
Well, sort of. Lydia is in the cast of Madame White Snake, an opera that will have its world premiere in Boston this evening. And, in the City of Boston, today is Madame White Snake Day. Happy Madame White Snake Day, everyone.
Of course, for people of a certain age, as Jane just pointed out, when you read the term “Whitesnake,” you think of only one thing: Tawny Kitaen on a car hood.
I’d like to take this opportunity to apologize to future generations for the ’80s.
This year I’m going to finish the novel. Really. I’m hoping that announcing it will make it more likely that I’ll do it. We’ll see.
One person not having any trouble getting her writing going is Grace Guterman, age nine. On New Year’s Eve, out of nowhere, Grace decided to use her whiteboard to show us how to write a novel.
First, as you see in the picture, you have to pick a genre. She went with fantasy. Then you have to figure out who the characters are. She likes to start with pairs of characters, such as a boy and a girl, a horse and a cat, or a doll and a teddy bear. She considered many combinations, decided on a boy and a doll, and started writing.
A second draft comes next, followed by the final one. “I usually write two ‘draphts’ and then go on to the real thing,” she advises. Although she started with a boy and a doll, she switchd to a boy and a horse. Her premise: “The boy was a prince and the horse had diabetes.” The story had medical complications and a trick (O. Henry-ish) ending. Did I mention that Grace is nine?
She’s also writing another novel, apparently, about the three most important things in life:
Two nights before Christmas, I went to see Eli perform for his peers in a theater called The Black Box. (Yes, I had to ask one of his cronies, “Where is the Black Box?” I sounded like a David Lynch character.) Eli was wonderful, of course; he and a few dozen of his buddies played a pair of Arcade Fire covers that were as big and loud and over the top as you’d want from a big band of high school friends playing Arcade Fire covers. I went to The Black Box to hear Eli and I enjoyed his performance a great deal.
But it’s not his performance that’s still front of mind the better part of a week later. That dubious distinction belongs to the last band that played to those of us in the audience who lasted the full three-and-a-half hours. They were a trio who smashed big holes through a pair of Talking Heads songs, “Psycho Killer” …
… and “And She Was.”
In the spirit of being honest that I hear is important on the bloggernet, I must acknowledge: the band didn’t learn half the words or half the chords of those two songs, and they didn’t take the time to recruit a bass player. They were sloppy. They were, on the whole, not very good.
Yet I must also proclaim: I loved them.
I loved them for the attitude and excitement and affection for music that they brought with them to the performance in lieu of talent and rehearsal. They were smiling, laughing, playing hard (poorly but hard), unsure how to play the songs but absolutely certain that they were going to have a great time bashing these sturdy songs within millimeters of their lives. I’ve seen great bands seem to enjoy themselves onstage, I’ve seen great bands seem like they’d rather be getting prostate exams than performing, and I’ve seen thousands of bands in what I imagined was every possible permutation of engagement. But the other night was the first night since the early heydays of punk and rap that I saw a bunch of amateurs as free and in love with not only what they were doing, but the possibility of what they were doing. It was going to be over in a few minutes, they knew that. No one was ever going to ask them to do this again, they might have suspected. But while they were out there they were going to be as alive as any band could be, standing on chairs, falling to their knees, not caring whether the other members hit their cues. They were there to be loud. They were there to connect. And they were there to play music by Talking Heads, a band that broke up before these kids were born.
Talking Heads have been on my mind and my headphones lately. They’re my favorite person‘s favorite band, and early this year we were lucky enough to see David Byrne perform some wonderful new songs, like this one …
… some classics, like this one …
… and reanimate some more obscure songs I didn’t think enough of the first time around, like this one.
And now, to bring a few strands of my life closer together, here’s an amateur video of the lead singer of my wife’s favorite band playing with a band my son adores, singing a song that has made me fill up more than once:
Happy new year, everyone! May it be full of music and people who make you feel something.
Eli and I have fantasized about a full-band-with-horns version of the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army.” We never got around to it and now it’s too late: Idolator reports that Kelly Clarkson, of all people, is performing such an arrangement of the song live. Yet another reminder that a good idea isn’t nearly as important as acting on your good idea.
Back in December, I tried to make this happen. Tonight, I finally did. Visual proof:
Regular readers of this blog know I’m a big fan of Ida Maria. It turns out that she’ll be playing two shows in New York in January (Jan. 15 @ Mercury Lounge; Jan. 16 @ Union Hall). I hope to go.
But there’s a catch. Aside from Maura Johnston at Idolator, who I’m sure will be at the shows without any problems, the only person I know who’s as big a fan of her as I am is my daughter, who will be a week shy of 13 the week I.M. is in New York and, no matter how she presents herself, no competent bouncer will let her into a 21+ show.
So I’m turning to the Internets. People: how can I get my Lydia in to see Ida Maria? Jane suggests I could arrange to get Lydia into the sound check. That’s an excellent idea, and I have a few almost-as-good ones I’ll try. I’ll contact the clubs and Maria’s management shortly.
But, first, I’d like to harness some collective intelligence. Internets, can you help us? What should we do? Can you help us?
I, too, am having trouble getting non-college-educated whites to agree that I should be their leader. Granted, those three non-college-educated whites are my kids, but I feel Obama’s pain.
Is it true that you were in a traffic jam that lasted for three states?
Yup. Started in Maine, ended in Massachusetts: all of New Hampshire was stop and go.
Why were you in Maine?
Dropping off Eli and his BFF at a photography workshop. I’ll get to spend 9-1/2 hours in a car again picking them up a week from Saturday.
Did you bring enough music to listen to in the car on the way back when you didn’t have to listen to two teenage boys blurt out whatever came to mind?
Depends on whether you think hearing the 57:19 version of “My Favorite Things” from John Coltrane’s Live in Japan is way beyond enough. I never want to hear a bass solo again (except by Eli).
Why do I hear an echo?
Because I’m alone in the house. Eli’s clicking pix in Maine, Jane and the girls are on the Cape for the coming week, and it’s just me in our modest-sized-but-enormous-feeling home.
What are you wearing?
Next question, please.
Will you blog more this week than last week?
Probably. It’s only Sunday night, the last time we can still feel optimistic about the work week ahead.
What else will you do?
I suspect I’ll veer wildly between GTD and GND. Here’s what I hope to accomplish between now and Friday:
* get 24 things done at MIT
* dentist’s appointment
* write drafts of two scenes for the novel
* organize the office (home)
* organize the office (MIT)
* exercise five times
I’ll update my progress daily. Perhaps tracking all this publicly will serve as a productivity tool: the threat of public humiliation works. Sometimes.
Where you been?
Canada, mostly. The five of us and a friend of Eli’s packed into the van: half a week in Montreal (good, and I was not responsible for this), half a week in Ottawa (great), and a one-night stopover in Burlington, Vt., on the way back. As of Tuesday, I’m three-quarters of the way to Inbox Zero. I need to learn French for the next trip to the Great White North.
Was everything the same when you returned?
Mostly. Manny is gone, and so is Scrabulous, but it looks as if the latter has returned in not-too-diminished form. I missed a particularly weird Carl Icahn hissy fit, and I’ll have to check in with Paczkowski for guidance on how to interpret that.
What did you learn about your newspaper-reading habits while you were gone?
As I’ve noted previously, I’m done with print newspapers. For the first half of the vacation, I did a reasonably good job of staying off the laptop (and we were in another country, so I didn’t want to turn on the iPhone unless absolutely necessary). If I wanted to know what was going on in the world I had to read the print versions of the Times and Journal, both of which were available in hotel gift shops at imminent-apocalypse prices. I imagined that reading newspapers this way would feel like a luxury. Instead, compared to their younger online siblings, they felt out of date and, well, short. Aside from the immediacy you get from following news via the net, chances are you see that news as part of a larger river of information. It’s always coming at you. In comparison, reading the news in a newspaper feels limited, finite. It ends. News on the net never ends (for better or worse).
Also worth looking at was the National Gallery in Ottawa. We spent two hours there. I bet we could have gone at least two days without running out of surprises. I was particularly taken by William Kurelek’s “Arriving on the Manitoba Farm,” which looks dark and formless in this image, but reveals more and more layers of detail and meaning when you have the pleasure of standing in front of it.
When you stopped in Burlington, Vt., on the way back, did you see any newspaper headlines you’d expect to see only in Burlington, Vt.?
What did you read?
Parts of Francine Prose’s Read Like a Writer (mostly zzz, but it did introduce me to this guy) and Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance, and (several times) my favorite Chekhov story, “The Lady with the Dog.”
And you read them all on your…
Kindle, right. It’s a usability nightmare and the selection of Amazon-blessed-and-DRMed books is insufficient and random, but I found it convenient and comfortable under all but the most low-light situations.
Did you write?
Yes, especially early in the week when I was still keeping that off-the-net promise. It’s amazing how less depressed you can be about the quality of something if you’re actually working on it. And maybe I should consider a new business model.
What was Jane’s most memorable quote during the week?
There were so many candidates, but I’m going with “I’m trying to save the tattoo.”
How’s the new job going?
So far it seems like a very good fit. I’ll have a full report at the end of The First 90 Days.
Weren’t you going to tell us the point of this blog?
Comments from Doug, Owen, and Andrea — and a gift from Brian — showed me the limits of my thinking from a few posts ago. And Jane has suggested that I write about what I think about: namely, media and technology. So, unless you’re reading this via a newsreader, you’ll see that the blog now has a new tagline: “media, technology, and the rest of it.” I’ve got some ideas for making this more than a vanity blog; we’ll see if I can live up to them. Oh, and to warn you, I’m going to pay more attention to Twitter.
Gotta see how the WordPress app for the iPhone works.
8:49am: Child #3, a little weepy, begs to be kept home from camp today because she has a “stomach ache.” Father suspicious but acquiesces.
9:26am: Child #3, surprisingly lively, takes a break from lining up snow globes on her rug to say, “Dad, can we get Coldstone iced cream tonight?” Father asks about that stomach ache. Child #3: “Oh, I’m much better.”
The cover story of yesterday’s New York Times Magazine is about equally shared parenting, which the Times has belatedly decided is a trend. (Last month, the Mag discovered that blogging is a trend, too. Thanks, guys.) The main couple profiled in the article run a website on the topic, and last year that site published a great, nuanced essay by Jane called “Family Dance Party” that captures the complexities, frustrations, and rewards of not-quite-equal modern parenting. Jane was onto this trend years before the Times caught up.
Back in March, I gave up print newspapers. Every day since then I’ve read all of The New York Times, most of The Wall Street Journal, and some of The Boston Globe and a few other dailies, but I’ve read them all online. It was hard getting used to; indeed, I’m still getting used to it.
So imagine my delight yesterday when I received my Father’s Day present:
This is what a paper newspaper feels like now: a luxury, a gift, a change of pace, maybe even an indulgence.
I am, apparently. See for yourself. (The image is small. Depending on your monitor and browser, you might need to click on it to make it readable.)
Pretty well, we’re almost done. But it seems to have had a strange effect on Eli.
This is a blog, so it must have a list.
* Being Lydia’s driver
* Reading something enjoyable and useful by someone I love
* Remembering that a problem out of your control at work may lead to your learning something important that you’d never have known about if something hadn’t gone “wrong”
* Accepting a “friend” request on Facebook from a former colleague who I am actually happy to be back in touch with
* Owing only $.30 on my overdue copy of Ten Days in the Hills
* Listening to Neil Young’s “Ordinary People,” finally released today, around 19 years after I heard him play it live: if you wait long enough… (hope I don’t have to wait another 19 years for a full Blue Notes live record)
* Listening to Robert Plant and Alison Krauss sing “Killing the Blues”: sometimes unexpected pairings work brilliantly
* Discovering that all that time spent learning how to use Oracle systems may pay off at last
* Segueing the shuffling iPod from The Roches’ “Losing True” (the greatest song of all time of the day) into Aretha Franklin’s “Talk to Me, Talk to Me” (its sucessor as greatest song of all time of the day) into Katrina Leskanich’s “Hitsville U.K.” (from my favorite album of the year, for some reason
* Talking to Grace about how different moms handle Brownie meetings differently
* Using up my iPhone minutes with the right people
All small things, I know, but all wonderful