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Media diet, summer 2014, part 2: music

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Dialogue guaranteed reported verbatim:

Other person: You posted your first media diet piece more than a month ago. Where’s part 2?

Me: I have job, a family, a house …

Other person: No, really. How long can it take to do something like this? It’s just a damn list.

Me: I don’t want to publish a list. Lists are boring.

Other person: Two of your books are just lists.

Me: (pause) Oh. I’ll get to it right now.

Other person: Good.


Here’s what I’ve listened to most recently, according to the Recently Played playlist on my phone. All records listed here are definitely endorsements.

William Onyeabor, Anything You Sow (extra-scratchy-downloaded-illegally-from-the-Internet version; track for track it’s almost as solid as the Luaka Bop best-of)

Brand New Wayo (more early-’80s Nigerian funk, but less precise than Onyeabor’s; ideal running accompaniment and rigorously documented)

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Hypnotic Eye (what a band!)

Country Funk (terrific compilation that lives up to its name)

Istanbul 70 (strong introduction to Turkish rock)

Debo Band, Flamingoh (almost everything they do is great:  just pledge already)

Courtney Barnett, The Double EP (Dylanesque, hilarious, cutting)

Iggy Azalea featuring Charli XCX and other people, “Fancy” (hilarious, cutting, not at all Dylanesque)

Wipers, Is This Real (exquisite Northwestern punk; Eli got me listening to it again)

Camp, WRUV, Graveyard Shift 1, July 29, 2014 (late-night college radio at its dreamiest)

Joe Grushecky, New Project Demos (sorry, I can’t give anything away)

Gyedu-Blay Ambolley, Simigwa (1975, Ghanaian funk at its funkiest)

Nils Lofgren, Face the Music (all I’ve heard is the alternate take of “Keith Don’t Go” that they’re teasing; maybe Concord will send me the whole thing?)

The Rise and Fall of Paramount Records, Vol 1. (mysteries inside mysteries inside mysteries inside …)

Lucinda Williams, 25th Anniversary Version (the remastering helps you hear that the performances are as outstanding as the compositions)

Bob Dylan, Down the River (random bootleg, includes one outtake with the world “polka” in it)

Old 97’s, Most Messed Up (tales from the road, often — but not always — with insights that rock as hard as the rhythm section)

Drive-By Truckers, Dragon Pants (Chuck Berry lives!)

Antibalas (Fela lives!)

Bruce Springsteen, American Beauty (you’d expect an EP of outtakes from an LP of outtakes to be bottom-of-the-barrel stuff, but you’d be wrong)

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Brisbane 2-26-14 (greatest. e street setlist. ever.)

This Is Marijata (more ’70s funk from Ghana)

Graham Parker and the Rumour The Up Escalator (it’s no Squeezing Out Sparks — what is? — but this showcases a band at its peak, which led me to listen to …)

Graham Parker and the Rumour, Official Bootleg Box (six CDs of similar setlists is more than a normal person might want to hear, but I’m not a normal person. Steve Goulding!)

Rough Francis, Maximum Soul Power (Burlington VT’s hardest-rocking band — but not featuring my favorite bass player in Burlington)

Purple Snow: Forecasting the Minneapolis Sound (the world that created Prince, along with the sound of Prince creating himself)

Ariana Grande and a bunch of other people, “Problem” (wonderful combination of items that shouldn’t fit together but does, like finds at a yard sale)

The Replacements, Let It Be (the reunion tour bumbles into Boston next month)

Lorde, Pure Heroine (the beginning of a long, satisfying, twisting story, I’m hoping)

The Mekons Rock’n’Roll (Steve Goulding’s other band at its peak)

Neil Young and Crazy Horse, Psychedelic Pill (probably their last, featuring the greatest song ever written that takes place in a Ramada Inn)

Bob Dylan, Now Your Mouth Cries Wolf (I’m holding out for a complete “She’s Your Lover Now” someday, but I’m not optimistic)


Written by guterman

August 3, 2014 at 11:53 am

Posted in music, worklife

Media diet, summer 2014, part 1: podcasts

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podcast iconI’m trying, and half-succeeding, to read less and write more. I read more than enough. (You don’t want to know how many times I’ve been through Proust, for example — one of the good things about having a tablet is that it’s easier to hide my habits/obsessions.)

I’m trying to cut down my inputs dramatically so I can focus more on my output. But someone asked me earlier this year to be part of a media roundup she was assembling for some editorial people. I never got around to it, but I thought it might be useful, for me anyway, to write down want I’m reading/listening to/seeing this summer. I’ll start with podcasts.

Here are five I recommend highly. There are far more great ones than anyone with a job, a family, or creative aspirations could listen to, but here are five I listen to regularly every week with consistent pleasure.

Song Exploder, in which musicians take apart their songs and share how they put ’em together in the first place. Not all the music is to my taste, but the discussion of what it takes to construct a work is engaging and sometimes inspiring.

Joe Bussard’s Country Classics, in which the legendary record collector (and Fonotone proprietor) digs into his bottomless pile of ’78s and reveals outstanding cut after outstanding cut of pre-WWII country, blues, and gospel, augmented by authoritative commentary, brought to you by the geniuses at Dust-to-Digital.

99% Invisible, a design podcast that digs deep into a topic every week, full of surprises and insight. And this uses the broadest definition of design possible: last week’s episode was all about the history of skyjacking.

TLDR is a blog about the internet, associated with On the Media. The producers are funny, share their wonder, and have a strong moral sense that doesn’t get in the way of entertaining.

On the Media is better known as an NPR show, but I listen to it on podcast just to make sure I don’t miss it when it’s on the local public radio station. I’ve listened to this media-news-and-comment show for years and still learn or am provoked by something new almost every week.


Written by guterman

June 26, 2014 at 8:53 pm

Posted in diversion, reading, worklife

My daughter, a cult guitarist, and how journalists can become semicompetent programmers, pretty much in that order

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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.

frippI 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.

Written by guterman

December 12, 2011 at 9:36 pm

Bill Gates vs. Steve Jobs

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I’m in technology transition. I had to hand back my MacBook when I left HBR last week and I haven’t gotten around to ordering a new one yet, so after a few days of trying to use the iPad as a comfortable input device (stop laughing) I’m using a circa-2007 IBM ThinkPad that until recently was sitting under several inches of file folders. When I switched to the Mac after more than 20 years as a DOS/Windows user, it was like escaping a long-term abusive relationship. Suddenly everything was easier, more pleasant. So moving back to Windows software and Windows-inspired hardware, even for just a short time, has been unsettling and frustrating. I can’t wait for it to end. (My pal Ania Wieckowski has a tweet this morning on the matter, sort-of.)

It’s taken as self-evident that working on a Mac is superior to working on a PC. We’ve personalized that, in everything ranging from the “I’m a Mac” commercials to the relative merits of Microsoft founder Bill Gates and Apple founder Steve Jobs. (Some of the comparisons are absurd.) I’m partway through Walter Isaacson’s authorized biography of Jobs, in which nearly every quote from Jobs about Gates exudes condescension and envy. Everything from the experience of using Gates’s Microsoft products to the business tactics Microsoft deployed to maintain its monopoly offended Jobs’s inextricable design and moral sensibilities.

But what is Gates’s mission on the planet? For decades, he must have thought it was a computer on every desk, and he made great progress in that endeavor, even if in both his DOS and Windows products he delivered experiences that only software architects who aspire to the complicated, idiosyncratic, and confusing could admire. But I suspect that over the long-term, the value for society created by The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation will more than compensate for any first-world unhappiness we feel in having to click a “Start” button to make something stop. Bad memory management is no match for working to eradicate malaria.

Jobs was a firm believer in his own immortality; the authorized Isaacson biography and the publication of his sister Mona Simpson’s eulogy for him are merely opening salvos in that campaign. Jobs still competed with Gates even after Gates went on to other endeavors (you could see it in their last joint public appearance, as I reported here). I am willing to bet the value of the MacBook I will soon order that Jobs has some sort of insanely elegant posthumous philanthropic venture that we’ll hear about shortly. It will be beautiful, no doubt. It may even be effective.

I know Jobs was a genius. I know his contributions to technology outstrip Gates’s. We know what Jobs will be remembered for hundreds of years on. I suspect our great-grandchildren will remember Bill Gates as an inspired philanthropist who brought tremendous resources and imagination to a handful of the 21st century’s most apparently intractable problems. How did he make his fortune in the first place? I suspect our great-grandchildren won’t know. That won’t be the thing about him that will be worth remembering.

Written by guterman

November 1, 2011 at 8:37 am

Posted in worklife

Remember the Milk and Outlook sync, at last

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I just checked my blog server logs for the first time in many months and I discovered that I still get plenty of traffic for posts I wrote years ago wondering when Remember the Milk, my task manager of choice, would ever synchronize with the tasks in Microsoft’s Outlook. Most people know that a solution has existed for months: MilkSync. It runs reasonably smoothly and accurately (as in I haven’t lost any data), although neither Outlook nor RTM are anywhere near perfect services.

Written by guterman

March 5, 2011 at 3:23 pm

Posted in web 2.0, worklife

Coffee for No Reason Returns Dec. 23! (#CFNR)

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As my brother-in-coffee Scott Kirsner reports:

What is Coffee for No Reason?

It’s an occasional gathering of people who work in tech, biotech, media, and the wider start-up world. The objective? To drink coffee together for absolutely no reason. Essentially, it’s a chance to take a break from work, meet some interesting people, and hear what they’re up to. (The other devious purpose is that my co-host, Jimmy Guterman, and I use the event as an excuse to give away free copies of all of the business/tech books we’ve accumulated in recent months.)

So here’s how it works: we’ll be in the front room of the Kendall Square Cosi on Wednesday, December 23rd from 9 to 11 AM. You stop by to say hello and drink some coffee (and perhaps grab a book. If you have goodies of your own to give away, that’s great, too.)

Depending on whom you meet and what you discuss, your productivity for the day will either be raised or lowered….we make no guarantees.

The Twitter hash tag for the event is #cfnr. If you’re coming, tweet about it to let others know…

Hope to see you there!

Written by guterman

December 17, 2009 at 4:01 pm

Posted in diversion, worklife

Coffee with many reasons

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Just a quick public thanks to Scott Kirsner for coming up with the idea for the Coffee for No Reason that we hosted. The attendance was much larger than we expected (thanks to Cosi for being kind about that) and I got the chance to meet a bunch of cool people doing cool things. Some I knew already; plenty I was lucky enough to meet for the first time. I shouldn’t have to be reminded than Silicon Valley isn’t the only place where tech innovation is happening.

However, if you do live near San Francisco and you didn’t fly cross-country for a cup of coffee, you can see Scott at a “Fans, Friends & Followers” workshop at BAVC on December 1. It’ll cost more than a cup of coffee but I’m sure it will be a bargain.


Written by guterman

October 18, 2009 at 11:54 am

Posted in diversion, work, worklife