Sunday, June 12, 2022

Why our ancestors sometimes lied on official records in the pre-digital age

Sherry Turkle and mother

I'm reading a memoir by MIT professor Sherry Turkle, The Empathy Diaries. I attended a talk she game some years ago at the MIT Media Lab and was fascinated - her research revolves around questions about how technology impacts people. In the book, she not only traces the evolution of her academic passions, but her personal influences. She shared some interesting facts about her mother, shown above. There were some discrepancies listed on official documents filed in New York City in the 1940s and 1950s:

"She had a drivers license that gave her incorrect height and also shaved a few years off her age, something she told me that certain ladies at the Department of Motor Vehicles would agree to do, understanding it was better if unmarried women over 23 were officially younger. When she married Charles Zimmerman in 1947, she took a year off her age on the marriage license declaring herself 28. Six years later when she married Milton Turkel, their marriage license had her at 29."

Both scenarios described by Turkle - asking a DMV clerk to fudge the birth year, or providing the wrong ages on marriage registrations - are almost impossible now.

But a long time ago, this was not unusual. We know not only because of Turkle's mother's experience, but because a few people on my own family tree also had discrepancies, particularly for marriage certificates and job applications.

In the pre-digital age, many people (including immigrants, cross-country migrants, adoptees, and poverty-stricken families) may not have had access to birth records. Government officials had to go by what they were told, and may not have been told the truth for various reasons, including very compelling reasons. In some cases, sympathetic clerks may have helped, as we learned from Turkle's book

We know this happened in other situations, too. Teenagers lying about their age to join the military was commonplace. An estimated 200,000 underage men and women enlisted during World War II. Not long after the war, enumerators for the 1950 federal census (released in April) could note in a dedicated field on the census form if they thought a respondent was not being truthful!

The moral of the story: Sometimes ancestors supplied incorrect information to officials, and they had good reasons to do so. Try to confirm dates and ages using other types of records that are less likely to be fudged, such as birth and death certificates.  

Saturday, May 8, 2021

What killed rock n' roll? Payola 2.0

There is an interesting article titled "Bob Dylan Lays Down What Really Killed Rock ’n’ Roll." I don't agree with the thesis that rock was destined to stay locked into the modes of the 1950s, but the insidious successor to the Payola scandal had a lasting impact on popular culture, and by extension youth and mainstream culture.

So, what did Bob Dylan lay down in his interview with AARP, cited in the article above? 

Dylan said that this was very threatening to city fathers, so "they had to dismantle it." The black element became soul, white elements became English pop. And then there was payola controlling what was played, Bob noted.

Here's a short history of early Payola, from  

Aware of their rising status, jocks established flat rate deals with labels and record distributors. A typical deal for a mid-level DJ was $50 a week, per record, to ensure a minimum amount of spins. More influential jocks commanded percentages of grosses for local concerts, lavish trips, free records by the boxful (some even opened their own record stores), plus all the time-honored swag. As Cleveland DJ Joe Finan later described the decade, “It was a blur of booze, broads and bribes.

As payola escalated, Variety and Billboard did lengthy features, calling for reform and government intervention (to its credit, Billboard wrote, “The cancer of payola cannot be pinned on rock ’n’ roll”). ASCAP was also vocal in their opposition to payola, using it as a means to lambaste their competitor BMI. At the time, the larger ASCAP represented the old guard of mostly white composers from the Tin Pan Alley days. BMI was associated with the young, racially mixed writers of R&B and rock ’n’ roll, as well as indie labels such as Aladdin, King and Chess. By the mid-’50s, BMI single releases outnumbered ASCAP’s by almost two to one. The older organization cried foul, accusing BMI of promoting payola.

So here's my take. I agree with some of what Dylan said, but he got a few things wrong in my humble opinion.

Popular music has been on a fast-track evolutionary cycle since the invention of the radio and LP. Other factors have contributed, from the music press to cable television to more disposable household income in the United States after WWII. The idea that popular youth music would stay locked into the modes of mid-1950s America while culture and society shifted, millions of new teenage humans entered the scene every year, musicians absorbed new influences, and musical trends crossed borders and linguistic barriers -- and sometimes came back -- seems like a stretch.

But one thing that is not a stretch is what might be called Payola 2.0, after the 1.0 scandal described in the article died down. Record companies couldn't give outright cash payments to DJs, but there were many other ways of exerting influence on influential media gatekeepers. In my opinion, this is where the suits really were really able to promote biases and sideline non-mainstream musical trends.

Some of the influence was obvious. Picking artists that had the "right" look. Promoting "safe" artists. Selective access and backstage benefits for powerful DJs and music journalists and other influencers. Ignoring, sidelining, or co-opting trends bubbling up from the underground, from proto-metal in the late 60s to punk in the 70s to rap in the 80s.

And then there are the charts, which were segmented according to race and other factors aligned with the needs of the music "industry." Did you know that until the early 90s music charts in the United States were based on a sample of self-reported sales from record store managers? Can you imagine the bias and BS that went on with those numbers? As soon as soundscan was implemented, there was an immediate realignment, with rap and grunge and techno and country storming the pop charts:

When Billboard, the music industry's leading trade magazine, began publishing new pop and country album charts last month using a new computerized method, the change set off alarms in the record business that have not stopped ringing.

Pop albums by a number of new artists whose careers major record companies were trying to establish suddenly plummeted, while a bunch of country albums took dramatic upward leaps. A chorus of record company executives charged that the chart, prepared by Soundscan, a research film in Hartsdale, N.Y., would seriously undermine their efforts to promote new talent.

Boo hoo!

Since then, the digital transformations have resulted in an interesting fragmentation of pop music and youth tastes ... but with the music industry literally controlling major streaming platforms and paying for social media influencers, we're shifting into Payola 3.0, and with whatever algorithmically dictated patterns that will entail.

Thursday, April 16, 2020

What's holding back Taiwan entertainment media on the global stage?

Why does most Taiwanese film and media struggle outside of East and Southeast Asia, while Korean pop culture takes the world by storm?

I've been thinking a lot about this in recent years, but especially since the Korean film Parasite did so well at the Oscars. Not long after, I saw the K-pop supergroup BTS appear live on the Today show in front of thousands of young people, some of whom had camped out for two days to get a prime viewing spot in midtown Manhattan.

Why aren't Taiwanese films and musicians enjoying the types of success? After all, both countries have had very similar economic and socio-cultural periods of development, not to mention strong cultural foundations and healthy domestic media markets.

It's not a foreign language issue. After all, Parasite, Gangnam Style, and many K-pop artists have succeeded in global media markets where Korean is not spoken. Clearly, if you make great media that has cross-cultural appeal, the role of language decreases. Great media can even be quite alien and still make a big impression in foreign markets. Examples: Studio Ghibli, and foreign film telling "local" stories from Spain, Brazil, etc.  

I think one thing that holds back Taiwanese film & mainstream pop is a tendency to play it safe, and go heavy on sentimental themes, which don't play as well in the U.S., Europe, and other global markets.  

Example: "A Sun" (陽光普照, now on Netflix). The story is pretty deep, touching on coming of age themes, family strife, crime, and tragedy. It won a bunch of local and international film awards.

But the soundtrack goes heavy on the schmaltz. It's quite beautiful, but it's overpowering and I thought inappropriate at times, such as the violent scene that opens the film. 

The sentimental ballad is ubiquitous in Taiwanese pop, too. I think it's fair to say it's all too often very formulaic, in terms of the chord structure and vocal melody.

Why do this?  

It's not just because sentimental themes sell well in Taiwan, and audiences there have come to expect it. It's also a popular trope in other Chinese markets, especially the People's Republic of China, where many Taiwanese actors and musicians have found great success. 

Of course there are exceptions. Taiwanese underground music really punches above its weight, and has built a global fan base. It's not huge, but it's big enough to be known and respected in Japan, Europe, and North America. Bands like Mayday can sell out large venues when they tour here, and have found mainstream success. I am so impressed, as these guys played at the same venues as us back when both 五月天 and 廢物樂隊 were part of the underground scene in Taiwan.

Roxy Vibe Poster Taipei 1998
Taipei club poster from the late 1990s including Mayday (五月天)
But Mayday's international success is not on the same level as K-pop stars. When it comes to film, the only Taiwanese director who has made a global splash beyond the indie film circuit, I can think of is Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Brokeback Mountain among others).

I would love to see Taiwan's talented media creators take a bigger role on the global stage, but in my opinion it will require toning down the sentimental approach that plays well in Taiwan, China, and Southeast Asia.

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

How dance music was made circa 1991

There is a great video about late 80s/early 90s studio tech, specifically the budget Amiga sampler ecosystem that drove a lot of experimentation with dance and hip-hop at that time:

I laughed out loud at the moment where the host runs out of memory after sampling just a few seconds of a 45. It points to the reality of working with digital media in an era where memory was expensive. The result: Samples tended to be really short.

But not for everyone. Some artists (and their labels) opted to make investments in studio time & professionals who knew how to take sampling tech to the next level.

I know this because I worked at Lillie Yard Studios, a 24-track professional recording studio in London in the early 90s where dance music was recorded, mixed, and remixed by The KLF and Nomad, among others.  There was a small army of people who not only knew the studio hardware (the board, Moog, compressors, gates, etc.) but also Cubase and other software, which was quite expensive but utterly necessary to crank out the hits played on the radio and the remixes that were preferred in the clubs.

Working at Lillie Yard in 1991, I must have heard remixes of The KLF's "Last Train to Trancentral," "What Time is Love," and "3 am Eternal" as well Nomad's "I Want to Give You Devotion" several hundred times as the crew worked through the tracks and tried different beats, sounds, and speeds using the software.

The results The KLF was able to achieve were quite amazing. I was never a big dance music fan, but I respected what Jimmy Cauty and Bill Drummond were doing. I mean, what other pop act would have thought to meld 70s country music with the club sounds of London, and not only make it work, but turn it into a global pop sensation?

Then there were the experimental tracks The KLF did for The White Room and other projects. My favorite was "It's Grim Up North." The concept seems weird (Bill Drummond reciting the names of northern English towns over a dark synth riff) but it worked:

Finally, it's worth mentioning that the co-founder of Lillie Yard studio was Hans Zimmer, the German electronic music composer whose film career really started to take off around that time.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Yet another post about the future of liberal arts education

For at least 15 years, there has been a lot of hand-wringing in higher education about the impact of new technologies on education. I've written about it myself many times (see "For-profit schools take a hit from Frontline"). As online models disrupt traditional college education, there is another debate taking place about the value of a liberal arts education itself. That students, parents, and the business sector are questioning this shouldn't come as a surprise, considering the $50,-$75,000 "all-in" annual costs at many American colleges. What is surprising is the denial that proponents -- many of them academics -- continue to display. The January 2019 Seattle Times article titled "As STEM majors soar at UW, interest in humanities shrinks — a potentially costly loss" is a case in point:
"The swing to STEM is having unexpected consequences. With fewer students studying the humanities — history, philosophy, foreign languages and English — those departments are shrinking. Retiring professors aren’t replaced. Academics worry that the nation would be impoverished — both culturally and intellectually — if only an elite few understand the arc of American history, know how to find meaning in poetry, or can discuss the ideas of the great philosophers."

This type of thinking seems to harken back to the 1800s, when the only people who could afford a traditional liberal arts education were the elite. That changed with the introduction of public schools, state universities, and low-cost college programs that could be paid for with part-time work. Now the pendulum is swinging back to a high-cost model, and lots of students and parents are saying that a $200,000 - $300,000 undergraduate sociology degree is simply not worth it.

There's another problem with the argument put forth in the Seattle Times article, which seems to be trotted out in many articles about the future of liberal arts education. For decades many colleges have created core curriculums that require even the most hard-core STEM major to take a range of liberal arts classes. I experienced this myself 30 years ago at Boston University, and know that it's the same situation elsewhere. It's a good idea, and one that gives young students a truly well-rounded education.

That's not good enough to some academics, though. Quoting from the Seattle Times:
“The broad general education we want for all of our students is increasingly done at the high-school level,” said Robert Stacey, dean of the UW’s College of Arts & Sciences. “And with all due respect to a high-school history course, it’s not the same as a college history course.”
Is getting a broad general education in high school a bad thing? I think it's preferable to getting the basics covered in high school, not only because it frees up students to pursue professional and other interests in college, but also because it serves those students who will never attend college. Isn't that better for our society as a whole?

Here's another quote from the article:
Those introductory classes — refined over the years by some of the university’s best professors, and taught to several hundred students at a time in big lecture halls — are designed to inspire and delight, sparking an interest in literature, or history, or politics, that could lead a student to major in those fields.

The impacts of encouraging students to major in those fields has led to a vast skills imbalance in our workforce, and the sad situation of people with lit and history BAs taking unskilled jobs or jobs that are a poor fit for their skills (see "Fear of a College-Educated Barista").

Moreover, for those who graduate with PhDs in these fields, it's nearly impossible to get hired as a professor or researcher. There just aren't as many academic jobs available, and yet, amazingly, there are now more English and History PhDs awarded every year than 30 years ago:
Humanities programs awarded 5,891 doctoral degrees in 2015. That is the largest number recorded back to the start of collection of such information in 1987. The figure was 3,110 in 1988, then rose steadily to 4,994 in 2000, dipped to about 4,700 from 2002 to 2007, and then started going up again, year after year.

As that article notes, jobs in those fields "are increasingly hard to come by." Yet the universities keep churning out PhDs in these fields, to keep the tuition rolling in and as a source of cheap labor for undergraduate instruction.

I appreciate the value of including liberal arts in higher education, but only a cost that students can truly afford.

Monday, April 9, 2018

What do Amazon Music family subscriptions and cat trees have in common?

Hi Jeff,

Check out the attached message I got from Amazon over the weekend! My mom purchased a cat tree using my "shared payment method" for my Amazon Music Unlimited family plan.

What does a cat tree have to with Amazon music? Absolutely nothing. But somehow, starting this weekend, Amazon has decided that anyone on my family music subscription can start ordering stuff on my credit card. As explained to me by one of your helpful associates, my mom, my sister, my kids can start loading up their carts with cat trees, Fire tablets, power tools, SpongeBob T-shirts, and even that MacBook that my teenaged daughter has always wanted, using this shared payment method. Great!

But actually, it's not so great. When I signed up my family for Amazon Music Family subscription more than a year ago, the intention was to allow my mom to listen to her favorite operas, my dad to listen to jazz, my kids to listen to Drake, and my sister to listen to Hootie and the Blowfish. There was no intention to let them order whatever they wanted on my credit card, and indeed, up until this past weekend there were no purchases billed to my account. The only person that can "share" my payment method to order stuff is my lovely wife, who I explicitly granted permission to make purchases on my shared Amazon Prime Visa through "Amazon Households."

Let me tell you, it was interesting contacting your support people about this issue. One agent said one of my mother's purchases could be refunded, but "you'll need to send us an email from your mother's account only as per the company's policy." In other words, I have to go to her house to compose an email, or try to explain to her over the phone how to do this? Let me tell you, she'll have no idea what I'm talking about.

When I asked another support person why this was happening all of a sudden after more than one year in the subscription plan, he claimed it was because it was because she had ordered a digital item. When I pointed out that cat trees aren't very digital, he said he would refund that, but going forward to prevent unauthorized purchases the only option would be to remove her from the account. In other words, the support burden is now being dumped on me to not only clean up the mess but explain to my mom that the Amazon Echo I got her for Christmas a few years ago will no longer be able to play Pavarotti or Miles Davis on command.

Don't get me wrong. I love my mom, and want her to be able to buy things for kitty. But she already has an Amazon account, and her own credit card. She doesn't need to have access to my Amazon Prime visa to buy a cat tree or waffle maker or whatever.

In conclusion: I've been an Amazon customer for 20 years and have bought tens of thousands of dollars worth of stuff from Amazon. I let your devices into my home, subscribe to Prime and Amazon Video, and use Amazon Business for my own small business. I like these services and want to continue using them. But when it comes to sharing important personal data or payment methods, control needs to reside with me, the account owner. As far as I'm concerned, the only person who should have the right to use my payment information is my wife, who I explicitly granted permission via Amazon Household.

So please: Figure out a way to make Amazon Music family subscription to work as a simple way for me to share my love of music with my family members ... and let me my mom order cat trees on her own dime.



Amazon Music Unlimited family plan subscription
The advertisement for Amazon Music Unlimited. Nowhere does it mention sharing credit card information.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

A late review of Blade Runner 2049

Friends have asked me about Blade Runner 2049, the sequel to the ground-breaking 1982 film by Director Ridley Scott and a very talented cast, crew, and composer. I was 13 when the first film came out and it made a huge impact -- it was a dystopian future, to be sure, but one that was fascinating and different than the "clean" utopias depicted in Star Trek or the alien-infused space opera of Star Wars.

Back to Blade Runner 2049. I saw it on IMAX and went on an afternoon when I knew there wouldn't be many other people in the theater to disturb my experience. The film was beautifully shot, and had some incredible scenes, including the climactic, desperate fight scene outside the city's sea wall. I really liked the score by Hans Zimmer, too. He had a tough job, not only being brought in to replace the late Jóhann Jóhannsson, but also living up to the incredible soundtrack from the first film by Vangelis (which has perhaps the most dedicated cult following of any film soundtrack, judging by the mods and remixes created by fans, such as the Esper Edition. I've included one of them below).

Nevertheless, there were some serious flaws in BR49. Ryan Gosling had the lead role, and was an obvious pick (Hollywood always goes for leading men with strong "brands," which it had done when Harrison Ford in the first film). But I believe Gosling was the wrong person for the role -- he was too emotionless and almost mechanical in the fight scenes. Yes, he's a synthetic human, but considering they were designed to be "More Human than Human," I expected more humanity in Gosling's character in the 2049 generation.

There was another element that bothered me. Los Angeles 2049 has clear Asian influences, including Chinese and Japanese signage everywhere, and a cafeteria that has Asian dishes and themes. Yet there were hardly any Asian people in any roles, even extras.

Taking things one step further: Assuming demographic trends persist, in the far future society "minorities" will be white and the population will be mostly black, brown, yellow, and multiracial. Yet every major and most minor roles in Blade Runner 2049 are white, except for Olmos (reprised from the first film for about a minute), the east African shopkeeper (another short scene), and the junkyard orphanage owner.

The 1982 film was far better in this respect, imagining a future where society did include lots of people from different backgrounds and cultural influences from across the Pacific -- and even a street language based on Japanese, German, and English! 

Blade Runner 2049 isn't the only science fiction film that gets the future humanity wrong. In my long experience watching science fiction movies, only Luc Besson's 1997 film The Fifth Element tried to get humanity right, at least with secondary characters and extras who were black, mixed race, and Asian.

Despite all of this, I would like to see Blade Runner 2049 once more. I had trouble following some of the plot threads and details, and would like to see it at least once more to wrap my head around them and help me fathom the meaning of the story.