Two years

Several things today, my first work day back from vacation:

I re-upped my hosting agreement. This meant plopping down $200 for the next two years of insane internet hosting fun – something that used to be keenly important to me, but has since waned after I joined IBM Research.

Turns out I joined IBM Research… two years ago.

And, explosively, spasmodically, coincidentally, the last blog post I wrote here was… two years ago.

I have a few things I want to get off my chest, sure.

One is, I think Facebook has killed personal blogging, or at least upped the ante so that people who write really good blogs are really focused about it – meaning there are fewer blogs out there. This is only my perception, of course, I have no hard data to prove this observation. Before Facebook, everyone seemed to have a bloggy place they could jot down some random stuff, or complain about some random stuff, or explain some random stuff, or just fire off a random comment and stuff.

But now? Anyone can do a micro version of any of that on a smart phone, hell, while crossing the street. Writing blog posts are a pain in the ass, especially on a small form factor device like a phone. Reading blog posts are a pain in the ass because who cares after 50 words? Besides, putting up a goofy picture or making wry or gross comments on Facebook gets lots of immediate feedback… as long as you are popular enough to have an audience who’ll react.

So there. My ongoing meh/hate relationship with Facebook. Off my chest. For now.

Another thing: the loss of manners in this country is deplorable. Guilty as charged, from time to time, I am sure, but some behaviors have become appalling.

The fact that it is socially acceptable to turn your face from your interlocutor to scroll on your phone is lamentable. You should be ashamed, but you never will, because it’s now part of the social fabric. The fact that it is socially acceptable to be reading from a phone while walking is not only rude and discourteous, it’s plumb dangerous. Old person rant: when I was being raised, I was taught that one should never read while walking, for the above reasons.

Not to mention texting while driving. Really? It is so widespread, and people who are holding up traffic while smart-phoning actually get irritated if you call them on their behavior.

Vacation was too short. Had to get that off my chest too.


Facebook, Drag Queens and some Internet History

In the beginning, there was this:

“On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.”

In 1993, getting on the Internet was a chore. You had to have a modem and a land line, and a contract with some sort of service provider: Compuserve, Prodigy, Delphi, AOL and GEnie were the popular choices. You could create an account on any or all of these services, use your modem to dial in to their service (long distance charges may apply), and create an identity for yourself out there in the big, vast Wild West days of the internet. It didn’t matter who you were; as long as you paid your service bill and didn’t engage in unlawful activities, you were given the freedom to name yourself and portray yourself as you pleased.

Of course, social abuse easily occurs in such an unregulated space. Just about as soon as dial-up and IRC chatrooms were invented, creepers disguising as teenage girls began to haunt those chatrooms in the hope of seducing the unwary. Usenet groups such as alt.erotica.binaries sprang up, and the technically savvy types of the day could get their hands on free porn (providing they wanted to wait a long time for the data to download). The internet was perceived as a fantastic new innovation, filled with tremendous promise – but beware of the seedy corners where danger lurks.

Dangers such as unregulated, uncensored freedom of speech.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not an advocate of allowing lawbreakers on the ‘net to get a pass under the blanket of free speech protection. I am an advocate for free expression however, and if role playing and assumed identities and anonymous fun and frolic between consenting adults is your thing, then have at it baby.

I posit that the wish for security, anonymity and the right to self-represent however one chooses to is part of the essential DNA of the Internet, and that these rights are under threat and being subverted by the biggest social network of all time, Facebook.

Facebook hates anonymity, and the reason is probably as simple as: if Facebook knows who you are and where you live, it can guarantee to its advertisers that they can reach YOU. Not your internet-dog-alias, not your drag-queen-alter-ego. You. Guaranteed. No argument. Your government-registered, backed-by-a-social-security-number sweet-ass self.

Facebook has a magical algorithm that converts that information to cash, and it really doesn’t want any of us – we, the people – to mess with that. To that end, they make each and every one of us agree to the following:

Under ‘Safety’:

You will not use Facebook to do anything unlawful, misleading, malicious, or discriminatory.

Under ‘Registration and Account Security’:

Facebook users provide their real names and information, and we need your help to keep it that way. Here are some commitments you make to us relating to registering and maintaining the security of your account:

You will not provide any false personal information on Facebook, or create an account for anyone other than yourself without permission.
You will not create more than one personal account.
If we disable your account, you will not create another one without our permission.
You will not use your personal timeline primarily for your own commercial gain, and will use a Facebook Page for such purposes.
You will keep your contact information accurate and up-to-date.
If you select a username or similar identifier for your account or Page, we reserve the right to remove or reclaim it if we believe it is appropriate (such as when a trademark owner complains about a username that does not closely relate to a user's actual name).

There’s a lot of other interesting stuff there – I just pulled the conditions that pertain to the points that I am trying to make. I urge everyone to go and read the whole thing. It’s much easier to read and understand than Apple’s App Store Terms and Conditions.

The basic point is: you promised to use your real name when you signed up for Facebook.

Here’s where it gets really morally slippery and sloppy, and extremely interesting.

My next postulation is: on the internet, people will agree to anything – usually in under five seconds – in order to get what they want, regardless of what they are actually agreeing to in order to get it. Call this the “ignorance of the law” excuse.

I know that I have routinely agreed to things like Apple’s Terms and Conditions without slogging through the entire document. Usually, I am in a grand hurry to hear a piece of music play, and somehow iTunes has updated itself and the terms have changed and I find myself involved in a five-minute battle with the device just trying to get sound out of it. Apparently I missed the fine print where it says Apple has the right to put U2’s new Coldplay album on my iPad – and that’s because they make the document very long and jargony and complicated and look – all I really want is to hear is my Sly and the Family Stone cut that would make me feel good right about now SO I’M JUST GOING TO CLICK AGREE DAMMIT!

If I were to quiz you narrowly on the T’s and C’s for Twitter, Pintrest, Reddit, iTunes, Amazon, eBay, all the stuff you probably signed up for online – what do you think your score would be? I’ll freely admit that if I got above 25% correct, it would be because I guessed the right answers by leaning towards the most profitable answer for the licensor and the least favorable for the licensee, which would be me.

I think that most people enter into these contracts truly believing that they will not be enforced. Maybe it’s a little bit of “they’ll never know, it’s just little old me” mixed with some “they wouldn’t dare to shut me out – they want my business!” – with an added dash of “how can they possibly enforce any sanctions?”

With me so far? OK. Let’s talk a little about drag queens.

First of all, the “drag queen” label grabs headlines fairly easily, and provides plenty of glamorous visuals to boot. It’s easy for the media – social and otherwise – to want to make the Queens the poster-women for the Facebook Real Name Dispute. And so it has come to pass.

Unfortunately, the bulk of the transgender community either gets tarred with the Drag Queen Brush or gets completely ignored. There are many, many members of that community who have – for whatever good reason they have – chosen to hide their “government name” and adopt a name of their own choosing. Not to mention other communities, which granted may be primarily populated with performers – but performers who choose to create their one frank and true identity on Facebook under their non-government name.

Why not simply go and change your legal name, you ask? Well, some do, and some don’t, and they have their good reasons why they don’t, and the point here is that their good reasons are none of your business. It’s a basic privacy issue.

When I was a young lad, the gay community was so much more hidden and repressed and closeted than it is nowadays. Us old-timers have not lost sight of this, and though these United States have come a long way, there is still a long way to go. Gay marriage is not universally legal, and unspeakable homophobic prejudice and violence is still inflicted upon GLBT people all the time, every day, everywhere.

But back to drag queens, since they are fabulous, and the time when I was a young lad. Queens assumed non-government names in order to protect themselves, in order to keep their jobs, in order to keep their families, in order not to lose the benefits of living in society, in order to protect themselves. We have not come such a long way that this is no longer the case. So, one might argue that assuming a drag-o-nym is a fun, fancy and traditional way to enhance a drag persona, I would argue back that the need for safety still exists in this society, and the tradition is not born out of fancy, but out of necessity. Besides, it’s none of your business. See above.

Sure, many ‘drag queens’ are performers, and maybe it is appropriate for them to migrate to Facebook Fan Pages. But not all transgender people are performers, and so it does not make sense for them to be forced to have a Fan Page instead of a Plain Old Page.

I think that Facebook’s “one person, one account tied to the person’s birth name” policy is cloying and entirely driven by the marketing interests of industry. It smells of Big Brother-like totalitarianism, where the identities of the constituents of the state are tightly regulated and the populace is highly scrutinized. I think it is ultimately dangerous and highly invasive of people’s privacy.

But then, you signed away that privacy when you joined Facebook – despite their rather ludicrous “Data Use Policy”.

Oh, and should you come to any harm because your true identity somehow is revealed on Facebook, I leave you to consider this, from the Facebook Terms of Service:



I think that Facebook will eventually implode under its own weight, once the next generation realizes how square and stuffy and flawed it really is and fails to participate. But that’s a topic for a different post.

The Ongoing Confessions of a Classic Rocker (and Funketeer)

I’ve said it before: it all started when the opening chords of “I Want To Hold Your Hand” hit my eardrums in first grade. I asked my Mom to get me a guitar, and we went down to the music store in downtown Painesville, Ohio and rented a student-sized classical guitar. It didn’t sound at all like George Harrison’s Gretsch Country Gentleman, but I stuck with the lessons for a little bit, sort of like Huck Finn with his readin’ and cipherin’.

In high school, my first set of after-school guitar teachers were Jimi Hendrix, Pete Townsend, Eric Clapton, Duane Allman, Jimmy Page and Frank Zappa. More followed, of course, as I discovered more players and more styles. Electric guitar consumed me. I drew doodles of guitars and band logos in my notebooks at school. I bought the rock thing, hook, line and sinker.

Growing up in Cleveland in the sixties and seventies, I soon caught fire with all the funky jams that were filling the airwaves, and grooved to Sly Stone and James Brown and Stevie Wonder. In fact, I turned away from guitar and ended up becoming a funk keyboardist before deciding to relocate to Boston to attend “the Berklee School” (as FZ would call it).

Fast forward all these years – I did not end up with a paying job in the music industry. I work the nine-to-five gig like everyone else, and I am blessed with good employment. Funny thing is, I am finally at a place in my life where I have the opportunity be a composer and producer. I suppose I could have been all along, but Johnny has pushed me and put the mission squarely front of me, and I accept it whole-heartedly. Now’s the time.

I really want to make this record – and I use the slang “record” in the sense of historical document; we’re not planning on publishing vinyl. It’s the snapshot of us, here and now, for ever.

I am so very grateful to everyone who has pledged money to us so far. Please help us with one more push – turn a friend on to us, forward this message, pledge another five bucks. Please.

And thank you, thank you so very much. I’m so grateful to have you all as friends.

You can contribute to the record here.

Dear Market Basket Leadership

To the current leadership of Market Basket, its public relations firm, and its owners:

I am writing to confirm and reinforce your awareness that much of the population of Massachusetts and southern New Hampshire wakes each morning eager to hear the news that you have decided to accept Arthur T. Demoulas’ offer and that you have agreed to sell the operation to him.

My personal hopes were dashed this morning when I read that Mr. Gooch and Ms. Thornton have released a statement that threatens to terminate employees that do not return to their jobs by August 4. It is becoming apparent that you, the leadership of Market Basket, are committed to adopting the traditional hard-line management posture we see time and time again in labor conflicts, and by doing so you are willing to risk the negative consequences of short term personnel decisions. Why? Probably because the longer view might be that once this dispute settles down, the revenue stream will be re-established and things will return to a semblance of normal operation.

The problem here for you is me.

I will refuse to shop at Market Basket if you remain committed to this hard-line stance. In fact, I will refuse to shop at Market Basket unless you decide to sell the firm to Arthur T. Demoulas. That’s the truth of it, plain and simple.

You have another problem, and that is: I am not alone.

Everyone I know feels the same way. At this point, like it or not, you are perceived as “the bad guys” in this conflict by the general public in New England. It’s not just your employees who are staying away. It’s us, the stubborn, patriotic New Englanders who love to get their back up when it comes to a principled fight.

The way out for you could be very simple: figure out how to bite the bullet and accept Arthur T.’s offer.

Think about it – it would be a win for both sides. You’d be fairly compensated for the sale, and this entire mess would be off your hands. Operations at Market Basket actually would return to normal. I would dare to say that people would flock to the store in droves after the announcement of a sale to “Artie T.” just to celebrate.

My forecast of the alternative: you would find that you would never regain the level of popularity and profitability that you saw prior to Arthur T. Demoulas’ termination as CEO. People like myself will stay away on principle. Forever.

I want the old Market Basket back. The one that felt like a good citizen in the community, where the employees were happy and were treated like people, not ‘resources’.

Please consider my views and advice, and thank you for your time.

Most cordially,

James M. Johnson
Somerville, Massachusetts


All this data – FaceBook, Twitter, Instagram, your GPS location, the texts you send, all of it – it flows together and runs like a river. And when I make a post, it’s like I’ve tossed a stick in the river from one side of the bridge, then I get to run to the other side of the bridge and watch it float away.

Other folks on the bridge, they might say, “Hey! Nice stick!” and maybe they’ll point that stick out to their friends and say, “yo, check out THAT stick, the way it’s floating, that’s cool”. You might even see instant replays of your stick floating away on YouTube, or someone makes up a new something-or-other based on your stick and posts it someplace else. Or not. But eventually, that stick floats on down the river and gets smaller and smaller until it’s out of sight. We don’t see it any more. It doesn’t matter though: we can just toss another stick into the river to watch.
All streams flow into rivers, and all rivers flow into lakes or oceans, and the lakes and oceans get filled with the stuff that floats in to them. Some people just throw a stick in the water. Some people take a lot of time and care, and craft sweet little origami birds, and toss them in the river. Other people dump their waste in the river, with no sense of shame or guilt. And it all just flows on down out of sight.

You might ask yourself, where did my data go, after it flowed out of sight? It’s really hard to dig up a tweet or a post on FB from a year ago, much less two years ago. Takes a lot of scrolling, doesn’t it? Did that data vanish? No, it didn’t. It’s in this ever-expanding ocean down there, at the end of the stream, this cloudy thing I’ve heard called Big Data, and everything that flows into it goes through the Big Data Treatment Plant, to prepare that little stick of data for its eternal swim in the big data ocean.

Sometimes – often, really – someone tosses something into the data stream that’s really relevant, or transformative, or empathic, or insightful, or stirring. That’s the kind of stuff that makes the data stream good and worthwhile. Just as often – maybe moreso – the data stream is filled with banalities dreamed up while waiting at a red light. I am glad that I cannot see everything posted by everyone everywhere. It would be much too overwhelming to have to sift through what it was that the dude next to me at Starbucks just uttered on his iPhone, or the woman behind him, or the man behind her (and so on, and so on). It’s just and proper that we have at least that level of privacy, at the stick-hits-the-water level.

But past the processing plant, there is no real privacy. There are fishing trawlers that travel the Big Data ocean, with their nets splayed wide. Make no mistake, those are special nets – the kind that actually seek out specific fish and catch them. And they take that cold, flapping-on-the-deck data and stuff it into canning machines that package the data up for resale. Over the years, these trawlers have gotten bigger, with better nets, with more storage in their hulls, with faster robots to store and retrieve all the nicely packaged cans of data. The companies that own these cans of fish-data can pile the cans up and artfully arrange them to make complete life-size pictures of… you. And me. And her. And her Mom. And him too.

Most people don’t mind any of this. After all, these trawlers can send you coupons for Taco Bell, or BOGO 50% off at Olympia Sports, or offers to win a free vacation for the price of surrendering your email address. Some people are expert at engaging with the system and actually succeeding at being happy with the results they get, given their investment of time. I’m not much of an exception – I am constantly entering give-away contests involving Marshall stacks or icy-white Stratocasters. As a result, when I read Salon on my iPad, all the ads on the side are for musical gear. What a coincidence! Makes me feel like a fish in a can.

Think I’ll take a walk down to the Charles River, and actually toss a stick into it. Maybe I’ll post a picture…

Nostalgia and mixing.

I saw a picture I took in Paris two years ago, a picture of the Pantheon dome with the French flag flying in the foreground. For some reason I was transported back to my little Jimmy self, when I was about 10 or 11.

I used to be passionate about atlases, maps and flags, and when we travelled to Europe to live, I used to pore over the National Geographic Atlas of the World that Mom managed to lug with us. I had a collection of little European flags on sticks, and when extremely bored I tried to imagine allegiances to either the French flag – in case we stayed too long – or the British flag, because the au père that kept tabs on us turned out to be a patriotic right wing opera student from the U.K. I wonder what ever happened to her. She was never very skilled at putting on lipstick, she used too much and it seemed to flake all the time. It was literally frightening.

This might have been stirred up by my listening to the second Blood Sweat and Tears album yesterday, hoping to find some secret mixing tips. You know, the one with ‘Smiling Faces’ and ‘Spinning Wheel’. Or maybe you don’t. In any case, I was disappointed with the studio approach – the sound was kind of bland and under-produced to my discerning, ruined twentyfirst-century ears. I did hear a few old favorite horn riffs though, which may be the source of formative material in my thinking that’s part of what makes the Johnny Blazes horn work I do sound the way it sounds.

I am prepping to confront the next round of creative challenges when we drag the band back in to the studio in about a month. I want to enter the arena better prepared than last time.

There’s another thing nibbling at the corners of my temportal lobe. I’m reading Donald Fagen’s book ‘Eminent Hipsters’, a ropm through his upbringing, thinking, and tour bus journal from a low-budget pass through America he made with Boz Scaggs and Michael McDonald. There’s all sorts of Cold War nostalgia and science fiction galore in that work, which speaks directly to my tail-of-the-boom inner child. Again, hoping for mixing tips or the occasional tidbit of studio wisdom, I’m instead feasting on DF’s steady diet of paranoia and mistrust of the wealthy. It’s good stuff, especially for me, but I get discouraged when I let myself think for even a moment that I am, like Donald, too old to be doing this stuff. So, forget it. Time to keep rocking.