Archive for February, 2009

What were you listening to in 1976?

Wednesday, February 25th, 2009

I have always loved music.  Not playing it.  I have no ability to hum, sing, keep a steady beat, or play an instrument.

I can barely play the radio in tune.
No, my love of music has always been more confined to the act of collecting it and listening to it.  My iPod, for instance, has some 6,000 song titles on it.  To give you some idea — if I started playing my Elvis Costello song list when I pulled out of my driveway, I could drive to San Diego, 1,200 miles away, before I got to the end of the list.

Hell, I have 10 different cover versions of the Bee Gee’s classic “To Love Somebody” including a kick-ass reggae version by Busty Brown, and 90’s-era almost emo version by Blue Rodeo.

And though it’s harder to keep up with music now that my kids are grown, I’m happy to report that my obsession with music isn’t limited to songs from “back in the day.”  Yeah, I’ve got the Grateful Dead — but I’ve also got Deathcab for Cutie.  The Beatles may have hung out with Ravi Shankar, but they disbanded before Anoushka, Ravi’s stunning and musically gifted daughter (and half-sister of Norah Jones), was even born.

I’ve got all three of them on my iPod.
But I’ll admit — many of my favorite songs are those we grew up with.  Which is why I got a kick out of a web site that a friend forwarded to me recently.  The site,  The #1 Song on This Date In History, was built by another music buff, Josh Hosler, and is based on the Billboard rock/pop charts and includes song titles dating back as far as the 1890’s (well before our time, even!) through the current day.   Though my friend forwarded it with the intent of looking up what had been #1 on the day he was born, I actually find it more interesting to look at what we were listening to in those years between ages 12-16, which according to author Daniel Levitin, is a particularly important stage in terms of imprinting the music that will stick with us for our lifetime.


Stevie Wonder, captured live at the Seattle Center Arena, sometime around
1974.  His warm-up act was Rufus, featuring Chaka Kahn. 

Levitin’s book “This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession” is a great read, by the way — a little tough at times for people, like myself, who don’t understand simple musical concepts like rythm, pitch, melody…but still well worth the read.  Levitin is a former music producer (having worked for bands including Pink Floyd and Steely Dan) who went back to college, got a PhD in psychology, and now does research on how the brain processes music.

The result is a fascinating account of what the brain “expects” from music, why we react to it the way we do, and why some sounds appear musical to us, while others just sound like….well, disco.

What he fails to explain are the larger mysteries that science may never solve, such as “how did ‘Convoy’ make it to the top of the Charts in January 1976?” or “With thousands of songs to choose from, why does the classic rock station play ‘Fly Like an Eagle’ every time I tune in?” or “what was the deal with disco, anyway — was it JUST the drugs, or is there some other explanation?”

Which brings me back to the original topic:  check out Hosler’s site.  It’s fun to see what was playing during our high school years.

And if you have any musical memories to share, feel free to add them to this post!

I hate to say I told you so

Saturday, February 7th, 2009

[DISCLAIMER:  This is another of my usual fractal e-mails, which means that it will take a long time to get to the point, assuming it ever does.
If you just want to skip to the point, scan down the page 'til you reach [THE BOTTOM LINE]]

Anyway, as I began to say:  “I hate to say ‘I told you so…’”

But really, who am I kidding?  I LOVE to say “I told you so!”

In fact, anytime you hear someone preface their remark with the phrase, “I hate to say I told you so….” there are two things you know for certain:

1) the next word out of their mouth will be “…but…”
2) if they really hated to say “I told you so” — they wouldn’t.

Of course, there are always exceptions that prove the rule.   For example, the words may ring at least a little true in the wake of those sort of foretold disasters — the kind that start out with someone saying “Here — hold my beer” and end up with somebody I know being featured on “America’s Funniest Videos” or (more likely) one of those “Seconds from Disaster” reality shows where the saving grace of the video clips that they show is that hardly anybody got killed.

In those cases, I actually DO hate to say, “I told you so.”

But I must admit that, prophecies of imminent personal catastrophe notwithstanding, I love to say “I told you so” because it’s a significant part of my daily job.

See, I’ve been lucky enough over the past 25 years to have the coolest job I could imagine.  Basically, I get paid to ask interesting questions.  Sometimes, I don’t even have to come up with the answers — just the questions.

I’ll never get rich at this job, but I also will never get bored.   And every once in a while, I get to say “I told you so!”

Case in point:  In 1995, I helped to organize a conference that was marketed (a bit hyperbolically perhaps) as “The First International Conference on Environment and the Internet.”

Hey.  One of our speakers was from Canada.  That counts as “international,” doesn’t it?

We held the conference in Seattle, and by most accounts it was a success, albeit a modest one.  We had about 100 people from academia, government, environmental non-profits and industry together to talk about innovative uses of the still-blossoming World Wide Web, in accomplishing environmental missions.

As you may recall, the Internet was still pretty new stuff for most people in 1995.  There were an estimated 16 million people online worldwide — less than 1/2 of 1% of the population.  Today, the number is estimated at 1.4 BILLION, approximately 20% of the world population (more than 74% of people in North America).  The Java language had just been released, Netscape was still the standard browser for most people, you rarely, if ever saw a URL on television or in magazine ads.  The Stanford University research project that eventually spawned Google was still a year away.

So the relevance of the Internet to solving REAL environmental problems wasn’t exactly apparent.   Nonetheless, yours truly begged and bullied his way onto the conference program as one of the keynote speakers. 

(Actually, I rarely bully anyone –  but it sounds more macho than to admit that it was mostly begging, and I’m all about being macho.)

Of course, it was easy to be a keynote speaker back then:  in 1995, relatively few people had spent much time thinking about things like “how will this internet thing affect the environmental business?”

So anyone with an opinion on the subject was basically as close to an expert as we could find.

In any event, Paul Hawkens’ book “The Ecology of Commerce” was hot stuff at the time, and I had been intrigued for a few years by the ecological metaphor, so I gave a talk called “The Ecology of the Internet:  What Nature Tells Us About How the Internet Will Evolve”

It wasn’t a particularly memorable talk, to be honest.  But it wasn’t awful, either.  I had a cute Calvin and Hobbes cartoon as part of my slides.  How can you go wrong with Calvin and Hobbes?

More substantively, in this presentation,  I made five predictions.  I can’t remember all of them today, but two stand out in my mind:

- using the example of symbiotic relationships in nature, I predicted that we’d see the evolution of the web equivalents of mimicry (which we know today as “phishing”) and parasitism (arguably, pop-up ads).

OK, so that was pretty much a gimme.  Though remember — Javascript hadn’t even been invented yet, so these phenomena were still a few years in the future.

- for the second prediction, not necessarily tied to any natural phenomena, I told the audience that it was my belief that in the future, we’d see communities of interest supplanting communities of place.  Meaning, that we would increasingly define and surround ourselves, not by  people who had a shared geography — but instead by people who believed as we did, cared about the same things we did, shared the same history as we did.

Today, that doesn’t seem like much of a prediction.  Back then, I must say that it wasn’t exactly taken for granted.

So what does this have to do with the length of mini-term, or the fact that all those times that Mr. Gilles told us about his childhood in Steptoe Butte, he was talking about a real place (I’ve been there!)?

Precisely this:  I told you so.

OK, not YOU, in any literal sense.  To the best of my knowledge, the rest of the MHS Class of 1976 had better things to do that day.  And who can blame you?

But, figuratively speaking, I told you so.

And to some extent, this prediction has played out as I suspected it would.  For more and more of us, our lives ARE being increasingly defined, not by the neighborhood we live in, but by the online communities we are involved in.  Social Networking sites have evolved from gathering spots for nerdy computer addicts (”geek temples” if you will), to part of the everyday routine for a lot of us (more or less) normal folk.

How do I know this?  Well, for one, I see a lot of you on Facebook these days (more about this in a moment).  And unless you’re a hermit, living in the mountains somewhere (don’t laugh — I know a few, including at least one from our class), if you’re not in an online community of some sort, you probably will be, sooner or later.

Currently there are at least 17 of our classmates on Facebook.  Last year, I think it was about 2.

Now I am lucky enough to get e-mails from a lot of you — it’s one of the ways I pay myself for spending part of my free time hunting down people I haven’t talked to in 30+ years — and I know that for most of us, where we went to high school is a vanishingly small part of who we are today.   We’ve got lives — jobs, hobbies, and families  that keep us plenty busy.

But in these tough economic times, it doesn’t hurt to stay connected.  I’ve heard from a few of our classmates that have been affected by the downturn in the economy of late, and it’s led me to think about how much those old ties are worth.

In my case, for instance — I may not be willing to give a job to someone who I knew 30 years ago,  solely on the basis of that old connection — but I am a lot more likely to look at their resume, out of curiosity if nothing else.

And this is not a purely hypothetical statement:  our Laboratory, which works on a variety of research related to homeland security, environment, energy and fundamental science, currently has more than 100 open positions.  Seems like it’s hard to get people to move out here to the sagebrush and tumbleweeds of eastern Washington — as I’ve always said:  “it’s a great place to live, but I wouldn’t want to visit there…”

most of our positions are for people with heavy nerd factors — computer programmers, energy policy analysts, chemists, biologists…but also people who are in communications, contract administration, and all the other support positions that a national research laboratory employing 4,100 people requires.

Likewise, though bright spots are few and far between in the current economy, they ARE out there.  I know of at least one of our classmates who is a top level manager for a high tech company that is still hiring.

So staying connected with people who shared their formative years with you can be a good way to survive the rough spots.

Just sayin’.

Which brings me to the bottom line.

[THE BOTTOM LINE]

With the advent of social networking sites like Facebook, LinkedIn, etc, I find myself increasingly feeling like an unnecessary middle man.

Mind you, I ENJOY tracking people down, getting them on the list, and keeping them in touch — but there are new tools that allow people to do a lot of that without my help.

I’ve already mentioned a couple of note:  Facebook, and LinkedIn.  I’ve seen relatively few people from MHS on LinkedIn (www.linkedin.com), but it’s primarily a business networking site, so a lot of people don’t identify their high school affiliation.

Facebook (www.facebook.com) started out 5 years ago, primarily as a site for college kids — but as my growing friends list underscores, it’s gotten a lot grayer in the years since.  It even has a Mariner High School Alumni group, and a growing network of MHS Class of 1976 alumni.  Heck, I even carry out real business on it sometimes, including collaborating on research proposals.

You know it’s days are numbered when fat, boring research scientists start using the site for more than just checking up on their kids who are off at college.

So, in light of this phenomena — while I plan to continue to maintain a mailing list for future reunions for as long as you folks  will put up with me, I would also like to encourage you to think about joining one of these social network sites if you’d like to get back in touch with your old classmates.    IF you do join Facebook, please drop me a line, or a friend request, and/or join the MHS Alumni group (search Groups for “Mariner”) so we can find each other and I can update my little mailing list with your facebook status.

With regards to this mailing list:  a couple of recent developments:

- Kristi [Holtgeerts] Rosenberger has graciously agreed to serve as my back-up custodian for the online mailing list.  This was done as an “insurance measure” in case I got hit by a bus or something.   Getting hit by a bus is not in my immediate plans, but I rest a little easier knowing that at least ONE of my responsibilities will be taken care of should it happen.

- Thanks in large part to your help, I’ve added a number of names to the mailing list for our class since I last published it in December 2008.  Eleven new people, in fact, if my count is correct — bringing the list to a total of 81, quite a bit better than the 50 we had just prior to the 30th reunion in 2006.

Keep up the good work.   By the time 2011 rolls around, we might just get a majority of class members.

Those of you who have been on this list for a while know the drill:  please review our class mailing list, make sure your name is spelled correctly (or spelled at all — my recordkeeping is far from immaculate).  If you see a notable omission of someone who you think might want to be on this list, but who isn’t — please forward this e-mail to them or otherwise have them contact me at scott_butner@charter.net.  I’ll add them as promptly as I can.