Anti-immigrants of Yore

Reading (skimming, really) the giant New York, An Illustrated History, I noticed this amazing passage:

Forty thousand Germans alone had pushed in, creating an insulated neighborhood of their own called Kleindeutschland – Little Germany. An even greater number had come from Ireland, impoverished farmers and unskilled day laborers mainly, most of whom quickly found work, taking on the worst and toughest jobs in the city – digging sewers, paving streets, building houses, or working as servants, scullery maids, and seamstresses… 

Year by year, the number continued to rise. By 1841, nearly 100,000 Irish Catholic immigrants had flooded into the city – fueling waves of virulent anti-Catholic bigotry among upperclass New Yorkers, and the bitter resentment of native-born workers, who feared for their jobs.

That year, Samuel Morse, the inventor of the telegraph, called for an end to Catholic immigration altogether, portraying the influx as a sinister papal conspiracy, aimed at bending American democracy to the will of Rome. “Up! Up! I beseech you,” he warned. “Awake! To your posts! Shut the open gates. Your enemies in the guise of friends, many thousands, are at this moment rushing into your ruin through the open portals of naturalization.” “If I had the power,” another man declared, “I would erect a gallows at every landing place in the city of New York, and suspend every cursed Irishman as soon as he steps on our shore.”

Note that this “flood” of Irish immigrants is from before the Irish Potato Famine drove a lot more of that country’s citizens to emigrate.

I can’t decide whether it’s reassuring or depressing that intolerant demagogues in 2016 are selling virtually identical poison as those from 175 years ago.

Not a Hyperbolic Prediction

Amazing and blunt article from Adam Gopnik for The New Yorker: The Dangerous Acceptance of Donald Trump. As always, the whole thing is worth a read (okay, skim the Alexander Pope poetry if you want), but there are some sobering statements there:

The American Republic stands threatened by the first overtly anti-democratic leader of a large party in its modern history—an authoritarian with no grasp of history, no impulse control, and no apparent barriers on his will to power. The right thing to do, for everyone who believes in liberal democracy, is to gather around and work to defeat him on Election Day. Instead, we seem to be either engaged in parochial feuding or caught by habits of tribal hatred so ingrained that they have become impossible to escape even at moments of maximum danger.


If Trump came to power, there is a decent chance that the American experiment would be over. This is not a hyperbolic prediction; it is not a hysterical prediction; it is simply a candid reading of what history tells us happens in countries with leaders like Trump. Countries don’t really recover from being taken over by unstable authoritarian nationalists of any political bent, left or right—not by Peróns or Castros or Putins or Francos or Lenins or fill in the blanks. The nation may survive, but the wound to hope and order will never fully heal. Ask Argentinians or Chileans or Venezuelans or Russians or Italians—or Germans.

I hate talking about Trump, I hate reading about him, and most of all I hate seeing so much written and read and broadcast and viewed about him. I don’t really think he’ll get anywhere near the highest office of my country. But the very thought is moving further from the funny end of the spectrum, and more toward the horrifying end, with each passing month (though I’m not sure what this weird funny-to-horrifying spectrum is, exactly).

Ye Olde Musick

An article on The A.V. Club reports that for the first time ever, older albums outsold new ones last year. What’s interesting to me is the assumption that this is somehow a bad thing:

Just a decade ago, new releases were outselling old ones by 150 million albums a year. So what happened? Who or what is to blame for new music becoming an undesirable commodity? One culprit could be the so-called vinyl revival, which has heavily favored catalog titles like Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon, a 43-year-old album that nevertheless sold 50,000 copies in 2015. According to the article, younger music listeners who get into collecting vinyl are opting for older albums. And then there’s the possibility that people are more likely to stream new albums than purchase them. Regardless of the cause, it looks like nostalgia has a stranglehold on the music industry.

Who is to blame? New music is an undesirable commodity? Nostalgia has a stranglehold on the music industry??

Maybe this is trouble for the music industry, or new artists, or something we should wring our hands over, but as a music lover I just can’t see it that way. How I see it is that the more time passes, the more great music exists in the world, and that’s nothing but good news. This is why my annual best-of lists include anything new to me, and why my #musicMonday tweets are everything from new releases to oldie throwbacks.

Don’t get me wrong; I like new music, too. I’m not only a person who looks forward to Friday because it’s the day that new albums come out now, I still feel a little sad every Tuesday – the day new albums used to come out – that they changed it. I’ve pre-ordered three albums so far this year; new music is not an “undesirable commodity” to me.

But some old music is great, too. Not all of it, of course. Some of it was never good, and some is silly or kitschy or embarrassing or just doesn’t stand the test of time. But there’s a lot of music from a lot of years that’s really, really good. And thanks to the magic of continually-advancing time, there’s more and more every day! (Give or take.)

My advice: be on the lookout for “new” music that you like from any time: whether it’s oldies, classics, last year’s, or new releases. Getting into Pink Floyd, or Bowie, or The Eagles, doesn’t keep you from getting into Adele, or Shamir, or Savages.

Best of My 2015 Music

Time again for my annual best-of music review! Each year, I pick my ten favorite “new” albums of the year, where “new” means new to me, but not necessarily released in 2015. Any albums I bought in the calendar year are eligible for the list, regardless of when they were released.

One interesting development this year is that music that I’m getting via my kids (now 20 and 17) continues to get better. Most notably, two of the albums in my top ten would have never been there if it weren’t for my daughter’s influence: Twenty One Pilots and The Front Bottoms. Arguably that number should be three, as I wouldn’t have bought Elvis Depressedly’s CD if I hadn’t gone to the Front Bottoms show where they were the opening band. That said, I’ve become more willing to delete albums from the kids that only have one or two decent songs on them (cough One Direction cough); those don’t appear here at all.

Here are my 2015 selections, in alphabetical order by artist (I pick the top 10, but I don’t order them further than that). The links are to Wikipedia, and a playlist of all these albums is on Spotify.

Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit, Courtney Bartnett – This rollicking debut album is one you’ll also see on a good many critics’ best-of lists for 2015, and deservedly so. She has a lot of clever, poignant songwriting, and the songs have a nice variation across the course of the album. Lastly, I won’t deny it: that she sings with a pronounced Australian accent is an automatic plus-one, at least.

Dodge and Burn, The Dead Weather – Since 2007, when I started choosing top-ten albums, Jack White and Allison Mossheart’s various bands (White Stripes, The Kills, Dead Weather, and solo Jack White) have landed on the list with nearly every album they put out. The trend continues this year with another solid entry as the Dead Weather super-group/side-project. The bad news is that they won’t be touring behind this album; the good news is that it’s because they’re each working on new (separate) projects. Look for one or both them here again next year.

New Alhambra, Elvis Depressedly – As noted above, I only heard of Elvis Depressedly because they were one of the openers at the Front Bottoms show I went to with my daughter. They sounded great, and in true indie fashion they were selling their CD at a table in the back. At only $5, I was willing to take a shot, and I’m glad I did. It’s short – just 21 minutes – and not something I want to listen to all day, every day. But it’s good stuff, inventive and interesting (you can get it from their Bandcamp page for just $5, too).

How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful, Florence + the Machine – A new Florence album is an automatic buy, and a good bet for automatic inclusion in this list. That she was one of the few Austin City Limits Festival acts I was excited for this year only boosted her stock. There are more 3-star tracks on this album (six) than any other on this list, but that still leaves ten great Florence songs. Also, what a video for the single What Kind of Man.

Back on Top, The Front Bottoms – This is a band that I’d heard before, but it was my daughter’s intense love for them that made me really listen. That, and buying scalped tickets for her via Craigslist for their instantly-sold-out show at The Parish, and going to it with her. What started out as doing a favor for her turned out to be one of the best concerts I’ve been to in a while. This CD is their newest, and it edged out the others to land on the top ten; see tracks from their earlier work in the Best of the Rest mix, below. (Instagram.)

No Cities to Love, Sleater-Kinney – I could hardly have been more excited when Sleater-Kinney, one of my favorite bands of all time, announced that they’d reunited and had a new album already done. I bought it, and a ticket to see them at Stubb’s, as soon as I possibly could, and was rewarded with all the great music I expected. I won’t say it’s my favorite S-K album – reaching that status would well-nigh miraculous – but it’s a fantastic return to form and everything I could have asked for. (Instagram.)

Show Us Your Mind, Summer Cannibals – This is a band I heard of via the Sound Opinions podcast, and they’re absolutely great. When it came time to start picking albums for this list, this was one of the first no-brainer choices I made. There isn’t a ton of variation in song style: lots of defiant lyrics, sneering vocals, and solid rock backing it all. But since I love the one style they play, that’s no problem at all.

Blurryface, Twenty One Pilots – The second entrant to this year’s top ten that came via my daughter, with a big boost from their very solid ACL Fest sets (we watched the first weekend’s webcast, the second weekend in person); their intensity and authenticity are hard to resist. Their genre is hard to classify, though I guess hip-hop would be the closest fit. As with The Front Bottoms, this is their newest; tracks from their older efforts can be found in the Best of the Rest mix, below.

Ghost Notes, Veruca Salt – The reunion of 90s alt-rockers Veruca Salt wasn’t as widely anticipated as Sleater-Kinney’s, but it was similarly unexpected, and another big one for me personally. When I heard that Nina Gordon and Louise Post had stopped hating each other and started working together with their former Veruca bandmates on a new album, it was about two milliseconds before I backed their PledgeMusic campaign. The result was a solid album that I like a lot. Still waiting to see some U.S. tour dates, though.

My Love Is Cool, Wolf Alice – As they say: last but certainly not least, is Wolf Alice. Another of the (alarmingly small number of) bands I looked forward to at ACL Fest this year, they had the decency to not disappoint. Good, driving, and dark-ish hard rock; I look forward to hearing where this young band goes. (Instagram.)

That’s it for my ten favorite “new” albums of 2015.

And then there are all the rest of the albums. To complete my annual time capsule, I also make a playlist of favorite single tracks from all of the year’s albums that didn’t make the best-album cut, ordered not alphabetically, but in the best mixtape order I can manage with such a wide assortment. This “Best of the Rest” is also a playlist on Spotify, though this year I had more than the usual number of tracks not available there (four – I’ve linked up all but Taylor Swift’s in the list below).

  1. Flashlight – The Front Bottoms, The Front Bottoms
  2. Car Radio – Twenty One Pilots, Vessel
  3. Caja De Madera – Mala Rodríguez, Bruja
  4. Win Again – Nicki Minaj, The Pinkprint
  5. Keep You On My Side – CHVRCHES, Every Open Eye
  6. Style – Taylor Swift, 1989
  7. En El Dancefloor – María Del Pilar, Songs + Canciones I
  8. Shadows – Au Revoir Simone, Still Night, Still Light
  9. The Next Messiah – Jenny Lewis, Acid Tongue
  10. Slow Ride – Foghat, Dazed and Confused
  11. Instigators – Grace Potter, Midnight
  12. Free Ride – The Edgar Winter Group, Even More Dazed and Confused
  13. Psychedelic Quinceñera – Tacocat, NVM
  14. Lone Star – The Front Bottoms, Talon of the Hawk
  15. Poor Ellen Smith – Wussy, Public Domain, Volume I
  16. Ven (Beautiful) [feat. Juieta Venegas] – Ceci Bastida, La Edad de la Violencia
  17. Breakfast in Bed – Wussy, Live at Cake Shop
  18. Ode to Sleep – Twenty One Pilots, Regional At Best
  19. Wrong Club – The Ting Tings, Super Critical
  20. KAGOME – Babbe feat. Sasi, Radiant Dancefloor
  21. Celebrate – Metric, Pagans in Vegas
  22. Au Revoir (Adios) – The Front Bottoms, Talon of the Hawk

– saw band live this year


Past years’ bests: 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014

Looking for Amazon’s “US-East”

image: Shapiro's laptop & Chris Watterston

image: Shapiro’s laptop & Chris Watterston

Interesting article from The Atlantic (a new favorite website and daily news email of mine): Why Amazon’s Data Centers Are Hidden in Spy Country. The author tries to track down the actual, physical data-centers that make up Amazon Web Services’ “US-East” region, as well as the historical reasons why they’re all somewhere in Northern Virginia.

That’s the main part, and interesting enough on its own, but then the conclusion gets very suddenly philosophical, which I found hilarious, but touching, too.

And maybe my desire to submerge myself in that sediment, to weave The Cloud into the timelines of railroad robber-barons and military R&D, emerges from the same anxiety that makes me go try to find these buildings in the first place: that maybe we have mistaken The Cloud’s fiction of infinite storage capacity for history itself. It is a misunderstanding that hinges on a weird, sad, very human hope that history might actually end, or at least reach some kind of perfect equipoise in which nothing terrible could ever happen again. As though if we could only collate and collect and process and store enough data points, the world’s infinite vaporware of real-time data dashboards would align into some kind of ultimate sand mandala of total world knowledge, a proprietary data nirvana without terror or heartbreak or bankruptcy or death, heretofore only gestured towards in terrifying wall-to-wall Accenture and IBM advertisements at airports.

Only a Story

Good article from The New Statesman on some of the race- and gender-related cultural shifts that have been happening this year: What to do when you’re not the hero any more.

This week, when the internet learned that a black woman had been cast in a new play billed as the ‘next instalment’ in the Harry Potter series, author J K Rowling reacted perfectly, reminding fans: “Canon: brown eyes, frizzy hair and very clever. White skin was never specified. Rowling loves black Hermione”.

Was Rowling imagining a black girl when she sat down to write that book in the mid-1990s? Probably not. But she knows, like the best storytellers, that books are hands held out to lonely children of every age, and not all those lonely children are white boys, and those stories change lives in ways even their authors cannot guess. So it matters. It matters that the “brightest witch of her generation”, the bookish heroine of a generation’s definitive fairytale, doesn’t have to be white every time.


Like a screaming toddler denied a sweet, [the angry backlash] becomes more righteous the more it reminds itself that after all, it’s only a story.

Only a story. Only the things we tell to keep out the darkness. Only the myths and fables that save us from despair, to establish power and destroy it, to teach each other how to be good, to describe the limits of desire, to keep us breathing and fighting and yearning and striving when it’d be so much easier to give in. Only the constitutive ingredients of every human society since the Stone age.

Only a story. Only the most important thing in the whole world.

Read the whole thing.

Email & Egocentricity

From the New York Times: E-Mail Is Easy to Write (and to Misread).

Still, if we rely solely on e-mail at work, the absence of a channel for the brain’s emotional circuitry carries risks. In an article to be published next year in the Academy of Management Review, Kristin Byron, an assistant professor of management at Syracuse University’s Whitman School of Management, finds that e-mail generally increases the likelihood of conflict and miscommunication.

One reason for this is that we tend to misinterpret positive e-mail messages as more neutral, and neutral ones as more negative, than the sender intended. Even jokes are rated as less funny by recipients than by senders.

We fail to realize this largely because of egocentricity, according to a 2005 article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Sitting alone in a cubicle or basement writing e-mail, the sender internally “hears” emotional overtones, though none of these cues will be sensed by the recipient.

In case you didn’t notice the publication date, that article is from eight long years ago. Eight. The year the first iPhone came out, just to give you a benchmark for how far back in the mists of time we’re talking about here.

So, surely we rely on written electronic communication even more now than we did then: IMs, text messages, Slack, Twitter, Github issues, website comment threads, etc. Increased use of emoticons and emojis can help make our intended message and tone more clear – that’s why I don’t hesitate to use them, despite some people feeling that such things are somehow for teenagers – but working against better clarity is the tendency toward shorter, more abbreviated messages and responses.

The harsh truth of that article (you should read the whole thing) is at least as true today as it was in 2007: there is always – always – something lost in these written communications, and we would do well to remember that, whether we’re the writer, or the reader.

Can’t Read Half Enough

I read my Eyes out, and cant read half enough neither. The more one reads the more one sees We have to read.

— John Adams, letter to Abigail Adams, 28 December 1794

Apple Music is a Dumpster Fire

We’re done with Apple Music. The whole experience has been a frustrating, bewildering fight against our own devices and music, for virtually no added benefit.

I’ve wasted hours wrestling with weird problems and various amounts of data loss. As I write this, I’m in the middle of another full phone restore, trying to get things back to square one, back to how they were before Apple Music gleefully stomped through and wrecked everything.

Here’s a summary of the most frustrating problems we ran into.

On vacation I spent more than a day trying to get newly bought MP3s to sync from my computer to my phone (you know: the absolutely most basic and simple task of any music player ever made). In this case, it was a prerelease copy that I bought directly from the artist, but it was also listed in Apple Music as a coming-soon release, and maybe that was part of the problem, but I was never quite sure. I’d say “make available offline”, the app would say, “sure thing boss!”, then I’d hop in the car to rock down the road and find: nope. Not there.

Trying to help my wife keep her Jazzercise-instructor playlists in sync with her computer was a constant uphill struggle. And if hers are screwed up, it’s a bigger deal than me being disappointed that I can’t listen to my new music. For her, it means her carefully planned and choreographed class is ruined. Sometimes playlists stayed in sync, sometimes they didn’t. Less than 100% confidence is a deal-breaker, so although I’m just now rage-quitting this aggravating debacle, she’s been off it for a while already.

Having lots of my carefully-tended album art get totally trashed during the Great Upload to the Cloud was really annoying. (This has been complained about by others, as have other iCloud/Match-related woes.)

Somewhere along the line, a bunch of my playlists disappeared. I didn’t even notice when this happened, as they’re static (not “smart”) playlists that I don’t use that often. But most of them are copies of old mixtapes (yes, actual real tapes). I think I’ve recovered the raw data that will let me restore these, thanks to Time Machine backups, but it will be a labor-intensive pain in the ass.

Those were all pretty maddening, but the straw that broke the camel’s back was when the Music app crashed yesterday morning. When it restarted, it was a completely blank white screen. Hmm, that’s not good. Quit the app and started again, then at least there were controls at the bottom, but when I tapped “My Music”, it was a white screen and a “Loading Library” message with a progress bar. It stayed that way during my entire commute to work (no music! See, there is still a case for CDs). I thought it was all right after that, but on my drive home that evening I got a warning about playing music away from wifi, even though I was trying to play my own music, not something streamed. With creeping dread I turned on the “only show music available offline” toggle, and sure enough, everything disappeared. Gone. All gone.

Checking out the disk usage, I found a huge amount of “Other” space. Clearly all that offline music was still taking up space, even though it was inaccessible:


A full reinstall and restore-from-backup later, and it’s fixed. Now all I have to do is re-load the music back on there (and re-enter passwords and Apple Pay credit card info and Touch ID and who knows what else), and then I’ll be back to square one!


Note that all this heartburn is despite the fact that we’re all-in on the Apple Way. We’re using iTunes on Macs, and lots of our purchased music came from the iTunes Store. That is, we’re not trying to do anything weird or bend the rules. And though I bumble around with this stuff sometimes, I am actually a professional computer guy. I shudder to think what kind of shape the music library and iPhone of a “regular person” would be in at this point.

So, we’re out. Maybe it’s for the best. I thought having a blurred-to-nonexistent line between what I own and what I stream would be great, but I never really warmed to it. I use streaming mostly to try out new music, and if I like it, I buy it. So they’re two separate tiers in how I mentally organize my music collection. Having a completely distinct service for that, like Spotify, works fine for me. It will be a little more expensive for our family, but any savings from Apple Music has already been spent a hundred times over in wasted time and frustration. There’s also the recommendations and curated lists and “radio” stations, but I’ve never been much into such services, and during this trial I never found a single new song of interest in those ways. (Which reminds me of a another failure: that “Tell us what you like” bubbles thing and the resulting “For You” recommendations were laughably wrong and completely useless for all of us.)

Update: 8/31 – Still Smoldering

After I thought I’d restored everything, I discovered this morning that my song ratings were all screwed up, too. I obsessively rate the songs in my library. Probably a little too obsessively, but I use those ratings a lot, especially in smart playlists. How the living hell this could have happened, I can’t begin to imagine, but somehow a whole bunch of tracks suddenly had ratings with light gray stars:


The best the Internets could tell me was these are “estimated” track ratings, whatever that means, but more to the point they were wrong. According to the size of my “unrated” smart playlist (told you: obsessive), there were suddenly 4,402 unrated tracks. I didn’t know the right number, but I knew that was way too high. (Once I got stuff restored, the actual number turned out to be 444.)

Thankfully there’s a special directory under the main iTunes directory called “Previous iTunes Libraries”, where Apple apparently backs up your library metadata file before major iTunes upgrades. It’s almost as if they don’t have very high confidence that everything’s going to work. But it turned out to be handy, as all I had to do was dredge up the copy from July 1, that black day I first stepped upon the dismal path of Apple Music, and voila! Except for all the music I’ve added and played and rated since then, I’m back to square one! Again!

The Correct Vision of the Web

I absolutely loved this written version of Maciej Cegłowski’s talk from last year, Web Design: The First 100 Years.

I think it’s time to ask ourselves a very designy question: “What is the web actually for?”

I will argue that there are three competing visions of the web right now. The one we settle on will determine whether the idiosyncratic, fun Internet of today can survive.


This is the correct vision.

The Web erases the barrier of distance between people, and it puts all of human knowledge at our fingertips. It also allows us to look at still images and videos of millions of cats, basically all of it for free, from our homes or a small device we carry in our pocket.

No one person owns it, no one person controls it, you don’t need permission to use it. And the best part is, you are encouraged to contribute right back. You can post your own cat pictures.

Why is this not enough?

Connect knowledge, people, and cats

We live in a world now where not millions but billions of people work in rice fields, textile factories, where children grow up in appalling poverty. Of those billions, how many are the greatest minds of our time? How many deserve better than they get? What if instead of dreaming about changing the world with tomorrow’s technology, we used today’s technology and let the world change us? Why do we need to obsess on artificial intelligence, when we’re wasting so much natural intelligence?

When I talk about a hundred years of web design, I mean it as a challenge. There’s no law that says that things are guaranteed to keep getting better.

The web we have right now is beautiful. It shatters the tyranny of distance. It opens the libraries of the world to you. It gives you a way to bear witness to people half a world away, in your own words. It is full of cats. We built it by accident, yet already we’re taking it for granted. We should fight to keep it!

Read the whole thing, it’s excellent (and has more cat pictures than that one above).

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