In the final birthdays, today is Michael Stipe's birthday.
Michael is an interesting guy. He is very well known, obviously, and through that celebrity has come to be “known” by many people as something other than who he is as a person. I've listened to his band since I was 7, and for a long time that is the only way I knew him. Sometimes I think the enigma of “Michael Stipe” as lead singer of R.E.M. was somehow more interesting than the person.
But then I realize that the person who I came to know through working with him was different, but somehow just as compelling. Michael's a warm, kind and wickedly intelligent man with a great sense of humor. As much as I admire his work as an artist, it's just as easy to admire him as a person.
Michael also makes a really great photo subject.
SXSW 2008. Michael and company were in town to play Stubbs and introduce their new record Accelerate on the world. They arrived in town a bit early to do press, Michael before the other two.
Being that he was in town during SXSW Interactive, I ended up taking him to a Facebook Party, which is a story for another day.
This picture was taken in a conference room off the lobby at the Omni Hotel in downtown Austin. They have this spectacularly awful and weird forrest painting up, and the light hit it just so that it matched the fake light within the painting.
This picture was taken after Michael had done a video interview with Ali Partovi for iLike.com. I remember my stage direction was “Michael, look up and to the right.” After I took it, he took a look on the camera and gave the nod of approval. I shot a great many photos of the course of those few days.
In early 2002 I found myself staring at a screen at 2:00AM in the morning, wondering how I got myself into the situation I was in.
I was 22 years old, 23 in a few months. I had just been laid off from the only job I ever had, a job I dedicated more time to during college and high school than college and high school. I lived in wherever I happend to be, whether that be my grandparent's, my uncle's or my parent's houses. I had applications out to graduate schools, was running out of money and at that point the biggest thing I had in my life was what was on the screen in front of me.
Six years prior I had created a website. An evening just after my 17th birthday when I was bored, had my new credit card and a new copy of Microsoft Frontpage.
Now I had a website that according to the stats that ran across the bottom of my screen, 200 people were currently logged into, 40 people chatting on and 1700 posts having been made that day.
A collection of experiences, joys, heartache, love, lust, jealousy, petty anger, multicultural misunderstandings and hate all running through a MySQL database hundreds of miles away. Emotion quantified within rows, columns and indexes. Drama in the data.
And I somehow owned it. At least I paid for it.
I finally at this moment realized something though: it was driving me crazy.
Three years prior, I had broken up with my girlfriend from high school around the time some people from this same site started a new discussion board aimed at ridiculing me. I had kicked one of them off the site for trolling, and this was the repercussion.
Someone tipped me off to that site, and I remember being at work reading it and feeling my face redden. Anger, and a bit of sadness. It brought up too many memories of being bullied, made fun of. But it also was something I created. At this point I was a member of Howard Rheingold's forum and asked them for help on how to deal with this (Howard being an expert at virtual communities). They gave me good advice: confront them and own it.
I ended up meeting up with these people in Athens, GA. Getting drunk, embarrassing myself and all was forgiven.
But it struck me then the power that text on screen had. I had never met these people. I had never interacted with them either. All that I did was take the IP address from one of them, put it into a table in a database that was read every time someone visited the site, and prevented that IP from accessing the login screen. A simple chain of logic embedded in some PHP code. And yet this logic lead to one of these people creating a new discussion board, posting things about me, hiding it, someone else telling me about it and all culminating in me feeling things I hadn't dealt with since I was in sixth grade: the feeling of simultaneous embarrassment and regret.
Now, three years later I was staring at a screen, watching lives pass me while I felt like I wasn't living my own. I was the nexus point of the cumulative represented lives and virtualized existences of 22,000 people, the “admin.” I was also a rather shy person who had just lost his job.
The mix of these two realities nearly drove me mad.
No one likes talking about feelings very much. I don't either. My wife calls me a robot and others I know feel the same way about me. Empathy comes with difficulty.
Anxiety is something I don't like talking about very much. It's something that sits above me like a boulder on a precipice, teetering on the brink of rolling downhill. I know that when it rolls it's very hard to stop. The problem with anxiety is it's like a cold; you can feel it coming on, but thinking about it makes it come on stronger. You get anxious about being anxious, and without stopping it, it'll consume you.
I was unfamiliar with this at 2:00AM on this evening in 2002. I became familiar with it after that. I don't know what triggered the boulder rolling, but it didn't cease until nearly 4 months later (when I met my now wife).
Since this time I've been through bouts of anxiety a few times. I've come to know the triggers and avoid them. I don't go to the discussion board I still run very much now. I avoid other situations that were triggers. In all it's made me a more cautious and closed off person. Sometimes to the detriment of others.
I bring this up now because in 2002 I was watching the lives in a database go by, and in 2012 (nearly 2013) I'm watching the lives in tweets and Facebook go by. As I sit here with two screens running, the lives of so many cascading through the pixels, I can feel that boulder again. I can nearly see it. In the past year I've been connected to so many people, but through that connection have also connected to so much sadness, joy, happiness and tragedy.
We as people are not meant to do this. We have a limit. I became familiar with this limit one early morning and I spent four months trying to deal with the repercussions of that. Maybe ten years trying.
This year has been trying sometimes. My job is fun but difficult and exhausting. People lost loved ones, including a child in one case. I just lost my longest lived relative while another slips away. My days are full, and the hour I get when I'm not committed to driving or working I can either spend running or staring at screens again.
Some days I feel the boulder trembling and ready to fall. It's that fear that keeps me a bit remote, a bit curt, a bit distant.
But I can't let it fall, nor can I let it effect me like that. There is too much good in my life, in the world, and in the world I inhabit through the things my interest in technology has given me.
I'm not 22 in my room alone. I'm not 16 in my room starting a website. I don't have to be that nexus of the accumulated digital selfs, because at this point we all are.
In 2013 what I hope to do is look up at the boulder, hope it doesn't fall and carry on.
I will always owe Mike a debt of gratitude due to the fact that he is responsible for me meeting my wife. Amy and a girlfriend of Mike's were in UCLA Animation School together.
This picture is of Mike in Vancouver. I took it during the second to the last week of what was the first recording session for Accelerate. I believe at the moment I took this we were hearing “Mr. Richards” for the first time.
That playback was terrifying. I went to Vancouver with the two other big R.E.M. friends and fans I worked with and before hand we discussed what we'd do if what we heard sucked. It wasn't an idle concern either, as the last R.E.M. record edged toward suckage.
When Jacknife Lee started playing “Living Well is the Best Revenge” straight from Pro Tools, we all texted each other “phew” and then texted Michael, who wasn't in town.
Mike and Peter were in the room with us, and while Peter was twitching in the back, watching us, Mills was right in the sweet spot of the room, eyes closed and listening. He is the most musically educated of the three, and as he heard things out of place, or things he wanted to redo, he'd write notes for the producer.
Later in the day we watched him as he recorded tracks for Until the Day is Done, including his piano parts and fretless bass. He was fast, quick tempered, perfectionist and accommodating in equal measure. At the end of the recording he listened again, nodded and we went to dinner, where I spilled red wine all over him at one point.
Whenever I see that my dad is calling me my heart immediately speeds up and my chest tightens.
My dad is a softie and wears his emotions out in the open a lot of the time. I am not and I do not. In the past year, my dad is either calling to shoot the shit, or give me bad news.
I can tell what the conversation will be based on his first “Hello.” He is an open book. We all love this about him, but as time marches on, and the owed deaths accumulate, I treat each phone call with a measure of fear.
In the last year, a dear family friend, one of our dogs and now my Great-Grandma Bertha have passed on. Some from old age, some more tragic.
My phone has become an audio gateway into a world winding down, ever so slightly, around me.
I have a complicated relationship with phones
For one, I hate them. I don't like talking on them, I don't like making phone calls and I don't like all the protocols that go with them. If you look at my phone bill, I'll often have maybe 40 minutes of actual phone usage coupled with sometimes 10 gigabytes of data.
My office phone is hidden behind my monitors. Only one person ever uses that phone, so I don't even bother saying “Hello, this is Ethan.” I just say “Hi Jenny.”
But while I hate the act of talking on a phone, phones have played an important part of my life since I was a kid. My grandparents were successful, early entrepreneurs in the cellular phone industry in the 80's and 90's. We were the family who had cell phones before they were a thing, and all our cars that phones in them. I had a cell phone in High School before there were even rules against them.
The height of cool for me in Jr. High was that I had my own phone line. Sure, it was more for my modem since my mom hated me yelling every time she picked up the phone to hear a screaming noise while I yelled as my MUD session was interrupted, but it was my own phone number. I talked on it all the time.
I can identify periods of my life by my phones area code. I can Google some and find the vestiges of Ethan Kaplans from the past. I have an uncanny memory for phone numbers from my childhood: my best friends, my uncle's personal line, my first work number…
And I remember phone calls that were important. The first phone call from Amy (I was in the Atlanta airport). When R.E.M. called me on election night in 2000 right before I presented a check to the Athens City Council to pay for a train trestle. I remember bad phone calls, like the one that started my process of leaving Warners. I remember great ones like getting accepted into graduate school.
The phone can unlock emotions like no other device. It is at once personal and impersonal, relegating the party on the other end to a bare approximation of themselves while conveying a seemingly consequence free emotional connection.
I think it is the consequence free part that I dislike. We have no context for a phone call, just a name on a screen. You don't know what you'll get when you pick it up. You don't know how to end conversations. It's a temporary, fleeting approximation of a human connection, but with it the full weight of consequence for what is said.
The iPhone changed a lot in the world, but for me it pushed the primacy of the phone as an emotional connection behind its utility as a data conveyance. Data is only granted as much significance as you give it through how its represented, and how that which is represented is read. You can close the screen, delete the app, clear your history.
But while I have relegated my phone to this, and trained others to this fact, I inadvertently created a high pass filter that only gated through those which had something to tell me of import. Namely my family and friends. I know people won't try to call me as a matter of practice because I rarely pick up or return phone calls. I email them back instead, or text. Over time this means that when I'm called it's for a serious purpose.
And now my phone is at once a gateway to a world which is amazing, suddenly interjected upon by a world which is gradually, but inevitably fading away.
My Great Grandma died this week. She was 99.91, to turn 100 in January. She didn't quite make it. We joke that since she lied about her age so much (she was 78 for 10 years), she might as well have been 100. We remember her as the grandma who called my sisters boyfriend an asshole in an e-mail, and volunteered to “sock him in the face.” She was 93 when she wrote that.
The last five years saw her memory fade, and her essence fade with it. Her death was peaceful. My dad was at her side.
The thought that each death is punctuated by a phone call scares me. How do we make these? How do we take them? Is this what the phone has become – a semi-detached mechanism for communicating emotionally difficult topics? The very fact that it's an approximation of only a voice lending the emotion both gravitas and an absence of expectation of emotional reciprocity?
You can't see someone cry on a phone. And no one FaceTime's the news of a death.
But you can hear it. You can feel it. And as you get older you come to roll the dice with emotional anticipation whenever you choose to answer.
Bertha Fasack, b. 1913 - d. 2012, with her Great, Great Grandson Eli Kaplan
Rest in peace Grandma Bertha. May your memory be a blessing to those who knew you in such a vibrant and full life.
Between now and January 4th, all of R.E.M. (except Bill) celebrates birthdays. Today is Peter Bucks, who was born on this day, December 6 in 1956.
Over the years I've worked with R.E.M. and through that became friends with them, my friendship with each band member evolved in different ways. The band member I knew the best at the outset was Peter. I think partially because he never really identified himself as “Peter Buck in R.E.M., famous rock star.” He was just Peter.
Over the years what I sometimes enjoyed the most about my access to the band was the chance to photograph them in moments that usually weren't seen.
I took this photo during the break between soundcheck and the show at the Casbah in San Diego in 2001. Peter's side project “The Minus 5” was playing there, and this was my second day of shooting them.
I was a student at UCSD at the time, and was using these sessions for my final in photography. I also was using them as an excuse to hang out with Peter, Scott McCaughey and a few others that were on the tour (including R.E.M.s tour and backline managers).
All told I took 700 or so frames of 3200 speed color slide film and 6400 speed black and white. The color film I was pushing up from 1600 and cross processing. It cost a fortune.
This shot was a quiet moment when nothing was happening and we were about to go to get dinner and he was reading the San Diego Reader at the bar. The lighting was perfect and I snapped it and put the camera away. I didn't realize what I captured until I was printing things in the dark room many weeks later.
This photo became the center of my final. I made copies for my professor, TA, Peter, Michael Stipe, the R.E.M. office and later even sold a poster of it. A print of it now hangs at Live Nation Labs and one at my house.
To me it captures a good friend in a moment off stage, and in his usual demeanor. Quiet, contemplative, smart as hell and always slightly in the shadows.
In 1998, Michael Stipe sat down with Charlie Rose after he released a book of photos. Personally, anyone can talk to Charlie Rose and I'd watch it, but one exchange caught me out of the 1998 interview and I return to it often.
They were talking about Kurt Cobain and William Burroughs. Both were friends with Stipe:
“MS: Yeah, I don't think I'm capable of suicide, personally. Do you think you are?
CR: Oh, absolutely not.
MS: Was there a time in your life when you thought you were?
CR: No, no, no. Not once.
CR: I mean, it's never – But I don't know how it'd be if I was desperate. I mean, I've been dependent on something.
CR: Or never been – You know, I've had compared to almost everybody a generous life.
CR: You know, so I can't know that I've had pain that other people have had. And I don't know how I would deal with those kinds of things.
MS: I like the way you said that. That's a beautiful phrasing.
CR: You know?
MS: I should write that down. Maybe I can put it into a song. [Charlie hands him a piece of paper] Thank you. And this is how it happens.”
To this day, I have no idea if the phrase “generous life” ended up in a song anywhere. It may have.
I return to this exchange because of that phrase.
What does it mean to have lived or live a generous life? It's easy to think of things as difficult, as challenging and even rewarding, but hard sometimes to find what about our day to day is generous.
But when you step outside yourself for a minute and really look at how your day, your month, your year and your time on this planet has resolved, its pretty easy to see how the generosity inherent to being on this planet, of being afforded the opportunity to experience its ups and downs, outweighs the triviality of the mundane and challenging.
And I know this is sentimental schmaltz because I'm travelling, and sleep deprived, but today, in an airport, working on things I love with people I respect and a family who cares about my grumpy self, I can't help but feel like my life has been generous.
Sometimes its helpful when the act of chronologically living is more burdensome than the culmination of life, to remember what aspects of life have been generously given to us, and return that with our impact on the world.
It should surprise no one (especially my wife) that I think of most things as systems. She calls me a robot. She's maybe only half wrong.
As I was driving into the office today, on a blessedly traffic free freeway, I started thinking about what elements of my day (and consequently others) relate directly and proportionally to our relative happiness.
To me, happiness is the relative time during the day when predictability is outweighed by the things unexpected. Predictability makes things a chore.
In an equation then:
Happiness (h) is inversely proportional to predictability (p):
So essential happiness is caused by the minimization of things which are routine in the course of the day. Routine drives boredom. It leaves you with nothing to look forward to. Everyday like the last one, everyday like a rerun (to quote Patti Smith).
My wife and I have a joke that our ideal living environment would be a big house, with a huge yard bordered on one side by a Target, on another by a Whole Foods, My Gym on the third side and my office on the fourth.
The joke has a root in truth. I spend about 90 minutes a day in my car driving to and from work. It isn't productive time. It is just time. It's something that I have to dread every night, and through the day. My car is reasonably comfortable, fast and fun, but its a tomb for 90 minutes, day in and day out.
The commute means I can only really run at night when I get home. It limits my time with my family. It is probably slowly killing me, but what doesn't these days.
When I get to San Francisco every three weeks or so, I walk to our office from my hotel. That leaves 45 minutes in the morning for running. Not having a 45 minute drive home means I can work later but not miss dinner or other things in the evening. And of course for ten months I was working from home, which was amazing but did lead to its own routine as I had no “job” to interject any chaos into the day.
I'm lucky in that the commute to and from work is the only deterministic aspect of my day. For the most part, my day to day work life and home life is a state of chaos or self imposed order which I enjoy (i.e., taking Eli to pre-school or running). I can imagine though if I had this commute, and my job was similarly static and unchallenging, I might be in a worse situation.
Even so, the commute does decrease relative happiness in a steady decline, only slightly offset by weekends.
I have no solution to this problem that is practical. The obvious one would be to move closer to work, but that isn't practical. We love our house. And in Los Angeles, you can't “move” closer to anything.
I may try public transportation for at least half of the commute, so I can add my own chaos through my various devices while not driving.
While I have no perfect solution, I do encourage those that find themselves in a rut to examine what aspects of their day is continually unchanging, and remove them. You'll be surprised what difference it makes.
I'm sure everyone has seen the new campaign for RDIO: “Human Powered Music Discovery.”
I hate them.
I don't hate them because of anything Rdio does, but rather because of the state we find music in today. Namely: where is the artist? Where is the emotion?
To me music is more than just something to be “discovered.” The act of discovery is a synthesis of the emotional resonance from those that create, not a celebration of those that aggregate the creators.
There was a time when the discussion around music was around art. Maybe it's still there, but the predominant narrative is about the industry, the services, the money (or lack there of).
If I was to design a campaign around RDIO, it'd be more akin to what Apple will likely do with their iCloud Music offering whenever they release it.
Celebrate what you are granting access to, not the tool you are using to grant that access. Celebrate the music. The synesthetic ties music has to our baser emotions.
“Human Powered Music Discovery” is clinical bullshit.
Music is more than that. Music colored the moment I first met my wife. The day my childhood pet died, when I lost a friend, when I gained things. Quit jobs, graduated school.
I discover music through my own memories, my own life and my own desires. Music is human, both in creation and consumption. Lets shift the dialog back to that please.
After I wrote about time, memory and the digitization of our concept of Self, I started thinking a lot about the permanence of what we now call memory. It scared me a bit.
I wrote this post two weeks ago to deal with the feelings I had when a friend's child died. I don't often write from the heart (except when it comes to R.E.M. and music), and this post struck a chord. I'm happy about that. We as technologists are so caught up in the “now” we forget that there is a “past” and a “future” that surrounds it. We have bookends that are inescapable and deserve attention.
Anyhow, I created a saved search in Twitter for “ethankaplan.com” to track links and discussion to the post. Initially the search had hundreds of tweets. Now it has one.
Permanence is not something we seem to covet as technologists. There is always something better around the corner, so honoring what we have in a permanent way is antithetical to the transience of our progress. In fact, permanence is a vestige of a corporeal society. Newspapers are meant to be permanent. Books. Data? Not so much.
Sure we claim to honor permanence through archiving, but in reality we window our present view to just that which is in front of us. How often have you looked through your archives? They don't fade like old paper, or smell. But instead the very fact that they don't age gives them a faintly ominous and obdurate malignancy.
“Don't show me email that LOOKS like it was written today, even though it is eight years old. I'm not that person anymore.”
We don't like fissures between time, memory and representation.
Twitter somehow, over six years, has decided that making permanence a part of their core competency was not as important as capturing the zeitgeist of “now.” Sure you can access old tweets, but its hard to do so without intent for memory. You can't find the memory in any way. My tweets have faded from the world because an item on a backlog on a SCRUM board had not yet been tasked to a product team, or deemed to complicated to work on for now.
And yet in 50 years, Twitter, Facebook, MySpace and others will be the largest home for the recollection and cumulative remnants of dead people in the world. Much as time and memory have collapsed due to an unchanging morphology, so too will mortality over time. The dead will live as they had, commingled with the bytes, bits, signals and data of the living.
At some point in the not to distant future, the remnants of the dead online could out number the creations from the living.
If we allow it to.
Maybe Twitter's fear of the past is not so much a product of search indexes, engineering resources and volume, but a fear of the cumulative effects of the past weighing down the vibrancy of the present?
Maybe our fear of the empty isn't projected toward an uncertain future or what happens after we die. Maybe that fear is of the full: trying to build, shape and live in a future constantly weighed down by the exponential enormity of the past.
I am 33 years old. The exponential history and remnants of my life as both a person and a digital avatar fit on 12 hard drives, 24 platters totaling 20 terabytes of redundant storage. This is data that extends back to roughly May of 1993 in still readable forms. The progression of data has accelerated exponentially over time to the point where I'm adding data at a rate of about a terabyte a year.
I am 33. I'm afraid of this data. I can go through my Drobo and RAID to find pieces of my life I'd like to forget. Parts of it that were sad, depressing, anxiety inducing and scary. I can also find happiness, joy and triumph. I can both wallow and bask in files and photos. And I always leave the confines of the drive feeling nostalgic and wary.
I never delete a file.
Permanence is not something we as humans are good at. The records of our lives are always curated and crafted. History is made not only by the victors, but with a high pass filter on what victory meant subjectively to those that were given the privilege to author it. We shaped, honed and curated our permanence and mitigated exponential accumulation.
This is no longer the case. We are permanent beings outside of filters, control or the effects of age. Permanent beings who will live as relics in perpetuity so long as others deem the efforts to maintain these deceased avatars as worth continuing.
We are immortal and permanent beings at the mercy of those who's subjectivity is informed only by their fetishization of the Now.