Tully Goes Down To The Docks

So, I’ve released a new track for sale on Bandcamp, entitled “Tully Goes Down To The Docks”.

It’s priced at a minimum of $1.00, but you can pay whatever you think it’s worth.

This piece (arranged for toy piano and strings with some digital effects) is one of my generative pieces, meaning it’s entirely composed using software algorithms within Ableton Live. While I’ve made several of these before, this is the first one I’ve really felt comfortable charging for, because I think it’s really good. It’s emotionally evocative and warm, and extremely atmospheric; I’m reminded of a film soundtrack. Hence the title, “Tully Goes Down To The Docks”, which doesn’t actually mean anything. It just sounded like the score for the part of the (non-existent) movie where…well…where Tully goes down to the docks.

The process for creating one of these pieces can take anywhere from a few minutes to several hours. This one took me about an hour. I created multiple tracks in Live and added looping MIDI clips to them. Each clip consists of just a middle C note, playing a rhythm — eighth notes, sixteenth notes, quarter notes, whole notes, either regular repeating or in some rhythmic pattern. Then I load in the Random MIDI plugin, which randomizes the playback notes. Then I add the Scale plugin, which forces the randomized notes into a scale (in this case, C major).

So the clip sends the middle C note, which is then randomized and then quantized (by being forced up or down) into a harmonic scale, and then sent to Propellerheads Reason, my soft synth environment. In this case, there are three Reason instruments: a toy piano, a solo marcato cello and a string section. The returned audio from Reason is sent to a granular synthesis Max for Live plugin called Hadron, which provides some really interesting (if subtle) sonic texturing, and a whole hell of a lot of reverb.

Once it’s all mixed the way I like it (including mastering but, in this case, no compression, as I wanted it to have extremely wide dynamic range), it’s done. I save the file and go to “Render Audio/Video” in Live’s file menu.

The length of the piece is arbitrary, but in this case I cheated a bit: I manually brought in each track at the beginning and then took them out one by one at the end. The entire track runs 128 measures (or 8:36 seconds). Every time I play the track (or render it out in Ableton Live) it’s different; this recorded version is one of an infinite number of variations on a theme.

I could, in theory, create a custom variation for every single person who bought the track, and I’m considering doing that for the next generative piece I do. It’d be interesting: you would own the only copy of your “version” of the song. No two would ever be exactly alike. It’s a different way of thinking about the idea of recorded music — one that’s really only practically possible with this particular form of composition and recording. (In purely digital music, the two are basically the same.)

I hope you like it. I really do. And enough people have bought it that I think it’s probably worth doing a possible entire album of these pieces!


Far Gone And Out: Chapter One

A man walks down the street
It’s a street in a strange world
Maybe it’s the Third World
Maybe it’s his first time around
Doesn’t speak the language
He holds no currency
He is a foreign man
He is surrounded by the sound, sound
Of cattle in the marketplace
Scatterlings in orphanages
He looks around, around
He sees angels in the architecture
Spinning in infinity
He says ‘Amen!’ and ‘Hallelujah!’
–Paul Simon

Every morning, Martin Judith wakes up in his dingy room in a wretched ethnic ghetto on the planet O, which is the center of all power in the galaxy, opens his narrow window and crawls out onto the wide window sill that he thinks of ironically as a balcony, and sits and drinks coffee as Chanel Number Five rains down on him in a fine mist.

It’s not real coffee, of course. It’s called flej-ja-tini in the patois of the Hydrocarbon Ghetto, and downtown they call it muh. Not coffee from a coffee bean, the arabica cappucinoa or whatever the fuck the Latin name is. But it’s dark and it’s hot and it has precisely the same effect on Martin’s nervous system as a venti-triple-bypass of Americano from the Starbucks on Market Street does, so he thinks of it as coffee.

Nor is it Chanel Number Five that coats Martin in a molecule-thin layer of sweet-smelling moisture every morning. It’s just more weirdness, some quirk of planetary macroweather. High in the stratosphere of O are clouds made of some ratio of water and alcohol, and when the sun hits them every morning, the water evaporates and the alcohol comes falling down and gets impregnated somehow with an organic compound in the lower clouds that smells exactly like attar of roses. It falls and falls, and it lands on Martin, and then it evaporates itself, the way aerosolized alcohol tends to do, and it leaves him smelling like Marilyn Monroe. And also his wife Suzanne, who has been dead for four years now, which is not the reason that Martin will admit to himself he does this little ritual every morning.

He pretends to himself that he’s letting the alcohol soak into his not-coffee, and also that bathing in naturally-occurring perfume mist is free, whereas an apartment with an actual shower costs money. More than he makes in his pathetic job.

Martin Judith sips his flej-ja-tini and tries not to consciously think of his wife, while simultaneous trying to subconsciously comforthimself with the olfactory memory of her and the bottle of Chanel Number Five he bought her on the occasion of their first anniversary, and when the rain stops and the coffee runs dry he heads back inside to get dressed and start his day.


* * *

Jehsayteh the food vendor is already set up with a line of customers when Martin comes bounding out of his apartment building. He gets in the queue right before an irritable looking Mang, who looks him up and down and flicks its headwings at him contemptuously.

“Fuck off, Tinkerbell,” Martin says. Despite spending eight of the last ten years living in the city of San Francisco, on the planet Earth, he still has a bit of the accent of Northern England, where he was born and raised. Despite this, when he gives the Mang the finger, it’s only the one American finger, not the British V. “First come, first serve.”

The Mang just buzzes at him. But what’s it going to do? It may be eight feet tall, but it’s built like a praying mantis and probably weighs all of about a hundred pounds, even with its armored and oversized cranium and the iridescent wings that dangle from it. Besides, it’s not looking for a street fight. Nobody looks for a street fight in the Ghettos. Street fights mean cops, and cops mean Show me your ID token, you immigrant scumbag, and anyway three Mangs got deported last week for some kind of credit scam.

“Deportation” means the same thing out here in the Universe that it does on Earth: the cops take you to the border and throw you over it. But O is an ecumenopolis, a city-state that covers the entire surface of its planet, and in this case, the border is legally defined as the edge of the atmosphere. So the Mang scammers got taken up to low orbit and kicked out of a fucking airlock. Martin doesn’t spare them much pity; he’s always been fairly confident that he’s not racist, but he can’t help thinking the Mang are just kind of a creepy species, and their music irritates the piss out of him, and besides, they’re a hive mind or something, so they barely even register three dogsbodies doing the Vacuum Mambo.

He reaches the front of the line and Jehsayteh grunts a greeting at him. Jehsayteh is an amphibian from some backwater, and he’s kind of like a walrus and kind of like a frog, with those weird rectangular-pupiled eyes. He sits in a gigantic plastic bucket filled with swampy water behind his food cart.

Martin holds up three fingers. “I want to have…[er, shit, uh]…three of meat sphere…to please?” he says in his halting Standard, with a bit of English thrown in. Jehsayteh bounces up and down in his water, which Martin has come to understand is his way of laughing. But he’s already ladling three large meatballs and a bunch of sauce into a paper bowl, which he slides across to Martin.

“You’re getting better,” he says in Standard, slowly and over-enunciating, but his tone is friendly.

Martin nods. “I…trying? Trying, yes,” he says. He waves his cred at the cart, which beeps.

“Keep it up,” Jehsayteh says, and waves the next customer forward.

Martin takes his meatballs down the hill from his street to the waterfront, where the bus comes. He sits on a low wall overlooking the harbor and eats, tipping his head back and knocking the meatballs into his mouth like the jelly balls at the bottom of a glass of bubble tea.

He’s been here for six months now, he’s pretty sure, and he’s finally starting to get Standard. As languages go, he’s pretty sure it’s not complicated; after all, it has to get spoken by what seems like an infinite variety of species with a definitely infinite variety of ways of communicating. It’s probably no harder in actuality to learn than the German he picked up when he was backpacking in Bavaria back in the early 90s. The difference was that in Bavaria he could stop at any tourist shop and pick up an English/German phrasebook. There are no English/Standard phrasebooks.

As far as Martin knows, he’s one of two people within a few hundred light years of here who speaks English, or even knows that English or England or Earth exists, and the other one is an alcoholic counterfeiter who can’t be bothered to make himself useful, or to pay for his own drinks for that matter.

So he’s stuck trying to figure out the language by inference and guesswork and pointing at things until some kind soul feels sorry for him and says what it’s called. He feels like even more of a fucking idiot than he did in Bavaria back in the day, trying to suavely pick up sexy German girls with his halfwit’s tourist German.

It’s ironic: in San Francisco, he’d gotten used to Americans acting as if his every Anglophonic syllable was somehow saturated with sophistication and grace — this despite the fact that his family were working class thugs whose taste for a good union picket line riot was only surpassed by their predilection for finding City fans in back alleys and using their faces to clean the gravel out of the soles of their Doc Martens. But as far as the Yanks are concerned, he might as well be Martin fucking Windsor, Lord Scunsthorpe-Upon-Scunthorpeshire. It took him a long way in California; got him a proper degree in art history and a nice little gallery in SoMA with a respectable Silicon Valley clientele and a loft in North Beach whose square footage could actually be expressed in four figures.

And none of that matters now. On O — or in O, whatever the right preposition for a planet-city is — here, he’s a nearly-mute idiot. He doesn’t speak enough Standard to get a job working in an art gallery, much less running one. Even if he could find a female of a species he was both a) attracted to and b) biologically compatible with, he can’t ask her out without sounding like he’s gotten a recent worrying blow to the head.

In fact, in his current situation, Martin is about as marginalized as is possible. Even shady weirdos like the Mang have families and cultural cliques and obscure religious celebrations and music. (Terrible, terrible music.) Whenever any ethnic group finds itself the minority in a hostile place, it immediately bands together and insulates and self-protects and starts pumping out really good food.

Not Martin. He’s an ethnic minority of one. There isn’t anybody else here that he can sit with in a bar and reminisce about the glories of The Sopranos, no cousins he can invite over for a proper British curry or even a Mission District barbacoa burrito, no friends with whom he can serenade the glory of good old planet Earth with a good old fashioned drunken rendition of “Don’t Stop Believin'”.

He is alone, and nearly mute, and extremely aware of his status as an illegal and undocumented — if unwilling — immigrant.

And so he makes his living doing the one job that any illiterate, incompetent, drug-addicted maniac in the universe can always do, for just enough money to not end up in a cardboard box or giving handjobs to obese reptilian religious fanatics in back alleyways. Not that he’s done that, or considered doing it for more than five minutes at a time.

Martin finishes his meatballs and sauce and reminds himself again to ask Jehsayteh what the fuck his new favorite dish is actually made of, and then decides again that he probably doesn’t want to know. He takes a long look out at the harbor, where the shipping lanes to the other continent-districts of O lie adjacent to the massive spaceports and their loading docks. One of those big Partari freighters is coming down, parting the Chanel clouds like a fist through a curtain of gauze, its engine wake sending giant rippling waves across the ocean that crash into the breakwaters with sprays of ocean foam as big as houses that startle the bright red idiot gargoyles that sun themselves on the rocks and send them crying indignantly into the morning air.

Martin does not know that he’s smiling, but he thinks to himself: fuck, it could be worse. How in hell could you live without seeing that, even just once?

And then he’s gone into the commuter crowd that flows into the city subways like a river into an underground cavern, gravity driving it ever onward and down into the dark.


If mechanics worked like doctors

So it takes three weeks to get a mechanic to check out your car, during which time you’re rescheduled four times.

“But I have to get to work, and the electrical system is totally malfunctioning! I don’t know why and I’m afraid it might catch on fire or something!” you tell the barely-apologetic receptionist, who tells you that if your car isn’t working at all, you can go to an emergency mechanic’s shop, where they’ll tear out all of the wiring in your dashboard and hook your starter subsystem directly to the battery. “You won’t be able to use your lights or your signals or, of course, your radio or dashboard electronics at all,” the receptionist tells you, “and you might not be able to replace your wiring the way it was, but that’s the best I can tell you. Do you still want me to schedule that appointment?”

And here you are, three weeks later. You arrive five minutes early for your appointment with the mechanic, and the receptionist — maybe the same one, you can’t be sure — hands you a clipboard with a form full of questions about your car, your car’s history, your car’s previous owners…it’s a lot of information, but it’s reassuring: somebody‘s going to take all of this into account. It won’t be like those other times you went to the mechanic.

You return the clipboard to the receptionist. A half-hour of reading articles in Redbook about how to figure out what season you are later, another receptionist pops her head out from behind the garage bay door. “Can you park your car in the garage for me?” she asks, and vanishes. You duly retrieve your car and park it in the garage. “Wait here,” she says, “the mechanic will be by in a minute.”

It’s not a minute. It’s not ten minutes. It’s fully forty-five minutes later when the mechanic finally comes into the garage, moving fast, looking at the clipboard with your information. “Hi,” he says, and shakes your hand. He seems to deliberately make eye contact with you, as if it’s something they taught him in mechanic school. But he only holds it a second, and then returns to your clipboard.

“So what seems to be the problem here?” he says. Hesitantly, you start telling him. “About a month ago, my car started making weird noises when it started.”

“Uh huh.”

“Then the lights, you know, the dashboard lights and the headlights started dimming–“

“Uh huh.”

“I checked the battery–“

“Uh huh.”

You wait a second, a bit nonplussed. He hasn’t looked at you the whole time and doesn’t particularly seem to be paying attention.

“I checked the battery, and it’s fine, so I didn’t know….”

“Uh huh,” says the mechanic. “Well, from what it says here, it looks like you have a blown alternator.”

“No, but I actually replaced the alternator six months ago–“

“Uh huh. Well, it’s probably still the alternator. Just to be sure, though, I’m going to need to run a complete set of diagnostics on your car, just the standard stuff: full engine check, transmission check, electrical check of course, and then we’re going to go ahead and put it in a wind tunnel to make sure it meets manufacturer aerodynamic specifications–“

“Do we really need to do all that? I mean, couldn’t you just look at the alternator, if you think that’s what it is?” You’re a bit nervous. You don’t actually have comprehensive insurance, just collision.

He smiles, a touch patronizingly. “We want to get a good, complete picture of where your car’s at, mmokay? Otherwise, we might miss something.”

“So how much will all of that cost?” you ask.

He shrugs. “I have no idea,” he says. “It depends on a lot of factors, you’d have to ask my receptionist.”

“You don’t know how much it costs to run these tests?”

“Nope. That’s not really my department. But once we’ve run them, we can figure out exactly what’s wrong with your car and how we’re going to fix it, okay?”

He’s walking towards the garage door. He’s actually just walking away from you towards the garage door. “My assistant will be by to get you all checked out,” he says over his shoulder, and then he’s gone, leaving you staggering against the side of your poor, damaged car.

Another half-hour later, the assistant shows up. Or rather, pops his head in the door. “Follow me,” he says, and you do, to a small room with an aging computer on a desk. He sits behind the desk. “Do you have comprehensive insurance?” he asks. You tell him quietly that you don’t. He sighs. “Okay, so you’re paying the full amount.” He consults your clipboard, upon which the mechanic has apparently left some notes. He types for a few moments and then his printer spits out a small pile of papers, which he hands to you.

You pick them up.

You read down until you see the total for the battery of tests the mechanic has ordered for your car, the battery of tests you’re fairly sure you don’t need.

You suddenly feel dizzy. It’s more than you paid for the car in the first place…and you bought the car new.

“There’s also the cost of your consultation with the mechanic, which you can see here,” the assistant says, turning over the paper in your hand.

You look at him in abject horror, willing him to open his mouth and justify this incredibly ridiculous expense, which — if your dazed calculations are correct — suggests that the mechanic is charging roughly $400 per minute of his time.

He doesn’t. He just nods again. “Of course, that includes the cost of the mechanic’s assistant looking at your car while it was in the garage, before the mechanic showed up, and opening the hood.”

“Did they do anything to it?”

“Oh, no. We’re not qualified to do anything, we’re not actual mechanics. He just made sure it wasn’t actually on fire.”

“I could have told you that!”

“Yes, but you’re not a mechanic, are you?” He smiles, and it’s clear that he’s apprenticing to the mechanic in Advanced Condescension.

He hands you another, worryingly large stack of paperwork.

“Now, we can set you up on a payment plan….”

You nod, resigned, and sign away most of what you’d planned on earning for the next six months.

“Okay, I’ve scheduled you for an appointment next week to bring your car in and do these tests,” he says. You look up in astonishment.

“You’re not doing them today?” you ask. He laughs, genuinely amused. “Oh, God, no,” he says. “Our testing facility is backlogged. But we’ll get you in there.”

“And how long after that ’till the test results come back?” you ask through numb lips. He shrugs. “I really couldn’t tell you,” he says. “Not even ballpark?” you ask. He shrugs again. “Probably three weeks,” he says, “if you’re lucky.”

“But I’m afraid my car is going to catch on fire or something, or just break, and I need it to go to work!”

He shrugs a third time. “If it’s really that serious, you can take it to the emergency mechanic.”

“Can they fix it?” You’re hoping he’s going to tell you something different from the receptionist did on the phone, but again, he just shrugs.

“Probably not. They’re not really trained to do diagnostics. They’ll probably just tear out all the wiring and hook it–“

“Straight to my battery, right.” He shrugs again. This guy is a master of shrugging. “That’s just the way it works,” he says.

He leads you out the door, to where your car is now sitting, forlorn, in the parking lot. You thank him — for what, you’re not entirely sure — and get in, turn the engine. It makes the funny noise and you want to turn to the mechanic’s assistant and shout Here! That’s the noise! Did you hear that?

But he’s long gone, and so you pull away, watching the lights of your dashboard instruments pulse rhythmically as you putter towards work.


An open letter to the Web/HTML job post area of Las Vegas Craigslist.

[I originally tried to actually post this to the "Web/HTML/info job listings" area of lasvegas.craigslist.org, but I had to fill out a thing and verify another thing, and screw it. So it's here instead.]

I’m sorry, but I’ve been reading this area of Craigslist for years now and I feel like I ought to say something as a sort of public service.

Many of you who post jobs here repost them again and again, which suggests to me that you’re having difficulty filling these positions. If I may offer some suggestions?

1) You’re asking for fictional applicants. The chances of finding someone — anyone — who can do HTML, CSS, PHP, MySQL, Javascript, C++, Perl, Java, and Actionscript as well as advanced SEO and social strategy and also video production and copywriting is very, very slim. The chances of finding an applicant who does all of these things equally well or even at a competent level are nil. Absolutely nil. You don’t know that, because you’re simply firing off a list of qualifications you read somewhere. You’re trying to fill the work of several people with one person, and you’re also…well, that’s the second problem:

2) The pay many of you are offering is frankly embarrassing. First of all, paying programmers by the hour is absurd. You pay them a salary. That’s how the grownups do it. And offering someone with serious technical skills $9-12/hr to write code shows potential applicants that you’re either completely clueless about your market or you’re going to be an absolute horror to work for — the kind of boss who complains when a worker is back five minutes late from lunch.

Yes, we’re in a recession. But you’re still asking someone with complex technical skills to work for the same rate or less than a Starbucks barista. Actually, definitely less, because baristas get tips. Perhaps you’d attract more applicants if you offered to stick a $5 in their tip jar whenever they came up with a particularly efficient SQL sorting algorithm?

3) Many of you are extremely firm about not allowing workers to work from home or telecommute. Frankly: grow up. I’ve been a professional designer and developer for almost sixteen years and in those years, my experience has been that really good coders don’t work well in cubicles, in business casual attire, with you peering over their shoulders to micro-manage every moment of their time. Coding is a technical skill, but it’s also a creative endeavor. Not to mention design, of course. On the few occasions I’ve met with or worked with the sort of employers I’m talking to here, most of them had no idea what hardware/software was required to do even simple Photoshop-based development. They didn’t want to buy fonts. They didn’t want to purchase stock images — their command was invariably “Just go find something on Google”. They make it impossible to actually do the necessary work.

I am incredibly good at what I do. Better than the folks you’ve hired. But if you put me in a carpet-covered cubicle under bright florescent lights with some idiot next to me giggling over the funny cartoon of Obama getting cornholed by a Republic Party donkey and some sweaty middle-managing douchebag who peers over my desk every five minutes to see what I’m doing, I’m not going to work at the same level I do when I’m working at home, connected to my office via Skype or simple IM chat. It’s the Web, folks — I can update your site from a beach in Fiji if I need to.

If you pay your devs/designers a salary rather than an hourly wage, you won’t feel the need to make sure you’re getting your money’s worth by demanding they work in front of you. If they suck after their probationary period, fire ‘em. Again, that’s how the grownups do it.

4) Many of you are frustrated by former employers/contractors and want to let us know about your problems. Perhaps it hasn’t occurred to you that the guy who promised to make you a Facebook-killer website for $500 might have been kind of a shady dimwit. Facebook cost millions of dollars to develop and thousands of human-hours. You are not going to make a viable competitor with Joomla in two weeks using the phat logo your sister’s kid did in Microsoft Paint.

Most serious developers or contractors don’t work for less than a few thousand dollars per project. I charge a minimum of $1000 for anything — setting up a WordPress site, whatever. It goes up from there. Do you want to know why? Because your four day project isn’t actually a four day project. It takes four days for you to meet with me, tell me what you want, ask me what you need (since you almost never actually know), and also tell me you don’t have a domain or hosting, and $10/month sounds a bit pricey to you. Finally you’ll register the domain and purchase hosting, and then somehow completely fail to understand me when I ask you for your hosting login and password, as they are a small requirement to doing absolutely anything with your website.

Then you’ll vanish for a week because you don’t have the content ready for your site. You didn’t actually even figure out what content needed to be on your site. You thought I could magic you up an elegant, competitively-featured website with my voodoo. Then it’s two weeks of you trying to get as much free work out of me as possible, requesting ludicrous changes and total reworking of major parts of the project.

And when it comes time to write that pathetic check for $500 or whatever infantile sum you’ve decided my time is worth — three or four weeks of my time, at this point — you’re always still putting your funds together, and it takes another week or two to get the check from you, which is inevitably drawn on the Bank of Addis Ababa or the Chimney Sweep’s Credit Union or whatever obscure tiny bank you’ve invariably chosen to do business with, so it takes another week to clear. At this point, I’ve done a project for you for roughly $5/hr.

I understand that small businesses often don’t have big money. Really, I do. But if $500-1000 is the most you can offer someone to build your web-based business for you, you might want to think about doing it yourself. If it’s not worth your time to save $500 to learn HTML, it’s not worth the time of the guy/girl who already knows how to do HTML, you follow?

5) Most of you don’t actually need a full-time web person. You just think you do. You need a contractor to do the initial setup work and then take a small monthly contract retainer or an occasional small fee to make modifications to your site’s structure or layout. The people you hired who didn’t show you how to update your own website content or give you your passwords? Yeah, those are scumbags. They’re the kind of people who, admittedly, give my industry a bad name. You can often tell them by their shifty eyes and absolute unwillingness to provide you with logins, source code, or their original project files for graphic design. They usually wear polo shirts to meetings. Don’t hire them. Hire somebody who will treat you and your project with professionalism and concern, assuming you treat them the same way.

6) Nobody serious is going to work for an employer whose post reads like the scribblings of a five year old. Your computer has a spelling and grammar check. Use it. Also, if you say “Don’t email me, just hit me up on my cell between 6pm and 9pm and ask for Ray-Jay”, you sound like a creepy freak. Nobody wants to work for a creepy freak, except Facebook employees, and Zuckerberg pays them about a hundred times what you’re offering to pay me. (If you don’t know who “Zuckerberg” is, you probably don’t need to be getting into the Internet business.)

Now, having said all of this….

It’s OK to not know how to get this stuff done. Websites are, despite what your sister’s kid tells you, are complex things. It takes years to understand how to make one, much less a really good one. That’s what people like me are here for. It’s even okay if you don’t have a lot of money. I’ll occasionally break my own low-limit cap and work for less than I feel I’m worth, if I like the person and feel like helping them. But when I see an ad saying something like “My last designer was a worthless scumbag and I want somebody who’ll just do what I tell them. NO TELECOMMUTING. Compensation: $300-500 depending on experience”, there’s no way I’m going to click that link. The guy who does — the guy who’s so desperate for work he’ll take on what is clearly going to be a hellish gig — is going to suck as bad as your last designer or worse.

Just keep this stuff in mind, please, when you’re posting here to find somebody to help make your Web project a reality. (I don’t even know why I’m wasting my time; this will surely get deleted immediately. But screw it, I had to say something.)