Friday Free for all #40: Job Tips, TV, and Music

The next in an ongoing series in which I answer random questions generated by a website. Here’s this week’s question. Feel free to give your own answers in the comments.

What should parents stop teaching their children?

I’ll start with the softball, because this one is way too easy to answer. Parents should stop teaching their children hatred, bigotry, selfishness, bullying, and the idea that anyone “different” than them is somehow inferior.

Because, remember, treating people different from you as “less than” just gives them license to do the same right back.

What tips or tricks have you picked up from your job/jobs?

Oh, so many tricks from so many jobs, and in such a weirdly eclectic array. The first one relies on the fact that most people in upper-level management are dealing with so many things at once that they have really shitty memories for the details.

How to exploit it? If you want to get a policy that you thought of implemented, make them think that it was their idea. , then bring it up that way. Never say, “Hey, I think it would be a big improvement if we did X.”

Instead, when you have the chance, say something like, “Hey, I’ve been thinking about what you mentioned about us doing X, and I think it’s a great idea.”

Bingo — you’ll probably be put in charge of writing up how to do X. Congratulations. And yes, this one has worked for me more than a few times.

The other most important office survival skill — especially if you’re in corporate or entertainment — is to learn every last one of your immediate boss’ and their boss’ likes, dislikes, and personal quirks, and then learn how to cater to and gatekeep around them.

This one will insulate you against angry clients inclined to send snarky emails because after you cut them off and make them leave a message when they think they deserve to speak to the Executive Producer, Showrunner, CEO, or Owner right this second, dammit!, you can send a quick email to said management type, leaving the info and explaining that so-and-so was very insistent on speaking immediately but — important part — because you’ve made it your business to learn exactly which few people or organizations are on the “Please, dear god, disturb me” list and which ones aren’t, you can explain exactly that.

I’ve cut off a good number of complainers at the knees this way when they bitched to my boss, who basically told them in diplomatic and polite way to fuck off.

Learned from working in improv: Always be listening. These skills in particular have elevated my customer service and phone skills beyond anything I ever though I was capable of.

The one thing I used to most hate about any job where I had to take calls from clients was, well… taking calls from clients. Now? I treat it like an improv game because, in a lot of ways, we are making up a scene on the spot. It’s made the calls really fun.

Final skill, which really comes from long history with computers (I first met them when I was a wee lad) and my total disdain for Macs and all things Apple is this: Learn and use the keyboard shortcuts whenever possible, unless you’re a graphic artist working mostly with mouse, stylus, or touchpad.

Why? Simple. If you’re dealing with things involving typing in words or entering data or formulae, the fewer times one of your hands leaves the keyboard the better. This is especially useful in Word and Excel.

Learn the shortcut keys to do most everything you need to do, and you’ll save a ton of time. And that is my biggest pro-tip. Well, that, and if you’re an Apple fan… I’m sorry.

What will be the future of TV shows?

This question has been in the queue for a long time, and I’ve resisted answering it because I didn’t really know. However, by this point, I think the writing is on the wall.

The major cable outlets have long since established their streaming services, and even the big three networks have done it with CBS All Access, Peacock, and Disney+ having taken over CBS and the CW, NBC, and ABC/Fox, respectively.

All this leaves are local channels, which are limited to news, local programming, and whatever they can syndicate, and they are probably going to start failing in the next decade as they become less and less relevant.

Meanwhile…the content wars between all of the above streamers is going to become intense, with each one of them trying to bring the content that gets the most subscribers, and for a while, available content on all of the platforms is going to explode.

Off the top of my head, I can think of these paid outlets: Netflix, HBO Now, Showtime, DirectTV Now, Acorn TV, Amazon Prime, Sling TV, Hulu, CBS All Access, Peacock (is that paid or free, I forget?) Disney+, and YouTube TV.

That’s twelve streamers, and ain’t no one gonna pay for every one of them, because the cost would be ridiculous.

So we’re going to probably see this. Phase one: An insane ratings battle that will involve these outlets vying for the most alluring content through cast, creators, effects, whatever, and which will lead to a renaissance of creativity akin to the dawn of the silent era in Hollywood.

That’s the one that made California’s first millionaires, and we’ve already seen it happen on social media in the present day. All of the competing streamers are just going to try to gobble up the most popular Insta and TikTok stars in order to gain ratings.

And then, in about five years when they realize that it isn’t working, we’re going to start to see the great mergers, in which one by one the individual streamers finally come together to create one unified streaming service that combines all of their channels, and which will bring back viewers because it doesn’t cost an arm and a leg like a la carte would have.

The downside to that is the sudden drop in rabid need for new content, so the door that opened for creators in the 2020s slams shut in the 2030s.

Oh well. Meanwhile, all of those local VHF and UHF bands that haven’t been used for broadcast by air since early in the century are auctioned off by the FCC, and an entirely new social media crops up because of the rise of low-cost home transmitters, so everything that used to television as we knew it becomes the pinnacle of public access cable, also as we used to know it.

This will eventually turned into hipster social media, and create an entirely new and weird wave of entertainment in the 2040s. Enjoy!

How has technology changed the music industry?

The final question is one that, as a musician, I have lived through, and the short answer is, “Oh, so much for the better.” I started studying music very early in my life to the extent that I consider it my second language.

I was well-versed in music theory even before I left elementary school. But… everything was analog. I played keyboards, so it was either an accordion that pumped air via a bellows through a bunch of reeds modulated by keys, or a piano that slapped metal strings with cotton-clad hammers to make them vibrate.

You wanted to record something? Microphone and tape-recorder. That was it.

And then digital started to happen — sort of — but even then it was analog and, anyway, the first synthesizers were way out of reach of what I could have afforded at about 12 years old.

I’ve got a ton of keyboards now, two of them rescued relics that just remind me how different it was in my childhood. One is a Moog Opus III (IIRC), an analog synthesizer that can create some really interesting sounds.

Now, modern day, you’re probably thinking, “Hey, if it’s a synthesizer, how can it be analog?” Well, the answer is simple. The three tone generators that make the sound are controlled by dials and switches, instead of by entering exact digital values.

Digital instruments use computers to set values and transmit data. Analog instruments use rheostats (dials) and toggles (switches) to approximate the same.

The other relic keyboard that I picked up for about 1/10th of its original retail price at a music shop one day is an Ensoniq Mirage, which was the first sampler available to consumers. I actually knew someone in high school who owned one because their parents were richer than fuck, and I do have to say that, up to that point in my life, it did have the most realistic instrument sounds I’d ever heard from a synth.

Modern day, though? It’s kind of digital, kind of not, and falls into that weird hybrid land. For one thing, if you own one you damn well better have two things on hand: A 5-inch floppy disc that at least has the operating system and default samples on it.

More importantly: The manual that gives you all of the codes you need to use in order to sample and save shit, because this puppy works along the lines of “If you want to start recording a sample, enter A0, 46, and press start.” Totally made up, but that’s as basic as it is.

Bonus points: not in stereo and no MIDI out, although I do remember that someone created hardware hacks to make both happen.

Anyway, the reason that this keyboard is both analog and not is that the controls are digital, but the outputs aren’t.

Next, though, came my beloved Roland Junos, of which I own two, and they are just fantastic, except for their tendency to eventually have overly used keys break down. The first one served me well in my “trying to be a musician” days, while the latter worked out when I later wound up being the accompanist for a late-night musical.

The latter also was instrumental (pun intended) when I wrote music for two musicals that never actually happened.

Which brings me back to MIDI, which is the greatest thing ever invented, at least for music. It dates back to, I think, the 80s, but the idea is that it creates a signal that simultaneously can carry data on notes, the all-important ASDR (attack, sustain, decay, release — it’s a music thing), touch velocity, instrument, left/right panning, vibrato, and tempo.

This is an amazing thing, especially since most MIDI devices can transmit all of that into across 256 channels at once.

My lovely Junos were MIDI monsters, but during the pandemic I found a ridiculously cheap ($250)  workstation from Casio that just blew everything else away.

Like the Ensoniq, for example, it samples, but through a much simpler process. It also has a lot more instruments than any of my others, as well as built-in rhythm patterns…  and MIDI.

So, yeah… this cheap babe can help me do everything simply that it took me way too long to do ten or twenty years ago. But, of course, that’s because I haven’t mentioned all of the other msuci programs that make people who have no musical training able to string together shit-loops.

You know — things like Apple’s Garage Band (fuck Apple), or any other app that allows people to just drop in music chunks and mix and match.

I’ve got mixed feelings on those, actually.

On the one hand: Oh, you’re creating. Yay!

On the other hand: Oh, you don’t realize that you’re just throwing shit on the wall. Boo!

Friday Free-for-All #16

In which I answer a random question generated by a website. Here’s this week’s question Feel free to give your own answers in the comments.

What piece of technology brings you the most joy?

This one is actually very simple. It is the lowly but very important integrated circuit, or IC. They combine a host of functions previously performed by much larger and more complicated devices — mostly transistors, resistors, and capacitors — which can create all sorts of tiny components, like logic gates, microcontrollers, microprocessors, sensors, and on and on.

In the old pre-ICs days, transistors, resistors, and capacitors all existed on a pretty large scale, as in big enough to pick up with your fingers and physically solder into place.

Before that, old school “integrated circuits” were big enough to hold in your hand and resembled very complicated lightbulbs. These were vacuum tubes, and essentially performed the same functions as a transistor — as either an amplifier or a switch. And yes, they were considered analog technology.

The way vacuum tubes worked was actually via heat. A piece of metal would be warmed up to release electrons, which was also the reason for the vacuum. This meant that there were no air molecules to get in the way as the electrons flowed from one end (the cathode) to the other (the anode), causing the current to flow in the other direction. (Not a typo. It’s a relic from an early misconception about how electricity works that was never corrected.)

The transition away from vacuum tubes to transistorized TV sets began in 1960, although the one big vacuum tube in the set — the TV screen itself — stuck around until the early 2000s.

But back to the vacuum tube function. Did it seem off that I described transistors as either amplifiers or switches? That’s probably because you might think of the former in terms of sound and the latter in terms of lights, but what we’re really talking about here is voltage.

Here’s the big secret of computers and other modern electronic devices. The way they really determine whether a bit value is 0 or 1 is not via “on” or “off” of a switch. That’s a simplification. Instead, what they really use is high or low voltage.

Now, granted, those voltages are never that “high,” being measured in milliamps, but the point is that it’s the transistor that decides either to up a voltage before passing it along, or which of an A/B input to pass along which circuit.

Meanwhile, resistors are sort of responsible for the math because they either slow down currents, so to speak, or let them pass as-is. Finally, capacitors are analogous to memory, because they store a received current for later use.

Put these all together, and that’s how you get all of those logic gates, microcontrollers, microprocessors, sensors, and on and on. And when you put all of these together, ta-da: electronics.

These can be as simple as those dollar store calculators that run on solar power and can only do four functions, or as complicated as the fastest supercomputers in the world. (Note: Quantum computers don’t count here because they are Next Gen, work in an entirely different way, and probably won’t hit consumer tech for at least another thirty years.)

So why do ICs give me joy? Come on. Look around you. Modern TVs; LCD, LED, and OLED screens; eReaders; computers; cell phones; GPS; synthesizers; MIDI; CDs, DVDs, BluRay; WiFi and BlueTooth; USB drives and peripherals; laser and inkjet printers; microwave ovens; anything with a digital display in it; home appliances that do not require giant, clunky plugs to go into the wall; devices that change to or from DST on their own; most of the sensors in your car if it was built in this century; the internet.

Now, out of that list, a trio stands out: computers, synthesizers, and MIDI, which all sort of crept into the consumer market at the same time, starting in the late 70s and on into the 80s. The funny thing, though, is that MIDI (which stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface) is still around and mostly unchanged. Why? Because it was so incredibly simple and robust.

In a way, MIDI was the original HTML — a common language that many different devices could speak in order to reproduce information in mostly similar ways across platforms and instruments. Started with sixteen channels, it’s proven to be a ridiculously robust and backwards-compatible system.

Over time, the number of channels and bit-depth has increased, but a MIDI keyboard from way back in the early 80s will still communicate with a device using MIDI 2.0. You can’t say the same for, say, storage media and readers from different time periods. Good luck getting that early 80s 5-inch floppy disc to work with any modern device.

What’s really remarkable about MIDI is how incredibly robust it is, and how much data it can transfer in real time. Even more amazing is that MIDI has been adapted to more than just musical instruments. It can also be used for things like show control, meaning that a single MIDI system runs the lights, sound systems and, in some cases, even the practical effects in a concert or stage production.

And, again, while MIDI 1.0 was slowly tweaked over time between 1982 and 1996, it still went almost 25 years before it officially went from version 1.0 to 2.0, in January 2020. Windows 1.0 was released on November 20, 1985, although it was really just an overlay of MS-DOS. It lasted until December 9, 1987, when Windows 2.0 came out. This was also when Word and Excel first happened.

Apple has had a similar history with its OS, and in about the same period of time that MID has been around, both of them have gone through ten versions with lots of incremental changes along the way.

Now, granted, you’re not going to be doing complex calculations or spreadsheets or anything like that with MIDI, and it still doesn’t really have a GUI beyond the independent capabilities of the instruments you’re using.

However, with it, you can create art — anywhere from a simple song to a complex symphony and, if you’re so inclined, the entire stage lighting and sound plot to go along with it.

And the best part of that is that you can take your musical MIDI data, put it on whatever kind of storage device is currently the norm, then load that data back onto any other MIDI device.

Then, other than the specific capabilities of its onboard sound-generators, you’re going to hear what you wrote, as you wrote it, with the same dynamics.

For example, the following was originally composed on a fairly high-end synthesizer with really good, realistic tone generators. I had to run the MIDI file through an online MIDI to audio site that pretty much uses the default PC cheese-o-phone sounds, but the intent of what I wrote is there.

Not bad for a standard that has survived, even easily dumping its proprietary 5-pin plug and going full USB without missing a beat. Literally. Even while others haven’t been able to keep up so well.

So kudos to the creation of ICs, and eternal thanks for the computers and devices that allow me to use them to be able to research, create, and propagate much more easily than I ever could via ancient analog techniques.

I mean, come on. If I had to do this blog by typing everything out on paper, using Wite-Out or other correction fluid constantly to fix typos, then decide whether it was worth having it typeset and laid out (probably not) and debating whether to have it photocopied and mimeographed.

Then I’d have to charge all y’all to get it via the mail, maybe once a month — and sorry, my overseas fans, but you’d have to pay a lot more and would probably get it after the fact, or not at all if your postal censors said, “Oh, hell noes.”

Or, thanks to ICs, I can sit in the comfort of my own isolation on the southwest coast of the middle country in North America, access resources for research all over the planet, cobble together these ramblings, and then stick them up to be blasted into the ether to be shared with my fellow humans across the globe, and all it costs me is the internet subscription fee that I would pay anyway, whether I did this or not.

I think we call that one a win-win. And if I went back and told my first-grade self, who was just having his first music lessons on a decidedly analog instrument, in a couple of years, science is going to make this a lot more easy and interesting, he probably would have shit his pants.

Okay. He probably would have shit his pants anyway. Mainly by realizing, “Wait, what. You’re me? Dude… you’re fucking old!”

Oh well.

Image (CC BY 3.0) by user Mataresephotos.