Trash to treasure. Imperfections leading to great art. Innovation versus perfection. And the iconic sound of it all.

Regardless of when you started listening to hip hop or pop music, you’ve heard the TR-808 drum machine. A product of the Roland Corporation in Tokyo in 1980, the TR-808 provided the beat for icons like Afrika Bambaataa, Marvin Gaye, the Beastie Boys, and Whitney Houston.

I recently watched the movie 808 (Amazon Prime Video). It was a cool trip down memory lane and showed the sweeping influence the 808 had on music. As technology goes (and musical instruments, as the 808 sits at the intersection of both), very few tools have had such an as awed and intense fan club.

What made the 808 great was that for a drum machine, it didn’t sound quite like a drum machine. There were better out there. But it was distinctive, accessible, and it caught it’s moment and crowd. That’s what took is from functional to legendary.

But there’s a twist.
Head’s up! This is a bit of a spoiler to a well-traveled story. But if you don’t know anything about the 808 and want to be surprised, stop reading now and come back later after you’ve watched the doc.

The final moments of the documentary feature the engineer behind the Roland TR-808. He tells a story – almost sheepishly – about how he intended the 808 to be higher fidelity, but it didn’t turn out that way. The transistors that the 808 were made with were faulty – throwaways from another Roland product. The 808 team repurposed the “flawed” transistors and the 808’s unique sound was born.

Over time, Roland got better at making the circuits. As they grew more reliable, the 808 team couldn’t source the parts the needed. Ultimately, the 808 went out of production and became a collector’s item and an icon because improved technology obsoleted it.

Lessons abound in that story.

BTW, TR-808s are going on eBay for $5,500-$7,500 right now, which maybe isn’t so bad. They went for $1,200 in 1980. How much fun could you have with an 808?

BTW, BTW, the documentary also has great stories about how the Beastie Boys got the sound for Paul Revere and what happened to the 808 that Marvin Gaye used on Sexual Healing.

Shorter days (but a run of unusually hot ones here in the Bay Area) meant more TV and movies for me this month. Here are the ups and downs.

A still photo from 'Ted Lasso'
The AFC Richmond coaching staff

TV

Last Chance U, Season 5 (Netflix): For the unfamiliar, the series is a season-in-the-life documentary that follows a prominent junior college football team.

In Oakland-based Laney College’s case, the school is looking to follow up on their 2018 state championship season. The coaches are local guys who worked their way up from high schools or returned alumni. The featured players are all working through hardships they’ve experienced in their lives. The dream is to get out of Oakland on an athletic scholarship.

The East Bay provides an unforgiving backdrop. Poverty and crime are a factor in their lives, while they’re almost all frozen out of the opportunity that arrived with tech and newfound desirability. Oakland and it’s suburbs are both a point of pride and an obstacle. The series spends almost as much time featuring the area as it does the team, underscoring the connection between place and circumstance.

What makes Last Chance U work is the off-the-field focus. Sure, there’s football on Friday nights and Saturday afternoons. But this is only relevant because by then you’ve spent Sunday-Thursday with the team commuting, studying, sitting in meetings, dealing with shit at home (wherever home may be), or putting down a few beers with the coaches. By the end of the season, dreams are extended and adapted. The coaches turn their attention to the future. Oakland keeps hustling and doesn’t seems not to notice much.

Somehow though, along with suspicions that I was being too naive, the series left me optimistic. The light is faint, but it’s there. And I couldn’t help but wonder if it’s a little brighter for those who let go of football first, instead of holding on the longest.

The Vow (HBO): It’s been a while since I’ve engaged in a hatewatch, but this documentary about a self-improvement group run amok is ticking all the boxes.

The shocking, unfamiliar tale is all too familiar and not all that shocking, right from the get-go. A “charismatic” “genius” develops a “system” and promises “great things” for an unreasonable fee and unnatural dedication.

Language is manipulated and controlled. Simple concepts and structures get complex names, which are then simplified again with oh-so-many acronyms. This makes the insiders feel “inside” and vulnerable outsiders curious enough to know the lingo and pay to pull the curtain back. The manipulations start before the uninitiated are initiated.

There’s recruiting, arbitrary hierarchy, and silly signs of achievement ($3 worth of satin in this case).

The bar always moves farther away and extends higher until those who only wanted so much of a weird and bad thing realize they’ve gotten too much of it. Suddenly, it’s all not what they (literally) signed up for. The genius and his inner circle are now villains. The awakened former dupes-turned-recruiters/tormentors are now victims.

It might just be me, but no true victim has ever worked so hard for the title and burned through so much cash, then in turn milked others of their cash, as the victims in The Vow.

Don’t get me wrong: Bad things took place in this cult. The leaders are villains. But even their final, desperate attempts at intimidation and coercion are gamelike, requiring cooperation and deference from the victims to work. The cage imprisoning the members is never truly locked and the one last joke played on the members is that they don’t think to try the door handle and walk out.

Watch The Vow as your occasional reminder that water seeks it’s own level. And note too that if you’re of a certain demographic, your voice will be heard no matter what your reputation is, how stupid or dangerous your own personal behavior was, and how much you encouraged others to join in. All this while true victims go unheard or worse yet, heard and unhelped.

Just as NXVIM invents and distorts language to convince the gullible, maybe The Vow is an experiment from the documentarians and the participants to see how many of us would go along with the idea that these people are actually victims. One last loyalty test, if you will.

Ted Lasso (Apple TV+): A quasi-successful college football coach takes a job as manager of an English Premier League team, knowing next to nothing about soccer or… England.
Light, funny, and heartwarming. I dare you *not* to like this show.

Challenger: The Final Flight (Netflix): The first major news event that I remember was John Lennon’s murder. The second was the assassination attempt on Reagan. I was 7-8 at the time, so my interest was mainly my parents’ interest. But fast forward 5 years, and like a lot of kids, the Challenger explosion was the first public tragedy that left me stunned.

The Final Flight was informative and engaging. It treated the astronauts’ legacy and their families thoughtfully and respectfully. It humanized the players behind the scenes while bringing to light the culture at NASA that contributed to the disaster. And it let us in on moments that we couldn’t have known about at the time or forgot about since then (this was all before 24-hour news).

For me and probably a lot of other people who were around back then, the event felt just as heavy and shocking as it did back in 1986. The 4 episodes offer a definitive retelling, inside and out. Something that had been missing for 30-plus years, best I can tell.

Movies

The Social Dilemma (Netflix): For over a year, from 2018 to 2019, I worked as a designer on the Google Ads team in Mountain View, so I was eager to watch this. The movie left me with a lot of thoughts, but none more prominent than:

You should watch this if you don’t know how social media or online advertising work in general.

But that isn’t a wholehearted endorsement. There’s a lot here that’s overstated or mischaracterized. After watching, you’re likely to feel informed, and possibly outraged or concerned. Ask questions. Do research. Know that the film has a slant and it’s trying to distill a communications media that’s complex and emerging in 2 hours.

And if you’re feeling overwhelmed, depressed, or upset by your interactions online, turn your device off. There’s plenty of work ahead for those of us who design these products. But I sincerely feel that this remedy will be more effective than anything we’ll see for a long, long time.

Books

The Man in the High Castle by Phillip K. Dick: The idea behind this book was a fun and interesting, but the lack of a strong protagonist killed it for me. A great what can’t overcome a nonexistent who – if that makes any sense.

Or put it another way: Reading this book was like watching a sporting event featuring two out-of-market teams you don’t care about. Stuff happens, but you just don’t care that much.

A scene from S2 E2 of Mr. Robot
Mr. Robot, S2 E2

Here’s what I’ve been watching and reading.

Note: I’m only discussing what I liked, unless something was so bad I can’t help but talk about it.

TV

Mr Robot, S1-4: Mr. Robot was a show that I kicked myself for skipping at the time. With its nerdy intrigue, conspiracies, themes of David v. Goliath, socialism v. capitalism, and culture jamming v. media manipulation, it promised great things.

To reclaim a recently abused IRL expression: Promises made, promises kept. Season 2 wasn’t great, but the series was tense, complex, thrilling, and moving. Even as Mr. Robot wrapped up its story, the show gave me reasons to spend time considering what I’d just watched.

Perry Mason, S1: The glamor, celebrity, stunning architecture, and endless opportunity 1930s Los Angeles hangs in place thanks to a counterweight made up of racism, violence, corruption, and manipulation. On his best days, Perry Mason lives in the crux of it all. Most of the time though, he finds himself waging war against the shittier parts of LA (and himself).

Early reviews bogged down this part detective story/courtroom drama for no good reason. I had minor quibbles about how the story shifted gears, but there was enough to like in the story, performances, and visuals to make up for any shortcomings. S1 would’ve worked as a complete, standalone story, but I was happy to hear it got renewed.

Movies

The Verdict: When I was a kid, it seemed like The Verdict – a “Boston” movie – was on the local UHF channel (WLVI 56 in Boston) once every few months. But that was the 80s, and the movie seemed too heavy on dialogue and too light on car chases or bad special effects to get my interest.

It was a smart move waiting until now to watch it.

Paul Newman plays a barely-functioning, alcoholic attorney. A sympathetic friend drops a shot at redemption in his lap. To get it, Newman must win his case against the Catholic church – connected, wealthy, and immoral – for botching the treatment of a young woman delivering a baby, killing the baby and leaving the mother brain dead.

The Verdict is a time capsule in more ways than one, but still worth watching. I was surprised it came out in 1982 and could’ve been convinced it was from 10 years earlier. It’s a “quiet”, drab movie that’s so even-paced, you could describe it as monotonous. But it executes on the main themes of power, (in)justice, and struggle in the pursuit of truth. And the performances and dialogue carry it. 1980s me was right… and wrong.

Books

Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino: Tolentino, a writer by trade, shares several essays about her life from her teens through to the present (approximately). Some of the topics include:

  • Growing up with the internet
  • Reality TV (Tolentino was on a show in her teens)
  • Body image and fitness as an industry
  • Religion, culture, and coming of age
  • Sexual assault on college campuses
  • Marriage

I wasn’t sure what to expect from this book and in the end it left a mark. It’s entertaining and upsetting – sometimes within the same topic. At times, it was relatable (the internet, “celebrity”, and marriage). At other times, it was disturbingly foreign.

Tolentino’s perspective opened my eyes to things I hadn’t considered enough, if at all. There were passages in the book describing struggles, pressures, and frustrations that, as a man, would’ve never crossed my mind. They’ve never been part of my reality.

Beyond that, and surprisingly, this book made think a lot about my daughter. The age difference between Tolentino and I is about the same as the difference between Tolentino and my daughter. The essays made it clear(er) how life is more difficult now – and how much more difficult it could be for my daughter as she reaches adulthood (and beyond).

Some of these issues may get better with time and awareness of privilege and systemic forces at play. Others won’t. And others haven’t even truly arrived yet. When Tolentino was my daughter’s age, there was no reality TV. The internet was a handful of van-sized machines in a handful of university basements.

Being a supportive father – and a supportive individual – will mean that I have work to do now and I’ll need an awareness that adapts in the long term.

Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff: Three families navigate a Bermuda Triangle of 1950s racism and the supernatural, ranging from the South to the Midwest to New England. It’s full of monsters – known and unknown.

I wanted to read this book when the trailer first came out for the HBO series. The hype following the premiere sealed it. But when it comes to sci-fi, I worry that the level of immersion involved is going to be too tedious and the pace too slow. I want to be entertained, not to take on a new field of study.

There was no danger of that here. Ruff sets up a rich world that’s anchored in history, but free to kick down the barriers to your imagination. The action’s never far off and the story moves quickly, while staying in focus. There’s one plot line/detour that I didn’t love, but it develops characters and helps transition the story to its conclusion. Hardly a dealbreaker.

If anything, the book now has me worried for the TV show. I can’t say how many episodes this story will need, but 1 season of 10 episodes probably isn’t the right number. There’s too much good in the book.

The world moves fast. Our attention spans and memories are shrinking faster. “I’m old enough to remember…” is a running series of posts where I look back at bad takes and overblown trends.

About 5-7 years ago, every 3rd article written about San Francisco was by some disenchanted soul who was on the verge of leaving. I think at one point, one local blog was only accepting articles about bailing on San Francisco. The preferred relocation destinations and the reasons for leaving were predictable. NYC always topped the destination list.

First impressions waned. Complaints piled up faster than tech bros on a BART platform. Quasi-analytical reasons rode shotgun to provide rationale to highly personal reasons. Same malaise, different day.

But these were never just “me first, SF” rants. Everybody here knows you need data to tell a story and the data – by way of real estate apps – made the case broader and clearer. Many people, with good reasons, were definitely moving out and definitely *not* just window shopping on their phones while they watch TV. The “data” backed the theory, you see. Social proof had joined the chat.

Why go?

The “SF is dead” MadLib looked like this:

  • [The price of anything]
  • [“Tech”]
  • [Crowded/ugh who are these people]
  • [My friends are saying/doing…]
  • [An infrastructure woe]
  • [Evolution, i.e. something happened to a favorite bar or restaurant]
  • [Least favorite social policy]

Where to?

The case was clear. SF had beaten something out of them. That something sat gift wrapped for them as soon as they unloaded the moving truck elsewhere. Back then, elsewhere looked like this:

  • NYC, Chicago, LA, Philly, Boston: I want a “real” big city.
  • Oakland, Portland, Denver, Vancouver, Toronto: I want a “real” city, but also a hipper anti-city (iykyk).
  • Austin, Seattle: I actually like SF, but I’m sick of roommates and I can take a hit on the weather.
  • The South and Midwest: I want human connection. And to own a home.
  • Anyplace rural: I want to raise goats and grow weed.

My favorite was Oakland. No one denies that Oakland boasts it’s own culture and it’s a cool place to live. But the thought of railing against the decline of The City and heading off to start fresh in The Town – 4.5 miles away – always made me laugh the hardest. Especially when gentrification was cited as a reason for leaving San Francisco.

Which leads us to…RIP NYC

Today, it’s New York’s time in the barrel. A podcast founder declared NYC “dead” forever(!) no less. Jerry Seinfeld wrote a rebuttal op-ed, essentially thanking the author for coming and bidding him well in a way New Yorkers are especially inclined to do.

The post seems COVID-inspired. It’s not. The obituary for New York is as formulaic and weak-spirited as all the San Francisco laments were. A beloved lifestyle is lost. A less fortunate, troubled person inconvenienced or upset them. There was some violence. (In the largest city in the US and the 28th largest in the world… imagine!)

For substance, these takes make confident declarations, complete with supporting stats that explain the problem with galaxy-brained precision. Stuff like:

There won’t be business opportunities [in NYC] for years.

…Wait a second – I was paying over 16% in [NY/NYC] state and city taxes and these other states and cities have little to no taxes? And I don’t have to deal with all the other headaches of NYC?

Everyone has choices now. You can live in the music capital of Nashville, you can live in the “next Silicon Valley” of Austin. You can live in your hometown in the middle of wherever. And you can be just as productive, make the same salary, have higher quality of life with a cheaper cost to live.

If you don’t think about it too deeply, the future’s looking great everywhere but in New York. Fewer headaches? Little to no taxes? Opportunities for the taking? Makes you wonder why every city doesn’t operate this way, and how NYC reached it’s status despite these shortcomings.

Yes, everything will be leaving New York, but somehow Nashville will remain the “music captial” and Austin’s trajectory as the “next Silicon Valley” goes uninterrupted. Wouldn’t those industries (all industries?) decentralize, too? Nevermind. You’ll be as productive as ever and your employer won’t catch on that you’re living in “the middle of wherever” and adjust your salary. (Just go with it.)

Like those SF rants, NYC’s undertaker offers suitable relocation options with (yup) Redfin “destination” data to support his theory. FWIW, “destinations” are where you’re going. Redfin is as much pastime as anything else. It’s like House Hunters in your hand, where you’re the show’s producer *and* the crazy couple who can’t agree on what your budget is or what you’re really looking for.

Anyway, Miami sounds good to the author. Its red hot housing market isn’t at all troubled by water bubbling up through the ground, trying to drown the place or the steady stream of shady investors who’ve been running money through that city since the 1980s. Young people have caught on and are leaving Miami for higher ground, despite the author’s Redfin usage data, proving once again that using this type of info is about browsing and not buying. The key motivators for people moving to Miami seem to amount to “I can deal with heat, humidity, and alligators, and I won’t still be alive when these bigger problems come to bear”. Sure, NYC is experiencing tough times. Move to sunny Miami, where a population that’s aging out isn’t going to waste their precious time or their fixed incomes addressing problems they won’t live to experience.

Phoenix is tempting to the author, too. I’ve spent limited time in NYC – just a handful of visits in my life – but I lived in Phoenix. No two US population centers (I’m hesitant to call Phoenix a city) could be more different. NYC instantly conveys a sense of awe – the scale, the diversity, the 24/7 rhythm of it, the industry and economic power driving it all.

Phoenix, by contrast, isn’t even a clearly defined place. It’s an under-developed downtown for a city it’s size that quickly goes flat, then extends out to a network of homogenous suburbs that are split into even more homogenous communities.

Mesa’s Phoenix. Glendale’s Phoenix. They’re 30 miles apart and can take 2 hours to drive with traffic. Every few years, more towns are added to Phoenix. Phoenix has the same branding problem Xerox and Kleenex have.

But, the author notes, you can Zoom into meetings there. This is an interesting selling point since you can do that anywhere, but even more interesting for a place where most locals work in retail, hospitality, manufacturing, and construction. The last industry exists to build an endless supply of new homes and retail that quickly age the previous batches of new homes and retail. In Phoenix, if your home is getting a bit dated (meaning <10 years old), people don’t renovate. They buy one of the model homes from the new development 3 miles away. This, presumably, will go on forever, until all the desert is used up or the threadbare lace that holds together the country’s 5th largest metro area finally falls apart. And this is where a New Yorker fearing collapse should go?

It’s worth noting that Miami and Phoenix have COVID too, despite these places’ best attempts to ignore it or meet it with half measures. But hey, neither MIA or PHX were ever NYC to begin with, so let’s just skip all the 1:1 comparisons and call it even. They’re better positioned going forward, because they were never as good to begin with. (Just go with it.)

The thing about cities

Cities don’t ask for – or need – your permission to evolve. They don’t apologize. They know we’re just passing through, an idea that a lot of us forget until we grow disenchanted.

And that’s where Seinfeld’s reply comes in. World-class cities have an energy that other places don’t. This energy draws people to it. They’re aren’t perfect, but they’re ever-adaptable, which makes them relevant. Over a long enough timeline, they’ll overcome their problems and endure. If not for you, then for the people who hung in or just arrived to pick up what you left behind.

So to those seriously considering the argument that NYC is dead, I say go find what you think you’re looking for elsewhere. In my experience, it’s a huge quality of life boost to live someplace that makes you happy.

But watch the predictions and promises that don’t make sense to begin with. Your money may go farther, until it doesn’t anymore because the market adjusts. Your new city will have it’s problems, because cities have problems. If you have “little to no taxes,” then expect them to go up or expect to lose amenities and services. You may be playing the home version of House Hunters again sooner than you think. But your departure will be more an act akin to shedding – not fatal, and supportive of new growth in the city you left.

And stop declaring cities like NYC and SF “dead.” San Francisco’s still here, limping right now due to a host of reasons, just like New York and everywhere else. But neither place, nor the other relevant, rare cities like them, are going anywhere.

But don’t believe me, check out the author’s Redfin data. The Bay Area is on the list of places New Yorkers are “fleeing to.” There’s already a resurgence going on, even though San Francisco’s population grew by nearly 100,000 people in the last decade.

Not bad for a city that died years ago.

Malcolm Gladwell is back with season 5 of his Revisionist History podcast.

I know it’s become sport for some to attack Gladwell’s books for how he builds a case around his hypothesis. To me though, the real reason to read (or in this case, listen) to Gladwell is because he’s a master of asking “why?”. This fundamental, but powerful question has been driving a lot of social change lately. We should be asking it more often.

In the end, it seems to me that Gladwell doesn’t care much about whether you agree with him or not, though in interviews he strikes me as someone who’s not going to agree to disagree easily. What he does seem to care about is that you take the journey with him and spend some time in contemplation. You’re always free to draw your own conclusions.

Bonus: If you’re new to the podcast, here are the episodes that listeners recommend the most, according to Podyssey.