A night at the theater, my Hamilton review.

Last night we went to see the musical Hamilton here in Los Angeles. I posted some things on Facebook about it, but wanted to talk about the experience more in depth here.

Three crazy people on the subway

First of all, I’m not going to explain the musical to you. If you don’t know much about it then you really do need to get out more often. Not only is it one of the most award winning musicals, its also a nice bit of history, a ground breaking blend of rap and broadway musical, and a well crafted commentary upon the value of immigrants and people of color to this country. Since it opened in New York the musical has constantly been sold out. When the touring company came to L.A. I figured it was the best chance I would get at seeing it. The show is massively popular here in L.A. too, so tickets were not cheap.

I’m going to start by saying I was probably a fan of Hamilton before you were. That’s not a brag, I have a degree in U.S. History, and Alexander Hamilton was one of my favorites from way back then. This was in the mid 80s, back when Hamilton was still a stuffy old white guy. The question then was, did the modern recasting of the man change him in any significant way?

I first came across the Hamilton from the music. Bits and pieces started filtering into my world, especially after it won so many Tonys. Out of curiosity I downloaded the Original Broadway Cast recording about a year and a half ago. I have loved it from the first listen. I can’t recommend it enough. The music is quite powerful, and does a good job of telling Hamilton’s story, warts and all. If the whole Hamilton phenomena could be reduced down to just this music, I think it would still be a worthy of the praise. It is history brought to life, with all the worry, drama, love, and subterfuge of the founding of our nation, but presented in a three act structure, with all the elements that make for good drama (or for that matter, good story-telling). Just from listening to it you get probably 90% of what goes on in the musical. In fact, there was only one small part of the show last night that strayed outside of the recording (the “Tomorrow There’ll Be More of Us” scene which I found out was intentionally kept off the recording to be a nice easter egg for those going to the show). My goal in wanting to go was to not just hear the music live (like one might for their favorite rock band), but to see if the staging of the music made the story that much better. The short answer is, indeed it did.

The Pantages

The setting:
Hamilton is being performed at the Pantages Theater in Hollywood. It is a lovely setting, an Art Deco treasure, chock full of fun and interesting details. I could spend a week there with a camera and an internet connection, trying to trace down and discover the meaning behind all of the wonderful statues, reliefs, and decorations. If you love art, then just going to this theater is a sight for sore eyes. To my mind the building is every bit as lovely as the Walt Disney Concert Hall, or the Parthenon. Mind you, it is lovely for different reasons then those other two architectural treasures, but I think you get the point.

The stage is simple, befitting a musical when the story is told mostly by lyric. There are some fancy parts, mostly the turn-table floor which rotates at times on parts of the stage, but this is pretty low-key compared to some plays and musicals, and never once overwhelmed. The orchestra was pretty reduced with most parts played on modern instrumentation. Much of the music was I believe pre-recorded. It sounded remarkably like the Original Broadway Cast recording, which is probably a very good idea as the music itself is perhaps the musical’s strongest selling point. The actors were individually mic’d so their voices did not have to carry to fill the room, which brings me to one of my big criticisms. From our vantage point, center and close to the stage, the sound was not very good. The actor performing the part of Hamilton was quieter than everyone else in the mix for most of the night, so he was at times difficult to hear. The overall sound quality was only fair. A lot like the sound quality of of your a cineplex build in the 90s. The music was at times distorted and mushy, the sound muffled, the highs clipped, and the midtones over blown. It sounded as if the volume of each singer was constantly changed to match the needs of the music. This is perhaps good stagecraft, but at a few points, especially at the big dramatic endings of songs, the actors sang loud enough that they became too loud and distorted. To be fair, the theater might not lend itself to good audio. All those wonderful art deco details might make for an echoic and mushy room, still when you pay top dollar for a musical I believe having a good sound system does not seem too much to ask.

Mind you, all of these are minor points. Most listeners will probably not notice such things. If you’re a recording engineer then you’ll probably find even more flaws than I did, but for most people the sound will be more than adequate. The music was clear, the lyrics understandable, and sound was loud without being anywhere near to rock-concert volume. My wife and son, both of whom have only heard bits and pieces of the soundtrack, found the music wonderful, and had no problems following the story, even when it was delivered at a blistering rate.

The staging of the music, especially seeing different characters sing the various parts, really made the music come to life. The Original Broadway Cast recording is great, as I mentioned above, but suffers in that you often cannot tell which character is singing what part. The voices of Lin-Manuel Miranda (Alexander Hamilton) and Leslie Odom Jr. (Arron Burr) are close enough to my ear that I cannot tell by listening that they often trade lines back and forth in a song. Seeing them do so on they stage brought much greater depth to the songs.

Perhaps my favorite example of this was the wonderfully subtile scene in the song One Last Time. The song begins with Washington asking Hamilton to write for him one last speech. Most of the song goes into the reasons for the speech and Washington’s retirement, but near the end we get to hear part of the actual speech itself. It starts with Hamilton speaking the words front stage, with Washington back stage about as far as you can go, directly behind him. The rest of the stage is largely bare. As the song progresses, Hamilton slowly moves back stage, and Washington comes to front stage. When they pass the song goes from spoken to sung, and the voicing seamlessly transitioning from that of Hamilton, the speech-writer, to Washington the speaker. All the while the song is building from just single voice and a cello, to multiple instruments. Near the end the ensemble has come onstage, dressed formally, arranged in couples as if listening to a speech at a park, with the men holding their hats high over their heads in respect. It is lovely, and powerful, and fairly simple. Never once does it get in the way of the performance. The movements and the costumes supported the song perfectly.

Another example is in the song The Room Where it Happens. This is the turning point for the antagonist (Aaron Burr), as the song captures the moment he goes from being passive to active, following, as he later tells him, Hamilton’s example. In terms of dramatic structure, this scene is key to the story. It ties up one theme (wait for it), and introduces another (room where it happens), adding complications along the way. In the cast recording the emotional impact of Burr singing “I want to be in the room where it happens” is not very strong. Seeing it staged you realize this is a life changing moment for the man (and later for Hamilton as well). The music alone does not do this song justice. Seeing it performed really brings it all home.

I could say the same for easily 3/4ths of the songs. The staging really takes them to another level. On some songs, like the complicated relationship between A Winter’s Ball, which runs into Helpless, and finally Satisfied, the staging really helps to understand the story. The songs captures the moment when Angelica Schuyler first meets Hamilton in A Winter’s Ball, and then later rewinds so that she can relive that same moment at her sister’s wedding to Hamilton in the song Satisfied. This is pretty complex for stage craft. Movies often go back and forth in time, but it’s a hard thing to do on a stage, let alone in a song. The staging does both scenes perfectly, changing only a few small parts, which add all the wonderful emotional undercurrent to the story.

Finally, I’d like to mention the actors. On the night we saw it the part of Hamilton was played by Ryan Alavarado, who is listed in the playbill as a standby. Either he was having a bad night, or his performance was not particularly polished. Either way his was perhaps the single “average” performance. This is not a complaint. When you go to the theater you get what the director gives you. Unlike a movie which can be shot with multiple takes, you only get one take on the stage. It either nails it or it doesn’t. Alvarado was a good performer but his voice was quieter (as I mentioned before) and his acting was a bit stiff. Perhaps his was a great performance, but only look worse when compared to those he was staged with, because the rest of the cast really pulled out the stops. Stand outs from such a wonderful cast are hard to find, but Joshua Henry, singing the part of Aaron Burr, really nailed it, and Isaiah Johnson singing the part of George Washington was incredible. His ending of One Last Time was soaring, a great example of how much better theater is at performing a song then any rock band. (Take note. If you’re in a band and really want to take things to the next level, this is what it looks like.) Rory O’Malley reprised his role of King George, since he was part of the original broadway cast. His performance takes a comic part and milks it for all it’s worth, to great effect. He was a show stopper. Finally, of note was Raven Thomas’ performance of Angelica Schuyler. She is listed in the program as part of the Ensemble, not a lead part. How she got the part of Angelica I don’t know. What I do know is she sang and acted as if this was her “shot”, and let me tell you, girlfriend knows how to aim. I expect to see more of her.

So in closing, was seeing the play worth the cost? Yes. The staging makes the play so much better than the music. It adds more drama, more comedy, more sadness, more of everything. In spite of a few quibbles I would go again. Already my wife has said she’d like to. I don’t know that we’ll sit in the same seats, but I have a feeling we’ll be back.

 

 

A chance meeting with a passing soul

His name was Christopher, and he was sitting on the sidewalk outside of Trader Joes. I was doing a grocery run because Teri was busy with something, and I got off work early. One of the first things I learned about Christopher was he was going to the hospital. He had a hurt wrist, so he said, had a few possible broken ribs, and sclerosis of the liver. The second thing I learn about Christopher, before I even learned his name, was he was going to die.

“They told me I have 61 days,” he said to me, “I’ve been counting. I still have 40 left.”

When I came back out of the store, both arms loaded with groceries, I stopped to give him some cash. We talked about riding the bus and a few other things. His companion, very much not a homeless man, was named Pedro. Pedro was the kind of guy who ended every sentence with Praise God, or Praise Jesus. I knew the type, hell, I’d been the type. He seems to care, and was apparently going to take Christopher to the hospital, so I didn’t complain, although why they hadn’t gone in the time I was shopping I don’t understand.

Christopher was 51, and looked pretty good. His beard was long, but clean and well trimmed. His eyes were that color of electric blue that are startlingly pure. They were arresting eyes. His hair was turning from blonde to grey, but he had less grey in it than I do. Had his clothes been slightly cleaner he could have passed for an eccentric, and not a homeless man. His wore bright blue tennis shoes on his feet. One lay on its side on the sidewalk, the leg coming up at a strange angle from the foot, like he was woking on turning his ankle further so bottom of his foot could bend in more. The pose was both comfortable and awkward. He didn’t smell much of urine.

We talked about God and such. Christopher didn’t realize the meaning of his name, and when I told him, then Pedro wanted to know right away if I was a Christian or not. Somehow I seem to always do this with born-agains, I pepper the conversation with enough knowledge to make them ask, and then get to tell them I’m no longer a believer. It’s a stupid compulsion on my part. It stems in part from my need to be smarter than everyone else, and also possibly as a way to signal to them that their firm belief is not all that firm. A few times I’ve able to simply ignore Christians, or mouth the “christianese” enough to not draw attention, but today I didn’t.

Pedro wanted to know why I walked away from the faith. They always do. There’s no good answer to that, as least one a christian will understand. Knowing all about the faith, but not being of it doesn’t compute. It’s not a thought that fits within the christian meme. He asked if I was turned off by the church, but the truth is it wasn’t just the church. It was the whole thing. The whole memeplex is a mess. Too self-referential, and offering almost zero room for ideas outside of a very narrow set of beliefs. To me its like trying to build a giant apartment complex in a tiny sandbox with carefully guarded borders. There’s no room. It just doesn’t fit.

In any case I wasn’t there to discuss religion, and I wasn’t the main event. Sooner or later the conversations going to come back to Christopher, he was a drunk, this is how it goes. So I kicked the conversation back to him, and let it run its course.

We talked about a few more things, but I had frozen groceries in my bag, so I wasn’t exactly prepared for a long conversation. I wished Christopher well, and that he’d find sobriety. Then I give a mini lecture on the sacredness of work, explained how Jesus thought work important enough to even quote the OT on the topic (one of the few times he did), and wished him the desire to work hard on his life. For Pedro I wished him nothing, but left him with a pleasant greeting. Like me, Pedro is one of the lucky ones. Finally I wished Christopher luck. He’s going to need it if he wants to live past Christmas.

Then I drove home and put away my groceries.

Here’s the thing. We all have the knowledge that death can come at any moment. This week we had this concept strongly reaffirmed by the horrible shooting in Las Vegas. But the human mind naturally elides thoughts of death. If you try to force someone to pay attention to their future date with the grim reaper it will just piss them off. But occasionally one can approach the idea of their looming demise from an oblique angle, and not have a negative reaction. Christopher is a reminder that we all will die soon. I don’t mention this so you’ll be ready to meet your maker, since I don’t believe in one, but to point out the value of death is life. Death is a reminder to be what you want, to be who you are. If you were given 61 days would you spend it so drunk that you could trip on the sidewalk and break some ribs, or would you do something that made your life count?

Now here’s the real question, why wait?

Actual evidence showing racism exists in America

Twice now in as many weeks I’ve run across a well meaning white friend who did not quite understand the nature of racism in America. I’m not posting this here to shame them, or for that matter to shame anybody, I’m putting this page up as a handy reference. My goal is to provide a single page with links to scholarly research (not reports, not news, and certainly not fake news) that indicates racial bias exists in America still.

Feel free to link to it if you wish.  (permalink)

For the most part the links go to original studies, not reports of studies. This distinction is important as I would like to present the data with as little slant or bias as possible. This is science, yo, not an opinion piece. Also, I respect that you came here, so I’ll try not to waste your time.

If you run across a good study that you don’t see here, feel free to email me a link. Likewise if you spot any errors please drop me a line. The goal is to keep this page as “objective” as possible with as little bias as I can offer.

 

An oldie but a goodie, from back in the early 1990s on how different races perceive each other:
Ethnic Images

This one is kind of surprising, especially the last part of the abstract. It’s about expulsion rates for children based on race (pdf link):
Do Early Educators’ Implicit Biases Regarding Sex and Race Relate to Behavior Expectations and Recommendations of Preschool Expulsions and Suspensions?

This one is all about perception. It’s a Pew survey not a research paper, so consume with a healthy grain of salt.
On Views of Race and Inequality, Blacks and Whites Are Worlds Apart.

A paper using resumes and racially biased names. This paper is the one that started me down this path.
Are Emily and Greg More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal?

Even the police will not call you back as often with a black sounding name (pdf link):
Racial Discrimination is Local Public Services…

More about racially biased names and assumptions (pdf link):
Looming Large in other’s eyes….

A longer article that references the resume study above, but adds so many more that I’m just posting this here rather than fishing out all of the links.
Think you’re not racist?
Research uncovers our secret prejudices, and ways to overcome them.

One that came out as I was typing this. Apparently police cameras are useful for more than just video.
Language from police body camera footage shows racial disparities in officer respect.

I’m sure there is much more. I’ll be adding to this page as I find studies I deem worthy of your time.

My thoughts on 2016

As I write this it is the morning of December 27, 2016. For those perhaps reading this post in the future, this year has seen what feels like more than its fair share of stars and idols who have died. My Facebook account if full of many curses for 2016, and a lot of hue and cry, some of which I must admit is deeply entertaining on some level, but the general thrust of these posts has sparked me to make this comment.

We have been blessed with many heroes, and not too few villains, over the years, but they are not ours–they do not belong to us–and when they go it behoves us to send them off with the respect and dignity they deserve. We were blessed to stand in the shadow of their light–in what feels like, at times, a very dark world–but now it is up to us to make our own light, however pale it might seem in comparison.

We might say to them, “Goodbye dear friend,” and, “Thank you,” but we must also let them rest in the peace they have richly earned. They had their chance, now we have ours.

On the morning after a major election.

So Donald Trump has become the President Elect. Congratulations to him for his victory. As you can imagine, I have a few things to say about this, as well as some predictions.

  1. First of all I want to acknowledge that I was wrong on this. I was pretty confident Hillary Clinton has this election wrapped up in a bag. Now, I wasn’t alone in my predictions, there were A LOT of others out there who had similar ideas about how the election was going to turn out. Some of them were giving Hillary a 95% chance of winning. At least Nate Silver at fivethiryeight was saying there was a chance the election could go the way it did. In fact, just a few days ago people on FB were claiming Nate was much too pessimistic. They’re not any more. If anything he was too optimistic, but at least he was wise enough to leave room for a Trump Victory. I think his tear-down of his own mistakes (believe me, he will), and of polling in general, will be instructive.But still it needs to be said, I made a mistake.
  2. For my many friends who are freaking out right now, please calm down. I can assure you the experience is survivable. I know this because we’ve been through this before. Almost exactly this experience. A Republican candidate winning the electoral college, but not the popular vote, after a successful eight years of a Democratic President, and the Democratic candidate loses because of a third party protest vote. Sound familiar? Well that was the 2000 presidential election. The only difference is this time we won’t have the Supreme Court stopping the recount efforts. So yeah, we’ve been here before. All is not lost. If our nation was big enough to survive a George W. Bush Presidency, then its big enough to survive a Trump one.
  3. To that end I think imperative that all Americans take a moment and find a way to come to terms with the will of the American people. Donald Trump won the election, He is the President-Elect. I think it incumbent upon us as citizens to respect the peaceful transfer of power that our country was founded upon. Come January 20th Trump will be President.To that end I am willing to cut him some slack. Hey, if I can be wrong about him winning the election its possible that I am wrong about his character flaws. So I’m willing to give him a little bit of rope. But only a little. I made the mistake of extending trust to George W. Bush, especially in terms of invading Iraq, and I will regret that to my grave. So President-Elect Trump will get my support, but only a small amount. He says he wants to be the President for all of America, which I think a worthy goal, so I will lend him enough support for him to make good on that promise. But if he fucks that up, I will be merciless.
  4. For my liberal friends, especially those who voted third party. I think it’s pretty clear this was one of the decisive elements at play in the election. From what I’ve seen Hillary could have carried a lot of the states that were close (Florida, Pennsylvania, etc.)  if it wasn’t for the protest vote. So pat yourself on the back if you want, but seriously do not be surprised at my contempt for you. You’re vote is more than how you feel. We’re all connected to it. If four years of Trump doesn’t bring home the ignorance of your position I don’t think anything I can say will.
  5. For my many conservative friends and family. First of all, enjoy. You won yourself a victory. It’s a great feeling. Enjoy it. I mean it. But when all the dust has settled, I expect you to be as critical and as harsh on President Trump as you were on President Obama. I think we all know Trump is not perfect, and I think it’s abundantly clear he’s not going to hear people from my side of the aisle complaining about his mistakes. So it’s going to be up to you to keep him in line. Good luck with that. I suspect you’re not going to like the job, but you voted the man in, so you get to deal with him.
  6. Curiously, I see a few hopeful things for a Trump Presidency. I think a President Trump will have a much better chance of getting a major medical care reform bill through Congress than Hillary would have. He has stated he wants to kill Obamacare, and God knows the congress will be happy to oblige him. The key question is what is he going to replace it with? If he just guts Obamacare, and doesn’t replace it with something similar, things are going to get ugly fast. If you don’t remember, we used to see something like 40k-100k of medical bankruptcies per year before it passed. All of the caused by the twin medical insurance demons of “pre-existing conditions” and “max. payout.” If those two horsemen of the apocalypse are let loose again expect to see serious push-back.
  7. As it happens my family and I are in a position to be fairly magnanimous about the election. For one thing we’re reasonably protected by living in a liberal state, for another we’re fairly wealthy. These two offer a great shield against anything a President Trump might do. But also I am white, and male. Two things that almost guarantee me a certain level of protection and freedom. No one is going to be pulling me over soon saying, “papers please.” Not all of my friends can say that. In terms of costs, a Trump Presidency will not be all that expensive to us.
  8. So what is it going to cost our nation? That is the $100,000 question. Judging by our 2000 election and subsequent Republican rule,  I’m going to make a few predictions. We’ll have to wait and see which one of these comes true, if any. Remember I was already wrong about Trump (see #1, above), so there’s no guarantee I’ll be right about these.I think that by the end of his first term, Trump will:
    a) See the economy rise to 4% GDP, and then drop down to 2% or less.
    b) See the deficit (right now predicted to be $590B for 2016) rise to $1T or even $1.5T
    c) Raise the National debt from the projected $14T to $20T or more.
    d) See unemployment rise by 2%
    e) Have at least one major scandal (personally, or on his staff) requiring a Special Prosecutor.
    f) See at least one very large terrorist act on U.S. soil. (which to be fair is not directly related to his actions, although he’s claimed differently).
    g) Cause at least one major rift in the Republican party.
    h) Involve us in at least one open conflict that involves troops on the ground (not just military advisors), for which he will not raise taxes.
    i) Cause our international standing to plummet at least once in a major way.
    j) Cause the Dollar to drop dramatically at least once.

 

That’s it for now. I might go and add more to my list, but I wanted it posted here for posterity.

Memorial Day, 2016

His name was Conrad G. Tolladay, and he was my uncle, though I never met the man. He was also a second lieutenant in the United States Army Air Corps. Before today if you had told me his name I would have said, “Conrad who?” Nobody in the family used his first name, everyone called him Jimmy. I only found out about his “real” first name by searching the internet for a photo. That’s also how I learned that on January 17, 1944, flying a P-38 named “Oh Kay” over Burma, he was shot down and never seen again. He was 24 years old.

But that is the end of his story.

Jimmy’s story begins on the 18th of September, 1919, in Madera California. He was the first born son of George and Selma Tolladay, and by all accounts was a bit of a joker. On family gatherings his name came up often enough, but the stories about him were always colored with sadness. He was well loved, and deeply missed.

Jimmy was brave, fun-loving, and at times a little reckless. He was raised to be a cowboy on a working cattle ranch, like my father and my uncle. Among other things this meant he could ride hard and shoot straight; the perfect thing for a fledgling Army Air Corps in need of fighter pilots. He had just turned 22 when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. He must have signed up for the service immediately afterwards, like a lot of other brave men and woman.

When I was a kid I used to always think that Uncle Jim would one day show up at our house full of epic stories of survival, telling us how he clawed his way out of the jungle to come back and be with his family. Now that I’m older I can see that he must have been very lonely in India, fighting an enemy he barely understood, for a country (China) he barely liked, in an airplane that was at times both thrilling and terrifying to fly.

Now, when I think of Jim, or any of the other 404,000 Americans who died for our country in that horrible war, I often wonder what they would have said if they had known what we have purchased with their sacrifice. Would they marvel at pro Football on color television sets? Would they stand up and cheer at the civil right movement, or would it fill them with anger and disdain? What would they think of rock and roll, the Vietnam War, or President Nixon’s criminal acts? Would they love Elvis, the Beatles? What would they think of the atomic bomb, or the British New Wave? Would they think the cost of their lives was too high a price for such trivial things, or would they be proud of what we have done with their payment?

Short of heaven, these things are lost to us, like their very lives. We’ll never know what they would think of the coming world because for them it stopped the day they stepped into their plane, or their ship, or their foxhole. All we have to carry their memories forward a few photographs, and family stories.

Thus it is fitting that one day a year we raise a flag and take the time to remember the price that they paid. These brave American souls paid a heavy price so that we can sit, sipping our coffees and browsing the internet. Try to remember in the coming days that your life, your livelihood, and your lifestyle are not free; they were paid for by somebody else, at a great personal cost.

Thank you Uncle Jimmy for your life and your stories.

An Open Letter to the California Employment Development Department

The other day I had a conversation with an employee at the California Employment Development Department, which contrary to what the name implies is not strictly interested in developing employment. The reason we had the conversation was because a client of mine was being investigated to see if they had properly classified me as an independent contractor. The purpose of the call left me scratching my head. I’ve been working as an independent contractors since 1993. Why would it suddenly be different now?

Well, it turns out it is different now. Thanks to a law passed in 2011 (SB 459) the great state of California added new criteria for determining an independent contractor’s status, and as an added bonus included in the law fines for companies that knowingly misclassified employees as independent contractors. Hence the call from the EDD. The nice employee (I’m not being ironic here, the employee was pleasant on the phone and took great pains to help me understand the law, without ever leading me or telling me what to do. They are quite talented at their job.) lead me though a fairly informal interview and was careful to gather all the input I wanted to give. Finally the conversation ended, but I was left with an uneasy feeling as if I had forgotten something. I can’t be the only one here who remembers the right thing to say 20 minutes after the conversation has ended. After first writing my local state representatives asking for the Assemblymen and Senators who work on the appropriate committees, I sat around and thought about my position. The remaining paragraphs are the result of a weekend worth of pondering.

The name of the employee is intentionally omitted here, as any reference to their gender. Like I said, I found the employee talented and was obviously doing their job to the best of their abilities. In no way did I find fault with them or their actions. They don’t set the rules, our state legislature do that. If you have any complaints please take it up with them.

Dear NAME

I’m writing to you after our conversation the other day regarding COMPANY NAME. Over the weekend it occurred to me that I may have missed some points that could be pertinent to your investigation. I thought I would write in hopes of clarifying these points. Please excuse the length. I’ll try to keep this as quick as possible.

From our conversion I was left with the opinion that one of the defining characteristic of an employee (as opposed to an independent contractor) was whether the individual worked at  the office of the company and used their equipment. Since I often work at my clients offices and use their computers, I can see that this might be a determining characteristic. However, I feel like there is an important distinction here that may have been missed.

Most of my clients have dozens of computer stations set up around their offices. The computers are all similar if not identical in abilities, and all pretty much run the same software. They are as alike as the tech guys can maintain them.

Working on these computers will be a whole host of employees and freelancers, like myself. The value that each person brings to his or her computer is related to their knowledge and expertise. Broadly speaking, there are a few people who make about $15 per hour, a larger group that make around $50 per hour, and finally a few rare individuals who make over $100 per hour. When I say, “make” here I’m talking about what the individual directly charges the company, or the value they bring to the company. Because these people can move about the office, it’s quite common for a computer to have a $15/hour employee working on it one day, and a $50/per hour employee on it the next.

Now if a computer is on Monday making $15/hour for the company, but on Tuesday is making $50/hour, then it would not be accurate to say it is the computer that is bringing value to the company. Because the same computer should, if it was the source of the value, provide a similar value every day of the week. But it doesnt. In fact the computer’s value to the company varies in direct proportion to the person who is using it. That is to say the money the computer generates comes not from itself, but from its users. If they are all running the same software, and have very similar abilities, then the only difference must come from another source. That is, the users.

This is the nature of all work that is a craft; that is a type of work in which the individual “crafts” or creates an art piece. All craft is like this, be it sculpture, pottery, wood carving, or even the more abstract crafts like writing, playing guitar. Much like a potter making mugs on a potter’s wheel, or a sculptor carving images in stone, the value of the work comes directly from the value of the crafter, not from the tools. One would never praise a potter’s wheel for making finely crafted mugs, nor a chisel for carving excellent sculptures. No it is understood that the work comes from the hands of the wielder, not the tools. In the same way, one would never assume it is the computer doing the work of making quality advertising art. Like every other craft, it is the people wielding the tools that create the work, and create the value.

In this context, computers are not a source of value, they are an overhead cost, much like any other office expenses like air conditioning, desks & chairs, telephone systems, or copy machines. They may be a requirement to create the work, but they do not create the work themselves. They are no more important to the value of the work than the air conditioning system, or the type of paper in the copy machine.

So far, all of this is to argue that computers are merely office equipment, a point you likely already accept. It is this next point which I think bears greater scrutiny.

If it is true, as I have laid out above, that the greatest single value brought to any piece of craft stems from the individual doing the work, then it follows that the single greatest tool being applied to the craft resides inside the user. That is the say, the person doing the work is also the holder of the most important tools.

I know this might come across kind of crazy, so let me try to break this down for you. The worker in this context, the one doing the crafting, carries with them two essential things; their knowledge and their abilities. That is, they carry with them what they know, and what they do. These, I would contend, are the most significant differences between someone who does $15/hour work on a computer and one who does $100/hour work. The person doing the more valuable work, has more knowledge, more experience, and they have more tools. This is what I mean by tools. In this narrow context tools are ways of solving technical and artistic problems.

Some of these tools exists in the hands and the eyes of the user, but a vast majority of them reside entirely within their head.

If you think about it, this makes sense. Every computer I work on (and I work on a whole host of them) offers the exact same value when I am using them. This is because the value resides within my head. It’s not in a box I bring to the office, it’s not any special software I keep on a hard drive, it all resides within my head. Quite literally, every office I work at, I go there with my own tools. Not only are they my own tools, but they are the most significant tools in the entire process.

So when you ask if I work in my client’s offices, I will say yes. When you ask if I use their computers I will say yes, but the most important tool I use comes not from the client, or from their commuters but comes from myself. I literally am my most important tool. My head, my hands, and my eyes. It is from these things that my income flows, and nothing else.

So if the most significant tool is the one that resides in my head, then is it accurate to say I am an employee, and not an independent contractor? After all the most significant tool is not supplied by the company I work for, it is supplied by me. If I’m the one providing the most significant source of value, doesn’t that not make me independent?

The Importance of Crashing

Over the holidays my mother was kind enough to gift me David McCullough’s The Wright Brothers. This week there was an opening in my “to be read” schedule and I picked it up. I got about half way through last night, far enough in that I got to and past the major event at Kitty Hawk in December of 1903 (the first powered flight of an airplane) and past the conclusion of their testing the next year of their second powered plane, this time flown in a large pasture just outside of Dayton, their home town. McCullough is a talented writer of history, he is wonderfully good at taking you into the details of a figure’s life–in this case the Wright Brothers–without bogging you down in them. So I now know about Wilbur and Orville Wright, their family and friends, and roughly how they went from successful bicycle manufacturers to become the first men to crack the problem of powered, heavier-than-air flight.

If you are a fan of history, or of airplanes–I happen to like both–than this book is more than sufficient to warrant your attention. However, this isn’t a book review, in the strictest sense, there are plenty of those to go around upon this book and/or this topic; this dear reader is something different. You see, as I read of the experiences of the Will and Orv, as they liked to be called, I was struck by something really remarkable: The famous Wright Brothers of historical fame crashed their planes a lot.

Their first glider, which they flew out at Kitty Hawk, NC, crashed and was rebuilt several times. By the time they were done testing with it that fall the glider was so abused and rebuilt that they gave it away, it was literally in pieces by then. Their second glider flew worst then the first one, at least until they rebuilt the wing, but it crashed and was rebuild several times afterwards. Their third glider crashed once so bad it took two weeks to rebuild, and it eventually crashed so often it was all but discarded. Even their famous Flyer, the first powered plane ever, crashed on its first major test flight, bending the propeller shafts so bad Wilber had to travel back to Dayton and have them rebuild. The reason why they didn’t make their historic 1903 until December was because they had so many crashes on the Flyer’s delicate frame that the plane could not get off the ground until then. Once it had flown, making three flights, each one successively longer than the last, it was picked up by the wind like a kite at the beach when they stopped for lunch and toppled over forcefully several times, almost injuring a man who was tangled in the rigging. The first powered airplane in the world came back to Dayton in pieces and was never flown again.

The Wright’s second powered plane was a slightly different design than the Flyer, and was test flown practically in their own back yard. But even this plane crashed so often that it needed constant repairs. By this time Wilber was keeping a diary, logging each flight, so we know for instance that they once went for three months with nothing but crash after crash on this airframe. When they learned to turn a plane around, they crashed. When they learned to launch it with their ingenious catapult, they crashed. When they learned to fly higher off the ground, they crashed. In fact, the place was so cantankerous, the flights so short, the crashes so often, that their friends and people from the press simply gave up all interest, thinking them mad men because their progress was so slow and so littered with repairs. By the time their third Flyer was constructed, the first truly reliable aircraft, the two brothers had done hundreds of flights with a health proportion of those ending in destruction. In short, the Wright Brothers were adept at the art by this point they could have been rightfully called the Kings of Crashing.

The reason for all this crashing is not unknown. To their credit the Wright Brothers knew going in that they were attempting to do two very difficult and interrelated tasks; they were trying to discover the laws of aerial mechanics, that is to discover how to design and build a plane than can repeatedly fly through the air, and they were also learning the art of flying such a plane, both at the same time. Neither of these things had ever been done before, in fact many of the leading scientists of their day proudly proclaimed that heavier-than-air flight was impossible for humans. So not only were they blazing two different trails into the unknown simultaneously, they were doing so with no certain knowledge of their success. There were no maps, no methods, and even the most learned men of their day were completely wrong in their theories, which the Wright Brothers discovered to their chagrin.

This is the nature of doing something truly new. It doesn’t matter if it is working at the leading edge of science, or something so prosaic as falling in love, once you step foot down the path that no one else has trod before, you enter the world of the unknown. And the unknown has a lot of pitfalls.

Now the point of all this is not to claim the Wright Brothers were losers. Obviously they became a household name for a reason, and it wasn’t for their many spectacular failures. In fact I’ll bet that up until you read the above you had no idea how often they crashed. Until I read McCullough’s book I certainly didn’t know, and I’m a serious history buff and n airplane buff. I guess if I had thought about it at all it would have been obvious. I mean, there’s no way to learn how to fly and what is flyable, without making a lot of errors. Anyone who has ever designed or learned to fly a radio controlled airplane can tell you that, and I’ve done both. It’s a process the is fraught with trial and error. If I had thought about it at all I just sort of assumed “they figured it out.”

Which leads me to another point: the people around you, what Christians call “the World”, they do not care about your crashes. To them, your crashes, no matter what the cause, are not all that important. What they want to see are your successes. Turn on any news channel and you can see hundreds of examples of people who have succeeded at something, rock stars, movie stars, lottery winners,and  CEOs of large corporations. What you will not see on the news are the many and spectacular failures, crashes, that each of us, all of the time, are doing. If you take the wrong exit off the freeway, it’s not going to be on the news. Neither will be dating a person not suited for you, or failing to miss your stop on the bus. Make a spectacular success and you might make the news, make a mistake and you won’t. Crashes it seems aren’t newsworthy, they’re not important, because they’re too common.

What it comes down to is this: like the Wright Brothers, each of us will find ourselves at some point powered by an inner passion. Maybe it’s to be an actor, a musician, or an artist; maybe it’s to be a wife, or a husband, a mother, or a father; maybe it’s to be a mechanic, or a theoretical physicist, a nurse, or a salesman. It doesn’t matter what the path is, only that it is new (at least to us) and it is difficult. To accomplish our goals we’re going to have to walk over new ground, we’re going to have to claim new metaphorical lands for our purposes, climb new mountains, seek out new ideas, and try on new opinions.

All of these attempts, of course, are going to be ripe for failure. There is an absolute certainty that we’re going to make mistakes, some of them quite large. We’re going to crash. Crash and crash hard. Perhaps even crash fatally. We risk injury and ridicule at every turn. We’re traveling into the unknown and the only truly known thing we can count on is that it will not come without a cost. Pain is certain. Crashes will happen.

Not only will they happen, but when they do we will have no control over them. Think about it, if we knew they were coming we would avoid them, right? The only thing we can control is how we react to them. A crash could mean you’re a terrible person and are never going to amount to anything, or it could mean you made a minor mistake and you need to correct for that. When the Wright Brothers crashed, they got right up, and immediately began repairing their plane. Oh they talked about the crash, believe me they did, but only from the point of view of discovering the problem so they could avoid it in the future. They were learning a difficult task, after all, and mistakes were bound to happen. They just didn’t think those mistakes were based on their own moral failings, nor did they think each crash was a sign that God didn’t approve of their direction. In short, they didn’t think the crashes they caused were a reflection of their own shortcomings. That idea seemed to have never entered their heads. They saw them for what they rightly were, small mistakes on the road to understanding. To them each crash was a way to discover a new problem and thus reduce their ignorance.

As we can learn from the Wright Brothers, crashes are not good indicators of failure, only the inevitable. The only way to truly fail is to either avoid crashes, or even worse to assume the cause of the crash is something other than what it is. Failure doesn’t come from crashes, failure comes from not learning what went wrong when you did crash. And you will crash my friend, indeed you will.

And not only will you crash, but when you do crash you will discover that no one cares. Friends, family, etc. not a one of them is going to be interested unless they are directly involved. Its interested to note that while the Wright Brothers were testing their second aircraft, just minutes away, a short trolly ride, from downtown Dayton, not a single reported from either major newspaper came out to investigate. The Wright Brothers didn’t hide what they were doing. They were flying in plain sight of a trolly line. It’s just that they crashed so much no one was interested. The man who finally broke their story, Amos Root, was an eccentric who had made himself a name by selling bee keeping equipment. The Wright’s first real exposure didn’t come from the press, didn’t come from their friends, it came from a newsletter called Gleanings in Bee Culture. Think that one through for a moment. The only reason Amos was able to write an accurate story about the Wright Brothers experiments was because he was patient enough to visit them several times until they could demostrate to him a reasonable success. In fact they first flight he saw was done by Orville because Wilbur has been in a wreck so bad he couldn’t fly for a month. Very few people are going to be patient with your crashing process. Hold on to those that are. They’re worth more than gold.

My advice to you my friend is to crash and crash often. Only its important to learn from your crashes, don’t make the same mistakes over and over. And remember, no one, except a very rare few, are going to care about your crashes. Ignore what others think or do. They’re not the one’s risking their neck in the crazy contraption that you are. Hell, they probably don’t have the first clue what you’re trying to do, so ignore them and focus on the task at hand.

Happy landings.

 

The thing about the Sequoias.

IMG_4693_cropThe thing about the Sequoias, or why you cannot photograph the Sequoiadendron giganteum.


Recently my family and I spent a delightful few days of vacation in California’s gold country in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas. While there we took a day trip up to Calaveras Big Trees State Park where we hiked the less visited South Grove trail. Thanks to some intense activism this grove of Giant Sequoias is entirely unlogged and remains largely in its wild state. It is, with the exception of the trail and a few signs, almost exactly like hiking in a virgin forrest. I’ve been lucky to spend a lot of time in the Sierras, but this grove is to my knowledge singular. What follows is my attempt to capture the experience of hiking the trail in words. I highly recommend you do not take me at my word, that you do not believe what I have written here. Rather I would prefer you hike the trail for yourself.

As you wander down the trail, the low woods, mostly dogwood and small pines, keep your horizons close. There are a large amounts of dead trees scattered about the forrest floor and plenty of new ones working their way up from the decaying material. The ferns and bushes dot the ground, but do not fully cover it. The whole effect is one of a forest that grows no more than three meters above the ground. It’s not unlike walking through a neighbor’s garden that has been left unattended for years until it’s shape has pushed past any human convention into a wonderful random jumble.
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No sooner than you seen this, you start to notice that this “garden” is underpinned by dark vertical columns. These are the mature pines, sugar pine and ponderosa mostly, with the occasional lodgepole pine added for splash. In about equal measure with these pines are the cedars which grow in clumps like nurseries with large parents overlooking tiny rivers of baby trees, most of them shorter than a man.
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So now your view becomes used to these columns shooting darkly upwards through the light green forest floor. As your eye traces their vertical lines upwards you notice they branch out at around three meters and point their way upwards in long thin triangles. The tops, some of them 200 feet or more above your head, can be seen only from a distance. But these are not unfamiliar trees. These are the taller more wild cousins of the Christmas trees that have been decorating our homes every winter for millennia. We know these trees, we live with them for a few weeks to a month every year. True they are quite a bit larger than the ones in ours houses, but they are essentially scaled up versions of what we know. Scaled up the way 100 tables at a wedding reception are not all that different from the single table you use at home. It is simply more of the same.
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But then, as you wind your way along the trail, you start to see still larger shapes looming out of the forest floor. At first they look like normal trees, but then as you approach them they start to get wider and wider until your mind is so startled by the impossibility of a tree at those dimensions that it forces you to pay attention. These are trees so large they trigger that part of our brain we use to warn us of an incoming threat. Trees that are so large they literally scare you into seeing them. You’ve now arrived at the Giant Sequoias.
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Approaching

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Closer still

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Getting bigger

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Holy Cow!

When you get up close to one, you notice a Giant Sequoia doesn’t look like the other trees. They stand like some weird alien creature that has been imported to the forest. They resemble the other pines pretty much the same way that an elephant covered in fur could be mistaken for a wolf.
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These trees are so large that you cannot fit them into a single photograph. They simply will not fit. If you shoot one up close all you get is a trunk. These shots look just like a regular tree only shot much closer. If you add a human in front for a sense of scale the tree takes on the appearance of an amusement park model. Its so large it looks more like architecture than nature. If you point your camera upwards then the top will be hidden behind the bottom branches (some of which are as large as entire trees nearby). If you step back far enough to capture the entire height then the sequoia resembles an ordinary large tree, reducing the apparent height of the huge pines around it to the size of seedlings. If you add humans to this shot they appear too distant for the eye to scale, or they’ll be so small as to not matter. Another pixel lost in a sea of pixels.
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No matter how far back you get or what lens you use, you cannot capture a Sequoia in a single shot. They are so large they can only be pieced together by the mind of the observer. Its about then that you discover they’re not as much a tree as they are living geology. To stand next to one as it extends upward into the heavens at that impossible height is to stand next to a million years. It’s not a thing. It’s too big for that. It’s a living metaphor. It’s a rock wall that lives and breathes. It is a battleship made of living wood, set adrift in a remote and arid sea.
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As you come across them on the trail, sometimes alone surrounded by a coterie of lesser trees, sometimes in dense clumps of two or three, you start to run out of superlatives. Each tree as it is revealed to you is so impossible that you simply run out of words. As with photography, these trees are so huge you cannot capture them language. They will not fit within a single sentence. And after a few tries you realize even whole paragraphs won’t do. Finally you get to the point were all you can do is stand at the base of such a tree and stare upwards in mute and lensless wonder. Every attempt you make to describe these trees will fail. They simply can not scale down to human size. Even a holiday as large as Christmas cannot contain them.
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No wonder the first white men who saw the Giant Sequoias were not believed. They had to cut one down to prove they existed, and then they tried to cut the rest down because trees that large are a threat. They’re too big. They don’t fit our mechanized world. They’re not just tremendously old, they are time itself. Many of them were born long before Jesus walked this earth, and they come from a race as ancient at the dinosaurs. You can beat against one with your fists a thousand times and they will not notice. They are too old, too indifferent. No wonder we chopped them down. These trees don’t know we exist. Nothing makes a white man’s blood boil faster than irrelevance.
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Finally, this is what you take with you as you walk out of the forest with a camera full of impossible photos that no one will believe; your irrelevance. You have gazed upon a thousand years. Everything you do in this life will be as nothing to these giant creatures. Short of destroying one, you will never gain their notice, and you will never find their approval even if you searched a thousand years. Such a thing does not exist. You are irrelevant. You are nothing. You are a part of the great and beautiful forest we call life, but you are not the biggest part, nor the most important.
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And in the end this is what the Giant Sequoia teaches us; our rightful place.

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