Category Archives: Columns

In Internetland, Headphones Listen To You

Headphones traditionally serve as a delivery device, a conduit that brings sound directly to your ears.

A college-student created company called Musical Minds wants to make headphones smarter, capable of reading your mind.

“At Musical Minds,” says their About page, “we use innovative brainwave technology to show how each song you listen to changes the landscape of your brain in real time. Our unique algorithm then interprets these changes to create playlists that affect mood, focus, and motivation.”

The headphones, called “Trills,” are implanted with EEG sensors to track the listener’s brain waves as they listen to music. The requisite smartphone app will show the listener how  their brain reacts to what’s playing. The playlists, hooked up to Spotify, will be tweaked then to give you more of whatever music heightens your focus, your motivation, or whatever mood you might like to get into that day.

Or as the promotional copy puts it, the “mood app curates a playlist that helps you reach the emotional state you need, whether that’s carefree bliss or a good shower cry.”

“We’re actually redefining the end goal of listening to music,” Musical Moods co-founder and Ithaca College junior Jessica Voutsinas told The Ithacan. “You’re not reading a research paper on the theory behind music therapy. It’s actually working in real time, and we show you how it increases your focus, motivation, and mood. It’s not something you read about – it’s something you yourself are experiencing.”

Voutsinas told The Ithacan her “company’s goal is first and foremost to promote mental health wellness.”

That sounds all well and good, but the Musical Minds team still needs to answer some questions before Trills start helping music fans get a thrill.

For one, the app is connected to Spotify: music fans who can only get motivated by listening to Taylor Swift trash an ex-boyfriend will find no stimulus whatsoever, along with fans of Prince, Bob Seger, and King Crimson – though The Beatles are now an option on that service. Innumerable underground, independent, and unsigned artists will also be left out of the mood-change-via-music data revolution.

More importantly for those worried about online privacy – and who isn’t! – Musical Minds will need to mind that their service’s findings remain secure.

Why should you be afraid of your musical preferences getting out? In part, because if you’re not afraid, news people don’t really have any other ideas about how to get you to pay attention. Even scarier, imagine that Tipper Gore or someone like her who’s afraid of rock ‘n roll got hold of how your brain looks on death metal.

Do your serotonin levels spike when chain-listening to Slayer albums? Do vintage Ice Cube rhymes get your endorphins flowing? Can you sing of drowning your lover all a-smile? Well, then, the Surveillance State has got a cell for you.

Image courtesy of the Musical Minds website.

YIMBYs Say Yes, Build In My Backyard

Anyone who wants to pitch a tent in my backyard, pictured above, is welcome to stay for a while.

Whether extending this open invitation to live in the only backyard I’ve got qualifies me as a genuine YIMBYite, I don’t know. Perhaps, to be sure, we should have a Tiny House raising to create a more permanent living situation.

A YIMBYite, for those not hip to the Neo-Urban lingo, is the new, positive type of downtown-living cat who says “Yes, I most definitely want some more buildings in my city!” The YIMBYite – as in, “Yes, in my backyard” –  is into more people living in less space, walking to the grocery store, rolling with the changes. As opposed to the well-known “NIMBYite,” who shows up to meetings when new development is proposed and says “Not in my backyard!”

Second Ward alderperson Duc Nguyen informed me of the YIMBY, through this Ithaca Voice article summing up a new “housing development toolkit” put out by the White House earlier in September. Nguyen referenced a “YIMBYTown” conference, the first, held in Boulder, Colorado, this past June to talk about encouraging “abundant housing and sustainable infill in growing cities.”

The recommendations made in the White House “toolkit” line up with the YIMBY line. If you’ve been paying attention to Ithaca mayor Svante Myrick’s pro-development talk over the last few years, the recommendations are kind of a bore.

“Local and neighborhood leaders have said yes, in our backyard, we need to break down the rules that stand in the way of building new housing,” the White House document reports. Those rules include too-slow or too-stringent zoning approval processes, and land use laws which favor single-family homes over denser development.

The toolkit has 10 ideas for how localities can “modernize their housing strategies and expand options and opportunities for hardworking families.” Ithaca has already pushed toward some of the suggestions, in pieces, like scrapping parking requirements and allowing for higher builds in Collegetown and downtown. The city’s tax abatement program is seemingly constantly in flux, and an inclusionary zoning program is in the long, slow grind of legislative tweaking. (My last check-in with that process was in March, at this link.)

The main reason YIMBY groups exist, it seems, is to mobilize behind these neo-urbanist ideals. The problem of mobilization is one that Myrick lamented many a time during the approval process for the 210 Hancock affordable housing project. Few who don’t live somewhere yet are going to show up in support of their potential future home, or so his musings go. And while affordable housing was approved at 210 Hancock and at Stone Quarry in recent years, it seems less certain that many people in Ithaca are crazy about Really Big Buildings like that proposed at State and Aurora in the Triangle. Every unit matters, but It’s those big projects that are, in theory, supposed to give a big increase to supply and lessen the housing crunch for people who can’t swing this area’s high rents right now.

Though there might be a teensy bit less demand for housing now than in recent years, not everyone’s getting into somewhere nice this fall. Get at me about my backyard vacancy: don’t bring rats, please, though a ferret is OK. Better yet, if you’ve got an RV, I’ve got some gas money. Let’s go South. Winter is coming soon.

 

Voices For Freedom Speak In Ithaca

Writers, like most people, like to be noticed once in a while. Sit or stand at a keyboard all day in a quiet room, and even a misspelled email in ALL CAPS informing one of gross incompetence and grammar mistakes can be a comfort: “Well, at least somebody is reading,” the writer thinks.

Those writers who have come to Ithaca over the past 15 years through the City of Asylum program experienced a heavier sort of critical attention in their home countries. Your average letter-writer or tweeter might have some nasty things to say; the City of Asylum writers have had action taken against their lives.

Present at the Kitchen Theater on Sunday, September 25, were Yi Ping, the first Ithaca City of Asylum writer, who fled China along with his wife, poet/translator Lin Zhou after the Chinese government increased repression after the Tiananmen Square protests. Here was Sarah Mkhonza, who had her University of Swaziland office ransacked after criticizing the monarchy’s repressive regime. Journalist/activist Sonali Samarasinghe left Sri Lanka for the United States with her family after her husband, editor of a weekly paper openly critical of the government, was assassinated in 2009. And Raza Rumi, the current ICOA writer-in-residence, left his home in Lahore, Pakistan, after an attempt made on his life by Islamic militants in 2014 that left his driver dead.

In exile, the internet has allowed these writers to continue publishing for outlets in their homelands. Given their apparent distance from danger, one might think that they would grow more outspoken in their critiques. Yet the effect of exile has been somewhat the opposite for some.

Mkhonza said at the Voices of Freedom celebration on Sunday that she feels her words don’t have quite the same impact spoken from afar.

“I can be out here and speak, but it doesn’t get to Swaziland the same way as when I was there,” Mkhonza said.

In Pakistan, Rumi was a defender of liberal values, of human rights, and a critic of the military’s use of jihadist militias. He’s more careful in what he says since coming to the United States.

“I’ve been put in the position of telling people not all 1.6 billion Muslims are terrorists,” Rumi said, adding drily “It gets rather exhausting.”

In Sri Lanka, Samarasinghe said she was a “lot more strident.” In the U.S., she has found her style to be more “tempered and circumspect.”

“You have to be strident, or you’re not going to be heard with all that noise and fearmongering going on,” Samarasinghe said of her writing in Sri Lanka.

Despite the distance, their duty is still to write. As Yi Ping put it, though he’s a poet, essayist, and dramatist, he feels because in the U.S. he has “the freedom to write and speak, I should focus on political writing and help my friends.”

With her voice rising, Mkhonza said her work was to tell Swazis, especially women, “the freedom is theirs, the voice is theirs, and their stories can be told by them as well as by anyone.”

Though writers and journalists are by and large freer from the threat of physical violence in the United States, there are areas where critics here don’t dare to tread: Rumi reiterated a point he made in a March interview with me for the Ithaca Times that when it comes to coverage of national security policy, most outlets toe the government policy line.

Ithaca City of Asylum co-founder Anne Emmanuelle Berger said in a video introduction sent from Paris that Ithaca’s “marginality” and “diminutive size” is why this town is a good place for writers who question power. Far from the center of decision-making, writers in humble burgs like this one have more room to breathe, free of influence and fear. The pen might be mightier than the sword, but it’s a slower-acting force that needs space and time to have its effect.

The American writer is often guilty of not using freedom to its fullest ends; we pat ourselves on the back for living somewhere oppression isn’t so blatant, and congratulate ourselves on our wit and charm while ignoring that “shabby backstreet” of our own country where most people live, to borrow a phrase from Nelson Algren.

Writers worldwide would do well to heed Samarasinghe’s words every time they crack open the laptop or set pen to paper:

“I’m very, very critical of my country not because I hate my country, but because I love my country and want it to be a better place.”

Featured photograph of Yi Ping and Lin Zhou from YouTube.

The Deadline Cometh

Wrote this column on a Tuesday morning because I thought we had some opinion page space to fill in the Times. We did not. It might run sometime. It might not.

This column is written on deadline. It must be written very soon, or it will not exist.

Newspapers, like the one you hold in your hands, still have deadlines. On Tuesday here at the Times and Finger Lakes Community Newspapers office, the work reaches a focused pitch as 5 p.m. comes closer and our 10 papers must be sent to the printer in Williamsport, Pa.

How sharp my editor’s words for my late copy will be today, I don’t yet know. It will depend on the other writers, freelancers mostly, all of whom have talent and knowledge in their field. Most of whom are prone to sometimes turn in stories that are too long or too short, missing a photo, that need a fact-check on some arcane reference or Latin phrase.

Or the question will come: “Do you have anything else laying around?” A fresh half-page has opened up, demanding fresh copy, and we have no wire service to provide filler. Rewriting a press release is a last resort. So an offhand meeting remark by some official on an in-progress project gets a follow-up call, or at least a close interpretation of its supporting documents, and 400 words on the subject appear in the paper.

The reporter must be grateful for deadlines, for without them, none of his work might exist. What us clock-driven moderns call procrastination is a specialty of his. An idea, a phrase, stored in the dark closet of his mind is safe in there. Exposed to light via print, it becomes everyone’s possession. Better for the idea to rot in obscurity than be found banal or skipped over by the reader. Better to leave it on the shelf than to open the door one night and find the hoard empty, with only canned conventional wisdom left over to heat up for the readers. Only hacks of the Murdoch or Sulzberger line can stomach serving that cancerous stuff for long.

Anyway, some procrastination is good for creativity, says one of those recent studies that confirm our vices which the American press is so good at disseminating. Sometimes procrastination even pushes one to clean the house, or take a look at bills going unpaid, an activity which quickly puts one back to real work. And whether procrastination, “time-wasting,” is a vice depends on whether the feeling behind it is one of contemplation or acedia – apathy, to be “without care.” The difference is between the olive-munching Greeks speculating on the nature of existence, and that modern cry “I’m bored – give me something, anything, to do.”

Our service agencies at their best can only honestly answer modern longing with things to do. The progressive ones go beyond suggesting “get a job, any job,” but their mandate to keep everyone safe and healthy, perfectly normalized, does not include an instruction manual to make active, engaged, reaching minds. Trained to go to work and then be entertained for generations now, it’s no wonder that the American has no idea what to do with off hours. There are so many hours, with only a few lucky ones still getting 40 hours of repetitive tasks to do for decent pay these days.

The deadline is a holdout from more industrial days, when one’s work might have been hard and exploitable, but at least you knew when you had to work. Most of my colleagues’ deadline pressures have dissipated into the 24/7 news cycle, that terrible rolling deadline, when any happening, anywhere, needs written up immediately to capture web traffic that no one has yet figured out how to make pay.

There’s more to say, but this column must end. Two more stories to write today.

This One Thing Communal Kitchens & Music Fests Have In Common!

Originally published as a ‘Reporters’ Notebook’ in the Ithaca Times on July 15, accompanying features on a five-day-a-week community kitchen and the GrassRoots Festival of Music and Dance. Photo from a Second Wind Cottages workday, which I wrote up here.

An economics textbook would never call an organization like Loaves and Fishes or GrassRoots classic examples of “horizontal integration.”

There’s no incentive for a community kitchen to expand across the nation to control all the free lunch spots like Rockefeller’s Standard Oil eating up all the refineries in the late 1800s.

There’s far too many artists in this country for one amorphous group of music-lovers based in an office in Trumansburg’s Masonic Lodge to watch all the shows on YouTube and book all the fairgrounds. No one group can monopolize feeding the hungry, whether the nutrition they serve is soup for the stomach or music for the soul.

Yet, those who do the work for these two local institutions are very “horizontally integrated.” Both organizations have only a handful of paid staffers and absolutely could not keep going and growing without volunteer workers that come from all walks of life. And neither Loaves nor GrassRoots hold it against those who keep showing up to feed themselves and don’t take a turn at the dishwashing sink or ticket booth.

“I think the philosophy for 31 years has been we’re all in this together,” Christina Culver of Loaves told me. “We purposely don’t want to be hierarchical and say ‘Oh, here’s these great volunteers helping you, who are the needy.’”

At Loaves, that philosophy shows through as people who come there at low points start asking how they can help, and end up serving people who come in uniform or shirt and tie. And who knows how many salaried daily suit-wearers will be enjoying music and food and yoga at GrassRoots this weekend, while there are broke students and fixed-income retirees working the gates and cleaning the latrines. Taking in all comers and operating generously and freely in one place for years, this is how a daily meal or a now quarterly festival starts getting called a “sweet community,” a “tribe,” a “family.”

There’s all sorts of need in this world, and sometimes it’s dire; organizations like the Red Cross have press agents who constantly remind us that people and resources are getting sent to places around the world to help when flood and famine happen. Sending a few bucks their way via text or Facebook link is doing someone, somewhere, some good.

Every day, though, there is work to be done so that people in Tompkins County have something to eat, something to hear, something to do. Not everyone can show up to cook five times a week, or spend two weeks in July setting up tents. Looking up from the daily grind, though, surely everyone can find a few minutes to look someone in the eye and say, “What can I do to help, here, today?” •

“Because Democracy” Ain’t Enough Of An Argument

An opinion piece originally run in the April 8 Ithaca Times.
School teachers are overpaid! Governor Cuomo is a scumbag! Stop attacking our kids! Let the teachers teach! We have got to stop graduating idiots!
Do I have everybody’s attention now? And if so, have any of these bold statements convinced you of a new belief over how public education should be?
While talking with and listening to many public educators in the course of writing last week’s
cover story (“Fight Still On,” April 1), there were some very fair points made by administrative types that Cuomo’s tactic of withholding school funding numbers till the budget was agreed on wreaks havoc on local schools’ planning. Albany politicking making life no fun for New Yorkers is an old story, and the order of operations that applies to the school funding formula is an obvious symptom of dysfunctional governance. That sort of mess is the newsman’s job to report and interpret until his readers’ eyes droop shut of statistic and acronym fatigue.
Headline­worthy quotes, though, do not come from administrators patiently explaining the effects
of the GEA on their district. They come from a place of real anger at Cuomo’s education agenda – believed by many to be driven by Wall Street hedge fund billionaires that want to privatize schools nationwide – and what one hears from the incensed at rallies and the like is a lot of “stops.” Stop cutting our funding. Stop balancing the budget at the expense of our kids. Stop requiring all these standardized tests that take away our teaching time. Stop funding privately­-run charter schools at the expense of public schools. Leave us alone!
The “leave us alone to teach, we know the kids better, just fund us!” argument hasn’t changed much in at least the past 15 years or so this observer has read the news. It needs updating, because if the crisis is as dire as the public school advocates say, they have some powerful opponents who have already claimed plenty of rhetorical high ground.
Those who argue, with Cuomo, that teachers need to be held to a higher, more measurable standard have some deeply ingrained public beliefs on their side: In short, that education can be measured in results, and so a completed college degree should lead in a straight line to worldly success. If society agrees that the aims of education are to turn out students who go to the best colleges [measured by U.S. News rankings]; then go on to get the best jobs [measured by salary]; and then contribute the most to society [measured by charitable giving] then test, test, and test some more.
The student should be prepared for the hardships of the Global Marketplace, which has ever-
increasing requirements for the “hard” intellectual, STEM skills. Can you build a bridge? asks the Marketplace. Can you code a program that lets teenagers send each other inappropriate photos? Will you provide value to our shareholders? This is the apparent aim of New York City’s Success Academies, if one believes the April 6 report in the New York Times on those schools’ philosophy: Test a lot; everyone sit up straight all the time; somewhat regular peeing-­of­-pants during tests.
Starting with “we do not encourage pants­wetting” might be a good start for public schools advocates to refresh their rhetoric, if creating a class of technical adepts who can beat the Commies to Uranus or best the Chinese in smartphone design is not granted as the only social good. To shape society’s beliefs about what education should be, though, without a reliance on “stops” and “nots,” will require first some reflection on the part of educators. Why do we need public education? [Hint: The answer is not “because democracy,” go deeper]. Then, convince me of your answer.

What’s Wrong With The Silent Pro-Dog Minority

An opinion piece, originally published in the March 11 Ithaca Times

If the Internet is to be believed, a large majority of Ithacans would love to take their dogs for a walk on the Commons whenever the downtown pedestrian mall gets to looking fresh again.

Mayor Svante Myrick asked his Facebook followers their opinion both last September and in late February: should the 40-year-old ban on Commons canines should be lifted? Over the course of a couple hundred comments between the two strings, the Yays outnumbered the Nays about three to one.
“Why not Fido?” asked the online dog lovers. “S/he goes with me everywhere,” they said. “Dogs are everywhere in Europe, and Paris/Rome/Berlin is beautiful.” “Whenever we visit City X (Burlington, Asheville, Portland, any weird little city, really), no one there has any problem with dogs downtown.” Mostly, the affirmatives said “yes,” “yeah,” or “YES YESS YES.”

If one asked a selection of Commons merchants their opinion, several said they welcome in four-legged patrons. If not they seemed unconcerned, even blasé about the issue. One found it “very interesting” that a ban existed, then complained about smoking on the Commons. Some thought allowing dogs might help business, as tourists tend to bring along their pets – especially that yearly tourists-and-their-greyhounds bus. One merchant of 26 years said that dogs have been on the Commons “since Day One” and there’s no way to keep them off, “legally or illegally.”

Economic impact and certainty in enforcement were the two driving reasons why the Commons Advisory Board recommended dogs be legalized. Economic, because merchants have been hard-hit by reconstruction and will take all the business they can get, drool or no. Enforcement is difficult for police because it’s very easy for someone who’s caught with a poodle on the Commons to say “Oh, no, my Fifi is a service dog.” Those papers are easier to acquire than your Wednesday Ithaca Times.

Sniff those winds of prevailing opinion. Stop into a Lake Street tavern where a pit bull has claimed a stool. Watch passing strangers, man or woman, young or old, having an oh-you’re-soooo-cute squeal over one another’s poodle or pit bull. It seemed concluded that Ithaca and its Commons was gone to the dogs.

The only obstacle was a vote of Common Council at their March 4 meeting, where they were to consider a whole package of Commons law rewrites on everything from outdoor dining boundaries to a move-along rule for buskers. This was when Fido’s foes showed up in force. A force of a half-dozen or so, but they were there.

The no-dogs minority had stated their opposition on the Internet strings. They said they were either allergic, or afraid – of doggie disputes, of scaring the kids, of the few ruining it for the many, of poop smeared upon the shiny new Commons pavers. Besides one Ithacan arguing for a statue of Odysseus’ hound, these were the people Council heard talk. And Council said, “Well, dogs can wait,” because councils give more weight to people who show up than those who do not.

Council is not required to read Facebook comments – though 50 or so old-fashioned emails to one alderperson or another, which do go on record, might have changed the debate’s tone. There wasn’t one. And a lively Facebook presence might make national reporters drool, but it doesn’t give Mayor Myrick the power to tell Council to roll over.

Perhaps it’s true that all this means is that “people in Ithaca know the law is soft,” as the one, dog-opposed, Commons merchant who showed up March 4 said. Maybe Ithacans do “laugh at the signs.”
Until Ithacans start telling their government what to put on the signs, though, no one should be whining when on a trip with Toto to the pretty new Commons, an officer says “Get off there! I said, GET OFF!”