Navigating Prague Modulo Language Skills

Needed to grab an Uber today as I’m recovering from some travel bug and didn’t want to be out in the rain for ten minutes waiting for the Prague city tram to get to the office. Fired up the app, got a driver assigned, went to the lobby to wait. I had entered the office address in the Uber app, but Prague addresses have a variety of slashes, vernacular annotations and other information that remind me more of disk formatting than street geography. To be safe, I told the driver “MSD Riverview, Smichov, Prague 5.”

“No English. Sorry.”

The smart play, of course, is to type what you want to say into Google Translate, then either have it spoken for you or attempt to further butcher the native tongue. Given that Czech has an accented r which is the love child of the Spanish teacher who rolled her Rs for 20 seconds and Crazy Ivan from “Red October” emphasizing his Cyrllic “X,” I always opt for help. Then again, the translation of “MSD Riverview” is reflective in any language. Google untranslate back to self.

Inspiration strikes – I know a landmark and know about six numbers in Czech.

“Pivovar Staropramen, dve ste meters (indicate straight through with karate chop motion)”. Rough translation: “Staropramen brewery, then 200 meters further on”.

Got it in one. It’s amazing how much you can pick up from reading the denominations on currency (I know 100, 200 and 500, as well as 1, 2 and 5 this way), and knowing a local landmark is always helpful.

So far this trip I’ve learned the words for “right” and “left”, “emergency” (not needed, I was wondering what a sign said that translates to “Beer Emergency!” and yes, this is a thing in Prague) and at least I understand there are seven declensions of nouns and verbs, none of which I will remember. Unless they are currency related.

Theme From The Bottom 2: Synth Pedal

My first year of playing bass — for real playing, not coddling in a store while the Bubba auditions fine instruments — led me into a circle I’ve only observed from the periphery from years. Whether it was lusting after the electronic instruments in Freehold’s Caiazzo Music on South Street (and wondering how exactly they produced sound without any active electronics, only to back into the science a few years later) or guiltily leafing through “Bass Player” magazine before handing it off to Bubba, I was a bass playing wanna be. Knowing a handful of riffs and songs, some elements of chord and scale structure, and developing finger strength that puts me somewhere between “galloping metal core” and “finely manicured hands” I can at least feel as though I belong inside the first circle of competency. Most of my practice time is spent thinking about note names, frets and hand positions, and scale modes. At age 53, it’s significantly harder to put the pieces together in real time.

Last night my ever-patient bass teacher Max brought in a DigiTech Bass Synth Wah pedal, a compact combination of an auto wah (envelope filter), octave synth, and simple ADSR synth. It’s one part DIY Synth and one part Peter Frampton channeling through the bass clef, and it was fun. For the first time, I could “see” my sound — not in notes on a staff paper or circles in a tab chart, but as attack and decay envelopes, as synthesized wet signals mixed back into the dry, and I actually could predict sound effect before turning knobs for physical effect. It was some of the best fun I’ve had in the studio in a year, because I was active in producing something that was “my sound.”

Post (sound) production, I get the unique association of bass players and their tone – whether Chris Squire’s slightly ringy, full stereo sound or Geddy Lee’s overtone rich playing. Mine will get neither monikers or followers but it was, for the duration of a few dozen bars of “Boogie on Reggae Woman” all mine.

And now for the plate o shrimp moment: My foray into bass synth territory came only a few hours after the death of keyboard virtuoso Keith Emerson, the man who put the Moog synthesizer on the map and the stage and the turntable. Emerson’s fluidity on the keys was matched only by his creativity in patching and sequencing and hand-crafting an array of sounds that created musical history. Girded with the underlying understanding of synthesizer electronics, and coaxing a particular sound out of a physical instrument, my dual experiences yesterday just reinforced my belief that Emerson was indeed a Prog God and that any chance I have to float, for even a few moments, in the same intersections of engineering, math and music is a gift.

Whit Diffie Wins The Turing Prize

I am so thrilled to see Whit Diffie honored with the Turing Prize, sometimes called the Nobel Prize of computer science. I had the distinct, wonderful and often times quirky pleasure of working with Whit at Sun Microsystems, where our paths intersected three or four times a year: at the bi-annual CTO nerd fests and at a research computing or privacy event where his wisdom was always shared with a smile, a story and subtlety. He is one of the most approachable people you will ever meet, and despite the fact that he is half of the reason you can safely transmit information over public networks, he has advocated tirelessly for us to continually rethink and reconsider our notions and mechanisms for privacy.

My favorite Whit story seems to have disappeared with my former Sun blog, so I can use the occasion of his fete to re-share: Every year the Sun Analyst’s Conference would feature a “CTO Panel” where each divisional CTO would join corporate CTO Greg Papadopoulos for some direction, big challenge, and market sensing banter. Seating order was never decided in advance, and after throwing out tenure, age, and alphabetical ordering, I quipped during walk-on that we should order ourselves by Erdos number. Without missing a beat or step, Whit said, with perhaps the most excitement I’d heard from him, “Great, mine’s 3, so I’m sitting first.”

He is one of the best people at marrying deep mathematical theory and practical applications, as they relate to real people, whether it’s nerd seating charts or worrying about how we balance security, privacy and risk. I found him to be a stanch advocate of diversity in all views, from what defines “good engineering” to how to recognize valuable work.

This is an award presentation worth sharing.

One Shining Moment, Coach’s Version

Coaching youth sports is not without its challenges. Working with under-8 hockey players in our Devils Youth program, I stress three things at the beginning, middle and end of each season: hard work, unerring sportsmanship, and having fun. If you put in the hard work and are a good team player, you improve and the fun comes along with the game. Under the USA Hockey ADM rules, we don’t keep score, assess penalties or worry about offsides – it’s about getting touches on the puck and learning the fundamentals of the game. Most of my time as coach is spent on breaking the puck out away from the net, paying attention to the low slot on defense, and passing the puck.

Each year, there’s one small moment that stands out from the rest that rationalizes the crazy early mornings, the throbbing right knee, and the unique smell of a locker room that hasn’t seen antiseptic or paint since the Clinton administration.

Two weeks ago I noticed that the youngest player on our team — whom I’ve had the pleasure of coaching for three years — had outgrown his stick. He was hunching over to control the puck, and when we did the stick-to-nose measurement his stick barely reached his chin. Today: brand new, longer Warrior stick, which of course he was proud to show me. First shift of the game, he found his way to the front of the net, got a tape to tape pass from a teammate, and ripped the hardest shot of which he was (newly) capable. Goal. From the bench (open to where the attendant families were standing) I heard his parents erupt; I saw his smile from 80 feet away on the bench. Every teammate on the ice hugged him.

It’s his first goal in a game since I’ve coached him. It won’t be his last, because he knows the value of hard work and being on the receiving end of good sportsmanship. And I know he had fun, in that one shining moment. If I contract some stomach bug later this week, it’s likely because after that play I licked his stick blade (helmet tip to Coach Scream-a-lot for that motivational act) and said “Tastes like goals. Lots of them.” And got another smile.

Here’s to the kids who work hard, every game. You make being a coach fun.

Moving Pictures and Life in Thirds

Rush’s “Moving Pictures” turns 35 this weekend, released February 12, 1981. While I had a passing interest in the trio before then, having heard “Spirit of the Radio” on New York and Philly FM stations with some regularity, it was “Limelight” and “Tom Sawyer”, played first on WYSP (Trenton) and then religiously on my own brand-new component stereo system that turned me into a lifelong Rush fan. It’s the only album that my sister and I both purchased (aside from some Partridge Family noise of the 1970s, but you get a hall pass for music you whine your parents into buying at a 7-11). It has one of the most visually pun-rich covers (on the front, men moving art, and the secondary pun of people moved by the moving art, on the back, the sight gag that the whole front shot was a moving picture set), which has infused recursive references into Rush tour interstitials for the ensuring 35 years. It’s nerd nirvana before you even drop the tone arm on the first track, the phased shifted, slightly spacey opening punch of “Tom Sawyer.” That was me, in every sense, in 1981.

"Moving Pictures" front cover (source: Wikipedia)

“Moving Pictures” front cover (source: Wikipedia)

Moving Pictures neatly divides my life into thirds reflected around the axis of my relationship with Rush: its release; their hiatus; and their semi-official retirement.

“Moving Pictures” is one of the few albums I can listen to end to end, finding something different each time, depending upon my mood and the context. The morning commute is enriched by “Camera Eye” as much as “Red Barchetta”. I find codon-inspired irony in using “YYZ” as an MTV-like soundtrack for EWR, SFO or FRA; it was the song that introduced me to 3-letter airport codes which have defined the vertices of my business graph since 1989. “Vital Signs” had an eerie video that I caught on Don Kirschner’s late night “Rock Concert” while home over some school break, and the “breaking sound” on YYZ is still one of the best recorded and appropriate effects in any rock song (it’s the sound of wind chimes being slapped against a wood table, not a brick thrown through a plate glass window as many of us believed). “Moving Pictures” was one of the first albums I bought after carefully weighing the opportunity cost of the $8 investment of my summer earnings (about three hours of after-tax pay, at that time), an anchor store to an album collection that expanded from under 100 to over 600 vinyl sleeves in about six years. Seeing Rush perform the whole album at Madison Square Garden, with my son and some friends in tow, was a life experience. Attempting to learn the bass lines to some of that music cements my position that it represents Geddy Lee at his technical and phrasing best, not just following the guitar lines but leading a wholly counterpoint melody that pulls the listener in all sorts of aural adventures.

First period: “Moving Pictures” makes me a rock and roll listener, for life.

The next 18 years are classic young adulthood: jobs, marriage, kids, multiple moves, the cultural void that comes from having young children, and then my insistence that our kids listen to “good music” rather than Barney or Raffi. Our kids were raised on a diet of classic rock before having an XM station made that a bit easier. Our daughter’s first “big concert” was seeing Santana in August 1995, the night Jerry Garcia died, an intense confluence of introducing a new generation to “my music” and also having a larger than life force in that music taken from us. It was the first time I had that feeling, and one that has become far too frequent in the last few years. For our son, his indoctrination came two years later, just a few months after his third birthday, when we caught the Holy Trinity at PNC Bank Arts Center. That show was one for the ages, opening with “Dreamline” (which Ben referred to as “We Are Young”, a reference to the chorus) and bookended by “Red Barchetta” and “Limelight” near the open with “Tom Sawyer” and “YYZ” at the close. It was as close to a perfect concert experience as you could get for a young fan, with liberal doses of songs he knew coupled with introductions to newer (or older) material that would become part of his musical heritage over the next 18 years.

Two months after that show, Rush went on hiatus as Neil Peart handled tragedies in his personal life. Second period: I graduate from technical adult to parenting adult, and the foundation of a father-son relationship is laid only to be quietly subdued again.

What “Moving Pictures” was for my formative music listening years, “Vapor Trails” was for Ben – a vivid, acoustically wonderful set of experiences. Four years into the last third of the current storyline, Rush returned to our lives, and we began a decade plus of ten concerts that took us from New Jersey to New York City, Boston, Philadelphia, and Las Vegas. If you look carefully along the left side of this arena photograph (framed in both of my offices), where the seats meet the floor, you’ll see us cheering, singing, punching the air along with “The Temples of Syrinx” from the Boston Garden show of October 2012, Ben’s freshman year at university, the song set to play again one generational octave lower. And then, with this year’s summer show in Las Vegas, just in time for my 53rd birthday, Rush implied their retirement from touring, and perhaps from music. And so we find ourselves back at the second intermission once again, a young adult and a middle-aged adult, wondering if there’s an extra stanza to come.

Never underestimate the power of music to forge lifelong connections, a sentiment proven by scientific research sponsored by Sonos and Apple (two major contributors to my music listening experience in the current frame), and replete with suggestions for finding the right musical accompaniment to your Valentine’s Day. For me, the final third has about a year to go — one filled with music, Rush references, puns, bass lessons, parenting, summer concert tours, and thinking in thirds, fourths and fifths.

Themes From The Bottom

One of the advantages of learning to play bass — not just a hold and pluck stance, but really using both hands to play — is that I can appreciate the technical mastery of some of my musical bottom heroes. I’ve slowed down the introductory riff in Rush’s “YYZ” to slo-mo spoof tempo, and I can still only reach about 2/3 of the notes in something resembling the right phrasing, completely reinforcing my non-scientific view that Geddy Lee is one of the most proficient bass players alive.

With the benefit of a year of lessons, a lot of listening, and some minor deep memory stimulation of scales and scale structure, here’s what I’ve extracted:

Jon Camp, from

Jon Camp, from

Jon Camp, bass player for Renaissance in their “classic” line up, was under-appreciated. Playing a Rickenbacker, with a sound similar to Chris Squire’s, I think he lived in the shadow of the Yes flame. “Ashes Are Burning” and “Can You Understand” have riffs that are not that overly complex but require significant practice to master. The bridge to “Ashes” One of the first riffs I learned on my own, and while it’s not complex it’s a nice mid-practice workout.

Geddy Lee is in fact as amazing as he seems. Most of “Moving Pictures” is astonishingly complex, but just as fun to learn if you can slow it down. And just when you think you think you know the patterns, you find the fingers requires six or seven digits and a span of more frets than should be anatomically possible. This may be the closest I get to Talmudic study; unraveling each bass passage requires listening to the guitar and drums, identifying whether Geddy is part of the rhythm or lead, and then adding in the fills that Geddy pulls off (literally) with ease.

After writing out much of the early Phish book in tab form, you realize that there is some serious overlap in the chord progressions (“Back on the Train” and “Heavy Things”, “Slave to the Traffic Light” and “Harry Hood” as two examples). That simplicity is wholly misleading; you can play the root and octaves of the chords and sound like most 1970s bass players pounding out a stream of eight notes, or you can listen to what Mike Gordon does with scales, fills, and creating a flow with Fishman that is a carrier signal for the Page and Trey solo work. The more I listen to Cactus, the more I want to listen, see him (and Phish) live, and explore his chromatic phrasing.

Also getting votes but still under tutelage: Chris Squire (Yes), Mic Todd (Coheed & Cambria), Tony Levin (with Peter Gabriel), Mark Egan (Pat Metheny Group, especially “Pat Metheny Group” and “American Garage”), Jaco Pastorious (“Heavy Weather” in particular).

Blueshifting Mortality, and Mic Gillette

You probably don’t recognize the name Mic Gillette, and even if you are a fan of Tower of Power (or the Tower of Power horns, who played on dozens of albums from the 70s through the 00s), you may not place him as his tenure with the band ended in 1984. But his intro to one of ToP’s better known songs – “You’re Still A Young Man” – has been described as the “four most famous trumpet notes in rock and roll”. Outside of Chicago and Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” with Randy Brecker, that’s likely a small population of intros to begin with, but the sentiment is as precise as the intonation and crispness of his playing. He put horn sections on the rock and roll map with a simple arpeggio.

In what’s becoming a maudlin theme here, Mic Gillete died of a heart attack on Saturday night, as reported by ToP bassist Rocco Prestia (and is now on the ToP website. Bowie, Lemmy, Squire, Gillette — and a host of others in the last 12 months — have blueshifted mortality for those of us who discovered rock and roll in the 1970s. What was once far away is now Doppler shifted, increasing in frequency, coming toward us at an apparent rate faster than it likely approaches based on chronological or actuarial bases. But it is a siren call, an alarm that those musicians who provided the soundtrack to our formative years are aging, frequently less than gracefully and seemingly, lately, more than statistically submitting to the ravages of what Neal Peart calls “the wasting disease.”

Those four notes of Gillette’s created a 30-year old memory that is audibly as strong as the very warm fall night on which it was impressed. I went to see Tower of Power at the Paradise Theater in Boston in the fall of 1984, on the edge of the Boston University campus. Going to club shows was a new experience for me; I had been to a few arena shows and some small theater concerts, but nothing in the 1,000 person and under venue. It was crowded, hot, smelly, sweaty, poorly lit, and the band seemed no more than an arm’s length away. I was familiar with perhaps half of ToP’s work; while they didn’t get much airplay I had purchased two albums in my college days (thanks, Princeton Record Exchange, for making room for all genres) and was looking forward to some funky music. While I was thrilled to hear “Only So Much Oil in the Ground” (my favorite) and an extended “Squib Cakes” it was “You’re Still A Young Man” that literally blew me away — the trumpet intro, the singer’s “down on my knees” enactment of the lyrics (on a stage barely wide enough for him to stand, let alone kneel), the audience reaction to what was clearly a favorite just outside of my listening circle.

That show — among a few others that year, including Santana, Pat Metheny, and Stan Getz — strongly hooked me on live music. It’s a passion I’ve shared with my kids; it’s one of the few things you can do to support your favorite artists despite the flagging health of streaming and recorded audio industries; it’s a chance to find yourself taken away for an hour or three. It’s why I still continue to abuse my knees and lower back with 3 hour Phish shows; it’s why the Bubba and I venture into sketchy venues to hear emergent bands we like.

Mic Gillette left Tower of Power shortly after the Paradise Theater show to dedicate time to raising his daughter — yet his impact on my love of live music gave me something to share with both children of my own over the ensuring three decades. At the end of this interview, he says he’d like to leave a legacy as a strong influence on younger musicians. For this old musician, he has done just that.

Why We’ll Miss David Bowie

Floating in the midst of millions of other fans mourning the loss of David Bowie, it’s hard to find just one or a few common themes about what Bowie and his music represented. For me, it was the hard rock of “Jean Genie,” “Suffragette City” and “Rebel, Rebel,” the anti-brand William Gibson-esque message of “Fashion” (you can almost hear “facist” if you listen to the doubling vocal track), and the highly danceable “Modern Love.” For some of my WPRB-FM friends, David Bowie epitomized every hip, trendy and erudite movement in the music business. From Lou Reed’s influence on his early career (much of which I believe is captured in “Hedwig and the Angry Inch”) to Rick Wakeman’s keyboards on “Space Oddity” to Bowie’s “This Is Not America” collaboration with Pat Metheny to his meta-meta-Christmas “Little Drummer Boy” with Bing Crosby (!!), Bowie intersected just about every plane of the music business, driving a perpendicular to each facet to reveal a new experience, a new tonal style, a new interpretation of something that had sedimented into our collective musical history.

When I heard of his death this morning my first thought was of some radio station friends who loved Bowie with nearly religious fervor. I get it, at least with three decades of hindsight. They felt what I did when Chris Squire died last May; a pillar of the soundtrack to our salad days was suddenly removed from its rightful place. We can’t count on that musical constant of constant change, and we are collectively, socially, poorer for it. We deal with uncertainty by looking for those things that are familiar; no matter how hard the work day or parenting night might be, you could listen to some Bowie (or Yes or Rush) and be grounded, at least temporarily. While those artists are alive, we refuse to age; when we lose our musical heroes we are fragile and exposed through those cracks in our framing.

Here’s what I’ve learned: Be weird. Be different. Define culture as you wish to be observed, because culture is all about observing how ideas spread. And if you’re asked to play keyboards for an upcoming artist whose music seems completely different, get more than twenty quid for it (read: Wakeman on “Space Oddity”) because you may just be providing the music for the dispersion of those new ideas.

Feeding Facebook

For a long time I used the “RSS Graffiti” app on Facebook to take the RSS feed from this WordPress site and publish it as a set of stories on my Facebook page. I’ve found that Facebook is a primary driver of eyeballs to the site; aside from the random Google query (like “best hockey books” or “electric sheep shirt”) that deposits readers deep within the Snowman’s innards, I rely on click-through from Facebook and Twitter. RSS Graffiti fell into that “too hard to maintain” gutter of applications that needed regular development work but didn’t have a revenue stream to support the coders.

I’ve been lazy and have been tweeting and explicitly posting items when I update the site. Until last week, when I dusted off my Zapier account and connected the WP RSS2 feed directly to Facebook. Zapier is an industrial grade workflow (or “business process automation”, if you’re an enterprise nerd, and your definition of “business” includes just about anything you can do with a net-based content tool) system. With my free account, I can create five workflows that run 100 times a month, every fifteen minutes — perfect for small-scale audience generation.

Comics 2015: The Time Is Now Again

One of the best parts of 2015 was watching Berkley Breathed re-animate “Bloom County.” A staple of the mid-80s to early-90s and a definite influence on Sun Microsystems culture (Rob Gingell’s machine was “opus” for as long as I knew him; perhaps only William Gibson’s “Neuromancer” spawned more machine names), Milo, Binkley, Bill, Opus, Steve Dallas and Oliver have returned in a most timely manner. Posting strips online gives Breathed more artistic and cultural reference flexibility (read: less censorship), and the political, technological, social and (sum of previous) Star Wars memes exposed are both unchanged and incredibly relevant. It is, as Geddy Lee sings, like “the time is now again.”

Strips are on Facebook.

Signed strips in reverse chronological order.

My favorite part of the reboot (in addition to the Star Wars references and Bill and Opus once again deciding to run for office) has been the Christmas sequence. The holiday sniffle usually prompted by John Scalzi this year put a soggy exclamation point on the last few strips of the year.

If you’re too young to remember Bloom County in its syndicated glory, start at reboot strip #1 and say hello to the characters. If you ever said “Don’t blame me, I voted for Bill and Opus” (and have said it frequently in the run up to 2016) it’s like the funniest guy in college just reappeared in your daily news feed.