“Legends Club” – V, K and the Dean

John Feinstein delivers in his sweet spot – college basketball – with “The Legends Club”. It is a story of fathers and sons of genetic and organizational and institutional relation; it is a love story of men and a game and rivals and life-long learning; it is at times almost unintentionally hilarious and equally sad because of the real-world characters involved. I have told bits of pieces of the following to people who ask why I left a technology company to join a healthcare company: reading stories of how Dean Smith’s mental gifts were stolen by his struggle with Alzheimer’s made me realize how elements of my management style were a reflection of his public persona, and that nobody deserved to die without the dignity of being their true mental selves through their entire lives.

If that’s a bit melancholy, it sets the tone for the book. Dean Smith and Jim Valvano don’t survive to the end of the story, but how Feinstein relates the incredibly textured, complex and rival-driven relationships of their lives is what makes this a compelling read.

My introduction to college basketball happened mostly accidentally – my freshman roommate decided to run a pool for the 1981 NCAA tournament, featuring our own Princeton Tigers squaring off against a BYU team lead by some kid named Danny Ainge (how prophetic that would be for my sports fandom years after moving to Boston). At the time, I knew very little about college basketball, and after being immersed in freshman physics, linear algebra and intro to CS, few of us knew very little about the outside world at all. So my Final Four picks included Indiana (because a high school friend went there) and North Carolina (since my closest roommate, Matt, was from Chapel Hill and his dad taught there). It was nothing more complicated than that.

I spent the week between the Elite 8 and the Final Four in Chapel Hill. It was my first time on an airplane, my first time south of Virginia, and my first exposure to life at a school with a storied coach. Marking time in NCAA brackets, nearly everything about that trip of 35 springs ago remains crystal clear, from the fact that I had a scruffy beard that was painted Carolina blue by someone during an impromptu parade after the Tar Heels won their semi-final game, to cleaning that same paint off of Matt’s car, to my intense fear that I was failing freshman E&M and had decided to re-learn the entire half semester one day, to sitting with Matt’s dad listening to “Classical Gas” which I stupidly thought was originally recorded by Larry Fast and Synergy. Seeing me studying, Matt’s mom brought me a slice of home made pie that was the single greatest incentive and study aid ever invented. Freshman physics took me deep into overtime but lost (I eventually wrapped college with an astrophysics class that made me revisit those days with a bit of educational joy). Names like Al Wood and James Worthy became part of my sports vocabulary (that Michael Jordan kid arrived the next year). Carolina fanaticism was born, slowly, emerging over the course of watching the Tar Heels tournament run reflected in the college town, because of the spirit, the people, the warmth, the fierce competitiveness that never spilled over into ugly vernacular or name-calling, and because of a slice of pie. UNC lost to Indiana in the championship game, and as a result I won the roommate pool for my first ever sports betting win. For the next 25 years I learned to idolize Dean Smith, the UNC hoops coach, my first steps in becoming a lifelong college basketball fan.

The only title-named coach that makes it to the end of the book is Coach K; the book was released before he took the US Men’s Olympic basketball team to a gold medal in Rio; but the final chapter is as moving as any novel where the plotlines can be constructed for heartstring tension. It’s not a happy book in the way that any resolution of long-standing, often petty and ugly personal conflict isn’t happy and jocular, but it is hopeful and illustrative of the power of mentoring, coaching and public relationships, and for those reasons I will put it in the short list of “sports books with business implications”.

Here’s what I learned from Feinstein’s deeply personal narrative of how UNC, NC State and Duke, with a strong supporting role played by Indiana and Bobby Knight: Dean Smith was far from a saint, but he acted in a way to always put the focus on his team and its players. He acted out of love for the game, and as a manager, his redirection of the spotlight is a tenet I hold dear. Mike Krzyzewski is not the (Blue) Devil, a bad person, an angry man or a bad coach. He is remarkably adaptable, dealt with physical setbacks (back surgery) that would have forced others into retirement, and worked in the dual large body shadows of Bobby Knight and Dean Smith. And Jimmy V was always the mood lifter, the soul shifter, and sadly, the too gentle soul whose career was injured through actions several long arms’ lengths away from him. My dislike for Coach K has been tempered and damped with facts and backstory; while I respect Dean Smith to this day, it’s evident how much his gravitas and context created space for him to excel. And I will always, always laugh at the ESPN/CBS clip of Jim Valvano running onto the court after winning the National Championship, arms open in a half-hug, because while joyous and hilarious it also represents in relief the best part of enjoying sports – doing so with family, friends, and those you want to hug after the win.

Springsteen Stories

Received my copy of Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography this week, and eager to read his own words about his own life (Peter Carlin’s “Bruce” was outstanding, and “Born To Run” holds even higher potential – and it’s sitting in the top slot in Amazon’s best seller list). One of the online groups in which I lurk has burst open with contemporaries sharing their own stories, his life as viewed through their words, and two of my own floated to the surface.

Attending Freehold Township High School (Bruce went to Freehold High School, later distinguished with the surname “Boro” once the Township school was opened), there was quite a bit of shared history with teachers and younger siblings who had some effective arm’s length human touch with Bruce. At least half a dozen people claimed to know the identity of “Wendy;” another half dozen laid claim to the “giant Exxon sign” in its exact location as their own turf. My favorite story, which I hold up as the stuff of teenage rebellion and not fact, goes like this: A certain teacher (who moved from Boro to Township) vaguely hinted that he had failed Bruce Springsteen and wouldn’t hesitate to fail you. The wordier version included Springsteen’s reply that “One day, I’ll be famous and you’ll still be here teaching the same class and driving the same car” — punctuated with the remark that after “Born to Run,” Springsteen proved himself correct with a visit. With a lot of hindsight, I find that incongruous; Springsteen has never been one to gloat or boast, and the thought of diminishing someone who had an impact, however random or tangential, is just counter to just about every theme in every Springsteen song.

The better stories are variations on this theme: Parents said “You better shape up or you’ll turn out like Bruce Springsteen” and then every one of us who laments the wilting of our salad days of musical talent wishes our parents had actually been more correct in their predictions.

My own (weakly remembered, but directionally correct) story sits in the Venn diagram intersection of those storyline mechanics. At the beginning of each school year, we’d get text books that looked like they’d been through the wringer and conveyor belts at the mercy of United’s baggage handlers, and the first act was to flip to the back inside cover and see who had been issued the book in previous years. The golden ticket was to find one with a scrawled “B Springsteen,” a feat that required a book in service for about a decade in a class that was still in the academic rotation. Sure enough, one day I found the magic signature, and yet never considered stealing the book for later collector value. Bruce entered our lives on an almost daily basis, there was no need to pay a $15 fine to prove evidence of our shared geographic heritage. “Born to Run” thundered from our FM clock radios, usually introduced by a WNEW DJ with nothing more than “Bruce” or “This” or some other Mark Rothko colored impact statement; that was sufficient to remind us Bruce Springsteen turned out alright even if his English book suffered the slings, arrows and lockers of time.

For the next six years, Bruce constructed and destructed much of my musical life. As a DJ at WPRB-FM, we were implicitly discouraged from playing Top 40, but his obscure and wonderfully textured songs found their way into my shows. I mailed in a check (via “special delivery!”) for the ticket lottery for his July 1981 shows at the Spectrum in Philadelphia, the first arena rock show I attended. After meeting amazing keyboardist (later turned drummer) Steve, another Springsteen fan, I realized that my saxophone playing wasn’t anywhere near what was required to play in a band; as Steve said “Clarence is always playing, but you don’t notice it; he just plays what needs to be played”. That stuck with me as a metaphor for a lot of things, but also made me take stock of my own ability to hear and contribute musically. Thirty-five years later, “New York City Serenade” is one of my favorite songs; “Darkness” is a desert island album; the opening chords of “Born To Run” still give me chills; and yet I haven’t given up the dream of playing since I picked up the bass two years ago — maybe we all still have the chance to turn out the way our parents eventually wanted — creatively happy.

“Born To Run” is next up on my reading list (provided I finish Annie Duke’s book before attending her charity poker ball next weekend) and I know it will fill in the facts of my own stories, not diminishing them but giving them color and connection and concreteness.

A Tuesday Like No Other, With Perspective

Fifteen years ago I was on a United flight to Boston on a sunny, crisp Tuesday morning that started like any other work day that year. I rolled out of bed, pulled on a suit and drove to Newark Airport, arriving about 45 minutes before my flight, stumbled through security and onto the plane where I took a short nap. I was employed by Sun Microsystems, working for the iPlanet-Sun Alliance, and was en route to host a customer event at our Boston area sales office.

It was my 39th birthday, and I was going to be away for the day, mostly because I had been subjected to a well executed surprise party a few years earlier, and I truly, completely hate surprises. Each year after that party I ensured I would be traveling on the actual day, getting home for well-timed cake and celebration, but without the overhang of a surprise. And so it was that on 9/11/01, instead of attending the Waters conference at Windows on the World, on the 113th floor of 1 WTC (and where a Merrill Lynch customer of mine was speaking), I was on a plane to Boston. A bit of self-centered compulsive behavior saved my life.

Once in a cab from Logan, about half way up I93, my wife called me on my (then quaint) cell phone. That was unusual; I’d usually check in when I had a better idea of my return logistics. While watching the morning news, the little TV on our kitchen counter lost its signal, upon switching to CNN she saw the live feed of a plane that had crashed into the World Trade Center. As I was on a plane to Boston, she did the logical thing to check in on me. A few minutes before 9:00, I was completely oblivious to what was happening in lower Manhattan. I had the cab driver put on Boston’s news radio for more details, at the time believing like many others that it was a small, private plane that had a hideous accident, and that New York’s bravest would soon put out the fire and return life to its normal level of crazy.

While in the car the 2nd plane hit 2 WTC, where our Sun office was located on the 25th and 26th floors. It was clear that this was a terrorist attack, and nobody knew what was to come next. After getting to the sales office, and deciding to cancel the customer event, I began calling people — using our Sun internal network to route calls out to the west coast, I was able to get outside lines and reach my family, my employee Laura who I knew was in 2 WTC that day, but I was unable to reach my friend Bob. About half an hour later, I heard “the tower is down, the tower is down” echoing down the hall and didn’t know how to parse that until I saw CNN.com coverage of 1 WTC collapsing (this was before the time of streaming video on the Internet).

I called a few people in California to let them know I was OK and that I had checked in on a few of our iPlanet employees. What I remember, vividly, is that they had no idea of the scale of what was going on; I got the feeling they believed this was a bit of New York drama and that things certainly couldn’t be so terrifying. I think if you had never lived in or near New York (or any other city which had suffered a terror attack) you have no idea what anybody on the east coast went through that morning. An administrator at our company was actually annoyed with me for calling repeatedly, and I never forgave her and the executive she supported, who knew where I was, for not failing to check up on me when she saw the morning news.

Panic ensued. One of my co-workers from NJ had a rental car, and we hopped in and began driving back to NJ. We made the trip in about 3 1/2 hours, doing well over 100 MPH the whole way, and seeing very few other cars on the road. Coming over the Tappan Zee Bridge, as you looked south to Manhattan, you could see the black plumes of smoke rising from the WTC side. Billy Joel’s “Miami 2017” ran through my head, and still gives me chills.

During the five hours from the first impact until I reached NJ, I had no idea if my friend Bob was alive; there was a major financial services event going on at Windows On The World and I couldn’t remember if he was going to attend or not. I’m pretty sure I cried at least a few times as fear and anxiety set in. Once we got back to NJ, and my co-worker dropped me in town, we had a tearful family reunion as we attempted to explain the events of the day to our kids.

I heard from Bob, and we haven’t gone more than 3 or 4 days without talking to each other since.

Our Sun mail room attendant was drinking his morning coffee and saw the first plane hit 1 WTC, swept the office hollering at everyone, including those in the PA-proofed conference and machine rooms, to evacuate. He saved half a dozen lives.

One of our neighbors decided to drive his kids to school and go into work (in the WTC) a bit late, and he was still en route to the Holland Tunnel when the first plane hit.

The first plane entered 1 WTC right one floor below a customer of mine, and I was certain of bad news as the names of the missing appeared. Two days later, I got an email from the CEO, saying that they were safe and sound and operating out of temporary offices in NJ; they had a staff meeting that morning and the designated breakfast person failed to bring muffins, so the entire team was on its way out of the building at the time the plane literally crashed through their office.

I heard other stories — people who decided it was a beautiful morning, possibly one of the last nice ones, and worthy of a trip outside of the building to get coffee, or donuts, or muffins. My sister was in Switzerland on a business trip, and after finally getting on a flight that would take her to Newark on Saturday, I decided to meet her in Terminal B. Eight hours late, she arrived around midnight, and I was there while her scheduled limo was nowhere to be found. We drove into Manhattan in silence, not just in our car but in Times Square, around Central Park, up the East Side. It was the loneliest and scariest trip through New York ever.

That day accelerated the dot-com bust. It reshaped our views of security, of terrorism, of xenophobia (whether we knew what it was or not). It created many tales of tragedy, of miracles, and of bravery that simply cannot be fathomed or imagined, unless you know someone who has run into a burning building. Fifteen years later, the new World Trade Center transportation center is open, featuring a huge, white, multi-story high architectural sculpture that frames the occulus of its center. Seen from Vesey Street, it’s a maw or teeth or something large and threatening. Seen from Broadway, it’s the head of an eagle, a nice complement to the Liberty Tower behind it. Seen from the 20th floor of a surrounding building, with proper perspective you can truly appreciate the artistic and architectural intent of those long, sweeping arcs of concrete and steel.

It’s a dove.

Fifteen years later, on a Tuesday like many others, I hope we all find the right perspective.

Summer Without Drums

Labor Day in the Stern family is typically framed by melancholy: end of the summer, return from the beach, re-instatement of the rules of school and work and schedules, and a careful consideration of the warm weather soundtrack.

Summer 2016 ends without drums, but ends well this Labor Day.

I am somewhat surprised, but shouldn’t be, by the synchronicity and short-radix connectedness of life in New Jersey, the last two weeks of which have revolved around a drum set. Seven years ago, eager to cement our house’s foundation as the practice home of our son’s band, I bought a gently used drum set from a work friend. One of the best conversations of my marriage went something like this: “Where are you?” “On my way to Mount Olive to get the drum set” (pause) “Where will it go?” “In the basement studio, so the boys can practice there without having to move a drum set around” (pause) “Good idea.” And so, over Labor Day weekend, a Pearl Forum drum set came to rest in our basement, and with a few purchases from pre-overt-creepy Craigslist we added cymbals, cymbal stands, a hi hat clutch and some new heads. And the world’s most hideous carpet remnant that sat under the whole trap (as I’ve learned, a diminutive of “contraption” which most delicately describes our kit).

The last load out for our beloved Pearl Forum kit

The last load out for our beloved Pearl Forum kit

Over the course of the next seven years, that Pearl of an impulse purchase powered many band practices (including the recording of the never released “Out Of The Basement”), a college application supplemental submission, and one of my furtive attempts to discover skills beyond technology management in my post-Oracle pre-Juniper days (Yes, I took drum lessons that I won at a silent auction, and no, my inner Neil Peart failed to materialize). Despite a few reconfigurations, the drums have sat largely unplayed for the better part of four years.

Last week a high school friend asked if anyone had a beginner’s drum set for sale to one of his students; it seemed coincidental that I’ve been considering how to clean up the basement lately and make more room for the overhang of our adult children’s lives. A suitable sales price and meeting location were agreed upon, and then this week I had the confluence of decidedly different but related thoughts and acts. Having finished season one of “Roadies” (highly recommended!), I fondly recounted my two attempts at being a roadie for the boys’ band, packing up the drum set, amps, and guitars into my car for a school gig. While “Roadies” made me wishful for a work life that intersected professional music a bit more, the drum set reminded me of the practicalities of that life. The drum set was broken down, shells stacked, stands arrayed as oversized silverware, cymbals still clamoring for attention through improper loading, and packed into the car one final time.

For the second time in consecutive summers, I found myself facing a musical coda, and I was equally unhappy about it, as if Labor Day was tweaking my nose in my mid-adult years to remind me that sometimes the calendar wins. The small trap kit arrayed on an ugly rug in a high school gym was the closing image of Rush’s R40 tour, the last shows of which the Bubba and I attended just last summer, leaving a void in our musical world that I still feel. And just yesterday, a copy of Neil Peart’s “Far and Wide: Bring That Horizon to Me!”, the tour travelogue and photographic yearbook of that R40 tour, arrived.

Having delivered the drums to their new owner — not too much younger than me, so elated to have a kit of his own, ready to take them on the roads up and down the Jersey shore, accompanied by promises of invitations to shows and gigs and inclusion once again in that broader musical world — I came home and cracked open Peart’s book. What he describes in the opening chapters is a rational and passionate explanation for his retirement, akin to that of a professional athlete, as a gentle staging to what comes next rather than any kind of failure or discord (or dischord). With just that bit of prose, I felt immensely better about selling the (nearly moss-covered) family drum kit. I’ve closed the book on my life as a roadie, drum tech, aging air drummer, and nearly a decade’s worth of summers with drums, leaving me with a distinct appreciation of the timekeeper’s craft.

Wisdom of Andy

Went fishing with my father today, an outing that always brings back a lot of good memories of the olfactory, muscle and narrative types. One of our regular bits is to review the “Wisdom of Andy,” the koans spoken by a regular on one of those party fishing boats who was easily fifty years my senior.

“Eat a pepper sandwich”. Quite literally, Andy put sliced bell peppers on bread and ate a succession of them through the morning’s fishing stops. He was a man who made the most of his local (garden) resources.

“Catch your fish going under”. When drift fishing, your line either goes under the boat or away from it; when you’re “under” you run over the fish first. Andy was a big believer in catching most of your fish by getting first crack at them, particularly the big ones.

“Catch the ones the other side missed”. The logical counter to having the best luck going under, if the opposite side of the boat wasn’t literally pulling its weight, you could pick up the slack.

“Always use fresh bait”. Whether there is anything to to science of fish picking up scent, contrast, or just ensuring you were checking that you had bait on the hook (after drifting over rocks or rough bottom spots), this was the best advice of all. There is likely some deeper meaning to ensuring you make the most of each chance, and present your best face at all times, but really it just means to make sure you have bait on the hook.

You can interpret Andy’s mental lures however you like, but he really was just dispensing rather good fishing advice. The fun part of sharing a boat with a group of strangers is that sometimes they leave you with sound bites to accompany the fish bites for the rest of your life.

Quadrennial House Guest Reflection

One of my favorite images of Hanukah is that of the house guest that visits you for a week, during which you indulge in foods and celebration. For years, I’ve felt the end of Hanukah tinged with sadness, as I pack away the special menorot and candles, putting away the equivalent of our house guest’s trappings for another year. A similar, but different, feeling applies to the Olympics. Staggering the winter and summer games has made their two week run feel less like a leap year or Presidential election and more like a much anticipated book or album release. However, there’s still the feeling that you’re living with a long-cycle periodic house guest who holds up a mirror for you to check in on how things have progressed. Or not.

We see ourselves in the Summer Games more than the winter episode because anyone who has run around outside, glided on a swingset, hung from a playground climbing set, kicked a ball or jumped in the water has visions of being the best, the fastest, the first of some unique aspect to ascend that podium. The Summer Olympics appeal to our first and best outdoor childhood instincts.

We need to measure how we, as a nation, show up. Are we respectful of the host country, its norms and people and food and culture, or do we vandalize a local business and lie about it? And then as a country, do we fail to ask for accountability of those chosen (and funded) to represent us? Not just in their actions, but in how they participate, cheer for their teammates, and how they comport themselves in and around other athletes (good: men’s basketball team cheering for swimming; bad: same team staying on a luxury yacht)

We need to let the stories tell themselves, rather than having NBC spoon fed us tape delayed highlights and heavily produced segments. One of the highlights for me was seeing runner Brenda Martinez sporting a Coheed and Cambria tattoo, which she later acknowledged to fellow fans. On Twitter. That bit about seeing yourself in the games? Works for us old people too. She overcame incredible adversity, trained in basketball shoes, and has given back to her sport immensely. There’s a hero of the games who doesn’t need a medal to earn our admiration, and has done more to tell her story with authenticity than any professional sportscaster.

We need to realize that the athletes representing our country are projection of our demographics and diversity, and to treat our country’s team with respect, equality, and a little bit of “all nations but mostly America” pride (to quote Muppet Sam The Eagle). If we go looking for every fault with those we’ve put on the international stage, how can we achieve anything with our neighbors and co-workers who represent those same changing demographics. It’s not just gender and skin color and religion and body shape; it’s style and approach and geography and public comfort. I’m sometimes amazed that Bill Walton became an outstanding basketball commentator after learning how to work with his stutter; had internet trolls existed to shame him in his early interviews then we would have lost the opportunity to hear a jocular and informed voice. Why on earth do we even consider shaming those who have represented us so well on the world stage, for their actions in cheering teammates, receiving honors, or excelling in their sports that require strength and agility composited with poise and character in any shape or color of body?

If the Summer Olympics are our house guest, here to reflect our collective and individual behaviors, let them show the best of mature adult as well as dreaming child.

Generational Performance

I believe once every 18-20 years we witness something that constitutes a generation marking performance; a confluence of skills, poise, courage, stamina, team and individual leadership that make us sit up and take notice, in a way that we’ll use as a chronological reference point for the ensuring quarter century.

Within my sports recall lifetime:

The 1980 US Men’s Olympic Hockey Team. The 1969 Mets and 2004 Red Sox. The “We Are Family” 1979 Pittsburgh Pirates. Bill Walton in his final season with the Boston Celtics. Mark Spitz.

I’ll add a Rio quartet: Simone Biles, Aly Raisman, Katie Ledecky, Simone Manuel. Nearly all of the previous generational moments happened in a world of print media, selective mediated access, and slowly evolving timelines. Our US Olympic women athletes competed in a world of social media, intense pressure, direct access to and from the athletes, and a race to expose “stories.” Each of the four battled competition and those external pressures to deliver a generational performance. Katie Ledecky literally swam away from the pack, and then was the roommate and teammate everyone wants as she cheered Simone Manuel to a gold medal. Simone Manuel combined faith and grace and power to establish new a first ascent. Aly Raisman showed how you come back from crushing disappointment with stamina, humility, hard work, and an intense smile. Simone Biles makes me question gravity, in both the physical and existential sense. She seems to be having more fun the higher she flies.

The generational moment is that I like the Olympics again, after re-assuring myself that I wouldn’t watch or care.

Economics of Expertise

[Ed Note: I started writing this more than four years ago, after seven months of semi-employment during which I was consulting for a large scale publishing site. The outline emerged after dinner with their CEO, a long-time friend, who is one of the most multi-talented people I know with skills ranging from guitar player to professional football player to software company executive. I placed myself officially in the “old fart” chronological category after lamenting our inability to find people who think in “big systems” or have kernel level understanding of operating systems. That seemingly unrelated set of facts gave rise to this musing on how scarcity and expertise are differently valued and measured.]

Value historically was tied solely to scarcity, driven by the economics of ownership and uniqueness. As my father in law once said, real estate by the beach will always increase in value because nobody is making more of it. Whether driving pricing in ancient coins, exceptional quality, never-been-in-bike-spokes baseball cards, or high end sports cars, scarcity dominates the world of atoms. Physical things are more valued when there are either fewer of them (Honus Wagner baseball cards) or over-stimulated demand for them (San Francisco 1 BR apartments).

Unless you are making, selling or arbitraging those items, it’s hard to make money in the scarcity market. Markets that were driven by and respected for their scarcity – world class journalists, for example – have been overrun by surplus where anyone who can publish a blog post is a news source, re-shared endlessly on Facebook creating a sense of authority backed by no real measure of value. Old fart category, indeed. I’m channeling Rick Wakeman more than listening to him now.

However, scarcity economics aren’t the sole engine of an economy driven by information, a world in which “Chaos Monkeys” author Antonio Garcias Martinez points out that in the future, you’ll either tell a computer what to do or be told what to do by a computer. Uber is a case in point: the scarcity of taxi cab medallions is replaced by information that matches riders and drivers, estimates wait times, provides pricing transparency and accepts credit cards. Information economies are driven by expertise: who creates and curates the information, and who knows how, where and why to act on it. Capture the expertise needed to efficiently organize a city’s taxi pool and you have a business.

It’s why Yahoo! died a slow death. During my semi-employment term, I spoke with a senior technologist at Yahoo! as something of a pre-screen for a senior role. I felt like my understanding of their business was fundamentally disconnected from the reality at the time, and nothing happened. I’m not sure Yahoo! was ever serious about trying to connect people (the point of communities, mail, Flickr), but on the other hand “connect” usually resolves to “create targeted advertising” which was the bulk of their business model. Online aggregations of high-end sports car fan boys perusing articles about the joys of owning a McLaren are shown ads for BMW repair shops in the local area. Yahoo! dabbled in content, but it really was an advertising company without a differentiator despite the various content curation plays. Had Yahoo! decided to truly play in expertise, to go from being an index of the internet to a market-making force in expertise, it may have carved out an identity better than being the pewter medalist in online search.

How do you monetize the expertise economy, aside from hiring people with particular expertise in your required domain? You create opportunities for skill development, for skill application (the true measure of expertise isn’t knowing something, it’s knowing how to apply it appropriately), and eventually for skill validation. It’s how you retrain vast swaths of the population who will be displaced by automation ranging from self-driving trucks to order-taking kiosks. It’s the business model of Code Academy, and prior to that, the effective business model of O’Reilly and Associates [disclosure: I am an O’Reilly author]. It’s how TopCoder crowdsources small scale solutions, creating a market of vetted expertise.

There are potential interplays between the bits and atoms worlds, where expertise guides choices and product selection. Attach the right experts to an eBay or amazon.com product category, and you’re likely to generate more transactions with higher satisfaction. It’s a refactoring of the grizzled guy with nine fingers in the back of the hardware store, who would take one look at whatever misshapen home repair project you brought in and tell you “10×24 thread, not 10×32, third bin on the left side, and get both the inch and the inch and a quarter lengths to be sure.” You aren’t getting that kind of help at Home Depot, and if you want it, Quora probably isn’t the right solution either. When you paid 20% more for your hardware at the corner store, it covered the cost of the expertise. It’s likely time to revisit that model, connecting purveyors of expertise to those who need it dispensed.

The Heart Spoken Khatru

[Warning: set list spoilers ahead for the Yes “Album Tour”]

I had admittedly mild expectations for the Yes show in Atlantic City last night, between the revised band lineup retaining only Steve Howe as an original “core member” and the emphasis on playing two albums providing something of a rigid format. After taking in a run of Phish shows, I was looking forward to being in the younger part of the audience for once (including the option to sit through most of the show), but that’s hardly a good motivator for taking in a good show.

I was really, really wrong, and never have I been so glad to be so wrong.

If you are anything of a Yes fan, and spun your copy of “Yessongs” until the dynamic range on the grooves wore down, then go see one of these shows. Geoff Downes brings energy and some practicality to the keys (he’s not Wakeman, nobody is, so instead of muddling through he attacks the pieces where he can add his own unique color); Billy Sherwood has a big, swirly tone that will make you think Squire but again, he doesn’t try to fill in for the much-missed bassist. Jon Davison sounds scarily like Anderson, enough that your heart also skips that missing eighth note in the 15/8 sections. While I had feared I’d see Steve Howe fronting a tribute band that was trying hard to recreate Yes of the 1970s, what I got was a genuine Yes experience of the mid-2010s. And it was awesome.

And speaking of Steve Howe: He had more fun on stage than in the twenty years I’ve been seeing Yes. Modulo the requisite peccadilloes that seem to annoy him during every show (a spotlight that missed the beginning of his solo, causing him to wave frantically, a mic that cut out during his introduction to a song, his guitar cable that seemed to keep catching on his shirt), he was jumping around, unleashing solo after solo that were true explorations of the pieces, and he even smiled. I was rapt and in awe and happier than I’ve been since pulling the plastic off of the copy of “Yessongs” I bought at Two Guys in Manalapan (for $11).

For the first time in a long time, I didn’t check out the setlist before hand; I wanted to be surprised by the “and other songs”. I’ve loved Drama for 35 years, and Tales grew on me as I listened to it in pieces (turning point: putting on the “Keys to Ascension” CD in the W hotel, in San Francisco, during one of the first JavaOne conferences; it seemed pretentious to have a CD player in my hotel room, so I put on something worthy of the artifact and really heard the intricate parts). Deep down, though, I have a few favorites, staples of my Yes experience and my gold standards for judging any audio system.


Once again, the band didn’t disappoint. After a solid “Your Move/All Good People” (first time I’ve seen that one live!) Steve Howe strapped on a gorgeous walnut ES-335 and ripped into the opening chords of “Siberian Khatru”. Dean Budnick, editor of “Relix” magazine, posed the question in a recent masthead editorial asking “What was the album that did it for you?” For me, it was listening to WYSP, one summer night on Long Beach Island, as they tracked all of “Close to the Edge.” I’d only heard the live version on Yessongs, and hearing the perfectly executed studio version, concluding the best prog album of all time, send chills up my spine that obviated the need for air conditioning. Howe’s solo at the end of “Khatru” is one of the few places he can really interpret the song, take some liberties, mix chords with dazzling runs. A favorite music teacher once described a woodwind passage as “angels singing over the top of the orchestra” (in a pandering attempt to get us to stop butchering that passage), and in the pseudo-religious paen of “Khatru” (seriously: khatru is a made up word, and the song is full of oblique Christ imagery) Howe’s solo just sails over the top of a rather intense closing section. It is, was and always will be my most favorite song, and hearing it — in the moment, never to be played just like that again — was its own religious experience.

My comment to Bubba: This is as good as Rosh Hashanah for renewal and refresh.

In between tracks of “Tales” once again Steve Howe came out with a bench, an acoustic, and a smile. I was thinking “Mood for a Day” or perhaps “Clap” but what we got was the moving guitar solo from “The Ancient”, arranged the same way it’s on “Not Necessarily Acoustic”. Another experience thought I’d never hear live, and alone worth the price of admission. Despite Howe’s admonitions that he doesn’t see the point of playing “Roundabout” every show, it’s a moving encore and brought the crowd to its feet. Had the show ended then and there, I would have been sated, elated and (per Khatru-ism) expiated.

Until the swirling, head-rushing, all hands on all keyboards and frets and sticks opening of “Starship Trooper.” Not only is it the other bookend to “Yessongs” and concludes with another guitar solo with headroom to explore, it has some bass pedal work that is the standard for judging subwoofers. It’s the perfect vehicle for a band that’s been nearly perfect in its performance, its musicianship, and it’s ability to breathe life into their canon for nearly half a century. The vocal chord that concludes “Starship Trooper” was perfectly reflective: new voices, old voices, one band that continues to reveal the heart spoken khatru, not just for me but for another generation of fans.

And Then There Was One

Tomorrow night the Bubba and I are off to see Yes do their “album series” – all of “Drama” and the two popular sides of “Tales from Topographic Oceans” (Revealing Science of God and Ritual). Yes is now down to one core member — Steve Howe — from the Yessongs era band that lived on my Radio Shack turntable. After Chris Squire’s death last year, Wakeman’s replacement with Drama-era member Geoff Downes, Anderson’s multiple level replacement with tribute band vocalist Jon Davison, just two weeks ago long time drummer Alan White underwent back surgery that will put him on tour hiatus as well. Either prophetic or ironic, “Drama” was the first Yes album out of the “main sequence” without Anderson or Wakeman, but prominently featuring Howe and Geoff Downes exploring a bit further than “Tormato” or “Going For The One.” Life sometimes imitates art, as seen through the lens of band dynamics.

I also picked up a ticket to see Renaissance in mid-November, also down to one of the core members — vocalist Annie Haslam. If Howe is the guitar voice of Yes, then Haslam is the voice-turned-lead instrument of Renaissance. After Michael Dunford’s death, Jon Tout’s death, and bassist Jon Camp’s disappearance from public view, Haslam holds up the banner of 1970s prog memories with a competent touring band (including the insanely talented Tom Brislin and Rave Tesar).

Counting down to final surviving members is both maudlin and misses the point – despite calls for Yes to officially dis-band it is a privilege, and often a lifetime experience, to see and hear your musical heroes on stage. In an age of re-releases, concert vault soundboards, and boxed sets aggregated around any reasonable marketing principle, live music remains the best link between audience and artist. It’s increasingly the best way for musicians to make money, and it provides a unique experience for the casual or die-hard fan. I don’t begrudge Yes or Renaissance touring one semiquaver; whether they choose to bill as “Steve Howe and friends” or “Yes” is a marketing issue, not a musical one – you know what you’re getting, and you can look forward to it (as I have) for months. “Dead & Company” with Trey Anastasio was not the Grateful Dead, but the music was just as joyful and reached a quarter million people last summer. Names are for accountants and promoters; the music tells its own story whether its one or five composing members on stage to perform it live.

Each time I see Steve Howe perform, I’m shocked by his intensity, his proficiency and his flexibility; he’ll play half a dozen guitars with a dozen sounds and if you blink you miss the transitions. He is the one we want to see for as long as he’ll tour, not matter how he is billed.