Music as the Canary in the Coal Mine

It's been almost 20 years since Napster tipped over the boat. Although it operated only for about 2 years in its original form, the repercussions of what they started are still being felt and we've not yet come through all the changes that Napster wrought. Musicians can't make money. We didn't make any before Napster either. It's just a different kind of not making money. But some have managed to adjust, and more notably many bands and fans came of age in this era, so the idea of free music, "donated" support, and superfans is what they've always known. Computer technology also changed every other aspect of music. Anyone can make music, you no longer need an expensive studio. You don't need a label or a distributor. You just need a computer, some decent gear and software, and an internet connection.


I think music serves as something of a canary in a coal mine. What has happened to the music industry could happen to nearly every endeavor we are now engaged in. This isn't new, but after viewing some recent YouTube videos this idea formed itself in my mind more clearly. Video games have supplanted music as a dominant form of entertainment. Think now of all the video games you can play for free. If you're a semi-serious gamer you might also know about the modding community. These are people who made add ons for many games. Some of these modders might get a little money via donation, but are mostly just doing it for free and for fun. Skyrim is a popular game and one of the most modded I've seen. On the mod sharing site Nexusmods there are over 40 thousand files available. Sure, not all of it is great, but can you imagine the cost to the game manufacturer if they themselves had made even a fraction of those mods? Can you imagine being asked to pay for each one that you wanted to use?


It's not just games. Open source software is common, with some programs like OpenOffice easily standing toe to toe with giants like Microsoft Word. Though not exactly open source, I use Reaper as my recording software. I find it every bit as capable as other programs that would have cost hundreds more. There was a recent announcement that one of the most widely used game engines would be released for free, for all to use.


Back to the YouTube videos, I've seen a number of fan made videos of well known material, and I've seen people's original works. With the available technology, now filmmakers can do what musicians began doing two decades ago. They can make Hollywood quality films by themselves, at home, with their friends, for not much money. Youtube is huge, visual entertainment is massive, and I don't see this slowing down. Homemade videos might never upend the industry the way it happened in music, but with companies like Netflix and Amazon making their own (very successful) shows, less and less you'll need to go through some sort of gatekeeper to make your movie and get it out to the public.


I don't think this is limited just to entertainment. Businesses want to make as much money as they can, and cutting costs is one way to do that. Once self-driving cars become common, how long will it be until cab companies and trucking companies become automated? Already in Japan you can go to restaurants where the food is prepared by robots. Someone also just opened a hotel staffed by robots. When 3D printing becomes even more commonplace than it already is, that will further eliminate the need for workers.


Many people always have and always will make music and art and film for the love of it, not the money. But I really can't see anyone working at Walmart or McDonald's just because they enjoy the task at hand. Manufacturing in the US went through this in the 70s, and never really recovered. That was partly due to automation, and partly due to cheap overseas labor. The economy of the future is not a matter of training people for new industries, enacting policies that promote job growth, or even increasing the minimum wage. The economy of the future is us figuring out what to do with all the people who don't have jobs not because of any reason we have today, but because those jobs don't need to be done by people anymore. This issue becomes magnified when you consider the use of robots and other manufacturing in other countries. It's one problem to figure out what 100 million Americans will do when humans don't have to do those jobs anymore. Add to that a billion Chinese workers.


Where does this leave us? I don't really think any of this is bad, but our civilization isn't taking steps to be ready for these changes. If all of our creative work is done for free, are we all flipping burgers and stocking grocery shelves to pay the bills? If all the mundane work is done by machines, what will everybody do? Can we begin to move to a world where our needs are taken care of without a worry of money, leaving us to pursue our true callings?

(from Sean's personal blog)
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Income Shaming

I debated whether this should be a PanFuture article or a personal blog, but I think it's both. Herein I get my cranky old man on, and also ruminate about the state of our society and future of civilization. There will also be swearing.
 
I have a special hatred for those articles that you see saying things like "Do these 3 things and retire before age 40" or "These are the simple wealth tricks no one does". They make me want to scream in someone's face. You've seen them, or any of a dozen variations on that theme. Sometimes they are aimed at younger people, sometimes at those more in middle age. But as far as I can tell, they all have one thing in common.
 
It usually comes early in the article, maybe a paragraph or two after the introduction. Whether it's from the person writing about what they did, or just a generic example, there's a mention of how much money you make. Often delivered as an offhand comment, no big deal. Like "hey, by the way, now that you earn a shit ton of money you could do this and get even more. It's easy and everyone can do it". It's an apparent complete and utter disconnect from how most people actually live
 
(For reference going forward, the median individual income in 2019 is $40,100, the average is about $58,400. Household incomes are higher, the median being about $63,000.
https://dqydj.com/average-median-top-individual-income-percentiles/)
 
And here is where the face-palming problem with all these articles lies. From a recent headline: "
6 Things to Do With Your Money Once Your Salary Reaches $70,000", which is mostly just to sell you shit you probably don't need. Or from another recent article titled "I saved $300,000 by 26—and doing these 5 unusual things helped me save like crazy". Two things immediately stand out from this author: "I also worked hard to earn scholarships and chose to go to an in-state school for financial reasons. But that, in addition to the job I took on as a research assistant, didn’t make school that much cheaper. To cover the $21,000 per year tuition, I did have some help from my parents and was able to graduate debt-free, which I consider an enormous privilege." She worked hard, good for her. So did I. She graduated debt free? Yeah, not me. And then this gem: "After college, I landed an internship at a biotech company that paid $32 an hour. Then, I moved on to a junior software engineering role that offered a $65,000 salary, along with a $10,000 signing bonus." She further managed to get by on only $20k per year and saved the rest.
 
YOU GOT AN INTERNSHIP THAT PAID $32/HR AND A STARTING JOB AT $65K! Normally I don't shout in caps, but it's shit like this that just makes me want to scream out loud and dismiss the rest of the article out of hand. Sure, she lives in Portland and that's pretty pricey, but holy shitballs. I'm 43 and I'll be lucky to crack $38k. I might be able to get by on $20k a year, but it's not like I have a choice. Save $300k? Ain't happening for a schmuck like me. Every last one of these articles never understands that most people don't get that lucky, and they don't understand how much easier the game is when you get a head start.
 
The more I thought about these articles the more it occurred to me we have a problem with income shaming. On the surface maybe there is good advice here, or maybe sometimes its just a scam to sell you that one weird trick. But more and more it reads like shaming. In the same way, especially here in America, we're told all the time how we're not thin enough, not ripped enough, not pretty enough. All these messages are often delivered in a way that says "if you're not this way, you have no value as a human being". We're often told we're not rich enough if we don't own the right things. And there's interesting wordplay in many of these articles. They always refer to wealth, not being rich. There's something different between those two. Like being rich makes you an asshole, but having wealth is all soft and fuzzy.
 
Of course the awful catch-22 of the whole thing is that the more money you have, the easier it is to gain more (or conjure out of thin air in the stock market). If you have little or none, it's nearly impossible to gain. This just makes the income inequality problem worse. In truth, most of us die where we were born. America has a Caste system, it's just not so obvious to most.
 
Most people don't have that kind of luck. Most people don't start ahead of the game. It's time to stop judging our value based on what we own or the size of our portfolios. Wall Street is not Main Street, and I am not just a credit score. What I do in my chosen jobs educated children, entertains people during a night out, preserves memories, and facilitates communication, among other things. Is all of that only worthwhile if it puts a lot of money in my pocket? I don't think so, but that's not how American capitalism is set up. It's time to separate value from money, self-worth from wealth, and vocation from compensation.
 
(As a related aside, any article that talks about 'side hustles' can fuck right off. I've been partly or fully self employed my entire adult life. It's all side hustle for a freelancer.)
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Something Nice

If you don't have something nice to say, don't say anything at all. So simple, and though it may sound outdated and old fashioned, it would solve a lot of problems.

We are so far beyond simple disagreements. Far beyond SIWOTI (Someone Is Wrong On The Internet!). It seems most of the online conversation is just everyone telling you all you do is wrong. You're having fun wrong. You're rooting for the wrong team. You're playing that game wrong. Your shoes are the wrong color. You don't look like I think you should. You're doing something I don't like to do, therefore you suck. You like a thing I hate therefore you don't have a right toe exist. Enough. If you aren't actually being harmed, then shut up and move on.

What benefit do you gain from going out of your way to make yourself angry? So angry that you can't stand to be silent, and rather than making some coherent counterpoint all you can to is rage? Maybe it's a small number of people doing it, but it feels like there are as many people trolling all over as there are people "finding their tribe".

Honestly, if I have a magic wand I would probably erase social media. I might even kill the whole internet. I'm not sure the good outweighs the bad. I'm getting older. I'm an introvert. Social media isn't a good place for me. Am I just doing the same thing here? I sure don't have anything nice to say about social media.
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Privacy: And How to Get It Back

Earlier this year author B.J. Mendelson emailed me and asked if I would like to talk with him about privacy and personal data in the era of Facebook. That was right about the time I decided to end the regular podcast so we didn't connect for a talk, but he kindly sent me a copy of his book Privacy: And How to Get It Back. I've recently had time to read the book, and since I have also recently deleted myself from Facebook, I thought it was a good time to finally get this review done.

Mendelson approaches this subject with humor and snark, and an eye toward what we can do about the use of our data in the 21st century. His book also ends each chapter with a summary, making it useful as a reference tool or textbook of sorts. It would be beneficial just to read this book so everyone can understand all the ways in which we generate data every day and how that in turn is used and sold. It's clear that we've plowed headlong into the era of social media with little forethought. But beyond that, Mendelson takes the time to give a brief history of privacy, data collection, and the laws and behaviors of the government and companies even going all the way back to the late 18th century. We may have new ways of blithely putting information about our lives out where anyone can find it, but in many ways it's not new. It's just much easier now for that information to be bought, sold, and misused.

And to be sure this goes far beyond social media (for a more Social Media centered book, read Mendelson's
Social Media Is Bullshit). Everything from our growing "Internet-of-Things" to our DNA profile is potentially on the sales block, and the laws that exist in the US are woefully inadequate. But not all is lost and there is a lot you can do to protect yourself in the online world. Start by reading this book to actually comprehend what's going on in the black box of modern data collection. And when you're done, Mendelson offers up a long list of further reading at the end of the book. We're living in the time that Carl Sagan feared, where more and more people rely on technology they don't understand. B.J. Mendelson's book will arm you with some valuable tools to combat your own ignorance, so that you can join others in leaning on the government and tech companies to behave better. We got here very quickly and the road back might be slow, but now is always a good time to start.

B.J. Mendelson, is a keynote speaker, author, and comic book writer. His books include Social Media Is Bullshit from St. Martin’s Press and Privacy: And How We Can Get It Back from Curious Reads. His comic books include Vengeance, Nevada and A National Story of Minor Significance.

Buy his books here
Buy his comics here
Support his newest comic creation here
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A Christmas Schmuck

Some time back I reviewed a book called The Last Day Of Captain Lincoln. The author, Exo Books, recently sent me another short story to read. This one, Schmuck the Buck, isn't a sci fi tale but a holiday one, all about Santa's Jewish reindeer. It's fully illustrated and a quick, entertaining read. At first glance it appears to be a light, humorous, and modern re-imagining of the tale of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. By the end Schmuck has to save Christmas, and does so in a very Millennial way. But at another level it's also a story of resilience against bullies, being true to your own nature, doing what has to be done, and accepting yourself for who you are. And, at the end, we are reminded that what makes us the same, what can bring us together, is far more important than the differences we might have.

It's worth a look for something different this holiday season, and you can find it at schmuckthebuck.com or on Amazon.

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