The politics of Beethoven

Tin Man: Sing Softly. Interesting story from my friend the Tin Man about being asked to identify himself as a member of the Gotham Chorus, not the Gay Gotham Chorus, for the sake of a bunch of Baptist college girls who were paying to sing in Carnegie Hall with them. I like the solution that Mipiel identifies in the comments: “after the concert, casually walk hand in hand with Matt until the Baptists can see, and then give each other a big hug and kiss. Then walk away as if nothing happened. If they’re unable to accept that gay men (and lesbians) are ordinary people just like them who do ordinary things like singing Beethoven that’s their problem, not yours.”

Still, it sucks all the way around—sucks for Tin Man and Matt, sucks for the Alabama kids that they have to be protected that way, sucks for Tin Man’s former glee club director that he, even as the concert manager, didn’t feel he had enough power to turn the occurrence into a “teachable moment” for his Southern guests.

I’m reminded, by contrast, of Robert Shaw, who regularly integrated Southern hotels and restaurants as he traveled around the country in the ’40s and ’50s with the Robert Shaw Chorale. Or Donald Loach, who directed the Virginia Glee Club from the 1960s through the 1980s, who integrated diners at truck stops in rural Virginia with his integrated Glee Club at the same time that the state was mounting its Massive Resistance campaign.

Farewell, Uncle Duke

MSNBC: Writer Hunter S. Thompson commits suicide. Dr. Gonzo’s insistence on eradicating the illusion of objectivity in his reporting paved the way for the blog world’s embrace of subjectivity. Unfortunately he wasn’t able to overcome his demons.

I feel a little like I did when Elliott Smith killed himself. Not quite the same sense of loss—I wasn’t that emotionally connected to Thompson—but the same anger. There is no bigger opponent for some of us than our own black angels of darkness.

Committee to Protect Bloggers finds first cause

BBC: Global blogger action day called. Two Iranian bloggers, known as Mojtaba and Arash, have been imprisoned in Iraq, and the new Committee to Protect Bloggers has declared today “Free Mojtaba and Arash Day.” Mojtaba was arrested for reporting the arrests of three fellow bloggers on his blog; Arash for keeping a blog called Panhjareh Eltehab (The Window of Anxiety) which focused on the arrests of bloggers and online journalists.

The original post has instructions on how to contact Iran’s UN representation (Iran has no US embassy).

Blog fright

In the course of answering an email about my blogging, I wrote the following which I thought might be appropriate for a broader audience—it’s about some challenges in blogging about your job and about your life, and about getting a blog started:

It’s very tempting once you become a blogger and get the spirit of sharing to write down everything that’s happening to you. If you’re single, that’s maybe OK (though there can certainly be some things about your private life that you are OK sharing at the age of 20 but might not want to be Googleable when you’re 30). But when you’re married, as I am, your spouse has a right to expect a certain amount of privacy and to get a certain consideration about what gets exposed in public and what doesn’t. It took a while for Lisa and me to find that balance. There have been some big things in my life—like our decision to relocate to Boston from Seattle—that I might normally have blogged just so that I could get perspective on them, and so that I could share them with our families as they happened. But because the information affected both of us and might affect both our jobs, I had to hold off on writing anything about the decision until the wheels were already in motion—basically until after we sold our house and I was getting ready to drive across the country.

With respect to work, there are all sorts of issues. Intellectual property is one—your workplace may claim ownership of ideas that you have. How does that affect blogging? I basically documented my blog and my existing software as an exception to the intellectual property agreement I signed with Microsoft, but I felt constrained in what I wrote afterwards—especially in talking about the company or its policies. This was a year or two before Robert Scoble helped to define the culture of blogging at Microsoft—that it was OK to have a blog and talk about your team and what it was doing. But figuring that out on my own was tricky, and for about a year I basically punted. I talked about RSS, because at that point the company wasn’t doing anything in the space, or about things I was learning on my own about CSS and web design, and then I blogged a lot about music, food, beer, and home improvement. It was only after a year had passed that I even publicly said, “I work for Microsoft” on my blog.

It was very liberating to realize after a while that there were other people at Microsoft who were able to maintain that balance and still write good interesting technical things on their blogs. That freed me a bit to have a stronger voice about software matters.

Ultimately, I got full liberation by joining a group whose business was about building community—customer-to-customer and Microsoftie-to-customer relationships. I had done work with an early version of that team as an intern, thinking about how Microsoft should work with customer-run websites that talked about its products and how to encourage those sites. At the end of my Microsoft experience, I came full circle, this time helping the company build a service that would take employee weblogs and weave them into the corporate website—effectively blurring the line between employees’ perspectives on their products and corporate messages.

on starting a blog

First, if you’re doing blogging in a business context you need to think about a very few important things: how tolerant are my employers of me saying things that might not jibe with corporate messaging? and is it appropriate for me to write about what I’m doing? (Cases where the latter is an issue: startups during the quiet period; if your entire job is working with clients, especially difficult ones; etc.). Then dive in afterwards, as long as you remember Scoble’s rules, which basically boil down to: would I have a problem if my wife, my boss, or my CEO reads this post?

Second, remember what Ted Hughes said about Sylvia Plath’s poetry, which was that if she couldn’t get a table from the materials she was working with in a poem, she would be happy with a chair or a toy. Not every post has to be hit out of the ballpark, but you always need to do the best job you can with the material you have at hand.

Third, link to people on both sides of an issue, not just the ones you disagree with.

Fourth, if you read something interesting on someone’s blog, point to it and write why you think it’s interesting.

Fifth, get a Bloglines account or a Kinja account or download NetNewsWire or RSS Bandit and start subscribing to sites’ RSS feeds. It’s a lot easier to manage the information flow that way.

Sixth, read Tony’sHow to Blog“. He covers a lot of the rest, including how to manage the fact that you’re writing for an audience that may be sometimes larger than you think.

Reposted from a post that was lost from Friday.

Bubbler blowback

I got a couple nice notes from Glenn Reid, CEO of Five Across, following up on my critical review of their new blogging tool Bubbler. They’re starting to add in some of the missing features I complained about, including RSS—which Glenn blogged about at his new Bubbler blog. (Subscribed.) I like that the RSS feeds are automatically built for all the content sections, not just the text posts.

Remaining things that the team could do fairly quickly to simplify the process of interacting with Bubbler blogs:

  • Update the default templates to provide permanent links for each entry. The anchor names are already in the XHTML—the app just needs to build an easy way to grab the permalink without viewing source.
  • Revise the client to make it possible to enter HTML source so that I can do proper hyperlinks and images.

As I guessed, the team is moving pretty quickly to add features to the basic bubbler™ beta, so I expect to see the app progress. I also like the responsiveness of the company—it’s not every day I get emails from a CEO after I complain about the company’s product.

Boston Camerata

My parents arrived yesterday afternoon from North Carolina, and last night we took them into Harvard Square to see the Boston Camerata. I’ve written about the Camerata before, and based on the fact that their recording of medieval and early American Christmas carols is one of our all time favorites, you can imagine the excitement. My mom, in fact, leaned over before the show started and said, “Who could have guessed twenty years ago when I bought that record that I’d be seeing the Boston Camerata in Cambridge?” (Of course, it was more like 25 years ago, but hey.)

The group turned out, at least for this performance, to be a much smaller ensemble than I had ever imagined: two sopranos, contralto, tenor, baritone, bass, flute/recorder, violin, viola da gama, and on bass and lute the music director Joel Cohen. But even with only ten people on stage their sound filled the church. All the women in the choir had tremendous clear voices, led by the example of the glorious Anne Azéma, and the men’s voices were resonant and powerful if somewhat less absolutely distinguished. Joel Cohen only sang on a few all-group numbers and one or two comic solos, where he used his dramatic bass to good comic effect.

The program was New Britain and New France, based on the New Britain recording that the group made almost twenty years ago, and consisted of pairings of twentieth century folk tunes and hymns with earlier antecedents, some as old as the twelfth century. There were some wonderfully salacious French tunes in the first half of the program, but the part that got my blood racing was the third part, which featured ballads and “wandering songs” as they were adapted over the centuries. The story of the eternal ballad is familiar to anyone who’s dipped more than a toe into the waters of folk music—or even bothered to see whose songs Led Zeppelin was covering on its first few albums—but the Camerata took things one step further by tracing melodies, texts, and thematic ideas. So they linked together a set of songs about gypsies—the original “outsiders”—and closed it with a 1925 Ohio tune called “Gipsy Davy,” which to my surprise and delight I recognized as a cousin of the tune “Black Jack Davey,” which has been performed both by the Carter Family and by the White Stripes. (Yes, I’m a music geek.)

The fourth and last part of the program delved into shape note singing, which was fantastic, and which prompted my dad to say afterwards that it reminded him of growing up in the mountains.

I’m now hooked on the Camerata all over again, and couldn’t be happier to hear that they’ll be doing their “American Christmas” program next year (since I missed them at Christmas this year). A note in their program also tipped me off to the Boston Early Music Festival, which looks like it will be another amazing time.

Offblog night

A few good discussions last night in Harvard Square. At the night’s two gatherings, I renewed acquaintances with Doc Weinberger, Betsy Devine, and Sooz, met Zephyr Teachout (aka Zonkette), Henrik Schneider, Shimon Rura of Frassle, Mark Bernstein of Eastgate Systems and Tinderbox, Gregor Rothfuss, Bill Ives, and Peter Caputa. Good pix here from one of the gatherings.

I was intrigued to hear about Bill Ives’ book project on practical tips for corporate blogs.

You haven’t lived…

…until you’ve heard Nina Gordon, late of Veruca Salt, singing Straight Outta Compton (warning to sensitive ears—as on the original version, the F-bomb gets dropped about once every five seconds in that MP3). A bit like the bluegrass cover of “Gin & Juice,” but (thanks partly to the mental image) just that much more delicious. Thanks to Ben Hammersley for the post, fortuitously entitled My AK47 is a tool, that led me to discover this jewel.

Welcome back, my friends

I’d officially like to congratulate the IE team for getting the IE 7 release decoupled from Longhorn, and welcome Microsoft back to the modern browser landscape. It’s a big deal that Microsoft has awakened to the threat to its browser dominance from Firefox and other alternative browsers. We can only hope that IE 7 doesn’t bring its own slate of nasty CSS bugs that have to be worked around with yet another bunch of skanky CSS hacks.

Iron & Wine: Woman King EP

iron and wine woman king ep

The first time I ever heard Iron & Wine, I was on the bridge over Lake Washington heading from Seattle into the forested eastern shore of the lake. It was about 10 o’clock at night, and a voice that sounded like it might have come from a century ago was coming over KEXP’s airwaves. I got off the road, rolled down my windows, and listened to the song (“Upwards Over the Mountain” from The Creek Drank the Cradle) as a chill went down my spine. As I heard the rest of that first album and then the 2004 follow-up, I was still taken by the hushed intimacy, but I started to wonder if the other shoe would drop, or if the band would, like the Cowboy Junkies, keep making the same record over and over again for ten years. Iron & Wine’s new EP, Woman King, which hits the streets on February 22, happily answers no: this is a welcome evolution in Iron & Wine’s sound.

Like the Talking Heads in their live concert movie Stop Making Sense, Sam Beam has slowly added instruments and layers to Iron & Wine’s sound over the course of two albums and two or three EPs. The most recent EP, Woman King, adds fiddles, and even an electric guitar to the mix, while keeping the delicate vocal harmonies and gentle melodies that have been the bedrock of Beam’s sound.

That’s where the similarities end to Beam’s previous work. The lyrics, while focused tightly on women, cover a wide thematic ground. “Woman King” imagines the title character as an apocalyptic warrior, the Biblical (“Jezebel”) to impossible couplings and doomed relationships (“Evening on the Ground (Lilith’s Song)”).

The biggest difference, though, is the driving spirit. In fact, “Evening on the Ground,” with its driving rhythm and dueling fiddle and electric guitar, is positively aggressive—not an adjective that you’d apply to any earlier I&W releases. Other songs are actually playful—an observation Beam himself made in an interview for Splendid Magazine conducted while the record was being made. If The Creek Drank the Cradle was a lullaby and Plug Award winner Our Endless Numbered Days a ballad, Woman King is a swinging dance across a sawdust floor with a once-taciturn partner. Beam’s songwriting continues to astonish with intimacy and newfound confrontation, and the broader sonic and lyrical palette that this release displays shows him to be a master who’s still growing. If this is the EP, I can’t wait to hear the next album.

This review was originally posted at BlogCritics.