For quite some time I have been preaching that autonomous cars are a boy toy fantasy myth. A tech progress fantasy used to lure literally billions of dollars from tech faithful investors, money that they will never see returned. My principle premise: artificial intelligence (AI) is not even close to being ready to join automated vehicles with humans on human playing fields.
Why? Let’s start with the fact that image recognition is in a very primitive state and not close to allowing vehicles to fend for themselves on the roadways – or even in parking lots. I’ve already posted about the infamous examples of horrible accidents caused by not-ready-for-prime-time autonomous vehicles – that we ignore at our own peril: one car ran into a turning white truck because it saw the white as sunlight; another killed a pedestrian walking a bike, because it could not see well enough in the dark, and did not have “pedestrian walking in front of me with a bike in the dark” in its image recognition database.
In a white paper I wrote for the cities of Glendale and Burbank (in my tech consulting capacity), I talked about the moral and ethical questions that loomed for automated cars that we also ignore at our own peril. AI thinks, “Should I kill the kid or the person in the wheelchair, I’m in a tough spot here, but I gotta turn right or left immediately as there is another car bearing down on me driving the wrong way in my lane.” AI 2 thinks, “In order to get on this freeway between all the cars, I am going to have to exceed the speed limit, but I don’t have any code to tell me when it is okay to break the law.” Oh, and how about the idea of every car company in the world writing it’s own ethical and moral guidelines for automated cars, because we have no social or governmental system in place to deal with these questions – where that would take us is anyone’s guess.
This week my skepticism of automated cars received a big endorsement from a tech luminary, none other than the co-founder of Apple Computer, Steve Wozniak. Steve announced that he has “lost faith” that self-driving cars are going to see widespread use in the near future.
Wozniak does not believe that the artificial intelligence systems needed for self-driving vehicles would be able to cope with the realities of driving on roads alongside manually operated vehicles.
Uh, yeah. . . .
“I don’t believe that that sort of ‘vision intelligence’ is going to be like a human,” Wozniak shared.
He came up with another problem area for these only artificially intelligent vehicles: impromptu signs being put up by police near roads. “Artificial intelligence in cars is trained to spot everything that is normal on the roads, not something abnormal,” he said. “They aren’t going to be able to read the words on signs and know what they mean. I’ve really given up.”
Good one, Steve.
Wozniak has not always been a doubter like me. In May 2017 he claimed driverless technology was the ‘biggest, most obvious moonshot” of current times.
I have to wonder what exactly changed his mind. Maybe he actually sat down and thought it through?
Because to anyone who actually has, the NOT future of autonomous cars is obvious. They are not going to happen. Not for decades perhaps centuries. If ever. Their introduction demands that societies contemplate the ethical and moral questions they raise. Who is responsible for the accidents they cause? That is not an idle question,
And any responsible society should be contemplating changes to infrastructure that might accommodate these vehicles – if we are going to eventually introduce them – like their own lanes, or their own tracks.
My biggest objection to them however has to be the fact that for all their proponents’ claims that they are the future of transportation, the ultimate in tech progress, the whole idea of autonomous vehicles is really antiquated, and I am standing like the kid in court claiming the Emperor Has No Clothes! Autonomous cars point backward to the world of selfish individuality, where everyone must have their own personal vehicle. Our future, if we are to regard the desperate state of our planet due to the burning of fossil fuels, the over-crowding, the lack of community and attention to the Commons – and do something about it – needs more public-mass transportation, not private-individual transportation, less sprawl, more walking, more biking, more foot and bike paths to accommodate those things.
Nobody I know of ever called for autonomous cars. They were a myth of progress created by the techies whose current jobs depend on them to drive industrial progress – even if it’s a progress no one needs.
Riffing About Tim Cook and Apple’s New Old Mac Mini
By Terry Bailey
Nov 4, 2018
When former Pepsi CEO John Scully was running Apple in the Nineties, I gave an interview to MacWeek, and stood behind the company and its products, then in a serious innovation slump, because I had faith Apple would pull out of their Pepsi-Money-Man doldrums and find a way to innovate again. Fortunately they did – they brought back Steve Jobs to run the company. But, unless current CEO Tim Cook and Co can locate another Steve Jobs soon, the future for Apple and its Architectural Digest new digs in Silicon Valley does not appear rosy. The Apple has lost its innovation polish.
Tim Cook has never understood the developer class, or the designer class, or the developer-designer class – those women and men who built Apple Computer into what it was. And, yes, I say into what Apple “was.” Because Apple is no longer the leader in creator digital technology. Apple has been sliding from that pinnacle perch for several years now, but it crashed in a heap from its pedestal October 30 when Mr. Cook and Company finally, finally, finally introduced the New Mac Mini that they have been promising loyal Mac users, designers and developers, for several years now.
Tim Cook is an advocate for Apple Consumers, which would be a great thing if he still had Steve Jobs around to advocate for Apple Creators. But Steve Jobs is gone, and so is any real advocacy for, allegiance to or understanding of the importance of Apple Creators. Mr. Cook and Co: without us, Apple Consumers would have nothing to consume! By ignoring us, you are absolutely biting the hand that feeds you and all your Consumers.
“Yes, we hear you,” Cook and his tech leader staff told us when we Creators voiced concern about having been left behind in favor of Consumers. For three or four years running they kept telling us they heard us.
I, like many of my tech friends, had our credit cards ready to buy the New Mini, when finally, finally, finally we learned that it was actually going to appear at the Apple Event in NYC on October 30 2018. I’d been texting for days with my tech best friend, Joe, up in San Fran. He had his credit card ready, too.
I was teaching a digital media workshop to the instructional designers at Kaiser when the morning event took place. (They were all on PCs, btw, and I on my portable teaching MacBook Pro.) You better believe, I was on my cell phone as soon as I got out of there. Pulling up the archived live stream, checking all the Apple rumor websites for details. Yes! A New Mini was announced, I texted my friend Joe. I raced back to my studio and pulled up the specs for this New Mini on the Apple website.
Wait. Wait. 3.6GHz? Isn’t that about the same as my Old Mini? And I mean old. I don’t even have the most recent, 2014, Mini. I have not used my Old Mini in over a year. It sits on my studio desk, behind my new laptop, waiting to be replaced. It houses an interactive book, Light 2.0, and all the music I wrote and recorded for it. But that book, the follow-up to my hit iTunes podcast of 2005-09, Light 1.0, has not been published because my Old Mini choked on it in its bleeding edge 2017 form.
I checked. My Old Mini has a processor speed of 2.66 GHz and is an Intel Core 2 Duo. I texted Joe, what was his? 2.0GHz, turned out his was 3 years older than mine. Talk abut patiently waiting for Apple! I checked online, the top 2014 Mini was 3.0GHz dual-core Intel Core i7 (Turbo Boost up to 3.5G).
But the NEW Mini is 3.6GHz, and I’m supposed to be excited that is blazingly faster than our Old Minis?
This was supposed to be the day. The day I went online and supplied my Apple ID and bought the New Amazing Mini. The day I officially got back to building my next hit – a music and art laden iBook version my hit podcast, Light 1.0. It’s been ready for over a year. All I needed to do was finish mastering the soundtrack, the soundtrack that just wouldn’t “go” anymore on my Aged Mini. Finally, thanks to my New Amazing Mini, I’d be publishing the interactive multimedia book I’ve been promising my readers for years.
This was supposed to be the day I imagined Creators like Joe and me, all over the country, lining up their credit cards and Apple IDs to purchase the Amazing New Minis.
Because the NEW Mini is barely faster that my 2011 Mini. And this NEW Mini has a hard drive storage of 128GB. What?? My 2011 Mini came standard with 500GB, and Joe’s 2008 Mini came with 256 gigs.
And the NEW Mini comes with 4GB of RAM memory. What?? My 2011 Mini came standard with 8GB of RAM.
What is up with this? And this NEW Mini is $799 while my old one was $599. Okay, I can understand a little inflation between 2011 and 2018. But this NEW Mini actually comes with way less than my (7 year) Old Mini!
So I go into Apple’s Buy page and employ all the pulldown menus to see what this NEW Mini will cost if I at least upgrade it to have the same specs as my 2011 OLD Mini as far as storage and RAM memory. And it turns out it will cost me over $1200!
Did you hear that?
$1200 to buy a New Mini that is a little faster but everything else being equal, the Same Ol’ Mini I bought for $599 in 2011.
Oh, It has a USB-C and HDMI connector. Well, duh. It has to connect to stuff in the modern world, of course, but I would hardly call being able to connect to other modern stuff an innovative or new feature.
I text “never mind” to Joe up in San Fran.
Joe and I talk later. We can’t believe it, either one of us. What a letdown.
But none of the journalists are reporting this fiasco yet. One guy is talking about how he can stack them as servers.
Yeah, and I could stack them as doorstops.
I read another journalist who does at least broach the subject of how Tim Cook is trying to upscale the price of all his products, and alludes to the fact that Cook is a jerk for doing this with the New Mini for Creators like he has done with all his Consumer products, but the journalist just winds up telling all of us that he will buy it anyway.
So, what I am looking at is a bunch of corporate sponsored tech journalists who are afraid to tell the truth. “The Emperor has no clothes!”
And here I was anticipating that Apple was going to make a fortune this coming month and holiday season due to all the pent up demand for the Amazing NEW Mini.
Who are we? These Die-Hard Mini Advocates who have waited expectantly and patiently for so long?
Unlike Tim Cook’s misguided idea that we are a bunch of amateur, cheap, computer novices who bought, and remained faithful to, the Old Mini as our computer “entry point,” this is who we are:
• We are computer designers, and new media producers, and WEB designers, and UX consultants, and digital artists who did not want to buy or use Apple’s “all-in-one” iMac computer any more that any of us want to use all-in-one printers. We are professionals and we want to configure our own set-ups, and we want to use professional grade equipment. We are also not idiots, and know that if one part of an all-in-one anything goes kaput, the whole machine is a goner.
• We are high end programmers and WEB / App developers who often take our computers (i.e. all our stuff) with us to events and to the offices of colleagues, and just plug them in at these off-site locations. The Mini was our computer of choice because it was portable that way.
• We are Pros who have so many other pieces of equipment on our desks that the Mini with its tiny footprint was a welcome relief to those old huge desktop towers.
• We are Pros who need power, but not as much power as the Mac Pro Towers (which btw are outdated, too). We are not editing giant feature length movies with hundreds of thousands of minutes of picture and sound, but we may very well be creating short-length videos for the WEB.
• We are Creatives who love to use monitors of our own choice (the Mini comes sans keyboard and monitor), often more than one, and the Mini allowed us to do this.
• We are professionals working independently who need to keep costs down, so the ability to buy a monitor at Best Buy or some other electronics store for a couple hundred dollars was huge in terms of our bottom lines.
• And we are not just Creatives. My accountant and my insurance agent both have old Minis on their desks waiting to be upgraded.
• We are Cutting Edge Professionals who need to stay at the forefront of technology, and did so buying new computers every two to three years, keeping Apple in green for decades – until they failed to deliver Mini updates.
• We are faithful Apple Computer users (I bought my first Apple computer in 1984!) – but that era may finally be coming to an end for many of us.
My friend Joe, who does lots of 3D, and now wants to get into 3D printing, is eyeing Windows PCs after Tim Cook’s disappointing “event.” He shared with me how Apple has been behind in 3D for years, but he had always expected them to catch up. The Mini introduction appears to signal the end of Joe’s patience for the idea that Apple will ever respect its professional users again since reconfiguring itself as a Consumer Company when Money Man Tim Cook took the helm post Steve Jobs.
Me? I’m going to get a new monitor for my laptop, give up on my dream of an Amazing New Mini. And spend some time contemplating how I will finish my interactive multimedia book, Light 2.0 with all its art and music. Will it still be an Apple iBook, or will I look in other directions there, too? The jury is out.
I am still in shock at the realization that Tim Cook and Co. really don’t respect the class of people who MAKE all the stuff that runs on their consumer watches and iPhones and iPads and laptops. I am still in shock about the fact that Tim Cook and Co have configured their greedy business plan to ignore the Creator Hands that feed them – their Designers and Developers – and lumped us in with the Consumers whom they are going to keep sticking with higher and higher price tags, because they can.
Because the only way to continue escalating profits when a company is not innovating is to raise product prices. This may satisfy some Shareholders with continued increased profits in the short-term, but in the long-term . . . .
Last week, the guy I have always referred to as the Pepsi Man, John Scully, former Apple CEO, (and Pepsi CEO before that), accused Tim Cook of not innovating. Ironic coming from the man who almost ran Apple into the ground in the late 90s due to his lack of innovating! But, Scully is not that far off target, in spite of Scully’s lack of critiquing credentials. Tim Cook has not innovated. He has marketed and monetized all the Apple products that the real innovator, Steve Jobs created. And he has done a good job of it.
But the gold mine of innovation Tim Cook inherited from Jobs has run its course. Now Cook is upping product prices in an effort to squeeze the last drop out of that mound of innovation.
And at Apple’s October 30 event, Cook demonstrated his intent to take a bite out of the Professional Creator Hands that fed Apple for decades with his introduction of the New Old Mini.
Sad sad sad.
When John Scully was running Apple in the Nineties, I gave an interview to MacWeek, and stood behind the company and its products, then in a serious innovation slump, because I still had faith Apple would pull out of their Pepsi-Money-Man doldrums and find a way to innovate again. Fortunately they did – they brought back Steve Jobs to run the company.
But unless Tim Cook and Co can locate another Steve Jobs soon, the future for Apple and its Architectural Digest new digs in Silicon Valley is not very rosy. The Apple has lost its innovation polish.
Terry Bailey: Oct. 20, 2018 – Subbed a college coding class last week. Students asked if I had a smart phone. I said, “Of course.” They said, “Most of our professors still have flip phones.”
Note: Several people here clicked the like and the funny emojis, and others left the following comments, to which I responded.
CC: Many of them are part-timers living on subsistence wages, cobbling together a meager income from three or four institutions. Flip phones are all they can afford.
MS: This is so true. It doesn’t matter of the community colleges pay better they still pay shit. I had to teach 24 credit hours in order to pay my bills and I don’t have a car payment and I only pay a couple hundred dollars a month on my student loans. It’s criminal what they’re paying professors.< JK: Only if you’re a full time tenured or tenure track faculty member. Part-time faculty are paid by the course at a very low rate with zero job security. And part-timers make up the majority of the faculty.
CC: Only if you’re a full time tenured or tenure track faculty member. Part-time faculty are paid by the course at a very low rate with zero job security. And part-timers make up the majority of the faculty.
MS: Just FYI they lowered the starting pay for profs at some CCs to 50k full time. I left academia after 20 years of this crap.
MS: That’s in SoCal where 50k isn’t gonna pay for much
JK: I heard of a couple jobs at ELAC that paid a lot. Temp biology gigs, but, for whatever reason, they were high.
E: The jobs I see on their website are 65 an hour. I agree that 50k is too low. That’s absurd for teaching at college full time.
Terry Bailey: While I can certainly sympathize with the salary plight of college professors, the intent of my post was to share the plight of students, not teachers. And while, at first glance, my post may seem comedic, it is not. As I stated, this was a coding (programming) class (in a computer science department). I teach design and programming of web sites and computer apps. What the students were referring to is the fact that the teachers who are supposed to be teaching them these subjects don’t even have the devices that these web sites and computer apps run on! This is pathetic. While in some cases it may be that professors can’t afford them, in other cases the professors are simply old-school and have not kept up with technology. A professor simply can’t do an adequate job of teaching smart phone app or mobile web site design if she/he does not own or use a smart phone! Would you want someone who had never flown an airplane teaching your kid how to fly? This post is not intended to propose solutions for professors’ lack of knowledge or equipment, I am simply trying to start raising alarms about the serious problems facing students in our schools today. When class ended, three of the students insisted on walking out with me. I was almost brought to tears when they surrounded me on the sidewalk after class asking me if I was going to teach full-time in the spring, asking if I taught somewhere else that they could take classes. “You have what we need to know, ” one of them told me.
TF: Wow. This is what they get for the student debt.
On Thursday [July 26, 2018] the American Civil Liberties Union provided a good reason for us to think carefully about the evolution of facial-recognition technology. In a study, the group used Amazon’s (AMZN) Rekognition service to compare portraits of members of Congress to 25,000 arrest mugshots. The result: 28 members were mistakenly matched with 28 suspects.
The ACLU isn’t the only group raising the alarm about the technology. Earlier this month, Microsoft (MSFT) president Brad Smith posted an unusual plea on the company’s blog asking that the development of facial-recognition systems not be left up to tech companies.
Saying that the tech “raises issues that go to the heart of fundamental human rights protections like privacy and freedom of expression,” Smith called for “a government initiative to regulate the proper use of facial recognition technology, informed first by a bipartisan and expert commission.”
When I began driving autonomously at sixteen years of age (i.e. without my father in the passenger seat guiding me and keeping me in compliance with the California driving laws for teens), Dad came home one night from work incredulous at the words of one of his business associates, who also had a new to driving kid.
Removing his tie, Dad shared with my mom, “So, Mike says to me: ‘My son at seventeen only driving eight months and already has six accidents. Six. But, none of them his fault.’ ”
My mother shook her head as my sisters and I listened in.
“Can you imagine?” my father was laughing incredulously now. “Six accidents! None of them his fault!”
I could not help but remember my father’s dinnertime story as I read about Uber’s latest auto-driving accident. Last week a car in Tempe Arizona and an automated Uber SUV collided in an intersection, and the Uber vehicle wound up on its side (photo above). Within hours all Uber cars on the roads in Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Arizona were pulled from the streets until the accident could be reviewed.
But within just a few days all those Uber vehicles were back on the roadways, because it was determined that the other driver failed to yield to Auto-Uber. The driver of the human driven vehicle was also cited for causing the accident.
I’m sure that the Uber owners are dancing gleefully at having been vindicated and proven innocent of any auto car mishap.
It wasn’t Uber’s fault.
How many more “none of them his fault” accidents will Uber endure before the Naked Emperor is unmasked?
Because all American drivers know the way probable scenario that actually occurred here:
On US roads, we human drivers are called on to yield to other drivers by little obscure right of way laws and by ubiquitous red (sometimes yellow) “YIELD” road signs. We human drivers know that, more often than not, even if we are the Yieldee, the Yielder is not actually going to yield to us. YIELD signs and laws are a nice sentiment, but Yieldees all basically ignore them, since we know that most Yielders will – in favor of avoiding crashes.
Uber can build all the actual traffic laws it wants into its autonomous vehicles, but it will never catch up with the unwritten laws, and law nuances, that all us humans know. Nor will it ever properly assimilate all the cultural laws specific to any city in the US. Those variations make it very difficult for even humans to drive safely – or without annoying the heck out of other drivers – when they attempt to drive in a new city.
Take for example, the Los Angeles rule of two cars waiting in the intersection and making their left turn move on the yellow light. When a car sits behind the white line waiting for on-coming traffic to somehow miraculously disappear, we honk, knowing they must be “a damn LA foreigner.”
Some years back one of my nieces was driving down a country road in northern California when another car pulled up to a stop sign at a small crossroad. My niece continued on knowing that she had the “right of way.” Unfortunately, my niece was a young driver and had not yet assimilated the wisdom of her grandfather, who had warned all his descendants to always assume that every other driver on the road is stupid and about to do the unexpected. Sure, enough, the other driver made the incomprehensible decision to pull onto the highway just as my niece’s car reached the crossroad; my niece and her car ended up in a tree (she was, miraculously, not injured). Can Uber and other auto-car makers build Other Driver Stupidity and Illogic into their computer code?
Okay, so back to Auto-Uber. Just about any American driver who read the news story about “not our fault” Uber was shaking her/his head afterward. We all know that one of the primary ways we avoid accidents on our roads is by knowing that few if any drivers will ever actually yield to us when they have a YIELD sign and/or the right of way. Get real! We all know that we must be prepared to yield to the yielder – even if we are legally the yieldee.
Auto-Uber may be in his legal rights. He may be dancing right now (can autonomous cars dance yet?), knowing he was let off the hook. But how many Auto-Uber “not his fault” accidents need to occur before we wake up to realize how truly far away we are from safely sharing our human designed roadways and laws, and cultural nuances, with artificially intelligent vehicles?
Usually the lectures I attend at Caltech and JPL are about landing on asteroids, black holes and the composition of Jupiter’s Moons, but this month, they had a biologist who discussed sleep.
Years ago many scientists concluded that melatonin was the mechanism that causes people to sleep. Subsequently, many companies began manufacturing melatonin supplements. Later, science realized that melatonin was not actually helping their rat models sleep, so they pulled back on the claim of its value in sleep inducing.
Today scientists have stopped comparing our brains to rats, and, instead are using fish. Yes, turns out our brains are more similar to baby zebra fish brains that to rats!
Insomnia is a huge problem. Although science still does not know exactly what function(s) sleep exists for, they do know that all animals and bugs sleep. Some, like cats, sleep a lot. Others, like giraffes, not much (only 2 hours per day!). Whales and dolphins actually put 1/2 their brains to sleep at a time since they live in the predatory ocean and cannot afford to be asleep ever!
When humans are deprived of too much sleep it can cause or exacerbate depression, diabetes, bone loss, heart disease, all kinds of illnesses.
One of the functions we now know of the asleep brain is an act of pruning the new knowledge we put into it just that very day. A brain has 20% fewer neurons in the morning than it did when we fell asleep. The brain gets rid of extraneous material while we sleep.
The greatest problem we have with sleeping pills is that they all work by actually shutting our brains down. This, of course, is dangerous since we know that whatever the brain does at night under natural sleeping conditions is very important to our physical and mental well being. If we just shut it down with a sleeping pill, we may sleep, but our brain does not do the work it is supposed to do at night.
Studies of the zebra fish and sleep taught the scientists that melatonin actually is the trigger for sleep. It did not trigger it in nocturnal rats during the day or night, because their brains are not like human brains. In zebra fish it does trigger sleep.
The biologist said he is not a doctor and cannot recommend melatonin for sleep, but he did go ahead and explain that “if you do take it to help yourself sleep,” you only need 1/2 to 1 milligram of it. Part of the concern he has about the supplement industry, is that they sell it in 5mg to 20mg doses, which can actually be harmful and cause side effects.
He also recommended people with sleep problems first consult a doctor because, while lack of enough melatonin may be the main cause of insomnia, there are other possible causes, including brain lesions in the most serious cases.
Someone asked if there were natural forms of melatonin and he mentioned milk.
The next morning, I researched natural sources of melatonin, and learned something quite curious. I wish I had known this before his lecture, for I would have inquired about it of him.
The foods listed as having the highest and significant amounts of melatonin were milk and cheese (calcium), pineapple, oranges, bananas and oats (other cereals, too, but oats the most).
Does anyone reading here spot what is curious about these foods???
They are all foods we typically eat for breakfast!
I am not a biologist or a doctor, but this certainly gives me pause to learn that foods I frequently eat for breakfast are foods that will help me sleep. Do we have our meals backwards or what?? If I run into any more information regarding the specifics of this, I will write again.
So this morning I was looking for the vintage car rally event held in Pasadena every year the day before the Rose Parade, and this is what I discovered under “Events.” In 2008 a few of my female college students “explained” to me that it is not like back in the day when their moms and I were growing up; they told me that they had equality. I wept a little inside at their words. What might help awaken a new generation of girls and women? “Maybe a Cultural Landscape Series,” I thought this morning.
Update November 12, 2016: the web page where the interview podcast of Leonard Cohen about his new album, You Want It Darker, appeared has now been updated to be a wonderful homage to Cohen with links to many videos, podcasts, audio files, biography information etc. I learned on this page that he had suffered from cancer for some time, and that he actually recorded this entire last album sitting in a medical chair in his apartment’s living room, And it is clear now that this album actually was Leonard Cohen saying his final words, and putting his house in order. Click here for the link.
Update November 10, 2016: I started this post on November 6. I have another painting finished for Part 2 and had planned to post the second half of this essay a couple of days from now. But, this evening word came that Leonard Cohen passed away. We thought he passed on the 10th, since that is when the news was published, but it turned out he passed on November 7, the day after I listened to the interview with him and began posting my essay. I am very sad about his passing. And I felt perhaps I should re-write this post’s part one, because at the end of it I talk about his future; I have decided to leave it as is, as it came from my heart, having no idea that by the following day Leonard would no longer be on this planet. — Terry
November 6 , 2016: The first Leonard Cohen song I sang was Suzanne. I was a teen-ager. I changed an A chord in it to an A major 7, embarking on a musical career of “interpreting” songwriters’ songs for myself. It was kind of a big deal at the time. Before that, I studied songs by listening to the albums and learning to play and sing them exactly as originally performed. If it was a folk song, I sang the melody precisely and learned the same fingerstyle guitar technique used on the record – I even memorized the exact little guitar riffs the original players played in the songs’ introductions and breaks. If it was a jazz song sung by Carmen McCrae or Anita O’Day, I practiced their phrasing by singing along with the records a hundred times so I could imitate their arrangements and singing styles precisely.
When I started practicing Suzanne, something pushed me, inspired me, to break out of the “as-written” mold and to throw in an alternate chord. A major seven just seemed more appropriate, more ethereal, more spiritual, more awe-inspiring, more question-mark to me. And that also seemed more Leonard Cohen to me. Suzanne and so many of his songs have such a spiritual, religion-of-some sort sense to them. I was not religious. But his poetry always spoke to me in that realm of human spiritual need. I don’t even like to say “spiritual” because that implies “spirit” and takes us back to religion, doesn’t it? We need new vocabulary for that need, for that aspect of human reality that speaks to our place, our values, our connections, our essence beyond the molecules that compose the matter that makes our human physical being.
I listened to an interview of Leonard Cohen on the radio last week and learned that he is not religious. That his choice of religious, biblical, spiritual vocabulary has to do with the fact that it is the vocabulary he grew up with, not because he has a religious leaning. That’s important. Really important. I think the fact will resonate with lots of Leonard Cohen fans – who for decades have felt a deep human need fulfilled by his words, but were confused as to the why and the how of the religious bent to his songs.
I am going to put it down to poetry. Leonard Cohen’s poetry speaks to the essence of what it is to be human, what it is to be surrounded by other humans, what it is to be mired or lifted by the human condition on any given day. What it is to wonder. Successful poetry is the most essential form of communication. It reduces its subject matter to the core, the essence, the critical. It throws away those superfluous words and meanings to get at the heart of whatever it is.
As a journalist, I learned to start an essay with a mind flush – anywhere from 2000 to 5000 words on my subject. Then I would edit to remove my digressions. I would edit again to establish a logical form. Both those edits reduced my essay to 1500 to 3000 words. At that point in the process I would despair for a time: there was no way I could cut any further and still say what I needed to say! A day or two later I would re-read and laugh at myself for thinking so many of my thoughts were so precious, and scratch out another thousand words by removing whole phrases. Eventually I would get to the level of eliminating unnecessary sentences, then words. Finally my column would be the requisite 750 to 1000 words, and I would submit it.
A few years later I studied poetry as part of my MFA college writing program, and began to learn what essence communicating was really about. The path I had learned as a journalist was a good start, but I still had writing roads to travel. Although my major was creative nonfiction and interactive media writing, the greatest ah-ha moments for me as a student of writing at Antioch were in the poetry lectures, readings and courses I took as part of my program.
Poetry, I found, is the pinnacle of pure communication. Great poetry not only reduces an idea to its absolute irreducible essence, it does so while drawing from, and appealing to, all our human senses, not just our intellectual perception. It also does so while appealing to our senses of place and time and history and humanity and aesthetics and wonder and . . .
Leonard Cohen is a master of poetry. You Want it Darker is a tour de force of a poetry collection that sends to the darkness the media pushed message that any artist over 40 is past her/his prime. Leonard Cohen said recently that at 82, he is ready to die. In the radio interview, he took back that statement. I am glad, for You Want It Darker is a necessary reflection on the human condition for our age. And with it Leonard Cohen has just hit his stride. He must continue.
(next, my review of the album coming soon)
by interactive new media author & artist Terry Bailey