sweet & sour notes

thoughts on music, politics, & society, from Dominique Cyprès

I've had a busy time since I last updated this blog. I had a sort of frenetic weekend trip to New York City I want to write about, but first I'd like to cover the simpler event I've had in that time, the 2023 Bleep / Blorp Festival of Synthesis and Electronic Music.

👾 At Bleep / Blorp

My time at the festival was very limited. Our two-year-old had become sick the night before, and I wound up staying at the festival for a relatively short window of time around my scheduled performance, with some of that time carved out to eat with my brother and father, who live in that area. That gave me enough time to attend Eric Lennartson's well-researched presentation on oscilloscope music, briefly poke at a little DIY east-coast eurorack synth system someone had assembled in a Cre8Audio NiftyCase, and then notice after I had repacked my gear following the performance that the whole synthesizer “petting zoo” had been hauled away and I had missed my chance to peruse the rest of it.

I had brought my own eurorack system along for the performance. Mine was much smaller. It contained just a contact microphone module and a USB interface. Here's a video of me using it before the festival:

The contact microphone picks up the sounds of me tapping, rubbing, scratching, or scraping its surface, and detects the amplitude envelope and peaks of that sound—or of an external sound source, if I connect one. The USB interface module simply connects any other modules in my system (in this case, just the contact mic module) to my computer, where I do most of my music production in the VCV Rack application. Over time, I can add more hardware eurorack modules that perform different functions. I used this system for only one piece of my performance set, but I definitely expect to get more out of it over time.

My performance itself was a fun experience. Although I wasn't around long to see other performers, the glimpses of them I did get were very cool. There were some seasoned professionals there alongside neophites like me, and it gave me some inspiration as someone trying to expand my repertoire of musical techniques and ideas. There was a little fuel for gear envy too, of course.

Setup was a breeze; I assembled my gear on a while table during the previous act and then someone deftly and quietly wheeled it into position onstage and plugged my gear into the power and audio hookups. I started a few minutes ahead of my scheduled 20-minute set, as the previous act had departed the stage a little early. I performed five pieces of varying length that I had prepared, well enough I think. I had been worried that for this debut set I would struggle to keep myself on schedule and wrap up in time for the next slot. Instead I found myself having the opposite problem; I had finished this set with more time left than I really intended to, and wanted to do at least one more piece before I left the stage. So I dug up a short, fully sequenced piece in VCV Rack I like, forgetting for the moment that my graphics card really struggles with that particular piece. This doesn't matter for recording, because the recording facilities within VCV Rack perfectly compensates when when its digital signal processing lags behind real time, but for live listening that lag creates a lot of terrible audio stutter. I tried to alleviate this after the piece started by dropping VCV Rack's visual framerate to its minimum value of 10 frames per second, but this only reduced the stutter somewhat. If I had been thinking more quickly I might have tried lowering the audio samplerate too. But no matter. Five out of six pieces without a technical failure isn't so bad.

Here's my favorite piece from the set:

🌊 Bleeping and/or blorping in eurorack

For the uninitiated, eurorack is a modular synthesizer standard based on the A-100 modular synth system created by German manufacturer Doepfer in 1995. The nice thing about eurorack is that the standard is supported by a number of small manufacturers coming up with new and interesting module designs, and those modules can be combined in unforeseen ways to make new sounds or enable new workflows. The eurorack standard makes no physical distinction between the connections that carry different kinds of signals between modules; all of them are conveyed by the same 3.5mm TS patch cables. This means, for example, that a module input jack intended for control voltage (pitch information, amplitude, filter resonance, wavefolding amount) will just as easily accept an audio signal. Or you could even patch an audio-rate pulse wave into the trigger input of a drum module, turning that drum module into a melodic oscillator with a unique waveform.

The humble beginnings of my own eurorack system.

Eurorack systems that professionals and hardcore enthusiasts show off online tend to be sprawling and mostly self-contained; a wall of modules that together handle an entire music production chain from sequencing, live control, and MIDI I/O through mixing, compression, and equalization. It's certainly not the most cost effective way for me to integrate a contact mic with VCV Rack, but it has the potential to not only augment but also gradually replace nearly all the music production I do in software, if I wanted it to and invested a lot of money.

As it is, I'm in no rush to spend a fortune moving my whole workflow off of the computer, so I'm trying to focus on modules that add something new to my current workflow, things like the contact microphone module. The next piece I have my eye on is a simple analog subtractive synth voice. The fun thing about analog circuits is that they can be a little imperfect, unpredictable, and can be sensitive to physical conditions like ambient temperature. This is why an analog oscillator has to be tuned whenever you turn it on. This can add a little subtle spontaneity or “happy accidents” to the sound. For example, oscillators that are just slightly detuned or out-of-phase from one another can produce sonically interesting interference patterns. These kinds of imperfections can be deliberately simulated in a digital system, but occur naturally and effortlessly in the analog world.

I should take a quick moment to explain basic components of a subtractive synth voice, as it hasn't been long since I needed this primer myself. Skip this paragraph if it's old hat for you. Sound is a compression wave in the air, and electrically produced audio signals are fluctuating voltages that control the instantaneous position of a driver in your headphones or speakers; the wiggling motion precisely controlled by those voltage fluctuations creates the sound you hear. You can plot the movement of the voltages in real time using an oscilloscope and detect wave patterns. The “purest” kind of tone or pitched sound is a sine wave with simple, perfectly symmetrical curves that repeat indefinitely. A simple audible sine wave has exactly one audible frequency, and no harmonic overtones. Subtractive synthesis tends to start with certain simple variations on the sine wave: the triangle wave, square or pulse wave, and saw or ramp wave, which are all shaped basically just the way their names suggest. Their deviation from the gentle curve and perfect symmetry of the sine wave produces more harmonic overtones; we tend to experience them as sounding buzzy or reedy and we are hearing more than just that one basic frequency or pitch of the overall wave. The part of a synthesizer that produces these waveforms is the oscillator. The “subtractive” part of subtractive synthesis comes from passing that harmonically rich waveform through a filter, which essentially smooths out the wave into a more sine-like shape, reducing those harmonic overtones. Subtractive synth voices most commonly use a low-pass filter, which removes the harmonic overtones above a controllable cutoff frequency and allow frequencies below the cutoff to pass through. Filters also tend to have a resonance control which allows for boosting frequencies close to the cutoff by a variable amount. Often the resonance control can be pushed to such high levels that even with no input audio signal the filter produces a sine wave at the cutoff frequency; this is called self-oscillation. Usually the cutoff frequency and resonance amount are not fixed in a subtractive synth voice; one or both of them can change according to a control envelope over the course of playing a note, or in some other dynamic way. At the same time, similar dynamic control is applied to a voltage-controlled attenuator or amplifier (VCA) to affect the amplitude or volume of the sound coming out of the filter. All together, this shapes the sound to create different timbres you hear.

I've started building my subtractive synth voice with a used 2hp VCO, a tiny analog oscillator based on the Curtis CEM3340 integrated circuit. I also added an inexpensive passive multiple module, which doesn't connect to the power supply and simply allows me to split signals between multiple cables. Having just the VCO in hardware (and not other parts of the basic subtractive voice chain) is a little challenging because there is a perceptible delay introduced by sending signals on a round trip from software to hardware and back. But it's workable; here's a fun little sequence I recorded developing just one kind of sound I can make with the VCO controlled and processed by software:

The next module I plan to add to complete this synth voice is the After Later Audio Waves—an exact hardware clone of the Mutable Instruments Ripples, a multimode analog filter with strong, self-oscillating resonance and a built-in VCA.

I'm pausing before I buy that filter module, until I've made more credit card payments. Music professionals on YouTube who talk about the potential for reckless spending on eurorack systems say that part of the problem is that individual modules are cheap, so it's easy to lose track of the total cost as one acquired more of them. But they really only mean that many eurorack modules cost less than an entire synthesizer or another piece of equipment that a professional might buy for music production. We're talking about not much less than USD $150 near the low end of the price range, with some of the modules I'm interested in costing two, three, or four times that. Still more than I would comfortably spend on a monthly basis for my avocation. The most expensive part of my current eurorack system by far is the USB interface, and though I bought it second-hand to save money, it was still costly enough that I opted to pay for it in monthly installments. But it will support any modules I add over time.

Conscious of controlling my spending, I intentionally limited myself by opting for a very small portable case to start with: the 4ms Pod 40X, 3U tall, 40hp wide, and 50mm deep. I feel that once I have the filter module in it, I'm going to put a longer pause on acquiring new modules. Most other things I would want to add to my system would either replace existing features of my current software workflow moreso than augmenting it, or are simply too big to add to this tiny case. Having acquired a taste for eurorack, I think I could move my music production workflow to a primarily hardware system. I can see the appeal of a more tactile interface with some creative constraints. But it's something that would take thousands of dollars of investment over time—easily several hundred on an appropriately sized case alone. And I can't reasonably expect any “return on investment” because, at least for now, I don't really get paid for music stuff. So instead I have to consider it as personal, “fun” spending and not as a business expense. With that in mind I'm motivated to take things very slowly with eurorack gear. Frankly, I want to have finished making payments on the USB interface before I even think about buying a bigger case.

🪷 An immutable legacy

I want to acknowledge what an outsized inspiration one particular eurorack module designer-manufacturer has already had on my sounds and techniques, even though I don't presently own a single thing bearing the company's brand: Mutable Instruments. I mentioned earlier that the filter I want to use is a Mutable Instruments clone, but in fact the contact mic module I already have is also a clone of a Mutable Instruments module (Ears, itself an enhancement of the earlier Mikrophonie module designed by one Tom Whitwell). The first patch I made with that contact mic module, featured in the first video above, is built around software clones of Mutable Instruments modules, in particular Rings (a digital resonator module that convincingly simulates the audible vibrations of a wide range of physical objects) and Clouds (a granular “texture synthesizer” which in the video's patch serves as a sort of warbly stereo shimmer delay and reverb). And if I ever move toward creating a more standalone eurorack system, the number one oscillator design I'd want is Mutable Instruments Plaits, a renowned digital “macro oscillator” with numerous melodic and inharmonic/percussive modes.

Mutable Instruments designs are widely popular amongst eurorack musicians, but the company ceased all operations in 2023. This event has an impact on the modular synthesis community comparable to the cancellation of Calvin and Hobbes in 1995. Here was a creative enterprise that forever changed the landscape of its artistic medium and inspired so many successors, and then at the zenith of its popularity its creator was simply done with the work. I think a lot of people, like me, found the announcement that this closure was coming baffling and alarming at first, but once I read more about it I found it completely understandable. Mutable Instruments was always a one-woman operation. Mass-producing the modules required the company's founder and sole employee to contract capable electronics manufacturing companies and diligently supervise and quality-check their output to verify that the finished modules would perform to spec; she explained in an interview that this manufacturing process was highly stressful. She also felt that she was done making the synth designs she wanted to make, needed some time for medical leave, and ultimately wanted to move into a career where she would have some anonymity as a private person. She is already missed and appreciated in this field.

Copyright notice on the back of a eurorack module PCB.

Though Mutable Instruments may be over as a company, clones of the Mutable Instruments modules abound. There are two reasons for this. First, the module designs are simply good: unique, innovative, versatile, well-labeled, an all-around joy to use. Secondly, the designs are all open source, save for the currently proprietary design of the last one in production, the Clouds successor, Beads, which according to its creator's custom will become open source when the sale of units has paid for its research and development. This body of open source designs will remain as an enduring gift to the entire field of modular synthesis. It means DIY modular synth musicians and small manufacturers alike are free to customize those designs or even copy them exactly, provided they don't infringe on Mutable Instruments branding.

Fittingly, the name of Mutable Instruments' creator is already inscribed within my nascent eurorack system, in the copyright notice on the back of the contact microphone module's PCB.


Creative Commons LicenseWhere not otherwise noted, the content of this blog is written by Dominique Cyprès and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

I ostensibly started this iteration of my blog in part to talk about my own music-making projects, so now I owe you all an update on that front.

🎤 A live debut

I have a 20-minute performance slot coming up at 5:20pm EDT (21:20 UTC) on 18 March 2023 at the Bleep / Blorp Festival of Synthesis and Electronic Music. This year Bleep / Blorp will be held 18 March from 10:40am to 8:20pm EDT at UMass Lowell's Durgin Hall, 35 Wilder Street, Lowell, Massachusetts. Attendance is free. Here's their official flyer:

Official flyer for Bleep / Blorp  2023

This will be my first time attending Bleep / Blorp, as somehow I'd never heard of it despite having completed my computer science degree as a commuter student at UMass Lowell in 2020. This will also be my first time performing live, about which I'm both nervous and excited.

💽 Album progress

Somehow between the birth of our second child in late 2020 and the purchase of our first house in 2021, I managed to put together two albums, and I completed another later in 2021 shortly after we moved. It was a frenzied time, but I had taken some leave from my day job, and there were periods of time where I was minding a sleeping baby or not actively moving furniture, so during those times I managed to play with modular synthesis techniques in VCV Rack a lot. I've had considerably less time for music lately; I'm back to work at my day job and the baby is now a very active toddler. But I did manage to release another album in 2022.

For my current album project, I'm trying to train myself to work with more patience and, when the album is eventually complete, to release it at a slower pace, giving myself time to share it in advance with radio DJs and podcasters who have played my work before, and potentially other people who might be interested.

This isn't really a concept album in the way that Lost Temple was a concept album about Peoples Temple and Jonestown, but I have as the abstract core inspiration for the album the legacy of the World Trade Center Twin Towers as a utopian capitalist project, and 9/11 as a central catalyst for the collapse of pax americana. More simply, as I often put it: I watched thousands of people die on live television when I was ten years old, and all I got was this lousy post-imperial republic sliding into fascism.

I've got about half an hour of completed tracks for the album so far and an aiming for a total of about one hour. I'm assuming to finish and release the album vaguely in 2023, though if I find that this doesn't leave me enough time for the slow release I want to do, I will push that back to 2024.

🎛️ Equipment & technique

My main music workflow still happens primarily in the modular software synthesizer VCV Rack at this point. A friend of mine often shares some really interesting things musicians are doing with Bitwig, which is more like a traditional digital audio workstation (DAW) but also has a ton of modular features that allow for complex generative compositions like I often do in VCV Rack. Generative in this case means that pseudorandom signals influence or direct elements of the music such as melody, cord progression, rhythm, timbre, mixing and panning, and pretty much whatever else you can think of. It's very cool to have access to that paradigm in a digital audio workstation. I've had learning my way around a DAW on my musicianship to-do list for a while, and Bitwig in particular has been at the top of my list. But so far I haven't learned my way around Bitwig and the greatest extent to which I've used a DAW is some light post-processing controlled through Ardour. I think with the current limits on the time I have for music, it's a lot more rewarding for me to just get into a familiar workflow rather than spend half an evening trying to learn some basic patterns in a DAW without really making much sound at all, only to wait a week before I get to work on it again.

I bought a good microphone a couple months ago, but haven't used it yet. For one thing I need to put together a decent recording space for using it. Whereas the synth stuff can happen basically anywhere there's room for the equipment, recording vocals requires a relatively quiet recording space where I won't pick up noises from plumbing, heating, or appliances, but also where I'm unlikely to be overheard, because I don't sing confidently when someone is trying to sleep or something in the next room. I don't really consistently have a space like that, so I'll need to improve something.

However, I did try to record some vocals before I bought the good microphone, using a USB microphone mostly intended for podcasting. I wasn't very confident in the results and ended up layering a lot of effects on the vocals when I mixed them into the music (my take on L'Internationale).

Though I'm a little stuck at the moment when it comes to DAWs and vocals, I am finding time to explore different compositional techniques, new scales, etc. I've done more pieces lately that are composed through, in the sense that I manually composed the melodic/rhythmic elements instead of incorporating generative and improvisational parts—though when I do this I usually still incorporate subtle random modulation to elements of the sound, to produce a track that sounds a little more “live” and spontaneous. I've been doing that composition largely in a piano roll interface provided by the Entrian Timeline plugin for VCV Rack. I'd say I can't wait to share the results, but as I said, waiting is something I'm working on.


Creative Commons LicenseWhere not otherwise noted, the content of this blog is written by Dominique Cyprès and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

We're coming up on a year since Russia turned the simmering insurgency it had backed in the Donetsk region and the illegal 2014 annexation of the Crimean peninsula into a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, which has in turn become a protracted war seemingly aimed at annexing the whole of Ukraine and dismantling both the Ukrainian government and any idea of a unique Ukrainian culture. In the days leading up to this eruption of all-out war I believed those voices in the media who said that war would simply not arrive, that it would be such an obvious geopolitical blunder that Putin was surely too smart to go through with it. That he might be able to win such a war, but he must understand that the cost would be too great, and that all the warnings from the Biden administration of an imminent Russian invasion of Ukraine were so much bluster intended to rally support around US aid to Ukraine as the country struggled to hold up its territorial integrity. All of us who believed this were proven wrong in spectacular fashion.

A bombed hospital in Ukraine
A bombed hospital in Mariupol, Ukraine, March 9, 2022. Photograph published by the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine web site armyinform.com.ua and retrieved from Wikimedia Commons under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.

So much talk has been made of the catastrophic invasion of Ukraine since then, and so many people more expert in the politics of the region and the material realities of this war have spoken about it. But for those of us interested in the future of left politics in the United States and lacking expertise in the geopolitics of eastern Europe, the war still bears talking about. Firstly, because people anywhere in the world having their homes blown up deserve international solidarity. But also precisely because so many who don't understand Ukraine have yammered on about it in a way that turns it into a wedge issue within our own insular anglophone left circles, exposing a fissure in an what can hardly even be called our coalition. On opposite sides of that fissure are fundamentally incompatible understandings of not only the material situation in Ukraine today, but of what imperialism and anti-imperslism actually mean.

🌐 The missing superpower

The United States in particular persisted under a hegemonic anticommunist order for so long that thirty-something years on from the collapse of the Soviet Union, the very word socialist is still a pejorative in many contexts—perhaps even most contexts, depending on where and with whom you live. The Cold War so pervasively ordered ideological expression in this country that now even many people of my generation who have no personal memory of the Cold War are conditioned to believe that geopolitics are governed by two distinct and competing world orders, one led by the US and the other by its avowed rivals in Russia, China, Iran, and perhaps India. This non-US world order may not be fully aligned behind Communism, but China and some smaller states in its orbit maintain a commitment to some or other interpretation of the idea. If you continue to hold this dualistic view of the world, and hold (as I do) a dim view of US anticommunist interventions in the recent past, you might feel that the only alternative is to support this other world order. If, in particular, you see the US as the principle exponent of imperialism in the modern world, then support of this other world order in all matters of geopolitics becomes the practical expression of anti-imperialism.

One problem with this understanding is that the alleged rival order does not hold on common the shared (though often nominal) ideological commitment to Socialism that bound together the Soviet sphere of influence. Even China's Communism, which is flexible enough to accommodate neoliberal factory labor conditions, is not held in common by the other major players in this supposed alliance. Certain smaller states, Cuba and the DPRK among them, maintain at least a nominal commitment to whatever they have come to define as Socialist or Communist policy, but the Russian Federation certainly does not; Putin even famously denounced Lenin in a public speech at the start of the invasion, blaming the founding Bolshevik leader not only for sowing the seeds strife amongst Slavic nations but for conceptually creating Ukraine in the first place. Putin explicitly cast his invasion of Ukraine as a correction of Lenin's mistakes and a decisive act of decommunization, even as he also offered “denazification” as a justification.

The other problem with this rival world order offering an alternative to the US sphere of influence is that it doesn't exist. Chinese leadership, for example, have proven themselves more open to Russian trade than the US or European Union, but have been unwilling to commit troops and reluctant to provide military aid to the cause of russifying Ukraine. At the risk of restating obvious recent history, the Soviet Union's collapse did not leave in its wake a united bloc of allies collectively forming a rival superpower against US hegemony, let alone an ideologically consistent, anti-imperialist one.

🪖 Learning the wrong lesson from the right text

As a kid during 2003 US invasion of Iraq, I can't say I understood very well what was going on except that it seemed that the adult world all around me had gone completely off the rails. Saddam Hussein was described to me as a dictatorial madman who menaced his own people with chemical weapons (in the 1998 Halabja massacre of Iraqi Kurds, a well-documented event), but why this would best be solved by US military “shock and awe” was unclear. There were supposed to be hidden “weapons of mass destruction” that Hussein was poised to fire at his foreign adversaries, but these never materialized.

History, as they say, may not exactly repeat itself, but often rhymes. Absent any actual incident of Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy ordering the chemical bombing of some or other region of Ukraine, Putin and Russia's state media apparatus fabricated a secret, Ukrainian state-sponsored genocide against Ukrainian russophones, which could only be stopped through Russian military intervention. That this does not hold up to even the slightest scrutiny, or that Zelenskyy's own first language is Russian, does not deter those already committed to supporting the Russian state's anti-imperialist imperialism. Ukraine had publicly surrendered its nuclear arsenal early in its post-Soviet history as an independent state, so rather than “weapons of mass destruction,” the Ukrainian state was instead accused of using secret US-funded labs to develop exotic “bioweapons” programmed specifically to target ethnic Russians. That these bioweapons have failed to materialize has done no more to end the war in Ukraine than the fictitiousness of Saddam Hussein's WMDs ever did to end the war in Iraq. The whole scheme of pretexts for invasion, adopted without regard for evidence and just as easily discarded and forgotten, is so familiar to me. It was really just too perfect when former US president George W. Bush, in a widely televized Freudian slip, decried “the decision of one man to launch a wholly unjustified and brutal invasion of Iraq… I mean, of the Ukraine.”

US supporters of and apologists for the invasion of Ukraine also look upon the invasion of Iraq as a cautionary tale, but the lesson they draw is different. For me the obvious lesson there is the evil of what was done, and it would be evil no matter who did it. For others it seems the lesson was all about who did it, and this reinforced a crude geopolitical heuristic: if it aligns with US foreign policy, it's wrong. This heuristic was pretty reliable for a number of years, but now it leads people to defend the very same crimes committed against Iraqi people, just because this time around they are committed under orders of the Russian president and against the populace of a country aligned with the United States. As John Ganz put it in “Some Thoughts on Ukraine”:

Russia's appeal in the West, which crosses the traditional boundaries of right and left, is irresistible for those who believe the worst crime imaginable is Western hypocrisy. Since this hypocrisy is the only unforgivable sin, Russia's crude and cynical exercise of power, its barely plausible justifications for its actions, its overt gangsterism at home and abroad, is seen as a virtue.

🫓 What came to pass in Syria

I am not at all the right person to talk about Syria in depth. But, as with Ukraine, there are pockets of the political left here in the US and elsewhere in the anglosphere who have trouble reconciling themselves to basic documented facts of the civil war that began there in 2011, so these bear repeating. Bashar al-Assad is and was a deeply repressive hereditary autocrat, and the war began when he moved to crush a largely grassroots protest movement demanding that he be removed from power. A number of armed anti-Assad groups with varying ideologies emerged, and some of them eventually won material support from the Obama administration in the United States. But into this situation also emerged a notoriously violent armed theocratic movement called variously Daesh, the Islamic State, ISIL, or ISIS. Daesh inflicted ever more losses upon Assad's forces, but as their power grew they began to bring the same military force to bear against other, more secular anti-Assad groups and ultimately against anyone who did not swear total allegiance to their theology.

The emergence of a militant theocratic threat in Syria provided a pretext for ever-increasing violence against civilians including lethal chemical attacks on entire urban neighborhoods; the victims of these attacks could then be branded as either terrorists or collateral damage of Assad's defensive campaign against terrorism. This development also opened the door for a Russian military intervention in support of the Assad government. There were got a preview of the Russian military tactics now on display in Ukraine: the indiscriminate targeting of civilians, the frequently declared cease-fires that Russian officers violated as soon as people tried to use the break in fighting to safely move about, and the use of the fascist paramilitary Wagner Group that was officially unconnected to the Russian military or government.

Here, too, we got a preview of the failure of international left solidarity in the face of war crimes and repression not aligned with the United States. Bashar al-Assad's nominal claim to a legacy of Ba'athist Arab socialist leadership and the United States' haphazard support for anti-Assad forces were enough to convince some on the political left, including a number of somewhat prominent cultural figures, to uncritically embrace Assad. These pro-Assadists would deny known war crimes committed by Syrian state forces (like the afformentioned chemical attacks attested by copious video and eyewitness accounts, or the state's tortures and killings gruesomely documented in thousands of photographs of the “Caesar report” that were verified by Human Rights Watch), to the point of endorsing conspiracy theories. Explaining the roots of this phenomenon is out of my depth, but the work has been done very capably by Daphne Lawless in her 2018 essay series “The red-brown 'zombie plague'” for the Trans-Tasman socialist publication Fightback. (See parts One, Two, and Three on the Fightback web site. Also potentially illuminating is The Right Podcast episode 22, in which CounterPunch radio host and one-time US Assad supporter Eric Draitser explains both what drew his cohort to Assad and how he came to reject this approach to geopolitics in favor of greater solidarity for people in Syria and later Ukraine.)

📻 The lopsided pacifism of Axis Sally

There has been curious paradox of pacifism around the war in Ukraine. Early on I noticed that many in the chorus of support for the invasion on social media would frame Zelenskyy's requests for military aid from NATO member nations, or his refusal to surrender or hand over large regions of Ukraine without the support of a national, free referendum, as acts of warmongering. Anyone who suggested anything other than denying all military aid to Ukraine and pressuring the Zelenskyy government into surrender was cast as a hawk demanding a prolonged proxy war against Russia to be fought “to the last Ukrainian.” Such were the complaints I heard from some of the communists in my broader social circles. The maybe less sophisticated reader comments I read on news items about the war in Al Jazeera's social media feeds described Zelenskyy as a depraved “clown 🤡” cruelly sending his people to war on behalf of his NATO masters.

The topsy-turvy picture of the war I got from these pacifist pro-invasion talking points began to get under my skin. Were we really to believe that this war was brought about solely by madman Zelenskyy, and that Putin sought nothing but peace in Ukraine—while Russian authorities moved to imprison citizens for repeating the generic pacifist slogan “Нет войне” (“No to war”)? Or that the Ukrainian state alone bore responsibility for perpetuating the conflict, as Russian forces continued to bombard civilian infrastructure, apartment buildings, and hospitals? I had always thought of myself as a pacifist, but did pacifism really demand that a country invaded out of the blue simply turn itself over to annexation as a condition for peace, or that if such a country failed to immediately surrender we must view it and not the invading power as the war's principal aggressor?

There is danger in taking grand historical comparisons too far. But historical precedents can help us clarify what is possible. As Allied forces moved to liberate Axis-occupied territory in the Second World War, the Nazi propaganda machine cultivated superficially anti-war propaganda for foreign audiences that was designed to justify the Nazi conquest of Europe and reframe the German state as an unwilling participant in the war. Mildred Gillers, a German-US woman who was among the radio personalities collectively known as “Axis Sally,” delivered English-language radio broadcasts from Berlin in which she often talked of the Reich having been “forced” into war. In her telling, US president Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the principal aggressor, a warmonger sending good American boys overseas to serve shadowy Jewish interests represented by his friends and advisors. The pacifism Mildred Gillers promoted was founded on antisemitic lies, and lopsided. It demanded that the war end not by Germany withdrawing any of its occupying forces, but by Allied nations simply allowing these occupations to continue and Nazi-perpetrated genocide to spread across Europe.

This lopsided pacifism held sway amongst the Reich's influential supporters abroad, like Father Charles Coughlin, a popular US radio personality who was wisely forced out of public life in 1939 as it became apparent that his broadcasts were inciting fascist street violence. It was the kind of pacifism espoused by some in the Oswald Mosley camp of British fascists, figures like nature writer Henry Williamson. I do not mean to say that there was no genuinely felt aversion to war in this brand of pacifism; Williamson, for example, developed his opposition to war understandably in the trenches of World War I. But this form of pacifism was glaringly one-sided, admonishing military resistance to the Reich but unconcerned by its military invading and occupying Czechoslovakia under the pretense of protecting a German ethnic minority living there. Nor did this pacifism condemn the German invasion of Denmark and Norway under the guise of thwarting alleged French and British occupation plans there. And it was silent, of course, on Nazi-perpetrated genocide, an asymmetric war not against a rival state but against civilians in the Reich's own territories.

None of this is to say that we can draw direct, one-to-one parallels from World War II to the invasion of Ukraine. I do not mean to definitively cast any contemporary leader into the role of Hitler, or of Chamberlain, or Churchill. But from this historical precedent we can see that not all pacifisms are made equal. Some pacifists will be very selective about what counts as starting a war, or who holds responsibility when war occurs. To some pacifists, an unprovoked invasion is not warmongering, but resistance to that invasion is.

To understand who truly has the power to end a war, we have to understand who is choosing war now, who is keeping the war alive. In the context of Ukraine, that is not Zelenskyy. This is not to say the Ukrainian president is a saint, or that he has done everything right. I am unsettled, for example, by some of the measures he has taken to mute political dissent in Ukraine during the war, in the name of maintaining defensive unity. But he has never had full control of the metaphorical ship. In the wee hours of 1 January 2013, Zelenskyy was performing a wacky, comedic musical number on Russian television. By 25 July 2019 he was President of Ukraine, taking a call from US President Trump, and faced with the task of maintaining an impossible domain balancing act. On one side was the looming military threat from Russia, the defense against which relied on military aid from the United States. On the other side, Trump was demanding that before Ukraine receive this aid, Zelenskyy should publicly announce a legal investigation into the son of Trump's foremost political opponent—an investigation that was not actually occuring. Squeezed between two much larger military powers, he was being asked to deceive the public about official proceedings in exchange for continued Ukrainian sovereignty. In the end he remained polite, but promised nothing. Already-allocated US military aid to Ukraine remained inexplicably frozen until US legislators started asking uncomfortable questions about it. Now, too, in the war, Zelenskyy's choices are constrained by pressure from all sides. Continued military aid from abroad still depends on good diplomatic relations. The Ukrainian military and volunteer forces seem willing to carry out his commands, but would they be so willing if he were to turn from a spirited defense of national sovereignty to the full surrender that Putin seemed to expect, or even to concessions like officially recognizing Russian rule in Crimea? Would the war actually end so neatly? Would Ukrainians universally heed the order to lay down their arms? Would the risk of Russian military reprisals on occupied Ukrainian cities instantly evaporate?

On the other hand, what would happen if Putin found an excuse to declare “Mission accomplished,” and began to withdraw all Russian troops from Ukraine to victory parades at home, celebrating the success of the “special military operation”? The proximate cause of the war is the presence of an occupying force in Ukraine. Certainly the retreat of this force, even a “victorious” retreat, would be the most effective means of ending hostilities.

I've come to learn that to declare oneself a pacifist, or against war, means little without context. “This war must end” would surely seem a truism in Ukraine today. In Russia, it is criminal speech. Whether I have anything in common with another pacifist or leftist depends on is having some basic, shared understanding of reality. Not only the understanding that war is vile, but a common good faith approach to this essential question: Whose war is it, anyway?


Creative Commons LicenseWhere not otherwise noted, the content of this blog is written by Dominique Cyprès and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Recently I purchased a second-hand, portable, AM/FM radio. I paid more than you'd expect for it, around $50 USD, because this model (the Sangean HDR-14 from 2018) is one of very few standalone consumer radio receivers on the market that can decode HD Radio signals. It's a decent radio, but this isn't an equipment review. What I want to talk about is the HD Radio standard itself.

Digital radio: radio, but digital

Like its analog counterpart, digital radio provides unencrypted signals you can receive anywhere within antenna range as long as you have the right equipment, no telecommunications provider subscription required. But it comes with the added advantage of signal redundancy and audio clarity; under conditions that would muddy the sound of an analog signal with static and interference, you can still get a digital signal that exactly replicates what is being broadcast from the station. The Digital Audio Broadcasting (DAB or DAB+) standard is used in Europe and to a more limited extent elsewhere to provide digital radio broadcasts on specially allocated frequency bands. Some stations in Europe have even switched off their analog FM broadcasts in favor of DAB+ only. Another standard, Digital Radio Mondiale (DRM), is used for some far-reaching shortwave news broadcasts. For regulatory reasons I don't understand, Digital Audio Broadcasting is not presently used at all in North America, and Digital Radio Mondiale is only used here in the shortwave band, not in the medium wave band most radio receivers support for receiving AM broadcasts.

A portable radio receiver featuring the HD Radio trademark logo

HD Radio: the American way

The only form of public digital audio currently broadcast over the air in Canada, the US, and Mexico is called HD Radio. HD Radio is a proprietary standard that equipment manufacturers license from iBiquity Digital Corporation, which kinda bugs me because I suspect that might contribute to the relative scarcity of HD Radio receivers on the market, which contributes to slow consumer adoption, which in turn disincentivizes manufacturers from licensing more HD Radio receivers in a vicious cycle. But I'm no economist, and maybe someone who knows more about the market could produce contrary evidence.

The major feature that differentiates HD Radio from DAB, DAB+, and DRM is its implementation of in-band on-channel (IBOC) broadcasting. This means that unlike a DAB/DAB+ signal broadcast in a frequency band reserved for that standard, or a DRM signal broadcast in shortwave band without any analog component, HD Radio digital signals are broadcast on frequencies directly adjacent to an analog signal and carry the same audio stream simultaneously. The in-band on-channel model is aided by the greater bandwidth available to FM broadcasts in International Telecommunication Union Region 2, where they are centered on frequencies 200 kHz apart, unlike in other parts of the world including Europe that use an FM band spacing of 100 kHz. It makes the introduction more transparent to the listener, who only needs to tune to the same old FM frequencies they're used to and let the HD Radio decoder produce a static-free audio stream from the digital signal that a digitally-tuned analog receiver would essentially ignore. If the digital signal momentarily drops out, the radio can temporarily and almost seamlessly fall back to the adjacent analog signal. For the most part, listeners discover HD Radio because they're driving one of the recent-model cars that are equipped with an HD Radio receiver—though manufacturers are not mandated in any way to implement one. The IBOC model allows these listeners to experience digital radio without seeking it out or doing anything new.

Secret gay radio

For free, broadcasters get a license to add an HD Radio transmission that provides a synchronized duplication of the analog broadcast. These broadcasts are identified by the call sign of the analogue broadcast suffixed with “HD1.” It's HD1 because, depending on factors like the digital bitrate used for the lossily compressed audio stream, there could be as many as four digital transmissions flanking an analog FM broadcast. HD1 is, by regulatory fiat, always the same audio stream as the analog signal. But the other, additional digital signals could be anything else that can be lastly broadcast on FM radio. Often these are used to simulcast or repeat a station from another geographical area, or the programming of an AM talk radio station owned by the same broadcast licensees, but sometimes they carry stations that are not broadcast as analog over-the-air signals anywhere. Since most listeners still don't have HD Radio receivers, these digital-only stations feel almost secret.

Two such stations I can receive here are dedicated LGBTQ-focused music and news programming: Channel Q, broadcast locally on WZMX-HD2, and Pride Radio on WKSS-HD2. Both are syndicated nationally across the US, but only as these extra digital signals. They're not really secret, because both are available for internet streaming, but an analog radio listener wouldn't find either of them on the dial. Both of them play a lot of fun, dancy music; this is where I first heard “Unholy” by Sam Smith and Kim Petras.

If I told you I'd been listening to “secret gay radio” you might reasonably imagine this as a sort of underground cultural project of the LGBTQ community, maybe a pirate radio program broadcast from a network of unlicensed shortwave stations. But the reality of it is much less enchanting. Channel Q is produced by the second-largest radio company in the US: Audacy, Inc. Pride Radio is run by iHeartMedia—the largest US radio company. Both Audacy and iHeartMedia run a mix of mostly music FM stations and mostly “news talk” AM stations.

Something you have to understand when discussing the news talk radio programming format in the United States is that it is almost exclusively the domain of what passes for “conservative” media punditry here, which has veered ever further into ultra-reactionary provocation, as chronicled recently on The Divided Dial.

An iHeartMedia-owned network syndicated Rush Limbaugh's show until he died in 2021. Limbaugh is widely credited with creating the conservative news talk format as we now know it: essentially a few hours at a time of riffing on the news, taking phone calls from listeners whom he would compliment or denigrate as he pleased, and mocking anyone and anything he could associate with his political opponents. Emblematic of his style was a recurring “AIDS update” segment that ran in his show during the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis in the United States, in which he would share the latest news of people contacting HIV and dying of AIDS-related illness over a background of music selected for lyrics he found to provide comical double-entendres about gay men. This was perhaps one of the last things in his life he was ever forced to apologize for, after ACT UP essentially bullied him into discontinuing the segment and making a token donation to a children's AIDS charity. He would continue to mock the personal tragedies of anyone he could paint as a clueless liberal.

Audacy has its own roster of conservative news talk stars. I recently tuned into their local WTIC AM news talk affiliate out of curiosity and tuned in just in time to hear host Dana Loesch a deliver a prolonged, mocking complaint about the “woke” World Health Organization ditching the word monkeypox in favor of mpox. She even artfully worked in a transmisogynist joke, comparing what she considered the delusion of the WHO attempting to destigmatize a viral disease she pretty explicitly associated with gay men to woke libs insisting that trans women are real.

It's exactly these same two companies that run the secret gay radio stations I can pick up on HD Radio. But that's consistent with the way they've done business all along. The deeply anti-LGBTQ news talk programming and the fun gay club music both generate advertising revenues, and from a corporate perspective they are not in conflict with each other. They simply run on separate stations targeted to separate audiences. The news talk stations have a large enough audience to make dedicated local analog stations profitable, while Channel Q and Pride Radio generate less profit, but still enough to find a national radio program repeated on these extra digital broadcasting slots across the country. It's cynical culture war profiteering. “Unholy” really slaps, though.

What it actually sounds like

The rural Connecticut town where I live is not the best place to receive certain local stations; a lot of those broadcasts are targeted to larger population centers surrounding us at various distances. For example, the regional National Public Radio news station, WNPR, comes in a little spotty, and if I drive a short distance west for any reason I need to tune in to a different NPR affiliate.

Given what I've said about the signal redundancy and improved signal resiliency of digital radio, I hoped the digital signals might prove more reliable than analog. In practice, it hasn't quite worked out that way. In some cases, though I can consistently hear the analog broadcast more or less clearly, with just a hint of static, I struggle to pick up enough digital signal for the radio to build the audio buffer it needs to switch from analog sound to digital.

For one thing, the digital signals are sometimes broadcast from a different physical location than the principle, analog signal. But what I hadn't really banked on was that regulations require that HD Radio digital signals be broadcast at a much lower wattage than their analog counterparts, to the point that they sometimes don't really carry as far as the analog signals. My understanding is that this might be a compromise around in-band on-channel broadcasting to prevent these digital signals from causing audible interference to analog reception. Or maybe it's that digital signals powerful enough to carry beyond the reach of analog counterparts on the same center frequency would wreak havock upon the delicate system of frequency allocations intended to prevent the geographic overlap of disparate broadcasts on the same frequency. But it makes me a little sad for what we miss out on by not having a dedicated DAB+ band; perhaps with that kind of signal resiliency at broadcast power on par with analog, more broadcasts could cover these sorts of gaps between major population centers, like where I live.

When the digital signals actually do come in consistently, I'd say they sound pretty good. I'm not an audiophile, but I think occasionally I notice certain subtle artifacts or qualities associated with lossy audio compression, similar to MP3s encoded at a slightly less-than-ideal bitrate. Cymbal crashes that sound just slightly off, in a barely perceptible way, for example. This effect is much less noticeable on some of the digital broadcasts than on others, and I suspect on the whole it's a bigger problem wherever the broadcaster had tried to fit a whole four digital signals into the sidebands of a single analogue channel. There are certainly some broadcasts where I can sometimes forget that compression is there. But even at its most noticable I find it preferable to the waves of static and interference I get on most of the analog broadcasts I can receive here.

You'll notice I haven't talked much about HD Radio in the AM band. That's because I haven't managed to listen to it yet; I can't seem to pick up a single AM broadcast augmented by HD Radio at home, though I've found some local AM stations repeated as additional HD Radio subchannels on an FM broadcast. I gather that at one point I might have been able to receive a number of HD Radio signals on the AM band, but now most of those broadcasts have been discontinued. The spacing of AM broadcast center frequencies is narrower and the HD Radio broadcasts in that band were therefore encouraged at lower bitrates than their FM band counterparts, producing lower-quality audio. But AM stations are more likely to carry news talk programming where high-fidelity audio is less important. I suspect what really drove AM broadcasters away from HD Radio in their band is that the relatively low power allowed in HD Radio broadcasting, combined with the requirement for listeners to use one of the relatively expensive minority of radio models that can decode HD Radio signals, put the standard at odds with the audience these broadcasters target. AM signals tend to carry farther than FM and can therefore cover rural areas more effectively. The rural listenership of AM stations are likely to be too far from the broadcast antenna to pick up the weaker HD Radio signals, and perhaps less likely to seek out more expensive HD-capable receivers that might not pick up any digital signals where they live anyway.

Wither the HD Radio revolution?

The Federal Communications Commission of the United States, which as a practical matter also effectively sets broadcast regulations for Canada and Mexico, selected HD Radio as an official digital radio standard in 2002. Now, 21 years later, I think I'm pretty much the only person I know who listens to it, while plenty of people I know are still listening to analog radio, if only in their cars. So, what gives? Is HD Radio a failed media format?

I've already outlined my thinly substantiated theory that the proprietary nature of the HD Radio standard locks manufacturers and radio listeners into a vicious cycle of scarce equipment and slow consumer adoption. But I suspect that problem is compounded by a marketing weakness of the in-band on-channel model. Consider that a DAB+ receiver has access to a whole other frequency band that an analog-only AM/FM radio does not receive. This makes it very obvious to someone shopping for a receiver that DAB+ models will allow them to listen to receive signals they can't get with analog models, and perhaps even entire stations they can't receive on an analog radio where they live. HD Radio also allows listeners to listen to stations they can't get on analog, but that feature isn't nearly as obvious up front. An HD Radio receiver does not feature a new, special, digital frequency band. It just tunes into the same frequencies the analog models do—only, with an HD Radio model those frequencies can carry extra audio streams you wouldn't otherwise get. But that's not obvious just from looking at the receiver controls. So consumer adoption continues to be driven largely by listeners accidentally buying into HD Radio when they happen to purchase a new car that has a capable receiver. And a lot of people aren't buying new cars in this market.

But despite the near-total abandonment of HD Radio on the AM dial, FM broadcasters don't seem in a hurry to ditch the idea. So I think HD Radio will not fizzle out now, but continue to grow at a snail's pace for years to come.

Digital radio is not internet radio

Radio is an interesting medium to me because of the lack of moderation between broadcaster and listener. Connecting to the Internet, for example, requires more than just a computer; it's a process gatekept to some degree by internet service providers, who can passively collect precise information about your individual network history—what servers you connected to, when, and typically what URLs you were requesting, too, as these are still not consistently encrypted. Those ISPs also have to contend with government agencies who can request or demand that they censor certain content or report on certain activities. By contrast, radio has higher barriers of entry for public speech (because not everyone can access high-powered broadcasting equipment or get regulatory approval to use it) but also provides for totally anonymous listening; broadcasters and governments don't just passively collect records of what stations you've been tuning into; advertisers have had to rely on consumer surveys and the like to estimate audience sizes.

Internet audio streaming—internet radio, personalized music streaming services, podcasts, etc.—has come to dominate audio media consumption for a lot of us. But it doesn't entirely replace over-the-air radio, and not only for the complicated reasons I just described, having to do with the role of ISPs in internet access. The fact is that there are still enough people who want to be able to just flip a switch, wherever they are, and hear whatever their local DJ is doing, to sustain radio as a medium.

As long as radio is going to be around, HD Radio is a huge improvement to the listening experience it can offer. But it is also an improvement frustratingly limited in its impact by regulatory decisions and its surprisingly difficult consumer adoption model. And it can do nothing to touch the deeper, less technical problems of the radio landscape in the United States: corporate consolidation, rampant hate speech, and the far-right project to build a more reactionary cultural hegemony.


Creative Commons LicenseWhere not otherwise noted, the content of this blog is written by Dominique Cyprès and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

The subject matter of README.txt by Chelsea Manning is complicated. The book itself, and my feelings about it, are not. The memoir is a valuable document of a moment in recent history as lived by the person whose rare actions became its catalyst. Here are the recollections of a woman who, at a young age, made her own history, though she did not make it as she pleased. And though she did not make her history under self-selected circumstances, she guides us through those already-existing circumstances, given and transmitted from the past, that at once severely constrained who she could be in the world, and presented her with an opportunity to change it in a way that few people ever will.

Cover art for README.txt by Chelsea Manning

The title is apt; it refers to an explanatory file Manning attached to a trove of military documents she anonymously leaked to the press during her time as a U.S. Army intelligence analyst, but the entire memoir also reads like such a file: the kind of straightforward, comprehensive guide anyone who regularly works with computer information hopes to find upon opening an unfamiliar archive. For all it covers, I felt the book could have been much longer; I take its relative brevity as a sign of restraint in service of getting right to the point about what the reader needs to know. This is not to suggest that there is no art to Manning's prose. Now and then she deploys a subtle poetic metaphor where a dry accounting of events cannot convey the inner experience of the events of her life. But overall, the prose reflects an urgency and clarity of purpose. Its sentence constructions and vocabulary are simple, and the author never assumes much prior knowledge on the reader's part. But the text is never condescending in tone, either. It's clear from the way Manning explains everything—from what day-to-day life was like for a homeless young adult in Chicago's gay club scene and how U.S. Army Basic Training was structured in the waning years of the Don't Ask, Don't Tell era to what the Tor browser project is for and how IRC chatrooms function—that she wants to give you, the reader, every chance to follow along and understand the context of key decisions in her life even if your background is vastly different from hers.

A lifeline of last resort

One such decision a reader may not understand coming into the book is just why Chelsea Manning—source of the highest-profile leak of U.S. military information since Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers that revealed the public justification for the U.S. military intervention in Vietnam as a lie—enlisted in the Army in the first place. It might seem at first glance that the military, especially in the Don't Ask, Don't Tell years, was obviously opposed to everything she was as a person: a trans woman, committed to public transparency and protecting human life, including the lives of Iraqi civilians that were so often identified as “unlawful enemy combatants” because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. The opening chapters of the book never make excuses for Manning's enlistment, but they clearly illustrate a timeline of experiences that led her to a situation where joining the Army would have seemed like a rational (though not inevitable) choice.

The experiences that led Chelsea Manning to the military stretch all the way back into her childhood with a Navy veteran father, who constantly talked up his military career as the singular thing that had imposed structure and meaning on his life when he was a young man. More subtly, though, Chelsea's early love of the then-nascent internet, and the impression made on her by terrorist attacks to which she was exposed, presaged the direction of her later career. She literally heard the blast of the Oklahoma City bombing from her small Oklahoma hometown miles away, as a child in 1995. She was affected, as all of us were, not only by horror of the coordinated airliner attacks of 11 September 2001, but also by the topsy-turvy, jingoistic political climate that formed in its aftermath. And in 2005, during the adolescent years she spent living with her mother in Wales, she had a solo errand in London interrupted by the coordinated bombing attacks on the Underground.

Manning's childhood was altogether difficult, though perhaps not unusually so for a queer youth born to conservative, alcoholic parents in a rural, working-class household. And the text shows the reader how this element of Manning's childhood too made the military eventually seem like one of her best options. This background did not provide a smooth path into self-sufficient adulthood. Instead, after high school Manning found herself drifting from job to job, even with her valuable technical skills, and eventually found herself homeless and living out of a barely functional pickup truck. When a relative later provided her with stable housing and she nailed down a consistent Starbucks barista job, she found that the erratic schedule of her work and prohibitive cost of tuition at badeven the local community college left her unsure she'd ever find the kind of work that would let her move out on her own and pay the rent. Gender transition, of which she had only just become aware, seemed a far-off dream next to these more basic questions of survival.

Manning is just a few years older than I, another resident of the autism spectrum (“diagnosed with mild Asperger's”), holds similar formative memories of a strange internet landscape that preceded the rise of MySpace and Facebook, and hails from a similar class background, which is to say that I was not materially deprived as a child but did not have parents who could simply pay my rent so I could move out on my own as soon as I reached adulthood, or pay my entire college tuition for me, or line me up with my first job. So with this degree of superficial familiarity, it is hard for me not to imagine myself into various episodes of Chelsea Manning's early life and wonder, if things had gone just a little differently, whether that kid I was reading about could have been me. What if my parents were alcoholics? What if my father had been even half as physically abusive as his own father was before him? What if, when my parents divorced, one of them had moved to Wales, and not just across town? What if my sexuality were a more definitively felt thing for me, and not such a wishy-washy mess—might I have kissed a boy at school and learned exactly who around me had enough anti-gay bigotry that they would hurt a child? What if, similarly, my gender had manifested as something definite, something that pulled me toward gender transition at a time when I only knew about that realm of human experience as something I would hear sneeringly mocked whenever my mom turned on talk radio in the car? What if I lost the option of living with my parents early in adulthood—would I have subsisted as resourcefully on the streets? (Probably not.) And if I hadn't had the opportunity to mortgage my future with enormous student loans, if my body were better army material, would I have found myself enlisting like she did?

Manning walked into a U.S. Army recruitment office desperate for a way to finance her education and launch a career that would enable her to move out of her aunt's house, rent her own place, and maybe even begin to transition someday (though certainly not during military service, as the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy effectively meant that a service member would be discharged as soon as the military discovered that they were trans). The recruitment officers were the friendliest people she had ever met in a professional setting, and even friendlier when they saw her aptitude test results. For the first time in her life she had made a professional contact that actually showed interest in her future, in bringing some stability to her life. Manning had just passed through a great pipeline that runs through U.S. society. On one end, the absence of any kind of robust social safety net or guaranteed employment or higher education causes a lot of people to “fall through the cracks” into lives of constant precarity. On the other end of the pipeline, the military is waiting to catch them with open arms, provided they are young enough and conform to certain physical and academic specifications. Manning does not describe the “pipeline” as I just did, and instead mostly allows readers to notice for themselves the broader patterns in the specific incidents she recounts. But she does acknowledge the striking commonality between her own recruitment and that of many of her colleagues in military intelligence:

Often, people had ended up in the military because they found themselves in their thirties and unable, despite their natural abilities and even a college degree, to lift themselves out of poverty.

The army was a lifeline of last resort for many of my colleagues, as it had been for me.

(Although Chelsea Manning herself does not make this point, it is not lost on me that cults seem to recruit from essentially the same pool of people. But that is something to discuss another time.)

And here is the understated genius of README.txt: Chelsea Manning has knack for seamlessly positioning the rich sensory specificities of her own life experience within a broad and well-considered sociological tapestry. She can provide enough detail to allow readers to imagine themselves physically in her place, but also take that wide-angle view where we glimpse the broader social systems in which these actions and transactions are performed, without it ever getting pedagogical or academic.

Unlawful disclosure

I first noticed an unexpected and troubling typographical feature about two-thirds of the way through README.txt. Partway through a sentence describing the public reaction to the military intelligence materials Chelsea Manning had leaked, I hit a block of long black bars, the sort that replace lines of text that have been redacted from a declassified document. There are a few examples of this throughout the text. It felt especially odd to me at first because I was using an e-reader that “reflows” text to fit my prefered font choices, margins, &c, so I briefly entertained the idea that what I was looking at was a formatting error not present in the print version. But it wasn't the first occurence of this quirk, and the places where this occurred all seemed to fit a pattern. What I think happened is this: the manuscript of the memoir was subject to official review, ostensibly to prevent the publication of any information that could compromise national security. Likely, the author and her editors agreed to comply with some of the censors' objections and revised the manuscript to remove that information in a way that would not be visible to the reader. But the context of all these visibly redacted passages seems to indicate that they discuss details of the information revealed in those leaks. Information that, no matter how the Department of Defense or the national security establishment feels about it, became public a decade ago. I suspect that Manning found the prospect of quietly omitting these long-public details from her memoir to be an unreasonable request, and decided to make these omissions obvious to the reading public by instead performing a visible redaction.

E-reader displaying a redacted passage in README.txt

Chelsea Manning bemoans the absurdity of her court-martial and sentencing procedings, in which reporters and other public observers were routinely removed from the courtroom to preserve the secrecy of classified information that had already been published in the pages of papers like The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Guardian. How much more absurd and petty to demand that this information not appear in her memoir after all these years!

It is striking that the struggle to bring suppressed truth to light became a such a throughline for Manning from the moment she enlisted, whether it was her own personal reality under a Don't Ask, Don't Tell military policy era that effectively prevented her from even reporting a deeply traumatic sexual assault at the hands of an officer for legitimate fear of being discharged, or the more broadly consequential truths of what U.S. forces were doing in the countries they claimed to be liberating.

But Manning makes very clear that being trans had nothing to do with her decision to become military whistleblower. She describes, as clearly as she can given the constraints of ongoing censorship, what gave her the moral clarity to decide that she needed to ensure the public would know some of what she saw in the course of her work. The awful war she saw in person did not remotely resemble the war she read about in U.S. newspapers, and she believed that if the public knew the truth about the war they might bring about positive change.

While tracking a militant Shia group that existed, Manning says, “to kill Americans,” she came to this realization:

Tracking this group made it clear to me that our engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan had surprisingly little to do with those actual countries. Our involvement was about a bigger picture. It was about trying to project American hegemony to other powers in the region. You could look at the accumulation of death, after years, on all sides, and think that the war was unwinnable. Or you could consider whether pouring enormous resources into a never-ending war was actually the point.

[…]

We were dying over posturing, over bullshit.

This posturing, this bullshit, was regularly getting innocent people killed. In one personally relevant case Manning recounts, U.S. operators she had provided with intelligence instead used a long-outdated report to plan an operation against a known insurgent:

The operators relied on this bad information and went to the wrong building, where they killed everyone in the house who resisted capture, all the witnesses, and finally, even the fucking dog.

I came back from lunch to news of about a dozen presumably innocent people who were now all dead. We had to pretend it had never happened.

In Iraq, Manning also watched her fellow soldiers celebrate when an Iraqi civilian was killed by an explosive intended for a U.S. military vehicle:

Instead of being upset at the random death of an onlooker, my fellow soldiers were elated: Thank goodness OUR people weren't killed. And hey, look, even our vehicle was minimally damaged! The dead and injured Iraqis, who had nothing to do with this battle, weren't even spoken about as collateral damage. They were talked about as human armor for us.

Manning understood that the deplorable behavior of so many fellow soldiers was not simply a case of bad people in uniform, but of the unprincipled war they were commanded to wage bringing out the worst elements of human nature:

With enough grief, adrenaline, and fear, we can all become amoral—even malevolent.

The spectacle of the war in U.S. media, with its “smart bombs” and “surgical strikes” in service of spreading democracy, belied the truth of this bullshit conflict in which U.S. forces were constantly killing civilians on improperly handled intelligence or thin assumptions, were conditioned to regard the Iraqi population as less than human, and were frequently dying themselves for no cause more noble than “to project American hegemony.”

Amidst this contradiction, an analyst at Chelsea Manning's level (trusted with raw intelligence from the widest possible range of sources, but not so high-ranking that she would have to deal mostly with highly abstracted reports derived from that intelligence) was constantly working with information that dramatically contradicted the consensus picture of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan within U.S. media. That information was in most cases reflexively classified, though as a practical matter much of it would not actually endanger anyone if it became public knowledge. What stayed classified, and what was instead declassified and shared with the press, was largely an arbitrary decision, as Manning discovered when an intelligence report she created strictly for internal military purposes was released to the Iraqi press:

I asked a press affairs officer why he took off the classification markings and how he could do it so quickly. His reply—an honest, succinct one—has lingered in my mind: the classification system exists wholly in the interest of the U.S. government, so if it's in the interest of public affairs to declassify something, we will. In other words, he seemed to say, the classification system doesn't exist to keep secrets safe, it exists to control the media. I realized that no only did I not think the stuff needed to be secret, neither did the higher-ups, at least not when it suited them. In that instant, I began to consider whether the public deserved to have the same information that I did. If we were briefing journalists on the full picture when it suited us, why not all of the time? This was, after all, historical information.

Armed as she was with classified intelligence that could dismantle media manipulation about the war, she came to understand doing so as a moral obligation:

I always had the responsibility of other people's lives in my hands. This felt, in some sense, like just another choice, where I was weighing the costs and benefits and deciding that this was the best way to save lives.

No good deed…

And boy, was she punished for fulfilling that moral obligation! From the time that Manning was arrested at Forward Operating Base Hammer in Iraq, she spent years awaiting court-martial, much of that in stretches of several months at a time in solitary confinement conditions that U.N. observers found to be “in violation of article 16 of the convention against torture.” When she did finally have her day in court, she was was sentenced to thirty-five years in prison, under an Obama administration that came to be seen as hostile toward any party that brought U.S. state secrets to media—not only for Manning's case, but also for that of Edward Snowden, who revealed wide-reaching surveillance campaigns conducted by the NSA both abroad and targeting civilians within the U.S. A thirty-five year sentence for bringing evidence of wrongdoing to the media was unprecedented at the time, and was eventually cut down to seven years only through an unexpected commutation from President Obama during his last days in office.

Manning and her legal counsel attempted plea negotiations with the prosecution that might have reduced her sentence to a minimum of twenty years, but negotiations broke down for a few reasons. Twenty years is still a long time to spend in prison for whistleblowing, for one thing, and maybe not the most tempting offer that could have been made. Further, the prosecution would not move forward on a deal that didn't include Manning pleading guilty to “aiding the enemy,” which could have set a very bad precendent for future journalistic sources, and did not reflect any concrete proof that the disclosures at issue had materially aided an enemy of the United States. But an especially contentious issue was simply a matter of telling the truth; prosecutors wanted Manning to agree to a version of events that included inaccuracies about when she leaked certain documents, inaccuracies that were convenient for the prosecution's narrative. She refused to sign off on statements containing these inaccuracies over the course of negotiations. “The truth,” she writes in her memoir, “was not negotiable.” The thing she seems to regret most in her recounting of the legal proceedings is the statement she read, drafted by her legal team in hopes of reducing her sentence, in which she apologized for the hurt she caused by her disclosures. She was reluctant to read this statement in court because it contradicted the truth she had been trying to convey all along: that her disclosures were chosen carefully and communicated through journalistic outlets that would provide advance warning to authorities about personally identifiable information they contained to prevent such harms, and that those disclosures were morally justified.

I acted as I did because of what I saw, because of the values I hold.

Manning highlights other people who were essentially punished by the military for doing the right thing. Ethan McCord, a soldier who appears in the infamous “Collateral Murder” video Manning leaked to the press and worked to rescue children in the aftermath of the events the video captured, spoke to the press about the unjustifiability of the war when he was sent home with disabling combat injuries. For this, the Army discharged him on the basis of “a preexisting personality disorder” instead of his injuries, rendering him for veterans' disability benefits. Marine Corps veteran Jeff Paterson, who was court-martialed for an act of pacifist resistance against Operation Desert Storm, provided “critical” financial support to Manning's legal battle. Manning's boss, one Master Sargeant Paul Adkins, was demoted seemingly because he chose not to report to his stories when Manning disclosed her trans status to him via email, which would likely have resulted in her immediate discharge from the Army.

Manning's case stands out here for the sheer severity of the punishment prescribed for her whistleblowing. She was often singled out for extra punishment in military prison. But in her memoir she does not describe the inhumanity she experienced in prison as wholly unique. Because she spent so much time in prison—more time than she did as an intelligence analyst—a large portion of the book takes place there. The descriptions of prison life make clear that many of the indignities and inhumanities she experienced there—the arbitrary and collective acts of humiliation and torture as reprisals for fabricated interactions, the unofficial but thoroughly enforced racial segregation, the denial of prescribed medical treatment, and the singling out of trans inmates for particular cruelty—were widespread practices in military prison, and everything I know about U.S. civilian prisons tells me they are no different. As narrator of the text, Manning does not opine on the overall ethics of the carceral system, and I do not know whether she has a public stance on it. All she does is relate what happened to her and her fellow inmates, and also what she did both on her own and collectively with other inmates to bargain for modest improvements to prison conditions. But for me personally it would be difficult to come out of this book without a lot of sympathy for the cause of prison abolition.

On this note, the decision to wrap up this memoir with only the briefest possible summary of everything that has occurred since Manning was released from military prison means that as readers we don't get any real detail about another cruel twist in the story of the legal fallout from Manning's disclosures. In 2019 and 2020, she was sent to a civilian prison twice for refusing to testify before grand jury proceedings regarding the role of WikiLeaks spokesperson Julian Assange in publishing her disclosures. It was more punishment for taking a principled stand regarding transparency, especially striking because, judging from the book's brief descriptions of Assange as a divisive figure within the WikiLeaks Organization who sought control over the group and attempted to reshape it around his own ego, it doesn't seem that Manning even likes him much as a person.

A view from outside

I was a full-time psychology student at a small liberal arts college in New York City when Chelsea Manning was arrested. Just kinda starting to find my way in the world and lucked into having an easier time of than she did. I remember pulling up the front page of WikiLeaks during a visit to my dad's house, just idly trying to figure out what it was all about. A big banner about the “Collateral Murder” video was front and center. I didn't look further; I've always tended to digest this kind of thing in prepared reports rather than watch the gore for myself, so I read about what was in it instead. Some time later, my dad, who worked for a defense contractor, told me everyone at the office had been warned to stay away from WikiLeaks.

I was a kid in 2003 when the invasion began and didn't really get it. The way it was explained on TV was something like: Saddam Hussein is a madman dictator hiding weapons of mass destruction and for some reason it is the responsibility of the United States to intervene. And somehow it was meant to be a response to the 9/11 attacks, which had nothing directly to do with Iraq. There were steps in there I didn't really understand. And there were a lot of smart people saying the “weapons of mass destruction” were a lie, cover to exert control over foreign oil reserves.

Sometime between then and 2010 it had become very obvious that everyone who had scoffed at the Bush administration line on “WMDs” was right, that it really was all a lie. A new administration had come in, a president accused by the most unhinged parts of the conspiratorial right of being secretly Muslim, born on foreign soil and hiding behind a fake Hawaiian birth certificate. But in concrete terms little about foreign policy seemed to have concretely changed. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq simply kept going, the horizon of peace slipping ever further into the future. And the fascistic jingoism that had appeared in the shadow of 9/11, the demand in more pugilistic corners of mass media that cowards and traitors be rooted out and that we reassert the masculine might of our military, continued unabated. I heard it in the way some people talked about what they thought should happen to Beau Bergdahl, a U.S. soldier captured in Afghanistan after privately expressing moral disgust at U.S. military actions there and walking away from his observation post at night. And I heard it again when Chelsea Manning was arrested.

The first chapter of README.txt describes the day Manning made her first upload to a WikiLeaks-affiliated server, using the WiFi in the café of a chain bookstore in Tysons Corner, Virginia, in the middle of a snowstorm, on her last day of leave before returning to Iraq. She says it was just after making that fateful upload that she took a selfie, long before she would have the chance to transition, wearing a wig and lipstick. She included the photo in an impulsive email revealing that she was trans to her boss, Master Sargeant Adkins, and it would later be used as part of the military's pubic relations campaign against her, an example of what she says is the military's “nuts and sluts” tactic for discrediting whistleblowers. I seem to recall her being portrayed as both.

Grayscale, low-resolution selfie of Chelsea Manning, taken the day of her first upload to WikiLeaks

The revelation of this photo brought out the worst in a lot of media figures. I remember even “liberal” pundits opining that it was evidence that the military should have known she was “mentally unstable” before her disclosures. But it helped to crystalize my support for her cause and believe the unsettling truths her disclosures brought to light. Because I knew, watching the ugly rhetoric building around her, that anyone who saw in this photo evidence of madness, depravity, or treason was full of shit. Because it was the most natural thing in the world, a young woman savoring a moment out of uniform, trying on something cute. For me the photo is inspiring, powerful, beautiful. It expresses a feeling that Manning describes having in the moment she sent that email that could have immediately ended her career, emboldened by the publication of a video she had leaked:

I wanted the era of secrets to be over in my life.

But I still feel a little sheepish about sharing it. Surely she has taken better selfies. So here's one she took on 1 May 2022, expressing her support for labor organizing at Twitter. She looks like she's thriving. No one's stopping her from growing her hair out now:

Chelsea Manning celebrating International Workers' Day outside Twitter headquarters This photo by Chelsea Manning is provided under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 license and scaled down from the original.

For so long, in a repressive military environment, in her prolonged court-martial, and in prison, Manning was prevented from telling the full truth, the full story of her own actions. This allowed them to become almost mythologized—as villainous treachery for some, and as saintly acts of pacifist self-sacrifice for others, but in both cases disconnected from the plain reality of what she actually did and why. Now that she has told us nearly that whole story, at least as much of it as she legally can, she has demystified those first chapters of her life that end when she first left prison. She was never a conniving monster out to get her fellow soldiers killed, nor was she an impossibly virtous martyr for a pacifist cause. She was someone who had access to devestating truths most people weren't allowed to see, and she realized how important it was for the public to see some of them. She was at the right place, at the right time, and had the fortitude to act, not knowing what might become of her as a result. We're better off for it.


Creative Commons LicenseWhere not otherwise noted, the content of this blog is written by Dominique Cyprès and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

This web site went down for a day. It's not the strangest technical problem I've ever seen, but it's a good example of that frustrating kind where even after it's been remediated and things are back to normal the cause isn't obvious and therefore there's no surefire way to mitigate against future recurrences.

On the morning of Saturday 21 January 2023, I opened the Seafile shared file-hosting app on my phone to check some notes I'd been drafting there. Those notes are stored remotely by the Seafile server-side software on my virtual private server (VPS), an Internet-connected virtual machine (VM, a sort of virtual computer that can operate alongside other VMs on shared computer hardware) that I rent at a monthly rate. But all I got was a connection error. Concerned, I tried loading my blog, also hosted on the VPS, in a browser. That didn't work either. I looked at my dashboard on the hosting provider's web site.

Status: SHUTOFF

Well, I couldn't imagine why it would be shut off. I hadn't requested anything like that. And I hadn't changed anything since I connected the day before. So I just turned it back on. But no dice. Still nothing connecting, no response when I tried to ping the IP address of the VPS, no route for me to issue terminal commands to it. Both small kids in the house were awake at this point, and I was the only adult awake with them, so I was only taking the limited diagnostic steps I could take with half-glances at my phone in the middle of other stuff. Still, I sent a support inquiry to the hosting provider. I was hoping to hear that it was a temporary degradation of data center connectivity or I just needed to update payment info or something. Anything that would make it not really my problem.

But no, when I got a response, the ball was back in my court. I was politely reminded that the VPS hosting is for experts who diagnose their own server issues, and that there was an emergency console I could use as an alternative way to send terminal commands, and if that should fail there was a rescue mode that would suspend my VPS and give me a kind of barebones, temporary rescue server I could use to investigate and edit the VPS's files.

Eventually I wasn't the only adult around anymore, so I grabbed my laptop and tried the emergency console, but it crashed while loading. On to the rescue mode, then. I managed to connect to the virtual disk containing the VPS files, but not without the rescue system complaining about and automatically cleaning up some “orphaned inodes.” This indicated that something had gone mildly wrong with the way the files were stored on the disk. I began poking around in system logs files looking for something that would tell me why the VPS shut down. But where I expected to see maybe some error message to explain this, I found only a log where the last messages were a refused incoming connection from a user called pivpn at a particular IP address, followed at some later time by an incomprehensible log entry containing a mix of numbers, symbols, and letters from various scripts, including ő and Ə.

At this point I had exhausted most of my diagnostic options. All I had gathered was that something had caused my VPS to start writing information to the disk incorrectly and to shut off, and now it wasn't booting correctly. I sent a desperate follow-up to my support contact hoping they had access to some kind of hypervisor log or something, some information from outside the VPN that would tell me something definitive like “The VPS ran out of memory and had to be shut down,” but this went unanswered. I had seen all the info there was to see.

Children dipping their hands into a whirlpool generator

I felt a little down on myself at that point. What did I think I was going to accomplish, playing at sysadmin, especially when I ought to be spending time with the kids? Maybe it would be better if I scrapped the idea of running a web site again and cancelled my VPS subscription. But I figured it was better to put the whole thing aside for a while and let the frustration fade before I made a decision like that. Anyhow, we had committed ourselves to take the kids to the science museum.

So I let the web site stay offline while the kids ran around the interactive exhibits. They had a blast, and I got a good workout trying to corral the two-year-old.

Back at home I decided to give up on diagnosis and switch to remediation. There was no more I was going to learn about why the site's VPS went offline, so it was time to find the most expedient way to bring it back up.

I launched the rescue system again and began downloading a bunch of files. I had all the data for my blog stored in a database system called MySQL. A system like MySQL is supposed to be kind of opaque in that it has its own format for storing and organizing data in an optimized way, and instead of working with or knowing anything about this format, the user or any application that connects to the database uses a relatively simple language called Structured Query Language (SQL) to fetch information from or add information to the database. The usual way to back up an SQL database like this is to perform an “SQL dump,” which means asking the database system to output a list of SQL commands that could recreate all the information in the database on a new system. I hadn't got around to setting up automatic SQL dumps to backup my blog, so I didn't have anything like that. But I hoped that if I kept a copy of all of MySQL's files on the disk, the contents of a directory called /var/lib/mysql/, I could somehow restore my blog's data from that. I also backed up the static images I was serving from the root hamster.dance domain to embed in blog posts, and the files for my Seafile server.

Then I deleted the whole VPS and opened up a new one. The process of actually installing the software I had running on the VPS before was faster than it might have been otherwise, because my hosting provider has a NixOS VPS image ready to go, and I had the whole system configuration saved as a file that I could use with NixOps to enact that configuration from my laptop. That part took a matter of minutes.

The thing that seemed a lot trickier was extracting the blog data (mostly the posts themselves) from the MySQL files. I poked around in some forms and got the idea of copying over to the new VPS just the files for the blog database itself and some general MySQL files with names that began with ib. That seemed too simple to me, surely there could be some peculiarity of MySQL installed on one machine that might make it unable to use these files created on another. But I tried it anyway. MySQL refused to start after that, complaining of corrupt formatting in those ib files. So I returned it to the way it was before, and this time only copied over the files for the blog database itself. This time MySQL started, and was able to show me a list of all the data tables in the blog database, but couldn't actually access anything in those tables. Trying to load my blog in the browser at this point yielded a server error. So this time I decided to try something that I didn't really expect to work at all; I replaced the whole /var/lib/mysql/ directory on the new VPS with the one I had copied from the old VPS. It worked perfectly, the while blog loaded in my browser again right away. A similar approach restored everything on my Seafile server.

Not knowing what caused this outage means I don't really know what can be done to prevent it from happening again. It's in this kind of situation that people who work with computers sometimes like to trot out unlikely-sounding explanations to cover their asses. Maybe a stray cosmic ray hit the server hardware just so and flipped an important bit from 1 to 0. Maybe someone walked through the data center in clothes that produced a static discharge, corrupting some storage. Maybe some NSA agent doesn't like the font I use on my blog and used an undisclosed vulnerability in the Nginx web server to corrupt crucial system files. Suggesting any of these would be a fancy way to basically shrug my shoulders, absolve myself of any responsibility, and acknowledge that I don't have a way to keep it from happening again.

But I can at least take some steps that will hopefully make it easier to recover if it does happen again. Turns out my hosting provider doesn't charge all that much extra per month to automatically keep several daily snapshots of the virtual disk, so if I notice within a week that something like this has happened, I can quickly revert to the state things were in before. And maybe I'll get around to automating those SQL dumps.


Creative Commons LicenseWhere not otherwise noted, the content of this blog is written by Dominique Cyprès and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

When a friend recently shared her retail work experiences on social media in an effort to encourage some respect for workers in that sector of the economy, she invited others to share their stories about difficult customers. It's been a little while since I've been in that position myself now; fortunately for me I managed to get out before the COVID-19 pandemic that hit “essential” retail workers (grocery store cashiers, etc.) especially hard. But I do have a few stories from those “before times” and it seems to me that people who haven't had to work these jobs, or haven't had to rely on them to pay the bills, might do well to hear what it's actually like.

I'll be vague about precise store locations, but all of these stories occurred in Massachusetts or New Hampshire between 2012 and 2018.

Tough customers

I didn't personally experience physical or sexual harassment from customers, though of course it does happen, and often enough that anti-harassment law compliance training materials have to address it specifically. I did experience a some verbal interactions that were demeaning or vaguely threatening in some way, but the one such interaction that sticks with me is something that happened to a coworker. Once when I was cleaning/relabeling the wine aisle at BJ's Wholesale Club (giant warehouse-type store like Costco or Sam's Club) someone came around to the meat department to ask about some five-layer dip that was usually in a little display cooler full of prepared side dishes nearby. It was out of stock. I wasn't close enough to hear the beginning of the conversation but I do know it led to this customer screaming a tirade that began with “I want… THE DIP!!!” in a voice so loud that three managers immediately came running from the other side of the store, fully ready to call the cops. In fact it was only when they threatened to involve the cops and eject him from the store that he backed down.

More often customer interactions weren't directly threatening like this but betrayed an sense of entitlement and objectification that suggested that on some level the customer didn't think of me as a full person. Once at Target some guy came up to me and said “I need a female to talk to.” Turned out he was looking for advice on hair products. I didn't connect him with a “female,” but he did get to talk to Scott, who was in charge of the cosmetics area and had luxurious shoulder-length hair.

After I helped one customer shopping at Target with her children in December find some things, she unexpectedly told the kids that I was one of Santa's elves, and then I had to play along or make for an awkward situation with these children.

At BJ's, after corporate had us rearrange a few aisles, a customer walked up to me and shouted, “Young man, where did you put the oatmeal?!” I chuckled but it turned out she was legit upset at me personally for moving it, even after I immediately showed her the new location of the oatmeal.

Someone at Target who got upset with the “Guest Service” desk staff told them that “Some people don't deserve their Christmas bonuses.” Clearly someone who had never worked an hourly-wage job at Target where no one has even heard of a “Christmas bonus.”

The behavior of customers toward each other could have a negative impact on me too. It was a little depressing to watch one customer who felt she had been cheated of her place in line snarl “Merry Christmas!” in the most nakedly venomous tone you could imagine at the offending party.

The aisles at BJ's were enormous, but one customer I recall managed to park one of the also-enormous shopping carts across the entrance to the isle and near an advertising display such that it effectively blocked that end of the aisle. Another shopper who was using a motorized cart and needed to leave the aisle came to a gentle stop in front of this barricade and deftly rolled it out of the way without exiting the motorized cart, just enough to pass by. When the shopper who had barricaded the aisle turned back to her cart and saw it in a slightly different position than where she'd left it she was instantly furious and began to berate the visibility disabled customer who had dared to move it aside

The naughtiest thing I ever did in retail was when I was working a really busy cashier shift at Target and I was due for a state-mandated 15-minute break. I had turned off the light at my register. Usually people take that as a hint not to line up at that register and sometimes they even offer to move to another register when they're already in line (no need for that, but thanks). But this time it just didn't happen and people kept lining up at my register. When about the twentieth customer to line up at my register with its light pointedly turned off arrived, and had already loaded half their stuff onto the belt while I was finishing with the previous customer, I pretended not to notice them and walked off.

A display of greeting cards at Target, featuring one card that jokes about excessive Target shopping

The worst kind of customer

The worst kind of customer is the kind of tough customer that always sticks around: a bad boss.

I was made to watch an anti-union training video when I started work at Target. I certainly would have appreciated some help from a union when store management at one of the Target locations I worked broke its promises about working hours, refused to give us our weekly schedules in a timely fashion so we could make any kind of plans, fudged bad performance reports for budgetary reasons, or told us all on-the-job injuries were university caused by the injured worker's own carelessness, and not ever by the state of the equipment or the unsafe pace demanded of us while using said equipment. But a number of the people I worked with at the time had conservative and anti-union views I felt I would probably not manage to change, and all the stories I read about near-successful unionizing efforts at Target seemed to end in corporate finding some excuse to shut down the store that was about to go union.

BJ's expected me to sign a “union-free philosophy” pledge. (I remember that phrase because in my head it goes to the tune of that one line from “Hakuna Matata.”) I signed it because I knew I was an “at will” employee, so they could legally fire me without showing cause. A sign went up near the time clock warning us that the BJ's “anti-solicitation” policy forbade discussion of unions and the distribution of union literature at the store—or even amongst employees off the store premises. I overheard some of the store managers' training material that told them to report any employee talking about the benefits of unions to corporate.

At Target, I moved because rent was too high for me in the city, and I got transferred to a store closer to where I was moving. They were kind of evasive about whether I was going to continue to be working 40 hours per week. Turns out the new location had a different scheduling system and I'd be working 40 hrs per week for a few weeks at a time in the peak season around December, then maybe 12 hrs per week or at completely random times throughout the week during other parts of the year. This made it pretty much impossible to commit to a second job because people who did block out a few hours per week with Target to make room for a second job got their hours cut to 6hrs per week or so. Of course I fell way behind on rent and had to move in with relatives 60km away, so I asked for a transfer to a location closer to home. They strung me along for months, then told me I didn't qualify because of my performance reviews (which they had told me were poor because they couldn't afford to give me a raise from the near-minimum hourly wage I was making). Then I got the job at BJ's and they told me if I had just held on another month they were going to get me that transfer. One of my favorite lower-level managers at that time (a “front end team leader”) was homeless, which told me that job was never going to pay the bills no matter how well I performed.

I was very fortunate that store management at BJ's let me alter my schedule to work 40hrs per week while moving my shifts to accommodate morning or afternoon classes so I could work on a computer science degree part-time (shortly after our oldest kid was born). But there was one short-tempered manager at the store who for some reason never remembered this arrangement no matter how many times we communicated it to him and was outraged every time I left the store earlier than the paper schedule said I should do, so I could attend a class (after I had started my shift earlier to compensate).

I got out

In the end I got lucky, and got out. But I want people to know that the retail industry is still generally like this, that it's mostly not just high school students doing easy busy-work in their spare time for a little spending money, but people trying to pay the bills in punishing, exploitative working conditions. I've watched some recent unionizing successes at Amazon distribution centers and Starbucks cafés, and I hope to see that kind of effective labor organizing happen at BJ's, at Target, and all over retail.


Creative Commons LicenseWhere not otherwise noted, the content of this blog is written by Dominique Cyprès and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Intellectual property law is failing to protect artist livelihoods and art as a public good.

Coney Island strand photographed in winter ca. 2010, facing the Parachute Jump from the east, with gulls and apartment buildings in view

I'd thought maybe some of the global discussions around intellectual property had cooled down a little, what with various forms of commercial streaming displacing a lot of digital media piracy. But now recent flashpoints around AI-assisted art enabled by the proliferation of tools like Midjourney, Stable Diffusion (visual art), and ChatGPT (writing) are raising new questions about intellectual property.

These tools are typically trained through a complicated analysis of vast quantities of art published by people on the internet. When someone types a prompt into one of these tools and generates an intricate digital painting of fantasy cities, alien landscapes, and impossible creatures, is it art? If it is art, who is the artist? The person who fine-tuned a written prompt that would produce this picture? The AI tool itself? Or the untold legions of artists whose work was used as training data? And what of those artists behind the training data? Assuming their work was collected by web crawlers without their consent, was their work stolen? And, if so, by whom—the end-user of that AI tool, the AI tool itself, or the data scientists who added that art to the training data in the first place?

Yes, it's art

For me, “Is this art?” is the easy part, and independent of the other questions. The answer is yes. I don't have a philosophical proof for this, but I do have a few guiding principles and examples to make my case. Firstly, the act of crafting the right prompt for an AI tool like this is a creative act. It involves experimentation, spontaneity, and communicating the ineffible through a set of visual and stylistic descriptors. We know it involves expertise, because it can be done inexpertly; someone new to writing these prompts might often generate an image that contains all the things they described, but not at all in the style or tone they intended, or marred by unwanted, districting details, like a human hand with an improbable number of fingers.

While art created in this way is art, it is also clearly derivative of prior artwork. It's hard to escape evidence of this. Hauntingly, the graphical output of these tools sometimes features indecipherable signatures imitating artist signatures in the training data, not unlike Frankenstein's monster newly assembled from a hodgepodge of corpses and struggling to speak his name for the first time.

Art derived from the artwork of others is still art. This is not to say that it is always ethical, or that it is always “good art” by any particular measure.

One of my favorite examples of wholly derivative art is The Grey Album by Danger Mouse, which consists of the acapellas from The Black Album by rapper Jay-Z accompanied by backing tracks built entirely from samples of The Beatles' self-titled 1968 album popularly known as the “White Album.” Every sound on The Grey Album comes from these two other albums, and at the same time it is unambiguously an original artistic work. If you've heard The Grey Album that doesn't really mean you've heard The Black Album, and definitely doesn't mean you've heard The Beatles. The beats are compelling, and they highlight different aspects of Jay-Z's vocals than you might notice with a different backing track. Not just anyone could make what Danger Mouse did given access to the samples he used. It's art. It's also, legally speaking, an unauthorized use of the recordings it samples and almost certainly a violation of intellectual property law. The Grey Album began as a personal project not intended for a wide, commercial release, but gained international attention online. Ultimately, Jay-Z and the surviving Beatles approved of The Grey Album, but EMI, the corporation that controlled the cought of Beatles recordings, threatened legal action. There is some argument to be made that the use of unauthorized samples in original works could be covered by the “Fair Use” doctrine that outlines some limited exceptions in US copyright law, but this is very much a legal gray area shaped by evolving case law. I suspect The Grey Album wouldn't have great chances in court, but since the album surfaced in 2004 it has never landed there. So:

✅ It is art.
❌ It is probably not legal.
❓ Is it ethical? I don't know. As far as I can tell it didn't hurt anyone.

I don't think Jay-Z or The Beatles can be said to have suffered financially from people downloading The Grey Album. But what of the more general case? What damage is caused by the unauthorized consumption of art?

You wouldn't steal a car

A 2004 public service announcement produced by industry associations infamously compared movie piracy by home viewers to automobile theft, stating unambiguously that “Downloading pirated movies is stealing.” The PSA lives on in public memory as an object of mockery because of an obvious flaw in its central comparisons. Most people tend to think that what makes it “wrong” to steal a car isn't that you have a car you didn't have before, but that because of you, someone else doesn't have that car anymore. When you download a pirated movie, no one else is deprived of that movie. Everyone who had that movie before still has it now. But now you have it too.

This is one of the fundamental issues of intellectual property as a concept; it relies too much upon the principles of physical property, but it plainly doesn't play by the same natural laws as anything you could physically hold; you can give it to someone without it leaving your possession and it is constantly multiplying and moving all around us. If someone takes it from you, you still have it. And once it has multiplied enough, it is effectively indestructible.

When these industry associations present a more developed argument against copyright infringement, they sometimes argue that media piracy is “not a victimless crime” because it does deprive people of revenue. This point is debatable and can be subjected to empirical scrutiny.

Anecdotally, we know that at least some people who download a pirated movie simply wouldn't watch it if they couldn't pirate it—because they're broke and can't afford it, because it wasn't officially released in their region or language, or because it's rare, out-of-print, and not on streaming services.

We also know of times when media piracy has driven discovery and sales. The musician Benn Jordan, for example, has said that in the pre-Spotify days of iTunes, frustrated in his attempts to secure a cut of the profits from his music being sold on the new digital music platform, he uploaded his own music to torrent trackers, with a note to listeners containing a URL through which they could pay him directly. This created a new audience and a new revenue stream for the musician—more revenue, in fact, than the musician was getting from iTunes sales at the time. Perhaps ironically, this model of audience engagement is less viable today because so many music listeners are already buying subscriptions to music streaming services that pass unlivable and ever-shrinking shares of their profits to musicians.

So we know that, in individual cases, acts of media piracy have been neutral or even positive in their impact on artist revenues. Certainly there must be times when someone chooses not to but media they could afford because they can download pirated copies instead. So the question that can be investigated empirically is whether the net effect on artist revenues is positive, negative, or negligible. I haven't done that work or deeply read existing research in this area, so I won't assume an outcome here.

When you “steal” a movie by downloading a pirated copy, no one loses the movie. Whether artists lose revenue is somewhat unclear. But what is definitely lost is distributor control, the ability of the company that sells and licenses that movie to control the circumstances, to monetize the platforms that mediate authorized access to that movie and to target you for advertising through those platforms, to passively collect demographic data about who is watching the movie and use it to adjust their business model.

So who suffers from this crime?

✅ The ability of distributors to exercise control over your media consumption suffers.
❌ Benn Jordan apparently didn't suffer, but instead materially benefited from the piracy of his own musical recordings.
❓ Do artists in general suffer? It's something we can investigate through data.

The mythical artist

But hang on… A lot of the examples I've given regarding media piracy involve Hollywood movies. Who exactly is the artist deserving of payment when a Hollywood movie is made? A lot of film critics assume the primary creative force behind a movie is typically the director. But some academic citation formats would have you credit the executive producer first. Certainly the screenwriter plays some part. And the actors too can influence the tone and texture of a movie and sometimes even make changes to the plot. In fact a typical Hollywood movie is the creative product of a whole army of people who work at the studio; that's why the end credits are so long. And who really can say that any of the people named in that list didn't contribute artistically to the movie you saw? Would that climactic scene have felt exactly the same without the work of a competent hair stylist? Would the actors have delivered exactly the same performance if the set weren't adequately catered?

When you watch a movie in a movie theater, you don't directly pay each of those artists listed in the end credits. For artistic work under some circumstances we have established indirect means of funding. In this case you pay the movie theater, the movie theater uses ticket sales to pay some distributor, that distributor bought the distribution rights to the movie (a subset of the intellectual property rights for that movie) from the movie studio, and that studio hopefully paid all the people who worked on it, either through a percentage of revenues (for producers and top-billing actors, maybe), a lump sum negotiated before production, an ongoing contract, or meager hourly wages. Though if there were interns on set, they may have been “paid” in experience alone.

In fact, most media consumption today relies on some kind of indirect scheme to pay the artist. When your access to an artwork is mediated by institutions, those institutions determine what portion of subscription fees, ticket sales, ad revenues, merchandise profits, etc. are paid to the artist. What that portion is and how it is determined is rarely transparent to the audience or even to the artist. And anecdotally, this portion seems to be shrinking all the time in most cases.

A few rules to live by

  1. The world is better with art in it. That is to say, art is a public good.
  2. Everyone deserves a basic standard of living that includes (among other things) adequate food, shelter, and healthcare, and access to art.
  3. Artists have more time to make art when they don't have to do a lot of other things to maintain a basic standard of living.

The above are axioms I hold to be obvious. I think a lot of people in the world probably agree with them. Taken together, they also demand a radical rejection of intellectual property as it is currently conceived.

We live in a system where (unless you're born rich) a basic standard of living has to be “earned” through work that has been assigned a material value. In theory, the work of creating art can be assigned that material value. But it doesn't happen automatically. If you just decide to paint something, or take a carefully composed photograph, or play music, or write something, outside of any kind of contract, you will not be paid just by virtue of having made your art. You might get paid if you can find a way to sell your art, and if you do there's no guarantee that you will bring in enough money to live on or even to pay for the materials you used to make your art. To make art in this world is a good in itself, but it is also a gamble with the time and money we use to maintain a basic standard of living.

I often hear that “artists deserve to be paid.” I agree but didn't include it in my axioms above because I think that artists deserve to be paid because everyone deserves a basic standard of living and when that has to be bought with money gained through so many hours of work per week, any artist who isn't already wealthy is risking their standard of living by making their work. They could be using their time and their material resources to do work that pays them without that extra step of selling what they've already made and hoping someone buys it—whether that's the audience directly buying from the artist, or some institution agreeing to exhibit the artist's work and mediate the process of selling it.

What's so threatening about the idea that AI-assisted art tools are reassembling uncredited artwork into new, monetizable images is that in obscuring the artists behind the training data, the creators and users of these tools have cut off any chance of those artists being indirectly paid for the sale of this new art they unwillingly helped to create. It's a case that should have been addressed, I think, through consent and attribution mechanisms. But it is also a case that existing intellectual property law is unequipped to address. Existing law has not even really settled the legitimacy of derivative artworks in general, or when such works do or don't require someone's permission. This does not even touch on works that draw on thousands or even millions of other artists' work through an automated tool.

The new patronage

One very old model for bringing art into the world while providing artists with a basic standard of living is the patronage system. The storied patrons medieval Venice etc. were exceptionally wealthy people who contracted artists to make big, impressive works that were both enjoyable for the patron and a means of projecting status in high society.

Today we have things like Patreon or Substack where a bunch of people who might not be extraordinarily wealthy make small, recurring donations to an artist whose work they want to encourage, and, perhaps with the addition of some one-time sales through platforms like Bandcamp or commissions sold via direct communication and online payments systems, those donations will add up to enough for the artist to live on. Like patrons of old, Patreon donors might receive some exclusive benefits to encourage their financial support, like access to some work that is not publicly available. The exclusivity of that access often implicitly relies on intellectual property law.

I respect artists who use platforms Patreon and Bandcamp to financially enable their work. And I respect people who may not be especially wealthy but choose to support the art they enjoy through those platforms. It's sometimes pitched as a way of democratizing the distribution of art and cutting out opaque institutions with conflicting interests. I think that's an admirable thing. But it's not The Solution to our problem. To get paid this way, artists still have to do work to grow a following on Patreon or Bandcamp, when they could be working on their art itself. And it's skilled work, work most artists (most people, really) are not just naturally good at doing. It also tends to imply walling off at least a little of the art exclusively for people who can and do pay a little money for it, to entice them to keep paying. I consider that justifiable. But I'd rather we didn't have to do it that way.

Reclaiming the Creative Commons

The Creative Commons is a legal project that crafts “some rights reserved” copyright licenses written in the appropriate legalese, which people can apply to their work to explicitly allow the public to do some things with it that are implicitly disallowed by traditional “all rights reserved” copyright licenses. These licenses are meant to enable the creation of a new “commons,” a new pool of creatlive work that the public had a right to use, enjoy, share, and maybe reinterpret with free restrictions.

Creative Commons licenses somewhat paradoxically rely on existing copyright law to provide legal enforceability for their “copyleft” measures. If a litigious publisher were to allow an author to release their work under a Creative Commons license, but later sue another party for activities explicitly allowed by that license (say, non-commercial distribution of copies of that work retaining full attribution, which the Creative Commons licenses generally allow), a legal defense would rely on the author's copyright claim to give authority to the terms of the Creative Commons license they chose. It is the author's exclusive copyright claim that authorizes them to give away some of those rights implied by copyright to the public. In this sense the Creative Commons project strikes a compromise between building toward the free culture we could have and acknowledging the legality of the intellectual feudalism we do have.

But maybe the greatest weakness of the Creative Commons project is that in practice it places the onus on writers, musicians, filmmakers, artists, and “creators” of all stripes, as original copyright holders, to invest their own work in this enterprise. To trust that ceding to the public some of these rights granted to the author by intellectual property law will not threaten their livelihoods. To take a leap of faith. But in this economic landscape, will anyone be there to catch them?

Photograph of the Coney Island Parachute Jump in an abandoned state ca. 2010

The scope of the Creative Commons project is to offer alternatives that could help mitigate the public access to art part of our conundrum, but it doesn't directly address the part about guaranteeing artists access to a basic standard of living.

What is it good for?

So now I have to ask… If the current conception of intellectual property is not equipped to enable crediting and paying artists whose work contributes to the training of AI art tools used in making monetized artwork, how is it helping? If intellectual property law cannot guarantee artists a basic standard of living, and only protects their access to one inasmuch as the artist can figure out how to leverage it to sell their work or negotiate a pittance from some mediating institution, what end is it achieving? If the alternative to this system of intellectual property is a system where the livelihood of the artist still depends on monetizing the art, but the artist has no right whatsoever to dictate the terms of that monetization, then intellectual property law is a thin, arbitrary, and highly conditional protection for artists that better serves mediating institutions. But if the alternative is a system where the artist enjoys a decent standard of living independent of any monetization of the artwork, then intellectual property becomes a kind of theft, a siloing off of what could be our creative commons of artworks in public dialog with each other into paywalled gardens and the hands of gatekeepers.

Paths forward

So how do we build that alternative, the world in which the “necessary evil” of intellectual property law becomes more plainly unnecessary? The most obvious answer is a standard of living unconditionally guaranteed to all.

But I think there are steps we as a society can take to a world beyond intellectual property even within the capitalist economies we inhabit. For one thing, we could dramatically cut the out-of-control longevity of copyright terms. Under present rules, for example, the 1927 science-fiction movie Metropolis only entered the public domain in the U.S. in 2023, and will not enter the public domain in the European Union until 2047. Art in the public domain, like the works of Mary Shelley or El Greco, can be endlessly republished, reinterpreted, remixed, parodied, and pastiched by anyone and without authorization. This body of classic art that belongs to all in common is fertile ground for new and innovative derivative works. Keeping the copyright of artworks tied up in literary estates 70 years after the author has died, and potentially well over 100 years since initial publication, stunts the growth of the public domain, to the point that there is very little public domain art most of us would recognize as modern. We could act to expand that public domain in short order with a change to copyright terms.

We could start forcing publishers, record labels, streaming services, movie distributors, etc. to pay artists some minimum portion of revenues for their work. We could begin to impose some Creative Commons-like terms (like allowing non-commercial redistribution, perhaps after a very short exclusivity period at initial release) upon those same companies, and mandate that they provide lendable copies of digitally published works of any medium to public institutions like libraries for a reasonable fee.

But we should really do more than chip away at the edges of copyright law. We could and should also collectively invest in public art as a public good. At one time, the U.S. government attempted to mitigate the impact of the Great Depression upon arts, infrastructure, and the culture of democracy through initiatives like the Works Progress Administration in which they directly hired unemployed people to build public infrastructure and create public art of various kinds. It was by no means a perfect system but it points the way to what we should be doing: collectively investing in artists so they can create art without having to hustle for a living.

To that end, any collective investment that reduces the pressure on everyone to “earn a living” will of course support artists as well. Public housing and single-payer healthcare are examples. A properly implemented universal basic income (UBI) that does not displace existing social services also has the potential to vastly increase public creativity.

A better world, a world with more art in it, is possible, and there are steps we could take now to make it a reality.

The open conversation

I've hesitated to share this post because I know I'm just scratching the surface of this problem. How can we best support both artist livelihoods and art as a freely shared public good? My hope is that even talking about it in a relatively surface-level way like this enough, and in enough places, will encourage a productive level of public discourse on the subject. Because something has to change.


Creative Commons LicenseWhere not otherwise noted, the content of this blog is written by Dominique Cyprès and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Lately a lot of my interaction with music—listening, sharing, discovering, and making it—has been mediated through cassettes. So maybe I should explain why.

You know what we're talking about, of course: the Compact Cassette, that physical audio format developed by Philips in 1963, supporting four analog tracks magnetically encoded in the metal or metal oxide particles suspended in a long, ⅛”-wide strip of acetate spooled up inside a hard, standardized shell with spinning hubs and pullies to allow playback equipment to smoothly pull it across a little transducer at a constant rate of 1⅞ inches per second. If you grew up in my milieu, you probably just called them tapes.

A hand-labeled beige cassette containing the album Teliffusion by Concretism

They've had a little bit of a comeback lately. And that's been handy for me, because I was ready to reconnect with this format that was such a staple of my experience of music when I was a kid. But there's more than nostalgia to it for me. Listening to or sharing music on cassette offers some things I don't get from streaming digital platforms, and even some things I don't get from other other physical formats.

It's not about analog superiority

Let's just get this out of the way first: I don't listen to tapes because they sound “better” than digital. They don't.

Audiophiles might point out that analog audio sources can theoretically hold details you can't hear in digital. This is true because values in analog media are continuous. Over imperceptibly short periods of time, the numbers that represent different values on a sound wave in a digital recording jump instantaneously from one discrete value to another with no gentle slope between. Analog signals instead form smooth curves, so at some level they can contain tiny variations in slope that are too subtle for the digitization of that signal to represent.

The problem with analog superiority in general is that, when that digital signal is of standard CD quality (44,100 samples per second at 16-bit resolution), whatever details in the analog signal are too subtle to be captured digitally are also too subtle for me or really most people to hear.

Another issue more specific to cassettes is that, in practice, microscopic physical imperfections in the tape always introduce noise into the signal, which is much more audible than any details that would be lost to digitization and manifests as a constant hiss. This tape hiss could be much quieter than the recording on high-quality tapes in high-quality playback equipment, near-imperceptible even under just the right conditions, but it's always there, and various industry techniques exist for filtering it out as much as possible while leaving the recorded signal intact. The big reel-to-reel tapes that preceded cassettes and continued to be the standard for studio recordings for some time mitigated the hiss issue with much wider tape run at much higher speeds than cassette tape, to overwhelm those little physical imperfections through scale—usually ¼” wide at 15ips, but sometimes as wide as 2” and as fast as 30ips. When cassettes arrived with their narrower tape running at slower speeds, it was a compromise that sacrificed sound quality for portability and ease of use; it would take a few years for tape formulations to improve enough for mass market adoption of the cassette as a music format and not just a medium for voice dictation.

But in the end, digital will always have the advantage when it comes to resisting signal degradation and distinguishing signal from noise, for the same reason that it's easier to make out the dots and dashes of Morse code from a distant radio broadcast than it would be to identify spoken words under the same conditions: discrete, binary, off-or-on values are less ambiguous amidst noise.

The sound of home

Our gradually degrading analog audio media may not sound “better” than digital, but they do sound different, and for some they can sound different in a way that's preferable to digital perfection. My grandmother has often said that she would sometimes rather listen to her old vinyl records, or even digitizations of them, than to a perfectly remastered digital copy. The records, worn over time, their grooves filling with dust, have an added layer of noise when played back—pops, crackle, hiss, and skips—that are deviations from the original recording, imperfections, but nevertheless familiar imperfections that in many cases have become part of her memory of a song. When she listens to a remastered digital copy, it may be almost exactly what was originally recorded, but it is not quite the same song she has listened to on vinyl for all these years. Similarity, the imperfections of a cassette can personalize its sound for the listener, so that what they hear is not just a copy of the original recording, but their familiar, personal copy.

For some audio producers, deliberately creating or imitating these “lo-fi” imperfections can be a way to manufacturer a kind of stimulated nostalgia in a recording, or to add unpredictably and “character” to an otherwise “clean” or sterile sound. It's a common technique in some forms of hip-hop and electronic music.

The audio talisman

What I primarily get from cassettes is a qualitative, social-emotional experience of sound that I don't think I could entirely ever recreate with digital streaming. The way I relate to a recording when I carry it around physically in my pocket—not just my phone, which can provide access to that recording and many others, but a tape dedicated to containing just that recording and no other—just feels different. The tape becomes a little talisman that turns an intangible recording into a very tangible object, something I can see and turn over in my hands and physically give to another person. I would never suggest we all give up the technology of digital streaming, which is so much less limited in the recordings to which it can provide access, but the physical format offers a way to relate to and experience those recordings as physical objects in a way that streaming does not.

A commercially recorded cassette becomes a kind of touchstone to the time and place of its manufacture; for example my cassette copy of Switched-On Bach by Wendy Carlos may date back as far as the album's initial release in 1968. Its sound is somewhat rough, perhaps owing to the state of tape formulations at that time, and touching and listening to it makes me think of Columbia Records offices in the late '60s, when they were producing recordings of Wendy Carlos, Miles Davis, and Simon & Garfunkel, all of whom had to fight with the label for fair treatment in various ways.

A home-recorded cassette likewise becomes a touchstone to whoever recorded it, and the circumstances in which they did. Maybe it was a friend or relative hooking up their old phonograph to a cassette deck in a home they no longer inhabit. Maybe you recorded it yourself when you were a kid.

A stack of identical aqua-colored DIY demo cassettes for the album South Tower by Dominique Cyprès, in clear poly boxes

For me, this talismanic use of physical audio media as a portable physical manifestation of a recording is better served by the cassette than by similarly available formats like CDs or vinyl because I'm not afraid to handle cassettes. At times I've had to replace a pressure pad (basically just a little rectangle of felt on a spring barely inside the cassette, which gently holds the tape itself against the playback equipment's tape head, and which may disintegrate after a few decades), but overall it's a relatively resilient format; it doesn't scratch or shatter if I fumble it while carrying it around, and it doesn't have playable grooves to fill with dust or a shiny, exposed playing surface that collects smudges and fingerprints. It almost begs to be handled.

Physical specificity

The Compact Cassette standard allowed for s lot of variety. For one thing, there were three different widely-produced standards for tape formulation, which were indicated externally on consumer blank cassettes by the configuration of notches along the top edge: Type I (“normal bias”), Type II (“high bias”), and Type IV (“metal bias”). (There was also a short lived Type III variant that never caught on commercially, but it has the same notches as Type I). Within these types, manufacturers developed different proprietary take formulations that became known for different sonic properties. Some were better at recording bass frequencies; others had more accurate treble or a lower noise floor. And they had subtly different colors, ranging from light brown to dark gray or black.

Cassettes could also have slight mechanical variations. After all, the cassette is not an innert disk or strip of tape but a mechanical device with moving parts that the playback equipment uses to transport the tape itself, so some manufacturers would fine-tune the pulleys, liners, hubs, or bridge to improve stability and reduce friction.

But more fun than that are the aesthetic variations; the cassette shell could be any color at all, or any combination of colors, or clear and colorless, with pulleys and hubs of different colors inside. If the cassette wasn't fully transparent, a little rectangular window in the otherwise opaque shell could provide a view of how far the tape had progressed from one spool to the other, or a big oval window could do the same, or there could be no window at all. The surface could be matte, textured, or glossy and the corners sharp or rounded. Paper or vinyl labels could be applied, or various kinds of printing or etching could be done right on the cassette shell. And of course the packaging of the cassette could be infinitely more varied; though mass-market, commercially recorded cassettes in North America were mostly sold in standard-sized, hinges cases of rigid plastic with a clear front showing a J-card with album art and spine text and a clear or black back panel, novelty cassettes, underground releases, or mass-market releases in other markets such as Japan could be in any conceivable package from cardboard slipcases to vinyl clamshell boxes.

A Maxel Metal Capsule C-100 cassette. The shell is off-white with rounded corners and a very large oval window. The label indicates that Hounds of Love by Kate Bush is recorded to Side A

These specific physical attributes of a cassette enhance its talismanic quality, tying it more specifically to certain remembered experiences.

What makes a format eligible for a comeback?

Renewed consumer interest obviously fuels the revival of once-dominant media formats, but there is an important factor of market readiness as well. CDs are also having a sort of revival, and it helps that the supplies and equipment are ready to go because optical discs are still a preferred digital backup option for certain cases where cloud storage and USB devices are not considered adequate. The playback equipment for vinyl is relatively simple technology for small manufacturers in the boutique market to produce, and small vinyl presses have been kept going by a market of dedicated collectors and analog audiophiles that never went away, so vinyl is always ripe for a little resurgence.

Likewise, a lack of media and playback equipment can certainly hinder any kind of comeback. DAT, DCC, and MiniDisc all have a similar appeal to me as the Compact Cassette but are not as accessible or making as widespread a comeback.

Digital Audio Tape (DAT) was suppressed as a consumer format by the recording industry during its heyday, over concerns about the possibility of music listeners making unauthorized, perfect, digital copies of commercial recordings, so there is not all that much DAT equipment or media on the secondhand market. And any manufacturer that might want to make new DAT playback or recording equipment would need to use hard-to-source (and probably prohibitively expensive) helical scanners, which are much more complex than the tape head in a cassette deck and are more like a miniaturized version of the read component in a VCR.

Digital Compact Cassette (DCC) faces similar issues; its very short commercial life has left working equipment and media rare, and both the tape formulation and the tape heads require much more manufacturing precision than the Compact Cassette ever did.

MiniDisc is seeing a little comeback amongst some niche internet music labels, but since Sony discontinued the format, no small manufacturer has been up to the task of making either more media or new equipment. It's all very small and very precise magneto-optical components, and hasn't lived on as a backup solution like CD-sized optical disks. Additionally, unlike in Europe, where much of the MiniDisc resurgence occurs, here in North America MiniDisc never met with commercial success, owing to complicated market factors. This has left MiniDisc equipment and media harder to come by where I live.

Compact Cassettes avoid all of these problems because they and their equipment were so ubiquitous across most of the world for such a long time, and can be manufactured to relatively forgiving standards.

I just think they're neat

Ultimately, what I like about cassettes isn't that they're in any way an ideal or superior format. Sound quality and convenience are both better served by digital streaming. Thorny issues of digital ownership, archival, and “digital rights management” (DRM) are better addressed by CDs or maybe even DAT and digital backups.

The real reason that I prefer cassettes is, as Marge Simpson once said of potatoes: I just think they're neat. I hope I've explained some of what's neat about them.


Creative Commons LicenseWhere not otherwise noted, the content of this blog is written by Dominique Cyprès and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Out with the old

I had a blog on my site for a little while. I was “rolling my own” blog software based on Python with Django and PostgreSQL. It was fun, but eventually it was too much to tweak that software just to maintain my blog, especially with parental duties &c. at home. And in all that tinkering I never got around to making regular backups. Eventually I kinda nuked the blog and shut down my VPS for a while. I might get around to recovering some of those articles via the Internet Archive / Wayback Machine.

In with the new

So this time instead of using my own custom blogging software I'm running WriteFreely. It has pretty much all the features I want in a blogging system and none of the extra stuff I don't need that is offered by a bigger platform like WordPress, so it's pretty easy for me to host. It feels better to start with a blogging system that already does things write, instead of incrementally trying to make my own system conform to various standards and work smoothly in a project that was falling pretty far down my list of priorities.

What to expect

I want to write a lot about music. Sometimes music I'm making, or musical ideas I'm learning/exploring, but also other people's music. Classics, indie stuff I've been listening to, the work of friends, &c. But I've never liked keeping my writing to just one area, so you can expect some politics, armchair sociology, navel-gazing, &c.

All in all it's just my personal blog. It's not a Substack. I'm not asking anyone to subscribe. Just having some fun and sharing some thoughts.

Posts I want to write in January 2023

  • Thoughts about performing my synth music live (which I am preparing to do but haven't done yet)
  • Why I'm so into cassettes as a music format
  • At least one music review
  • A review of README.txt by Chelsea Manning, which I am currently reading

Wait, who is this?

If you've somehow landed on my blog without knowing who I am… This is Dominique Cyprès. I have a page on tilde.town, a Bandcamp page, and a Mastodon account.


Creative Commons LicenseWhere not otherwise noted, the content of this blog is written by Dominique Cyprès and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.