Archive for 'life'

Podcasts On Failure And Bad Apples

Been catching up some random podcasts lately, and there were two totally unrelated ones that both caught my attention and seemed worth mention.

The first, was Kevin Smith’s “SModcast” that he does with his long time producing partner Scott Mosier. I started listening to Smodcast a few months back, and while there are times it goes off the rails a bit, when it hits it’s really quite enjoyable. It’s one of the few “non-professional” (i.e., radio shows turned into podcasts) I can listen to. Back when the wife was away for nearly two months back during October and November, I used the time to catch up on some of the movies I hadn’t had a chance to see in a while… and that included those in the Kevin Smith and Judd Apatow world… So, I ended up renting both Clerks II and Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and then soon afterwards saw (in the theaters) Zack and Miri Make a Porno and then Role Models.

I actually ended up liking all four movies… and listened to the director commentaries on the two rentals. On Clerks II there were actually three different commentary tracks — including one that they had actually recorded originally as a podcast while Clerks II was in the theaters, telling people to take their iPods into the theaters to watch the movie a second time with the “commentary” playing. I thought that was pretty neat.

On the night I saw Zack and Miri, I drove down to Sunnyvale and got dinner with Teck before heading over to Cupertino to catch the movie. I was listening to the last SModcast that Smith & Mosier had done before Zack & Miri and it was pretty amusing (all about the real history of Christmas, which they were discovering in real time via web searches during the podcast). However, at the end, they mentioned that the following week, they were going to do another podcast while watching Zack and Miri — even though they said people shouldn’t bring their iPods into the theaters this time (apparently, theaters freaked out when people did that the last time, which is stupid, but that’s a discussion for another day and another place). They were in pretty good spirits. Zack and Miri was getting fantastic reviews, it had performed wonderfully at various festivals, and many were suggesting that it was going to be Smith’s first truly mainstream hit.

So, after seeing the movie (a week after opening), I kept checking for the podcast of them talking while watching the movie, figuring it would be fun to hear what they had to say. But there was nothing. A week went by. Two weeks. A month. I even checked to make sure the podcast RSS feed wasn’t broken. I went to Smith’s website where he archives the podcasts, and saw lots of folks asking where the latest SModcast was… And still nothing.

Finally, in mid-December, a month and a half later, they put up the next SModcast, called “Talking the Cure, Part 1: In which our heroes ramble about what went wrong.” And, that’s pretty accurate. I don’t follow the movie business that closely, so I had no idea, but the movie underperformed expectations… by an order of magnitude. People were expecting the movie to bring in somewhere in the range of $15 to $20 million or so in the opening weekend, eventually bringing in somewhere around $60 million or so. But apparently opening night it brought in… $2.2 million.

It seemed to have left Smith a total wreck, unable to do very much for quite some time (hence no podcast). And, in fact, much of the podcast itself is basically a therapy session for Smith (towards the end, he realizes this, and they have a silly attempt where Smith asks Mosier if this is what real therapy is like — Mosier has been to a therapist, Smith has not). Smith is incredibly open in describing what he went through — in a way that you almost never hear from someone who has “failed” in some way or another. In a world where we’re used to hearing people play up the good, and downplay the bad, it’s refreshingly, and almost stunningly open.

Unfortunately, they never fully explain what happened, though from the beginning they keep promising to tell the whole story of why the movie flopped. They drop some hints, but at the end of the “therapy” they basically realize that it wouldn’t do any good to reveal the whole story. Their main anger, though, is in the fact that they did everything right: created a great movie the way they wanted to do it, and it got fantastic reviews and had great responses at various festivals.

But someone else screwed it up.

They don’t ever explain exactly who or what, but hint at a few things… Basically something happened at the studio level — and the only thing they really mention was that it opened on October 31st, better known as Halloween. Not surprisingly, that’s a pretty bad night to open a movie, because teenagers have something else to do that they can’t do any other night.

And that brings us to podcast #2. It’s the This American Life, also from that same week in December, and the “theme” is Ruining it for the Rest of Us. It’s about the concept of the “bad apple” ruining things for everyone else. And, as sometimes happens with TAL, the opening bit, before the actual “acts” may be the most interesting. It’s all about the research of Dr. Will Felps, who has done research on “bad apples” and whether or not they destroy teams. And, his preliminary research has found, they do. Dramatically so.

I won’t repeat the details of the experiments he’s run, but it’s amazing how much of an impact a bad apple can have on group dynamics, leading to failure. The only case where a team was able to “overcome” the bad apple, was where one of the members of the team was an incredibly strong leader, able to keep the team focused, and minimize the impact of the bad apple.

And, this leads Ira Glass and Felps to the same point of thinking that I came to while listening to them: am I ever the bad apple in a group? The answer, undoubtedly, for pretty much everyone is that, absolutely, at some point, you are. Felps admits that the research has resulted in him changing his own behavior significantly. He had a habit of teasing people, but the research effectively showed that what he thought was building camaraderie was actually making people no longer want to work with him.

It’s never fun to dwell on the concept of failure or the cause of failures, but between these two very, very different podcasts, it was an interesting look at how failures can happen… how to deal with them when they do, and, in some ways, how to look for ways to avoid them. The combination seemed pretty powerful to me, even if it doesn’t lead to any necessary obvious conclusion (other than try not to be the bad apple — or get rid of them if you find one — and don’t let your movie open on Halloween).

2008, In Cities…

I’d been meaning to work on this over the holidays and didn’t, but now that Dennis (from whom I got the idea) put up his annual post of cities where he spent the night, it seemed like I finally ought to get around to it as well… So, here they are: cities where I spent at least one night during 2008 (in order of attendance):

San Carlos, CA (home sweet home, so multiple times)
Phoenix, AZ
Somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean (well, depends on how you define “night” but I landed at 9am… so…)
Edinburgh, Scotland (looking forward to going back soon)
Huntington, NY (multiple times)
New York, NY (multiple times)
Rockville Centre, NY
Jacksonville, FL
Toronto, Canada
Beaver Creek, CO
Salt Lake City, UT
Cheyenne, WY
Lincoln, NB
Indianola, IA (outside Des Moines)
Wheaton, IL (multiple times)
Chicago, IL (multiple times)
Albuquerque, NM
Santa Fe, NM
Flagstaff, AZ
Grand Canyon, AZ
Needles, CA

… and I think that’s it. Hoping not to do as much traveling in 2009, but already have some trips scheduled that begin next week… Also, anything in and around Lake Tahoe is notoriously absent (first year in ages that can be said). Will make sure to correct that in 2009.

Aggrolites Definitely Didn’t Let Us Down…

In a bit of a followup to my recent post on great ska performers like the Scofflaws and Skapara, I finally had a chance to see the Aggrolites live a week and a half ago. I’m a child of the NYC ska scene, so my exposure to California ska was a bit delayed — and often came through a New York City lens — I discovered CA bands like Hepcat and Lets Go Bowling only because they put out albums on Moon Ska, the classic NYC ska label of the 90s. There was Jump with Joey, but until Ryko reissued their albums in the US, JwJ always seemed like a mythical creature. I’d hear about them and their weekly live shows at the King King club — but hadn’t heard a damn thing from them as all their albums were only available in Japan.

But there were definitely hints of excitement coming out of California. Beyond Hepcat, I’d hear bits and pieces of Southern California bands like See Spot and Los Hooligans. And then there were the jokey “east coast/west coast” battles between King Django and Alex Dessert, but it only made me more interested in that SoCal sound. I remember a friend telling me that I needed to check out a band called the Rhythm Doctors, but never heard anything by them until I spotted their CD at Amoeba in San Francisco in the $2 remainders bin as I was waiting to check out. I grabbed the CD, took it home and couldn’t get it out of my CD player for ages.

By then, the band was no longer around, but I started hearing about the Aggrolites — and after picking up their first album, realized that it basically was the same band as the Rhythm Doctors, but with amazing vocals (the Rhythm Doctors were instrumental reggae). The first album was fantastic, for a while I had a playlist that just consisted of the Aggrolites, the Slackers and Go Jimmy Go (Hawaii ska!). But… still… while I liked them, they didn’t move into that top tier of ska bands reserved for only the select few.

Then, a few years back I was visiting New York again, and my buddy Yuval asked if I’d heard the latest Aggrolites album (their second). We were driving somewhere and he put it on in his car, and immediately the band shot up to that top tier (though, still just short of the Slackers). The first song he played for me, Love Isn’t Love, became the song I used for the first dance at my wedding, and I was constantly listening to the Aggrolites.

And yet, for some reason, I never got to see them in concert. This is mostly my own fault. They’re from LA, but bounce up to San Francisco often enough. But, for some reason, the timing just never worked until a couple weeks ago, when my wife and I, along with Dennis got to go check them out at the Red Devil Lounge. We showed up early (way, way, way too early) and the place was pretty empty, but it allowed us to hang out up front. The opening band (The Impalers) was excellent as well, but the main show was what we came to see, and the Aggrolites delivered. They put on a fantastic live show, playing a mix of songs from all their albums, an occasional cover and a couple of new songs. But what was great, was seeing how the lead singer, Jesse, got the crowd involved (sometimes to dangerous ends… we ended up near some tables on the side, where we had put our drink glasses down, and towards the end an overzealous dancer flew into the table and his hand smashed right through a pint glass).

Anyway, here are a few Aggrolites videos for those unfamiliar with either their recorded or live performances. First up is the video of their single off their most recent album, a song called Free Time:

However, what’s cool is to see them live. For some reason, the best live videos of the band are all of them doing cover songs (the band does mostly originals). Their final song of the night when we saw them was a cover of the Beatles’ Don’t Let Me Down, reggae-fied, of course. There’s a great video of the band performing this live (not at the show we were at), which highlights Jesse’s stage presence and ability to get the audience involved as well as demonstrates Roger Rivas’ mastery of the reggae keyboard sound… It’s probably blasphemy to Beatles fans… but I like the Aggrolites version better. :)

Anyway… trying to do some more music posts, and figured I’d talk up the Aggrolites show. Up next? I’m heading up to see the Slackers play a New Years Eve show in San Francisco in less than 24 hours. That’s going to be a blast…

Update: Well, look at that… just a couple hours after posting this, while looking for something entirely different, I came across an entire Aggrolites concert that can be streamed live online and embedded, so let’s test this out. The concert is from 2006 in Amsterdam, so it doesn’t have many of the more recent songs, but still looks pretty cool:

Sesame Street Ska

Another quickie post. Back when I was first getting into ska in the early 1990s, the band I first was obsessed with was the Scofflaws, who not only made great recordings but put on a great live show. It wasn’t just that they performed well, but that they entertained. Soon after I started trying to find out about any and every ska band out there, someone (maybe my friend Rod?) gave me a tape of a Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra recording. It was on a cassette tape with no details other than the band’s name and it was fantastic… and the most hilarious part was the rendition they did of the Sesame Street theme, and they start chanting “How… To… Get… To… Sesame Street!”

Years later, I was able to get the actual CD (only available in Japan) that had the song (again, I don’t remember how…). I’ve also bought a few other CDs by the band over the years, but none really matched up to this one album. Just a couple years ago, 20 years after the band was first founded, they made their very first tour of the US and I actually got to go see them (and drag the wife along) in San Francisco. To be honest, I almost didn’t go. It was midweek, and since so many of their other albums just didn’t excite me, I wasn’t sure if it was worth it. That one album, however, was fantastic. But, man, was I glad I went. It was the first band I’d seen in a long time that was Scofflaws-like in putting on a show. It made the whole thing worthwhile.

Anyway, the excellent ska blog Music is Our Occupation today pointed to a neat little video of Skapara (what the band is commonly called) from back in 1991 where they’re performing Baby Elephant Walk and Sesame Street (probably soon after that album came out):

Man. There certainly weren’t crowds that big at ska shows in 1991 in the US.

Night Vision

So, Dennis posted about how he almost almost almost bought some night vision goggles on Woot recently, but was talked out of it via instant messenger by his brother. It caused me to write the following story as a comment on his post. However, in thinking about it, perhaps it deserves to be a blog post on its own:

When I was in high school, I read an article in Time Magazine about how, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, old Soviet army equipment could be picked up on the cheap on the streets of Moscow. Specifically listed: $80 for night vision goggles. I went nuts. I wanted such a pair *badly*.

Then, man oh man, one of by high school buddies, Rob Madden, was taking a trip to Russia for winter break. Turned out that his cousin was NBC bureau chief in Moscow or something. I showed him the article, and begged him to get me a pair of NVGs for $80.

So he’s off in Russia, and these are the days before email, so I have no contact from him — though I do hear his voice on NBC once doing a “voice over” translation of what some Russian pol was saying.

Then, 2 days before he’s set to come home, he gives me a call from the NBC offices, and I ask:

“Did you get the night vision goggles for $80?”

“Well, they’re tougher to get these days, and I’ve been told that they don’t really encourage civilians — esp. Americans — to ask for old military equipment, BUT, I did find a guy selling some. But he didn’t have night vision GOGGLES. Only a night vision SCOPE. And it was $120 instead of $80. So I got it for myself, but thought you wouldn’t want that.”

“WHAT?!?? Of course I want that. $120 is fine! Please, please, please buy me one!”

“Oh, sorry… I don’t think I’m going back to where that guy was…”

And so, Rob came back from Moscow with a SWEET night vision scope, and I had nothing. In fact, I only got to try out his night vision scope once.


Man. It’s a good thing you didn’t IM ME about the NVGs. I would have totally gotten them.