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Month: July 2016 (page 1 of 2)

The Mysterious Breakmaster Cylinder Opens Up (Sorta, At Least a Little Bit)

Breakmaster Cylinder is a pseudonymous musician on the internet.

They made the opening and closing theme songs for the popular podcast Reply All, which is how I know about them, and did a Song Exploder interview about the process of creating those songs.

Their music combines IRL instruments and virtuoso-level chopping and screwing. Breakmaster Cylinder is the audio version of a glitch artist.

I reached out on Twitter to ask if they were interested in doing an interview. Breakmaster Cylinder said yes. We conducted the Q&A via DM, so it’s heavily edited for this format.

Probably best to listen to their tracks while you read! (See also: Person B Productions, the PBP Soundcloud, and Breakmaster Cylinder on Bandcamp.)

Exolymph: How did you get into making music? Did you start out traditional and then move to your eclectic, multi-instrument, digitally crafted form? Or were you always a sort of postmodern audio-collage artist?

Breakmaster Cylinder: Traditional! Classical. Lessons.

But as a wee cylinder I’d do that double-tape-deck stereo trick where you’d put some music on deck A, put a blank tape on deck B, record a single second of music from A to B, replace the first tape, add another second of sound, and just keep going until you had some weird kind of chop music.

Later I had raver friends and I would make them little albums, with sweet Fruity Loops 3. Which I miss.

Exolymph: Did you go straight from being a smol cylinder to your current incarnation? Did you have to work shitty normal jobs in between, or… ?

Breakmaster Cylinder: There were rungs, sure. Normal pedestrian rungs, approached haphazardly. Varying degrees of success; varying rates of turnover. I feel like life’s circumstances have a way of resetting themselves every three years or so. There are a lot of “eras”.

That’s off topic. I’m grateful and lucky that people are listening and now even hiring me. It’s been well over a decade getting to this point. I had help from now-defunct web label Breakbit Music, and from Alex Goldman and Reply All who are amazing.

I must continue to rise and fulfill my destiny, bestowed upon me at birth by the spirit of my great, great, great, great, great grandperson Baroque Master Cylinder.

Exolymph: When / why / how did you decide to be pseudonymous?

Breakmaster Cylinder: Early on. It feels right. Everybody has band names anyway. Not so different.

Exolymph: Do you think it helps you, from a branding perspective? I don’t know if you think of yourself primarily as an artist or a businessperson or both — though I’m guessing artist.

Breakmaster Cylinder: I just don’t wanna be out there. I don’t matter. It’s nice to be any / every / nobody.

I am figuring out the business bit. I think it does help, though. Reply All started calling me mysterious. Mysteries are nice. I hear that someone Alex Goldman has known in real life for a long time thinks we’re the same person. [Goldman is one of the hosts of Reply All.]

Also, revealing myself would detract from my presidential bid.

It’s such a fine line between jokes and lies, innit?

[Breakmaster Cylinder then asked me some questions about myself, which caught me off guard because that rarely happens during interviews. Redacted, mainly because I’ve already written about the topics for Exolymph.]

Psychedelic punch bowl, reminiscent of Breakmaster Cylinder.

Photo by Bill Smith.

Exolymph: Who inspired you? Who are your influences? (Besides Bach.)

Breakmaster Cylinder: It IS an interesting attitude [referring to cyberpunk]. I’m ready for chips and Minority Report-style DAWs (music-writing software) and like… generally whatever Imogen Heap is doing with her fucked-up crazy Samus arm.

Nearly twenty years ago I wanted to be SquarepusherBig Loada and Go Plastic are incredible albums that blew my mind. The first was done on drum machines; the second was his first-ever album on a computer and it’s unbelievable. No one has ever topped his break programming and that seems weird to me by now.

These days he sucks so, so, so badly. [Edited to add this note from Breakmaster Cylinder: “In retrospect, I regret my choice of words. Squarepusher doesn’t suck; he is an incredible genius who plays bass better than I can do anything. I just can’t make it through any of his new albums.”]

Exolymph: What a bummer. Why do you think that happened?

Breakmaster Cylinder: I got into an Uber a couple of months ago and out of nowhere the driver was like, “I MAKE NEXT-LEVEL JUNGLE BEEEEEATS! DO YOU LIKE JUNGLE MUSIC?!” and started playing me Squarepusher.

Also his own beats, which were really, really good, actually. We spent an hour driving to the airport, playing each other songs. And he expressed how he’d like to jump-kick Squarepusher for sucking so badly now.

I want to say “jump-kick” was the term. Maybe it was “kick-slap”. Now I’m pretty sure “slap” was in there.

Anyway, I guess I’m not the only one who thinks so.

As for WHY, I don’t know! But none of my favorite bands from twenty years ago are still good now. Or even made it past, say, three quality albums.

I’m afraid of this.

And now that I’m writing music for background scoring for other people’s projects, I’m afraid of sounding watered-down. Because I need to be simpler for a while.

I’m saving up some serious weirdness though. I hope. Or, I mean… I hope it is interpreted as such.

Exolymph: Circling back to you being cyberpunk — does that seem weird to you? Does how you’re perceived in general seem weird?

Breakmaster Cylinder: I’m an internet musician in the Daft Punk ripoff helmet. Cyberpunk it is. Hack the planet.

I am blown away by how nice people are to me, mostly.

Yes, seeing how people view me is weird. But then… that’s weird anyway.

Ooh! I wired a baseball glove into a five-fingered drum machine once. CYBERPUNK.

Exolymph: Why are you blown away by how nice people are? What kind of nice?

Breakmaster Cylinder: Oh, I dunno, just the regular kind, I guess. People have nice things to say about the music. Sometimes they pay for albums they don’t have to. Sometimes they tell me about their lives at or DM me at weird hours. For being a disconnected space creature, the reaction has been surprisingly personal.

There are few haters. But those who are quickly prove themselves to be professional haters who I wasn’t gonna make happy anyway. So that’s okay.

Also pleasant weirdos. This dude who would freestyle text-rap emails to me about cocaine at like four in the morning. I wonder what happened to him.

Another guy has informed me that he’s building a booth for Burning Man where people can have my music blasted directly into their perineums.

It’s just a lovely planet you’ve got here. Or anyway, I get to interact with the nice part of it.

That’s a warp, folks. As linked above: Breakmaster Cylinder on SoundcloudPerson B Productions, the PBP Soundcloud, and Breakmaster Cylinder on Bandcamp.

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The Elites and the Random Schmucks

In the 1940s, while England was being terrorized by Nazis, George Orwell wrote this:

“An army of unemployed led by millionaires quoting the Sermon on the Mount — that is our danger. But it cannot arise when we have once introduced a reasonable degree of social justice. The lady in the Rolls-Royce car is more damaging to morale than a fleet of Goering’s bombing planes.”

The message hasn’t expired. Orwell’s lengthy essay (which he actually refers to as a book) is particularly relevant in light of Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump.

After conducting a broad ethnography of the different demographic factions, Orwell excoriates capitalism and entreats Britain to adopt democratic socialism. With hindsight, we can see that he is extremely wrong about a couple of things — particularly the supposed “efficiency” of nationalized economies (see also). Orwell repeatedly asserts that England is incapable of defeating Hitler without a revolution, which… no.

However, I have a lot of sympathy for Orwell’s overall position. He condemns the status quo government of his day because it does not represent the regular citizens, nor does its design promote their wellbeing. Sound familiar?

"The Maunsell Sea Forts, part of London's World War II anti-aircraft defences." Photo by Steve Cadman.

“The Maunsell Sea Forts, part of London’s World War II anti-aircraft defences.” Photo by Steve Cadman.

Considering that I live in a democratic republic, and most of my readers live in democratic republics, it seems appropriate to ask — isn’t it weird that “populism” is a dirty word? Aren’t related phrases like “the common people” supposed to be the mainstays of representative governments?

Veteran financial journalist Felix Salmon wrote in response to Brexit:

“If you move from a democracy of the elites to a pure democracy of the will of the people, you will pay a very, very heavy price. Governing is a complicated and difficult job — it’s not something which can helpfully be outsourced to the masses, especially when the people often base their opinions on outright lies.”

That’s a pretty compelling argument. People are idiots with no awareness of history (myself included, often).

The problem with true, unfettered democracy is that it erodes the ground on which we build our Schelling fences. The will of the people, en masse, is not compatible with the Bill of Rights. Quinn Norton tweetstormed on this topic:

“Human rights are not democratic. Rather, they are limits placed on democracy. […] If you all get together and vote to have me for dinner, my right to not be eaten is meant to trump your democratic will. […] So when people exclaim human rights democracy blah blah blah, please remember, our rights are there to beat democracy back with a stick.”

My tentative conclusion is that successful governments figure out a balance of power not just between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government, but also between the elites and the random schmucks. Of course, that heavily depends on who gets to define “successful”…

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Cryptocurrencies Aren’t Fake, They’re Just Libertarian

Bitcoin-themed coaster. Photo by pinguino k.

Bitcoin-themed coaster. Photo by pinguino k.

A headline from the Miami Herald: “Bitcoin not money, Miami judge rules in dismissing laundering charges” — c’mon! Bitcoin is clearly money. I have mixed feelings about how cryptocurrencies should be regulated, but they are obviously currencies. The judge’s rubric for this question was weird and ahistorical:

“Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Teresa Mary Pooler ruled that Bitcoin was not backed by any government or bank, and was not ‘tangible wealth’ and ‘cannot be hidden under a mattress like cash and gold bars.’

‘The court is not an expert in economics; however, it is very clear, even to someone with limited knowledge in the area, the Bitcoin has a long way to go before it the equivalent of money,’ Pooler wrote in an eight-page order.”

Most mainstream currencies are backed by governments, but that’s not an inherent feature of money, just a modern quirk. How do people think money got started? It grew out of bartering, and for a very long time it wasn’t regulated or centrally controlled at all. [Edited to add: David Graeber’s Debt asserts that money actually emerged before bartering. Does not change my larger point. See the note at the end.] Just as an example, per the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco:

“Between 1837 and 1866, a period known as the ‘Free Banking Era,’ lax federal and state banking laws permitted virtually anyone to open a bank and issue currency. Paper money was issued by states, cities, counties, private banks, railroads, stores, churches, and individuals.”

And that’s relatively recent! John Lanchester wrote a truly excellent overview of what money actually is and how it functions for the London Review of Books, and I wish I could make this judge read it.

Granted, legal definitions exist in a parallel reality, so maybe there’s some legislative reason why the US government can’t bestow official currency status on non-state-sponsored currencies. They’d certainly have to step up their game when it comes to regulating them, which would be a lot of work since so far their game has been practically nonexistent.

Just to top off the ridiculousness, Tim Maly drew my attention to this bit from the Miami Herald article: “‘Basically, it’s poker chips that people are willing to buy from you,’ said Evans, a virtual-currency expert who was paid $3,000 in Bitcoins for his defense testimony.”

As Maly quipped on Twitter, “Bitcoin isn’t money laundering because bitcoin isn’t money says bitcoin expert paid in bitcoin.”

Is this merely a question of semantics? Yes. But I’ve always come down on the side that language is important — it’s both my first love and my livelihood, after all — and it bothers me to see foundational economic concepts misapplied. Let’s at least describe our brave new world accurately.

Note on the origins of money: Facebook commenter Greg Shuflin mentioned David Graeber’s book Debt: The First 5,000 Years and its assertion that bartering came after money. It doesn’t change my larger point, but here’s the relevant Wikipedia passage:

“The author claims that debt and credit historically appeared before money, which itself appeared before barter. This is the opposite of the narrative given in standard economics texts dating back to Adam Smith. To support this, he cites numerous historical, ethnographic and archaeological studies. He also claims that the standard economics texts cite no evidence for suggesting that barter came before money, credit and debt, and he has seen no credible reports suggesting such. […] He argues that credit systems originally developed as means of account long before the advent of coinage, which appeared around 600 BC. Credit can still be seen operating in non-monetary economies. Barter, on the other hand, seems primarily to have been used for limited exchanges between different societies that had infrequent contact and often were in a context of ritualized warfare.”

Sounds like an interesting book!

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We Appear to Be Globally Heated

The Computing Generation and all subsequent generations will have to cope with climate change (née global warming). That’s my own demographic cohort and probably yours as well: those of us who grew up with laptop keyboards and seemingly instantaneous information transfers. It’s important to remember that global warming is only bad insofar as it affects human beings.

Nature doesn’t give a shit, inherently. Global warming is fine as far as Nature is concerned — the key point is that Nature isn’t concerned at all. Wild flora and fauna constitute a vast assortment of interlocking systems, not a single entity with agency. Events like mass extinctions are only “bad” because human beings want to exploit biodiversity. Moral rectitude or lack thereof is in the eye of the beholder.

I find this revelation both comforting and terrifying. On the one hand, I needn’t feel guilty about hurting Gaia. She doesn’t care. On the other hand, will I live long enough for none of this to matter?

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Plutocrats, Both Legitimate and Illicit

Interpretation of Vladimir Harkonnen from Dune by Simon Dubuc Chouinard.

Interpretation of Vladimir Harkonnen from Dune by Simon Dubuc Chouinard.

I’m currently wandering through Desolation Wildnerness with my father, so Exolymph is on hold. Here’s an article suggestion for the end of your week — “The Twin Insurgency” by Nils Gilman:

“Note that, conceptually, plutocratic insurgencies differ from kleptocracies; the latter use the institutions of state to loot the population, whereas the former wish to neutralize those institutions in order to facilitate private-sector looting. […] As these public services deteriorate in quality, the result is a self-reinforcing cycle whereby plutocratic insurgents increasingly see no reason to contribute anything to their host societies and, indeed, actively contest the idea that citizenship comes with economic responsibilities.”

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Internet Time Traveling (One Form, Anyway)

Artwork by Patrick Razo (via ArtStation).

Artwork by Patrick Razo (via ArtStation).

I’m still backpacking — this is a prescheduled email — so today’s article suggestion is “Best Practices for Time Travelers” by Maciej Ceglowski:

“When John Titor first showed up on IRC chat in October of 2000, he was enjoying a neat kind of double billing — as his 38-year-old self sat downstairs in the kitchen, typing away, a two-year-old version of himself lay sound asleep upstairs in bed. The elder Titor had been sent back in time by the U.S. Army, which needed him to fetch some legacy computer hardware from the 1970’s, and he had a sort of layover in the year 2000. So like anyone with time to kill, he went online.”

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Two Announcements + One Cyber Link

Artwork by Eduarda Mariz.

Artwork by Eduarda Mariz.

First off, my email provider told me that I misconfigured, so if you contacted me within the last week or so and didn’t get a response, I may not have received your email. It’s fixed now, so hit me up again.

Secondly, I’m going backpacking in Desolation Wilderness this week, so Exolymph is on hold. Instead of sending you the usual dispatches, I’ll send you article suggestions.

Today’s recommended reading is “Cyber Security Motivations Guessing Game” by The Grugq, an infamous infosec researcher and exploit broker. (Well, at least he’s infamous on Twitter.)

“If you’re from the ‘killing bugs makes the internet inherently safer’ camp, then Chinese companies are clearly doing more to secure the Internet than any European company. [However, it might be] a strategic cyber operation to deny Chinese adversaries access to critical resources. For example, if your cyber program doesn’t need unpatched vulnerabilities as a critical component but your adversary’s does, you may invest in disclosing vulnerabilities.”


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Counterintuitive Meshing of Activism and Hashtags

Social media is very cyberpunk. I covered the Facebook-and-censorship angle last week, and Ben Thompson wrote a longer piece on that topic. But think about just the normal, everyday operations on a platform like Twitter.

Twitter's logo as a skull, by Adam Koford.

Twitter’s logo as a skull, by Adam Koford.

For example, Black Lives Matter and its attendant hashtag have flourished in streams of 140 characters or less. (Black people in general are disproportionately represented on Twitter, which is surprising when you consider how many white supremacists flock there.) The mainstream spotlight on BLM waxes and wanes depending on the latest high-profile tragedy, but the group been around for years now.

Twitter's custom #BlackLivesMatter hashtag emoji

Think about how weird that is: a radical justice movement is organizing protests and recruiting supporters via a corporate media distribution service, which is oriented towards earning advertising revenue. Aren’t they at cross-purposes? How strange for the incentives to align. It reminds me of that famous William Gibson quote: “The street finds its own uses for things.”

When BLM activist DeRay McKesson was arrested in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, he was wearing a #StayWoke shirt created by Twitter’s in-house diversity group, Blackbirds. It’s the same shirt that Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey wore onstage at Recode’s flagship tech conference.

Meanwhile, 2% of Twitter’s US employees were black as of August, 2015, compared to 6.7% of Bay Area residents. The company’s “vice president of diversity and inclusion” is a white man in his fifties.

McKesson broadcast his arrest live on Periscope, an app owned by Twitter.

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Robot Nymphs with Milky Silicon Skin

Blake Kathryn is “a multidisciplinary designer and content creator” — more femme androids and other delights can be viewed on the portfolio website, Instagram, or Tumblr.

pastel pink android by Blake Kathryn

shiny gold fembot by Blake Kathryn

a pastel vaporwave portrait of Microsoft's Clippy by Blake Kathryn

Yes, that is Microsoft’s infamous Clippy. A robot nymph if I ever saw one…

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