One More Step

The Story Of Creating Business And Music

Category: random tidbits

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Hard Choices – Reviewing Without Reading

A few hours ago, I went on Amazon to take a quick look at Hillary Clinton’s new book, “Hard Choices.” As usual, the first thing I checked out was the ranking, which surprised me as a meagerly 2.5/5 stars. For comparison, George W Bush’s recent book, “Decision Points,” has garnered 4.5/5 stars, and he was a wildly unpopular president. Nevertheless, I assumed controversial politicians still can write good books, so, my first thought was: “Hillary must have written a very poor biography.”

However, a quick glance at the ranking distribution told me otherwise. Take a look:

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I’ve always been interested in review distributions, and am normally vary of 1-star reviews, because from experience, few of them address the quality of the book. In most cases, I”ve noticed that these reviews complain about shipping, processing, Amazon’s customer service, or the author. Continuing to actually read the public response, I found that this is exactly the case here. The majority of 1-star-ers are not not fans of Ms. Clinton, to say the least. Their reviews indicate their opinions of her, not her writing. Here are some examples from the top responses:

  • “How out of touch is Hillary? If she really thinks making $12 million in one year is flat broke do we really want her leading America or having any part of our government? No wonder we are so far in debt with leadership like this.”
  • “Hillary is as corrupt as a rubber crutch in a maternity ward. I think the only hard choice for me was deciding how to divide this book up into even sections so I could effectively use it for target practice, a bonfire starter, and a flatulence deflector.”
  • “If you don’t like her as a person or public figure, don’t waste your time.”
  • “I want to mourn the loss…of all…the old growth…trees.”

We can certainly argue the objectivity of book reviews, and whether the readers’ opinion of the author always impacts their opinion of the book, but I believe this point to be true: you should read the book before reviewing it. On the flip-side, for all my Republican readers (I’m looking at you, Theodore,) the 5-star reviews aren’t much more informed. A lot of people wanted to bash the “right-wing trolls,” but did so while adding 5-star reviews to, I can only assume, bring some balance:

  • “Derp! Can’t even give a bogus bad review. Hint: an appropriate period of time for anyone to believe you actually read the book first, then try to sound as if you are even capable of reading when you give your review.”
  • “This is actually a review of the reviews. I love the unintentional irony of all those people who claim to have read all 650 pages the morning it was released and give it one star because they felt it was full of her “lies”
  • “Call me crazy, but it doesn’t sound like any of the one stars even read the book. Just like I, who have not, I’m willing to bet a good sum of money that a lot of them haven’t read the book either. Which I don’t care, but being childish and rating the book with low stars out of nowhere is plenty pathetic. What’s so wrong with Hillary? You guys act as if she peed in your cereal.”

These seemingly-righteous defenders of reading are promoting the same problem: their reviews aren’t based  on the writing. The end result? I, a typical consumer, have no idea whether I should read “Hard Choices.” I don’t know if it’s a good book at all. So, what’s the solution – should Amazon be policing reviews? Would it be cost effective to hire people to sift through reviews to see references to the books? Amazon already has a moderation process in place, and each review gets scanned for profanity (I think.) How much more would it cost to find at least one reference to the writing? I know we’re in gray territory here, but these outcries of either disdain or blind support are a problem, because they derail what these reviews should be doing: helping us decide whether to buy the book.

What Is Your Personal Facebook Brand?

If you manage your Facebook, you’re building a brand. I’m not talking about your professional, job-getting brand. I’m not talking about a brand as a means of advertising. What I mean is this: the kind of posts you put out to your friends’ timelines define your online presence in their eyes. You are a columnist on their personal friend newspaper. What kind of column are you writing?

In my last job at a small social media advertising agency, I learned a lot about how small businesses create an online presence. However, the principles behind who you are online are just as relevant – perhaps even more so – if you’re just keeping a personal Facebook page. When a business puts out spam, its customers can just unlike the page and move on. When your friends see spam, they’re less likely to just unfriend you. Instead, you leave a lasting, unpleasant impression in their minds that may impact their “IRL” perception of you.

Because I spend a lot of time paying attention to which of my friends posts what, I’ve intuitively learned to anticipate what sorts of posts are coming from whom. There’s the “OMG look at my brand new TOTES ADORBZ relationship” person. There’s the inspirational quotes girl. There’s the vaguely-unsettling-song-lyrics guy. There are friends who only post news articles. There are friends who will repost any spreading piece of viral content.

So, what are you posting, and more importantly, why? Ask yourself that question before you hit the “share” button, because every piece of irrelevant content you put out there lowers your social media standing.  That may sound like a strong statement, because “dude, it’s just Facebook,” but think about it: we spend hours a day on FB, it’s how we keep up with our friends, and when we build trust in somebody who posts good things, we’re that much more likely to actually pay attention. When a friend posts a steady stream of trash, we treat him/her like the boy who cried wolf and ignore.

I keep talking about “spam,” “irrelevant content,” and “trash,” but what do I actually mean? While there’s no universal answer, think about who your audience is. What do your friends actually care to see? Surely, there’s a record-keeping, journal-like aspect to FB (pictures, videos, check-ins, etc.) but, if you’re posting a piece of content you are excited about, ask yourself: will your friends be? I had a friend who reposted every funny picture he found on 9GAG, Tickld, and other funny-pic websites. I couldn’t take it anymore. I unsubscribed. On the flipside, I have a young lawyer friend who posts cool articles captioned by his clever, witty thoughts on them. I’m excited to see his name in my newsfeed every time.

I encourage you to keep your Facebook clean, sparse, and relevant. Are you a bio-chem major? Find relevant articles written in layman terms that would be interesting to your friends. Do you play competitive tennis? Perhaps you can share content to help your friends improve their overall athleticism. Is bird-watching a hobby? This may be a generalization, but most people don’t care about exotic birds. Everyone loves a beautiful photo, though.

Remember, you’re writing a column to your friends’ newspapers. If your column is riddled with a mix of YouTube videos, baby pictures, inspirational quotes and “Share If You Agree” posts, they’ll stop reading. They might stop being friends with you, too.

So, what’s your Facebook brand?

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Weekly Challenge: Reading An Hour A Day

Dates: July 21 – July 28

I’m going to keep this short: through college, my love for reading was stifled by constant assignments and the fact that I was spending most of my free time online. Once an avid reader, I was now paying careful attention to how many more pages I had to read and much less attention to what I was actually reading. In addition, I was getting most of my information from the internet, and anytime I needed to learn, I would Wikipedia a topic. It was just a faster way to acquire knowledge.

Or was it? Since graduating and during college breaks, I would read sporadically, and enjoy it 99% of the time. I often read on subway rides, in waiting rooms, etc, but never deliberately, at home. Reading a book is a much different experience than reading online, but up till now, I’ve only had a vague idea why: it’s more meditative, the writing is of a much higher quality, and so on. This week, I’ll find out exactly why. When I was a kid and would get bored, I’d read. This week, I’m going back to that. I have tons of great books I’ve bought over the last few years, and this week, I’m going to read them for exactly an hour a day. I’m convinced that reading books is better than reading online, and this week, I’m going to find out why.

Challenge: I will read for at least an hour a day until (and including) next Sunday. I will log reading time daily, and general thoughts throughout the week.

I’ll keep a short log of my impressions, and will write back around next Sunday. I have a feeling I’m going to quantify a lot of the vague thoughts I have about why reading is awesome.

Composer’s Block and My Writing Process

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I’m sitting at my home studio, staring into my equivalent of a writer’s blank page, and nothing is coming. I’ve been through this cycle a hundred times before, but it never gets easier. My fingers trace over the same tired chord progressions – the problem isn’t in the chords, it’s in how I heard them, of course – and nothing comes. And then the Vampires start to creep in: “I’m not good enough. What am I even doing?” From Elizabeth Gilbert’s brilliant TED Talk:

I fell into one of those, sort of pits of despair that we all fall into when we’re working on something and it’s not coming and you start to think this is going to be a disaster.

Not just bad, but the worst book ever written.

I’ve never actually believed in Composer’s Block, unless it’s a perpetual, ongoing thing. Free-flowing melodies – call it “inspiration” – come so rarely, that they are almost miracles. Struggle is the norm in my art. My best work comes from fighting myself to write – fighting for hours, day after day, until I pick up crumbles of music off the floor. So, staring into my blank Logic screen, I am disheartened (as usual,) but not surprised. I know that what separates me from a good piece isn’t divine approval, it’s the willingness not to give up.

The process is nearly identical every time, and I’ve often shared it with friends. Some of the Days below actually take a day – others can take several, or even a week.

  • Day 1: I struggle with messy ideas, bouts of self-doubt, and miserable feelings of worthlessness. I write down a dozen variations, and delete eleven of them, because they’re not even worth a second look. I think: “who am I to even try to be a composer? I’ve never written anything good, and if I have, it was by chance. This work is going to be a disaster, if anything comes of it.” At the end of the day, I either dump the project altogether in a rotten mood, or leave a few variations on screen.
  • Day 2: The ideas have had some time to percolate, and sometimes, I’ll sit down with new variations in mind. Often, especially, if my head has been in the music for weeks, Day 2 is a repeat of Day 1, and nothing comes. Sometimes, I’ll listen to a variation from before and see potential – and start drafting something more concrete. At best, at the end of Day 2, I’ll have a messy sketch of an idea.
  • Day 3: “Hey, this has potential!” Inspired by having something to work with, I get into the arrangement and orchestration, finding the best instruments and sounds for the music. This, at best, is where new ideas start coming. I feel empowered and inspired to create, and enter the state psychologists call “flow.” Opposite of Day 1, I begin to feel almost arrogant (which is really dangerous!) – like I’m doing important, crucial work, and the music I’m writing is really great and special.
  • Day 4: With a part done, it’s often time to add new musical ideas: another part (a bass line?) or another chorus, or another movement. I freeze up in paralysis – “I finally had sometime worthwhile, and now I’m going to ruin it.” Here, I have a tendency to think of my  past work as inspiration- or luck- driven, and once again go back to Day 1. Oftentimes, especially if I’ve reached a crucial moment in the music, I can be stuck here for days. Once, I spent 2+ weeks in one of my worst struggles ever. It resulted in some of my most successful musical writing, but I wanted to beat my head against the wall in the meanwhile.
  • Day 5: Write, write, write. Hopefully, at this point, I’ve already figured out what I want to see, and I have the melodies down. At this point, I need to arrange, orchestrate, mix, edit, record – all tasks a bit more technical than free melodic writing. This is the part I’m both good at and enjoy thoroughly.
  • Day 6: The final push – the ending.  With the majority of the piece done, I’m back to Day 4 with the ending. “What if I ruin it?” It’ll usually take me a few days to wrap up, and even then, my endings are often weaker compared to the pieces themselves. I’ve given everything I had, and I just want to stop.

Often, weeks will pass before I’m able to listen to and evaluate my music with reasonable effectiveness. Sometimes I’ll be very pleasantly surprised – 80% of the time, I’d say, if I really gave it my best work. Sometimes, I think there’s a lot to be added.

Either way, the process, however predictable, is something that I go through every time. Right now I’m in Day 1, and it’s not pretty, folks.

How do you deal with artistic block? Whether you’re a writer, a painter, a composer, or a sculptor, how do you approach your creative process?

A Month Off Facebook

Today, I needed to briefly log onto Facebook to check in with a connection. There was no way around it, so I interrupted my month-long hiatus to step back in. It depressed me. I know this has everything do with me and not the website, but I realized that for now, I feel better away from FB. The people that need to find me will find me. At first, I was trying to log on all the time, but these days my mind has almost let go. By nurture, I’ll sometimes type in the domain name once every few days, but the trusty “No Procrastination” extension keeps me grounded. It’s not time yet.

I did what I needed to do and deactivated. I’m sure I’ll come back to it at some point in the future, but it’s definitely not that time yet.

In other news, this may be the current soundtrack to my summer, and the best album I’ve found in months.

I Bought A CD!

I just bought a CD online! Lately, even as a completely broke college graduate, I’ve been trying to pay for the music of artists I really like (so, there’s minimum risk – I already know I’ll likely love the album.) As an independent musician myself, I’m honestly conflicted about the free sharing of music and piracy  – I’m not sure which side I stand on quite yet. But, before we get into that whole conversation, I just wanted to share that I bought a CD, which, in this day and age, is pretty cool. I’m young enough to remember  before MP3 players – I used to rock one of these guys – but almost all music I’ve bought in the past five years has been digital. So, I’m really excited to get my CD in the mail. Whoo!

If you’re wondering, the music itself is by a little known Quebeqois artist named Nicolas Boulerice. I’ve been listening to lots of Scottish and Cape Breton Fiddling – which is very different from the stereotypical southern/midwestern fiddling – and after hearing this guy, I loved the music. You can hear some samples here.

I’ve been contemplating my next few posts, and have a few good ideas – about being late, about staying productive over long periods of time, about motivation and weakness, and about working alongside doctors. So, I hope you stay with me!

PS: When I studied economics in college, I got to research a fantastic paper on music piracy. It’s a little science-y, but very approachable – so, skip all the math and econ talk, skim, and learn lots of really interesting facts! Plus, it has an awesome name.

Hello, June.

Tomorrow, I start work at the Maimonides Hospital. I’m working 8 – 6 PM, possibly to seven on Thursday, and I’m going to be moving about clinics throughout the coming weeks. Tomorrow, just for a day, I’m in pediatric oncology. Damn. For someone not accustomed or drawn to hospitals (is anyone?) this is a rough start. But, I just hope I can do my job. I really need the money, and this is a fantastic gig to have in the meanwhile, although it doesn’t do much to advance my career in the traditional sense. The idea is to save up some money to be able to work on my electronics bags business, release my album (my best friend Manar is pushing me, fortunately,) which is halfway done, and just be able to take a girl out once in a while. Moreover – and I know I’ll be hating myself in two weeks for saying this – but I need the routine. I’ve been roaming free for months, and it’s killing my productivity. Counterintuitive as it might be, exchanging a large portion of my day for money is going to force me to the kind of focus I desperately need.

Note to self: order new business cards for networking, not my music website (

I deactivated and blocked Facebook about four or five days ago. I keep coming back by nature, and everytime a huge “You should be working!” screen pops up, courtesy of the “No Procrastination” Chrome extension. I have no particular reason to stay off, aside from it being a giant time waster at the moment, and the fact that I get nothing positive from it. More than that, however, the fact that I keep coming back makes me want to see just how long I can keep away. I didn’t have a timeline in mind when I started, but now I’m eager to break the subtle addiction we all develop. Let’s see how long I can keep that going. The one major downside is my inability to keep up my music page; that’s frustrating. In lieu, I’ll gladly share a piece I just wrote with you guys right here:

Another note to self: I’m going to try and make it out to the beach a lot more this summer.