The Soundtrack of Your Life by Sameer Vasta

Our lives are not always our own, but instead often shaped by the times, circumstances, and people that come in and out throughout them. As such, compiling a soundtrack to one's life can be, if unpacked through the influences that shape us, a soundtrack of the people and places who formed our history. The music is not our own, but that of those that came before us — a soundtrack built before we were born but that was passed along to us through implicit osmosis, through the sights, sounds, and tastes of the places we called home, and the people with whom we shared those homes.

I was born in East Africa, but immigrated quickly to New York City, where we lived with many other immigrant families in Rego Park, Queens. Some years after that, we found ourselves in the Kingsview-Dixon neighborhood of Toronto. Aside from Dar Es Salaam, New York, and Toronto, the only other city I have truly called home is Washington DC, where I spent my college years and then worked for a few years after that.

Here then, are the songs of those cities, the soundtrack of home, places that made me who I am.

Mlimani Park Orchestra, "M.V. Mapenzi 1"

Marley Marl, "The Symphony"

Afrika Bambaataa & Soul Sonic Force, "Planet Rock"

Chuck Brown and The Soul Searchers, “Bustin’ Loose”

Eva Cassidy & Chuck Brown, "You Don't Know What Love Is"

Thrust, "Do You Understand"

It was my father who was my first musical influence, filling the house with soul and funk music from the 50s, 60s, and 70s. He may have not had the best voice when he sang oldies around the apartment, but his love of dance was infectious, and shaped my subsequent love of all music that featured a beat suitable for dancing. My friends in Rexdale and Dixon introduced me to hip hop, my friends in choir introduced me to R&B, but at my core, my father's love of sweet soul has shaped my musical taste since birth.

Here then, are the songs that remind me of my father, and of my friends early in life. This is the soundtrack of the people of my childhood, a soundtrack that has become my own.

Chuck Berry, "Johnnie B. Goode"

Prince, "When Doves Cry"

(Not available for embedding, but you've all heard it many times before.)

Chaka Khan, "I Feel For You"

Cameo, "Word Up"

Tammi Terrell & Marvin Gaye, "You're All I Need To Get By"

The Drifters, "Under the Boardwalk"

Funkadelic, "One Nation Under A Groove"

Martha and the Vandellas, "Dancing In The Street"

(This post was created as my submission for the Spring 2016 edition of The Mixtape Concern. Download this mixtape, including all the songs and my narration, over on Dropbox.)

Sunday Diversions: February, Part One by Sameer Vasta

A conversation with an Uber driver earlier this week about the reluctance of his (former) taxi dispatch company to listen to his ideas made me wonder: am I doing a good enough of job of listening to ideas from others? Or am I just driving towards obsolescence?

Here's what I've loved reading this week:

How Wile E. Coyote Explains The World, Albert Burneko

The grand, great, unifying joke of Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner cartoons is the gradual, clever, misdirection-filled revelation of their one absolute law, and what it means for Wile E. Coyote, and what exactly you’re recognizing when you laugh at him. Michael Maltese wrote this goddamn joke; Chuck Jones brought it to animated life, painstakingly, frame by frame; they both worked on it for years. How could neither of them have gotten it?


Horizontal History, Tim Urban

The reason history is so hard is that it’s so soft. To truly, fully understand a time period, an event, a movement, or an important historical figure, you’d have to be there, and many times over. You’d have to be in the homes of the public living at the time to hear what they’re saying; you’d have to be a fly on the wall in dozens of secret, closed-door meetings and conversations; you’d need to be inside the minds of the key players to know their innermost thoughts and motivations. Even then, you’d be lacking context. To really have the complete truth, you’d need background—the cultural nuances and national psyches of the time, the way each of the key players was raised during childhood and the subtle social dynamics between those players, the impact of what was going on in other parts of the world, and an equally-thorough understanding of the many past centuries that all of these things grew out of.
That’s why not only can’t even the most perfect history buff fully understand history, but the key people involved at the time can’t ever know the full story. History is a giant collective tangle of thousands of interwoven stories involving millions of characters, countless chapters, and many, many narrators.


Unearthing the Sea Witch, Nicole Pasulka and Brian Ferree

This is the story of how Glenn Milstead, a big-haired, poo-eating Charm City drag queen named Divine, came to inspire a Disney villainess.
That an indelible character in a children’s cartoon is a composite of 1980s gay life, bold women with gravelly voices, the AIDS crisis, independent film, Hollywood, Baltimore, and the tragic premature deaths of two exceptionally creative men shouldn’t surprise us. The best characters originate in artists’ complicated lives. And Ursula was surely one of the best. 


Maximum Wage, Steven Johnson

Let’s say we decided as a society that no private company should have a pay ratio above 40:1. That would lead to a radical decrease in income inequality, and it wouldn’t involve a cent of additional taxes. Every private company would be allowed to keep the exact same portion of its income. The government wouldn’t be extracting money out of the private sector; it would just put some boundaries on the way the private sector distributes its money internally. Critics would scream that such a dramatic intervention would be terrible for business, but of course the one sector of the economy that has already voluntarily embraced this ratio turns out to have nurtured the most profitable corporations in the history of capitalism. This would no doubt be fiddling with the natural markets for wages, but we fiddle with these all the time, through progressive income taxes, earned income tax credits, subsidies, and tax incentives. We have a minimum wage. What if we had a maximum ratio?


The Inequality Problem, Ed Miliband

Putnam focuses on two young people, one from each side of the tracks. Andrew is the son of Patty and Earl, who run a construction business. He has security and access to resources; he has made it to college, and can plan his future with confidence. Kayla is the son of Joe and Darleen, who met as ‘low-wage refugees’ at Pizza Hut. Kayla’s childhood was marked by economic hardship; her parents broke up, and she now lives with her boyfriend and sick father, trying to deal with his illness and a fear of ‘everything kind of falling apart’. Putnam supplies a series of ‘scissors graphs’ comparing the socioeconomic experiences over the last few decades of the children of parents who left education at 18 or earlier with those of children who go on to get a college degree. Whichever measure you choose – family breakdown, amount of time spent with children, the availability of informal mentoring networks – the pattern is the same: thirty years ago, the two groups were close together; since then, they have steadily grown further apart. Putnam doesn’t dismiss the cultural shifts that might have contributed to these trends, but he insists that a significant part of the blame lies at the door of economic policy: ‘Poverty produces family instability, and family instability in turn produces poverty.’


Everybody’s a Critic. And That’s How It Should Be., A. O. Scott

The days of the all-powerful critic are over. But that figure — high priest or petty dictator, destroying and consecrating reputations with the stroke of a pen — was always a bit of a myth, an allegorical monster conjured up by timid artists and their insecure admirers. Criticism has always been a fundamentally democratic undertaking. It is an endless conversation, rather than a series of pronouncements. It is the debate that begins when you walk out of the theater or the museum, either with your friends or in the private chat room of your own head. It’s not me telling you what to think; it’s you and me talking. That was true before the Internet, but the rise of social media has had the thrilling, confusing effect of making the conversation literal.
Like every other form of democracy, criticism is a messy, contentious business, in which the rules are as much in dispute as the outcomes and the philosophical foundations are fragile if not vaporous. We all like different things. Each of us is blessed with a snowflake-special consciousness, an apparatus of pleasure and perception that is ours alone. But we also cluster together in communities of taste that can be as prickly and polarized as the other tribes with which we identify. We are protective of our pleasures, and resent it when anyone tries to mock or mess with them.


Degustation Laconic, Aaron Timms

Menus are some of the most studied, obsessed-over documents in the world, but their composition remains a subject of little exploration. Perhaps this is inevitable: people go to restaurants to enjoy food, not to argue over authorship and usage. But that is changing. Menus are now fodder for internet comedy: the website offers aspiring hospitality operators in the booming New York borough an automatic menu generation tool (sample items: “seasonal pepper discs”, “rustic watermelon toss and blistered chorizo”, “tormented oyster”).
One hundred years ago, New York’s Waldorf Astoria hotel advertised its chicken main course as “Chicken”. The description of a beef main was only slightly more elaborate: “Rib of beef”. As restaurant dining Frenchified through the 20th century, menus threw off this reticence: where once diners had been brutalised with “mutton”, suddenly there was a flowering of veloutés and gastriques. The past few decades – in the English-speaking world, at least – have been one long tale of menu de-Frenchification. We’ve gone from the jungle to the tundra, elaborate cursive fonts and teeming course descriptions replaced by a succession of monkish truncations. The parody websites don’t go far enough: menus have returned to something like their original state. In Brooklyn today, at Chef’s Table restaurant, a high temple of North American tweezer food, Cesar Ramirez uses no more than a single word to describe each course. Fluke. Butter. Scallop.


Future Imperfect, Bethlehem Shoals

Future is hardly the first rapper to look inward, expand the genre’s range of emotion, or favor sparse, atmospheric tracks. What makes Future so compelling is how intent he seems on breaking down rap’s conventions, seemingly for his own amusement or out of sheer disillusionment. The trend continues on Purple Reign, his latest unofficial release. Future’s vocals are a ravaged, haunting sing-song as he deploys Autotune like an effects pedal gone haywire. He rides the beat effortlessly, at times haphazardly, finding tricky pockets of rhythm to fit in stray words or emphases. Lyrics tumble out seemingly at random; even his most fully formed thoughts fail to connect, despite touching on frequent rap fare: Crime, money, drugs, strippers, wealth, and just generally being the best. The beats he chooses are minimal and woozy, anchored only by skittering drums and—this goes for Future’s music as a whole—an uncanny knack for melody that at least partly explains his immense popularity.
But Future doesn’t just break the mold, he actively scorns it. He makes purists groan while at the same time scraping much of the luster off from a hedonistic, glamorized materialistic rap lifestyle that he can barely bring himself to enjoy. If Future didn’t make such irrepressible music, and if he weren’t such a supremely confident presence in the booth, he’d be more important for what he isn’t rather than what he is. When Lil Wayne declared himself an alien from outer space, it was to assert his Superman-like dominance over all the competition. Future is downright otherworldly. It’s not hard to imagine, him, literally or figuratively, wandering through some desolate, craggy landscape, rapping about the finer things and good times in a desperate attempt to convince himself that all is not lost, or to soldier on in search of … well, whatever it is that Future wants.


When Movies Fly: How Your Modern Internet Experience is Made Possible by Airplanes, Dan Wang

In spite of rapid improvements in computing power, bandwidth capacity—the amount of data that can be sent over an Internet connection—has not kept up. We’re all familiar with Moore’s Law, which predicts that computing power grows at an annualized rate of 60% a year, implying a rate of doubling of every two years. You should know about two other, less famous laws. The first is Kryder’s Law, which maps the growth of data storage; the second is Nielsen’s Law, which maps the growth of Internet bandwidth.
Dr. Mark Kryder, who formulated the eponymous law, explained to us in an email that Moore’s Law and Kryder’s Law have advanced at roughly the same rate. That should make sense. “Computer architects would say that it’s desirable,” he remarks. “If the speed of a computer didn’t increase with its storage capacity, you wouldn’t be able to do much with the stored data.”
But increases in bandwidth capacity have not kept up with Moore’s Law and Kryder’s Law. While storage capacity and computing power have grown at 60% a year, growth in bandwidth capacity clocked in at just 50%. That is, hard drives are getting smaller—and therefore cheaper to transport—at a faster rate than improvements in Internet bandwidth. So companies have been finding it cheaper, and faster, to send data by air or sea in hard drives rather than over the Internet.
Most interestingly, given the delta in the rates of growth of these laws, we should expect more and more Internet traffic to be delivered offline. The more data we’re able to store in a given physical size, the faster it is to fly those files. Counterintuitively, technological progress is actually favoring moving more data by jets, not less.


Gay Or Straight, Finn/Poe Matters, Matt Brown

It has to do with the reason the Finn/Poe meme has gained so much strength so quickly: these two dudes are affectionate, honest, and entirely non-competitive with one another, in a way that almost never happens in Hollywood media.
Both men behave, throughout The Force Awakens, as though they exist in a world where the rulebook of contemporary gender codes simply doesn't exist. (They do: it's the world called Star Wars!) When do we see men swap clothes? When do we see men freely ask one another for help? When do we see men leap wholeheartedly into an embrace, without it being followed by some sort of embarrassed joke?


The 27th Letter, Mairead Small Staid

The prevalence of the ampersand in the wedding invitations arrayed on my refrigerator speaks, I think, to a knowledge, conscious or not, of usage rules like the WGA’s. The ampersand signifies a closeness that and merely shrugs at, makes of two parts—or people—a single unit: Dolce & Gabbana. Rhythm & blues. Andrew & Martha.


Nipplegate Revisited: Why America Owes Janet Jackson a Huge Apology, Emmanuelle Hapsis

We like to think we’re far removed from America’s dark past, as if printing (some of) the facts into textbooks absolved us and negated the impact of all of that history, but situations like the treatment of Janet after the Halftime Show prove that the struggle for civil rights for women and people of color is an ongoing negotiation. The oppression is still all around us; it has simply evolved and learned how to camouflage.

A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Sameer Vasta

The one thing I have missed most over the past few weeks, as I have been healing from my herniated disc, is the ability to stroll. While previously I would spend hours a day on my feet, journeying on sidewalks and in parks, never moving in a direct line to get from A to B, but instead wandering in indefinite directions and on undefined pathways to eventually find myself somewhere, now I am rarely a pedestrian. When I must go to a certain place, I take transit and taxis; my strolling has been replaced with purposeful walking, a maximum of five minutes at a time, when my destination is close enough and I can quickly sit down when I arrive.

My propensity to walk everywhere, before my injury, meant that I was always discovering somewhere and something new. I made an effort to rarely duplicate my routes, and to allow serendipity guide me towards new locations and experiences. On these rambling strolls, I would rarely be lost in place — my impeccable sense of direction emerges even in foreign and strange cities that I have never before visited, but can navigate within minutes — but I would be lost in time and mind. I may have always known where I was, but I never really knew how I got there and where I was going next.

It’s that feeling of being lost in mind and in time that resonated most with me upon reading Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost. The stories of being lost in place were more illustrative of the meditative power of ambling, while the stories of being lost in time and mind were resonant of my favorite kind of exploration: of discovering something new in places that are familiar, of being lost in experience and not necessarily in location.

As if illustrating its commitment to the idea of aimless ambling, A Field Guide to Getting Lost does not present a tight, cohesive narrative, but is instead constructed more loosely, a collection of stories and illuminations that are held together more by a sense of wonder than any commitment to structure. It is a book that allows you to get lost in it, and to subsequently find yourself, dozens of times.

This ambling and rambling narrative, and Ms. Solnit’s incredible ability to craft poetry in every paragraph, is what makes A Field Guide to Getting Lost so meditatively appealing. It is a book that can be devoured in one sitting, and then re-read in bits in pieces, in highlighted passages that evoke some kind of emotion, whether it be nostalgia or excitement.

There are few authors that can manipulate prose the way Ms. Solnit can, and she does so deftly in this book. The lyricism of each paragraph reminds us of just how beautiful it is to get lost — each word I read, and re-read, reminds me just how anxious I am for my back to heal, so that I can begin my strolls, my aimless ambling, again.

Friendship theory. by Sameer Vasta

There's a question I ask myself, at least once or twice a year, that makes me pause and reflect: when something big, good, and exciting happens in my life, who do I want to tell, immediately?

The first obvious answer to that question is my wife; she's the first person I want to tell about everything, no matter how trivial. I often bombard her multiple times a day with messages about little things I see, do, hear, and read. She, with her unending patience, never complains about my propensity to want to share everything, all the time.

Apart from her, the answer changes regularly. People come in and out of life, and even for those who remain, the intensity with which we communicate fluctuates depending on time and place and context. It's a question worth revisiting regularly, just to see how life, and relationships, change over time.

Liz Danzico recently shared a passage from Ben Horowitz's The Hard Thing About Hard Things:

No matter who you are, you need two kinds of friends in your life. The first kind is one you can call when something good happens, and you need someone who will be excited for you. Not a fake excitement veiling envy, but a real excitement. You need someone who will actually be more excited for you than he would be if it had happened to him. The second kind of friend is somebody you can call when things go horribly wrong—when your life is on the line and you only have one phone call. Who is it going to be?

The first question is an easy one, a question that most of us probably think about fairly often. The second one, the question of who to call when things go completely wrong, is a harder one to answer.

Perhaps it's my reluctance to ask for help, in general, that makes it difficult for me to answer that last question. When things go wrong, my first instinct is to tell nobody until I make things right. This is unhealthy behaviour, I'll quickly acknowledge, but it has been my modus operandus for most of my life.

My goal for this weekend is to reflect upon that last question. Apart from my wife—I share everything with her, so she is the obvious answer—who are the people I lean on when things aren't going my way? Who would be, if I allowed myself to ask for help? Who is that second kind of friend for me?

Who are those two kinds of friends, for you?

Diversions: Late January by Sameer Vasta

A selection of essays, articles, and blog posts that inspired me these past few weeks.

The List
Ashley brings up something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently: what are my hobbies? Sure, there are many things I love to do, but do I do any of them in a conscious, concerted manner? I’ll probably write something about this soon.

What Your Town Can Learn From America's Most Walkable Suburb
I lived in Arlington, Virginia just as it was coming into its own as a walkable suburb, and purposely chose to live there instead of in the District because of its close, community feel. Every weekend, I'd walk to the farmer's market at Courthouse to buy groceries, pop into the bakery on my way home, and see many smiling faces and friends (and dogs!) along the way. It was a shining example of how wonderful a pedestrian-friendly suburb could be.

Banking time
I came to the realization very quickly that in my current state in life, time is often harder to come by than money. Even with that realization, I haven’t done enough to really take stock and use my time with intention. Maybe it’s time to re-evaluate how I bank my time, just like how I bank my money.

The Best Rapper Alive, Every Year Since 1979
Sure, there’s a lot to argue about on this list, but it is well-written, well-researched, and a wonderful look back in time (basically, throughout my entire life) at the music genre that has acted as the soundtrack for most of my life.

How Famous Paintings Got Their (Wrong) Names
Fascinating to see the role that printmaking had on giving names to artwork. Only once art could be reproduced and sold to the masses did it necessitate a label.

The Parking Letters
One Valentine’s Day a few years ago, I wrote a hundred anonymous love notes and left them on car windshields. I hope they brought more of a smile than some of the other letters left on windshields do.

A message from Stewart Butterfield to Slack employees
It’s important for our business leaders to acknowledge the struggle for civil rights in our respective countries, and to remind ourselves that the struggle is still not over. I commend Stewart for his strong words and leadership.

Stanford Will Now Be Free To All Students From Families That Earn Less Than $125,000 Per Year
Student debt is going to be one of the biggest causes of economic difficulty for many people (us included) in the years to come. This step by Stanford is incredibly important.

3 ways you can use social media to expand your worldview
One of the best parts of living in a hyper-connected world is the ability to connect to people who have different viewpoints and perspectives. It’s easy to get caught in our own echo-chambers; I’m glad technology helps me challenge my own worldview.

Of Salty Reviews and Silent Chefs
Why is it so easy to say bad things about other people, especially people at the top of their craft, online? Why does nobody come to the rescue of the favorite; what is the appeal of the underdog?

I’m the most magnanimous motherfucker you know
As a man with brown skin and a beard who used to depend on air travel for work, this piece on “flying while brown” by Anil Dash is poignant but also hard to read.

A Story of a Fuck Off Fund
A heartbreaking story and a sobering reminder that sometimes the path to leave from bad situations isn’t as clear and easy as we think it may be.

The Law Everyone Should Hate
I just had a long conversation at work about the Paperwork Reduction Act, and how its inspiration has found its ways into the directives and policies of other governments; how can policy reform fix government in the internet age?

Collaborative Overload
Collaboration is a sexy word in our workplaces, much to the detriment of important, solitary work. I’m a huge fan of working with people, but understand that it’s possible to suffer collaboration exhaustion and get nothing done, too.

Peak City
I don’t know much about market urbanism, but after reading this, I’m really intrigued by how we can effectively use the market to shape our urban lives.

The EU Is on the Verge of Collapse
In a conversation last week, as a joke, I postulated that the European Union will be dead by 2025. This interview with George Soros says that I might be too optimistic, and that the collapse could come even sooner than that.

Barely Represented
As someone currently working on new methods of public engagement around policy and legislation, this comic about the silencing of voices of sex workers in sex work legislation is poignant.

On wine. A Tragedy.
The current wine industry focuses too much on encouraging people to find a good wine or the right one, and not on just enjoying whatever they like to drink.

The Hustle Is Real
Being a Knicks fan has often been an exercise in frustration, but this season, there’s a new optimism behind the team. They are still a middling, somewhat incompetent team, but they’ve got hustle; this article shows that in basketball, like in literature and life, hustle can be the start of something good.

The Reductive Seduction of Other People's Problems
The problem with so many development and humanitarian projects these days is that they assume that other people's problems are easy to solve. Complexity is a hard notion to grasp; we need better education around complexity in our school systems if we are to truly solve big problems.

Getting older does not suck
I am, by no means, considered old, but as I've been aging, I've realized that there is a certain freedom and calmness that comes with age that I wasn't able to fully grasp in my youth. I'm excited for growing older in the years ahead.

America’s dangerous “self-made” mythology: Why our ideas about upward mobility are seriously misinformed
The idea that everyone can start at the bottom and make it to the top with just some hard work is greatly flawed. Social mobility moves both ways, and in most cases, doesn't move at all. We need to rethink our social services to reflect that reality.

Detroit State of Mind
I have only been to Detroit a handful of times in the past few years, but every time that I have, I have the overwhelming urge to move there, to create a life there, and help the city rebuild to the potential that it has. Seems like I'm not the only one.

Letter of Recommendation: Sick Days
“Sick in bed is a time to let all the thoughts of the last few months, all your experiences and memories, float up in your head, up near the ceiling, which is wobbling with fever. It is a time to take stock of your life.” Amen.