Spotify Ambivalence


As of writing this, I’m a musician, but I don’t sell recordings in any way whatsoever. That may change at some point in the future.

I recently restarted my Spotify premium membership after an absence of 4 months. I’d been just using iTunes in that time and not feeling too deprived since I’d purchased a slew of new music and had plenty to listen to.

But with Don Giovanni happening, I decided that I wanted more varieties of interpretation than my single recording purchase could give me, and I don’t have the money to buy six or seven other recordings in iTunes. Spotify excels at this kind of problem, and within minutes, I could listen to all sorts of DG recordings. Sweet.

I am ambivalent about Spotify and other streaming services though. I wish I could just enjoy it 100%, because as a music listener, it’s amazing. For ~$10 per month, I can just sit back and listen. But like factory farming, driving automobiles, and buying dirt cheap clothing from overseas there are moral questions lingering in the background that spoil the experience for me (though the relevant moral questions have different weights in each of these cases). Yes, you can turn your mind off and just get on with life without feeling bad, and I do in many cases. I am no longer a vegan. Here I am listening to Elvis on Spotify. I don’t drive, but that’s just circumstance.

What’s interesting about the Spotify and streaming issue though, is that it threatens the very product itself. If you eat a lot of steak and drive an overpowered vehicle, you aren’t driving cows or car companies to extinction. Quite the opposite. But streaming – as a business model – is pretty lousy for the musicians themselves who put out the records. Streaming fees are awful compared to iTunes or CD purchases, and you have to wonder whether recording musicians will continue to put out quality records if the likelihood of earning their investment back dwindles to impossible.

Now, this isn’t a sure thing. This is a possibility. The arts are full of people who sacrifice so much to deliver their work. Maybe musicians will just choose to operate at a loss. Or maybe quality will just go down, and we listeners won’t care. Maybe the cost of recording will plummet. It’s also possible that streaming rates will go up once it becomes truly mainstream. Or maybe laws will change. It’s possible that the whole payments system will change.

But right now streaming makes a rough business rougher.

But can we unbake the bread and put Humpty Dumpty back together again? Should we? There are real benefits of streaming above and beyond the ease of access. The most valuable is the ability to share with other people. I rarely see it described as such, but Spotify is a social network. As I’m writing this, I’m listening to a playlist that a Reddit user shared. Click, jump to Spotify, hit play and away I go. To recreate this in iTunes would be incredibly expensive and time consuming. Further, I could create playlists and share them with you and vice versa. There are Spotify channels that curate songs and place them into easy access playlists. Friends on Spotify can send tracks to each other just for fun.

Let me reiterate: This is amazing.

Further: this is legal. The artists involved are getting paid per stream. They just aren’t getting paid very much per stream. I wish they were, and if you care about their livlihoods and the future of recorded music, then you probably should as well.

I won’t prescribe any possible solutions. But something will have to give. I just don’t see recording musicians sitting by forever and allowing the one thing that can possibly scale about their business become nothing more than an advertisement, especially when it’s clear that people still hunger for recorded music.

But similarly, streaming is too good for consumers. I doubt that it’s going away, and I don’t want it to. It works for me as a listener.

I just want it to work for the musicians too.

Jean Valjean: The Pacifist Superhero

Head’s up: if you’re not at all familiar with Les Misérables, then spoilers are about to follow. Even though the book is from the 19th century, I’m assuming that most people haven’t read it (it’s quite long), though I will assume if you’re reading this blog that you’re aware of the musical and its plot. Some things from the novel, however, aren’t in the musical, and I will mention some of them. I’ve put a spoiler tag before the scene not included in the musical or film.

Like many others, I’m sure, I came to Les Misérables first through the stage musical. Having just finished the novel, I was surprised by what modern adaptations have changed.

What surprises me the most is the extent to which the Jean Valjean of the novel is a true pacifist. If you’re familiar with the musical or the most recent non-musical movie, you might remember that Jean Valjean was occasionally violent. Most clearly, he strikes Javert to escape him after the death of Fantine. In the film – with Liam Neeson as Valjean – he actually smashes Javert’s head into the wall before going outside and striking another policeman. In the musical – if I’m remembering correctly – he throws him aside before fleeing.

But this doesn’t happen in the novel. He chooses a pacifist route instead during that scene and during every scene. Why is this an important difference?

Yes, Valjean is a kind of superhero. He’s a non-violent one, but he is remarkably similar to modern superheroes in many elements. His superpowers? Strength.[1]. Agility[2]. He’s an excellent climber[3], and he’s a crack marksman[4]. He has a kind of superhero origin story with the bishop[5], and thereafter he has his secret identity while assuming several different names. No one knows the extent of his secret until the very end of the book. He’s filthy rich (once he’s the mayor). He has an arch villain in Javert[6] and a secondary villain in Thenardier[7]. He spends the entire book saving other people[8] in adventures that are often as exciting as any other hero, though sometimes it’s the little acts that are the most moving.[9]

However, to make Valjean violent does a disservice to the character. I understand the need for expediency in adaptations, but a change like that changes the nature of the character. Valjean would have viewed an attack on Javert as a betrayal of the bishop. He doesn’t only save “good people” as a modern comic book hero might do. He doesn’t punish the villains. They are all people and therefore worthy of compassion, even if they’re wrong. Imagine if Batman swooped in and gave money and aid to the criminals, realizing that they’ve been led astray. No violence. He will defend himself without hurting anyone. No turning them over to the police. Here’s some money. Some new clothes. Maybe a lecture. That’s closer to Jean Valjean.

Valjean’s struggle to do right includes his unwillingness to be violent, even when his life is threatened. Often this is shockingly brave.

(MAJOR SPOILER FOR PEOPLE WHO HAVEN’T READ THE NOVEL) To me, the single most surprising scene in the novel is when he’s trapped by the Thenardiers – who are under the name Jondrette – who have plotted to extort money out of him. If he refuses, then they plan to kill him and perhaps torture him. The leader (Thenardier) has his henchmen, and there are just enough of them to subdue the otherwise indomitable Valjean and tie him up. When Valjean gains the upper hand and arms himself with a heated chisel, he demonstrates his self control (and how!), disarms himself and turns the other cheek, saying:

“You are wretches, but my life is not worth the trouble of defending it. When you think that you can make me speak, that you can make me write what I do not choose to write, that you can make me say what I do not choose to say—”

He stripped up his left sleeve, and added:— “See here.”

At the same moment he extended his arm, and laid the glowing chisel which he held in his left hand by its wooden handle on his bare flesh.

The crackling of the burning flesh became audible, and the odor peculiar to chambers of torture filled the hovel.

Marius reeled in utter horror, the very ruffians shuddered, hardly a muscle of the old man’s face contracted, and while the red-hot iron sank into the smoking wound, impassive and almost august, he fixed on Thenardier his beautiful glance, in which there was no hatred, and where suffering vanished in serene majesty.

With grand and lofty natures, the revolts of the flesh and the senses when subjected to physical suffering cause the soul to spring forth, and make it appear on the brow, just as rebellions among the soldiery force the captain to show himself.

“Wretches!” said he, “have no more fear of me than I have for you!”

And, tearing the chisel from the wound, he hurled it through the window, which had been left open; the horrible, glowing tool disappeared into the night, whirling as it flew, and fell far away on the snow.

The prisoner resumed:—

“Do what you please with me.” He was disarmed.

Hugo, Victor (2010–12–16). Les Misérables (English language) (pp. 538–539). Public Domain Books. Kindle Edition.


There are many instances in the novel of Jean Valjean choosing the pacifist path. The most famous is, naturally, his release of Javert at the barricade, but the novel abounds with many others. I admire this character because of his pacifism, rather than despite it.

I will end with this more general thought: we should treasure our pacifist heroes, and in adaptations, we should resist efforts to make them more modern by making them more violent. In our films now, heroes are shown demonstrating 101 ways to kill an orc or beat up a henchman or alien or whatever. Violence drips from our fiction and is celebrated even as violence in reality is condemned. How do we solve our problems? If we judged entirely by our modern action films, it’s through violence.

But Valjean shows us another path. His pacifism is not an act of weakness but rather that of supreme strength.

Amazing Citations Below

  1. One detail, which we must not omit, is that he possessed a physical strength which was not approached by a single one of the denizens of the galleys. At work, at paying out a cable or winding up a capstan, Jean Valjean was worth four men.  ↩

    Hugo, Victor (2010–12–16). Les Misérables (English language) (p. 77). Public Domain Books. Kindle Edition.

  2. When a shot laid Marius low, Jean Valjean leaped forward with the agility of a tiger, fell upon him as on his prey, and bore him off.  ↩

    Hugo, Victor (2010–12–16). Les Misérables (English language) (p. 824). Public Domain Books. Kindle Edition.

  3. To climb a vertical surface, and to find points of support where hardly a projection was visible, was play to Jean Valjean. An angle of the wall being given, with the tension of his back and legs, with his elbows and his heels fitted into the unevenness of the stone, he raised himself as if by magic to the third story. He sometimes mounted thus even to the roof of the galley prison.  ↩

    Hugo, Victor (2010–12–16). Les Misérables (English language) (p. 77). Public Domain Books. Kindle Edition.

  4. Without saying a word, he took aim at the fireman, and, a second later, the helmet, smashed by a bullet, rattled noisily into the street. The terrified soldier made haste to disappear. A second observer took his place. This one was an officer. Jean Valjean, who had re-loaded his gun, took aim at the newcomer and sent the officer’s casque to join the soldier’s.  ↩

    Hugo, Victor (2010–12–16). Les Misérables (English language) (p. 793). Public Domain Books. Kindle Edition.

  5. Jean Valjean, who had no recollection of ever having promised anything, remained speechless. The Bishop had emphasized the words when he uttered them. He resumed with solemnity:— “Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I buy from you; I withdraw it from black thoughts and the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God.”  ↩

    Hugo, Victor (2010–12–16). Les Misérables (English language) (pp. 86–87). Public Domain Books. Kindle Edition.

  6. One single man in the town, in the arrondissement, absolutely escaped this contagion, and, whatever Father Madeleine did, remained his opponent as though a sort of incorruptible and imperturbable instinct kept him on the alert and uneasy. It seems, in fact, as though there existed in certain men a veritable bestial instinct, though pure and upright, like all instincts, which creates antipathies and sympathies, which fatally separates one nature from another nature, which does not hesitate, which feels no disquiet, which does not hold its peace, and which never belies itself, clear in its obscurity, infallible, imperious, intractable, stubborn to all counsels of the intelligence and to all the dissolvents of reason, and which, in whatever manner destinies are arranged, secretly warns the man-dog of the presence of the man-cat, and the man-fox of the presence of the man-lion…His name was Javert, and he belonged to the police.  ↩

    Hugo, Victor (2010–12–16). Les Misérables (English language) (pp. 126–127). Public Domain Books. Kindle Edition.

  7. Since geniuses, like demons, recognize the presence of a superior God by certain signs, Thenardier comprehended that he had to deal with a very strong person.  ↩

    Hugo, Victor (2010–12–16). Les Misérables (English language) (p. 289). Public Domain Books. Kindle Edition.

  8. Cosette, he went to the barricade to save me. As it is a necessity with him to be an angel, he saved others also; he saved Javert. He rescued me from that gulf to give me to you. He carried me on his back through that frightful sewer.  ↩

    Hugo, Victor (2010–12–16). Les Misérables (English language) (p. 949). Public Domain Books. Kindle Edition.

  9. “My child, what you are carrying is very heavy for you.”  ↩

    Cosette raised her head and replied:—

    “Yes, sir.”

    “Give it to me,” said the man; “I will carry it for you.”

    Cosette let go of the bucket-handle. The man walked along beside her.

    Hugo, Victor (2010–12–16). Les Misérables (English language) (p. 273). Public Domain Books. Kindle Edition.

A Doozy of a Les Misérables Passage

I’ve shifted some of my reading to my so-called “miracle morning”, and this morning I ran headlong into this doozy in “Les Misérables”:

Let us have compassion on the chastised. Alas! Who are we ourselves? Who am I who now address you? Who are you who are listening to me? And are you very sure that we have done nothing before we were born? The earth is not devoid of resemblance to a jail. Who knows whether man is not a recaptured offender against divine justice? Look closely at life. It is so made, that everywhere we feel the sense of punishment.

Are you what is called a happy man? Well! you are sad every day. Each day has its own great grief or its little care. Yesterday you were trembling for a health that is dear to you, to-day you fear for your own; to-morrow it will be anxiety about money, the day after to-morrow the diatribe of a slanderer, the day after that, the misfortune of some friend; then the prevailing weather, then something that has been broken or lost, then a pleasure with which your conscience and your vertebral column reproach you; again, the course of public affairs. This without reckoning in the pains of the heart. And so it goes on. One cloud is dispelled, another forms. There is hardly one day out of a hundred which is wholly joyous and sunny. And you belong to that small class who are happy! As for the rest of mankind, stagnating night rests upon them.

Thoughtful minds make but little use of the phrase: the fortunate and the unfortunate. In this world, evidently the vestibule of another, there are no fortunate.

-Hugo, Victor (2010–12–16). Les Misérables (English language) (pp. 651–652). Public Domain Books. Kindle Edition.

One of my great surprises reading this book is that Hugo’s personal religion and morality are so hard to pin down. Every time I think I have a sense of it, it turns in a new direction.

But one thing is clear: compassion. The book is filled with compassionate moments leading to great changes in character’s lives. Any number of them, if erased, would fundamentally alter a character and shift the story. It’s so counter to what most modern stories praise, that to see it – especially embodied in the character of Jean Valjean – is occasionally breath-taking. A passage I recently read that is not mentioned in the musical or in the Liam Neeson movie actually took my breath away due to the incredible power of Valjean’s self-control and desire for self-determination and salvation through compassion.

In fact, I think my wife is right that this could serve as the or one of the thesis statements for the book. She said that after I read her the passage this morning.

We’re all in this together, whatever it is, so let’s be decent.

Three 2014 Habits to Take into 2015

Omnifocus Windows

Although I learned early on that my New Year’s resolutions are bound to fail, I do like making small habitual changes throughout the year. Especially with some semblance of stability in my life, I want to adjust my routines to be as effective as possible at keeping me healthy and happy.

Here are the three that have made the biggest difference this last year. I plan on continuing and expanding all of these through 2015, and I can recommend them if you’re looking for some new habits.

Morning ritual

This year, I made it a rule that I do a physical warmup at the beginning of my day. For the first three quarters of the year, that was the yoga sun salutation, which is a series of poses that gently stretch and open the body. I still like doing these, but I’ve switched it out for a series of mobilization exercises. These are movements that also stretch and open the body, but they work particular joints more directly, and I find them gentler.

Now I’ve folded these into a “miracle morning”, which is a series of little rituals popularized by Hal Elrod. These include meditation, journaling, my exercises, and some other steps.

Look, I’m incredibly skeptical of self-help stuff. The claims for the results are often so ludicrous that to go in believing that waking up at five will lead to millions of whatever-currency-you-have, then you’re bound to be disappointed. So I’m not doing this thinking that doing it alone will solve all my problems.

I do like the basic idea of it though, and I’ve gotten up every morning a little bit – about an hour – earlier to do this.

Results? My joints are happier with me. I wake up with fewer little aches and pains. My mood has improved. I wouldn’t say that it’s a “miracle”, but it’s the obvious result from starting the day in a healthier way. There are all sorts of ways to expand this in 2015, and I’m looking forward to more experimentation.

If you don’t do any of these, then you might try finding some morning ritual that gets you moving and active. The sun salutation is good. So is a walk. If you’re curious about my mobilizations, I’ll eventually write them out.

Calorie Counting and Health Tracking

When iOS 8 for the iPhone came out, it included a health application that listed a bunch of health data. Since it was empty, I decided to actually feed it some data. The phone already tracked my steps, so I started counting the calories in the food I ate using My Fitness Pal. I also began using RunKeeper again to track my exercise sessions.

I will probably stick with this for the long haul, though counting calories is especially tedious at times. What compels me is how informative it was. I was amazed at how high-calorie some foods are, and by elimintating some things from my grocery list, I’ve lost a few pounds (bye bye sliced bread at home). At the very least, this keeps me aware about what I’m eating.

Results? A few pounds lost, and I exercise more consistently. I’m mostly curious about how far this technology combined with good habits can go. I don’t have any extreme fitness goals, but I do want to maintain a basic level of fitness consistently. I also don’t have any plans to buy further technology to track more. Rather I just want to keep the habit and strengthen it.

I won’t lie though: this is a pain. I bought a scale to weigh foods at home, but when we’re out, I just have to guess the weights and the ingredients. MyFitnessPal does do some great work with branded foods and barcode scanning and all that, but it’s still work. Step tracking is about to become ubiquitous in our phones and watches, but calories counting? That takes some effort. But the clarity that comes from actually tracking this stuff is eye-opening.

Weekly Review

I’ve been doing some form of GTD for years, but I always skipped out on the weekly review part of it. That changed in the latter half of 2014. I’ve set aside some time on Sunday mornings for reviewing my projects and tasks in Omnifocus.

This doesn’t take very long since my life is not super complicated. Mostly my complications are of my own making (this website, for example, is a personal choice rather than externally-imposed), but using GTD and Omnifocus does help visualize it all. The review is important for maintaining a big picture of it all and seeing what I’ve let languish or what needs to be taken care of soon.

Results? I do consistently use the system more to do my tasks, and I think I’m more productive. There’s nothing really gamified in Omnifocus, so it’s hard to see exactly whether I became more productive or not (unlike Todoist). but I do feel like I’m more on top of the tasks of my life more. This has also been useful for building these new habits, since I can send myself daily reminders to do certain things.

If you don’t use GTD, I still think it’s a good idea to set aside some time to evaluate the previous week and begin planning the next. What went well? What didn’t? What do you want for the next week?

Other Atempted Habits

Here are some other things that I think are still good ideas, but which I didn’t consistently apply:

  1. Sight singing/interval practice: I actually did practice sight reading a lot using a variety of sources, so I did improve substantially. But I can’t claim to have created a real habit yet.
  2. German podcasts: I listened to a lot of German podcasts, so again, this isn’t failure, but I didn’t find a consistent habitual time to do this.
  3. Updating the budget: I did update my budget spreadsheet when I needed to, but I need to habitualize this somehow. Otherwise piles of receipts form, and math errors start to creep in.
  4. Consistent bed-time: ::Sigh::. Total failure. This one is hard when you work late and inconsistently. I’ll give this one another go though.

Upcoming Habits for 2015

What habits do I want to add this year? I’m going to be vague here, because sometimes good ideas come to me later:

  • I do want to change some habits around buying food. German cantinas are one of the best and worst aspects of German theaters. They’re the best for socializing and feeling comfy in one’s working environment. They’re the worst if you want to save money since another Brötchen or Kaffee or Cola Light or Kuchen is just downstairs.
  • I also want to develop a more consistent practice routine. A “miracle practice” or something like that. I practice plenty often, but I’d like to ritualize it a bit more.
  • Likewise for weekly and nightly rituals. I’ve recently heard/read some interesting ideas for these. The GTD weekly review is one such ritual, but there are others I’d like to try additionally.

And then… who knows? The year is long, and six months in I could have an epiphany.

In any case, wish me luck, and I hope some good habits became a part of your routine in 2014 and that 2015 is a year of growth and happiness for you.