Politologue (surtout) et économiste (un peu) de formation, musicien et étudiant à temps partiel, journaliste en pause.
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How the NSA Could Stop Sucking and Be Awesome Instead

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I applied for a job at the National Security Agency in 2006.

I was about to finish my undergrad degree in Mathematics. My favorite classes were abstract algebra, a subject whose only footing in reality is cryptography. I also felt some amount of national pride: my high school was a boarding school in Connecticut, so I experienced September 11, 2001, with many friends from New York City.

There’s an inscription in the marble floor of the building at my alma mater that houses the Mathematics department: "Reality favors symmetries and slight anachronisms". Only now do I appreciate that quote, since I received my full-time offer from Google while I was in the interview process with NSA.

I e-mailed my NSA recruiter and said thanks but no thanks.

I’ve still got that memory of what it feels like to have nationalistic pride in an organization that’s on the forefront of mathematics, computer science, and engineering. Sadly, that power has now been turned inward, but I think it’s possible to fix NSA’s image, and use it to make America a better place.

It should go without saying that NSA needs real oversight, and needs to stop spying on Americans. After that, though, I think there are some concrete things that NSA could do to redeem itself, and maybe even attract talent.

Open Source Code

For 99.9% of developers, cryptography is very easy to get wrong. Even in well respected open source packages, there are obscure issues, like the OpenSSL Pseudo-random Number Generator bug that broke SSH badly. It was caused by a developer removing some seemingly do-nothing code at Valgrind’s recommendation.

Recommendation 1: NSA could provide open source reference implementations of cryptographic and other security-sensitive code.

Open source, and thus peer-reviewed code provided by the largest body of elite mathematicians and cryptographers in the world? Yes, please. One less thing to worry about it.

Public Key Signing for American Citizens

NSA seems to have a problem identifying the communications of American citizens. If you think about it from a machine intelligence perspective, that’s pretty hard indeed.

Furthermore, PGP users have a difficult time with key exchanges. How do I know the public key you sent me is really your public key? Ideally, it’s been signed by somebody I trust.

This is a place to kill two birds with one bureaucratic stone.

Recommendation 2: NSA could provide an optional service to sign PGP keys as belonging to American citizens.

I already have federally-issued documentation of my citizenship, my US Passport. There ought to be a way to get my PGP key signed by the government, so I can sign my messages as an American citizen, having the government be the trusted authority on that matter.

This is interesting because it doesn’t compromise my privacy. My private key is still private, but the government, through a verification process similar to the passport process, has declared they trust me to be an American citizen.

This could be added as a signal for NSA collection systems, since the NSA ought to trust its own key-signing authority, it can be absolutely sure that an encrypted communication it intercepts is from an American citizen, and thus discard it.

This is a less-terrible-more-useful version of a National ID card, since it doesn’t expose my secrets, but allows me to assert my identity to other parties. Nothing would force me to use NSA’s key-signing service, just as nothing forces me to get a passport or a Facebook account.

Security Training for American Developers

Like I said, cryptography is very hard to get right. Not just algorithms, but protocols as well. What if NSA could help us Americans get it right?

Recommendation 3: NSA could provide a training program for American software and IT professionals on security best practices. For bonus points, the cost of this program could be tax-deductible.

American developers have a security responsibility to keep our trade secrets within our borders, and NSA can help us with that.  It’s not reasonable to allow NSA to patrol our electronic borders itself, but it could help on-the-ground implementers do it right.


I think it’s possible, with the right amount of congressional and judicial oversight, for the NSA to genuinely make America a better place.

We rely on government services for things that ought to be essential to a productive society, like a court system, a military, and infrastructure. Security is becoming one of those fundamental things, as we rely more and more on computers.

China is hacking us. Russia probably is, too. The NSA could be a point of pride and utility for us Americans to keep our economy strong, and safe from foreign invasion.

Until then, though, I’m done using Google products, e-mail, and unencrypted text messaging.

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fmgagnon
2519 days ago
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Ted Dziuba : "NSA could provide an optional service to sign PGP keys as belonging to American citizens."
Québec
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shmoo
2507 days ago
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The idea of the NSA as a public keysigner is interesting.
Beltsville, Maryland - USA
fabuloso
2508 days ago
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not bad
Miami Beach, FL
dnusinow
2518 days ago
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Some really interesting ideas here. Public keysigning as a government service is particularly novel to me.
Boston, MA

✚ Here’s to the Future

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Recently I was talking with a friend who was considering deleting his weblog and starting all over. Tossing his archives into the trash, changing the domain, and re-focusing on the sort of writing that he most wants to do.

His premise was that a new domain and new “brand” would help set the tone for the new voice he wants to write with. And that by trashing his archives of the work he’s written so far, there will be nothing on his new site which he’s embarrassed about. Nothing juvenile or silly or off topic.

I told him he was being silly and then linked him to this article by Zeldman where he writes: “If your old work doesn’t shame you, you’re not growing.”

Looking back at past work and cringing means you’ve grown since then. (Thank (Thanks goodness!)

I read through my old software reviews and interviews from time to time and though I’m still very proud of them, I also cringe at my massive lack of a grammatical style and my goofy tone.

And then there’s the super-random posts from when I first started writing here. Like my article about mullets (really, Shawn?). I could take them out because they’re pretty off-topic with the now-established nerdy tone of shawnblanc.net, but I leave them in there because they are a part of this site’s history and who reads the archives anyways?

The desire to “start fresh” and get rid of all your old work so that nothing in your archives is of any embarrassment is to assume that your best work is now at a plateau and that you’ll never move to a different interest or topic to write about.

If you think you’ve reached a point where you can create work that never makes you cringe again, then you’re saying that what you do today will be just as good as what you do next month, next year, and in 5 years from now.

And, well, that’s just not fair to your future self.

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fmgagnon
2531 days ago
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Brilliant : "I told him he was being silly and then linked him to this article by Zeldman where he writes: “If your old work doesn’t shame you, you’re not growing.”"
Québec
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Pitch drop caught on video for first time

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After running since 1944, the pitch drop experiment at Trinity College Dublin has finally yielded results: a drop has been caught falling on camera.

Pitch is an extremely viscous substance, about 2 million times more viscous than honey. Drops take 7-13 years to form and less than a second to fall. A similar experiment has been running at University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia since 1927...their next drop is expected to fall sometime later this year.

Tags: physics   science
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fmgagnon
2551 days ago
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Québec
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DMack
2551 days ago
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bro, just wait for this drop
Victoria, BC
dreadhead
2551 days ago
You do not know how long I have been waiting for this (since I heard about it on radio lab and then forgot about it)

Trayvon Martin And The Irony Of American Justice

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justice.jpg

In trying to assess the the killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman, two seemingly conflicted truths emerge for me. The first is that is that based on the case presented by the state, and based on Florida law, George Zimmerman should not have been convicted of second degree murder or manslaughter. The second is the killing of Trayvon Martin is a profound injustice. In examining the first conclusion, I think it's important to take a very hard look at the qualifications allowed for aggressors by Florida's self-defense statute:

Use of force by aggressor.--The justification described in the preceding sections of this chapter is not available to a person who: (1) Is attempting to commit, committing, or escaping after the commission of, a forcible felony; or

(2) Initially provokes the use of force against himself or herself, unless:

(a) Such force is so great that the person reasonably believes that he or she is in imminent danger of death or great bodily harm and that he or she has exhausted every reasonable means to escape such danger other than the use of force which is likely to cause death or great bodily harm to the assailant; or

(b) In good faith, the person withdraws from physical contact with the assailant and indicates clearly to the assailant that he or she desires to withdraw and terminate the use of force, but the assailant continues or resumes the use of force.

I don't think the import of this is being appreciated. Effectively, I can bait you into a fight and if I start losing I can can legally kill you, provided I "believe" myself to be subject to "great bodily harm." It is then the state's job to prove--beyond a reasonable doubt--that I either did not actually fear for my life, or my fear was unreasonable. In the case of George Zimmerman, even if the state proved that he baited an encounter (and I am not sure they did) they still must prove that he had no reasonable justification to fear for his life. You see very similar language in the actual instructions given to the jury:

In deciding whether George Zimmerman was justified in the use of deadly force, you must judge him by the circumstances by which he was surrounded at the time the force was used. The danger facing George Zimmerman need not have been actual; however, to justify the use of deadly force, the appearance of danger must have been so real that a reasonably cautious and prudent person under the same circumstances would have believed that the danger could be avoided only through the use of that force. Based upon appearances, George Zimmerman must have actually believed that the danger was real.

If George Zimmerman was not engaged in an unlawful activity and was attacked in any place where he had a right to be, he had no duty to retreat and had the right to stand his ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he reasonably believed that it was necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.

There has been a lot of complaint that "stand your ground" has nothing to do with this case. That contention is contravened by the fact that it is cited in the instructions to the jury. Taken together, it is important to understand that it is not enough for the state to prove that George Zimmerman acted unwisely in following Martin. Under Florida law, George Zimmerman had no responsibility to--at any point--retreat. The state must prove that Zimmerman had no reasonable fear for his life. Moreover, it is not enough for the jury to find Zimmerman's story fishy. Again the jury instructions:

George Zimmerman has entered a plea of not guilty. This means you must presume or believe George Zimmerman is innocent. The presumption stays with George Zimmerman as to each material allegation in the Information through each stage of the trial unless it has been overcome by the evidence to the exclusion of and beyond a reasonable doubt. To overcome George Zimmerman's presumption of innocence, the State has the burden of proving the crime with which George Zimmerman is charged was committed and George Zimmerman is the person who committed the crime.

George Zimmerman is not required to present evidence or prove anything.

Whenever the words "reasonable doubt" are used you must consider the following: A reasonable doubt is not a mere possible doubt, a speculative, imaginary or forced doubt. Such a doubt must not influence you to return a verdict of not guilty if you have an abiding conviction of guilt. On the other hand if, after carefully considering, comparing and weighing all the evidence, there is not an abiding conviction of guilt, or, if having a conviction, it is one which is not stable but one which wavers and vacillates, then the charge is not proved beyond every reasonable doubt and you must find George Zimmerman not guilty because the doubt is reasonable.

It is to the evidence introduced in this trial, and to it alone, that you are to look for that proof.

A reasonable doubt as to the guilt of George Zimmerman may arise from the evidence, conflict in the evidence, or the lack of evidence.

If you have a reasonable doubt, you should find George Zimmerman not guilty. If you have no reasonable doubt, you should find George Zimmerman guilty.

This was the job given to the state of Florida. I have seen nothing within the actual case presented by the prosecution that would allow for a stable and unvacillating belief that George Zimmerman was guilty.

That conclusion should not offer you security or comfort. It should not leave you secure in the wisdom of our laws. On the contrary, it should greatly trouble you. But if you are simply focusing on what happened in the court-room, then you have been head-faked by history and bought into a idea of fairness which can not possibly exist.

The injustice inherent in the killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman was not authored by jury given a weak case. The jury's performance may be the least disturbing aspect of this entire affair. The injustice was authored by a country which has taken as its policy, for lionshare of its history, to erect a pariah class. The killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman is not an error in programming. It is the correct result of forces we set in motion years ago and have done very little to arrest.

One need only look the criminalization of Martin across the country. Perhaps you have been lucky enough to not receive the above "portrait" of Trayvon Martin and its accompanying tex. The portrait is actually of a 32-year old man. Perhaps your were lucky enough to not see the Trayvon Martin imagery used for target practice (by law enforcement, no less.) Perhaps you did not see the iPhone games. Or maybe you missed the theory presently being floated by Zimmerman's family that Martin was a gun-runner and drug-dealer in training, that texts and tweets he sent mark him as a criminal in waiting. Or the theory floated that the mere donning of a hoodie marks you a thug, leaving one wondering why this guy is a criminal and this was one is not.

We have spent much of this year outlining the ways in which American policy has placed black people outside of the law. We are now being told that after having pursued such policies for 200 years, after codifying violence in slavery, after a a people conceived in mass rape, after permitting the disenfranchisement of black people through violence, after Draft riots, after white-lines, white leagues, and red shirts, after terrorism, after standing aside for the better reduction of Rosewood and the improvement of Tulsa, after the coup d'etat in Wilmington, after Airport Homes and Cicero, after Ossian Sweet, after Arthur Lee McDuffie, after Anthony Baez, Amadou Diallo and Eleanor Bumpers, after Kathryn Johnston and the Danziger Bridge, that there are no ill effects, that we are pure, that we are just, that we are clean. Our sense of self is incredible. We believe ourselves to have inherited all of Jefferson's love of freedom, but none of his dependence on slavery.

You should not be troubled that George Zimmerman "got away" with the killing of Trayvon Martin, you should be troubled that you live in a country that ensures that Trayvon Martin will happen. Trayvon Martin is happening again in Florida. Right now:

In November, black youth Jordan Davis, a 17-year-old Jacksonville resident, was the only person murdered after Michael Dunn, 46, allegedly shot into the SUV Davis was inside several times after an argument about the volume of music playing.

According to Dunn's girlfriend, Rhonda Rouer, Dunn had three rum and cokes at a wedding reception. She felt secure enough for him to drive and thought that he was a good mood. On the drive back to the hotel they were residing at, they made a pit stop at the convenience store where the murder occurred. At the Gate Station, Rouer said Dunn told her that he hated "thug music." Rouer then went inside the store to make purchases and heard several gunshots while she was still within the building.

Upon returning and seeing Dunn put his gun back into the glove compartment, Rouer asked why he had shot at the car playing music and Dunn claimed that he feared for his life and that "they threatened to kill me." The couple drove back to their hotel, and claim they did not realize anyone had died until the story appeared on the news the next day.

After killing Jordan Davis, Michael Dunn ordered a pizza.

When you have society which takes at its founding the hatred and degradation of a people, when that society inscribes that degradation in its most hallowed document, and continues to inscribe hatred in its laws and policies, it is fantastic to believe that its citizens will derive no ill messaging.

It is painful to say this: Trayvon Martin is not a miscarriage of American justice, but American justice itself. This is not our system malfunctioning. It is our system working exactly as it should, given all of its programming. To expect our courts, our schools, our police to single-handedly correct for this, is to look at the final minute of the final quarter and wonder why we couldn't come back from twenty-four down.

To paraphrase a great man--We are what our record says we are. How can we sensibly expect different?

    


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fmgagnon
2554 days ago
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Québec
popular
2554 days ago
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acdha
2547 days ago
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“We believe ourselves to have inherited all of Jefferson's love of freedom, but none of his affection for white supremacy.”
Washington, DC
irunfrombears
2553 days ago
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This is all true.
DC
smishra
2554 days ago
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Nicely written analysis of why the Zimmerman verdict was inevitable.
ChrisWB
2554 days ago
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Read this
NJ
Eloquence
2554 days ago
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The verdict is a travesty. That is all.
Baltimore, Maryland
meertn
2554 days ago
Did you actualy read the article above? To paraphrase, the verdict is exactly what you should have expected, considering the way America treats and has treated black people its entire history.
grammargirl
2554 days ago
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"We believe ourselves to have inherited all of Jefferson's love of freedom, but none of his dependence on slavery."
Brooklyn, NY
mrobold
2554 days ago
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Coates, as always, is fantastic.
Orange County, California
smadin
2554 days ago
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"[I]f you are simply focusing on what happened in the court-room, then you have been head-faked by history and bought into a idea of fairness which can not possibly exist.

The injustice inherent in the killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman was not authored by jury given a weak case. The jury's performance may be the least disturbing aspect of this entire affair. The injustice was authored by a country which has taken as its policy, for lionshare of its history, to erect a pariah class. The killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman is not an error in programming. It is the correct result of forces we set in motion years ago and have done very little to arrest."
Boston
Courtney
2554 days ago
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Mandatory reading of the day.
Portland, OR

↬ Under the Tables, Under the Bars : An Introduction to Guided by Voices

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I recently found myself having to explain why one of my favorite bands, Guided by Voices, is worth one’s attention. I totally understand it : Guided by Voices and Robert Pollard have had (and still work on) a massive output. According to BMI’s file on Mr. Pollard, he has published more than 1600 songs.

This is an incredible corpus to be drawing from, which means that it can be very hard to discover Guided by Voices alone, without any guideline. Here are my own biased notes.

Viewers of the british TV show The IT Crowd might have had their first contact with the american rock band Guided by Voices there. I, for one, had. A short clip of the song Game of Pricks played over a closing segment intrigued me and led me to Alien Lanes, which then got me to Under the Bushes, Under the Stars, to the first four albums in a boxed set, the DVDs commemorating long, sloppy, boozy and wide-ranging shows (The Electrifying Conclusion and Austin City Limits), then on to Robert Pollard’s solo endeavour.

A first sample

Obviously, there’s no accounting for taste. However, here is a 10 song sample of what I recommend to friends who’d like to get started :

One of the things you will notice is that GbV songs are short. Really short, almost jokingly in a few cases. This is why our first order of business will not take you that long. Another thing you will notice is that I included two songs from Mr. Pollardd’s solo efforts and another from a band called Boston Spaceships. In fact, even according to Mr. Pollard (quoted by Harp Magazine quoted by Wikipedia) :

You know, a lot of people try to distinguish things between what is Robert Pollard and what is Guided By Voices. I tell them basically that there is no difference; I am Robert Pollard and I am Guided By Voices.

As of June 2013, the GbV catalog is spread across :

Fortunately, we have incredible luck : there is an exceptionnally well-researched website out there called GBVDB that catalogs everything in the vast GbV universe. Setlists, special editions, lyrics, personnel, nothing is omitted. The guys behing this site deserve a huge applause.

Back to the playlist : I think that it gathers the essence of the band. Ambitious anthems (Over The Neptune / Mesh Gear Fox and A Salty Salute), pop gems (Teenage FBI, Game of Pricks, A Good Flying Bird), slick productions (Go For The Exit, Don’t Stop Now, Gratification To Concrete), messy recordings (Alien Lanes’ Game Of Pricks, Echoes Myron) and intimate setups (Obvious #1, Go For The Exit). A lot of it can be sung really loud when intoxicated (and, boy, do they).

The history of Guided by Voices is made of several quite clear-cut phases based on their discography. The first few albums were extremely lo-fi and has a confidential distribution, then Propeller, Vampire On Titus, Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes received recognition and sealed the “lo-fi” reputation of the band. Ensued seven “polished” albums poised to propell the band to the top of the charts, almost a decade of hiatus and a prolific return to a bare sound with the “classic” lineup.

A second taste

If you’re ready for some more, let’s take a few minutes for a few more songs :

  • Alone Stinking and Unafraid (Lexo and the Leapers – Ask Them)
  • My Valuable Hunting Knife (Alien Lanes / Tigerbomb)
  • Window Of My World (Half Smiles of the Decomposed)
  • The Official Ironmen Rally Song (Under The Bushes Under The Stars) (Demo on GBV.com)
  • I Am a Scientist (Bee Thousand)
  • Exit Flagger (Propeller)
  • Back to the Lake (Universal Truths and Cycles)
  • We’ve Got Airplanes (King Shit and the Golden Boys)
  • Baba O’Riley (Live)
  • Best of Jill Hives (Earthquake Glue)

Listen to the killer harmonies of The Official Ironmen Rally Song. Listen to the difference between both versions of My Valuable Hunting Knife and the interesting drum patterns. Listen for the “I am a lost soul, I shoot myself with rock’n'roll” line in I Am A Scientist. Remember that GbV titled one of their videos “The Who Went Home and Cried” when you hear Baba O’Riley. Listen to the dynamics of the classic sixties pop songs that are Window of my World and Best of Jill Hives. Listen to the almost yelled choruses of We’ve Got Airplanes and Exit Flagger.

Bee Thousand, Alien Lanes and Under the Bushes, Under the Stars, are my three favourite GbV albums. By themselves, they prove that GbV’s work, even though production varied, rely on the same basis : amazing songs.

First and foremost, a songwriter

A great way to recongnize an amazing song, by the way, is to hear it covered.

In a great interview in BOMB magazine (back from 2001) , Pollard explains his focus on songwriting and the process he goes through :

In the mid-period phase of the group, I came up with hundreds of song titles, and out of those titles I’d take one and write a quick poem for it, and then we’d work on a four-track. So I’d write the song really quickly, get my band together and teach it to them. I wanted everything to be spontaneous and fresh, and when I barely knew the song myself I’d go in and I’d play guitar with the drummer, and the drummer wouldn’t even know the song! We purposely wanted it to be fragmented. I craved—and still do—classic rock, like the Beatles; I wanted our albums to sound like bootlegs of long-lost demos and outtakes and shit.

And then I got to the point where we’d done that. And we’d done pretty much all we could with the four-track thing. And now I’d like to grow and mature as a songwriter, so I’ve started working more on structures. I hadn’t realized how long I could keep doing this crazy, whimsical, fragmented type thing; I thought it was getting a little bit old, you know?

In the same interview, he reminds me of Frank Zappa, who famously said in an NPR interview (quoted here) that he was, first and foremost, a chamber music composer :

I didn’t write a rock-n-roll song ’til I was in my twenties, and the only reason I put a rock-n-roll band together is because I couldn’t get anybody to play any of the chamber music or orchestral music that I had written when I was a teenager.

Pollard’s experience is similar (BOMB again) :

If this were the sixties that’s probably what I would be doing right now, being a songwriter for a company. Record companies used to employ songwriters to write for the bands on their label; everybody back in the sixties used to cover each other.

The part where I try to make it important

In fact, it is unfortunate that Robert Pollard’s fantastic work ethic is (almost literally) diluted by his ethylic reputation. One could very well make the point that Robert Pollard is a hacker in the noblest sense of the term : a lot of the proverbs, sayings and maxims apply to him and GbV getting things done, doing it themselves, shipping early and often and embracing loose collaborations. I’ve talked a lot about the importance of Robert Pollard in these notes, but his collaborators are also really noteworthy, starting with Tobin Sprout. Speaking of him, here he is, covering his own A Good Flying Bird :

But the main takeaway for me is Mr. Pollard and associates’ attitude toward side-projects : he was a teacher during the first GbV years and used his weekends and summer vacations to tour with Guided by Voices. Similarly, Greg Demos still works as a lawyer. This band is a side business that got quite big.

Further reading and listening

This article is definitely incomplete : I didn’t mention the great GbV collaborators enough (Tobin SproutDoug Gillard, Tim and Todd Tobias for example), I don’t have enough knowledge of Robert Pollard’s art and my chronology of the band is laughable. This leaves you a lot to cover, but this is the point of an introduction.

The best of album, Human Amusements At Hourly Rates, has a great selection. One great live album is Live in Daytron. One great DVD is The Electrifying Conclusion. I also love Alien Lanes. The Old GBV site has been archived (with some chords) and you can browse the new one too. Their MP3 store is exhaustive, you can also purchase Mr. Pollard’s art and the band’s t-shirts. The GBV songbook is another well-researched chords site. Online, Rdio unfortunately has a poor fraction of the catalog, but Deezer is better and iTunes is almost complete.

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fmgagnon
2576 days ago
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A piece I wrote after a few friends asked me who are GbV.
Québec
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“we are getting more and more customers using pppoe.”

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Today, while reviewing my Google Analytics statistics, I stumbled upon a peculiar visitor. He/she/it lives in Congo and is apparently accessing the website through a network name I’ve never heard of :
we are getting more and more customers using pppoe.
Isn’t it curious? My main hypothesis would be that this is a crawler owned by an Internet services provider who also operates a search engine.
This sentence yields no result from Google, but I’d be surprised to be the only one to see (and wonder about) this.
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fmgagnon
2602 days ago
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