I Robot For Real

When I was around eight, I loved to play “pretending” games with my friends to the point that I figured out it was something I liked to do more than my friends did. I know this because of how many times they said no, they didn’t want to. Pretend games like soldiers, cowboys, aliens, and if a girl was around and had any say so, the old standby – house. But my favorite by far was robots. The jetsons were on tv and our comic books were full of them. When I discovered I Robot by Isaac Asimov, I was in more than heaven, I had discovered a world that I desperately wanted to exist. 

War games involved pretend shooting, pretend dying, and unlimited resurections. Space ships and aliens games were more fun because they had the added element of adventure and making up places to go. I thought my friend Jed was on board when he decked out the crawl space under the stairs with blankets and food supplies including PB and J sandwiches. It was an early saturday morning, and I volunteered to go on an extended solo mission to a distant planet. After a Long voyage in a dark spaceship, I came out and to my surprise everyone was gone, apparently off to a movie. I don’t think it was on purpose, but at some point everyone forgot I was there. 

Science fiction books picked up for me where comic books left off and I read as many as I could get my hands on. By the time I started high school I was excited about taking electronics and computers as my Grade 10 elective, but this was 1968, and a computer in high school then was literally a wooden dowel with a crank and holes to stick nails into to “program” it. The nails would either hit something in it’s path or not. Truly primitive beginnings of our logical universe, but I remember thinking it was cool. 

In 1976 I worked a masters degree in music composition at North Texas State University. One of my professors had been a partner with Robert Moog, and the synthesizers we worked with looked like telephone switchboards with patchcords and jacks to alter the sounds. I saved up and bought a Korg instrument that had a short keyboard built in and though it could only play one note at a time, I learned the ins and outs of programming it. This was 9 years before my first personal computer, an Apple Mac Plus which cost $3000 and let me connect my synthesizers to it for programming and recordings. 

All of this was in the context of what I knew could be so much better. The recording studio I came to build evolved at no small expense from three rooms full of pricy boxes for reverb or compression and drum machines and giant mixers with miles of cables to what is now a free app on a smart phone. Many scientists including Stephen Hawking are preaching the inevetibility and dangers of AI combined with robotics putting us out of business as a species. So here in 2017, we have robotic vacuum cleaners that require a fair amount of human mainainance, and that’s about it. ATM’s have been in banks and grocery stores for decades now, but we are now used to them and they are the same now as when they first came out- we still bag our own groceries and humans are needed for supervision and mainainance. Turns out from an employment perspective this is a great thing. 

So nearly 60 years since I first pretended I was a robot and here we are in a weird space where gloom and doom surrounds an industry which is still largely behind the scenes and not in our homes. The Jetsons seem even more ridiculous now, because their robots were so friendly and fun, and Mr. Jetson’s job was never threatened by the automated domestic help. Worse, even if they were all that, we would suffer from lack of exercise. The robots made today are nothing close to I Robot, but they are beyond the pay grade of even the moderately rich. Everyone talks about how quickly things happen but for me the road to having a robot friend grows longer with each step I take, and everyone seems to be in agreement that robots are evil. The little boy in me hates this, but I am not completely thick, I get it. 

So it doesn’t seem likely that I will see how this plays out even if we can predict how enevitable the conflicts are. I do believe we can control the outcomes of our technology, but it seems our collective intelligence is not that great, even with genius proliferating at the individual level. It may very well be that the robots will have mercy on us and help us survive ourselves after all. Hopefully mercy and empathy will be at the core of the AI to come. 


Vista Heights Music-our story so far

A few weeks ago, I launched a new sheet music publishing company with wife and business partner Ina Dykstra. This is how it came to be, what it is, and what we will try to make of it in the near future.

If you don’t have time to read this, please just go to http://vistaheightsmusic.com where we have posted videos showcasing recordings and excerpts of the sheet music.

The project really began in 1975 when I graduated from the University of Alberta with a degree in classical music theory and composition. My main instrument is piano, and many of the pieces I was writing were for solo piano. My dream was to be published and hear performances of my works by other musicians.

Over the years, I found time in between paying musical jobs to write new pieces, and I filed them away hoping to accumulate enough good candidates for a book of original music to approach a publisher. This dream started to crash when I noticed that some of the music stores that specialized in sheet music went out of business. I was further discouraged to find out that all print media was in jeopardy, including books, magazines and newspapers. Digital media and the internet were providing for free what people used to shop in stores for. This evolution is still very much in play, and it was not encouraging to talk to the people who decided what to sell in stores. The message was that even the best sellers weren’t doing as well, and there was zero demand for new product. If it wasn’t famous, then there was no need for it.

Last June, I was having my daily morning walk, and I had a moment in which a number of ideas came to me all at once. Central to this, was that if I could convince Ina to join me in the pursuit of creating a series of piano music books, that the job would not only be done swiftly, but would benefit from her substantial creative talents and be exponentially more interesting. Over coffee, I presented the vision to her, and in a matter of days, she had created several piano pieces and we started to toss around titles for the books and ideas on how to put them together. By the end of August, we had enough music that we both liked organized in three volumes, and we talked to a local printer to get information on what the next steps would be.

It took another four months to come up with a business name, register it, hire a graphic artist, and refine the music to get it up to publication standards. About a month ago, we received our first printing of the books, and I set up a website for Vista Heights Music that showcases the works and allows customers to order books directly from us. We are talking to music stores about carrying the books, and have our next three books well under way. In the first week we sold 10% of our inventory, and we are just getting started, with one showcase to a group of piano teachers under our belt and half a dozen more planned for the near future.

But the real joys of this are the simplest of pleasures, those of creating and sharing. Our piano students are now playing the pieces, and this Sunday we are putting on a small concert where they will be giving first public performances of some of these works.

If you are a musician, I do hope you will check out our website. And if you are a composer, I hope that you find this account inspiring and helpful, so that you too will make the move into having your works made public and performed.

The Spectrum, Stigma, and Sachs

In recent years I find myself giving more thought to our understanding of the human mind and how this is rapidly evolving into new territory. It includes a shift in how I perceive myself, my talents and shortcomings. It has always made sense to me that some of our best musicians have been blind including Ray Charles, Art Tatum and Stevie Wonder. What they gave up in the ability to look at things with eyes has more than been made up for with their musical talents. What is less apparent, is that perhaps they would not have been as good at what they do if they had been able to see. Oliver Sachs talks about this at length in his book (citation to come) in which he discusses case studies that include a color blind artist and a heart surgeon with Terrette’s syndrome.

As we learn more about the various personality and mind imbalances, a lot of focus is on what is lacking on the obvious side of the various spectrums. What is less obvious are the talents and skills that are encouraged by whatever has been diminished. It has become clearer to me, that nobody is perfectly in balance with precisely equal parts of skills, precisely because many of these skills are in natural opposition to each other. Consider focus versus flexibility. Autism seems to imply extreme focus whereas attention deficite implies mental freedom. How true this generalization may or may not be would ultimately depend to the individual we are talking about, and there are undoubtably many things to consider when assessing the genesis of mathematical or creative interest and talent. Eduard de Bono has an exellent series of books on the creative process, and David Suzuki recently did an episode of The Nature of Things that reported on new research being done that reveals the importance of unrestricted exploratation and experimentation. In fact, that program implied that more has been invented and discovered by pure chance than by systematic research. Ironically, they may be using a systematic method in their research on that very subject. I don’t want to draw any conclusions here, I am colossally underqualified to go beyond the whim of speculation, but I do hope studies are underway to deepen our understanding of these things, and hope that here I am stimulating further thought on this subject.

In any case, as I hear the words spectrum and stigma tossed around in reference to various “disorders” I believe even in using these words there is something missing, and that is a positivity that comes along with any condition, no matter how severe. For beyond acceptance and understanding, way beyond coping and tolerance is celebration. Since everyone has their own personal cocktail of skills, we need to move into this territory quickly, and then perhaps we can learn how to improve how we coexist and communicate as a richly diverse collective of individuals.

Climate Change Poll

Five Ways to Save the Neighborhood – Jan Randall

This morning I was inspired to make a plan of action for myself to prevent anything like a trump from ever happening in Canada. I thought I would share it.

Stay Informed

  1. Find and share reliable news sources
  2. Seek out information

Support and Empower the Women in Your Life

  1. In your family
  2. In your workplace
  3. In your community
  4. Support a Woman Politician

Form Partnerships

  1. With your spouse
  2. At the workplace


  1. Listen
  2. Research
  3. Converse
  4. Debate
  5. Write


  1. Climate Change
  2. Racism
  3. Misogyny
  4. Inequality
  5. Ignorance

If you can do better then this, please feel free to make it your own in any way you like and do please share it. After you have saved the world, find a concert or a bar somewhere and listen to some live music. Also, a morning walk is a great thing.

My Best Stories

What are my best stories? What would I choose if I was sitting in the Red Chair about to be dumped if I was boring for a nanosecond?

My celebrity encounters are kind of boring. Shaking hands with JFK while he was on the campaign trail and getting a button from him which my grandmother hated because she was voting for Nixon. Having coffee with KD Lang at the Sidetrack Cafe and mutually deciding that we would hate working together, even though I told her I loved her voice and her cowpunk show, wondering if she’s antisemetic although I am not Jewish and her perhaps wondering if I am anti gay or vegetarian, even though I didn’t know she was either at the time and if I had would have no trouble with either. Still even the tension of that is boring. OK, how about writing a song with Catherine O’Hara. Yawn. Or meeting Arlo Guthrie as an unknown cousin 30 years after having a tour cancelled where I’d be opening for him and people telling me I reminded them of him. Nap time!

Well there’s my personal musical journey that includes rock bands, blues bands, jazz gigs, composing for orchestra and classical piano, writing comedy songs for a popular national radio series blah blah blah. Trying to make myself important or interesting is almost worse than pretending I’m a real life Forest Gump. Especially in the wake of the death of David Bowie, who worked in secret, did not reveal to the public that he was dying, and then released his last album and videos after he died. So the work truly should and is the joy of it, and not the trappings of fame, or talking about it. No wonder there are so few interviews with artists, because they know that talking about their art somehow lessens it.

That still leaves me with my desire to entertain and tell a good yarn. Fiction is out of the question- I suck at it, unless I’m trying to tell the truth and I need to embelish with a bit of exaggeration. I was always afraid to lie for a number of reasons, top of which is that I was afraid nobody would trust me, which of course, they don’t anyway, why trust a stranger?

Am I having an unbelievable life full of extraordinary things worthy of songs and sonnets? Absolutely! But I’m starting to believe it doesn’t matter if I try to preserve my stories for the cold and heartless eternity that awaits us all. Nevertheless I will probably have a go.

It doesn’t escape me that NOBODY is reading my blog or leaving comments. I must truly suck at blogging and promotion. Ironically, protection of privacy is a big issue these days. Ha ha ha.