Academic advice from cancer for the COVID-19 epidemic: let it go

Compared to the massive life and death issues people are facing, this is a tiny thing, for a tiny segment of the world. But with that caveat, it is still worth saying.

In 2009, I was diagnosed with a very aggressive version of papillary thyroid cancer. I had to bail on my courses, and lost the better part of an academic year (and more) to treatment for cancer. And if you have been following this blog, you know over the last year I have had to turn down all sorts of invitations and back out of some gigs I really, really wanted to do because of a new treatment regimen I’m on.

That’s what it’s like living with acute cancer, or chronic illness.

Now that many societies are essentially moving indoors and toward social distancing, events are being cancelled, courses are going online, and I see a lot of academics in my social media feeds worrying about the talks not given, the events not attended, the work that will be unfinished, the failure to deliver the same course online that they would in the classroom (or they worry that it’s a case of disaster capitalism on the part of university administrations, or they fume that universities are willing to do this but not offer basic accommodations to their crip students).

Maybe this is just deeper existential anxiety being worked out on the challenge to everyday life that we’re experiencing. But it may also be a conditioned response given how many academics go about their work lives (including me).

My advice: let it go for now.

This sounds like a privileged thing to say, and it is. But it’s also your only choice, even if you’re not enjoying the perks of tenure and stable employment. Even if it’s a big opportunity for you, like a job talk, you can’t control whether it’s cancelled or not. Let the work stuff go, little or big.

Letting it go is not a passive thing to do, it’s an active choice. For people who are driven, or perhaps anxious, it is incredibly hard to do. Certainly, it’s a self-preservation skill I have had to learn, and relearn, and am not particularly good at. As one reader pointed out to me, “you keep discovering you have limits.”

Maybe all that stuff your are worrying about will still be there when the current pandemic has mostly passed through. Maybe some of it won’t be. Focus on what you can do now for yourself and the people around you. Now is a good time to stick your head up above the chaos and busywork that, with each year, plays an ever-bigger role in defining academic life.

Let it go. You can choose to focus on what matters.

I hope to follow this up with a bit about how to support musicians, artists, and other gig-to-gig workers, but I’m still reading up on that.

Some bass players I have recently been enjoying

KT Chang: Elephant Gym.

Math rock! Chang has developed an interesting hybrid technique of tapping and melodic playing, and the band is happy to write around her bass lines (Elephant Gym is in fact a bass reference). Not everything is this busy or elaborate, but “Games” gives you an idea of her approach. I heard about these folks from a friend who also tells me there is a big Chinese post-rock scene. I look forward to learning about it.
Bonus: she’s also hilarious in an interview. From an interview with the band on their first visit to Manila:

KT Chang: I have a question, what is your favourite Filipino food? [Because] yesterday, we tried something. (turning to Tell and Tu) Do you remember the name? What we ordered yesterday. It had some shrimp and the noodle was soup … but it was not delicious.


Junius Paul

He plays electric and double bass. I learned about him because Carrie has super gotten into Makaya McCraven, a jazz drummer (because Jaszziz covers the Chicago scene very well). He fuses lots of influences, and is great as a supporting player in lots of jazz settings, but he can also carry a tune.

He is also a tights model. That’s unusual in a bass player for sure.

Junius Paul on Makaya McCraven, ”Gnawa.”

I should do this more often.

Latest scan results are in!

Yesterday, I got the results from my latest scan (we do them every six months or so), and the metastases in my lungs continue to get smaller: two examples are a met dropping from 15x23mm to 13x21mm and another down to 23x17mm down from 27x20mm.  The report also says my gallbladder is “present and unremarkable.”  We should all want unremarkable gallbladders.  (For the record, my bladder is also “unremarkable.”). That’s about all the relevant news in the report. The tumour marker in my blood has dropped again. The drugs are doing what they are supposed to do.

It’s worth remembering that the goal here is to manage a chronic illness. The shrinkage in the mets is great and unexpected news–our goal is simply to stop their growth. Remission is not the goal: it is extremely unlikely in my case, at least given the state of the medicine today. So the mets probably won’t disappear altogether, and I am not looking forward to a time when I will be done with the treatment. It’s possible something else will be invented at some point, or I will need to switch to a different drug, the goal here is maintenance, not cure.

Side effects are there, as always. Last week, after 4 days and something like 12 consecutive meals out in NYC last week my stomach totally gave out. It was like fireworks in the hotel bathroom. And I was exhausted to boot; recovery time last weekend was slow at best. But the visit to the AI Now Institute was otherwise great and I will be back.

Meanwhile, back on the ranch, I seem to have a rager of a cold. I’m not sure, but I feel like this might be the first illness of this sort on the drugs. I’ve been up the last two nights coughing: in addition to the sick person cough, I have the cough of a person with a paralyzed vocal cord, and the cough of a person taking a drug with “dry cough” listed as a side effect. It’s a lot of coughing.

Medical News–not much of it is pretty good

Suddenly, it’s been two months since my last cancer blog. No news is good news! I had a CT scan on Friday which I’ll learn about in 2 weeks, and my tumour marker keeps going down. I had a heart ultrasound last week and my heart looks great. My favourite side-effect, weight loss, continues steadily. After dropping 6 pounds in January, my oncologist actually asked me “are you eating enough?” If you made a ranked list of least-likely questions for me ever to receive from a doctor or any other medical professional, “are you eating enough?” would be firmly at the top. For the record: I am eating enough.

Other side effects are more or less stable. The one most on my mind is sleep. Being on sabbatical, I have had the opportunity to sleep as much as I want/need, and I am logging a lot of hours unconscious. I used to be a 7.5-8 hours a night kind of person (sometimes more if I needed to catch up). Now I’m more like 9-11. I’m not sure I could sustain an 11-hour a night routine while teaching, and it starts to feel like I’m “losing time” for either work or leisure when sleeping for 11 hours (which means I’m in bed for like 12, since I like to read before falling asleep). I asked the doctor about it and he just said to enjoy it for now, and figure out what I need to do when I’m back in the classroom in the fall. I have had to get up to an alarm some days and so far that’s been ok. I’m also not often hitting an energy wall at night like I did sometimes in the fall term, probably because I’m sleeping as much as I want and not pushing it the rest of the time. The one exception was a conference in Ottawa, where I tried to attend everything and my body rebelled during the penultimate panel.

I am writing this from the airport, as I’m heading to New York City for the week to be at the AI Now Institute. So that will be a test for 5 days.

My hands and feet have their good and bad days but for the last few months they have been moving within a predictable range. With gloves, I’ve been able to play music enough to satisfy and without great pain. For the past 3 weeks or so, I’ve also been spending a lot of time recording other people doing vocal overdubs (and some guitars) which is a nice, totally painless way to be musical.

Digestion continues to be an adventure. Sometimes everything is fine, sometimes, everything is not, and it’s kind of hard to predict, except that I should pretty much always stop eating by 8:30pm. I lose about half a day a week to something going wrong, give or take. I’ve got a suite of drugs for every contingency, and am not shy about using them. I drink those little probiotic shots in the morning every day now. I have no idea if they actually help but I like to imagine that they do. I am tempted to get into more detail here, but I’ll leave it at this for now.

My mood remains surprisingly good. I’m sure being on sabbatical helps.

Some extremely obvious reflections on the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz

  1. It’s all connected. Yesterday was the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. I don’t believe I had any relatives at Auschwitz, but members of my extended family did die in the Holocaust. They also died because of anti-semitic conscription during World War I in the Austro-Hungarian empire (in fact, this is the reason my mother’s father wound up in the United States). Sunday, I attended a march on India’s Republic Day to denounce the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), India’s new citizenship law that turns countless Muslims into stateless people. Meanwhile, at India’s official Republic Day celebration, Modi’s guest of honour was Bolsonaro. Fascism is intersectional, transnational, and networked.
  2. It is not an accident that American politicians–including Bernie Sanders–do not know that it was the Soviet Army, not the Allies who liberated Auschwitz. Stories like that do not fit into the convenient narratives of American history. The same can be said for a critical reading of the CAA, which appears to draw from both the Nuremberg laws and Israel’s current approach to citizenship and immigration. Did I mention that fascism is intersectional, transnational, and networked?
  3. In opposition to these rightward turns in formerly liberal democracies (as well as in states that are not and have not been liberal democracies), there are pro-democracy movements driven by young people, students, women, and others: Hong Kong, Chile, India, the U.S. and Canada, Turkey, and elsewhere around the world. These movements are also in touch with one another and sharing strategy, but they lack the institutional might that the pro-fascist movements have.
  4. The climate catastrophe will make everything worse.
  5. The Jewish motto of Holocaust remembrance is “never again.” But never again appears to be right now. It is not a coincidence that anti-Semitic violence is up; that is a direct result of the global resurgence of organized racism. I went to a synagogue for the first time in years for a friend’s kid’s bar mitzvah, and was shocked to see an armed guard at the door. In Westmount. (Relatedly: I am so tired of hearing cynical invocations of anti-semitism by people for political ends, rather than focusing on actual attacks on Jews).
  6. It is hard for any one person to keep track of all of this or to stay on top of it. But we can choose to be aware of some parts of the world other than our own.
  7. This point is for those of us with decent incomes. People on the left, and secular people, regularly give away less of their money than people on the right and religious people. People with less money tend to give away a higher proportion of their incomes. If you can, consider giving money to support some of these radical movements. Consider supporting the Movement for Black Lives or an Indigenous group if you are giving to a U.S. presidential candidate. Why not donate to Extinction Rebellion instead of buying carbon offsets? If like me you are in a place with relatively valuable currency, why not send money to support activists in another part of the world where your money will go even further thanks to a good exchange rate?
  8. Figure out what you can do in your community and even in your workplace. Small actions, as well as big ones, matter. It’s not about being a full time activist. It’s about doing something, rather than nothing.

Some quick takes on AI-based music composition startups

I just responded to two questions about AI-composition startups from a student and thought I’d share them here as well. This is a placeholder for deeper thoughts.

The questions:

  1. What are your thoughts on the uses of Amper music specifically as an AI generative software? A user can create their own personal track by determining the durations, instrumentation, descriptive moods and function of music. The user must pay a one-off fee, and in return acquires a global perpetual royalty free license (although all copyrights are reserved by Amper).  (  
  1. ( The tech start-up company Jukedeck has been around since 2012 and provides AI generated music to users in a similar way to Amper. However, in 2019, the software was bought by social media platform Tiktok (so that the software can generate its own music-more profit to be made, as it would eliminate the need to pay royalties to record label.) I am curious to hear your views about the ethical tensions that this situation may raise for the music industry?

Thanks for your interest [student emailer].  You should really talk with Eric Drott at Texas who is studying these things in depth.

Honestly, my main thought on AI-assisted music composition is: who wants it, and to what end?  We live in a world where each year more new music made by people is released than the last, much of it available for free or cheap online. The only people I can imagine who really want an AI composition service are people who are currently paying musicians who don’t want to pay them.   Amper is working in the “disruption” model where they are trying to take money from licensing firms who sell stock music.  So they are simply trying to elbow their way into an existing industry, Uber or AirBNB style.  JukeDeck seems similar.
“Ethical” implies that the business model could be tweaked to be fair.  It’s not; it’s political in that it’s designed to take something from one group to the unfair advantage of another.  It’s scorched-earth capitalism. The business model seems fundamentally at odds with any desire to support music or musicians, instead diverting money that could have gone into supporting the arts into the pockets of investors or tech firms.  Most institutional efforts at AI ethics actually serve the industry’s desire to avoid regulation.

That said, stock music firms are also not always on the up-and-up with musicians, but at least there is the possibility that they would in some way provide institutional support to music.  AI-based composition firms offer no such possibility.

Artists experimenting with AI-based or assisted composition or collaboration is a whole other thing, and something I wholeheartedly endorse.

EDIT: the very idea of a “music composition startup” is head-explodingly weird.

2020: “Hit record”

My New Year’s resolution is “hit record.”

Very simply: it means that I will record a lot of my musical improvisations over the course of the year. I’m aiming for twice a week give or take, but I’m not going to be precious about it. I have ideas for what might happen after that, but that part will take its course. Some of might become ideas for Volte songs. Some of it might turn into new electronic work. Some of it might feed into another project. Recording might or might not make me more focused in my improvisational practice. We’ll see. The point is to make it simple: hit record, see what happens.

Perhaps you’ve heard about Prince’s vault. He made a gazillion recordings and only released a relative few because that’s how the music business worked: you risked flooding the market if you released too much music.

Things are changing now, at least on sites like Bandcamp, where prolific musicians can release as much music as they want, and subscribers support them. Often, though not always, this is linked to a more improvisation-based musical practice. I’ve been in regular touch with a couple people who do this kind of thing–Steve Lawson and Markus Reuter–and have benefitted from lessons from each of them in 2019. I been struck by how different their approach to creative work is. It’s neither precious nor perfectionist, which describes my approach to writing but less so to music.

In 2015, my new year’s resolution was “play a stringed instrument 15 minutes a day.” It was the only resolution I’ve ever really kept and keeping it changed my life. I am now in two bands and music is a huge part of my life again. I am happier for it. It worked because it was simple and let the implications come.

After my successful November of writing I considered signing up for “Jamuary” where artists record and release a track each day. But I neither want nor need that speed of output. I don’t actually write like that (the writing does not appear immediately after composition, except here). I’m looking to develop a long-term habit here, so it’s more about setting up and using recording templates in my software, and having my music space “ready to cook” just like my writing space is (they are also now the same space, which is really nice).