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Put Your Hand in Mine

The spring I turned 40 I experienced a small songwriting flurry and several songs emerged. One of them was called “A Little Heartache” that I wrote for Angie Talle. I always love hearing Angie sing and when I asked her, one evening at the Turf Club back in the winter of 2011/12, when she was going to record an album, she said she needed some songs and I should write her one. I think we were both surprised when, a couple months later, I sent her a demo of that tune. (The song did eventually make it on to her album several years later, in an altered form.)

That same winter Juliana got to attend a conference in New York City, and in a rare logistical alignment, we were able to leave the kids with grandparents and go together. What a fun trip, our first together to the Big Apple. When we returned to Saint Paul I wrote “Put Your Hand in Mine” which includes one verse I distinctly remember composing while “running” on my ancient NordicTrack machine on a cold night out in the carriage house. I gave the lyrics to Chris Larson who came up with a melody in the key of E that he played for me. The next day I couldn’t remember the melody but I remembered the key of E and the feeling of it, and I especially could hear quite clearly in my head this doubled bass and surf guitar line, kind of a classic 60s sound, inspired by what Chris had played.

I carried that sound around in my head for eight years. This recording is one of the few I’ve ever done where I had a very clear idea of what it should sound like ahead of time. It was recording this song that actually spurred me last December to finally sit down and learn how to use GarageBand, and it was the first recording I made.

One of the things I love most about making music is surprising myself with something I play or sing. That spontaneous creation/discovery moment is one major reason I keep doing it after all these years. That happened for me when recording the guitar solo for this song. That was the only part I didn’t have a clear idea about before I started. I experimented with a lot of different guitar sounds before I settled on one that reminded me of the 80s New Wave music I loved as a teenager (think “Just Like Heaven” by the Cure). There’s one part, right at the B section, that made me so happy when I heard the playback that I decided right then to record another of these old songs.

Another process element I re-learned while recording this one was what Alex Oana taught me about finding a Part for each instrument. It can be a really simple melody or riff or pattern, but it’s important for a pop song to have that repeating pattern for each instrument. It builds the kind of emotional recognition that we respond most to in pop music. It seems like an obvious lesson in retrospect, but I’ve been slow to learn it because of how much I enjoy the surprise/discovery in improvisation. When I was recording with Alex on some of the Urban Hillbilly Quartet songs, he gently nudged me toward finding a Part and I am grateful to him for teaching me that.

 

Dustmote

It was Molly Maher who referred to our house on Burns Ave as the Big Pink, after The Band album. The initial paint color when we bought the house was definitely Barbie Butt Pink. What a great old house in a great location. We had this carriage house too, which was essentially a two-story garage with a third story up top with wood paneling and this real “cabin vibe” that of course all my musician friends immediately recognized as a prime recording space. In theory.

In the dozen years we lived there, lots of aspirational construction and repair went into that space, and there was definitely some music playing and recording done, including at least one House of Mercy Band session and some demos for Pocahontas County. In the end though, it was unheated, which made for a limited window in the Minnesota year when we could reasonably hang out there, and definitely not sound-proof, which made for a limited window in the day when you could reasonably record anything without background car and park noise.

There was a time after my kids came on the scene, probably around 2010 but I can’t exactly remember, when I would occasionally escape to that upstairs carriage house space and plug in my electric guitar and noodle around. The sliding glass door was western-facing and in the afternoon you got this sunny sunray dusty vibe with all the wood walls and the park vistas out the door. This song came out of that time, and when I was recording it this last winter here in my basement office in Kansas, playing that little chord progression with the B minor took me back to those sunny Minnesota afternoons in the spring and fall when the park was green and I had just a little time to myself.

Ready for the Fall

Back in 1998 I was living in Georgia and I got lonely for all my friends in Minnesota. During that year I wrote a lot of songs because that’s what (some) lonely people do, especially lonely people doing a lot of driving and spending tons of time alone.

In 2020, like a lot of people with time on their hands, I decided to revisit some of those songs that had never gotten recorded before. Inspired by the process of recording music again, after nearly 20 years of not recording my own songs, I decided to (slowly) make my way through the shoebox of old tunes and see if they still made me happy to play.  Some of them do.

I’ve been putting the new recordings up here as I finish them.

I’m also going to write up some notes about each song, since one of the things I like to know when I listen to an album is details like when and where a song was written. A little context helps frame my experience.

“Ready for the Fall” was written in 1998 right after I moved back to Minnesota, around Labor Day. Something about the wordplay of autumn and lapsarian and some struggles that my family was having at that time. This was a song that we recorded in the winter of 1998-99 for the first House of Mercy Band album (the “white album”) but our version never quite hit what I heard in my head. This version is closer, and I am grateful that Chris Larson contributed harmony vocals on it, as he and I used to sing it together in those days.

Makefile

Over the last several years I’ve found myself needing to explain/justify my habit of using a Makefile in software projects. I figure it’s time to create a post about it, so I can just refer here in the future.

I’ve a long-standing (decade+) habit of (ab)using Makefiles in projects, regardless of what the language(s) are and what other kinds of management tools are in use. Here’s one example. I don’t actually use them to compile things, or for keeping track of when files change, but more as a convenient mnemonic standard.

My rationale has been:

  • make is ubiquitous so there’s usually nothing to install
  • heterogenous projects involve multiple languages, with multiple invocation syntaxes. make allows me to easily remember a short command that is meaningful for what I want to accomplish (execute a task, start or stop a service, etc), rather than needing to first think “what language is this?”
  • make is language agnostic. It’s just a handy way to group shell invocations together with environment variables and comments/context.
  • make foobar is easier to remember (for me) than foobar with --all the --usual but sometimes --forgettable options.
  • during the workday, switching between repos that have different languages/tools/frameworks can create cognitive overhead, and make build or make run will just work regardless of what directory I’m in
  • it’s both a way of documenting common tasks for shared developer knowledge/utility, and making it more convenient to onboard developers, regardless of whatever other tools that they might be familiar with.
  • a Makefile is like an executable README

HB 2196 Testimony – Unemployment Insurance

The Kansas legislature is considering a bill that would create a legislative oversight committee specific to the technical modernization of the Kansas Department of Labor. The following is the testimony I wrote for the committee.

Testimony on Substitute for HB2196
Senate Commerce Committee
Peter Karman
March 17, 2021

Mr. Chairman and Committee Members,

I am Peter Karman, resident of Lawrence. I am here to present testimony on Substitute for House Bill 2196.

I am a technology professional with over 25 years of experience. I am also a former federal employee where I played a significant engineering role in the development of several IT projects, including the identity verification, security and fraud prevention, and authentication features of login.gov, which currently serves over 30 million Americans. I also worked on the modernization of the Department of Veterans Affairs case appeals management system.

During April and May of 2020 I assisted the Kansas Department of Labor as a volunteer with the United States Digital Response. The USDR is a group of several thousand volunteer technologists who stepped forward during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic to assist state and local governments with the sudden demands on their technical infrastructure. I spent hundreds of hours in the depths of the KDOL technical systems and with the KDOL IT team during those weeks and have remained in touch with the department in the year since.

I also served on Governor Kelly’s transition team in 2018 and have knowledge of many of the IT systems, architectures and challenges within Kansas state government.

First, I applaud the committee’s desire to see KDOL technology systems modernized. The state’s reliance on mainframe technology poses several challenges to providing key services to constituents, particularly in the quickly evolving online environment on which many Kansans depend. I also support the legislature’s desire to understand the unemployment application process from the perspective of the users of the system. Filing a claim and receiving benefits should combine the best of design research, security and fraud prevention practices. Kansans facing these difficult circumstances deserve an experience filled with empathy and respect.

Second, there are provisions in the current bill that concern me, both as a professional and as a taxpayer. Creating a new oversight committee will add redundant bureaucracy to the existing legislative oversight structure that includes the Joint Committee on Information Technology. Empowering this committee with architectural decision-making power will place incredible demands on the committee and will prevent professional technologists and architects from using their industry knowledge and expertise to address complex design and security issues. We should let professional technologists determine the best technology solutions.

Page 3 of the current bill enumerates several technical security remediations and strategies that have no reason to exist in statute. I have worked on several IT modernization projects at the federal level that were initiated via Congressional action and every one of them that made specific technological requirements part of the law resulted in delays and inferior technological outcomes. Digital security practices must evolve as quickly as the threats they hope to defeat. When technical specifications make their way into statute, IT professionals face a dilemma between implementing the legal requirements and implementing secure systems. This false choice can lead, in the best case, to security theater and, in the worst case, insecure implementations. Please don’t enshrine today’s technical specifications, which must constantly evolve, into law preventing IT professionals from solving tomorrow’s security threats.

Thank you to the committee for considering this testimony and for your continued work in helping KDOL better serve Kansans.

Sincerely,

Peter Karman

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