Friday, December 31, 2010

2010's Greatest Hits

My 12 Greatest Hits of 2010:
  1. January: Started a new full-time job at MOG. As the year progressed, my good fortune was reinforced. Unemployment is high and expected to remain so for a few more years; I am still surprised at how much I'm enjoying my new job. I have great colleagues.
  2. February: Despite a massive computer failure and near-loss of valuable data, I managed to complete my RPM record "Reflection", and people like it! Full release coming soon...
  3. March: Showed surprisingly complete demos of both MOG apps at SXSW to the press, got good reviews
  4. April: Wrote a new song for pop-punk band Victim Nation
  5. May: Attended the wedding of my good friends Rich and Humu; traveled back east to see my cousin Claire get married and see other friends and relatives.
  6. June: Played guitar with The Disciples of Vice.
  7. July: Launched both the MOG iPhone and Android apps!
  8. August: Got fitted for custom shoes and boots.
  9. September: The new and improved Sid Luscious and The Pants debuted at the Portola Festival. Had a nice getaway at a resort.
  10. October: The MOG app I built won Billboard's "Best Streaming App of 2010", beating the Rhapsody app (which I also built!) and the Thumbplay app.
  11. November: Spent a nice Thanksgiving with relatives in Napa and met my brother's fiancee. Congratulations to them both!
  12. December: Celebrated 10 years as a couple with my wonderful wife. And my friend Sid Luscious played a show at the Great American Music Hall.
I didn't write as much as I would have liked, a combination of things like lots of work, Fallout: New Vegas, and various other distractions. I hope to rectify that and my other flaws in 2011!

Happy New Year!

Monday, December 27, 2010

Favorite New Music for 2010 [updated]

I listened to a lot of music in 2010, including most of the albums on most critics' lists. Some were pretty good. Most were terrible. I won't pretend that my selections here are comprehensive or definitive, but I enjoyed all of these records quite a bit.

Album of the Year: Gil Scott-Heron - "I'm New Here"
This record embodies many artistic virtues. It's heartfelt, honest, modern, and brief. Rather than hiring The Roots and recreating the sound of a classic 70s album, producer Richard Russell keeps it contemporary. Like Gil Scott-Heron himself, the album sits somewhere between rap, hip-hop, jazz, and blues.

There are only a few actual songs on the album, but like the chocolate chips in a cookie, this makes them even more special. The rest is spoken word or mood pieces. It's barely a half-hour long. But I love it, and everyone I played it for loved it as well.

Listen to I'm New Here.

Silver Medal: Neil Young - "Le Noise"
Neil Young is 65 years old, and not in the best of health. He could certainly be forgiven for either retiring or putting out a nice, quiet, lazy record.

This year he delivered "Le Noise", an album that felt like the work of a (forgive the pun) young musician. And I mean that in the best way possible. "Le Noise" delivers the kind of concept and production that typically only new musicians go for.

The album is just Neil Young and guitar. But it's mostly electric guitar. So rather than old folky/fogey strumming, Neil Young (and producer Daniel Lanois, for whom the album is punningly named) unleash billowing clouds and roaring oceans of guitar noise, feedback, and looping delays. Only a young musician would have the bravery and excitement about the sound and material to say "you know what, it doesn't need drums or bass or anything. Release it like that." (though I'm awaiting the inevitable "remixes" where people drop drums and bass on top).

But he isn't some tyro - he's a veteran songwriter, singer, and performer, and that means the album also has a sure hand, excellent performances, and solid songs.

Replace Neil Young's name and voice with anyone's, and this record would have likely topped many critics' lists. And again, he keeps it brief - about 35 minutes start to stop, which makes it easy to digest as a whole listening experience.

Listen to Le Noise.

Pop Category: Robyn - "Body Talk, Part 1"
As a songwriter and as someone who "follows the music industry", I listen to a lot of popular music in different genres. Today's modern pop music is really dumb. Willfully stupid. Awful.

This sort of idiocy is embodied by Kesha. Everything about Kesha - production, image, and overall vibe - is crass, cynical, depressing pandering to the lowest common denominator.

So if you want to dance and you want something that sounds good on the radio and you need a blonde pop tart to present it, what do you do?

Robyn is your answer. Produced in the same Swedish gene labs as Abba and other pop superstars, Robyn released 3 EPs and an album this year, all called "Body Talk".

It's great Top 40 radio dance pop, full of synthesizers, drum machines, and bright, harmonized vocals. No Auto-Tune singing robots.

What sets Robyn apart from everyone else? Songwriting and emotion. Robyn writes wonderful melodies (and unlike Kesha, she writes her own material). She sings with emotion and a big, solid voice. And her lyrics aren't half bad, especially when compared to the scribbling that most other pro songwriting teams hand in.

"Body Talk, Part 1" is a great example of pop music circa 2010. Solid songs, and again, brief. I think it's a better listening experience all the way through than Part 2, 3, or the full album. However, make sure you also check out "Indestructible", which is a really strong song missing from "Part 1".

Listen to Body Talk, Part 1.

Instrumental Ambient: Robin Guthrie - "Carousel"
Robin Guthrie played guitar in Cocteau Twins, and his solo records sound like Cocteau Twins albums minus the keening vocals. I find this to be a great improvement.

Shimmering chorused clean electric guitars twinkle like snowflakes or city lights. There's the occasional synthesizer or electric piano. On some tracks drums splash and crash in the distance. The tempos are slow and dreamy.

It's surf music in space, or at the bottom of the sea.

Yes, it can be a little same-y at times, but it's pretty. I found myself playing this at work a lot and probably listened to this more than any two of the other albums on this list combined. Some of it is quite beautiful, and a few of the pieces are evocative and emotional. Another short record, too!

Listen to Carousel.

Hip-Hop: The Roots - "How I Got Over"
Everyone is gushing over the new Kanye West album. I can only assume that Kanye's hype and obnoxious public persona are what they're really paying attention to.

There's no other reason for the public to continue to ignore or underrate The Roots. Real musicians playing real instruments, writing their own hooks rather than sampling others. They can rap. They have lots of friends. But they don't jump up on stage in front of people and say outrageous things.

They made what may be their best overall album this year. While it doesn't really have a track as immediately arresting as "Get Busy", nothing else out there really sounds like this. It's a rare hip-hop record filled with the joy of making music rather than the joy of posturing. 

Like many of my favorite albums, this really grew on me over time this year.

Listen to How I Got Over.

Late To The Party: Iggy Pop - "Preliminaires"
This record came out in mid-2009, but I didn't really listen to it until this year. It's a "fake jazz" album, according to Iggy. It's also a sort of sci-fi concept album, brief, and in some ways similar to the Gil Scott-Heron album.

Iggy's voice sounds wonderfully rich, deep, and weathered. He's got a synthy cover of "Insensatez", a New Orleans-ey stomper ("King of The Dogs"), and a tip of the hat to some of his old stuff ("Party Time").

But my favorites are the slower, darker numbers like "I Want To Go To The Beach" and "It's Nice To Be Dead".

Many people will dismiss this album because they only want to see Iggy smearing peanut butter on his lithe frame and yowling about TV Eyes and his Lust For Life. But Iggy is 63 - nearly the same age as Neil Young - and this is a much more age-appropriate record (for Pop and for me!) without being embarrassing! It's the kind of album that reminds you for all of his stage antics, Iggy Pop is an artist.

Listen to Preliminaires.

[UPDATE] Other Notable Albums:
  • LCD Soundsystem "This Is Happening" is a more consistent album than "Sound of Silver", but because it sounds almost exactly like the last record, it's less transcendant. Still very good, though
  • Bryan Ferry "Olympia". I really wanted to like this record more. I dug the remixes of "You Can Dance" more than the album version, though. Still pretty nice.
  • Underworld's "Barking" started off pretty strong but failed to keep up all the way through. It's also very much "more of the same" from them, which is both very good and very bad at this point. I really liked the first 3 tracks.
  • Devo's "Something For Everybody" was a great album the first few times I listened to it. Then, like bubblegum, the flavor wore off. The brickwalled mastering hurt my ears. The record runs at least 4 songs too long (brevity is the key in 2010, guys!), and Devo undermines their own breathtaking cynicism with some open-hearted ballading. I can't tell if they're joking or not, and that's a bad thing. Still, when you first hear the robot disco grooves of songs like "What We Do", it's hard not to start doing bad new wave dancing.
  • The new Kanye West album had a couple of good tracks on it, but these were offset by the relentless hype as well as a few tracks that were so amazingly, jaw-droppingly bad I could not get all the way through them.
  • I really wanted to like the Big Boi album. I thought it was boring. 
  • Most of the 3rd Harold Budd & Clive Wright collaboration album "Little Windows" was good, but I have a hard time recommending it to anyone who doesn't think Harold Budd is a genius. And many of Clive Wright's tracks should be half as long and lighter on the vibrato.
    There's a lack of "first albums by bands" on this list in 2010, which is personally disappointing for me. I want to like new music by new bands. I just didn't hear any that made an impact this year.

    10 years after the "digital revolution" little has changed.  The iron grip radio and MTV held over taste-making, the public ear, and stardom has been replaced by Pitchfork and other blogs and various internet sites and memes. Look at most of the lists people cite and you'll see a tremendous amount of similarity. This is more due to the effectiveness of PR machinery than a true consensus on how "great" some of this music is.

    Still, plenty of good stuff came out this year.

    Up next: 2010's bumper crop of reissues!

      Thursday, December 23, 2010

      WikiLeaks Thoughts

      I have mixed feelings about WikiLeaks' recent release of classified information. (Bruce Sterling wrote about it rather well, it's worth checking out.)

      However, I have even more mixed feelings about the response to WikiLeaks. Much like terrorism, I think our reactions to the events are both more telling and potentially more destructive than the events themselves.

      Here are a few things to consider:

      US security for this kind of material is clearly terrible.

      WikiLeaks is a relatively small, powerless, and benign organization. If they were able to acquire this kind of material with relative ease, what can a large, powerful, and malevolent organization achieve? What have they already achieved?

      If all this material was so sensitive, why wasn't it better protected? Individual messages weren't encrypted. It was all easy enough for one person to access without setting off any alarms, and literally walk out the door with it. Again, this person (Manning) wasn't someone with spectacularly high-level security clearances.

      There have been many discussions lately about potential collateral damage:
        • The WikiLeaks release may put diplomats and other agents of the USA in harm's way
        • I have heard pundits say the "revenge" DDOS attacks aimed at PayPal, MasterCard, and Visa may hurt "the poor" (who "depend on credit cards during this holiday season") and "craftspeople" (who rely on the big financial companies to process gift transactions)
        ...and yet there has been very little discussion of the people who have already been actually harmed by actions taken which WikiLeaks and others have uncovered.

        I'm referring to the tens of thousands of Iraqis and Afghanis killed, maimed, and injured; of the people rendered by the USA to other countries for torture and interrogation; of the US soldiers killed in 2 wars, with many injuries and deaths propagandized or covered up.

        This is not to say these wars are good or bad - that's a topic for another post - but the US media continues to ignore the deaths.

        Is it reasonable to attempt to control the WikiLeaks information now that it is available on the Internet? Like any MP3 or movie, the WikiLeaks data is widely available to the general public and will be forever.

        People who work for the government or even may want to work for the government are being discouraged or forbidden from reading the (now publicly available and widespread) material, as if it will taint or corrupt them somehow.

        The admonition seems ridiculous, and the implied threat (if we can prove you read this stuff, you may be in trouble) seems like something from the Soviet Union's darkest days.
        • Clearly legitimate news sites like the New York Times are being threatened for covering the material
        • Companies which provide any services potentially related to this material are being threatened (and are rapidly caving under pressure)
        • These companies are also acting in disconcerting ways - see Bank of America's refusal to process donations to WikiLeaks. Should your bank be allowed to dictate what you can and can't do with your money?
          If all that can happen before any trial or charges, what does it mean for freedom of the press, freedom of speech, and due process? These hammers aren't being dropped selectively, they're being applied broadly and quickly with little diligence.

          The criminal charges against Julian Assange for sexual misconduct or rape, while serious, are a sideshow meant to distract everyone from the serious security breach and the even more serious information contained in the cables; and from the corporate and government reaction to same.

          Whether he is guilty or not is not relevant or germane to a discussion of the content of the cables; and it's not relevant to a discussion of whether having this information out there is a good or bad thing.

          And note that while mud is being slung loudly at Assange, very little is being said about Bradley Manning, who is being held in SuperMax-style solitary confinement. This is considered incredibly harsh treatment, bordering on torture. The U.N. is investigating his conditions. Manning hasn't been convicted of anything, he hasn't had a trial. He's not particularly dangerous. The government is willing to "detain" him in solitary for 23 hours a day. What will they do to you when you protest?

          Finally, I would note WikiLeaks and other related groups are being labeled things like "anti-establishment" and "anarchists".

          The whiff of 50s-era Red Scare-ism aside, last time I checked, "anarchists" were people who "seek to overturn government, with no purpose of establishing any other system of order in the place of that destroyed."

          That sounds a lot like the current USA Republican party and/or Tea Party (same thing), who want to "shut [the US] government down". They've threatened and implied violence if they don't get their way. They haven't come back with any plans. 

          Troubling times.

          Tuesday, December 21, 2010

          The Shape of The Universe, 15 years ago

          About 15 years ago I released an ambient/electronic album called "The Shape of The Universe". Despite being both all instrumental and using some electro-acoustic compositional techniques, this album is one of the more popular things I've done.

          It spent nearly 6 months on top of the experimental charts and sold enough to convince me there was a future for independent musicians willing to work hard.

          I created this record during a one-month stint while I was unemployed. My "job" was working at my rehearsal studio in L.A.

          Having broken up my band after several years of trying to write "hits", playing guitar, singing, and trying to please other people, I decided to make some music just for me, without regard for what others might think.

          I can still remember working on this project and playing some rough mixes for my musician friends. I was surprised at how well-received it was, and that early feedback from people like Justina Klimkevich, John Kaizen, and my brother convinced me to finish.

          You can download the whole thing, or just listen here:

          The equipment I had at the time was laughably small and limited compared to what I enjoy today. The entire gear list for this recording project is as follows:
          • Roland Jupiter-6 synthesizer (thanks, Chris Fudurich!)
          • Casio CZ-101 synthesizer
          • Akai S1000 sampler (with 8 MB of memory)
          • Yamaha SPX-90 digital effects unit
          • Roland GP-8 effects unit
          • Tascam 488 Portastudio (8 track cassette machine)
          ...and that's it. Well, I played a china cymbal on one track. And recorded the clothes dryer.

          This album was released on cassette. My brother designed an intriguing cover. And we decided to include a random selection of 3 of 24 "trading cards" as well. This was the beginning of my interest in alternative packaging for music.

          After all this time, I'm thinking that I should probably do another Captain Kirk album. I'm also contemplating a book that will reproduce the trading cards.

          Friday, December 17, 2010

          Who's Wrecking Your Product?

          It really does only take one person to wreck a product.

          Sometimes they wreck it before it's even started. Sometimes they wreck it while it's being made. Sometimes they wreck it after it's done.

          Creating a product requires many things:
          • Clear vision - this includes what need it should address, why it's being built, for whom, and what the timeline should be. 
          • Realistic goals - this includes the budget and resourcing as well as the expected feature set and benefits to the company bottom line
          • Carefully balanced trade-offs between all of the competing elements
          • Discipline 
          Ultimately, the product manager is responsible for all of the above. But in many companies, product managers lack the authority to enforce those items. In others, the key decisions are either made or overridden by senior management.
            Steve Jobs Wrecked Your Product
            "Boom! I just wrecked your product!"
            Why blame The Steve? He's legendarily, heavily, deeply involved in nearly all aspects of product creation for Apple. Mr. Jobs really does make many, many decisions. And he's frequently, annoyingly "right", in the sense that Apple's products have sold extremely well since his return from exile.

            Many books have been written about Steve Jobs and Apple, dissecting them both and seeking the reason for their success. I think in both cases it comes down to one thing: discipline.

            Apple seems to realize the value of restraint. Less is more, especially in software. They initially launch with a sometimes laughably small number of features...but they all work, and work well. They slowly add high-quality features over time. This approach is very similar to the "kaizen" process that Toyota uses. Developing with discipline beats rushing out a feature-complete-but-buggy 1.0 and then trying to patch it.

            Steve Jobs is very good at helping decide what to leave out. He understands that good products are narratives (like, say, Pixar films). They have a central theme which must be supported and reinforced.

            Steve Jobs has caused 2 major problems for everyone else, though. And both are the result of being blinded by surface and style rather than focusing on deeper critical thinking.

            Steve Jobs Wrecked Your Boss
            Nearly every high-level executive I can think of secretly (or not-so-secretly) wants to be Steve Jobs. They admire his panache, life story, fashion sense, reputation, and of course, massive success.

            Unfortunately for many, one of their takeaways from Steve Jobs is "I need to micromanage my product team". They insist on arbitrary product reviews with no clear next steps. They make changes without a strategic or tactical understanding, of the project goals. They don't stay informed about the product constantly, and rather like the Eye of Sauron, swing in to focus on it erratically and painfully.

            They change the central theme of the product. They move goalposts. They revoke previous decisions.

            Steve Jobs sets clear goals at the outset: Who's the ultimate decision maker? (he is, and he stays involved) What's the theme of the product? What are the resources? And so on.

            If your supervisors emulate the wrong aspects of Steve Jobs, you may be wrecked before you even start. Getting around bad management is a challenge for the best product managers. Sometimes it is clear that bad management will wreck your product. It's almost always better to ship even a flawed product than to bail out, however.

            So, misunderstanding leadership lessons from Steve Jobs. What else? How about misunderstanding design!

            The Cargo Cult of Steve (or, Your Company is Not Apple)
            I have a kitchen timer that looks like an original iPod. Because it was designed and made when iPods were popular. It is a terrible, terrible product. And it is obvious the company that made it wanted it to look like an iPod to cash in.

            While it is superficially similar to an iPod, in practice, it is the antithesis of what made the iPod popular. It takes a relatively simple product (a countdown timer) and turns it into something incredibly annoying and difficult to use.

            Reasons why it's terrible? Off the top of my head:
            • Button layout arbitrary and inappropriate for purpose
            • Buttons are too stiff
            • Inscrutable UI
            • Lack of attention to detail
            It feels awful to use.

            I don't know the folks who created this thing, but I can imagine the meetings where they decided (or perhaps the boss demanded) to adopt the visual language of the iPod without understanding the product thinking that led to that visual language. It is cargo cult thinking.

            Products get wrecked when companies decide to emulate other products' surface appearance without understanding the thinking that created that appearance in the first place.

            This is different from following "industry standards", "best practices", or even "trends". Those all have their place when they are conscious decisions made with intent.

            Copying Apple is a conscious decision, and the intent is clear - emulate success. But Apple's success (and design) come about because the company makes conscious decisions with intent.

            Another frequently cited example is the use of 3D buttons and glossy effects. Apple doesn't make buttons glossy and 3D just because they "look cool". They do it to make the buttons stand out clearly from the rest of the flat, matte interface. Many other OS widgets (Android, Windows 7 for example) use glossy and 3D effects in a gratuitous fashion, and frequently the shiny highlight makes text less legible.

            Design elements should never be gratuitous. If you're doing something for no other reason than "it looks cool", reconsider. That said, "looking cool" can add value provided you're not interfering with the rest of your product functionality.

            Your boss might misunderstand Steve Jobs. Don't allow yourself or your team to misunderstand Apple and design in general. Make conscious decisions with intent. Think about what you are trying to accomplish and what would work best.

            Let form follow function. Or at least make sure the form is informed by function, or you know what your trade-offs are. Innovative and exciting designs frequently spring from re-focusing on what the customer is actually trying to do, rather than merely sprucing up existing design conventions.

            Don't let Steve Jobs wreck your product! Be disciplined. Make your own choices with intent.

            Up next: Your Team!

            Tuesday, December 07, 2010

            SuperWaitress Remix for The Folk Opera by Annie Bacon

            The talented Annie Bacon (late of Sweet Crude Bill and the Lighthouse Nautical Society) recently released her epic project "The Folk Opera". As part of this, she asked me to do a remix of the song"Superwaitress".

            It's now available. Go check it out!

            Thursday, December 02, 2010

            Why Products Really Suck, Part 1

            Image from:
            I recently read this rather glib and uninformative article about "Why Products Suck". It got me thinking. I've made and shipped a number of products. Some won awards. Some were terrible.

            I've definitely learned a few things, and I can definitely provide more insight than the above-mentioned article's key points, which were:
            1. It only takes one person to make your product suck.
            2. Nobody ever got fired for sucking.
            3. It’s easier to suck more than suck less.
            4. There are more ways to suck than to not suck.
            5. Customers demand sucky products.
            So I'll be doing a series of articles on making good products. First, let's look at what's wrong with this article.

            First point. The author claims "It only takes one person to make your product suck." There are a number of interesting and correct directions he could take this statement. But his actual point is that you need consensus among your "team" that your primary goal should be "not sucking".

            It is true that it only takes one person to wreck a product. There's a New Yorker cartoon I used to have taped to my wall that showed a guy at a desk writing on something his subordinate handed him, saying "I just need to make one change that will ruin all the work you've done."

            Frequently, that person is not who you expect them to be, and they will be the subject of a future article.

            I will also discuss the pros and cons of team consensus.

            Second point. "Nobody ever got fired for sucking". This is sadly true, however the point as presented in the article is rather weak. The author is basically saying "you should fire bad people" without clarifying the differences between:
            • appropriate and inappropriate risk
            • initiative and running wild
            • genuine accidents/mistakes and negligence
            Good teams and good managers not only get enough rope, they sometimes get tangled up in it. Not every risk pays out, and some risks lose big. That's why they're risky. Start-ups take bigger risks than established companies, and new products take bigger risks than established ones. They have to in order to survive.

            I'll discuss risk and failure as well.

            Third point. "It's easier to suck more than suck less". His somewhat dippy phrasing covers the best point he makes in the article: Serve the right customer. Don't be so desperate for customers you build features that aren't core. You'll attract the wrong customers and then be beholden to them with even greater costs for getting back on track.

            There will be a nice long article about discipline in product design.

            Fourth point. "There are more ways to suck than not to suck." His point here is "you need to be careful with your choices and define your product clearly before you start development". This is true, but many of the examples he cites are not relevant to that point at all. There are tactical mistakes one can make. Choosing the wrong user interface widget isn't one. Good UI designers don't really have choices with too many questions if the product is well defined - in those cases, the best (or at least better) tactical choices are fairly obvious.

            Strategic choices are much more difficult and much more important, and frequently glossed over in both theory and practice. I firmly believe that making great products is not particularly difficult if the environment is good and the team is competent. I'll cover that as well.

            Fifth point. "Customers demand sucky products." This is a rather provocative statement, given the "customer is always right" attitude that dominates. The author's main point is , but he follows it up with a poor, or at least insufficiently specific suggestion:
            Trust your instincts and the tiny set of users who use you, and resist advice from the billions of people who don’t.
            Good product designers do have instincts, but those instincts are informed by experience, best practices, and lots of research.

            Your current users are frequently the last people you want to be talking to about how to evolve your product. In the early stages of a product, your users are likely to be unrepresentative of the larger user demographic, unavailable in sufficient numbers to float your whole business model on, and highly demanding.

            For more mature products, your users are again likely to be unrepresentative of the next tranche of users you hope to attract, and will be used to how your product works. They are likely to demand minor iterations or evolutions of features.

            The short answer is "talk to people who are like the users you want to have", and the long answer will be coming in a new post soon.

            Up Next: Who's wrecking your product? (Answer: Steve Jobs. Seriously).