Monday, August 29, 2011

Steve Jobs, Inconsequential Details, and Bass Players

In the wake of Steve Jobs' resignation from Apple this past week, hagiographic posts churned and bubbled. One of the most popular was a story by Vic Gundotra, about how Jobs called him to discuss the Google logo on the iPhone, specifically the gradient in the yellow "o". It wasn't right, and he wanted it fixed.

People have been citing this as an example of how great Jobs was/is, noting his miraculous attention to detail.

I completely disagree. Jobs had many fine moments. This was not one of them.

This was a completely inconsequential detail. I doubt most people, seeing the two images side by side, could even tell the difference. And yet this top executive felt the need to spend time with another top executive to discuss and resolve the situation. On a Sunday morning.

Jobs has an army of some of the best visual design folks on the planet. They've not only gone to school for precisely this thing, they've executed design in the field. Google's design team isn't as good, but they're no slouches (and they're getting better).

Steve Jobs, on the other hand, is a guy who tucks his turtlenecks into his rather unflattering jeans, and wears running shoes with them (and not cool running shoes, either). His personal clothing aesthetic could perhaps be described as "successful sysadmin who once went shopping with a girlfriend". 

So Jobs or professional designers: who's going to make the better design choice?

One makes many aesthetic decisions designing products or making art. Most of them are arbitrary, and collectively they create the overall feel of the thing. If you believe the reporting and hype, Apple's products are basically the result of Steve Jobs' personal aesthetic. There's nothing wrong with that.

Even if you think Jobs made the better choice and had the right to, imagine how his designers felt. Why are they even there? (And yes, I understand it's entirely possible one of them noted this issue and passed it up to The Steve so he could pass it over to Vic and get approval - you can't just arbitrarily change a logo asset for a company like Google, but I'm assuming the story went down as people are choosing to interpret it).

In the big picture, this detail was inconsequential. CEOs are supposed to stay focused on the big picture, and leave the details to the folks passionate and expert in implementing the details.

 Far more important were the many other design decisions made - the size of the device, the weight, the screen resolution, how the system looks in general. Jobs (and more importantly, his toiling, faceless legions of workers) should be lauded for their attention to detail and understanding how important some of those things can be. If one has any doubts, go look at an Android phone or a (shudder) BlackBerry and see what lack of attention to detail looks like.

When you add someone to your band, you want them to bring their aesthetic and contribute. As I like to say, if I want you to play bass in my band, I want you to play what you think are good bass parts. If I'm standing in front of you constantly saying "no, not that note, play it exactly like this", I'm not looking for a collaborator. I'm looking for a robot (and should have a robot playing the part).

Looking at Jobs' take on this, he's got designers and he's not using them. He either hired the wrong people (they couldn't do the work to the level of satisfaction required) or he didn't empower them (he didn't let them do the work they were hired for). Neither of those speaks well of his decisions!

It's important to call out when design overrides are worthwhile or not. Looking back to this post, I'd cite Vic's story not as an example of Jobs' brilliance, but rather an example of how most CXO-level executives focus on the wrong things and take away the wrong lessons from Jobs' leadership.

Over the last few days, I expect many designers have received emails from their CEOs critiquing their visual design. Sorry to hear that, guys. Maybe you can call Vic Gundotra and get his advice on what to do.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Who Uses Your Tools?

Two of the most important records in my life I heard when I was very young. Tomita's "Kosmos" and Jean-Michel Jarre's "Oxygene". They both had extensive lists of the gear used to make the album, which to a young man, seemed mysterious and futuristic.

Tomita's list was huge, and featured things like:
  • AKG BX20E Echo Unit
  • Binson Echorec "2"
  • Roland Space Echo RE-201
  • Eventide Clockworks "Instant Phaser"
  • Eventide Clockworks "Instant Flanger"
  • Eventide Clockworks "Harmonizer"
  • Fender "Dimention IV"
  • Fender Electronic Piano
  • Hohner Clavinet C
  • Mellotron
  • Leslie Speaker Model 147
  • Roland Rhythm Arranger TR66
Jarre's included:
  • ARP 2600
  • Eko Computerhythm
  • Eminent 310
  • EMS AKS
  • EMS VCS3
  • Farfisa Organ
  • Mellotron
  • RMI Harmonic Synthesizer
At the time, these might as well have been spaceship components (hell, Tomita had an actual phaser!) -  incomprehensible and beyond expensive. Over 30 years later, I am familiar enough with gear to know what nearly every single one of the devices on both lists did and sounded like. If I wasn't, the Internet provides endless photos, samples, and emulations.

More importantly, even if I didn't know what exact gear was used, I can now listen to those old records and know how to make those sounds using other gear.

I enjoy learning about the creative process other people use. Studying how others work inspires me to try new methods. I read a lot of blogs and books about how painters paint, musicians write and record, and writers write. I also read a lot about tools.

One of the more commonly-asked questions on these blogs are things like:
"What synths did [artist name] use?"
"Which famous artists used [instrument]?"

People ask these questions to help determine what gear to buy, or if the gear they have is any good.

I think using the exact same tools to make the exact same kind of work is a recipe for uninteresting art - you'll inevitably make bad copies of the things you love.

Using the same paints and brushes as Magritte won't make you a good painter, and it won't make your painting better. Using the same typewriter as William Gibson won't make you a better writer. So why should using the same equipment and sounds as [your favorite band] make you a better musician?

A better approach is to try to emulate feel, vibe, or style with radically different gear. Or if you love the gear, use it to make very different music. The differences are what make it interesting.

There's nothing wrong with copying as a form of study - Arshile Gorky famously copied paintings by his colleagues as part of his art self-education. But when you're ready to express yourself, pay less attention to who else uses your tools and more attention to how you're using your tools!

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Talent, Art, and Fun 2: History

A tangent to my follow-up to this article about a woman and her relationship with playing guitar and music...and how everyone reacts to her artistry.

A bit of my own personal history, through her words.

I wanted to play guitar ever since I could remember. I did have a sense of how great it might feel to perform and sing, but I had no idea how long, convoluted, and confusing the path could be.

One of my earliest childhood memories is of my father playing the acoustic guitar. I can honestly only recall him doing it this one time. I was around 3 years old. I'm pretty sure he sang "Suzanne" by Leonard Cohen, and "I Think It's Going To Rain Today" by Randy Newman, both of which Judy Collins had covered, and he had some of her records.

I just thought it was awesome.

Other formative childhood experiences were seeing The Monkees on TV at my grandmother's house in Texas as a young child. Discovering these new things called "synthesizers". Finding out that FM radio was broadcasting rock music for free all the time. And then seeing my first music videos.

I started playing instruments in the 4th grade, but that was band/symphony/orchestra. I wanted to play rock music...but how? With whom? There weren't any books that I could find. But one day my parents hooked me up with something called "RockSchool". Books at first, and then a whole TV series on public TV, no less.


On the one hand, they made it look easy. And yet it was still mystifying. It was a start. (In later years, I'd realize the keyboard player they added in season 2 (Alistair) played keyboards on The Chameleons UK's album "Script of the Bridge", a favorite of mine.

But all of this was before the Internet, and finding out all this stuff was next to impossible. Learning how to do it required lots of driving to little Mom and Pop music stores in the middle of nowhere.

None of my friends had any interest in it, and my parents were not musicians. My Dad never played the guitar again after that time when I was very young.

With rock guitar, it helps to be shown a few tricks. 

Chris Haines ("Chaines") taught me to play guitar. He was the main guitar player in my college band, a long-time musical collaborator, and for a while, my best friend. He gave me tablature books. He played me records. He showed me the critical importance of alternating up-down picking ("None of that rake bullshit!"). He taught me the open G minus the third on the "A" string ("Mute that 'A' string with your index finger, because the third sounds like shit!"), and how the metal guys all played the open A with one finger and muted the high "e". I still use those faster, cleaner chord versions today. He showed me barre chords. How to tap. How to play harmonics. Really, everything I needed.

I took some lessons not long after, just to learn the "unified neck" and get some fancier chords under my fingers.

“Your brother is good at music,” the rap went, “while you are good at drawing and and other things.”

My brother is good at music. He's always been good, and it's always been a source of pride and envy for me. He's a much better guitar player than I am. I think he's a better pop songwriter. I'm probably a bit weirder, and tend to finish more projects, though. 

His band had a record deal, made a record in a real studio. Got on a movie soundtrack. If you caught them on the right night in the late 90's, they were the best band in L.A. I still listen to their records, and much to my brother's chagrin, some of his solo work. 

I remember the first time I borrowed Michele Deppler's 4-track recorder to do some early synth noodling. I came home and found my brother had recorded a guitar instrumental called "Ebb Tide". I wish I still had a copy. But I instantly understood he was always going to be "better at this" than I was.

I don't think my parents really understood how important music was to me until I went off to college. My brother went to art school. He was the "creative one", I was the "smart one". My brother is brilliant, in fact. And I believe I've demonstrated some creativity. I think my folks figured I'd "grow out of it". Must have been a bit of a surprise when I took my fancy degree and drove out to L.A. to be a rock star. To their credit, they were supportive as long as I was doing what I wanted.

I also went to school with a bunch of other kids who were ridiculously talented. They inspired me to start my own band and influenced me for many, many years after school ended.

to me rock’n'roll was writing your own songs and playing your own instruments. 

My first real band started writing songs at our first practice. We only learned covers to fill out our set. I still think bands that don't use backing tracks are hands-down "better" than those that do. The funny thing is I spent many years in L.A. playing live with sequencers and drum machines, and nobody thought it was OK. But somewhere around 2000, it became totally acceptable. I played with a few bands in San Francisco that used backing tracks and and nobody batted an eye.

I gave myself permission to ‘suck’. And with permission to suck comes the ability to rock, and to overcome all the fears and insecurities that had been holding me captive.

Once I left L.A., metaphorically and literally, I started a new creative phase. Personally, I feel I've produced consistently stronger work in the last 6 years than in my entire previous creative career.

If there's one thing that has helped, it's been removing any sense of "pressure" or worrying about "hits" or "success". The best work I've done has come from trusting myself, following my own vision, the weirder, the better.

It's good to remind myself of that every now and then. You should trust your artistic vision and intuition. It's what defines your work as yours!

Monday, August 15, 2011

Talent, Art, and Fun 1: Just Play

Since I'm writing a lot about being "gifted" lately, it seems fitting to comment on being "talented", another subject dear to me.

If you have ever made art outside of grade school, or if you've ever contemplating making any kind of art as an adult, you should read this article. It's about a woman and her relationship with playing guitar and music...and how everyone reacts to her artistry and efforts.

The gender issues addressed in the writing have captured most of the attention, but I think that's the least interesting thing about the piece. I was struck by her comments on making art independent of notions of "talent" and why you might choose to do it at all.

I really didn’t understand the nuances of musical practice, advancement and plateaus, muscle training, etc.,

Learning to play an instrument - any instrument - is difficult. Gaining enough facility and comfort with the instrument to play songs harder still. I'm not even talking virtuosity or finding your own voice, just getting to a point where you can play. And unless you are very lucky, you're probably walking this particular road alone, with either modest encouragement ("sounds like real music!") from your friends and family, or something ranging from bemusement ("you're weird", "I thought that was for kids") or even active discouragement ("you're wasting your time", "you suck").

Getting good at music takes a long, long time. Like anything. There are plenty of people who quickly master emulation of their particular idiom (that kid sounds like an old bluesman! that lady sings jazz that sounds like that other lady that sang jazz!), but in some sense it's just a cargo cult. As I've noted before, moving beyond simple imitation or being a pastiche factory takes time, skill, and guts.

There's always going to be people "better" than you at whatever you do. You can either let that deter you and beat you down, or you can let it inspire you and give you some guidance. Most of the time, I've been able to focus on the latter. Sometimes, people are just so damn good I want to give up!

...only some would ultimately be deemed worthy to publicly perform music: those who were ‘musically talented’. And that talent was determined by one’s ability to imitate, precisely, music written by others.

John Philip Sousa called it. Since the invention of the recording machine, the culture of the amateur musician withered and was replaced with "professional executants" and a passive audience.

The re-democratization of production and distribution of music in the late 20th century began to reverse this trend. But it's still more common for people to say "I am not creative" and "I am not good at music".

Being "good" isn't the point. Having fun, or expressing yourself, or working your brain in different ways is the point. (And "good" is one of those ridiculous subjective judgments that falls apart under close examination.).

Recording also changed how musicians worked. Musicians could now study their own performances as well as others, playing and replaying. This led to a certain homogenization of sound in addition to the split between "performer" and "audience".

When you start making music, people will give you "complements" such as "Hey, that sounds like a real song!" What they're really saying is "you almost sound exactly like what I hear. Almost."

This is nothing new - art is culture, and people make their judgments based on what they know best. Presumably that gap between the familiar and you is a bad thing? It's not.

When I listen to the radio, I hear stuff that sounds like music but isn't music. I hear bands that have the superficial characteristics but no depth. The guitars buzz appropriately, the singer's nasal "punk" whine is a perfect distillation of Blink-182's distillation of Green Day's distillation of the Buzzcocks. The songs all go ABABCB and so forth. But there's nothing...exciting about any of it. It's simulated woodgrain veneer on top of particle board. 

This is what happens when your primary criteria for merit is "resemblance to what came before": Stagnation. Let you be you.

I gave myself permission to ‘suck’. And with permission to suck comes the ability to rock, and to overcome all the fears and insecurities that had been holding me captive.

There are plenty of artists who have made "great art" while having either rudimentary skills or only using the very minimum of their substantial skill set.

And having objectively great skills is absolutely no guarantee of making good art. There are countless "guitar noodling" records, plenty of classical musicians who play like robots, and lots of technically competent, even excellent, painters who produce bland work.

Whether you're looking at Abstract Expressionism or listening to punk rock or electronica, the key is the ideas and passion matter more than execution. Execution is important only in that it not substantially detract from the ideas and passion. 

And since much art benefits from limitations, if I have to choose between lack of "talent" and lack of "ideas", here's my "talent". Keep it! You'll always benefit from better technique, however. Never mistake lack of skill for "authenticity". It's just lack of skill!

to me rock’n'roll was writing your own songs and playing your own instruments. 

Write your own songs. Maybe they'll be terrible, maybe they'll be great, but they'll be yours. And that is magic and priceless.

You will be clumsy when you first start your art. Try to think of this less as "I am awful" and more as "I am expressing myself". Do it for yourself!

Monday, August 01, 2011

TIP reunion, part 2: Closing Remarks

The following are my closing remarks presented at the Duke University Talent Identification Program (TIP) 30th Anniversary Reunion on July 24, 2011

In applying for TIP in 1982, I had to write an essay on Montaigne. It seems appropriate to open with one of his quotes:
“Poverty of goods is easily cured; poverty of soul, impossible.”
When I was a teenager, Dr. Robert Sawyer asked me to join him in Washington D.C. for a presentation to some members of Congress. Even as a kid, I was a passionate advocate for TIP. I am honored to speak today, and grateful for the opportunity.

It is wonderful to see so many people here, many having traveled far to be here. I keenly feel the absence of some very important friends who were here the last time we got together: Ramon Griffin, Bill Bevan, and Greg Kimble.

Duke University East Campus


Gifted.

My freakish intelligence was recognized literally almost the day I was born. I was tested by scientists doing perception studies on newborns. They kept asking my parents to bring me back in because I was the smartest baby they had seen.

Many children are precious, I was precocious. We were precocious.

Gifted.

Being gifted wasn’t easy, as everyone in this room knows. There were academic, social, and emotional drawbacks, and few resources available to help me or my parents cope. It's easy to forget what that was really like, and how horrible it could be.

I was often lonely, alienated, and unhappy. Teachers tired of my answers, energy, and enthusiasm. Other students treated me with something ranging from contempt to bafflement. Special programs and magnet schools meant I didn't go to school with the kids in my neighborhood, which made me an outcast at home, too.

I preferred the company of adults to kids my age, but the novelty of a kid who could beat them at Boggle and Scrabble wore thin quickly, and most adults aren't that interested in talking to kids (even gifted ones) for more than a few minutes.

My parents did the best they could. A family friend (Dr. Colin Blaydon) suggested my parents enroll me in a new summer program at Duke, the university where he taught mathematics.

I was accepted and took Writing I in the summer of 1982, taught by Mark DeLong.

I had no idea what to expect, but by the end of that first term, I knew what "gifted" truly meant. I worked hard and met students and faculty that were really smart.

I met kids who were obviously far more brilliant than me. I met kids who were more mature, together, and accomplished. And I met kids who were far more messed up, struggling in ways I found hard to believe. I still recall one fellow student who managed to lose his shoes in a tree while trying to retrieve a Frisbee. Others seemed barely capable of normal human interaction.

TIP was the first place I felt a true sense of belonging, of friendship, of welcome. That sense of home has been the heart of my involvement with TIP. That, and the delicious Union food and the wonderful temperate weather.

I don’t remember exactly how I met Dr. Robert Sawyer, but I did meet him that summer. I don’t need to recap all the things he did for TIP, or all the things he accomplished for gifted education.

However, I will tell you why Dr. Sawyer felt there was a need for something like TIP.

He wrote extensively about how terrible most “gifted” education programs and activities were. Sadly, he could simply change the dates on many of his earliest writings on gifted education and they would still be relevant today: the lack of academic rigor, the games masquerading as curricula, the slashed school budgets, the gap between rich and poor students…

Dr. Sawyer believed we could all do better.

He wanted a serious program for gifted kids. Something that would truly challenge and stimulate them. And perhaps he wanted a bigger audience for his square-dance calling.

More importantly, Dr. Sawyer told me he was concerned about gifted children in the more impoverished parts of the country. The phrase he used was “intellectual starvation”. He wanted to provide sustenance for these gifted children. To cultivate their nascent love of learning, so society wouldn't lose the benefits of their brilliance.

I remember being keenly aware of arguments that gifted kids, being already naturally advantaged by their giftedness, did not need any special programs or extra help; and that programs like TIP were just providing benefits to those already privileged. “Elitism”, they said.

Yet we all know how essential TIP was for our intellectual well-being. I can't imagine who I would be without it. I had a gifted and easy life and I struggled. How difficult were things for kids in more extreme situations?

The author's TIP residential group, Term II 1985.

Several reunion attendees are present, including Stacy Gardiner (front row, far left), Vernon Apperson (front row, 2nd from left, navy shirt), Dean Karlan (front row, center, white jacket), Colin Delany (back row, red shirt) and Elizabeth Sellars (front row, far right). The author is in the front left, wearing the bowtie and gray pants.

In the intervening years, I have seen some first-hand examples.

Boredom corrodes minds. Without opportunity and direction, kids' talents wither and evaporate, or curdle and turn destructive. Usually self-destructive.

I was a good kid. I played by the rules. My life’s turned out OK so far. Looking around the room, I'm guessing most of your lives turned out OK, too.

But I wonder about some of our peers…the kids who taught themselves calculus in a week but were incapable of getting to class without losing their shoes in a tree, who couldn’t interact. I know not all of them had the G/T classes and other advantages I had waiting when they got home.

As its first director, Dr. Sawyer worked hard to insure TIP reached out to minorities and girls, and spent as much money on financial aid as possible. The only thing worse than not having TIP exist at all was having it priced out of reach of those who needed it most.

TIP was expensive even back in those days. I was lucky – I never had to worry. In my time at TIP I met kids from every economic level, from big cities and backwaters, thanks to Dr. Sawyer. Many would never have made it to TIP without financial aid.

I attended TIP for 4 summers and a total of 6 terms in the 80s. I served on the advisory board in the 90s, and I taught in the last decade. I've had more of an opportunity than most students (and perhaps even most faculty) to see behind-the-scenes during my nearly 30 years' association with the program.

TIP has changed quite a bit since we were students. Organizations, like people, must grow and adapt in response to the times and their own needs. Today's TIP is not exactly the same as it was back in 1982. The world is not the same. Nor are we…but our original shapes are still recognizable, even as we've adapted to life, changed, and aged.

Dr. Robert Sawyer (right, white t-shirt, light blue pants) addresses former (and future?) TIP participants

TIP is a human institution, and is thus imperfect. Like all of us, it's made some questionable moves over the years. Been in a bad relationship or two. Maybe even said and done a few things it regrets with the hindsight and wisdom that comes with age.

You don't learn if you don't make mistakes and try new things.

TIP has never stopped trying to make a difference for those children at risk of intellectual starvation.

As you leave here, I would encourage you all to reflect on the impact TIP had on your life and consider a few things.

First, maybe give TIP some money.

TIP doesn't talk about this much, but they spend every spare dollar in their budget providing financial aid to students. They would give every kid a free ride if they could make the numbers work.

TIP also faces a number of surprising fundraising challenges due to their affiliation with a major university. They can't approach most companies or "compete" with Duke for funds.

TIP needs us. It needs our help so it can help those in need. Think about it, or better yet, do it.

Next, maybe teach. If I can do it, you can. I guarantee you will learn more than you teach, and you will find it to be a rewarding – if exhausting – endeavor. Teaching will also give you a new appreciation for the TIP staff and what they have to do every year to make the magic happen. And how challenging and satisfying dealing with gifted people like us can be.

Finally, think about your own life. Perhaps it hasn't turned out exactly as you'd hoped, planned, or feared. Or perhaps it has.

I know a lot about being a gifted kid. I still don't know much about being a gifted adult. After all this time, even Lewis Terman’s research doesn’t tell us much. We’re still figuring it out.

So here we are. It’s been quite a weekend. At most reunions, you meet old friends and reminisce about what you did.

Perhaps here you can remember who you were. How you felt. What you wanted to do. What kind of person you wanted to be. What kind of life you hoped to lead. How it felt to be excited about learning, excited about living.

Seeing you all, talking to you, learning about the incredible things you’re doing, and meeting your amazing kids has been a rejuvenating and humbling experience for me.

We were all gifted kids. Now we're gifted adults. Precocious then, post-cocious now.

As Dr. Wai said, “mostly normal, with some exceptional accomplishments”. That’s as fine and fitting a description of us as I can imagine.

Yesterday, Dr. Wai talked to us about the “black box” of TIP: Student goes in to the black box, something happens, better student comes out.

Why? Where’s the magic? Dr. Wai is looking into it. In true TIP fashion, some of you offered your own thoughtful suggestions and insights.

I offer this:
It can’t be the classes and teachers – we all took different classes with different combinations of teachers.
It can’t be the years we were there – TIP has continued on year after year, and had the same results.
It can’t be the campus – as we heard, TIP has spread to many different locations and still has the same results.
It can’t be the food or the shoelaces or the weather.

I eliminate the variables and I am left with the following inescapable conclusion:

The black box is empty. The only thing in it is…you. You change you.

We call that experience “TIP”.

This weekend and these past many years, we’ve heard over and over again that TIP made you who you were. Changed you.

Well, you just spent a weekend in the black box. You were here on campus. You sat in classes, talked with instructors. You ate the food. Experienced the weather. Wore the shoelaces. Danced the Time Warp. Were told by TIP about all the rules you were supposed to follow. You broke them. Caused the staff to revise them.

Dare to let this brief moment in the black box of TIP change you again.

To remind you not just what you did, but what you can do.

To remind you not just who you were, but who you are.

Gifted.

TIP's entire Term II student body and residential staff, 1984.

(Special thanks to Iran Narges, who provided perspective and guidance in shaping my words to best convey my feelings and intent for this very special event.)