Facing the 2012 RPM Challenge

February is just a couple of weeks away, and as I have every year since 2008, I’ll be participating in the RPM Challenge.

What’s that? It’s simple: produce an entire album (10+ songs or 35+ minutes) entirely during the month of February.

My concept this year is a bit different than in the past. This time around, I will not be using any instruments… just my iPhone. I’ve assembled an interesting collection of music creation apps (which I will detail in a future post, but for now will represent with a pair of screenshots, below), and these will be the only tools I will use to generate sounds. I may sample my voice, found sounds and instruments using my iPhone’s microphone, and I’ll do final mixing and post-production on my MacBook Air, but as much as possible this will be an album produced on the iPhone. Given the nature of some of the apps I’ll be using, I also expect this album to be a lot more experimental/avant garde in style than most of my recent solo work.

I am tentatively calling the album i. And I am also considering producing a companion album, called The Way Out Takes, that will consist of unedited versions of the more experimental tracks that end up on i.

Stay tuned for more details as I think them up.

Fiddly

I got up this morning and, like on most mornings, one of the first things I did was brush my teeth. It’s a simple process, just part of the minutiae of daily life. But as with so many of those little things we do every day, it’s a less-than-ideal experience. After fumbling to pull the toothbrush from the cup — where its bulbous, rubberized handle was wedged against the bulbous, rubberized handles of the other toothbrushes necessary for a household of four — and nearly dumping them all into the sink along the way, I took my frustration to Twitter:

It got me thinking about a recent post on Daring Fireball, where John Gruber expressed his frustrations that some people — even Apple Store “geniuses” — were telling iPhone owners that they need to occasionally force-quit all of the apps in their recently-used items tray. He followed up on that post on his podcast, The Talk Show, where he described the experience of operating systems where you are expected to manually monitor and adjust their states as being “fiddly.”

I’ve been thinking about that word, “fiddly,” a lot since then. I think it applies to a lot more than smartphone OSes. I’ve spent a great deal of my life dealing with overwhelming frustration at the clumsiness, the fiddliness, of everyday objects: cheap plastic toys that break easily, things that stick to other things when they shouldn’t or don’t when they should, tools that cannot adequately perform the tasks they are expressly intended for, etc.

As someone who’s not inclined to tinker with objects, much less invent solutions to their shortcomings, that frustration usually just burns off as simmering rage. But as I pondered the nature of fiddliness, and the ideal of the iPhone as a “non-fiddly” object, a couple of thoughts occurred to me:

1. It is the purpose of design to reduce the fiddliness in the world.

2. Very few makers of physical objects today follow #1.

Gary Hustwit’s documentary Objectified is focused on the design of everyday objects, and those who have excelled at creating objects that are, for lack of a better word, as non-fiddly as possible. Two people featured in the documentary are Dieter Rams, the legendary German designer who led Braun’s industrial design team in the 1950s and 1960s, and Jonathan Ive, the head of Apple’s industrial design team today. Both Rams and Ive share a passion for making objects that work. Form not only follows function, form is function. It’s a seamless integration of purpose and style that makes the objects a delight to use.

And that’s a very rare thing today, indeed.

You can’t specialize in everything

It’s been one of those weeks that a freelancer dreads. Lots of fires to put out. You’re trying to swim upstream (as always) but instead you’re treading water in a rapids. Without a team of coworkers to depend on, when a problem arises, there’s no one to pass the buck to, or at least to, uh, share it with.

The problems haven’t really been that bad. Just a few bugs to squash, a few scripts to optimize, a few clients to reassure. But when you feel like you have to be the expert at whatever you do, this kind of week can be a source of anxiety.

It doesn’t help when your main lifeline to the tech world is the expert blogs you follow. Read a few articles on A List Apart and you’ll feel both inspired and a little despondent. There are so many incredibly talented, creative people out there doing amazing things. So why am I banging my head against the wall trying to figure out why all of my form fields suddenly disappeared in IE6? (Turns out it was the position: relative on the #main element, easily fixed by overriding it with position: static in the IE6-specific CSS file I wish I didn’t have to create.)

The point is, as a freelancer, at least one who aspires to be good, if not great, at what you do, you are your own harshest critic and worst enemy. There’s no way any of my clients would ever beat me up the way I beat up myself. I don’t think I’ve ever even had one detectably angry with me. But I am constantly getting frustrated with myself for not being on top of every single technology I put my hands on, and I’m inclined to treat every bug as a personal failure.

The sad fact is, it’s impossible. You can’t specialize in everything. It’s right there in the word. Specialize. As a freelancer, you have to pick a few things to focus on as your greatest strengths, while becoming as well-rounded as you can. But there’s always someone out there who knows more about CSS3 or HTML5 or PHP or jQuery or Whatchamacallit than you do. The great thing about being a freelancer in the age of the Internet, especially if you work on the Internet, is that a lot of those superstar über-geniuses are willing to share that knowledge with you for free. All you have to do is search for it.

The biggest danger in following the superstars of your chosen field, though, is idol worship. You get to know so many facets of their work and their personalities (especially if you follow them on Twitter), that you may be tempted to think you know them personally. You might even have a brief exchange with them about baseball. But that doesn’t mean you know them or know what their lives are really like.

We all make sacrifices to live the lives we choose. It’s inherent in the finite nature of human existence. Chances are, I’ll never be a web development “rock star,” because I’ve made choices that took me on another path. I wanted to be able to work on my terms, and fit my career in as one aspect of my life. I’m not logging the kind of hours I’d need to in order to get rich doing work for hire, or building the next great social networking site. But I have time to spend with my kids and SLP (though probably still not as much as would be ideal). I can make music. I can try to set the world record on my Asteroids cocktail table. (OK, that’ll never happen, but it’s 2 feet from my desk in my home office, if I ever decide to get serious.) I can take an afternoon off to take my son to see Toy Story 3 or head down to Target Field for a Twins game or write on my coffee blog or get some fish tacos at Sea Salt.

Or, I can spend half the morning beating myself up because I’m not Jeffrey Zeldman. But, who is? (OK, he is. But that’s it.)

The point is, I’m me. I’m damn good at what I do, but I can’t do everything. And that’s OK.

What’s the point of blogging?

STFUNo, it’s not a rhetorical question. What is the point of blogging? If you’re a blogger, why do you do it (assuming you have a cogent reason)? If you’re a blog reader, why do you read the blogs that you do?

Here’s a secondhand quote on the matter that I found on one of the blogs I read:

In many ways the core of blogging is a willingness to apply what you know to every problem you encounter, and see how good a job you can do of it in a more or less integrated fashion.

That gem, which I had to read five or six times to understand, but the more I read it the more I agree, was written by Tyler Cohen on another blog I (less often) read.

Thinking about the blogs I read most, the authors have a clear purpose; the blogs have a clear theme. The authors are experts (or at least well-versed) in the subject matter they’re writing about, and the blogs become a commentary on the events of the day (within the author’s realm), bringing to the reader’s attention items of interest that they may have otherwise missed, and supplementing the link with a tidbit (or more) of relevant discussion.

So then, assuming that the success of a blog in achieving this goal is an end in itself, the point of blogging is to act as a niche news service with commentary, or perhaps more accurately as a trusted adviser — that “in-the-know” friend (though you probably don’t know the blog author personally) who knows what you’re interested in and keeps you on top of the latest and greatest.

It’s fascinating to think of the power blogs have in this way. But it also reinforces the importance of the trust I mentioned in the last paragraph. A blogger’s stock in trade is their trustworthiness. Readers need to know that the blogger actually knows what they’re talking about, and perhaps even more importantly, that they’re not being misleading — whether deliberately (for unknown nefarious purposes), accidentally (because they goofed), or due to the invisible hand of an outside influence (money from sponsors, potential to achieve a position of power and authority).

It’s easy to say that this is a reason not to trust blogs, and why blogs will always be — or at least are for now — inferior to “legitimate” journalism. But given numerous recent examples (all of which in my mind right now involve Glenn Beck in some capacity) of the failures of traditional media for many of these same reasons, I think blogging deserves more serious consideration.

Movie review: Star Trek

To say that I was excited to see the new Star Trek movie is an understatement. I first mentioned it here back in November.

So it should be no surprise that I went to see it on opening night, and I was not disappointed. The reviews are consistently superlative, and I agree. As someone who’s been a lifelong fan, albeit a somewhat tepid one, one who has approached the films in the series (my God, is this really the eleventh one?) with a degree of caution and/or passive disinterest (I’m not even sure I’ve seen all of the later ones), I know the characters well. I know the clichés and conventions (though I’ve never been to a convention — that’s not what I’m talking about). I know the difference between “Trekkie” and “Trekker” though I would not describe myself as either.

And then there’s the director, J.J. Abrams. I’ve heard good things about him, but believe it or not I’ve never watched a single episode of one of his TV shows, nor have I seen any of his movies. I’m not even sure what movies he’s done. Cloverfield, right? Anything else? (Yes, I know I could just check IMDb, but I’m trying to make a point.)

In short, while by all outward appearances I should be a hardcore fanboy for this, I’m not so much, really. And with that said, I can tell you I thoroughly enjoyed this movie (well, except maybe for the last few minutes), and that I think it will be equally appealing to both the serious Star Trek fan (Trekker, if you please) and to the summer blockbuster action-adventure watcher looking for a little over two hours of genuine quality entertainment. Perhaps the only people this movie will not appeal to are hardcore sci-fi aficionados who do not already like Star Trek. Though set in the future, and drenched in stunning futuristic visual effects, the movie is fairly light on the “sci.”

What it’s not light on, though, is intense action, an engaging story, great acting, and a near-perfect balance of plot, adventure and humor. It manages to be simultaneously reverent and irreverent towards the original series, in a way that reminds us that Gene Roddenberry’s ’60s version was both smart and silly, clever and clichéd, boldly original and drinking-game-worthy predictable.

Minor spoiler alert: if you want to be totally surprised when you see it, stop reading here.

The casting is first-rate. The actors have managed to evoke their original counterparts while simultaneously fully inhabiting the characters and making them their own. Chris Pine, in particular, is excellent as James T. Kirk. He’s probably doomed never to be as memorable or iconic as William Shatner, but he’s a lot more believable as the brash, reckless, brilliant, defiant soon-to-be captain of the USS Enterprise. I was less impressed with Zachary Quinto’s take on Spock, but that’s perhaps a bit unfair: in the context of this story, Spock is supposed to be somewhat abrasive and unlikable. The scene stealers, though, are definitely Karl Urban as McCoy and Simon Pegg as Scotty. I am hoping for some sequels if for no other reason than to see more of these two.

I could go on for pages about the details of the story, but I’ll let you see it for yourself. Suffice to say, time travel and alternate realities are involved, and I think that particular plot device was handled in a completely novel way. All of the requisite Star Trek tropes are here: Bones saying “Dammit, I’m a doctor not a…”; Scotty saying “I’m givin’ ‘er all she can take!”; Chekov’s ridiculously over-the-top accent; and of course, the two most essential elements of Star Trek: Kirk making out with a green-skinned woman, and an anonymous “red shirt” dying on an away mission.

A true Trekker wouldn’t have it any other way.