Friday Random 10: It’s been a while

Well, I have to confess that writing a proper blog post a day has been more challenging than I anticipated. Which is why today’s “proper blog post” is a Friday Random 10. iTunes is on shuffle; let’s see what happens.

  1. Bill Cosby, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”
  2. Miranda Sex Garden, “Exit Music (For A Film)” (Carnival of Souls)
  3. The Negatives, “Stakeout” (John Peel Singles Box)
  4. Elvis Costello, “Brilliant Mistake” (King of America)
  5. Mclusky, “The Habit That Kicks Itself” (To Hell With Good Intentions (single))
  6. Pharcyde, “The Rubbers Song” (Stolen Moments: Red Hot + Cool)
  7. Hüsker Dü, “Broken Home, Broken Heart” (Zen Arcade)
  8. Josh Haden, “Show You The Way” (Devoted)
  9. Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra/Saulius Sondeckis, “Trisagion” (Arvo Pärt: Litany)
  10. Broken Social Scene, “Almost Crimes (Radio Kills Remix)” (You Forgot It In People)

Grab bag: Scary gadgets and useful software

What’s the difference between iPhone and Android?

I work with iPhone users and Android users. I see no end of technology demos from both. It’s clear both phones are wonderful devices capable of doing amazing things.

So why do iPhone reviews make it sound like the device can walk on water, while a lot of Android reviews sound like this?

Unfortunately, these groundbreaking features come with enough fine print to give the White Pages an inferiority complex.

First, the screen… you can’t have a big screen on a small phone. The Evo is nice and thin, but it’s also tall and wide. It is not for the small of hand. People might mistake it for an iPad Nano.

The Wi-Fi hot spot business is slick…. this feature eats through a full battery charge in as little as one hour. (More on the Evo’s amazing disappearing battery in a moment.) And beware: the hot spot feature costs an extra $30 a month.

O.K., so what about Flash? … The Evo runs something called Flash Lite, which is marketing-ese for, “Sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t.” It plays videos on some sites that the iPhone can’t — on Engadget, for example, plus all the blinking ads (a mixed blessing). But it still can’t play the Flash videos on CNN.com or, sadly, TV shows on Hulu.com.

All right, what about video calling? Surely this is the killer app. Imagine: your friends and family can not just hear you, as with normal phones, but see you as well (assuming they also bought Sprint Evos, of course).

Well, let’s hope they’re NASA engineers, because this feature is head-bangingly unstable….

And this?

There’s a sense, not just from reviewers, but from fans of the device, that what Android really needs is just killer hardware.Which is just absolute horse shit.

Android is an asshole of an operating system.

… I discovered software I could find no way to uninstall; programs which hung around after I was done with them with no way to quit I could find; interfaces which featured tiny poorly placed buttons near impossible to click without concentration; inconsistent search functionality where the “it’s right there on the phone” search button worked or didn’t work or did work but not as you’d think it’d work. I nearly started a tumblr called “Jesus Christ I Hate This Fucking Phone” just to document all the utterly asinine behaviors my iPhone-killer-anyday-now exhibited.

There’s an argument to be made (so of course, I’ll make it) that the Android experience failures described above are not technology failures. Android’s technology and operating system are impressive. But the whole package doesn’t seem to add up very well. Compare to iPhone, where (App Store policies to the contrary, and it’s a big contrary) the whole experience is consistent and wonderful and hangs together.

The whole experience part, I think, is the key. One suspects that on most Android phones that there’s no one–not Google, not the handset maker, not the carrier–who is taking responsibility for the whole end user experience. And it shows. David Pogue’s review describes a phone whose makers, if they made tradeoffs between features and constraints at all, traded off things that most people consider essential (size, battery, stability and consistency of experience) in favor of flashy features. The result is a phone that demos well but handles poorly. And Jack Shedd’s experience with the phone describes something that’s inconsistent and hard to use when you consider it as a whole device.

Does any of this — feature prioritization, product packaging design, user experience — sound familiar?

What’s the difference between iPhone and Android? Product management is the difference.

I’m willing to bet that the product managers on the Android phones had organizational limitations on how much of the user experience that they controlled, or edicts about must-have features in which the end user experience carried little weight, and that they could do nothing about those limitations. But show me a product manager who allows organizational pressure to impair user experience, and I’ll show you a product manager who has prioritized organizational harmony against sales success.

Grab bag: Astroturf, La Cascia’s, CSS3

The Jane Siberry oeuvre

I’m most of the way through listening to Jane Siberry’s collected works, which she has made available for free download on a “pay it forward” basis. It’s a rare opportunity to listen to an artist’s evolution over a short period of time.

I had only ever heard, really, Siberry’s 1993 album When I Was a Boy, and some of her soundtrack work (“It Can’t Rain All The Time” from The Crow and “Slow Tango” from Faraway, So Close!). I was really, really into When I Was a Boy, to the extent that I forced “Temple” on anyone who would listen, with occasionally embarrassing results. (Okay, so “You call that far? You call that hot? You call that darkness? Well, it’s not” isn’t exactly high poetry.) But some of her songs reach so deep into the psyche, including “Slow Tango,” “Sail Across the Water,” and of course “Calling All Angels,” that I remained in love with the music anyway.

I’m not sure why I never found another one of her albums after that. Maybe it was the typography on the cover of Maria (I’ve never liked that particular script font). Or maybe it was because one album later she was self-releasing her albums and distribution fell off.

Or maybe it was because the two recordings that followed Maria were, respectively, Teenager, an album of modern recordings of songs that she wrote as a teenager, and A Day in the Life, a found-sound recording that followed her through a regular day. I think some artists benefit from editing.

But listening to the whole catalog puts those two albums in perspective. She followed them with a three disc set, New York Trilogy, that went all sorts of unexpected places, like a live band rendition of her trippy “An Angel Stepped Down (And Slowly Looked Around)” that might better the studio recording, a full album of songs about finding one’s own voice, and a moving double album of untraditional Christmas songs. And before When I Was a Boy were some deeply worthwhile albums, including The Walking, which feels like a successor to both Laurie Anderson and Astral Weeks. And Maria? A very cool album of offbeat vocal jazz — though, again, I’m not sure I needed the entirety of the twenty-minute “Oh My My.”

So it’s been quite a gift. Not sure about the best way to “pay it forward,” though, since I don’t have any music of my own to release. Maybe telling you to go download it is the right call. Strongly recommended: The Walking, No Borders Here, When I Was a Boy, Maria, New York Trilogy, and Hush. I’m not done listening yet, so maybe I’ll expand the list.

[audio:http://www.sheeba.ca/MUSIC/m02CY_08_Calling_All_Angels.mp3|titles=Calling All Angels (Choir version, no k.d. lang, from Sheeba.ca)]

Grab bag: Usability, Pernice, Apple Store AppStore App

Lush Life

There are certain records, certain tracks, that instantly take you back to where you were when you heard them for the very first time. John Coltrane’s “Lush Life” (the first version he recorded, the 1958 version with Red Garland, Donald Byrd, Paul Chambers, and Louis Hayes) is one of those albums, and one of those tracks.

The whole record is unusual in Trane’s discography. The first three tunes are performed by a pianoless trio (Red Garland apparently forgot to show up for the session), and they show a keen sense of rhythm and a searching intelligence while still demonstrating Trane’s mastery of playing over the chords. The fifth track, a quartet session with Garland, Chambers, and Albert Heath on drums, is a straight ahead reading of “I Hear a Rhapsody”–a nice enough performance, but unremarkable by itself.

No, it’s the title track that makes one sit up and pay attention, as I did when I brought it back to my dorm room in the fall of 1990, a story which I’ve told before. All the more if you think of the story (not the words. The words themselves have so little poetry that it’s a miracle that Johnny Hartman brought what he did to the song five years later)–the sad, romantic story of the man who was idly bored until a miracle of love came into his life, and then quietly heartbroken when love departed. So he tries to bolster his spirits, only to confront his own solitude: “Romance is mush/stifling those who thrive/I’ll live a lush life/in some small dive/and there I’ll be/while I rot with the rest/of those whose lives are lonely too.”

Only the artistry of Strayhorn could take us through the gorgeousness of the tune into the depths of that solitude within a single song. One thinks, he must have been a lot of fun at parties.

Technical skill set for product managers

We’ve been working on hiring a product manager here at Veracode, and it’s gotten me thinking about technical literacy.

The one thing you don’t want in a product manager is someone who thinks he can write the code better than his/her developers. That sets up a major problem with boundaries–you want the product manager to worry about user experience and whether the customer’s business need is being fulfilled, not whether the developers are implementing the feature the way that he would.

But you also don’t want a product manager who’s technically illiterate. That way lies unrealistic feature requests and their cousin, unrealistic customer commitments; communication breakdowns; and overreliance on engineering for decision support.

I think there’s a middle ground: a set of technical skills that the product manager will use to do his own job, and that will help him communicate better with his engineers, without getting into their business.

In my client-server days, the skill set might have included (in addition to normal technical literacy, e.g. ability to run Office apps):

  1. SQL
  2. Excel pivot charts
  3. Windows batch scripting

These days in the SaaS world, it seems like the skill set might be:

  1. Basic statistics
  2. XSLT
  3. Excel pivot charts
  4. CSS
  5. SQL (it never goes away!)

What’s your favorite technical skill that you use all the time as a product manager?

Probably not what he had in mind.

In other musical news, the first ten seconds of Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms makes a pretty good ringtone:

[audio:http://www.jarretthousenorth.com/wp-content//1PreludepsalmXxxviiiVerses13And14.mp3|titles=Symphony of Psalms (1931 recording)]

Recording courtesy the Internet Archive, who had a copy of a 1931 78RPM recording of the symphony conducted by Stravinsky the year after it premiered. I’ll be singing with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus and Boston Symphony Orchestra when we perform the work, alongside the Mozart Requiem, at Tanglewood on July 16, reprising our performance from last fall.

Song of the day: Sage Francis, “The Best of Times”

I don’t plan to make a habit of this, but I had to post Sage Francis’s “The Best of Times” today because it woke me up and made me think this morning. It’s a richly funny and sad look at growing up. Plus! The rhymes are not wack, as the kids would have said when I was growing up. Check it out. (Via KEXP Song of the Day; buy the full album at Strange Famous Records.)

[audio:http://www.strangefamousrecords.com/sfr-audio/_common/Sage_Francis_Best_of_Times.mp3|titles=Sage_Francis_Best_of_Times]

Blogaversary 9

Happy blogaversary to me! This year, I’m not going to do a year in review like I did in past years. I’m going to look ahead.

Nine years ago today, I was an intern at Microsoft, on the other side of the country from my wife and family, confused about my work, my direction, and my life. So I opened up a web form and started typing. At first I just wrote about my life and what I was doing, but over time the writing, which I tried to do every day, started helping me think more clearly, and I started to think about what I wanted to do. I wrote about software strategy, customer relationships, music, family life.

Nine years later, I’m living the dream. I have a great job at a company that’s going to take over the world. I have a wonderful family. I sing with one of the best orchestral choruses on the planet.

But I’m not writing much any more. I’ve been pretty much microblogging for the past year–my Delicious feed is most of this blog. I think I want to change that.

We’re going to try an experiment, this first month of my tenth year of blogging. I’m going to try to write something every day. It may not be long, or meaningful. It may not even be good. But I need to try to get back to making my thoughts into words on a daily basis. Like last time, I think I’m going to be surprised at what comes out.

Background reading: My past blogaversaries in 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, and 2009.

Grab bag: Hiring, elections, preservation

Grab bag: Demento goes Internet-only