BSO review: TFC “positively heroic” in Bolcom Symphony #8

It was one of those concerts where you had to wait for the review to see how it came out.

William Bolcom’s Symphony #8 is an enormously complex work compressed into less than 40 minutes of polychromatic, muscular, dense writing, in which the chorus is singing for approximately 35 of those minutes. And the chorus runs its vocal gamut, from sprechstimme to dense six-voice a cappella passages to pure melodic intervals that recall the Andrews Sisters to big Mahlerian finale scales. Add to that an orchestral arrangement that crams a marimba, piano with plucked strings, bells and half a dozen other unusual percussion instruments alongside the strings, winds, and brass, all playing hell for leather through the opening and closing movements, and you begin to understand why the audience response might be muted as they absorb what they heard.

And muted it was. At the end the audience applauded seated, rising to its feet only after the orchestra and chorus stood for their bows. None of the wild adulation that greeted our Gurrelieder performances. We joked onstage that the applause was actually much louder, but that we had been deafened by the French horns and timpani in the final chords.

The Globe’s review (Jeremy Eichler) captures some of the challenges and the rewards of the piece:

The chorus has an extremely prominent role throughout the 35-minute work. Those not steeped in the mythology of Blake’s prophetic poetry will need to rely on help from the program to grasp the meaning of figures like “the shadowy daughter of Urthona” or “the red Orc.” Or you can sit back and let the textual details slide. Bolcom’s choral writing is so assured that the expressive force of the music comes through clearly. This is especially true in the rich and harmonically pungent passage that closes the second movement. The finale ends with a grand orchestral-choral tapestry woven from Blake’s line “For every thing that lives is Holy,” and crowned with a blazing apotheosis.

The sincerity of this music is touching and there is no denying its primal expressive power; its dimensions feel at times overstuffed and its emotional pitch less varied than one might imagine for a cosmos as vast as Blake’s. Singing from memory, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus gave a positively heroic performance, and Levine and the orchestra went a long way toward bringing out the countless buzzing details in this score.

Mofuse: Instant iPhone-savvy web sites?

The tagline for Mofuse is a little overhyped. As far as I can tell, they provide a nifty self-provisioning capability to take an RSS feed and turn it into a mobile device optimized page—kind of a turnkey version of Dave Winer’s NYTimesRiver. Of course I’m oversimplifying and it’s more than that, like the ability to put in custom entries. But to say, as TechCrunch does, that MoFuse “instantly converts sites for the iPhone” is overstating things a bit. But is what it does (as opposed to what is claimed) useful?

I set up my own MoFuse site to check it out. If you point your mobile device to, you’ll see a mobile-optimized version of my site. My one criticism so far: the stylesheet they are using on the iPhone seems to strip way too much out of the source text. Taking a look at one of the articles (my What makes a good product manager post, for instance), you’ll see that there are neither indents nor vertical separation between paragraphs, and that the bullets are stripped out of unordered lists. So for lengthy posts it’s not a pleasant reading experience.

Considering that the mobile-savvy version of Bloglines already allows you to get updates from an arbitrary number of RSS feeds, it would seem that the main value-add of MoFuse is the ability to insert mobile-only content, and the ability to present a custom look and feel to mobile users. If more and more people only have a mobile user experience, that’s probably worth something.

Typography is everywhere

I think that at the beginning of the campaign season, I was quite happy to handicap the field of candidates by their typography and logo decisions. Now that we’re down to three, an article on the typography of the 2008 presidential candidates seems a day late and a dollar short—not to mention, didn’t the Boston Globe already do this article? And the New York Times?

In fresher typographic news, a word for what happens to type when it is poorly kerned: keming. You have to be a type geek to get it, unless you look at an example.

Bad corporate-public relations

Here’s a hypothetical. You are one of two firms in a duopoly for a critical service. You are accused of abusing your position to give your firm a competitive advantage by making it selectively harder for competing products to work across the Internet. You are given an opportunity to explain yourself in a public forum. Do you:

  1. Show up and explain your case, and let the chips fall where they may.
  2. Pack the deck by putting butts in the seats who are paid to cheer for your position. And keep people out who might question it.

Guess which one Comcast did? If you guessed #2, you’re right. I was getting ready to give Comcast credit for even showing up in this forum, and starting to shed a little light into the black box that is Comcast’s network management. But this admission of their astroturfing practices have completely erased that benefit.

Congrats to Josh Marshall

When Talking Points Memo started its investigation of the US Attorney firings, I knew Josh Marshall and his team were onto something big. When readers poured in with local press coverage and TPM started stitching the pieces together to show a pattern of politically motivated gutting of the judiciary, I knew that we were seeing a classic example of crowdsourcing at work. When he asked his readers to help him pore through thousands of pages of government documents to help put the pieces together, I knew that we were looking at the start of something big.

The world seems to agree. Having won a George Polk Award for legal reporting, TPM’s crowdsourced investigatory model now stands as a new high water mark in what lowered transaction costs can do to journalism. No matter how quiet, distributed, and seemingly boring, no matter how voluminous the documentation in which the offense is buried, you can now count on one thing: bloggers will be there to put the pieces together and spell out the uncomfortable truth.

It’s a reminder that we aren’t done with the revolution and promise of the Internet. I don’t think anyone would have predicted that lowered costs of communication would make it easier to expose secret government hijinx, but it is clear now that that is exactly one of the benefits of a free and open Internet, and that it is a bracing alternative to the spin dominated, celebrity focused, Timmy-trapped-in-well-24-hour-coverage that has passed for “broadcast journalism” recently. Well done, Josh and team, for reminding us how it’s supposed to be done.

How to say “no” to feature requests

I am in awe of another product manager: the Cranky Product Manager. She posts infrequently but many of her posts are brilliant.

One from last year on “how to say no” to customer or sales feature requests caught my attention. Many of the comments on the post were insightful and mirrored my experience with dealing with feature requests. Generally if you can turn the conversation away from a specific feature and toward the business issue the customer is trying to solve, you can usually either (a) point out another way the software can already do what the customer wants, or (b) give a more informed answer about what it will take to make it happen. The trick is getting away from the specific feature, which the customer and the sales guy may have spent some time building up as The Solution to the problem. To do this, Joel Spolsky’s five Whys is helpful.

Being open with your roadmap is important when you can; it shows the customer that you are thoughtful about the features that do go into the product, gets them thinking about the relative importance of the feature, and makes them feel included in the future of the product.

RIP, Nora McGillivray

If I don’t want to get morbid and maudlin, I suppose I should stop reading the “In Memoriam” section of the UVA Alumni Magazine. But then I would never know when I was impoverished by the death of a friend or acquaintance.

Today I learned that Nora McGillivray was killed, or killed herself, last September; Nora being Nora, her death was as full of mystery as her life. The painful details are in the link, as are the beginnings of the mystery.

Nora was in my last poetry class, a language poetry class with Tan Lin. She was a careful, quiet writer whom I remember for her grace and her economy of language. I would never have guessed that she was ten years older than I, and I don’t know how many people in the class did either.

It hurts when someone whose words are so much stronger than yours disappears, hurts to think that someone might have lost a battle with depression (though the details are murky and unclear).

I close with an excerpt from her obituary, which is already behind the paywall at the Daily Progress (shame!):

Nora departed on a warm Indian summer night. The details are sketchy and appropriately cryptic, and, while she would have loved being the star of her own cinema verité masterpiece, rest assured, Buckingham County, that Nora is Watching the Detectives…

She was impossible to forget. You had only to meet Nora once to have her indelibly inked upon your subconscious. You might not always have considered this a good thing. She was the kind of dame a tortured young musician would write an opus about, and more than one of them did….

Going through disk encryption like a knife through butter

CNET: Disk encryption may not be secure enough, new research finds. It’s one thing to read about theoretical ways to get access to secure data, it’s another to watch it on a slide show.

For those that don’t want to read the article, the upshot is: a laptop thief who knows enough can pick the secret key used to encrypt a hard drive—using Apple’s FileVault, Microsoft’s BitLocker, or any other solution that uses known key-based encryption mechanisms. The particularly brilliant bit, the part that adds insult to injury, is when the research team (which includes usual suspects Ed Felten and Alex Halderman) demonstrates recovering the key after a reboot of the laptop. Yes, that’s right: even after rebooting the laptop, enough of the prior state of the machine remains in memory so that the key can be recovered. And by chilling the RAM using liquid nitrogen—or canned air—the time needed to recover the key can be extended indefinitely.

So yes, the feds have additional techniques that can be used to recover data from your laptop, if they come across it. So do identity thieves.

So the trick now would seem to be to identify a way to encrypt data that is less subject to key recovery. The only problem is, every method that depends on the hardware decrypting the storage is likely to leave the key in memory. I like the article’s suggestion of PGP-encrypted USB sticks, if only I didn’t lose thumb drives so easily. There are also some interesting suggestions regarding limiting remote booting and unmounting encrypted volumes; the problem is that they don’t get around the core issue. If the key is in memory, you can sniff it. So what to do?

What makes a good product manager?

While there are whole blogs devoted to the topic of good product management, I don’t think anyone has a good answer for how to interview for a good product manager that doesn’t boil down to “it depends.” There are sound reasons for that: There is a continuum of roles that a “product manager” can play, ranging from almost entirely strategic/market focused to almost entirely development/product focused to somewhere in the middle. The roles I have played have been at all ends of the spectrum, or all roles at once; at most companies the role falls somewhere along the continuum depending on company size and organization. The competencies that you look for during the interview depend strongly on how you expect the product manager to function in your organization.

That said, here are some things to look for in a product manager, divided into categories:

  1. General
    • Communication skills – one of the major roles of a product manager is being able to speak Sales to Development and vice versa and be understood
    • Decisive – need to take input and synthesize a clear direction even if it’s unclear what the right way to go is.
    • Negotiation experience – important when brokering a deadlock between priorities, or between sales and development.
    • Business savvy – understand how the product can make money. Prioritize according to business needs, both long and short term
    • Market savvy – understand the competition, the strategic landscape, and how the product fits
    • Driven to learn – do they keep up with what’s going on in the industry? Ask them what are the challenges for product managers in an Agile environment and you’ll quickly get a sense for their depth and how much they think about their role.
  2. Development-facing specific
    • Tech savvy – I would say that the ability to quickly pick up and understand the challenges of new technologies is more important than specific experience in the languages your development team is using. I was a PowerBuilder dev, but I was able to understand the peculiarities and challenges that my development team experienced in C++ vs. C# vs. XAML.
    • Project management – Tracking, detail orientation. This can make or break a product manager on a day in, day out basis.
    • Facilitation and meeting management – In a lot of teams the engineering lead drives this almost entirely. But it’s a critical skill to have in your pocket, from requirements gathering to release post-mortems to gathering agreement between different stakeholders on what is to be done on a particular problem.
  3. Market-facing specific
    • Experience working with analysts – Some companies have separate AR roles; some don’t. It’s a pretty good bet your product manager will need to face a skeptical analyst to describe the product’s direction at some point, and it’s a good indicator if a candidate has had that experience under her belt already.
    • Strong demo skills — even if the PM doesn’t do sales directly, they might do conferences, and at a minimum they will need to champion the work that development is doing.

Finally, there’s a really good article on Pragmatic Marketing that sums up some value drivers for good product managers as: Attitude, Knowledge, Communication, Customers, Managing, Decision Making. It’s worth looking into.

Sharper Image Bankruptcy Schadenfreude

Couldn’t resist pointing to this article about Sharper Image’s bankruptcy filing. I remember back in the 1980s when they were the coolest thing around, at least to a 12 year old boy. Tons of gadgets and insanely expensive lifestyle gizmos.

What changed? Well, for one thing, fewer yuppies. For another, their target audience got older. You can’t continue to draw a new audience, particularly one willing to pay a hipness premium, when you’re pitching to their parents. Exhibit A: Turbo Groomer. No matter how you slice it, a nose and ear hair trimmer is never going to be hip. But the damned thing is always on page 2 of the Sharper Image SkyMall pages. Exhibit B: Fresher Longer. Sorry, guys, it’s Tupperware. No sale.

Bolcom and Blake: Songs of prophecy and chromaticism

An article in the Globe last week about composer William Bolcom’s new string octet, given its Boston premiere on Friday, spilled the beans about Bolcom’s new Symphony No. 8, commissioned by James Levine and the Boston Symphony Orchestra and dedicated to the BSO and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus. It’s a monumental work in four movements, a choral symphony that sets the prophetic poetry of William Blake (“The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,” “America: A Prophecy,” and “Jerusalem, or the New Albion” among others) into a four-movement symphonic poem. It’s a foreboding piece to learn, particularly for the chorus that has to memorize six to eight voice harmonies that are frequently in augmented sevenths and diminished ninths to each other.

But last night we ran through it for the first time for Maestro Levine, and it started to make sense. And the moments of great lyricism started to insinuate themselves into my skull. And I started to realize that part of coming to terms with this piece is coming to terms with Blake himself, which is no small task.

I feel, as a lone chorister facing the work, somewhat like one of Blake’s copper plates. Having received my acid bath I am ready to reveal his text in all its glory.

We will premiere the work at Symphony Hall next weekend and in New York at Carnegie Hall on Monday night. If my good friend Pes, whose undergrad thesis was a work on Blake that he etched into copper plates (!), is out there listening, you should come by. I’d love to hear what you think of Bolcom’s take on the visionary.

Feeling delicious

I’m probably the last person in the world to hop onto, and now I’m wondering how I avoided it all this time. Especially now that my time is too scarce to blog every interesting link I find—it’s much faster just to post it to, then come back later and skim the cream of the links for a more in-depth post. (A cursory glance at my bookmarks will reveal that I’ve been doing just that for the past few weeks.)

You can subscribe to my bookmark feed, if you’re so inclined, or to one of the topic feeds. I particularly recommend the productmanagement feed if you’ve found the things I’ve written on that topic interesting, though I can’t guarantee frequent updates. I’ll be taking advantage of some of the platform features to do a little more integration with my site, so beware: a little breakage may be ahead.

Hillary: Eleventh hour UVA session doesn’t help

diy Barack poster

Interesting choice of campaign destination for Hillary Clinton on Monday: she spent an hour with Larry Sabato’s PLAP 101 class at the University of Virginia (via the Tin Man). It appears, from last night’s election returns, that it didn’t help, since Obama swept Virginia (and Maryland, and DC) by a healthy margin.

What surprises me a little is the tone of the uncredited article in UVA Today, always the glossiest and least relevant of the on-Grounds publications. It reads like a campaign press release, gushing over how “poised and candid” she sounded.

I have to say I’m not surprised at all by the fact that the University Singers, rather than the Glee Club, got the nod to do the musical accompaniment, though. I can’t imagine a scenario in which this particular candidate would be OK with a men’s chorus accompanying her.

Oh, and the Barack Obama “Sweep” poster is courtesy the Do It Yourself Barack Obama Poster Site, which is based on this fantastic series of posters by Shepard “Andre the Giant has a Posse” Fairey.