It’s a glorious day when Apple fixes your bug (UPDATE: oops, still broken)

UPDATE 3-16-16: I did some more thorough tests on my iPhone and MacBook Pro and have run into the Smart Reminders linking bug again – specifically when adding links from Safari on my Mac, then opening them up on my phone. Back to Apple Support forums. Ugh.

It takes a minor miracle to get Apple to fix a bug in any of its software or services. Just look at all the discussion threads about bugs on their forum.

The thing that’s been killing me for months? Dumb Smart Reminders. Apple claimed that, in iOS 9 and OS X El Capitan, you’d be able to remind yourself about virtually anything on your device – a note, a text message, a Trello card, a file on your FTP server – and the reminder would be saved with a simple contextual link for quick access.

Problem is, it’s been categorically broken. Ironically enough, it’s broken when you try to use your phone in the way Apple keeps pushing us to use it – through Siri’s (admittedly mostly great) voice recognition.

If you wanted to remind yourself about a website you were viewing on your phone, and you decided to use Siri to do that, Reminders would (sometimes) create a link correctly to Safari. If you happened to have another app installed on your phone at all (in my case, Ticketmaster, Google Chrome and TripAdvisor), Reminders would instead link to one of those apps – then if I tried to access the website, iOS would attempt to open Ticketmaster and fail to render the website. I’m not the only one with this problem; it apparently happens unpredictably with any number of apps that you may or may not use.

tripadvisor-reminders

Argh.

It wouldn’t have been as infuriating if this was only an issue on iOS – but of course it happened in OS X too. If I saved the same website to Reminders on my Mac using Safari, for some reason, Reminders would instead create a link to Chrome. This wasn’t as bad – at least the site would load – but when you’re like me and strictly use your web browsers for specific reasons (eg. Safari for personal, Chrome for work), this gets annoying.

The worst part, though, was that I could totally see what was happening: if I uninstalled TripAdvisor from my iPhone, Reminders would stop linking to it – but instead link to Ticketmaster. Then it’d link to Chrome if I uninstalled Ticketmaster. If I reinstalled TripAdvisor, it’d start linking there again. Basically, Reminders would work without any other apps potentially risking the link to Safari. You’d think that Apple coded this such that Reminders was aware of the source app of the Reminder, and persisted that link forever. There was some dumb app prioritization happening that was causing TripAdvisor to take preference over Ticketmaster, which got preference over Chrome, which got preference over Safari. (No offense to any of these apps, they’re all great – which is why I have them on my phone, god damnit.)

So, while I wanted to use Reminders for exactly what Apple intended it for, I couldn’t, and had to rely on another (admittedly great, but not for me) app, 2Do, to manage my tasks.


Six days ago Apple released the sixth (sixth!) public beta of iOS 9.3. Yesterday morning, I got frustrated because I was duplicating task lists for my upcoming wedding in both Trello and 2Do – so I decided to try out Reminders again. Saving Trello cards as a Reminder seemed to work. Saving a Note seemed to work. Reminding myself about something in my Amazon wish list worked. Even a stupid webpage someone had sent me went correctly into a Reminders list.

IMG_0154

Yesterday was a glorious day.

Eight months, in an office

10 months ago, I was living what I thought was a dream: working remotely for a decently-buzzed tech startup where I was the lead product guy. I could work in my underwear, start and end whenever I wanted, have free reign to work and travel wherever I pleased.

Then in May, said startup laid me (and pretty much everyone else) off with a week’s notice.

I had seen this coming for almost a year for various reasons I won’t get into – but what did surprise me was the ease of getting back on my financial feet. Those of us who got laid off were offered a new job pretty quickly by Wayfair, an e-commerce giant also based in Boston. So that’s where I ended up.

Eight months later, I find myself finally in my element again. The first three months in this job were total culture shock: I was uncomfortable around so many people, all of them wanting to talk to me all about the work and nothing but the work. I was frustrated with having to commute to an office at all, let alone walking down the street like I would regularly do in New York.

But over the last few months, I figured out a rhythm to make it work for me. It’s certainly not a perfect situation – but then again, what job is, really? – but I’ve had some time to reflect about being in an office again.

(Disclaimer: this is primarily about the experience of working in an office environment, particularly after a stint in startup culture, and is in no way intended to be a reflection of the work I do, or my employer, at all.)


Wayfair employs thousands of people and has an office right next to Copley Square in Boston. When you walk into the office for the first time, it’s hard to not feel like you’re part of something massive, given just how many people are flocking to the Copley Plaza complex between 8 and 9am. You’d think one of the stores in the Copley Plaza Mall was having a blowout – nope, these are just Wayfair employees trudging into work.

After a few weeks, though, the awe of big company size and impact turns into drone-like fatigue…especially as wintertime sets in. Droves of sleepy, freezing employees passing through subway turnstiles, huddling underneath half-broken umbrellas and avoiding puddles of slush (and being forced above ground to avoid MBTA construction), just to stare at a PC screen and talk in corporate-speak.

Simply having to be at the mercy of weather sucks. When I was working from home, if it was snowing out, I could just stay inside. I technically have the facilities to work from home in my current job, too – so it can be frustrating to eschew all this technological capability just to be present in the office culture. Wayfair has offices in several locations around the US and Europe; I can’t tell you how many times I questioned my battling of snowstorms to get into the office, only to sit on calls with my Berlin colleagues all day.

That said, if you’re stuck on calls all day at home, you might never leave the house. Get this: working in an office forces you out into the world. This is something I completely took for granted as a remote worker – I would occasionally run out to a coffee shop for a while to get stuff done, but nothing was more comforting than parking it on my couch for 9 hours straight save bathroom and lunch breaks.

Speaking of which, when you begin to compare home-work and office-work life, tiny subtle details start to surface about your lifestyle. For instance, The cost of your utilities start to become something you scrutinize monthly – I drastically underestimated how much I was spending to run electricity and heat during the ’14-’15 winter while working at home. Finding food to eat in an office is a really hit-or-miss thing, depending on where your office (or home) is located. I have the benefit of being right near Copley Square, where food trucks and solid restaurants abound. My last office job was in an awkward part of East Cambridge, MA, where our best culinary options were in a mall food court. At home, you’re really at the mercy of your grocery list or what (if any) restaurants are nearby; back in NYC, this wasn’t a problem, but in quieter parts of the world, this could certainly be a drawback.

Everyone who Product Manages knows the difficulty of trying to herd cats – oops, I mean colleagues – toward a shared product vision, and this difficulty is only amplified when doing it from afar. Being in the office ensures presence from everyone who matters, including my/yourself. I find myself more productive overall, simply because I had face time with colleagues working on projects with me – and no at-home distractions, like my guitars or my television. I can also use my commute to unwind and/or focus on things I’d never be able to focus on given those distractions. I’ve started writing again simply because I have over an hour of “free time” on the train every day.

Working in an office can be painfully social. To avoid talking only about the work, you need to find common interests with your colleagues: in Boston, it’s generally assumed that this is Boston sports. If you’re not actively following the Bruins/Pats/Sox (or worse yet, following another city’s team) you’re already at a disadvantage. I’ve come to develop a personal brand around music snobbery, pop culture savvy and a more casual tone, which people seem to appreciate outside of my general apathy for sports.

Once you figure your general vibe out, though, working in an office can be delightfully social. You actually start to make friends and engage in social conversations and outings you never would’ve had sitting at home or in a coffee shop all day long. Sure, there’s spontaneity involved with serendipitously meeting new people at your local coffee shop, but there’s something equally spontaneous in the side conversations that happen at work. My aforementioned music snobbery may manifest itself during a discussion of weekend plans, which may lead to a colleague/friend to check out a band with.

And what happens when the work gets to be too much, and you find yourself stuck at the office all day? Isn’t that the beauty of working wherever you choose? What about those giant cultish companies who directly incentivize their employees to spend all waking hours at the office, or even sleep there?

Well, so, you can just leave. If there’s more work to be done, and your company has a VPN, you can catch up on work at home after having a lovely dinner at a reasonable hour with your significant other. I’ve come to realize (again) the importance of balance – not necessarily the lofty, unattainable “work/life balance” construct of 9-5, but finding a personal balance where I’m challenging myself and working hard, but not burning myself out and still finding time to reflect and find fulfillment elsewhere in my life.


Certain parts of the tech/startup industry paint office culture as a thing of the past, rendered unnecessary by new collaboration technology. Fully-distributed organizations are popping up everywhere, promising uber flexibility and balance. I admire these companies’ ability to embrace technology to try and bring more happiness to their employees – though it is certainly not perfect either. Remember that distributed companies (or remote work at all) is a fairly new concept, far from perfected by any one organization – and the larger the company is that you work for, the harder it is to adapt the necessary processes and technology to enable that flexibility.

All in all? I certainly don’t hate everything. My commute is sometimes frustrating, as can be the work, but that’s part of dealing with everyday life. I genuinely like quite a few of my colleagues (both in and outside of work), which after being remote for a while is quite refreshing. And I’ve achieved a balance that, at least for now, I’m happy with.

The question I now find myself asking more frequently is: where does this go? Do I advance up the food chain of a strong brand with its corporate quirks, or do I keep my hand in some things that could result in more personal freedom? What will ultimately make me a better, happier person?

Well, how many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop?

On malaise in tech, or how I learned to find products that embrace true problem-solving

I originally wrote this for the Mathys+Potestio blog, this really cool employment agency based in Portland, Oregon. Here’s the link to the original post.

Apple and Google and Facebook and Microsoft and Amazon.
These are the big 5 in consumer tech, and the most commonly used apps on your phone are probably made by some or all of them. Nobody is going to knock them out of their ivory towers. If you go on any tech blog you will almost certainly find no less than 3 articles in the last week about each of these 5 companies (okay, maybe a few others – but you know which ones they are).

I’m a product manager by day, so I spend a lot of time analyzing and collecting feedback on the products and how they solve real user problems. Part of my job also involves being aware of other products solving similar or other problems, so I read about those products the top tech businesses are working on, as well as new ones via sites like Product Hunt. But this is starting lose its luster for me – as I recently wrote on my own blog, I’m becoming less and less impressed with the true problem solving being done by makers of products. It gets old to read about a new photo sharing app every week – why try and address the growing wealth inequality problems in the US? Or the terribly slow pace of government action? Or even the racket that is the wedding industry (a problem currently near & dear to my heart)?

Turns out I’m not alone in my jadedness, so much so that some are quitting the “tech journalism” beat altogether. If you feel jaded by this stuff too, it’s valid – but, again, I don’t blame anybody in particular. Tech products, and those who make them, have just as much a tendency to follow trends as any other sector of popular culture – social products, smart on-demand services and lists of resources are hot right now, so all the makers are trying to make those things. (Oh god, what if someone builds a social network for on-demand delivery workers?)

Behind all the throwaway social networks and overpriced delivery apps, though, there’s even more people building truly interesting, difference-making things for the world. This is probably not a huge surprise, given the number of charitable organizations, biotech firms and activist groups out there. But hold up – you don’t need to look only at these types of groups to find great, innovative solutions being developed to solve tough social and economic problems. Startups (and even individuals) are building these things, using the same cutting-edge (and overhyped) technology and design and business models you read about on tech blogs. You know those things called “hackathons” that media has portrayed to us as high-energy bro-outs? (Thanks, The Social Network…) These people are actually using those to address social problems with great technology.

In fact, if there is a social, political or economic issue that interests you, there’s probably at least a few startups or products out there aiming to tackle that issue in some way or another in some new way. Here’s just a few products that are solving real problems in critical spaces that are worth checking out (each of which even use some buzz-wordy tech or design concept you might be sick of hearing about!)

Interested in helping out a charity? Compute for Humanity uses your computer to mine cryptocurrencies, then automatically donate the output to charities. I recently installed this on my own Mac and was pleasantly surprised that it required absolutely nothing of the machine or my time, and yet in a few hours I had generated a couple bucks. I’ve generated $22.64 so far, again, for doing literally nothing.

Why is this remarkable? Cryptocurrencies! No work for the end-user! But also real money going to real, unsketchy charitable organizations like Pencils of Promise and GlobalGiving.

Want to help people with disabilities? Be My Eyes is an app that lets you help out a blind person from anywhere. Remember this thing? It got a fair share of journalistic praise a year ago but naturally fell out of the limelight – not for any reason in particular other than that people’s attention moved elsewhere. It’s worth reminding ourselves, however, that this is an app that literally helps blind people see. That in itself is an amazing feat we shouldn’t forget about.

Why is this remarkable? (Sort of) social networking! Unconventional use of the iPhone camera! But also it helps blind people.

Want to be more socially conscious? Archives + Absences is an app that notifies you anytime a cop kills a minority in the US. This is based on real data from The Guardian – it’s not a joke. If you are interested in the struggle of minorities in this country, you should download this app now, if anything to set context for yourself.

Why is this remarkable? The most minimal design ever! Push notifications! But also they’re about actual deaths surrounding a controversial social topic.

Know somebody with substance abuse issues and want to try and help?Addicaid is an app that aims to make drug & alcohol recovery a little more comfortable. You can find recovery groups nearby, get tips, maintain a plan, and evaluate your progress toward recovery, all while completely anonymous if desired.

Why is this remarkable? Material design! But also it helps people with real, crippling problems get a little closer to solving them.

Interest in the problems of America’s legal system? Ravel, Everlaw, Judicata and others aiming to make the practice of law, and lawyers, more affordable. The first two are building tools to help make law firms more efficient in their operations, and the third is aiming to capture the “law genome” to simplify complex legal decisions for lawyers and everyday people. As Judicata says, “Legal research isn’t just about finding needles; it’s about understanding the haystack too.“

Why is this remarkable? Big data! But also, lawyers are really expensive and law firms are incredibly inefficient right now.

Generally interested in major social issues and understanding their impact? SumAll.org, a tech non-profit hellbent on “empowering change makers to maximize their social impact through data.” They build amazing, sometimes-interactive studies on key humanitarian issues including human trafficking, homelessness and the Syrian refugee crisis. Its founder, Dane Atkinson, wanted tech to create a tangible impact for social good, and formed the foundation out of a portion of his social marketing tech company, SumAll (including its technology).

Why is this remarkable? Data science! But also, the topics they’re covering are, like, really bad things.

Products and businesses, when done right, are about solving problems, not chasing ideas. It’s worth reminding ourselves that in the midst of product/maker overload, that there are millions of people making great, incredibly important products, and they’re even publicizing them – they’re just a little bit harder to find.

Product Hunt for abcdefghijklmnopqrstuvwxyz

The other day I came across Telescope, a product that lets anyone launch their own community site, Product Hunt-style. Just when you think you’ve seen too many “Product Hunt for X” sites, someone gives you the ability to generate as many of them as humanly possible.

It’s not inherently a bad or stupid idea, I swear. But every time someone develops some sort of platform that “lets you make your very own X”, I get a little terrified at the implications that platform may have on society – or, more specifically, the silly ideas that the platform enables. If the “Uber for X” mentality gave us things like this, I can’t imagine what a well-marketed “Product Hunt for X” solution gives us.

Because I get bored during my commute sometimes, I came up with a few ideas for Telescope sites that I thought might be good1. Yay for rapid brainstorming!

  • Anxiety Hunt: submit what’s making you anxious at any particular moment; others can upvote the things that they’re also anxious about. Let’s all be upfront about our insecurities, k? (Speaking of which, is Post Secret still a thing?)
  • Bitch Hunter Hunt: Upvote the best lines from the amazing, non-existent movie starring Will Ferrell, Bitch Hunter.
  • Crack Overflow: Stack Overflow, but for people who periodically suffer from plumber’s crack. (What do you post on a site like that? I don’t know, I wear skinny jeans.)
  • Duck Duck Hunt Hunt: post and upvote screenshots and videos of your favorite moments from the classic game, Duck Hunt.
  • Ethan Hunt: Product Hunt for all things Mission: Impossible.
  • Fuck Hunt: Basically, Product Hunt for porn. V2: import the top voted porn images into a live web version of Duck Hunt!
  • Grunt Hunt: Inspired by Eugene Mirman’s I’m Sorry, You’re Welcome, this gem lets users upload and vote on the best interpretations of various sound effects performed by their own speaking voice.
  • Helen Hunt: Product Hunt for all people in the world named Helen. Vote which ones you think are the best! Except Helen Hunt, of course.
  • I Hunt Myself: For the ultimate narcissist, this platform allows you to submit virtually anything you care about and upvote them based on your personal ranking of those things. The twist? You’re the only one who can access your list. And every upvote triggers a little “Me me me!” sound effect.
  • Jerk Hunt: Product Hunt for douchebags. You literally post about a shitty person and something shitty they did, and people agree with you. The worst people are highest voted. We’re terrible people, right?
  • Karma Hunt: Post something good you did for somebody, and people upvote the most charitable acts. Do you get any actual good karma from this? Probably not. It’s mostly self-serving.
  • Luck Hunt: Product Hunt, but if you're the Xth person to upvote something, you win money. THIS IS THE NEXT LEVEL OF FANTASY SPORTS, BABIES.
  • Meta Hunt: Product Hunt for “Product Hunt for X” sites. Product Hunt is sort of already this, but I figure let’s cut out the BS and make a site dedicated to this thing.
  • Nuck Hunt: Same as the aforementioned Fuck Hunt, but for Canadians.
  • Oregon Trail, Telescope Edition: This version of insanity takes the original beloved computer game, The Oregon Trail, and puts every possible scenario in a list. You have a limited number of upvotes and can use them toward rations, game, diseases – literally everything the game has to offer – and the game returns a likeliness of you surviving the Oregon Trail with those decisions. Basically, a way less fun version of the game.
  • Problem Hunt: Upvote actual problems around which people should build products to solve – they can be any problems, large or small. (Disclaimer: this one’s kind of a real idea, and it already existed once as Real Problem Hunt but was shut down – I think this deserves to come back at some point.)
  • Quote Pilot: You know all those sites with huge lists of inspirational quotes? Ever want to make your own soundbyte-y quote? Submit it here and people upvote the most moving ones. Because we need more inspirational quotes every day!
  • Reverse Hunt: Vote for the least cool things. The less votes, the better. Countercultures, unite.
  • Sidetracked: the Game: submit something that distracted you today – anything at all. Other people upvote the things also distracting them. The test: seeing how many of those things you can avoid clicking on. It’s totally a game!
  • Telescope Hunt: Product Hunt for all sites made with the Telescope platform. (No relation to Meta Hunt, of course…)
  • Uber Hunt: Product Hunt for Uber drivers. Or is it Uber for Product Hunt fans? THE WORLD MAY NEVER KNOW!
  • Viral Hunt: Product Hunt, but with auto-sharing upon every upvote. You thought you couldn't post any more content to your followers? Think again!
  • Witch Hunt: Post people you think are witches, and then others can upvote if they agree with you. Then we burn the highest-voted ones at the stake!
  • X for Product Hunt: Post and upvote features for Product Hunt. (This isn't actually that bad of an idea for a feature request tool…?)
  • Yerba Hunté: Upvote the best kinds of maté…?
  • Zoo Hunt: Zoo animals. Which ones are the best? I’m done with this list.
  1. That is, ideas that will probably get made regardless of whether they’re actually good. In fact, most of these are completely ridiculous. But so are people who insist on making their own “hunt” sites for every possible niche they can think of. Yay products! ↩︎

Peak live music, or no more surprises

What do you do when you stop caring about something you used to love?

I moved to Salem, MA and basically stopped actively seeking live music. I still see live music – say, when my girlfriend and I go out to brunch and a jazz band happens to be performing there, or when a once-in-a-lifetime performance in the city happens – but for years I would spend hundreds of dollars almost every month trying to see as many bands as possible. There were so many possibilities, even in “our music scene is dying” Boston – I would frequent Great Scott and Harper’s Ferry/Brighton Music Hall and The Middle East and (begrudgingly) TT the Bear’s (just kidding, RIP).

I don’t think it’s because I’m getting older. I don’t think it’s even because bands aren’t impressing me anymore. I still listen to recorded music constantly and find new bands via blogs and Apple Music and friends’ posts.

I do think saturation has something to do with it. Software is eating the world and the Internet is eating media, and both of these things are eating our ability to be surprised. The barrier to entry for anyone to become a musician is virtually gone, and it’s really easy for anyone with a slight ego to fight for your attention. The barrier to entry to start a blog or generate commentary on said music is also gone, so with every million bands that form, there are 100 million people ready to comment on said bands.

So you have tons of musicians out there, striving to outdo each other with better performances and more inventive production in order to satisfy the even more so-called critics. The caliber of the average musician is so much higher as a result – and every musician is looking to surprise you, the listener-critic, constantly. Every night holds hundreds of amazing shows competing for your time & attention – secret exclusive shows, bizarre live rigs, intense theatrics, warm acoustic sets – all of which are constantly trying to compete for your interest. It’s all amazing…until it’s all the same to you.

And so I’ve become desensitized to the ability to be surprised by live music.

I’ve been meaning to write about being a musician on the North Shore of MA and how live performance here is different than, say, Brooklyn or Cambridge or other major cities with credible music scenes. I wanted to write about the fact that there is a small but lively group of musicians hopping up and down the shore, playing long & extremely entertaining sets in front of small, passionate North Shore crowds at quaint restaurants and bars. I wanted to write about the scene being smaller, thus allowing me to have a shot of regularly performing with a tight-knit group of collaborators.

None of that has actually happened, and that’s on me. But when you struggle to be surprised by anyone else performing, how can you expect to be inspired to surprise others with your own performance?

Goal: by April, have a live acoustic/looper set prepared and book a show. Try it out.

On Macs and focus

I own an iPad, but I really only use it to watch Netflix in bed with my fiancée since my iPhone 6s Plus is just too small enough for both of us to watch simultaneously. Outside of this pretty obvious use case, I’ve struggled to find a purpose for the gorgeous device in my life.

Everywhere I turn, though, I read about another person finding the iPad completely invaluable in their daily lives. It now exceeds the processing power of the average PC; its app ecosystem is generally much cheaper than the PC app ecosystem; it’s “more fun” to use than any device before. A lot of people who write about the iPad suggest that it allows for a level of focus beyond what Macs or PCs can allow.

I call bullshit. Anyone who says the Mac is too distracting has not given the Mac a fair shot since, well, 2 or 3 versions ago of OS X. Apple has made a series of beautiful, powerhouse laptops, build for demanding technical work – that also happen to be incredibly pleasant to use and conducive to focus.

I’m not suggesting that the iPad isn’t a great device – it truly is a pleasure to use. However, so are Macs, and some tech pundits seem to forget this. Efficiency on a Mac isn’t even a question worth asking – sure, you eschew a touch screen for a keyboard & multi-touch trackpad, but the sheer ergonomics of having both the keyboard & trackpad within millimeters of each other compared to jumping between keyboard and screen are staggering. Sometimes you want to lay back and relax, but when you need to work, the Mac wins every time.

The question really is about one’s ability to focus on a single task or project while working on a laptop/desktop computer. Tons of people have written about this. Those same people have tried incessantly for years to justify usage of an iPad for as many possible use cases as possible: blogging, note-taking, long-form writing, designing, music producing, analyzing spreadsheets, chatting with many people at once. I keep asking myself: what’s the goal of being able to do all these things on an iPad, other than attempting to justify my impulse purchase of an iPad?

If the goal is focus, I’ve wanted to try and tame the beast and have my Mac work to my advantage. Basically, a means of avoiding this:

Screen Shot 2016-01-26 at 8.15.04 PM

Hey, guess what? It's really to avoid the above with really minimal effort and discipline. Between the iterative improvements brought to OS X and its huge app ecosystem, it's really easy to make a Mac your portable productivity powerhouse. (Alliteration intentional.) And while the Mac app ecosystem is technically smaller than that of iOS, that has its benefits: less crap to weed through.

I have to give Apple props for identifying the key aspects that make iOS so pleasant to use and employing them in some fashion within OS X. For instance:

Launchpad is a solid app launcher and organizer; after a bit of reorganizing, it effectively replicates the iOS home screen. With Spotlight (or the more powerful Alfred) on top of this, finding and opening an app on a Mac is far quicker than anything performed on an iPad.

Screen Shot 2016-01-16 at 10.03.10 PM

Full-screen mode and Mission Control in El Capitan is arguably an even more elegant app switcher than iOS 9’s. Split screen mode is actually useful on my MacBook Pro unlike the iPad Air 2.

Screen Shot 2016-01-16 at 10.04.08 PM

Automator isn't new or even quite that extensive without mild technical know-how, but Workflow wouldn't be the iOS powerhouse it is without Automator coming first.

Plus, you can enable Do Not Disturb just like an iOS device.

Still having trouble focusing after trying these wonderful solutions? There's apps for that, including two literally called Focus (here and here) – some of which also have iOS counterparts but many of which are Mac exclusives such as:

  • Bartender, a great menu bar cleaner-upper
  • Hazel, an automatic file organizer so you don't have to clean your crap up yourself
  • Alfred, an amazing launcher and workflow tool that allows you to quickly ask a question or start something without pulling yourself away from the task at hand.
  • Ulysses, Byword, 1Writer, ia Writer, or any other number of free/cheap minimal writing apps for writing without distraction

Some of these are real boons to focus, like the first Focus app, which blocks you from accessing distracting websites and replaces them with inspirational quotes. I could argue that this makes the Mac BETTER for focus than the iPad, since you can actually stop Facebook from loading after you impulsively type the "f" into your browser's address bar. Can't really make the impulsive tap on the FB app icon on your iPad less compelling than it already is.


Disclaimer: I use a MacBook Pro with Retina Display, which has a solid state drive and 16GB RAM, so I’m not really ever concerned about my laptop exceeding the performance needs I have. Yes, it came at a higher price point than the average iPad and I purchased it primarily with music creation in mind.

But considering the top-of-the-line iPad Pro is virtually the same price as (and comparable in spec to) the ultrathin MacBook, it ultimately comes down to user preference. I’m here to suggest that while tablets are so fun and exciting, many of the reasons why find tablets so fun and exciting are right there in your average Apple laptop.

As with any tech write-up, this is my opinion, but I’d love your thoughts too. Agree? Disagree? Let me know. Like how I write? I’d love for you to share this post and follow my writing, either here or on Twitter. Thanks!

On Maker Overload, or why I’m okay with not solving all the problems

Following up on this, which was dead on. In the words of indie darling Courtney Barnett, sometimes I (want to) sit and think, and sometimes I just (want to) sit.

I’m a product manager, which means I spend virtually every weekday (and some weekends) doing two things: solving problems and making things happen to ship good, need-fulfilling products. Anyone who does product management can obviously break this up into many more buckets of duties, glorify it, debate its role in larger business culture, whatever – but that’s essentially what we do.

Sometimes I think I want to build something on my own – I wouldn’t be surprised if most PMs also get this urge. Thanks to a handful of tools that now exist, virtually anyone with Internet access and some spare time can build anything in a matter of hours or days. There’s a lot of people who create their own products on their own these days, using free or cheap existing tools, then publish them on sites like Product Hunt and write about them on Medium. When I read all these posts about “makers” making “products,” I react in a few ways.

First, curiosity, then a little bit of envy.

I love that we now have technology and platforms available for anyone to turn some idea into a packaged product in a matter of hours. Some of the problems people have solved are incredibly niche – I would never have thought of them. Sometimes I wish I had.

Then, jealousy-fueled anxiety.

Why aren't I identifying those problems? Why can’t I be making those things? What do those people have that I don't? What do I need in order to build amazing profitable things myself? WHAT AM I DOING WITH MY LIFE??!!?!!?!!!

Then, a ramble.

Hours and hours on Product Hunt. More things made by more people. Curiosity and anxiety on subsequent repeat.

Then, I'm tired.

I burned myself out worrying about other people's problems instead of solving my own or those problems which I care about.

Why did I do that?


We used to have information overload. Then people rebranded this as #content in an attempt to legitimize it. Now, if the content wasn't enough, we're in maker overload. New startups and new people announcing new products being announced almost every hour on the hour. Call it a lovechild of social media and freelancer culture, both powered by the good ol’ Internet – now everyone can have their own voice, so there’s millions more voices, all yelling incessantly over each other for top placement on your Twitter feed. All so you try the hot new products they each built on their own.

What is the impact of all those new products? Sure, it's huge in aggregate – if anything this is proven by how much pundits are talking about Product Hunt. But what value does each individual new solution to a problem have in the scheme of things?

Product management is really all about solving (the right) problems and enabling the people around you to solve them. Some of the "products" I come across solve problems that aren’t relevant to me at all, but because everyone is posting and writing and tweeting and retweeting about them I run into them anyway. Some of these products don’t solve any problem at all – they generate a problem of their own and attempt to solve it, even if the average person didn’t even need to recognize that as a problem in the first place. Some of those products are really just repackaging the exact same #content that other products already contain, only presented in a slightly different way. Just this year there were 50 products launched, all featured on Product Hunt, that repackage existing tools and content that already wasn’t too hard to find with a bit of Googling. Some of them are totally redundant with each other.

I’m not saying this is inherently a problem – after all, competition makes the world go ‘round. But is this really what makers want to be known for?

Maybe so, or more likely those makers are just trying to make some money or followers. This isn't new – companies have been making redundant products for the sake of staying competitive a long time – but now that the Internet has enabled for a product to get noticed and hyped in a matter of hours, there's too much noise to be continuously making products that don't matter in the scheme of things. It only adds to the information overload, except under the guise of something meant to solve a problem – so people who read about this product (especially those who religiously follow communities like Product Hunt) are inclined to take them more seriously than your standard clickbait. When they do, the maker gets noticed for a day, then just like clickbait, it usually gets lost in the ether of the Internet. Some makers then keep trying to optimize their offering and market fit until something sticks.

Perhaps “maker culture” in tech has also gone the way of the pop music industry.


But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I’m not suggesting that people stop building things for my own sake. Eventually you might happen across a brilliant solution to a truly challenging problem. Making things to satisfy urges or curiosities, make money, or to grow a personal brand is not inherently problematic – it does, however, create envy within others who aren’t sure they have those same needs. Especially when some of the most “popular” of those products made are redundant with each other or debated incessantly as to whether or not they’re dead.

I thought building my own things was what I should be doing with my life, but it turns out all the product overload is toxic for me. I get into a vicious cycle of anxiety and regret and forced ideation around problem spaces that really don't need solutions at that moment. I don’t personally build things constantly to satisfy some inner need, but I also don’t want to build a career out of making things that follow trends.

I solve problems all day, some of which are incredibly rewarding (like those that make my fiancée happy) and some of which are incredibly dull or frustrating (solved typically between the hours of 9am and 5pm, but even those are sometimes challenging and/or rewarding). In a world where an app can launch and die in a matter, and much of the writing about said app is about whether or not it’s actually dead, I don't want to come home every day and keep doing the same thing – it only stresses me out more. My catharsis is writing songs or posts (like this). Sometimes I want to just watch something mindless or live vicariously through someone else.

And that’s probably why I go on Product Hunt for hours on end. Now I understand the appeal of reality television.

I came into 2016 thinking that I wanted to launch a product, and now that I’m understanding myself better in 2016, the less I feel a need to do that. I have a day job, I better satisfy my curiosities via music and writing, and I don’t have any immediately-obvious solutions to problems I care about. It’s more important to me to be with the people I love and be reflecting and thinking about those problems I do want to solve. If you think you need to be launching products for the sake of launching products, take a minute to think about the merits of doing so. Don’t be a maker just because everyone else is.


Did you enjoy reading this? Feel the same way about maker and product overload? Nice. I’d love a like or share if you do, or you can follow me on Twitter. Thanks!

You Won’t Be Successful, Unless This Post Is

You’ve probably seen a ton of #content appearing on your various social media feeds lately offering inspirational stories, Life Hacks and general tips that might make you a better person. It might not, but at least it’s yet another new thing to try at some point in your miserable life-in-need-of-constant-stimulation-and-improvement.

But that’s not what I’m here to talk about.

You clicked on this post because I wrote a highly-targeted, urgent, actionable title that caught your eye. I got you with a trope. You idiot.

I, however, am an influencer. And I would like to influence you. Did you know that the following people employed tactics to lead successful lives?

  • Steve Jobs
  • Mark Zuckerberg
  • Oprah Winfrey
  • Sheryl Sandberg
  • Richard Branson
  • Howard Schultz
  • Warren Buffett
  • George Soros
  • Barack Obama
  • Most of the other writers on Medium

You probably did learn this by reading or hearing about it somewhere else. But I don’t care about that. I want you to think of me and this post next time you think about any of those famous, successful people. I want you to consume my #content and subscribe to my #newsletter and buy my endorsed #products, so I will inject myself into your life wherever and however I can. You will thank me for whatever Life Hack or tactic or change you made to your life, and consuming all that I spew is the first step.

So, to recap:

You are basically a massive failure until you follow all the points I lay out below.

1. Like and recommend this post and all my other Medium posts.

You might have read dozens, even hundreds of tips, posts, articles or even novels about what you can do to improve your life. But before recommending any of those, recommend my juicy content first.

2. Tell all your friends and followers to also like and recommend all my Medium posts.

Write your own content on Medium where you link to this article and generally reference my wise words and/or expertise on a field I totally have credibility writing about.

But what about the other social networks, you might ask? Yeah, share this post there too. It’s just more content for your friends and followers to digest. But it’s content YOU endorsed.

3. Follow me on every possible social media network & channel on which you can find me.

If you’re not on a network…well, get on it, dammit. I may or may not have profiles on the following sites:

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Instagram
  • LinkedIn
  • YouTube
  • Google+
  • Vine
  • Periscope
  • Foursquare
  • SoundCloud
  • Spotify
  • Dribble
  • Behance
  • Product Hunt
  • Medium
  • Github
  • various Slack channels
  • Etsy
  • Ello

When in doubt, assume I have a profile there. Follow and watch me as I grow my following of minions!

4. Click on every paid advertisement you see that has my name and/or face on it.

I’m not just talking about the sponsored posts on BuzzFeed, Medium, etc. that I clearly paid for to get your attention; I’m also talking about Facebook ads. I even have an in at Forbes who hooked me up with advertising there – you know the 3 second ad you see every time you open up a Forbes article? You might start to see me there. Click on me there. I’ll make some money and burn my image into your brain some more.

I also have some sponsored content on ESPN. I don’t even like sports.

But I LOVE developing my brand shamelessly.

5. Subscribe to my newsletter (because of course I have one) and read it, every single time you receive it, to completion.

Because I know how much you love and value every single email in your fucking inbox. You might already be subscribed to the newsletters of various other writers, marketers and influencers – so what’s another?

Also make sure to click every link in the email several times.

Me, me, me. This is all about me, and not at all about you or your inbox or your attention span.

6. Praise my success with me.

Once this post and my various social profiles reach a certain amount of attention, I will write about it. I will convey to the world how I did it, how you helped me, and what my next steps are going to be.

Then, you can read that and repeat the 6 steps I’ve laid out in this post.


Did you like what you just read? Have you not followed me yet on all my social media channels? If not, it is the single most important thing you can do as a living, breathing adult. Click on this link and this link and that link, and maybe this link too.

Content content content content content content content content content content content content content content content.


Special thanks to all the other digital marketers and social media people who made this satire possible! Sorry, I got frustrated this week with #content. This is not representative of ALL inspirational writing, just a li’l joke about that writing which is dishonest, contrived and/or pandering for the sake of marketability.

Also, sorry that I have to make that clear as to not inadvertently offend anyone.

On “pop writing”

I’m gonna repeat the chorus, and I’m gonna sing it ’til I’m blue in the face

This is a note in response to various posts written on Medium in the last few weeks: one of which was effectively a ripoff another, one of which brought up the fairly obvious point that top content producers (by means of likes & shares, not quality, which is subjective) might simply rip each other off, and a final one which brought to light the inherent problem with all of this.

The problem described isn’t specific to Medium: virtually all written nonfiction on the Internet that gets clicked on by the masses is specifically meant to get clicked on by the masses. A great subset of writers on Medium are no different. Original, interesting writing gets shoved into obscurity while the majority of readers see these repetitive listicles, hollow advice columns and “thought pieces” about Startups, Wanderlust and Life Hacking – because that’s what people appear to want to read. The numbers show it.

I’m fine with that, sure, in small doses. These days, you need some positive motivation to deal with the shitstorm mess that is modern reality. But after a while, as Ben Belser suggests, it gets old. Thousands of “influencers” circlejerking on hearts and fuzzies to promote themselves without giving a shit about what they’re actually saying, robbing the Internet of its soul.

I realized something the other day: Isn't this basically the same as pop music?

Hundreds of thousands of songwriters, composers and performers over generations, mostly working within the same general realm of tonality, mostly attempting to portray the same general emotions and ideas, oftentimes even ripping each other off for the sake of marketability. There are millions of blog posts, ironically enough, about how to do this.

Think about it: all of the most popular songs in the US right now can be confined to a tiny number of styles (hip hop, synth pop, country, with a few rock hits and retro throwbacks). Almost all of these songs are about the following: love, sex, drugs, partying, loneliness, angst. Many even feature the same ideas (emotional or musical) or even the same artists (looking at you, Tay Swift). There are incredibly few exceptions to this rule in the past 15 years – nu metal was an incredibly dumb angry fad, but even Limp Bizkit’s lyrics largely stayed within the confines of the aforementioned 6 topics.

How is this any different from going on Medium one morning and seeing virtually the exact same blog posts you saw 2 weeks prior? The posts are obviously not the same – maybe a different author, a different sponsor, a different tip to make you fitter, happier, more productive – but they're largely interchangeable. Sometimes they are even virtually the same. Like pop music.

So I’ve started to call the majority of what Medium feeds me something else: pop writing. Marketable, interchangeable writing to satisfy the masses. Blogs (at least the most popular ones on Medium) are no longer personal or honest or catering to a particular interest – their sole purpose is to maximize the marketability of the writer’s brand. Not unlike any top 40 artist, CamMi Pham (whose writing and general vibe mostly infuriate me) has a carefully curated personal brand, which draws elements from positivity-pumping wellness and advice writing (and sometimes, directly from other writers). She’s trying to be the Tay Swift of your Medium feed. This fine – millions of people love Taylor Swift, and thousands of people love CamMi Pham’s deliberate, speech-like writing on learning and unlearning and bettering oneself.

You want to figure out how her written brand works? It’s pretty simple, actually.

Come up with a really fucking edgy, attention-grabbing title.

Start with some one-sentence paragraphs.

Write increasingly powerful and emotional statements in those paragraphs.

Maybe a sentence implying initial self-doubt.

Then throw out a big initial thesis.

Usually in bold or headline style.

Then repeat that thesis verbatim, followed by a supporting reason.

The repeat that thesis verbatim again, with further reasons.

What about this other reason? No need to worry, because here’s that thesis again. With another supporting reason.

And that is the thesis, verbatim once more.


Pure, unadulterated crap.


King Crimson (which most people probably know, sadly, from when Kanye West sampled them) have this great song called “Happy With What You Have To Be Happy With” which is basically a brilliant exercise in hollow meta-songwriting. Most of the lyrics discuss the structure of the song itself:

And when I have some words

this is the way I’ll sing

through a distortion box

to make them menacing

It makes for a great commentary on the cookie-cutter nature of pop music construction – there are tropes that one can follow to clearly evoke some kind of emotional response, so we exploit them for maximum feeling. Adrian Belew (the singer) clearly describes the section of the song, what emotion must be evoked within it, and how he intends to portray that emotion; by the time he’s in the second chorus, he’s made it clear the song itself has no meaning: “I’ll brew another pot / of ambiguity.” The bridge, “you have to be happy with what you have to be happy with,” just reinforces that – it’s a nothing statement, weirdly urgent but pointless, endlessly repeating like the advice pieces on my Medium top feed.

(Ironically, that song was written music-first, and the lyrics were thrown in last minute as placeholder. Do you think Adrian Belew cares about what I think the song means? He’s not even making pop music.)

Like how pop music leverages chord progressions and romantic/lonely/excited feelings, Pop Writing leverages the nurturing nature of self-help, the inspiring nature of startup culture & life disruption, pandering political fluff and a few other obvious topics. Let’s call them “subgenres.” Each subgenre, and some artists within that subgenre, have particular conventions that are proven to be more effective than others. It’s already obvious that clickbait article titles is a common theme among all subgenres of pop writing. Some others: pick an icon and find an obscure fact about him or her; pick a bad quality about yourself and gradually turn it good; pander to the founders of an amazing product; respond to that pandering by shitting on said product; give advice to the most blogged-about professionals.

Like how pop music is hard to pigeonhole by conventions but easy to pick out, pop writing is hard to pigeonhole by topic to easy to pick out. One can easily pick up on the writing style of a blogger and exploit it for their own gain. Just pick a topic (even if it’s been beaten to death), read a few popular articles on that topic and pick up on the sentence and paragraph structure. Write a few test-drive articles to hone your skill, and then start marketing your brand. You’re basically doing what Taylor Swift did when she decided she wanted to move into pop music – developing your brand to reach a new audience.

If that’s what you feel like doing with your spare time, weirdo.

Medium is going the way of the music industry, but that's fine.

Nothing should stop CamMi Pham from writing like she does. Medium definitely shouldn’t stop her. That's the free market blogging economy at work. Instead, let's just call it what it is: happy, cookie-cutter, highly targeted pop blogging that will gain her new followers. The market demands it.

The problem seems to ultimately lie in the writer’s convictions. Yann Girard might be more genuine in his writing, but he might not be. Someone writing about a life tip they just discovered might genuinely be so excited about it that they’re compelled to share it with the world. S/he might also be plagiarizing someone else. Who knows?

Maybe the problem ultimately lies in the newfound stigma for content marketing and “social influencers” – people who are paid to get clicks and followers, and thus the honesty of their writing is instantly called into question. Maybe these people could rebrand themselves to appear more honest. CamMi Pham is unapologetic – she admits to being a total fraud and attempts to justify it (within her standard writing convention, of course). Yes, she might be encouraging young writers to steal ideas from others and develop a contrived style of writing that eschews honesty for marketability – but again, if that’s what people want to read, then more power to the writers.

For those who don’t like it: welcome to the beginnings of literary snobbery. Three immediate suggestions for you:

  1. If you don't like pop writing, simply don't read it. Just as I usually avoid the Top 40 like the plague, stop reading the Top Posts on Medium and find writing you like via other means: use Medium's tags, start curating who you follow, or look elsewhere entirely.
  2. If you think Medium isn’t listening and want to help out writers you care about, start your own subculture. Radio failed to capture many niche music genres and scenes, so music blogs popped up to try and promote music in those niches. Maybe fans of certain types of writing will subscribe to a blog or network that heavily caters to a certain niche of fiction or nonfiction. There doesn’t need to be one blogging platform.
  3. If you do genuinely have some honest advice or learnings to share with the world, do so genuinely. Please refrain from marketing tropes, because people can see through that shit. Tell the world what you know, how you feel about it, and if you pulled it from somewhere else, be honest about it. I love reading Jason Fried’s posts for this reason – he’s honest, witty and daring and has legitimate reason & experience to pull off all three.

I’m going to tag this post and hope it gets some likes and shares (which, by the way, you should do if you think it’s useful). It probably won’t, though, because I’m not a digital influencer with 500+ followers on Medium.

Yet.

Because I’ll keep trying.

Maybe I should read one of those “Top 10 Ways to Find Success on Medium” posts for help.

Earthside reinvigorated my faith in prog, and took me back to my roots

Music that challenged me in 2015, part two

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As part of my reflection on the music that inspired me in 2015, I started writing a bit about those albums and songs that will largely be overlooked by Big Music – but are still ambitious, challenging and exceedingly interesting. In this post, I’ll discuss the first progressive metal album I’ve listened to in years, Earthside’s A Dream In Static, and why this album is particularly important to me.

Why do you listen to music? Most people seem to just to get through their sad, meaningless existence – whether that means mellowing out to a pleasant acoustic ditty or raging to a club banger or some good punk rock. But regardless of what genre or why, you put music on in the background to feel something.

TLDR: If you want to not just feel something, but feel it with a level of intensity you might not have before while listening to music, you should listen to A Dream in Static by Earthside.

I grew up listening to mostly angry music. My parents didn’t push this upon me – in fact, they didn’t really make me angry at all or neglect me or listen to any angry music themselves – all I had was radio and my MTV. I distinctly remember the first time I saw the video for Eve 6’s “Inside Out” and having the silly cathartic moment that every young boy feels when he first witnesses ANGST. I started headbanging. I was then running around my parents’ living room, not dancing, but slamming my feet into the ground, punching the air in miserable joy. I wasn’t a sad or angry kid, but I think this (and a few other songs) stuck with me in such a way that dark and angry music resonated with me more so than any other.

When I first heard Tool’s “Schism” in 2001, I had a similar standout moment – the video, but more importantly the music, shocked me. Rock music could not only let me express my (misplaced) anger, but also make me feel awe, dread, all those existential feelings I had never experienced to that point at the ripe young age of 12. It was shortly after this that I learned that Tool was of a group of largely uncategorizable heavy bands, but usually pigeonholed into the genre of “progressive metal” – an overly generalized term for bands who skirt the norms of time & key signature, focus on big topics & bigger sound, and have small but extremely rabid fanbases. I became one of those rabid fans – first of Tool, then of Dream Theater, Porcupine Tree, Ayreon, Opeth and various others. I shared this with my dad who then exposed me to Yes, Pink Floyd and King Crimson, and I became obsessed. I HAD to learn everything about every song, how they all connected, what bizarre alternate realities the songs existed within, how the time signatures within a song related to the purpose of the song itself.

In 2004 I picked up bass guitar and, shortly thereafter, joined a band in high school bent on making powerfully emotive and complex music to try and channel this fascination into something productive. But because we were nerdy teens from suburban Connecticut, we didn’t have a whole lot of actual hardship to channel into powerfully emotive music. Plus, none of us were confident in our ability to write lyrics – so we made dark, edgy, self-indulgent instrumentals with silly names like “Mariachi Massacre” and “The Greatest Wall.” But it was a hell of a lot of fun – and we made some fairly cool music for a bunch of weird teenagers from Connecticut.

Then I went to college, started drinking, got a girlfriend, and landed my first internship – which happened to be in both the music & tech industry. I was around tons of other musical tastes and quickly got tired of the pretentiousness of prog metal. It just wasn’t vibing anymore, man. So I quit that band in late 2008 and tried my hand at some other stuff: a Talking Heads cover band, playing lead guitar in a stoner rock band, trying my hand at writing alone and with other people. To my old band, I said that I didn’t want to write music like that anymore and could not endure the impossible uphill battle that is trying to achieve noteworthiness as a prog metal musician. My tech career was more lucrative and important.

In 2014, that band publicly became Earthside.

earthside-band-photo.jpg


I remember a few years earlier when Jamie (Earthside guitarist and one of my closest friends to this day) sent me a rough cut of “The Closest I’ve Come,” a sprawling instrumental track that I had learned a few years prior when they asked me to fill in on bass for a show. They had finally locked down a permanent bassist in Ryan Griffin and tightened up the composition to the point where it was release-ready. I remember being impressed by my former comrades – an appropriate development of the initial sound we had established as Bushwhack, more focused, “cinematic” and, most importantly, nuanced. There is a specific breakdown roughly 6 minutes into the song in which all instruments abruptly pause – except for a quiet, ominous arpeggiating keyboard line that wisps you out of riffs and into a floating sensation. The guitar levitates with you, occasionally supplementing the keyboards with subtle harmonic feedback. It’s as if you’re being slowly pulled upward toward the cosmos – until drums, bass and guitars suddenly shatter a glass ceiling above you and push you back down to the ground with the most brutal rhythm of the song thus far.

To say that this was representative of the scope of the album they were working on is a gross understatement. Jamie had mentioned they were toying with the idea of guest vocalists, researching string quartets and small orchestras to record with and some producer in Sweden I hadn’t heard of. I largely disregarded all of this – where did they have the money to pull all that off? I certainly didn’t, and I was the one with the lucrative tech career.

But after over almost 7 years of hard work, Earthside finally released a true debut – an 8-track, hour-plus-long catharsis of a debut. It’s sometimes a difficult listen: it’s brutal, it’s morose, it’s jagged and it’s exceedingly triumphant, sometimes all in one track. It begins with the aforementioned “The Closest I’ve Come” as a hint of the journey this album takes, which in the band’s words encapsulates “everything we are as human beings” – which isn’t wrong.

See, the thing with A Dream in Static is that, while it occasionally uses prog-metal clichés in its song titles and lyrics (eg. all the self-actualization stuff, the song title “Entering the Light”), it makes the rare achievement of actually embodying those emotions and ideas in full. “Entering the Light” makes you feel like you’re actually marching toward said light, and then when all instruments are distant except for a quiet string harmony, you feel as if you’ve finally made it – only to discover you’re back where you started, marching again. I haven’t heard another rock song (let alone an instrumental!) that made me contemplate my own mortality like this in years. The scale of this album is enormous, and that’s ignoring the fact that these are still my nerdy friends from high school. Every single performance of every single idea is executed flawlessly – technically near-perfect but still human at its core.

Let’s talk about the 10-minute “single,” “Mob Mentality” – if any song attempts to represent the absurd mess of the state of our country right now, this could be the song that does it. (Ironically, it was recorded in Sweden.) I know this song is deeply personal to Jamie, as he wrote it both as a senior college thesis and as a means to deal with his own confusion of his life’s next steps, in a world where influencers are complicating your own worldview more than ever. Who has any idea what the hell is going on in their own lives and what’s going to happen next? And better yet, how is the persistent influence of others making that anxiety any less overwhelming? The sheer scale that the Moscow Symphony Orchestra and Lajon Witherspoon’s 1 performances bring to this workout of a piece is daunting, but also intensely relatable and satisfying.

There are three key breaks in the piece that make the song work. The first, a deliberate breath of curious air; the second, a sudden dip into playful terror as Lajon sings “and I pray for you to see / I’ve been sheltered by my bliss”. The last break of note occurs with only about 40 seconds remaining, after the song’s final climax has already been hit – it’s the song’s “Oh shit!” moment as the band takes you back to the original melodic idea that began this ride.

Oh, and this is the second track on the album.


There is no particular secret sauce to a progressive rock or metal record; some songwriters devise a complex storyline or overarching concept which may be explored lyrically or within the musical structure itself. However, much of “prog” has fallen into one of two traps: it either falls back on past tropes and stereotypes and, in the process, loses originality and/or emotional weight; or it gets so tightly fused into other genres of music that it’s barely noticeable (read: the first two Coheed & Cambria albums, which I still find excellent). When I was playing prog metal in Bushwhack, we were intensely aware of those tropes – as well as tropes in other styles of music – and tried to turn them upside down and meld them together into odd results. Over time it became less about fun genre-shifting for our own amusement and more about actively trying to bring complex (yet sometimes competing) ideas and finding some kind of emotional synergy. I’m happy that this band continued down this path.

“Skyline” (track 5) probably contains this year’s most awe-inspiring musical idea. As the band explains, about seven minutes in, the song follows 3 rhythmically competing lines (on piano, drums and lead guitar) for nearly a minute, winding around each other like synchronized birds in flight. Then suddenly they all meet and come into rhythmic unison in one of the most joyful, cathartic, nearly orgasmic musical expressions of cosmic scale I’ve heard. Even before this moment, this song dazzles: the song begins with a sudden thud after the quiet march of previous track “Entering the Light” and, after a brief introductory theme, breaks into my 2nd favorite bass line of the year (sorry guys – “King Kunta” wins this one).

Structurally, this album is half vocal tracks and half instrumentals, but each track contains at least one satisfying surprise. The title track, which features Tesseract’s Daniel Tompkins on lead vocals, seems unassuming at first – until its first chorus. I have not heard a more intensely joyful vocal performance in prog than Daniel’s in this song. “Ungrounding” is the one instrumental I haven’t mentioned yet, and while it seems fairly straightforward technical metal at first, there are two elements of this track that once again demonstrate the mastery of composition this band has. First: Frank (keyboardist)’s melodic line – out of context, it honestly sounds like it was lifted from a trance or hip hop track. It’s this fast-moving airy synth that almost works an attempted homage to Lil Wayne’s “Lollipop”. But once placed against the rhythmic complexity of “Ungrounding”, it takes on a whole new character that embraces chaos – what was once intended to put its listeners into a trance has now run amok.

Second: What the first half of “Ungrounding” does to inspire chaos, the second half does to make sense of it. There are feelings of grief, rage and outright fatigue (paired with a downtempo, down-octave version of the original synth melody). I remember first listening to this song and not expecting much beyond the first minute or two, but the second half pulls you back in with force – a testament to Earthside’s ability to truly capture attention and tap into the deepest reaches of your psyche.

The album closes with “Contemplation of the Beautiful,” a nearly-12-minute brooding funeral march; one could argue that it refers to the previous 7 tracks just as much as its subject’s waning sense of self. A Dream in Static does encompass everything we are as human, from the wonder of birth to inevitable death. Its ability to traverse tough, complex emotional ground with focus & grace, and it’s affected the music I find inspiring and even how I approach writing music. It tells a story through music more vividly than most concept albums I’ve heard and has reinvigorated my interest in metal & prog, and I cannot recommend it highly enough to anyone who genuinely wants to feel their emotions heightened by sound.

But more importantly, my friends made this record. Friends whom I have a history with making music and I left to pursue my own path. Part of me wants to be jealous, to question my decisions to pursue tech and solo songwriting; but a much bigger part of me is proud and amazed at these guys. They gave me a reason to once again appreciate my musical foundations and our time together as a band. If anyone reads this and happens to have a friend in a band, I encourage you to give that band an honest listen – they might just surprise you with something great.

  1. Yes, Lajon of Sevendust!!! #90s ↩︎