Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Five Essays for Interaction Designers

This is a warm up exercise for an updating of my somewhat out-of-date "top five books" list. These are my top five favorite essays about software design. Well, OK, to be accurate there are three essays and two interviews. The good news is that the three pieces from Winograd's Bringing Design to Software can all be read on the hci.stanford.edu Web site (sans figures though). For the others, you'll have to buy the books. Heck you ought to buy Bringing Design to Software anyway.

Here we go. Five essays for interaction designers...to inform, to inspire.

"A Software Design Manifesto", Mitch Kapor. In Bringing Design to Software (Winograd, 1996). This essay was first given as a talk at Esther Dyson's PC Forum in 1990, and it first appeared in print in Dr. Dobbs Journal in 1991. Kapor's essay represents a call to arms for a software design profession, and draws a strong parallel between software design and architecture.

"The Right Way to Think About Software Design", Theodor Holm Nelson. In The Art of Human-Computer Interface Design (Laurel, 1990). Ted Nelson is an early pioneer in Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW) and information technology. He is credited with coining the terms "hypertext" and "hypermedia" in the 1960s, and along with Andries "Andy" van Dam he created the first hypertext system at Brown in the late 60s. Nelson's essay draws an analogy between software design and movie-making; interactivity is a key concept in both.

"The Designer's Stance", an interview with David Kelley by Bradley Hartfield. In Bringing Design to Software (Winograd, 1996). David Kelley is the founder of IDEO, which is arguably the world's premier design firm. This interview is a nice short introduction to Kelley's ideas, and should whet any designer's appetite for reading The Art of Innovation, written by David's brother Tom Kelley (IDEO's general manager).

"Cultures of Prototyping", Michael Schrage. In Bringing Design to Software (Winograd, 1996). Schrage is a well known consultant, writer, and researcher at the MIT Media Lab. This essay discusses the importance of prototyping to creativity and innovation, and draws on examples from the automotive and consumer electronics industries. This essay plays well with my opinion that software design needs to be much more like industrial design, and that we place far too much emphasis on "specs" as the primary deliverable of product designers, rather than multiple methods of articulating design and vision.

"Designing the PalmPilot: A Conversation with Rob Haitani", an interview with Rob Haitani by Eric Bergman. In Information Appliances and Beyond (Bergman, 2000). Rob Haitani was the Product Manager for the original PalmPilot, and is widely credited with being in charge of the design of the PalmOS user interface. As a Palm user from the very first PalmPilot, I'm an unabashed PalmOS fan. This interview, the longest reading so far at 20 pages, is a fascinating look at the design process and design for the small screen.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Things That Are Important

"Things That Are Important" is a list of 5 principles that I have carried around in my Palm Pilot/Treo/Blackberry since the day in 1997 when they seemed to flow from my thoughts effortlessly. At least I think it was in 1997. I was about to transition from being an individual contributor to being a manager at Sun Microsystems, and I found myself thinking about my career, about what I thought was important, and how I wanted to manage my group. I like to believe that I have guided my career by these principles, and that I manage by them. Everyone who reports to me gets to hear them at least once.

1. Teamwork. This is about working for the good of the team, and thinking about the team. I use the term "team" in reference to all levels of the team - your local group, your larger organization, your division, all the way up to your corporation. All too often I have seen individuals act in their own self interests, rather than the interests of their group. Or groups act over the interests of their larger organizations or even their entire corporation. For people in my team, I expect them to watch each others' backs. This might be as simple as sharing information or giving a team member a "heads up" about something. Or it might be seeing a need and helping out. As for managers, we should always be aware of how our words and actions either foster or destroy a sense of team, both within our groups and among different groups.

2. Leverage. This is about making use of your work beyond the immediate purpose. Leverage is about making your organization more efficient. This is often played out in terms of taking lessons learned and sharing them with others, so that they don't have to learn what you already know the hard way. Sharing templates and tools and techniques that you have developed is another way of applying leverage to your work. One might call this just an aspect of teamwork, but I find it unique enough to deserve a place on my list.

3. Technical excellence. I am simply blown away, day in and day out, by the technical excellence displayed by the engineers with whom I work. As design professionals, it is important to also demonstrate a level of technical excellence and competence. There are two aspects of this. The first aspect is a level of technical competence regarding the software or device architecture upon which we are designing. This does not mean knowing the architecture as well as the engineers, but it does mean knowing enough to be an effective designer. You must have an understanding of what is possible, of what is difficult, of what is impossible. Without some level of technical competence, you will almost surely fail to establish a meaningful and productive relationship with your engineering counterparts. The second aspect is a level of technical excellence with respect to the domain for which you are designing. It doesn't matter whether you are designing, say, a programmer productivity tool, a financial application, a network or system management application, a social networking application, or a civil engineering application. You simply cannot be an effective designer without some level of technical competence in the application's "domain space."

4. Attention to presentation and detail in everything we produce. We are design professionals, and everything we produce should speak to that. This does not mean spending an infinite amount of time on an infinite amount of detail. Not at all. But it does mean considering the audience for everything you produce, and producing it with an eye toward design. Think of it this way - it isn't just about the quality of your design ideas, but also the quality of how you convey them.

5. It's not just a job, it's a profession. I am extremely passionate about this principle. While I don't discount that there are some pure natural design geniuses, most of the rest of us are mere mortals. I have a masters degree in the field, and have spent two decades practicing and reading and learning my profession. As such I have little patience with those who seem to think they can click their heels three times and call themselves an interaction designer, or a usability engineer, or whatever - all without having the foggiest idea of fundamental human-computer interaction and design principles, or without having any familiarity with the body of knowledge, or with the important thought leaders of the field. And, frankly, this means more than simply browsing a couple of web sites every once in a while. Like all established professions, we stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us. When I was in graduate school twenty-some-odd years ago the field was small enough that you could literally read the body of literature. This is no longer the case, but you darn well ought to be familiar with the major works, and you darn well ought to be actively staying in touch with the field though readings and publications, local professional networking groups, and other training opportunities. Another way to think of this is as using constant professional learning as a means of continual process improvement - of learning and getting inspired by others to continually improve yourself. (Which reminds me, I posted a "top 5 books" list to my web site several years ago, and it is in dire need of updating - maybe that will be my next bog post.)

There you have it. Five things that are important. Have you thought about your own career principles? Or maybe just as important, do you have any idea of what your manager thinks, and whether his or her principles are in concert with your principles?

Friday, February 22, 2008

Design is about articulating vision of what is to be

In my reading and conversations and thinking lately I keep coming around to this phrase: design is about articulating vision of what is to be.

I was struck by this thought several times yesterday, including late last night while reading a passage in Henry Dreyfuss' autobiography, Designing For People. Dreyfuss was, IMO, the most important industrial designer of the twentieth century. Among other things, he designed the Twentieth Century Limited locomotive, the classic John Deere tractor, the Honeywell circular wall thermostat, the classic Hoover vacuum cleaner, and perhaps most iconic of all, the Bell model 550 telephone (the classic desktop phone). It was Dreyfuss' passage about the model 550 that stuck me. Here are some snippets from a section that is about three or four pages long:

Toward this goal, we proceed slowly, discarding more innovations than we accept.

Every conceivable kind of handgrip was considered...     Laboratory and field tests by typical telephone users...pointed up advantages.

...the phone began to fall into shape. This is an easy way of stating that something like 2500 rough sketches were scrutinized and narrowed down to half a dozen...

It would serve no purpose to confound the reader with the infinite mass of statistical detail that had to be carefully studied, the suggested changes that were agreed upon, rejected, or modified, and the compromises effected between engineers and industrial designers. Inherent limitations dictated much of the design.

Our office was in turmoil for weeks over what was called the "ROH Battle" - receiver off hook...

Sketches were made of all these variations, then accurate layout drawings. These were followed by full-size "breadboard models" of the components. When several designs appeared likely, they were modeled in clay, which can be easily modified as ideas develop. Later they were cast in plaster, sculptured and lacquered. This high polish was important so that the model could be analyzed for light reflection that might prove annoying or tiring. Some were equipped with mock components such as handset dials, cords, and number plates to simulate the finished product. When all decisions were made, a bronze master was made of the final design.

Is this any different than what those of us in software product design do, other than we don't work in the physical realm but in the software realm? I think not. All of these things ring true - the discarded ideas, the formative testing, the endless sketches and detail, the interaction between developers and designers, the inherent limitations of the software architecture, and the weeks of turmoil over thorny design problems.

And what Dreyfuss is describing, to me, is the many different ways of articulating vision of what is to be, every step of the way.

There's a side topic here too, about the role of "specs." Too many software organizations, I think, confuse design with "writing the spec." I think design is all of those other ways of articulating the vision of what is to be, each one reducing uncertainty and answering questions and focusing the idea. Then you write the spec, if needed, when things are pretty well nailed down. Not unlike how the telephone bronze master wasn't made until all the decisions were made about the final design.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Google loves tomspine.com

I don't know what it is about it, but Google just loves tomspine.com in its search results. Maybe it is because my site has been up for a long time. I just checked the Wayback Machine and found that I must have set up my domain late in 2003, although I know I first set up a site several years before that via my cable provider. In any event, I'm constantly amazed at how often my site shows up in search results.

Today was a case in point. I received a mail message out of the blue from a guy named Jonathan in Hudson, NH. Jonathan is a patient of Dr. Wingate at Nashua Eye Associates and he is considering LASIK eye surgery.

Like any sane person, Jonathan was doing some research on the surgery and the doctor. He found my write up of having Dr. Wingate perform LASIK surgery on me in 2000, updated with follow ups in 2001 and 2004. Jonathan wondered how things have gone since then.

I was thrilled to be contacted, and told Jonathan that yes, I'm still very happy with my LASIK surgery. While I do now wear reading glasses (ahem, no cracks about middle age), I continue to have excellent vision and no negative side effects.

But I wondered just how Jonathan found my web site. I thought, hmmm, maybe he did a Google search on "Dr. Wingate lasik", so I tried that. Holy cr*p, the order of the search results blew me away. First result is, of course, a sponsored link for some LASIK vision center. But then the first "real" search result is my web site! I come up before Dr. Wingate's bio, before a Nashua Telegraph article, even before the Nashua Eye Associates web site! That astounds me.

But I love it. :-)

Monday, February 18, 2008

Gender and Design

Talk of gender issues and the high tech industry usually focuses on the glass ceiling - the dominance of men in the senior leadership positions of many high tech companies. But there is a growing awareness of the importance of gender considerations in the design of technology products. The headline article in the Business section of today's Boston Globe, titled "Tech's feminine side" is a high level introductory look at the issue.

I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Laura Beckwith, one of the researchers quoted in the Globe article. Laura, now working at Microsoft, researched computing and gender issues while obtaining a Ph.D. at Oregon State University. She looked at how the design of end-user computing environments, such as spreadsheet debugging tools, influenced performance differences across male and female users. I was fascinated to learn of her work, and found it fundamentally important. You can learn more about it here.

The very important bottom line is summed up in this quote by Laura in the Globe article:

"There's a possibility that if you don't consider gender when you're designing your software, you are unintentionally designing for one and not both genders."

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Two (count 'em, two!) Boston-area UPA meetings this week

For the moment I will put aside my rant that we have too many splinter groups in the greater Boston area - Boston CHI (formerly SIGCHI, and IMO the granddaddy of all of these upstarts), UPA Boston, NH UPA, Boston-IA, and IxDA Boston are just five - and I'm sure I'm forgetting one or two more.

Anyway, what is this post about? Oh, yea - this coming week we have both NH UPA and Boston UPA meetings.

The NH UPA meeting is on Tuesday night, February 19 at PixelMEDIA in Portsmouth, NH. The meeting will feature four 10-minute talks, one each by Chauncey Wilson (Autodesk), Shannon McHarg (H&R Block), Rebecca Richkus (Autodesk), and Margot Bloomstein (PixelMEDIA). Go Chauncey and Rebecca! See the NH UPA site for more info.

And Autodesk is again taking the spotlight on Thursday night, February 21, at the UPA Boston meeting. This one will be held at Autodesk in Waltham, MA, and the theme is a series of short talks about design and usability organized by Chauncey and the Autodesk Revit product design team. More info is available on the UPA Boston site.

I'll be at both meetings this week, cheering on the home team.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Project Ticket Stub - 1988

This was a year for lots of Hot Tuna, David Bromberg, John Hartford, and the Dead...
Hot Tuna, March 26, 1988

Hot Tuna
The Stone Pony, Asbury Park, NJ
March 26, 1988

Acoustic and electric sets at the legendary Stone Pony. I think my ears are probably still ringing from the electric set. This show was just an added bonus for the Dead shows coming up in a few days...
Grateful Dead, March 30 and 31, 1988
Grateful Dead
Meadowlands Arena, East Rutherford, NJ
March 30 and 31, 1988

These were the first two of three shows played at the Meadowlands, and they were on Wednesday and Thursday nights. Why, I wonder, didn't we go to the Friday night show? That seems peculiar, and I have no recollection that would explain it.

Nothing stands out, other than this was the period where the band was doing Dear Mr. Fantasy > Hey Jude, and we got that on Thursday night. Both those songs were loads of fun, with Brent singing lead on Fantasy, and the crowd singing along on Hey Jude.
Grateful Dead, April 3, 1988
Grateful Dead
Hartford Civic Center, Hartford, CT
April 3, 1988

The Sunday night show in Hartford. If I remember it correctly, this was the show where Jerry's voice was completely shot. Painfully shot. This was the first of three shows in Hartford, and we were glad we were skipping the last two shows, and hoping he recovered by later in the week when the band hit Worcester...
Grateful Dead, April 7 and 9, 1988
Grateful Dead
The Centrum, Worcester, MA
April 7 and 9, 1988

Here again I went to only two of three shows. For some unknown reason I skipped the Friday night show. Perhaps it was cash flow?
Note the "Behind Stage" mark on the Thursday night ticket. The Dead were starting to get popular, touring behind the fairly successful "In The Dark" album and the band's only top 10 song, "Touch of Grey" Popularity - bummer.
John Hartford, April 23, 1988
John Hartford
Nashua Center for the Arts, Nashua, NH
April 23, 1988

No doubt about it, this is a top-10 all time concert.

Memories of this concert are strong, owning in no small part to the WEVO-FM live broadcast of the show. Since I was going to the concert, I took my trusty Nakamichi BX-100 cassette deck over to my friend Chuck's house, and set Chuck up so all he had to do with hit the record button. Chuck did a fine job recording the show for me.

In October, 2002 I transferred the cassette masters to computer WAV files, and created lossless SHN files. These SHN files are now widely circulated among Hartford fans and collectors, and in fact bt.etree.org has an active torrent seed of the show right now.

WEVO-FM itself occassionally plays some cuts from my recording during the Sunday night Folk Show. Although WEVO did quite a few live broadcasts from the Nashua Center for the Arts, it seems they never recorded them (or the tapes are lost in somebody's private stash). So after I did the transfer from cassette I gave a copy of the resulting CDs to Kate McNally, the Folk Show DJ. She was really happy to receive it, and every now and then I hear her play a cut from the show.
John had the respectful Nashua audience in the palm of his hand. The sing along portions are particularly great on the recording. WEVO must have had some mics on the audience, and the result is excellent.

Chuck Berry and Friends, May 7, 1988
Chuck Berry and Friends
Cheshire Fairgrounds, Swanzey, NH
May 7, 1988

This was an all afternoon show at the outdoor fairgrounds in Swanzey, NH. It was a wonderful late spring day in New Hampshire. I don't remember the exact order of the show, but I think it went:
  • Carl Perkins
  • Johnny Rivers
  • Roy Orbison
  • James Brown
  • Chuck Berry
The highlight of the show was, without a doubt, Roy Orbison. I feel very fortunate to have seen him. Little did we even think at the time that Roy would be gone by the end of the year, dead at age 52 from a heart attack.

The lowlight of the show was James Brown. We were all very much looking forward to seeing the Godfather of Soul, but this wasn't the night. I don't know if he was just drunk or high on drugs, but he was out of it. He could barely stand up, and had to be, uh, assisted on stage by two of his flunkies. His performance, if you could call it that, was short and just plain stunk.
Grateful Dead, July 2 and 3, 1988
Grateful Dead
Oxford Plains Speedway, Oxford, ME
July 2 and 3, 1988

The weekend was probably the most fun I ever had in all my Dead shows. This setting, rural Maine, was the polar opposite of all those very fun Dead shows at Madison Square Garden. We had a very large group of probably 20 or more all camping together next to a lake about a mile or two from the speedway. My Web site has this photo of a boat on the lake in fog that I took at the campground late one afternoon. It looks oh so peaceful, but behind the camera's view is the cacophony of tents and grills and music and dozens of happy campers.
I remember there was some amount of trepidation leading up to the weekend. If I recall correctly, a week or two before there was a heavy metal concert at the speedway, and things did not go well. Rowdy, drunken metal heads did some disrespectful things to the locals, and the result was predictable. Word spread, and both the Deadhead community and the locals were wary of what would happen when we arrived. No worries, though, for as the locals found out, Deadheads tended to be a mellow and peaceful bunch.

Funny, but one of my memory highlights is walking to the speedway for the shows. I'm pretty sure the cops closed the road leading up to the speedway to vehicle traffic. So I have this memory of this rural Maine state highway full of Deadheads as far as the eye could see, all walking to (and from) the show. Surreal.
Kingston Summer Jam, August 21, 1988
Kingston Summer Jam
Kingston Fairgrounds, Kingston, NH
August 21, 1988

This was an all-afternoon outdoor concert on the fairgrounds. I recall it was quite the low key and relaxed affair. The line up, in order as I recall it was:
  • Papa John Creech
  • David Bromberg (solo)
  • Max Creek
  • Rick Danko
  • Hot Tuna with David Bromberg
I'm really glad I got to see Papa John. I think that may be the only time I saw him. Or was he along on the Jefferson Airplane reunion tour in 1989? No, I don't think so, or I'd remember it.

Nonetheless, the highlight for me was the closing Hot Tuna Bromberg set. This was all acoustic, and sitting in chairs from left to right were David, Jorma, and Jack. Bromberg and Jorma together are, IMO, more than the sum of their parts, and this set mixed Bromberg tunes and Hot Tuna tunes together.
Bob Dylan, September 3, 1988
Bob Dylan
Riverfront Park, Manchester, NH
September 3, 1988

Riverfront Park! Ha! Some park. Riverfront Park was nothing more than an asphalt parking lot hemmed in by a number of the old mill buildings along the Merrimack River. This was also called Arms Park, and today there is a pretty strip of trees and grass in this area, just south of the Bridge Street bridge. Were there some buildings there that have since been torn down for parking? I really recall being hemmed in by brick buildings. You can imagine how good the sound wasn't.

I'm pretty sure the opening band was Timbuk3. Besides the venue, the only thing that really stands out about Dylan's set is a fair number of familiar songs that were almost completely unrecognizable, particularly "Girl From The North Country."
Eric Clapton, September 14, 1988
Eric Clapton
Great Woods Performing Arts Center, Mansfield, MA
September 14, 1988

Crap. I just don't remember this show. Nothing sticks out. Pretty easy to research it on the Web though - it was a Wednesday night, Mark Knopfler was part of the band, a pretty typical Clapton setlist ("Crossroads", "White Room", "After Midnight", and more), Knopfler did "Money for Nothing", encore was "Sunshine of Your Love." But I'm afraid there really aren't any memories that stand out.
Grateful Dead, September 16, 18, 19, 20, 22, and 23, 1988
Grateful Dead
Madison Square Garden, New York, NY
September 16, 18, 19, 20, 22, and 23, 1988

Here we go! A full week-plus of Dead at Madison Square Garden! Actually, the band's run at MSG started on the 14th, but I didn't see either that show or the show on the 15th. My run started on the Friday night show on the 16th.

Looking back now almost twenty years later, the week is just one long blur of Dead shows, and it is impossible to say "oh yea, and on the Tuesday night show they played 'Louie Louie'." Of course, they really did play "Louie Louie" on the Tuesday night show, but distinguishing that night from the other nights just isn't possible.
Grateful Dead, September 24, 1988
Grateful Dead & Friends
Madison Square Garden
September 24, 1989

Even though this is the next, and last, night in the MSG run, I am listing it as an individual entry. This night was special, and more than "just" another Dead show.
This was a benefit concert with proceeds going to Cultural Survival, Greenpeace, and the Rainforest Action Network. The concert was broadcast live on WNEW-FM in New York, and WMMR-FM in Philadelphia. Bruce Hornsby & The Range opened the show.

And then the real fun began with the Dead's two sets. We knew it was going to be a special night when three songs in former Rolling Stones guitar player Mick Taylor was on stage for "West L.A. Fadeaway" and "Little Red Rooster." The latter song, being a blues number, was perfect for Taylor. (Ah, I suppose West LA is sorta blues inspired as well.)

The rest of the first set was pretty straight forward, but the second set opened in a completely surprising way with Suzanne Vega on stage with an acoustic guitar and the band backing her on two of her own songs, "Chinese Bones" and "Neighborhood Girls." The surprises continued a couple of songs later when Daryl Hall and John Oates came out to play "Every Time You Go Away" and "What's Going On." Daryl Hall's lead vocals on "What's Going On" was particularly memorable, and the song rocked out. Drumz was notable for the inclusion of a bunch of folks, including Baba Olatunji.

Everybody was out for the encores, "Good Lovin'" and "Knocking On Heaven's Door" - Hornsby, Hall and Oates, Jack Casady (on bass, of course), Suzanne Vega, and Olatunji.
Without a doubt, this was the most unique Dead show I ever saw.
Hot Tuna, October 20, 1988
Hot Tuna
Raoul's Roadside Attraction, Portland, ME
October 20, 1988

The ticket says Jorma Kaukonen, but this really was acoustic Hot Tuna - Jorma and Jack Casady. Raoul's is a little hole in the wall sort of place, still running today, and for me the perfect type of venue for Jorma and Jack sitting down and playing their acoustic magic. A fine show.
David Bromberg, David Grisman, John Hartford, October 21, 1988
David Bromberg, The David Grisman Quartet, & John Hartford
Sanders Theatre, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA
October 21, 1988

It is impossible to not catch your breath in awe the first time you walk into Sanders Threatre. If you have never been there, this picture gives you a small sense of the its beauty. Deep rich wood, constructed with a detailed craftsmanship that simply isn't possible today. The acoustics of Sanders is phenomenal. It is absolutely one of my most favorite venues, and the only complaint I could ever have about it is that it can be rather cozy - there will be no space whatsoever between you and whomever is sitting next to you. Oh, and don't get stuck behind one of the support pillars.

For this show, John Hartford went first, then Grisman, and then Bromberg closed the show. With the acoustics, this was a perfect venue for Hartford, and he expertly got the audience singing along, and even singing in round (on "Long Hot Summer Days" if I am not mistaken). The other thing that stands out from this night is Bromberg singing several songs without amplification. Now he often does this in shows, but I remember that something different was going on - was there a power outage, or a temporary malfunction of the sound system? Something like that, but whatever the cause he didn't miss a beat and the sound in Sanders is so perfect that no one had to strain to hear him.
David Bromberg, November 18, 1988
David Bromberg
Raoul's Roadside Attraction, Portland, ME
November 18, 1988

Back to Raoul's, this time for Bromberg performing solo.
Hot Tuna, December 10, 1988
Hot Tuna
The Ritz, New York, NY
December 10, 1988

And last but not least for 1988, acoustic and electric Hot Tuna - just like the year began.

Start Simple, Build Complexity Over Time

I just ran across a post by Paul Graham titled Six Principles for Making New Things. Paul succinctly stated his principles as:

"I like to find (a) simple solutions (b) to overlooked problems (c) that actually need to be solved, and (d) deliver them as informally as possible, (e) starting with a very crude version 1, then (f) iterating rapidly."

Sweet. I like it. I was immediately reminded of one of my own often used design aphorisms:

Start simple, build complexity over time

Yes, I'm aware that the grammar is a bit awkward. And I also admit that this is just a variant on Occam's razor.

But I'm amazed at how often we in the software industry paint ourselves into design corners by violating the law of parsimony. Really good software design takes a tremendous amount of discipline, and a willingness to draw boundaries in the name of elegance, simplicity, and usability. Design for the essential, not the edge cases. It turns out to be much easier said than done.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Interaction 08 Videos

The Interaction Design Association (aka, IxDA) held its first annual conference, Interaction 08, last week in lovely Savannah, GA. Exciting times, and a potentially important step toward a more recognized establishment of the interaction design profession.

And even better, they are posting a ton of videos of the sessions on brightcove (and soon on the conference site as well). See this post in the IxDA discussions for a list of the first batch of videos.

This is going to chew up hours of my time. First stop for me is Alan Cooper's keynote address, An Insurgency of Quality. And then maybe Jonathan Arnowitz on Effective Prototyping Methods. And then, and then...

Thank you, IxDA!

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Yes We Can parody video

You knew it had to happen. First the Yes We Can video gets millions of hits on both YouTube and at its original location - over three million complete viewings at each site, and counting. So the parody couldn't be far behind, could it?

No, of course it couldn't be far behind. It's in the top 10 most viewed on YouTube so far this week, with over 500,000 views: john.he.is.

You really need to watch the two videos back to back to appreciate how well the parody was done. Oh, and if you are a Republican you probably need a really good sense of humor too.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Concert Report: Susan Werner @ Tupelo Music Hall

Patti and I were back at the Tupelo Music Hall on Sunday night to see Susan Werner, one of my most favorite singer-songwriters.

As with Lucy Kaplansy, I distinctly remember the first time I heard Susan. It was 1996 or maybe 1997, and I was driving to work. I was in Lowell, MA, and Susan was an in-studio guest on WERS-FM. Susan and the DJ talked for a bit, and then Susan played a live version of "Petaluma Afternoons". Bam! I was hooked, by the voice as well as the mastery of lyrics.

To this day I think that Susan is the most musically-gifted of all my favorite singer-songwriters. Richard Shindell is the best song storyteller. Vance Gilbert is the most gifted stage performer. But Susan is the most gifted musically. Her understanding of song and the craft of songwriting is unparalleled. This is illustrated, I think, in her last two albums, both of which are "project" or concept albums. The previous album, "I Can't Be New" is full of songs written in the Great American Songbook style; songs in the style of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, and Richard Rogers.

Susan's current album, "The Gospel Truth" is a bold and honest approach at questions and issues of religion and faith in a gospel and slightly bluegrass influenced style. Susan describes it as "hymns for the spiritually agnostic", or "agnostic gospel." There are questions of faith and doubt, and those who aren't willing to question their beliefs are advised to not venture into this album.

A wonderful suprise for this concert was the addition of Trina Hamlin for harmony vocals, percussion, and a killer harmonica. Trina is incredibly talented, and she is an excellent sidekick for Susan. If you have some time, check out some of the YouTube videos of Susan and Trina playing together.

Patti says this was the best Susan concert we have seen, and she may be right. And we have seen Susan probably close to a dozen times - solo, in a trio format, and co-bills (the co-bill with Vance Gilbert at the Somerville Theater stands out in memory). The setlist went like this (all with Trina, unless otherwise noted):

I Will Have My Portion
(Why Is Your) Heaven So Small
Our Father (The New, Revised Edition)
Sunday Mornings (solo)
After All of This (solo, on piano)
Probably Not
Did Trouble Me
Don't Explain It Away
Lost My Religion
Time Between Trains
St. Mary's of Regret
May I Suggest (solo)
All Of The Above (solo)
I'm In Debt (on piano)
Give Me Chicago
Jacaranda (Trina solo)
Give Me One Reason to Stay
(Barack Obama) Get Happy
I Can't Be New
Help Somebody

Trina played harmonica on a number of songs, but she had a killer, extended harmonica solo on the end of "Time Between Trains" that rocked out. Susan performed "May I Suggest" on guitar, rather than piano as she originally always performed it; interesting variant. "All Of The Above" was played as an audience request. "(Barack Obama) Get Happy" was a contemporary political version of the old song, you know:

Forget your troubles,
Come on get happy...

Only substitute "Barack Obama" for "Forget your troubles" and then let your lyrical imagination run wild.

After the show we got to tell Susan that Lucy Kaplansky sang Susan's "May I Suggest" on the same stage just a week earlier. Susan had heard that Lucy was covering it, but hadn't yet heard Lucy's version. I also got a kick out of telling Susan that my signed pre-order copy of "The Gospel Truth" was number 13 out of the run of 100 pre-orders (Susan took pre-orders for the first one hundred CDs via her Web site). We both agreed that getting number 13 was superstitiously auspicious!

The opening act was Jenn Adams, whom I'm surprised I have never heard of before. A little bit folk, a little bit blues, she is new to the New England scene via Montana and then Nashville.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Concert Report: Lucy Kaplansky @ Tupelo Music Hall

We interrupt Project Ticket Stub for an honest to goodness concert report. Patti and I saw Lucy Kaplansky last Friday night at Tupelo Music Hall.

I remember vividly the very first time I heard Lucy on the radio. It was 1995 and I was driving to work. As I was pulling into the parking lot this song came on, and I was mesmerized by both the voice and the lyrics. I parked my car and sat there amazed at what I was hearing. There was no way I was leaving my car until I found out who it was. I sat for a full 15-minutes until the set was over, and finally the DJ told me that I had heard Lucy singing the title song to her first album, The Tide.

Since that day I've seen Lucy, oh, I bet a dozen times. Solo. Co-bills with Richard Shindell. And three times during the wonderful year when Lucy, Richard, and Dar Williams teamed up and toured as Cry Cry Cry.

Lucy is known both for her own songwriting, as well as for her covers. And the covers are what really stood out for me Friday night. She opened with Nerissa Nields' "I Know What Kind of Love This Is", singing it sadder and slower than the Cry Cry Cry version. While I missed the harmony of Dar's voice, Lucy's solo of this song is heart wrenching, and you could tell that even Lucy was close to having tears in her eyes. Ah, nothing like a good dose of sad to start the evening off, eh?

A surprise cover was Susan Werner's "May I Suggest." This is new to Lucy's concert repertoire. She heard Susan do it this past summer at the Falcon Ridge Folk festival, and only recently printed out the lyrics and learned it. I am so used to Susan's version that Lucy's version just didn't seem right to me. But I'm sure that was just because my brain cells were expecting Susan but hearing Lucy.

Lucy also did Sir Paul McCartney's "Let It Be" on the Music Hall's baby grand piano. I don't recall if I have ever heard her do it before, but I loved it. She also pulled out Gram Parsons' "Return of the Grievous Angel", which she recorded on the Flesh and Bone album. When the album came out in 1996 I didn't like her cover of this song, probably because my mind wanted to compare it to Emmylou Harris' version. But over the years I have come to love Lucy's version as much as Emmylou's.

Patti and I were happy that she has returned to singing one of her Dad's songs mid-set again, and we cheered when she introduced it - prompting the familiar "I see he has fans" comment from Lucy. Her dad wasn't a song writer, but a musically-gifted mathematician who wrote a handful of wonderfully oddball songs. And Lucy has long talked about her dad and performed one of his songs during her shows, much to the delight of her regular fans. Well, Irving Kaplansky died at the ripe old age of 89 about a year and a half ago. It wasn't unexpected, and Lucy did get to say goodbye to him, but for a long time afterward she just couldn't bring herself to sing his songs in her show. Happily, she's back to making us Irving Kaplansky fans satisfied again, and she sang "A Song About Pi" for us. I would have preferred "On A Rocket Ship for Two", but I'll take what I can get. She closed the show with "Today's The Day", a song she wrote shortly after her dad passed away:

Tonight's the night I'll say goodbye
The last time that I can
I'll kiss your sleeping head
And hold your dying hand

Yea, not a dry eye in the house. As the concert started, so it ended.

The opening act was an up and coming young singer songwriter, Liz Longley. Liz is a student at Berklee College of Music, and wow, she is packed with poise and talent. Her voice can be silky and sultry, or bluesy and biting. Her songwriting craft isn't bad for someone who is just twenty years old. And she is quite poised on stage. She got good laughs from the audience, like when she told us she felt old because she had just turned twenty. As the mostly middle-aged audience laughed, she peered out at us and said "oh, wrong audience." I'm sure she has one heck of a career ahead of her, and you can check out her music on her MySpace page.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Yes We Can Song

I didn't think I would ever inject a political point of view here, but yes we can.