Monday, January 28, 2008

Wabi-Sabi and Product Design

There are many examples far worse than this.
I find it funny that people will spend hundreds of dollars on a fancy piece of elegantly designed consumer electronics like the iPod or iPhone and then stick them into a cheap and hideous case designed to "protect" it.

It reminds me of those living rooms some of my friends' families had with nice furniture trapped under plastic shrouds.

What's the point? They love the object's beauty so much they'd rather hide it or obliterate it completely lest it get a single scratch? These things aren't supposed to stay perfect, flawless, beautiful forever (just like you and me). The expected consumer lifetime for most PDAs, mobile phones and MP3 players is 18 months. You really can't live with a scratch that long?

I believe Apple puts those shiny chrome backs on the things to force people to fetishize them, constantly trying to rub off their own fingerprints. Sisyphean in a way. All that attention - it's like washing your car every day.

Zune has done a nice job of giving their players surfaces that still feel and look nice but don't require you to carry a bottle of Brasso everywhere you go.

There's a Japanese concept known as wabi-sabi. There aren't direct analogues in English, but the general idea is there is a dignity and beauty in things that are aged and worn, and that impermanence and transience are good and right.

Would you rather have a shiny brand new guitar or a vintage Strat from the 50s? Most people, not just guitar junkies, prefer older, worn instruments. Wabi-sabi.

Fender and other manufacturers have realized there's big money to be made in delivering new guitars that look (and to a lesser degree, feel) like they're old.

As a guitar player and appreciator of wabi-sabi myself, I cannot deny that I think older guitars look and play better than new ones. I even think the faux-old ones look better than new. But I could never buy an ersatz old guitar. That's cheating, and even cheesy. Part of the wabi-sabi aesthetic is the implication of the wear - this thing has been around, it's been used, it has a history.

The Steampunk movement is operating in this space coincidentally, if not explicitly. And one of the reasons people liked the design in Star Wars so much was how everything in the world felt used and old, as opposed to the typical "out of the packaging" look of most other science fiction.

I wish more designers would take advantage of wabi-sabi. What would a car that came "relic"ed look like? Why don't they? (answer: because the car companies have a lot invested in you wanting brand new shiny cars instead of old ones - and there are way more old cars than new available. The reverse is true for guitars).

Consumer electronics would be great like this. I would love an MP3 player that was slowly rusting, with big chunky knobs. Or a PDA with a leather back that wore and aged like a Filofax or notebook. A home stereo with dents.

What about a PC application that "aged", wore, and picked up dings and marks? What would that be like?

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Las Vegas and CES 2008

Las Vegas, 1978. My family is on a trip. We've been to the Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyons, Lake Powell, and many other sights. Our dusty van rolls up in front of Caesar's Palace, Las Vegas. My young brother and I share what seems like a giant room covered in burgundy shag carpet. There are mirrors on the ceiling and I can't figure out why. I've read numerous books mentioning people stealing ashtrays from hotels. Naturally, I steal one from Caesar's. I still have it.

Las Vegas, 1994. I have been working at Spatializer Audio Laboratories for a few months. I am sent to work COMDEX, the legendary expo. While the company, our booth, and staff are small, the show is gigantic, overcrowded, and ridiculously expensive. It's also raining all the time. I am staying at Bally's and marveling at how much Vegas has changed. I am in my mid-20s, gainfully employed at what I think is a great job, and happy to be alive. I'm going to get engaged soon.

Las Vegas, 1996. I am still working at Spatializer Audio Labs and here with the now large Spatializer team. Staying at the Hilton. I am separated from my wife. Her company has a booth less than 50 feet from ours, and I watch her working with the man she's left me for. It is late and gray. I am pushing through the crowds in my raincoat, Deckard desperately searching for the replicants. I need to talk to her. There is crying. Awkward phone calls. Emergency telephone shrink sessions. I haven't eaten food in a month. A month from now I will start divorce proceedings.

Las Vegas, 1998. I am lying on the fake beach at the Hard Rock with my girlfriend, enjoying a nice vacation. There is much relaxation, some drinking, and a little gambling. My Dad lives here now and I see him briefly.

Las Vegas, 2000. is hosting a small event at the House of Blues, largely so our PR director's band can play there as part of the EAT'M conference, where I'm speaking on a panel. One of the women helping host the show flirts with me. We'll meet for drinks later. I will find out that she lives in L.A. - the town I am just about to leave in a matter of weeks. We will have dinner a few times and stay in touch. She'll end up in San Francisco shortly after me, stay at my place for a bit, and then resurface years later rooming with colleagues at work.

Las Vegas, 2007. I am here for CES, working the Rhapsody booth. Proud to be here, and feeling good about life and myself. We're showing Rhapsody 4.0, finally available after a long and tortured development cycle. We are also showing the first Rhapsody-optimized MP3 player. The show is exciting and long. The second night I'm there, I can't fall asleep - my leg twitches and keeps waking me up. I get no rest. The same thing happens the next night, despite my exhaustion and working out.

Las Vegas, 2007. The MTV Video Music Awards. Ever since I first saw MTV, I wanted to be on it. Working for MTV and being behind the scenes is almost as good.

Las Vegas, 2008. CES is over. I am sitting in the West Wing of the MGM Grand. West Wing is their "modern" part of the hotel, a nearly W-ish take on their regular rooms. Economical but very nice. Nice furniture. After multiple nights of business dinners, I finally had a night to myself to relax and get some room service. I've managed to work out every day and worked hard at the booth. Lots of demos for press and others.

Last night I managed to have dinner with an old friend not seen for many years.

The night before I nearly got time to myself. So very tired. 20 feet from the eleveators...but a hand clapped me on the shoulder. My former boss. "Let's go have dinner". So to the cab line with 2 other people. $40 later and we're at the head of the cab line. The door closes. The driver asks "where to?" One of our party says "Take us to the Indian restaurant at the El Dorado". The cab driver says "there's no hotel named 'El Dorado' in Las Vegas, and I only know about 3 Indian restaurants in town." Our companion is stammering. "Well, what's that place, you know, across the freeway?"

"Sir, that's a condo complex."

Our other companion is frantically texting on his Blackberry. Oh god it is going to be a long painful night. If I weren't wedged in the middle of the cab, I'd already have bailed out.

"What's the name of that place, you know..."

"Sir, I need a destination or you're going to have to get out of the cab."

The other guy says "We're going to 'Lotus of Siam', do you know where that is?"

"Yessir, it's outside of town in Commercial Center, near all the massage parlors. We'll be there in 10 minutes."

I'm not a huge Thai food fan. But at least we're going somewhere. Or are we? Companion 1 is racking his brain "wait, what are the restaurants you know?"

Cab driver says "'Gandhi' is a popular one."

"Yeah, that's it! wait, it's called 'Gaylord'. It's in the Rio, yes, the Rio. 'Gaylord' in the Rio!"

Too late. We're on our way to 'Lotus of Siam'. Which will have a one hour wait. We'll pass the time griping about work over Newcastle at a pool hall nestled between several karaoke bars and "Asian-style" massage parlors. At 9:30 one of our party will look at their Blackberry and say "oh, we have to leave right now, I have a meeting to get to."

I get to sleep at midnight, my chapped lips still burning from the Thai food.

Viva Las Vegas.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

2008 Resolutions

  1. Get in better shape. I did this last year quickly and successfully before leg issues and lassitude dragged me back down.
  2. Spend at least one night a week with friends (and make more). I have many wonderful friends here in town (and out of town). I should see them more often.
  3. Read more books. My stack isn't getting smaller fast enough!
  4. Finish the new Pants album and play better/more gigs. 4 more songs is all we need!
  5. Finish a new solo album. Since I turned 16, I've managed to create at least an album's worth (10 songs/45 minutes) of new music every year. 2008 will be no exception! Not sure whether I'll blast it out during the RPM challenge, but I have a few ideas...

I also have a short list of errands that I will finally get around to. For example, it may shock some readers to know that despite my crazy relationship with music, my main stereo speakers date back to my college days and both of them have holes in the woofers. I need to finish my personal will. And so on.

Unlike most people, I actually stick to my resolutions and do what I say I will do. I will try to keep the blog updated once a week (at a minimum), which is roughly double what I've managed over the last few years. As always, dear readers, I welcome your feedback and appreciate your time.

Happy 2008!

My Top 10 Albums of 2007

2007 was not a great year for new music, at least for me. I'm getting older, so everything I have ever heard gets to compete with everything new. The new stuff usually loses. I also find that as I get older, I am just less interested in what's going on right now and more interested in exploring various branches of the music history tree.

Regardless, here are the 10 2007 releases I thought most noteworthy.

  1. Burial - "Untrue"A last-minute entry, surprisingly topping this list. This moody downtempo record by a guy from South London is like "Blade Runner" meets DJ Shadow. Simple, spare tracks that conjure vivid images and a variety of moods. Cinema for your mind. Not too long, not too weird. The sort of record I wish I would make sometimes.

  2. LCD Soundsystem - "Sound of Silver"
    Electronic/Rock. I didn't care for their last record, but this one has actual songs plus production that even makes the hipsters shake their butts. The basslines are almost all cribbed from other songs, which makes for a fun game of "where'd he steal that from?" But the influences are at least a bit novel, and there's a sense of longing and melancholy beneath the partying, and it's carefully leavened with humor and irony. I don't know if I'll be listening to this record a lot in 2008, but it certainly made 2007 better.
  3. Amy Winehouse - "Back To Black"
    Pop/Soul. Take her personal life out of the equation for a moment. She's got a great voice, writes great songs, and manages to make music that isn't for children but doesn't make you like a complete old fart listening to it. The production is a decent blend of retro and modern. And the songs are catchy and melodic without being stupid.
  4. Nine Horses - "Money For All"Alternative. If this were a full-length record instead of an EP, it would almost certainly have topped this list. Most of this is semi-decent remixes of tracks from the David Sylvian-masterminded group's first album "Snow Borne Sorrow". But the ringer here is the title track, whose edgy and topical lyrics ("...I'll take that coat/remove them shoes/should a guy like me be afraid of a man like you?...") practically made it my theme song for the year.
  5. Stars Of The Lid - "And Their Refinement Of The Decline"
    Ambient. Unusual in that it's not electronic - the record is all cellos and brass (or at least convincing samples thereof). A double-album with some unfortunately juvenile titles for what are quite beautiful compositions. The record unfolds extremely slowly. The sort of music I would want played at my funeral. I mean that in a good way. If these guys had gone to music school, you'd be reading about them in The New Yorker or New York Times or other classical publications.
  6. M.I.A. - "Kala"
    This Electronic/Pop album makes me feel very old and very young. Very young because it's au courant and hip and fun and makes you want to dance and everyone's talking about it. Songs are reasonably solid and it's an example of a contemporary record and artist that don't make me completely wince. It makes me feel old because I can't listen to the whole thing without getting a headache. Hell, I can barely look at the album art without getting a headache. It's a bit much all at once, but who listens to albums all the way through anymore?
  7. Nine Inch Nails - "Year Zero"
    Industrial rock. Back in the 90's, Nine Inch Nails were one of my favorite artists - very exciting, fresh, and different. Then they started making records like "The Fragile" (all of the NINnies love this record. It bored me to tears). "Year Zero" isn't an incredibly amazing record, but it's consistent, has some interesting production (while being less reliant on that production than previous albums), and some decent songs ("In This Twilight"). I'm also giving them a spot here because of the unusual marketing campaign and "alternate reality game" which I believe will be one of the most influential things about the album. And there's Trent Reznor's issues with the traditional music business.

  8. Tie between After The Night Falls
and Before The Day Breaks (both by Robin Guthrie and Harold Budd). These ambient albums are sort of companion pieces - the track titles on each record mirror each other. Very much in the same vein as their soundtrack to "Mysterious Skin". Heavily treated piano and guitar. I probably listened to these two albums more than anything else this year.

  • Underworld - "Oblivion With Bells"
    Electronic/Dance. Underworld put out an album this year, which all-but-guarantees placement on this list, as I think they are awesome. This record is not their best, but it has some very strong moments ("Crocodile", "Beautiful Burnout") and only a few really weak ones ("Ring Road", for example).

  • My 2006 picks are here for reference.

    2007 In Review

    2007 was a tough but rewarding year. As I think back over all that happened, a few events in particular stand out:
    1. Leg problems. 2007 saw the rise of my various issues with my left leg. Not sure whether they were related to my sudden increase in activity towards the end of 2006, but if nothing else 2007 will be remembered as the year my leg started twitching.
    2. Fitness backsliding. In February, I weighed about 172. Now I weigh about 182. Some of this is due to not being able to work out because of leg problems (see above).
    3. Decayed, Decayed. I completed the RPM challenge and made a hip-hop-esque record.
    4. Work. Life at Rhapsody continued to be challenging, frustrating, and rewarding.
    5. Travel. Because of work I was in a different city almost every month. Last year saw multiple trips to Seattle, New York, New Jersey, Las Vegas, Washington, DC and even Seoul, Korea. I flew many different airlines, stayed at many different hotels and managed to not get badly delayed at all. I became a professional business traveler.
    2007 also saw fewer gigs by my friends The Pants as they struggled with busy schedules, new jobs, personal issues, and adjusted to 2 new band members. I played several memorable gigs with Palace Family Steak House, assisting in their "district-by-district" scheme and armed with a fantastically heavy Gibson Artist RD on permanent loan from the Adam Tober Rare Guitars collection.

    I also found myself completely burnt out about world events. I am beyond outraged and upset. Also completely powerless. The election process in the USA bores me to death when it isn't depressing me. This year I donated more money to worthwhile causes than in previous years - a reflection of a modest increase in my income and a desire to make the world better (presumably by throwing money at it). I also decided to stop giving money to Dartmouth, which neither needs nor deserves it at this point.

    Not a bad year. Not the best one. I have nothing to complain about.