Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Archive for December, 2013

My Favourite Records of 2013

’Tis the season for lists.

There are people in this world who truly believe that we’ve entered a dark era of music. They think that there hasn’t been a great album released since Kurt Cobain died, and they believe that we won’t see an artist that’s truly “great”.

These people are completely and utterly wrong.

2013 was the best year for new music in the past decade, and that’s not a small pronouncement: the past ten years have seen the birth of a lot of contemporary classics, from Deftones’ “Diamond Eyes” to Jay-Z’s “Black Album”. But we’ve been spoiled this year. I’ve imagined “perfect” years of record releases, yet I never imagined anything this close to perfection. These are my favourite records of the year, though I’m sure you have your favourites, too. I proudly recommend all of these to you.

Most of these album links are iTunes affiliate links, which means that if you buy any of these records from those links, I get a small slice of your purchase. It was a pretty big year for me. Thank you to all of you for supporting the site.

Reflektor — Arcade Fire

A predictable choice to start the (alphabetical) list, but definitely not unwarranted. This entry into the Arcade Fire canon was their most ambitious yet, spreading funk, soul, disco, and cinematic influences over two discs (if you bought it, you know, in a physical package). It has fewer arena-filling anthemic tracks than its predecessors, but it feels more intimate as a result.

Pictures on Silence — Atu

I’m a little bit of a sucker for these kinds of downtempo, trip-hop inspired R&B records, but I especially enjoyed Atu’s take on it this year. It’s a short album — just 28 minutes — but it’s comfortable at that length. Songs like “Close” and “Way I Feel” are surprisingly funky, while “Let Me” and “Gotta Be” are sexy and soft. It’s just a really, really nice little record.

Anxiety — Autre Ne Veut

Autre Ne Veut doesn’t give you his music with any sort of immediacy: you’ll be nearly three minutes into the first song before you get the first chorus. And, yet, it’s a surprisingly approachable record. It’s complex, it’s multilayered, and but it’s surprisingly easy. I’m not a good singer, but I found myself jamming along with “Counting” and “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” — both are irresistibly catchy. I loved this album the first time I listened to it, and I love it equally on every listen since.

Tomorrow’s Harvest — Boards of Canada

“Please don’t be another ‘Campfire Headphase’,” I prayed before its release. Indeed, it isn’t. It was apparently inspired by film scores, and you can hear that influence throughout, especially with the opening melody which wouldn’t sound out of place on a 1980s TriStar logo. But it would supersede any sort of film to which you can imagine setting its melodies with its texture and beauty.

Flourish // Perish — Braids

After their release of “Native Speaker” in 2011, Braids was perceived as a promising if derivative band. But on this, their “difficult third album”, Braids comes to their own. The title reflects the split nature of the tracks: about half are upbeat, while the others are a little bit darker. But these two sides of the band’s personality are not opposites; they’re of the same thread, and it shows on such a strong album.

Rival Dealer — Burial

As more and more electronic musicians try to copy Burial’s unique blend of scratchy, fuzzy sounds overtop crisp beats, William Bevan himself is moving away from that. This record is perhaps the most upbeat sounding of any Burial album, but there are funerals that are more upbeat than some of Burial’s records. Among other samples on this record is an excerpt from Lana Wachowski’s speech receiving the Human Rights Campaign Visibility Award last year. Indeed, there is an underlying theme of reflection of the rights and perception of the LGBT community on this record, and it’s a powerful quality for a record in a genre that isn’t known to be particularly profound.

The Bones of What You Believe — Chvrches

The much-anticipated debut album from Chvrches did not disappoint. The layered synths and driving beats create a comfortable atmosphere for Lauren Mayberry’s voice to play in, which are used not only straight but sampled and manipulated, creating some warm layered textures. A surprisingly humanistic electronic album.

The Next Day — David Bowie

What a fun little surprise this was. While it isn’t “Heroes” (despite the cover art) or “Low”, it’s a worthy addition to Bowie’s canon, coming a full ten years after his last record. There are aspects of this record which sound like the Bowie you know and love, but he’s still experimenting with sounds and genres twenty-four albums in. Standouts include the sympathetic “Valentine’s Day” (written from the perspective of a mass shooter) and album closer “Heat”.

Settle — Disclosure

Who knew the best dance record of the year would begin with a vocal sample from Eric Thomas’ podcast? This is a dance record with heart and soul. Who knew that this would produce some of the catchiest, earwormiest songs of the year? This album’s full of that sort of stuff: there’s “Latch”, and “Defeated No More”, and the magnificent “Help Me Lost My Mind”. I love this record.

Days Are Gone — Haim

Three sisters and more genres than you can imagine: that’s “Days Are Gone” in a nut. Produced in part by Ariel Rechtshaid — also responsible for the 2013 offerings of Vampire Weekend and Sky Ferreira — the album bumps between the bluesy “The Wire”, the poppy “Falling”, and the noisy “My Song 5”. It doesn’t come across sounding like a compilation, though; everything sounds like it belongs together on this one album. It’s fabulous.

Chansons — Jill Barber

After 2008’s retro-cool “Chances”, it was perhaps inevitable for Jill Barber to release a French-language album which, almost certainly intentionally, channels Édith Pìaf. That’s not a knock: “Chansons” sounds effectively timeless. It’s as retro-fuzzy as a photo taken with a film camera, and — when paired with Rainy Cafe — sounds exactly like sitting in a warm Parisian cafe. It’s delightful.

Immunity — Jon Hopkins

Usually, albums of the more electronic bent tend to feel cold and distant. This year, though, there’s something of a theme with the electronic offerings: Burial, Chvrches, Disclosure, and Jon Hopkins all delivered records full of warmth and humanity. Hopkins has created an album of several pieces of roughly ten minutes, bracketed by a few shorter ones. Each track eschews gloss and perfection for slightly fuzzier tones and analog synths, creating a sense of a more humane electronic record. He adds to this by creating a sense of space and depth through minimalism. I think this strategy worked brilliantly.

The 20/20 Experience — Justin Timberlake

Decades of pop, R&B, rock, and blues inspiration are condensed into a 21-song masterpiece split over two albums. “That Girl” and “Take Back the Night” evoke early Michael Jackson, while “Only When I Walk Away” sounds a bit like a White Stripes song, if the White Stripes played R&B. Big Timbaland beats contrast with Timberlake’s smooth voice through a series of intricate and sundry musical movements. “20/20” is a breathtaking achievement in pop music. It’s too bad the second part doesn’t live up to the standard set by the first.

Yeezus — Kanye West

Barely a minute in, you’re made acutely aware that this is a Kanye record, as he rhymes “park the Benz” with “Parkinsons”. But this isn’t like any Kanye record before: this is high-test, wired, concentrated, and barely-contained Yeezy. If you don’t think “Black Skinhead”, “Bound 2”, and “Blood on the Leaves” — which, bravely, samples the painful Nina Simone classic “Strange Fruit” for a track about balancing personal relationships — are three of the best songs of the year, I don’t know what to tell you. And no matter how ridiculous the infamous “croissants” line is, it’s still a hundred times better than the lazy mess from his mentor.

Wakin on a Pretty Daze — Kurt Vile

Kurt Vile’s unique brand of rock was the perfect record for its springtime release. The album kicks off with a nearly ten-minute piece which feels tight, but also like an extended jam session. Much of the record feels similar: a tight jam with a bluesy undercurrent. It’s a beautiful little album which stretches Vile’s guitarist strengths while finding new pockets of musical intrigue. It’s all decidedly downtempo and blissfully relaxing.

If You Wait — London Grammar

London Grammar vocalist Hannah Reid wasn’t only featured on Disclosure’s “Help Me Lose My Mind”; the band released their debut record this year, too. And, let’s not beat around the bush here: Reid has a voice very reminiscent of Annie Lennox, or Florence Welch of Florence and the Machine. Meanwhile Dot Major and Dan Rothman produce melodies which wouldn’t sound out of place on a record by The XX. But, while this may not be the single most creative assemblage, it is a very powerful one. The spacious sound and heavy use of reverb creates songs which sound as intimate as they do haunting.

Murray A. Lightburn’s MASS:LIGHT — Murray A. Lightburn

You probably know Murray Lightburn as the frontman of The Dears, painting haunting soundscapes with his alternately delicate and powerful voice, and his choice lyricisms. This year, he released a solo record using mainly electronic instrumentation, and it’s magnificent. The album kicks off with “Motherfuckers”, which is a pretty strong name for such a pop-sounding song; yet, its lyrics are as painful as you’d expect from Lightburn. This is an easy record to listen to while casually missing the poignancy of the lyrics, but you won’t be listening to this one just once. It’s the kind of thing you can leave on repeat and feel like you’re discovering it again and again.

mbv — My Bloody Valentine

The last time My Bloody Valentine released a new album, I was one year old. It was the spectacularly-received and highly-influential “Loveless”. With that kind of delay, the expectations for whatever My Bloody Valentine was cooking up were impossibly high. And, yet, “mbv” satisfied my wildest dreams. It’s the same sheer wall of distortion and sound that you’ve come to expect from My Bloody Valentine, but with over twenty years of practice has allowed the band to discover just what makes that so special. They’ve deconstructed it on songs like “Is This and Yes”, and built it back up on songs like “Wonder 2”. With “mbv”, the codifying shoegaze band reminds us why they’re so highly regarded. It’s weighty, but it’s worth the listen.

Trouble Will Find Me — The National

The National is the perfect soundtrack to being inside by a fire with a book and a mug of coffee while snow lazily falls outside. That hasn’t changed since the release of “Alligator” in 2005, and it’s just as true four records and eight years later. “Trouble” doesn’t forge new paths, but it continues The National’s sublime trajectory. Unfortunately, that means there’s not a lot to say about this one in particular, aside from that if you enjoyed previous albums by the band, you’ll dig this one. Heck, I think you’ll like it regardless of your familiarity with The National.

Hesitation Marks — Nine Inch Nails

Both Trent Reznor and Marshall Mathers — you know, Eminem — released new records this year inspired by previous works considered to be their best: “The Downward Spiral” begat “Hesitation Marks”, and “The Marshall Mathers LP” begat “The Marshall Mathers LP 2”. But, while Eminem did his best to emulate his 28 year-old self as a 41 year-old man and fell on his face doing so, Reznor chose to reflect on the changes in his life in the 19 years since releasing “Spiral”. Usually, “mature” would be a euphemistic way of saying a record is boring — not here, though. “Hesitation Marks” swaps heavy guitar and screamed vocals for synths and quiet viciousness. It’s a new direction in the Nine Inch Nails canon, but one that can proudly stand beside “The Downward Spiral” and “The Fragile” as one of the very best.

More Light — Primal Scream

I’ve only picked up a few Primal Scream albums over the years, but the band has created a body of work that varies in both style and quality. “More Light”, though, is an outstanding record. On opening track “2013”, Bobby Gillespie mourns and moans about what he views as a contemporary dystopia. But rather than shout about it, Gillespie sounds more like he just wants you to be aware. It’s a mellow record, but not one without a point to make. It takes some of the psychedelic tendencies Primal Scream is known for and updates them for 2013 (the year, not just the song). It makes for a multifaceted, colourful, and enjoyable listen.

…Like Clockwork — Queens of the Stone Age

Rock star becomes extremely ill, slips into severe depression, and writes a record while emerging from that dark space. This kind of thing sounds pretty routine, but the resulting record from Josh Homme and crew is anything but. It’s more fragile than any previous Queens album, but it’s somehow more troubling because of how fragile it is. That’s not to say there aren’t any rockers on here — “My God is the Sun” and “Fairweather Friends” fill that role nicely — but there are more experimental avenues paved by Queens. The title track is a little reminiscent of Pink Floyd, but in Homme’s decidedly robotic interpretation. Meanwhile, the record offers a plethora of collaborators, from Trent Reznor to Elton John, and frequent friend of the band Mark Lanegan. Even UNKLE’s James Lavelle makes an appearance. It’s funky, dangerous, heavy, and often delicate. It’s excellent.

Woman — Rhye

“Woman” is a deeply mysterious album which somehow manages to feel comfortable and close. Don’t be fooled by its comfortable R&B beats or its sensuous-sounding vocals: it’s much more complex than that sounds on the surface. After all, it’s called “Woman”, not “Chick”. Its creators are fiercely opposed to the oversexualization of pop music, and despite this record likely becoming the bedroom soundtrack of choice for some this year. Despite this apparent contradiction, vocalist Mike Milosh (oh, yeah, he’s a dude) has a voice so smooth and welcoming that it becomes an album that envelops the listener.

More Is Than Isn’t — RJD2

I’m putting this on here for two reasons. The first reason is that it’s one of the most fun- and joyous-sounding records released this year. The instrumentation is all over the place. On some songs, it sounds like it’s going to unfold into a nu-jazz record, while others sound like they were cribbed from the playbooks of Girl Talk or DJ Shadow. The second reason it’s on my list, though, is because it’s one of the best-mastered records of the year. Frequent readers of Pixel Envy will know my disdain for poorly-mastered albums which clip and distort, but RJD2 proves that this simply isn’t necessary for a powerful-sounding album. It’s punchy, it’s catchy, it’s a little sexy, and it’s just plain fun.

Run the Jewels — Run the Jewels

So you’ve got El-P and you’ve got Killer Mike. El-P produced Killer Mike’s sixth studio album, while Killer Mike guested on a track by El-P. And, so, it was natural that they’d collaborate on a full-length album and, I suppose, it’s natural that such a collaboration would be phenomenal. The duo’s vocal technique is the star of the show here: with rapid-fire, aggressive delivery, it’s hip hop that sounds vital, like they’re both fighting to be heard rather than being content that they will be. The production is top-notch as well: the beats are layered, but they don’t sacrifice catchiness with their complexity. This isn’t background music, and it has no aim to be; it’s wholly at the forefront, as it should be.

Modern Vampires of the City — Vampire Weekend

Vampire Weekend is a band made of an array of contradictions. They make music which sounds contemporary, but which also evokes times’ past; they’re from New York, but most of their music is reggae- and African-inspired. And that’s inspired its own contradiction on my end: that sort of thing usually sounds like a recipe for disaster (Sting and the Police, I’m looking at you), but I dig Vampire Weekend. On “Modern Vampires”, though, they give up most of their African influences for more American South stuff: organs and upright pianos, especially. Despite these stylistic changes, Vampire Weekend are still as fun and as relevant as ever. With regard to the latter, the lyrical choices are much more mature with geopolitical and introspective themes. There’s a reason why this is regarded to be one of the best records of the year by major music publications.

“Runners Up”

These are albums which I enjoyed, but for whatever reason didn’t think were my favourites, as set by the standard above. They’re really great albums, though, and I recommend them all the same.

The Worst Album of the Year

I don’t want to be a downer, but it’s the elephant in the room: what was my least favourite record this year?

It’s a difficult question. Lil’ Wayne is running out of ways to talk about how much he enjoys getting inebriated and fellatiated, while Will.I.Am’s “#willpower” clutched on to every desperate trend he could find (there’s a fucking hashtag in the title!). But, then, you’d probably expect both of those to be terrible.

This is true, too, for the records released this year by Bon Jovi, OneRepublic, Fall Out Boy, One Direction, Miley Cyrus, and Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, all of which produced an indistinguishable miasma of mediocrity. It wasn’t so much that their records were bad; rather, it’s that they were anodyne, uninspired, and clearly built to produce income before art.

Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” is a good candidate for this, as it blurred the lines between risqué and sexist — and possibly heinous — but there are other parts of that record where he displays clear talent as a vocalist. While I wish his lyrics represented a better human being, the music isn’t completely banal.

No, the worst record of the year is one which had understandably high expectations, but failed to come even close to delivering: Jay-Z’s “Magna Carta Holy Grail”.

There’s the title: Magna Carta, the long-superseded but highly-influential original document of modern law, and Holy Grail, the legendary serving dish referenced in Arthurian literature. Those aspects signify that this will be a crucially important album.

Then there’s the teaser video, which promised the very highest production values, and a theme:

The album is about this duality of ‘how do you navigate your way through this whole thing?’, you know: through success, through failures, through all of it … and remain yourself.

Extremely promising, then.

You can imagine my disappointment at finding the resulting record to be weak sauce. It’s dull, it’s uninspired, it’s overlong, and the only reason it charted so well is because a million copies were given away. There are precisely three good songs on the album: “Tom Ford”, “Oceans”, and “BBC”. Everything else is perfunctory.

Even “Holy Grail”, the album opener, begins on a dreary note. The first time you hear Jay-Z, it’s a minute into the track and his opening lines sound like they were written after losing a bet. The album is entirely that lazy. Nearly every song is a rehash of previous themes, where Jay namechecks modern artists, his drug dealing days, and his watch collection. I understand the braggadocio attitude of his contemporary albums — he’s half of a couple that rakes in a hundred million dollars a year — but it seems exceedingly indolent, as if he played a Jay-Z Mad Lib game to write the lyrics.

I rarely feel that way when listening to a Jay-Z record; “Reasonable Doubt” and “The Blueprint” are among my favourite albums of all time. But this attempt is insipid beyond anything he’s released prior, especially going up against his protégé’s “Yeezus”. It’s the worst album of the year.

The Results of a DNA Picture Depend on Who’s Developing It

Kira Peikoff sent a sample of her DNA to three different companies — including 23andMe — each of which reported wildly differing results for several very good reasons, including the limited sample size:

The genetic testing that these three companies offer is premised on reading segments of DNA called SNPs (pronounced snips), for single nucleotide polymorphisms. But these segments, which have been linked to diseases in research studies, vary among people.

Scientists have identified about 10 million SNPs within our three billion nucleotides. But an entire genome sequencing — looking at all three billion nucleotides — would cost around $3,000; the tests I took examined fewer than a million SNPs.

The results of these DNA testing companies appear to be approximately as reliable as that of an Ouija board, or perhaps some tea leaves. The biggest difference is that they claim scientific accuracy and reliability, but possess neither trait.

What Paul Graham Didn’t Say

Paul Graham responds to an interview he gave to the Information — Jessica Lessin’s new project — which was subsequently turned into something of a hit piece by gossip rag Valleywag:

Big chunks of the original conversation have been edited out, including a word from within that sentence that completely changes its meaning. What I actually said was:

We can’t make these women look at the world through hacker eyes and start Facebook because they haven’t been hacking for the past 10 years.

I.e. I’m not making a statement about women in general. I’m talking about a specific subset of them. So which women am I saying haven’t been hacking for the past 10 years? This will seem anticlimactic, but the ones who aren’t programmers.

That sentence was a response to a question, which was also edited out. We’d been talking about the disproportionately small percentage of female startup founders, and I’d said I thought it reflected the disportionately small percentage of female hackers.

Jessica Lessin disagrees with Graham’s assertion of what “these” refers to:

We edited a bit around some of Mr. Graham’s quotes on female founders. Specifically, we edited a “these” from the quote. The reason was simple. The “these” didn’t refer to anything. The paragraph that preceded it referred to Mark Zuckerberg being a hacker and it immediately followed a question about what would be lost if YC encouraged more women to be startup founders.

Lessin also published the full, unedited transcript of the salient portion of the interview.

There are a few interesting takeaways from this encounter which, I suspect, isn’t finished yet. First, if anything, both of these posts make the situation more complex, not simpler. Lessin admits that she removed “these” from the transcript because it didn’t immediately refer to anything; Graham thinks it did refer to something specific. In either case, that edit completely changed the meaning of the quotation.

Second, it seems that Eric Newcomer didn’t bother following up when the murky “these” was introduced in the interview. I’d anticipate that this would have been clarified in a followup question, such as “What do you mean by ‘these’?,” but no such question appears in the transcript.

Third, this is a particularly delicate time for the Information’s credibility to be questioned. The site just launched, using Lessin & Co.’s substantial cachet as its cornerstone.

Finally, Paul Graham appears to be innocent of the wretched things Valleywag accused him of in their post. He may not be the most eloquent speaker, which caused confusion here, and he has said some pretty awful things in the past. But here, in this instance, he appears only a little misunderstood, if anything. All of the false drama that Valleywag has created and all of the insane tweets I’ve seen over the past day are completely unhelpful to improving the standing of women in tech.

Having said that, there’s some undefined territory that remains, and I will revise my opinion as more information becomes known.

Smart Watches and Computers on Your Face

Wired’s Mat Honan spent a year with Google Glass on his face and didn’t feel the need to take a picture of himself in the shower. He found it a mixed experience:

People get angry at Glass. They get angry at you for wearing Glass. They talk about you openly. It inspires the most aggressive of passive aggression. Bill Wasik refers apologetically to the Bluedouche principle. But nobody apologizes in real life. They just call you an asshole.

But…

Glass sold me on the concept of getting in and getting out. Glass helped me appreciate what a monster I have become, tethered to the thing in my pocket. I’m too absent. Can yet another device make me more present? Or is it just going to be another distraction? Another way to stare off and away from the things actually in front of us, out into the electronic ether? I honestly have no idea.

On the other hand, Marco Arment thinks that the major gadget holes have all been filled:

The combination of a computer, internet connectivity, and a smartphone (and maybe a tablet) is awesome. It satisfies nearly every modern demand for personal computing hardware and still has massive untapped potential for software and services.

Maybe that’s all we really need for a while.

A couple of contrasting perspectives here. On the one hand, I tend to side with Arment — all my needs have been met, and I’m not looking to buy anything additional.

But, on the other hand, Honan’s experience suggests that maybe there is a market for these things. I kind of feel like Arment is judging the possibility of wearable things based on the weak-sauce attempts so far which, admittedly, is all that he can use to judge the category. But that’s a bit like looking at a BlackBerry in 2006 and asking why anyone would want to use one of “these newfangled smartphones,” or something to that effect.

Furthermore, smartphones and computers are general-purpose devices, but this wearable category could be much more tailored to a specific subset of users. That’s my guess, at any rate. And, like anything else, if we — as a broader market — don’t find the devices that appealing, we’ll vote with our wallets. However, if I were a betting man, I’d wager that any new product category likely won’t be the next iPhone or iPad in terms of sales. True to Arment’s sentiments, I think many of us are content with the device landscape that we already have.

Michael Schumacher in Critical Condition After Ski Fall

Truly awful news. I do hope he recovers quickly, but his condition sounds extremely serious:

The 44-year-old German suffered serious brain trauma, was in a coma on arrival and underwent a brain operation.

He was skiing off-piste with his son in the French Alps on Sunday when the accident occurred.

Schumacher was wearing a helmet when he fell and hit his head against a rock, his manager Sabine Kehm said.

The Tech Press Can’t Admit to Having Nice Things

Rene Ritchie, iMore:

Pessimism is easy. Hit pieces are easy. Abusing facts to fit a thesis is easy. Manipulation is easy. Looking at the last year and claiming disappointment is easy. Missing constant, relentless evolution if all you’re looking for is occasional revolution is easy. Yet the former can be even more important than the latter. Many leaps end in crash landings. Many innovations fall apart on the launch pad. Good ideas take a lot of little fixes to become truly great. And a lot of little ideas, given enough time and talent, can coalesce into pure magic.

Not everything is amazing, and not everything is crap. The problem is that too many journalists and bloggers try to shoehorn every single event, announcement, or launch into one of those two categories. It’s more nuanced than that.

Christopher Mims’ “Lost Year” article and the responses it begat (yours truly’s included) are examples of this. Mims said “this year was crap,” and a bunch of us replied “no it wasn’t; it was great,” thus entirely missing the point: it’s easy to polarize opinions, but it’s difficult to develop a comprehensive opinion. It requires nuance, but the press — in general — thrives on stories which lack nuance. It requires concentration to understand the intricacies of a situation.

I’ve long had a post in my drafts folder titled “We’re Writing About Cellphones; We Aren’t War Correspondents”. I haven’t been able to finish the post — largely because the title neatly summarizes everything I could say, though it has become something of the credence for Pixel Envy. That’s not to say that writing about tech doesn’t have any gravity or seriousness, but that it should be taken a little more casually unless the circumstances require otherwise. However, let’s also approach these stories with a more thorough analysis in mind than simply “crap” or “stellar”. Too many people have worked too hard for us to dismiss what they’ve done in a single word.

Bullies and Bystanders

Raging Thunderbolt:

Even worse are reactions like Harry Marks’s (Marks is, of course, a noted fan of the podcast):

They took apart a developer’s website in a mean-spirited and childish way, not unlike how they’ve torn apart bad tech writers over the last four years. Yes, they’ve been doing this for four years, but now suddenly it’s a problem.

That’s where defenders of Angry Mac Bastards are wrong. It is not only a problem now, suddenly. It has always been a problem. Unfortunately, too many of us bystanders simply watched and let the cyberbullying continue. And, worst of all, the people who actually listened to the podcast and its sponsors encouraged and enabled the continuing cyberbullying.

Entirely agreed. The premise of Angry Mac Bastards seemed, to me, to be a show celebrating a lack of nuanced critique or interesting discussion, opting instead for shouting and vitriol. I’m sure there are fans of that kind of thing — Rush Limbaugh certainly has a huge audience — but bullying of this calibre and in front of a large audience is detestable. Good riddance.

Intellectual Property Brouhaha

One of the interesting things about writing this site in a part-time capacity is that a controversy can take shape, reach its peak, and become resolved before I’ve had the chance to write about it. Case in point: Information Architects’ patent on Writer Pro’s “Syntax Control” feature. Here’s what IA’s Oliver Reichenstein wrote about that feature:

Syntax Control — distinguishing a specific aspect of the text to assist in editing — is a solid innovation, one we’ve been working on for more than four years. As with every serious design, once you have seen how it works and how effective it is, it seems obvious, but it was a long road to get there. We’ve trademarked and obtained patent pending for Syntax Control. If you want it in your text editor, you can get a license from us. It’s going to be a fair deal.

There’s a lot to unpack as to why this is controversial, but let’s start with the trademark status of Syntax Control: Reichenstein claims they’ve registered the mark, but a quick search of the US Patent and Trademark Office’s database reveals no such mark. Information Architects has offices in Switzerland and Japan; unfortunately, those countries do not have a public trademark search engine.

Then there’s the patent situation, which has been conflated with a lot of other software patents but isn’t at all like a generic software patent for one reason: NSLinguisticTagger. Yeah, that’s right: Information Architects tried to patent an existing part of Apple’s SDKs. Oh, the gall, the cojones. An “innovation [they’ve] been working on for more than four years” my aching ass.

Anyway, they called off that patent application. Jonathan Poritsky wrote a great explanation, which you should check out. Case closed, right?

Not exactly. This event demonstrates just how ridiculous many software patents are. We’ve been talking ad nauseum about intellectual property in the digital era seemingly forever: from the Apple v. Samsung trial, to the other Apple v. Samsung trial, and the Rockstar stuff. And now this.

Intellectual Property

And now you want my opinion.

This is going to be tricky because I’m not entirely sure where I stand on intellectual property as an entity. Trademarks seem generally alright — you don’t want some guy making tomato soup in his garage and branding it with the “Campbell’s” logo, or two major companies trading under the same name. But copyright and patent law requires a more complex story.

Copyright

In the United States, copyrights began with a fourteen-year protection limit, with the option to extend for another fourteen; this has since been extended to a comical degree:

The Copyright Term Extension Act (CTEA) of 1998 extended copyright terms in the United States. Since the Copyright Act of 1976, copyright would last for the life of the author plus 50 years, or 75 years for a work of corporate authorship. The Act extended these terms to life of the author plus 70 years and for works of corporate authorship to 120 years after creation or 95 years after publication, whichever endpoint is earlier. Copyright protection for works published prior to January 1, 1978, was increased by 20 years to a total of 95 years from their publication date.

Make no mistake: that’s a long-ass time for the rights of a work to be held by anyone.

But it isn’t simply the term limits which are outrageous: it’s also in the way that copyright law is policed. The Disney empire is built largely on the backs of public domain stories — Cinderella, Snow White, and so forth — yet the company vigorously threatens anyone who goes near those stories. The company also lobbied in favour of the Copyright Term Extension Act. Simply, Disney wishes to lock down their adaptations of other people’s stories for as long as possible.

Then, of course, there are overzealous DCMA reports:

A representative of NPG Records wrote to Twitter to say eight video clips hosted on Vine contained “unauthorized recordings” and “unauthorized synchronizations” and asked the company to remove them immediately.

Six seconds of Prince music in the background of your Vine clip? Violation. Ridiculous.

Patents

And then there are patents, the intellectual property everyone loves to hate. I reiterate: I don’t entirely know where I stand on software patents, let alone patents in their entirety. I think that’s because the discussion so far hasn’t been finely-grained enough for me to form an adequate opinion on them. Asking someone what they think of patents is like asking them what they think of food: what if they have a dietary restriction, or dislike a certain kind of food? Similarly, an opinion on patents should really be filtered as an opinion on the different components:

  1. Patent assignment: how are patents granted or denied? Is the process adequate?
  2. Innovation: is the invention actually that innovative? Similar to (1), is there someone in the patent office who can reliably make that judgement? Is the prior art discovery process sufficient?
  3. Term limits: are patent terms of adequate length, or should they be shorter to compensate for increased productivity and speed of innovation?
  4. IP usage: is the intellectual property actually being used in a product or service?
  5. Challenging: is the process for challenging the legitimacy of a patent sufficient?
  6. Enforcement: is the process for enforcing patents sufficient?

These aren’t easy questions to answer. They require nuance and detail, and the answers will vary on a per-patent basis. I can’t answer them, mostly because I lack any schooling or training whatsoever in intellectual property law. So take everything I say here with that caveat in mind.

I have previously supported certain patents. I do believe there is fundamental innovation at the heart of some inventions, even in the software space: video codecs come to mind. In the hardware space, I think unique designs or innovative production methods should be patentable. I think it’s entirely within the rights of a person or company which invested the time and money into developing these things to reap some reward from protecting these innovations and licensing them to interested parties.

However.

There’s so much wrong with patent law in 2013 that it cannot function in a sensible, reasonable way.

Last week, I listened again to This American Life’s “When Patents Attack, Part 2”, and I urge you to do the same if you find yourself with a spare hour. It’s a riveting tale which explains many of the significant problems in the patent system better than I ever could. But, off the top of my head, here’s my short list of issues which need to be addressed for the patent system to be fixed, in no particular order:

  • Genetic patents: these should be entirely abolished, for the reason that causing or discovering a mutation in nature cannot and should not be owned by a person or entity.
  • Non-practicing entities: a patent should be required to be used in a publicly-available product or service within a certain timeframe — say, two years — or it becomes null and void, and it must be reapplied for.
  • Term limits: due to the increasing pace of innovation and discovery, patent limits should probably be much shorter, and extensions should be entirely removed.
  • Innovation requirements: similarly, the requirements for level of innovation should be much higher, and should be more rigorously evaluated by experts from corresponding fields of research.
  • Overbroad patents: there is a nuance required to reading patents because there are dependent claims and every word matters. Still, a substantial amount of patents seem to get through which are far too broad to be considered protecting a specific innovation or invention.

None of these are radical or revolutionary — indeed, nothing in this post is radical or revolutionary — but this codifies how I feel about intellectual property. It is as much for me as it is for you. I think it’s sensible, practical, and reasonable (at least, I hope it is).

But, as I said above, I have no education in intellectual property law, so my opinions on the subject are inconsequential and probably misguided. If you are an expert in the field, I’d love to hear from you.

Regardless of my lack of expertise, I think the lack of nuance is a major problem when this issue is discussed. Bickering about patents as an entire entity is either unhelpful or should be polemic. If you can’t do the latter, you’re probably just wasting your breath.

Tech’s “Lost Year”

Christopher Mims,1 Quartz:

All in, 2013 was an embarrassment for the entire tech industry and the engine that powers it—Silicon Valley.

Oh, really? Sure, Silicon Valley has had more than its share of big dick moves this year, but an “embarrassment for the entire industry”? What justification is there for that?

2013 was the year smartphones became commodities, just like the PCs they supplanted.

That’s not an embarrassment — that’s enormous. Isn’t the commodification of a once-niche product a positive, rather than a negative?

Mims continues:

Even at the high end, Apple and Samsung’s newest flagship phones weren’t big leaps ahead from previous versions. The most that Apple could think to do with the new, faster processor in the iPhone 5S was animate 3D effects that make some users feel ill and a fingerprint sensor that solved a problem that wasn’t exactly pressing. Apple’s new iOS7 mobile operating system, which felt “more like a Microsoft release,” crippled many older iPhones and led to complaints of planned obsolescence.

In a series of complaints about Apple’s new iPhone, only one, the fingerprint sensor, is actually attributable to the iPhone itself; the others are software-related. Of course, it’s Mims’ prerogative to view a complete overhaul of an operating system as not a “big leap ahead”, and I disagree with that. But his citations are such weak sauce: the “planned obsolesce” story was incredibly dumb, while the fingerprint sensor complaint cites a Tumblr post which features this pullquote from a Fast Company article:

As far back as the early 2000s, fingerprint sensors were embedded in a slew of devices, from laptops produced by HP and Toshiba to phones made by Nokia and Motorola. But while Apple was able to make fingerprint sensors feel like a fresh idea, its competitors were only capable of making the technology feel superfluous, stale, and unready for market.

This quote doesn’t reinforce Mims’ statement that the problem “wasn’t exactly pressing”, nor does it even support the notion that it was a poor idea. In fact, the point of the article is simple:

…that’s the difference between Apple and its competitors. Where others saw an imperfect technology it could temporarily repurpose, Apple saw the long-term potential to perfect it. It was willing to gamble hundreds of millions of dollars on the idea. And while it’s far from a surefire bet, the risk it took on the technology is why the public and market still see Apple as an innovator.

Alright, back to Mims’ article. What else made 2013 “tech’s lost year”?

Wearables were a letdown

Thanks for harshing my mellow there, Mims.

Former giants continued their inglorious decline

The old dogs — Microsoft, Intel, and BlackBerry — aren’t looking so hot these days. But, again, doesn’t a shifting landscape demonstrate this wasn’t an embarrassing year, but rather a significant one? Sure, the writing has been on the wall for a while, but the fact that these changes persist speaks to a powerful technological shift.

M&A replaced innovation

Microsoft bought Nokia‘s devices business, which would have been an astonishing turn of events a few years ago, but now felt like a lurch into an unsure future in which Microsoft remains an also-ran in mobile devices.

The purchase felt inevitable, but it’s still pretty big news.

Most big news about Apple was about the company’s tax-avoidance techniques and general failure to deliver any new products of note. (It still isn’t making phablets, though they’ve been hugely successful for other manufacturers.)

Just because Mims says something, that doesn’t make it true. (Emphasis mine.)

It goes on and on like this, with complaint after complaint. You and I have heard these all before, but Mims combines them into a surprisingly dull list. In fact, the best part of the story comes in the final paragraph:

And as is the case every year, tech pundits made countless dubious calls for which they will never be held to account.

Those are four links to stories Mims wrote in 2013 for which he was either proved wrong or are too ridiculous to consider seriously. He should have linked to this article as well. Based on Mims’ criteria, 2012 and 2011 would also probably be write-off years.

The VSCO Look

Conor McClure mostly agrees with my pick for the best iPhone photo editor, but not without caveats:

VSCO Cam is the best photo editing app by far, but only if you’re trying to achieve the VSCO look, which is incredibly popular these days. It probably won’t be forever.

I disagree with this. VSCO Cam is extremely versatile and often provides very natural results. While there is a “look” that is easy to create with VSCO Cam — the faded, muted look — I think it’s easy enough to avoid creating that look. There are undoubtably trends in photo editing, much like anything else, but the app is good enough and broad enough to allow for flexibility.

But, after all is said and done with trends, the best photos inarguably win, regardless of the way in which they were edited. Not to toot my own horn too much, but I think some photos will withstand the test of time simply because they continue to tell a story. The choice of editing process may influence that to an extent, but I don’t think it ties a photo’s resonance to a specific time period.

Then again, perhaps all editing and photographic processes since the dawn of photography have an expiration date. Consider the historical posed studio shot, or the introduction of colour: these are both dated to the available technology to create the photos. Digital photo enhancement has allowed all sorts of new choices to be made, and I’m not sure there’s enough of a historical basis from which trends can be drawn.

I’m torn on this. It might be the champagne speaking, but I’m still trying to work this one out. If anything, McClure’s post made me think about this stuff a little more thoroughly.

The Best Photo Editing App for the iPhone

So maybe you figured out that you’re getting a new iPhone tomorrow, or perhaps you just want to get the most out of your existing iPhone’s photography power. Well, I wrote an article for the Sweet Setup about just that.

In a similar vein, so did Jordan Oplinger of the Verge. His choices and advice are similar to my own, but how much his photos vary from my own shows that the editing process only tells part of the story. Even if you use my exact same workflow, you will probably end up with an entirely different look and feel in your image.

A Royal Pardon for Alan Turing

From the BBC:

Computer pioneer and codebreaker Alan Turing has been given a posthumous royal pardon.

It overturns his 1952 conviction for homosexuality for which he was punished by being chemically castrated.

The conviction meant he lost his security clearance and had to stop the code-cracking work that proved critical to the Allies in World War II.

Turing was clearly an important figure, but wouldn’t it make more sense to pardon all who were castrated or otherwise ostracized by the government for being homosexual?

My “Sweet” Mac Setup

You know how the interviewee on MTV Cribs nearly always says “this is where the magic happens” upon entering the master bedroom?

This is kind of the same thing for bloggers.

Projecting

Michael Anderson didn’t like Ben Brooks’ problems with many tech podcasts:

Ben Brooks has some advice for you tech podcasters out there: up your game to match his expectations or give it up. […]

Haven’t you people ever heard of This American Life? It’s better than what you do so why are you even bothering to fire up Skype? If you don’t have $750,000 and two years to produce an hour-long show, do us all a favour and stick to making fancy coffee and overpriced t-shirts.

Speaking of projecting, was that what he said? Let’s go back and check:

Every time I think “OK, time to do that podcast”, I start listening to some podcasts, and then I quickly fall 20, 30, 40 episodes behind, because really podcasts are largely a pile of shit and they bore the crap out of me.

Well, that’s quite strong, but Brooks clearly said that they bore him.

[This American Life] is the best podcast out there — the scripting, pacing, research, and editing is top notch. The show feels casual, but has enough format, flow, and scripting that it becomes comfortable to listen to, instead of wanting to join in on. I think this is what most people desire to create, but don’t understand why having a casual chat doesn’t create this.

Let’s be clear here: TAL is a show produced by professionals in the radio business who have been doing this for a long-ass time. Its budget is probably several times larger than most tech podcasts, such as those on 5 By 5 or Mule Radio. But, if Anderson were being honest, he’d recognize that most TAL shows do not cost $750,000. That amount of money was notable because it was rare; it is not par for the course. Also, it’s worth noting that the budget for that show was split with ProPublica, and paid for long-term research, surveys, and investigative reporting.

Besides, it is not its budget alone that creates the excellent atmosphere of TAL, or Fresh Air, or most other podcasts produced by bigger companies. It is the combination of great hosts, tight editing, scripted portions, and casual banter. Good editing does not come cheap: someone must either spend the time to learn for themselves, or they must hire someone. But, though this is expensive, it does not cost $750,000.

Far from addressing projection, Anderson seems to be doing so himself:

Ben Brooks has some advice for you tech podcasters out there: up your game to match his expectations or give it up. […]

Now he’s broken cover and laid bare the audacity and arrogance of so-called ‘podcasters’ with the temerity to spend their free time producing entertaining and informative discussions that they then distribute for free.

Ben, don’t go back to posting loads about knives and the NSA; the world needs your courageous conflation of two entirely separate mediums and your attention-seeking flouncing now more than ever.

Yeah, he actually linked to Nelson Mandela’s obituary.

I don’t think Brooks is arguing that everyone else should change their existing podcasts to better suit his tastes. That would be arrogant. That’s the vibe I’m getting from this conversation between Brooks and Glenn Fleishman:

glennf: @benbrooks I realize you are expressing your own taste, but there’s a bit of prescription in there. I don’t listen to, say, TWiT or the rambling 5by5 stuff (I listen to the focused shows), because I don’t have that kind of time. 100,000s do!

benbrooks: @glennf you are absolutely right, there’s tons who listen to it. I just wonder if the “profession” might be more lucrative for all if all shows reached a wider audience because they were less rambling. I don’t know.

I think what Brooks is saying — and perhaps this is projecting, because it is what I am saying — is that the existing crop of tech podcasts don’t interest me. I would be more interested in a tech podcast which had more editorial consideration, a little bit of structure, and some of the rambling tightened up.

There are clearly plenty of people who love the more conversational kinds of podcasts, and that’s fine. Nobody is asking those podcasts to change. I do not take what they do for granted, either: it’s hard work. But podcasting is an interesting medium that feels like it’s stagnating. It needs a kick in the ass. There’s plenty of space for another podcast with more structure, and I’d love to do one.

Maybe there was a little too much in the way of prescription in Brooks’ original post:

So here’s my proposal for making podcasts better: if you want me to spend 1-2 hours a week listening to your show, then you better spend at least that much time preparing for each show.

The tone certainly was as abrasive as anything Brooks has written. But perhaps — beneath the snark, the profanity, and the unpleasant imagery — he has a point. Perhaps the reason this post caused a bit of a stir on Twitter is because it hit on a delicate but pertinent topic.

I don’t have the audacity to tell you what you should or should not listen to. If you are one of the many, many people who enjoy the existing crop of podcasts — as Anderson does — you should keep listening to them. All I’m saying is that the podcasts out there don’t interest me any more, and that I think I know the reasons why they don’t interest me. It seems that Brooks is of a similar opinion.

That’s all.

The Theory Behind Writer Pro

Oliver Reichenstein of Information Architects shares some of the thinking and theory behind the company’s new app Writer Pro:

Inspired by Hans Blumenberg’s mind bending Book “Sources, Streams, Icebergs” (Quellen, Ströme, Eisberge), we referred to the writing process through the metaphor of a river while designing Writer Pro. A river grows when multiple sources (Note) join into a stream (Write), which spreads into a delta (Edit), before flowing into the ocean (Read). […]

While a river provides a powerful metaphor, in practice writing resists a strictly linear process. A single note doesn’t transform smoothly into a draft, and from draft to editing is more of a Tango than a March. The common process is blurry, dynamic, and in many ways circular.

It’s a fascinating theory, but one that I’m not getting behind just yet. While I’m not opposed to the idea of an idealized distraction-free writing environment, I end up being one of those people that can write anywhere with pretty much any tool. Sometimes I write in a paper notebook with a pen; other times, I sketch things out in Vesper. Things sometimes take shape on my iPad in Byword, or on my Mac in MarkDrop. I have a messy, unsexy writing process, but it seems to work. For me, anyway.

The Syntax Control tool in Writer Pro is perhaps its most notable feature:

The longer you work on a text, the harder it is to find these signs. For example, using “Adjectives” under “Syntax” will reveal how many empty ones you overlooked. This might bore an absolute killer writer, of which, no doubt, there are many among you, but for the rest of us Syntax Control is a bonanza. Used after you thought your text was polished, most writers will find a mountain of mistakes and weaknesses. It changes the way you write, tightening up your prose.

It’s brilliant. And, based on how many times I use the word “ostensibly“, I could probably benefit from something like this. But I’m not yet sold on whether a tool like that is necessary. By simply reading things aloud, I often catch my most egregious errors.

I don’t mean to project; I think this tool is enormously useful for many people. You — mysterious reader — may find it the tool you needed in order to write better. I’m just not certain it’s the tool I want to improve my writing.

See also Shawn Blanc’s first impressions.

PKPKT

Intriguing new semi-passive game based on Bluetooth LE and anonymity. From their guide:

PKPKT will find other players by scanning for them with Low Energy Bluetooth. When that happens, both players are alerted to try and steal from the other. If you’re lucky, the other player is spacing out and you can grab their cash.

Fake cash, mind you. You start with a thousand bucks, and you try to end up ahead. There doesn’t appear to be a finish line, and it seems to be quite reliant upon it becoming popular. It’s a very intriguing concept if it does become widely-played.

Tech Podcasts

In October, Harry Marks lit a little fire:

So many shows ramble on with nary a care to the clock and the result is a podcast that comes off as sloppy and unprofessional. Having a casual conversation about a topic or idea is great and hosts/guests with great rapport are necessary for a show to thrive, but a good host knows when to move on and nudge everyone onto the next topic. A 45-minute rathole before you approach the first talking point is not a sign of quality.

I responded:

I appreciate the craft that [Myke] Hurley and others bring to the space. But a time commitment of two hours per podcast per week is arguably a lot, and I often don’t get the sense that podcasters respect listeners’ time. I will sit through an album from start to finish, and it will take about an hour; a podcast can be twice that length, and if it’s unedited conversational rambling, I will struggle to finish the episode. It’s simply not worth that amount of time.

Riccardo Mori added:

Practically all the authors / writers / bloggers I follow either host a podcast or appear in other podcasts produced within their circle of friends, colleagues or acquaintances. I can’t even keep up with all the episodes of the few favourites I’ve subscribed to.

Today, Ben Brooks added another to the canon of complaints about podcasts, and it’s very smart:

The goal of a podcast should not be that the podcasters enjoy the show, but that the listeners enjoy the show. I think that’s lost on most podcast hosts.

Who is talking should be less important than what’s being said — just like writing a blog — and yet that’s not the case.

The who has become more important than the content.

I agree with it nearly in its entirety, with just one exception which I’ll get to in a minute. But first, I see a common thread of grievances here:

  • podcasts are way too long, especially for the content they cover;
  • they’re too scattered and unfocused;
  • there’s little in the way of week-to-week structure;
  • sponsor spots are a necessary evil, but they run way too long.

The first and second complaints can be mitigated by addressing the third: if a show has a more-or-less consistent structure, it becomes very listenable or watchable. Consider the Daily Show: the first segment is almost always about ten minutes long and usually a montage of clips showing hypocrisy, or covering a top story; the middle segment is almost always about five minutes long and is a field piece; and the third segment is an interview. It’s the same sort of story on your local news: top stories, weather, more news, sports, and so forth. Every show has a similar structure.

By having a structure in place, rambling is reduced. A good editor can remove most off-topic talk and lag time, but having some sort of format creates a framework around which to build the content. They also help keep the podcast to a time limit.

Sponsor spots are far too long as well. Every podcast is sponsored by Squarespace and, while I think Squarespace is great, there’s no need to talk about what they do for five minutes every week.

At the beginning of November, I started considering what kind of podcast I’d like to listen to:

  • 30 minutes per episode, period;
  • one focused tech topic per show, with hosts which have done research into the topic, come prepared, and can explore its depths;
  • sponsor spots of no more than one minute per sponsor;
  • optionally, one host with one or two different guests every week.

That sounds like an interesting show to me. It’s in-depth, it’s structured, it’s focused, and it’s of a listenable length. Call it the Nerdy Thirty, or preferably something less tepid. If you want to use this podcast idea, email me and let’s chat about it.

Here’s where I disagree with Brooks:

And, to bring this back around to a podcast here, there’s no way I am doing that amount of preparation for a medium that is positively futile trying to turn a profit in — so I won’t waste your time.

That’s what was said about blogging, and the internet as a whole before that. I think there’s a very real chance of making money in podcasting; the podcast simply needs to be interesting again.

This isn’t a complete condemnation of the podcasts that currently exist. There are several notable, excellent products of the medium. The problem is that most tech podcasts are more-or-less interchangeable. It’s many of the same people talking about the same stuff that you’ve already read on their blogs.

Maybe the existing podcasts don’t need to change; there are plenty which clearly have a lot of listeners. But perhaps a potential new breed of focused podcasts will jazz the scene up a little.

Update: I’ve been trying to work out why “my” podcast idea sounded so familiar, and I’ve figured it out: it’s quite similar to inThirty. I’d like to listen to something similar, but with higher production values and more depth.