October 29, 2013

Tap, Tap, Slide, Launch

Around the same time I decided I wanted to go crazy and clear out the “main” home screen on my iPhone1 I ran across Launch Center Pro. Launch Center Pro (Contrast, $5) made the decision to clean house that much easier, bringing all of the apps I’d be relegating to the second, third and subsequent screens within a tap and gesture or two of launching.

When someone asks me what the funky looking rocket icon app is on my home screen, I often have a hard time explaining what it is, what it does and how it’s useful. Marco Tabini sums it up fairly well2 in his review of Launch Center Pro 2 for MacWorld, an update to the app for iOS 7:

Despite its apparent simplicity, Launch Center’s focus on doing things instead of just launching apps has a transformative effect on the way you use your phone. Once you’ve set up the actions that fit your particular needs, Launch Center makes everything from browsing the Web to placing a phone call much more efficient without making it more complex—you just tap to get right to what you wanted to do.

I don’t consider myself a power user that makes full use of Launch Center Pro’s capabilities, but it’s proven to be immensely useful in the few months that I’ve been using it and, at the very least, it allowed me to clean home screen house without any tinge of regret or longing for the days of one tap access to my most frequently used apps. If you’re at all interested in streamlining your home screen or more efficiently accomplishing app-centric tasks on your iOS device, I highly recommend Launch Center Pro.

  1. So I could actually enjoy the picture of my wife and daughter that currently serves as my background.
  2. At least as well as anyone probably can for those whose daily demands of their iOS 7 device have never prompted them to search for such an app.
October 22, 2013

‘Now We Are Five’

In this week’s New Yorker, The North Carolina coast serves as the backdrop in an essay by David Sedaris about his youngest sister’s suicide in May of this year:

Six months before our sister killed herself, I made plans for us all to gather at a beach house on Emerald Isle, off the coast of North Carolina. My family used to vacation there every summer, but after my mother died we stopped going, not because we lost interest but because it was she who always made the arrangements and, more important, paid for it. The place I found with the help of my sister-in-law, Kathy, had six bedrooms and a small swimming pool. Our weeklong rental period began on Saturday, June 8th, and we arrived to find a delivery woman standing in the driveway with seven pounds of seafood, a sympathy gift sent by friends. “They’s slaw in there, too,” she said, handing over the bags.

I didn’t become interested in Sedaris’s writing until I learned that he grew up in Raleigh, and reading this essay reminded me of how drawn I am to popular writing about places that I’m not only familiar with, but also cherish and enjoy so much. The North Carolina coast is a fantastic place. I can’t wait to go back.

October 15, 2013

The Home That We Know

Scott Avett, in an interview with Rolling Stone when asked about recent media portrayals of his home state of North Carolina:

It’s interesting, because it’s not a North Carolina that we know. I’m a big believer in the New South, and the South that I know is an extremely giving, compassionate and beautiful place. The polarization doesn’t really make a lot of sense to me.

The new album from the Avett Brothers, Magpie and the Dandelion, is out today.

October 14, 2013

Go and Tell Someone That Does

Magpie and the Dandelion (Oct. 15, American Recordings) is the eighth studio album from the Avett Brothers and their third collaboration with super-producer Rick Rubin. In a letter to fans announcing the release of the album, The Avett Brothers talked about the album’s origins from the same sessions that spawned their previous record, The Carpenter. Listening to Magpie, you get a sense that these songs, though solemn, might have possessed a touch of youthful optimism that contrasted the mature and, at times, morbid retrospect that pervaded The Carpenter.

The albums that occupy what is now the middle of The Avett Brothers’ catalogue (Mignonette, Emotionalism) mark an incredibly creative period for the group that may never be matched. Subsequent records demonstrate noticeable maturity within the band to craft polished, radio-friendly tracks that remain true to the band’s candor, introspection, and musical influences. Still, the Rick Rubin era appears to represent a noticeable shift – a certain je ne sais quoi – in the band’s creative direction. That trend continues with Magpie and the Dandelion. Hardcore fans1 may continue to long for the days of songs like “Paranoia in B-Flat Major”, “Will You Return?”, and “Nothing Short of Thankful” – studio recordings that more closely capture the stage energy and fun side of the band’s musical and vocal proclivities. Starting with 2009’s I and Love and You, the tone of the releases overall has been more solemn and serious.

Stand out tracks on Magpie are the opener, “Open Ended Life”, “Morning Song”, “Good To You” and “Vanity”. “Open Ended Life” is a rare upbeat track on the record that could easily have been written and recorded by fellow North Carolinian Ryan Adams (Cardinals era Adams). It wasn’t an early favorite during my first listen, but it quickly rose up the charts during subsequent spins. “Another is Waiting”, the first single, is catchier but is also more likely to find it’s way into a Gap or Old Navy commercial. I think “Open Ended Life” is a track that I’ll enjoy hearing at live shows for years to come – long after I’ve forgotten that “Another is Waiting” is an Avett Brothers track.

“Morning Song”, continues the Avett tradition of combining thoughtful, conversational lyrics with unforgettable melodies. It’s a song that chimes out of the studio but will surely be a fan favorite as a pace-changing or encore-induced live piece. This could easily have been a lead single, but serves as a nice counter-point to the energetic, albeit short “Another is Waiting”. Like many Avett Brothers tracks, live performances of “Morning Song” will probably always best the studio version, but the moment in the recording when a chorus of family and friends offers a warmth to the track that might be difficult to conjure in a live audience.

My ears never stood a chance against the charms of “Good to You”, especially after I read this in NPR’s First Listen post: “For fans who’ve followed Crawford’s young daughter’s battle with a brain tumor, the proud verse he sings in “Good to You” hits especially hard”. Crawford’s vocal is a great addition to the track and especially poignant against the emotional backdrop of the story of his daughter.

And then there’s “Vanity”. “Vanity” (and even to a certain degree, “Morning Song”) is an Avett Brothers track that I first heard as a live performance; unfortunate because it’s difficult to imagine any studio version could ever live up to the particular live version I heard2 – an appearance on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon with guest guitarist and vocalist Soundgarden front man Chris Cornell. “Vanity” has a haunting musical interlude that allows Seth to shred a few bars with Scott’s piano backing (though the guitar seems to be downplayed on the studio track). The musical interlude is bookended by patented back and forth vocals from Seth and Scott that harken back to the brothers’ early days of back and forth, almost overlapping vocals. I don’t know what prompted the live collaboration with Cornell, but the pairing worked out perfectly and set an unattainable standard for the studio version. Nonetheless, “Vanity” is still one of the album’s best tracks.

The rest of the tracks are typical Avett Brothers fare. They are solid album tracks, befitting of the tone and their surroundings on the album, but not otherwise noteworthy for the time being. But if history repeats itself, there’s a good chance I’ll go to a live show and hear a performance of one of these ho-hum tracks that will forever change my perception of it. And that’s the thing about the Avett Brothers – as good as their albums are, they have a unique presence and energy when performing live. This is true for a lot of bands, but for a band that is so in tune with my present tastes and sensibilities, it’s a dynamic that makes me cautiously optimistic about everything they release. I’m carrying that cautious optimism all the way through my listening sessions of Magpie and the Dandelion, extracting joy from my immediate favorites and allowing the others to simmer, and bide their time before they’re ready to pop.

  1. I consider myself a hardcore fan, but my appreciation for the Avetts’ music flourished during the latter half of their current catalogue. As an example of how my tastes may differ from those who have been following the band from the beginning, I consider this to be a nearly ideal setlist.
  2. Other Avett Brothers tracks that share this distinction: “Down with the Shine”, “Laundry Room” (NPR Tiny Desk Concert), “Paranoia in B Major” (Live, Vol. 3), “Morning Song” (Behind the Walls at Newport Folk Festival)
October 7, 2013

Rdio

When I signed up1 for Rdio, I fully expected to be disappointed by subscription based music. Now, four and a half months later, I don’t like to think about my music listening life without it. I chose Rdio primarily because I favored their iOS app, but Spotify and Google Play All Access are different flavors of the same service if you’re interested in shopping around.

I jumped into the streaming music waters primarily for two reasons: freedom from future financial regret over guilty pleasure purchases and new music discovery. For me, these two reasons are closely linked – there’s a ton of music out there that I enjoy for a relatively brief time, but I know wouldn’t spend any significant time in any nostalgia or timeless playlists that I create years later. I don’t have enough data yet to know if the $120 per year investment in streaming music will completely offset impulse purchases – but in the moment, it certainly feels like I’m spending less money; a feeling I’m certain companies like Rdio and Spotify are counting on.

Both Spotify and Rdio tout their social features as the foundation for music discovery. I don’t rely on social connections or recommendations as much for new music – I prefer artist or song “stations” – but I can certainly appreciate the merits of playlist sharing. I think Spotify casts a wider net with their social features, offering playlist widgets and listening opportunities for non-paying users, but Rdio seems to be catching up with their new Stations offering2.

Not long after I decided to go with Rdio, Apple announced iTunes Radio – the underwhelming reality behind the oft-rumored Apple music subscription service. For now, iTunes Radio is an iTunes ad masquerading as a Pandora clone, prominently displaying a Buy Song link with each track. I use it frequently on my Apple TV and occasionally on my iPhone and, taking it at face value, it’s beautifully executed3. But it doesn’t quite satiate my listening hunger in the same way that Rdio does.

In essence, Rdio is a cloud-based music library – a personal collection as they call it – that is limited only by Rdio’s entire catalog. New releases aren’t always available right away (as I learned with Jay Z’s Magna Carta), but generally show up within 1-2 weeks of their street date. The mobile app also offers syncing capability, which means you can “download” songs to your device, eschewing the need for an always-on data connection4. If you already have an iTunes library, the PC and Mac apps will analyze your existing iTunes library and duplicate your library in your Rdio collection (obviously, only songs that are in Rdio’s catalog will be added to your collection).

After just over four months as a subscriber, I have to say I’m pretty much hooked. I still buy albums or songs that I know I’ll enjoy years from now, but I don’t feel compelled to buy each and every “it” song of the moment, just so I can listen to it whenever I want. Rdio let’s me scratch the itch, but without leaving a scar that I’ll regret later. Rdio offers a great alternative for those who prefer nearly limitless access to music, without the drag of buyer’s remorse years later. I don’t consider the Rdio experiment completely over, but for now I’m all in.

  1. Here’s why.
  2. Perhaps buoyed by its recent deal with Cumulus Media.
  3. Especially since I already subscribe to iTunes Match, effectively making it an ad-free Pandora for me. Rdio also offers similar functionality with its Stations, which just became free for everyone.
  4. Device syncing also helps you preserve precious data bandwidth in the ever-disappearing world of unlimited mobile data plans.
October 6, 2013

Together, Better

Raleigh has a new city manager, Ruffin Hall, and they didn’t have to go too far to find him. Bob Geary wrote a few words about the announcement over at Indy Week, and it sounds like Hall is just the type of manager that Raleigh needs:

And when Hall got up to speak, the big words out of his mouth were collaborations and partnerships, and he added nonprofit organizations, neighborhood leaders, institutions (e.g., NCSU) and the business community to the list of partners he intends to cultivate.

I don’t actually live in Raleigh, but it’s my birthplace and I’m close enough to continue to be interested in its evolution as a high-growth city, especially the downtown area. I hope Hall is able to help Raleigh take the next step in becoming a great city.

October 5, 2013

The Past is Listening

A couple of years ago, I started a project to import all of my CDs into my iTunes library1. In a not insignificant number of instances while opening the jewel case of the next archiving victim, I find myself asking, “why in the world did I buy this?” Honestly, this could probably happen to any of us, if we dare step back into our collection for an aural jaunt down memory lane. The shock and awe is not necessarily the absurdity of each egregious offense, but instead the magnitude of the collection of absurdity. Suffice it to say, I had a bit of a music addiction in my formative years.

Financial records, if they were available, would exhibit an addiction that went unchecked by my relatively affluent middle class upbringing. Unhelpful in stemming this addiction was the proliferation of the music club mail-order offers whose heyday coincided all too destructively with my obsession with popular (and unpopular2) music. With a mixture of patience and urgency, I ultimately found a way to acquire every bit of music I ever desired. If I’d had better taste, this would not be a problem.

But taste, as it pertains to music and many other arts, often takes a back seat to personal enjoyment – and rightly so. The music, after all, was there to be consumed by those who enjoyed it. And whether or not I would get the same enjoyment out of every bit, byte, note and rhythm contained on any or all of those compact discs if I to listened to them today is missing the point. That said, I can’t help but shudder3 when I see the stacks of CDs, waiting to be discarded – stacks that might as well be stacks of dollar bills, burning before my very eyes.

Amidst the burning flames of my lost fortune, I started thinking. Does the digital age – currently dominated by iTunes but certainly dignified by efforts from Amazon and others – really present a better alternative? Is there a song that I downloaded in 2005 that would feature prominently in any modern playlist I might create? Have I extracted 99 cents or $1.29 worth of enjoyment of that song? Is it worth the future cost of storage that I’ll pay to keep it around4? Does anyone have any particular rights to my collection when I’m gone – the same rights I presume they would have with my CD collection?

And it struck me that perhaps the answer to all of these questions is the increasingly popular subscription based music service. In the subscription model, you pay a monthly fee – currently the going rate is around $10/month – and you have unlimited access to the entire collection of music offered by your respective provider. Stop paying the monthly fee and you lose your “collection”. Some of the services offer mobile apps that allow you to download music to your device so you don’t always have to have a connection to enjoy your music. I don’t currently know of any such service that allows you to burn your collection to a CD, for obvious reasons.

Staring at my dusty and dormant collection, I decided to take the leap. In my back of the brain, back of the envelope calculation, I decided I spend more than $120/year buying music from iTunes (which was probably my average monthly outlay during my peak CD-buying). Even if I decided to buy/download only my favorite albums/songs, I’d still probably at least break even – just in saving myself from impulsive guilty pleasure purchases. And, looking ahead, I decided this was an investment to prevent future regret. Because even though when I purchase/download, I’m buying something that’s mine forever, what does that something really mean to me as forever approaches?

By revisiting my past, I’ve learned to let go of old habits of impulse buying. But I’ve also revitalized that part of me that loves discovering and then tirelessly consuming new music. To many, the social aspect of any online music service is considered the holy grail of music discovery. To me, it’s the unlimited put it on, let it play, and just listen nature of streaming music. It’s what radio used to be – the radio that died when advertising, demographics, and corporate consolidation destroyed the art of the DJ – curation. In the subscription-based world, limitless is your DJ. Choose an artist, a song, a friend, your past – any or all of these can curate your listening experience.

  1. That’s right, started – I’m still going. In my defense, I only work on it in pockets when I know I’ll be chained to my makeshift dining room office desk (and bother to break out the almost decade old Thinkpad X41 tablet + docking station).
  2. I could write a series of posts on the oddities, but just to give you a taste: UNV, Kevin Edmonds, the Beverly Hills 90210 soundtrack.
  3. Bethany shudders when she sees them too, but for an entirely different reason that stems more from anger and annoyance than of the loss that I feel.
  4. Because you know, hard drives cost money.
September 13, 2013
September 7, 2013

Our State

After a rash of negative press for North Carolina, we finally have some good stories coming out of the state.

First, an act of kindness and compassion in a situation I’m sure we’ve all experienced, but with a different reaction:

As their waitress was delivering food to the family’s table, England noticed another waitress, Tonya Griffin, walk up with a few tears in her eyes. She passed along a message from another customer that the England family says they will never forget.

Griffin told the family, “your meal’s been paid for and he wanted me to give you this note.” The note written on a customer’s order slip read, “God only gives special children to special people.”
Source: CNN

And then, a story of forgiveness and grace following a tragic accident:

David Stone’s two sons said they have already forgiven Jordan Thomas, saying they knew she made a mistake as a young driver. They didn’t want her to face a harsh sentence, only plead guilty and accept responsibility for the crash, so she could live a full life after their father sacrificed his own life for hers.

“There are two good families here, and the situation was a bad situation,” Chris Stone said. “We would like to thank everybody for your prayers and support.”
Source: WRAL

I disagree with the policies and philosophies that we, the people of North Carolina, have voted into office. That doesn’t discourage my optimism about who we are. If we really want to legislate the way that we have been legislating, then I hope our newspapers and televisions start overflowing with more stories like these to make up for it.

August 28, 2013

Have a Dream

Fifty years ago today, Martin Luther King, Jr delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington. At 3pm today, more than 300 sites will ring bells to commemorate the speech. Google, in partnership with Organic and Unit9, developed a site offers the experience of listening to the speech (or recording your own) against the backdrop of stunning black and white photography from this period in our history. It’s definitely worth a few moments of your time to relive this historic moment.