27 January 2015 by Mike

My favorite albums of 2014

Now that it's almost February, I assume everyone has already read all the best-of-the-year lists that matter to them. So here's one that won't. These are the best records I heard that came out in 2014.

Ben Frost - A U R O R A
I honestly really didn't know anything about Ben Frost and hadn't heard his earlier stuff, but this is a magical concoction of computerized and percussion-heavy experimental electronics that takes me back to the days of playing shows with fellow laptop jockeys and industrial car-part-smashers. It's a varied, rich, and constantly surprising piece of work, and it has Thor Harris on it too!

St. Vincent
I've seen St. Vincent, and I've heard pretty much all of her albums, but this was the first one to really catch my ear. This is the kind of art rock that people like Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush used to do — accessible but genuinely attempting to go places. She's also the kind of guitar player who's super talented but intriguing, not shreddy.

Scott Walker and SunnO))) - Soused
As Scott Walker gets increasingly prolific in his old age, it's starting to be apparent that he's actually got a pretty in-tune sense of humor. On paper, Walker with Sunn is the Lou Reed/Metallica album that actually works. In practice, it's basically a Scott Walker album with guitars, and that's just fine.

SWANS - To Be Kind
The Seer was maybe the peak of Gira's output, ever. It was the realization of the promise that Swans are Dead teased us with just before he originally disbanded the group. The only thing wrong with To Be Kind is that it's not The Seer.

Sumerian Fleet - Just Pressure
I basically kind of started following Dark Entries records around the time I got super into the Minimal Wave catalog as well. That led me to their flagship release of 2014. This retro slice of Linn-driven heavy old-school EBM meets sparse synth-wave makes me think of the best of early 242, and it's immaculately produced.

Run the Jewels 2
It topped a lot of the pros' lists, and it's probably obvious why. The first RTJ was a cool side project, but the real potential of an El-P/Killer Mike collaboration opened up on the second one.

BLXPLTN - Black Cop Down
This is one of Austin's most exciting local bands, but they're not going to get the press that the mellower or more rockist indie groups will. They're a hardcore band with a drum pad. What a weird thing, but they're so fierce, catchy, and fist-in-the-air angry it's hard to deny the live show or the record.

Protomartyr - Under Color of Official Right
The first Protomartyr album was kind of out of nowhere, and doing the jagged Fall-inspired post-punk thing in Detroit is unexpected. But the production is better, the songs are tighter and darker, and Joe Casey's incredible lyrics are more audible on the second one. It's a mix of a realistic portrait of alcoholic depression, a lament for Detroit, and what Casey calls "bad dad songs" (one of which, "Bad Advice," is about Kwame). This, from "I Stare At Floors," sums up well:

The day comes
same as before
it goes on again
the television a concave window
lawyers and murderers
the Law's confusing, the Order makes no sense

Scratching the skin
Staring at walls, staring at floors
The plan today is not to die
The cure-all's always over ice

I listened to it every day for like 3 months and still can't get enough.

Other stuff
Fennesz, Aphex Twin, The Bug, FKA Twigs, and of course Shellac all put out solid albums this year that I enjoyed a lot.

Honorable Mention from 2013
Speaking of Minimal Wave, I also discovered Veronica Vasik's sub-label Cititrax and the act Kontravoid. He apparently used to be the live drummer for Crystal Castles but in any case his self-titled dark synthpop LP from 2013 got a lot of play from me as well.

20 January 2015 by Mike

UX for Enterprise

A good read, although a bit long for something that I've repeatedly had to answer more concisely as an interview question.

17 December 2014 by Mike

Change is what the web is about

I wrote this for our corporate blog. Rather than give everyone I know instructions for connecting to our VPN, I thought I'd reproduce it here. The gist is: as we go through a lot of change both process-wise and philosophically, we need to make sure nobody gets too attached to one way of thinking and gets left behind.

Since its inception, the Web has undergone constant evolution. But along the way, it’s also gone through some major revolutions that left it forever changed — and left some people behind.

Purty Pitchers

The first earth-shattering change was the NCSA Mosaic browser. Why? One word: graphics. Color graphics! You wouldn’t think this would bother anyone: sure, they took a long time to load and were really awful quality purplish GIFs for a long time, but being able to navigate around a web page with your mouse and scrollbar really opened up the web to a lot of people who would never have touched the green-on-black terminal browser Lynx.

Mosaic

Still, there were casualties: the early denizens of the internet, the super tech-savvy terminal jockeys and ASCII artists who preferred the music of a ker-chunking IBM Model M keyboard to the click of a mouse saw their little private utopia being taken away. In a way, I can sympathize. They were probably worried it’d be filled with n00bs, dads and ads eventually.

But the lesson is there. Adapt or get left behind.

The Blue Beanie

Most of these revolutions have happened during my career. The rise and fall of Flash, the advent of YouTube, blogging… it’s been a fun ride so far.

But from a designer/developer standpoint, something that in hindsight might’ve had the biggest effect was the Web Standards movement. As late as the mid–2000s, we’d been designing pages based on some anonymous genius’s realization that HTML tables and weirdly sliced images could be used to create print-like layouts on web pages. Thus the business of “web design.” But this was a hack, and it helped us grow an appetite for hacks. Meanwhile, Netscape and Microsoft were vying for supremacy in the browser market by adding more and more amazing but completely incompatible features. So we essentially had to build sites twice.

zeldman

But then Jeffrey Zeldman came along and told us all to try something: first off, stop using tables, because we’re hacking a useful feature of the browser to do something awful it wasn’t meant to do, and second, stop using these browsers’ non-standard features. Start using CSS. Thus the Web Standards Project (and what has come to be called the web standards movement) was born. And this movement effectively ended those dreaded Browser Wars.

Trust me, we’re all better for it. But for a while, there were a lot of designers and developers who didn’t want to abandon their fancy browser features, and didn’t want to stop using tables because they worked! Those people adapted. Or they became irrelevant once the browser makers got on board with the Standards crowd.

Responding to Change

The arrival of web applications was not about just one thing. Faster broadband, AJAX, browsers able to run complex Javascript, web fonts, SVG, and all kinds of other stuff made the web the new platform for software. It’s still getting better. And our desktop computers aren’t the only devices with these front-end capabilities anymore. If I can get my software over the web, and my phone has a really good web browser, I should be able to run the software on my phone, right?

Ethan Marcotte first coined the term “Responsive Web Design” four years ago on A List Apart, and the design world has been pretty… responsive to it. Rather than the conversations I used to have ten years ago over whether we’re going to finally support 1024x768 screens, applications can now resize, reflow, and customize for different screens and devices. It’s a huge change in a way of thinking, but it’s also one more way that web applications are now more like “real” applications: do Microsoft Word or Adobe Photoshop force me into a highly controlled layout that only works at a certain window size?

But like the ASCII art and table layouts, there are going to be some casualties in the new way. I think the concept of “pixel perfection” is one of those. If my application changes from screen to screen and situation to situation, I can’t ever know exactly what it’s going to look like to any particular customer.

And that’s fine.

There’s still room for all the careful and highly thought out work that we’ve always done when crafting web pages and web applications. In fact, our job is more important than ever because there’s no way a print layout designer can ever do what we do: deliver what our customers need, on whatever device they need it. And we don’t have any intention of being left behind.