Cold rdio

This summer I chose to use other streaming music services in lieu of rdio, my favorite forever and ever. I wanted to do this mostly to see how good the other options were, and if I was really getting the best service for me.

Writing comparisons like this is hard. I don't want to book into checkboxland, where I'm just comparing features. On the other hand I've been let down by other comparisons that throw their hands up at the end and say, "Well, that's it! You pick one!" With that in mind, here's where I'm coming from.

How I Listen to Music

I listen to music daily. I listen to a mixture of music and podcasts during my lengthy work commute. I listen to music during my runs. I listen to music when I'm folding laundry and doing chores. And lots of times I listen to music, of course, when working at a computer. So for me, being able to access music on multiple platforms (iPhone, iPad, Mac) is a requirement. 

I like to think that I have a collection of music available anywhere, anytime. In short, if I think of a song I'd love to be able to type it in and play it without delay. I'd also like to have a body of songs and artists as "mine", so a collection or library is a must.

My listening habits gravitate towards either entire albums, or a bunch of random songs. For the latter, I enjoy having radio options - particularly if they provide all the controls I expect (including jumping to a previous song). I also really love a queue, because I might think of a dozen or so songs I'll want to listen to in a row, and then play them all.

When I'm listening to radio stations, I really want a mixture of stuff I know and stuff that I will like. Thus, a service needs to start to learn and understand not just what I like but why I like it, too. Plus it has to surprise me! Throw in something left-of-field because I'm okay with that.

Social features aren't important to me, but seeing what my friends and colleagues are listening to (like rdio offers) is fine.

I expect everything reasonable except The Beatles to be available, and I also know some artists won't put their new stuff on streaming networks. For them, I prefer to buy MP3s direct so they get the most profit.

When I started this experiment, I decided to try Beats Music for two reasons: 1, a lower price than rdio when purchased annually - and discounted at Target; 2, I had used Spotify a few years back and hated it. However, I chose to add Spotify to the rotation as well and give it another go. Note that I used the paid subscriptions for each of these services and not the free, ad-driven ones when available.

While I didn't tell myself I'd never use rdio during this experiment, I essentially didn't.

Cutting to the chase

rdio is the best. Yes, it offers the features and library I want but most importantly, it's a pleasure to use.

In spite of its significant flaws, Beats is my second favorite and a very close contender. The Sentence is far and away the best music discovery tool I've seen on these services, and the whole thing has a distinct personality.

Spotify is, well, fine but it's not for me. It feels perfunctory. It's improved a lot since I last used it, but using it largely felt like using nothing to me - in a not-good way.

What you should get

Now the hard part. I know what I should get. Between these three services, what should you get?

If you care about social features or want the biggest service, just get Spotify. If you want the best all-around service, try rdio and Beats.

Next up

In future posts, I'll break down each of these services and talk about what worked and didn't work for me.

Me & Music

This summer I chose to try out Beats Music and Spotify in lieu of rdio, my streaming service of choice. I'm brewing up a massive, 495-page comparison post that you all will love to pour over. But in the interim, I thought it was worth noting how I feel about music without taking up 494 of those pages.

The first song I truly remember loving in my life was "Copacabana" by Barry Manilow, because my mom was a huge Fanilow. (Yep.) Another song from the far reaches of my memory that I really loved was "Steppin' Out" by Joe Jackson, and of course, its video. For most of my childhood, my music consumption was a steady stream of the oldies station from my mom's car radio. 

Once 6th grade rolled around, though, I started to shift over to contemporary pop music - and, simultaneously, really fell in love with The Monkees. My mainstay was Chicago's B96, and I taped songs off of the radio incessantly. Sometimes, as was the case with "Ice Ice Baby", I recorded the song multiple times on multiple tapes from the radio. (That song landed hard.)

The Door Opens

I drifted and stayed in the whole contemporary pop and classic rock world until I found R.E.M. in 1991. "Man on the Moon" was the hook. It surely wasn't the first R.E.M. song I had ever heard, but it was the one I played over and over until I wore out the CD. It was the first music I chose to really love: I was deep into R.E.M., and was my online home at the time.

The important thing about my exposure to R.E.M. was that it got me really interested in music in general: I started to explore other artists, aided by the booming alternative music scene at the time. I went to my first concert: James, at the Vic. I broke bread with Tim Booth, the band's singer (really!) 

At this time my high school pals and I started playing music together. I picked up a guitar and taught myself how to play. I borrowed books from the library and studied them, but mostly grabbed tabs off of USENET and Gopher (YES) and started to learn chord formations. I distinctly remember trying to play "So. Central Rain" and being overwhelmed instantly. "Oh, he changes chords that quickly?"

I kept practicing, though, and became competent with open chords. I started writing my own songs, but rarely played them for anyone else. I kept them in a big Word file called "Original Songs and Lyrics". I hope I still have that file on a floppy somewhere, but there's one song - "Mistaken" - that I wrote 22 years ago and have memorized.

It's also worth noting that Loadstar, the fabled disk magazine, exposed me to lots of new genres of music I would have never have heard otherwise - like ragtime. Totally got into Sousa for a long time.

Back to the Mc

Over time, though, I started to rediscover the songs I had enjoyed in my childhood, or those that had seeped into my head through repeated listenings. Some of them I loved, some I hated, but the mix of oldies and early MTV and other random sources ended up being more influential than I had thought. It forms a basis for the stuff I like now.

I really like catchy songs, but my tolerance for mainstream pop is limited; power pop is a favorite genre of mine. I don't believe in guilty pleasures - everyone likes what they like. I will defend most of The Monkees' music as solid, well-constructed pop songs. I'm excited to find new music, and since I primarily use streaming services that's mostly where I look for new music. I generally don't like country music (but can appreciate it) and electronica wears thin on me. I find that I really, really love 70s funk. I can listen to "One Night in Bangkok" and "Simple Song" anytime.

Today, I still play guitar with my son, and I sing pretty regularly too. I listen to music every day. And I admit, I'm still blown away by the fact that I can pretty much think of a song, type it into my phone, and listen to it on demand. That's amazing.

The header image, by the way, are the great Sara Watkins, Luke Bulla, and Glen Phillips from their 2007 Various & Sundry tour. Front row seats. Fucking amazing.


Found out

On Friday my friends Amy Silvers and Lori Widelitz-Cavallucci spoke at Madison+ UX on Imposter Syndrome. (This was also the talk they presented at IA Summit, and you can see the summary here.) Watching and listening to their talk over the web kicked up my own feelings on this matter.

In short, for years I waited for the other shoe to drop and to be found out as a fraud. Years. Even when I was a young, good programmer, a part of me held on to a fear that one day someone would basically shoot holes in whatever I was doing, and as a result I would feel incredibly humiliated and embarrassed.

During that time, there was a direct impact on the way I worked. It might not have been so noticeable in the darkroom or in the code, but the part of me that was a vocal critic and on alert for being called out was always present. It was always there. As a result of this, I rarely spoke about my work - and promoted it even less. That's because there were enough parts of me saying, "This isn't all that good." It might have truly been good stuff, and to be honest, probably was! But I had a hard time recognizing that and an even harder time taking a compliment. (I mean, people were complimenting me on my work? My internal barometer on that was just way off!) This is also part of the reason I preferred to work by myself for so very long.

But I've had to adjust

Good design work is people-focused, whether it's research or life design or aesthetic design. And that means it's far more open to criticism - but it's also far more open to connection and appreciation, as well. The risk is higher and the reward is higher too.

The biggest things that I've had to account for are my own self-confidence (which is only emerging due to intense work on the self) and my experience.

My experience is something I can now count on, and it appeals mostly to my brain and not so much to my heart. It's relatively easy for me to justify design decisions based on decades of work, including what works well and what doesn't. I say this not to brag (my ego will chime in momentarily!) but I say this as a point of fact: when you work in a field for a very long time, you simply start to see the broad patterns and gain that understanding. I considered it to be table stakes when it came to myself, instead of giving it the true honor it deserves. (It was hard work!)

But the self-confidence is the much, much harder piece. It has required sustained, intense focus on my self, identifying who I am, and being able to even get to a place where I see my work having value and being worthwhile - even to myself.

For instance, it is only within the past 6 months that I have been able to hear a compliment from someone about my work, take a moment, absorb it, and thank them instead of doing the knee-jerk "thanks!" response. I would do the latter because it was polite (brain-focused, other person-focused, society-focused) and not really do what I needed to do to truly hear the other person and take that in (me-focused).

In addition, working on Designing Yourself has given me ample opportunity to promote this great thing I'm doing. On the one hand, it may look easy to post a tweet saying that the show is great. On the other hand, it stirred up a lot of conflict in me. I was overly concerned about appearing too self-promotional, too selfish, too... lots of things that I saw as negative. That, in turn, would make me more vulnerable.

But as my work has continued to get closer and closer to me (less of an abstract), this vulnerability goes part and parcel with it. I can't hide behind code when I'm on stage talking about my experiences. It leaves me totally open. And that's where I want to be because that's where I need to be. Even if someone in the audience, or someone online, thinks I'm a total fraud.

More than Numbers

Technology has made tracking ourselves in numbers easier than ever. At a glance I can tell you how many miles I ran last month, last year, or in the last 3 years. I can tell you how many people follow me on Twitter. I can tell you how many songs I have in my music library, or how many photos I've taken with my phone. I can share a lot of numbers with you.

But numbers never, ever tell the whole story. Ever. They do not express value. They are not the story. They are not us, ultimately. We regularly try to assign value to numbers - in terms of stats, in terms of size and weight, in terms of those "good" and "bad" extremes.

How do we assign value to what we do, and what we say? How do we understand not the quantified self, but the qualified self?



I redesigned my website last month. Did you notice it? I'm hoping you did, because I tweeted about it and made a big deal about it. That's great!

What about the redesign I did a week ago? That's the one I didn't write about. Was that one noticeable?

The poorly-kept secret is that we're always redesigning. We make changes along the way, try things out, and if they don't work we may go back to the way we used to be. Or, those changes may stick and bring forth new changes.

Change is always happening. Redesigns are always happening. Do we want to call attention to that change, or not?


My inbox isn't a to do list

Let's make something clear: I love email. I have always enjoyed getting stuff in the (regular) mail, and when I first started sending and receiving emails on BBSes in the 90s, it was truly magical.

For a very long time I treated my inbox as a to do list. It's easy to see why: most mail apps are very similar to task management apps. There's a list of stuff. It can be labeled and organized and flagged and tagged. It has a bunch of things attached to it. But there's one important component  missing for me: context.

As an example, I have an email in my inbox right now with the subject "Worksheet". It's something I forwarded to myself from my Gmail account, so it appears to be from... me. Given that, what do you think it is? Yeah, yeah, a worksheet. But about what? When is it due? Is it due, ever? Who is it truly from? What do I need to do? What's the first action I need to take on it?

If I don't get that out somewhere else, preferably in Things, then all of that is weighing down my cognitive load. I look at "From: Paul, Subject: Worksheet" and see about 8 different tasks I actually need to do. And in that moment it overwhelms me and feels like a block, a thing I need to take care of instead of something I may want to do.

In addition, the flow of what comes into and out of my inbox isn't controlled by me, not directly. I get junk mail (requires processing), links to stuff to read (goes to Instapaper), email newsletters (sits in the inbox... for now), and various messages. All of it requires some action, usually much more than "just" replying, and my email client says none of that. None.

Because of those hidden tasks, my inbox is a terrible to do list for me.

PS: about those tools

Obligatory: I could certainly find tools that aid in this. Back when I was at a company using Jira (shudder) I wrote a little AppleScript to process incoming bug emails and convert them to tasks in my Inbox in The Hit List (an abandoned to do list app). And yes, there are apps and plugins and things that will just go ahead and make your inbox a to do list. But for my workflow, I strongly prefer to treat my to do list as a separate item from the flow of email.

Bigger and better than ever

Since the web became popular I've scooped up domain names here and there, thinking something would come of them someday. In the early days of my own domain, I considered splitting (my personal site) into two sites. I wanted to test out my creativity and see if it made sense to separate my journal and personal information from my art and work. It didn't.

I wasn't quite sure where that second site would go. I experimented. But there wasn't a real goal in mind.

Sometime after that, web stats packages became available and popular. The parts of me that love numbers started to love these things and realized, "Ah! This is one of the reasons I'm doing websites! Because visitors." Note that - not people. Visitors. Hits. Page views. Referrers. All of that became increasingly important to me to the point that reviewing my site's stats became a daily ritual.

It grew from there. How can I get more people to read my stuff, or view my web projects? Getting listed on Yahoo!, sure. Trying to get on Cool Site of the Day, sure. Just getting out to more people. Not necessarily the right people - just people.

Over time, traffic to my site picked up a lot. Many, many more people were visiting my site in the early 2000s than now. But because of where I was at the time, I let one particularly nasty and relentless troll get to me, and I took all of it down. All of it. I found a risk to putting one's self on the web: getting hurt. And I got hurt, bad. My ideas of numbers and connecting with people and all of that was blown away by one person whose goal was to make my life miserable.

So I didn't have a website for a very long time. Here's the problem: I missed it. A lot. It ultimately took me about 7 1/2 years to figure out what my website could do, and should do, for me at this point in my life.

However, numbers

I mention all of this because of numbers. That part of me that still loves to obsess over numbers hasn't gone anywhere, so I check the stats for my site regularly.

But there's a twist now: if someone I respect favorites or retweets something I post (and especially if it's a link to something I wrote), that feels very good. It has at least as much meaning as a big day in the stats tab, if not much more.

More importantly, I interpret that as a connection with someone.

And that right there is why I do this.


One of the routes I run takes me up and down a main business district in my town. And, there's a plot of land that has been vacant for about 10 years or so, adjacent to a lovely historical building.

I remember the buildings on that site because one of them was the computer store where I worked in high school. My first job! So many first experiences there. I learned about hard work. I learned the basics of running a retail business. My boss introduced me to falafel.

But today that building is gone.

There was an adjacent building, a beautiful red brick 2-story commercial building, for a travel agency. It had a neon sign hanging over the sidewalk. "SEE THE WORLD BEFORE YOU LEAVE IT!" I saw that sign for all of my childhood, just about every day, even before I understood what it meant.

That building is gone too.

These things are temporary, and it is harsh for me to realize that in the present, these places don't exist anymore. Instead I tell stories and share memories of what happened in those places, and how those places were parts of my life.

What will we say about our places, our selves, and our lives? What do we say, now? And more importantly, what will we *do*?

I Never

As we learn and grow and live we create the story that is our life. We write that story intentionally... or not. Others read it. We live it.

A good story requires editing and revision. It's not static. It changes over time. It expands. It contracts. It has a journey and lessons learned. It can be fun or serious, or a little of both and everything in between. It can be long. It can be short. It can be all of these things.

But first we must ensure we're allowing ourselves to be open to many possibilities, many directions, many plots, and many subplots. What are you leaving out of your story that really could be let back in? How can you be more open to what's happening right now and do something truly great with that?

Big thanks to Whitney Hess for inspiring this one; our conversation around this topic will be on the next ep of Designing Yourself.