Cara Família (a letter to my dear ones in Brasil)

Good morning, family.

I feel a little bit strange doing this — inserting myself into the conversation on the eve of the Brazilian elections, in Portuguese, no less. I don’t live in Brazil, not yet. My political views are probably to the left of many of you, and I know that’s a bad word in a lot your houses. :) What could an American know about the politics of Brazil? Perhaps not much.

But, I am your family, and your brother in Christ, and I love each of you so much. So, humbly, I need to send you this letter.

I live in a country that has been walking for 2 years down this road you are considering. I am speaking, of course, about Bolsonaro, “Brazil’s Trump”. I’m not here to talk to you today about politics, about left or right or PT or PSL which person or party you should vote for. You know what’s best for your country. But I do want to talk about Bolsonaro.

First things first: I get it. The economy is terrible. You have lost the dignity you once had, when you could work hard and get paid well; provide for your families, maybe even have a bit to spare. Your leaders are corrupt. They have been giving money to a) themselves, or b) people that maybe don’t deserve it, so they can stay in power — and none of this benefits most Brazilians, who are working themselves to death (if they can find work to do). Modern life is taking its toll on families, too. I imagine you’re worried about what place the Word of God has in the mind of the public, in the halls of leadership. So, I don’t think poorly at all of you for wanting a change.

But, friends & cousins, tios & tias, family: We’ve seen this movie before, here, agora. It’s still playing.

I can imagine all the things everything is saying about Bolsonaro, because I heard all these things about Trump:

– “He says crazy things! But it’s just for effect. He’s not serious.”

– “He speaks directly. He says what no one else has the courage to say.”

– “No, he’s not righteous. But he says the name of Jesus. Besides, I don’t need him to be good; I need him to run the country like a business.”

– “The Bible is full of stories where God used wicked men to His work.”

I don’t know how to say this strongly enough:

Bolsonaro, just like Trump, is a man of violence. He will do anything — lie, manipulate, break laws, humiliate people, for one purpose: to consolidate his own power.

He says crazy things?

I promise: every crazy thing Bolsonaro has said? About shutting down the congress, about raping women or exiling black people, torture, rule through violence — every one is absolutely the desire of his heart. If he gets enough power, he will try to do every one of those things.

He speaks directly?

OK — but a man’s actions reveal his heart. And there’s a big difference between “speaking the truth” and “saying what the people in the room right now want to hear, even if it’s a lie.” Nothing Trump says is ever true; it’s always only expedient… the quickest way to get what he wants at the time. It’s manipulative.

His personal life is a mess?

You, Christians, who live your whole lives around the word of God, should be the first to understand that leadership bears real, actual fruit. Brazil’s government is not just a TV show, it’s a machine with real power over people’s lives. Trump’s personal life is littered with wives and mistresses, and broken friendships — you can say that doesn’t matter, but a man that can’t be trusted can’t function except through fear, and power, and lies. This is not leadership. Besides, Trump is rich, but he’s not an honest businessman. He got his money by defrauding people, not paying his workers, not paying his taxes. This is not good business.

God can use the wicked?

Of course he can. God is good, and God is sovereign.

But Pharaoh and Ahab were not elected democratically. Wicked men bear wicked fruit, just as good men bear good fruit… and in a democracy, that fruit is our responsibility.

So, please, family, if you are planning to vote for this man, take a moment and consider the cost of putting him in power over your country. It’s a little bit my country, too.

Here is another way Bolsonaro is like Trump: Trump only cares about Trump. He wants America to prosper only so that he can take from it. The source of this prosperity? It’s the weak among us. This is Robin Hood in reverse.

Look around at the people in your life, actual people you know, who are: old, poor, strangers, women, handicapped, black, gay, any religion other than Christian. They are all targets. In the weeks after Trump’s election, and ever since, we have seen a sharp increase in racist violence, even here in Flagstaff. My parents are having money taken away from them, and their insurance is not as effective as it was before. My friend Hoda, who has spent years here at NAU working toward her doctorate in education, went home to visit her family for vacation and was not allowed to return — because her family is from Iran. She can not finish her degree, and years of her works are lost. Another friend has had to relive her own sexual assault, watching in horror this week as Trump’s guy is being installed on the Supreme Court despite rape allegations against him. I should maybe add that Trump selected Kavanaugh because he has said publicly that he doesn’t think a sitting president can be indicted for any crimes. Maybe just coincidence.

I don’t know what you are hearing about America under Trump, but let me say honestly: these have been the darkest 2 years I’ve ever seen in this country. Trump is slowly destroying our democracy, hatred and racism have been emboldened, and although the very rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer. It’s not just “The Left” who are saying this. Many millions of Americans who voted for Trump now regret it, and and are planning to vote against the Republicans who have protected him for their own gain.

Please, don’t make the same mistake. Vote conservative, or vote liberal, or abstain — any other option but Bolsonaro. The cost of inviting this violence into your house is not worth it… not for “family values”, not for increased political power for Evangelicals.

I believe with all my heart that God, who is love, and law, and hospitality, and welcome, and truth, and peace — does not want this for your beautiful country.

I love you all. Thank you for giving me a few minutes of your time.

Peace of Christ to you,

Dear Emma (a letter to my 8-month-old daughter)

Dear Emma,

Though you were born here in America, your roots go much deeper. Coursing through your veins is good red American blood, but also good red blood from Portugal and Lebanon, from Wales, and Germany, and from the forests of indigenous peoples in Brazil. “Emma”: universal. But you are, also, “Ponderosa” — born to a specific place and time: here, in 2016, beneath the towering pines of Coconino National Forest, Arizona, the United States of America.

I am glad you are an American. I love America. I was raised in the eighties, with my hand over my heart and that one gladly stand up song playing at school assemblies and a glossy vision of our nation’s inherent and exceptional greatness. I was taught to be proud that we were “the world’s melting-pot”, and grateful for the freedoms which set us apart: of religion, of press, of free expression and peaceful protest and presumed innocence and a fair trial, and the vote. I was taught that to be American was to be decent, and welcoming, and respectful, and honest, and that anyone who worked hard and pursued their dreams could be an artist or scientist or astronaut or president.

It is true that as I have grown older, I have realized that America is not all good, and that liberty and justice here are not actually for all, and that much of the goodness America has afforded me is because I lucked into being born a certain sex, and class, and color. But? The allegiance I pledged has not wavered, and my gratitude has never waned. America is beautiful, and because I love her, I want her to be her best.

At this very moment, we are swearing in Donald Trump as our President, and I want you know, when you study American history in high school, that today I oppose him. I have never said this about an American President before. I do not oppose him because he is from a different political party, or because he has different ideas than I do about what is best for America — those disagreements are normal in a democracy, and I cherish them.

I oppose Trump because he’s selfish, and mean. He lies, and humiliates other people to make himself look better. He encourages violence, tries to oppress people who are different from him, and attempts to silence people who disagree with him. This is not leadership. He is neither honest, nor decent, nor respectful, nor welcoming, and he certainly doesn't want all people in America to have an equal shot at their dreams. He has no concern at all for the future of the health of this beautiful planet we are handing you. I oppose him as America’s leader because he stands squarely against those American values I pledged allegiance to all those years ago.

There are many reasons that people in America in 2016 (the year you were born, Emma) voted for Trump as president. A few voted for him because they had one issue or another in mind and didn't feel they could vote any other way. A few voted for him because they actually crave violence, and chaos, and hatred, or because they thought he would make them, personally, more powerful or rich. But most Americans didn’t. Most were hurting, or scared, or frustrated, and believed Donald Trump when he promised he could make America a better place. I want to understand those fears and frustrations, and talk with these folks to find solutions to their very real problems — but this is not the way. Violence, and corruption, and lies, and hatred are never a real solution. Choosing to elect Trump, whatever the reason the decision was made, will bear ugly fruit in this country for years to come.

I’m sad, Emma, minha filha, that you will be growing up in an America that I no longer feel like I recognize. Today, I am discouraged. But tomorrow, I will fight, will learn how to fight — always nonviolently, always with people’s dignity in mind — to tear down systems of oppression, and seek peace & justice, and care for the oppressed.

For you, Emma, and for all of us, I will fight to restore the breach — to make America good again.

With love,

Isaiah 58:9–12:
If you take away the yoke from your midst,
    the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness,
If you pour yourself out for the hungry
    and satisfy the desire of the afflicted,
then shall your light rise in the darkness
    and your gloom be as the noonday.

And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
    you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
    the restorer of streets to dwell in.

The Audacity of Apple Music

I’ve been thinking about Apple Music, its user experience and its prospects for the future — but before any of that commentary makes sense, it’s necessary to talk about the product’s scope. Whatever else may or may not be true about the service, Apple Music’s ambition is breathtaking.

Apple is laying the groundwork for industry disruption, but they are starting with something closer-to-home: a top-to-bottom renovation of the music discovery and listening experience that builds atop everything the industry has experimented with over the past decade. There’s not much strictly new here, but there are a lot of familiar ideas touched up and (importantly) gathered in one place. 

A brief anecdotal history is in order.

One note: my major concern here is with music distribution/discovery models, not so much with specific products. Feel free to substitute an Rdio for every Spotify, a Slacker for every Pandora, or a Kazaa for every Napster.

Before Napster found its way into my college dorm, I learned about and obtained music in three time-honored ways: listening to the radio, purchasing albums from stores or mail-order clubs, and passing around mixtapes among my friends.

From a user experience perspective, these methods of music distribution and discovery fall neatly along a spectrum, ranging from Convenience (start listening with little friction) to Control (listen to what you want, when you want). Both ends of the spectrum are important to a music consumer; sometimes you want to create something beautiful, but sometimes you just want to be entertained:

  • RADIO — One one hand, radio offered almost no control over exactly what songs I would hear, but the only decision I needed to make was which station to play. Radio made hearing new music easy, and (in the only that mattered to me in high school) free. It also provided value as a connection to the broader culture.
  • ALBUMS – While some of my friends owned hundreds of albums, I owned maybe 50 CDs. It was a small collection, but it was full of music I loved. It offered more control than radio: the song order of each album was set by the artist, but I could listen to any album I wanted at any time. I also felt a great connection to the music: After investing in a purchase, I savored it, listening to each album dozens of times through and reading every word of the liner notes.
  • MIXTAPES — One of my weird high school friends once lent me a tape labeled “Dr. Demento”. In a sneakernet world, discovering oddball sounds and humor that I would never have heard otherwise was subversive and magical. Another tape, given to me by a Girl, introduced me to Sleater-Kinney, who had never showed up in my Columbia House mailings. Mixtapes fragmented the album into individual tracks, which could be combined in unexpected and beautiful ways. They also held a powerful intimacy, precisely because they were rare and inconvenient, borne of passion and crafted over hours by hand.

This brings us to my college dormitory. The Napster era suddenly provided basically infinite access to music, at basically zero cost. Intoxicated with the power of being able to search for anything and immediately add it to my library, my music collection exploded to include thousands of disconnected tracks and partial albums. Discovery in the Napster era was thrilling, and the content was free, but intimacy with the music diminished and the burden of curating the content suddenly because immense. 17 years later, I still have songs in my iTunes library that I don’t particularly care for, but have never taken the time to clean up. Signal was amplified immensely, but along with it came noise.

The cat was out of the bag, never to return. After this dazzling exposure to the infinite, the spectrum now felt something like this:

Napster allowed us to taste the seductive power of the Infinite.

Napster allowed us to taste the seductive power of the Infinite.

It was Apple who sought to restore some order with its introduction of the iTunes Store. iTunes Store purchases didn’t offer the obscene power of the torrents, but they provided incredible convenience, and enough control for enough people that the system eventually became mainstream and relegated torrenting to a niche.

Though music once again cost money, this new digital marketplace aimed to make discovery and acquisition easier, and provided decent tools to manage album artwork and metadata. It became easier than ever to create a Mix CD and pass it around to your friends, and if you owned an iPod, you could even take your music with you. 1,000 songs in your pocket! Mindblowing:

Throughout the 2000s, the iTunes ecosystem held its dominant position, continuing to add features to iTunes, fleshing out a decent range of the Convenience/Control spectrum, but notably leaving untouched the extreme slots occupied by radio on one extreme and torrents on the other — to their eventual detriment:

New business models and ideas did crop up throughout the decade, most significantly Pandora’s algorithmic radio, which offered something akin to the simplicity of traditional radio – also for free! — with just enough control over the content to mollify the rightsholders and still give listeners some flexibility. It was a great balance overall. The scene now looked something like this:

Pandora earned mindshare, but I don’t think it worried Apple too much. Radio is nice, but people still want to be able to play their own music whenever they want, right?

Now we arrive in the present. Remember that gap left by torrenting? I think both the music industry and Apple hoped that the spectre of the Napster era would just fade away, but its promise was still seductive. Over the years, a number of services attempted to resurrect it by allowing customers to ‘rent’ unlimited streaming of music from online libraries. The most significant in my world were Spotify (which was a legitimate service) and Grooveshark (which was not).

Steve Jobs famously spoke against streaming services, saying Apple “think[s] subcriptions are the wrong path”. Part of Apple’s reticence may have been related to to their deep historic roots in music sales, but I suspect they also genuinely disliked something about the listening experience of services like this. Similar to my experience in the dorms, streaming music customers were generally thrown headlong into a boundless sea of choice, without much guidance — which could feel overwhelming and had the net effect of reducing the perception of value. I think Apple truly believed that customers didn’t actually want this experience. (That conclusion turned out to be incorrect, of course. Enter the acquisition of Beats Music, whose focus on human curation of a large streaming library better suited Apple’s philosophy of product design.)

In any case, for the first time in a decade, Apple found itself truly on the defensive, squeezed on both sides as purchases began to wane and streaming services began to take root: Pandora offered just-press-play convenience mixed with the discovery and excitement of hearing music from outside of your own libary, while Spotify offered nearly limitless control and reach for those who were willing to spend the time and energy to manage it:

It is into this market that Apple Music enters. And for better or worse, it folds in every single model of music consumption we’ve seen so far, spread across the entire UX spectrum of Convenience and Control:

  • Beats 1 (cf. terrestrial radio) — Literally zero decisions to make, even farther down the spectrum that traditional radio — zero control, but zero friction. A single live radio station curated by (Apple hopes) trustworthy tastemakers. As strange as it sounds, the concept of a hosted radio show may literally be new to some younger listeners, and many of us who haven’t listened to terrestrial radio in years may find the curation and shared experience a refreshing return to our roots. [link]
  • Curated Genre Radio (cf. that forgotten “Radio” app that lingers on Apple TV) — Genre Radio stations in Apple Music are now curated, which means although they are not DJ’d live, their order was selected by a human expert, ostensibly to make sure one song always leads gracefully to the next. It’s subtle, but Apple hopes this will result in even its most generic stations “feeling” better than genre-based algorithmic stations from competitors.
  • Algorithmic Radio (cf. Pandora) — Select an artist/album/track as a seed, then customize your station over time with further input.
  • Curated Playlists (cf. Beats Music) — Like the Mixtapes from the beginning of this post, content and play order are selected by an expert, but available to play or remix on demand. In Apple Music, this includes thematic playlists, moods, historical deep dives, etc.
  • Albums (cf. iTunes Store/iTunes Match/Spotify) — Can be purchased, ripped from a CD, or streamed…
  • Custom Playlists (cf. iTunes Store/iTunes Match/Spotify) — … and then remixed, infinitely, as desired.
One multicolored gradient ring to rule them all.

One multicolored gradient ring to rule them all.

The implications of Apple Music’s audacity are significant: On one hand, this comprehensive playlist of Every-Approach-to-Music-Discovery-and-Distribution-Since-2001 leads to some weird complexities and frustrations in the interface (more on this soon).

On the other hand, Apple’s solution is total. No matter how you like to search, catalog, order, discover, or play back your music, there’s a good chance Apple Music has you covered.

Why would a company who speaks so often about simplicity and “a thousand no’s for every yes” decide to design such a complex and far-reaching product? Two reasons.

The first is the same reason they’re launching Apple Music this fall on Windows and Android: Apple’s goal is to once again become synonymous with music, and the stakes are too high not to. They don’t want to leave any part of that spectrum (or any platform) out of Apple Music’s reach, where it might be filled by a competing product. Apple’s foray into content creation via Beats 1 is an extension of this, and an analogue to similar moves recently by Netflix and Amazon in the realm of television — original, exclusive content will never be available on a competing service.

The second is that Apple is keenly aware of the power of having all of your music in one place. When I was a Spotify subscriber, I found myself having to make a decision every time I wanted to listen to music: Do I want to hear “my music” (perhaps boring, but comfortable), or do I want “all the music” (perhaps overwhelming, but exciting). That little bit of extra friction was exhausting, and I ended up canceling my subscription. Many others ended up sticking with Spotify and never opening iTunes again. Within the Music app, it is visually impossible to tell which music is “purchased” and which is “rented” — and this is by design. Apple wants to bring the comfortable and the exciting into a single place, and they are betting that this experience will be powerful enough to win some converts away from other services and (more importantly) convince those who are not currently paying for music to begin doing so.

I'll be writing soon about the Interface Design problems and opportunities that arise from Apple Music’s audacity — and what it might tell us about Apple’s upcoming Apple TV announcements.

Trojan Horses

“When we sat down … (to work on iOS 7), we understood that people had already become comfortable with touching glass, they didn’t need physical buttons … So there was an incredible liberty in not having to reference the physical world so literally.”

— Sir Jony Ive, interviewed by USA TODAY, regarding the design of iOS7

“Strangely enough, the visual appeal is almost retrofitted to the traditional language of the analog Swiss-made timepiece. It’s a watch that looks like a watch.”

— Sarah Mower for Vogue, regarding the design of Watch

Funny, given all the angst in the past 18 months over skeumorphism, that Apple is casting its newest product line as a watch — even extending to its name.

But, perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised — Apple understands that we can’t envision the way that truly new products will alter the fabric of our lives. We need a little push, an excuse.

We’ve seen this play out before. The iPhone 6 I’m about to preorder at midnight is least of all a telephone — though when I purchased my first iPhone in 2007, I thought that’s what I was buying.

App design, too: It’s obvious that Forstall and Ive differ when it comes to software design — but in an oblique way, they have used the same strategy to solve the problem of introduction. Just as the original iPhone’s Notes app wrapped itself in a paper-and-perforation cloak so we would know immediately what do with it, Watch masquerades as a timepiece. Even my generation, for whom time slipped from wrist to pocket at the turn of the milennium, understands the metaphor.

It’s not hard to imagine that Apple’s 2020 release, which will no longer need to explain itself, will be able to embrace its nature unapologetically — respecting its horological heritage, but shedding those trappings which serve merely to instruct.

The CarPlay Theory of iWatch Design

It’s tricky, figuring out how to get a watch on the wrist of someone who doesn’t already wear something there. Even trickier, getting a wearer of luxury watches to trade their wrist-space for a $400 gadget.

What if:

  1. Some variation of Apple’s wearable don’t have a screen, but contain a standard-sized module containing sensors and radios.
  2. Apple licenses the use of this module to select watchmakers.

The version-with-a-screen would come from Apple, but the version-without-a-screen could be designed by Rolex, or Breitling, or Gucci, or… *

*This could work downmarket, also: Swatch?

Update: Ben Bajarin and Benedict Evans bat this idea around a bit on Episode 20 of their Cubed Podcast, 25-ish minutes in.