Categories
Books Leadership

On Mission Operations

I recently wrapped up my first big read of 2021, Gene Kranz’s Failure is Not An Option. Gene, played by Ed Harris in Apollo 13, was a NASA Flight Director through the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo era of spaceflight, and played a tremendous role in establishing the culture for NASA’s Mission Operations.

As a part of this role, Gene codified guiding principles for Mission Operations in his “Foundations of Mission Operations”, reading as follows:

The Foundations of Mission Operations

  1. To instill within ourselves these qualities essential to professional excellence:

    • Discipline: Being able to follow as well as to lead, knowing that we must master ourselves before we can master our task.
    • Competence: There being no substitute for total preparation and complete dedication, for space will not tolerate the careless or indifferent.
    • Responsibility: Realizing that it cannot be shifted to others, for it belongs to each of us; we must answer for what we do, or fail to do.
    • Toughness: Taking a stand when we must; to try again, and again, even if it means following a more difficult path.
    • Teamwork: Respecting and utilizing the abilities of others, realizing that we work toward a common goal, for success depends upon the efforts of all.
    • Vigilance: Always attentive to the dangers of spaceflight; never accepting success as a substitute for rigor in everything we do.
  2. To always be aware that suddenly and unexpectedly we may find ourselves in a role where our performance has ultimate consequences.
  3. To recognize that the greatest error is not to have tried and failed, but that in the trying we do not give it our best effort.

I find these principles from Gene and Mission Control (note: “Vigilance” was added after the Columbia disaster) helpful in thinking through the kinds of things I want to instill in teams I lead. While building a consumer app (or any other startup, for that matter) isn’t identical to putting people into space and bringing them back safely, there are analogues.

In some companies, you’ll hear of values like “Act Like an Owner” or “Bring Your Whole Self” or the like. At Bunches, we talk about identities and qualities more than corporate values, which often equate to behaviors. I’m a huge believer that if we are the right kinds of people, then behaviors will follow. At Bunches, we have four core “values” or identities that we seek to encourage in one another: Builder, Knower, Leader, Learner.

In each of these identities, I see echoes of Kranz’s qualities, and reading the stories from his days at NASA are a great reminder of what an honor it is to lead people to become better versions of themselves in pursuit of a singular outcome, whether it’s building a moonshot company or literally putting astronauts on the lunar surface.

Categories
Culture

Song by Song: The 1975’s Notes on a Conditional Form

Matt Healy’s The 1975 released a new album last week, and it’s been on repeat for me ever since. Overall, the album is a solid offering from the British rock/pop band, and 22 songs is welcome from their 4th full-length album.

In my opinion this album is their best since their self-titled debut, and has some pretty interesting exploration from song to song. NOACF certainly bends genres, and is quite a diverse album. That said, there are a few songs that could have been left on the metaphorical editing floor. I’d give Notes on a Conditional Form a 7.5/10. The back half of the album alone is worth repeat listening, and I’ll be listening to the album as a whole off and on for a while. Below’s a song-by-song breakdown:

The 1975: Every 1975 album starts with The 1975. That hasn’t changed. What has changed are the lyrics, for the first time. The tickling of the keys provides a backdrop for Greta Thunberg’s monologue, and amounts to the most memorable album opener for me since Kendrick’s BLOOD. Somber. Beautiful. Hopeful. It’s not what I expected from The 1975, but I’m glad I got it. 10/10

People: After Greta’s charge to “rebel”, we’re led into a classic British glam-punk featuring Healy in full on angst mode. The vocals and the distortion on the guitars reminds me a ton of Colorado’s The Photo Atlas, and unfortunately TPA does this style a lot better than The 1975. 6/10

The End (Music for Cars): To lead from People into this symphonic version of Hnscc hints at the diversity of what we can expect from the rest of the album. An instrumental offering, the brass lead off the short track which gets resolved with woodwinds and strings. Serves as a nice introduction into the first pop song on the album. 7/10

Frail State of Mind: Smart. That’s a word that can be used to describe a number of singles on the album, including this one. As commentary on social anxiety, it’s pretty brilliant. As a pop single with a bit of garage tracking? It’s quite catchy. 8/10

Streaming: Again, another Sigur Rós-esque transition piece between songs. This model dwindles about about a quarter through the album, but it’s an interesting approach for Healy & Co to demonstrate some creativity with instrumental tracks. 7/10

The Birthday Party: Classic acoustic-style 1975. Airy vocals over drums and strums drives the track, with filtered background vocals providing a bit of flair. Culminating in a bigger conclusion, it’s not a bad track. But not a great one either. 6/10

Yeah I Know: Euro. Glitch pop. Obvious Thom Yorke vibes. Love the backward vocals. Time feels like it’s changed, I don’t feel the same. Docking a couple points for monotony towards the end, but this track may even get an add to the Binary playlist I keep for flow state work. 7/10

Then Because She Goes: Savage Garden was great in the 90s. This song is one that could’ve easily been cut in my opinion. Don’t get me wrong: I love anxious shoegaze every once in a while. But outside of the “love you, love you, love you” earworm in the background, this song is instantly forgettable. 2/10

Jesus Christ 2005 God Bless America: Smart. More commentary from The 1975, and this one featuring Phoebe Bridgers in a haunting manner. Midwest Americana at its best with a simple strum pattern paired with horns, you can almost hear Justin Vernon. The intelligence on the track isn’t just the music itself, but the lyrical value as well. The speakers in the song are obviously wrestling with a dichotomic lifestyle. In true American fashion. 9/10

Roadkill: A bit of honky-tonk comedy here matches the song’s styles to the narrative. Namely Healy peeing on himself in Texas. This song is a good one, much better than Then Because She Goes, but I think it’s still one that could’ve been left off the album. 6/10

Me & You Together Song: OG 1975. This has the same instrumentation as their freshman offering, but Healy’s vocals are a bit too dreamy after hearing his more mature voice on later records. Again has a very retro feel, like it were from another 90s shoegaze band: Third-Eye Blind. 7/10

I Think There’s Something You Should Know: This track at the halfway point on the album also marks the beginning of what feels like the right evolution of The 1975. There are some electronic elements here, even a diversion into the weird, but the core of the song feels right for the band, and it’s a fun one. The denouement of the song is fantastic, and resolves marvelously. 8/10

Nothing Revealed / Everything Denied: This song. R&B driven elements, we get a bit of soul from George Daniel on the keys, and Healy gets pretty close to rapping in spots. Love the breakbeat that permeates the song, and the chorus is among The 1975’s best ever. Feels like it should be the climax of Sister Act 4, in the best of ways. 10/10

Tonight (I Wish I Was Your Boy): Love the sample. The Temptations are one of my favorite musical acts of all time, and the opener of the song is fairly unique in a Kanye/Pharrell sort of manner. But then the song is downhill from there. The chorus in particular leaves a lot to be desired, and Healy’s vocals are mediocre on this track. Should’ve been cut. 4/10

Shiny Collarbone: Another drum & bass kind of backbeat with reggaeish vibes from Cutty Ranks underlying the whole track. The sonic layer from the synth is stellar and really showcases George’s production talents. This is also a great piece demonstrating The 1975’s experimentation on this record, and I’m glad it’s here, particularly as it leads into a more classic The 1975 piece in the next track. 8/10

If You’re Too Shy (Let Me Know): Stellar. As The 1975 as it gets. 80s pop and Miami/LA undertones with Healy’s voice shining in the pre-choruses, it’s such a fun track. The chorus itself is such an earworm, and this track would easily be a contender for song of the summer in any other year. 10/10

Playing On My Mind: Phoebe Bridgers makes another appearance here, and the song is much more introspective than the run we just left on the album. It’s breathy and airy and folksy and…well, fine. It’s just fine. 7/10

Having No Head: Another instrumental from Mr. Daniel. Not as enjoyable as previous compositions, but still solid. The first half of the track feels like it belongs tracking a pivotal, beautiful moment in a movie about an astronaut returning to space, and then the track somehow becomes that backing soundtrack to that really weird rave scene in the Matrix sequel. 7/10

What Should I Say: More experimentation, and one of the highest quality examples of it on the album. The Eno-esque house beat combined with the backing vocals from FKA Twigs is exquisite. You can barely tell that it’s Healy on the track singing about AHMbien. This song is a vibe, and the outro is a sick one that leaves you wanting more.9/10

Bagsy Not In Net: I love the strings on this track…and that’s about it. Everything else is acceptable. Strings adds two points. Solid, but should’ve been cut. 7/10

Don’t Worry: Pretty cool that this is Matty and his dad. Even cooler that Healy knows it’s the first song he ever head. The emotional lift and the Francis and the Lights feel to the song gives it a couple points here, much like the strings in the last one. But sonically? It’s a 4. No offense to Tim Healy. 7/10

Guys: The counterpart to Girls. I like the meaning of the song (appreciation for same-gender friends), but it’s way too dreary musically speaking. It’s a lullaby-ballad. I get it that The 1975 is essentially giving each other a shout-out…but it’s such a weird way to end an album. 4/10

Categories
Books

How I Track My Reading List

If you just want to get to it and see my reading list, click here.

If you want to sign-up for Notion, feel free to use my referral link here.

More than a few people have asked me how I manage my reading list. First of all, here are a few of the requirements that I want in a solution:

  • Mobile and desktop accessible. I read everywhere. At the coffeeshop, on a plane, in my office, at work, in the bath. I need my reading list where I read, which means everywhere. If I don’t have access to my reading list, then as I’ll certainly forget to update it regularly, which means a nightmare of organization later whenever I get to it.
  • I want a queue system. I not only want to track what I have finished reading, but what I am currently reading, and what I will be reading.
  • Quick entry of new books to add to the queue. In the same way that I want to be able to update my reading progress, I need to be able to add books to the list in real-time as well. You never know when you’ll receive a recommendation from a friend or colleague, when you see a cover in an airport, or when a book you’re reading makes another recommendation. I want to jot those down immediately so I don’t forget them…plus it means I’ll never run out of books to read.
  • Sortability and filtering. I try to be diverse in my reading, which means tracking how much of which genre/author/etc. I’m reading. I also want to see which books I own and which books I should pick up the next time I wander into my local bookstore.
  • Quantifiable tracking. In addition to just having a straight-up list of books that I’ve read, am reading, or want to read, I also want to be able to quantify a few things: how long does it take me to read? How many books have I read? How long does it take me to get to a book once I’ve heard about it? Things like this matter to me so I can hold myself accountable for my reading: I want to feel guilty when I have been pouring time & attention into TV, social media, or video games rather than reading.

I don’t like Goodreads, and not just because of the Amazon affiliation: it’s just a pretty bad interface to keep track of a lot of reading, in my opinion. I’ve also tried a number of off-the-shelf (ha!) solutions that just haven’t worked for me, so I decided to roll my own. Over a year ago, I switched from Evernote to Notion for keeping my life together (travel plans, side hustle ideas, etc.), and it was a logical place for my reading list to live.

Utilizing Notion immediately solves for the mobile/desktop requirement, and my implementation of the reading list also solves for the rest. There are a couple of things I’d really love that would make it perfect, but this is definitely the best solution for me out of everything I’ve tried thus far.

In this post, I’ll walk you through how I’ve setup my reading list using Notion. You’ll find a couple screenshots along with descriptions for how I’ve implemented the table.

Screenshots

Derek Brown Reading List in Notion
Click to see full-size.
Second half of my reading list in Notion.
Click to see full-size.
Various lists in my reading category.
Various lists I have in Notion. The primary is Reading List.

Columns

  • Status: This is a select column in notion, with pre-configured color-coded values. Most books on the list don’t have a status, but those that do fall in one of four categories:
    • Reading: What I’m currently reading. Usually, only one book falls into this status, but occasionally a second will slip-in.
    • On-Deck: These are the books that I want to read after I’m done with what I’m currently reading. It lessens the mental load of picking what’s next as soon as I’m done with a book. I don’t have to comb through my shelves or backlog to figure it out: I’ve already done it.
    • Next?: These are the books that I’d think about reading next (and moving into the On Deck status). It’s the real queue out of all the books on the list.
    • Finished: Once I’m done with a book, it moves to this coveted status. At the end of the year, I move all books with a Finished status to their own table (ie, “2019 Reading”).
  • Own: This is a checkbox column, and simply indicates whether I actually own a book or not. I prefer to own every book I read, and I buy books from local bookstores (McNally Jackson, Greenlight, Strand are some favorites here in NYC).
  • Title: Self-explanatory, hopefully. This is a text column.
  • Author: This is a multi-select column, with each author as it’s own value, set to the default color (although Notion’s current implementation of default coloring is a poor design/product decision…or just a bug). This allows me to easily sort the table or filter by a specific author.
  • Genre: Another select column, with color-coded values. My genres are as follows:
    • Biography
    • SFF (Science Fiction/Fantasy)
    • Tech
    • Science
    • Finance
    • Humanities
    • History
    • Business
    • Literary Fiction
    • Travel
    • Spirituality
  • Priority: This is a column I’m testing out. It’s a select column with Urgent, High, and Normal values, and I use it to further decide what to read or purchase next.
  • Tags: In all sorts of products I’ve worked on, including this reading list, I’ve found a generic tag holder to be useful. I have a couple of tags that I utilize in my reading list:
    • To Buy: This is a super useful tag when I’m standing in a bookstore, and have no idea off the top of my head of which books to pick-up. I filter down to the “To Buy” tag, and see if they’re in stock. Easy!
    • Classic: I want to track which books are considered “Classic” by some standard, and I utilize a tag to do that (for example, Hemingway’s Old Man & The Sea or Asimov’s Foundation).
  • Notes: Random text holder (usually something quirky about the book or a release date).
  • Start: A date in Notion, which indicates the date on which I started reading the book.
  • Finish: The counterpart to Start, which indicates the date which I finished reading the book. In the summary on this column, I count the number of non-null cells, which gives me a total count of books read year to date.
  • Days to Read: A formula in Notion, which calculates the difference between Finish and Start, giving me the number of days that it took me to read the book. In the summary on this column, I calculate the average days to read, which helps me keep pace for my desired book count in a year.
  • Series: For some books (Scalzi, Dark Tower, etc.), I want to tie books to one another in a group. I have a select column here to do just that. Here are the series I’m currently tracking (mainly SFF):
    • VanderMeer’s Southern Reach
    • Scalzi’s Lock In
    • Jemisin’s The Broken Earth
    • Liu’s Remembrance of Earth’s Past
    • Scalzi’s The Interdependency Sequence
    • Scalzi’s Old Man’s War
    • King’s The Dark Tower
    • Le Guin’s The Hainish Cycle
  • Added: This is a fairly new column, which I…ahem…added this year. It’s a date column that helps me track when I added a book to the list. Eventually, I’ll probably track the time it takes for me to get to a book, once I’ve added it to the list.

Some Stats

  • Total Books on the List: 220 right now.
  • Read So Far in 2019: 10 books.
  • Average Days to Read: 4.8 days per book.
  • Fastest Book to Read: Gene Edwards’ A Tale of Three Kings (read in single day)

Conclusion

Hope this helps those of you looking to track your own reading in a serious way! I’ve found Notion to be a great tool for this (among other things), though I definitely have a couple of gripes with them about some of the minor details. Feel free to check out the list yourself at the link above, and feel free to sign-up for a free plan at Notion using my link above as well. If you have any questions or comments, feel free to comment!

Categories
Books

Reading Rainbow: March 5, 2019

New pickups for the reading list.

I know some of you have been asking how I manage my reading, and I promise I’m going to get to it (soon!), but in the meantime, here’s a look at what I’ll be reading over the next couple of weeks. Picked these up from my local bookstore (Mcnally Jackson in Williamsburg), and the guy behind the counter mentioned how wide-ranging the selection was. I just kinda shrugged. Guess I’m a well-versed reader? Who knows. In any case, here’s the haul:

  • The Drawing of the Three by Steven King: I recently picked up and devoured The Dark Tower from King, a book that’s been on my list since high school. Well worth the wait, and I’m stoked to sink my teeth into the second book.
  • The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula LeGuin: Ursula is legendary in SF/F circles, but I’ve yet to read one of her novels. I have this one and The Dispossessed in the queue right now, so I’ll at least start the Hainish stories. If they’re as good as people say, then I bet I pick up her entire body of work.
  • Shameless by Nadia Bolz-Weber: Nadia isn’t from my “brand of Christianity”, but I love what she had to say about grace, the Church, and Jesus in her previous book, Pastrix. I haven’t gotten to read Accidental Saints yet, but this tome on sexuality in the Kingdom of God is at the very least going to be an interesting read.
  • Blitzscaling by Reid Hoffman: This one doesn’t need an introduction. I’ve read parts of it prior, and obviously watched the videos, read the Medium notes from the class, and lived in the Hoffman-created world at LinkedIn. I’m sure this one will be a book that I mark-up.
  • Ten Restaurants That Changed America by Paul Freeman: For those that know me, you know I’m a huge foodie, and in love with the hospitality industry. In another life, I would’ve gone to culinary school and opened a restaurant. Who knows what the future holds? In any case, this history lesson should be a good read, though it’s a bit thicker than I expected!

What do you think? Any of these sound interesting to you? What are you reading this week?

Categories
Culture

Song by Song: Maggie Rogers’ Heard It In A Past Life

I was first exposed to Maggie Rogers in the same way that most people were: that adorable video of Pharrell Williams reacting to her pre-mastered cut of Alaska. I immediately fell in love with her brand of folk-driven pop, and began following her on all the appropriate channels, wondering if she was going to be a one-hit wonder or if there was real talent that would produce additional gems. Over the last two years or so, I’ve been pleased to find that the latter is true: I don’t believe Maggie has yet to produce a truly bad song. Seriously.

This hasn’t been more evident than in her 2019 debut album, Heard It In A Past Life. The first full-length album contains that first breakout single Alaska, as well as the few singles she’s released over the past two years in a drip campaign. Additionally and thankfully, there are a few songs on the album that haven’t been released prior, making the album both a journey back in time and a look forward as to where the young artist may be headed with her music.

Overall, I give Heard It In a Past Life 9/10. Had there been a cohesive narrative throughout the album, I think the debut would be perfect. We’ll have to deal with consistent themes of coming-of-age pop instead: relationship ups & downs, discovering one’s self, etc. There are certainly themes, but no top-to-bottom story. We get themes on a track-by-track basis. No worries, though: the album is still phenomenal, and will be on repeat for some time to come. Below, a song-by-song breakdown:

Give a Little: This anthem for the national gun walk-out is also an anthem for compromise and empathy. It accomplishes this without compromising on production quality, however, with background vocals beautifully haunting the entire song and a bridge that outshines the chorus. For all of the the sonic strength in the song, it’s one of the weaker tracks on the album due to the oversimplified lyricism that we don’t find on some of the subsequent works. 6/10

Overnight: Maggie’s favorite song from the album is pretty close to my own (though not it). She’s probably very personally attached to it, being a letter from pre-Pharrell Maggie to post-Pharrell Maggie. The dangers of fame (or any other sudden life-altering change) are real, and Maggie addresses them clearly but also is honest in her assessment: she appreciates the new her (“don’t say you miss me”), while recognizing that the old Maggie is vital to her identity as well. All of this introspection is wrapped with synth-led packaging which includes samples from frogs and glaciers as her signature inclusion of natural sounds. Catchy and stunning. 9/10

The Knife: While the previous Overnight seems to be Maggie’s favorite, this track is my favorite song from the album. Meant to be a song about “dancing it all off with your friends”, I’ve found myself moving with the track regardless of how full the room is. As seducing as the melody is, the real star on the track is Maggie’s vocals. Her voice moves between falsetto punctuations and sultry phrases flawlessly, and the emotional effect is real. 10/10

Alaska: The one that started it all, and a true highlight of Maggie’s brand of music. The most impressive part of the song for me? The fact that somehow Alaska seems to have so much space in it while simultaneously being lush. I think this is a direct result of including natural samples alongside Maggie’s vocals. At times full and other times breathy, her vocals move the song along the percussion river that also keeps the head nodding. It was a hit for a reason, mastered or otherwise. 10/10

Light On: Intended as a “song of gratitude” towards her fanbase, this is one of those songs that strikes me initially as an upbeat, hope-filled tune…but upon further listening is a bit more melancholic than that. I know it has that whole “I’m feeding off your vibes when I’m down” thing going for it, but it’s low-key a downer. I don’t connect with it emotionally like I do some of the other songs. That said, musically speaking, the song is a solid middle track with a catchy and singalongable chorus. The 80s-esque synth loop provides a great layering until it drops out, focusing on the last vocalization from Maggie which brings the song to a sharp resolution. Side note: the music video is really fun. 5/10

Past Life: And now, for something a bit different. This track which according to Maggie herself “ends Side A” is a slow one, supposedly written at her grandmother’s piano. Not sure if it’s just me, but I totally get a Stevie Nicks vibe from the track, with the simplified arrangement highlighting Ms. Rogers’ vocals. Not my favorite song on the album, but that’s more a personal preference than actual song construction. 6/10

Say It: We go from the 80s vibe of Light On to the Stevie Nicks tribute song in Past Life and with Say It, we’re finally to the TLC era of 90s R&B. Maggie is just showing off at this point. Lyrically one of the simpler songs on the album (shout out to the word “swelter”, though), you really do get the sparkly feeling of having a crush from the airy vocals and giddy cadence of the chorus. Highlight on this track? The percussion, hands down. Listen to that hi-hat! 8/10

On + Off: Unlike the previous two tracks, this one is a previously released single (appearing on Now That The Light Is Fading, Maggie’s 2017 EP), and remains one of my favorite Maggie songs to date. The pendulum nature woven throughout the song (staccato verses, swinging chorus, steady bass layer) drives home the emotional impact of the lyrics: puppy love isn’t everything; relationships are also about consistency & stability. I think it could’ve been shortened a tad, as the ending seems extended past its expiration. 9/10

Fallingwater: Maggie’s song dedicated to Frank Lloyd Wright shows her utter devotion to architecture and….I’m kidding. It’s another song about the roller coaster ride that Maggie’s been on over the last couple of years. The biggest thing about this song to me is not what it contains, but rather what it doesn’t. Throughout Fallingwater, it becomes very obvious that Maggie has pipes. Like real pipes. Classic pipes. Like Sister-Act-Mary-Robert-singing-Salve-Regina pipes. But they’re never unleashed, always restrained. Sure, you get glimpses of it toward the end, but only just so. We never get the full picture of Maggie’s vocals. Hoping to get to hear them soon, but in the meantime, they’re still enjoyable on this solid, but not extraordinary, track. 7/10

Retrograde: Another fun track, and another one where we get a real glimpse at Maggie’s vocal range. I think Retrograde is actually one of the most sonically interesting songs on the album, the meat of the song is a different topic than one that’s been covered, and the track itself is one of those belt-out-when-alone-in-the-house type songs. Particularly love the guitar on this one, and hope to be able to see it performed live, considering it’s one of Maggie’s favorites to perform. Bonus points for using the word retrograde as a title. 10/10

Burning: A song for summer in NYC. Headphones in, sunshine out, enjoying life, so you blast it and sing in your head along the sidewalks of West Village. That’s this song. It also helps that it brings the aural whitespace of Alaska back in full-force, to the point where I’d consider them the fraternal twins in Maggie’s family of songs. Maggie is also obviously joy-filled in the booth singing this song; you can sense the smile on her face while she sings “I’m in love; I’m alive, oh, I’m burning”. 9/10

Back In My Body: The ending to the “other side” and the album altogether, this song is the final song along the theme of self-discovery. Despite the resemblance to a Florence & The Machine track, I didn’t connect with this one as much. Maybe it’s the theme, maybe it’s the composition, I don’t know. I still think it’s a decent track, but one that I’ll likely skip a bit more often than the others. 5/10