The Mouse and John Sculley, an Anecdote

My friend Roman Mars' podcast, 99% Invisible, just posted its latest episode, Of Mice and Men, about the history of the computer mouse. It's a terrific walk through the mouse's success and the lack of interest in single-hand or chording keysets. I provided some feedback to an early script, mostly around the edges of some historical facts, and the final story is absolutely dead on. (You can listen below in the browser.)

This reminded me of a short encounter when I worked at the Kodak Center for Creative Imaging in Camden, Maine. The short-lived teaching facility had 100 Mac IIfx models and millions of dollars of the most advanced storage, scanning, and camera gear available. We also had regular invitational events with artists and others.

At one such event in 1992, John Sculley, then Apple's CEO, attended. (He had a house in Camden at the time, too.) Kodak was using the event partly to show off Atex Renaissance, its desktop-publishing software that was going to compete against QuarkXPress and Aldus PageMaker.

The various Kodak product managers were helping the invited guests in our large computer lab use the software to create things. One was helping Sculley.

Kodak person: "Just type Command-K and it will format the text."
Sculley: "How do I do that with a mouse?"
K: "You can't. The keyboard is better."
Sculley: Pause. "No. It isn't."

He's a nice guy and that wasn't a chilling moment, but even the Kodak manager realized she'd stepped in it, telling the CEO of the company that had popularized the mouse to the extent that the mouse was closely associated with its brand that the keyboard is better.

The moment passed, and so did the software, which never caught on.

The Freelance Life: Pushing a Rock Uphill, But the Slope Seems To Be Ever Shallower

As a 20-year veteran of freelance writing, my return to nearly full-time work as a reporter comes at a time when online writing has never been paid at a better rate. In 2001, I made much more per word, but it was largely for print. As online advertising revenue continues to grow and specialized publications hire more staff, especially in tech and business, this seems to be putting pressure on publications to pay more. For myself, I need to write about 250 articles in 2015 to support my family as part of how I make a living (or fewer articles and more other work). It's a challenge because of the overhead of pitching, but I'm happy with what I do and optimistic about the future. I explain this at great length in this post.

Read More

The Latest in Glenn Writing & Podcasting

My latest batch of articles from all over:

  • An Internet of Treacherous Things (MIT Technology Review, January 13). The "Internet of Things" (IoT) will grow from about 5 billion devices today to 50 billion in five years. But with the security evidenced by the largest deployed home Internet devices today, broadband gateways and routers, are we ready to keep the IoT from betraying us?

  • How “Gangnam Style” broke YouTube’s counter (Economist, December 10). Google said it ran out of numbers to count Psy's video. It had to re-engineer things to account for more than 2,147,483,647 plays.

  • Marriott plans to block personal wifi hotspots (Boing Boing, December 31). The hotel chain files an FCC petition to let it control unlicensed wireless around its facilities, and faces opposition from Google, Microsoft, and citizens.

  • How and why you should use a VPN to protect your data's final mile (Macworld, January 16). The easy options for single-click VPN-for-hire to protect all your data on a Mac or iOS device.

  • AT&T Offers Rollover Data While Defending Throttling (TidBITS, January 12). A new data rollover plan is limited, but could save some users some money, but AT&T keeps trying to pretend that "unlimited" use means something other than its intended original definition.

  • The Software and Services Apple Needs to Fix (this blog, January 7). One of the most popular entries ever on this blog, I describe a litany of problems that feel ignored or unfixed in iOS and OS X. Over 300 comments chime in with new or long-running problems.

I also did podcast-related things

  • Dr. Katie Mack Explains the Universe (live event, Ada's Books, January 13). I interviewed Katie Mack, an astrophysicist, about how everything works. (You can listen directly in the post below or download the episode.)
  • Marriott, Wi-Fi, & the FCC (Packet Pushers, January 16). We talked at some length and somewhat technically about why hotels want to jam Wi-Fi.

Isles of Stability and the Perception of Apple's Software Getting Worse

On the most recent episode of the Accidental Tech Podcast (#99), the fine hosts discussed a number of things related to whether Apple's operating systems have become less stable or well executed. They made a few points that I think emphasize the sensation that things are worse, even if one could argue that this is part of a routine cycle.

Isles of stability. New OS releases always have teething pains, and if we're lucky, a rocky 10.x.0 is fully stable and good by 10.x.2 within about two to three months. (Dirty secret of all software: when version x.0 ships, they're already working on x.1, because they ship with known problems, but the damned thing has to get out the door. ) However, when OS releases were more than a year apart, we might have a few months of pain, during which period we would either delay or deal with the problems, and then exit what John Siracusa called the regions of pain. We would have sometimes a year or much longer in an island of stability. Marco Arment said, "Now it seems like we're always using a 1.0 or a 1.1…because the updates are moving so quickly."

Joran Elias compiled this chart of major and minor releases. The X axis is time; the Y axis breaks the operating system versions apart. The dots represent each minor release for a given cat/California place. The critical number are the number of days between major releases. If you pair Leopard/Snow Leopard and Lion/Mountain Lion together, you can see how little time Mavericks had.

Cloud dependencies. Because so much of iOS and OS X has a cloud component, any failure in syncing or availability makes little problems seem far worse, and provides an overall sense of gloom that may not be backed up by the actual experience and uptime. John recounted his wife having an iCloud Contacts syncing problem which I did as well: without any notification of failure, syncing stopped, and it required mucking about to restart it, instead of it auto-healing (or even warning me or his wife).

They should do better by now. Even if, as John argues, Apple is no worse at software now than in the past, at this point of maturity and sophistication, it's simply unacceptable to be as good as they were in the past. (This says nothing of breaking features that work.) Apple can and should be held to higher standards of software development quality than a decade ago. And many of its problems can be tracked in some measure to quality assurance (QA), which involves rigorous testing of changes or additions to make sure nothing breaks. Either QA remains weak at Apple, which is bad because developers shouldn't be relied upon to test all the iterations of their own work against real-world scenarios; or QA teams aren't provided the tools to send work back to developers to be fully fixed.

Together, these provide the feeling of things being worse, even if they aren't. I'd argue that the sheer quantity of stuff that doesn't work the way it should is huge, and has gotten worse, but the sensation is probably what drove me and others to write about it. In the past, we expected stuff would eventually get fixed; now, it just feels like things are broken all the time, and don't improve.

The Software and Services Apple Needs to Fix

Marco Arment's excellent post on Apple's current state of development has this pithy sentence:

…the software quality has fallen so much in the last few years that I’m deeply concerned for its future.

Apple has huge cash reserves, is massively profitable, and none of that seems likely to falter, nor is that by any means what Marco meant. None of us think Apple will go out of business. Rather, that we will lose the reasons we have selected using Apple's products over those of other companies.

Read More

Glenn Tries To Remember Sci-Fi Stories

I have now officially read so much that I've not only forgotten what I've read, but even any reference to figure out what I've read. Here are some fragments of science-fiction stories that are floating in my mind.

Spider Assassin Lady Princess

There's a young woman, maybe she's a princess, on a planet not Earth that is kind of medieval, and there is some sort of ruling class with a prince or a king. There is also high technology, beyond anything we have on Earth still.

The young woman attends a ball or a series of events, and people are dubious about her, and she doesn't know why. She comes from another land, maybe, or her parents died young. One day, for some reason, staring in the mirror, she pushes on her stomach, and realizes there is something hard and unyielding. She continues to push and pull, and winds up removing her entire body, which is just a costume.

She's actually a spider-like, artificial intelligence-driven robot assassin whose job is to kill the king (or prince). Once she recalls her mission, she flees into the mountains, where she finds a monk. She winds up coming to terms with her identity and purpose while sleeping in a stable, perhaps? And the monk — maybe he is blind, so he doesn't know she's an AI robot spider assassin?

Anyway, eventually she winds up adjacent to the prince and then she — I can't remember. Does she kill him? Or? But she's happy with herself.

Kris Markel suggested it was "The Dust Assassin," which is an amazing story I need to read in depth! But it's not that — probably 40–60 years old, the story I'm thinking of.

Winner! It's "The Mask" from Mortal Engines by Stanisław Lem! You can read a summary of the collection of stories in that book. One of my favorite authors, and I clearly forgot having read that. Thanks, Martina Oefelein, who posted this in the comments!

Naked Lady, Dead Species

This woman wakes up on Earth and she's naked and alone in the woods. She has some memories of herself, but no idea how she came to be there, and there's no other life on the planet that she can find.

When she sleeps, she dreams of little people who were given the ability to revive extinct intelligent species. But they're kind of right bastards. They give her one chance to ask for her species to be revived, and so she's savvy and waits, and asks them about various strategies.

Here's why they're bastards. They keep showing her in her dreams all sorts of civilizations that are better, worse, whatever, than hers, but they've turned down everyone. It's like "bright shiny ball! can't have it!" behavior.

One night, she asks what happened to the race that gave them this power? Oh, they went extinct! And they decided not to revive them because they did it for whatever reasons they had, and what-ev.

The woman ages normally, and when she's near death, she makes her request. She knows they won't revive her species…so she asks that these bastards' patrons get revived. The jerks are stunned. Nobody ever made a selfless request before, and they say, "Well, we can't evaluate the reasons for you doing this, so they must be good. Sure."

But before they can revive their old buddies, a booming voice from some energy void stops them, and says the idiots finally passed their test, which was to understand…uh, how not be judgmental doofuses, I think. They take these idiots up to a higher realm of existence, and have them revive humanity and give them this god-scale power.

Not sure these patrons really think through their gifts very well.

Frozen Dead Professor Robot

This professor guy dies, but has asked to be frozen and put into orbit. He is. Unfathomable time later, intelligent robots arrive, but everything on Earth has worn away into dust, and only dead frozen professor guy remains. They revive him, and stick his brain into a robot body, and then I believe they have a series of adventures.

This is almost certainly "The Jameson Satellite" found in Before the Golden Age: A Science Fiction Anthology of the 1930s, because I've read that book! It's really interesting to see what sci-fi was about before all the tropes became cemented into place. Thanks to Patrick Last Name Withheld!

Lightning Struck My Great-Grandmother: a 120-Year-Old Story

I learned a number of years ago that one of the reasons I exist is because my great-grandmother was buried up to her neck in dirt. This may be apocryphal.

My grandfather told me this story. He passed away more than a decade ago. When he was running a furniture store in Poughkeepsie, a business man showed up one day raising funds for some charity. As that got to talking, it turned out this fellow had grown up as a young man in Lithuania, and where my father's parents four parents came from. Even more interestingly, he knew Janova, the city of four of those great-grandparents of mine.

Then my grandfather discovers, the guy had lived in his grandparents' house—he was a yeshiva bocher, which literally means a young man who is studying. They had taken him in, maybe as a mitzvah, while he pursued Torah or academic studies. And this businessman had a story.

My father's father's mother, Dora, had been struck by lightning as a girl and taken ill, while this man was staying with her family. This would have been before about 1895. Nothing seemed to improve her health. The village healer suggests burying her up to her neck in the earth—to ground her, quite literally. This apparently works (in the story).

So many unknowns in the story. My grandfather had a yiddisher kop (was a smart guy), but not always good at knowing if he was being spun a yarn. (His cousin, Selma, once told me that Yiddish for very smart was shpitzidick—very sharp—but I can't find that in any Yiddish compendia. She also taught me shpilkes in hinten—meaning antsy, or literally pins in your bottom.)

Did the charity fundraiser elicit details and then spin them back with this story? Certainly, burying someone up to their neck isn't an actual cure for being struck by lightning, even though it is still pursued. Small villages, like the shtetl that was Janova, might have had a healer or two, practicing folk medicine. Maybe a feldscher, which would be either a kind of moderately trained military field surgeon, or someone who used the name and pursued similar training.

I told my boys, aged 7 and 10, this story last night, a kind of thread that carries them back at least four generations—to at least my grandfather, who told me this story, and they never met—and maybe five or six, to their great-great-grandmother, who met me before she died, and even to her parents. And the story may even be true.

The Latest Articles (Dec. 12, 2014)

My recent articles include:

Podcasting Hits Twitter Numbers: 39 Million Americans

In all the recent discussion about podcasting having arrived — with a lot of reliance on Edison Research's most recent in a multi-year series of interviews about radio and audio-program listening — nobody seems to have connected two numbers.

The Pew Research Internet Project's Social Networking Fact Sheet pegs regular Twitter use at 19% of online adult Americans. That's people 18 or older who use the Internet regularly, which Pew says elsewhere is about 87% of adults.

Edison Research's lengthy research deck notes that of its panel, which includes Americans aged 12 and older, so a larger pool, 15% had listened to one or more podcasts in the previous month when the survey was conducted. (Edison redefined how it counts this in 2013, which means the 9% figure in 2008 might be overstated by current terms, but helps show a slow, steady rise over the last six years.)

Edison helpfully notes that the 15% figure represents 39 million Americans. There are 309 million people in America as of the 2010 census, and the Census Bureau says 23.3% of them are not yet 18 years of age. Thus 76.7% of 309 million gets you 236 million; take 87% of that for online adult Americans, and it's 205 million; 19% who use Twitter regularly would thus mean…39 million.

A podcast and Twitter aren't comparable in nature. Someone might listen to one 30-minute episode of a radio show or their local church's sermon once a month, while they participate on Twitter every day; the opposite is also possible.

Yet given the attention paid to Twitter, it's reasonable to think that podcasting quietly arrived at a viable mass market when no one was looking. It took Serial for people outside of radio and podcasting to pay close attention.

Twitter's growth has slowed, especially for active users. Podcasting has by no means reached its top, and it's likely to be driven higher by a critical mass of adoption and shows like Serial. The number of podcast listeners could start to approach Edison's figures for online radio listeners: about 47% of the 12+ population in America, or about 124 million people.

For people who love listening to and making podcasts, 39 million is a very nice potential audience, but striving towards 124 million sounds even better.

Don't Build It Unless You Have To

My new motto for all new ventures is: If I don't have to build it, I won't. This is a marked change both in my life path and the advice I've given others. In the past, I felt that without building most elements of a digital project or a workflow from scratch, you couldn't reach something close enough to your aims to achieve those goals. Custom work, typically involving a lot of coding, was the only way.

I've gotten past that. The Magazine was a grand experiment in building it from scratch, and I credit Marco Arment tremendously for putting in the time and effort to make it happen. It was the only reasonable approach in 2012 to produce a born-digital and digital-only publication distributed to mobile devices. As I wrote at Six Colors, app ecosystems used to promise and deliver almost everything you needed for a publication; now, they promise more than they deliver, though there are still advantages.

The Magazine had these built-from-scratch properties:

  • A custom app, which was perceived (incorrectly) as iPad only
  • A built-from-scratch web site (turned into templates)
  • A custom back-end for both iOS and web app interaction
  • An in-house account management system to integrate iOS subscribers (by receipt) and Web access, as well as allow Web subscribers to use the iOS app
  • A custom Apple Push Notification (APN) system
  • Initially accepted payment solely via iTunes; then added custom ecommerce handling
  • Did not offer integration in the app to allow subscribers to add themselves to a mailing list

This all made sense in 2012 because:

  • There were no mature periodical platforms. Now there are several. (I picked TypeEngine for our 2.0 update this last summer.)
  • WordPress was the only reasonable and mature offering for hosting a web site with the complexity of what we needed in 2012, but it still wouldn't have been the right choice then. Now there's Squarespace, among others, which are much more sophisticated, even without being able to run custom PHP or the like.
  • Marco is a PHP and iOS programmer: he didn't have to hire in any expertise except in the user-interface design.

The trouble with custom everything, even if you are the person writing the code and are proficient (I can program perl and PHP but not Objective C), is that every single change you make or feature improvement you need is a slog. You're the only one who can do it. If you job out some parts of what you do for custom work, you have to manage those projects and get other people to conform to your needs, while they have other priorities they're juggling.

I have an increasingly well-formed idea for a new publication that I may launch in late winter. For this project, I swear to the heavens above, I'm going to stitch together everything I need from existing components, and only write the glue to bind them. Squarespace offers a lot of glue in its setup: linking in Stripe, Mailchimp, Disqus, and many other services by just popping in those other servcies' API keys.

  • If there is an app component, it will be a publishing platform that I license or to which I subscribe, not an app I commission.
  • Any content available through a platform will also be available in ebook format.
  • Web hosting will be on Squarespace.
  • I will not write a line of ecommerce code, but design the project around the capabilities of existing integration in Squarespace or another system that I can link to the web site.
  • I will not build an account-management system.
  • An email list (using Mailchimp) will be a fundamental part of communication.
  • It will not be beholden to Apple or any monolithic company for funding, ongoing subscription revenue, or feature approval.

I will focus all of my efforts on editorial, marketing, and design. Am I being naive to think that what I need is available? Not really. I've tested every one of the elements I mention in the last bullet list in isolation. The trick is making sure I can create an integrated whole. I believe it's possible.