My inaugural outing as a columnist at Macworld appeared today under the name Private I. I'll be writing weekly about security and privacy as they relate to Mac and iOS users. How does new security exploit X affect you as a Mac OS X user? How does mobile hack Y reveal your location to advertisers? Oh, there's enough to fill a column every day, and I'll be hard pressed to pick a single notion a week.
I've developed an obsession with space in the last couple of years, particularly with satellites, probes, landers, rovers, and other gadgets that we send into it. When I was a kid, I used to read and dream about space, but wandered off into other meadows. Returning to it is a blast (sorry) as my decades studying, working with, and reporting with technology gives me an entrée into the world (or worlds) of mission planning, launches, travel, landing, and deployment.
Here's a collection of what I've been writing about, largely at the Economist.
Voyager 1 & 2
The Voyagers continue to function nearly four decades after launch, delivering useful science. Most recently, Voyager 1 passed the edge of the solar magnetic bubble (the heliosphere), crossing the heliopause into the interstellar medium! (It's still within the solar system, as defined by the sun's gravitational pull, however.)
In a bit of nice timing, I visited the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena in January 2013 for a bunch of reporting, and wrote up a visit with Ed Stone for the Economist, the principal investigator of the Voyager missions from their start in the 1970s and still a
In March 2013, the first paper appeared suggesting that Voyage 1 had broken through the heliopause. I wrote an Economist Explains about it. Later in the year, after more analysis had appeared and more scientific consensus was reached, I filed a long report for Boing Boing on Voyager 1's progress and ostensible current location.
My long-time Economist editor, Tom Standage, co-wrote a feature for Technology Quarterly, "In Praise of Celestial Mechanics," about keeping all this gear alive when it's in orbit around Earth or billions of miles away. (In typical Economist fashion, I wrote a long draft from my JPL visit and other research, Tom tinkered with it and extended material from his expertise, and I was delighted with the final result.)
Nanosatellites and Other Small Birds
The cost per kilogram of pushing something from Earth into orbit, however high, has dropped substantially over the last few decades, and is poised to drop another order of magnitude if SpaceX perfects its reusable craft. However, it's still relatively expensive. But instead of relying on cheaper launches, sending up more compact and capable gear sheds cost, too! Nanosatellites — 10 cm cubes weight about 1 kg — and both somewhat smaller and larger gear are already revolutionizing how information will be gathered from near space.
I did some more travel for this piece, interestingly to San Francisco, where several firms are making bijou satellites inside of ordinary office spaces and small warehouses. Thousands of small satellites will launch in the next couple of years, bringing information from space within reach — anything a satellite can measure up, down, or sideways. I filed this Technology Quarterly cover story, "Nanosats are go!"
As part of this reporting, I wrote about the KickSat, a partially crowdfunded three-unit nanosat (30 cm by 10 cm by 10 cm) that contained over 100 femtosatellites, the size of postage stamps. It launched, but wasn't able to complete its mission — a charging problem left it unable to trigger its spring release in time. The first piece was "Magic Dust"; the follow-up, "An elegy for satellites like maple-tree seeds."
I also wrote about NASA's PhoneSat project, which takes the innards of ordinary Android phones and beefs up the battery and radio components and then puts them into space. These missions go up fast, iterate quickly, and produce useful results.
An ancient spaceship was captured (with permission) by citizen scientists, and I wrote a three stories about it. First, after NASA granted permission and a team was booting up communications ("How to revive a satellite"). Then, when it seemed likely they'd be able to put the satellite into a new permanent orbit ("An old workhorse satellite spins back up"). And, finally, when it still seemed possible that the new trajectory would be possible ("The ancient mariner"). Sadly, the old bird was only able to make a few residual firings before it was determined the tanks were depleted — not strange for living decades past its original sell-by date.
I also filed this story on nanosatellites potentially reigniting interest in aerospace engineer careers, which had fallen on some hard times in recent years as internet engineering jobs took off.
We can have any sort of relationship we want in America: we're not prohibited by law and increasingly less so by custom. Sarah Mirk wrote the book Sex from Scratch: Making Your Own Relationship Rules to help people figure out how to unfold the map of contemporary life if they don't subscribe to a dogma (religious or otherwise) about precisely how they should form romantic and sexual relationships for a night or for the rest of one's life.
I wrote up a review of her book at Boing Boing, and we also had a wide-ranging podcast talk about polyamory, asexuality, feminism, sex, and much more! Give a listen below (or you can go to SoundCloud and download for later).
Sarah's writing and research phase was a great help to me as I was charting my own map, and I could read what she was finding for herself and in the many interviews she conducted for the book. She and I talk about the choices we each made about intentional non-monogamy in the podcast.
I have no special knowledge beyond following Apple as a company for 15 years and using its products since the early 1980s. I have a feeling now for what direction Apple might take, even though I've never been able to predict a specific outcome.
What Apple won't do
There is no iWatch. A watch has never made any sense, but it's the only thing that analysts and Apple's competitors have, apparently, been able to think of as a next logical device to make. The history of technology is littered with failed computer watches; Microsoft has gone through two bad iterations itself. If Apple's partners or spies have seen an iWatch, it's more likely a feint to throw competitors off. Apple does put out false scents!
Apple is not going to buy a cellular operator. This comes up again and again. T-Mobile would have been the only firm that would have made any sense in terms of scale and availability to purchase, and besides Sprint attempting to acquire it, owning a carrier puts Apple in direct conflict with other carriers. It doesn't need the hassle and competitive trouble.
No one should expect an integrated Apple television set. For years, the only companies not losing money on TVs are the companies that are vertically integrated to make the screens and the TVs, like Samsung. Many companies lose money making TVs, but they can't exit the industry because they need to sell integrated entertainment systems, and the loss of revenue would reduce their scale of operations, too. People don't spend enough on TVs nor turn them over fast enough to represent a market worth entering at the scale Apple would need to. Sorry, Gene Munster.
What Apple could do
A wearable hub that doesn't present itself as a thing you wear on your wrist. Apple's Health initiative shows the direction. An iOS device is the heart of Health, and expect a wearable thing that integrates with smart clothing (particularly sportswear that could track heartrate and other factors). Instead of delivering another visual display with limited capabilities, like a watch, Apple more likely would deliver information through haptic, vibratory, and aural feedback. An Apple wearable will more likely be an iPod nano style device that plugs into clothing, and uses Bluetooth for comms, than a watch.
A Retina MacBook Air. This has certainly been on their road map all along, but the time is coming where some tradeoff or transition point will occur: they will either be able to produce an Air with an efficient enough display and battery to keep the weight the same, or they will eat a few ounces and make it heavier to get the better display on board. Instead of a "12-hour" battery, buyers might be fine with an "8-hour" Air with Retina, too. It seems like this could be a fall 2014 item, but I wonder if they'd wait till February 2015 for cost issues and alignment with when they introduce Mac hardware.
A revised Apple TV that incorporates a base station. The Apple TV is essentially already a base station, and with a little more processing power or a co-processor, it could easily handle an AirPort Express's function alongside its TV features. As a base station, an Apple TV could better manage throughput and other factors.
I found myself curious about tiny satellites two years ago, when Sandy Antunes released the second in a series of four books on DIY (do-it-yourself) satellites. This seemed bizarre to me, when I received the press release, so I asked for a copy of the book, interviewed Antunes for an article, and pitched the Economist on a long feature about the topic.
Antunes was documenting (and learning himself and teaching in classes) the rise of CubeSat and similar small-format satellites that have a volume of about a liter and a mass of around one kilogram. CubeSat is a specific format, in which a frame can be created in units of 10 cm cubes and about 1.33 kg per unit. A three-unit (3U) CubeSat is 10 cm by 10 cm by 30 cm, and can have a mass of up to 5 kg, for instance. Antunes was building a TubeSat, a cylindrical format that was slightly smaller and needed to have somewhat less mass.
But my editor at the time and then a subsequent one and I agreed to wait. While the topic was rich, it seemed on the verge of something happening, but it wasn't quite there yet. I kept reading press releases, NASA announcements, and blogs, and waiting. Then, suddenly, things changed. After a decade in which about 75 or so nanosatellites (a category that encompass 1 to 10 kg satellites) were launched, in November 2013 and January 2014, nearly 100 went into orbit directly or through a mission at the ISS, which released them. The time was ripe.
I made piles of phone calls, read thousands of pages of reports, exchanged hundreds of emails, and took a visit to several firms in the San Francisco Bay Area from about February to April. The result is "Nanosats Are Go!", the cover story of the Technology Quarterly section (in print and online) of the June 7th cover date issue of the Economist. My editor also wrote a leader, which is a sort of fact-based opinion piece, often advocating a position, about the potential of nanosats and the worries that regulation could strangle them.
Last year, inspired by Joe Kissell, I wrote a summary of the enormity of what 2012 had encompassed. It was freaking huge. Joe enumerated for years all the words, books, articles, and such like he worked on. This year, I'm inspired again by Joe: he decided to stop the extensive documentation of his year, having felt he'd proven his productivity. I'm somewhere in between: less documentation than last year, but still quite a bit to share.
In June, I bought The Magazine from Marco Arment. It's been one of the greatest things I've worked on in my life, and it's a constant joy of collaboration with contributors both before and after the purchase. We just put out Issue #33 — we produced 26 issues during 2013, and now have some subscribers who are paid up though the end of 2015. We'd better deliver.
I launched the weekly podcast The New Disruptors in December 2012. With the help first of Mule Radio, and then my brother in law, Michael, we put out 51 episodes in 2013. (We skipped a New Year's episode last year, but had one for 2014, so we'll probably hit 52.)
I've been writing for the Economist since 2005, but 2013 was probably one of my biggest years as a contributor:
- I crossed 300 blog posts for Economist.com, most of them, but not all, for the Babbage blog.
- I had my first cover story (cover of the American edition, and the inside Technology Quarterly section) about the sharing economy.
- While I often have one or two TQ articles a year in the print edition, this year I not only had the three-page sharing economy article in first quarter, but a long piece on keeping probes and landers working throughout the solar system and beyond (co-written with my long-time editor and friend Tom Standage), and then a two-page look at Bitcoin's technological pressures in the fourth quarter.
I wrote fewer articles in 2013 for other publications between my devotion to The Magazine and my gig at the Economist's blogs, but I did write a few long items for Boing Boing, my home away from home:
Who Owns Omni? (a look at Omni magazine's confusing ownership history since its demise)
As has been true for a few years, one of the most fun things I do during the year is be a panelist on The Incomparable, a geeky radio show developed by friend Jason Snell. This year, I wasn't able to be on as many episodes, but I did make sure to be part of two very special ones. Friend of the podcast (and now regular panelist) and playwright David Loehr wrote radio plays we performed—two of them—as The Incomparable Radio Theater of the Air! The first aired April 1 and the second over the December holidays. (Then we spent almost two hours talking about how we made the Christmas spectacular!)
David combined a true love and deep knowledge of old-timey radio theater and serials (shared by many of us in our 20s, 30s, and 40s, surprisingly, on the podcast!) with mild parody and great writing. Jason did most of the editing, with an assist from David in the latest production. Serenity Caldwell, who studied radio-play directing in college (!!), did a fabulous job directing us mostly amateur actors. I played Tesla in a sort of Doctor Who tribute/parody in both shows, and did a plummy New England stuffed shirt as a minor character in the first one. (What's that?)
After years of not traveling much, I was on the road quite a bit for both personal and professional reasons in 2013. I went to Los Angeles in January to visit Jet Propulsion Lab for the Economist story and several Babbage posts, and dropped in to watch a taping of Jeopardy's Tournament of Champions in which two contestants were people I had met during my stint on the show in 2012.
In February, I flew to D.C. to help a friend move to New York, and we wound up driving a moving truck into the biggest blizzard of the year. It was very entertaining, the roads were fine, and we had quite a story to tell. I met up with three of my oldest friends there, too, for a mini-reunion, our second. In March, I was back in New York for a quick visit with a dear friend and some meetings.
I stayed home a bit, then our family, my brother-in-law's family, and my father- and mother-in-law all went to Kauai for nearly a week! Which was great, except I was feeling a bit crummy during the trip. We came back, I saw my doctor, he ordered some tests, and I wound up getting a stent put into one of my main arteries. Turns out the radiation therapy I had had in 1998 to help cure me of Hodgkin's Disease caused some early onset of cloggage. The stent took, I feel terrific, and my heart is in great shape.
I went to the XOXO festival in September, which was another wonderful meeting of so many creative people: finding old friends and online acquaintances, and making piles of new friends. November, I flew back to New York again to record a podcast live at a conference, and then to San Francisco and Los Angeles in December for meetings, meetups, and renewals of friendship.
The year ended with a bang. I had long planned to stage a Kickstarter campaign to underwrite production of a book drawn from The Magazine's first full year in publication (October 2012 to October 2013), and we raised over $56,000 in 29 days, with over 1,000 hardcover books and even more electronic versions that we'll be shipping off in the next two months.
I finally got a Fitbit in 2013, and have been quantifying myself. I started using a treadmill that fits under my standing desk in earnest, and spend about 3 hours a day walking and the rest standing. Fitbit's stats tell me that from May to December 2013, I walked 1,025 miles (2.4 million steps), and climbed the equivalent of 2,424 stairs. I lost about 25 pounds after my heart stent was put in place, and while I've gained a few back over the holidays, I'll be pushing for 50 more off in 2014 and into 2015 to reach a goal weight my doctors are happy with.
I made a lot of new friends in 2013. Because of the travel many "Twitter buddies" became real buddies. (I may have tweeted 50,000 times in 2013. Sorry.) I turned some people from acquaintances into some of my closest friends, and encountered and gave a lot of love, which is what it's all about. I'm hoping for a little bit less of a hectic pace in 2014, but more fulfilling work, collaboration, love, and happiness, which I wish for you all as well.
After some months of planning, I launched a Kickstarter campaign today to produce a hardcover, offset-printed book of essays and articles drawn from the first year of The Magazine's publication. Over two dozen essays about a huge range of topic — aging chickens, D&D, becoming a superhero, a 60-foot-tall lava lamp, and much more — are featured in the book.
I turned to crowdfunding because printing is expensive, and it made sense to build a project that could scale, but wouldn't start unless the necessary interest were expressed. As I post this, the project is nearly one-quarter of the way to its basic funding after about eight hours! It's quite exciting.
Join in on the fun, and get a great, beautifully designed book (and an ebook version, too). You can download a preview to see what it will look like and watch the video below, too.
The interview I did at XOXO with the editors of Boing Boing is now available for your viewing pleasure! Tons of other videos from this year's event are also up now and the rest to come.
I have sometimes joked that I never know precisely what I will be doing from one year to the next. As a freelancer, I am dependent on both the goodwill of editors and the persistence of business models outside of my control. This means that my primary sets of income one year could have shifted somewhat the next and be entirely gone the year after that. It means I have to be fleet and agile.Read More
You may have already heard the news: I've purchased The Magazine from Marco. This is a great day in my professional life, as The Magazine is one of the very best things I've ever worked on. This is partly because Marco gave me an enormous amount of freedom in editing it, and partly because I get to work so closey with writers on their work.
I love writing, and have appreciated all the time and effort my editors have and continue to put into making my words work in the right order. It's great to work with both new writers and experienced ones to try to find the sculpture inside the block of marble.
It's been great working with Marco, who is an exceptionally decent human being, and overflows with different facets of creativity. He's been the art director, taking photos for the publication (he's got a great eye), and handled all the business side. A bunch of people have my back going forward, all spelled out in the press release and in the editor's note that's now on The Magazine's site.
It's also been quite fun working with his programming code. One of the challenges of the switchover is that I wanted to put into place a number of changes (coming in a few days) to the Web site, but didn't have the time to hire and direct someone. Dean Putney, who has worked for BoingBoing for years, will be my go-to guy for future significant improvements.
But during May, I revisited my weak and outdated PHP knowledge (I've been a perl guy forever), learned about model-view-controller frameworks, and developed a much more intimate knowledge of CSS and responsive design (Web design that works well on mobile, desktop, etc., without having custom sites for each type of screen).
It was a good challenge, and it made me think deeply about how we can improve the experience for readers as the publication has more and more articles in its archives and we add more features (podcast, blog entries, etc.). The Magazine has been superb for reading from day one; adapting it for managing what one has read is the next and great big challenge.