Mars Rovers, Video Games, Cosplay, and Typewriters

Hey, another two weeks have gone by and we have another great issue of The Magazine!

Issue 26: September 26, 2013

Here's my full editor's note:


The space probes Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 continue to function 36 years after their launch, long beyond the mission criterion. Voyager 1 entered interstellar space, bursting through the sun's magnetic bubble, in August 2012, although this was just confirmed days ago.

Humanity, in the form of NASA mostly, has sent rover after rover to Mars to roam about and send back information. The last three have been particularly successful. Spirit and Opportunity were budgeted for 90-day missions; Spirit traversed for 6 years, and Opportunity passed 10 and is still peripatetic.

Last year, right around when the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), a NASA contractor, says its Voyager 1 went forth into true space, the group also landed a goddamn SUV full of scientific equipment and cameras on Mars: Curiosity. The world watched, more enthralled with the "seven minutes of terror" descent than with the Olympics.

I visited Spirit's and Opportunity's third sibling and Curiosity's twin — used for simulations and testing — at JPL in January for the Economist, and met with JPL scientists about their work in keeping missions alive. It's tricky performing repairs from millions or hundreds of millions of miles away, but they manage it.

One of the people I met was the extraordinary Scott Maxwell, profiled in this issue by Carren Jao in "Red Rover." Scott was a rover driver for several years on the Spirit/Opportunity mission and then on Curiosity in its first several months. Scott's sense of inquiry led him into rover driving and now beyond in a job at Google. But he's ready for future missions that stretch human achievement and endurance should they arise.

Also in this issue, we look backwards at video games. Simon Parkin — the author of one of the best stories about video games ever written, "Desert Bus" at the New Yorker — explains how a nearly hapless Dutch gem trader coded and released a blockbuster game in Japan in 1983 in "The Dragon Invasion."

Richard Moss suggests we "play it again" as he describes in "Impermanent Games" the efforts of archivists in Australia and New Zealand to track down the software code and personal memories of the early days of those nations' video games before the programs and people are gone.

Elliott Fitzgerald McCloud has no concerns about being "Typecast," as he tells of how important typewriters have become in his life, especially as a bond between him and his son. His initial draft came as a PDF; he'd typed the piece on one of his beloved Olivettis and scanned it to submit. (He later sent us text.) We know: we said, "No more typewriter stories!" But McCloud's tale is too sweet to miss, and it's not really about the typewriters, is it?

Finally, the world of cosplay can seem exotic or übergeeky to those not involved in it. Gabe Bullard looks beyond the fabric of the costumes to the people who make them in "Redshirts in the Coffee Shop." You'll remember the focal designer in the story, Leah D'Andrea, from an earlier piece about her husband, Chris Lee, who is building a "Full Scale" version of the Millennium Falcon. They're a pretty amazing couple, each with their own rich stories to tell.

Cover photo by Gabe Bullard. Design by Louie Mantia.



Multi-Modal Economics on Recent Trip

For my trip to Portland for the XOXO event, I opted to go by train and use car2go here in Seattle and down in Portland. The train was $100 with tax round-trip including business class each way. The train has Wi-Fi, which is halfway reliable in the more populated areas of the route. (Business class on the 3 1/2-hour route gets you a nicer seat, including a single when you're traveling alone, and a power outlet, as well as a $2 discount on the club car, which has fairly decent food.) 

car2go is a one-way car-sharing service, unlike ZipCar, which requires that you return the car to its allotted parking space at the point of origin. car2go has negotiated with cities to pay them in lieu of lost parking fees. The car has to be returned within the home zone, which can be as large as an entire city or metro area, but not to any particular place within it.

Depending on the city, you can park nearly anywhere there is no time-of-day "no parking" restriction. In Portland, everywhere; in Seattle, it has to be a two-hour or longer or unrestricted spot. You don't feed a meter, either; that's included. The cost in Seattle and Portland is 38¢ per minute up to a cap of $14 per hour or $72 a day. Seattle adds 20%  tax! Portland adds none.

While it's only 180 miles to Portland, and it should take about three hours, my trips invariably take four or longer. There's always an accident or slowdown. I need to stop and stretch my legs. The commuter train is about 3 1/2 hours; it's a bit longer for the long-haul Amtrak runs that span the whole Pacific coast. 

Not only do I have to deal with the tedium of being at the wheel, it carries a cost beyond gas. The IRS currently allows 60¢ per mile reimbursement. For the 360-mile roundtrip plus probably 50 miles of driving within Portland, I would have paid or incurred a total of $260 in gas and wear and tear.

I checked on rental cars to combine train and a local car: $250 was the best I found for renting a car anywhere near the train station. Plus, I would have had to pay the high cost of parking in downtown Portland, which rivals Seattle. Parking is tight, thus the cost. 

I stayed with my brother-in-law and his wife, and their neighborhood always seemed to have a few cars within a half-mile to one mile away. It was good to need to walk, too. A few nights, I'd return late and park in front of their house, and the car would be there in the morning to carry me off.

Between using a car2go from home to the Seattle train station and back on my return (several were within two blocks of the station), and a couple dozen short-distance uses in Portland, the grand total was about $104: no feeding meters, no worrying about finding a long-term spot, and several miles of good walking, too. I think it was the right call. 

 (car2go ain't perfect. A car ostensibly within a few blocks of my house wasn't present, and I had to dash to get to a cluster a half-mile further away, which disappeared from the app display after I found the missing car was — missing. I couldn't sort out the weird trunk opening mechanism in a rush, and had to call to get the firm to deal with it when I parked near the train station. [I had made sure everything was closed, and the car insisted it wasn't.] They took care of it. But I made the train and everything after that was smooth sailing.)

Explaining Apple's Incremental Approach

Many people have asked me since Apple's Tuesday announcement: Where was the sex? Where was the sizzle? Where was Apple's disruption? Where was the "one more thing"?

My reply is that Apple makes its living through punctuated equilibrium[1], not through disruption. Revolutions are hard; small but significant improvements are far easier. The all-in-one iMac, the MacBook Air, the iPod, the iPhone, and iPad all changed the way in which the entire industry created similar products.

Those were released at years-long intervals, not every year. On the Mac side, the ones I think of as having the greatest long-term impact on both Apple and the rest of the computer world:

  • The iMac (1998) had USB and no floppy drive. Clearly, it would fail, because people needed a built-in floppy and there were practically no peripherals that used USB. ADB (Apple Desktop Bus) was the standard.
  • The MacBook Air (2008) with its sealed battery and small, expensive internal SSD, relatively high price, non-upgradable RAM, and ability to be thrown out unintentionally with the trash, was a non-starter.
  • The 2013 (or 2014?) Mac Pro is a black trashcan without internal drive or card slots.
  • (Okay, I'll give you the G4 Cube [2000], even though I owned one, loved it, and used it for years. It had a lot of compromises, and the Mac mini [2005] was the "fixed" version.)

What happened in each of these cases, you may recall.

Floppy drives hung on, but USB quickly became much more widely adopted because peripheral makers created stuff for Macs that could also be used with Windows systems. All-in-one designs became de rigueur. The MacBook Air, after being ridiculed and after necessary improvements in various features, became the model for "ultrabooks," a category into which Intel poured hundreds of millions of dollars to help PC makers produce their own versions with varying levels of success.

On the gadget/mobile side: 

  • The iPod (2001) lacked user-changeable batteries, a low-power FM transmitter, and support for memory cards. Way too expensive.
  • The iPhone (2007) was a toy with its touchscreen, already tried by Nokia, and a lack of a physical keyboard. It only had 2.5G (EDGE) networking instead of the 3G that was available in more advanced phones at the time. Way too expensive.
  • The iPad (2010)  is just a giant iPod touch. At least it wasn't too expensive, but nobody is going to buy one because it's not a netbook.
  • (The iPad mini (2012) has had an impact that's yet to be seen fully, because Apple's competitors already had slightly smaller between-phone-and-tablet devices.  They've sold a lot of them, and it seems more about conserving customers and keeping their money going to Apple rather than creating a new market.)

In the device world, the iPod slaughtered all competitors, and remained ascendent until Apple started killing its own babies. The iPhone destroyed market leaders BlackBerry and Microsoft in America and Nokia worldwide. All smartphones had to become iPhones, ultimately. The iPad killed the low-performance, low-margin, compromised netbook market that everyone had urged Apple to get into, and ate the heart out of new PC sales, while forcing competitors into developing tablets, long seen as toxic after Microsoft's earlier failures.

Apple also managed to keep margins high for all these products. It didn't discount anything. The iPad came to market cheap relative to competitors just before and even long after because of Tim Cook's excellent supply-chain advance purchases that cornered the market on things like 10-inch displays. It had a high margin, too.

But those are all the revolutions. Those are the big sticks in the sand. Apple didn't kill established markets and rework the industry just by coming out with a new model.

If the iPhone had remained mired in 2.5G networking and its chunky (though seemingly elegant at the time), slow original form for long, it would have foundered. An original iPad also seems like molasses, low-res, and horsey. Instead, Apple pounded away year after year with new models, most of which were not astounding improvements over the year before. They were early to bring Retina (quadruple density) displays, but late to LTE (which was earlier a battery burner and not widely available enough to be worth the cost). The fingerprint sensor on the 5s is, of course, not new, but Apple waits until features, cost, and the ability to deliver to tens of millions of people are there; then they pull the trigger.

Every other year, and sometimes only every third or fourth year, Apple drops a bombshell feature that sets the bar higher for competitors, or checks a box that its rivals might already have managed (often at the sacrifice of high cost or poor battery life) after Apple has watched them drain margins or lose sales to make it happen.

Apple makes its money through incremental improvements that appeal to people who bought their last version of whatever it is Apple offered two to four years previously. For a new device, like an iPad, they get early adopters. For a refresh of existing devices, like a MacBook upgrade, they hit people who are finally feeling the speed differential enough to budget for a new machine.

The iPhone 5c is not supposed to convince an iPhone 5 owner to "upgrade." It's the same device. It's designed for iPhone 4 and 4S owners, first-time smartphone owners, and switchers from other smartphones, to be sexier (colors!) than the original iPhone 5, but not feature different.

The 5s likely won't convince many 5 owners to upgrade yet — most iPhone 5 owners in the U.S. can't get the fully subsidized price for another several months or more than a year; those elsewhere who bought a 5 at its full list price aren't likely to sell it used to get a 5s.

But the 5s has just enough to be interesting: the new camera features are intriguing (slow-mo, burst mode, auto-selection of "best" shots, bigger individual sensors and thus better low-light shots, bigger maximum aperture, two-color LED flash mixing), the fingerprint sensor sounds like a way to get security and avoid irritation, and one wants to wait and see what happens with a 64-bit processor and the separate motion processor. (In fact, I qualify for an upgrade and I'm seriously considering getting a 5s.)

From a financial perspective, this is how the phones line up for Apple: 

  • The 4s is Apple's very high-margin phone. It uses two-year old components and a perfected production system that's been streamlined over time. Though it is $200 less than when it originally retailed, its margin has still likely a much higher percentage than when it debuted and somewhat higher than a year ago.
  • The 5c almost certainly has a higher margin, even with a $100 drop in price, than it did at debut as the iPhone 5. The polycarbonate backing drops the raw cost, in addition to the same year-over-year benefits as the 4S's continued production.
  • The 5s will have lower margins at introduction, but it's necessary to keep the price in line to bring aspirational buyers, early adopters, and frequent updaters to the party, as well as grab switchers. In a year, when all the 5s features become standard on the next-cheaper phone, they'll have driven the cost way way down.

There is a very reasonable sense of deflation, though, despite all of this being sensible. A software developer and friend, Isaiah Carew, wrote in a message on, of which I quote part:

I've never cared that they're a company. I've never cared whether they succeeded or failed. I've never cared that they made or lost money.
I care that they do amazing things that make life better.

I understand this sentiment. Apple is a company that makes boatloads of money. It's hard to wait through the boring periods in which they're swimming in cash like Scrooge McDuck, to see how they will challenge the industry again.

In March 2012, I wrote an essay for TidBITS that touched on some of the issues of incrementalism, focusing more on the competitive issues of cost and features in the mobile-phone market.

[1]: Alistair J. Cullum, a biology professor, wrote in with a correction that I very much appreciate. The evolutionary term "punctuated equilibrium" refers to long periods of relative stasis, he writes, alternating with short period in which change occurs rapidly. The incrementalism between releases that I write about is more accurately called "gradualism," in which improvements pile up a bit at a time over long periods. I suppose I'm suggesting a synthesis: Apple has gradualism, not stasis, between its points of huge change. Thank you, Alistair!