Archives For Thought

Tom Negrino

Do you have any friends that live impossible distances away, that you interact with maybe a couple of times a year, and yet when you do get together it’s as if you’d seen them just the other day? I hope you do.

My long-distance friend Tom Negrino is choosing to die this week after a long, cancerous slide past the point where living has any meaning. And I don’t say that lightly or glibly, as if the misfortune of illness is reason enough to chuck it all in. For all the time I’ve known him, he’s walked with a cane, but I learned only a few years ago that it’s because he was born with spina bifida. As his wife Dori Smith said in an article about Tom’s choice, “When he was born, in the 1950s, only one out of 10 people born with spina bifida lived and of those, only one out of 10 ever walked. Tom was in the 1 percent who lived and walked.”

So imagine an entire life of physical pain and difficulty, and then top it with kidney cancer that was removed in 2010 and that reappeared everywhere in 2014. I honestly cannot imagine it.

I got to know Tom as a fellow technology book writer for Peachpit Press and frequent Macworld magazine contributor. We shared the best book editor in the world, Nancy Davis, and lamented when she was promoted out of a position where she was personally editing titles (although she’d sometimes make time to edit our books for a short while).

Most of our time spent together in person was at Macworld Expo, where at parties we’d nestle into a booth at an invariably-too-loud-for-conversation venue, and talk about business, personal stuff, whatever. Occasionally he’d call me out of the blue to talk about rates and contract items and other miscellaneous topics that working writers share. And I still remember a sunny lunch with Tom and Dori in their home town of Healdsburg when he spilled the beans that two other friends in the area, who I knew had known each other for years, had begun dating (hi Toby and Jim!).

The last time I saw Tom and Dori was at the final Macworld conference in 2014. Not having that type of large nexus for like-minded geeks to coalesce has been unfortunate, but I’m sure that if Tom wasn’t ill and we ran into each other today, our conversation would be just like picking up on the previous ones.

Peace and good rest, Tom.

[For other tributes and rememberances of Tom, please take the time to read those by Adam Engst, Andy Ihnatko, John Moltz, and Jason Snell.]

One of the absolute unexpected joys of becoming a father is watching my daughter absorb experiences for the first time. Now I finally understand the notion that being around kids makes you feel younger.

As the holidays approached this year, Ellie decided she wanted a Christmas tree of her own, in her bedroom. The idea sounded odd to me, and I wondered briefly whether saying yes would be over-indulging our only child. But, hell, a Christmas tree in my own bedroom as a kid would have been awesome! My wife and I said yes. Ellie didn’t want a real Christmas tree that would be thrown away after the holiday, so we picked out a little 24-inch artificial tree.

Last night, Ellie and Kim sat down on the floor in the living room (near an outlet) to decorate it. Since the tree is technically designed for a tabletop, it already includes built-in LED lights. Of course that wasn’t enough. The girls had already gone shopping and brought home new lights and ornaments, so while I made dinner, they worked on the mini tree. Ellie practically bounded when it was done, calling me over for inspection and pointing out the star—a cascading gold fabric bow—on top.

Decorating bedroom xmas tree

After dinner I bathed the girl while Kim brought the tree to Ellie’s room and plugged in. The girl walked in wearing a towel (dry on her torso but wet from the thighs down) and exclaimed, “My tree!” as if she hadn’t heard Kim mention not 20 minutes before that it would be waiting for her.

We usually spend a few quiet minutes in Ellie’s room after tucking her in, and tonight I had the pleasure of watching her fall asleep entranced by the tree. She stared at it, lying on her side with blankets tucked under her chin. She did her best to keep her tired eyes open to gaze at the colored lights, not looking anywhere else in the room. And in that gaze I recognized a sort of satisfied wonderment. This tree, which she’d no doubt envisioned dozens of times since the idea first emerged, was real and there in her own room.

Perhaps she just admired the colors, the new ornaments deliberately bought, the small stuffed penguin now destined to hang from branches instead of get buried at the back of a shelf. Maybe she couldn’t believe that it was really there in the foggy transition just before sleep.

Sitting near her, watching her eyelids droop and slowly open, I was filled with my own wonder. Will this be a memory that sticks with her for years? Will she someday relate the story of when she was five years old and got her very first bedroom Christmas tree? Or would this moment be absorbed by all the other experiences rushing through her young developing self and be forgotten, save for a glimmer of recognition each year when she pulls the tree out of its skinny box?

I want to encourage those memories and shape her personality as best I can, while also acknowledging that my contribution may be only a faint sense memory—bright hued starbursts in a dark room with a vignette of sleep encroaching at the edges. I know realistically that’s the best I can expect (especially given the general poor state of my own memory from when I was that age).

Maybe that’s enough. I was there to see her eyes as the lids eventually gave up trying to hold themselves open. I saw that wonder and felt my own glimmer of recognition.

Bedroom xmas tree

Ice Crystals on the Shore

November 8, 2013 — 1 Comment

Sparks Lake Ice

(Best viewed bigger.)

There’s always guilt. You come home after shooting a bunch of photos and the queue is intimidating. During the Oregon Wonders Photography Workshop in October, I added 3,100 photos to my library. And when I got back, I had to jump immediately into three concurrent projects.

Even though I follow my own (excellent, I humbly suggest) advice for processing photos that I describe in my ebook Take Control of Your Digital Photos on a Mac, the ratio of volume to time is stacked against me.

So I’ve been editing photos in dribs and drabs since then, and the guilt over neglecting the images I worked so hard to create is ebbing away. The editing backlog is still there, but now adjusting a photo or two is a welcome break from the other projects that are currently demanding the rest of my time.

The photo above comes from a satisfying sunrise shoot at Sparks Lake in Oregon. The morning light on the mountains overlooking the lake was gorgeous, but I also couldn’t resist the ice that had formed the night before along the edges of the water. As you can guess, it was also bracingly cold, but six layers of clothing and clear mountain air makes up for a lot.

Foggy Autumn Sidewalk

Yesterday was my first full day back after 10 days of a spectacular photography workshop in Oregon, and I quickly had to settle into the everyday routine of house and work. (On the work side, it was mostly catching up.) I think waking up every day at 5 am also took its toll, because after I put my daughter to bed I crashed hard, waking up only to stagger from the living room couch to bed.

Now I’m back at it, with a lot to do over the next few weeks. But that gives me a chance to announce that I just sent the finished version of my new book to the publisher. The OS X Mavericks Pocket Guide should be available soon, anticipating Apple announcing it next week at its October 22 media event. I’m also hard at work on The iPad and iPad mini Pocket Guide (5th Edition), which covers iOS 7 and whatever iPad news Apple announces. (I have no inside information about the next iPad revisions, alas. I’m hoping for a Retina iPad mini and a thinner, lighter full-size iPad, but that’s based on media reports.) You can pre-order both books now; the Mavericks Pocket Guide will no doubt ship before the listed December 30 publication date (both dates are just estimates Peachpit had to enter when they added them to Amazon’s catalog).

So, in short, I’m busy as heck (with a few other projects up my sleeve that I’m not ready to announce). But I’m also enjoying my favorite season, as demonstrated by the photo at the top of this page. I hope you’re enjoying autumn as well.

811 Sunday Nights

May 6, 2013 — 1 Comment

20130506-010138.jpgSince 1997, that’s how many weekly issues of TidBITS I’ve assembled and edited. Each issue is released on Monday, so Sunday nights were the time when I’d do my pass on the issue, ready to hand off to publisher Adam Engst (who would sometimes be coming online on the East coast just as I was going to bed on the West coast). I’ve always been a late-nighter and writing and editing often works best for me when the distractions of the day are slumbering.

This week, my Sunday was free. TidBITS has hired Josh Centers as managing editor, who is taking over my weekly responsibilities. (See the TidBITS article here.)

I’m not parting ways with TidBITS. In fact, I’ll soon be writing more than my schedule has allowed recently; more on that in the weeks to come. But the publication needs someone dedicated to the “managing” side of the title, and my schedule writing books and articles for various outfits has left me mostly editing and participating in staff discussions. (I was originally hired as managing editor, taking over from Geoff Duncan; read about how we all got started here. We switched my title to senior editor a few years ago to better reflect my involvement.)

That 811 number isn’t entirely accurate. I remember needing to bow out of an issue or two when I was working on one of my original books (maybe the Palm Organizers Visual QuickStart Guide?) Occasionally circumstances pushed production to Monday, such as the Macworld Expo keynote that Steve Jobs shifted to Monday instead of Tuesday, requiring us to write and assemble the issue in the afternoon at a Starbucks near Moscone Center. But for the most part, the bulk of my TidBITS involvement has happened on Sunday nights, usually past 10 p.m., with coffee and music as my late-night editing companions.

When Adam told me that he and Tonya had hired a managing editor, my first reaction was feeling slightly unmoored — 811 issues over 16 years is a lot. But my second reaction, which surfaced maybe half a second later was:

Sunday nights free. Imagine that.

What I’m learning as a father is that parenting involves hundreds of little behavioral course corrections. Sometimes it’s something direct and forceful—don’t pound on the glass door; be careful, that pot on the stove is very hot—but usually it’s a lot of little nudges. “Try this.” “You might want to consider that instead.” “Please say please.”

So many little things that I hope are molding and shaping my daughter into a great girl and woman.

Tonight at bedtime I told her she’d been great today. She was. I mentioned a couple of examples. I was very proud.

She beamed. I think she was a little embarrassed. But I saw a spark in her eye that she knew I meant it and wasn’t just playing.

She is great. She doesn’t always act great, but that’s because she’s new at all this learning-how-to-be-human stuff. I’ve been at it for quite a while and I’m still middling at it. I need to remember that telling her she’s great when it really applies makes both of us better.

20130313-233727.jpgThanks to 39,000 (and counting) people today, there’s going to be a Veronica Mars movie in spring of 2014. The project, by show creator Rob Thomas, was set to fund if the Kickstarter campaign raised $2 million within 30 days. It actually took only ten hours to reach the goal. As I write this, late in the evening of that first day, almost $2.5 million has been pledged.

And to my amazement, that’s driving some people crazy. My colleague Phil Michaels, for example, tweeted, “Congratulations to fans of Veronica Mars for your eagerness to hand over money to already well-compensated entertainers.”

True, making a movie with established actors isn’t going to cure any diseases, but the general sentiment is that this is superfluous, that Hollywood is taking advantage of regular people who don’t know better and who throw their money at glitter. And there’s the persistent idea that backing a project on Kickstarter is just a way to order stuff (in this case, DVDs, scripts, posters, and other things related to the movie).

I’m no movie industry insider, but I know that this isn’t some vanity project being foisted upon folks. Veronica Mars was a semi-successful TV show that had great writing, an intentional film-noir approach to high school that was different than most TV dreck. When it was cancelled in 2007, viewers still cared about the characters, and since then Thomas and star Kristen Bell have tried to get a movie version made.

Even with an established property and an ongoing fan base, they ran into walls. No studio wanted to do it. That’s common in Hollywood. According to the creators, the Kickstarter project was a last-ditch effort. They talked to Warner Bros. and made a deal: if they could raise $2 million on Kickstarter and show that an audience exists, WB would greenlight the movie. Letters to studios and fan petitions only go so far—money talks loud and clear.

I suppose some people think this is just an easy $2 million for Thomas to pocket, but realistically that’s a tiny fraction of what it would take to make a movie. That’s basement-low money in Hollywood. That gives you a cast working at scale, a small crew, and equipment rental. I saw elsewhere that $2 million is about what each episode cost when the show was on the air (or maybe that’s the average cost of a scripted TV episode now; I’ve lost the reference). A small budget works for something like Veronica Mars, which will no doubt be heavy on words and light on special effects.

To release the movie, Warner Bros. will spend at least that amount in marketing alone, and that’s just for a small campaign. The more money raised by the Kickstarter project, the more they can put into production.

A lot of media writers are going to point to this in the coming days and project all sorts of things. I’ve seen it on Twitter tonight already: In the near future, you’ll have to pay for movies in advance; studios will turn to crowdfunding to further line their coffers; etc. And some of that will be true, and some of it will be tried, and a lot of it will fail. You can bet a ton of old properties that might have some whispers of fan bases will be resurrected. And they’ll probably collapse. Small budget filmmaking is essentially a private version of Kickstarter, with moviemakers asking friends and relatives for investment, running up credit cards, and the like. Kickstarter gives the process a streamlined approach that can involve a lot of people you don’t personally know.

This isn’t the case of a handful of movie folks rolling in money. The whole point of the campaign, and of Kickstarter in general, is to get started, and to create something worthwhile. I pledged $50 because I want to support people who want to create something good, and I’m betting that a Veronica Mars movie will be good. It may not be. It could be a disaster. I may not even go see the movie in theaters (which would cost me more money; my pledge isn’t buying me a ticket); it may not even be released in theaters. But that doesn’t diminish my desire to support the creation of good entertainment.

For several years, my lovely wife has given me a graphic novel for Christmas. Before we had our daughter, I’d enjoy spending Christmas Day next to the fireplace reading. (That’s more difficult now with a four-year-old.) Although I read comic books as a kid, I never got into them deeply, and so I have a decent working knowledge of major characters and their universes, but not much more beyond that.

This year, I requested (via Amazon wish list) and received Invincible Iron Man Vol.1: Five Nightmares, which collects Invincible Iron Man issues 1–7. Tony Stark (Iron Man) must discover who is using his technology to build nuclear-yield human bombs and, of course, stop the villain. I read it in bits over a couple of days (electronically on my iPad), and decided to buy the next volume using some Amazon.com gift credit I also received.

At the beginning of Invincible Iron Man Vol. 2 : World’s Most Wanted Book 1, a page catches the reader up on the story so far, and here we come to the problem:

“And then the Skrull invasion came.”

Followed by four paragraphs describing a virus that wipes out Stark Industries and disables the Iron Man suit, and the rise of an organization headed by Norman Osborn that supplants S.H.I.E.L.D.

What the hell? I went back and checked to make sure I hadn’t inadvertently skipped over a chunk of the first volume, but no, it’s issues 1–7. Volume 2 contains issues 8–13.

I imagine longtime comics readers are shaking their heads, or chuckling, or nodding in knowing sympathy. But for someone who doesn’t own subscriptions to comics, I have no idea where all of this other very important drama occurred. My only guess is that it played out in another title, or a set of tie-ins and cross-promotional stories, and I’m sure the whole endeavor was designed to boost sales of those titles.

But that explains why I’m not a regular comics reader. There isn’t any indication—unless I missed some fine print somewhere? Where’s Smilin’ Stan’s footnotes when you need them?—that the rest of the story occurs elsewhere. Instead, I’m plopped into the middle of what seems like an entirely different title. Especially in these compilation volumes, which one presumes are bought by people like me who don’t have monthly subscriptions or visit comic stores on a regular basis, a little storyline site map would be immensely helpful. (And would encourage more sales.)

I’m enjoying volume 2 so far, but because of this I doubt I’ll pick up volume 3. Instead I’ll continue to remain at arm’s length from what is actually a dynamic and interesting media, and wait for another graphic novel, probably something self-contained, to arrive next Christmas.

Instagram is getting a lot of attention today for a change in its terms of service that gives the company (now owned by Facebook) the ability to include users’ photos in advertisements. TechHive has an overview, and here’s the wording in question:

“To help us deliver interesting paid or sponsored content or promotions, you agree that a business or other entity may pay us to display your username, likeness, photos (along with any associated metadata), and/or actions you take, in connection with paid or sponsored content or promotions, without any compensation to you.”

(It’s also worth noting that Instagram has had these rights for a while, worded differently, as Lauren Crabbe writes at DPreview.com.)

People are rightly upset that their photos can be used for someone else’s gain, even though the terms of service (which most people don’t read) grant that right. As others have pointed out on Twitter today:

What I don’t get is why Instagram (and Facebook, Google, and others) doesn’t cut people in for a slice of whatever fee a company paid to use the photo. It’s not impossible; they can track ad impressions, so they can certainly track how much use a photo is getting. I expect the amounts would be ridiculously small, but so what? People who really care about getting paid for their images are pulling them from the services now, and the people who want to keep using it can make a few bucks every quarter.

I haven’t decided yet whether I’ll bail on Instagram. Now that Flickr is finally getting attention from its parent Yahoo (the new Flickr 2.0 app for iPhone is quite nice), it’s a good alternative. (Here’s my Flickr photostream.) I was late to the Instagram app, and I mostly use it because of the convenience of shooting and sharing. If I could get paid a little for posting pictures of waffles, I certainly wouldn’t mind.

Charles Fishman’s excellent article “The Insourcing Boom” in The Atlantic never mentions Apple — save for one instance of “iPhone” used for its apparent sleekness — but the company’s ethos is everywhere.

Fishman writes about how GE has moved manufacturing of some of its products like washing machines and refrigerators back to the United States from China. On the surface, this seems absurd, because we all know that labor costs in the US are vastly higher than costs in China (about 30 employees in China for the price of one employee in the US, he notes). But it turns out that labor is no longer the most important factor: oil prices have risen over the past decade, making it much more expensive to ship goods by boat; the typical five-week travel time between continents is becoming a liability as the market demands faster revisions to products.

However, what’s really crucial turns out to be design. To manufacture a water heater called the GeoSpring in their own facilities (which have remained largely empty for years), GE’s engineers realized that actually building the thing was a mess.

The GeoSpring suffered from an advanced-technology version of “IKEA Syndrome.” It was so hard to assemble that no one in the big room wanted to make it. Instead they redesigned it. The team eliminated 1 out of every 5 parts. It cut the cost of the materials by 25 percent. It eliminated the tangle of tubing that couldn’t be easily welded. By considering the workers who would have to put the water heater together—in fact, by having those workers right at the table, looking at the design as it was drawn—the team cut the work hours necessary to assemble the water heater from 10 hours in China to two hours in Louisville.

In the end, says Nolan, not one part was the same.

So a funny thing happened to the GeoSpring on the way from the cheap Chinese factory to the expensive Kentucky factory: The material cost went down. The labor required to make it went down. The quality went up. Even the energy efficiency went up.

Even if you know Apple just for its products, you know that design is a huge focus at the company. Design is the company. And the way the iPhone appears or the thinness of the latest iMac is just a small part of the products’ design.

20121215-235820.jpg

To make their products as sharp and beautiful as they are, Apple has to also design the manufacturing processes to create them. The fit and finish of an iPhone 5 is unmatched because a machine with high-resolution cameras examines the partially-assembled phone in front of it, snaps photos and precise measurements of it, and then chooses from 725 versions of one piece to find the one that fits best (watch the iPhone 5 video starting at 4:31).

In the documentary Objectified, Apple Senior VP of Design Jonathan Ive says that much of the work that goes into coming up with a new product design is focused on building the machines and processes that will create the product. For example, Apple designed the machines that turn single slabs of aluminum into the cohesive frames of the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro laptops; making the body one piece increases rigidity, while using aluminum keeps the weight down.

(Apple is a great source of behind-the-scenes machine assembly pr0n, which also shows that it knows this manufacturing is a significant competitive advantage. When you hold an iPhone 5 compared to just about any other phone on the market, the other feels like cheap plastic garbage.)

So Apple has been aware for years of the advantages of designing systems and manufacturing processes catered specifically to their products. And yet, nearly all of its production happens in China.

Fishman talks also about the disconnect between a product’s designers and engineers in the US and the people doing the manufacturing in China. It’s not just an issue of speaking different languages.

It happens slowly. When you first send the toaster or the water heater to an overseas factory, you know how it’s made. You were just making it—yesterday, last month, last quarter. But as products change, as technologies evolve, as years pass, as you change factories to chase lower labor costs, the gap between the people imagining the products and the people making them becomes as wide as the Pacific.

Apple benefits from several advantages in this respect, made possible largely because Apple has so much money to address the issues. Apple employees spend time in the factories, and have built up perhaps the world’s most impressive supply chain. Back when Apple CEO Tim Cook was VP of operations, an important manufacturing problem came up. According to an article by Adam Lashinsky at CNN:

“This is really bad,” Cook told the group. “Someone should be in China driving this.” Thirty minutes into that meeting Cook looked at Sabih Khan, a key operations executive, and abruptly asked, without a trace of emotion, “Why are you still here?”

Apple also circumvents the time-to-market issue by flying new products from the factories directly; when you place an order for a new model of iPad, for example, you can track its progress from the factory to the US via FedEx or UPS tracking number. Loading many — hundreds? — of 747 cargo planes full of devices so they arrive in people’s hands the first day of availability is massively expensive. But Apple has the money to do it, the margins to pay for it, and millions of customers willing to pay for it. (Here’s another area where design is crucial: it’s no coincidence that Apple’s product packaging has shrunk over the years. Smaller boxes mean you can fit many more onto a pallet, which translates to hundreds more devices that can be carried on a single plane, reducing the cost of fuel per device.)

Cook is an operations genius, and is no doubt aware of the points raised in Fishman’s insourcing article. Which is why it’s not a surprise that Cook told Brian Williams of NBC that Apple plans to begin producing one of its existing Mac computers in the US next year. Given the company’s extensive experience designing manufacturing in the past, I have no doubt it’s taking the same skills and figuring out how to make it work in the US.

Fishman’s article is a great look at an exciting new chapter in US manufacturing. Although it was published just a couple weeks before Cook made his statement, the article has Apple written all over it.