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15-Year Appleversary

Today marks 15 years since I started working at Apple.

Coincidentally, as part of the 30 Years of Mac celebration a month and a half ago, Apple put up posters with the name of every employee. I believe there are 12 posters, and I’m in the very top row of poster 3. (That’s actually too high off the ground for me to get a good picture with my iPhone; what I need is a camera with a good optical zoom.) I guess that means I’ve been at Apple longer than over 85% of all employees. That’s a long time, especially in Silicon Valley.

I remember back when I was going to interview, I told two of my friends at my old company. One of them immediately said, “Oh, you are so out of here.” It didn’t seem to clear to me at the time, but she was right!

15 years ago it was me and my two cats moving into temporary housing. The Dot Com boom was in full swing. Mac OS X was under development but wouldn’t be released for another two years.

10 years ago Debbi and I had been dating for almost three years, and she had a couple of kittens. The Red Sox were about to embark on their first championship season in 86 years. Macs still ran on PowerPC chips and Apple stock was riding up on the strength of the iPod.

5 years ago Debbi and I were still living in the townhouse. My cat Jefferson would pass away a year later. The iPhone was already a big thing and I think its App Store was available by then, but the iPad was still in the future.

1999 feels like a different era, yet it wasn’t so long ago. It feels like so much has happened, yet it all felt like a series of manageable transitions while it was happening. (c.f. John Gruber’s “This is How Apple Rolls” piece – for the most part, that’s how a person’s life rolls, too.)

Where will I be in another 15 years?

Refugee from Google Reader

It was just under a year ago that I chose a new RSS reader when Safari dropped its syndication support. But at the beginning of this month Google Reader was end-of-lifed. While my reader of choice, NetNewsWire, still works, I’d have to either start syncing my bookmarks myself (such as using rsync via Dropbox), or sign up for a new service for syncing.

(Why is syncing important? Partly so I can subscribe to a new feed in one place and it will appear in other places, but more importantly so I can read articles in one place and they will also no longer be unread in other places. “Places” for me mainly means my Macs at work and at home. I do read feeds on my iPad, but that’s not essential.)

TidBITs had a nice summary of available replacements. And by “replacements” they really meant the services providing syncing, not the desktop- and device-side clients. It seemed like Feedly and NewsBlur were the services which best matched what I was looking for. Feedly is a free service. NewsBlur is ostensibly free, but you don’t get a lot for free – in particular, you get a lot less than I use. But you can subscribe to it for $24/year.

For the time being I’ve decided to go with NewsBlur I was disappointed that Feedly didn’t support exporting your feeds to OPML when I was looking (though I guess they’ve added that), but NewsBlur had a couple of compelling points:

  • Its Web interface allowed me to get a “combined” view like NetNewsWire had – I really hate the master-master-detail interface that many readers have.
  • It supports nested folders, which I find useful.

It also has an iOS client. However, the only supports Mac client seems to be ReadKit. I would describe ReadKit as “bare bones”. It doesn’t have either of the NewsBlur web reader features I mentioned above, and I wasn’t too impressed with the interface overall. Perhaps it will improve, but I think it has some distance to go. Your mileage may vary. (I know people who chose other services because they’re supported by Reeder. I was not impressed with Reeder a year ago; perhaps it’s improved. I don’t think the Mac client has been updated for a while, though, and that’s the one that matters to me.)

So for now I’ll mainly be reading feeds through the web. And while it’s taken me a little while to adjust to the keyboard shortcuts in NewsBlur, and the fact that it’s not a separate app, I’m getting used to it. It’s pretty good, actually. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a syndication reader whose interface I’d characterize as “great”, so there’s an opportunity there for someone to seize.

Here’s what NewsBlur’s web interface looks like, in the configuration I’m using:

Newsblur web interface
(click for larger image)

And yes, I subscribed to Newsblur. I think it will give me value for my money, and I am increasingly skeptical that free services are worth my time investing in: I mistrust companies based around advertising and don’t want to get locked in to them. I would rather pay for the service. And I’m especially doubtful that free services which aren’t supporting themselves with ads and don’t seem to have a clear path to financial stability will be around in a year or two. (I’m not completely consistent about this, but I’m taking stock of the services I’m using over time. I recently bought the premium service for Evernote, for example.)

Marco Arment makes some good points about where syndication support has to go. In particular there will have to be syndication services with available, documented and supported APIs, and there will have to be clients which support multiple services. There’s some money to be made on both sides. It’s still early days, though. Five years from now I bet the landscape will be completely different.

Oh, and NetNewsWire? Arment had a few words about that at the link above, but I tried out the NNW 4 beta, and noticed that the combined view – the killer feature that made me choose it a year ago – is gone. So they’re going to have to really step up to get me back.

So overall I’m pretty happy where I’ve landed. I’d be lost without RSS feeds – how would I ever keep up with all the Webcomics I read? (And don’t say Twitter – I’d have to laugh in your face.)

Choosing an RSS Reader

Ever since the Safari browser for Mac OS X added support for viewing syndication feeds (e.g. RSS and Atom) I’ve been a voracious user of the feature. I follow literally dozens of blogs via feeds, and dozens of webcomics as well.

Sadly, syndication support is going away in Safari 6.0 (which is the version that comes with OS X Mountain Lion), and that means following feeds will require turning to a third-party app. So I’ve been looking into various apps to decide which one works best for me.

(Apparently the Firefox browser also supports syndication, but I didn’t really want to switch to another browser. Also, since syndication support was IMO the killer feature in Safari, I’ll be more open to considering other browsers in the future once it’s gone. I used to use Camino from time to time, but pretty much stopped once Safari gained syndication support. On the other hand, bookmark syncing is also very important to me, so maybe I won’t switch.)

I started out with a fairly specific set of requirements. For example, I wanted not to use Google Reader, mainly because I limit my use of Google products since I don’t really trust them to use data they collect from me responsibly. (I am pretty suspicious of any large company which is mainly supported by advertising, actually.) But my requirements morphed as I looked around, and what I ended up with doesn’t entirely resemble what I started out looking for. For instance, the synchronization ability of Google Reader (to keep my feeds synchronized on multiple machines) was just too good to pass up, so I ended up going with that, as it has become a de facto standard.

(I had originally hoped I could find an app which would sync via Dropbox, e.g. by keeping its data file in Dropbox, but I couldn’t find an app that would support that. So Google Reader it is.)

My ultimate requirements were as follows:

  1. I wanted an OS X client, as I consume most of my web content on that platform. An iOS client would be nice, but was not required. Indeed, I haven’t even looked at iOS clients so far.
  2. I wanted to be able to organize my feeds hierarchically in the manner that I prefer.
  3. I wanted a reasonably robust UI experience, and of course an app that would work and not crash frequently.

This last one was the trick, because it seems like most of the syndication readers for OS X basically suck. Many of them have pretty dire reviews in the Mac App Store regarding stability and features. I didn’t want to spend $5 here and $7 there trying out various readers which didn’t seem reasonably promising to start with.

I ended up trying three: NetNewsWire, Reeder, and Cappuccino.

And the winner was… NetNewsWire.

Without going into detail, the big reason for choosing that app was that its UI was just much more robust and configurable than the others. Both Reeder and Cappuccino were limited in allowing me to organize my feeds, to configure their UI, and even just to make fonts smaller. Their workflows (where to click, how to mark articles as already-read, etc.) also didn’t quite work for me. Now, Reeder in particular seems to be quite popular, so perhaps I’m in the minority there, but overall I liked NetNewsWire the best. (Some folks have told me that Reeder seems better suited for use on iOS, so if I ever decide to start consuming feeds there I’ll give it a try.)

NetNewsWire was originally developed by Brent Simmons, whose blog by coincidence I’ve been reading for a while anyway, though it’s now owned by Black Pixel (which also has an interesting blog,).

Some things I like about NetNewsWire:

  1. It uses a clever hack to support hierarchical folders. I wish it didn’t have to use a clever hack, but I infer (from my experience with other readers) that Google Reader doesn’t natively support hierarchical folders.
  2. I can sort the items in the folders chronologically, so I can read them from oldest-to-newest. (I don’t think Safari supported this, actually. Or maybe I never discovered it.)
  3. It supports several configurations of the main window: Three-column master-detail (“Widescreen View”, common in other readers), master-detail with the article list above the main reading view (“Traditional View”, but since vertical real estate is more valuable than horizontal real estate, not my choice), and a simple master-detail with feeds on the left, and when you select a folder all the articles for all feeds appear on the right (“Combined View”).

    The Combined View was actually the killer feature that made me choose NNW. The other two readers didn’t seem to support it.


Traditional View

Widescreen View

Combined View


Choosing the Combined View

The thing I miss the most moving from Safari so far is that NetNewsWire (unsurprisingly) doesn’t support the Safari AdBlock extension, which means that feeds that contain ads show those ads when I’m viewing them. That’s a bummer, but not a backbreaker. I did set NetNewsWire to “Open Links in Default Web Browser” so I don’t have to view the ads when going to pages from a feed.

The other thing I miss is that in Safari I was able to mix feed bookmarks with web page bookmarks, which was useful for reading webcomics since some of them don’t have feeds (such as Blip, whose feed has always been broken, and newspaper comics from Comics Kingdom). This isn’t a failing of NNW specifically, but rather is the nature of syndication reader generally – they don’t replace web browsers.

I also find that NNW is a little light on shortcut keys (for example, renaming an item in my feed list requires choosing a menu item, which is annoying cumbersome). I could probably wire up additional shortcuts in System Preferences, but haven’t looked at doing so yet.

Overall I think NetNewsWire will be a pretty good solution. NetNewsWire is free-but-ad-supported, but I’ll probably purchase it (it costs $14.95) in order to support the developers (and because I really hate ads).

By the way, if you don’t want to use Google Reader, then NNW doesn’t force you to do so (many other readers seem to require a Google Reader account). How you sync your feed lists among your devices in that case is an exercise left to the reader, however (I haven’t looked at how it might be done, but I imagine it involved some import/export magic to something like Dropbox).

Oh, if it looks good to you, then you will need to download it from the web site as it isn’t available in the Mac App Store (at time of writing, anyway). It appears to have an auto-update facility, though, which is nice because I have a terrible track record at updating apps that don’t tell me when a new version is available!

My One Little Steve Jobs Anecdote

So Steve Jobs stepped down as Apple CEO yesterday, and people far and wide are sharing their stories of the man. Mine might be the smallest of any you’ll read, but I hope you’ll enjoy it anyway.

The reason I tell it is that once I started working at Apple (in 1999, a couple of years after Steve returns to the company), people started asking me if I’d met him. Something about the way they asked, or a look in their eye, made me realize what they really wanted was a “blood in the water” story about the CEO with the famous temper, or temperament, or something. I’d heard stories myself (one is that he’d sometimes ask people he encountered in the elevator what they worked on, and basically make them justify their job right there and then), but they were just stories to me. Oh, I had no doubt that he was emphatic in arguing about things, but I didn’t know any credible stories of him really laying into an employee he’d met at random.

Still, after just a few years it had become kind of ridiculous how many people asked me if I’d met Steve, who seemed to have an expectation of a good, juicy Steve story. I think at least a few of them asked if he’d yelled at me.

Indeed, I did pass Steve from time to time on the Apple campus. At least twice we simply made eye contact, smiled, and said “Hello” to each other, and continued on our ways. Once I saw him approaching with a look on his face that said “I’m on a mission and no one is going to get in my way.” I got out of his way and he walked on by.

But here’s the real story I have to tell:

In 2003 I started biking to work regularly. For a number of years I worked in Infinite Loop 1 – 2 floors below the CEO’s office. Despite being only on the second floor, I always took the elevator to bring my bike to and from my office: My office was big enough to hold my bike comfortably (so I didn’t have to lock it up outside), and it was awkward to carry it up and down the stairs; I was always afraid I’d damage the wall or the bike. I would wait for an empty elevator if someone else was waiting so I didn’t inconvenience them.

So one warm summer day (2004, maybe?) I’m leaving work, in full “biking dork” regalia (biking shorts, helmet, gloves, clip-on shoes), and I go to the elevator and hit the “down” button. The elevator arrives and (of course) there stands Steve. I think, “Great, he’s wondering why I can’t just walk my bike down one flight of stairs rather than stopping his elevator.” But since it would be truly stupid to let him go on without me (“I’m going to inconvenience you and do so for no reason whatsoever because I’m an idiot!”), I get in the elevator. The doors close.

Steve looks at the bike, looks at me, and says, “Beautiful day for a bike ride.”

I’m not very comfortable talking to famous or powerful people (you should see me stammer when I meet a science fiction author whose work I admire). Thinking quickly but not clearly (in other words, being something of an idiot), I say something like, “It’s nice. A little warm, though.” Steve is having none of this and responds along the lines that I’m picking nits. I allow that he may be right. By this time we’ve left the elevator and walked out the front doors of the building.

I remember thinking as we went outside that it was a little warm, but in the grand scheme of things, here we were in Silicon Valley where it’s almost always a beautiful day for a bike ride. So what did I really have to complain about?

I bet there are lots of employees with stories like this. The “blood in the water” stories seem more like legends (or, more likely, the stuff of high-level meetings among people whose job descriptions include going at it tooth-and-nail with the CEO, meeting a line worker like me would never hear about). Maybe he was different his first go-round at Apple, but if so, he’d grown a lot by the time he returned.

Oh, and no one I’ve told this story to has seemed disappointed by it. So maybe they didn’t really want the blood after all.

Teatro Zinzanni

Those of my readers who know I work on Apple’s developer tools may have heard that we recently shipped Xcode 4. But this entry isn’t about that (since, well, this isn’t a work or an Apple blog). Rather, it’s about our ship celebration, which was dinner at Teatro Zinzanni in San Francisco on Thursday night.

Debbi and I decided to take the bus up with most everyone else, mainly because driving into the city during rush hour wasn’t attractive, but also because driving home after dinner wasn’t real appealing either. It only took a little over an hour for the bus to get there, so it wasn’t much of a compromise.

Teatro Zinzanni is – literally – dinner-and-a-show, the show being similar in some respects to Cirque du Soleil, but with a dash of vaudeville and audience participation thrown in. The show alternates a comedy bit – usually plucking an audience member for their involvement and a little embarrassment – with a musical and/or acrobatic performance, and one of the five courses of the dinner. While the style of the comedy bits were not really my thing (although seeing my cow-orkers’ involvement was greatly humorous, which made up for it), the other performances were very impressive. I was particularly amazed at the feats of strength and acrobatics performed by “Les Petits Frères”, which were frequently amazing.

(I’m amused that Zinzanni’s slogan is “Love, chaos and dinner”, since in order to perform these stunts in a dinner setting what they’re doing is anything but chaos.)

Almost worth the visit all by themselves are the available mixed drinks (PDF), of which I think I had one more than I really ought to have had. (Another excellent reason to have taken the bus.) I think the “Bella Donna” was my favorite.

We had fun socializing before dinner. Debbi met many of my cow-orkers, whom she mostly hadn’t met since I moved to a different team last summer, and we caught up with a few people we don’t see very often.

It was around midnight by the time we made it home, but it was well worth it. We have some friends who are big fans of Teatro Zinzanni, and I can see going back sometime.

I’d just rather not be one of the people picked to participate in one of the comedy bits!

Other Endings

Seems like a number of other projects are coming to an end around the Web as we transition to the new year, much as I decided to end my weekly comics review column. A few I’ve noticed:

  • Dirk Deppey’s daily comics blog roundup came to an end as the author was let go by Fantagraphics.
  • J.C. Bradbury is ending his Sabernomics baseball blog, to spend his time on other projects. Bradbury was an unusual voice in the sabermetric community, often presenting opinions at odds with common sabermetric approaches, such as his dislike of the idea of replacement-level players.
  • The terrific webcomic Plan B came to an end last month, as its story reached its conclusion. I thought the ending was too ambiguous and kind of devoid of meaning – it needed a stronger denouement – but it was still a great ride, and I look forward to the creator’s next project.
  • Not quite as sadly, Chad Nevitt’s Dreadstar December closes with a look at the next-to-last all-Jim-Starlin-created issue, and a summary of the series as a whole. Dreadstar was one of my favorite comic books when Starlin was producing it (it quickly lost that position when Peter David – whose style clashed badly with the feel of the book – took over as writer), and I don’t think it’s ever gotten its due. Nevitt did a great job looking at each issue and considering it as a serious work, warts and all. It’s certainly the high point of Starlin’s long career in comics.

No doubt there will be plenty of beginnings of Web projects that I’ll want to follow in the first month of 2011. The difference is that I may not find out about them until months afterwards.

New Nano

Is it silly to be excited to get a new toy like this? Especially since there have been weeks when I’ve spent more on comic books than I spent on this? (Okay, very few such weeks, but still.)

I mainly plan to use this to play podcasts in my car, replacing my venerable – but nearing the end – 80 Gb “classic” iPod.

The iPad Cometh

I’m not buying an iPad this weekend, though many of my friends and cow-orkers are. I tend to trail the edge of technology adoption anyway; I’m quirky for a programmer that way. For me it seems like the iPad is rife with potential, but there’s not a lot I’d truly use it for from the beginning.

Here are some things I don’t expect to use the iPad for:

  1. Reading books and comic books. To me, most books and many comic books are things to be enjoyed over and over, to be collected and shared through lending and borrowing. I own many books and comics which I expect to enjoy for decades to come, and I have my doubts that the evolution of technology is such that I’ll be able to read an e-book I buy today again in 20 years without going through some sort of annoying upgrading process, due to format changes (never mind DRM issues, if any). Reading literature on a device seems better aimed towards disposable works. To be sure, there are some books which I regard as disposable (this one, for instance), but that’s not the case for most books.

    Of course, many readers may consider most books to be “disposable” in this case. (Debbi gets most of her reading material from the library, the long-time gold standard of disposable literature.) Even the classics are disposable to someone who doesn’t plan to ever read them again. But I’m a collector, so I’m just not the target audience for e-books and e-comics.

  2. Programming. One can program for the iPad, but not on the iPad. More to the point, for me, most of my programming outside work these days involves writing complex Ruby scripts to process baseball statistics and my library of Magic cards. That uses programming as a tool to get some information out the other side, rather than to write an application which is itself the tool; it cuts out the middleman, so to speak. I could imagine rewriting all that stuff so that it runs on the iPad, but it’s not likely that I will. Especially the baseball stuff, which is pretty narrowly tailored to my own quirky needs.

    Programmers are an exception to Frasier Spears’ commentary on the iPad in this way; for us, programming often is a part of the “real work”. But the point is that programmers are not the core audience for the iPad, and I think one reason behind Cory Doctorow’s ire is that he either doesn’t understand or doesn’t accept this.

  3. Writing and blogging. I don’t see myself writing fiction or essays or blog posts on an iPad: Why use the on-screen keyboard or buy an external keyboard when I can just use my Mac? Will it be as easy to do word processing or use WordPress on an iPad as on a laptop, and if not, will that be a significant barrier? I dunno.

    The question of whether the iPad is mainly aimed at content consumers, or whether it will also work well for content producers, is I think an open question. At the moment my impression is that it leans toward the former, but I can imagine the balance evening out over time. Consequently, I can see myself changing my mind about this one more easily than the above two.

On the other hand, here are some things I do hope to use the iPad for, sooner or later:

  1. As a drawing input device. I expect we’ll see apps which allow the iPad to be used as an input device like the Wacom Cintiq in pretty short order, connecting your iPad to a Mac and using it to control Photoshop or other drawing apps which are too resource-intensive to run on the iPad themselves. (Of course, in the long run, why need to even connect it to your Mac? But I doubt we’re there yet for many purposes.)
  2. Playing innovative games. Computer games have been pretty stagnant for the last 10 years, in my opinion. First person shooters, real-time strategy games, simple arcade-style games, they’ve each made incremental advances over time, but nothing that’s blown me away. The last time I played computer games which felt truly new were MYST and Riven back in the 90s. Sure, they were at their core puzzle games, but they were also immersive experiences in exploring a world. I would love to see a thoughtful, immersive game experience enabled by the iPad.
  3. Reading newspapers and magazines. Speaking of disposable literature, I still subscribe to the daily newspaper (the San Jose Mercury News) in print form, and I even save the funnies every day for Debbi to read. I’ll probably keep doing so, but I could see subscribing to other periodicals – especially niche ones, or ones I don’t plan to keep, such as science fiction magazines – and reading them on an iPad. (And yes, I’d certainly pay for them.)

I have no doubt I’ll buy an iPad eventually (perhaps as soon as this summer). This is just my personal and ruthlessly-practical way of looking at it.

The iPad is already a fascinating device from a social-engineering and technological-evolutionary standpoint (if it weren’t, there wouldn’t be all the controversy surrounding it), and the science fiction fan and casual futurist in me would love to write about those aspects. However, the Apple employee in me thinks I should probably stay out of it. (I don’t think anyone really listens to little ol’ me, but there’s no percentage in risking the Internet Hordes unexpectedly descending on my blog and reading more into it than I intend.)

And on that note, off I go to my fantasy baseball draft, which I manage using the aforementioned Ruby scripts on my MacBook Pro.

Monsters of Webcomics

Saturday we went up to the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco, mainly because I wanted to see their Monsters of Webcomics exhibition before it departs later this month.

If you’ve never been to the Cartoon Art Museum, it’s definitely worth a trip. Admission is reasonable (currently $6 for adults), and you get a lot for your money: The museum consists of 5 rooms, each with a different exhibit. If you’re afraid that it’s full of superhero comics art, nothing could be further from the truth: I features all sorts of sequential art, and usually there are only a few pages of superhero comics. For example, we saw a collection of concept art, color test art, and animation cels from Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, many from the collection of one of the artists, Ron Dias. Another is an exhibition of an underground cartoonist from San Francisco, Spain Rodriguez. While underground comics aren’t my thing, there’s something for everyone (well, most people) here. The museum also has a bookstore in front with an eclectic selection.

The webcomics exhibit was pretty good, featuring ten webcomics, most of which I’d heard of, but only one of which (Girl Genius) I read. Though I probably should be reading Dicebox and Templar, Arizona (I’d never heard of the former, I’d come across the latter but not gotten into it). The other seven arguably have more in common with the underground comics I’m not fond of than with traditional cartoons or comic art, so I’m not sure any of them will be my thing (the art styles aren’t generally to my taste, and surrealistic stories and jokes aren’t for me). Still, it’s always good to see what’s out there.

The museum’s exhibits always feature copious notes, and this exhibit contained descriptions by the strip creators of how they got into webcomics, and how they produce their comics. The Dicebox exhibit contained a step-by-step illustration of how the creator produces a page, using both paper and digital techniques.

It’s been several years since I’d last visited the museum. I should wander by their web page more often and try to go once a year or so, because I always enjoy it. Plus, it’s an excuse to get up to the city, which us South Bay dwellers can be reluctant to do.

The 5 Stages of Internet Friendship

  1. You quietly follow their blog and/or Twitter feed (also known as lurking).
  2. You comment on their blog or respond to their tweets.
  3. You exchange e-mail with them.
  4. You friend them on Facebook.
  5. You add them to your instant messaging buddy list.

Things were a little different back in 1990, when I was new to the net:

  1. You read their posts on USENET.
  2. You send them e-mail about their posts.
  3. You publicly respond to their posts.
  4. You chat with them using talk, BITnet Relay, or perhaps IRC.
  5. You talk with them on the phone or meet them in person.

Thank goodness today we have enough social networking technology to avoid that last step! Hooray for progress, eh?