Opportunity Lost

The other day I opened the cabinet to grab some cold cereal. I wasn’t sure which specific cereal I was going to have, I just knew that a bowl full of yummy not-too-sweet flakes with some almond milk splashed over them would be tasty. Probably I’d slice a banana over the cereal.

So, surveying the candidates with an open mind, I was confronted with… anonymous boxes. Black-and-white panels of nutrition information. I selected a cereal and resolved to put it away with the other edge showing, so my poor tired eyes could identify that box better the next time.

It turns out the other side was no better, and I realized that all the cereal boxes in the cabinet used the side panels as junk space.

Big mistake, I say. In the case of cereal, all the marketing is on the front of the box, with stuff on the back of the box to keep the kids without TV in the kitchen occupied. The packaging designers are missing an important opportunity.

There are two phases to marketing a box of cereal; first you get it off the store shelf and into the shopping cart. That’s what the front panel does. But the marketing isn’t over then; cereals are still competing to get from the box to the bowl. The winner of that contest empties the box faster. It’s about selling the next box.

That competition is all about the side panels. If I were king of a cereal company, the boring stuff would be on the back, and the side panels would be devoted exclusively to “Hey! Look at me! I’m yummy!”


Episode two takes a more serious turn, with a story of friendship and life, and the end of one but not the other.


So, I set up to record the thing, and I thought this episode wouldn’t take as much time to put together since I already had my template set up. I recorded the story and it went smoothly. I assembled the takes and got it all paced correctly. Then I put it into the template from last time and discovered that, despite using the same room and the same microphone, it sounded totally different. I tweaked some settings and tried again. Still totally different. “Must be the proximity effect,” I thought, and recoded again, with the mic closer to my mouth. Nope. Still different.

I think the difference might be the way I connected the mic to the computer (through a USB adapter the first time, straight in the second). I tried replicating the effect using software, but I wasn’t terribly successful.

Still, once you get past the sudden change in acoustic quality, the story does all right.



A few years ago I was at a party, and I was talking to a guy I’d met a few times before. “I don’t believe in X,” he said (I have no recollection what X was), just like I don’t believe in relativity.”

I was young, and perhaps naïve, but I didn’t think relativity was a candidate to be part of a belief system. “What do you mean, you don’t believe in relativity?” I asked. Here was a chance, I thought, to explain the principle to someone who didn’t understand it.

I failed. I failed and got very frustrated, angry at myself for not explaining things better. Angry that I had not even put doubt into the non-believer. It went like this: He explained something he called “the inertia problem.” I assumed he’d picked it up from a book by some ‘rogue’ physicist (more on them later). He described the inertia problem. It was nonsensical and even if you helped it along a bit with incorrect terminology, it still had absolutely nothing to do with relativity.

In retrospect, I enumerated a few options how to proceed:

  • Ask, “What does that have to do with relativity?” and address the incorrect linkages specifically.
  • Say, “Look, relativity has been measured over and over, in different ways, from the orbit of Mercury to clocks in the Apollo capsules. The work my own father does would simply break without it.”
  • Ask “Do you believe in gravity? Because that’s a hell of a lot more mysterious than relativity.”
  • Say, “Fortunately, relativity doesn’t need your faith to work.”
  • I could treat the “inertia problem” as a credible theory, work my ass of to recast it in terms that actually meant something, then demonstrate that my construct was, in fact, not in disagreement with relativity.

I think you can guess which course I took. Perhaps all of the above would have failed (more on that later, too), but just mentioning personal experience and giving a taste of the enormous pile of things that have verified relativity in the past century might have provided enough skepticism that at least the Unbeliever would not spread his Unfaith as fervently. (I wonder if he uses a GPS now? I wonder if he knows he’s using relativity?)

This guy thought of himself as a skeptic, as someone who didn’t just believe what everyone else did. In fact, he was not a skeptic at all. He was Rogue wanna-be. The way to convince him of something was to start with, “The establishment doesn’t want me to say…” and then say something that implies special knowledge that no one else has. Some idiot whose concept of physics is mired in the 1850’s writes a book saying that relativity is bogus, and members of the Rebel Dalliance hoist him on their shoulders. Stick it to the man! Believe a quack for no other reason than he says the establishment is wrong!

There’s never been a moon landing! Never mind that the junk is up there, in plain sight. For some reason Russia and China continue to cooperate with the US to perpetuate a hoax forty years later. Why do people believe that? Because it’s fun to style oneself as a rogue. As long as you only talk to other members of the Rebel Dalliance, you don’t have to discover that you’re an idiot.

Which brings me to evolution. Lots of people in this country don’t believe in it. As I could have said to the guy who didn’t believe in relativity, evolution doesn’t require their faith to work. The part that sticks in my craw is the large number of anti-evolution salesmen who claim that there are other scientifically-viable theories. Intelligent design and whatnot. A handful of ‘rogue’ scientists have done well for themselves proposing plausible-sounding stories and selling them as science. People will pay you to tell them what they want to hear.

Those theories are not science. In fact, they’re not even theories. A better name for ‘rogue scientist’ is ‘salesman’. Anyone who claims to be a scientist must always be ready to listen to more evidence and modify or scrap his favorite theory. It happens. But in science, even the guys who are wrong are improving the process, bringing up proposals and, most importantly, new tests to challenge the status quo. Sometimes (well, often) pride gets tangled up in things, but even then they are not rogues, they are stubborn scientists.

Science is about letting go. People who say science is messed up because people used to believe one thing but now believe something else are in fact demonstrating the strength of science. We learn. We grow. We change.

“I believe God made Adam from clay,” is perfectly all right with me. I have no difficulty with faith; it’s about the unknowable, about the places science can’t reach. Just don’t try to clothe faith in science and wedge it into the science curriculum at my local school.

If your theory can’t be tested, it’s not science. This is currently a hot topic at the most esoteric level of physics. The math works, but it’s hard to test without exploding suns to get the energy required. There are a lot of folks, promoters and skeptics alike, searching for planet-earth size experiments to test the math.

So, scientific theories have to be testable. Even that’s not enough, though. How many times have you started a sentence with “A study showed that…?” A bunch of times, right? Me, too. And I will again. Some of those studies are pretty crazy. But while you do it, remember this: A study has never shown anything. Ever. A single study is so vulnerable to mistakes and misinterpretation that you can never draw broad conclusions. The study has to be replicated, by someone else, using methods that answer questions raised by outsiders about the first study.

Remember cold fusion? Some guys were so excited about the result of their experiment that they bypassed normal science channels and went mainstream. The economic implications of their study were so world-changing that the entire scientific community dropped what they were doing to try to replicate that experiment in a hundred different ways. Turns out, the original experiment was flawed. (Somewhere, there’s a ROGUE SCIENTIST selling books telling of the coverup of cold fusion.)

Scientific evidence has to be repeatable. Predictably repeatable. Every measurement has to have an estimate of the likelihood that it’s wrong.

The biggest problem with teaching creationism alongside evolution in schools is that it clouds what science even is. Creationism as an ‘alternate theory’ totally confuses the definition of ‘theory’. When discussing science, creationism is most certainly not a theory. It can’t be tested. I don’t care what you think about dinosaurs; you could leave them out of the curriculum and I wouldn’t mind that much (the kids will supplement their own education on that score), but please, please, teach what science is, and even more importantly, what it isn’t.

Sooner or later our government will be filled with people who don’t even understand the nature of science, its strengths and weaknesses, yet they will be making critical decisions based on science. Ah, shit. That’s happened already.

If we all knew what science was, then when some oil-company-funded pundit comes on TV to ‘debunk’ global warming with feel-good talk about economic growth, the token scientist in studio to rebut could simply say, “that’s not science,” and the nation would nod and disregard the previous bloviations. “Now,” the anchor will say, “We can get to the real debate: what to do about it.”


Do Not Attempt

The Title of this episode commonly appears as fine print in television commercials, where the advertiser wants to make sure no one holds them responsible for someone else being stupid.

I may add to this post, but here’s the one that forced me (yes, forced) to write this little episode:

  • Do not attempt an automobile collision while someone is hanging from the side of one of the vehicles, on the side of the collision.
  • Do not jump out of an airplane while holding a sphere of electricity and then hurl said sphere into a cloud that you are falling toward, filling it with lightning.

I know you were going to.


The Smart Phone that’s (Almost) Smart Enough

I’m told a lot of people were disappointed by the announcement of the iPhone 4S, and I guess I can see why. The hardware sports a much faster processor, but it’s not 4G! My current 3G phone is plenty fast enough for what I do, and that has included tethering it to my computer for Web access where there’s no WiFi. So, 4G doesn’t really seem that important to me.

Tethering the phone to my computer, now that’s a big deal, and something that iPhones can’t (or at least couldn’t) do without cracking them first. So I don’t currently have an iPhone.

The 4S is the one that finally has me tempted, however. To understand why, let me tell you what I wish my current smart phone could do.

1) I wish I could pick it up without looking, push a button, say ‘navigate home’, set it back down, and have the GPS system take me to my current address. Naturally I want this function when I’ve taken a wrong turn and I don’t want to mess with a damn phone, I just want to get out of there. I don’t have any spare attention to work through menus or wait while the phone processes ‘navigate’ and I can then tell it my address (which includes a street name that the voice recognition never gets right).

2) Again I’m driving. I want to pick up the phone, say, “I’m in traffic” and have the phone notify my boss that I’m running late, and send a message to anyone I might have an appointment with in the next 30 minutes. This would lower my stress immeasurably and remove a temptation (which I never succumb to) to make a phone call while driving.

Enter Siri, your humble personal assistant, and the real thing that’s exciting about the 4S.

Here’s a story an Apple board member told today at Steve’s memorial service. He related that on the day Steve came before the board to resign as CEO, he stuck around for the rest of the meeting. It was the day Siri was demonstrated to the board, and after a few minutes Steve said “let me see that thing.” The presenter hesitated, saying the phone had been calibrated to his voice, but really he knew that Steve was going to throw something unexpected at the device to see how it handled it. You never said no to Steve at a time like that. Steve started by asking the phone a couple of typical questions, then said, “Are you a man or a woman?”

Siri responded, “I have not been assigned a gender.” Steve, I believe, was pleased.

Al Gore, also a board member, told another Siri story. Al’s theme was that people genuinely love Apple’s products (there is, apparently, neurological evidence supporting this). He pointed out, however, that technology really doesn’t love you back. To illustrate the point he told of a friend (daughter, maybe? I’m a bit sketchy on the specifics) who asked Siri, “do you love me?”

Siri said, “I respect you.”

Oh, yeah, you can also say “Siri, text Katherine and say I’ll be late,” and it will. “Katherine says no problem,” Siri might say a few minutes later. Not as fun, but a lot more useful. I’m confident that with a little fiddling Siri can actually do my two use-cases above.

If Siri is as good as it seems, it will be remembered long after people stop putting ‘i’ at the front of everything. Our robot overlords will remember Siri as a turning point. It is the next user interface, the hands-free, eyes-free, give-me-what-I-need-without-interrupting-my-current-task interface. The one from Star Trek and Galaxy Quest, only, unlike in the latter, anyone can talk to it.

Siri says, “I am your humble personal assistant.”

Speaking of Flash…

Long ago, as a follow-up to my giant hit “Duck!” I undertook a much more elaborate project. Once more, Jose provided some of the key images (William Shatner, mainly), and I did the rest.

I never finished. I got close, and I put a lot of time into it (lip-syncing is time-consuming, to say the least), but it’s not quite there yet. There are flat spots. I haven’t got the easter eggs in yet. No credits, and no preloading. It looks like the audio has been shifted a frame. Still, there’s a lot to like about it, too. It’s Shatner, after all, at his psychedelic best.

I’d finish the thing, but I don’t even own a version of Flash that will run on my current hardware, and Flash is expensive. Hard to justify shelling out that kind of cash just to put the final touches on this monster. Still… It would be cool.

Note that this animation is interactive — don’t take your hand off that mouse just yet! Your final score will be displayed at the end. Also, there are a couple of things that happen differently each time, and a lot of things going on you won’t notice the first time through. Not as many as I planned, but the project is stalled.

If someone who has Flash would be interested in helping me get across the finish line, let me know!

Notes: It may look like it’s running, but you need to right-click the animation and select ‘Play” to make it go. (Controls are obviously something that didn’t get put in before the project stalled.) I optimized this animation for slightly larger display; if I could figure out why there’s no full-screen option when you right-click I’d fix that, too.



The Rise and Fall of Adobe Flash

A long, long time ago, I wanted to make lava lamp buttons for my Web site. I wanted the shape of the lava blobs to be random and mathematically controlled, and it had to be done with vector graphics – animated gifs would have been huge to provide something that even remotely felt random, and back in those days most people connected with dialup modems.

I searched high and low for a vector animation tool and couldn’t find one. There was Macromedia Director, which I used extensively back then, which put out files for Web play in a format called Shockwave, but it wasn’t a true vector-based program. Not the right tool for lava lamp buttons, that was for sure. I’d started playing with a java applet to draw my buttons, but it seemed like vector animation was something the Web really needed. I mentioned this to a friend of mine, and he said, “Oh I know some guys with the tool you’re looking for.” At the time it was called FutureSplash.

I mentioned FutureSplash to my boss. It was going to be huge, I predicted. His response: “Maybe we should buy them.” (Ah, those dot-com boom days, how I miss them.) Three days later Macromedia announced that they had bought FutureSplash (for a lot more than we could have paid) and contracted the name to Flash.

The rest is history — until the present.

There was even a time when I imagined that a lot of the Web would end up as Flash. Or at least it should. Flash had a lot of things right that HTML had managed to screw up. You could do a lot more, and with Flash the Web experience began to approach the quality of experience people had in other parts of their computing lives.

Macromedia and later Adobe seemed to go out of their way to prevent Flash from taking over the Web. Creating Flash became ever more complex and ever more expensive. Nowhere was the simple “baby Flash” that Joe Amateur could use to build a nice site without first getting extensive training and shelling out a few hundred bucks for tools.

Meanwhile, Flash designers didn’t help in those early years, either. So much Flash became “look what I can do” rather than “look how I can make your visit to my Web site better” that Jane Surfer started resenting Flash. “I waited 60 seconds to download this?” A good example of that sort of waste is at the top of this page, in fact. There are a couple of fun things in the banner, but they don’t enhance the Muddled Experience very much.

Now, the world is shifting again. If you’re reading this site from your iPad, you don’t see the banner at all. No Flash in iOS. This is something the other tablet manufacturers have made a big deal of—but maybe not for very much longer. Microsoft’s next tablet OS won’t support Flash, either.

HTML, the platform I get paid to dislike, is becoming HTML, the platform I get paid to deal with. HTML5, CSS3, full SVG support, and robust JavaScript libraries make possible just about everything Flash can do, without Flash. That’s a lot of things to learn and manage to get a job done, however. Before, a designer could just master Flash and be confident that their work would look right wherever the Flash plugin was installed.

What’s needed is a tool like Flash that, after you’re done designing, outputs your masterpiece in Web-standard format, with HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. When something like that comes out, the handwriting will be on the wall for Flash.

And here it is. Adobe, makers of Flash, have announced Edge, the animation tool that will eventually replace Flash. It looks pretty good. It doesn’t do anything remotely close to what Flash does (no mention of audio that I’ve found, for instance, so my banner would have to forego the theme song, and interactivity will have to be handled outside the tool as well, as far as my first glance tells me), but it does a great deal, and when you’re done the product will work in all modern browsers, including mobile ones. Adobe has applied their long, long experience making animation tools to make the user interface slick and clean (though you will want a really big monitor).

Flash will be around a long, long time yet; it still lets a developer build Web-based user interfaces that would be a pain in the butt to create from HTML and the rest of the alphabet soup. That gap is narrowing, however, and as Edge gains in features (and, alas, complexity), the marginalization of Flash will accelerate. I’m impressed that Adobe said, “If Flash dies, we’ll be the ones to kill it.” They really are the right people for the job. Now all we need is “baby Edge.”


This is the first in a series of podcasts in which I read some of my favorite stories from the past. I’m starting off on a lighter note with Hell-Cricket. Enjoy!


I learned quite a bit as I put together all the bits to make a polished and fun podcast, and I still have a lot to learn. Subsequent stories should be easier, as I get all the intro and outro stuff figured out, and the mechanics of publishing squared away.

I still have some tweaking to do; if you have any technical difficulties or suggestions in general, I’d love to hear about it in the comments!


Seven? Really?

A few days ago the Firefox team let forth a new major release. 7.0.1. Seven. That’s a lot of progress since earlier this year when they floated Firefox 4.

Most software companies would have labeled this release 4.3. The Firefox team has eschewed the first dot and has decided to make any release with a feature change a new major release. There is no n.1; the first decimal digit is entirely vestigial. There was no 4.1. There was no 5.1 or 6.1 There will be no 7.1, just 7.0.1. This might sound stupid, unless you have Inside Information. Which I have, thanks to Wikipedia.

The Internet Explorer team at Microsoft, sworn rivals of Firefox, are nonetheless ok guys who want to make this whole Web thing work. Back in the day when the Firefox team kicked the ass of the web world and released a browser that not only defined standards but provided the tools to help Web developers code to those standards, team FF were the guys to beat. On the release of FF3, the boys at Microsoft sent the team a cake. Firefox 4 was similarly honored. And FF5. And so on.

And now we see the real reason behind the accelerated numbering. Each major release gets a cake. If I was in charge, there’d be a new major version every Thursday.

* The firefox team joked about sending a cake to Microsoft to honor IE 8 (or 7 or 9 and you shouldn’t ask me to remember shit like that), but they would send the cake along with the recipe. Open-source cake. But (as far as history records) they didn’t. Would’a been funny. There’s talk and there’s action, and seriously you don’t want to be on the losing side of that with Microsoft.


Wore My Black Turtleneck Today

It was my quiet way of marking the passing of a great man.

Ask yourself this: at the company where you work, would they offer grief counseling if your former CEO died? You’ve probably read plenty about Steve Jobs’ accomplishments in the last 24. I hesitate to add to that, but I think a lot of pundits and journalists are missing the mark on what made Steve great.

Steve didn’t invent personal computers. He didn’t invent the Graphical User Interface. He didn’t invent smart phones or tablet computers or mp3 players. His genius was making all those things useful. He’s been called a visionary, and I’m not going to argue that, but his vision was “If this stuff was intuitive to use, it would be a hell of a lot better. And I can fix that.” Macintosh was “the computer for the rest of us.” It was the first personal computer with a GUI, with point-and-click and drag-and-drop, the first computer that made an effort to make tasks you accomplish with technology more similar to things you do in the physical world.

He stole that idea (with permission) from Xerox. Xerox had, to paraphrase some pundit whose name I can’t recall, spent huge amounts of money to see the future. Then they gave Steve a tour of their facility, and he went and made their ideas useful. Steve himself has regrets about that fateful day; he was so blown away by the GUI that he didn’t appreciate the network and the new approach to programming Xerox had developed.

Xerox gave Steve Jobs a peek at the future of computing, and he was just the guy to take that glimpse and revolutionize the way humans and machines interacted, and just the guy to bend a successful company to his vision.

Almost immediately after the Mac was introduced, Steve was wedged out of Apple. The two events were probably related; to say that Steve was brutal on the development team would be an understatement (“Insanely Great” was his mantra; his unwillingness to compromise on the little details his curse), and he was neglecting the very successful Apple II. But the Apple II was the past. Computing the way it used to be done. Mac was a world-changer. Steve knew that. The board of directors wasn’t so sure.

After his departure Apple continued to refine and improve on his vision, and try with increasing futility to protect those inventions from imitators. To this day, Apple is ready to throw down a lawsuit at a moment’s notice, but the biggie, the one that got away, was the one against Microsoft for copying the windowed operating system. Losing that one almost killed Apple.

Then Steve came back. FiRST step: quit refining the OS and overhaul it. The competition was improving quickly. Next step: follow the power. The computing power, I mean, which was moving into smaller and smaller packages. I was pretty excited about Mac OS X, but I was dead stoked when I heard the phrase “A thousand songs in your pocket.” I bought one of those first iPods, and on airplanes and in bars people would ask me about it. The thing was, in a word, awesome. (“Insanely Great” has long been retired. The phrase is kind of like the Great Wall in China, I think – much more fun for people who don’t remember the cost.)

I’m pretty sure that wasn’t the first digital music player, but when it came out, something fundamental changed. This was the first player that was useful, that carried enough music, that you could fill up almost thoughtlessly, that was simple to use, often without looking. All the details were right, the little things that others compromised on. That was Steve’s genius. Do it right. He had the unwavering belief that he knew what right was, even if no one else did. Do it right, and people will agree with you in retrospect. I cringed when Apple got into the phone business. Don’t they know what a cutthroat, small-margin business that is? They did it right, and I stand corrected (provisionally).

I think this is why I enjoy working at Apple so much. Most of you out there will never see the fruits of my labors (except perhaps as a microscopic price reduction in Apple products), but always I strive to put that little bit of extra rightness into everything I make. It’s noticed here. The spirit of Steve, his uncompromising attitude, is still alive.

God: Welcome, Steve. Did you enjoy the heavenly choir?
Steve: They were awesome! Really stirring. But…
God: But what?
Steve: What if everyone could hear their own music? I mean, not music they wrote, but music that was perfect for them, right at that moment.
God: That’s kind of what we do…
Steve: Let me handle this.