Dear Sir or Madam, Would You Read My Book?

It took me years to write, won’t you take a look?

Actually, it both has and hasn’t taken years to write. The idea for the book, Fuzzy Bytes, first occurred to me in the 1980s, when I was working at UCLA, helping faculty and students use a new-fangled thing called “word processing.” One service faculty frequently requested from me was to convert their word processing documents from one format to another.

It was a crazy time: personal computers were rapidly evolving, standards were fluid, disk formats and data formats were myriad, and almost nothing was compatible with anything else. I remember looking one day at an 8-inch disk from an NBI word processor (a standalone piece of office equipment that was briefly popular at the end of the 1970s; “NBI,” by the way, stood for “Nothing But Initials”—really!) and thinking, “We have, and can still read, manuscripts that are over a thousand years old, but five years from now no one will have the slightest clue about how to read any of the documents stored on this disk.”

I imagined the plight of a literary scholar living half a dozen decades from now suddenly discovering the rough drafts of a major literary figure’s works, all stored on disks that were only compatible with devices that had passed from the scene half a century earlier. How would this scholar proceed? Could this scholar proceed?

I made a stab at writing the story of such a scholar years ago, and got 40 or so pages into it when I abandoned the tale.

However, this year I found myself with some free time that coincided with the yearly creative demolition derby known as “National Novel Writing Month” (NaNoWriMo, for short). During NaNoWriMo, aspiring writers and other self-destructive individuals attempt to compose at least 50,000 words of a novel. I dug my old Fuzzy Bytes manuscript from the file cabinet (it’s on paper; the digital draft is, not surprisingly, inaccessible 😉) and figured I would try to finish it.

Instead, I read a few pages and tossed it aside: it was terrible. But the underlying idea still intrigued me, so I decided to start from scratch and just start writing. Which I did on November 1, 2015.

By the end of the month, I had reached the 50,000 word goal with several hundred words to spare. Unfortunately, the story was far from complete. Since then, I have continued to work on the book (though not as feverishly as I had during NaNoWriMo).

As of today, January 2, 2016, the story still isn’t complete: it will take another three chapters to wrap the tale up, as far as I can tell (no, I don’t know for sure: the story has a mind of its own). But I do have enough written, and in reasonably good shape (I think), to start showing it to other people.

And so, as a New Year’s present for (or curse upon) the world, I have begun to post chapters of the book. I’m starting today with the first two chapters, and I plan to post an additional chapter every week or so. I hope that by the time I post Chapter Sixteen (the last one written to date), I will have finished the few remaining chapters.

The race is on!

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Speaking as a Passenger on Time’s Arrow

The future shifts and swirls even as you approach it,
The present fleets by before you can grasp it,
And the past is unrecoverable as it fades away.
Nonetheless, the view…the view…

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“The Intern”

On the one hand, this movie is truly a script-by-the-numbers modern fairy tale, which could easily be subtitled, “The Unbearable Whiteness of Being.”

On the other hand, DeNiro and Hathaway are so engaging, and they speak the lines they are given with such élan, that I quite enjoyed the movie despite all of its predictability and happily-ever-afterishness. So, yeah, 👍.

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El Capitan and Fullscreen Spaces

In the bad old days (i.e., the day before yesterday), when you made an app fullscreen on your Mac, the fullscreen app got added to a space in Mission Control at the far right. That was fine for users who never had more than one desktop space in Mission Control (that is, just about everyone). However, I usually have six or seven desktop spaces in play at any time, so if I were working on something on, say, my first desktop, and had to get to the fullscreen space, I would have to navigate through all the other spaces via the keyboard (Control + ← or Control + →), or show the Mission Control bar and mouse over to it. Like a savage.

El Capitan, however, allows you to make and position a fullscreen app beside whichever Mission Control desktop you like: just grab the app’s window and slam it against the top of the screen, then drag its thumbnail beside the desktop space you want it to neighbor.

Here’s a video that shows how it works.

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Math is hard, even to talk about

Imagine how hard math would be to discuss if the length of a number’s name was equal to the number itself. For example, this might be how you would say 1,000:

That number you get when you take one, and then add another one, and then one more to it and you keep doing that a whole bunch of times while keeping track on, say, an abacus or by getting a big pile of peas, dried preferably because wet peas can be slippery and you might end up squirting one out from your fingers accidentally so it flies across the room and then you have to stand up and look for it because you don’t want to leave a pea sitting on the floor somewhere where you might step on it and mash it into your carpet, which can be hard to clean, especially when the pea mash dries into the fibers, so, anyway, you have a big pile, or maybe a bowl because you would be much less likely to inadvertently mess it up, of dried peas that you then move to another pile, or bowl if you’re using the bowl technique, which I strongly recommend that you do, one by one repeatedly until, your arms aching and your eyes burning, you have one more than nine hundred ninety nine peas in the second bowl.
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Crichton and Me

As I’ve written elsewhere, one of the first three Voyager Expanded Books was Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park. Because it was one of the first three ebooks ever, we wanted to show off some of the special capabilities that a book on a computer might have. So, for Jurassic Park, we thought it would be cool to pick seven dinosaurs from the book and link every mention of each of them in the book to a pop-up annotation that presented a picture of the dinosaur along with a simulation of the sound they might make.

We tried to make the sounds match how Crichton had described those sounds in his novel. I spent a few days working with a sound engineer to create them. If I recall correctly, we built the tyrannosaurus sound from a highly filtered lion’s roar mixed with the sound of an industrial vacuum cleaner, and the stegosaurus sound from a very distorted sound effect recording of a squeaky gate.

Once the sounds were done and the annotations developed and linked to the text, I made an appointment with Crichton, who had his writing office in a small house north of Wilshire around 23rd street in Santa Monica (coincidentally a 20 minute walk from my front door, though I actually drove from Voyager’s office on Pacific Coast Highway). I knocked on the door and he invited me in. As I recall, he was a tall, spare guy who radiated all the warmth of a bowl of liquid nitrogen; with no preliminary chitchat he simply asked me to show him what I had.

For the next half hour I demonstrated, on the PowerBook 150 that we used for demos, this first Expanded Book: how you turned the pages, how you searched through the text, how you could set bookmarks, and of course how you could click links to bring up annotations. He asked very few questions, made very few remarks, and just shifted his gelid gaze between me and the PowerBook screen as I talked. I have seldom given a more uncomfortable demo.

When I finally ran out of things to say, I closed the PowerBook, we both stood up, he shook my hand, looked me straight in the eye, and told me “Don’t do drugs.”

I got the hell out of there. I suppose the demo went okay, because Crichton contacted Bob Stein, approving our digital version of his novel, and the Jurassic Park Expanded Book debuted on schedule along with the other two ebooks at Macworld 1992.

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Some Apple Watch perspective

It’s been interesting to watch the coverage and analysis concerning Apple Watch. It does do this, it doesn’t do that, it’s pokey, it doesn’t work with sleeve tattoos, and, of course, it’s really expensive considering that it has no killer app!

Nonetheless, I think it is a remarkable, in fact, a stunning achievement.

Think of it: here’s a device that has multiple gigabytes of storage, both Bluetooth and Wi-Fi radios, a fast CPU, a bunch of sophisticated sensors, a microphone, a high resolution full color video display, a sophisticated touch sensitive interface, a rechargeable battery capable of running it for a full day — and all of this in a package that’s no bigger than a typical wristwatch. A package that, in the case of my series 7000 space gray aluminum Apple Watch Sport, weighs just barely over an ounce — heck, the lightweight fluoroelastomer band weighs 25% per more than the case and the whole thing on my wrist weighs less than 2½ ounces. And it’s less than 1½ inches wide, and only 1⅔ inches tall.

This is science fiction technology.

Apple Watch Sport

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An accumulation of small pleasures

Now that I’ve been wearing my new Apple Watch for more a week, I’m beginning to get a better idea of its virtues, its limits, and how it fits into my life. I’ve already discovered that I don’t need the Apple Watch, but that I’m very happy to have one.

I don’t need one because the device offers no special features or functionality that I didn’t already have available to me in other ways. My old Timex told me the time and offered a stopwatch when I needed one, and for the rest there was my iPhone, which (aside from also doing clock and stopwatch duty) already handled phone calls, messages, email alerts, Apple Pay, Apple TV and iTunes remote control, weather reports, Major League Baseball score updates, and even rudimentary fitness tracking.

What the Apple Watch does is to act as digital WD-40: so many little things become so much more frictionless with it.

  • I don’t get many phone calls, but when I do, they often occur at the most inconvenient times, times when my phone is nearby but not ready to hand, such as when I’m preparing a meal or visiting the smallest room in my apartment.. With my Apple Watch, I can answer the call or send it to voicemail and not have to wonder who rang me.
  • Same with messages and email alerts: with my iPhone and iPad and Mac all chiming at once when a digital communique comes in, it’s really tempting to drop everything and get to the nearest device to find out what just arrived. Now the nearest device is strapped to my wrist, and I only have to lift it to see what’s what.
  • I don’t use Apple Pay much, but when I do, paying with the Apple Watch is less stressful and troublesome than with my iPhone: I always feel a small worrisome fear that I could drop my phone while fumbling it from my pocket to the NFC reader, but I know my Apple Watch can’t fall to the floor and smash while I’m trying to buy a chipotle chicken panini at my local Panera.
  • I have an iPad, an iPhone, and an Apple TV Remote that all can control my Apple TV or iTunes player, and they all can do more than the Apple Watch Remote app. But I usually don’t need that extra functionality: I mostly need to pause what’s playing (or play what’s paused) or adjust the volume, and the Apple Watch app does those things just dandy. It also lets me know what I’m listening to for those times when I’m working at my Mac and iTunes is buried two Mission Control desktops away while it shuffle plays my whole music library: I just raise my wrist to see.
  • The iPhone Weather app is great, and it gives me a sad 😢 when I’m using my iPad and want to check what conditions are like out in the Big Blue Room. Now I have weather reports always at hand…literally.
  • I love MLB Baseball’s Game Day app and the wealth of information it provides. But when I just want to check the score of the current Dodger game (or find out when it starts), all I need do is take a quick Apple Watch glance.
  • As for fitness…. I am by nature a sedentary person, almost sessile, really, but lately I’ve been trying to go for more walks (I do live in a very walkable neighborhood, just a mile away from the bluffs overlooking Santa Monica Bay). The iPhone Health app has been great for keeping track of how much walking I’ve done on a given day. But the Apple Watch Activity app does an even better job of keeping me up to date on my peregrinations, and its gimmicky achievement rings really do provide me with just a little extra incentive to abandon my desk or sofa more often. Nor do I need to open an app to see it: the activity summary is a complication right on the watch face. Ironically, I put more effort into improving my fitness the less effort it takes me to track it.

The Apple Watch does not provide a single killer feature. Rather, the accumulation of small conveniences and pleasures that it provides is its actual killer feature, and one that you can’t demo.

It only emerges when you live with the watch day after day.

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Album covers as seen through a shower door

When you play music from your iTunes library, the Remote app on the Apple Watch shows the album cover behind the controls. However, a translucency effect renders the cover an unrecognizable blur.

Not much detail in this album cover.

Not much detail in this album cover.

I applaud Apple’s attempt to give the user some additional visual feedback in the Remote app, but the execution…? Meh.

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“It‘s a goddamn piece of hardware”

“This isn’t a vision quest or zen retreat. It’s a goddamn piece of hardware.”

So said a friend of mine as he expressed his frustration with using his new Apple Watch. And he was right. It is just a piece of hardware.

The problem is there are lots of different kinds of hardware, with all sorts of differing capabilities and ways to use them. You need to know what kind of hardware an Apple Watch is before you can use it comfortably…or, for that matter, decide if you care to use it at all.

More than anything else, an Apple Watch is an iPhone peripheral, designed to give you quick access to some (not all, just some) of the information, and some of the capabilities, that your iPhone provides. An Apple Watch does this by acting like a wristwatch.

And that leads us to its interaction model.

The wristwatch interaction model has never been about interacting deeply. It has been about giving you bits of information, quickly, while you’re doing something else. With a traditional watch, you look at it, see what time it is, then get right back to what you were doing. If you get sucked into fiddling with it, trying to get things done with it, you are doing it wrong. The only times you do much more with a watch than check the time (or maybe, for owners of advanced wristwatches, start and stop a timer) is when you are winding it or setting it.

That’s the basic interaction model on which the Apple Watch builds. You may spend some time from time to time setting it and winding it (that is, configuring its various options and charging it), but, beyond that, for the most part you just use it to quickly check the time (or weather, or current stock prices, or your schedule, or your location, or your pulse, and so on) while you’re doing something else.

Yes, an Apple Watch does have communication capabilities (texting, phoning) that require more lengthy interactions, but the Apple Watch’s form factor and interaction model really only permit the use of these capabilities, they don’t encourage their use. To use these more interactive capabilities comfortably, it’s best if you use them for short interactions only — not for deep heart-to-heart conversations with your beloved or for dictating your last will and testament. Think quick call, a short missive. Hit and run interactions.

If you attempt anything more complex than that with an Apple Watch, you will end up frustrated. And you needn’t because, remember? — an Apple Watch is a peripheral for your iPhone. Pull that device out of your pocket and use it.

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