The Day After

“I smell smoke” is the worst First Thought Upon Waking. Close behind it (for me, at least) is “I recall having a Clever Idea at about 2 AM last night…and that I implemented it right away.”

When that’s Thought #1, Thought #2 is “What the hell sort of disaster awaits me” and then “None of this becomes real if I stay in bed.”

It’s now noon the next day and (well I’ll be damned) the Good Idea I had at 2 AM last night continues to seem like a good idea, even after a solid nine hours of sleep and a light breakfast. That’s highly unusual for any 2 AM Idea of mine. This one was about fixing this blog’s backend. I’ve had loads of ideas on that at all hours of the day and night for years. None of them have ever paid off. Can you blame me for being skeptical?

Y’see, my dream goal has always been for the machinery of the site to be as good as “Catwoman” as written and drawn by Darwyn Cooke. My realistic goal is “Catwoman” as portrayed by Michelle Pfeiffer in “Batman Returns.” But the outcome has always been the 2004 “Catwoman’ film with Halle Berry and Sharon Stone.

I thought I’d elaborate on it, for your and for Future Andy’s edification.

The problem was that I couldn’t get the site’s design or features dialed in just right. Its appearance alone was eating up almost all of the problem-solving energy I’d allocated for my blog. A WordPress site’s appearance is defined by its Theme, which is a combination of HTML, CSS, PHP, and other kinds of code. When I coded everything up myself, the blog looked right but lacked the muscular resilience that every modern blog needs (such as supporting any combination of device and browser). When I used a third-party theme, the blog was fully responsive to all kinds of screens but customizing the theme to my tastes and needs was like walking on red-hot Lego bricks in bare feet.

(And when I say “customizing” I don’t mean “Applying a signature aesthetic and identity.” I mean simply “getting rid of the things I absolutely despise.” Despise, and ultimately even resent. Even when it was part of an incredible WordPress framework that I’d paid $100 for, no amount of my work or customer support’s customer support could remove the empty white box under the title of a post, which is where the theme desperately wanted to put an author avatar.)

Consequently, I wasn’t posting here at all. I used to blog regularly! I loved it! But the blog had become like an old car that just barely can pass its state inspection. This is another subject of which I am quite familiar. Driving the car isn’t fun because your mind comes to associate “being in the car” with “being stranded by the side of the road, waiting for the engine to cool down enough that you can temporarily seal a coolant leak with silicone tape.” I still had ideas for blog posts on a regular basis. But I could count on getting distracted or discouraged along the way by thinking about the site’s engine.

Yesterday I had a critical moment of clarity. It came in the form of a piece of life wisdom that’s gotten me through many, many challenges in every conceivable area of life:

“Take a step back and ask ‘What is my actual goal here? How would I define a Win?”

– Me, writing to myself.

How many times have you been at an airport and witnessed somebody (who, admittedly, is having a bad day and is not at his or her best) getting super into an argument with an attendant at the check-in counter? They’re wasting all of their emotional and intellectual resources on trying to win the argument. But that’s not why they went to the airport, is it? Their goal is to get to Denver in time for the Box Apricot Juice Festival.

Once I realigned myself and reaffirmed that my Goal was just to self-publish stuff to a blog that looked good and was accessible to as many people as possible, I could erase about thirty stubborn problems from the project whiteboard. They were no longer relevant.

Every time WordPress releases a major upgrade to the platform, they release a new, up-to-date default theme named after the year of release. I had been on “Twenty Nineteen.” This new theme showed off WordPress’ new prowess at modular page design. I replaced it with Twenty Seventeen. Then Twenty Sixteen. I kept going backwards like that until the live preview showed me a version of this blog that mostly looked like I wanted it to look, and had nothing that I hated or even “thought I could get used to” or “could probably fix by creating a daughter theme based on the parent.”

(“Twenty Twelve.” Oh, by the way: themes are indeed huge collections of code, not just design layouts. It’s important to note that although Twenty Twelve’s appearance hasn’t changed since the first “Avengers” movie had its first release, its code has been updated and modernized regularly.)

Next, I deleted every WordPress plugin that wasn’t absolutely required for running a basic blog. My server was littered with active and deactivated plugins, like rusted and busted tanks and cannon on a field of battle where the fighting never ends. I’d installed many of them after a (cringe) 2 AM Good Idea. A third-party theme refused to let me change the spacing between paragraphs via changes to CSS, but this plugin I found on Github says it can override anything…really? OMG that would be awesome if it worked…

I even deleted a default menu that had been in place since nearly the beginning. It took me ten minutes to replace it with a simple bar of links to my podcasts and online presences.

The only thing I kept (apart from my decade-old WordPress database of blog posts) was the masthead. I should scale it down. Eventually.

After going on a half-hour-long Marie Kondo/Incredible Hulk mashup-style rampage of deletion and destruction, I was left with a nice blog that lets me focus on creating, not fixing or administrating.

Huh.

I wish I hadn’t wasted ten years of effort, but we can only walk from where we stand. I’m happy that I can finally put this one in the Win column.

I’ll close with some Tech Columnist-style big-picture beard-stroking.

(Fetches a humidor from a shelf above his desk. Removes a strap-on beard that he bought for exactly this purpose. Straps it on, adjusts it with little care.)

The fact that I’ve been blogging “since before there was a word for it,” as I like to say, was one of my biggest handicaps in this process. I published my earliest blog posts by hand-coding HTML files. When I caught the fever, I wrote a fairly sophisticated client-side blogging and publishing app all by myself. Sure, I was aware that the technology behind a website in 1998 and one in 2019 is as different as starting a fire by banging two rocks together and doing it by just forgetting to send your Galaxy Note 7 back to Samsung after the recall notice.

But I still saw Ihnatko.com as a server directory where code and content files lived. I understood code and content. I’d knew I’d have to learn some new stuff (like PHP), but it seemed like the core concept was the same.

Wrong, wrong, wrong. A modern website is too complicated an organism to be raised and bred by a lone amateur. No matter how geeky. The education and experience of a professional web developer is required.

Why?

  • As always, the value of a professional is most apparent in a chaotic situation, not a routine one. And chaos is the cartilege that holds a website together. I learned how CSS styles are supposed to work. But learning how CSS works in actual practice requires years of daily experience (and drinking regularly with a community of fellow web developers).
  • The code that makes a website run is too complicated for anybody to understand how it all works together as a unit. I believe that even the pros categorize each of a site’s code elements as either “something I completely understand” (usually: something they wrote themselves), “something I don’t understand, but I trust it because even when it fails it does so in a predictable way,” and “something I don’t understand and don’t trust at all, but the site can’t function without it.” It’s almost impossible to trace the movement of a bug throughout the entire ecosystem of code. At the very least, it isn’t the most practical solution. So things get patched instead of fixed, amping up the chaos further.
  • In 2019, a website has to do way, wayyyyyyy more than just serve content. It’s an app platform, even if the only app I choose to run is the one that displays the 742 words I just wrote about why nectarines should be a different color. At a minimum, I still need to worry about Bad People trying to exploit my WordPress install for selfish purposes that have nothing to do with fresh fruit troubleshooting at all. Protecting a server from malicious code that adds it to a botnet, mines bitcoin, or stuffs its database with URLs to game Google Search isn’t for amateurs. It’s one of the reasons why I closed commenting.
  • Web tech moves so quickly that “best solutions” and “best practices” are hard to identify. Good luck to you if you aren’t a working pro, and staying up to date on these things isn’t part of your daily duties. You’ll find yourself implementing a workaround from 2016, instead of the Solution that everybody started using in 2018.

As discouraging as all of the above might already seem, keep in mind that I’m just describing a simple blog. As WordPress and my understanding of its power grew, I began to play with a lot of ambitious ideas. What if instead of setting up a simple continuation of my blog, I went bigger? What if the purpose of Ihnatko.com were to increase my influence and international reknown to that of an Iron Chef?

Okay, you’re right, that’s presumptuous and insane. But writing and selling ebooks isn’t a nutty idea, and if my online presence functions as a marketing tool that creates new opportunities, wouldn’t that be a good thing?

It sure would! But each of these goals adds complexity, instability, and new maintenance issues.

What I’m driving at — no pun intended — is that the fact that even though I was rather good at repairing my very first car, if I bought a new car today I wouldn’t dream of trying to fix it myself. My first car was already more than ten years old when it was handed down to me in the mid-Eighties. I knew that it wouldn’t run without spark, gas, or air and I knew how each one of those things moved throughout the system.

I can let myself get nostalgic for the days when my site ran on a bulletproof Chrysler Slant Six engine. But self-hosting a modern website with high expectations isn’t realistic. I have to either focus the site on a single goal that I can easily manage on my own, move the site to a service that does all of the management for me, or hire a pro.

I’m too cheap to hire someone who knows what they’re doing and I’m too lazy to move Ihnatko.com to a new host. Thus, my path to victory was clearly marked.

Starting over again, one more time

Longtime fans of my blog will react to this post with the same excitement as the crowd at a Paul McCartney concert when he sings the first two words of “Hey, Jude.” “I’m trying to figure out a new scheme for this blog” is one of Ihnatko.com’s all-time greatest hits. Oh, sure, I get more excited about performing my newer stuff. But then I see all of you swaying together and singing all of the words and I’m right there with you.

If you were dragged here by a life partner or a school friend, here’s some background. I launched this blog in the Nineties (before “blog” was even a word, and long before there was software for publishing one. So I wrote my own. Eventually, WordPress came into being. I switched to WordPress in about 2005. By 2006, the blog looked and worked about 90% like how I dreamed. I’ve been working on it ever since. I think it’s now at, like, 92%.

I could be wrong. The CSS style selector for that number keeps rendering it in white on a white background, 744 pixels outside of the window’s visible canvas area. I’ve no idea why and every time I think I’ve figured out how to target the style correctly in the site’s WordPress theme, another style sheet somewhere else overrides my changes.

I don’t regret moving to WordPress, of course! My own code ran the site just fine throughout the Clinton administration but by the Bush era I needed something better. And I sure know a lot more about servers and webapps and security than I ever would have if I were just studying that stuff academically instead of getting my hands greasy.

It’s just that I sure haven’t been doing very much actual posting in the past few years. Don’t blame WordPress. Blame me for wanting my site to look and function the way I wanted it to. And then maybe blame WordPress for making that so bloody difficult. There’s still room on the Blame Bus for the publishing industry, which doesn’t pay me nearly enough to just throw a couple of bricks of simoleons at actual web developers and designers who could do the job for me.

Lord knows I’ve kept trying. I’ve had lots of Great Ideas of how a certain new framework or a specific set of plugins might please dear God put an end to the journey.

Well! Good news, everyone: I had a whole new idea on how to approach the problem!

It’s simple and elegant. Like the long-sought proof for computer science’s “sensitivity” conjecture, it can even be expressed in the space of a single Tweet:

“Andy pretty much gives up on his ambitions and settles for just having a blog again.”

Yeah. I really want to blog regularly again. So I’ve metaphorically ripped out the section of my brain that’s aware of WordPress’ potential. I’ve also somewhat less than metaphorically ripped out every last plugin that WordPress doesn’t absolutely require, and downgraded the site’s theme package to whatever was Stock WordPress in 2012.

Ihnatko.com is now, in function and appearance, not very different from what it was when The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air was still on the air.

But though it’s lost a lot of style and ambition, the blog now has at least one aspect that I’ve been unsuccessfully chasing for more than ten years: there’s nothing about the design that I hate. When I’m inspired to create a new post, I can write a new post. In the blog’s previous incarnations, I would open the admin page and my trackpad’s pointer would find its way to the code editor because GOD DAMN IT if I’ve told this theme not to attach an author photo why the BLOODY HELL does it still add ten square inches of white space for the spot where the photo would have gone?!? And the idea I had for a blog post is cast to the land of ghosts and winds.

Let’s keep our fingers crossed that the synapses leading to the Caring About Anything But Creating Content centers of my brain remain resolutely cauterized. I’m optimistic because holy cats does it stink in here.

On to the new stuff. After I open a window.

Boston Public Radio 2/1/19

Greetings! At some point, you will visit this post and see a rundown of the topics I discussed on Boston Public Radio today, including links to more stuff to read.

This is not that point.

Hey! How about a photo of me and Errol Morris? He was on right after me. You bet your life I stuck around to listen (and yes, he was amazing). I was super-pleased to get a chance to tell him how much I’ve loved his documentaries. The photo was just a bonus.

I will now enjoy lunch at the Boston Public Library.

But not before handing you a link to Kashmir Hill’s incredibly good series over at Gizmodo. I hope she gets all the awards for this. Even ones that have nothing to do with journalism or technology.

Goodbye, Big Five [Gizmodo.com]

Productivity

I’ve been a writer for way too many years to put any stock in any sort of “I just wait for Inspiration to strike me and then it’s as though I’m merely a passive conduit for my Muse” self-pose. That’s the fantasy of someone who wants to write but never will. In truth, you’ve got to put your hands on the keyboard and keep pushing the cursor to the right and hope that you wind up with the kind of garbage that can be composted into something valuable, over time.

Which isn’t to say that you’re in full control of the process every single time. My version of the former high school jock’s story about how he once scored four touchdowns in a single game is the day I got a great idea the moment I woke up and had 16,000 words of my next book finished by dawn the next day.

Yes, I was clearly in the zone that day and as soon as I pulled my MacBook off the nightstand and into my lap and sat up, I knew that I was going to be making huge progress on something.

Some days…

Well, I spent some time — way too much time — this morning imagining Disney owning the rights to the Velvet Underground’s entire catalogue and preparing a tribute show for the theme parks featuring classic Disney characters. I went back and forth a while before deciding that Donald Duck should sing “Heroin,” and not Goofy.

Then I fixed myself some lunch and realized that Donald Duck was okay, but Daffy Duck is clearly the only correct choice.

“Heroin” is all about the tempo’s slow, patient burn and its eventual disintegration into explosive chaos. Daffy’s a proven master at this sort of material.

By the time I finished my sandwich and cup of mini-pretzels, I had imagined Elmer Fudd on “Femme Fatale” (with Bugs Bunny coming in on the harmonies, in drag) and concluded that I didn’t want to go forward on this album unless we could move the whole project to Warners.

So the point of this story that a writer’s daily toil is to pursue an idea with diligence, without any assurances that the labor won’t further their professional or personal goals. Some days, the process yields a whole five percent of your next book, done and dusted in a single day. On others, you will wind up with a solid idea that you can’t monetize properly until many, many, valuable bits of intellectual property fall into the public domain.

Material #184 (Podcast)

Flo and I had a good time recording the first episode of the year. Maybe because it’s still close to the holidays and there hasn’t been any really terrible Google news to talk about yet?

Whatever! Yay! No terrible news!

Instead, we’ve got news about two of Google’s most interesting works-in-progress: the Fuchsia operating system and those neat little Project Soli radar modules that could enable brilliant new touchless interfaces.

Stream it from our podcast’s official page on Relay.fm. Better yet…go there and subscribe.

https://www.relay.fm/material/184

Waymo’s self-driving fleet: a modest but manifestly sensible proposal

Waymo’s CEO said back in July that Waymo’s software had driven five billion miles on simulated roads and traffic. Its real cars had driven eight million miles on real roads, for real. There’s no question that Waymo is way ahead of everyone else in the development of self-driving cars.

And yet if the goal is to make an autonomous driving system that can transport people from doorstep to doorstep via roads that are also open to human drivers and pedestrian, Waymo isn’t close. Five billion miles in simulation is just table stakes. Engineers can only simulate what they can predict. Human behavior is utterly unpredictable.

I imagine that you’re expecting me to make a joke about irrational Boston drivers after that line. Oh, sweetie. Honey. No. It’s true that our moves are mostly dictated by Brownian motion but that’s not the real problem. To truly gape into the maw of madness, you need to look at our network of roads. Most of them were initially laid out by either cows looking for grazing land or 17th and 18th-century Puritans walking to church. Would you trust either species to design a backyard patio? I don’t think so. We think about this often, especially when we’re trying to find a way out of an entire neighborhood whose streets are all one-way and end with “Right Turns Only” signs.

But that’s not Waymo’s problem. Not yet. One of the big challenges they’re confronting during their wide test program in Arizona is how the presence of marked autonomous vehicles changes the behavior of other cars on the road.

The Arizona Republic has been reporting on open hostility and road rage against Waymo cars:

A Waymo self-driving van cruised through a Chandler neighborhood Aug. 1 when test driver Michael Palos saw something startling as he sat behind the wheel — a bearded man in shorts aiming a handgun at him as he passed the man’s driveway.
The incident is one of at least 21 interactions documented by Chandler police during the past two years where people have harassed the autonomous vehicles and their human test drivers.
People have thrown rocks at Waymos. The tire on one was slashed while it was stopped in traffic. The vehicles have been yelled at, chased and one Jeep was responsible for forcing the vans off roads six times.

And from The New York Times:

“There are other places they can test,” said Erik O’Polka, 37, who was issued a warning by the police in November after multiple reports that his Jeep Wrangler had tried to run Waymo vans off the road — in one case, driving head-on toward one of the self-driving vehicles until it was forced to come to an abrupt stop.
His wife, Elizabeth, 35, admitted in an interview that her husband “finds it entertaining to brake hard” in front of the self-driving vans, and that she herself “may have forced them to pull over” so she could yell at them to get out of their neighborhood. The trouble started, the couple said, when their 10-year-old son was nearly hit by one of the vehicles while he was playing in a nearby cul-de-sac.
“They said they need real-world examples, but I don’t want to be their real-world mistake,” said Mr. O’Polka, who runs his own company providing information technology to small businesses.

There can be no rational reason to attack any vehicle that’s carrying people (remember that these Waymo vans are often carrying passengers and there’s always a safety driver at the wheel). But there are legit safety concerns about sharing the road with these experimental vehicles. A pedestrian was killed by an Uber autonomous test vehicle in March. Investigators eventually learned that the accident occurred because the human being who was placed behind the wheel to oversee the safety of the vehicle was instead overseeing an episode of “The Voice” on her personal phone instead.

[Edited: a reader points out the the road was unlit and that the pedestrian was jaywalking; after reviewing the car’s footage, the chief of police said that the accident was “unavoidable.” Was it? We’ll never know. But we do know that Uber’s software was downright crude compared to Waymo’s: it couldn’t even go a dozen miles without requiring human intervention of some kind. As of a March article in The New York Times, Waymo’s software could go 5600 miles before asking for help. Uber’s system took too long to see the victim, took too long to decide what to do, and then when it finally alerted the human driver, that driver wasn’t paying attention. The accident might have been unavoidable but it sure sounds like it needn’t have been fatal and that Uber’s platform was nowhere near ready for this type of testing.]

But that doesn’t dismiss concerns about safety. A car that can be equipped with enough sensors to navigate a road and react to what’s going on can also be equipped with sensors that detect that a safety driver isn’t actually watching the road. So why was this kind of accident even possible?

The software can also be very, very annoying for other cars. Experimental self-driving cars all drive like student drivers who got their learners’ permits a week ago and are driving the family’s “good” car. We enter a complicated intersection and make the right move instinctively. Self-driving cars stop and think and wait for a situation to become more clear. They make, like, 18-point turns sometimes.

But hey, these are all “experimental technology” problems. Put enough miles on the odometer and they’ll all get solved.

I’m more interested in the dangers created by human behavior. We’re all bound together by a mutually-supportive social contract. And somehow, we leave that contract on the other side of the door when we get inside a car.

I’m walking on the sidewalk and I nearly bump into another pedestrian. Invariably, we both apologize without even thinking about who might have been at fault. Why? Because it’s impossible not to identify that meatsack as another human being. It triggers all kinds of genetic programming that helps us all get along and not kill each other. Subconsciously, we emphasize (“hey, these things happen”). We also understand that yelling or shoving could have consequences.

Whereas when you trip over a curbstone you can yell at it all you want. Curbstones have zero empathy. This means that you can’t possibly hurt its feelings. It’s also why they can keep right on tripping people day after day without feeling any remorse.

Drivers who are prone to road rage might understand intellectually that the car that just cut them off (or is merely heeding a “No Turn On Red” traffic sign) contains a human being. But emotionally? Naw. It’s a car. Yell all you want and blow your horn! Maybe even scare ’em! Why not?

I mean, there are even psychos who throw big rocks off of highway overpasses. Yet dropping big rocks onto busy pedestrian thoroughfares doesn’t seem to be a widespread thing. Those with plenty of faith in humanity would say that it’s because identifying with the potential victims is unavoidable. The cynics would say that getting identified would be unavoidable. Either way, people don’t do it.

So I wonder. Will road-ragers be even angrier and more aggressive against driverless vehicles? Brake-checking a Waymo or even forcing one off the road might seem like kicking a Coke machine, despite the obvious consequences for other people.

I can’t relate to that kind of thinking. Even when I owned a car, I never felt any road rage. How about a different form of this same question: can a drive be expected to show a driverless car the same courtesy as one piloted by a human?

Again, it’s a question of empathy. I know how much it suuuucks when your exit is coming up and you’ve been signaling your lane change for a mile and nobody is letting you in. Would a Waymo car push that same “Be Kind” button in my head? I dunno.

As always, we can’t predict how a new technology is going to shape society and human behavior until it’s out there. For example, I’m gradually getting used to sending this kind of text to a friend

My ETA at the restaurant is
6:30. I can't WAIT to see
you! I've missed you so much
since you moved.

And getting this back

Yup

I can now interpret this as “The response was curt because s/he read this on a smartwatch. ‘Yup’ was one of the two or three canned replies the watch offered to send.” Whereas I once might have interpreted it as “Andy, you’re one of the reasons why I moved away. I only accepted your dinner invitation so I can see the look on your face when I explain it to you without omitting a single detail.”

Let’s get back to Waymo’s problem.

Self-driving car technology will need to deal with the problems caused by human road rage against driverless vehicles. Naturally, I have a brilliant solution:

Goons.

I’ll explain. When a fight breaks out during a pro hockey game, it’s not usually a case of two random players losing their tempers and throwing down. No. Some players are recruited into the NHL from the minors because they’re great enforcers, not because they’re great players.

“Ice Guardians” is a fine documentary about the history and role of hockey enforcers. It’s on Netflix.

The Enforcer (“goon” is impolite) is part of the game. Today’s players are so well armored that it’s tactically worthwhile for a defenseman to take a fifteen minute penalty if it means removing the league’s high-scorer from the game entirely. The math on this choice changes radically if that same defenseman knows that the opposing team’s roster also includes the league’s most efficient enforcer. A fighter who reputably once punished a player so severely that it changed his eye color permanently and they had to go to the DMV to have a new driver’s license issued.

Waymo’s fleet should contain Goon Cars. These cars are never occupied by human beings and they’re painted in a livery that’s impossible to overlook or to mistake for anything else. My suggestion: a checkerboard paint scheme incorporating alternating colors of “spray-on body primer” and “engine coolant pooled on asphalt.”

If a Waymo car is getting roughed up out there, it’ll transmit the offending car’s license plate and visual indentifiers to the network. The nearest Waymo Goon Car will plot an intercept course, pull up alongside, and administer a Corrective Action to the car’s bodywork. Even days later, if necessary, relying on APB reports sent out to other Waymo cars’ software.

The Goon Cars won’t receive the usual top layer of gloss coat. An Impala carrying the paint smears of a Waymo Goon’s signature colors will continue to caution other drivers long after the actual incident, just as the panic scent of an actual impala being torn apart by leopards warns the rest of the pack to maybe…you know, just chill.

It sounds like an extreme response, but really, once these Waymo Goon Cars have established their reputation, the highways will be safer for everybody.

The mere presence of Tony Twist or Damian Strohmeyer on the ice encouraged a more civilized level of gameplay. Similarly, the sight of a Waymo van with its front-mounted bully-bar, completely blacked-out windows, and signature checkerboard paint scheme (alternating the colors of spray-on body primer and engine coolant puddling on asphalt) will prompt every driver to ask themselves an important question:

“Yes, I could. But are the consequences worth it?”

In return for this innovation, I expect nothing but a reasonable per-vehicle licensing fee and the plaudits of a grateful nation.

Throwing Storage At The Problem

Someday, you’re going to spot on online deal for an external drive at a time when you happen to be flush with cash and with no financial perils on the horizon. You should buy that drive. When it arrives, stick it in a closet. Don’t even open the box.

Why? Because having a fresh, empty drive empowers so many solutions to PC problems.

As I write this, I’m helping a friend recover from a dramatic interlude between her MacBook Pro and a mug of hot water with lemon. The laptop is, well…donezo. But! She has a Time Machine backup. I erased a 500 gig external SSD, installed a fresh OS onto it, and am performing a restore. It’ll be a few days before she can get her lemon-soaked MacBook diagnosed but she’ll be back to work long before then. Her old MacBook Air’s internal drive is way too small so she’ll use my SSD as a boot disk.

This is the same SSD that saved my bacon when my own MacBook Pro’s SSD died a month or two ago. If I hadn’t had an uninitialized drive standing by, getting it back up and running would have been a nonlinear process involving a nonzero amount of angst.

My goals were to get my main productivity machine back up and running ASAP in the short term, and to fix the hardware in the longterm. Normally, I would have had two options:

  • Option 1: Order a new external drive. I’d have been without a working Mac for a couple of days. And spending a couple of hundred bucks to build a bootable external drive from my backup wouldn’t have been attractive, given that I was already going to be on the hook for X dollars to replace my Mac’s faulty component.
  • Option 2: Skip the stopgap solution and replace the internal SSD straight away. This would have been the obvious answer if this were any other $2000 laptop. Alas, I am blessed with an Apple product. This blessing is accompanied by the unavailability of standard upgrade and replacement components. I’m lucky that my 2015 MacBook Pro was the last model in the line where the SSD is even swappable. Still, I needed some time to do a little research and figure out the right solution.

But I had a fresh, empty 500 gigabyte Samsung SSD standing by. I did a restore and was back up and running after only an hour or two of downtime. I took my sweet time investigating the fix for my MacBook and not only found exactly the right answer, but also a replacement SSD that was 30% off during a one-day sale.

This advice isn’t complicated, is it?

If you have a huge drive with nothing on it just standing by like a fire extinguisher or a manila envelope with $5000 in cash and three different sets of identity cards, you’ve got a solution to any number of problems. I was about to list a few but trust me: you’ll know them when you see them.

Oh, and BACK UP YOUR DAMN DRIVE. Both my friend and I went through our trials with our respective elan relatively intact because in the worst-case scenario, we were only losing a little time and money. If we didn’t have backups, our most productive avenue would have been to try to get Superman to fly circles around the Earth so fast that it spins in the opposite direction and we can go back to the day when our MacBooks were still healthy.

He would have done it — because he’s Superman — but he would have scolded you with the same admonition about backups that I just gave you. Better to learn it now and not owe Superman a favor.

The Comicraft Font Sale

Happy New Year to all. Take some time to make a list of every good, healthy, positive, and/or admirable thing you did today. And then take some time to reflect on the fact that you’ve maintained an unbroken streak of doing all of those things every day all year so far. Good for you!

I’ve posted to my blog every day this year!

I’ve taken and posted a photo every day!

I’ve washed a dish!

But I haven’t shaved yet. I’ve given it some thought and concluded that doing so would set up some unreasonable expectations for Wednesday.

Today is Comicraft’s annual New Year’s Day Font Sale. It’s not accurately named. As usual, they cut the price of each of their fonts down (to $20.19) early last night, and if they keep to form, the sale will continue well into January 2.

That doesn’t mean you should dilly-dally! If you put it off and miss it, that’ll be a damned shame for you and for anybody who sees your presentations or labels or business cards or your passive-aggressive signs in the office common breakroom about “the right way” to put the carafe back on the coffee maker.

Tips:

  • Check to see if the font you’re about to buy has both upper- and lower-case letters. Some are upper-case only. They’re still fab, but the font might not suit your purpose.
  • Also check to see if a font comes in several thicknesses and not just Bold and Italic. These are hugely useful, particularly when you combine several thicknesses on one page.
  • Each of these fonts is the same price. You might as well buy the “International” version (with bonus characters & symbols), which usually costs ten bucks more.
  • Don’t use the “guest” mode when checking out and paying. If you create an account, you can re-download any of your purchases at any time. Last night I looked for Comicraft fonts that were missing from my MacBook and retrieved ones that I’d bought almost ten years ago.

Which fonts should you start with?

Beats me. I mean, why are you buying these things? The Comicraft sale pays off most bigly when you’ve identified a specific need. I bought one or two this year with a website redesign and a new business card in mind, for instance.

If this is your first crack at a font catalogue — specifically this one — some broad categories might help you find useful stuff:

  • Comicraft made its reputation on its professional handlettered-style comic book fonts. It seems a shame not to add one to your library. Comicrazy is my favorite, but they’ve got loads of styles and each one has its unique strength. Monologous emulates the lettering of classic comics from the Sixties through the Eighties. And yes, I’ve spent way more time writing new and frequently inappropriate dialogue for old Fantastic Four comics than I care to admit.
  • Get a font explicitly for making signs. Sign Language is an obvious pick. Dash Decent is one of the all-stars in my Fonts menu. It’s my go-to when I need a sign for a bulletin board or a label for a utility drawer.
  • Get a font for that kind of lettering that just plain can’t be faked. When you want dramatic, swoopy letters, you need either Spills or you need to come up with another idea. Invitations for a Harry Potter, Lord Of The Rings or Game Of Thrones-themed party require Spellcaster. And: your heart was in the right place when you used Helvetica Bold for the sound effect overlays in your kid’s hockey team’s season-recap video, but it looked totally lame. For Batman-style text, go straight to Biff Bam Boom.

But each of these fonts is just twenty dollars (and some change). You can afford to buy fonts just because you like them. It’s a great opportunity. You’re going to install these fonts and play with them for a day or two and then forget all about them by January 4. Until you’re making Halloween goodie bags for a classroom of kids. And then you remember that Altogether Ooky has been patiently waiting for this exact moment…

Links for Listeners – 12/28/18

First off, dear WGBH listeners: know that I see my mission as a technology journalist/broadcaster/pundit/lackaduffer as a holy thing. Sir Galahad, when faced with the reality of needing to take an earlier train to make it to the Holy Grail on time, waking up at six thirty, for heaven’s sake, would have slept straight through the alarm. Or maybe he’d have shut it off and then gone back to sleep, figuring “I’m sure Gawain’s on top of this.”

But not Andy Ihnatko. On previous occasions when I exhibited this kind of commitment, people said that Edwin Abbey should have immortalized my struggles in a magnificent mural sequence at the Boston Public Library, and not Sir Galahad’s. They’re right, of course, but I suppose Abbey’s hands were tied; he died several decades before my father was born.

Second-off! A shout-out to Edward, the Lyft driver who got me to the train station. His radio was tuned to WGBH when I got in and when he asked me where I was headed from the commuter rail station, he was happy to tell me how much he and his wife enjoyed Boston Public Radio and Margery in particular.

Onward! Here are some links related to my tech segment on today’s show:

Comicraft‘s New Year’s Day Font Sale

Honest to God, buying new fonts on New Year’s Day is as big a holiday tradition for me as Patrick Stewart’s audiobook of “A Christmas Carol” and making big plans about making and sending custom Christmas cards but not following through.

I’ve got dozens of their fonts on my computers. Here are the three I called out on the show. These, and all other Comicraft fonts, will be marked down to $20.19 for New Year’s Day:

“Comicrazy,” because not getting a professional, hand-lettered-style comic book font seems like a shame. Comicraft offers plenty of ’em, each with their own unique charm. “Comicrazy” is by far the most expensive of them, at $395.

“Sign Language,” because it’s the only answer you need when it’s time to make a sign or a label or a placard or something. The package includes several thicknesses.

“Extra Extra,” to fill the role of “just a really cool and awesome font.”

But by all means, hit the site and browse, browse, browse. I’ve already filled my shopping cart with a few of Comicraft’s 2018 releases. One of them is earmarked as the masthead font of a new site I’m building. When January 1 hits,  the prices will be automatically updated and I’ll just click one button.

Public Domain Day

What’s better than getting a $395 font for $20.19? Getting all of the books, movies, music, poetry, paintings, etc. published in 1923 for free!

January 1, 2019 — the first release of new material into the public domain in over two decades — has been as eagerly anticipated as The Rapture. Well, surely that’s an awkward analogy but let’s just roll with it.

The usual libraries of free public domain content are prepared for this day and will have mountains of new material ready to go the moment it passes into the hands of The People. These are my usual first stops when looking for public-domain content:

Open Culture isn’t so much a library as it is a blog about public domain and other free media.

And, honestly, any Google search for [“public domain day” 1923] turns up lots of blog posts of people’s individual favorites entering the public domain on January 1.

Apple’s $29 iPhone Battery Replacement Program Ends December 31

Phone batteries naturally lose capacity as they get older. If your iPhone is a couple of years old, getting a brand-new Apple-branded battery installed by Apple for $29 is a steal.

Here’s the info, on Apple’s support page:

Set up an appointment at your local Apple Store’s genius bar sooner rather than later.

The Latest iPads Are Bent, And Apple’s Fine With That

Disgraceful. The iPad Pro is a premium product and purchasers shouldn’t just take Apple’s word for it that a visible bend won’t eventually lead to hardware failures.

If you’ve bought an iPad Pro in the previous two weeks and there’s a visible bend, return it for a full refund within Apple’s standard 14 day return window. If you bought it before that…well. Just hope for the best. And reflect on the many, many times Apple fans have quoted Steve Jobs’ line about craftsmanship and pride and making sure that even the paint on the side of the fence nobody will see is perfect.

But! Good news if you bought it between November 14th and December 24, you can return your iPad (or anything else you bought from Apple during that period) as late as January 8. My friend Paul has kindly reminded me of Apple’s annual Holiday return window.

Commentary:

Amazon’s Alexa Had A Meltdown In Europe On Christmas Day Didn’t get to it!

…Which was embarrassing but not entirely unexpected on a day when hundreds of thousands of people were trying to activate new Echo devices at the same time.

The bigger problem was an iOS app pretending to be Amazon’s official Alexa setup app. It made it into the App Store’s list of top ten most-downloaded utilities before Apple took it down:

The app asked for the Alexa device’s IP address and serial number. What the app’s creators are doing with the data they collected is anybody’s guess but it can’t be good.

Folks who downloaded “Setup for Amazon Alexa” can be forgiven for not noticing that the developer’s name was “One World Software” instead of something Amazon-ey. This is just a reminder that there are stinky people out there and many of them are trying to trick you into downloading their app instead of the one you were looking for. Check for the developer’s name, the app’s history, and number of downloads.

Why Do People Give Up Their Privacy Online? Because They’ve Become Resigned To It

Nice piece by Sapna Maheshwari for The New York Times:

I agree with the central point. People aren’t giving up their personal data because they don’t care or they’re unaware it’s happening. They’re doing it for the same reason why we all pay “convenience charges” when we buy tickets to shows: we feel like the whole system is stacked against us and it’s part of this vale of tears known as Life In 2018.

When the Internet and digital services were first rolling out to the launch pad in the Nineties, Congress’ broad attitude was “For God’s sake, let’s not interfere with this; we’ve no idea what we’re doing as lawmakers and we’ll probably wind up killing off a huge and important new industry before it even gets started.”

And that was absolutely the right call. In the Nineties. Now, we’ve seen what happens when an industry is allowed to operate unregulated, practically. Just as their came a time when the coal industry had to be explicitly told not to hire eight year old children, the time is coming when Facebook, Google, and every digital marketing platform is going to be told that there are going to be some Rules, going forward.

Switching from a Smartphone To a Dumbphone Didn’t get to it!

…A device which the phone industry prefers to refer to as a “featurephone.”

Here’s an article about that from The Boston Globe:

Featurephones — phones that rely on built-in apps instead of an App Store with a huge library — have suddenly become very interesting again. They’ve always had advantages like extra-long battery life, durability, and a variety of shapes and sizes to fit into even small pockets. Today, we can add “your kids can get into much less trouble” and “no apps mean fewer ways that companies can track you and collect your personal data.”

Though of course there’s always going to be a way. Most modern featurephones regard a Facebook app as being about as negotiable a feature as the “7” key on the dialing pad.

That’s all. My music while writing this little bagatelle was this recording of “Lucia di Lammermoor,” featuring Diana Damrau and Joseph Calleja.

Download ep. 82: “Oh, No! This Is Terrible!” (Podcast)

I’m on this week’s Download with my old friend Jason Snell, Rose Orchard, and Jeremy Burge. The weeks’ nerd news in review, in which I am so very relived to learn that I’m not the only one who has to mute the TV whenever I’m navigating Netflix.

What is it about those auto-rolling trailers that stresses me out? It’s as though my brain has only one input channel for formal language. I’m reading the descriptive text to see if I’m interested in this show but then audio dialogue begins and GRRRT! I’m jerked violently into another brainmode.

Providence Roller Derby 4/7/18 Photos

A photo project for a waiting audience doesn’t ship when it’s done. It ships when…okay, I hadn’t really thought the rest of this sentence out. I know it involves wanting people to see your photos while they’re still relevant. Self-loathing certainly factors in there somewhere, too, but then again doesn’t it always?

Here are my photos from Providence Roller Derby‘s Spring opener on April 7. Check ’em out on Flickr.

Providence Roller Derby 4/7/18

Continue reading

Mac Moving To ARM?

There’s a fresh rumor about Apple selling Macs that use custom ARM CPUs instead of Intel silicon as early as 2020. I wrote a breezy 1600 words about it for Fast Company.

Here are some highlights, to entice you to read the whole thing:

  • I like this rumor a lot. Apple making custom CPUs for Macs makes perfect sense.
  • The timing is interesting, too. WWDC is two months away. If Apple has committed to this kind of move and planned to announce it on June 4, they would have recently expanded the group of “people who need to know” to include “possible blabbermouths.”
  • I don’t think Apple would drop Intel completely. It’s easier for me to imagine them using custom CPUs for their consumer-grade Macs and sticking with Intel for the high-horsepower Pro desktops and notebooks. At least for starters.
  • Remember that iOS and MacOS are built on the same foundation. During my very first briefing on the iPhone, Apple told me that the iPhone’s OS is OS X with none of the stuff the Mac needs and all of the things a phone needs.
  • ARM is such a huge move — and presents such a big opportunity for change — that I would expect it to accompany a whole new historical age for the Mac. Either Apple would do radical (and long-overdue) modern rethink, akin to what Microsoft did with Windows 10…or they would effectively transform MacOS into an enhanced version of iOS, in function if not in name.

As much as I like this rumor, I’m still cautious. Apple tries lots of ideas and builds lots of ready-for-market hardware before they commit to anything big. I’ve no doubts whatsoever that there are a whole bunch of ARM-based Mac laptops inside the Apple campus, and that an ARM version of MacOS is done and dusted and has been for some time. But even if someone leaked Apple’s entire WWDC keynote slide deck to me a week before, I refuse to believe any rumor until Apple formally announces.

Do read my whole Fast Company piece.

Ihnatko In Exile, Journal Entry 1

Dark times, ladies and gentlemen. My thin war-surplus blanket does little to protect me from the wailing brittle winds that lash against the windows and are even less effective against the pervasive doom that marinates our souls. I’m also out of Diet Dr Pepper and Plex failed to record “Bob’s Burgers” last night, citing some sort of transcoding error.

No, actually, it’s been a great week! I just thought I needed a cracker of a lede paragraph.

 

Tim Cook at Apple's Education Event

 

The trip to Chicago for Apple’s big education event went swell. It started off with a 5 AM flight from Logan. It was the only time I ever regretted the fact that no friend has never asked me to help him remove a dead body from a crime scene. As it was, nobody owed me such a big favor that I could get a lift straight to the airport at 3 AM, which meant leaving the house at 10 the previous night to catch the last commuter rail train to the city.

But the early departure did have me on the sidewalks of Chicago at what would otherwise be the time I’d be shutting off my alarm and snoozing for another hour. I didn’t get more than two hours’ sleep, but I did get to have breakfast with a good friend and former Sun-Times editor, lunch with another Chicago friend I hadn’t seen in a few years, drinks with Rene Ritchie (whom I almost never get to hang out with), and then dinner with another jorno pal who was in town for the event.

I can’t recall another business trip that was so devoid of any kind of downtime, actually. Tuesday started off at the Apple event, from which I went straight to a PBS studio to record MacBreak Weekly from a conference room, then I went into their studios to tape an interview about the event for the evening news show, then back to the hotel for some writing, tea with a cool Chicago cousin of mine and her squeeze, more writing, another quick two hours of sleep, a 6 AM flight home, three hours of more writing at the airport, then off to the WGBH radio studios to be a pundit for another half an hour, more writing in the public library, file my event coverage, commuter train home, record the Material podcast…

Well. It was quite a hectic few days for one of delicate constitution such as I. But also productive and fun.

My main writeup of the event is up at Fast Company. Here’s video of my chat on WTTW. And my Wednesday appearance on WGBH Boston Public Radio (it’s the last half hour of the show…we didn’t talk all that much about Apple). Oh, and: I was on This Week In Tech, which was a gas.

Suffice to say that I’ve been busy. :)

 

If Fast Company and all of these shows can no longer cite me as “Chicago Sun-Times tech columnist,” then how should they describe me? Whoops, I hadn’t given it much thought until they asked me.

I didn’t give it much more thought afterward, either: “Just call me a ‘veteran tech journalist’.” Less is more, I think. I also believe that I’ve earned it. :)

I haven’t found a new Forever Home for my regular tech column yet. But I’ve decided that I’ll definitely be starting some sort of reader-supported outlet for my writing alongside whatever else I do.

I’ve always admired the businesses that friends of mine like John Gruber and Jason Snell and Adam & Tonya Engst have created, along with their writing. And it’s much easier to do reader- or sponsor-supported writing today than it was when any of them got started. Thank Heavens…because I just don’t have the mental bandwidth. I mean, writing this paragraph reminded me that I still haven’t invoiced Fast Company for my work. So God help me if I were in charge of both writing this stuff and greasing the gears of commerce.

So definitely stay tuned! I plan to have everything set up so that I can start dancing on the street corner for thrown nickels before WWDC.

Formerly Of The Chicago Sun-Times

Quick update: I was informed today that I am no longer a Chicago Sun-Times columnist or contributor. So let’s spread the word on that. Sure, because I’d love for another publication to snap me up as the immensely hot property I am in time for me to debut with my coverage of next week’s Apple Event, but mostly because I’m certain that the Sun-Times would appreciate my doing that.

Where to, next? I dunno!

But here’s how I would describe my Dream Date:

  • I’m kind of a fan of being part of a larger outfit. I loved being a Sun-Times columnist (and will always be proud of the work I’d done there since 1999) and part of the fun was living up to the legacy of the great writers who came before me and were being published beside me.
  • I like health insurance and stuff, but freelancing is fine. I was freelance for the Sun-Times during my whole tenure.
  • Ability to publish with great agility. One of my few troubles with the Sun-Times was associated with understaffing. The editors are great folks who work very hard and are stretched quite thin, which often meant that my columns would take days to appear on the site. I’d love to be able to just write something quick and timely and have it in front of people shortly after I pressed a button on the CMS.
  • Willingness to publish long, thoughtful stuff, too. I’m only just now getting around to writing about this year’s smart speakers because (a) I didn’t want to be part of the initial marketing scrum and (b) it’s actually taken me a good while to figure out what I think. I have huge respect for my friends at iMore and other sites, whose skills are well-suited towards getting valuable coverage out there almost simultaneously with the events unfolding. My skills are elsewhere.
  • Nonetheless, I’m battle-hardened for getting out something quick in response to breaking news, and I would have published SO many quick 200-300 word bits for the Sun-Times if I had publishing privileges on the CMS. But! Honestly, I don’t want to have to know how many clicks something is getting, or be raked over the coals for not getting more of them.
  • I reserve the right to make up a word if I can’t fromate one that suits the immediate need of a sentence. This is where heroes step in and fix the inadequacies of the English Language.
  • And I’d like to receive enough trust that I can just provide X columns per week or month. I hate pitching. By the time I’ve convinced somebody that a thing is worth publishing, I could have already written it, and if I’m writing it, I want to get paid for it somehow. It’s a vicious circle.

I got my first regular magazine column in 1989. Ever since, my professional goal has been to do for tech what Roger Ebert did for movies. Yes, that was his beat, but what made Roger indispensable was his point of view. When the cast of an upcoming movie is announced, hundreds of sites scramble to post 300 copies of the same information. That’s fine. Roger wasn’t part of that land rush, though. Roger’s take on something was always worth reading, and there was only one writer who was posting it: Roger Ebert.

To do anything as well as Roger did is impossible. But my aspiration to consistently write with that kind of purpose, and to deliver that kind of value, will always be there.

The Sun-Times isn’t — wasn’t — my only source of income. I’m fine. So if I can’t find another columnist-type gig…who knows. Maybe I’ll just post stuff right here. It’s a solution that ticks all of the above boxes except for the first one. Maybe if I establish a routine here, I’ll look for sponsors. Or maybe I’ll give Patreon a go.

Or maybe I’ll become a ronin, honing my skills and purifying my spirit as I work for a series of outfits that need my swords for a specific task.

In any event! I send my thanks to all of my former editors at the Sun-Times over the past fifteen to twenty years. And I’m still tech contributor to WGBH public radio here in Boston, and I’m still co-hosting podcasts with my friends on MacBreak and Material.

And, yeah, if someone with a checkbook would like to step in before I do the unthinkable — publish my Chicago Apple Event coverage here, where I won’t get paid for it — please do get in touch:

(my last name) at gmail.com.