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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
“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:
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.
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.”
This week on Material: Google is Naughty (not treating contract workers with respect, trying to patent an MIT Media Lab researcher’s ideas after interviewing her for a job) and Nice (giving Santa a digital place to hang out and mingle).
Also: the correct pronunciation of the word “Fuschia” does not come naturally to me.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 old Mercury Sable, no virgin when it came to riding on the back of a flatbed truck, took its last such journey this afternoon: it left my driveway for good at around 2 PM. She carried me faithfully and reliably for over 90,000 miles until a few years ago, when those three jerks at two separate garages told me the front suspension could one day collapse while taking an offramp at speed. Or some other such nonsense.
The Sable was my Dad’s car. That’s probably why I kept it for so long after I took off the plates.
(Well, that, plus I didn’t have to shovel that part of the driveway for a couple of years. Also, the oil and coolant stains it had left on the driveway over the years were much harder to see with the car parked over them.)
Every time I’d arrive home and see “his” car in my driveway, I’d think “Oh! Dad’s come to visit!” Even though, of course, Dad only ever saw my driveway in pictures and videos. I bought it from his estate after his stroke, when he’d moved to the care facility where he died a year or two later.
Dad’s car helped me heal. I felt pride in taking as good care of “his” car as he would have. Through careful driving, and regular maintenance, I rolled its odometer to nearly 180,000 miles and the engine was healthy right to the end. During that time, the only damage it ever incurred was due to a careless parker (broken mirror, deep crease to driver’s side door and front fender) and a lady who merged into my lane without looking (more damage to the front fender, including front headlight).
(Plus: lots and lots of rust to the frame. Because, New England.)
There was a certain correctness, too, in the fact that (as a journalist who works out of a home office) the only period of my life when I had a long, regular commute and I truly needed a car was when Dad was in that care facility. It was about a ninety minute drive from my house and I made that roundtrip two to five times a week for more than a year. I was still processing my Mom’s death during Dad’s illness. Dad’s stroke had left me with plenty to process on its own. I did a lot of thinking about my parents during those commutes. It was ages before I even chose to move any of Dad’s stuff from the back seat or trunk.
I suppose it’s now safe to admit that during the week when we knew that Dad was in his final days on this earth and we were spending every hour either in his room or in the lounge across the hall, I set a career-best land speed record in the Sable. At a certain point I desperately needed to go home for a shower and a change of clothes, you see. I zipped home and zipped right back, praying all the while that I wouldn’t miss anything horrible while I was gone. I-95 was totally deserted at 2 AM and I felt like I wasn’t endangering myself or others. I also figured that if worse came to worst, the excuse I was carrying was strong enough to convince a state trooper to end our roadside transaction with a scolding and a ticket instead of Miranda rights and handcuffs.
If I’m honest, I also needed to blow off some of the week’s tension. Suffice to say that the speedometer needle went places that I’d never taken it before; after rotating past a certain point, the needle began creaking like the spine of a brand-new book being opened. It indicated just how much tension I’d accumulated after three days in a room with my family, keeping myself together while supporting my sole remaining parent’s transition into death.
I loved Dad’s Sable. Alas, two or three years ago, I saw the writing on the wall. As well as the writing on the report from its final, failed safety inspection, parts of which had been underscored urgently in ballpoint.
Still, its sentimental connection to Dad forced me to at least think about fixing its rusty suspension. The old car had already surprised me by starting up and running reliably even after 175,000 miles, even after a week in an airport parking lot at subfreezing temps. And, thanks to some new driving techniques I picked up after installing a dashboard fuel economy meter, that old Sable consistently got 25 to 30 MPG…well above what the factory sticker promised. What a coup if it made it to 200,000 miles!
But…that would’ve been the second time I’d kept the Sable going by phoning around junkyards to locate an old part that my bless-his-soul mechanic couldn’t find in any conventional inventory or catalog. All of the bits of the Sable that were meant to be replaced every 75,000 and 100,000 miles had already been replaced at least once and were probably going to fail again soon. The underbody rust wasn’t limited to just that one part of the suspension, either. No, it was time for the Sable to go. And it was time for me to let it go.
Of course, if I’d let it go within a year of parking it, before its quarter tank of remaining gas had turned to shellac and its engine compartment had become a winter shelter for various neighborhood critters, I probably could have gotten at least five times as much money for it. But it’s not as if I didn’t get any joy out of the Sable during its final two or three years as a driveway art installation.
Today, I watched it go. I felt a deep sense of nostalgia, but no sadness.
I’ll use this check to buy opera tickets. I’ll wear one of Dad’s ties when I go.
Right at this moment, writing that sentence, I realized that the production I want to see is running right around the week of Dad’s birthday, too.
Well! Yesterday I had the prototypical Thanksgivin’ Dinner That Couldn’t Be Beat. This time it was with my family and it was up there with the greatest.
Holidays are a teensy bit weird when you have lots of siblings and then both of your parents have passed away. We grow up, we move out, we start our own families, but the folks remain the sun around which our planets orbit. On holidays, Mom and Dad become like the Olympic site selection committee. Whether it’s Thanksgiving or Christmas or National Poached Egg On A Waffle Day, the house where they choose to spend the holiday becomes the location of The Family Holiday.
So what happens when that center goes away? Do the planets spin off in directions that take them farther and farther away from each other? Does one of them become the new center?
It’s been several years since we lost our parents, and we seem to have settled into a good system: “it’ll all work out.” There are plenty of siblings to go around and nobody feels pressured into getting locked into a non-negotiable tradition, whether as a host or as a guest. This year, I spent Thanksgiving with two sisters and their accompanying retinues of spouses and kids. I was looking forward to it and the experience delivered. Other years, I’ve done Thanksgiving with friends, or even spent it alone, and the siblings never interpreted it as a middle finger extended heartily in their direction, no more than I did when they had plans that didn’t include Andy at the table.
(Note: Your Mileage May Vary. Some of you are saddled with families that play those kind of games. And some of you have made the choice that if absence doesn’t precisely make the heart grow fonder, it at least prevents you from heeding that little voice that says “Do it. At most they can charge you with misdemeanor battery and holy cow, does your brother deserve it after what he just said about you.”)
(Note(2): If you’ve never done “Thanksgiving alone/Thanksgiving with just your partner” oh wow yes try it at least once. It’s never been a sad and lonely experience for me. On the contrary! I get to cook a full Thanksgiving dinner with all of the sides and desserts, exactly the way I like them. I get to stay in my pajamas. I can take seconds and thirds without doing that bit of polite math about how many rolls are left in the basket and how far it’s gone around the table so far. If I want to eat a bit later, I can eat a bit later. And all the while, I’ve got my iPad at hand, enjoying friends’ and family’s Thanksgiving in something akin to realtime.)
Overall, I have the luxury of making my own choices for the holidays. I know that not everybody has that kind of freedom and I’m grateful for it.
Is it appropriate to say “Happy Black Friday”? Probably not. Big business has done what it does best: they’ve taken a tradition that grew organically out of a collective semi-pleasurable desire, and turned it into a giant Nerf gun of stress-darts.
Before Black Friday became a thing, my own tradition was to head to the big mall at 6 or 7 AM — hours before any of the stores were open — and get a great parking space. Sure, I’d spend the day Christmas shopping, but the best part of the day was always walking out with my bags, immediately attracting a long line of cars trailing me to what would be the only available parking space within five acres of Radio Shack, tossing my bags in the trunk…
…And then closing the trunk and returning to the mall.
Yes, I have an affiliate account on Amazon. Every time someone clicks on one of those links and buys something — anything, not even the thing I linked to — I get a little kickback in the form of Amazon store credits. I never use affiliate links for tech items. I don’t think it’s unethical to use affiliate links that way. The Wirecutter has done that since the beginning, and there’s no reviews/recommendations site that I respect more.
I just don’t think it’s the right choice for me. I’m not a website with a whole editorial board and other staff. I’m just this one guy, and I’m trying to do good tech journalism and reviews in a world where (and I wish I was kidding about this) a guy on a YouTube tech site gets a freebie $800 video gadget and he’s so grateful and so excited about how superawesomesaucewonderful the thing is that he licks it.
In such an environment, it pleases me if I’ve given my readers/listeners as few reasons as possible to suspect my motives. And not accepting affiliate money for anything tech-related falls under that umbrella.
(Which isn’t to say that my hands are as clean as they could possibly be. That would mean buying everything I write about, just for starters. But at least everything I do goes through a basic smell test. “Would I be comfortable defending this choice in public, in person?” cuts to the heart of the matter quickly, I find.)
So I apologize to anybody who (correctly) thinks that my Twitter feed is cluttered with material goods for the next week or so.
Would it help if I told you that it’s all towards a higher purpose?
Yes: an awesome new TV for my living room.
(Oh, sorry: I bet you thought I was going to say something like “Puerto Rico hurricane relief.” No. But that’s still a great cause. Maria hit the island months ago and your fellow Americans are still soldiering on to rebuild. Charity Navigator can help you find honest charities that put the most of your money to the best use. Operation USA has received four stars and they do great work, spending more than 96% of the money they raise on their actual charitable mission as opposed to salaries, offices, and the cost of fundraising.)
See, usually, my Amazon Affiliates bucks don’t amount to much. It’s not a business. I don’t even consider it a sideline. Generally speaking, the monthly credits mean that if a book or a movie catches my eye, I don’t have to think too much about buying it. But in January, when the Black Friday credits are applied to my account…YAHOOO CLEMENTINE!!!! IT’S BISCUITS AND GRAVY FOR THE WHOLE FAMILY!!!!!
(smoothing hair back into place as I put the chair I was sitting in back on its legs.)
When I need a new laptop, I spend the money and don’t think twice. It’s a tool I need for my livelihood. But when (say) the backlighting on the good TV in the living room is starting to go south and “Blade Runner” looks like it’s had a not-good Instagram filter applied to every frame…well, I mean, it’s still working, right? It’s in 1080 HD and color, isn’t it? Is it smart to blow a lot of cash on a new one?
And so it goes. In the back of my mind, I’m thinking “if it’s still annoying me at the end of the year, then that’s what I’ll buy with my holiday Amazon associate credits in January or February.”
Yeah, it’s still annoying me. I want a new TV.
And I want one that will serve the role of “The Good TV In the Living Room” for close to ten years, as this one did. Which means: 4K! HDR! A wireless remote control! The whole nine yards.
I’m sorry and not sorry for having so many Amazon links in my Twitter feed. If it helps, imagine me in a few months, watching a movie that you deeply approve of, on a bitchin’ cinema screen without a grey halo around it for the first time in almost a whole year.
I’m going to put this here, for all of my Twitter and Facebook friends:
I’ve been reading your #MeToo posts. This is one of a great many situations in which the standard set of social media buttons seem glib and inadequate. I’m Sad that this the reality of your industry and your society. I’m Angry on your behalf. I Like (support) that you posted your truth. I also 100% respect anyone who’s had one or more experiences on this horrible spectrum from Harassment to Criminal and has decided that, for them, keeping such things private is the right choice.
And any adult with any level of awareness would have foreseen that there’d be too many of these posts for me to respond uniquely to each one. My intellectual and emotional reactions are sincere, and I can’t find enough words for each of you. Each of you deserves the strongest expression of support I can summon.
Over the term of my adulthood, I’ve been graced by the generosity of women and men who’ve helped me to glimpse how large the world is, beyond the claustrophobia of my personal experiences. I entered adulthood with only a nodding understanding of the crap that women are forced to contend with. But that was nothing compared to the stories that friends have shared with me in response to the simple question “So how are things at work?” Well, Andy, a huge percentage of things at work are needlessly horrible. And they’ve been horrible since long before you started asking the question. These stories are so shocking that Teenage Andy wouldn’t have believed them without additional corroboration. They’ve come so frequently that Grownup Andy has almost lost the ability to be shocked by them. “Surprised” went away before I turned 30.
A while ago, I began to appreciate how different my world is. Two incidents from my childhood stand out. A carload of teens ambushed me on a dark road late one night, and they would’ve beaten me nearly to death if the amount of beer they’d drank plus my intimacy with the dense forest near that road hadn’t let me blaze a path to safety that they couldn’t follow. But I never felt like I lived in a world where strangers wanted to beat me up just because of who and what I am. And there was a Creepy Scoutmaster whom I steered well clear of, thanks to a mysterious gut instinct that I would later learn was spot-on. But I never felt like I lived in a world where “what if someone I trust tries to assault me?” needed to be a foreground process.
I don’t feel a trace of guilt for being a White Dude who (as of this writing) has exclusively dug women.
I fully appreciate that the backpack of daily burdens I was made to wear when I began my tour of duty on this world contained far fewer bricks than the one issued to the women. It was far lighter than the one given to the men and the women for whom a relationship-appropriate wedding cake topper was not commercially available until very recently. It was lighter than the backpack issued to the men and the women who are transgender; and the one given to the people who aren’t white; and the one given to anyone who doesn’t mutter an instinctive refrain whenever they hear the words “May the Lord be with you…”; and…it’s a very long list.
So, to all of the women and men who posted #MeToo, and to everyone who might have but couldn’t: this is why I’m not clicking those Like buttons on Twitter and Facebook.
But please know that I respect you, and I believe you, and I will be deeply disappointed in myself if I should ever fail to be an active ally when you need one.
“We are here to help each other get through this thing, whatever it is.” — Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.