Life is a Mystery

12 March . Comments Off

New is not always better

Every now and then the Apple pundocracy really misses the boat. Mind you, I’m happy they do, it gives the company plenty of chances to surprise people anew. It is nice to be underestimated, and here we are underestimating Apple again. Rebecca Greenfield writes about “The Post-Steve Jobs Decline of Apple’s Genius Design Theory” at the Atlantic Wire today. She concludes:

Now we know: huge profits for not-so-new products. As far as revolutionizing technology goes, there is no post-Steve Jobs Apple.

The article notes that neither the iPhone 4GS nor the new iPad offer anything genuinely new to the user in terms of design. These are both last year’s designs reused. The case of the iPad, which actually grows slightly thicker and heavier, is worse than status quo, she argues.

Did she miss the fact that the iPhone 3 and iPhone 3GS looked much the same? Did she miss the fact that the MacBook Pro has hardly change in appearance in 5 years, and that the iMac’s evolution in design has been a subtle progression over those same years? The Mac Mini is pretty much as it was when it was first introduced. Internally all these machines have made great strides, but Apple does not vary the external design without a significant reason to do so. It is a classic misunderstand of design, especially as Jobs espoused it, to only pay attention to the outside of objects.

I am glad Apple does business this way. It is constantly innovating, but if it just threw every innovation at users year after year, I think we’d all get pretty worn out, or maybe worse, dependent on the design fix. Instead, Apple seems to give its innovations the honor of some time on stage, a chance to settle in. It does not panic or push, it takes a leisurely stroll (from the consumer’s perspective) though a chaotic market.

Remember that “antennagate” issue with the iPhone4? Not only did Apple not change the hardware back then, it didn’t even change it (much) a year later with the 4GS. Does anyone complain about dropped calls? Not much. Meanwhile, Apple lined up a long list of suppliers to build this phone and pretty much all of them can continue building the 4GS with very little retooling. This is how it piles up big profits. The new iPad will even be able to take advantage of some soft cases made for its iPad2 sibling.

Meanwhile, the innovations are there, and they are incredibly significant. The iPhone 4GS brought forth Siri and has sold better than any iPhone to date. Pretty good for last year’s design. I believe the new iPad’s “retina” display and faster graphics will also be massively popular.

Apple’s competitors litter the streets with their meaningless iterations of products. Quick: what’s the latest Samsung phone or the most powerful Android tablet? Not sure? Neither is anyone else. Apple’s customers get a calm and reassuring message from Apple’s approach to the market: you know you will get the best from us, we won’t let you down. It just works.

In an article in today’s London Evening Standard, “Sir Jonathan Ive: The iMan cometh,” Jony Ive talks a bit about the competition:

… most of our competitors are interesting in doing something different, or want to appear new – I think those are completely the wrong goals. A product has to be genuinely better. This requires real discipline, and that’s what drives us – a sincere, genuine appetite to do something that is better. Committees just don’t work, and it’s not about price, schedule or a bizarre marketing goal to appear different – they are corporate goals with scant regard for people who use the product.

Apple respects the customer using their products. This respect shows up in a myriad ways, from the low-key branding (put a case on an iPhone or iPad and event he Apple logo goes away) to the fierce simplicity (one button!) to the reuse of external designs that are getting the job done. An Apple product is not new for the sake of being new, it is new for the sake of being better. And guess what? People, real people if not the pundit sort, recognize better when they see it, even when the package is quite familiar.

Jonyandsteve

18 January . Comments Off

A letter to my four favorite senators: Drop support for PIPA

I was distressed to learn that all four of my favorite senators are co-sponsors of the Protect IP Act, or PIPA. This is a terrible bill that does more to threaten the technical and philosophical foundations of the internet than it does to actually protect intellectual property. Please, encourage your own representatives to oppose or withdraw support for this legislation.

Dear Dear Al, Amy, Michael, and Sherrod,

I am writing you, my four favorite senators because I hope I can get your attention. You are all four co-sponsors of the Protect IP Act and I believe you are making a grave mistake. I hope you take the time to read this letter personally, and reconsider your co-sponsorship.

You all know that I am a life-long Democrat. Amy and Al know that I have been an active DFL organizer in Minnesota and campaigned hard for their election here in SD64. Though I’ve never lived in Colorado, I’ve known Michael since we could count our age on our hands and campaigned for Sherrod long before he became a senator. I am more proud than I can say of all of you, and your presence in the US Senate gives me hope for our country.

However, Protect IP is fatally flawed. I have worked with technology for over 30 years, I’ve built tools on the web since 1993. While we all tend to imagine that the code supporting the internet is deep and robust, let me tell you, it looks a lot like the code that holds together our country, vast and contradictory. Protect IP assumes that some simple tweaks can solve the problem of piracy: that is a lie. Piracy will stay with us, what Protect IP will actually break is the foundation of the internet.

Al, you wrote to me that “We must protect American jobs from piracy, which has become rampant on the Internet. We don’t tolerate shoplifters in stores and we should not tolerate them online.” I agree that piracy and shoplifting are bad. But I ask you all to consider consequences. When someone shoplifts from a store, do we shut down the store? Do we require that all stores prevent all theft? What would our society look like if we did? Visualize this for a moment. Metal detectors or full body scanners at every entrance? Customers always treated as potential thieves? Stores that have “sponsored” shoplifting cut off from their bank accounts? It is hard for those who are not technologists to imagine what Protect IP looks like to those who would have to implement it, but it is a lot like a world where shoplifting is treated with such disproportional harshness.

Yes, we have to protect jobs. But consider how many jobs depend on the internet as a whole. Consider how many jobs are created by the open network that is easily accessible to all inventors and investors. Consider the chilling effect of Protect IP on legitimate commerce and expression. Consider the ease with which it will be abused.

I understand the entertainment industry is important, and their concerns about piracy are well founded; but Protect IP is a terrible abuse of government power and a vast overreaction to the problem. You are being hoodwinked by an industry that will do well enough without this “protection.” You are sponsoring an internet that will at best encourage the development of tools to facilitate repression around the world and at worst be the germ of an American repression we will all live to regret.

I am so proud to have you all in the Senate. But I can’t tell you how sad I am that all four of you are co-sponsors of this dreadful bill. This one is a show-stopper for me, if you can’t see past the lobbying of the entertainment industry to the truth of what Protect IP does, then I am afraid I will have to question the role of my party in the protection of freedoms that are so much more vital than intellectual property.

Please, reconsider your co-sponsorhip of this bill. Please do everything you can to make sure it does not actually see the light of day. See that it gets tied up in committee, or suffers some other face-saving demise. Please, make sure Protect IP is never actually the law of this land.

With deepest respect and thanks for all you do,

Eric Celeste

2 December . Comments Off

Less than Zero

As the financial crisis of 2008 hit us squarely in the gut, I was telling Mary that it would be interesting to see how the Fed would get interest rates below zero. They swung rates to zero so quickly that it was clear if interest rates had to go below zero they would have to invent some new excuse. It would be odd to hear on the new that interest rates had gone “negative,” but I was looking forward to something like that.

Let me say a word about negative numbers: they don’t exist. Or, more correctly, they are a fiction we invent to help us do math, but in the real world, they don’t exist. If you see a negative number in the real world, it simply means zero was put in the wrong place. Is the temperature -20 degrees? That just because we put zero in the wrong place on the F scale.

Today I finally realized how the Fed did it. Watch this piece by John Stewart…

How did the Fed create negative interest rates? Through the secret beyond-TARP program they loaned banks 7 trillion dollars at -3% interest! To create a negative interest rate you have to pay someone to take your money, right? That’s just what they did! By giving banks $7,000,000,000,000 at 0.01% interest, and then borrowing that same money back from banks at 3% interest, the effectively gave money away to the banks: that 3% is the negative interest rate. It is the payment for taking our money.

I’d have to do more digging and math than I have time for right now, but I think we now see how the Fed was able to get the lending rate below zero. I am not so upset about that, but I am incredibly upset that they did this in secrecy. Why not let the public know this was going on? Why not let congress know how big a hole we were in? No wonder this depression is taking so long to crawl out of, it was (is?) nearly a black hole!

13 October . Comments Off

Goodbye, World

As the luminaries of the computer world leave us, we will recognize more and more of those who live on in our machines. Dennis Ritchie created the C programming language. This was work first done with his partner Brian Kernighan from 1969 to 1973. Along with Ken Thompson and a number of others, Dennis also gets credit for creating Unix at Bell Labs during this same period. C and Unix lie at the heart of almost every electronic device you carry today. Whether it’s your iPhone with Apple’s iOS flavor of Unix or your Android phone based on a flavor of Linux. Most software on your computer or phone or pad is written in a derivative of C still today. Ritchie died this past weekend.

I learned to write code for my first Mac with the book he and Kernighan wrote: “The C Programming Language” often called K&R C. I still refer to it when writing iPad apps, the first edition, no less. It is still relevant. The first example code in the book is a charming model that virtually every programming language since has used since, the “hello, world” program. Here is my variation for Dennis today:

main()
{
	printf("goodbye, worldn");
}

Thank you, Dennis, for all you gave us.

2876612463 4f329cbfc1 b

11 October . Comments Off

Remembering Steve’s Visit

Last week I wrote about a visit by Steve Jobs to the Governor’s Residence. A couple people wondered about the source of the story, so I thought to search my email and I dug up the 2006 message that has a few more details. Here it is “for the grandkids.”

Date: Wed, 12 Jul 2006 13:41:56 -0500
From: Eric Celeste
To: [various family members]
Subject: Remembering Steve’s Visit

I just got a call from an associate of a 15 years back, Deac Manross, who ran into Dick in New York this week. Deac had a story to tell about Steve Jobs’ visit to the Governor’s Residence that I thought you might appreciate.

Some of you may recall that Steve visited us for just one brief evening while Dick was Governor. I was a bit starstruck, so I don’t remember much more that Steve at dinner and Steve shooting hoops in the driveway, maybe some of you remember more. This was in the NeXT days before Steve’s return to Apple.

Anyway, Deac (who was a regional sales rep for NeXT) and Bob Longo (another NeXT muckity muck, though I don’t recall his title at the time) picked Steve up the morning after his stay. Steve apparently started talking about the “most incredible” experience he’d just had. He described how at dinner and then again at breakfast the family he’d just visited actually gathered around and talked with each other. Talked about what was going on in the world and in their lives in a way that was, I guess, novel for Steve. He then got quiet, and as Deac describes, got a bit of an “engineering” look on his face. Then he turned to Bob and said, “Bob, how did you find your wife?” Within six months Steve was married! (Note, he had a child earlier in his life, but not been married before.)

As Deac put it… “It would be a crime if your family wasn’t aware of how your ‘family values’ changed the heart of a Silicon Valley icon !! :-) Who knows, maybe that’s what got Steve to do such great family films with Pixar !!………….and almost become chairman of Disney!! All because of the Celeste family ………gives you something to tell the grandkids, eh?” A bit overstated, but it does make you think, eh?

So, I just wanted to share that story. As warped and twisted as life gets sometimes, and as much as our family has journeyed since then, we may have had a butterfly wing of effect on at least one life back then. Kinda nice!

Love,
…Eric

Stevewalking

5 October . Comments Off

Goodbye, Steve

I’ve followed Steve since 1977, maybe I’ll write about that soon. But right now I’m sad to see he’s left us. I’m trying to say goodbye. I was lucky enough to meet Steve a few times, but there is really only one time. One night Steve stayed at our house.

“House” is a bit of an understatement. At the time my dad was Governor of Ohio and we lived in the Governor’s Residence. It was probably 1989, though I’ve lost track of the actual date, and Steve was visiting Ohio for reasons of his own. I had been an Apple fan since there was an Apple, and at the time I was a Campus Consultant for NeXT, Steve’s new venture. I think that was part of why my dad found a way to invite Steve to spend the night while he was in town.

I have a terrible memory, even for things like this. But I do remember learning that Steve’s diet was quite different from mine, full of nuts and fruit, very specific. Yet he did sit at the table with us, and we were our usual fairly chaotic bunch. I have five brothers and sisters and our table could be somewhat unorthodox, full of politics, argument, and inside jokes. That night, though, I remember being in awe. I’d experience my share of celebrity and was pretty nonchalant around Pete Seeger, Peter, Paul, and Mary, or Jimmy Carter, but this was Steve Jobs. I suddenly felt starstruck, unable to think clearly, unable to speak. After dinner, I remember shooting hoops in the driveway with Steve. How odd, normal, and calm it all was. It was a precious moment for me.

What I didn’t learn until much later was that it was a moment that may have had an impact on Steve as well. A story eventually came back to me that Steve had once had this great evening with the Governor of Ohio and his family. Steve, who had been totally focussed on his businesses to that point, the story went, realized that evening that even a high pressure life of denting the universe could have room in it for family. He began to look for a way to let family into his life. A few years later he was married. Much more recently he watched his son graduate from high school.

I have no idea how close to the truth that story lies. God knows, our cauldron of a family on the fires of public life had severe flaws, but we did have fun too. Getting to have Steve over for the night was fun. If our joy helped nudge him toward opening his life to his own family, I am even more grateful for that night.

I expect his family was around him today. I pray, even though none could follow him where he went, that they gathered close to assure him that all was well, that he could let go, that we would all remember him. I am grateful that he had a chance to build more than a business.

Steve Jobs at NeXT

11 September . Comments Off

The Nature of Memory

How many more than these 3,000 die every day? Why do we remember these so well, but forget all the others, or even hasten their way to doom?

Do we remember all that we do to bring 9/11s upon us? Do we remember our own cowardly response to these attacks? Our own slaughter of innocents?

We choose to “remember.” We choose to tell a story. We choose to lie.

Oh, yes, there are grains of truth in the story. But it is far from memory. It is construct. It is a fairy tale of a unity we do not live in our daily lives, of a courage we do not show, of heroes who met their end little knowing of the desecration that would be done in their name.

Saint Paul Memorial for 9/11A Plane in the sky over the Minneosta capitol while remembering 9/11

6 August . Comments Off

What does the downgrade mean?

We woke up this morning to this question from Nate:

what does the down grade from AAA to AA+ mean? How will it affect us? just wondering

nate :)

How can I resist a question like this from my 13-year-old? I’m glad he’s thinking about the issue. Here’s how I responded. What would you say?

It’s kind of like a movie review. The rating is a review by Standard & Poors of America’s likelihood that we’ll repay the credit other people give us. Before we were three stars (the best), now we are 2.5 stars (pretty good). I think the impact will be not very large because I think most investors have their own sense of the USA and our credit worthiness. We are in the news all the time, and the news has been scary weird of late. Anybody with have a brain-cell should be worried about our future ability to pay back debt, so they’ve already gotten a bit jittery about buying that debt from us. In other words, I don’t think the movie review matters as much when everyone has seen the movie for themselves.

That said, the fact that smart investors will get jittery about our debt is a problem. It means we won’t be able to borrow as much, and since our lifestyle in the USA has been built on that borrowing, it means that tough times lie ahead. That, however, is not news. Where else can we get the money we need if we can’t borrow it? I think we have to face the fact that our taxes are too low and we each need to help pay for the services our government provides, or cut those services. Services we can cut should begin with the military. Taxes we should raise begin with those on the wealthy.

So, that’s the picture from my little brain,
…Dad

27 July . Comments Off

A kitchen full of RAM and HD

I often use a kitchen metaphor for RAM (random access memory) and HD (hard disk) that might be comprehensible to mere mortals, at least if they cook. RAM and HD space are both “memory” of sorts in your computer, but what is the function of each?

In your kitchen you have both counter space and cabinets. Your cabinets and refrigerator are where you store things you use to make meals. Your counters are where you do the actual prep work. You might pull a bowl and spoon from some cabinets, along with some ingredients to mix from the fridge, you do the mixing and cooking, then you put the bowl and ingredients away again. You might even store the leftovers of what you cooked back in the fridge.

If you imagine a kitchen with tons of counter space and very few cabinets, that would present a certain challenge. You could have four cooks in the kitchen, but you might not have the space to store four bowls. On the other hand, you might have a kitchen with tons of cabinet space, but very little counter space. Even though the chef may have every gadget imaginable available to aid in the cooking, he or she would still be bumping elbows into the walls and finding it hard to prepare a large meal.

Each element has a role to play: cabinets are great for long term storage, counters are great for getting work done. The key to a functional kitchen lies in the proper balance.

In your computer, the hard disk (HD, or these days maybe the “SSD” solid state disk) plays the role of the cabinets, the long term storage. The RAM (or “memory”) plays the role of the counters. RAM is where the work gets done, if you don’t have enough, the work slows down. HD is where the tools used to do that work and the product of that work get stored, if you run out of HD then you can’t properly save the work you’ve done or add new gadgets to make that work easier.

The metaphor could be extended, maybe the stove is the CPU, but let’s not get into that. For now, just think: my cabinets are the hard drive, my counters are the memory. You need enough of both to get the job done. Running out of either will either slow down the work or make a mess of the kitchen (as the pots come crashing onto the floor).

Kitchen

27 July . Comments Off

Interact with Web Standards

Many months ago I had the privilege to be part of an OCLC Webinar on the use of HTML5 and CSS3 standards for web design. It was a great session by Christopher Schmitt and the slides are available online (HTML5 slides, CSS3 slides). But for me, the best part was that I also got a couple books by Schmitt out of the deal: the O’Reilly CSS3 Cookbook and a wonderful collaborative work called InterACT With Web Standards: A Holistic Approach to Web Design. It is this latter book I wanted to bring to your attention.

From time to time over the past few years I’ve had to teach courses in web standards and web design. I’ve found all the books on the topic wanting. Many are so basic as to be essentially wrong in the advice they give, others are too technical, and most are very narrowly scoped, so that it is hard to get a grasp on the incredibly broad set of skills one needs to effectively design for the web. InterACT With Web Standards is the first book I’ve found that combines a solid introduction to the way the web works with fantastic advice on how to leverage web standards toward your design goals.

This book helps the reader through all stages of web design. From internet fundamentals to writing for the web to site planning and considering content, the book builds a foundation of good, practical approaches to the task of conceiving a web site. The book offers a great grounding in HTML and CSS that is both legible to a newcomer and serves as a solid reference even for the seasoned pro. All those basic hints I look to the web for again and again (just what is the best way to build a two-column design, how do I style a list again, what accessibility issues should I watch out for) are covered with concise clarity.

The volume is well illustrated and printed in a format that easily stays open on a desk (thank you!). It is in every way (except, perhaps, its cover) a handsome edition.

Best of all, the whole text is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA agreement, so you can use it as you like in most educational settings. In fact, the authors and publisher have set up very nice website which includes sample chapters, all the code exercises, and a sample web project.

If you are teaching a course on web design or standards, consider InterACT With Web Standards as a potential backbone text. If you are someone who already builds websites, I bet you will still learn something from this text and certainly appreciate the wealth of information it puts at your fingertips even more effectively than Google.

Interact

Eric Celeste / Saint Paul, Minnesota / 651.323.2009 / efc@clst.org