November 09, 2007

A Curious and Spirited Bird

Spike died on Monday. Sunday night he was fine when we put him to bed, but Monday morning he barely picked at his food, by Monday afternoon I was suspicious that something was wrong, and by dinnertime I was certain and took him to one of the best emergency vets in the state. While waiting to see the specialist, he started showing clear signs of distress and they rushed him in, put him in a cage with oxygen, and waited for him to stabilize. Half an hour later, he arrested and they couldn't resuscitate him. He was only seven months old, and we had only had him a month.

Now, we're waiting for the results of the necropsy that will hopefully tell us why this happened. (We have to know, to ensure the safety of our other birds as much as to help us make sense of this.) Birds are so good at hiding symptoms of illness that by the time there's any sign, it's frequently too late - but he was only seven months old.

Losing Spike hurts so deeply not only because he was so young, but because his life should have been so long and so full: fifty years would not have been too much to expect. He was such a great bird — "curious and spirited" was how the breeder described him (after we took delivery, so we knew we weren't being sold a bill of goods!), and that was so true. He explored everything he could (and we had to take care to keep him away from the door and window moulding, or else he would have destroyed it). He wasn't ill-tempered, but before he learned to trust us, the unwary handler was likely to sustain a painful bite (I still bear some scars). But after an initial adjustment period, we became a bonded pair, he and I — I was his human, every bit as much as he was my bird.

We were all but inseparable, and I was looking forward to his companionship for the rest of my life. Now all I have are memories. It shouldn't be that way.

Kerri wrote, "there's a birdie-shaped hole in my heart". There's a Spike-shaped hole in our lives. There always will be. But Tatr abides, and there's room in our lives and hearts and home for a new bird.

Good bye, Spike. Your memory will not fade.

August 13, 2007

Tumbleweeds and Used Car Lots

[NB: I want to talk about a subject raised at Drunkenbatman's C4[1] panel, but it's not the one that you might think it is. The "racism" issue is currently being done to death in other venues, and is, to me, not part of the larger picture.]

During the recent C4[1] conference, blogger Drunkenbatman moderated a panel composed entirely of C4[1] presenters, composed primarily of a cross-section of indie Mac developers. Drunkenbatman led off with an introduction to Pzizz, a product which, as demonstrated by his slides, is marketed with dubious claims backed up by even more dubious pseudo-science. (He used the phrase snake oil.) He then made mention of the MacHeist software promotion and the controversy surrounding it, and then handed the metaphorical floor over to the panel, with the question, "Is this the legacy we want to leave behind us?"

At that point, the whole conversation veered, in my opinion, wildly off course. A handheld mic circulated around the room, and various audience members registered their opinions with varying degrees of emphasis. One panelist opined that this industry is brand new — we are in the Wild West, eventually things will settle down, and law and order will prevail; in the meantime, we shouldn't complain about the tumbleweeds. Words and phrases like haters and paternalistic and Delicious Generation flew through the air with the greatest of ease. There were arguments about the nature of promoting software. Nothing really got resolved.

As happy as I was to see the topic aired, I think the discussion got started off in the wrong direction and, as a result, failed to address the core issue that I think Drunkenbatman was getting at. The question isn't, "What legacy do we want to leave for future generations?", nor is the question even one of, "How can we clean up these damn tumbleweeds?" The real question, as I see it, is one that needs some care in framing.

What's Old is New

I don't take literally the notion that the industry we're in is brand-new — after all, the Mac software industry was born back in 1984 with the introduction of the Mac itself. However, beginning roughly with the release of Mac OS X 10.4, all of the right factors converged to enable the development, release, delivery, and marketing of Mac desktop applications without requiring the enormous input of resources (capital and otherwise) that were once necessary to build and ship a successful Mac product. As a result, the pace at which new Mac products appear on the market has rapidly increased, and continues to do so. At the same time, large numbers of new customers are coming to the Mac, either as initial computer purchasers or as switchers from Windows or Linux. The visible result of these changes is a software market which is noticeably more vibrant than it was ten, or even five years ago.

However, despite the rapid influx of new customers, new developers, new ideas, and new technologies, the Mac retains an enormous number of customers and developers who were using and/or developing Mac software well before Mac OS X was released. In the Before Time, customers had very high standards for Mac products (as contrasted with products for other platforms). It was inevitable, since Macs and Mac software were very expensive relative to PCs and DOS/Windows software, and if you laid down that kind of coin for your gear, you expected very high quality in return. In this respect, the Mac industry was largely self-adjusting: Users were well informed by the sources available to them at the time (the Mac trade press), and the sources were themselves tough on crappy products. Developers who produced junk — or who marketed snake oil — never gained credence, and in all substantive ways, ended up in the fringes.

What's New is Old

There's one thing that even the Mac software industry hasn't been able to escape completely — schlock marketing. It's a constant in the universe. "Low Miles!" "Real Sea Monkeys!" "Buy Ten Albums for One Penny!" Such marketing used to be confined to the fringes: junk mail, spam, the used-car lot in the seedy part of town.

Today, thanks to the many-to-many communications that are possible in this Web 2.0 world of blogs and social networking, it's very easy for schlock marketing — and as such, the products it pushes — to gain an air of legitimacy. How? Easy: Just start a discussion. By engaging in the debate on a particular subject, both sides in the debate implicitly acknowledge that the subject is worthy of debate; and when one side of a controversy is the side that might ordinarily live on the fringes, the debate works to the advantage of that side regardless of the outcome. That's because all of a sudden, the fringe side of the debate — the voices and positions that had once rightly been relegated to the periphery — gain mainstream recognition. (This particular condition has been observed in the case of the whole "Intelligent Design vs. Evolution" matter, where evolutionary scientists are concerned that engaging in scientific debate with creationists dignifies the creationist position as something worthy of being argued about.)

Further, it's very easy for the purveyors of schlock-marketed products to change the character of the discussion for the worse. Instead of a reasoned back-and-forth which brings out the best of what our socially networked world offers, there frequently results a shouting match, in which he who yells the loudest wins, and in which anyone with a viewpoint at odds with that most loudly expressed is branded a hater, or is labeled as having an agenda, or both.

Q: How can you reasonably argue that water runs uphill?

A: How can you even ask that? Why do you hate America? What's your agenda?

And thus, those tumbleweeds, which once used to blow through and be forgotten, can (and do) become a longer-lasting part of the landscape. The cheap used-car lot replaces the reputable auto dealer. The fringes start to edge out the mainstream, and the consumer, who once could depend on good advice from informed sources, faces only a sea of noise, and no longer knows whom to trust. ("Was it really owned by a little old lady from Pasadena? The salesman says so, and his boss backed him up, so it must be true, right?")

The Real Question

Here it is, then: As Mac developers, what do we want the Mac software landscape to look like in five years? Do we want the industry to continue in its best traditions, combined with the innovation made possible by improvements to the platform and the world at large? Or do we want to stand back and let the Mac software landscape become a mirror of the Windows software landscape: populated by used-car lots, and decorated with tumbleweeds?

What's the Answer?

One of the reasons I conflate fly-by-night software and schlock marketing is because schlock marketing is pretty much a requirement if you want to generate buzz for a sub-par product. On the other hand, really good products don't need schlock marketing. If you've written something that you honestly think is good, market it with honesty and integrity. Don't cheapen yourself, your marketing message, or your product just to generate buzz. Act respectably, and the respect will come. And with it will come the customers.

And the schlockmeisters? Ignore them and eventually they'll blow out of town.

August 12, 2007

C4[1] Parting Shots

Alas, my outgoing flight time requires that I leave before breakfast (to say nothing of the final sessions). So, on the way out the door:

@Cabel: I'm really sorry I'll be missing your session; I was looking forward to it.

@chockenberry: I'm sorry we didn't get more time to talk. Let's try and make some time.

@Geoff: Thank you so much for the Lagavulin! And it was great to finally meet you. :-) Have fun shaping all of those young minds...

@Gus: Thanks a million for the T-shirt, it will occupy a place of honor. I wish we'd been able to find some time to catch up. :-(

@Jenn and Lucien: Good luck in your new venture!

@Paul: Why is it we travel all this way and still didn't find any quiet time?

@Rosyna: Nice to finally meet you at last. :-)

@Wolf: Thanks for organizing all this, and for suggesting that I come. Never a dull moment...

March 16, 2007

Shutdown Day

Saturday, March 24, 2007.

I'm in.

Who's with me?

February 16, 2007

End of an Era

This weekend we're visiting with extended family; on the way out, the pilot (ex-Air Force) told everyone that this flight would be the last one for copilot (ex-Navy — how could they stand to be in the same cockpit?!): he's turning 60 tomorrow, you see, and they force-retire cockpit crew at 60. As a nice touch, the copilot's last commercial leg was the same as his first.

Copilot Bob went out in style: he treated us to a good old-fashioned carrier-style landing, minus meatball, tail hook, and arrester wire. And he did a great job, too, greasing us on to a runway that the pilot described beforehand as "the bumpiest in the United States". (Whether or not it in fact was, may have been nothing more than expectation management by the pilot; on the other hand, there's no reason to believe that airport runways in Detroit aren't paved by the same people who do the local highways…)

Some day we should all be so lucky, to put the final signature on a long and distinguished career, while still having a lot of great years ahead.

So, Copilot Bob, here's to you. Congratulations on your retirement and happy birthday.

(p.s. alternate meatball link for the hungry: here.)

December 18, 2006

Birds and stress

Just before Thanksgiving, we got (another) bird. Now, many people, when you say "bird", figure "budgie" or "parakeet" or something of that sort. Nuh-uh, this is an African Grey. Not as big as a macaw or a cockatoo, but still substantial — about a pound when fully grown. Bites hard enough to cause real pain in adults if provoked (or just feeling her oats), so it's very important to train them young or else you'll have real problems down the road.

Sounds a bit like raising a kid, doesn't it?

What really surprises people the most, though, isn't the bird's size, but its projected longevity — bigger birds like the Grey can live human-duration life spans: from fifty to eighty years. So not only are the bird's emotional and social upbringing needs very similar to a human child's, one of the overriding considerations of parenthood is present as well: your "baby" is going to outlive you, so planning and providing for its future after you're gone is something you must do. But I digress.

We also have a cat. (The juxtaposition of cat and birds in the household makes some folks do a spit-take.) Now, the birds and the cat aren't really sure about each other. The birds are more unsure about the cat than the cat is about the birds, but there's no real predatory interest there. Still, there's no way I'm leaving them unsupervised on the same side of a cage, but under supervision, the cat steers clear of the birds, even when they're overlapping territory. (Sometimes the birds like to sit on the cat's favorite sunning shelf, for example.)

Still, when the bird's in my office and the cat wants up on that shelf, everyone's just a little on edge. Today, the Grey seemed especially unhappy about the cat's proximity, and so I ended up giving her "emergency cuddles" to settle her down. That accomplished, I put her back on her perch, and watched her for a couple of minutes. And then: eureka!

Thanks to the bird, I have figured out the perfect strategy for dealing with any high-stress situation: take a shit, then have a snack.

July 05, 2006

It's All^H^H^HOnly About the Apps

Much sound and fury has ensued as a result of Mark Pilgrim's announcement that after some twenty-odd years using Macs, he's now pitching all of that and diving into Linux. There's been lots of grandstanding, the usual insightful commentary from John Gruber, posturing from various industry figures, piling on, predictions of doom for Apple, and so on and so forth.

All I can figure is that it's a slow time of year, what with school being out, people going on vacation, and of course the national holidays celebrating our self-determinant overthrow of the tyrannical government, not to mention the miserably hot and humid weather in many otherwise civilized parts of the country, so maybe some guys just wanted to stir up some buzz to keep the rest of us distracted from all that.

I find many nits to pick in this whole affair (and the coverage thereof), but frankly I feel that I'd be wasting my time picking the obvious ones. There is, however, one thing I'd like to explore, because I think it's been missed in all the drama.

Mark's current complaints seem to revolve around the behaviors and data formats implemented by the Apple-branded application software running on the Apple-branded OS running on his Apple-branded hardware. And since those bundled, replaceable applications are unsuitable for his needs, he's decided that the entire platform is unsuitable. The problem I see with this line of reasoning is that it conflates the hardware and the OS with the applications that run on them. That's an easy mistake to make, since those bundled applications are refined to the point that they integrate closely with each other and the OS, and also because they form the basis of the first-run experience for almost every Mac OS X user, new or old.

However, the applications are not the platform.

If you're switching to Linux, you're probably going to be using Thunderbird, right? So then if Apple Mail isn't doing it for you, why not just use Thunderbird on Mac OS X? If iPhoto or iMovie don't do the job, why not find an alternative that will — or better yet, make the world a better place and write your own? Whatever you end up with will still run on the OS and hardware that you've become accustomed to, with which you seem to have no real complaint, and by virtue of having chosen your own solution, you will ensure that it solves the problems you find important, in the fashion in which you believe they should be solved.

Oh, and one more thing: Mark asserts that...

I specifically chose because I knew that it stored everything in mbox format, and that that was the oldest, most stable, safest choice for long-term preservation.

Apple Mail on Mac OS X has never used mbox for its mail storage. The data files in which message data were stored prior to 2.0 did look a lot like mbox at first glance, but fail the "mbox test" (for want of a better term) and cannot be reliably parsed without the external index.

Oh damn, looks like I picked a nit. Email clients are of personal interest to me, so of course I found the remarks about Apple Mail's data formats resonant. However, in looking at Mark's updated list of software essentials, I observe that more than half of them are already available as-is for Mac OS X, and most of the rest have OS X counterparts.

So then what's all the fuss about?

Well, it looks like it's about saving the calories:

...all I could think was how much work it would take to twiddle with the default settings, install third-party software, and hide all the commercial tie-ins so I could pretend I was in control of my own computer.

But wait. How much work did it take to install third-party software, twiddle with the default settings, and hide all the commercial tie-ins so that you could pretend that you were in control of your own computer...?

June 03, 2006

Personal Shredder Ownership

I spent a good chunk of time this afternoon going through boxes of files, weeding out things like purchase receipts for items I no longer own, repair records for cars I no longer have, and so forth. Because I care about what happens to my personal information, all of the discarded records went into my little crosscut shredder.

As I was feeding the machine, I wondered: how long do you think it will be before shredders are no longer available to "civilians", and individual ownership of a shredder becomes illegal?

My prediction: at the current rate of "progress", it'll happen in my generation's lifetime.

February 13, 2006

Secret Tattooing Trick #204

...never get a tattoo where you'll be sagging in twenty years.

Cautionary tale here. (And thanks to Dave for pointing me to the documentary evidence.)

December 18, 2005

Non-Denominational Gift Getting Season

Years ago, a friend of mine wished me a "happy non-denominational gift getting season". I've always liked that phrase; thanks, Stephan.

It always seems to me that the in the rush to prove just how into the spirit of the season one can get, that the worst comes out in many people. You can see it in how drivers behave in the hordes of traffic going to and from the retail stores, and in the short tempers that are frequently in evidence in those selfsame stores, in the hypocritical sniping that takes place within, between, and among various religious branches and secular organizations. All this bullshit about "holiday trees" and the "war on Christmas" is, well, bullshit. On both sides of the issue. Let it go, people! We've got far bigger problems to solve in the world.

Recently, briwei wrote a post that puts it all in perspective. So, at the moment, amusement is winning.

Fortunately, this time of year also brings out the best in some people — there's a lot of "happy holidays", and "merry christmas" in the air. That's a good thing. But at the risk of sounding ungrateful: I'm a big fan of the whole "peace on earth, good will towards all" thing, but why can't it be a year-round deal? There's plenty to go around, let's not save it all up for the bottom half of December!

Well, hope springs eternal. My end-of-year rituals await: filing the paperwork and getting ready for the Macworld Expo. In the meantime: congratulations on making it through this year, here's hoping the next is a great one!