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On the 30th Anniversary of My First Internet Post

The earliest artifact I can find that marks my presence on the Internet is 30 years old today. The fact that it is still there should tell you something about the longevity of your posts and tweets. (It may not have been my actual earliest post, just the oldest that has survived until today.)

Thanks to Google, we can see my post to the fa.editor-p newsgroup.  “fa.editor-p” is descried as an “Interest group in computer editors, both text and program.” The “fa” means “From ARPAnet” and the “p” stands for “people”.

November 1, 1981, 9:50 pm

At 9:50 pm I was probably at home accessing the PDP-11/70 at Zehntel via a dumb terminal (not really as perjorative as it sounds) over a modem of somewhere between 300 and 1200 baud. Even my email address at the time looks like something out of a badly written movie:  menlo70!sytek!zehntel!steve@Berkeley – some ungodly combination of UUCP mail gatewaying into ARPAnet.

For even more fun,  go to http://olduse.net tonight after 9:50pm and nav your way into fa.editor-p you’ll see my post in all its green phosphor on black screen glory.  This project is described as “Olduse.net is Usenet, updated in real time as it was thirty years ago.”

And I love this Q&A from its FAQ:

Q: What about privacy? I posted something 25 years ago that I regret.

A: It’s not like this is the only copy of this archive of Usenet. Not a lot can be done about something that has by now echoed its way across the net for decades.

Think about that next time you tweet!

My first Internet Post captured on Google Groups

The Digital Dark Age

My son updated his status with “Anthropologists in 2,000 years are gonna be pretty pissed about how we store information today.” True, but I think we’ll feel the effects before that.

When I was growing up, I not only read the magazines my parents subscribed to and the books on their shelves, but also consumed old magazines and books that I found at my grandparents’ houses. My view of the world in the 60’s and 70’s was expanded by taking in the cultural records of a previous generation, including those my parents read as children. Whether it was Readers Digest from the 30s or the Jerry Todd series of books from the 20s that idealized small-town America for me (and apparently for Ronald Reagan). Having access to cross-generational source material deepened my perspectives at the same time I was learning about the world around me from more contemporary magazines.

Such as Mad Magazine.

Much of what I learned about popular culture, including faraway places such as Madison Avenue, suburbia, teenage-hood, adulthood, came from the pages of Mad Magazine. I each eagerly awaited each issue, as well as the paperback books that anthologized Mad going back to the 50s.  Even now as I design and build prototypes, I still reflect on articles like the one from 1963, “If Kids Designed Their Own Christmas Toys” by Al Jaffee.

If Kids Designed Their Christmas Toys - Mad Magazine

When my kids were growing up in the 90s, they dug into my old Mad books the same way I dived into them when I was their age, and the same way I dug into the magazines at grandma’s house. My poor kids were showing up at school with all sorts of pop cultural references from the 60s; they assumed everyone knew what potrzebie was. I think they’re better off for it.

Which brings me around to the Digital Dark Age my son mentions, and though it is usually applied to the more distant future when historians won’t be able to read my floppy disk I think the effects are closer at hand. Will my (theoretical) grandkids come to my house and expect to see what their parents were reading as kids? Some of that remains. But when all reading is streamed from the iCloud onto an iPad, whom do we trust to keep it around for my kids’ kids to read? Where will that transgenerational culture fix occur? Kids are already having trouble with the old media. I’m sure lots of material will get scanned in for perpetuity by Google, et al, over time, but will the serendipity of discovery in grandma’s attic still be as intensely rewarding?

Lots of people lament the closing of newspapers, magazines, bookstores for all the immediate, personal feelings people have about the their love of the tangible media of books, magazines, newsprint. And others are concerned about the far future. But I say watch out for the intermediate-term effects of this Digital Twilight.

Meanwhile, my son is starting a new series of paintings inspired by the HyperCard stacks he grew up with from the early 90s. After all, even this digital anthropologist has a hard time opening AppleWorks files from 2010, let alone fossilized HyperCard stacks from 1987. But with the help of some oil paints and canvass, future art historians may know what we once clicked.

Cross-posted from AP42 blog “…and Everything”

Steve Jobs at NeXT: Apple’s Government in Exile

Steve Jobs courtesy Wikipedia

Steve Jobs

As I was reflecting on the death of Steve Jobs, I thought back to the impact Apple had on my career, and my one encounter with Steve Jobs. Much of the coverage of his life and death focused on Steve starting Apple in a garage, making it a huge success, and turning over the reins a month before his death. Though of course it is included, the 12 years from 1985 to 1997 when Steve Jobs was not at Apple are as significant a part of Apple’s history as what was going on at Apple. It made me realize that Steve Jobs at NeXT was in essence Apple’s government in exile, a shadow government whose parallel efforts, once rejoined with Apple, allowed something to happen that may not have happened had Jobs stayed at Apple for the duration.

I developed products for the Macintosh from 1985 to 1993. At Kinetics, we launched the first practical product to connect the Mac to the Internet (yes, there was an Internet back then, folks). By the time we started Kinetics, Jobs was out at Apple and by the time we shipped our first product, he had started NeXT (one of our first customers, by the way).  He would not return until 1997, and in the meantime Apple continued to develop inspired products with loyal customers and remarkable marketing. I stayed close to the company, and as Kinetics became part of Excelan we continued to integrate Mac computers into the mainstream.

My one meeting with Steve Jobs was at the NeXt announcement (and some phone calls leading up to it) to see what the combined Kinetics and Excelan team could do for NeXT.  Given that the NeXT computer had built-in everything that Kinetics and Excelan were adding on to everyone else’s computers, we all realized that there wasn’t much to do. NeXT gave us a nice cube to play with just in case we got clever, but that was it.  We went on to join up with Novell, and integrating NeXT into the multiprotocol NetWare environment made sense, so we kept our connection going.

NeXT cube

NeXT cube

We kept working with Apple, as well, on projects such as Star Trek (joint Intel+Novell+Apple effort to put the MacOS on the Intel platform) and OpenDoc, while Apple was losing its edge and its way, replacing Sculley with Spindler and Spindler with Amelio. The MacOS was running out of steam relative to new operating systems, and having a harder time competing with Windows as well as threats from more capable operating systems like OS/2 and Unix as packaged by vendors such as Sun.

Meanwhile, Steve Jobs at NeXT continued to develop its technology, initially as a high-end workstation of hardware and software, but ultimately the software that could be used to combine a powerful operating system with a user experience layer.  By the time Amelio at Apple needed a fix for the future, it was already there in NeXTSTEP and OPENSTEP. Amelio’s best idea at Apple also presaged it as his last. He hired Steve Jobs back.

OPENSTEP became OS X, and continued to become iOS. It allowed the Mac to survive into relevance into the new century. It made the Mac the computer of choice, and especially the notebook of choice, for many Unix-based developers who were developing a new generation of Internet-integrated platforms, interfaces, and applications. It allowed Apple to develop the iPod, iPhone, iPad and revolutionize multiple industries, to make the new century truly a new century.

What would have happened had Steve Jobs not been able to develop this platform at NeXT, unencumbered by the large organization and market responsibilities of a well-established Apple? Could he have done it there? Maybe. If he had not gone on to develop this at NeXT, where would Apple have turned in 1997 after abandoning its in-house efforts. Who knows? BeOS?  My guess is that Apple would have been bought by HP.

But it didn’t happen that way. Steve Jobs went to NeXT, did what he did, came back, and here we are.  I spent most of my time on the Apple side of that parallel path, but it’s good to see clearly that both paths led to what we know as Apple today.

Crossposted from AP42 Blog: …and Everything.

Thoughts on Kindle Pricing and Real Books

Wallace Stegner Crossing to SafetyI’ve had a Kindle now for a year and a half. I’m on to my second physical Kindle device (a third generation Kindle), and use the Kindle system to read my purchases (licenses?) on my Mac, my iPad, my Nexus One, my iPod as well as the Kindle. I’ve read more this past year and a half thanks to the ease of acquisition and use.

It’s not a perfect system, and I feel ultimately I’m renting the content, not purchasing and holding it like I would a book.

But I’m price sensitive. I’m still balking at paying over $9.99 for fiction. Texts or technical books, I’m more forgiving. But when (for instance), I am considering Wallace Stegner’s “Crossing to Safety” I see that Random House has set the Kindle price at $11.99 (as Amazon tells me almost apologetically with This price was set by the publisher.) Yet I can get a hardback copy in “very good” condition for 1¢ plus $3.99 shipping for a total of $4, I go for it. (Having read the free excerpt on my Kindle, I think this is also the kind of book I’d like to read in hardback format, anyway).  I have to wait a week or so for delivery, but I already have plenty to read in the meantime. I can’t read it standing in line at the grocer store, and I need to turn on a light when I read it in bed, but so be it.

But in the end, Random House won’t get their $11.99 to split among themselves, Amazon and the author’s estate because they were $2 too demanding.

(I would have provided a link to the book at Amazon.com, but they no longer encourage California residents to refer readers to Amazon.com for book purchases, so you can find the listings for Crossing to Safety at Barnes and Noble’s bn.com).

Thoughts on dying media formats

Roger Ebert posted a link to Tacita Dean’s plea for the preservation of the 16mm film format, with the comment, “There are times when I feel the cinema as I know it is flying to pieces.”

There either is a viable market for 16mm printing or there isn’t and I’m speaking both of economic and cultural markets. If there is economic market demand, an entrepreneur will step in to fill the need.

Artistically cherished media without economic viability but with sufficient cultural demand may be supported by public and private institutions who step in and fill the gap between the two markets. But there’s plenty of competition for that support, and survival is often based on making the most compelling case. There’s increasing political pressure to take public money out of the equation, which will make the competition for private subsidies that much more fierce.

I first read Tacita Dean’s article with a sense that she felt entitled to have this service provided to her, but on re-reading I see that it is a heartfelt plea, and it is now up to supply and demand in the cultural preservation marketplace.

(I used to shoot 35mm 3D stills using a Stereo Realist camera, and have them processed and printed (irregular size prints for 35mm) through the local drugstore until they stopped doing it, then at the local camera store/lab, until they stopped doing it (and then they went out of business). I don’t have my own darkroom, so I’ve stopped doing that particular hobby.)

On Watson, Jeopardy, and Education

IBM's Watson

I haven’t seen an actual standardized test recently, but watching IBM’s Watson defeat the Jeopardy champions makes me wonder if schools and testing are currently geared toward Jeopardy-champion-style knowledge instead of the kind of knowledge and wisdom that is still beyond a Watson? As kids increasingly have external access to Watson-style knowledge, they should be taught more about meaning, connection, consequences, application of knowledge that may be harder to test en masse.

Whether I remember 5th grade algebra or trig is not as important as whether the process of learning it at the time strengthened my ability to learn abstract concepts in general. I know I can easily and quickly look up the law of sines, so I don’t have to be tested on remembering it or not. What needs to be durable is understanding the concept and applicability of trigonometric relationships so I can be simultaneously surprised, delighted, and understanding when I see trigonometry applied to semantic spaces in search engine algorithms. I don’t know how to test for that.

One of my favorite test questions was from my daughter’s 3rd grade math workbook: “Harry had 36 oranges. He gave some to his uncle. How many did he have left?” It wasn’t a multiple choice question; you had to provide an answer. How do you standardize on that?

Reposted from the new TED Conversations community and AP42’s “…and Everything”

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