The Story that Started Tech Journalism

After reading John McCarthy’s obituary this morning (by John Markoff), I was prompted to re-read Stewart Brand’s legendary tale of early computer scientists and hackers that was published in Rolling Stone in 1972.

Spacewar: Fanatic Life and Symbolic Death Among the Computer Bums.

I highly recommend it. The photo of Alan Kay and the Dynabook is priceless. Keep in mind this is a glimpse of the state of the art in Silicon Valley from 40 years ago. Pre-personal computer. Pre-Steve Jobs. Then take those four decades that intervene and add in the microprocessor, bountiful memory, graphics, the Internet, wireless, cell phones, smartphones, tablets …… No one, not even the most stoned futurist, could have predicted the technical bounty we take for granted today. Brand’s story puts it all in perspective for me. We stand on the shoulders of giants.

King Tides

If you want an idea of what coastal life will be like in 2080, after seventy more years of global warming and the melting of the polar ice caps, then go down to the beach today and tomorrow around noon (in Cotuit) when the tide is high and exhibiting the rare, but annual phenomenon known in the southern hemisphere as a “King Tide.”

King tides are high tides that occur when the moon, sun, and earth line up in a straight shot called “perigee” and “perihelion.” The earth experiences two such King tides per year, always during either perigee or perihelion and during a forthnightly spring tide which occurs on a full or a new moon.

The moon is new now, and we should see high tides at levels, according to the scientists, that will be in line with forecasts for overall, normal high tides in 2080. The New York Times today quotes Kate Boicourt, an ecologist with the New York-New Jersey Harbor Estuary Program: ““What we’re seeing Wednesday and Thursday is probably what we normally will be seeing by 2080.”

I have personally noticed, and others have commented, that the Cotuit shoreline can get especially innudated on a spring tide, making beach walks impossible along popular stretches of sand such as Ropes Beach and Codman’s Point. In fact, on a moon or spring tide I have to remember not to take the dog on a stroll during my lunch hour as high tide in Cotuit during a full or new moon always coincides with noon and midnight.

Low tides are also extreme during King Tides, so expect to see some extraordinary exposure of sandbars and mud banks — making shoreside clamming a little more interesting as hither before depths become accessible making the older chowder-sized quahogs vulnerable to raking.

Tidal science is interesting stuff — I got a taste of it in the mid-1990s when a partner and I tried to get a tide table capability on our saltwater fly fishing site, Reel-Time. We gave up, but there is a good example of such a site at Capetides.com.

 

Row, row, row the boat

Great Head of the Charles — light wind, smooth water, and a boat that came together surprisingly well for one that hadn’t rowed together as a crew before a single practice on Friday afternoon. The event was the Senior Master’s Eights — a 40+ fleet of boat with an average age of 50 or more — consisting primarily of alumni boats representing past Olympic teams, college classes, and boat clubs. I filled a seat in the Northern Virginia Rowing Association’s eight, on the portside four-oar.

(I am fourth from the top in the grey baseball cap, hitting my catch woefully early)

Great race as the crew improved their time over last year’s, and personally it felt more than good to just get a chance to participate in the world’s largest two day rowing regatta.

Head of the Chuck

Saturday morning I’ll be rowing in the 47th Annual Head of the Charles Regatta in the Senior Master Eights as a ringer for the Northern Virginia Rowing Association. I’m in decent shape, so none of the usual pre-race terror of a myocardial infarction apply. I just need to survive 5,000 meters up the best river rowing course in the world (I’m biased) in the world’s biggest two-day rowing regatta in front of a crowd of 300,000 spectators.

I think I rowed in the HOCR for the first time in the early 1970s, when it was a one-day affair, in a Brooks School four assembled on the fly by my coach, David Swift. Since then I’ve rowed it about two dozen times — mostly in fours and eights, prep school boats, college boats, alumni boats, and once solo in the senior master singles. This is the high point of the fall rowing season for me — the Green Mountain Head was cancelled due to river conditions in Putney, VT. I put in a mediocre performance in Mystic at the Coastweeks Regatta in September. Missed the New Bedford Regatta because I boneheadedly forgot the rolling seat for my single …. but now, on the penultimate weekend of October, will wind up the on-the-water season with one big row.

Come Monday gears get shifted to prepare for the indoor rowing season. A new erg is on its way to my New York City office, I’m down to fighting weight, now it’s just a matter of meters and suffering.

The one guy I never interviewed

In thinking of something worthwhile to add to the mountain of sadness accumulating today from the passing of the greatest innovator and designer of our time, I can only regret that I never interviewed Steve Jobs, not even once. Ten years of tech journalism and I never had the opportunity to meet him, let alone write about him. I suppose a combination of being deeply entrenched in the world of IBM standard computing from my days at PC Week, my existence as an East Coast tech journalist with very few links or immersion in Silicon Valley, and the definite advantage that Fortune magazine had over Forbes in the 1990s due to Brent Schlendler’s constant stream of cover stories about Jobs and Gates, made Apple and Steve two topics I shied away from. Three of my colleagues were very linked to the man and the company. Jim Forbes was an old Apple reporter from his time at InfoWorld and MacWeek. Jeffrey Young who wrote for PC Week and Forbes wrote the first biography of Jobs, and of course PC Week and Forbes colleague Dan Lyons brilliantly spoofed Jobs for over one anonymous year as the Fake Steve Jobs.

I’ve had a mixed experience with Apple products. I never took to the Mac interface – the file system, the one button mouse, the propeller key on the keyboard …. It never clicked. The most I ever used a Mac was in the late 80s when I forged a Forbes expense check with an Mac II running PageMaker and Quark. Of course I’ve owned some six iPods, but never a Mac, MacBook, or MacAir. I bought an iMac for my daughter ten years ago, and most recently a MacAir as she set off for San Francisco to start her post college career. My wife has owned a MacBook for two years – I remember feeling very traitorous as I bought it from the Genius at the local Apple store since I was still working for uber-PC maker Lenovo at the time.

Lenovo’s former CEO, Bill Amelio, once asked me for my analysis of the Job’s phenomenon in exciting consumers’ lust for Apple products. I wish I had saved the email, it’s lost now, but it came down to Jobs’ charismatic cult of personality and complete totalitarian ownership of the design that he willfully exerted over Apple and the PC market. My conclusion was that Apple had a genius. The rest of the industry had committees and Powerpoint. While in a design meeting for a future Lenovo product I remember one ebullient and indignant engineer getting animated about the fact that his own teenaged son was saving his summer earnings to buy a Mac despite his efforts to push a discounted ThinkPad down his throat. I suspect there were a lot of Mac owners in the Morrisville closet. To say there was envy for Apple by the other PC makers is a gross understatement. The integration of the MacOS with the hardware, the excellent supply-chain execution by Tim Cook which locked up crucial components, the back-end brilliance of iTunes, and of course the elegant less-is-more design status made the typical clone-makers claims of economic ruggedness and keyboard quality about as effective as a maker of lumberjack clothing arguing his flannel shirts lasted longer than a Jermyn Street bespoke tailor’s work in Sea Island cotton.

The grief over Job’s passing is in part over the all-to-early end of a career of magnificent invention that easily could have yielded another two decades of breakthroughs. I imagine Apple’s labs have a few years’ worth of future Jobsian insights in the pipeline, but after that … who knows. Generationally, I can think of no contemporary of Jobs now working in technology with half the vision or talent. With Jobs comes what feels like the coda to the entire personal technology revolution that began at Xerox PARC in the late 60s and early 70s, when the confluence of Cold War engineering and countercultural utopianism combined to initiate 50 years of massive change in the relationship of people to technology.

John Markoff’s obituary of Jobs is worth seeking out. Markoff wonderfully writes about the origins of the PC industry in his book, What the Dormouse Said, particularly the influence of LSD on certain pioneers, especially Jobs. In his obituary today, Markoff writes: “He told a reporter that taking LSD was one of the two or three most important things he had done in his life. He said there were things about him that people who had not tried psychedelics — even people who knew him well, including his wife — could never understand.”

My next computer will probably be a MacAir or MacBook, not out of sentiment, but acceptance that as a semi-creative person unfettered by the procurement and IT departments, I can finally select what I want, and what I want Steve Jobs invented. As he famously said of market research – it’s not the consumers’ job to know what they want.

 

The Second Spring

This morning brought the first true fall temperatures to Cotuit – it’s been a true Indian Summer the past week – and with the chill came out of the closet the tweeds and my wool Filson vest. Yesterday, while taking my daily constitutional out to Handy’s Point, I basked in the sun and marveled at the re-leafing of the locust trees that were denuded by almost-Hurricane Irene. I’ve only seen a spring flowering in the fall once before – in 1991 following Hurricane Bob – and its strangely beautiful to see the pale greens of May and flower blossoms in October.