There was a recent controversy on the net about a GrantLand reporter, a golf putter, an inventor, and a suicide. A lot was said about it, but what have we learned? If the subject of your piece says they'll commit suicide if you don't stop, what do you do? I've been there -- had a subject say he would kill himself if I didn't stop, and I decided to stop. Here was my thought process.
Is the guy bluffing? Probably. My judgement call.
What if he's not bluffing, I run the story, and he kills himself?
It would ruin my life. I'd never get over it.
Don't run the piece.
How do I feel about it now? I don't even remember what it was about. But I never forgot the moment reading the email that threatened suicide. Too heavy for me. I'm out of here.
Now, I'm not a real reporter, I'm a blogger. I can do my job, developing software, without having to deal with this issue. But reporters write stories every day that may indirectly or even directly lead to deaths, and we don't call them out for it. It's one of the costs of doing business for reporters. I can think of lots of examples -- reporting on terrorism or war, drug research, or even traffic safety. What about the early stories about AIDS? The lead up to war in Iraq? See an earlier piece from today about the extinction of species. If your writing covers an environmental calamity as it's happening you might be involved in the death of millions of people.
Should we stop reporting? Obviously not. This is a complicated issue. It can't be simplified, it's really hard for me to see it in black and white, evil and good, savvy or clueless. Sometimes you get away with it, and other times the shit hits the fan.
One of the common beliefs of entrepreneurship is that if you never take a risk you can never be great. This is true of everything -- also reporting. If a story has a terrible outcome, does that mean you shouldn't run it? Wow, that's actually impossible to say.
I learned something today.
Never put GitHub-managed folders in Dropbox folders because Git creates temporary and/or invisible files in folders, and Dropbox may do things that trigger unintended actions or side-effects in Git, causing random havoc which is not what you want.
If you get in trouble because you put a GitHub-managed folder in Dropbox, and you're using the Mac client, you can unhook from the repo by clicking on the word Repositories in the main window, right-click on the repo you are having trouble with, remove it. Then re-add it by going to the GitHub website, and click on the Clone in Desktop button to load it into the Mac desktop client.
I am putting this in a blog post so I can find it next time I get into this situation and forget how to get out of it. And in the meantime I'm moving my folders out of Dropbox hoping to never get here again!
Yesterday on a walk through frigid Central Park, I listened to a New Yorker podcast interview with Elizabeth Kolbert about how things are going on Planet Earth re extinction of species. The short answer: "Not so good." We seem to be in the middle of the Sixth Extinction, which is also the title of her book.
Until recently, it was thought that Great Extinctions didn't happen, that evolution was a slow methodical process, but it was proven by a Berkeley scientist, Walter Alvarez, that the Cretaceous era came to an end because of a meteor hitting the planet. We know this because meteors have lots of iridium and our planet does not. And there's a layer of iridium in the fossil record right around the time of the extinction of the dinosaurs.
The podcast had a couple of ideas that shook the foundation of my thinking. I like it when that happens, even if I don't like the message these revelations carry.
First, there's nothing special about humanity. We've only been here about 200,000 years. Long enough to destroy everything, but in the grand scheme of things, when the destruction is finished, the planet will probably evolve new species, a different cast of characters, that do what we do, more or less. It may take tens or hundreds of millions of years to clean up after us. But this is not a problem for the planet. It has the time.
We may be insignificant, but what we are doing re destruction of the planet's ecology is unprecedented. It's never before happened here. We don't know about other planets elsewhere in our galaxy or the universe. But we're in the process of recreating climates that haven't existed on earth for 50 million years. That's something. Not something to be proud of, of course.
Second, the mundane things we do every day, the example she provided was driving to get groceries, are actually totally extraordinary. When we get in the car to run errands we're burning the bodies of animals that lived millions of years ago. We're moving the carbon from their bodies from deep below the earth, into the atmosphere and the oceans, transforming them. Destroying old habitats, and creating new ones. This is not something that "natural" processes do. You need a supposedly intelligent species to do this.
Her book is coming out next month. Asked if she was suggesting things we might do to solve the problem, in the book, she says she is deliberately not doing that. My guess is the reason for that is the next epiphany that hit me after digesting a bit of the podcast.
Third, there is nothing we can do. We might as well enjoy consuming the last resources of the planet, and perhaps should turn our attention to leaving an adequate record of our civilization for the next one to come along, millions of years from now, in the hope of helping them avoid the catastrophe that ended us.
BTW, in case you're feeling guilty -- don't. This process was not caused by anything we consciously did. Certainly not anything you or I did. Just the existence of a species capable of doing such big things was probably enough to destroy life on the planet. You can listen to the podcast and let me know if you hear anything different. It seems this story is full of revelations about our reality.
January 24, 1984. It was a wonderful day, the culmination of a couple of years work by my startup company, Living Videotext. Our big public announcement would come on the same day the Mac rolled out. 30 years ago today.
I had hired my brother and future sister-in-law to help with the development. We had a Macintosh in our office. It was a huge secret at the time, but we showed it to our best friends anyway, swearing them to secrecy (now it can be told). I remember my first look at a Macintosh, I knew I was going in to see it, but nothing could prepare me for the surprise, the feeling you get when you look at a baby or a puppy or kitten -- this thing is cute and gorgeous and new and filled with potential. Most important it spoke directly to me and said "I am the perfect place to put your software."
Up till then, I had been working on Unix systems, and then the Apple II and IBM PC. I loved the little computers, because they were all mine to use as I wished. On the earlier, bigger machines, you had to share them with other users and programmers. The machine felt far away, but with the Apple II, it was right there.
The Mac had that feeling too, but it was also elegant and simple and brilliant. The type of people who would love this machine would also love what I was making, an idea processor.
ThinkTank, which I had been developing until then on the Apple II and IBM PC, was a tool for organizing your thoughts on a computer screen. You could create an outline, then indent, move an item up a list, or out a level. Flesh out the details, and quickly record a top-level idea you had overlooked.
Our tool was designed to add what would eventually be called "agility" to your thought process. The ability to quickly revise as you learned more about the problem. Outlines on paper were rigid, but outlines on a computer screen -- they could fly!
The problem was, you weren't inside the outline on an Apple II or an IBM PC, you were above it. You couldn't move an item with your hands, you had to trick a "cursor" into doing what you wanted. The big feature the Mac had that was new then was the mouse. You could directly manipulate your ideas that way.
It's no coincidence that the earliest experimenter in the area we were commercializing, Doug Engelbart, was also the inventor of the mouse. We had been hearing about mice, I had even used one in a demo at Xerox PARC, but now, with the Mac -- I had one on my desk. I loved the Mac at first sight, but the foundation of our long-term relationship was the mouse (30 years later, I'm writing this story in my outliner, on a Mac, with a mouse).
The rollout on January 24th was like a college graduation ceremony. There were the fratboys, the insiders, the football players, and developers played a role too. We praised their product, their achievement, and they showed off our work. Apple took a serious stake in the success of software on their platform. They also had strong opinions about how our software should work, which in hindsight were almost all good ideas. The idea of user interface standards were at the time controversial. Today, you'll get no argument from me. It's better to have one way to do things, than have two or more, no matter how much better the new ones are.
That day, I was on a panel of developers, talking to the press about the new machine. We were all gushing, all excited to be there. I still get goosebumps thinking about it today.
My startup, when the Mac came out, made most of its money off IBM PC software. By 1986, with the help of Bill Campbell at Apple, we got Macs for every employee at our growing company, and our board of directors, and the die was cast -- we became a Mac software company. The Mac was berry berry good to me (a dated reference to a fictional character from the 80s on SNL).
But the Mac, while it was a brilliant vision, and it's gestalt so lovely, was in its first incarnation, a flawed product. It didn't have enough memory for a machine with so much graphic potential. The screen was tiny, as were the floppy disks. The product came at a time when personal computers were getting hard drives, but the Mac had no ability to expand. The mouse was wonderful, but sometimes you need cursor keys. The first Mac didn't have them. The Mac was a statement, that's for sure -- but it wasn't a very usable statement, at least in its first incarnation.
Now that was all fixed, in relatively short order. By 1986 the Mac had arrow keys, a bigger screen, more memory, and most important an expansion capability. Then it was supremely usable, and kicked butt in the market.
But what about the long-term historical perspective of the Mac. There, the verdict is not so good. Most of the hype about the 30th Anniversary has left out this part. True, all personal computers to follow were basically copies of the Mac, some good, some not so good. The ideas were very valid, and have stood the test of time. But it's the missed opportunities caused by the Mac's insistence on being right about everything, even when the Mac was wrong, that caused the fractures in the marketplace that are still visible today in the UI of software, and in the confusion of non-expert users.
Try this out sometime with a friend who is a casual computer user who has a WordPress blog. Ask them to choose a command from a menu, and see which one they choose. There are three menu systems on the screen at the same time! One for the operating system, one for the browser, and one for the web app. This is not simple and not easy to use, and is the result of Apple's proprietary networking, way back in the 80s, that forced the innovation in networking, that was the manifest destiny of personal computers, to route around the closed-off networking protocols of the Macintosh. Had Apple, instead of keeping the right to create networking software for itself almost exclusively, because their APIs were so confusing, taken the opposite approach -- that their APIs were not proprietary and could be cloned by other manufacturers freely, and built on by software developers, again, freely, the networks we use today would work in vastly different and imho, much better ways. We'd also be much further along. In many ways, the networking user interfaces we use today are inferior to the ones we used on the Mac in the 80s.
There were a handful of companies that had mastered the Apple networking stack at the time. Reese Jones' Farallon, Andrew Singer's Think Technologies. A pair of developers who made an email app the was bought by Microsoft and became their mail product (the founder of that company, Steve Ullman, was a real visionary). And Don Brown at CE Software with QuickMail. I tried to work with all of them, but it wasn't enough of a critical mass to make a market. I deperately wanted networking for MORE, my outliner. I felt it wasn't complete without it. Had Apple been less restrictive, my career would have been much more interesting. We have the networking today that I wanted then. But it was a long time coming.
The web should have happened on the Mac. We had the best software, the best developers, the best platform, no 640K limit (don't laugh, software on the PC was limited in how far it could grow). We had it all, but the Apple culture wouldn't let us use it.
I love the Mac. I love what it did for me, it gave me a lot of freedom I wouldn't have gotten any other way. However, it stopped short of where it could have gone, and in doing so, I hope serves as a lesson for future generations of technologists. When someone argues for reserving the best stuff for your employees, tell them to stop screwing with your success. As the famous Apple evangelist Guy Kawasaki said, Let a thousand flowers bloom. Love the developers and the random chaos the bring to you, and be ready for the love that will flow around your platform. It's the only way it works.
This article appeared as part of CNET's coverage of the 30th anniversary of the Mac.