Most of the nonfiction books I read these days fall into two broad categories: books about people I admire and books about the creation of things I admire. Good books about the latter often turn into the former by the end.
The book I just finished, Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull, co-founder of Pixar, had a head start on both counts. My love of Pixar is not surprising or uncommon. As for Ed Catmull, I’ve been aware of him and his contemporaries for decades (I had an Alvy Ray Smith quote in my .sig for a while in the 90s), but my nerd crush really stepped into high gear when I saw a video of Catmull’s talk at the Stanford Graduate School of Business in 2007.
It’s difficult for me to describe my reaction to that talk—and to his new book—without sounding absurdly self-aggrandizing, but I’m going to give it a shot. Saying what other people are thinking is a proven formula for mass-market appeal employed by everyone from talk radio hosts to stand-up comedians. But as someone whose thoughts and interests have always been outside the norm, I’ve rarely heard excerpts from my own inner dialog voiced on a broader stage.
Ed Catmull does that for me. If you’ve listened to my Hypercritical podcast or read the article that inspired it, you will find many familiar topics and themes in Creativity, Inc. Now, believe me, I harbor no illusions about this overlap. I am not the guy who hears Louis C.K. tell a joke and thinks he could be just as funny because he had a similar thought once. But shared values and the fulfillment of common aspirations are at the heart of all hero worship.
Ed Catmull’s dream was to create the first fully computer-animated feature film. As a child, I also dreamed of such a thing; Catmull and the rest of the people at Pixar actually made it happen. Similarly, as an adult, I’ve clung to the notion that critical thinking can be both useful and powerful. Creativity, Inc. explains just how powerful it can be when practiced by a handful of the most brilliant technical and creative people alive today.
Ay, there’s the rub. It’s so easy to hear the vaguest echo of your own thoughts expressed by someone fantastically smart and accomplished and view that as a cosmic endorsement of your approach to life. But that absolutely would not be in keeping with the message of the book—a message Catmull tries again and again to communicate to readers he knows will resist it.
Indeed, Catmull most often uses himself as an example of someone who has failed to see through to the heart of a problem. This is the true strength of the book. Unlike so many other tech-industry memoirs and business books, Creativity, Inc. is not an abstract exploration of a philosophy, nor is it a list of accomplishments interspersed with bold commandments. Instead, it is a deep, thoughtful investigation of a never-ending series of failures—and the reactions to those failures that eventually led to success.
Think of it: the man who invented texture mapping, made computer-animated films possible, and led his studio to release a string of amazing, Oscar-winning examples of the form decides to write a book…and then builds it around an examination of his own mistakes. Ed Catmull may not be your kind of hero, but he sure is mine.
Thirty years ago today, Steve Jobs introduced Macintosh. It was the single most important product announcement of my life. When that upright beige box arrived in my home, it instilled in me an incredible sense of urgency. I greedily consumed every scrap of information about this amazing new machine, from books, magazines, audio cassettes, and any adult whose ear I could bend. This was the future—my future, if I could help it.
I was 9 years old at the time. That year, my grandfather had changed my life by purchasing a Macintosh 128K, and convincing my parents to do the same. My grandfather also had a subscription to Macworld magazine, including multiple copies of issue #1, two of which I took home with me. I cut the Macintosh team picture out of one [see above] and left the other intact. (I still have both.)
I pored over that magazine for years, long after the technical and product information it contained was useless. It was the Macintosh team that fascinated me. That’s why I’d chosen to cut out this particular picture, not a photo of the hardware or software. After seeing the Macintosh and then reading this issue of Macworld, I had an important realization in my young life: people made this.
That last part is the most important. It wasn’t just the product that galvanized me; it was the act of its creation. The Macintosh team, idealized and partially fictionalized as it surely was in my adolescent mind, nevertheless served as my north star, my proof that knowledge and passion could produce great things.
Memories are short in the tech industry. For most people, Apple and Steve Jobs will always be synonymous with the iPhone, an uncontested inflection point in our computing culture. For me, the introduction of the Macintosh will always be more important. Though people who didn’t live through it might not feel it as keenly as I do, the distance between pre-2007 smartphones and the iPhone is much smaller than the distance between MS-DOS and the Mac.
On a personal level, nothing will ever replace my tanned-plastic beauty, the greatest electronic gift I had ever received, or would ever receive. My attachment to the Mac explains why, in the late 1990s, I was desperate to know everything possible about the fate of Apple and the future of the Mac operating system. Almost fifteen years later—half the Mac’s life—I’ve reviewed every major release of OS X and zero releases of iOS. Don’t get me wrong, I love my iPad and iPod touch, but you never forget your first.
I’m eternally grateful to the people who created the Mac, and to the countless others who kept it alive and shepherded its rebirth. In this age of iOS, it’s heartening to hear Phil Schiller say, “Our view is, the Mac keeps going forever.” That’s just fine with me.
Ask a room of computer geeks how they came to deserve this appellation and you’ll likely hear many similar stories. “I got my first computer when I was very young. By the time I was a teenager, I’d logged thousands of hours at the keyboard doing everything imaginable with my computer: gaming, programming, networking, upgrades, the works.”
That’s certainly my story. I was lucky enough to get a Macintosh in 1984, and it changed my life. I spent so many hours in front of that computer, I often look back in wonder at how I found so much to do with so little. This was years before I had an Internet connection. I had very little software and no convenient way to get more. My dollar-a-week allowance didn’t go very far. The only other person I knew with a Mac was my grandfather who lived two hours away. Nevertheless, I put in the hours—willingly, joyfully—and became the seasoned Mac geek you see before you today.
My Macintosh origin story is part of who I am. Being there from the beginning (and staying with the Mac, even through the dark times) gives me a useful historical perspective on the platform. But this is not the only road to geekdom.
The Mac is actually one of the few things I’m a geek about that I’ve been in on since the start. Geekdom is not defined by historical entry points or even shared experiences. A geek must possess just two things: knowledge and enthusiasm.
A Man Makes a Car
I became interested in remote control cars in high school after seeing a friend drive one in his backyard. He’d been building and racing RC cars since he was in elementary school. I was fascinated by these machines, but I worried I’d never be a “real” RC car geek like my friend.
I saved my money, bought a car, built it (badly) myself—and then crashed it. Undaunted, I bought replacement parts, fixed it, learned to drive it with far less crashing, and eventually bought a better car. Most importantly, I subscribed to Radio Control Car Action magazine and read every issue from cover to cover as soon as they arrived at my house.
A year or so later, I found myself in my local hobby shop answering another customer’s questions about his car. It started to dawn on me that I now knew more about RC cars than the average hobby shop patron. I was no longer an outsider looking in.
Around the same time, I was engaged in one of those cheap-music-for-membership marketing schemes that led to me having to select some CDs on a whim. I ended up getting Achtung Baby, and it knocked my socks off. I’d been aware of U2 for years and had probably heard the hits from The Joshua Tree on the radio dozens of times, but I’d never really been into the band—or any band, for that matter. Achtung changed that.
I started to work my way backwards through U2’s catalog, buying as many CD long boxes as I could get my hands on. I bought and read biographies of the band. At my local library, I devoured reviews of all their past albums in Rolling Stone and Spin. I found every magazine with a cover story about U2. When I couldn’t find anything else in the stacks of back issues, I turned to the library’s microfiche collection.
In college, I finally had easy access to singles, b-sides, and bootlegs, allowing me to complete my collection. I also had a fast, reliable Internet connection for the first time. This was beyond the local hobby shop; I was communicating with other U2 fans across the entire planet.
I learned to play the guitar (badly) and downloaded tab for my favorite U2 songs. Dissatisfied with the state of lyrics websites (some things haven’t changed), I transcribed every U2 album, single, b-side, and rarity, leading to the creation of my first public website, The U2 Lyrics Archive. This was my first claim to fame on the net. (The site is gone now, but when the official u2.com website launched a few years after mine, it contained lyrics copied from my site, typos and all.)
A Sort of Homecoming
Remote control cars existed for decades before I got my first kit. Achtung Baby was U2’s seventh album. Yet I was once a serious RC car geek and an unassailable U2 geek. It started with enthusiasm. Given the opportunity, I channeled that energy into a dogged pursuit of knowledge.
You don’t have to be a geek about everything in your life—or anything, for that matter. But if geekdom is your goal, don’t let anyone tell you it’s unattainable. You don’t have to be there “from the beginning” (whatever that means). You don’t have to start when you’re a kid. You don’t need to be a member of a particular social class, race, sex, or gender.
Geekdom is not a club; it’s a destination, open to anyone who wants to put in the time and effort to travel there. And if someone lacks the opportunity to get there, we geeks should help in any way we can. Take a new friend to a meetup or convention. Donate your old games, movies, comics, and toys. Be welcoming. Sharing your enthusiasm is part of being a geek.
Anyone trying to purposely erect border fences or demanding to see ID upon entry to the land of Geekdom is missing the point. They have no power over you. Ignore them and dive headfirst into the things that interest you. Soak up every experience. Lose yourself in the pursuit of knowledge. When you finally come up for air, you’ll find that the long road to geekdom no longer stretches out before you. No one can deny you entry. You’re already home.
At the beginning of last year, I posted a list of things Apple can and should do during 2013. It’s time to settle up. Because I’m feeling scholastic, I’ll give a letter grade to each item.
Diversify the iPhone product line. “There needs to be more than one iPhone,” I wrote. This is a drum I’ve been beating for many years. Apple finally made it happen in 2013 with the cleverly conceived iPhone 5C. I’m disappointed that the 5C doesn’t have more internal changes beyond a slightly larger-capacity battery, and I’m still anxiously awaiting an iPhone with a larger screen, but Apple got the important parts right. The 5C is a good phone, and it’s easily distinguished from the 5S. B+
Keep the iPad on track. The iPad Air is impressive, and the mini finally went Retina. On the downside, the creaky old iPad 2 lives on, the iPad Air really deserves more RAM, and a larger “iPad Pro” is still off in the hazy future. The iPad is “on track,” for sure, but exciting times are still ahead. A-
Introduce more, better Retina Macs. The latest Retina MacBook Pro has Intel’s Iris Pro 5200 graphics, finally giving the integrated GPU enough muscle to handle all those pixels. Apple also kept around an option for a discrete GPU on the high-end model. But the MacBook Air and iMac are still excluded from the Retina club, and even the mighty Mac Pro has extremely limited high-DPI options. We’ll get ’em next year, right Tim? B-
Make Messages work correctly. It’s difficult to measure the scope and frequency of problems in Messages based solely on blog posts and tweets, but I feel safe in saying that weird behavior still exists and is likely to be seen by anyone who uses Messages every day. Hope is fading. D
Make iCloud better. The iCloud Core Data team got a chance to regroup in Mavericks. It may be too little, too late, but at least it’s a step in the right direction. More broadly, iCloud still doesn’t have a good reputation for reliability, and debugging problems related to it remains difficult. If the only user-accessible control for a service is a single checkbox, it had better “just work.” iCloud has yet to earn that label. C
Resurrect iLife and iWork. Be careful what you wish for, I suppose. Apple did finally release new versions of the applications formerly known as the iLife and iWork suites, but the focus on simplicity and feature parity with the web and iOS versions left Mac users wanting more. It does not feel like an upgrade worthy of the years that have passed since the last major revisions of these applications. B-
Reassure Mac Pro lovers. Apple was thoroughly convincing in its rededication to the Mac Pro, presenting a dramatic introduction video at WWDC for its radical new high-performance hardware. It’s not for everyone, but it represents a hell of a turnaround for a once-neglected product. Let’s hope it doesn’t take 18 months for the next revision to appear. A
Do something about TV. Sigh. F
Out of the 10 items on my to-do list, Apple did 8 of them well enough to earn a checkmark. (The TV thing was always a bit of a reach, anyway.) I’d call that a solid year.
On two recent episodes of Accidental Tech Podcast, I talked about calibrating my new TV. The reactions of my co-hosts and the feedback from listeners has made it clear that the entire concept of calibrating a home TV is foreign to most people.
While a full-zoot ISF HDTV calibration is expensive and unnecessary for most people, there are some important steps that every TV owner should take to improve image quality. If you have an iOS device plus either an HDMI output cable (Lightning or 30-pin) or an Apple TV, you can use the simple THX tune-up application to dial in your color, contrast, brightness, and other basic settings.
Before calibrating, don’t forget to turn off all the “image enhancement” features of your TV. These are the things with names like Vivid Color, Color Remaster, Motion Interpolation, Brilliance Enhancer, Black Extension, C.A.T.S., AGC, and so on. Check your TV’s manual for explanations of what each setting does, if you’re curious, but you really do want to turn them all off. They all mess with the image in ways not intended by the creator, and they will make proper calibration more difficult or impossible.
There’s one setting in particular that anyone can adjust without requiring any skill or special software. Let’s say you buy a new 1080p HDTV with a native resolution of 1920×1080. Out of the box, that TV will most likely be configured to never show you a full 1920×1080 pixels of information. In computer parlance, it’s running at a non-native resolution by default, like a 1024×768 LCD display set to a resolution of 800×600.
Imagine this test image exactly matches the native resolution of your HDTV. (It doesn't, so please don't use it to test your actual TV. Use a real calibration app or image instead.)
If you’re viewing this post on a Retina display, the thin lines extending from the squares in the corners should be crisp and pixel-perfect. Send this image to your HDTV, however, and this is what you’re likely to see:
The green box is no longer visible; the squares in the corners are now rectangles; the fine lines are now blurred together, producing an unpleasant moiré pattern. You can read all about the origins of this terrible behavior in the Wikipedia entry on “overscan,” but all you need to know is that it’s no longer necessary in the age of HDTV.
You paid for all 1920×1080 pixels of your fancy new HDTV—use them! Most HDTVs have a setting somewhere to correct this problem. It may be called “Overscan,” “1:1 Pixel Mapping,” “Native,” “Screen Fit,” “Just Scan,” or something even more generic like “Size 1” or “Size 2.” Consult your TV’s manual to find out. (If you can’t find your paper manual, a Google search for your TV’s model number followed by “manual PDF” will usually lead to an online version.) Don’t give up; the setting is almost always there somewhere. For TVs with no dedicated setting, you may have to change the input label to “PC” or similar to force the issue.
The nerd-rage I feel at the thought of a display running in non-native resolution may not be something you can relate to, but everyone can appreciate a sharper image that shows more information. This holiday, after you’re done fixing all your relatives’ computer problems and updating their software, take a moment to correct the image size on their HDTV as well. Your relatives might not thank you for it, but I will.