The Death of Aperture

So Apple has killed off Aperture, the photo program I’ve been using for the last few years to slog around the 30,000-some pictures I’ve taken. iPhoto is going to die soon, too. They’re replacing both with Photos, a dumbed-down port of the featureless picture program that’s on the iPhone. Oh, but that has The Cloud, so I’ll be able to dump 100 gigs of photos, pay $4 a month rent on them, and then live in fear that I’ll accidentally have some switch flipped in a system update and burn through my monthly data cap when it tries to sync all of that stuff to my phone seven times every time I leave the house.

I know, “why don’t you just put all of your pictures in a big hierarchy of folders on a hard drive and not keep them in a database?”  Because I actually need to find shit, and it’s not 1997 anymore.

I moved everything from Aperture to Lightroom yesterday. There’s a plugin for Lightroom that does most of the deal for you. I bitched about this endlessly, and it ate up a few days of my time, but I guess it wasn’t as bad as it could have been. Here’s the various observations and gotchas:

  • It helps if you clean up your Aperture library first. I found I had an insane number of scans that were impossibly huge and didn’t need to be, and a lot of RAW files of dumb stuff that I didn’t need. I like to keep RAW files of Hawaii sunsets, but if it’s a picture of a dumb sign or a Taco Bell, I can smash it into a JPG and still sleep at night. My library was about 140 GB, and I got it down to about 85 GB before import.
  • You basically need your library size in free space on a drive to do the conversion, so good luck with that. I chose to convert in-place, so I freed up about 100 GB, put the new Lightroom in ~/Pictures/Lightroom* and then moved my old library off of my machine to a backup when I was done.
  • Back up your shit before you start. Back up your machine in general. Clone your entire drive regularly, not just your documents.
  • Lightroom puts all of your master photos in a hierarchical tree, just like I made fun of, and then keeps a separate database of metadata and non-destructive edits. The database itself isn’t that big. It keeps a previews database, too, and that can get big, depending on how big you make your previews.
  • Lightroom Folders = the hierarchy where stuff is stored in the above. I used Aperture folders projects as the “hard” dividers of what photos were captured in my library, although those are just virtual and you can move them around.
  • All of my photos ended up in a folder tree like this: LightroomMasters/YYYY/MM/YYYY-MM-DD/files* I don’t know how it decided on that hierarchy. I think it’s based on actual imports into my Aperture library, and not capture time or EXIF data or projects. I guess that format works for me.
  • Your tree in the left panel thing for Folders won’t look right. Right-click on the folders and do “Show parent” endlessly until it looks right.  (I.e. show the parent of the three levels of the hierarchy. Is there a faster way? I can’t find one. You only have to do this once, though, I hope.)
  • An Aperture Library = a Lightroom Catalog. I only had one Aperture Library. If you keep multiple Libraries, I don’t know what to tell you.
  • Aperture albums and projects are converted into Lightroom Collections. I.e. a Collection is a “virtual” collection of photos from your folders, and if you add or remove things to a Collection, you aren’t touching your stuff in folders.
  • If you edit the Collections made from your Aperture projects, you aren’t actually moving your masters in your folders. That’s a huge pain in the ass for me. Like I found a bunch of scans I took in 2006 that were pictures from, like, 1979. They should be in the folder for 1979, and they aren’t, so I had to find the pictures, then move them into the right folders.
  • All of your Aperture Smart Albums are broken. You can possibly use Smart Collections to replicate that, but you need to do it over.
  • All of your Aperture edits are gone. If you did edits, static preview images of the edits were imported, but you need to start over using Lightroom’s tools to do them again.
  • Any of those edited images will not have a Capture Time in them. The default grid view in Lightroom is sorted by Capture Time. So you’ll have a big mess there, and have to spend some time with the Metadata > Edit Capture Time settings.
  • I don’t even know what happened to shared albums. I don’t even care. I’ll start over. Nobody looks at my Flickr page anyway.
  • You end up with a huge shitstorm of dummy Collections with nothing in them. This is probably my fault, but I had to do a bunch of cleaning there.
  • At this point, this bulleted list is longer than I wanted and nobody’s reading, so figure the rest out. It will 90% work, but you’ll probably spend a weekend futzing with it after import.
  • Back all of your shit up again after you do all of this, and not on top of the old backup.
  • Do all of your imports in Lightroom. Don’t just dump images into your Masters directory or Lightroom won’t know they are there. If you want to dump them to a folder because you have a piece of shit phone without a modern sync, you can make Lightroom watch a folder and auto-import it. You can also do various schemes like watch a Dropbox folder and dump pictures there, like screenshots or your security cameras or whatever.

Here’s the main problem with Lightroom: there is no good way to sync with an iPhone (or iPad.)  You can set it up so when you plug in your phone and Lightroom will start and go directly to the Import screen and then import your photos, which is mostly how Aperture worked. (You could also just mount your phone and drag the files to your ~/Pictures directory if you are an idiot and want to lose all of your metadata and spend hours dealing with duplicates and creating new subdirectories and moving files around and whatever else.) So import is fine.

But there’s no real way to export and sync files to your phone. There are half-assed ways, but you can’t use iTunes to do it automatically anymore. It used to be in iTunes, I could say this:

  • Go to my iPhoto/Aperture library
  • Get my last X months of pictures, plus these other Albums I’ve selected
  • Sync those to the phone, and also clean up the ones that aren’t in the above, so my phone doesn’t slowly fill up and I end up trying to sync and I have 62GB of pictures on my 64GB phone and I have to spend a weekend deciding what to kill, and then the fucking thing will try to resync the 62GB anyway.
  • Do all of the above without me thinking at all, with no interaction, without opening iPhoto or Aperture, because life is too short.

There’s no way to do any of this in Lightroom. The closest I can think of is this:

  • Tell iTunes to sync from a folder.
  • In Lightroom, create a Publish Service that dumps a Smart Collection to a directory.
  • Remember to open Lightroom and click Publish before every time you sync your phone.
  • I don’t know how this handles duplicates or if it deletes old images. I haven’t tried it.
  • This is horrible.

There are some various plusses to Lightroom, I guess:

  • My library size dramatically dropped. I went from about 85 GB to about 70 GB. It’s possible that I just haven’t generated previews for everything and that will slowly climb.
  • Lightroom processing tools are supposed to be better. I haven’t gotten into that yet, but I spent a few minutes futzing with some RAW images, and it’s not bad.

So there’s what I did for the last few days instead of writing.

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My occasional history with film

I’m still thinking about film a lot, maybe too much. I’ve ended up buying two 35mm cameras on eBay this week, a Canonet QL17 rangefinder and an Olympus Trip 35 point/shoot.  I ran the first roll of film through the Trip (see attached picture) and I love it.  I need to take more pictures, figure out a good workflow for developing, scanning, and posting things, and determine what I’m really doing with photography. Mostly, I need to learn, and I feel like there’s a deep rabbit-hole of things out there to master. And the whole thing has me falling down a deep nostalgia hole, thinking about previous experiences with analog film.

A couple of years ago, I bought a photo book by the parents of Christopher McCandless, the guy that died in Alaska, described in the book and movie Into the Wild. His parents self-pubbed Back Into the Wild, which contained his journals, letters, and snapshots.  The book had a strong impact on me, not because I particularly admire his story and plight, but because it was a strong link to a nostalgic period of the recent past.

All of the guy’s photos were taken with cheap 35mm cameras, the point-and-shoot variety now largely forgotten.  The book also included copies of post cards and envelopes, with old stamps and cancellation/postmarkings that also reminded me of the early 90s.  I did so much mail for the zine around that time, and the look of those old 22-cent stamps and the cancellations, with their little public-service messages (“end breast cancer!” or whatever) draw me back instantly.  I still have old paper mail in storage, pieces in their well-creased envelopes, and it all reminds me of that period so much.

But the film, the cameras – they mentioned a few of the makes and models, and I googled these, wanting to see what gear he brought along on his adventures.  In the 80s and 90s, there were so many junk cameras, so many different brands.  it was like that with any electronics, too. Today, if you wanted a CD player, you’d have a choice of maybe three or four brands (Sony, Panasonic, Samsung, and some no-name Chinese thing) and maybe three or four models for each brand, and each one would be very similar to the other, aside from a differentiating feature like Surround Sound or digital output.  But back in the 80s, if you wanted, say, a VCR, there were dozens of brands, all of these different major Asian players shelling out radically different versions, competing with a dozen different American firms, with factories in San Jose or Dallas, plus all of the no-name Korean brands imported and given an American label, like the JC Penney brands or Sears versions.  And they were all so completely different, not identical in any way.

I remember I used to go through a lot of jam box tape players, because for a long period, I didn’t have a good car stereo, and would instead go to a pawn shop and buy a $50 jam box and then wire a 12-volt adapter in the car and use that until it got stolen a few months later.  And at the pawn shop, that $50 would buy so many different types, with removable speakers, various space-age plastic chrome finishes and grilles, fabric-covered woofers, and mystical buttons that offered hi-fi settings or switched on LCD power meters that measured nothing from a scientific standpoint, but would light and rise and fall with the volume of the music.  And they all had different EQ types and tone knobs or “boost” switches and different tape counters and ejection mechanisms, and the feel of the mechanical buttons was always different.

Cameras were the same way.  There were the high-end SLRs, which were all too expensive for my blood, but I had a friend or two, usually working for the yearbook club, who would learn how to work a good Canon or Nikon, and maybe borrow one from the school. SLRs all looked similar, but had weird differences, and there were the usual Pepsi/Coke religious wars about which one was best, although it was a ten-front war back then, not just Nikon/Canon.  There were also the low-end things, the Kodak 110s and disc cameras, and cheap Polaroid one-shots with no controls at all, just a dust cover, a trigger button, and a place to plug in the flip-flash with the exploding bulbs that would cost a fortune and smell of burning plastic after they ignited.  My parents liked these cameras, the ones with no settings, the Brownie or the 126, with nothing but maybe a film advance lever to manually crank through the roll after each shot.  And there were also a wide variety of cameras between the two, with some advanced features, some things missing, and some fully automated.

When I was a kid, I won one of the cheap-o cameras at the company picnic for my dad’s job.  It was a Kodak 110 kit, a little rectangle with the lid that pivoted open and worked as a sort of handle, hanging off to one side.  It was as thick as one of the plastic film cartridges, and had a little eyehole to look through, to frame shots.  This model had a “zoom” lens, a glass piece that slid back and forth on a track, so you could snap it into place and increase the range by a small factor.  Everything else was manual, with no focus, no aperture setting, just a film advance lever and a shutter button.  It would take me a year to take a dozen shots, carefully framing them, snapping a picture, and then not knowing for months if it turned out or not.  As a ten-year-old, I never had money for a flash, and would shoot everything in daylight with fingers crossed.  When done, the exposed film got thrown in a junk drawer, with pens and checkbooks and broken calculators and instruction books to appliances.  If we were lucky, a third of the film I shot as a kid was developed.  It always looked bad, with faded colors, grainy prints, and half of the shots underexposed or dark.  Everyone had red eyes, and all of the macro photography I attempted with Star Wars models never looked anything like the films.  It was disappointing, and not a hobby for me to get into, so I didn’t.

In high school, on a lark, I bought another 110 camera.  This was a small “spy” camera, a tiny piece of plastic that clipped over a 110 cartridge, leaving most of the film case exposed on the outside, not much more than a lens and advancing mechanism that clipped over the film cart.  I don’t remember if it had a flash, but I do remember it had no viewfinder, just a small plastic rectangle that clicked up on the top.  I bought this in October of my senior year, right before visiting Canada for the first time.  I took a few rolls of shots with this, and paid to develop them myself, since the $3.45/hour wages at my job afforded me this luxury.  The quality wasn’t much better, but there was more immediacy, and I took a lot of pictures of things.  I knew I’d leave town in a year, and want to remember old friends and my old car and my old house, so I captured it all to film.  And that Canada trip yielded a few good shots, too.  The film quality was still bad, lots of reds to the color mix, and the plastic-lens camera was total garbage.  But the small size, the novelty, and the budget to actually develop photos made it a decent experience.

In my freshman year of college, I had a few bucks of christmas money to blow on the after-holiday sales, and bought a 35mm camera at an Osco drug store.  It was some semi-known name, like Vivitar, but was a low-end, all-manual affair, similar to the ones McCandless used.  This was my first foray into a middle ground that existed, with the pro film format (35mm) but the cheap and easy to use camera that offered no settings or adjustments.  It did have a cheap built-in flash, and it maybe had an aperture setting (a little lever with an icon of the sun and another of a cloud).  And it may have had a similar focus (picture of a mountain, picture of a person’s head.)  But it had no zoom, no focus ring, no tripod mount, none of that.  It also had a manual film advance, and you had to load the film by hand, stretching the first flap out of the film canister across a set of sprockets before closing the back door.

This camera only lasted a few weeks, before the film spool broke, the cheap plastic splitting apart, in an unrepairable way that instantly let in the light, making the $25 gadget useless.  But I got two rolls of film through it; one while I was still home, and one at school.  The school roll had some great shots on it.  I walked a loop of the campus during the day, and the January sun and blue sky made for some great shots of the old limestone buildings, a perfect capture of the 1990 glory of Indiana University.  The home set of snaps had a couple of good pictures of Tom Sample at New Year’s, and the only picture of first college girlfriend Angie I still have.  (A horrible picture of her in my mom’s car.)

I did not have another camera until the middle of 1993, when I was home for the summer  I don’t know what compelled me to dip back into photography, but I think it was from working on the zine, the idea that I would take pictures at shows.  I spent close to $100 on another 35mm camera, once again one of those fixed-focus things.  This one was closer to a DSLR in its general shape, and it did have a motorized zoom lens, along with a better flash, and a motorized auto-load, the kind where you would put in a can of film and it would quickly suck up the end after you closed the back door.  And then at the end of the roll, it would suck the film back into the canister for you, instead of spending minutes cranking on a small dial or lever manually.

I got really into the idea of becoming “a photographer” even though it was a cheap and cheesy all-plastic camera.  I’d buy expensive film, like 1600 ISO Fujifilm or Kodachrome, and keep it in the fridge and get it developed at the one-hour place, always asking for matte prints.  I went to a lot of shows that summer for the zine, getting in for free by talking to record labels, and I’d always ask for a “photo pass” to try and get better access.  I never got any good pictures at shows, just blurry, poorly-lit snaps of Glen Benton or Cannibal Corpse, completely unusable stuff. I took some decent snapshots though, artsy pictures of Goshen College, some pictures of friends, along with a roll or two of the Milwaukee Metalfest, although none that were actually of the bands, just the booths and the drive there and back.  I also got the last few shots of the Mitchell House before I moved out, the only pictures I have of that place.

The camera went into “occasional mode” after that, only getting pulled out on a whim here and there, for parties or trips.  I wish I would have taken far more photos back then, many more shots of people and places, images capturing the Bloomington of 1994 and 1995.  I never knew the importance of these things, that I’d want to write about them, and I got a few good shots, but not enough.  I did a little more later, but I’ve taken more digital pictures in the last three months than the grand total of every frame I ran through that cheap 35mm.

That camera followed me to Seattle, chronicling that voyage.  I didn’t travel much when I was living in Jet City, but it made a few trips down to California. And then after K and I broke up, there was a period where I wanted to be a “photographer” again and went around taking pictures of cemeteries and airplanes and lakes.  It also went with on my long trip from Seattle to New York in 99. Once I got to NY, maybe a roll or two went through it, shots of my apartment, or maybe Times Square.  I’d switched to video for the most part by then, which is bad because the quality is so low, and the camcorder was bulky enough, I didn’t shoot as much.    By the time I started to take vacations, like my first trips to Vegas, it was 2000, and I had my first digital camera, so the film went away forever.

Anyway, the McCandless book reminded me of this, because he took these shots of the desert, the wide open spaces of Alaska, the plains states, and everywhere else off the beaten path of the early 1990s America.  And his pictures, the feel of film going through the low-end optics of a cheap import camera, I could feel the places he visited, much more so than if he’d just snapped some Instagram pics with his iPhone.  That particular type of shot, the lenses or the grain of the film or whatever else, just screamed 1990, the same way my dad’s old slide film 135 shots from when he was in the service are easily IDed as being from the late 1960s.  They just had a certain feel to them.

I made that journey across the desert in 1999, driving through New Mexico and Arizona and Nevada and Texas, on some of the same roads as him, and pulled over many times to walk across the flats and look at dry riverbeds and take a few shots with my cheap camera.  And his pictures remind me of my pictures.  And my pictures remind me of standing there alone, feeling the nature and lack of mankind around me, in a way that a hundred snaps from a camphone would not.  That era is so close to us now, only a few years ago, but it seems like a lifetime away.  And when I pick up a film print I took from them, or look at the copies of his, it makes me jump from my life back to that one.

Anyway, enough rambling.  More film will be shot.  And I have a huge project I dread, involving scans and restoration of these giant tupperware storage bins of negatives and prints, before they all rot into rancid chemicals and fade into nothing.  I should get on that.

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Why I love analog

Real film. Not an instagram filter.

After shooting some 25,000 digital photos in the last decade and a half, I finally did something I never thought I would: I started shooting film again.

In a fit of boredom, I bought a Lomography Diana F+ camera. It’s a 40-buck plastic toy camera that shoots 120 roll film, with manual everything and a plastic lens that takes hipster-esque Instagram-y pictures. I took it out and ran three rolls through it, just to see what it would be like. It was tough, clunky, and awkward, but I loved it.

I haven’t shot film since 2000.  I got my first digital camera, a 1-MP Olympus point/shoot, at J&R Electronics in New York at the very end of that year.  I remember this well, because I had to take a bunch of use-it-or-lose-it vacation and essentially split work very early in the month of December for the rest of the year, and I got really sick on the first day off. I spent the whole vacation in a NyQuil daze, sleeping for 30 hours, waking up in the middle of the night to order hot and sour soup by the gallon from the crap Chinese place down the street, then going back to bed.  I eventually got ambulatory enough on the day after Christmas to brave a snowstorm that dumped a few feet of fluffy white snow over the island. I took the N train down to the City Hall stop to go into the electronics superstore that stood near the foot of the mighty twin towers of the World Trade Center.  I bought the camera, stumbled home, and took a bunch of shots of my kitchen and bathroom, amazed at how they instantly showed up in the tiny LCD screen.

Digital changed my life.  I didn’t have to go to labs, didn’t have to wait to see if a shot worked, and didn’t have the nagging self-censorship that a flunkie working the film counter at Osco’s would be looking at my prints. I took a ton of pictures with that little junk camera, and then moved on to a series of better point/shoots through the 00s before graduating to a DSLR in 2010.  I love shooting with the big Canon, but I still take more pictures with my iPhone. Both are fast, easy, and cheap.

But, there’s a disconnect. I average a few hundred shots a month, although it’s in fits and spurts; I will take out the DSLR for vacation or a baseball game and run a few thousand shots, but then it goes back to the shelf; the iPhone grabs a funny picture or something interesting maybe a few times a week, mostly snapshots of the cats or stupid products in stores. Sometimes these go to flickr, endless galleries of vacation shots that nobody looks at. Hell, I don’t look at them half the time.  I enjoy going back to remember something from ten years ago, but my least favorite part about vacation is trimming a thousand pictures down to a hundred and trying to caption them.  I wish there was a program that would do it automatically, as I’ve said before, but that’s a ways off.

I think that disconnect between us and what we capture, the intermediary of the digital screen and the promise of quick/easy/cheap causes us to produce things we don’t care about.  I don’t give a shit about most of those 25,000 shots I have in Aperture. Maybe 100 are really good works of art, and maybe 1000 of them are things I want to remember. And everyone is that way. Everyone with a digital camera has a million shots and nowhere to put them.  And nobody likes looking at them, except people you don’t want prying into them, like stalkers and annoying relatives. Nobody creates with a camera anymore; we capture, hoping it will help us remember what we quickly forget in our fast-paced world, but we never go back to look at it, and none of it matters. It’s something we feel we should do, like when people take a thousand pictures an hour when they have kids, but nobody’s going to cherish those pictures. They’re probably going to be gone in a dozen years, from a dead hard drive or some new change to formats that will make them all obsolete.

So the first reaction from anyone I told about this new camera is “why the hell are you shooting film?  Don’t you have an iPhone?”  And the answer is that the lack of immediacy, the fact that I need to think because each shot is costing me a buck and I won’t see it for two weeks, makes me more cognizant of what I’m doing. It gives me more of a relationship with what I’m creating. I mean, my iPhone is still taking better pictures, but there’s something about the process of going to the photo shop and talking to the clerk and being handed that envelope of prints and negatives, and then the surprise of opening it and going through to see what worked and what didn’t. I enjoy the process, even if it takes longer.

It reminds me of the days of going to a real record store, talking to the people there about what’s new and what’s cool, flipping through the stacks, looking at the artwork, smelling the vinyl in the air and seeing the other people there.  The whole ritual of going there is something I painfully miss, and buying albums made me more aware of them.  It’s damn convenient to go to iTunes, listen to a few samples, and click the buy button to instantly have it on your computer. But I buy stuff and don’t even listen to it, forget about it, and have to force myself to use playlists and rate things to find them and get into them.  I’m not aware of the music I have anymore.

It’s also the same with books.  Everyone is into the Kindle, and I sell more ebooks than paper these days.  But I download Kindle books that go free, or things I see online, and I never, ever read them.  I have hundreds of Kindle books I will never in a million years open. I read 100% of everything on paper, and I love collecting books. I cherish the print copies of things I really dig, and nothing beats the hypnotic experience of holding a dead tree in your hands and flipping through the pages.  Yes, it’s easier to search through a tech manual or textbook and find what you need on a Kindle or in a PDF. But the relationship between the reader and the work is much more solid on paper.  Will the Kindle disrupt publishing?  Sure.  The CD disrupted the production of vinyl. But people who love music are back to buying it.  Books are the same thing.

Anyway, the first film came out okay.  It’s going to take some practice to get into it, and I probably need a cheaper 35mm to do some learning. Here are the first shots. It’s a fun distraction, so I’m going to keep at it. I’m still shooting as much or even more digital, but there’s just something about analog I can’t shake.

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What happened to hypercard?

Hypercard was released 25 damn years ago.  Has it been that long?

Back in college, I spent a lot of time screwing around on the Mac, and there were certain programs that welded that old-school 68K Classic Mac experience in my mind.  One of them was Aldus PageMaker, which was the desktop publishing program of the day. This was in the very early 90s, in the days of DOS and WordPerfect 5.1, when the most advanced publishing work you could do on the WinTel side of things was using italics.  But the Mac had this funky and advanced program that enabled you to create page layouts and cool newsletters and even newspapers.  I saw many a journalism student slaving away on those old black-and-white Apples with the tiny grey screens, tweaking layouts and dumping fantastic publications to postscript printers.  I later learned PageMaker by doing the last issue of my old zine Xenocide in it, spending months tweaking page borders and reflowing columns.

The other program I messed with endlessly was HyperCard.  This was something included on all of the old Macs, and it was incredibly interesting to me.  Basically, you created a stack of cards, and each card could have a mix of text and clip art graphics on it.  But you could also plop controls on the cards, like links or text boxes.  You could then hook up those controls to link cards to each other, or do other freaky stuff like run scripts.

This sounds pretty pedestrian compared to what we do daily on the web.  And it sounds disturbingly like PowerPoint, which is probably one of the most evil things created in the business world. But back then, in the late 80s and early 90s, these concepts were absolutely revolutionary.  And even better, the interface to HyperCard was not that intimidating.  If you could make basic art in MacPaint or write a paper in WordPerfect, you could easily create a HyperCard stack.

I remember spending a lot of time at work creating a choose-your-own-adventure game using HyperCard.  I forget exactly what it was – I think it was a game about trying to score drugs on a college campus, and you could click on various pictures to move around.  It wasn’t exactly as sophisticated as the Zork series, but it was something I could do at work, under the guise of “learning more about HyperCard.”  I never learned much about the scripting language, but I did work with some people who did pretty sophisticated stacks.  The system was widely used by education majors, I guess to develop learning tools for kids.  I guess the original Myst on the Mac was written in Hypercard, each of the worlds a Hypercard stack, interlaced with heavy-duty graphics and audio, presented with custom plug-ins.

Like I said, the web came along, and HyperCard more or less vanished.  It was one of the products developed by Claris, which was spun off from Apple and then later re-merged.  The last version of HyperCard came out in 1996, but it was one of the projects killed by Steve Jobs after his return.  You could run old versions for a while, but it did not survive the jump from OS9 to OSX.  You could get it to work in Classic emulation on newer systems, but it only worked on PPC Macs.  On today’s Intel-based machines running later versions of OSX, it doesn’t work at all.

Its one big legacy on the Mac is that the HyperTalk scripting language was adapted and added to System 7, and called AppleScript.  It’s still around in modern versions of OS X, and is even more interesting, now that you can run unix commands from within AppleScript.  It influenced the development of HTTP, JavaScript, and Ward Cunningham said the whole idea of wikis goes back to using HyperText.

To me, HyperCard was always a bit of a missed opportunity.  I think it would be very easy for casual users to create HyperCard stacks and then use some kind of tool to push them to a web site; it would potentially be easier to create high-quality interactive web sites with something like that.  There are probably many programs that you could buy to do that, but none that come with your operating system and follow its UI paradigm.  It would also be great to develop mobile apps.  I could see creating a stack, testing it out on your computer, then pushing it through a compiler and shooting out a binary that could be run on a phone or tablet.  You couldn’t write the next Skyrim that way, but for simple stuff, like interactive kid’s books or multimedia guides, it would be great.  Same thing for interactive books on the Kindle or iPad.

I know you can do all of these things with XCode or by hand or whatever, but there’s something about the ease of use by a non-programmer, and the availability on every Mac, that make this a different paradigm.  There are some conspiracy theories that Jobs killed Hypercard in order to solidify the division between creator and consumer.  I don’t know if that’s true; I think he killed it because Apple had eleventy billion disparate things going on when he returned, and none of them were getting the company closer to profitable hardware sales or a decent operating system.  It’s too bad we don’t have something like this anymore.

 

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The Cult of Keyboards

As I approach the end of my 40th year, my body is falling apart.  Okay, that may be an over-exaggeration, but every morning, it feels like another piece has been overextended or abused or mutilated, from the various discs in my back to the muscles and joints in my shoulders or arms or knees or toes or whatever.  Ever since I’ve started working from home, poor ergonomics has caused a rash of various repetitive stress injuries.  Or maybe all of the steps I’ve tried to prevent said injuries have caused it.  I don’t know.

I do know that my keyboards have been the main focus of this hell.  I mean, I also bought extensions to raise my desk, a different mount to raise my monitor, and one of those freaky bicycle seat-looking office chairs to prevent me from slouching, and that all helps.  But I think in the last decade, I’ve probably put down about a million words between work and fiction, and all of those go through my ten digits via some kind of USB-connected appliance that’s based on a design originally thrown down a hundred and a half years ago by opium-deranged business machine sadomasochists trying to find a way to keep busy women in between bouts of making sandwiches.  Never mind the fact that we don’t yet have machines that read our minds or let us simply talk to our computers like we’re Scotty whipping up a batch of god damned transparent aluminum. The fact that we still use essentially the same QWERTY design as a century ago, the one that was specifically invented to slow down typists, is a travesty to all things mechanical.

When I got to Seattle in the mid-90s, ergo-mania was happening, and I knew more people who had RSI or carpal tunnel than I knew in Indiana who thought the earth was created 3000 years ago, and that’s a lot.  Ergo was huge, and there were all of these bizarre startups running out of garages churning out short runs of chording keyboards and strange split devices and custom DVORAK layouts, not to mention all of the alternate mouse designs, like track balls and track pads and track pens and track cocks and whatever else.  And this was before the advent of USB, when this stuff became really easy to make, and before Microsoft upped the ante on RSI by inventing prolific right-click menus and then the scroll wheel, two things that have caused more arthritis of the right hand than all of the collected works of Megan Fox.

Microsoft both created and destroyed the ergo market by coming out with their own mass-produced split keyboard.  I will give credit where credit is due and say this is one product that Microsoft got mostly right.  I’ve gone through a succession of these split keyboards, most recently using the Ergo 4000, which has a large number of “media” buttons, which are nice for doing things like pausing iTunes or skipping tracks or zooming the browser window.  However, aside from the fact that I go though about one of these a year (mostly because of a combination of eating at my computer and the fact that the letters wear off almost instantly) there’s always been something slightly wrong with these peripherals.

Before the Microsoft models, I went through a series of IBM Model M keyboard clones; in fact, my first keyboard I bought in 1991 was an honest-to-god 83-key IBM keyboard from a 5-slot 5150 PC.  In 2012, there are a lot of issues with these keyboards, aside from just the total lack of ergonomic comfort; you’re not going to find a Windows key or an Apple key, and they use a cable that predates USB by at least two or three iterations.  Most of the vintage ones have also gone from the 90s computer beige to the yellow-brown color of linen in a ten-pack-a-day smoker’s house.

But the switches in these keyboards were magic.  New keyboards don’t use individual switches; they use dome switches, where the keys push this rubbery sheet that contains little bits that complete the electrical connection. The result is a quiet and cheap keyboard that feels like typing while your fingers are suspended in a bowl of mush, and at some point, the little domes will sporadically fail, and every 10,000th character you type will randomly miss, eventually causing insanity and the cost of both replacing the keyboard and the window you throw it through in a maddened rage.  The old keyboards used actual mechanical switches, each one happily clicking with a sharp tactile feel as you snapped away at the keys.  Even if you couldn’t type fast, it felt like you were typing fast.

This introduces this never-solvable paradox that seems to creep up in every damn aspect of my life.  I want an ergonomic split keyboard, that is modern and uses USB and has all of the new keys people use like Win and Alt, and has mechanical key switches.  The Microsoft ergo uses rubber dome switches, and at some point, those fail and cause madness.  It also means that even with a brand new keyboard, it feels like I’m typing underwater.  There’s a whole cult of mechanical switch keyboards, mostly from gamers who need lightning-fast key response.  Those are all standard layout, mostly because gamers only use the WASD keys.  There’s also the issue that these keyboards are all marketed to 14-year-old Asian boys, and have names like the “Viper Frag Kill 9000” and you will pay $200 for backlighting and extra buttons specifically used for Skyrim or whatever.  And outside of Microsoft, the ergo keyboard market has largely been killed.  Add to this the frustration that every single computer sold comes with a keyboard, and because the cheapest way of making them is good enough for a person who types at most 140 characters in a row, the $19 OEM POS is fine for almost everyone.

My problem with this – or with building a kitchen island, or finding the right desk, or getting a set of sliding glass doors done, or whatever the hell else, is I fall down these deep internet k-holes of endless searching and frustration.  There are several internet discussion boards full of game playing fiends touting their favorite boards.  But of course, if you posted asking for a good ergo keyboard, you’d get a thousand responses saying RSI is a myth, kind of like if you went into a random bar in Arkansas and asked the locals about global warming or evolution.  And your first 900 results in a google search are links to the Microsoft Ergo 4000.

This fall, I finally gave up and bought a Kinesis Advantage.  They are not cheap; I spent just shy of $300 for mine.  But they use actual Cherry mechanical switches, and feature a unique split system, where the bulk of the keys are in two “bowls”, and all of the modifier keys (ctrl/alt/win/apple) plus keys like the backspace, delete, enter, and space, all sit under your thumbs.  This means you can do 99% of your typing without stretching your hands out of the home position, and the keys happily clack away to confirm your speedy typing.  The Kinesis also has a complex and powerful system of keyboard remapping and macro programming in its firmware, which I will probably never use.   The one real bummer, aside from price, is that the function keys are these little rubber chicklets that will inevitably get jammed or stop working.  There’s also the issue that I am not historically a touch typist, and I had to spend a month using a touch typing tutor program (the wonderful and open-source Tipp1o) to get to the point where those ring and pinky fingers were hitting the As and Ses and Ls and ;s with regularity.

The k-hole has been reopened lately, though.  I’ve been wondering if there’s a good way to replace those damn chicklet keys.  Maybe I should get a keypad or jog-shuttle control to remap these keys.  Maybe I should get out the dremel and buy a dozen and a half loose Cherry keys and replace the switches.  Maybe I should remap the largely useless Home key so Home-1=F1;Home-2=F2, and so on.  Maybe I should stop all of this and actually write books.  Sure, right after I try to find a Kinesis macro programming FAQ online, and then hem and haw about buying a Griffin PowerMate.

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Dot Matrix and Word Processors

I was writing about something completely different the other day, and went on this side diversion about dot-matrix printers, and thought about how a giant subset of the population (like everyone born after about 1985) never had to deal with them, while I spent far too many hours fighting them in computer labs, pulling apart the intricate pieces to pry loose jammed scraps of paper that got worked into the machinery.

There’s so many distinctive features of this whole era of printing that are long forgotten.  Dot matrix printers usually used eight little pins to stamp a ribbon as the print head jumped across the page.  My friend Matt had one of these, the Commodore 801, and the thing I remember most about it was that it was unidirectional; the little print head would zip across the page at a breakneck 50 characters per second, then the page would move up a line, and the head would return to the left.  But it didn’t print on the sweep back to the left, which meant it was half as fast as the expensive printers that would print on both passes.

The printers were also tractor-feed back then.  The paper had those little perforated runners hanging off of each end, little strips with holes in them, and the box of paper was fan-fold, so you could feed in the sheet and it would continuously chew through the giant thousand-page sheet of paper in a carton.  Then, after you spent 20 minutes staring at the printer, hoping the thing got through your term paper in one pass, you then had to fold and tear apart each page, then tear off the feed strips on either side.

And, of course, that never worked right.  If you didn’t line up the paper exactly, turning the little knob on the side of the printer, the end of the physical page would not match up with what the computer thought was the end of the page, and you’d get this mangled mess with a blank strip of what was supposed to be the top and bottom margins in the middle of the printed page.  The whole operation of aligning and feeding and advancing paper was a precision thing, and if the paper got folded or creased or otherwise fucked up, the printer would have no mercy and create an origami disaster out of your precious schoolwork.

The output of a dot-matrix looked like shit, and they did a lot of little tricks to get it to resemble actual type.  Like some printers had this “near letter quality” feature, where they’d do multiple passes on the same line to get a higher resolution, and they started adding more pins.  When I was at IUSB, we had armies of these Panasonic KPX-1124 printers, which had 24 pins instead of 8.  These pieces of shit were the bane of my existence back in 1991, and I spent untold hours tearing jammed paper out of these while some dumpy housewife screamed at me about her Psych 101 paper getting trashed.  (If you ever did time around one of these, watch this video and tell me if the clunking sound of that print head slamming into the left margin over and over doesn’t make you go full postal.)

It seems like everyone forgets the other bastard child of that era that made perfect typewritten letters, at the sake of glacial speeds and 120-decibel print runs.  The daisy wheel printer had a hub with a bunch of little spokes coming off of it, each one carrying a little type letter.  It could spin the wheel with a servo motor and then hammer it against the ribbon with a solenoid, making an ink impression that looked exactly like a typewritten page.  These were a big deal if you were printing out things like college admission letters, or you had an English teacher that had a hair up their ass about dot-matrix printers and wanted you to hunt down a selectric and hammer out the damn thing the old fashioned way.  Daisy wheel printers were louder than fuck, and a low-end model typically cost more than your entire computer.

But not everyone had computers.  When I was in high school, I had this “word processor” which was a glorified typewriter, except it had a single line of an LCD display, and it used a thermal print head.  It took these cartridges of some kind of crap that it could transfer to a page with a set of heated pins.  If you have one of those label maker machines, it was a similar deal, but masquerading as a desktop machine.  I think you could only type in one line at a time, and then hit return and wait a minute for it to etch onto the paper.  This wasn’t the best machine for stream-of-consciousness writing, but it was way faster than hunt-pecking on the K-Mart manual typewriter I got at a garage sale as a kid, where you’d type any faster than three characters a minute and all of the little hammers would get wrapped around each other and jam.

I somehow lucked into finding this girl in my freshman year of college that thought I was some kind of writing genius, and got her to type my papers for a semester.  I guess that sounds sort of chauvinistic, but that’s an arrangement that I feel sorry the current generation won’t find themselves in.  The “can you help me type my W131 paper?” pickup line has gone the way of the dodo.

After I wasn’t able to fully seal that deal, I dated someone who bought one of those Brother word processors, which were a very brief halfway-house between a typewriter and a computer.  It was this huge microwave oven-sized thing that was a fusion of a printer, a tiny CRT monitor, a keyboard, and the Notepad.exe program in ROM.  You could type a few pages at a time and then save them to a floppy disk (which was totally incompatible with any other computer) and then when you got it all situated and edited, you pressed a key and it would spit out the creation on actual paper.  My roommate Kirk later had one of these beasts, and I think I remember Larry working off of one for a while.  Here is a nice video of one in action.

Now, computers are cheap as hell, something it seems that most people forget, and laser printers or nice inkjets are everywhere, and we don’t really think about stuff like this.  But I remember the smell of the fine paper dust inside of a monster line printer on campus, one of these washing machine sized beasts that would mass-print thousands of pages off of VAX computers, so long as one of us consultants hooked it up with the occasional corrugated cardboard box of 17″ wide tractor feed paper, that cream and light green-lined stuff.  Every now and again, some idiot would send an ASCII-art dragon to the printer, a giant picture rendered in letters that would print banner-style across three dozen pages of paper, over the course of an hour.  (Even better, when you’re sitting in a public lab and someone in a dorm sends through a picture of a Penthouse Pet done up ASCII-style.)  That was all infinitely better than when someone would accidentally dump a binary file to the DEC LG06 in the library, and it would spit out page after page of random junk until you could get an operator in the machine room to kill the queue.

My last hurrah with dot matrix was about five years ago, when I bought a Tandy 100 off of eBay.  The guy threw in a bunch of other random crap, including a Radio Shack printer from circa 1985, with some bizarro serial cable and no chance in hell of ever working with a machine produced this century.  It went straight to the dumpster, but I probably should have videotaped it going off of a four-story building, or getting it Office Space style with a baseball bat.

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A cautionary tale of incompatible formats

In 1998, I got a new credit card in the mail and after thinking about how many photocopies I could make for $1500 or if that was enough to buy like one sixtyfourth of an acre in some deserted forest, enough to build some kind of treehouse-esque unabomber shack, I suddenly realized that I had the insane desire to buy a MiniDisc recorder.  So I rushed over to The Good Guys, this old Best Buy-esuqe electronics store, and bought a Sony MZ-R50 and rushed home and recorded Joe Satriani’s Crystal Planet onto a blank disc.

(Reasons significant: 1) Joe Satriani recorded his first album after receiving a credit card in the mail; 2) He was signed to Sony, and I think a song of his was in a MiniDisc commercial, not that there were tons of those in the US; 3) I had recently broken up with a girlfriend, and the reason I broke up with her, or the catalyst at least, was driving two hours to Portland with Ryan in his Miata to see Joe Satriani, listening to CP the whole way there, and both of us bitching about our respective girlfriends and vowing to somehow escape the situations, only I did and he did not.)

I did not have a good way to record digital to digital for a long time, and the MiniDisc required you to record stuff in real-time – you didn’t just download a bunch of MP3s and dump them to the disc.  You also had to carry around however many discs with you, and if you brought three and went to work, you were guaranteed to be sick of all of them by the time you got to the train station.  I vividly remember going on an awful first date with a lowtalker who produced feminist programming for cable access and still lived with her mom and wanted to go to dinner at a soup restaurant and then go to see this movie about white supremacists, and then I really fucked things up because the movie interviewed all of these white supremacists in Bloomington, Indiana, and while they’re talking to these guys about the evils of Jews, they’re all drinking out of Pizza Express cups and I’m like HOLY SHIT THOSE ARE PIZZA EXPRESS CUPS I HAVE LIKE 90 OF THOSE IN MY APARTMENT.  She was still somehow interested and kept calling and I eventually told her I was in love with someone who lived in LA, which was partially true anyway.  So after this first date, I had to walk her to her car at the cable access thing, and it was like eleventy billion blocks from the train station.  And the only MD I had with me was a best-of from Millions of Dead Cops, which is like 27 songs, a dozen of them being “John Wayne Was a Nazi” and the rest being entirely unintelligible 22-second long songs.  And I think I listened to it nine times on the walk back to the train.  And that’s why I got an iPod.

I have an 80GB iPod and it’s almost full, and it’s also lasted longer than any other, which means it will fail soon.  It is my damn lifeline for morning traffic though.  Is there something that will hold more music that I need to get?  Maybe I need to get a bunch of iPods and put them on a bandolier like Chewbacca.  If they made an iPhone that could fit 80 GB I would just do that.  Maybe when the drive dies in this (inevitable) I will find a way to hack it into a socket that I can hot-swap a bunch of different drives.  Maybe I will just wise up and say “why the fuck do I have all of these Charlie Parker albums and I only listen to two of the songs, so fuck it” and get the collection down so it will fit on my iPhone.

I’ve still got all of this MiniDisc crap in my storage locker.  I think if I had infinite time I would make some kind of art project out of it, like make a MiniDisc-based mellotron keyboard. Someone did a movie about the mellotron, a documentary, which I guess is a lot better than my last attempt at a documentary.  I got blindingly drunk in Laguardia airport, then had to fly to Pittsburg via Cincinnati Ohio (which is really in Kentucky, the airport I mean) and so I got to OH/KY and had a few more beers and decided I was going to make a concept movie about the moving walkways in the airport and started filming The Walkway is about to end, which is basically me sitting on the floor by the end of the walkway, and every ten seconds, a robot voice says “the walkway is about to end!” and every single person that walks past ignores it and stumbles when the moving ground becomes non-moving ground, and the whole thing is an important metaphor for something, but then I started to sober up and had to catch a plane to Pittsburgh and that’s the end of the story.  (The footage for that is in my storage locker, too.)

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Xanadu House and 80s nostalgia

I sometimes have this weird nostalgia that’s much more complicated than just “remember the 80s”, but rather a deep nostalgia for what I saw as cutting edge or a glimpse of the future way back when. It’s hard to explain, but it’s that weird feeling I had twenty years ago when I looked at some futuristic computer or technology, and I had this premonition that in the year 2000, this would be “it”. And the feeling is stronger when there are a lot of other interconnected memories or feelings about it. And the other day, this totally happened in a way that is easily explained, but probably still doesn’t capture what the fuck I’m rambling on about.

Okay, Wikipedia had a featured article the other day about The Xanadu House. No, it has nothing to do with Olivia Newton-John or the Rush song from Farewell to Kings. It was a series of three houses built as demo/museum units by the architect as a showcase to “the home of tomorrow”. They were made of sprayed polyurethane foam and looked something like Yoda’s house or maybe something a Hobbit would live in. They were a very 70s-looking design, and I could totally see something like them in a Roger Dean-airbrushed Yes double gatefold album cover, or maybe done up on the side of a van with a wizard shooting lightning bolts that lit up along with the 8-track player.

Okay, the outside did look pretty borderline artschool-project, but the inside was the interesting stuff. There were computers everywhere: controlling the lights, monitoring the bitchin’ hot tub, cooking your food; measuring your calories and watching your weight; integrated into the Elvis-like wall of TVs, one tuned to each station (total: 3); and everywhere else. The house was a full-on wet dream of automation. Now you see why I was somewhat pulled into reading all about this house and scouring the web for more info. I’ve still got this land out in Colorado with nothing but cacti and prarie dogs on it, and the idea of building some huge, fucked up, unconventional structure like a geodesic dome or a decommissioned jet airliner or a giant tube made out of a million egg cartons and some nuclear-proof epoxy solution is pretty appealing. Add to that a slew of computers that I don’t really need and that’s damn near what-I’d-do-if-I-hit-the-Lotto material for me.

But as I dove deeper, I found a lot of threads that pulled me back to when they got this house built down in Florida, in 1983. These computers back in the day weren’t a bunch of IBM blade servers or anything; turns out the builders were using a slew of good old Commodore 64s in the styrofoam innards of this dream palace. The TVs weren’t giant plasmas like Bill Gates would have, but rather the old-school, silver, two-knob not-so-flat CRT sets like you’d find at your Aunt Barbara’s rec room back in ’80. The online shopping system wired into the food-processor kitchen used a 12″ analog laserdisc for its info. The “home gym” consists of the same non-resistance exercise bike your parents bought back in ’78 and used as a clothes rack for ten years before unloading it at a yard sale. This wasn’t a Jetsons home as much as it was my Christmas list from 1983.

And that’s when this unfamiliar house became a home I knew, at least in proxy, for some weird reason. I was IN Florida, in Orlando, in 1983. My parents loaded us up in the station wagon and drove south a thousand miles, first to Tampa, and then to the Disney kingdom. And we didn’t go to the Xanadu house, but it looks a lot like the kind of place we would have stopped. We hit a lot of roadside attractions that trip, and a lot of the gift shops and historical viewpoints, from Tarpon Springs to the Atlantic coast, had the same tacky yet “futuristic” sign that graced the front of the Xanadu house. Everything about the old pictures, the way they were framed, the style of the furniture, just rubs some weird brain cell deep in my head that makes me think of a million memories that have nothing to do with this house and everything to do with my own life.

For example, I remember, again on the trip, going to a Showbiz pizza with my family. For those who don’t remember, Showbiz was similar to Chuck E. Cheese, the pizza parlor where you bring the rugrats for birthdays and parties. But back in the day, Showbiz was very oriented toward arcade games, and had a fuckload of consoles, including duplicates of many popular games. And at that time, the big deal were laserdisc-based games like Dragon’s Lair. Nobody seems to remember this particular fad, but these machines had a big giant laser disc player in them, and when you jerked around the joystick, different scenes from this Disney-eque cartoon would play. The game totally sucked from a playability standpoint, but everyone was too busy circle-jerking over the fact that the output was basically like DVD-quality animation and sound, and this was at a time when most arcade heroes were 16 by 16 pixel sprites. I remember staring at people playing these games in amazement, thinking this was the future of arcade games. Of course, the future was that nobody wanted to pay 50 cents per game (this was one of the first two-coin titles), the laser players crapped out and took forever to load, and in another year, the entire coin-op arcade game industry would take a crap and completely implode, meaning nobody would be too interested in the progress of games for another five years. (About when Nintendo started slapping NES guts into consoles and charging people to play games on a console you could just buy and play at home on a TV – that is if you could find a NES, which you couldn’t, because Nintendo was in the middle of a price-fixing, fake-supply-problem war.)

And I went to Epcot on that trip, which was right when it opened and they had a lot of cool displays about the future and how science would win everything. (They’ve long since ripped all of this shit out and replaced it with “Bob the Builder’s Why Every Kid Should Buy More of My Garbage” exhibits.) And the exhibit showed electronic cars that we’d all drive to work in 1997, and ways to raise more food for the world through hydroponic greenhouses we’d all use when we went to Mars, and so on. Epcot was originally going to be a huge experiment in sustainable living, but when Disney realized there was no money in that, they had GE, GM, and AT&T drop these huge advertisements for life in the future. And the same thing is, in 1983, it all seemed so fucking feasible that in 20 years we’d all have video phones and TVs with smellovision and pod cars, and I remember that view of the future so vividly. And now that future is in the past, and none of it happened. I used to read in Compute magazine about how, maybe if we all tried hard, cars might have a single microprocessor in them, and it would be so cool to get so much blazing power out of an 8-bit 6510 wired into our engine. And now, I’ve got at least twenty processors sitting on my desk, in my watch, in my camera, in my mouse, and none of them are doing anything remotely as interesting as what I thought they would be. I have ten times the computing power of that Xanadu house sitting in the battery charger to my camera, and none of it is being used to automatically cook my food or turn on the jaccuzi when I get home from work. And that’s sad, in a way.

The house has a much more sad ending, though. It ran as a museum until the ’90s, then sat vacant, as Florida mold consumed the sterile white interior. Squatters broke in and tore up the interior, and eventually, last year, the owners bulldozed the place, and plan on putting in a condo on the land. There are a lot of pictures on line of the interior in disrepair, and then the dozer taking out the foam walls. Very sad stuff.

Anyway, I forgot what my point is, other than to somehow describe that feeling I get when I look at an old Amiga or something. I remember the summer of 85 when all of the computer magazines were abuzz about that thing like all of the glamour mags are currently abuzz about the Jessica Simpson divorce or something. I mowed lawns and babysat and applied at every McDonald’s and Hardees within 10-speed distance of my house to scrape up money for that A-1000, and never made it. Just looking at the magazine pictures was like a view into the future of computing, something that could draw multiple windows and 4096 simultaneous colors! Looking back at the old beige-platinum machines, I imagine this massive future, but then I realize that my old Palm Pilot is probably faster and with a better screen.

Ah well, enough rambling. I’m still reading this Neil Armstrong book and it’s going to take me forever to finish. Better invest some more time into it…

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