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January 24, 2009

25 Years of the Mac

Via many sources (MacRumors, TUAW, AppleInsider, Macworld), today is the 25th anniversary of the Mac.

In January of 1984, I was still in the US Army, stationed in Würzburg, Germany, nominally as a Russian interpreter but rarely having any exposure to Russian. Frustrated by spending my time doing make work, and fascinated with computers, I had talked my way into a programming class and been assigned a job programming Apple II computers.

In those days long before the Internet, I was following computing developments in the US as best I could from afar, which meant via magazines, especially the great, long-lost BYTE. In 1983, BYTE had published a lengthy technical overview of Apple's Lisa computer, and the moment I read the phrase "data-as-object metaphor", I was hooked. At the end of the article, the writer alluded to Apple's plans to make a cheaper version of the Lisa (which cost $10,000 at introduction), and I knew it was something I would want -- just the idea of a reasonably-priced graphical user interface-based computer from Apple was all I needed to know.

Steven Levy wrote a story for Rolling Stone on the Macintosh that appeared around the time of its introduction. I can't find it online, but I recall that he cast the team of people creating the Macintosh as the last, best hope against a tide of soulless IBM-compatible PCs running DOS. For a 21-year-old dreaming of a degree in cognitive science and then a career figuring out how to make computers more intelligent and easier with which to interact, it was profoundly moving stuff.

I got out of the Army in June of 1984 and the first place I stopped was Providence, Rhode Island, to visit with a friend of mine who had gone home before me. I got in late one evening and the first thing I did the next morning was to get dressed and walk to the nearest computer store that carried the Macintosh. I thought it was the coolest thing I had ever seen.

I bought my 128K Macintosh from another friend from my unit who had bought one for himself but then realized he was overextended and needed to sell it. It was literally the only thing of value I owned. I didn't have a car, but I had my Macintosh. It could be frustrating at times, as any Macintosh owner back then will tell you. One could copy only a windowful of graphics from MacPaint at a time. Duplicating a 400K disk with 128K of memory was a seemingly endless series of disk swaps. There was hardly any software available, and of those programs that could be bought, many were bad, thanks to developers who failed to fully embrace the Macintosh method of development. But none of this diminished my affection for the Macintosh.

I upgraded my Macintosh to 512K of RAM, and later to 1MB. I added a SCSI interface to it and a hard drive. I used it actively for about seven or eight years. At home, a Macintosh LC finally took its place, and I still remember how excited I was to get my Macintosh IIci at work. I had PCs at home and at work starting in the early 1990s, but it wasn't until 1998 or 1999 that I wasn't using a Macintosh on a regular basis. Apple had gone downhill and I had made the switch to Windows, though I was never truly happy about it. In as many ways as the Macintosh seemed elegant, Windows seemed clumsy, even after 15 years of development.

In 2005, I finally came back to to the Mac, buying an iMac for home use and figuring I'd gradually move my life back over to it. I bought my MacBook Pro two years later and it's one of the best computers I've ever owned -- so much so that when I travel for work and so must carry a PC laptop, I carry both.

This seems like as good a day as any to reflect on the profound impact the Mac has had on our world. Was the idea of a graphical user interface original to Apple? Absolutely not. But the Macintosh team took a brilliant idea that had been a commercial failure (at both Xerox PARC and with the Lisa) and made out of it a computer that literally changed the world of computing forever -- not just by making it less expensive, but more importantly, by giving it a sense of style, a consistency that inspired belief in its metaphors, and by making it fun in a hundred little ways.

Eventually, some sort of graphical interface would have replaced DOS. It was inevitable. But looking back at the contenders -- Windows, GEM, AmigaOS, and others -- we should all be profoundly grateful that it was the most elegant of them all that shaped how we interact with our computers today.

January 22, 2009

US Democracy Server: Patch Day

Via Joi Ito, this description of the transition of power as an MMO change log is excellent:

US Democracy Server: Patch Day

Version 44.0


  • Leadership: Will now scale properly to national crises. Intelligence was not being properly applied.
  • A bug has been fixed that allowed the President to ignore the effects of debuffs applied by the Legislative classes.
  • Drain Treasury: There appears to be a bug that allowed loot to be transferred from the treasury to anyone on the President’s friends list, or in the President’s party. We are investigating.
  • Messages to and from the President will now be correctly saved to the chat log.
  • Messages originating from the President were being misclassified as originating from The American People.
  • A rendering error that frequently caused the President to appear wrapped in the American Flag texture has been addressed.
Much more at the link. Highly recommended.

January 21, 2009

The Chiapocalypse

Last month, waiting for a flight, I saw an advertisement on television and wrote to my friend Rett Crocker:

Just saw on TV

Chia Garfield and Chia Scooby-Doo.

The apocalypse is upon us. Repent, sinners.

Rett wrote back:

Re: Just saw on TV

This is a common mistake. You're misreading the Chia Prophecies. You only need to worry if you see a Chia Elvis in the company of a Chia Princess Diana.

Maintain a watchful eye, brothers. Fear the Chiapocalypse!

I'm now much more vigilant about this sort of thing. We can't be too careful.

January 20, 2009


It has been 710 days since Barack Obama announced his candidacy. When I saw his speech, I thought the country was ready to elect an African-American president.

It has been 437 days since Obama spoke at the Jefferson-Jackson dinner in Iowa. When I saw his speech, I decided to support him in the Democratic primaries.

It has been 383 days since Obama won the Iowa caucuses. When I saw the returns come in, I felt that he was going to win both the Democratic nomination and the presidency.

It has been 231 days since Obama gathered enough delegates to assure himself of the nomination.

It has been 146 days since Obama was named the Democratic nominee for president.

It has been 77 days since Obama won the election and became the President-elect.

Somehow, with all this time to prepare for it, with all this time believing his election was possible, then inevitable, then a certainty, today was no less emotional for me.

President Obama, may you have every success in the coming years. Congratulations to you.

And congratulations to us all.

January 19, 2009

Heard at Lunch

A lunchtime conversation while I was visiting the office last week:

Me: So I have this idea to do a remake of Gilligan's Island with pop and hip-hop artists. Not as a reality show, but as a straight-up sitcom. It's all about the casting. I'd start with Sean Combs as Thurston Howell III. And a friend suggested Justin Timberlake as Gilligan. What do you think?

Ty: Not bad. You'd need someone as the Professor. How about Humpty?

Ken: You could have Mary J. Blige as Mrs Thurston Howell III.

Frank: That's good. I know Flavor Flav needs to be in it; I just don't know as whom.

Ty: How about as the astronaut who lands on the island?

David: Sure. But who would play the Harlem Globetrotters?

Ty, Ken, and me in unison: The Harlem Globetrotters!

I love working at home, but I just don't have conversations like this with my cat.

Thank goodness.

January 18, 2009

Tiki Towers

Because I haven't been blogging lately, I haven't written about Tiki Towers -- it's the first game based on a design of mine to ship since Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six, for which I served as one of the original co-designers. Tiki Towers was created by Republic of Fun, published by RealNetworks, and shipped in December for the Wii (as a downloadable WiiWare game) and the iPhone, and I understand it's shipping on various mobile phones internationally under the name Tropical Towers (in a version essentially identical to that for the iPhone).

The Wii and iPhone versions of Tiki Towers were done by different studios and are quite distinct. Both are based on the essential idea of using monkeys to build towers based of bamboo and coconuts. The iPhone version plays like a modified version of Lemmings -- the monkeys stay in a box while you build your tower using a finite set of pieces. When you're done, you release them and hope that your structure is built properly and enables them all to clamber to the goal. The Wii version also has you trying to get your monkeys to a goal, but you build the tower in real time while a chief opposes you, using spells to weaken your tower.

Predictably, neither version is an exact implementation of my original design. Each version is tailored to the specific requirements of the platform and incorporates the creativity of the studio that implemented it. I'm hoping to have the chance to see sequels ship that may include more of the ideas I originally came up with, but that will depend on sales, obviously. So far, the good news is that the iPhone version is the 13th best-selling game and the 3rd best-selling puzzle on the iTunes App Store, so I'm hopeful.

Many thanks to my friends at Republic of Fun, to the good people at RealNetworks, and especially to the teams at the studios who built them: Mr Goodliving in Helsinki (iPhone / mobile) and Mock Science in Austin (Wii).