PEBKAC: Finales, Friendships, and the Future

This column originally appeared in the May 2012 issue of About This Particular Macintosh.

Thus, we arrive at the end of the road. Two constants in life are change and death, and this is a bit of both for the staff of About This Particular Macintosh. This is our final issue. As Michael stated in the publisher’s letter, the site will remain, offering a glimpse to future Mac users into what our computing world was like from 1995–2012, at least from the perspective of this handful of real-world users.

It is because of this handful of real-world users that this has been a difficult column to write. To be honest, this has been a difficult issue to edit. As noted elsewhere, for many of us, working on ATPM has been a lengthy relationship. For me, this is the second-longest relationship I’ve had, behind my marriage, which is only six years older than my time here on staff. The people here at ATPM are my friends, and while that aspect will not change for us in the foreseeable future, there is still a sadness about the end of the thing which brought us together in the first place.

Looking back on the 14 years I’ve been on staff, my colleagues and I have shared in marriages, deaths in families, children born and adopted, new jobs, new ventures, entirely new careers, moves, and even an appearance on a nationally televised prime-time game show. Despite most of us having never met in person, it’s been quite remarkable how much life we’ve done together.

Eric Blair holds the distinction as the first ATPM staffer I ever met in person. I was in New York for a Macworld Expo, and Eric took the train down from Boston for a day. Former managing editor Daniel Chvatik was the next staffer I met. I have long referred to Tom Iovino as my “birthday paisano.” For myriad Web-related questions, I’ve got a scrappy Tasmanian to call upon in Raena Armitage, on the other side of the world. More than one of our online chats has begun with my asking, “So how’s tomorrow going?” I’ve watched, virtually, of course, as Grant Osborne partnered with friends to launch a company and a Web site they were truly passionate about.

The first time I met our publisher and fearless leader, Michael was picking me up at the airport in Connecticut, so the two of us could attend Rob Leitao’s wedding. So many of Rob and Sandy’s families marveled at the two guys “Rob knew through the Internet” being at his wedding, but for us, it was a no-brainer. The three of us had grown close in the virtual world, and we wanted to celebrate this joyous occasion with our friend. I will never forget the arcade in Rob’s mom’s basement, or going through the Danbury Railway Museum with Michael. A couple of years later, when my family found itself vacationing in New England, Michael spent a day showing us around parts of New Hampshire and Vermont.

I’m sure if we pulled out 14-year-old e-mails and chat logs we could figure it out, but my own memory fails to reveal exactly how Lee Bennett and I began our road to friendship. But it’s through 14 years of e-mails and chats that Lee became my best friend in the online world. So much so that when a work convention brought him to the Dallas area, he carved out an evening to come visit us at our home. And there was the day spent with us at Disney World a couple of years after that. And when it came time to try out FaceTime, Lee was the first person I called. So when, two years ago, he told me he was getting married, my wife, after being informed, only asked “So what day do you think you’re going to fly out?”

And as if enough of the staff weren’t becoming friends over time, we imported our non-ATPM friends to contribute. Daniel’s friend Jens Grabenstein contributed reviews and desktop pictures in the early part of the 2000s, and “came back” last year with another desktop picture set. I once interviewed my font-creating friend Dan Bailey. I recruited my pal Tom Bridge to write for us, and local friend Kevin Rossen as well.

While I am proud of every issue I’ve worked on these past 14 years, what I take away from ATPM as we close the door on monthly publishing is so much greater than the sum of all of those. Five, ten years from now, I’m sure I won’t remember most of what we published. But I know the friendships I have made through being part of this amazing publication will endure, and flourish. And as we close this door on part of our past, that’s a future I look forward to.

PEBKAC: Protecting the Memory Hub

This column originally appeared in the April 2012 issue of About This Particular Macintosh.

Beginning in 2004, I’ve made a calendar for the coming year featuring our children. For four years, it was just our oldest son. Then we adopted Boy #2, and for three years it was the two of them. The calendar for 2012 now features all three of our sons. I’ve always bought copies for our extended family: the boys’ grandparents, great-grandmothers, aunts and uncle. The calendars are given as gifts at Christmas time, and after the first three years, it became an expectation on the part of the extended family.

My habit has been to curate, throughout the year, an album in iPhoto of possible calendar photo candidates. Often, this is no small task, as we try to take many shots of our three sons. Just after Thanksgiving, I’ll sit down and start sifting through the curated folder. Once I’ve done the initial purge, my wife will sit in and we’ll go through it again, knocking out the ones she doesn’t care for. Then it’s calendar-creating time.

I’ve been pretty happy with the calendar layout and purchasing options Apple offers within iPhoto, and that’s what we’ve used each year.

The 2012 calendar was delayed, due to the nearly three weeks my wife and I spent in Africa at the end of November and beginning of December, as we adopted Boy #3. There were a few “But what about the calendars?” from the extended family at Christmas; like I said, it’s become a pleasant expectation. Rest assured, they arrived the second week of January and have been in full use at the respective households (and places of work) since.

Steve Jobs once famously held up the Mac as the “digital hub”. It was to be the machine you plugged your cameras, iPods, musical instruments, whatever, into so you could work with photos, videos, and music. iCloud seeks to replace the Mac as the hub, and I’m tentatively dipping my toe into using iCloud more, but for me, the Mac still remains my hub. For a Type-A control freak like myself, having something that’s under my control for keeping memories is key. I run my own backups on the Mac, even having backups of the backups. But I’m learning to let go a little more, for the convenience iCloud is supposed to offer.

Whether the Mac or iCloud, what has become apparent is that this simply isn’t a case of being one’s digital hub, it’s become our memory hub. Most everyone’s photos are digital now, and all of my digital photos, most of which never make it to my Flickr feed reside in Apple’s digital shoebox, iPhoto. All of my videos, most of which never end up on Vimeo are stored on there. There’s good reason for having backups of backups. My Mac is where all of my memories are, and I look to secure them as much as possible.

Like many, you’re probably in the same boat, and if you don’t have a comprehensive backup system in place, you need to get one going as soon as possible, lest you take a chance at losing precious memories. Here’s mine:

  • nightly backup of the entire Mac to an external hard drive via SuperDuper; after the initial full backup, the script “Smart Updates” the backup drive, only adding or subtracting what’s changed that particular day
  • ongoing backup of the entire Mac via Time Machine to a different external hard drive
  • weekly backup of SuperDuper-cloned drive to another hard drive
  • ongoing backup of the entire Mac via CrashPlan

The only thing I’m not doing that I should is rotating a backup drive off-site. (In case of a fire or some such event.) For now, my CrashPlan backup serves as my off-site protection for the memory hub.

We all have memories on our computers which are important to us: photos of our family; music from our formative years which defined us (child of the 1980s here); that e-mail from a world-famous author that was so encouraging. These things are worth protecting, and while companies like Apple, Shirt Pocket, and CrashPlan are doing what they can to make it as simple as possible, it’s up to us users to get it going in the first place.

My friends often get tired of hearing it from me, but the mantra won’t change: backup, backup, backup!

Post-publication addendum: Since this column was originally published, I have discontinued my use of Time Machine. I use CrashPlan to not only serve as my off-site backup, but now an external drive uses the CrashPlan software to back up a local copy as well.

PEBKAC: More Than Just the Mac

This column originally appeared in the March 2012 issue of About This Particular Macintosh.

Recently, a friend and I were chatting about how Apple’s non-Mac products have changed the way we work with our Macs. He remarked how he thought he may be “using the Mac for far too much of it”, under-utilizing the iPhone and iPad. This got me thinking about how these devices have changed how much time I spend in front of my Mac.

Twitter

These days, I spend very little time on Twitter while sitting at my Mac. Nearly all of my Twitter interaction is done on my iPhone through Paul Haddad and Mark Jardine’s excellent Tweetbot. (There is an iPad version as well.) I also keep the venerable Twitterrific on hand. These days, the only time I hit the Twitter web site is to possibly check out a new follower’s profile and Twitter stream.

E-mail

This is an area of usage where things likely work out 50-50. I do a lot of e-mail reading and processing on my iPhone. If there are web links to read later, or a message in need of a lengthy reply, I’ll leave those in my inbox to take care of later when I’m at my Mac. (And how nice would it be to have some sort of Instapaper or Read It Later functionality built into Apple Mail?) E-mail usage on my iPad is very similar to that on the iPhone, if I’m not using an external keyboard, though given the iPad’s larger screen, I certainly get more of the click-on-this-link messages out of the way.

Web surfing

I would say I do as little web surfing on the iPhone as possible, but that’s not entirely accurate. Several apps have built-in web services, and Tweetbot now includes Readability, which has made checking out links from the Twitter stream much more enjoyable. I still do the majority of my web surfing on my Macs, but the iOS devices have definitely cut in to that.

RSS

An area that remains Mac-centric for me is reading RSS feeds. I am a long-time user of NetNewsWire on the Mac, but haven’t made the transition to feed-reading on my iOS devices. This is mainly due to NetNewsWire using Google Reader for syncing, as do many other RSS apps which transcend both iOS and OS X. I’ve always been leery of Google, and see them less trustworthy as time goes on. So I’m holding out for a non-Google Reader solution, and carrying on with 100% of my feed reading through NetNewsWire on a Mac. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: the first developer to offer a Mac-iPhone-iPad RSS reader that syncs without Google Reader earns my money. Any takers?

Books

I’ve read a few books on my Mac over the past few years, in text or PDF form, but until the iOS devices (and Kindles) came along, most of my book reading was still done in the dead-tree editions. The past two years have seen my personal ebook reading skyrocket. I knew I had reached a personal milestone when I bought Lee Child’s latest Jack Reacher novel in Kindle format. Before, that had always been a hardcover purchase. Between Kindle apps on the iPhone and iPad, as well as iBooks, and Barnes & Noble’s Nook app, I always have a book at my disposal, if nothing else because my iPhone is always with me.

Music

This one hasn’t really changed since the iPod was first introduced. When I’m at my iMac, I listen to music through iTunes on the Mac. If I’m not in my study, I have the iPhone docked to a stereo, or I’m carrying it around with headphones. Call this one a tie.

Movies, TV Shows

The iPad came in very handy for this during our trip to Africa for getting caught up on the first season of Hawaii Five-0. The cable service in our hotel room was nonexistent, so this was a boon for those evenings when we just needed to veg out. Our boys make good use of the PBS Kids app on the iPads, both around the house and while traveling. While I still may watch the odd item on my iMac, most of the time I’d rather stream it to our Apple TV and watch it on the 47-inch HDTV in the living room. Advantage: iOS devices.

Writing

This endeavor still finds me in front of a Mac. Maybe the 27-inch iMac entrenched in the study, maybe the 11-inch MacBook Air that can, and has, gone anywhere. But still a Mac. I have done some writing on the iPad, but thus far that seems to have been a one-time event, outside of e-mail. And I can’t say I’ve done very much writing at all on my iPhone, other than the odd note. Very much still a Mac-centric activity for me.

All in all, the iOS devices have me spending less time in front of a Mac’s screen, and this is not at all a bad thing. My iMac still acts as my digital hub, and despite iCloud’s promises, I don’t see that changing any time soon. Still, I’m thankful for my iPhone’s omnipresence, giving me music and books any time, anywhere I want, and the versatility the iPad offers for some things over even the MacBook Air.

How has having an iPhone or iPad changed the way you work with your Mac?

PEBKAC: On the passing of Steve Jobs

This column originally appeared in the November 2011 issue of About This Particular Macintosh.

In 1996, I was working for The Computer Shoppe, in Metairie, Louisiana. The Computer Shoppe is distinctive in that it was one of the original Apple retailers signed up nearly twenty years before. That year Apple Computer, Inc. celebrated its twentieth anniversary, and there was much hullabaloo. One such bit of hullabaloo was the visit by Apple bigwigs and Steve Wozniak to our humble shop. Then-Apple CEO Gil Amelio had enlisted Woz, as one of the company’s original founders, to act as the face of the company for the anniversary goings-on.

Woz spent an entire day at the store, and the entire staff got to go to a dinner that night, where The Computer Shoppe’s owners were presented with a crystal apple as thanks from the company. Some time during that day, I got Woz’s signature on the mostly-blank side of one of The Computer Shoppe’s tri-fold flyers.

I’ve attended two Macworld Expo keynotes where Steve Jobs was presenting. The first time I was in the same (albeit very large) room as Jobs, I thought about that flyer with Woz’s signature, and how neat it would be to get both founders’ autographs together.

These were the heady days of two Macworld Expos a year, and I knew I’d be attending the very next Expo, so for that time, I dug through the box of momentos and found the flyer. It was with me in the keynote hall, and it was in my hand as I got within about fifteen feet of Jobs after the keynote had concluded and the hall had mostly emptied.

That flyer still bears only Woz’s signature.

I don’t remember who Jobs was talking to. It didn’t appear to me it was a media-related conversation, and my memory isn’t deep enough to recall whose badges said what, so it very well could have been a less-publicly known Apple executive. Or just a friend.

What I do recall is that Jobs appeared at ease. Comfortable. He wasn’t having to be “on” for the keynote presentation. He was more relaxed now. There were a few other people were milling about, waiting for a chance to talk to Steve, shake his hand, whatever. I looked around at them, and the thought occurred to me, This just doesn’t feel right. I cannot recall there being anything specific triggering that thought, but I do remember the thought. This just doesn’t feel right. So I stuck the flyer back in my laptop bag and headed out, no looking back, no regrets.

There may have been a time to ask Jobs to sign the flyer, to get his John Hancock next to his former partner’s. But that wasn’t it. Not when he was coming down from arguably some of the toughest in-the-public-eye work he did each year. It was time to let him bask in the finish, to relax, to enjoy.

Many words have been and will continue to be spilled about the life of Steve Jobs. He will be called many things: visionary, leader, driven, egotistical, asshole. He will be remembered fondly by many. He will be remembered foully by some. Love or hate, he will be remembered.

The first computer my family owned was a used Apple ][e, purchased from a teacher at my high school. I distinctly remember going with my dad to the teacher’s house to pick up the system, and I distinctly remember seeing my first Macintosh in person, for that was what had replaced the ][e for this particular teacher. I remember buying my first Mac in the Tulane University book store while my wife was in law school. And I remember going into the Dallas metroplex’s first Apple retail store to buy the first iPod.

Like many of my friends, I would not have had many of the experiences, the jobs, I have had were it not for two Steves getting together to build a personal computer. Which led to another. Which led to another. And another. And so on.

What we should remember most about Steve Jobs, for all that he accomplished, is that, in the end, he’s just a man. A man with family and friends who loved him deeply, and who will mourn his passing more deeply than any one of us outside that circle. For me, tomorrow is just another day in my life. For them, tomorrow is another day without the dear one they loved.

So I do not mourn Steve Jobs for myself, despite what his life’s work meant to mine. Instead I mourn for his family, who now face life without a husband and father.

And for the rest of us, tomorrow will be just another day. Tomorrow, there is no chance of Steve returning. Tomorrow, there is no amount of mourning and what-iffing that will bring him back.

Tomorrow is the time to turn to the ideals Steve believed in: striving for perfection, though it is never attained; demand the best in yourself, and strive to bring it out in others; and to live your life to the fullest in pursuit of your dreams.

The other option is to forget about creating rules and lists and instead get an effective anti-spam utility. And when I say effective I do mean C-Command Software’s $30 SpamSieve. We don’t dish out five-mouse ratings lightly, but in this case it’s completely deserved. I’ve relied on SpamSieve for years as have many of my colleagues. It really is the best way to deal with this crud.

Christopher Breen, Macworld

Admittedly, I’m biased, as Michael Tsai, the man behind C-Command, is a personal friend. I was on the original beta test team for SpamSieve, and have used every iteration since 1.0 hit the ether. If you’re a Mac user, this is the first app you should buy.

PEBKAC: Readers, Readers Everywhere, and Not A Library To Spare

This column originally appeared in the October issue of About This Particular Macintosh.

I have a problem.

I love to read. (No, that’s not the problem, but we’ll get there.) Last year, I read forty-three books and novellas, a personal best since I began tracking annually three years ago. Over the past couple of years, a steadily increasing amount of my reading has been done electronically. With iBooks, Kindle, and Nook apps on my iPhone, I could read pretty much anywhere, any time. My wife and I each have our own hardware Kindle now, too. And, of course, there are still the dead tree editions stacked about.

So what’s the problem? Sounds like maybe Erasmus’ quote writ large, perhaps, but no, not having money for food and clothes isn’t the problem.

The problem is that there’s no way to track my library across dead-tree, iBooks, Kindle, Nook, et al. And when I say track, I mean in a manner that doesn’t have me endlessly typing into some sort of database each and every title. Amazon, Apple, and Barnes & Noble already have a database of what titles I’ve gotten from them, both free and purchased. If only that information could be harnessed.

And therein lies the rub: even if an enterprising developer rose to the challenge, he would have to have access to certain information which I’m pretty sure Amazon’s APIs do not allow access to, I don’t think B&N even has APIs for, and know for a fact that he wouldn’t be able to get it out of Apple.

Now, as a good capitalist, I do not begrudge Apple, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble from keeping this information proprietary. After all, they’ve spent considerable monies and man-hours on building these systems for their benefit. Yet as a consumer, it would be nice to be able to use my personal information from these companies for my benefit as well.

I know I’m not alone in this problem. Some may not have even realized yet they have the same problem, which only makes it more frustrating for those of us who are aware of it, as it means there’s little demand for the above companies to relinquish access to the information we’d so desperately like to house under one roof for our own benefit.

“But Chris,” you may say, “why not just buy from a single source, like say, Amazon. Then your problem’s solved.” Very true, but how often is that the case, that we’ll be able to have 100% of our electronic and dead-tree book purchases come from a single source? Sure, it’s easier than ever to make that happen, but personally, I like to spread the wealth around. For one, I actually prefer the iBooks interface to the Kindle app’s on my iPhone. Granted, owning a hardware Kindle means I’m more apt to purchase from Amazon moving forward, but that still doesn’t fix the problem of the myriad titles across different apps/sellers now.

Sadly, looking at the landscape, the only conclusion we can reach for those of us who really care about the one-roof concept is that we’ll be spending a lot of time in our database of choice entering it all manually.