Review of "Droidmaker: George Lucas And the Digital Revolution"#

I’m not quite sure how I came across this review of Michael Rubin’s excellent Droidmaker: George Lucas And the Digital Revolution, but I’m glad I did, because it’s a good distillation of this incredible book. Years ago I got wind of Droidmaker via Michael Heilemann (a Star Wars geek), and at his behest, decided to give it a read, despite it being available only in PDF at the time, and my semi-apathy regarding George Lucas, etc. It’s not that I was anti-Lucas or anything, but this just didn’t sound like the kind of thing I’d want to spend a whole book reading about. Lucky for me, this book ended up being less about Lucas, and more about the myriad technologies he and others (including Coppola and Jobs) helped to foster.

I couldn’t stop reading it, and as soon as it was made available for Kindle (last year, I believe), I bought and read it again. It covers masterfully the digital revolution, including computers generally, sound design and engineering, editing, CGI, Pixar, video games, etc. I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a book along these lines that’s more encompassing, edifying, and entertaining–its breadth and depth cannot be overstated. It’s a book about endless (mostly technical) issues of first impression, and various geniuses’ solutions to those issues.

This is the kind of book that I buy for friends to guilt them into actually reading it…and then sit back and wait for the emails and texts about what a great friend I am for bringing it to their attention.  ;)

Ti-Click CLASSIC titanium pen#

When I first saw this Kickstarer project I was smitten (and I don’t even know how to write longhand!), but decided not to back it because they didn’t have a non-stylus option for the Ti-Click PRO model. Cut to earlier this week, when I came across this again, and noticed that their offerings had been updated to include non-stylus models. Yeah, I got in line immediately, and went with the Ti Click CLASSIC in, of course, bead-blasted matte black.

The downside is that this isn’t shipping until November.


Triage is an iPhone app for busy people who struggle to stay on top of their email. Triage doesn’t try to replace your desktop email client. It lets you use your downtime to quickly remove the noise and stress.

I’ll be honest, when I first heard about this app I thought it was a bit silly, but I’ve always thought “Triage” would be a perfect name for a lightweight email “client” and so I had to give it a shot.

I think the overriding goal here is to reduce to one the number of gestures needed to process certain email messages. With that goal in mind then, it’s odd that “archive” and “delete” are mutually-exclusive options–flicking down always “keeps” the message in your inbox (and removes it from Triage), and flicking up can be one of either “delete”, “archive”, or “mark as read”.

Of those three options, I’m using “delete”, because it makes the most sense for me, but, in the case where it’s a message I want to archive and take no other action (e.g., a receipt from Amazon), I’m left to flick down to “keep” it, which means once I jump into my actual email client I’ll need to process it again (to archive it).

Flicking left-to-right, or right-to-left do nothing. Why not? One or both of these gestures should be tied to the actions just mentioned. Imagine this: flick up = archive, flick down = keep in inbox, flick left-to-right = mark as read, and flick right-to-left = delete. Perfect.

Triage is a neat idea, and a lot of fun (and a guilt-free way to create yet another barrier between me and my inbox ;), but it could stand to gain a few more configuration options. Minimalism is a feature, until it isn’t.

(Via DF.)

Nitti Light font available for use on your website#

A few days ago my buddy, Ben Brooks, messaged me to let me know that Webtype–a hosted font service–now offers the Nitti typeface. What?! As some of you may recall, Nitti Light is my favorite font for writing and reading, and I’ve long wanted the ability to embed it in this site.

For the last couple of years I’ve been using TypeKit to serve up Myriad Pro (for body text), Myriad Pro Semi Condensed (for article titles), and Alternate Gothic No. 2 D (for the header menu), and have no complaints whatever with the service.

That said, I now know a competitor offers Nitti Light, and I think I likely will make the switch at some point, if I can find suitable Webtype fonts for the non-body text used on this site. One thing that’s holding me back though is that it looks like, for my needs, Webtype will be about three times as expensive as Typekit.

The science of being a sports fan#

An interesting article that confirms what you probably already intuited: humans like to feel like they are a part of something bigger than themselves, and enjoy being in the company of like-minded people.

The older I get the less I care about following sports at all. In fact, the only sports events I routinely watch are UF college football games, the Olympics, and the X Games. Sure, I’ll go to a sporting event from time to time (I’m much more likely to go when I’ve been given great tickets), and will have a good time, but it’s not something I actively seek out.

The rub here is that I love playing sports, and am about as competitive a person as you ever will meet (with regard to just about anything, really), and to that end, appreciate fully sport and athleticism (and am just as impressed as the next guy with a thread-the-needle pass, a fingertip catch, or a bicycle kick goal). But, for me, it’s a whole different ballgame (sorry) when I know I have zero affect on the outcome, and frankly, I think it’s a bit silly when adults let these games–over which they have no control–impact their lives in any measurable way.

In the same vein, I can’t help but sigh heavily (on the inside, usually ;) when I hear grown men go back and forth about some inconsequential sporting event, all the while “showing off” their knowledge of the sport by reciting utterly useless facts and statistics. I totally get that for some it’s both a hobby and a release, but I just can’t see myself, as an adult, filling my head with such trivial bullshit–there are only so many hours in the day, and I’d rather create and learn as much as possible. (Now, as a kid, I was kind of an encyclopedia when it came to the NBA, and Jordan especially.)

As with everything, though, if you find pleasure in this sort of thing, and aren’t harming others, who am I to judge how you spend your free time?

Spotify playlist separators#

Nice find from Patrick Welker. For those curious, these separators carry through to–and look good in–the iPhone app.

Love and artificial intelligence#

The dream of AI was — and is — to create a machine that is conscious. AI means building a mechanical human being. And this goal, as supposedly rational technological projects go, is deeply strange.

Consider the ramifications of a conscious machine: one that thinks and feels like a human, an ‘electronic brain’ that dreams and ponders its own existence, falls in and out of love, writes sonnets under the moonlight, laughs when happy and cries when sad. What exactly would it be good for? What could be the point of spending billions of dollars and countless hours of precious research time in order to arrive at a replica of oneself? […]

[W]hen it comes to creating conscious simulacra of ourselves, what exactly is our motive? What deep emotions drive us to imagine, and strive to create, machines in our own image? If it is not fear, or want, or curiosity, then what is it? Are we indulging in abject narcissism? Are we being unforgivably vain? Or could it be because of love?

The history of life on earth#

Dear human, please watch this video, and if it doesn’t give you the chills multiple times or cause you to tear up at least once, I implore you to educate yourself.

We aren’t long for this world.

I always come back to Elements

March 31, 2013

I’ve tried nearly every (non-shit) writing app available for iOS (e.g., Notesy, Byword, iA Writer, Write, WriteRoom, PlainText, Nebulous Notes, Writing, Kit, etc.) and yet I still keep coming back to Elements. If memory serves, it was the very first (non-shit) iOS writing app that talked to Dropbox, and while I tried it on day one, I just couldn’t stand its icon (which was very similar to the image shown here); fortunately, the icon was “fixed” a while ago.

I think it stands out to me amongst a sea of minimalism-as-a-feature writing apps by being especially pretty and enjoyable to use, and it registers the swipe-left-to-right gesture as a “back” action. (This has kind of become the norm, particularly for jumping from a selection back to a list, but still some of these other apps don’t support it.)

It’s one of those apps that just feels good to me. It’s solid, and as far as I can remember, has never shat the bed during a Dropbox sync.

The main thing it’s missing for me is auto-lists; i.e., it doesn’t continue a bulleted or numbered list once I start one. This isn’t a huge deal, but I always find it a bit odd when a Markdown-centric app doesn’t do it.


For the past few weeks I’ve been using the awesome new service/site, Forecast, brought to us by the great folks behind Dark Sky. (Yes, Forecast was released publicly just last week, though some (all?) backers of the Dark Sky Kickstarter campaign got early access a few weeks ago.)

I remember when I first went to the site on my iPhone and was immediately put off by the fact that it was a web app, and, it seemed, there probably wasn’t going to be a native app. I grudgingly “installed” the web app and jumped into it, kind of annoyed. My jaw dropped. It was so pretty, and felt so nice. I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe this was a web app. Fortunately, the icon was great too, and within a minute of using the app I had moved it to my 1×24, relegating Check the Weather (which integrates Dark Sky data) to my comically large “Weather” folder.

I can’t say that this web app is the most native-feeling web app out there (because, frankly I don’t regularly use any other web apps on my phone), but man, it has impressed me beyond words.

I think it’s safe to say that us lovers of Dark Sky have been hoping for these guys to eventually offer longer-term forecasting, because it was clear they were onto something with their approach to next-hour predictions, which have proven to be, for me at least, eerily accurate. Clearly, the further out you go, the less accurate your predictions are going to be, but I just get the feeling that if anyone’s capable of succeeding here, it’s these guys, and so far, the (multi-)day projections have been no worse than those provided by the million other weather apps I’ve used.

While the web app is phenomenal, I do still hope they have plans to release a native version, and offer us the option to get rid of that little ad they show on the weekly forecast. (It sounds like an upcoming version of the Dark Sky app will incorporate these longer-range forecasts, and so maybe all of this is moot.)

Frog breaks own bones to produce claws#

At rest, the claws of T. robustus, found on the hind feet only, are nestled inside a mass of connective tissue. A chunk of collagen forms a bond between the claw’s sharp point and a small piece of bone at the tip of the frog’s toe.

The other end of the claw is connected to a muscle. Blackburn and his colleagues believe that when the animal is attacked, it contracts this muscle, which pulls the claw downwards. The sharp point then breaks away from the bony tip and cuts through the toe pad, emerging on the underside.

What Darwin's theory of evolution reveals about artificial intelligence#

What Darwin and Turing had both discovered, in their different ways, was the existence of competence without comprehension. This inverted the deeply plausible assumption that comprehension is in fact the source of all advanced competence. […]

Why indulge in this “sorta [understands]” talk? Because when we analyze – or synthesize – this stack of ever more competent levels, we need to keep track of two facts about each level: what it is and what it does. What it is can be described in terms of the structural organization of the parts from which it is made – so long as we can assume that the parts function as they are supposed to function. What it does is some (cognitive) function that it (sorta) performs – well enough so that at the next level up, we can make the assumption that we have in our inventory a smarter building block that performs just that function – sorta, good enough to use.

This is the key to breaking the back of the mind-bogglingly complex question of how a mind could ever be composed of material mechanisms. What we might call the sorta operator is, in cognitive science, the parallel of Darwin’s gradualism in evolutionary processes. Before there were bacteria there were sorta bacteria, and before there were mammals there were sorta mammals and before there were dogs there were sorta dogs, and so forth. We need Darwin’s gradualism to explain the huge difference between an ape and an apple, and we need Turing’s gradualism to explain the huge difference between a humanoid robot and hand calculator.

Atheism should end religion, not replace it#

Penn Jillette:

Religion cannot and should not be replaced by atheism. Religion needs to go away and not be replaced by anything. Atheism is not a religion. It’s the absence of religion, and that’s a wonderful thing.

Religion is not morality. Theists ask me, “If there’s no god, what would stop me from raping and killing everyone I want to.” My answer is always: “I, myself, have raped and killed everyone I want to … and the number for both is zero.” Behaving morally because of a hope of reward or a fear of punishment is not morality. Morality is not bribery or threats. Religion is bribery and threats. Humans have morality. We don’t need religion.

Consciousness in non-human animals#

Charles Darwin made the intriguing claim that among the naturalists he knew it was consistently the case that the better a researcher got to know a certain species, the more each individual animal’s actions appeared attributable to “reason and the less to unlearnt instinct.” The more you knew, the more you suspected that they were rational. That marks an important pivot, that thought, insofar as it took place in the mind of someone devoted to extremely close and meticulous study of living animals, a mind that had trained itself not to sentimentalize. […]

If we put aside the self-awareness standard—and really, how arbitrary and arrogant is that, to take the attribute of consciousness we happen to possess over all creatures and set it atop the hierarchy, proclaiming it the very definition of consciousness—it becomes possible to say at least the following: the overwhelming tendency of all this scientific work, of its results, has been toward more consciousness. More species having it, and species having more of it than assumed. […]

The animal kingdom is symphonic with mental activity, and of its millions of wavelengths, we’re born able to understand the minutest sliver. The least we can do is have a proper respect for our ignorance.


I’ve been using ReadKit for the past few days and have to say that it’s probably the best experience of its kind on the Mac. While it supports Instapaper, Readability, Pinboard and Delicious, I use it only for Pocket. Pocket’s Mac app is OK, but it leaves a lot to be desired in the customization department (and we all know I like to use Nitti Light whenever possible).

ReadKit devs, if you’re listening, please, for the love of the FSM, give us the option to not have to confirm every deletion. Also, please auto-populate the subject line of emails with the title of the page I’m sending; it’s maddening that this is left blank.

(For those using something like Little Snitch, you’ll want to be sure to allow outgoing connections to (api|pixel|config) in order for the text sanitization to work properly.)

I read books

March 20, 2013

I finally got off my ass and put together a page of the books I’ve read. The impetus behind this really was just the popularity of the end-of-year posts I write that list the books I read that year (e.g., here’s the list for 2012).

While the list isn’t yet complete, it’s getting there. I think eventually I’ll probably just put the whole thing in alpha order or something, but for now it’s ordered like the end-of-year posts, namely by number of stars out of five (a metric that is based mainly on how much I felt I learned from the book).

As usual, if you see any glaring errors (e.g., broken links, etc.), please let me know. And yes, if you buy a book by clicking on one of the links, I’ll get a small kickback.

The sad, beautiful fact that we're all going to miss almost everything#

If “well-read” means “not missing anything,” then nobody has a chance. If “well-read” means “making a genuine effort to explore thoughtfully,” then yes, we can all be well-read. But what we’ve seen is always going to be a very small cup dipped out of a very big ocean, and turning your back on the ocean to stare into the cup can’t change that.

I still haven’t totally accepted the premise of the article, and fight tooth-and-nail to stay on top of everything I’m interested in, but I’m also not blind to the fact that it’s an impossible, even silly, battle. Even forced specialization and topic-specific apathy can’t help you in this day and age. The best you can do is to be honest with yourself about the things you really enjoy learning about (and dismiss out of hand damn near everything else), become as efficient as possible at digesting information related to those things…and then sleep as little as you can get away with. #YOLO? ;)

Are hops addictive?#

The science says no, “but my body, my body’s telling me yessss.” (BTW, if you get that reference, we probably should be BFFs.)

State of the Species#

Why and how did humankind become “unusually successful”? And what, to an evolutionary biologist, does “success” mean, if self-destruction is part of the definition? Does that self-destruction include the rest of the biosphere? What are human beings in the grand scheme of things anyway, and where are we headed? What is human nature, if there is such a thing, and how did we acquire it? What does that nature portend for our interactions with the environment? With 7 billion of us crowding the planet, it’s hard to imagine more vital questions. […]

If we follow Gause’s pattern, growth will continue at a delirious speed until we hit the second inflection point. At that time we will have exhausted the resources of the global petri dish, or effectively made the atmosphere toxic with our carbon-dioxide waste, or both. After that, human life will be, briefly, a Hobbesian nightmare, the living overwhelmed by the dead. When the king falls, so do his minions; it is possible that our fall might also take down most mammals and many plants. Possibly sooner, quite likely later, in this scenario, the earth will again be a choir of bacteria, fungi, and insects, as it has been through most of its history.

It would be foolish to expect anything else, Margulis thought. More than that, it would be unnatural.

A great essay by Charles Mann (whose book, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, I really enjoyed). Though few of the ideas and facts in this piece were unknown to me, the way they were braided together and presented gave me a lot to think about. If you’re going to read just one long-form piece this weekend, this maybe should be it.