Almost everything good that has ever happened in my life can be traced back to my early experience with a Mac. The first family computer that ever lived in my house was a Performa 6116CD.
I absolutely loved that thing, especially by contrast with the rest of my life. School was typically dull: I spent very little time learning about anything that was important to me. I think I could count the number of friends I had with half of one hand – and they were certainly outnumbered by people who disliked me but couldn’t find constructive ways to express those feelings. My home life was no picnic, either.
Yet none of that mattered when I was at the keyboard of my Mac. It was, all at once, a second school, a conduit to another world, an infinitely deep toolbox and a magic wand of indescribable power – running at 60 MHz.
I thought it would be fun to venture down memory lane and revisit my Mac of 1995. Of course, the hardware itself is long gone. But through the magic of Sheepshaver, I’ve been cobbling together the scraps of my favorite childhood memories. Other kids had sports, comic books or Jesus. But the thing I believed in was my Mac.
My childhood experience with the Mac spanned System 6 through Mac OS X 10.2 but System 7.5 was easily the golden age. That would be the first time I had long-term access to a machine I could customize any way I wanted.
Once installed in Sheepshaver, even through an emulated PowerPC processor, System 7.5 is extremely performant compared to 16 years ago. On a Late 2010 MacBook Pro, loading from an SSD, boot time is about two seconds, compared to about 30 seconds in 1995.
The cheerful parade of Extensions and Control Panels marches at the bottom edge of the screen. Performance be damned, I loved collecting these.
Of course, the System 7.5 era was extremely long – an interminable wait for Copland, the next generation operating system that would make unicorns fly from your 4x CD-ROM drive. As time went on, the UI started to look pretty stale.
That’s better. Aaron adds a little flair and dimension to the otherwise flat and bland System 7-era UI and I liked it a lot better. Even at 10, I was starting to be curious about the nuances in UI design.
AOL was my very first taste of the internet. I believe our first bill came out to $80. So that didn’t last long. Luckily, their unlimited dialup service showed up about a year later, so I would be back in action. Sadly, but unsurprisingly, you can’t actually use the AOL client anymore. Still, I got to poke around with the modem configuration panel that was a frequent source of frustration once upon a time.
This little suite was bundled with the Performa. Very little to be excited about here but I spent so many hours cranking out school reports and other projects in its Word Processing, Paint and Vector Art modules.
The gravest of my youthful indiscretions was easily my voracious appetite for pirated software. Enter Hotline. Before Napster, before Gnutella, before BitTorrent, there was Hotline. Hotline let anyone set up a file server on their home computer. It included chat, BBS and persistent user accounts, too. Vibrant communities sprung up around these little amateur servers. They dedicated themselves to everything from religious evangelism to technical support to sharing anarchist/conspiracy text files. Of course, being the internet, there would be plenty of pirated software in the mix.
To my utter delight, the mid-90′s version of Hotline I got started with so many years ago not only still works, there’s even a handful of servers still in operation. Back then, I was lucky to pull down files at 2.8 KB/sec via dialup. A limitation of either Sheepshaver or Open Transport, the aged TCP/IP stack Hotline uses, now caps me at 60 KB/sec, but that’s a big improvement I’d have killed for as a kid.
Hotline is a major hinge in my history. With access to so much software, I dedicated myself to learning how to use it. I rarely had access to any documentation beyond what was built into the apps so it was often an exercise in trial and error. It was also fun beyond words.
This began my life-long study of interfaces and user experience. If this hadn’t happened, I have absolutely no idea what I’d be doing with my life right now.
Hotline could be extended with customized icon sets. If one of the two dozen included user icons didn’t strike your fancy, you could create your own. The trouble was that only other users with your custom icon file could see your handiwork.
Of the thousands of active Hotline servers in operation during its golden age, two emerged as dominant tribes vying for the loyalty and patronage of the masses. Known as BadMoon and SoSueMe, the servers collected thousands of customized user icons and then distributed them as authoritative custom icon sets.
Of course, I wanted to get in on this. ClarisWorks’s Paint module really wasn’t up to the task, so I had to find and learn Photoshop 3.0. This little head-start on graphics tools ended up being important – years later, I’d be able to design my own UI elements thanks to this early noodling.
It meant days of downloading but it was worth it.
One striking thing about Photoshop 3.0 is how very little has changed after all this time. The color picker is identical. There are the many cluttery pallets for layers, brush diameter, colors, and channels. Later versions would introduce layer styles, which were awesome but a little rigid, and endless other bits of junk. The overall workflow, aside from crappy Save For Web, remains much the same. (This is why I now use Opacity to design UI – it’s built for how I actually work.)
I loved ResEdit when I was a kid. Apple’s resource editor let you poke your nose into most system files and applications, revealing image assets, icons, interface elements and plenty of other technical goodies I didn’t really grok at the time. It was surprisingly deep, including a little MacPaint-like editor for the icon files along with a drag-and-drop interface editor. At the instigation of David Pogue and Joseph Schorr, I recall using it to make the bloated trash can look filthy and overflowing.
No exploration of Mac history would be complete without a look at some of the platform’s greater gems of gaming. PC’s may have had more games by volume but the Mac didn’t have any shortage of fun, either.
I sunk so many hours into EV, it’s not even funny. A nerd who grew up on Star Trek and other scifi, I found this game’s premise of space exploration, commodity trading, secret missions and interstellar combat extremely compelling. Entire Saturdays vanished into its gaping maw.
Before Halo, Bungie made Marathon. It was a rich story of treachery and tragedy among the stars. Crazy AIs and three-eye aliens all trying to get you killed while you blast things with enormous guns. No full-motion video cinematics here, though. If you wanted story, you had to read.
I was terrible at SimCity. My budget rarely balanced, my people always complained.
I loved it anyway. SimCity 2000 is still surprisingly playable, too. Definitely a timeless piece of work.
End of an Era
The way many expected the System 7.5 era to end was pretty bleak: Apple collapses, the Mac dies, and its software and hardware begin to decay into uselessness.
Of course, history went a different way. I’m glad that Apple survived long enough to ship Mac OS 7.6 and OS 8, that in the time since Apple has rebuilt itself into the juggernaut of its industry. Mac OS X beats the hell out of anything that came before it. I still remember picking up my copy of Macworld at the supermarket and learning how Apple bought NeXT – and hoping that the future would bring brighter days for everyone’s favorite “beleaguered” company. And it did.
Still, I’ll always look back with fondness on those days of innocence before a Unix shell was a keystroke away, before every UI interaction was beautifully animated, before we measured even the tiniest of hard drives in gigabytes, before collaborative multi-tasking and protected memory. When using the computer was new and exhilarating. When the Mac was more than just tool – when it was an escape to another realm of existence. Those were the days when a little boy, without coming anywhere close to realizing it, laid the groundwork for all the wonderfully fun things he’d get to do years later as a man. I learned way more from my Mac than school ever gave me.
Thanks for the memories, Apple.
My distrust for organized, established power began early. I’m not sure how many other kindergarten students had a nemesis, but I had mine. His name was Nick Davis and he was a dickhead. The specifics of his assorted torments have been lost in the mists of my early childhood memory, but rest assured they were heinous enough to sow a burning dislike for this kid deep in my 5-year-old soul. Between Nick and the idiots who ran my after-school daycare center, I already had a handful of people I’d come to dislike at an early age.
Ms. Cordova began our first week of school by assuring my later embrace of capitalism. She took all of our school supplies, dutifully purchased by our parents with varying levels of commitment to quality workmanship, and seized them for the collective good of the class. The means of kindergarten arts and crafts production were thus pooled for the duration of the year. Knowing my mother as I do, I can only imagine how she’d seethed at this news. Despite what was invariably a limited budget, she’d been excited to provide me with quality stuff for my very first year of school. Her dismay at the thought of my rich and lustrous Crayolas being commingled with shitass waxy RoseArt crayons was a feeling that transmuted easily to anger at the well-meaning Ms. Cordova, who quickly redeemed herself as an otherwise excellent teacher.
I wasn’t thrilled to say goodbye to my first set of school goodies. I tempered my disappointment by seeking out the most exotic of markers and tools each time an art project brought us to select from the collective supply depot. In no time at all, the incident was forgotten amid all the crap that kindergarten students spend their days doing. Before I knew it, the sweet, perfect feeling of the last day of school was upon us.
Ms. Cordova said many sweet things to us and encouraged us all to do well in our lives. We then began the business of settling our kindergarten affairs: collecting our art and classwork into handmade, oversized folders. At the end, what remained of the art supply depot was redistributed to the class. We each got some say in our spoils and my top priority was to secure a year-long favorite: a long, slender Crayola marker of deep and lovely crimson – my favorite color at that age. I secured my prize and a few other selections and closed the book on kindergarten.
Or so I thought.
There remained the always interminable afternoon of mindless daycare time. This bothered me less than it otherwise might have as I contemplated the future and reflected on my collection of classroom junk. The afternoon passed unremarkably and I busied myself with my newly-claimed marker. Which, I now noticed, had a name inscribed in tiny, fine-point permanent marker and cursive script: “Nick Davis.” This, I knew, was written by his mother, doubtless similarly unaware of the seizure of property that would follow. Smugness washed over me as I relished finally getting one over on my bully. The marker’s dark red ink seemed richer than ever.
Then Nick, also a daycare inmate, strolled along to say whatever it is that very young people find so dismaying. Today, thousands of hands of Poker have taught me never to overplay my hand. Back then, I was infinitely more impulsive.
“Oh yeah? Well now I get to keep your marker,” I said, waves of invincibility and vindication blasting from every pore.
Uncharacteristically, Nick shut up. Even more unusual, he turned and left me alone. I frowned, but held onto the feeling.
Minutes later, Nick returned. Accompanying him was one of those people whose list of accomplishments ended with “completed high school” and who were thus popular at my particular daycare.
“Did you take Nick’s marker?” The daycare employee gazed at me as she spoke, words plopping out of her mouth like bits of mayonnaise.
“Uh, no,” I stammered. I then explained the restitution Ms. Cordova had made earlier that day for collectivizing our stuff.
“Yeah, but it has my name on it,” Nick squealed, pointing as emphatically as any child his age could at the meek white instrument in my hand.
The employee looked at the name scribbled on the shaft of the marker and confirmed Nick’s assessment.
She looked pained as she told me, “I’m sorry, it has his name on it, I have to give it back to him.”
I didn’t put up a fight. I hadn’t quite learned how to stand up for myself yet and, unaccountably, these employees were authorities like my teacher at school, like the police, like my mom. I relinquished the marker to a jubilant Nick.
I spent the rest of the afternoon stewing. I also hadn’t learned how to curse, but I’m sure if you translated my brainwave patterns to a modern equivalent, they would have read “What a bunch of fucking idiots.” I was never the kid who painted his nails black and listened to depressing music, but nor could I ever again blindly accept existing authority or “the way things are done.”
Today, I would change none of it. Iconoclasm is power to ignore established limitations, throw out the rulebook and go further than everyone tells you is possible. It opens your eyes to new ways of thinking and new means of solving problems. I suppose the social order requires that this way of thinking be kept to a bare minimum, but if you’re among the lucky few who delights in a bit of herecy now and then, shed your shame for it and trust the alternatives it helps you to discover.
In my adult life, few things have ever been more satisfying than going beyond what people have told me I was capable of doing.
At the same time, I find myself wondering how much this particular leaning of mine handicaps me. In the long term, I resent the hell out of being led or managed. I also dislike leading others. I am an organizational anomaly, suitable only for short-to-medium-term freelance work.
I think I’m okay with that.
Since Tallymander was made a Staff Favorite last month, I’ve noticed that there are more solutions to the tally problem in the App Store than when I began.
There are, of course, many ways to skin a cat. For me, Tallymander does the job best because I built it to my exact desires. Still, while many elements of design are subjective, there are good and bad ways to do things. Let’s look at some of the other approaches to the tally challenge.
A few things jump right out:
Inefficient use of space: The entire width of the iPhone’s screen is available to each tally cell, but the tally title is confined to a much more limited area. The title is the only element that the user can customize beyond the rails of your design — give it some room. More…
See the 2010 updated edition of this post.
Reader Benjamin wrote to me tonight and asked:
I have researched some into iPhone programming as I am obsessed with every application that is available for my own iPhone. The problem is that the amount of books and articles out there about programming for an iPhone is enormous. Do you have any recommendations for a few killer books to read in order to learn the process/language?
What a great question. It’s one I’ve been getting a lot from people I know since my apps went on sale.
Thanks to the popularity of the iPhone and the lure of the App Store’s profit potential, there’s plenty of crap floating around promising to teach you how to program for this new platform. Much of it sucks. Thankfully, there’s some gold to be found for iPhone SDK autodidacts. Let’s check it out. More…
The casual observer could be forgiven for believing that public education’s goals more closely represent a circus than an earnest pursuit of growth and learning. Each player on the education stage has an elaborately choreographed role that calls for performance for performance’s sake.
The students, of course, carry the bulk of this responsibility, memorizing a routine of answers to be performed on cue for statewide aptitude testing. Teachers play the role of lion tamer in this burlesque, establishing rigid, unimaginative curriculum designed to maximize the school’s ability to deliver positive test scores. Finally, administrators like school principals are tasked with the role of ring master in these proceedings, made responsible for herding dozens of teachers and thousands of students toward some vague higher standard.
Putting aside the farce that is education tailor-made for test taking rather than genuine learning, there’s a story here in the impossible situation created for principals.
Monday morning, NPR ran a piece about the role of a principal as a school CEO. Districts look toward principals as standard bearers responsible for reducing school violence, for inspiring teachers and for innovating policy — and, correspondingly, for improving standardized test scores.
But this is a dreadful position to be in as a principal. The chief responsibility of a leader is people. Having the right people doing the right thing in the right place. More than ever, this is an exceedingly difficult proposition in public education. A principal isn’t empowered to “clean out the dead wood,” since teacher’s unions and district policies have mistaken public education for a government-subsidized jobs program. Inept teachers can’t be removed — merely shuffled around. In addition to being unable remove non-performers, a principal conversely cannot do all that much to reward high achievers. Benefits packages and compensation are inflexible realities established at higher echelons than where these putative “school CEOs” sit. Finally, even the most inspirational of generals would be hard-pressed to motivate troops as besieged as a legion of public educators. These are smart, educated individuals who know how to do math. They can see that their classrooms are over-filled, that their resources are limited and frequently out-of-date, that their students are less and less inclined to play the education game.
You want violence in schools to be reduced? It’s going to take more than clever leader at the helm. Students need a proper reason for attending school. Weekly rehearsal for the choreographed performance piece of standardized testing will not pass muster. You want the best and brightest contributing to the education of our young minds? You’ll need to do better than an empty suit pretending to be an executive even as a 10-year-old paint job peels around him. Educators need a mission they can believe in. They need resources to discharge that mission while also being able to pay their bills and live to standards befitting their hard work and contributions to the betterment of our world.
It sounds like a tall order because it’s the biggest public policy challenge in the history of our nation. So far it goes unanswered. But these reforms are essential to the survival of the next generation of Americans in an unforgiving, knowledge-driven global economy.