Thursday, October 31, 2013

Conspiracy Theories Abound

When I find myself writing a long e-mail explaining something or I repeat myself on the same topic then it's worthy of a blog post.

In the past ten days I've found myself responding to conspiracy theories from several different people so now I'm more than happy to pontificate on the topic.

Generally speaking, a large public conspiracy becomes very obvious after the fact.

Moon Landings
Did we really land on the moon? Of course we did – do you really think it would have been possible to keep so many people, who participated, quiet. (Remember Capricorn One)? What would be their motivation to remain silent so many decades later? At some point in the future we'll take tourist trips to the moon to visit the Apollo 11 historic site which will look the same as it did when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin departed in 1969. But there's no shortage of people who think the Apollo moon landings were a conspiracy. These people end up getting punched in the face, literally, by a former astronaut.

What does a real life conspiracy look like? To answer that question we needn't look any further than 9/11 which was clearly a conspiracy. It's no small coincidence that four planes were highjacked at the same time with the same mission — those 19 highjackers were working together. That's what a conspiracy looks like.

On the flip side, conspiracy theories postulating that explosives were used to bring down the World Trade Center towers couldn't be further from the truth. I've heard arguments about how elegant and controlled the collapse of the towers looked, but, realistically, skyscrapers are like a house of cards. They're mostly filled with empty space and they fall in on themselves much like a house of cards we built as kids – there's no toppling them over like a tree.

Inside of a tree: rock solid; inside of a skyscraper: mostly empty.

Tin Foil Hats
Of course there are more extreme conspiracy theories where people believe the government is listening in on all of our conversations... um... you know... I hate it when they're right for the wrong reasons.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Iconic: A Photographic Tribute to Apple Innovation

Jonathan Zufi sent me a copy of his new coffee table book, Iconic. This magnum opus is as much about Apple's artistic design as it is about innovation. Turning the pages and seeing Apple's products so finely photographed brings nostalgic memories like flipping through a yearbook and seeing old, familiar, faces. For me, many of these products have a deeply personal story behind them.

As a former Apple employee, whom this book is dedicated to, I feel a special connection to every product that was released when I worked at the company. It feels more like a part of me – a personal experience – than simply a look back in history. These products were and are an important part of my life and a day doesn't go by when I don't experience an Apple product. Everything of worth that I've created in the past 15 years started with one of these products from designing web apps to selling digital photos; from creating playlists to making movies; from publishing articles to writing code.

Iconic is an Apple museum, up close and personal. OS X Server and WebObjects, Aperture and iPods, Mac minis and even packaging and prototypes – they're all in there. Iconic is to printed books as Apple products are to electronics: simple beauty.

Monday, October 28, 2013

My Civic Duty

Learning about jury duty from an "actual juror."
What better way to pass the time on jury duty than to blog about it?

I've never served on a civilian jury, but I have participated in courts-martial. In the military, the jury is referred to as the members and the foreperson is called the president. In the summer of 1996 I served as the president of a special court-martial. I had no idea what the case was about until the first witness took the stand and described her consenting sexual encounters, in detail, with the accused who was a Marine sergeant.

Some key differences between a military trial and a civilian trial is that the members (jurors) are allowed to question witnesses after the defense and prosecution are done. To avoid any inappropriate questions the members write them down on a slip of paper which the bailiff passes to the judge for review. If the judge has no concerns then both the defense and the prosecution have a chance to review the question and object before it's asked of the witness.

Another key difference about a court-martial was that we, the members, also chose the sentence for the crime. Since we found the sergeant guilty our choices varied from no punishment, other than the guilty verdict, to time in the brig (prison). As the members, we deliberated and voted on each possible punishment starting with the least severe until we had a consensus. We ended up sentencing the sergeant to reduction in rank to corporal and forfeiture of two-thirds of his pay for several months. Realistically, a guilty verdict was a career ender since this conviction would give the sergeant a black mark preventing his reenlistment.

The charges against the sergeant were adultery which is rarely prosecuted unless there's a confession or overwhelming evidence such as a video. Adultery along with sodomy and oral sex are still violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. In other words, these acts are crimes for active duty military personnel – even between married partners.

Well, it looks like my name was called for an eight day trial. I'm one of 47 for this trial. Let's see where it goes from here.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Seeing All Facebook Updates

I was having a discussion about why we don't see all of our friends' updates on Facebook. There is no shortage of times when I haven't seen a friend's update in my Facebook feed only to explicitly check their wall to find that I've missed a slew of updates that were never displayed in my stream. This can be annoying. The best answer I've come up with is that Facebook displays updates based on how much you interact with others.

I've come up with a solution when there's someone who I really want to follow. Usually, these are friends or family who don't post very often, but, when they do, I want to know about it.

To explicitly receive all of their updates, I visit their Facebook page and mouse over the Friends button which displays a drop-down menu. On that menu I'll check the Close Friends setting and then click the Settings... option which allows me to pick exactly which updates I'll receive. Now, whenever they make an update, I'll receive a red badge notification icon in my web browser and a push notification to my iOS devices.

Like most things on Facebook, it's simple, but only if you know exactly where to look.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Old School Personal Computing

Today, I was reminiscing with a Twitter buddy about old school personal computing of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Back then, I was in junior high school and I remember how exciting it was to learn how computers worked. My first computer, the TRS-80 Model I, didn't even have an operating system. When I booted the computer I was immediately placed into a BASIC interpreter. From there I could either write a program from scratch or load one from a cassette tape. In those days there was no multitasking – only one program could be loaded in memory at a time.

There were two types of programs that I could load into my computer, either BASIC or machine language. With BASIC I learned the fundamentals of computer science: variable assignments, tests, and jumps. I recall how thrilled I was to learn more advanced data structures like arrays where I could randomly pull values out of the array, systematically.

After learning this high level language I moved onto assembly language for the Z-80 microprocessor which was fast but at the expense of having formal data structures created on the heap. The Z-80 could only add and subtract so I'd have to manually loop through addition or subtraction routines to multiply and divide numbers.

One nice thing about multiplying by even numbers in binary is that it's faster to simply shift bits which is how we humans multiply by a factor of ten. Trying to figure out what 12 x 31 is in your head is not easy… trying to figure out what 123 x 100, even though they're bigger numbers, is simple to do without a calculator. Just shift the digits.

My first useful assembly language program was a memory tester that systematically wrote values to every single memory location and then read them back to make sure they hadn't changed.

Nowadays, computers are so inherently fast that low-level programming isn't required unless you need to touch the "metal" (direct memory addressing) for applications like device drivers.

Yup, the good ol' days of personal computing were simple, yet very exciting.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Nostalgic for Friends and Tech

Nostalgia stimulates the brain with sentimental feelings for happy days gone by. Simple contact with friends and places from decades ago opens up a flood of memories like busting rust off an old gate hinge. Even painful memories endured by a group of people become pleasant in hindsight. Military folks, in particular, are predisposed to take pride in the very things they hate.

The past ten days have been exceptionally nostalgic for me along with hundreds of my classmates at our Naval Academy 20th reunion. Our reunion was nearly two years in the planning and it almost didn't happen due to the government shutdown. Our events were scheduled to begin on Thursday and end on Sunday with the climax being Saturday's tailgate at our home stadium in Annapolis. Since we were playing the Air Force Academy the Department of Defense was concerned regarding the perception over how the game could be viewed even though it's privately funded. Are football games between two military teams essential while non-essential federal workers are furloughed without paychecks?

Well over 1,100 people in attendance at our USNA '93 reunion.
Many of my classmates panicked when last Tuesday's official news stating that the upcoming weekend's intercollegiate sports at the service academies had been suspended. Most had bought reunion tickets and made travel plans months ago. A last minute cancellation would be costly for all of the families.

As the class president, I, along with our reunion chair and the heads of our key reunion events immediately started receiving e-mails, phone calls, texts, and Facebook messages on Tuesday afternoon asking for clarification, refunds, contingency plans, etc.

At the time I didn't realize how concerned some classmates were. But, in the interest of time I scheduled a live webcast for 9 PM EDT on Tuesday since we couldn't keep up with the deluge of requests for information. It wasn't until later that I realized how helpful the webcast was when people continuously thanked me, through out the reunion weekend, for hosting it. When I initially planned the webcast I thought that it might be a little over the top and I only expected a handful of live viewers.

We had about 70 people tuned in throughout the live webcast. My classmates could type their questions in the group chat window while we answered questions for more than half an hour. Evidentially, giving my classmates a couple friendly faces to look at while telling them everything would be okay and simultaneously answering their questions in real time was priceless. Recording the webcast for later viewing was a big win, too, especially since it could also be viewed on mobile devices.

I got very lucky with the webcast considering I only spent about 45 minutes preparing for it. I love it when technology just works.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013


"I do nothing." That's what I tell people when they ask what I do for a living.

It's true in the sense that over the past six years I've worked for only eight months; and people aren't really interested in you until they're interested in you – in the mean time they want the short story. The key, when telling a story is to pull people in without shutting them out. If they're still interested then I tell them that I used to work at Apple and see where the conversation goes from there.

As I type this on a flight headed back to my 20 year college reunion at Annapolis I'm reminded that the "nothing" part goes back to Plebe Summer at the Naval Academy.

Plebes (freshmen) aren't allowed to leisurely walk down the hallways of our dorm. Instead, we have to "chop" which means we run while raising our knees up to hip level. Chopping looks ridiculous and feels a bit humiliating. It's easy to spot a plebe coming down the passageway making them easy targets for the upper class to torment.

One particularly hot afternoon, during Plebe Summer, I was chopping though the dorm, known as Bancroft Hall and affectionally referred to as "Mother B," when an upperclassman stopped me and started peppering me with questions. When my answers didn't come as fast as he liked he asked me, "What do you want to do in the Navy?"

For a guy like me, who had already served a few years in the Marines, my unfiltered response was, "Nothing, sir!"

My answer definitely caught him off guard and left a stunned look on his face as he wondered if I had been disrespectful. Within seconds I could see a flash of insight in his eyes. "Oh, let me guess, you want to be a Marine?"

"Sir, yes, sir," I replied being extra respectful as I was now treading on thin ice.

"Ok, fine. Now disappear. Shove off and get out of here," he said as I chopped into a room to catch my breath. My classmate's were equally surprised by my response to the upperclassman. Before the day was over the tale of my response had grown to "Absolutely nothing." Everyone loves a good story, even if it's about nothing.