Book review: Insanely Great

Insanely Great: The Life and Times of Macintosh, the Computer that Changed Everything by Steven Levy

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Steven Levy’s book chronicling the development of the Macintosh is not just a historical record of the development of that seminal personal computer, it’s a historical record in itself. Originally published in 1994, with an afterword for the revised edition added in 2000, it captures Apple at three distinct periods in its history, all of them coming before the development of the iPhone and Apple’s eventual rise as the world’s most successful consumer electronics company:

  • The early 1980s when the company went through its first growth spurt, buoyed by the success of the Apple II. This is where the bulk of the book takes place, as it covers the genesis of the Macintosh through to its debut in 1984.
  • The early 1990s. The Mac is established and successful, albeit not the world-changing device many of its developers had hoped for. Apple itself is in a precarious position, embroiled in boardroom drama, a bloated product line and the existential threat of the growing PC market.
  • The late 1990s. In which the story comes full circle, in a way, with Steve Jobs returning to Apple and unveiling the iMac, the first major release that would help guide Apple back to profitability and long term success.

The first third of the book lays out the history leading up to the development of the Macintosh, centering largely on Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC). One of the scientists working there was Alan Kay, whose hypothetical “Dynabook” would embody many of the design elements we take for granted in modern personal computers. The scientists at PARC would go on to create machines that used mice and windows, but the company was never able or particularly interested in turning their research into commercial products, frustrating many of them who wanted to push forward the boundaries of computers.

From here, Levy–who actually visited with these scientists during this time in the early 1970s–moves on to the newly-minted Apple Computer, which was expanding to dozens of employees on the success of the Apple II. The Apple II was a capable but primitive machine and most acknowledged it would not be the future of Apple. A serendipitous trip to PARC by a team from Apple to take a look at what the scientists there were working on would lay the groundwork for what ultimately became the Macintosh.

It’s here that Levy moves onto a two-pronged approach, covering the development of the technology, along with the personality clashes along the way, many of which were due to Jobs’ combination of perfectionism and antagonistic management style.

Apple actually developed the Lisa first, a Mac-like computer doomed to fail mainly due to its exorbitant price (some things never change). Another team worked on a more accessible computer and while Jef Raskin led the Macintosh project initially, Jobs imposed himself and eventually took over.

Levy does a good job in letting the principal characters tell the story through their own words, fleshing out detail when needed, without imposing his authorial voice (though he is an unabashed Mac fan). Oddly, Levy’s tone stands out most when he is simply talking, often in a condescending way, about the technology itself. He is clearly interested more in what the technology can do and not the nerd factor.

The fun here is in seeing how the Macintosh team struggled and (mostly) overcame so many obstacles as they put together the original 128K Mac. Levy does a very good job in dispelling the notion that Apple simply copied what they saw at PARC. The Apple engineers actually expanded the PARC research in significant ways and put all the technology into a device that could be used by anyone. The Macintosh was not the first computer with windows, a mouse and a graphical interface, but it was the first available to the masses and the first to do many things we take for granted now.

It’s especially illuminating now, some 36 years after the debut of the Macintosh, to see how it all came together and how the original device really shaped the personal computer industry–and still does, as witnessed by the introduction of Apple’s in-house M1 chips that will power all Macs going forward.

One minor complaint about the book–it is filled with numerous grammatical glitches, possibly due to a bad scan (it effectively predates the e-book era). There’s also some sloppy, if amusing typos, such as a note on how “Hypercard was included for free with every Macintosh starting in 1977” (impressive as the Macintosh did not debut until 1984).

Overall, this is an informative and at times fascinating look back at the birth and clumsy adolescence of the personal computer, and how one, the Macintosh, dared to push forward, thanks to an incredibly dedicated and talented team of designers and engineers. Recommended–and not just for nerds!

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The low tech fix

Today I began what I was convinced would be the maddening task of further troubleshooting my PC. I pulled out the ram and video card, but nothing changed.

Then I noticed a bunch of the tiny little headers on the motherboard weren’t fully plugged in. How they came unplugged, I don’t know. Even more mysteriously, the honking big header for the front USB ports was completely disconnected and sitting well away from where it would normally be plugged in. All of this was strange, but easily fixed by just making sure everything was nice and secure.

I pressed the power button…and the PC powered up without issue. Windows didn’t even report a bad shutdown or anything. Everything is working again without any parts having to be replaced, and with minimal downtime.

To this I say: Yay!

Bringing work home with you through bad karma

Or maybe not bad karma, but something. And bad.

I recently celebrated the arrival of my new PC, which was a tad more difficult to assemble than expected, but in the end booted up without issue and has hummed along nicely since.

Until last night, at around 3:30 a.m. At that time it disconnected from IRC while I slept, unaware of what was to come.

In the morning I immediately spied something wrong. I normally set the keyboard to its bizarre, useless backlight configuration of “strobing rainbow” because it makes for a groovy night light. Instead of seeing this, the keyboard backlight was off. The power light on the monitor was also amber. Amber is never good.

But the sinister red LED on the HSF was still on, so the unit apparently had power. My first bit of troubleshooting was to hit the reset button to reboot the PC. This had the unexpected effect of cranking the fans up to super turbo mode. Alarmed, I held down the power button to shut the machine off. This had no effect.

I used the switch on the PSU itself and this worked better, turning the whole thing off. I flicked this switch back on and this time nothing at all happened. The sinister red LED on the HSF remained dark, as did the keyboard and display. I was sad. I was also out of time, as I had to head off to work.

Upon getting home I opened up the case and inspected everything, looking for things that might be loose or unplugged. Everything checked out fine, except for one of the cables plugged into the modular PSU. It seemed to be ever-so-slightly loose, so I reseated it. I put the case back together, plugged everything back in and hit the power button.

Nothing happened. My troubleshooting is now over.

I’m thinking it may be the motherboard for the following reasons:

  • there is evidence power is still getting through, as things like the network light still work
  • bad ram or CPU would produce an error message
  • a bad video card would not affect the keyboard (to my knowledge)
  • the video and keyboard not working both point to the motherboard as the source of the problem

It’s possible the PSU may be at fault, and it would be easier to swap it out to test first, but I still lean toward the motherboard based on all other evidence. I’ve asked for other opinions and am willing to be persuaded otherwise, but I suspect part of tomorrow will be spent buying and then installing a different motherboard and seeing what happens when I press the power switch. I am hoping my reaction will not be this:

New PC 2018: Parts chosen (until I change my mind)

Ironic note: This post was written on a Mac mini.

My current PC is about five years old and truthfully, it still does most things I need it to do without any major issues. I can browse the web, check email, write, read, play games, chat and so on, all without gnashing my teeth about the system being infernally slow, laggy or otherwise annoying to use.

It has an SSD as the main drive, so Windows 10 boots and restarts quickly (even if I notice that the Thinkpad X1 Carbon boots Windows 10 and programs even faster). It has 8 GB of ram, which still allows multitasking of as many programs as I’m likely to run. Its 4th generation Core i5 CPU is officially five generations behind, but it’s clocked at 3.3 GHz and still capable.

In the time I’ve had the PC, I’ve only upgraded three components:

  • The monitor, which isn’t even directly part of the PC. I went from a 24″ Samsung TN panel to a 24″ Asus IPS monitor, and the change was totally worth it. The color, clarity, viewing angles and brightness of an IPS monitor are so much better than a TN display. I still have the Samsung as an emergency backup.
  • The video card, from a GeForce GTX 570 to a GTX 770. This was also worth it, though I bungled things by not doing enough research, as the even-better GTX 970 came out just weeks after I got the 770.
  • The OS, from Windows 8 to Windows 10. And technically this isn’t a component of the PC, anyway.

Apart from that, the system is exactly the same as the day I put it together. I’m even using the same 2 TB hard disk from the previous PC as the secondary drive in the current one.

So with everything working, why build a new system?

The best answer might be that while everything works, I am starting to see the upper limits of what the current PC can manage. As programs–and especially browsers–become more bloated demanding, the 8 GB of ram is becoming an issue. Having a small primary drive (256 GB) is slowing down overall performance when loading and saving, because I simply don’t have room for everything on it. Older and less demanding games can still run fine on the GTX 770, but more often I have to turn down settings, accept lower framerates, or just play stuff released 10 years ago. Which Diablo 3 halfway to, luckily.

Also, we are at a point where technologies and pricing have both stabilized with some really good offerings.

If I stick to what I’ve picked out, here’s how the new system will compare to the current PC:

  • 4x the storage on the primary drive (1 TB vs. 256 GB). I would add additional storage on an as-needed basis.
  • 2x the memory (16 vs. 8 GB)
  • Faster video card with 4x the memory (RTX 2070 with 8 GB vs. GTX 770 with 2 GB)
  • A CPU with 2x the number of cores (8 core AMD Ryzen 2700 vs. 4 core Intel Core i5)
  • A larger case (microATX vs. mini-ITX)

The new case is an improvement because I’ve moved the PC back under the desk, so I don’t need a super-small case anymore. A taller one will make the front-facing ports and jacks easier to access, and the case itself should theoretically be easier to work with.

I’ve already gotten the video card, the next step is to figure out where to get everything else. Having amazon.ca ship everything to a locker is appealing (and simple) but amazon’s pricing and selection is surprisingly inconsistent, so I may be going to local dealers, like I did before NCIX self-immolated.

I am both excited (that new toy feeling) and filled with dread (piecing everything together, turning it on, nothing happening). And of course, it doesn’t address one critical aspect–I’m back to using Ulysses, a Mac-only writing app. I’m hoping the developers will eventually use their alleged subscription-fed largesse to port the program to Windows. I don’t think they will because they seem beholden to Apple’s ecosystem, but it would be nice. I like the app a lot more than I like macOS. Maybe I’m just too used to Windows after a hundred years of using it.

But maybe WriteMonkey 3.0 will eventually come out of beta, actually support indents and fulfill all my writing needs. It could happen!

Perhaps most importantly, my giant backlog of games can’t be played on a Mac mini. It’s new PC time.

End of the “executive” era (computer desk)

I got a new computer desk from IKEA. It is fairly simple–just a big plank of wood with four legs. It replaces an L-shaped desk that fit the nook I have the computer in, but it was kind of awkward, otherwise. It was too shallow, too narrow and too faux executive office-looking, with a fake dark wood surface.

The new desk comes with a fake light wood surface, which is brighter, happier and will inspire me to previously unforeseen levels of stuff and junk.

What you can’t see in the mediocre shot below is the printer has moved from the left side of the desk to a pseudo-printer stand to the left. I say pseudo because it’s really the old end table from the living room temporarily repurposed to hold the printer. It has two shelves which handily hold all the junk I had scattered across the old desk but did not need quick access to.

Also helping to inspire me is Edvard Munch’s The Scream, as seen on the all behind the desk.

The gear, from top-left, clockwise: Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon, Blue Yeti microphone (hidden partly by the monitor), Asus P248 24″ monitor (on the monitor stand are Tic Tacs and a WASD 6-key Cherry switch tester), two escapees from a Robax commercial, a Seagate 4TB backup drive, my gateway/router, Logitech G703 wireless gaming mouse, CTRL mechanical keyboard (Halo Clear switches), Sony MDR-7506 headphones with absurdly long cable, and iPad mini 4, which has a battery life similar to whatever bug dies after about four days.

Photo of the Day, December 29, 2018

I cleaned the innards of my PC today. This is the dust filter from the front of the case. You’d think the PC was 50 years old, but it’s not. Really!

Quest for a new laptop, Part 1

The most important parts of a laptop, from my perspective:

  • Keyboard. I use laptops primarily for writing, so the keyboard is paramount
  • Display. This is #2 because I am going to be looking at the screen intently, riveted by my deathless prose, and I need a sharp, high-resolution display. It doesn’t need to be 4K and probably shouldn’t be, given how it affects battery life. Speaking of…
  • Battery. I need enough battery to allow me to use the laptop multiple times throughout the day without needing to plug it in. The ideal is 10 hours, as this provides plenty of breathing room based on my typical usage.
  • Trackpad. A mediocre trackpad can make editing infuriating. I shouldn’t need to add a mouse to make the laptop feel usable. On the other hand, I can use a mouse if I really need to.
  • Light and compact. I don’t want something that I feel I’m lugging around. At the same time I don’t mind a bit of extra heft if it means not sacrificing anything else on this list.
  • SSD. This is pretty standard these days. It insures that loading programs and saving files happens fast, to minimize disruption.
  • CPU. A Core i5 of some sort is usually good enough. Faster is always better but here it’s more nice than essential.
  • Ports. I don’t really plug a lot of things in, so a wide port selection isn’t necessary. At least a couple of USB-C ports is nice, though lacking those I’d want at least a USB Type A and maybe something to connect to an external monitor, like mini-DP or HDMI.

Everything else would come after this. For a Windows laptop a touch screen is nice to have but not essential, as is the 2-in-1 form factor. I don’t really watch any media on a laptop so have little need for a tent mode. Being able to draw in a tablet mode can be handy at times, but again is merely nice to have.

What laptops meet these criteria? Next post!

Using the Surface Pro 3 as an actual laptop

Today I did something I had never done before. Admittedly this could be one of billions of possible things, but in this case I am referring to using my Surface Pro 3 as an actual laptop.

By this, I mean that I propped myself up on the bed with some pillows so I was sitting fully upright and placed the SP3 on my lap and started typing (I wrote the previous running update this way). The experience went better than expected but was still unsatisfying for a few reasons.

First, the good news: the SP3 was far more stable than I expected with it resting on my legs. I suspect this was largely due to my legs being laid out perfectly straight on the bed, creating the flattest possible surface (pun not intended). Though there was some slight bounce with the keyboard (I normally lay it flat on desks/tables but on the lap it really needs to be kept up so the magnetic strip can better stabilize it) but it was perfectly manageable, if a bit odd-feeling.

The less-good news: The DPI scaling is such that the text was just slightly on the small side from where I was sitting in relation to the screen. This could be corrected a couple of ways: magnifying the Firefox window (obviously this only works in Firefox or other browsers) or by increasing the DPI scaling (not a great option as inevitably some things end up cartoonishly big and changing DPI obnoxiously requires a reboot) or putting on my glasses. The text wasn’t fuzzy or anything like that, it was just small enough to be annoying and unpleasant to work with.

The bad news: I tested with the lights off, to see how the keyboard’s backlight would fare. Unfortunately, the backlight would switch off after only a short period of inactivity, leaving the keyboard in darkness. This entirely defeats the point of having the backlight. Also, the light bled through sufficiently that it actually made the keys more difficult to see.

Overall the Surface Pro 3 worked better than expected but I can honestly say that typing out a blog post using the onscreen keyboard of my iPad Air is a more pleasant experience when blogging from bed. Granted I don’t often blog from bed–I prefer using the bed for more traditional purposes, such as sleeping and “I’m not sleeping, I’m just resting my eyes!”–but still, I am left with the feeling that an actual laptop would be notably superior, to a degree that I would switch over to one were I to suddenly blog from bed regularly.

The DPI scaling is an ongoing concern in general for Windows laptops as more of them are now shipping with beyond-HD displays (see the Surface Book and its otherwise gorgeous 13.5″ 3,000 x 2,000 screen), so if I do get another laptop, it may be a MacBook of some flavor. I’ll test drive a few possible options before making a final decision. Conveniently, Metrotown has both an Apple store and a Microsoft store near to each other. Plus a food court so I can get a taco when all the test driving leaves me hungry.

Naughty with keyboards

Tonight, just because I could, I plugged a Mac keyboard into my PC. But wait, I didn’t just plug it into any USB port, I plugged it into one of the USB ports of my current PC keyboard.

Yes, I plugged a keyboard into a keyboard. It’s wrong and yet it works.

I kind of like the quiet of the Mac keyboard after the sturm und drang of my blue switch (extra clacky) mechanical keyboard. Still, this is silly so I’ll switch back after this post.

And a picture for posterity:

Dueling keyboards
Top: Das USB mechanical keyboard. Bottom: Apple USB keyboard. Not seen: Me being silly doing this.

Oh, mother(board)

Back in January I upgraded some components in my PC as it had been nearly four years and the itch to upgrade was no longer possible to resist. It turns out I picked a new Intel motherboard that had a nasty flaw in it and even though I never experienced the flaw and with the way my machine was configured, never would, I nonetheless took the opportunity to get it exchanged free for a newer revision sans flaw.

In the interim I also got a snazzy new case that was bigger because I hate working in cramped cases.

Yesterday at 2 p.m. I was back from NCIX with the new motherboard in hand.

When I went to bed at midnight I had:

a) missed my run
b) cut my thumb
c) missed dinner
d) was cramped and sore throughout my lower body due to all the stooping, bending, crouching and straining

and

e) did not have a functioning computer

I resigned myself to taking the motherboard back to NCIX today, explaining to them how it would not power up at all. Then I noticed I had inserted the power switch lead one pin too far to the left. I corrected this and the system powered up. Doh. Next I got a report that the CPU was too hot — 97ÂșC! And this after a few moment of being on. I eventually popped the motherboard back out and found that two of the four pins holding the HSF down had not gone all the way through the sockets in the motherboard, so it was slightly off-kilter and ‘hot’. I corrected this and the warning went away.

Finally, after hooking up the DVD drive and three hard drives, I discovered that I had forgotten to connect an SATA power cable to the DVD drive. The only way to fix this would be to disconnect and rearrange all of the drives. Or buy a $5 4-pin molex to SAT adapter cable and use that instead. Which I did.

So finally after numerous problems of my own making the PC is back together in its new case and working fine (for now). The fans are gigantic and a bit loud but I may tweak those later. For now, I am merely relieved to be done. No wonder people like iMacs. :P