Inside One of America’s Last Pencil Factories

Despite my love of technology, you just can’t beat a pencil for writing. I have tried every stylus-like device in the last two decades, from Palm Pilots to Newtons to Motion Computing tablets to Wacom tablets to the Apple Pencil (which is the best of all of them.)

They still don’t beat the feel and ease of use of a good old-fashioned pencil. The sound it makes as it moves across the page. The feel of the graphite against paper is very satisfying. There is a reason modern pencils have been around for over 200 years.

I switched to mechanical pencils years ago (my current favorite is this one) and still write with one in a Moleskine notebook for taking notes in meetings, gathering my thoughts or making lists.

Until I read this great piece in the New York Times magazine, looking inside one of the last pencil factories in America, I had no idea how they were made. There is some gorgeous photography of the manufacturing process as well. Ultimately I am sure the end of the pencil will come, but not just yet it seems.

Security in iOS 11

Apple has been getting more and more detailed about documenting the end-to-end security in iOS in the last few years as part of its broader focus on security, encryption and privacy.

As part of that, they have been publishing security white papers detailing both hardware and software security in their mobile OS.

They recently published the latest version of this in a document with the scintillating title of iOS Security. [PDF]

It’s well worth a read and always fascinating to me to see both the lengths they go to to appropriately hide the complexity of the technological solution from the user (who shouldn’t need to worry about it) and also the benefits they get from designing both the hardware and software.

How Star Wars Was Saved in The Edit

One of my favorite screenwriters to follow is Ken Levine. He has had an amazing career in television and features writing for MASH and Cheers among many others, as well as directing.

He has great comedy chops and I always learn something from his posts. (He is also a professional sports announcer, so his talent apparently know no bounds. Sickening.)

He came across a fascinating 18 minute YouTube video on how poor the pacing and story telling were in the original rough cut of Star Wars and how much impact Lucas’ editors had in getting us to the final cut we know and love. (At least the final original theatrical cut. Lucas likes to tinker.)

If you are interested in story-telling and getting a better appreciation for the importance of editing, it’s well worth the time.

Scripto, The App That Stephen Colbert Helped To Build

I’ve been a Final Draft user for more than a decade and am pretty familiar with the writing tools available for screenwriting but I had never heard of Scripto until I saw this New Yorker article.

Stephen Colbert and one of his writers, Rob Dubbin, (who likes to code on the side) spent a year tinkering with a new collaborative writing tool suitable for late night comedy news shows like their own. After a year it was in production use on their show and today it’s being used by a host of other shows too.

It’s not designed to be a competitor to something like Final Draft as it is geared not just for collaborative environments but also live (or live to tape) television production (feeding TelePrompTers etc.)

I had also never heard of what sounds like an antiquated piece of software from the AP called ENPS which is apparently used by hundreds of newsrooms. (To be fair given that it was designed around more traditional newsrooms it may work well in that use case and just be ill-suited to the different environment of late night news comedy. On the other hand, while the AP is a fine news organization, it isn’t exactly where I would think to go for cutting edge software or UX, so there’s that.)

There is not a lot of information in this short article but I did find what appears to be the Scripto web site. Clearly going for the minimalist approach there. I am fascinated by this product now and want to know more about how it’s built (it appears to be browser-based), what its features are and how much it costs.

Of course I am not a late night comedy news show. I don’t even play one on television. So I am not in the target market. But the whole project sounds cool.

Advice For First Time Founders

Y Combinator has a great post that starts with 3 questions:

1. What are some things that you should’ve known as a first-time founder but did not?
2. How did you learn them?
3. How did they help?

They collected responses from a bunch of founders and there is some great stuff in here.

Part of me wonders though how much it will resonate with someone who hasn’t yet dealt with the issues raised.

I see so much good advice in here, based on lessons learned the hard way across the 3 companies I have started, but part of doing a tech startup is having a certain amount of healthy delusion. Delusion about how good your idea is and your likelihood of succeeding.

This is necessary because startups are one of those endeavors where if you knew how hard it was going to be and how long it was going to take, you would never do it. People will tell you you are crazy. You will hit roadblock after roadblock. You need this delusion to persevere.

But it is also your Achilles Heel. How do you recognize good advice (on hiring for example) but ignore bad advice (on your go-to-market model say)? Here your healthy delusion can become just plain old delusion and you end up having to learn the lessons the hard way.

I’ll let you know if I figure out the answer to that one. In the meantime, the responses are full of pearls of wisdom. Also, as is often the case on Hacker News, the comments are great too.

The Basic Ideas in Neural Networks

Consider it Throwback Thursday but with all the interest in Machine Learning, its easy to forget that many of the core ideas, such as neural networks, have been around for a long time. We were lacking the computing power and large data sets that Moore’s Law and The Cloud™ has brought us.

Here is a very readable paper [PDF] from 1994 on neural networks from Rumelhart & Widrow at Stanford.

I have to admit that when I was first introduced to neural networks in 1990 as part of my Computer Science degree I found them only mildly interesting. I considered a lot of AI researchers to be eternal optimists. What I didn’t foresee of course (and I don\’t think I was alone here) was the impact of the rise of the Internet and the resultant massive data sets that would be generated as a result.

I For One Welcome Our Robotic Web Designer Overlords

There has been a lot of talk about robotics and AI eliminating more and more types of jobs over time. Initially these conversations tended to focus on manufacturing and other tasks that were highly repetitive and then evolved to include medical diagnosis and legal discovery (thanks to IBM’s Watson marketing efforts) among others.

An informative and entertaining short documentary on this is Humans Need Not Apply.

There is not much in this video that you probably don’t already know if you work in the technology industry. However in this same industry we tend to think of ourselves as highly skilled and not easily replaceable and the irony of that hubris is not lost on me.

Which leads us to Emil Wallner, who has a great post on a project to use deep learning to convert web page design mockups into code, automatically.

Its not going to actually replace anyone just yet (CNNs have been doing image analysis for a while now and the hierarchical and highly structured nature of HTML is well suited to the multiple layers approach of deep learning) but its a great tutorial introducing applying deep learning to the real-world (albeit a simplified version of it in this case.)

The $25 Billion Eigenvector

I am really enjoying spending more time indulging in some good old fashioned Computer Science. Getting back to theory and basics is a great reminder of what I love about computers, what they can do, what they can be.

Machine learning and associated AI topics are attracting a lot of interest these days (much of it warranted, some of it not) but every so often you need some good old fashioned linear algebra.

This paper [PDF] uses the academic equivalent of link baiting with a provocative title for what is really an applied discussion of linear algebra, using Larry & Sergei’s PageRank algorithm (or at least a simplified, public domain version of it.)

I often struggled in college to connect the abstraction of theory to its practical application AKA “how will I ever use this in the real world?”, so I love papers like this that try to connect the dots more. (You really need a discussion of Markov chains here too for the full picture, but thats another paper I guess.)

The Ultimate Old School PC Font Pack

I have spent most of my years living in the Apple universe, starting with the Apple ][ (learning Applesoft BASIC among other things) and for the last 25 years, pretty much all-Mac. But over the years there were PCs mixed in there too and of course DOS in the early days (learning Lotus 1-2-3 which was eye-opening for a 12 year old). So coming across this site and just seeing it is definitely a fun nostalgia trip.

T2 & The Future of The Mac

It’s no secret that Apple has spent a lot of time and money in the iPhone’s first decade moving more and more of the architecture to custom silicon that they design themselves. This covers the iPad too of course and it reached a level of zen-like completeness with the Apple Watch and its S1 system-on-a-chip.

So it is perhaps no big surprise, but definitely fascinating, to see the same change begin to occur with the Mac, and where this is going is the subject of much speculation.

It began with the MacBook Pro’s introduction of the Touch Bar, which I personally find I rarely use or even notice though the technical achievement is admirable. Apple developed a custom chip, the T1, to handle the Touch Bar but it also handles a lot of the security associated with the laptop including Touch ID and the Secure Enclave for fingerprint data. Ars Technica wrote a great piece on the T1 if you want to learn more.

Which brings us to the T2 chip inside the new iMac Pro. Most reviews have focused, not unreasonably, on the performance of this beast with its multi-core latest generation Xeon processors. Also on its ridonculous price, starting at $5,000 and available in BTO configurations up to a cool $13,000.

Jason Snell has a great write-up on the multiple duties the T2 is handling, including thermal management, disk controller, audio management, FaceTime camera and more.

Now this could end up being nothing more than Apple wanting to simplify and control even more of the bare metal of Macs, just as they have been doing with iOS devices. But it could also intriguingly be much more than that – anything from the ability to run a more fully-featured version of iOS and its attendant apps all the way up to perhaps being on our way towards a fully ARM-based Mac.

This is going to be fun to watch in the next few years…