Weekend viewing: The Adobe Illustrator story

I have a love/like relationship with Adobe. Sometimes the firm is irritating – Adobe Flash just seemed to get more irksome every minute – but I think Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign are miraculous.

Usually I forget that I ever worked in computers. Certainly it is a jolt to be reminded that I was ever a programmer – I used to yearn to include dramatic plot twists in my software, I was never going to be happy staying there – but I even forget that I wrote extensively for computing magazines. But sometimes, just sometimes I’m so really glad I did. Because while I don’t think I ever wrote about Adobe products much, I was in the trade as this company came along and made the most astonishing impact on all of us.

You might find a book or a magazine or a newspaper that wasn’t designed in Adobe InDesign, it is just about possible. But you cannot find anything that didn’t go through Adobe Photoshop. Cannot. This one company touches everything we read and through that it touches every one of us.

About twelve years ago I had a really good time reading Inside the Publishing Revolution: The Adobe Story Hardcover by Pamela Pfiffner (UK edition, US edition). All the news I knew from my years in the computing press plus the story behind it, I was riveted. Slightly narked at how 100% pro-Adobe it all is and if had been published later than 2002 it might have had to have more gristle in with the positive meat. But it was a deeply interesting story.

And now there’s a video. This is specifically about Adobe Illustrator which is actually the Adobe program I know the least well, but I was riveted. I’m assuming it was produced for the 25th anniversary of Illustrator back in 2012 but I only saw it today thanks to The Loop.

The video is 20 minutes long and I’d have watched an hour without noticing:

I should say, Adobe products are all available on the official site here.

Put – the – PC – down and let’s talk about this


Admit it: Sometimes you just want to punch your PC, or slap your smartphone, or knock your notebook.

We all get riled by technology once in a while, with all those feeble batteries, endless updates and spinning wheels of death.

But what if our devices could see it coming? What if they could pick up the tics and tells of our brewing anger — or, for that matter, any other emotion — and respond accordingly?

It’s not as crazy as it sounds. To hear experts tell it, this is where technology is going. Researchers and companies are already starting to employ sensors that try to read and respond to our feelings.

Devices that Know How We Really Fee – New York Times (May 4, 2014)

My future is here. Your mileage may vary

First, dictation and voice control of computers and iPads and everything seemed to be something from science fiction films. No, not seemed: they were from science fiction films and nothing like that happened in the real world. Then the future came to our PCs and Macs and dictation could do anything. Except it couldn't do anything. Not a thing. Voice dictation was rubbish and it never, ever worked the way it said it would on the box. That box, by the way, could be equally the software box the things used to coming or the telly in the corner. They both claimed the world, they both lied.

Perhaps that just put me off for a long time but I really think it was also the fact that were voice dictation to work it would mean dictating by your voice. That sounds sensible, but I'm a writer and I don't have to be sensible. I like writing. I like using keyboards. I actually love typing.

So the knowledge that it just simply never worked coupled to the fact that I just simply never wanted voice control, meant I've ignored it all.

Until last night when my wife Angela accused me of having entire conversations with Siri on my iPhone. The thing is, she's right. I do. There are regular things I do with Siri that have taken over the way I used to do things. It's quicker now to search something online by Siri than it is to type into Google, for example. I can no longer find any of the weather apps I've downloaded to the phone because it's become just so much quicker to ask Siri. “What's the temperature?” – that's been a very common thing for me to ask recently as it got very cold. “Is it going to rain?” is another regular. In the end, that is actually pretty much all I ever need to know about the weather. So it's Siri in, apps out.

Then today I had a thing where I was driving and an email came in from a friend. An email I had been waiting for, an email I'd been hoping to get. I asked Siri to read it. That was new and it was good. It wasn't like having my friend in the car but it was like having a conversation.

There was a problem, though. There appears to be a limit on how much Siri will read of your email. It seemed to read about a third to maybe half of a fairly short email.

And now I'm finding another problem: it will only let me dictate a certain amount of text at one time. Because, yes, I think you guessed this already, this entire piece has been dictated through Siri. I do and I don't like it. I'm finding I have to compose an entire sentence in my head before I actually say it. I'm more used to exploring on the keyboard, letting my fingers find the words and then if necessary just deleting. So my flow is different and I think you see that in the writing style: I'm a little bit more staccato, maybe a little bit longer. And I can see that the paragraph structure is different.

It's easy enough to get a new paragraph when you want one but still I find my thought processes are different and I look like I'm a different person writing this. only a writer would care about that but I'm a writer, I care about that.

I think I'm less of a non-fan then I was before. Put it that way. I'm feeling a bit grotty today and being able to say this instead of type it has unexpectedly proved a boom. Thank you for being a test subject as I write to you.

The thing is, it seems to work. I like Siri, I know many people don't, and I do find Siri seems to have good and bad days for no apparent reason. But it's an amazing piece of technology. I am regularly astonished by what it gets correctly when I'm speaking just as much as I am occasionally bemused by what it gets wrong.

I need the keys. I actually need to knead the keys as I write. What this is telling me is that I think I crossed a line, I've crossed a little hurdle, where I now actually accept that voice control and dictation is possible and it does work. If nothing else, I'm going to be happier continuing to have conversations with Siri.

And in fact, as I said that last paragraph, a text came in from Angela and I told Siri yes I wanted to reply. This is becoming science fiction. I am becoming used to controlling my iPads and iPhones with Siri. Part of me still doesn't believe it. But, wow.

I don't think that it will make me more productive, necessarily, at least not yet. But the combination of being able to speak one thing while typing another, that would. That has, actually. Now I think of it, I remember a time quite recently on my Mac when I was so busy typing I couldn't add add something into my calendar so I told Siri on my iPhone to do it instead. That meant it automatically came to my Mac as well. This is the kind of voice control or dictation that would make me faster, would make me more productive, and yet let me keep doing the thing I like doing most: writing on a keyboard.

At long last, wow.

‘Mandatory’ applications from a decade ago

I’ve just found a backup CD that looks like it’s from late 2002 and it’s like a time capsule. Then as now, I was devoted to software and I ran my life through various applications. Of course I mean my professional life as a writer but also, frankly, everything. Not a single day goes by that I don’t use a good half dozen applications and in every case they have earned that spot. They are so good or they are so right for what I need that I can neither comprehend how I worked without them nor conceive how I could ever work without them in the future.

But the future is a funny place. You only have to look to the past to find that out.

This CD is labelled Mac Apps. It’s a backup of my most precious and most used software in 2002. There’s folder of system bits I’ve not bothered to look into yet, there’s a folder I’ve called Nice for some reason. But then there is a folder called Mandatory. Wherever I go, whatever Mac I work on, these are the tools I have to have with me. There are eleven.

Corel WordPerfect 3.5 Enhanced

I’m astonished that this was there as late as 2002. I liked WordPerfect for Mac, I was in a minority there but I did, yet it ceased to exist such a long time ago. I think this was me hanging onto it to the bitter end but the bitter end must’ve come pretty soon afterwards because WordPerfect for Mac doesn’t run on Mac OS X.

Desktop Printer Utility

Not one single clue what this is for.

Disc Burner and Disk First Aid

Notice the c and the k endings. I’m just saying. I could work this pair out if I tried, but it’s not going to happen. Except that I did use a descendent of Disk First Aid just yesterday: Disk Utility. Was it truly ever mandatory, though?

DVD Region Switch Autolauncher

I don’t know what the autolauncher bit did now but region coding, I well remember region coding. This commercial decision to block people from buying DVDs outside their own home region. Even if the DVD they want has never and will never be released there. Nobody with any interest ever stood still for that decision, and I didn’t either.

Final Draft 4.1

I still use Final Draft today. I have version but there is a version 9. I’m unlikely to buy that. But I did buy Final Draft for iPad, it’s still useful enough to me to be worth upgrading sometimes and the Mac one does stay in my dock.

Microsoft Outlook

There’s mandatory because I liked something and there’s mandatory because some firm or client demanded it. Surely this is the latter. I don’t remember there being an Outlook for OS 9, I thought the Mac version was called Entourage around this time. But here it is. And there it goes.

Now Up-to-Date and Contact

Oh, now, these I miss. These I’d be using today if I could. It was actually a pair of applications: Now Up-to-Date was a Calendar and Now Contact was an address book. I remember they worked together very well and that every time I’ve tried an calendar or address book since, I’ve been judging it against these two. If I imagine I would’ve held on to WordPerfect for as long as I could, I know I wouldn’t have given up NUDC willingly. But times move on, hardware and operating systems move on, you can neither buy NUDC now nor run it on any current machines. It’s a loss. Mind you, I’m no longer the power user I was for calendars so the one that comes on my Mac is fine enough for me. Especially as OmniFocus, my current beloved To Do manager shows you today’s tasks along with a peek at the calendar for today’s events. So useful. But I’ll raise a mug of tea to NUDC tonight.


And I will sob about this. Weirdly, it’s not six hours since I told someone the tale. Back when I worked on computer magazines, journalists used to blag more than they blogged. Some people got press trips to Vegas, practically everyone got computers on short- and long-term loans. My biggest blah was this. The Oxford English Dictionary on CD-ROM. The original disc is still on my shelf. But neither it nor this backup copy has worked in a long time. I’d have said since the 1990s but presumably I’m wrong. Still, it’s another victim of changing and developing platforms and operating systems. I miss this more than I can say and I don’t believe you can buy an up to date version: you can only subscribe to an online one for more than I can afford or blag.

PageSpinner 4.1

Not a clue.


What? Anti-virus on a Mac in 2002 and I called it Mandatory? Let’s just walk away from that. I was young.

I wonder what hardware I was using then. I think it was a black PowerBook but I’m rubbish with computer names and models, I only remember what I do with them.

I’m feeling all nostalgic for a time not a heartbeat ago. I’m feeling as nostalgic for the OED on CD-ROM as you might be for whatever music was in the top twenty in your school days.

But I look at each of these applications, at least the ones I can remember what they did, and I can see how much better things are today. NUDC would look out of date, I know. Seriously, I know: there was a failed project to bring it back in the 2000s and I was right there using the betas and contributing. OmniFocus plus OS X’s address book and calendar together beat NUDC. I know.

Yet in another ten or twelve years, will I even remember what OmniFocus does? It’s not like there’s a huge clue in the title.

Thanks for letting me tell you all this. It’s been a buzz.

Thirty years of Macintosh

I would not being doing the job I am, I would not be enjoying it the way I am, I would not have had the wide-ranging, bouncy career I have – if it weren't for the Mac.

I'm not kidding.

Apple's Macintosh made such a difference in my life that today, on its thirtieth birthday, I've written about it over on my personal blog, Self Distract.

I'd very much like you to take a look.

But I hate computers

Writers tend to think I am very technical. Every technical person I know thinks I'm an idiot. I'd like to say that the truth is between the two, but that suggests it's in the middle whereas I suspect I'm only a pixel away from the idiot side. But it's a significant pixel to me because whatever I am capable of ever understanding technically, I did also choose to walk away. I chose to leave computing and go into first media, then journalism, then drama. And I wouldn't change that.

But you don't forget any dabbling you do in technology, just as you never really forget anything if you were raised Catholic. And it is certainly true that I spend my days surrounded by this stuff and might even be said to wallow in it all.

Except it's not technology. It's not computing. At least, it isn't to me.

There is a very easy way to say that, for instance, this morning I have been heavily using iTunes Radio, Pages, Numbers, Excel, Word, Mail, OmniFocus, Editorial, Final Cut Pro X, iMessages and possibly more. Reeder. That's another one. Pocket, a bit.

But I had to think about that. If you had asked me what I'd done so far today I'd have told you I cooked breakfasts, drafted a radio proposal, emailed a lot of people about a lot of things, done my regular financial stuff, got up to date with everything I'm supposed to be working on. I put the bins out and emptied the dishwasher. I would never imagine, never conceive of telling you the make and model number of my dishwasher. It's my dishwasher and I cannot remember what type it is, I just know dirty plates in, clean plates out.

When I like technology, it is enabling me to do something more interesting than play with technology. Yet telling you any of this always sounds like a list of software and hardware – usually iPads more than dishwashers, but there you go – and I'm thinking that's a barrier.

Yes, if you use all these tools they will help you stay creative yet become more productive. Guaranteed.

What I can't guarantee is which tools will help you: for something as abstract and technical as software, applications are vividly too personal to make grand recommendations or rules. I know this, you know this, but in the talking about it all and what might help you most with what, I end up sounding like a geek rather than a writer. I'd be okay with that if I thought I were and if I knew it would be of use to you, but I geek out and imagine every real technical person I know stepping away from me.

Use this stuff. Start with whatever you've already got: you're a writer, you write on a computer, there is no question but that it can do more for you than you realise or you let it. And when you've poked around a bit with that, then start looking into other applications and tools to help you more. You will find them, at some point you will become addicted to them, and you will find that they are not just useful, they are transforming.

I'm not kidding.

We’re done with CES – in both senses

There was probably quite a lot of talk at this year's Consumer Electronics Show in Vegas about technology that will help us be the more productive, creative, happy people we should be but I wasn't listening. Were you?

CES gets feted as a big deal in a lot of places – BBC News's Click looked like it was going to love it there from the brief bit I saw before changing channels – and certainly big announcements there are treated as world-changing.

But I lost interest years ago when I noticed that the world kept on staying pretty much the same.

Full personal disclosure: I worked on computer magazines for many years and was never allowed to go to CES. I can tell you this now: that was because I don't drink. It was regarded as a waste to send me. But maybe I was showing signs of disinterest even then. Maybe I was sober.

Because CES still talks the talk yet it's been a very long time since anything was unveiled there that you remember. We're talking home video recorders. CDs. There have been others since but I'm struggling here. And the show is now better known for big announcements of new products that then never go on sale.

So CES is an empty roar and it was so obvious to me that I wouldn't be talking to you about it that I can't even call this a big editorial decision. It was just CES, uh-huh, what else is happening? But now that the show is closed and the excited pre-event articles are being followed by post-event shrugs, I came across a description I just like a lot.

In the New York Times article about the Consumer Electronics Show, MIT's Natasha Dow Schüll summed it up exquisitely: “It’s like a high tech SkyMall”.

The Steve you’ve never heard of in computers but should have done

So there’s this computer programmer, right, and we’re talking someone who was the first freelance programmer, who built a UK startup into a firm worth hundreds upon hundreds of millions, who incidentally nearly died in the Holocaust – and I’d never heard of her before today.

And that would all be because of that word ‘her’. 

Dame Steve Shirley.

She was a young girl in Nazi Germany, she was a girl in a boys’ school – because girls’ schools didn’t teach maths – and then she was a woman in computing. A friend’s just written a novel that touches on the topic of the Suffragettes and I couldn’t read it without the old simultaneous emotion of pride that human beings could fight for what was right – and shame that there even needed to be a fight at all. Her novel quotes a journalist of the time and the journalist in me today wants to pick him up by the collar and explain with lots of emphasis about impartiality.

I can’t abdicate responsibility for my ignorance over Dame Shirley: I worked in computing, I wrote a lot about computing, I know a huge amount about the Silicon Valley history, I should know about her. I wrote that subject heading above with the presumptuous presumption that you didn’t know of her either and I’m sorry for trying to drag you into my ignorance.

Now you definitely know about her and now I certainly know about her – and I am an instant fan. Thanks to Brain Pickings and in particular this post about Dame Shirley and her autobiography, Let IT Go. And there’s a terrific video about her on that page.

The fact that she did all she did while so badly treated just because of her sex reminds me of the line that Ginger Rogers danced every step that Fred Astaire did, except backwards and in high heels.