Midweek reminiscence: Netscape turns 20

Well, it turns 20 in the sense that it’s two decades since it started: when did Netscape vanish from our lives? About an hour later. But let’s not dwell. Let Quartz take you back in time to what we used to look at.

Netscape’s graphical interface made the web accessible to everyday people. “This was the gateway to the early web,” says W. Joseph Campbell, an American University professor whose book 1995: The Year the Future Began chronicles Netscape’s rise. “It was a cool company with a great name. Netscape—back in the mid ’90s, it evoked this wide open frontier with all sorts of possibilities.”

Netscape changed the internet—and the world—when it went public 20 years ago – Alice Truong, Quartz (9 August 2015)

It’s amazing how something so ugly sticks in one’s mind this much. Read the full piece.

Pun my soul

I do like puns. John Cleese doesn’t. He’s said that the three rules of comedy are no puns, no puns and no puns. But they make me laugh and I enjoy the satisfaction of a good, long pun-fight on Facebook or Twitter. I can’t and won’t pretend I don’t. So this interested me:

Puns are threatening because puns reveal the arbitrariness of meaning, and the layers of nuance that can be packed onto a single word,” says John Pollack, a communications consultant and author of The Pun Also Rises. “So people who dislike puns tend to be people who seek a level of control that doesn’t exist. If you have an approach to the world that is rules-based, driven by hierarchy and threatened by irreverence, then you’re not going to like puns.”

Why Do People Hate Puns? – Julie Beck, The Atlantic (10 July 2015)

Read the full piece.

How Email became the Most Reviled Communication Experience Ever

Am I the only person who actually likes email? Apparently so.

It wasn’t until I heard that a colleague had nuked his personal email account—on purpose, for good—that it hit me: Email is the most reviled personal technology ever. Mat Honan, the San Francisco bureau chief at BuzzFeed, was so fed up with email that he did the 21st-century equivalent of unlisting his phone number and ripping the cord out of the wall. (He couldn’t do the same at work, but I suspect he wanted to.) This abject fear and loathing of a telecommunications technology, and the radical step Honan took to escape it—not mitigate, not reframe, not “fix,” but escape—got me curious about how we got to this point. What are the actual, fundamental design flaws—if any—with email? What makes it such a huge target for “fixing,” yet so resistant to it?

How Email Became The Most Reviled Communication Experience Ever – John Pavlus, Fast Company (15 June 2015)

Read the full piece for advice on coping with email plus a little history of it. I enjoyed the history more but seemingly I’m a freak. I’m okay with that.

The Secret Life of Word Processors

Half of the fun of this is how old it is – it was first aired 22 years ago – but it’s also a bit of a historical document about how our favourite tool began.

The origins of the photocopier and the future of 3D printing

They are two different things. Yet the unexpected, gigantic, enormous bang of photocopying and the way it went from non-existent to all-pervasive is likely to happen with 3D printing. Let it. It’s good. In the meantime, The Smithsonian Magazine has profiled the origins of the familiar photocopier and found some gems:

…in 1959, Xerox released the “914”—the first easy-to-use photocopier. The culmination of more than 20 years of experimentation, it was a much cleaner, “dry” process. The copier created an electrostatic image of a document on a rotating metal drum, and used it to transfer toner—ink in a powdered format—to a piece of paper, which would then be sealed in place by heat. It was fast, cranking out a copy in as little as seven seconds. When the first desk-size, 648-pound machines were rolled out to corporate customers—some of whom had to remove doors to install these behemoths—the era of copying began.

Or more accurately, the explosion of copying began. Xerox expected customers would make about 2,000 copies a month—but users easily made 10,000 a month, and some as many as 100,000. Before the 914 machine, Americans made 20 million copies a year, but by 1966 Xerox had boosted the total to 14 billion.

How the Photocopier Changed the Way We Worked — and Played – Clive Thompson, Smithsonian Magazine (March 2015)

Read the full piece.

Better copy-and-paste: the simple things that speed up everything

They’re called clipboard managers and suddenly I have the image of a time and motion person scribbling down notes about how slow I am. A Clipboard Manager, let’s give it initial caps and explain a bit more, is a type of software that makes your copying-and-pasting better.

It’s hard to see what you could really improve there. You copy something, you paste it. Not a lot of room for technological innovation.

Except there is.

With any such app, you can copy something, then copy something else, something else. An hour later, something else. And then tomorrow paste each of those into an email. Paste them all in one big go. Paste the third thing first, the second thing second, the fourth third, anything you like.

I’ve been aware of these for a long time and paid them no attention at all. But I’ve recently reviewed two apps that happen to include this feature amongst their many others. It was the many others that made them worth reviewing but it’s this clipboard management that was most important in making me keep the software on my Mac. Here’s why. If I got to paste something, it pastes like normal. But if instead of pressing Command-C, I press a slightly different keystroke – with what I’ve got it’s Alt-Command-C – then this is what I see:

Screen Shot 2015-03-03 at 10.19.00

Click on that to see it full size and to also see exactly what I’ve been copying and pasting for the last few minutes. I’m hoping there’s nothing private in there.

What you see there is how the software Alfred 2 displays its clipboard manager: you get very much the same thing in LaunchBar 6, the other app I was reviewing that has this. There are others and while all of this is Mac-only, there are PC apps that do it too. Do spend some time havering over LaunchBar 6 or Alfred 2, but don’t spend any time hesitating over buying a clipboard manager. It’s that useful. I am that converted.

The Alfred 2 official website is here; LaunchBar 6’s home is there.

Freelancers are warriors – semi-literally

The freelancer uniform of pajamas and workout clothes may be a stereotype we’re all familiar with, but a few hundred years ago, freelancers dressed for work in far different attire: suits of armor.

“Freelancer” was once used to describe a “medieval mercenary warrior.” There’s a career ancestry to brag about. Or not. It probably depends on your personality.

Where Did the Word ‘Freelance’ Come From? – Alyssa Hertig, Contently (5 November 2014)

Read the full piece which includes the book the word freelancer was probably coined in.

Weekend read: hiding through razzle dazzle

You are reading the only sentence I may ever write about cars. That was it. Right there. You’re welcome to re-read it, but you’ve already got everything out of it about cars that I have ever or will know. It is for want of trying. But still, this fascinated me: new cars are being tested out in public and they are painted in the most astonishing crazy ways – in order to hide them:

It seems that the adoption of “dazzle” to hide car designs coincided with the explosion of consumer cameras, and more so with the ubiquity of smartphones. GM told me that the practice began in the late 1980s, but didn’t really explode until the 1990s. “In recent years with the rise of smartphones and mobile internet devices, the vehicle camouflaging technique has really escalated to a technique used for the entire lineup,” the company’s reps added.

So, how does it work? Dazzle camouflage sounds oxymoronic: Why would you cover something you want to disguise with vivid, contrast-heavy patterns? It’s actually one of the primary concepts of camo, found both in nature and manmade systems. Think of a white tiger with black stripes. Those stripes run perpendicular to the line of the lion’s limbs, and in this way, they break up the continuous form of the animal itself. Along the same lines, Army camouflage is designed to break up the lines of soldiers’ arms and legs.

How Automakers Use a WWI-Era Camo Technique to Disguise Prototype Cars – Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan, Gizmodo (17 October 2014)

It’s a fascinating article that takes in the history of ships where camouflage was a bit more life-and-death than a car marker’s bottom line. Read the full piece.

Forget Con Air, this is AirCon

I relish the details behind things we take for granted and this story is about how air conditioning is replete with details and history:

But when air conditioning was first invented in the 1800s, hardly anyone actually wanted it. It took more than 100 years for AC to really catch on. This innovation took a long road, which Salvatore Basile explores in his new book, Cool: How Air Conditioning Changed Everything.

“I think there were many people who thought, ‘God made bad weather so you should just put up with it.’ And I think the idea of dealing with heat was to ignore it,” Basile told me in a recent phone interview.

Eventually, air conditioning did win out and ended up changing a lot — from where people live in the United States to the architecture of our buildings to even the evolution of computers. The interview with Basile is below:

How air conditioning changed America forever – Susannah Locke, Vox.com (9 September 2014)

By the way, look at the address of the full feature. It’s “www.vox.com/2014/9/9/6124321/the-history-of-air-conditioning-is-more-interesting-than-it-sounds-i”. Apart from that errant i at the end, what I like is that this was almost certainly the original headline on the story. “The History of Air Conditioning is More Interesting Than It Sounds”. No surprise that it was changed to “How air conditioning changed America forever”.

Here’s the Salvatore Basile book.

Weekend read (quite literally)

The Atlantic on the origins of the weekend and of the purely historical reasons we have five-day weeks.

Do we? Only five?

Plus the ways you may and some are changing things:

If it’s man-made, can’t man unmake it? For all the talk of how freeing it’d be to shave a day or two off the five-day workweek, little attention has been paid to where the weekly calendar came from. Understanding the sometimes arbitrary origins of the modern workweek might inform the movement to shorten it.

Where the Five-Day Work Week Came From – Philip Sopher, The Atlantic (21 August 2014)