Apple and Beautiful Things

Apple prides itself on making beautiful things. Few devices are as arresting as a MacBook, iPad, or iPhone on an empty table, caseless and cordless. The visual is striking and inviting. Apple wants us to love its products, and love using them, and their careful design makes them light and beautiful, encouraging us to carry and use them. Their trackpads and displays are top notch, and interacting with them is fluid and smooth. Apple products have all day battery life, wake instantaneously, and perform basic tasks with fluid panache. The new MacBook Pros are in this vein, striking in their appearance with nothing plugged in our hooked up to them. The Thunderbolt ports along the sides are very handsome.

On the Apple webpage for the new MacBook Pro, there is a simple drawing of a MacBook Pro driving two 5k displays and 2 external RAID drives, but look – no wires are shown! They couldn’t quite bring themselves to put the spaghetti mess of wires in a photo or a drawing, so it was sketched without those details. Apple is quietly saying, “You CAN hook your new machine to external devices, but you really shouldn’t. Please don’t.”

Ironically, few people use them in such stark ways. For most all people, iPhones and iPads are in cases (people get nervous when they see a naked iPhone), or under stacks of papers, or hooked up to a bunch of cables. There’s a dongle for DisplayPort, a different one for connecting an iPhone, another for ethernet over Thunderbolt, another for traditional wired headphones and the iPhone 7.

The ugly secret for the MacBooks and MacBook Pros is that they will demand a lot of unsightly dongles for serious users who have wired ethernet, backup drives, servers, and so on. Apple loves a cordless WiFi world and wants to drive us to such a place, but the truth is that only casual users can live there right now. I know plenty of people with MacBook Airs who only plug them in at night to charge, and these are users that Apple really loves. Unfortunately, with current technology standards, wires have a more solid connection to things.

In this way, the iMac is perhaps the most Apple-y professional device there is, since it can hide its cords and connectors in the back while appearing to float mid-air. You can interact wirelessly with an iMac through your bluetooth peripherals. One would think that, along these lines, Apple would be very interested in docking stations for its MacBooks, which could obscure wired connections while enabling power and mobility. But Apple has steadfastly refused to build docks. Devices should be plugged in only at night; otherwise, use them during the day, preferably on an empty table where they can really stand out.

I was in an Apple store last year, and an employee said something very interesting. I was getting something replaced with a refurbished unit under AppleCare. I asked a bit how that process worked. The employee said that all the touchable elements of the device had been replaced, because, as he put it, “we don’t really like it when people touch things.” He was serious about his comment, that Apple wants to replace things that have been used, scratched, or damaged. But it had an unintentional, humorous meaning as well. Apple’s products are warm and inviting, absolutely gorgeous devices – as long as we don’t use them. Their greatest moment is at the unpacking of the device, where the beautiful box and virgin glass proudly wait for you (and then gasp as you throw the box away and shove the device in a case).

I love Apple, and have lots of Apple products. I want the new MacBook Pro. It’s a beautiful, awesome product that I would love using. It would look beautiful on my desk – as long as I don’t hook it up to an external monitor, iPhone charger, USB microphone, or external drive. It will be awesome to carry around at 3 pounds of weight, but if I forget my dongle bag with its connectors for HDMI, ethernet, VGA, and Lightning, then I am in trouble. The two great fears in life are forgetting the diaper bag, and forgetting your dongles.

This is the problem with beautiful things.

Old school pens and paper

There is something to physically writing things on paper. There's research regarding this, that the human brain better remembers and processes things when they are written on paper versus typing.

I'm finding that myself writing out notes and outlines more these days, despite a long practice of being digital. I might have an outline of a class in digital form, but I still enjoy jotting down a few notes or quotes. There's something more pleasurable about the writing, something more free form and empowering about a blank sheet of a paper and a good writing instrument. Digital notes are so powerful for their storage and search capability, but the irony is I rarely use these things.

Marie Kondo has taught us to not store things, since they are forgotten and become irritating clutter. Might the same apply to notes, outlines, and ideas? I rarely found Evernote as helpful as I thought, except for the occasional owner's manual. I rarely found what I thought was in there, or needed what I stored. I either misremembered it, or had filed it somewhere else. So what's the point?

Baron Fig makes some great notebooks. The Vanguard Plus notebook gives you 7" x 10" of glorious space, double that if you have the notebook fully open. Their Squire pen is a real pleasure, it just feels great with its crisp marks. There is a visceral pleasure with these devices that a keyboard and mouse simply don't provide. The Field Notes are great, especially the Byline model with its fantastic paper.

I do take a picture of important bits of notes from these notebooks – if you've ever lost one (or had it in a pocket, and then washed those pants), you know how disappointing that is. But there is something to the process of physical writing that makes it worthwhile, despite these risks. The immediacy, fun, and focus of longhand writing has surprised me in a time of Dropbox and iCloud.

Three Thoughts on Alexander Hamilton: An American Musical

Hamilton the Musical is about a book. Who relentlessly reads a thick biography on his honeymoon, dog-earing pages for a potential musical? Lin-Manuel Miranda. He read a book about restoring someone's legacy through a story, and Miranda saw that that story could be a hip-hop Broadway musical and so he wrote it. The result was an oddity, a musical that is historically accurate but stylistically and performatively wrong (the usual method is to change the history while making it look accurate). He hired the book's author, Ron Chernow, to check his musical for its historical accuracy so that the story could be true. At Miranda's last performance he read from Chernow's book, because the musical is, in many ways, a love story for a great book.

Hamilton the Musical is about counting. People often count things: Angelica counts 3 things she has learned, Phillip counts in his French lessons, the ten rules of dueling are counted twice, the duel is counted off. Hamilton died too young, and there is a sense of urgency in his life's work and the musical. Time is ticking, and Hamilton is running out of time. The musical is ticking towards that final duel. It creates an impressive narrative tension, as well as communicating this essential sadness to Hamilton's short life.

Hamilton the Musical is about a legacy. Hamilton's legacy in American history has been, until Chernow's book, an oddity: he was the man who was shot in a duel. The stunning achievements of Hamilton have been ignored for centuries, as the astute, modern, and urban Revolutionary War hero was eclipsed by the legacies of Jefferson and Adams. His wife Eliza fought for his legacy (and her own), but she lost, until Chernow told the story as it deserved to be told and then Miranda did the same in music and theater. Even Burr gets a nod, that his legacy of being the shooter is a heavy burden, that his story has not been told as perhaps it should.

Life is fragile. Let us tell our stories well.