People

Discussing the birth of the iPhone

John Markoff interviews former iPhone engineering team members Hugo Fiennes, Nitin Ganatra and Scott Herz, followed by a second interview with Scott Forstall.

This is a two hour interview, Forstall starts about 1:07 but both hours are well worth listening to. Understand that the technology that these people built changed the world and Forstall had an inkling of the importance of what they were doing but really, none of them had any idea that the iPhone would turn out to be the success it has been.

This isn’t just for Apple fan-people or iPhone geeks, this will be interesting for anyone who wants a behind the scenes look at how these people’s careers took shape and how they ended up on the original iPhone team. The personal anecdotes are fascinating.

I was involved with Apple in the early years of the Macintosh and this felt very much like early interviews with Bill Atkinson, Andy Hertzfeld, and others on the first Macintosh team. Historic.

This event took place at The Computer Museum and regrettably, the sound and video aren’t great, but it is extremely worthwhile.

Note: Scott Forstall left Apple (was let go) in 2012. Wouldn’t it be ironic (and interesting) if Forstall, like Jobs, came back to Apple later as CEO (or in some other capacity) after going through a personal transformation outside of Apple. Sometimes distance makes for a clearer head.

Sara Berman’s Closet

Sara Berman’s Closet from NewYorker on Vimeo.

This is a brilliant short film about the life of Sara Berman and how her closet ended up in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

The film is by Bianca Giaever and Elori Kramer for The New Yorker, narrated by Maira Kalman (Sara Berman’s daughter) and written by Alex Kalman and Maira Kalman.

[via The Kid Should See This]

Alex Honnold free solos Freerider on El Capitan

Alex Honnold has become the first climber to free solo Yosemite’s 3,000-foot El Capitan wall

This is an incredible achievement. It’s a landmark in the history of rock climbing. Honnold is an exceptional climber and has free soloed (no rope or other equipment) many difficult routes before but this route is in another category.

I climbed the Nose Route on El Capitan in the late 1970’s in slightly slower than what was then the regular time: 4 days (an extra day) and with about half the climb using aid (using gear to advance, not just protect a fall). The route Honnold has done is much harder than the Nose route and he’s done it free solo. Freerider is a variant of the Salathe Wall route put up by the recently deceased Royal Robbins in 1961.

I’m a long retired climber but I’m interested in how the sport has advanced over the many years since I did it. This is a very large advance.

Wow.

Remembering Royal Robbins

One of the fathers of modern rock climbing, Royal Robbins died on March 14, 2017. Somehow this news escaped me and that fact has been bothering me for the past few weeks since learning about it.

I haven’t climbed in over thirty years but I can say without a doubt that Royal Robbins influenced my climbing more than anyone. Actually, he influenced more than my climbing, he influenced my life.

Basic and Advanced Rockcraft

Robbins wrote two small but extremely influential books that remained the instruction manuals for climbing for many years (they’re dated now although collectors items): Basic Rockcraft and Advanced Rockcraft.

What these books have in common is an emphasis on process: getting to the top is less important than how one gets there, clean climbing (at the time we were moving away from pitons), spare equipment to save weight and keep things simple, and, most importantly for route pioneers, finding routes that follow crack systems and have an aesthetic sense about them (as opposed to bolting straight up a face). Robbins’ nemesis, Warren Harding played the wild, bad guy to Robbins’ good guy. Truth be told, they both pioneered great routes in Yosemite although in very different styles.

Another thing these books have in common is that they are illustrated with great humor by Sheridan Anderson (best known for The Curtis Creek Manifesto one of the best fly-fishing books ever written). Without Anderson’s illustrations the books would have fallen flat, very much like the collaboration of John Muir (writer) and Peter Aschwanden (illustrator) in How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive: A Manual of Step-by-Step Procedures for the Complete Idiot (also called “the Idiot Book”).

I’ve used Anderson’s drawings of Robbins to illustrate this post. Note that Robbins routinely wore a white flat cap and Anderson’s illustrations usually have him in glasses and said cap.

Yosemite Method

Robbins used Yosemite Valley as his climbing laboratory because it has stable weather, and large, glacier-carved cliffs of incredible exfoliated granite with crack systems that make building spectacular routes possible. He climbed all over the world but Yosemite remained his home base for much of his climbing career and his particular methods and style are aimed at the type of rock climbing found there.

I got into and almost out of climbing before Steve Jobs and Apple came out with the Macintosh but Jobs and Robbins had something in common besides both being from California: they both worshipped process. As an undergraduate at the University of Oregon Fine Arts department I used to hear: “the process is the product” which is another way of saying what Steve Jobs said about building the Macintosh: “the journey is the reward” which is another way of saying what Robbins said: how you get to the top is more important than getting to the top.

This meme has been a running idea in my life since first encountering it in the early 1970’s.

Nutcracker

Robbins “put up” (made the first ascent) on hundreds (thousands?) of climbs but what marked and marks his climbs is that they, for the most part, have become classics: people want to repeat them because they’re beautiful, fun, and interesting.

The one Robbins climb that most aspiring rock climbers have to do is called Nutcracker. It’s on a cliff known as Manure Pile Buttress (seriously) and while it’s not as epic as something like The Northwest Face of Half Dome (another Robbins first ascent), it’s a great climb of moderate difficulty.

Robbins and his wife Liz first climbed Nutcracker in 1967 and it was the first climb of any significance that was done without pitons: Robbins only used wedges of aluminum on slings called nuts stuffed into cracks to protect the climb, thus the name (a first ascender gets to name the route and Robbins was known for having fun with route names).

In the history of climbing without pitons, the thought is that British climbers approaching cliffs beside railroad tracks picked up steel hex nuts, passed pieces of rope through them and used these like chockstones to protect climbs. When Yvon Chouinard (another Yosemite pioneer and founder of Patagonia) heard about this he decided to make irregular hexagonal shapes out of aluminum which in my day, we called “hexes” for climbers to stuff into cracks instead of pitons. These days there are still stoppers, wedges, and hex nuts although they’ve been all but replaced by expandable protection.

The fact that Robbins and his wife did this climb without pitons in 1967 was significant and it led to a push in Yosemite Valley to do away with pitons all together, even on longer big wall routes.

I first climbed Nutcracker in 1975 with my friend Rod Orlando (image on the left with me leading) and climbed it numerous times in later years with a variety of partners. I loved that route and even as I started climbing longer and more serious routes, I almost always came back to Nutcracker. It was like paying my respects to Royal Robbins, a pioneering climber who was one of my role models.

For more on how Robbins fits into the history of climbing in Yosemite, I highly recommend the movie: Valley Uprising. Valley Uprising on Netflix. Valley Uprising on Amazon.


Other writing about Royal Robbins

There is overlap in the obituaries but they’re all worth looking at as they each have a slightly different take on Robbins’ life. If you’ve got a great source, please post it in comments, I’ll add it here. Thanks.

Base Camp Magazine: Royal Robbins Dies at 82 (this is where I first learned of Robbins’ passing)

Outside Magazine: Catching Up with Royal Robbins

Climbing: Royal Robbins

Climbing: Royal Robbins: A Timeline and a Bibliography

Royal Robbins, Conscience of Rock Climbers, Dies at 82

NPR, All Things Considered: Royal Robbins, Pioneer Of American Rock Climbing, Dies At 82

The Washington Post: Royal Robbins, celebrated rock climber who left no trace of his ascents, dies at 82

Outside Magazine: Obituary: Royal Robbins (1935–2017)

Modesto Bee: Rock climbing pioneer, Modesto’s Royal Robbins, dies at 82

Alpinist: 1935-2017: Big-wall pioneer and world explorer Royal Robbins remembered

Adventure Journal: Climbing Pioneer Royal Robbins Dies at Age 82

Hear and Now (NPR): How Rock Climbing Legend Royal Robbins Influenced The Sport

Climbing reference: Nutcracker, Manure Pile Buttress 5.8

Nutcracker Guide

Summit Post: Nutcracker topo

Flickr (photos): Climbing Nutcracker in Yosemite

Joy Brown on Broadway

Figures on a flatbed

Figures on a flatbed

Broadway, New York City.

My good friend Joy Brown has been making large bronze castings of her ceramic sculpture and is having a show of them in New York City. Joy has been traveling to China to work with a foundry there for many years and these finished pieces were shipped to the US in a large container by ship and arrived a few weeks ago. There will be a sister show in China opening in a few months.

Forklift on Broadway

Forklift on Broadway

Thinker in crosswalk

We pulled an all-nighter last night helping with the installation which was done by a great outfit out of Bethel, Connecticut: Mariano Brothers.

We started at 10:00 pm and finished at 3:00 am. There were two flatbed trucks, ours with four pieces starting at 72nd St. and working north, the other starting at 168th St. and working south.

Mother and child at 72nd St.

Mother and child at 72nd St.

Many of Joy’s friends came from all over the country and they were joined by a crowd of curious and supportive New Yorkers. It was quite a scene although after midnight as we moved up town only the core group remained.

Tomorrow, Wednesday May 17th there will be a formal “opening” at 11:00 am at the 72nd St and Broadway installation. The show will be up for at least six months, maybe longer. Each setting has a map showing the location of each of the sculptures. It’s a bit of a hike to walk the whole thing but there’s a subway line running under Broadway and the pieces are near enough to stops so they can be easily gotten to.

I’m pooped!

#joybrownonbroadway

Ueli Steck dies on Mt. Everest

Swiss climber Ueli Steck was killed in a fall on Mt. Everest today.

Steck was one of the greatest mountaineers and all-around climber-athletes in the world. He was skilled and experienced enough so that an accident like this would be unlikely for him, however, free solo climbing (climbing alone without a rope) is dangerous, even for someone as skilled as Steck.

I’ve followed Steck’s career for a while, mostly because he’s an interesting guy, and also because those of us who were or still are climbers know what The Eiger North Face is and Steck not only free soloed it, he did it numerous times in under 3 hours. This is an incredible achievement because of the skill and daring involved but also because of the endurance involved. Steck was called “the Swiss machine” for a reason: he had tremendous endurance.

I posted about him here in 2011. Below is the video from that post.

Robert Pirsig and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Robert Pirsig, the author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values has died.

The New York times has an excellent remembrance as does the New York Post. It’s worth reading both and no doubt others that will come out in the days ahead, each will have different takes on this fascinating man and his surprisingly popular book.

Robert Pirsig’s writing had a profound affect on my life and while I read this book in 1976, many of its ideas have stuck with me.

Here’s an anecdote that I remember from the book although my memory is no doubt burnished. And, I was and remain a weak reader (dyslexia) so I’m slow and tend to miss things.

Surface appearance vs. underlying form

Pirsig is riding cross country (Minnesota to San Francisco) with his son Chris and a friend (John) and his wife. Pirsig is on an old Honda (or something like that) and John and wife are on a new BMW (a much more expensive bike).

They’re somewhere in the middle of their trip, camping out and sitting around the campfire one night drinking beer. John has been complaining about the handlebars on his BMW being loose and is wondering if they’ll pass near a BMW place so he can have them fixed.

Understand that the handlebars on these motorcycles are attached to the post they sit on with a clamp (just like a bicycle) and the adjustment bolt/nut could be tightened all the way and there might still be play between the clamp and the handlebars. Unless one can fill that space, it’s a serious problem.

Pirsig is thinking that he could cut up an aluminum beer can with the tin snips he has in his saddlebag and make perfect shim stock (soft aluminum) to take the play out of John’s handlebars. But John, no doubt, would have none of it because to use a beer can on his fancy BMW would be just plain wrong. Pirsig knows that the BMW repair guy will probably use the same type of thing and charge John a fortune for it. Then Pirsig goes deep into the idea of underlying form (the way things actually work) vs. surface appearance (the BMW brand cache), and also the fact that he has no way to talk about this stuff with John and he goes around and around on this in his head, driving himself crazy.

These deep mind trips Pirsig calls “chautauquas” and he has many in this book. They’re laced with a bit of paranoia and mania (Pirsig was in real life, schizophrenic) and for me, that made them even more real.

This loose handlebar scene and resulting chautauqua becomes a metaphor for other scenes in the book and for those of us who read it, for many things in our lives.

For example, some people buy iPhones because they’re the cool phone to have, others buy them because they understand and appreciate Apple’s design of both the hardware and the iOS software underneath. Geek (underlying form) vs cool hunter (surface appearance).

If you’re into the technical stuff it might be frustrating to have some teenager who wants a pink iPhone to look cool to her friends have the same phone as you and have no clue how it works. Or, the teenager can use the phone amazingly well but doesn’t appreciate the stacks of software underneath the surface appearance.

Substitute anything for iPhone, it’s not about Apple vs Samsung, it’s about surface appearance vs underlying form. Android geeks might have the same frustration with people who buy Android phones simply because they’re cheaper.

Understand that Pirsig’s description of this frustration was the first I’d ever read of it and it hit home to me and has continued to hit home with me for over 30 years.

When I read this book I was not a big reader, this was one of the first “big” books I read that had an affect on me. And, it was scenes like the one I describe above that did it. I was struggling to figure out who I was and what I wanted to do with my life and I experienced Pirsig’s struggle. And, Pirsig wasn’t just struggling with ideas, he was struggling with mental illness which affected his ability to relate his ideas to other people.

Phaedrus

Ten years after I’d read this book I found myself running both the Macintosh and HyperCard groups on AOL (America Online). One of the thousands of user/participants in the group had an interesting screen name: “Phaedrus47.” I remembered that Pirsig had used the name “Phaedrus” to describe his past self as a struggling creative writing teacher.

I sent a message to Phaedrus47 asking if he’d read the book. Indeed he had and this started an amazing, multi-year email discussion/chautauqua between me and Phaedrus47 / Alex Forbes who I met years later at Macworld in San Francisco and am friends with to this day.

Less is more

I’m not a big reader of books, not because I don’t want to, but because I’m so slow it might take me many months to finish one and reading is exhausting for me. For every one book I’ve read my wife has read a thousand (seriously).

But, for me, this means that the books I actually stuck with and read have been worth the trouble and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, while in many ways a slog of a read, connected with me and had a big effect.

I will never forget Robert Pirsig’s personal struggle and his articulation of it in this book.