Welcome to Macintosh

Andy Ihnatko on Macs, Writing, Innovation, and the Macquarium

- 2007.05.22

Bong! . . . :-) . . . Welcome to Macintosh!

Ever wonder how it feels to be in the presence of insanely great people? To sense a feeling of magic and awe that reverberates through the ages? To know without a doubt that you're about to embark on a wonderful journey into the minds of many truly admired individuals?

This seems like the only fitting introduction to the people of whom I speak, individuals who need no introduction.

Andy IhnatkoThe first interview is with a guy who's no doubt well known in the Mac community. For all Compact Mac fans, Macquarium outta be ringing a bell right about now. A man of true humility and humanity, none other than - drum roll - Andy Ihnatko!

Andy writes for the Chicago Sun-Times and has written for more magazines and websites than you can shake a stick at.

I interviewed Andy a while ago on iChat:

Tommy: I have to tell you, this is really cool for me to sit down with you, Andy. I've enjoyed your columns for a long time. :-)

Andy: No sweat!

Tommy: How was the career of the famous Andy Ihnatko born?

Andy: Well, I started off by writing for my local user group (the Boston Computer Society Macintosh User Group). The point of a UG is that there are always things that need to be done, and no money to pay anybody to do it. So when a volunteer shows up and says, "Why don't I take a crack at that?", they don't ask to see a resume.

Tommy: What jumped out at you about Apple that made you wanna say, "Hey, I should write about it!"?

Andy: Well, I've been using Apples since I was a little kid. Loved the Mac when it first came out, even though I wasn't making nearly enough money on my paper route to afford one. Chiefly, I wound up writing about Apples because of my involvement with the BCS*Mac. I was writing in their monthly newsletter/magazine, and I was also helping to run their monthly meetings. One month, the editors of Macworld, MacWeek, and MacUser were all there as the speakers/guests. I was giving some of my usual talks up on stage . . . guess they liked what they heard, because two of them approached me after the meeting! Can't make it sound too casual, though, because I had a some photocopies of my articles in my satchel (just in case).

Tommy: Good idea! Gotta stay one step ahead of the curve.

Andy: Well, it's more a case of being ready for an opportunity when it comes. My career wouldn't have started when it did if I hadn't gone to the meeting, but it also wouldn't have happened that way if I hadn't been writing something every day since I was in Junior High! I mean, it's not enough to have some clippings on you at all times. I like to think that I was ready for the opportunity when the opportunity came.

Tommy: I'd say you were more than ready.

In 1999 is when I started writing, I was in high school. I wrote for a couple of PC sites (gasp) reviewing hardware. Worked for a couple of other sites up until 2002. Didn't return to writing until I joined Low End Mac in August of 2006. That's when I knew I wanted to write. That led me to this interview tonight, I'm glad to say.

Andy: Well, there sure isn't anything wrong about writing about PCs. I write about 'em damned-near every week for the [Chicago] Sun-Times. Writing's a muscle . . . it responds to exercise, no matter how you work it.

Tommy: Absolutely! I actually enjoyed writing about PC's, although I mostly wrote reviews.

You have quite the loyal following. What do you attribute that to besides good looks and personality?

...nobody tried to force me to write like a normal person.

Andy: I suppose I'm lucky in that I've always tried to develop my own writing style, and by the time I started working with real editors, I'd gotten rid of enough of the spastic tics that nobody tried to force me to write like a normal person.

The idea is that you have to have something original to deliver. Otherwise, why should they read my stuff instead of anybody else's? I'm not suggesting that my style is everybody's cuppa tea, but the great thing is that I find myself the sole practitioner of my kind of writing, so I've sort of cornered the market.

Tommy: The Macquarium - considered perhaps your most popular article by many. How was the idea born?

Andy: This demonstrates the dangers of going for the cheap, easy joke! I was writing the Help Folder column at MacUser, answering reader questions (it was the gig I got from that BCS*Mac meeting; I was answering questions spontaneously from the stage). Someone wrote in and asked, "What's the best way to upgrade a 512K Mac?" And Mr. Funnybones said, "Gut it out and turn it into an aquarium!" Then I answered it seriously.

But even back then, a 512 was worth for 1/10299th of a gram more than nothing. Much to my surprise, I started getting mail asking "Wait . . . how do you turn a Mac into an aquarium?" So I sort of felt like I had to answer it. Conversions like that were a pretty common meme. I remember seeing my first Macintosh aquarium back at the first or second Macworld Expo in Boston.

But (a) the conversions were usually pretty lame (the person would just putty up all of the openings and fill the case halfway with water) and/or (b) really tough to pull off. I wanted to design a solution that almost anybody could build and which would run the waterline all the way past the top of the monitor cutout . . . so it looked like a Really Good Screensaver. It took me two or three tries before I hit upon the right design (an angled four-sided box that sat atop a wooden platform). I still have one of the prototypes I made out of wood. I wrote the first version of the plans in a two-day marathon period, while I was teaching about Macs at the BCS's Summer Computer Institute (sort of a summer camp for adults wanting to learn Mac), stealing time wherever I could. And it's been pretty cool. I still get plenty of email from folks building their own. The charity auction record for a completed Macquarium stands at $1,000 (for a PBS pledge drive).

Tommy: That's definitely a cool story! Haven't tried it myself, but who knows, there's a first time for everything!

Andy: Indeed!

Tommy: You have a hysterical, off-the-wall, wacky writing style. Is it a natural thing, or does it consist of a regiment of practice, pullin' all nighters, and watching too many movies?

Andy: To answer your question: Carpet adhesive. I close the windows, open a can, breathe deeply, and then just write what the orange pixies tell me to write. Buuuut seriously, folks.

Tommy: LOL!

Andy: I hate to sound so boring, but the to-the-point answer is that I don't really sit down to write until I have a clear picture in my head of where I want to go and what I want to say, and I keep challenging myself to remove every cliché and every quick and easy way of doing something from my writing.

You can take that sort of thing way too far, of course . . . the terrible extreme is when you're so in love with seeming clever that nobody has any idea what the hell you're talking about. But the fact remains that "The Zune is difficult to use" isn't nearly as nice a phrase as "It was about as pleasant as having an airbag deploy in your face," so any time you take to find it is time well-spent.

Tommy: LOL!

Andy: And as any writer will tell you, most of the work you do is preparing the soil, so to speak, so that when you sit down to write, Good Things Will Happen.

Tommy: Amen.

Andy: Just the other day, I got my schedule a little screwed up . . . I thought an editor needed something at the end of the week when actually it was going to really help her out if she could get it on Monday. I knew the bare bones of what I wanted to write, but not specifically how I needed to go about it. And as soon as I figured out the first sentence, blang, it landed in the window easy as you please. But again, we come back to what I said earlier: My writing muscles are well-worked. Deadline pressure also works wonders. :-)

Tommy: Yep, I concur with you there. It gets the creative juices a-flowin'! As for the carpet adhesive - that would make for a great gag on The Simpsons, don't ya think?

Andy: I'm sure it did at some point. 18 seasons is a lotttttt of dead air to fill.

Tommy: Amen!

Tommy: Inspiration-wise, who influenced and inspired Andy Ihnatko most of all?

Andy: Douglas Adams, certainly, with a minor in Monty Python. When I read The Hitch-Hikers' Guide To The Galaxy, it really flipped that switch in my head. It proved that there really weren't any hard and fast rules about how to write something . . . so long as it's effective in the end. He showed me that writing could be fun.

I sat down and wrote a desperately derivative short story (my first ever, when not working under threats of teachers) shortly after reading Restaurant At The End Of The Universe. And I've been writing nearly every day, ever since.

Python, too, was a big influence; again, their greatest lesson is that there's nothing, nothing that you can't do, so long as you figure out a way to make it actually work. They were masters of that; they'd have one idea, and use it as the backbone for an entire show. Another idea, they'd (wisely) use as a quick five-second gag that disappears before the laughter ends.

What I learned later on was that Adams had been hugely influenced by PG Wodehouse, who stands as my absolutely favorite writer, ever. I'm in awe of his ability to hide every last scrap of hard work that obviously went into his short stories and novels. I insist that The Code Of The Woosters is one of the best novels ever written. It never gets its due, of course, because it's a comedy.

But the thing that I've come to appreciate is that you never stop acquiring influences. Every time I see a writer who can do something that I can't, I want to figure out how he or she did it. Whether it's a diarist from the 1700s or a blogger I just encountered last week. Never be satisfied with your own stuff, never be impressed by the last thing you did. Learning never ends.

Tommy: That's what I try to do with my writing. Learning lots from you as we speak! You are definitely one of my influences.

Andy: Heh! Then I change my answer: I was utterly disgusted by the pig's ear that had been made of English literature and set out to reinvent it for a new, bolder generation.

Tommy: LOL!

Due to your rock star status, have you ever been mobbed in public by crazed Mac fans asking for an autograph or wanting you to sign their MacBook?

Andy: I confess that I have autographed the bottoms of two women in my career. I have what I like to call "Phayme"" which is like actual Fame in the same way that "Cheez" is similar to Cheese. Close enough in many respects, but if you put it on a product package, you'll get sued.

Tommy: LOL

Andy: On the streets, o' course, it happens less frequently. But I'm occasionally flabbergasted. It's wonderful when I stop in a diner in Maine and out of the blue . . . "Hey, are you...?" But again, really, what I have couldn't really be called "fame". I have a few legitimately famous friends, and if I ever had any illusions about it, they were immediately corrected!

Suffice to say that even when I stop by the Apple Store to pick something up, I'm expecting that nobody will know who I am.

Tommy: What part of you screams "unique" - besides the hat and shades?

Andy: I dunno. The sideburns, probably. Alas, this isn't a costume. This is the way I actually dress.

Tommy: Rather snazzy I might add! I have a Tijuana side of me which includes a straw hat, the famous Piña Colada shirt, along with my own pair of shades.

Andy: A freak flag belongs in the air, not in a drawer.

Tommy: LOL

Tommy: Has fame gone to your head, out the window, or somewhere in between?

Andy: Oh, God, no. Again: It's "Phayme"" I think if I ever let fame get to my head, I'd quickly discover how little of it I actually have...! And ego doesn't help me get the next thing written.

Tommy: Tell me about the Colossal Waste of Bandwidth.

Andy: Bless you for bringing it up. CWOB.com has been my site since about 1995 or so; yes, I've been blogging for more than a decade now!

I started it up back when MacUser offered me a free site, hosted from their servers. It was a blast teaching myself HTML and stuff. I named it "the colossal waste of bandwidth" because I believe in truth in advertising. I would do things like upload the entire database file from my comic-book collection . . . utterly useless, and a thrilling abuse of the webspace that I had been given.

Tommy: Do you keep your adoring fans up-to-date on the latest in the the world of Ihnatko on CWOB.com?

Andy: Ideally, that's what I'd use it for . . . actually, I wish I could be a blogging demon like so many other folks. I manage to post six or seven things there a month, usually just synaptic misfirings. The problem is that I still use my own custom blogging software, and it makes it tough to go back in and make edits. I keep having to fix the HTML by hand when I finally spot grammatical errors and Dumb Ways To Have Said Something.

I still haven't even put up an announcement about my iPod book, and that came out in November! So at least people know I'm not just in this to pimp my product.

Tommy: Most annoying pains in the rump roast in regards to writing . . . yours would be?

...you always have those days when you just plain can't figure out what the first sentence ought to be.

Andy: Hard to articulate, but you always have those days when you just plain can't figure out what the first sentence ought to be. Nothing you write makes you happy.

Tommy: I've had those. Mental block, as it's affectionately known.

Andy: But I always make a baseball analogy. I imagine Ted Williams striking out and then stomping back to the dugout and kicking the hell out of the water cooler.

Tommy: LOL

Andy: You gotta do that, because you have to get ready for the next at-bat. And there will be another at-bat.

Tommy: Amen to that!

Andy: And "writers' block" is just an excuse. There's always something to be written. If Thing One isn't working, write Thing Two. I'm very, very fortunate in that I always have plenty of different projects going at once. If the newspaper column isn't working, I'll work on a magazine column. Or a book. Or a blog thing. Or any of a number of other things. Never any excuse for not writing. But remember what I said about kicking the water cooler. Gets the bad hoodoo out.

Tommy: There's plenty of hoodoo and poopoo to go around.

Are memoirs in your future? I can see it now: Ihnatko: My Life, The Macquarium Nightmares, and How I Lived Through the Insanity!

Andy: Heh. Only if I were allowed to make most of it up. Like the bits where I worked Mission Control during Apollo 17.

Tommy: Greatest achievements personally and professionally: What tops your list?

Andy: I suppose if I could pick one moment, it came years ago, when I had written the pre-show to the Apple keynote at Macworld Expo one year (this was before the Jobs years, of course). It was at the 5,000-seat Metropolitan Center here in Boston, and I acted as writer-director-producer. It was a funny game show . . . I even wrote a program that was distributed at the door.

The point is that after lots and lots of work, the show went on. I was standing at the back of the theater in that little cubicle where the sound guy and his board sit. I was wearing a headset in full Producer mode. I.e., with nothing to do, really, but listen to the crew and be on hand in case there were any problems. So for a whole hour, I listened to thousands of people laugh at my stuff. I was completely anonymous there, but the pride of seeing that everything I'd written was working was a big one.

Tommy: Wow!

Andy: On a less specific note, every time they let me keep writing for money, I'm terribly proud.

Another baseball thing: from Bull Durham, when the catcher gets traded so that a raw pitcher could get some experience. "What do I get?" he asks the manager. "You get to come back to the ballpark . . . and you get to keep getting paid to do it!" That's enough. I love the fact that every week and every month, I get to keep coming back to the ballpark.

Tommy: I'm sure all Mac fans out there are too! I know I am.

Your first experience with the Mac - tell me about it.

Andy: A little store called Unicom, near the movie theater. I'd read about the Mac in Softalk, the reigning Apple II mag, and when I was biking past after a movie and saw that they had one, I dragged my bike in.

I still remember how it felt to use the thing. The first time I ever used a mouse; the pointer seemed to move by telekinesis. The screen: This was the first monitor that was so sharp, the individual dots actually had corners. And it was crisp white on deep black. Even the floppy drive: that low whrrrrrrrrrr that would occasionally come up from time to time.

Tommy: Ahhhhh yes! Preach on!

Andy: Completely unlike anything else I'd ever used. The back of my neck was tingling, literally. You used it, and you wanted to keep using it. I was hooked; it was just plain right.

Tommy: My sentiments exactly!

Andy: You're at a disadvantage, though: you'll never understand how completely different the Mac was because (I'm guessing) you weren't into computers during that time in human history when Macs didn't exist. It really felt like the first time airplanes started appearing. I wasn't around for that one, but I can appreciate the sense of "Whoah..." You're like 22, right?

Tommy: Sadly, you're right on me not being into computers at that time, I was too busy being a 2 year old....

Andy: Exactly.

Tommy: I didn't use my first computer until the Apple IIe in 1987. My first home computer was an IBM PS/1 in 1993. I'm ashamed to admit this, but didn't even know what a Mac was until 1997. I'm 25.

Andy: No shame in that. The first computer that I actually bought myself was a PC/XT clone . . . for the simple reason that I could get it on clearance for $500 instead of the $2,500 that a Mac 512 would have cost me. And it was a swell machine.

Tommy: I had many a fun hour on that PS/1, which I still have. Played many hours of Earl Weaver Baseball on it, and thoroughly enjoyed After Dark!

Andy: Yup. Earlier generations, their childhood memories are attached to music, movies, cars . . . mine and yours are attached to computers and games.

Tommy: I learned to appreciate the Mac even more after many years of PCs and Windows. But I never forgot the memories of my childhood on PCs.

What about Apple made you go, "Way Cool!"?

Andy: Right with the Apple II+ my family had as a tot. It was like a Ford with a slant-six engine . . . you could monkey around with it all you wanted. I did my own repairs and eventually wrote my own OS for it. I never pwned a computer as much as I pwned that Apple.

I also liked that you knew about the people who created it. Nobody didn't know who Woz and Jobs were. You heard about Bert Kersey and Mark Pelczarsky . . . they didn't build the Apple II, but they wrote a lot of the best software for it.

Tommy: I remember the cluck-cluck-cluck of the floppy drive as it loaded the program. It was like being in the back seat of the car anxiously awaiting reaching your destination.

Andy: Yeah, that was a big help when cracking software. With practice, you could figure out what the drive heads were doing, and that'd show you where to go looking for the boot blocks.

Tommy: Through the successes and failures of Apple over the years, which stand out most to you?

Andy: Well, it's hard to choose a single failure out of the dozens of awful Macs that Apple made during the post-Sculley, pre-Jobs II era.

Apple had a reputation for not having the slightest clue what they were meant to be doing. And what made things worse was the fact that the Macs that they did make weren't very good. You sort of tensed yourself every time a new model came out. Would it be:

  1. A nice, fast processor inside an architecture that made it impossible to realize any of that speed?
  2. An okay machine, kneecapped by bad, cheap, stupid design and construction and destined for breakdowns? or
  3. A fairly decent Mac, but unbeknownst to the Mac community and even maybe its project manager, there's going to be another Mac released in two months that will completely outclass it at the exact same price?

It was a bad time. Truth be told, Apple was never close to self-destruction - when Jobs came back on, the Apple Doomsday Clock stood at four years or so - but it was a bad time to be a Mac user. Plenty of landmarks, though.

You really have to focus on the stuff that Changed Everything . . . the Apple II, the Mac 128, the year of the first iMacs (for God's sake, shortly thereafter, you could buy George Forman Grills in iMac colors!), the iPod.

Tommy: The future of Apple - your thoughts?

Andy: Definitely moving more in the direction of a general Consumer Electronics Company and away from its identity as a Computer Company.

Tommy: I agree.

Andy: It's more than just deleting the word "Computer" from its name. Services are going to become more and more important in the coming years.

The iPod truly was a powerful idea: It's the true trifecta. Apple gets to sell this bit of hardware; they get to control the software that you need to operate it; and (biggest) A + B means that you get to control this massive pipeline of commercial content into personal and home devices.

Sell music and movies, sure. Apple TV - sell TV subscriptions that download automatically. Make a more practical and transformative form of YouTube, where folks stop thinking about "video podcasts" and start simply thinking about TV shows that show up on the box connected to their HDTV.

This is why the theoretical Beatles deal is such a huge thing. The company that gets any sort of exclusive on Beatles material is like the army that carries the Ark of the Covenant before it: undefeatable.

The bad news might be that the Mac might become a support system for iTunes content, as far as Apple is concerned. So fingers crossed against that.

Tommy: On the same token, could we potentially see a sequel of the age old battle Microsoft vs. Apple? Could history repeat itself?

I'll put it a different way: Basically what I mean is, could we see another showdown between Apple and Microsoft, albeit in a different sector of technology or combined technologies?

Andy: I don't think it'll happen, because Microsoft and Apple are now two very different companies with two very different goals. At this stage, Apple can't really hope to become the dominant OS maker on the planet and MS can't hope to become the dominant maker of media players and media.

Tommy: So in other words, a stalemate?

Andy: Stalemate indicates two battling factions. This is the Boston Red Sox and the LA Lakers. They're playing completely different games. It's hard to imagine anything that Apple can do to bring down Microsoft's OS dominance. Which is fine, because that doesn't appear to be an Apple goal. Microsoft would love to get a piece of digital music . . . but they just don't have that power. At best, they need to contract with Viacom to build a music store and contract with Toshiba to build them a music player.

So instead, we have Apple, which would be happy to continue to build market share (which is always good for the health of the platform) but which is truly focused on creating the transistor radio of the 21st century. That device that's in every pocket and in every car and every home and office, which delivers the content that everybody relies on. With the added twist that Apple also wets its beak on the content, too.

And we have Microsoft, who will continue to attempt to leverage the popularity of Windows, hopefully by creating new Internet and desktop software standards that makes the OS more pertinent to folks' daily lives.

Don't discount Xbox 360, which is a true MS success story. But they need to have a far more ambitious and creative plan in place in order to really exploit those 10,000,000 boxes.

This is actually the start of a very vulnerable time for MS.

This is actually the start of a very vulnerable time for MS. Vista isn't getting the job done, and if the average consumer isn't considering Linux as an alternative, IT guys certainly are. And Linux is making huge leaps.

Tommy: Something tells me that Apple may not have to lift a finger to potentially dethrone MS. MS seems to be self-destructing.

Andy: Well, that might be going a bit far. But I can easily see their desktop market share dipping below 70% in the next few years, which would have been unfathomable a few years ago.

Tommy: What's in Andy's Swiss army knife of favorite commercial/shareware/freeware apps for Classic and OS X?

Andy: I can't really think off the top of my head.

Tommy: I say Microsoft, you think?

Andy: Big company, smart people, undermined by its structure.

If Microsoft made the Zune team into a Skunk Works sort of organization - "here you go . . . we've rented you a building on the other side of town, here's your budget, get back to us in a year with a player" - it could have been wonderful.

Like lots of MS products, though, it seems like the design went up and down the bureaucracy way too many times.

Tommy: Microsoft past and present. Your thoughts?

Andy: It's like Saturday Night Live. It's just not an environment in which innovation and exciting things can flourish. It's a company that could have come up with Spotlight and Automator first, but it just takes too long for the right people to convince the right people that it's the right idea.

Tommy: Breaking down any doors to get your hands on Vista?

Andy: I've had it since September or late August. Not a bad little OS.

Tommy: I played with it a little at Walmart. Not too shabby.

Microsoft = Innovation, truth or myth?

Andy: Hard to see it in their products, but a lot of that is because they don't seem to have the guts to really see things through. Every year, there's a CES keynote in which MS shows off potentially neat stuff that they intend to sell. And then you never hear about these things again . . . or they're released, and after they fail to completely set the world on fire in the first three months, MS stops promoting them.

Tommy: Will poopoo Zune's make a fashion statement in the upcoming years?

Andy: Zune? What's that?

Tommy: ;-)

Andy: Which is sort of the point. When I wrote that it'll be dead in six months, I didn't mean that they wouldn't be available for sale anywhere. I meant that MS would do what they always do: They'll forget that this product exists.

Tommy: I believe that myself. I think it was another one of their misguided pet projects.

Andy: Not misguided at all; there's plenty of room for a true iPod alternative.

If MS had made something like the iPhone - only without the phone features - I mean, holy cats. But you don't do it by making something that costs as much as an iPod without its conveniences.

Tommy: Exactly.

Tommy: If Microsoft offered to hire you as a technology consultant, what would your response be?

Andy: I'd have to say no, because it'd be an obvious breach of journalistic ethics.

But if they offered to pay me so much that my retirement fund would be fully vested in five years, and they convinced me that I'd actually have some power to get things done . . . well, that'd be interesting. But I don't think either thing would happen.

Tommy: Which Mac in particular graces the home of Ihnatko?

Andy: I have a bunch, of course. But the most important one is my 1.25 GHz 15" PowerBook Aluminum. It's the one that I do all of my writing on and all of my personal stuff on. A.k.a., "the one thing I grab if there's a fire."

Tommy: I hear ya there!

Tommy: Is there a particular cause you champion?

Andy: Give blood.

Someone you love is alive today because someone like you endured 1/5 of a second of discomfort and 20 minutes of lying down.

Tommy: I wholeheartedly agree with you!

Tommy: When you think back on all of Macdom, what's your all-time favorite Mac?

15-inch iMac G4Andy: Probably the second iMac design, where the screen hovered on a steel arm. Brilliant design. The screen was exactly where you wanted it to be, in every possible situation. Nothin' like it.

Tommy: Love the hat on your Colossal Waste of Bandwidth. Where could one obtain that along with an autographed photo?

Andy: I think my sister has that one. As for autographed photo, I think I've only done three or four of those. It was on a Geek Cruise last year . . . the ship takes these formal portraits and I had a bit of fun with mine. Some of the folks in the group paid $20 for their own copies and had me sign 'em.

Tommy: Cool.

Andy: I felt like Erik Estrada or something (circa 1980, when he was still hot).

Tommy: LOL :-D

Tommy: In your infinite wisdom, would you care to share it with today's youth no matter what they aspire to be?

Humility and compassion are the two tools that will help you the most.

Andy: Humility and compassion are the two tools that will help you the most. The more willing you are to ask yourself, "What if my way of thinking and my understanding of the world isn't the only way?" and "What does the world look like through other people's eyes and experiences?", the less the world will frustrate and surprise you.

Tommy: Well Andy, you are definitely full of humility and compassion.

I thoroughly enjoyed interviewing Andy. He's quite a character. Let me know what you thought of my interview with Andy at thomas (at) lowendmac (dot) com. I'd love to hear from you!

Stay tuned for the next Welcome to Macintosh.... LEM

Go to the Welcome to Macintosh Interviews index.


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