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How to Animate Your Dragon

DreamWorks Animation reboots its software platform for the future
A DreamWorks artist works on How to Train Your Dragon 2 using Premo

A DreamWorks Animation artist works on How to Train Your Dragon 2 using Premo

Mr. Peabody and Sherman, the computer-animated movie which DreamWorks Animation released in March is–of course–the tale of a dog and a boy who go traveling back in time. So in a way, it’s appropriate that the proprietary software which the studio used to animate it, Emo, had a lot of history behind it.

Emo’s origins go back to the 1980s, an era in which computer graphics were very different than they are today, and DreamWorks didn’t even exist. It was created by Pacific Data Images, the company which, like Pixar, helped to pioneer the whole idea of digitally-generated entertainment. (PDI is now part of DreamWorks Animation.)

The next DreamWorks Animation feature after Peabody, How to Train Your Dragon 2, premiered last month. It’s the first movie which was produced using the studio’s new platform, Apollo, which includes a new animation system called Premo.

Apollo is one giant leap for DreamWorks; during a recent event at its studio in Redwood City, Calif., the company gave me and other journalists a behind-the-scenes show-and-tell.

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The Unbelievably Epic Quest to Restore Your Faith in Humanity

...or, barring that, to at least get you to click on a headline.

Restore Your Faith

First a disclaimer: I never lost my own personal faith in humanity, and therefore don’t need to have it restored. Generally speaking, it bumps along at about the same cautiously optimistic level, regardless of what I’ve recently read online.

I am, however, fascinated by the fact that so many articles published over the last couple of years have introduced themselves to prospective readers by declaring their power to restore lost faith in humanity.

Whether a site is offering up a tale about kids returning a lost iPhone or an ad for life insurance from Thailand or drawings of superheroes punching Hitler, it’s not the least bit startling when it declares that the item in question will restore your faith in humanity. Without trying very hard, I’ve collected dozens of examples at a Pinterest board, which–just to encourage people to click–I’m calling “This Pinterest Board Will Restore Your Faith in Humanity.”

Pinterest

Journalists, of course, have always written headlines which attempt to yank you by the lapels and shove you into their work, as Annalee Newitz of io9 points out in her recent history of clickbait. (She begins it in 1888, and rightly considers yellow journalism to have been an early instance of the form.) But the potential upside of that instinct grew far more powerful just a few years ago, when social networks such as Facebook and Twitter became major sources of traffic to online content sites.

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The Ghostbusters Polaroids

Four instant pieces of movie-making history

Ghostbusters logoAny interesting photograph is more interesting still–or at least far more evocative of a particular era–if it happens to be a Polaroid.

That’s my deeply-held belief, anyhow–which is why I’ve blogged in the past about Polaroid images of John F. Kennedy and the Apple-1 computer. (I also told the story of Polaroid’s SX-70 camera in the longest article I’ve ever written about anything.)

And now my Facebook friend Michael Gross–who made the world a much better place as the art director of National Lampoon in its golden age and then as a movie producer–has used his feed to share some vintage Polaroids taken on the set of Ghostbusters, on which he worked as an associate producer. (Among other things, he contributed the movie’s unforgettable logo.)

Michael was nice enough to let me borrow his Facebook photo of the Polaroid photos, which show stars Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Rick Moranis, and Ernie Hudson. Here they are:

Ghostbusters Polaroids

All four snapshots are great, but the one of Murray–well, it may be one of the best photos of Bill Murray I’ve ever seen. Which is saying a lot.

Ghostbusters was released thirty years ago last Sunday; back when it was made, a Polaroid camera was an utterly indispensable tool for moviemakers who needed to document their work as it was going on. (Michael says these particular pictures were continuity shots for the wardrobe department.) Even if many of them didn’t get saved, there must be an awful lot of Hollywood Polaroids which survive. Wouldn’t they make an incredible coffee-table book?


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Where Have You Gone, Peter Norton?

The man who made PC utilities famous--and vice versa

Recently on Facebook, my friend, nerd extraordinaire Esther Schindler, shared a photograph of herself wearing an old T-shirt and challenged her followers to identify it:

Esther Schindler

Either you have no idea what that image means, or you know exactly what it is.

It’s the torso, rolled-up sleeves and folded arms of Peter Norton, the man who was once synonymous with PC utility software, on a vintage shirt produced to promote one of his products. I found seeing him again–even without his own head–to be a surprisingly Proustian experience.

Norton was a mainframe and minicomputer programmer who bought an IBM PC soon after its 1981 release and published an enormously successful suite of software tools, the Norton Utilities, in 1982. Its killer app: UnErase, which could recover lost files back before trashcan-style deletion let you change your mind after getting rid of a file.

Norton’s empire grew to include multiple software products, articles (including a long-running PC Magazine column), and books. He was everywhere that PCs were. And then, in 1990, he sold Peter Norton Computing to Symantec, which made the Norton line of software even more successful.

After the sale, Peter Norton himself retained a high profile as a living symbol of PC maintenance; his personal brand was so powerful that it transcended his actual involvement in products which bore his name. (In the 1990s, a friend of mine wrote a book with Norton: By then, I gathered, writing a book with Peter Norton involved…well, pretty much writing a book.)

And all along, that image of a thoughtful-looking computer nerd with crossed arms was instantly recognizable. Here it is in an early incarnation, on a best-selling 1985 tome which Wikipedia informs me was known as the “pink shirt book.”

Peter Norton

Both the formality of the necktie and the rolled-up sleeves of the classic Norton pose are meaningful. He was a pro, but he was also ready to get to work on whatever ailed your computer.

Here, on a Norton manual cover, is the folded-arm Norton as he’s remained burned into my brain all these years. (I’d forgotten that he didn’t wear glasses all along, at least when posing for photographs: Once he did, it added to his authoritative air.)

image

And here, in an image which I find vaguely unsettling, is a folded-arm, pink-shirt Norton in a very early (1991) ad for Norton AntiVirus, which eventually became the best-known Norton-branded product:

Peter Norton

Esther, who seems to have done a better job of holding onto interesting computer-industry tchotchkes than I have, still has her Peter Norton Mug:

Peter Norton Mug

As the image below, which I borrowed from this blog post, shows, cross-armed Norton was not only iconic, but also a computer icon. (Don’t hold me to this, but I could swear that at least one version of the Norton Utilities sported an interface featuring an animated version of Peter.)

Peter Norton

I started using MS-DOS PCs on a regular basis in 1991, and that’s when I became a user of Norton software. I was particularly fond of Disk Doctor, which repaired corrupted hard drives; and Disk Editor,  which let you view and edit the data on your disk byte-by-byte. I used both of them more than once to recover from disaster, back when hard disks crashed a lot more often than they do today. I also swore by NCACHE and Speed Disk, two utilities which were superior to their Microsoft equivalents.

No disrespect meant to later, Windows-based Norton products–they’ve rescued my computer on more than one occasion–but for me, the golden age of Peter Norton’s software was when it was mostly DOS-based, lightning fast, and let you dig deeply into your computer. When Norton software switched to Windows, along with the entire utility industry, it got more bloated and tended to go after a larger, more consumery, less nerdy audience. It had less to do with the programs which Peter Norton himself had begun writing in the early 1980s. It felt less real.

Still, even in the Windows age, the crossed-arm Norton was so famous that I remembered it as appearing on all his software products and books.

Not so. Poking around the Web, I found images of him just sort of standing there (in a pink shirt), leaning on computers, hanging out with co-authors, brandishing toolboxes and hourglasses, wearing a stethoscope, and performing magic tricks with gears. And, on one particularly entertaining package, garbed in a garage-style uniform with a “Peter” label, working on a humongous floppy disk jacked up in the air.

Norton Boxes

That bottom row shows boxes dating from the turn of the century, when Symantec doubled down on Peter Norton imagery–right before it permanently removed the man altogether from product packaging in 2001. It was the end of an era, even though I’m not sure if anyone noticed at the time.

Why did Norton products no longer carry pictures of their founder? I don’t know. Maybe Symantec did extensive market testing before it made the move; maybe not.

But these later-era packages, with photos of happy, confident computer users rather than a problem-solving computer geek, hint at the company’s thinking.

Norton

I don’t care what the rationale was: Depicting someone other than Peter Norton on a Norton box was like Planters decorating a can of nuts with an anthropomorphic legume who wasn’t Mr. Peanut.

Today, Norton is probably still the best-known name in utility software; it’s even used on products for iOS and Android. But Symantec has completely disassociated the brand from Peter. Just as nobody remembers anything about Duncan Hines other than that he licensed his name to a cake-mix company, it’s possible–maybe even dead certain–that most people who use Norton products don’t have a clue who Peter Norton is.

Here’s the current Norton Utilities package, which seems particularly interested in reminding us that Symantec is the company behind Norton:

Norton Utiltiies

I’m glad that the Norton Utilities still exist–they even include modern versions of some of the programs I once loved, such as Disk Doctor. But so much has changed about PCs that it’s tough to remember how essential early versions of the package were. Creating a really good data-recovery program is not the road to fame and riches that it was in the 1980s.

Of course, an awful lot of people who buy Norton products these days never see a box at all. Shrinkwrapped software of the sort which once brought Peter Norton glory is largely a thing of the past; Symantec has migrated much of its line to a downloadable, subscription-based model.

Bottom line: If there’s a young Peter Norton out there today, he’s not going to become famous by appearing on utility-software boxes sold in retail stores.

As for Peter Norton himself, he may have been synonymous with PC utilities, but they weren’t his sole obsession. After selling Peter Norton Computing to Symantec, he went on to spend a sizable chunk of his loot on philanthropy and collecting modern art, two entirely admirable pursuits. I met him a few years ago when we were on a panel together, had a pleasant chat, and got the sense that he was perfectly happy not to be the guy on the software box anymore.

And yes, meeting Peter Norton did feel a little like encountering Betty Crocker or Mr. Clean in person. I hope I had the presence of mind to thank him for all the times he saved my bacon…


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A Decade’s Worth of WWDC Keynotes

...and why they're the most misunderstood Apple events of all

WWDC 2014Once a year, Apple kicks off its World Wide Developer Conference with a keynote presentation, such as the one coming up on Monday, which I’ll be covering for Technologizer. Many people seem to think they’re famous for involving Apple dazzling consumers with an array of new products, to the rapturous approval of everybody involved.

Which is weird, because that’s not the point at all.

Sure, consumers are watching, and Apple hopes that they’re dazzled. But WWDC keynotes are usually the least gadget-centric events which Apple holds, and even though people who covet new Apple products pay close attention, they’re not the primary audience.

Here’s the truth about WWDC keynotes:

  • The fact that they’re part of a conference devoted to informing developers about Apple’s platforms means that the emphasis will be on software–particularly operating systems–and the odds of a radically new hardware product being announced are just about nil;
  • Since epoch-shifting hardware is out of the picture, any devices which do get announced are, by definition, only incrementally superior to their predecessors;
  • No matter how newsy the keynote is, some people–especially ones who were hoping for something extremely specific which didn’t get announced–will deem it a snoozefest;
  • There’s a very good chance that Apple’s stock will fall in the wake of the keynote, presumably indicating that Wall Steeet was not instantly impressed.

Now, I’m a WWDC keynote fan myself–there’s nothing more important to hardware than the software which it runs, so the focus on operating systems and apps makes these events more interesting to me, not less so. But as we gird ourselves for Monday, it might help to calibrate expectations if we review the last ten years of WWDC keynotes.

So without any further ado…

2004

WWDC 2005Keynote date: June 28; full video here

Major news: OS X 10.4 Tiger, iTunes 4.9, new Cinema Displays

Snap judgment:A totally boring keynote. A few interesting items in Tiger — but otherwise, Apple continues to disappoint in 2004.”–Macrumors forum member Numediaman

Impact on Apple stock price: Down .03 to $16.25

2005

WWDC 2005Keynote date: June 6; full video here

Major news: An unusual WWDC which focused–after the opening stats and updates–on one gigantic piece of news, the Mac’s move from PowerPC processors to Intel ones

Snap judgment: “We believe the move is risky for Apple. By switching to a more mass market processor, Apple likely risks diluting its value proposition as it has less control over the product road map.”–Prudential Equity Group analyst Steven Fortuna

Impact on Apple stock price: Down .84 percent to $37.95

2006

WWDC 2006Keynote date: August 7; full video here

Major news: Introduction of the Mac Pro desktop; preview of OS X 10.5 Leopard

Snap judgment:The sneak preview of Leopard was underwhelming. For what seemed an interminable time, Jobs and Co. showed off one yawn after another. There’s no way I can get excited about virtual desktops or a new service that turns highlighted text into a “to do” item. Oooo.”–Leander Kahney, Wired

Impact on Apple stock price: Down 3.6 percent to $64.78

2007

WWDC 2007Keynote date: June 11; full video here

Major news: Web “apps” for the iPhone (which didn’t yet offer true third-party apps); further preview of Leopard, which was being delayed; Safari browser for Windows

Snap judgment:Unless you’re particularly into games or operating system software, today’s WWDC announcements were probably a bit of a snooze-fest. I don’t know about you, but I’m a hardware guy. Hardware is tangible, tactile and there’s an emotional component to hardware that I don’t get from software – but that’s me.”–Jason D. O’Grady, ZDNet

Impact on Apple stock price: Up .16 percent to $120.38

2008

WWDC 2008Keynote date: June 9; full video here

Major news: iPhone 3G; OS 10.6 Snow Leopard; MobileMe service; more details on the iPhone OS SDK and App Store, which had been announced at an event in March

Snap judgment:If you expected startling news to come out of Monday’s keynote for Apple’s World-Wide Developers Conference (WWDC)–headlined, of course, by Steve Jobs–you went away unstartled and disappointed.”–Harry McCracken (hey, that’s me!), PC World

Impact on Apple stock price: Up 2.2 percent to $185.64

2009

WWDC 2009Keynote date: June 8; full video here

Major news: iPhone 3GS; demos of iPhone OS 3.0 and Snow Leopard, which had already been shown; new 13″ MacBook Pro

Snap judgment:Wow, there’s two hours of my life that I won’t get back anytime soon. Today’s epic bore of a keynote address at the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference signals the problem that Steve Jobs has created as the designated showman/face of Apple. Jobs’ rampant control issues and megalomania are so acute that everyone else who works for him sounds like they’ve never had to address the family dinner table, much less the assembled throng of thousands of Apple developers and the untold millions of fanboys refreshing liveblogs around the world.”–David Lidsky (commenting on a keynote hosted by Phil Schiller during Steve Jobs’s medical leave), Fast Company

Impact on Apple stock price: Down .79 percent to $142.72

2010

WWDC 2010Keynote date: June 7; full video here

Major news: iPhone 4 (the model whose thunder Gizmodo had stolen in April) ; iPhone OS being renamed iOS; FaceTime; iMovie for iOS

Snap judgment:But despite all of [Steve Jobs’] showmanship and a very impressive new product, the keynote wasn’t quite the game changer that I expected. I don’t mean to say I found the iPhone 4 to be disappointing — it will be incredibly successful, and many of my friends are champing at the bit to get one. But I expected to walk out of San Francisco’s Moscone Center yesterday longing for the next iPhone despite my current allegiance to Android. That didn’t happen.”–Jason Kincaid of TechCrunch, giving the closest thing I could find to a negative spin on a keynote that was unusually well received

Impact on Apple stock price: Down .64 percent to $249.33

2011

WWDC 2011Keynote date: June 6; full video here

Major news: iOS 5; OS X 10.7 Lion; iCloud

Snap judgment:Probably spoiled by Apple’s way of bringing new and innovative ideas to the table each year, I was hoping for something revolutionary, something that would rock my iOS-loving, iPhone-hugging world. Sadly all I saw were minor changes, most of which were already available one way or another.”–Johnny, GSMArena

Impact on Apple stock price: Down 1.8 percent to $332.04

2012

WWDC 2012Keynote date: June 11; full video here

Major news: iOS 6; OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion; 15″ MacBook Pro with Retina display; MacBook Airs with new processors

Snap judgment: “Maybe Steve Jobs set the innovation bar too high, but Apple users have become accustomed to stunning new product announcements and introductions. That didn’t happen at WWDC12. Instead, business users were treated to a nicely redesigned MacBook Pro and promises of great new products (Mountain Lion and iOS 6) to come.”–Erik Eckel, TechRepublic

Impact on Apple stock price: Up .87 percent to $576.16

2013

WWDC 2013Keynote date: June 10; full video here

Major news: iOS 7; iOS 10.9 Mavericks; preview of all-new Mac Pro; updated MacBook Airs; iTunes Radio

Snap judgment: “To be direct, Apple had a shot at regaining its ‘mojo’ just by announcing the next amazing new product to come down the road today. Hopes of an iWatch, iTV, and a low-priced iPhone for the emerging markets, were dashed in one unimpressive display of face lifting, rather than innovation.”–Regarded Solutions, Seeking Alpha

Impact on Apple stock price: Down .29 percent to $437.60

With all of the above in mind, here are my official WWDC 2014 predictions:

  • Apple is going to focus on software;
  • Some people will complain about the fact that Apple focused on hardware, and criticize it for not unveiling something like an iWatch;
  • Whatever Apple does announce won’t result in a massive run-up on its stock.

And those are the only predictions I’m making. See you on Monday: I’m going to live-tweet the event as it happens, and then follow up here with further thoughts after it’s over and all is known.


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7 Things I Learned From Building My First Desktop PC

My mission to buy a desktop PC started out simple: I wanted a powerful work computer with support for three monitors. Getting a PC within my budget seemed reasonable.

But then, temptation set in. With a slightly better processor and graphics card, this desktop could play the latest video games. And with a solid state drive instead of hard disk storage, everyday work performance would be breezier. Of course, boosting those specs at any configure-your-own PC site made the final price skyrocket. After days of searching for a powerhouse PC under $1,000, I admitted the truth to myself: If I wanted it, I’d have to build it.

Today, I write to you from my homemade, high-powered rig, built last Thursday. It has a 3.3 GHz Intel Core i5 2500K processor, an AMD Radeon 6870 graphics card, 8 GB of RAM, a 120GB solid state drive and a basic DVD burner. The total cost, after taxes and rebates, was about $920. (I got parts from MicroCenter, an electronics retailer, which meant paying sales taxes but getting everything immediately.)

Building my first desktop PC wasn’t just a means to an end, it was also a learning experience. If you’ve ever thought of building your own PC, here are some things to consider.

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Air Apparents! Ultrabooks and Other Slimmed-Down Windows PCs

For the longest time, Apple laptops lived in their own world of stylish design, while PC makers remained steadfast in their focus on beefier specs for lower prices. I remember looking two years ago for a Windows PC that aped Apple’s style–awesome keyboard, smooth trackpad, sturdy aluminum build, decent specs–and being disappointed that such a computer simply didn’t exist.

How things have changed. Apple’s revamped MacBook Air became a runaway hit while the rest of the PC market stagnated, and suddenly every computer maker wants to make thinner, lighter and prettier products. Intel calls these creations “Ultrabooks,” and provided PC makers with strict criteria for weight, thickness, battery life, processor power and pricing to qualify for the marketing jargon. This new wave of notebooks run the latest Intel Core processors, cost around $1,000, and go toe-to-toe with the MacBook Air in physical measurements.

Over the next few months, a bevy of these machines will strut their stuff for laptop shoppers. Here’s what we know about every Ultrabook or similar product that’s on the market or on the way.

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How To: Record, Publish, and Manage “A Video a Day” of Your Child (Part II of II)

David Spark (@dspark) is a veteran tech journalist and the founder of the media consulting and production company Spark Media Solutions.  Spark blogs regularly at Spark Minute.

This article is Part II of a two-part series about how to record, encode, store, organize, and share via online and DVD a video of each day of your child’s life. The first part, over at Spark Minute, covers the basics of doing the recording and storing the video. This article covers the second part, which is the daunting process of organizing and sharing the videos.

A year ago I decided to take on a seemingly gargantuan task.

I began shooting a video of my son every single day of the first year of his life. As of today I’ve shot (with the help of my wife), produced, shared online, and printed on DVD over 400 one-minute videos (some days I produce more than one video).

When I tell people I’m doing this they can’t believe it, because they immediately think of how much work it must involve. But in actuality, given the tools we have, the cost of disk space, and just some good pre-planning and organizing (the most critical parts), it’s really not that difficult. You just have to commit to it, and do it. The trick is to not make it too difficult on yourself, so you can do it easily without it being a burden. If it’s too hard, you’ll just give up.

No matter how busy you are, there is a way to record  a video every day of your child’s life, and manage all that video. Just think how amazing it would be if your parents had recorded a video a day of you (heck, a video a year). Wouldn’t that be incredible? I’m hoping it’ll be the same for my son.

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My Mom Reviews the iPad, Her First Computer

I’ve often wondered why people who use their PCs for basic stuff–like checking e-mail and browsing the Web — are required to buy hardware that’s far more powerful than what they really require. With that power comes the complexity of operating systems preloaded with applications and utilities that many people will never use, making PCs unapproachable for people who aren’t tech savvy.

That’s all changing–first, with the introduction of netbooks, and now even more so with the iPad. Apple’s tablet brings appliance-like simplicity to light computing needs, and brought my mother, who is in her early 60s and had never used a computer before, onto the Web. I’ve documented her fresh perspective on the iPad in this interview.

–David Worthington

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Confessions of an Operating-System Agnostic

[NOTE: Here’s a story from our most recent Technologizer’s T-Week newsletter–go here to sign up to receive it each Friday. You’ll get original stuff that won’t show up on the site until later, if at all.]

Whenever I write about the pros and cons of Windows PCs and Macs–as I did recently for TIME.com–I make at least brief mention of the fact that I’m a happy user of both. But I’m not sure if I’ve ever outlined just why I buy and use both flavors of computer rather than settling on one or the other. Here are some quick thoughts on that subject.

First, a review of my life as a user of operating systems might be in order. For most of it, I was a single-OS user–sometimes ardently so…

1978-1982: I was a Radio Shack TRS-80 snob (thinking back, that sounds like an oxymoron, but trust me–I was one).

1982-1984 or thereabouts: I had and liked an Atari 400, but I don’t recall being passionate about it. I also backslid and did a fair percentage of my college work on…typewriters.

1984-1986: I went through an odd period during which I temporarily lost interest in computers, except for word processing.

1987-1991: I dabbled on a borrowed Mac, but I also bought a Commodore Amiga and became a–I try to avoid this word, but it’s the only one that fits–fanboy.

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