The ubiquitous David Pogue, author of the Missing Manual series and tech columnist for The New York Times, talks with podcast host Steve Mirsky (pictured) aboard a cruise ship in the Atlantic during MacMania, produced by insightcruises.com. Plus, we'll test your knowledge of some recent science in the news.
Welcome to Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American, hosted on May 10th, 2010. I'm Steve Mirsky. I've just returned from MacMania, a weeklong series of lectures about Apple products that took place aboard a cruise ship that sailed from New York City to Bermuda and back. One of the lecturers was the ubiquitous David Pogue, author of [the] many Missing Manuals and tech columnist for The New York Times. We talked on May 8th in my cabin on the Holland America Ship the Veendam, somewhere in the Atlantic.
Steve: For anybody who is unfamiliar with you—[well,] they can['t] possibly be listening to this podcast [because they wouldn't] have the technology—±but tell us how many Missing Manuals have there been already and how do you write a Missing Manual? One would think you would have to be one of the creators of the piece of equipment or the software to write the manual, so how do you get in there and, you know, back engineer things?
Pogue: Yeah, so I started this series in 1999 and now there are something like 130 titles, and I didn't write all of them. A few years ago I sold the whole thing to the company who is doing the publishing, to O'Reilly, because they wanted to step up the number of subjects [and] I couldn't do [it] on my own. At one point I was doing 11 a year, you know, it [was] killing me. So I do maybe half of them, maybe even less now. I think I have personally written maybe 40 or something like that. And it's funny about the Missing Manuals because, of course, they eliminated manuals in the first place to save a buck, [a] buck a box, that's what the book would cost the[m]. And their stud[ies] showed, the software company's studies show[ed], that people aren't reading manuals anyway, so it's just a wasted dollar, as far as they're concerned. So now I have literally have heard [from] inside software companies that [when they] sit [down] to decide whether [or] not to do a manual for their software products, someone will inevitably say, "You know what Pogue will do one; let's just leave it out." So how do I do it, well it's just a lot of clicking and pointing, [you know] I read what online help they gave me. I read whatever they're saying online, I [troll] the chat room, the chat boards. You know one of the hallmarks of these books are tips and tricks, and so there's, when I find something like that it really sets me off, and for that you really just got to hang out online. I mean a lot of this information is available from other sources; you can find [most of] this stuff online, just the way I do. I think the [service] that I bring is being the curator of it, like presenting it in a funny, logical, authoritative way, so as not to waste your time. And that's one of the dumbest criticism[s] computer books get on the Amazon reviews is like, "All this information is online". Well fine, you can spend 12 hours trying to find it that way or you can get it [in] one concise [am]using nugget in a well-done book, so that's why they came to be.
Steve: And again you have done about 40 of them personally at this point. And you're still cranking one out, you write one, about every couple of months then.
Pogue: That's right I am keeping three of them alive that I personally do that's Windows, iPhone and Mac OS 10, you know probably keep those alive for years, because frankly those are the cash cows, and then there are some others that I sort of edit am the Godfather of, [but] three big ones a year.
Steve: And other things you have going: You've got the CNBC the CBS Sunday Morning, the Times column of course.
Pogue: The video with CNBC appears every Thursday at about 1:40 pm and then a few people see that but then they go on to the Web and that's where people really see them, so it's on iTunes and YouTube and jetBlue. More people recognize me from JetBlue than from any other source like.
Steve: You're the guy from the seatback in front of me.
Pogue: Exactly. One guy [corralled] me at a conference in California and [he's like]: "You!" And I go, "What'd I do?" And he goes, "The jetBlue flight was stuck on channel one and I had to look at your mug for six hours!"
Steve: That's hilarious.
Pogue: [It was] hilarious, so that. And I write and direct and cast and produce those. CNBC sends a cameraman and a producer every Tuesday up to my house in Connecticut and we shoot the thing and then they edit it and produce it, and they do just a better and better job every year goes by. You know humor is not typically CNBC['s] [strong] suit, you know, they are [a] financial news network, but they really have sort of started to get these things and [they] do a great job. And then the Times column is every Thursday, [so] I usually turn that column in on Monday. And there's another Times column that goes out by e-mail on a different subject and that goes out on Thursday also; I usually write that Wednesday. And then I do about 40 or 50 speaking engagements a year, and that goes on constantly. And then, you know, now I am absolutely dying because I am hosting this four-hour PBS Nova miniseries which is going to air [in] November. It's four one-hour episodes, and it's a huge grant from the National Science Foundation to underwrite this thing and so the[y']re [sparing] no expense, We're literally jetting all over the world to report on this subject, which is materials science, a very cool, blossoming area of science that gets no love. But I mean people don't even know what's happening, but it's 110 days of filming this thing. It's [an] unbelievable amount of work and travel; but just so, so , so cool and trying to make it as Nova does, they're trying to make it very visual and exciting to watch and make the science come alive. So they had me hang glide, they had me ride in a demolition [derby] race—in the car which of course are like 1970s automobiles with no seat belts—they had me land on a nuclear aircraft carrier during Navy training exercises; I swam with sharks 45 feet down and actually handled, one because we're doing a segment on manmade materials based on shark skin. [I milked a goat]—this one is unbelievable—there is a guy in Wyoming who has bred transgenic goats that give spider-silk milk and the reason is the spider silk by weight is five times as strong as steel; so, man [if they] could make bridges and cables out of this, they would last a lot longer and be a lot tougher, but the spiders are really, really slow. So this guy figured, if I can get goats to give those proteins in their milk [and] have whole herds of them and we could make this stuff a last faster. So he's really doing it, and we [made] spider silk. I milked the goat, and then he ran it through a chemical process and [it] came out the other side as thread and really, really tough stuff. And the goats have no clue, they're just goats.
Steve: Basically you just take the gene for the silk protein and you insert it into the goat genome and then they start making it and then one of the ways to get [it] out of the goat is through the milk. You can probably get it from other cells as well but the milk is really convenient.
Pogue: That's true. I think he was also talking about breeding some plants to give this the protein too. I forgot which one [it] was/ But the goats make better of television.
Steve: Right, they're very [telegenic].
Pogue: And transgenic.
Steve: And transgenic. And so that's going to air in November.
Pogue: It's called Making Stuff and there [are] four episodes: "Making Stuff Stronger", "Making Stuff Cleaner", "Making Stuff Smaller" and "Making Stuff Smarter", which is about, like, self-healing materials and smart materials that respond to their environment. So there are materials that react to [electricity,] to heat, to color, even to smell, so really wild stuff.
Steve: And you're welcome to the family, you're actually working for Scientific American as well.
Pogue: Indeed I am, just starting a column that will bring little consumer tech to those pages.
Steve: Which many of us at the magazine could really use, because I know that a lot of us actually do buy the Missing Manuals. So we can figure out how to work the stuff that we have in the office and at home.
Pogue: Right, I thank you on behalf of the college [fund]. [That's] very generous.
Steve: You['re] [talking] about [your] three kids.
Pogue: Yes, exactly.
Steve: So, I think people are likely interested in your background, which is a little bit unusual for somebody who has wound up where you wound up. You have a Broadway theater background.
Pogue: That's correct. I spent 10 years conducting shows, conducting musicals and arranging them and playing the piano and teaching voice lessons. Yeah, I was in music theater; from the time I was a kid I wrote musicals for the local church groups and for the local schools and in college I wrote a musical every year and that was always my ambition—to write shows, so.
Steve: Some of the shows that, some of the Broadway shows, people might actually have seen.
Pogue: Very unlikely.
Steve: Not that quick.
Pogue: Mostly, most of mine were gigantic flops. I worked on Carrie, which was at that time the most expensive music[al] in history, [cost] 10 million bucks, based on the Stephen King novel, and it closed in one night. I worked for three years on a Cy Coleman show called Welcome to the Club. Cy Coleman had had seven consecutive Broadway hits, you know, City of Angels and Sweet Charity, and this one lasted six nights. I worked as an assistant on Kiss of the Spider Woman, that one people might [have heard] of. So, but even [then] I worked on the out-of town tryout which is a flop, and they took it and [retooled] for two years and brought it back and it was a big hit. But I like to think that it wasn't because I was involved that these were all flops, but there is that possibility.
Steve: Is there anything specific I mean, or a generality [is] always, between fields, that you can point to and something you'd learn from one thing and you can apply somewhere else; but can you think of anything specific that you got from your years of music and from orchestration and conducting that actually now come into play with what you do? I mean there's the performance aspect, obviously.
Pogue: Right, right, absolutely that's an incredible question. I think there [are] so many computer people who are also musicians and so many doctors who are musicians and so many scientists who are also musicians, and I think it's not an accident. I think it's because both of these disciplines are, if you really think about it, sort of creative but very rule based. So there's this set of unchanged rules about rhythm and harmony and what works together in music, and yet music is considered very creative. And the same thing with tech work, programming or software, web design, whatever you want, or in medicine there's some very strict rules and yet you're free to operate within them in a creative way. So I think they, sort of, have those similarities. And in terms of my own career, [I don't want to sound self-aggrandizing,] but people are always surprised to know how collaborative I am. You know, I am not just the solo [columnist] in an attic. And I thrive on these TV jobs for example because it's a so much fun to work on something together, [and] that's because I miss the theater so much. The two careers are 100 percent [complementary] right, so writing is incredibly solitary but you have a 100 percent control; and then you know theater is very social, very collaborative, but you [have] very little control. It's all, you know, the group pulling together. And so I really sort of miss the theater and that's what TV is doing for me now.
Steve: [Position] or momentum but not both.
Pogue: That's right.
Steve: [The Heisenberg uncertainty] principle of life.
Pogue: Well put.
Steve: What has surprised you as, for example: Twitter—has that come out of nowhere and surprised you? I mean you're somebody who is swimming in current technology, so what out there has really come along and taken [you by surprise?].
Pogue: Yeah [well] Twitter did hit me between the eyes. Twitter did that was a famous misfire on my part. [Everyone said, "Are you on Twitter? Are you doing Twitter? Are you gonna write about Twitter?" And there's a thousand of these things, you know, Fark and foursquare. I mean just a thousand things come and go, and I really wasn't tuned in. And interestingly the one, the way I got involved [was], somebody came up to me on the street and said, "Hey Pogue, love you on Twitter," and I wasn't on Twitter. So, I thought, "That's a little peculiar." It turns out I was being impersonated on Twitter.
Steve: A Pogue impersonator?
Pogue: Yeah, this guy signed up for the name David Pogue and had been tweeting as me for six months. I mean, he wasn't like saying stupid stuff; [he was] saying stuff that I would actually do. Like [he] would find out when I [was going to give a talk and saying, "On my way to Pittsburgh." And it [was] really [weird.] It turned out it was the ex-husband of a former office assistant of mine. I still don't know why. Then I confronted him, he was like, "Oh, dude, [I'll] give [you] the password if you want." [I was] like, "Oh thanks, pal." He didn't really see what the big deal was. But anyway, so I shut down that account, I started new one as just Pogue and now I dip my toe in the water and then.
Steve: How do they verify a celebrity? Which I know they do.
Pogue: They now do, [yeah.] I don't know, I think you've [got] to have people vouch for you. It happened without my doing. All of a sudden this "verified" badge appeared on my account [one day]. I don't know how [they do it].
Steve: That's interesting.
Pogue: Yeah, [somebody should do a column on that.] But anyway, so I got started in Twitter when I was on a judging panel for a technology grant program and somebody said, "Okay here's proposal number 53. These guys want to make a van for poor people in sub-Saharan Africa who have no eye care, and it will be able to make glasses on the spot for people who have never had glasses, and oh great!" And [somebody's] like, "Hasn't someone done this before?" And [everybody's] like sort of, scratching [their] heads and looking around, and we have 50 more proposals to get through. So this guy sitting next to me opens his laptop and [he's like, "I'll just ask on Twitter."(makes typing sound) "Oh, yeah, UNICEF 2001, Bausch and Lomb 2003." Like, how could he do that? You know, he didn't sent out an e-mail blast, [he] didn't make a phone call, he didn't put up a Web page. He did something that got instant, targeted, perfect answers in 15 seconds. And so that's [when I] thought, "Wow, Twitter does something nothing else can do." And I started using it for that, too. I started asking questions and [seeking participants,] stuff like that. And that's what open[ed] my eyes. So that one really hit me between the eyes. It's really something entirely new that doesn't duplicate any other channel.
Steve: So, if you [were] going to guess—you know, this is a hackneyed journalist question—but, you know, five years from now … or would you say, "I can['t] even imagine what I would guess what [I'll be] using on a daily basis, what [I'll be] interacting with.
Pogue: Yeah, no, you always look like an idiot when you try to predict [consumer] technology's future. You know, Bill Gates, 640k [of] RAM ought to be enough for anyone, which he said in 1981. Or it turns out, he didn't; I actually researched that. So he didn't. Stop e-mailing that [please]. He never really said that. But anyway, but one thing that I have noticed in years and years of writing [about consumer] tech, is that, in general, things don't ever replace things. Everyone says, "Oh! This is the iPhone killer; this is the radio killer." And no, it never [is]. You know, TV did not kill radio; satellite radio didn't kill terrestrial radio; you know, the iPod did not replace, you know, CDs … entirely. So things just tend to add on and…
Steve: And transform the role of the previous technology.
Pogue: That's right.
Steve: Like old radio used to be mostly entertainment and now it's mostly news.
Pogue: That's right, exactly. Yeah, so that can happen but things don't go [away]. So everyone['s] like, "Oh! Is Twitter a flash in the pan? Is Facebook going to be gone [in] five years?" No, of course not. They will evolve into their [niches] and they will be there and there will be a thousand other things. I mean, the one thing that you can certainly say is that the era of a common cultural touchstone experience, like, "Oh! Did you see Lucy last night at 8 o'clock on Thursday on CBS?" Well, of course not—that's gone, you know. Every thing is random access: television shows, [are] random access; movies, music, radio, [books.] Everything is: I want [it on demand and I want it right now.] and it's not going to be in sync with anybody else. So that common cultural thing is almost gone [now].
Steve: But the common cultural experience of everybody doing the same general thing seems to still exist. I mean, you ride the subways in New York and everybody has their iPhone or Android or some other smart phone out and is interacting with [it] and sometimes people interact with each other that way as well, but they're interacting, you know, off-site with other people or reading something they downloaded that morning to [read] while they're on underground on the subway. So there's some kind of common experience still going on—it's just not the exact same feed coming to everybody's brain.
Pogue: That's it, yeah. The material itself—you know, there's no longer going to be, you know, The New York Times is the paper, and there's no longer going to be, you know, that TV show that everybody saw last night; that's [what I'm] talking about. Yeah so everything is becoming more splintered in terms of the feeds. Sure, the channels come and go and coalesce [and] break apart again, in terms of, "Oh it's Twitter. Oh, it's text messaging." Whatever. But in general, that artistic creation is no longer going to be something that everybody is seeing. Even movies. Right now movies [are] the last thing we have—"Oh did you see that movie?" And that's because Hollywood still controls this relatively small number of movies that come out. But as we are quickly discovering there's absolutely no reason for that anymore. Anyone can make a movie, anyone should make a movie. And pretty soon the channels will catch up so that a brilliant amateur-made movie will be just as watched and highly [revered] as any professionally, [slickly] Hollywood-produced [movie].
Steve: Yeah, especially if you're content to watch it on, for example, your iPhone or iTouch. Then you're, your own standards of what kind of quality you're going to accept are different from [when you pay] money to go into a big theatre.
Pogue: Right, right that's true. It's hilarious isn't it? Watching the movie industry try to keep a step ahead of our home theaters. This 3-D TV thing just cracked me [the heck] up. It's like, okay, everyone is getting big screens with fantastic surround-sound systems in their homes, and the movie industry was frantic like, "Wait a minute! Wait a minute! That was why they used to come to the theater! What [are we] going to do? [I've] got it: [Make] everything 3-D and that will keep everybody in the theaters!" No, no everyone is getting 3-D TVs at home, too. So they've even lost that [ace in the hole.]
Steve: Well have you seen Casablanca in 3-D? It's still uncolored but … no, I'm kidding.
Pogue: Yeah, I hope so.
Steve: So, [at] the risk of hearing endorsements, what do you personally use? What kind of hardware and packages [do] you really find the most satisfying to use?
Pogue: Well, you know I spend my life in Microsoft Word, writing, writing, writing and; although I have to say one really unusual thing about me is I have to write so much—I didn't even mention the daily blog; I didn't even mention my children's novel which I just came out—but [so] I have evolved this system of text expansion macros, and I must have 400 of them. In other words, common words like you, I just type the letter Y and it puts you; and computer I just do CR, and camera I just do CA, and so on. And I have hundreds and hundreds of these including phrases, sentences, whole e-mails that I e-mail, common responses to people who ask the same question over and over, and just a couple of keystrokes. So when I type on someone else's computer, I look like a brain damaged person, because I am just typing pieces of words and nothing is coming out. But anyway so I do use type expansion software; I use a lot of macros to launch programs, and, you know, I live in Photoshop and I use "Aperture" and "iPhoto" for pictures, and I do video editing [in] "Final Cut". And my life is organized around this obscure calendar program of BusyCal, which is a networkable, Webbable calendar program so that my wife and everyone else in the family sees the same sets of appointments [color]-coded that I have, and if anyone makes a change it's relayed through the Web and broadcast to everybody else's computers and phones. I personally don't know how family exist without assistance like that. I mean like people must have, you know, big paper calendar on their refrigerator but it doesn't work when you travels much or as busy as much as we are.
Steve: Any music composition software?
Pogue: No I used to be really big, I wrote the manuals in fact for a program called Finale, this is professional music program that sold very popular. But I just don't do enough of that. I do [still] perform a lot of piano. At the end of every talk, I do song [parodies]about the tech business that sort of rap up the talk, like Bill Gates: "I write the code that makes the whole world run. [I'm] getting royalties from everyone." You know [goofy] things like that. So that's the only real performing I do anymore.
Steve: What's the actual next Missing Manual that's going to get to the stands?
Pogue: Well, the next one will be an update to the iPhone book, which presumably will be out [in] June or July when the new iPhone comes out.
Steve: So the new iPhone is going to come out. [Will] you have an actual unit prior to its public release that you can play with?
Pogue: Usually the [main] tech reviewers, rather the tech reviewers for the main papers—USA Today, Wall Street Journal, New York Times—get it a week in advance.
Steve: So you have one week with that and hopefully you'll have that manuscript done in time for it to get rolled out as soon as possible, obviously, once the unit comes out?
Pogue: Yeah as soon as possible. You know, [it won't be] before the phone is out; you know [one] week is too quick. But, you know, I'll get it done as quickly as I can.
Steve: So when is [teleportation] going to come [so] you can be even more [efficient].
Pogue: I don't know, dude, I like those plane rides. That's when I get the most uninterrupted work time. [I mean] that's like [a] truly beautiful work time. I get off [and I've answered a] thousand e-mails, and [I've got] the next four blog posts [done].
Steve: David Pogue's column in Scientific American is currently scheduled for an October debut and his children's book is called Abby Carnelia's One and Only Magical Power. There are more MacMania cruises scheduled. They're organized by Insight Cruises, which also does the Bright Horizon series of trips with Scientific American that you may [have] seen advertised in the pages of the magazine. I've been a speaker on a couple of those cruises but was purely an audience member for MacMania. For info on MacMania or Scientific American cruises go to insightcruises.com. I'll post more from last week's voyage later this week.
Now it's time to play TOTALLY……. Y BOGUS. Here are four science stories but only three are true. See if you know which story is TOTALL……. Y BOGUS.
Story number 1: A new analysis shows that listening to Mozart really does give high school kids a slight advantage on the math section of the SAT.
Story number 2: A food truck in Central Park will offer a $1 discount on smoothies if you supply the power for the blender by riding an exercise bike.
Story number 3: A new free iPhone out will allow you to get a glimpse of what you would've looked like as a Neandertal, a Hobbit or a Homo heidelbergensis, another early human species.
And story number 4: U.S. carbon emissions fell a record 7 percent in 2009.
And time's up.
Story number 4 is true. U.S. carbon emissions did drop by a record 7 percent last year. Unfortunately a lot of the drop was related to the recession. When the economy gets going full steam ahead, emissions will rise again without further action on efficiency and alternative fuels.
Story number 3 is true. The iPhone [app] that allows you to take a photo of yourself or others and convert [it] to an image of an early human is called Neanderthal and it's free, and it's the Smithsonian Institution's first mobile [app].
Story number 2 is true: The exercise bikes will power the blenders that make the smoothies in the truck just across from the American Museum of Natural History in Central Park on Manhattan's Upper West Side. Those smoothies will be five bucks for the noncyclists, $4 if you're pedaling. The food truck also has solar panels and runs on cooking oil.
All of which means that story number 1, about cognitive enhancement through listening to Mozart is TOTALL……. Y BOGUS. The notion that Mozart made you smarter goes back to a 1993 report in the journal Nature that has been severely questioned many times. The latest research is a meta-analysis that looked at some 40 other studies with a total of about 3,000 subjects. It appears in the journal Intelligence. Researcher Jakob Pietschnig said, "I recommend listening to Mozart to everyone but it will not meet expectations of boosting cognitive abilities."
Well that's it for this episode. Get your science news at www.ScientificAmerican.com, and you can read our In-Depth Reports on the BP Gulf oil disaster and on the coming Smart Grid, if we are smart enough. Follow us on Twitter where you'll get a tweet every time a new article hits the Web site. Our Twitter name is @SciAm. For Science Talk, the podcast of Scientific American, I'm Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.