The Best Longreads of 2013

This is my fourth year compiling the best longreads of the year (see the 2010 best longreads2011 best longreads, and the 2012 best longreads). There was so much incredible writing that I’ve read this year that I am expanding my usual list of the best five longreads to the best ten longreads of the year. They are:

(1) And Then Steve Said, ‘Let There Be an iPhone’” [New York Times Magazine] — more than six years after Steve Jobs unveiled the iPhone, there were a number of things that the public had not known about. Fred Vogelstein’s piece that was published in October was incredibly revealing:

It’s hard to overstate the gamble Jobs took when he decided to unveil the iPhone back in January 2007. Not only was he introducing a new kind of phone — something Apple had never made before — he was doing so with a prototype that barely worked. Even though the iPhone wouldn’t go on sale for another six months, he wanted the world to want one right then. In truth, the list of things that still needed to be done was enormous. A production line had yet to be set up. Only about a hundred iPhones even existed, all of them of varying quality. Some had noticeable gaps between the screen and the plastic edge; others had scuff marks on the screen. And the software that ran the phone was full of bugs.

The iPhone could play a section of a song or a video, but it couldn’t play an entire clip reliably without crashing. It worked fine if you sent an e-mail and then surfed the Web. If you did those things in reverse, however, it might not. Hours of trial and error had helped the iPhone team develop what engineers called “the golden path,” a specific set of tasks, performed in a specific way and order, that made the phone look as if it worked.

But even when Jobs stayed on the golden path, all manner of last-minute workarounds were required to make the iPhone functional. On announcement day, the software that ran Grignon’s radios still had bugs. So, too, did the software that managed the iPhone’s memory. And no one knew whether the extra electronics Jobs demanded the demo phones include would make these problems worse.

Jobs wanted the demo phones he would use onstage to have their screens mirrored on the big screen behind him. To show a gadget on a big screen, most companies just point a video camera at it, but that was unacceptable to Jobs. The audience would see his finger on the iPhone screen, which would mar the look of his presentation. So he had Apple engineers spend weeks fitting extra circuit boards and video cables onto the backs of the iPhones he would have onstage. The video cables were then connected to the projector, so that when Jobs touched the iPhone’s calendar app icon, for example, his finger wouldn’t appear, but the image on the big screen would respond to his finger’s commands. The effect was magical. People in the audience felt as if they were holding an iPhone in their own hands. But making the setup work flawlessly, given the iPhone’s other major problems, seemed hard to justify at the time.

This bit about the compromises that Apple took to make the demo iPhone work is phenomenal:

The software in the iPhone’s Wi-Fi radio was so unstable that Grignon and his team had to extend the phones’ antennas by connecting them to wires running offstage so the wireless signal wouldn’t have to travel as far. And audience members had to be prevented from getting on the frequency being used. “Even if the base station’s ID was hidden” — that is, not showing up when laptops scanned for Wi-Fi signals — “you had 5,000 nerds in the audience,” Grignon says. “They would have figured out how to hack into the signal.” The solution, he says, was to tweak the AirPort software so that it seemed to be operating in Japan instead of the United States. Japanese Wi-Fi uses some frequencies that are not permitted in the U.S.

You do not have to be an Apple enthusiast like me to appreciate this piece. As I wrote back in October, “From concept to prototype to Steve Jobs’s unveiling of the revolutionary device, this piece has it all. It is so much better than the section devoted to the iPhone in Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs.” And that ending to the piece? A tear jerker.

(2) “Thanksgiving in Mongolia” [The New Yorker] — reading this devastating account of a pregnancy gone wrong by Ariel Levy hit me like a brick. If you haven’t read it, it’s one of the best nonfiction pieces I’ve read the entire year. Just don’t read without a tissue nearby.

When I woke up the next morning, the pain in my abdomen was insistent; I wondered if the baby was starting to kick, which everyone said would be happening soon. I called home to complain, and my spouse told me to find a Western clinic. I e-mailed Cox to get his doctor’s phone number, thinking that I’d call if the pain got any worse, and then I went out to interview people: the minister of the environment, the president of a mining concern, and, finally, a herdsman and conservationist named Tsetsegee Munkhbayar, who became a folk hero after he fired shots at mining operations that were diverting water from nomadic communities. I met him in the sleek lobby of the Blue Sky with Yondon Badral—a smart, sardonic man I’d hired to translate for me in U.B. and to accompany me a few days later to the Gobi, where we would drive a Land Rover across the cold sands to meet with miners and nomads. Badral wore jeans and a sweater; Munkhbayar was dressed in a long, traditional deel robe and a fur hat with a small metal falcon perched on top. It felt like having a latte with Genghis Khan…

I felt an unholy storm move through my body, and after that there is a brief lapse in my recollection; either I blacked out from the pain or I have blotted out the memory. And then there was another person on the floor in front of me, moving his arms and legs, alive. I heard myself say out loud, “This can’t be good.” But itlooked good. My baby was as pretty as a seashell.

(3) “Photoshop is a City for Everyone: How Adobe Endlessly Rebuilds Its Classic App” [The Verge] — Paul Miller takes us on a delightful path with everyone’s favorite photography tool, Photoshop. We learn how the company iterates on its products and its vision for the future:

For instance, Adobe obsessively documents color profiles and lens distortion data for hundreds of cameras and lenses, taking hundreds of pictures with each combo. It’s expensive, laborious, and seemingly quixotic. But Camera RAW used those specs to automatically correct aberrations — even for multiple body / lens combinations. Then some researchers used the data to design a feature for CS6 that allows a user to straighten warped objects in extreme angle shots.

The holy grail is to give Photoshop computer vision. The app should simply select “objects” the way users see, like a “beach ball” or a “tree” or a “head,” not as “blob of color one,” “blob of color two.” Then the user should be able to do what she pleases to the object, with the software filling in the details like what might’ve been behind that object — something that’s available in a nascent form in CS6. Content vision also means the software should know when you’re working on a family photo and when you’re working on a logo, adjusting color grading techniques accordingly. It means unifying many of Photoshop’s features — which, once again, its architecture is uniquely suited to do.

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(4) “Bad Blood: The Mysterious Life and Brutal Death of a Russian Dissident” [Matter for Medium] — an incredibly detailed (9,000+ words,  fascinating piece that looks back on the life of Alexander Litvinenko, who as a Russian dissident fled to the U.K., was poisoned via radioactive polonium-210 in a London bar in November 2006, and the subsequent investigation that followed:

Because it is so highly soluble, polonium-210 is easily ingested. And when Litvinenko started vomiting on the evening of November 1st, the radiation had already begun to destroy the lining of his gut.

The cells lining the walls of the stomach are among the first to react to the toxin. They start sloughing and breaking away minutes after contact. The intestines, and the soft, unprotected skin inside the throat and mouth suffer the same fate.

Polonium is hugely radioactive, firing off a massive bombardment of alpha particles — and without any screening, the delicate mechanisms of the body’s internal organs get the full dose. As the atoms try to stabilize, alpha particles crash into nearby body tissue, knocking electrons from the molecules they encounter. Each time they do, the trail of wrecked cells expands; the poison turns them cancerous, or kills them off entirely…

How radioactive poison became the assassin’s weapon of choice, a story on Matter.

How radioactive poison became the assassin’s weapon of choice, a story on Matter.

At its height… the Soviet Union had the largest biological warfare program in the world. Sources have claimed there were 40,000 individuals, including 9,000 scientists, working at 47 different facilities. More than 1,000 of these experts specialized in the development and application of deadly compounds. They used lethal gasses, skin contact poisons that were smeared on door handles and nerve toxins said to be untraceable. The idea, at all times, was to make death seem natural — or, at the very least, to confuse doctors and investigators. “It’s never designed to demonstrate anything, only to kill the victim, quietly and unobtrusively,” Volodarsky writes in The KGB’s Poison Factory. “This was an unbreakable principle.”

Murderous poisons come in three varieties: chemical, biological, and radiological. It’s believed that the first Soviet attempt at a radiological assassination took place in 1957. The target was Nikolai Khokhlov, a defector who had left for the United States a few years earlier. He became drastically ill after drinking coffee at an anti-communist conference he was speaking at in West Germany. After his collapse, he was successfully treated at a US army hospital in Frankfurt for what was believed to be poisoning by radioactive thallium.

This was a beautifully illustrated piece and marked one of the best posts on Medium this year (originally the longform journalistic startup Matter took down their paywall and began publishing on Medium, one of my favorite publishing platforms).

(5) “Did Goldman Sachs Overstep in Criminally Charging Its Ex-Programmer?” [Vanity Fair] — perhaps the best piece Michael Lewis published the entire year, this 11,000 word “second trial” held by Michael Lewis was thoroughly fascinating:

A month after ace programmer Sergey Aleynikov left Goldman Sachs, he was arrested. Exactly what he’d done neither the F.B.I., which interrogated him, nor the jury, which convicted him a year later, seemed to understand. But Goldman had accused him of stealing computer code, and the 41-year-old father of three was sentenced to eight years in federal prison. Investigating Aleynikov’s case, Michael Lewis holds a second trial.

(6) “7 Things I Learned in 7 Years of Reading, Writing, and Living” [Brainpickings] — one of my favourite bloggers, Maria Popova, wrote a personal post on the things she’s learned maintaining her wildly popular blog on arts, culture, writing, history, books, and everything in between (in Maria’s words: “combinatorial creativity”) :
  1. Be generous. Be generous with your time and your resources and with giving credit and, especially, with your words. It’s so much easier to be a critic than a celebrator. Always remember there is a human being on the other end of every exchange and behind every cultural artifact being critiqued. To understand and be understood, those are among life’s greatest gifts, and every interaction is an opportunity to exchange them.

  2. Build pockets of stillness into your life. Meditate. Go for walks. Ride your bike going nowhere in particular. There is a creative purpose todaydreaming, even to boredom. The best ideas come to us when we stop actively trying to coax the muse into manifesting and let the fragments of experience float around our unconscious mind in order to click into new combinations. Without this essential stage of unconscious processing, the entire flow of the creative process is broken.Most importantly, sleep. Besides being the greatest creative aphrodisiac, sleep also affects our every waking momentdictates our social rhythm, and even mediates our negative moods. Be as religious and disciplined about your sleep as you are about your work. We tend to wear our ability to get by on little sleep as some sort of badge of honor that validates our work ethic. But what it really is is a profound failure of self-respect and of priorities. What could possibly be more important than your health and your sanity, from which all else springs?

  3. When people tell you who they are, Maya Angelou famously advised, believe them. Just as importantly, however, when people try to tell you who you are, don’t believe them. You are the only custodian of your own integrity, and the assumptions made by those that misunderstand who you are and what you stand for reveal a great deal about them and absolutely nothing about you.

Invaluable wisdom therein.

I try to support Brain Pickings with a one-time donation every year around the holidays. I recommend you do the same.

(7) “Slow Ideas” [The New Yorker] — Why do some innovations spread so quickly and others so slowly? That is the central premise that Atul Gawande answered in this enthralling piece:

Here we are in the first part of the twenty-first century, and we’re still trying to figure out how to get ideas from the first part of the twentieth century to take root. In the hopes of spreading safer childbirth practices, several colleagues and I have teamed up with the Indian government, the World Health Organization, the Gates Foundation, and Population Services International to create something called the BetterBirth Project. We’re working in Uttar Pradesh, which is among India’s poorest states. One afternoon in January, our team travelled a couple of hours from the state’s capital, Lucknow, with its bleating cars and ramshackle shops, to a rural hospital surrounded by lush farmland and thatched-hut villages. Although the sun was high and the sky was clear, the temperature was near freezing. The hospital was a one-story concrete building painted goldenrod yellow. (Our research agreement required that I keep it unnamed.) The entrance is on a dirt road lined with rows of motorbikes, the primary means of long-distance transportation. If an ambulance or an auto-rickshaw can’t be found, women in labor sit sidesaddle on the back of a bike.

(8) “Lost on Everest” [Outside Magazine] — Using never before published transcripts from the American 1963 expedition, Grayson Schaffer takes a deep look at an ascent to the world’s highest peak that many people (myself included) had no idea about before this piece was published:

By 1963, the golden age of Himalayan mountaineering was winding down. All but one of the world’s 8,000-meter peaks had been summited. Most of them were claimed by massive expeditions run like military campaigns, with siege-style tactics, top-down chains of command, and an emphasis on the collective over the individual. From an outsider’s perspective, the American expedition was no different. The operation required an army of men, including more than 900 lowland porters who carried 27 tons of equipment into Base Camp. And it was organized like a military detachment, with Dyhrenfurth in charge and the other men given ministerial titles like deputy leader and climbing leader.

On the other hand, the American expedition had a lot in common with modern climbing projects. It was laden with science experiments[2] that, like charity causes and awareness raising, have since become standard operating procedure for anybody who wants to get funding. Likewise, Dyhrenfurth’s desire for good footage of the trip for his film Americans on Everest was second only to his need to put somebody on the summit. (In 2012, you couldn’t find a climber on Everest who wasn’t making a documentary.) And as Dyhrenfurth admitted in his audio diary, the 1963 expedition was not run like those that came before it. “I am not a dictator,” he said. “We try to be as democratic as possible.”

This is a tour-de-force of an article, split into seven chapters, best read on your desktop (not in mobile).

(9) “I Am An Object Of Internet Ridicule, Ask Me Anything” [The Awl] — C.D. Hermelin’s personal story of how he brought a vintage typewriter and crafted stories for people on the spot made a deep impression of me:

When I set up at the High Line, I had lines of people asking for stories. At seven to 10 minutes per a story, I had to tell people to leave and come back. It surprised me when they would do just that. I never had writer’s block, although sometimes I would stare off into space for the right word, and people watching would say, “Look! He’s thinking!” Writing is usually a lonely, solitary act. On the High Line with my typewriter, all the joy of creating narrative was infused with a performer’s high—people held their one-page flash fictions and read them and laughed and repeated lines and translated into their own languages, right in front of me. Perhaps other writers would have their nerves wracked by instant feedback on rough drafts, but all I could do was smile.

Each time I went, I’d walk home, my typewriter case full of singles, my fingers ink-stained. Lots of people were worried about copycats—what if I saw someone “stealing” my idea? I tried to soothe them. If every subway guitarist had fights about who came up with the idea to play an acoustic cover of John Lennon’s “Imagine,” the underground would be a violent place. More violent than it already is. Others, perhaps drawn by the sounds of the typewriter, would stop and just talk to me, watch me compose a story for someone else. Then they’d shake their head and tell me that the idea and the execution were “genius.”

But then someone took a photo of him, posted it on Reddit, and the hipster-hating commenters flocked to the forums like a pack of wolves:

Of course I sat back down. Of course I read every single comment. I did not ready myself mentally for a barrage of hipster-hating Internet commenters critiquing me for everything: my pale skin, my outfit, my hair, my typing style, my glasses. An entire sub-thread was devoted to whether or not I had shaved legs. It was not the first time I had been labeled a “hipster.” I often wear tight jeans, big plastic-frame glasses, shirts bought at thrift stores. I listen to Vampire Weekend, understand and laugh at the references in “Portlandia.” I own and listen to vintage vinyl. The label never bothered me on its own. But with each successive violent response to the picture of me, I realized that hipsters weren’t considered a comically benign undercurrent of society. Instead, it seemed like Redditors saw hipsters and their ilk as a disease, and I was up on display as an example of depraved behavior.

But it was how C.D. chose to deal with the adversity that is worth highlighting (and the reason I pick this story as one of the ten best I’ve read this year):

The day after the first, un-memeified picture was posted to Reddit, I went out with my typewriter, very nervous. I tweeted on my “@rovingtypist” Twitter account that Redditors should stop by, say hello, talk about the post if they wanted. Someone responded immediately, told me that I should watch out for bullies—the message itself was more creepy than he probably meant it to be. I was nervous for nothing; a few Redditors came out, took pictures with me, grabbed a story. I was mostly finished for the evening when Carla showed up—Carla was the Brazilian tourist who took the picture of me and put it up onto Reddit. She was sweet and apologetic for the outpouring of hate, as bewildered by it as I was. She took a story as well, although I can’t remember what it was about. I messaged her when I first saw the picture posted with the meme text, letting her know that her picture had been appropriated. “I’m not concerned about it,” she said.

Hers was the position to take, and one I should have adopted earlier.

(10) “The Finish Line” [GQ Magazine] — it would not be an exaggeration to say that one of the most important events of 2013 were the Boston Marathon bombings. In a thoroughly researched piece for GQ, Sean Flynn profiles the harrowing minutes in which a “superhuman effort to help those injured” during that fateful day. The way the piece was written, in timeline form, only adds to the suspense of the piece:

10:00: Finish Line

Charles Krupa has photographed the Boston Marathon twenty-four times, every race since 1986 except for the three when the Associated Press posted him to the Philadelphia office. Krupa shoots a lot of things for the AP, but mostly he does sports. Boston’s a good town for a sports photographer: He’s shot the championships of all four major leagues, been there on the field or the court or the ice, been in the celebrations but not a part of them, the camera lens a small barrier that separates witness from participant.

The marathon coincides with a state holiday, Patriots’ Day, the third Monday in April, so traffic is always light on the drive south from New Hampshire, where Krupa lives. He was at the finish line in Copley Square by eight o’clock for his twenty-fifth marathon. It’s routine by now. Like riding a bike, he says. He’ll shoot from the media bridge spanning Boylston Street a few yards behind the line, like he always does, and his AP partner, Elise Amendola, will shoot from the pavement. He set up a remote camera on a riser to catch the line from the side if the finish is close. He knows exactly what pictures he needs: the wheelchair, men’s and women’s winners breaking the tape, an emotional reaction shot for each if he can get it, the top American finishers. Then he’ll edit those images on his laptop in the media center in the Fairmont Copley Plaza hotel and upload them to the AP’s servers. He might shoot a feature later, a runner crawling across the line or something like that guy last year who finished walking on his hands. Or he might call it a day after lunch.

2:49: The Blast
Inside the Fairmont Copley Plaza, Charles Krupa hears a tremendous metallic bang that reverberates and echoes. It sounds like a Dumpster dropped by a garbage truck in an alley before dawn. His gut tells him he’s just heard a bomb, but his head just as quickly tells him that can’t be true. He wonders if a forklift breaking down the staging might have dropped a scaffold.

Stephen Segatore hears a sound like a steel plate dropped onto cement from twenty feet. Then he feels the puff of a pressure wave that flutters the soft sides of the tent.

Michael Powers is talking to one of the physicians and another athletic trainer in the medical tent, remarking how good the weather’s been for the runners. He hears a bang, like a big firecracker, only an order of magnitude louder. He tells them, “That wasn’t thunder.”

Though the piece was published more than two months after the Boston Marathon bombings, I think it is the best all-around piece of journalism I’ve read on the topic.

###

Bonus (Published by Yours Truly)…

I experimented with writing this year more than in the last few years. To that end, I wrote something personal that can be tagged with #longreads as well. It’s something that I am proud of having compiled in one place, after more than a year of data aggregation, taking copious notes, and flushing ideas through my brain. It’s about my goal of taking control of one aspect of my life: health and fitness.

“How Fitness and Becoming Quantified Self Changed My Life” [Medium]:

I promised my sister that I would join a gym. But this promise was secondary: more importantly, I was making a promise to myself to make a difference in my life. One of my core life philosophies has been this: “If you keep saying you want to make something a priority in your life but aren’t doing something about it, then you have other priorities.” Becoming healthier became my number one priority. This wasn’t a resolution because resolutions never last. But habits do.

When I arrived to the Athletic Club at City Club of Buckhead that morning, I was committed. Having read much research on our mind’s tendency to sway us from sticking to our habits, I made a major financial commitment: I paid for six months of membership at the gym in advance. Plunking down about $350 was meant to serve as a reminder that if I quit, it was going to sting a little. You could call it an insurance policy, but I likened it to an investment in myself. I was going to kick some ass in the next six months.

You can read the entire piece here.

The year 2013 has been another spectacular one for @longreads/#longreads. I can’t wait what 2014 will bring.

The Incredible Story of How the iPhone Came to Be

The best thing I’ve read today is this fascinating New York Times Magazine piece on how the iPhone was developed. From concept to prototype to Steve Jobs’s unveiling of the revolutionary device, this piece has it all. It is so much better than the section devoted to the iPhone in Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs. Absolutely a must-read.

On how incredibly secretive Steve Jobs tried to keep the announcement of the iPhone:

Jobs was so obsessed with leaks that he tried to have all the contractors Apple hired — from people manning booths and doing demos to those responsible for lighting and sound — sleep in the building the night before his presentation. Aides talked him out of it.

Now this is a great way to phrase it:

Ponder the individual impacts of the book, the newspaper, the telephone, the radio, the tape recorder, the camera, the video camera, the compass, the television, the VCR and the DVD, the personal computer, the cellphone, the video game and the iPod. The smartphone is all those things, and it fits in your pocket

On the initial gamble of the iPhone and the buggy versions that existed at launch:

It’s hard to overstate the gamble Jobs took when he decided to unveil the iPhone back in January 2007. Not only was he introducing a new kind of phone — something Apple had never made before — he was doing so with a prototype that barely worked. Even though the iPhone wouldn’t go on sale for another six months, he wanted the world to want one right then. In truth, the list of things that still needed to be done was enormous. A production line had yet to be set up. Only about a hundred iPhones even existed, all of them of varying quality. Some had noticeable gaps between the screen and the plastic edge; others had scuff marks on the screen. And the software that ran the phone was full of bugs.

This bit about the compromises that Apple took to make the demo iPhone work is phenomenal:

The software in the iPhone’s Wi-Fi radio was so unstable that Grignon and his team had to extend the phones’ antennas by connecting them to wires running offstage so the wireless signal wouldn’t have to travel as far. And audience members had to be prevented from getting on the frequency being used. “Even if the base station’s ID was hidden” — that is, not showing up when laptops scanned for Wi-Fi signals — “you had 5,000 nerds in the audience,” Grignon says. “They would have figured out how to hack into the signal.” The solution, he says, was to tweak the AirPort software so that it seemed to be operating in Japan instead of the United States. Japanese Wi-Fi uses some frequencies that are not permitted in the U.S.

There were multiple versions of the iPhone built near launch:

Many executives and engineers, riding high from their success with the iPod, assumed a phone would be like building a small Macintosh. Instead, Apple designed and built not one but three different early versions of the iPhone in 2005 and 2006. One person who worked on the project thinks Apple then made six fully working prototypes of the device it ultimately sold — each with its own set of hardware, software and design tweaks. 

The first iPhone prototype in 2005 had a wheel (like the iPod):

From the start of the project, Jobs hoped that he would be able to develop a touch-screen iPhone running OS X similar to what he ended up unveiling. But in 2005 he had no idea how long that would take. So Apple’s first iPhone looked very much like the joke slide Jobs put up when introducing the real iPhone — an iPod with an old-fashioned rotary dial on it. The prototype really was an iPod with a phone radio that used the iPod click wheel as a dialer. “It was an easy way to get to market, but it was not cool like the devices we have today,” Grignon says.

On how stressful the environment was:

The pressure to meet Jobs’s deadlines was so intense that normal discussions quickly devolved into shouting matches. Exhausted engineers quit their jobs — then came back to work a few days later once they had slept a little. Forstall’s chief of staff, Kim Vorrath, once slammed her office door so hard it got stuck and locked her in, and co-workers took more than an hour to get her out. “We were all standing there watching it,” Grignon says. “Part of it was funny. But it was also one of those moments where you step back and realize how [expletive] it all is.”

And that ending to the piece? What a tear jerker. It put a huge smile on my face.

Seriously, you should read the whole thing.

The Best Hidden Features in iOS 7

I’ve upgraded to the latest operating system, iOS 7, on my iPad. I have yet to do so on my iPhone as I don’t have enough free storage space (3+ GB). As I was playing around with the new interface, I found The Verge’s post on the best new hidden features in iOS 7 quite handy.

The best feature? You can give Siri an elocution lesson:

If you’ve got an unusual name, or have friends with rare surnames, you’ve probably laughed at Siri’s innate inability to pronounce words that aren’t in the dictionary. Now you can call out when words are mispronounced and train Siri to say them correctly. Just say “that’s not how you pronounce that,” run through a short exercise, and Siri should get things right from then on.

I also like that you can find exactly when a text message was sent:

One of the most infuriating things about Messages in iOS is its lack of regular timestamps. Rather than giving you a time for every message, it’s always periodically defined the beginning of a conversation with a timestamp. In iOS 7, you can check on the exact time every message was sent and received by swiping message bubbles to the left.

 

Russian Transporter Planes and FedEx: How Apple Ships its iPhones

Apple unveiled two new iPhones this week: iPhone 5C and the iPhone 5S. While the specs of the phones are somewhat interesting, I think this piece in Bloomberg on how Apple is set to deliver the devices on launch date is even more so:

The process starts in China, where pallets of iPhones are moved from factories in unmarked containers accompanied by a security detail. The containers are then loaded onto trucks and shipped via pre-bought airfreight space, including on old Russian military transports. The journey ends in stores where the world’s biggest technology company makes constant adjustments based on demand, said people who have worked on Apple’s logistics and asked not to be identified because the process is secret.

The multi-pronged operation has been built up under Cook, who oversaw Apple’s supply chain before being tapped as Steve Jobs’s successor in 2011. Getting iPhones seamlessly moved from factories to customers is critical for the Cupertino, California-based company, which derives more than half of its annual revenue from the flagship product. Apple also relies on a sales spike after a product’s release. It sold more than 5 million units in the debut weekend for the iPhone 5 last year.

There are seven countries that will launch the new iPhones on September 20:

Before Apple’s formal unveiling on stage, iPhones are shipped to distribution centers around the world, including Australia, China, the Czech Republic, Japan, Singapore, the U.K. and the U.S., said one of the people with knowledge of the matter. Security personnel are with the devices every step of the way, from truck depots, airports, customs and storage warehouses until the product is finally unveiled, two people said.

FedEx ships Apple handsets to the U.S. mainly using Boeing 777s, according to Satish Jindel, a logistics-industry consultant and president of SJ Consulting Group. Those planes can make the 15-hour flight from China to the main U.S. hub for freight shipments in Memphis, Tennessee, without refueling, Jindel said. The 777s can carry about 450,000 iPhones and cost about $242,000 to charter, with fuel accounting for more than half the expense.

Read the rest here.

“Apple has quietly become a leading camera company.”

That’s the quote of the day, courtesy of John Gruber, who runs Daring Fireball:

Megan Garber summarizes in The Atlantic:

The camera features a new lens (one designed by Apple) with an f/2.2 aperture and a sensor that’s 15 percent larger than previous models. It’ll have a relatively meager 8-megapixel sensor, but each pixel will be bigger than previous models’ — which will, Apple’s Phil Schiller explained today, let in more light. The camera software — which will be optimized for iOS 7 — will do an automatic series of adjustments to things like an image’s white balance, exposure, tone map, and autofocus. The camera will also feature what Apple is calling a “true tone” dual LED flash, featuring one cool (blue) LED and one warm (amber) LED, allowing the flash to better match the color balance of the light in the room. That makes for, Wired notes, “over 1,000 unique flash variations for your photos.” Which is, as Schiller put it, “a world’s first for any camera.”

That new f/2.2 lens looks particularly impressive. Just look at this sample photograph Apple has posted.

Just a ton of new features for the iPhone’s new camera. I’m pretty sure I’ll be upgrading come September 20.

What if Apple and Google Went to Actual War? A Thought Experiment

What would happen if two of the world’s largest tech companies went to actual war? That’s the thought experiment behind this Slate feature. Dan Kois provides the introduction:

I asked two experts here at Slate to do a little wargaming with me. Tech columnist Farhad Manjoo will play Google. Moneybox columnist Matthew Yglesias will play Apple. I will play referee as Farhad and Matt imagine their way through a (totally speculative!) (fictional and not true!) Google vs. Apple all-out-war for world supremacy. Could Google erase Apple from the Internet? Could iPhones control killer drones over Mountain View? How different is Apple willing to think? And how evil is Google prepared to be?

Google’s offensive begins with Ghostfruit:

It’s an unseasonably overcast morning in Mountain View when Larry Page gives the Go command. He does so with a heavy heart. Though the feud with Apple has been escalating for months, Google’s CEO has never given serious consideration to the plan known internally as Operation GhostFruit. Then Apple decided to test him, first by removing Google as the default search engine on the iPhone and iPad, and then—when Google complained to regulators and launched a petition drive calling on Apple to reinstate Google—by blocking Apple devices’ access to Google.com entirely. The iPhone and iPad provide the bulk of Google’s mobile ad revenue. Page has no choice but to go nuclear.

After a big acquisitions spree by Apple, their next offensive move follows:

War is a game of coalitions. Not only are there whole countries where Google barely exists (think China), but there’s a whole world of online services companies out there who’ve been chomping at the bit for a big Google scandal to get them into the game.Bing search, Outlook webmail, Yahoo Calendar, and Dropbox for storage. Google’s one-stop shopping is a convenience, but people in Google-hostile territory can use the Web without it and the company’s behavior is frightening people. Apple’s hearty band of loyalists can shop at the Apple Store and punch apple.com into the browser just fine—and while they’re there, many of them are adding their contact information to a new page which urges Apple fans to join the “Apple Army.” The photo accompanying sign-up shows a cheerful, attractive, multicultural group massed in front of Apple headquarters, everyone wearing T-shirts of bright, primary colors. In the first week, 20,000 Apple partisans sign up. 

Read on how Google responds. The Cult of Apple, however, grows to 500,000 in the last offensive.

Google: “Us” vs. “Them”

Great post from John Gruber reiterating how Google isn’t often the creator of original products; they make existing products better:

Google fans seem to eat this kumbaya stuff up, to really believe it. But Google is the company that built Android after the iPhone, Google Plus after Facebook, and now a subscription music service after Spotify. They entered the RSS reader market, wiped it out, and are now just walking away from it. Gmail? Webmail but better. Think about even web search: Google search wasn’t something new; it was something better. Way, way, way better, but still.

Consider maps. Google Maps entered a market where MapQuest and others had been around for years. That wasn’t something great that didn’t already exist. It was a better version of something that already existed. Google is a hyper-competitive company, and they repeatedly enter markets that already exist and crush competitors. Nothing wrong with that. That’s how capitalism is supposed to work, and Google’s successes are admirable. But there’s nothing stupid about seeing Google being pitted “versus” other companies. They want everything; their ambition is boundless. 

With yesterday’s announcements at the I/O conference, Google’s stock price reached an all-time high of above $900/share.

Interview with Photographer Peter Belanger on Shooting for Apple

Great interview at The Verge with photographer Peter Belanger, who’s shot some of the most iconic products for Apple.

What camera is nearest to you at the moment?

Canon 5D Mark III, this is my go-to camera. My base lens is the 24-70mm; if I could only have one lens this would be it. It works in almost all situations. I’m always impressed with how shallow the depth-of-field looks at f/2.8 with this lens.

You’ve created images seen by millions of people every day, but most people probably have no idea that you’re the photographer with whom they’re so familiar. I see your images every day walking around New York City. How did you come to work with Apple so much?

When I was starting out I freelanced for agencies that had Apple accounts. Over the years the agencies evolved and many of the designers and producers moved internally at Apple. Because I had a working relationship with lots of them, they kept using me. I feel very lucky that this relationship continued.

He gets one thing right: nailing most of the image in camera, rather than relying heavily to post-production. I guess Mr. Belanger using Apple’s Aperture program shouldn’t be a surprise (I prefer Lightroom).

Jony Ive on Philosophy and Authenticity of Design

One of the things that’s interesting about design [is that] there’s a danger, particularly in this industry, to focus on product attributes that are easy to talk about. You go back 10 years, and people wanted to talk about product attributes that you could measure with a number. So they would talk about hard drive size, because it was incontrovertible that 10 was a bigger number than 5, and maybe in the case of hard drives that’s a good thing. Or you could talk about price because there’s a number there.

But there are a lot of product attributes that don’t have those sorts of measures. Product attributes that are more emotive and less tangible. But they’re really important. There’s a lot of stuff that’s really important that you can’t distill down to a number. And I think one of the things with design is that when you look at an object you make many many decisions about it, not consciously, and I think one of the jobs of a designer is that you’re very sensitive to trying to understand what goes on between seeing something and filling out your perception of it. You know we all can look at the same object, but we will all perceive it in a very unique way. It means something different to each of us. Part of the job of a designer is to try to understand what happens between physically seeing something and interpreting it.

I think that sort of striving for simplicity is not a style. It’s an approach and a philosophy. I think it’s about authenticity and being honest. Not just taking something crappy and styling the outside in an arbitrary disconnected way.

–Jony Ive, via this blog post titled “Jony Ive is Not a Graphic Designer” (per this PR document, Ive is in charge of Human Interface at Apple).

Touch: The Future of Computing

Jeff Atwood got his hands on the newly released tablet Microsoft Surface RT. He reviews his experience with the device in his provocatively titled post “Do You Wana Touch” But it is his take on the future of computing which I thought was worth highlighting here:

love computers, always have, always will. My strategy with new computing devices is simple: I buy ‘em all, then try living with them.The devices that fall away from me over time – the ones that gather dust, or that I forget about – are the ones I eventually get rid of. So long, Kindle Fire! I knew that the Nexus 7 was really working for me when I gave mine to my father as a spontaneous gift while he was visiting, then missed it sorely when waiting for the replacement to arrive.

As I use these devices, I’ve grown more and more sold on the idea that touch is going to dominate the next era of computing. This reductionism is inevitable and part of the natural evolution of computers. Remove the mouse. Remove the keyboard. Remove the monitor. Reducing a computer to its absolute minumum leads us inexorably, inevitably to the tablet (or, if a bit smaller, the phone). All you’re left with is a flat, featureless slate that invites you to touch it. Welcome to the future, here’s your … rectangle.

He rationalizes:

I’ve stopped thinking of touch as some exotic, add-in technology contained in specialized devices. I belatedly realized that I love to touch computers. And why not? We constantly point and gesture at everything in our lives, including our screens. It’s completely natural to want to interact with computers by touching them. That’s why the more unfortunate among us have displays covered in filthy fingerprints.

I don’t disagree. I love my iPhone and iPad. But I also love my MacBook Air, on which I am composing this post. Will we see a touch MacBook Air (with an uncompromised keyboard) from Apple in a few years? After reading Jeff’s post, I want to say yes.