Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo

One small step for your remote control, but one giant leap for your Netflix queue.

Last month, something caught my eye in the “Recently Added” column on Netflix. It was a documentary entitled Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo. Mission Control weaves a compelling history of the NASA Apollo program by combining interviews of the still-living flight directors and controllers with archival footage and computer animation. As somebody who was not yet living when the Apollo 1 launchpad disaster occurred and still making small steps in diapers when Neil Armstrong made “one giant leap for mankind,” I find this period of history fascinating. It boggles my mind that the backdrop to the achievements of the Apollo astronauts and their support teams were events like the Vietnam War and the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy.

It’s a great story and if you’re only familiar with the Apollo 11 moon landing and Apollo 13 crisis, you’ll learn a lot about the other Apollo missions. And if you’re curious about the last moon mission, Apollo 17, you’ll want to put The Last Man On the Moon next in your Netflix queue. It’s a documentary about Gene Cernan, the last man on the moon, who died earlier this year. Created by the same team as Mission Control, I’ll write more about that film in a future article.

Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links in the post above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers.I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Silicon Cowboys

Compaq may no longer be in business but their impact is still felt in today’s PC marketplace.

Silicon Cowboys tells the tale of Compaq Computer and how three former Texas Instruments employees founded the Houston-based startup that would create an industry that we take for granted – the PC market. The lively documentary is only 77-minutes long and definitely worth putting into your Netflix queue.

Based on the book Open: How Compaq Ended IBM’s PC Domination and Helped Invent Modern Computing by Compaq founder Rod Canion, Silicon Cowbows contains a lot of historical footage and vintage computer advertisements (I had forgotten that William Shatner was a pitchman for the Commodore Vic-20, for example). Compaq bested IBM by creating the Compaq Portable, an IBM-compatible PC that weighed 28 lbs. and had a handle. Because the IBM PC was made from off-the-shelf components like Intel microprocessors, Compaq and others were able to create the PC clone market. The biggest challenge was IBM’s proprietary and copyrighted BIOS, which had to be reverse engineered.

IBM later exited the PC market, selling assets to Lenovo. And Compaq was later acquired by Hewlett-Packard. Watching Silicon Cowboys brought back memories of the Intel 286 PC clone that I used in college.

Silicon Cowboys is currently streaming on Netflix.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I borrowed a copy of this book from a public library and did not receive it free from its publisher. Some of the links in the post above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers.I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

What I learned from Lightning McQueen about being an SAP Mentor

Sometimes inspiration comes from an unlikely source. Last week, it came when I took my 7-year-old son to see Cars 3, the latest Disney/Pixar movie. As its title indicates, Cars 3 is the third installment in a series that began in 2006 with the original Cars. Maligned by many computer animation fans as the worst movies created by the usually innovative Pixar, I could tell from its movie trailer that Cars 3 was going to be different from the previous two movies and deal with some adult themes.

Even if you don’t have a 7-year-old child as I do, I recommend taking in Cars 3 while it’s still in theaters. Appreciate how Pixar has taken realistic scenery beyond what we’ve seen in previous Pixar films. And see if you can find even more leadership lessons (author Joseph LaLonde found twenty-nine), celebrity voices, and the infamous Pizza Planet truck.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I borrowed a copy of this book from a public library and did not receive it free from its publisher. Some of the links in the post above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers.I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

How We Got to Now by Steven Johnson

A engrossing account of how glass, cold, sound, clean, time, and light have shaped our modern world.

How We Got to Now is both a book and a PBS mini-series about six innovations- glass, cold, sound, clean, time, and light- that have shaped the world that we live in today. Each of these innovations are so commonplace that we take them for granted and their innovators and inventors are often forgotten. But just as he did with The Ghost Map (see related article, The Ghost Map), author Steven Johnson reveals the human story behind the innovations, particularly the events and smaller innovations that had to come first, as well as the unexpected innovations that continue to occur afterward. For example, Frederick Tudor’s shipments of frozen lake ice from New England to the southern United States is connected to Clarence Birdseye flash freezing vegetables, which is connected to the technology we now use to freeze embryos. Steven Johnson debunks the conventional wisdom that innovation comes from isolated “a-ha moments” or exclusively from well-known solo innovators like Thomas Edison or Henry Ford. But instead, innovation occurs from a series of smaller innovations, often developed over time and often by multiple people unaware that others are working on similar breakthroughs.

Good Mythical Morning hosts Rhett and Link discuss the book How We Got to Now.

The book also provides the foundation for an engaging six-part miniseries where Steven Johnson and PBS travel the globe uncovering the stories behind these six key innovations.

View the trailer for the PBS mini-series How We Got to Now, now available on Blu Ray and DVD.

I was able to borrow both the book and the mini-series DVD from my local library. It’s thought-provoking material and I can’t wait to hear what Steven Johnson will say in his keynote at next week’s ASUG SAP Analytics and BusinessObjects User Conference (follow #SABOUC on social media). If you’re headed to the conference, it’s not too late the pick up the Kindle edition of How We Got to Now to read on the flight to the event.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I borrowed a copy of this book from a public library and did not receive it free from its publisher. Some of the links in the post above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers.I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Jobs – a movie review

My review of Jobs, the movie

I watched Jobs this weekend with my 12-year-old iPod Touch-wielding daughter. By now, you’ve read several negative reviews, including Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak’s on Gizmodo. Or that the movie was buried by Oprah Winfrey’s The Butler on opening weekend.

I’m one of the few who enjoyed Disney’s much ballyhooed John Carter, having read the entire series of Edgar Rice Burroughs novels when I was my daughter’s age. And I’ve lost count of the times I’ve watched the original Tron. So I may not be the right person to ask for movie recommendations. But I enjoyed the Jobs movie and recommend that you watch it and form your own opinion.

I believe critics are reacting to the film the same way technology analysts react to an Apple product launch – with unrealistic expectations. Have you ever heard anyone complain about Dell putting PC’s in the same boring boxes year after year? Just as Walter Issacson’s biography of Steve Jobs was criticized as incomplete despite its 656-page length (see John Gruber’s review as an example), this movie is faulted for trying to put into 2 hours what even Ken Burns would struggle to put into a 10-hour miniseries.  Robert X. Cringely, despite disliking the movie, put this idea into words.

The great failing of this film is the same failing as with Walter Isaacson’s book… we don’t really understand [Steve Jobs] any better.

Robert X. Cringely
Ashton Kutcher’s Steve Jobs somehow misses the whole point

Even the mediocre reviews give Ashton Kutcher much (deserved) praise for his portrayal of Steve Jobs, including his mannerisms. Whatever the final box office success of Jobs is, I believe the movie is Ashton Kutcher’s “Philadelphia moment” that will propel the actor best known for That ’70s Show and Two and a Half Men into a new series of roles, just as the 1993 film Philadelphia propelled Tom Hanks out of comedies like The Man with One Red Shoe into dramatic films like Saving Private Ryan and The Da Vinci Code.

I did not leave the theater counting the days until The Social Network director Aaron Sorkin’s take on Steve Jobs arrives. I left the theater asking myself “can’t we do both”?  Can we create companies that build insanely great products without creating insane cut-throat work environments? For now, the answer is apparently still “no”.

If you are looking for the “real” Steve Jobs, check out Steve Jobs: The Lost Interview on Netflix. Or any number of books, including Issacson’s (see my book review in related article, Steve Jobs). But Ashton Kutcher’s portrayal is worth a ticket stub and some popcorn.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I borrowed a copy of this book from a public library and did not receive it free from its publisher. Some of the links in the post above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers.I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Choosing Dashboard Fonts

Although there are thousands of different fonts available, only a handful are truly timeless.

An important decision in designing a dashboard or other data visualization is the choice of a font. The most important characteristic of a dashboard font is that it should permit the dashboard user to view and process information quickly. It may seem boring as a designer to always reach for the same fonts. However, any novelty in a dashboard, whether a funky font or animation, can quickly become annoying when a dashboard is used on a daily basis. Older versions of Xcelsius, for example, limited the designer to a single font. Although that limitation was lifted in Xcelsius 2008, limiting the dashboard to one or two fonts is still a great first step in improved readability. Stephen Few offers the following advice:

You want a font that can be read the fastest with the least amount of strain on the eyes. Find one that works and stick with it throughout the dashboard. You can use a different font for headings to help them stand out if you wish, but that’s the practical limit.

Information Dashboard Design – Stephen Few – O’Reilly – 2006 – pp. 170-171

Remember that fonts with serifs, such as Times New Roman, give our brains clues and help us read faster. That is why most books are set with serif fonts. However, sans-serif fonts, such as Helvetica or its poor cousin Arial on Microsoft Windows, have a cleaner appearance. Monospaced fonts can help with the uniform display of numbers instead of proportionally spaced fonts; however, the standard Courier can be a bit boring.

Although there are thousands of different fonts available, only a handful are truly timeless. Take Helvetica, for example.

Last week, American Airlines announced a redesign of its logo and its livery. Gone is its previous logo, designed in 1967 by Massimo Vignelli. Considered by many logo designers to be a timeless classic, the retired logo used the Helvetica font, rendering AmericanAirlines as a single word in two bold primary (and, well, American) colors. You can read Massimo Vignelli’s thoughts of both the old and new logos in this BusinessWeek interview.

American Airlines new logo on planes
Photo credit: American Airlines

Massimo Vignelli and many other designers share their thoughts in the 2007 documentary Helvetica, which is currently available on Netflix as well as on DVD and Blu Ray at Amazon.com. Because I’m an engineer by training and not a visual designer, I found this documentary to be helpful even though it wasn’t specifically about dashboard design. I especially enjoyed viewing it again in light of the American Airlines redesign.

Helvetica served American Airlines well for over 40 years. I doubt that the dashboards we are building today will be in use 40 years from now, but we can still choose to be timeless instead of trendy in our visual designs.

What are some of your favorite fonts for dashboards?

Resources

Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links on this web site above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers. Also, some of the books I review were received as review copies and I’ve given my best effort to accurately disclose that information as part of the review. I am disclosing this information in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Steve Jobs: The Lost Interview

Steve Jobs: The Lost Interview is now on Netflix

Last year, former Apple employee and technology columnist Robert X. Cringely unearthed a VHS copy of a presumed lost interview with Steve Jobs that was recorded in 1995, the year before he would return to Apple through Apple’s purchase of NeXT. After a theatrical release last year and arriving on iTunes earlier this summer, it is now available on Netflix.  I’ve watched it twice and highly recommend it.

Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links in the post above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers.I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”