Writers I Read: Thomas Brand

For this interview, I talked with Thomas Brand, the fine-looking young man behind Egg Freckles, a well-written technology blog that is themed to like like an Apple Newton. Seriously, it’s freaking awesome.

Stephen: Thanks for agreeing to be interviewed. You and I have a lot in common, as it turns out. Can you give our lovely readers a little of your background?

Thomas: Stephen, you are one of my favorite bloggers to read, because we are both of a similar age, and appear to have a similar history using Macs. I grew up with a Macintosh in the house. My Dad says it was a 512k, but I always thought it was the original 128k Mac. I learned to write and paint on that Mac before I could even held a pencil or a brush. It was not until elementary school that I experienced an Apple IIe, Logo, or the command line. Born in 1983 I am a child of the GUI.

I studied graphic arts in college because I didn’t know what to do with myself, but knew I wanted to use Macs in my profession. I was constantly distracted by people asking me for technical advice, or help fixing their computers. I took my school through the transition from Mac OS 9 to Mac OS X, Netbooting the computer labs in between classes to make use of a limited set of software licenses. Mid way through college Apple made plans to open a new retail store down the street. The year was 2003 and I dropped out of college to become a Mac Genius.

From what I am told the first Mac Genius were all Apple engineers. The second generation were die-hard Apple fans like myself. I don’t know what generation Apple is on today, but when I worked behind the bar a Mac Genius could help you with Classic Mac OS extensions conflicts, or Unix file permission errors. We were not afraid to fix beige boxed Macs, or multi-processor G5 towers. A lot has changed behind Apple’s Genius Bar support model. When I worked the bar their was no concierge. You were supposed to help everyone who came in the door with a question, and keep track of the queue in your head. There were no Creatives or One-to-One Specialists. No Genius Bar admins with an iPad in hand maintaining order. We were the face of Apple customer service, and I loved it.

Retail wears thin on the soul. Not knowing if you are off this weekend until the Thursday before, helping a never ending stream of customers without an office to retreat to is no way to live. I gave up on the Apple dream after I had my fill and began a career at Children’s Hospital Boston where I work now. As a PACS analyst I help with the capture, presentation, reporting, and storage of Radiology images. It is inspirational knowing my actions help save the live’s of children with terrible diseases or who have experienced life threatening accidents. I understand your son, Josiah, was born with a form of brain cancer, and it is honor to work with hospitals like St. Jude’s in finding a cure.

Stephen: Thanks for the kind words, man. St Jude is a wonderful place.

It is uncanny how much our professional lives have tracked in parallel. I even helped my high school (and college, later) newspaper move from OS 9 to OS X.

You were at Apple a few years before me, but it sounds like we left for similar reasons.

So, how’d you get into the Newton?

Thomas: The Mac was my first love. I didn’t discover the Newton until I started working at Apple in 2003. Sure, I had heard of the Newton before that time, but my experience was limited. You can’t really understand something until you make it part of your life, and prior to working at Apple I couldn’t afford to make the Newton part of mine.

When I worked at Apple all new Mac Genius were sent to Cupertino California for training. During my crash course in Apple hardware I met David, an iconic Newton enthusiast from Chicago. While the rest of us took laptops on our California “vacation,” David took his Newton. He sent email, took notes, recorded lectures, created contacts, and surfed the web using only an Apple product the rest of us had never used, and few of us had ever seen before. When I got back to Boston, I bought my first Newton MessagePad to find out what I was missing. The rest is Egg Freckles.

Stephen: That’s awesome. I took my “Clamshell” iBook G3 to training in Cupertino because my MacBook Pro’s hard drive died the day before I left. I got some looks.

So you still use a Newton today, correct?

Thomas: I told Shawn Blanc in an interview earlier this year that I carry my Newton MessagePad with me everywhere I go, and use it to write my blog, Egg Freckles. This was not a lie, but I was certainly stretching the truth. I used to write all of Egg Freckles’ articles using my Newton, but it is hard to stay connected when your computer consists of a decade old 20 MHz PDA with no internet connection. I want what I write on my Newton to make it back to my Mac magically before I get home, but there is no Dropbox, SpiderOak, or iCloud for the Newton MessagePad. Syncing my Newton requires beaming what I write to another Newton model, and emailing my prose from that MessagePad back to my 13 inch MacBook Pro. If I am going to write on my MessagePad, and go through the trouble of syncing my work, than I might as well make the most of my time.

Today I use my Newton for freeform writing where I don’t need to check online sources, or quote articles on the web. I use my Newton to get my ideas down “distraction free” because with a Newton there is very little else to do. Taking my Newton with its matching green keyboard to the park is a great way to accomplish this goal. Not only am I improving my writing environment, but I am separating myself from the interruptions inherent with modern technology. At the end of the day I use the Newton’s stylus to correct misspelled words while I stand in a crowded subway car headed home. I may get strange looks from my fellow passengers, but I have never found a more productive writing environment than when I am completely separated from a web browser, traveling with my Newton MessagePad.[1. Using an AlphaSmart, the logical successor to the Apple eMate, is another device for writing “distraction free,” plus it syncs with USB.]

Stephen: There’s a lot of attention being paid to “distraction-free” writing these days with numerous OS X and iOS apps floating around promising to boost productivity by eliminating noise. It sounds like the Newton is your answer to those apps, in a way.

Shifting gears a bit, how did you end up writing about technology on the web?

Thomas: I have always been interested in design and technology. My first site — BlueSparc.com — was a blog dedicated to so many topics that I lost focus and was soon rehashing everything that entered my RSS feed. I wanted Egg Freckles to be different. A good blog needs to personal as much as it needs to be focused. If you take yourself too seriously, or cover too many topics you will just end up another want-to-be news site and nobody wants that. The original title for Egg Freckles was My Newton Blog. The concept was a public diary covering my experiences with technology as written on my MessagePad. I focused on the personal technology I was familiar with and relegated my interest in design to the construction of my website where I am an amateur. At first my entries were short and sweet, but maybe too personal. Over time I evolved the concept, lengthened my articles, and found my stride. The Newton became more of a gimmick as I began to write most of my entires on my Mac. I changed the name to Egg Freckles[2. Given the popularity of the phrase “Egg Freckles” with the introduction of Siri I doubt it would be available today.], revised my theme, and made my site more accessible to readers. I write because I want to have a voice on the internet. I want to share my experiences with technology. I see the world in a very logical way, and I want to join the conversation already started by Mac luminaries such as John Gruber, John Siracusa, and Marco Arment. I may never become a influential writer, but getting up every morning and curating my thoughts is good for me, so I am going to keep writing Egg Freckles.

Stephen: I feel the same way — writing is good for me.

I think your viewpoint as someone who loves older technology gives a good platform to comment on current news and products.

Something else that I think makes your viewpoint unique is your vision problem. You’ve written about it recently, and I have to say, I was impressed at your openness about it all. How do you think technology will help improve your situation in the future?

Thomas: The line between old and new technology is an interesting balance. It is important to be comfortable with what you know, but it is too easy to become stagnant as technology passes you by. I remember a regular customer at the Apple Store who insisted he would never buy another PowerBook because he wanted to have nothing to with Mac OS X. He ended up buying the last two 1GHz Titanium PowerBook G4s we had because they could boot into Mac OS 9. I never saw him again, and I wonder what technology he is using now…

Nostalgia can be equally harmful. It keeps you looking backwards when you should be moving forwards. Playing with old tech can be educational, but don’t let it steal your focus or how you spend you time. If I had kept every old Mac I was ever given I would have quite the collection today. But I have given most of them away. I don’t need a basement full of Apples to teach me where I have been, especially since I have a luxury of knowing people like Grant Hutchinson who keep that basement for me. If you are not doing something great with the technology you keep around, you should at least share it. Some people make [websites’(http://www.shrineofapple.com/), others have showrooms, I give mine away after I am done learning from it.

Getting to your question — I am visually impaired. I have a hard time using computers especially if the resolution on the display is too dense, over 100dpi. There are a lot of assistive technologies like VoiceOver for blind people, but I can still see. I don’t want to have a different experience from a normal sighted person when using a computer. Technology has always been a great equalizer for me and it seems odd that as display resolutions have increased I and people with visual impairments have started to be left behind. Resolution independence is a technology that scales the computer’s interface no matter the resolution of the display. It makes it possible for people with poor vision to use computers comfortably even when sitting in front of a high resolution monitor. Unfortunately true resolution independence is hard to achieve. Most applications break unless they were designed with resolution independence in mind. Apple has come up with a unique compromise. HiDPI is a technology that multiplies the dimensions of the computer interface by two so that everything is easier to see. It gives a display with the resolution of 2560 by 1440 a usable resolution of 1280 by 720 while keeping everything crisp an legible. HiDPI is easier to implement then resolution independence because it works with even numbers and bitmap interfaces can be scaled more easy when the multiplier is divisible by two. HiDPI and resolution independence will become a bigger deal when displays reach high enough resolutions that everyone could benefit from a larger interface. Right now I am just happy Apple thought of this technology ahead of time and gave people like me who need it now access to it.

Stephen: How do you think that access to technology for handicapped individuals will improve in the future?

Thomas: With each new feature, with each step forward, there is nothing stopping us from extending innovation to all members of society no matter their physical or mental limitations. The experience may not be the same for all users, but with a little consideration a task can be performed by any user no matter their handicap. Technology has empowered able bodied people to accomplish miracles. Why can’t it be used to empower impaired people to accomplish the same miracles? The difference between technology and accessible technology is that someone made the conscious decision to make that technology available to all users. Who would have thought the iPhone, a device with no physical buttons would be a computer blind people would want to use? The iPhone is a accessible device because someone at Apple wanted to make it an accessible device. They gave it VoiceOver, and haptic feedback through vibration so the blind could navigate its featureless display. They gave it visual notifications and adapted the camera’s flash so the deaf could be notified of an incoming message. All of these features were possible with existing technology, all it took was the consideration of a company to make them accessible to all users. As long as companies like Apple continue to push the importance of accessibility in their products, we will continue to observe improvements in accessibility that progress in parallel with the advancement of technology.