David Gelphman's Blog


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Macintosh Then and Now

It’s amazing to see how far the Macintosh hardware has come over the 30 years of its existence.

Original Macintosh January 24, 1984
Single-core 8 MHz Processor, 16 bit Motorola 68000
128 KB RAM
9 inch, 1 bit per pixel, black and white CRT display, 512×342 pixels
One 400 KB single-sided floppy drive
2 RS-422 ports
OS: Mac OS 1.0
Number of swaps to copy 1 floppy disk: 4
$2499 in 1984 dollars.

BTO iMac January 24, 2014
Quad-core 3500 MHz Processor, 64 bit Intel Core i7
NVIDIA GeForce GTX 775M GPU with 2GB video RAM
16,000,000 KB RAM
27 inch, 24 bits per pixel, color LCD display, 2560×1440 pixels
1 1,000,000,000 KB Hard Drive
4 USB 3 ports, 2 Thunderbolt ports, 1 Gigabit Ethernet port, SDXC card slot, Bluetooth
Facetime HD camera
OS: Mac OS X 10.9 Mavericks
Number of swaps to copy 1 floppy disk: huh?
$2,399 in 2014 dollars.

Not to mention how visually different the computers are today.


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30 Years of Macintosh

Without a doubt the introduction of the Macintosh changed my life.

In 1984 I was nearing the completion of my PhD in physics. I knew I wasn’t going to continue in physics and I had no idea what I would do instead. My interest in the personal computers of the day was non-existent. In January 1984 I was out of the country so I missed the introduction of the Mac. But a colleague had a friend who worked for Apple and that friend brought a Mac over to show us. It seemed like magic.

I was totally hooked. Stanford had some Macs that you could go and spend time with, playing with MacPaint and MacWrite. When Apple offered Macs through the university at $1000 (a huge discount from the $2500 list price) I scraped together money I didn’t have and bought one.

In the early days of Macintosh the internet was just a bit different than today. A couple of people at Stanford started the “Info Mac Digest” which was a daily mass mailing that went to thousands of people. It was an incredible information source and consisted entirely of postings from people who shared excitement about this sea change in computing. For a period of time I was moderator of info-mac and through that got to meet many people in the Macintosh community, many of which are colleagues and friends today. I have to take at least partial credit for organizing the “netters dinner” that took place annually around MacWorld. I still remember the year that about 70 of us gathered at MacWorld and walked from Moscone up to Chinatown and overtook the Hunan Restaurant. (See Netter’s Dinner.)

Stanford had a users group, SMUG, that met regularly. Gus Fernandez started a developers group associated with SMUG and he seemed to have every Apple superstar come and talk about Macintosh. I don’t remember everybody but I do remember Andy Hertzfeld, Larry Kenyon, Bruce Horn, Chris Crawford, and Bill Budge coming and blowing everybody away with stories, demos, and more. I still remember Andy saying that even though the LaserWriter had a 12 MHz processor (instead of the 8 MHz of the Mac), running PostScript brought the processor to its knees!

All this motivated me to go to the Stanford library where they had a loose leaf copy of a draft of Inside Macintosh and I started reading. Everything was totally new and exciting but completely foreign to me. I’d only done programming in Fortran previously and Pascal was literally a foreign language. It was nothing like the computing I’d done on mainframes! On July 13, 1985 I went to the “MacAfrica” one day class taught by Dave Wilson (see MacAfrica) and learned a ton.

When I finished grad school and started looking for jobs I had a couple of opportunities with high tech companies doing computing work that didn’t really excite me but they were good opportunities nonetheless. Then by chance I met Dave Gustavson at SLAC who was looking for a Mac programmer to do Mac programming using FORTH on a project to control a piece of hardware. I ended up working for him in the Computation Research Group at SLAC programming the Mac using the fantastic Mach1 programming environment created by Rick Miley and others at the Palo Alto Shipping Company.

One bonus of that job was that Dave got one of the first Apple LaserWriter printers. I got a serial cable and started to learn the PostScript programming language. Since it was syntactically similar to FORTH it was a breeze to get started. This was my real first experience with computer graphics and it was a really easy way to learn. This was helpful when a friend at SLAC, Kathy Dager, put me in touch with Dick Sweet at Adobe Systems.

At Adobe I got the opportunity to do a wide range of things, including teaching PostScript programming classes to a wide range of people, working with a number of high profile software developers, including Apple, Aldus, and Quark. While Adobe was in development of a second version of the PostScript programming language (PostScript Level 2) I got to be part of the design of the language.

When Adobe decided that they needed to write a new LaserWriter driver for the Macintosh, I met Rich Blanchard and he and I co-designed and (with a team of talented people) wrote a new PostScript printer driver for Macintosh. That project became a joint project with Apple and became Apple’s LaserWriter 8 printer driver.

This led to my direct involvement with Apple Computer. Over time I worked with Rich and others from the LaserWriter 8 team at RBI Software Systems where we did contract work for Apple, Adobe, Sun, IBM, and others. After 5 years of working with Apple as a contractor, Apple decided they wanted us to work exclusively for them and our team at RBI became Apple employees. I worked at Apple almost 13 years before leaving in January 2013 to take a break from working in the world of technology.

Without my involvement with Macintosh, I would not have met my wife of 25+ years nor most of the people who are my friends today. It has influenced my career, my personal life, and many of my interests that continue to this day.

So I mean it when I say the introduction of the Macintosh changed my life.


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Moving the Crystal Ball

I never expected that my graduate school experience would include a ride in a C-5A military transport airplane, much less the opportunity to be in its cockpit during a mid-air refueling. But amazingly it did.

In April of 1982 I was part of a team that moved the Crystal Ball, a detector used for particle physics experiments, from Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC) in Menlo Park, California to Deutsches Elektronen-Synchrotron (DESY) in Hamburg, Germany. The Crystal Ball was unique among detectors used in particle physics in that it consisted almost completely of a spherical array of sodium iodide crystals and was an excellent tool for measuring the energy of gamma ray photons that can be produced in collisions of high energy particles. The success of the Crystal Ball at SPEAR resulted in an invitation from DESY to move it to the newly upgraded DORIS storage ring in Hamburg. (Some additional detail about the detector itself can be found in my PhD dissertation, starting on page 23 of the linked PDF file.)

Because the Crystal Ball was largely made up of sodium iodide, it needed to continually exist in a temperature and humidity controlled environment. Without this special handling, the crystals themselves would corrode and be worthless for experimental purposes. In addition there were concerns about it encountering excessive g-forces (i.e. sharp jolts) that might crack one or more crystals. Ultimately it was decided that instead of sending the most delicate portion via cargo ship, it would be transported by a C-5A military transport plane.

C5A overview

The heart of the detector was carefully packaged into special boxes constructed with a styrofoam cushion against shock and which allowed the flow of dry nitrogen to control the humidity. These boxes were loaded into a specially outfitted US shipping trailer and trucked to Travis Air Force Base northeast of San Francisco. The trailer itself was loaded into the C-5A and detached from the truck which stayed behind.

The cargo area of a C-5A is massive tube. Here’s a photo prior to the trailer being loaded.

Down the Plane Barrel

Prior to the flight we got a tour of the cockpit and I got to take some photos. This was as close as I ever expected to get.

Cockpit before flying

There were a couple of unusual aspects to flying in the passenger portion of the C-5A. For improved safety, the seat backs are in the direction of travel. At first this seemed odd but once you could no longer see out it really didn’t make any difference. And the windows themselves were either non-existent or were so high up that you couldn’t see out of them while seated. The biggest issue while flying was that it was LOUD. We all were given earplugs to wear during the flight but even with them it was loud. No doubt it was the most claustrophobic and uncomfortable flight I’ve every taken. But also the most incredible.

We took off and after a few hours there was going to be a mid-air refueling. I don’t know if that was strictly necessary or was done so that they could practice the process. Either way it was incredibly exciting because our team from SLAC was invited to the cockpit in groups so we could watch!

When I got to the cockpit, this was the scene I saw.

Cockpit During Refueling

After a short while I got to locate myself just behind the pilot’s seat, to the left of his left shoulder. And what I saw startled me at first. Flying at our speed, just above and in front of us, was another airplane. The photo below was taken through the left side of the windshield in the cockpit and you can clearly see the boom that was already attached to our plane, providing fuel. I don’t know the distance between the two planes but it could have been as close as 20 feet and almost certainly wasn’t more than 50. Let’s just say it was close.

Midair Refueling A

Below the boom is a window where the boom operator in the other plane can see our plane and properly guide the boom. I was able to take a photo where you can see the boom operator’s face through that window.

The Fueling Operator

Once the refueling was complete, the boom was withdrawn and the other plane slowly flew away from us.

Midair Refueling C

Once it got a sufficient distance away, the fins on the boom became visible.

Midair Refueling E

Midair Refueling G

What an amazing opportunity! It was an unforgettable experience to be in that cockpit. And I can’t believe that I got to take photos.

Once we’d taken off, the landing was the next risk point in the journey. Because large g-forces could be damaging to our cargo, we’d equipped the trailer with recording accelerometers so we could monitor the conditions. I’m not exaggerating when I say that it was the smoothest landing I’ve ever experienced while flying. We landed safely and encountered no problems with the detector.

Here’s a photo of the trailer being safely unloaded from the C-5A. That’s me with the red backpack on the right side of the photo.

Arriving in Frankfurt

They took a group photo of the flight crew plus our team. The civilian team was led by Dr. Ian Kirkbride from Stanford and Dr. Don Coyne from Princeton. Chad Edwards (now at JPL) was a Cal Tech graduate student at the time and is the redhead at the bottom-left in front. I’m at the back with my hair flying, sandwiched between two air force men. Other members of our team were Jim Nolan, John Hawley, Bob Parks, and Sal Fazzino. (Apologies to anyone I left out or whose name I got wrong. It was almost 32 years ago!)

Flight Crew

Now all we had to do was drive from where we’d landed at Rhein-Main Air Force Base in Frankfurt to our final destination in Hamburg. But there was a surprise in store for us.

During the drive from Frankfurt to Hamburg we took turns traveling inside the trailer, riding with the crates holding the Crystal Ball hemispheres. The idea was to ensure that the environment was being maintained during the trip. At some point along the drive I was in the windowless trailer when the truck unexpectedly slowed down and stopped. The truck had blown out a gasket or thrown a rod and that was going to require a major overhaul. That didn’t seem like too big a deal until we found out that there was only one other truck in Germany that could pull our trailer. Apparently the coupling needed for pulling an American trailer was rarely available. It’s safe to say that there was a lot of confusion when the breakdown occurred. I think this photo captures that.

Frankfurt to Hamburg

In truth, the remainder of the trip went smoothly. The replacement truck arrived the following day and we were able to transport the trailer containing the Crystal Ball safely to its new home at DESY. Here’s a photo of the trailer after the Crystal Ball was unloaded from it at DESY.

Crystal Ball Trailer

And the Crystal Ball was installed inside the radiation area where the beams collide.

Experiment Pit

It was all quite an adventure. And one of my fondest memories from graduate school.


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On the Debug Podcast

Recently I made an appearance on the Debug podcast, hosted by Guy English and Rene Ritchie. It was terrific fun talking with them and we’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback from listeners. We had so much to talk about that they broke it up into two parts.

In Part 1 we talk about how I got into computing, working with FORTH at Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, my days at Adobe Systems in the late 1980s, working at General Magic, and then RBI Software Systems. Part 1 ends just as we are talking about RBI moving to Apple to work in the Graphics and Imaging Group in June, 2000.

Part 2 begins as I arrive at Apple and begin working on Printing and Graphics just as Mac OS X was ramping up for a beta release in the fall of 2000 and the 10.0 release in the Spring of 2001. It was a fantastic time to start at Apple and be a part of its evolution. And yes, we also talk about bagels.

If you haven’t already, I hope you listen in.


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How I Became a Movie Producer

In my career I’ve been lucky to get to do a variety of things. At Stanford I worked as a graduate student doing research in high energy physics. My work at Adobe, RBI Software Systems, and Apple was primarily software development, but I also did 3rd party developer support, taught PostScript programming, wrote numerous technical documents, and even wrote a book. But I never imagined that I would be an associate producer of a movie.

It started on June 26, 2012, when a New York Times article caught my eye. Filmmakers Lindsay Blatt and Paul Taggart were making a short film, Herd in Iceland, documenting the historic herding of the Icelandic horse. The story they were filming was from another world, one so different than the one I live in, but one I have a connection to nonetheless. You see, I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to ride my beautiful Icelandic horse Katla for 7 years now. She takes me to places that connect me with nature in ways that I could not do without her.

David and Katla

Reading the article about Lindsay and Paul and watching the trailer to their film brought tears to my eyes. The Icelandic landscape is so beautiful and seeing the elegant Icelandic horses running freely in it was a deeply moving experience. When I read that they had started a Kickstarter project, I knew I had to participate. I wanted to see their film succeed.

I’d already been part of several Kickstarter projects and it had been quite gratifying. In each case the results exceeded my expectations, especially the project by my friend Basho Parks, who created a wonderful album with his partner Jenn Rawling.

For the Herd in Iceland project, the question was how much to contribute. I looked at the project and they were trying to raise $16,500. At that point they hadn’t raised anywhere near that much money. I saw that I could be listed as an associate producer on the project if I contributed $2000. But that was insane. Yes, I loved what I saw of their project, but I’d never sent that much money to someone I don’t know. I’ve rarely sent that much money to anyone I do know!

I re-watched the trailer and teared up once again. I really loved what they were doing with their film and wanted them to be able to do it. It was right around my birthday so I decided I’d forgo anything else for my birthday and give myself the biggest birthday present ever. I signed up. It was crazy, but I was very excited.

The DVD for the movie arrived just before Christmas. Every year my wife Leslie and I pick a movie to watch on Christmas Eve and this time it was going to be Herd in Iceland. I put the disc in and as soon as the title sequence started I teared up. The sight of those horses in that country just does it to me. Herd In Iceland small

And when the credits come up at the end, there I am as one of the associate producers.

Credits small

Lindsay tells me that the Kickstarter money is, in part, enabling them to enter their film into film festivals this year. Most recently they attended the 2013 Black Hills Film Festival and were surprised and thrilled to win Best Documentary Short.

BlackHills Herd In Iceland small

I’m looking forward to them coming to festivals in the San Francisco Bay Area and I’m crossing my fingers and hoping that they get into the Santa Cruz Film Festival. If so, my many friends in this area that have Icelandic horses will be able to come and support it. And still more people that have not seen the beauty of the Icelandic horse will be able to share in that experience.

Lindsay has a calendar of their film festival appearances, but you don’t have to find a film festival to see the film. The movie and a book of images from the movie are available for purchase.

Lindsay and Paul made a lovely film and I am proud to have been a small part of it.


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AWK! That Can’t Be Right!?

Predicting when software will be ready to ship is hard. Especially when the software involved is:

  • a complete rewrite from scratch of already existing software.
  • being written by a completely different team (and company) than the one that wrote the original code.
  • a system software component that interacts with virtually every 3rd party app on the platform.
  • required to be fully compatible with the existing software, plus new software and hardware in development.

But that was exactly the scenario I was in, along with Rich Blanchard and the rest of the development team, when I was at Adobe Systems circa 1991 writing a replacement for Apple’s LaserWriter printer driver. And the software we were writing was a critical part of Adobe’s strategic plan for preserving its largest income source at the time, PostScript licensing revenue. No surprise that there was a lot of scrutiny about the project and when it was going to be completed.

Years later, the website MacJournals.com did a write up about the project, including quite a bit about what role the LaserWriter driver software played in the printing system on Mac OS at the time. I have my minor quibbles with some of the details of that write up but one thing was true: that software project really burned me to the ground and was a major factor in my deciding to leave Adobe for greener pastures in 1993.

The Definition of Bad Management

There are a lot of stories about the project I could tell that would raise the hair of every software engineer on the planet, but one clearly defines the term “bad management”.

Part way into the project, Adobe hired “Stoy Aho” to manage the project and the engineering team. As far as I could tell, Stoy had no experience managing a software project or software engineers and there was no evidence that he knew how to write software beyond simple UNIX shell scripts. And even that ability became suspect.

As the completion date for the software kept being pushed out (see the bulleted list above for why), upper level management at Adobe started having meetings every day at 8am to discuss the status of the project. Stoy went to these daily meetings to report how things were going. In order to satisfy his need for something new to report, each team member was required to write a status report each day.

But we were converging on completing the software and some of the tension the engineering team members were feeling began to dissipate; things were looking good. So it was a complete surprise when Stoy came to me and told me how worried Adobe management was about the project. It turned out that he was showing them information he had calculated from our bug tracking database. By using the rate we were fixing bugs and observing the rate that new bugs came in, he had potentially useful information about predicting when the software would be ready to ship.

And that is why he was alarmed. Despite our sense that things were going much better, his analysis of the data indicated that they were getting progressively worse. I asked how he computed the results that he obtained and Stoy said he’d written an AWK script to process the raw bug count data. I immediately demanded that he show me the script.

I didn’t know the AWK programming language but it didn’t take me long to find the problem. At a critical point in his computations, Stoy had inverted the numerator and denominator in one of the calculations, causing his script to produce results that were the exact inverse of the truth! His program showed that the faster we fixed bugs, the longer it would take to ship.

Repeat after me: Stoy’s AWK script showed that the faster we fixed bugs, the longer it would take for the software to be ready.

This occurred over 20 years ago so I don’t remember exactly what I said at the time, but I’m pretty sure my response at the time was something besides AWK.


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A Fortune Cookie Determined My Future

After working at Adobe Systems for five years and with an extremely stressful software project behind me, I took a much needed 6 week “sabbatical” at the end of 1992. When I returned to work afterwards I was somewhat refreshed but also pondering what to do next.

A few months after my extended break I got a call from a job recruiter named Sondra Card. In the past I had ignored such calls but this one caught me at a time when I was wondering about my future with Adobe. And this wasn’t a call about just any company either. The company Sondra was recruiting for was General Magic, a company co-founded by Bill Atkinson and Andy Hertzfeld, two superstars from the original Macintosh development team.

I didn’t know much about the company beyond that, but I soon found out a lot more. General Magic was creating amazing software to power a new kind of handheld computer. Called Magic Cap, the software and the devices it would enable were almost certainly going to take the world by storm. As if that wasn’t bold enough, the company was also inventing a new programming language, called Telescript, that allowed creation of a program that would travel the internet on behalf of a user to do his or her bidding. To top it all off, they had the coolest company name and logo on the planet. 

General magic logo 1

After finding out a bit about the company, I definitely had to pursue the job opportunity further. Because of my strong background in 3rd party developer support at Adobe, they were considering adding me to their existing 2-person developer support group. My responsibility would be to support the first 3rd party developer building a product on top of Telescript.

As part of the interview process I met the senior people on the Telescript team and found them all to be fantastic people who were both extremely smart and quite amicable. I also found out that in addition to Andy and Bill there was a huge roster of superstar programmers, many of whom were formerly from Apple. I apparently did well enough in the interview to merit a demo of Magic Cap by none other than Andy Hertzfeld. The software was still unfinished but it was clearly something special. The use of the word Magic in the product and company name was well deserved.

With my head spinning, I was taken to lunch by one of the General Magic employees I already knew well. Paul Gustafson and I had worked together at Adobe for a number of years and no doubt it was Paul who had suggested that General Magic recruit me. Paul took me to Hunan Homes, a good Chinese restaurant just across from the General Magic office.

Paul was there to tell me how great it was to work at General Magic and find out my thoughts about working there. I don’t remember much from the lunch because my head was in a cloud. But what I do remember is that at the end of the meal when we got our fortune cookies I got the best one ever. It read: “A starship ride has been promised to you by the galactic wizzard (sic)”.

Starship Ride

Paul and I just stared at each other. We were both dumbfounded. 

A few days later I was offered the job by General Magic and I left Adobe to take it. I’ve got to say that the fortune I got at that lunch probably influenced me more than I’d care to admit. When you are promised a starship ride by the galactic wizard you just have to take it.

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