Category Archives: Career

U.S. Digital Services Playbook

Today, too many of our digital services projects do not work well, are delivered late, or are over budget. To increase the success rate of these projects, the U.S. Government needs a new approach. We created a playbook of 13 key “plays” drawn from successful best practices from the private sector and government that, if followed together, will help government build effective digital services.
U.S. Digital Services Playbook

Three of the plays—1, 6, and 7—focus on people alone. Solid advice for any project.

Photoshop’s Bloat Exemplified

Everything wrong with Photoshop exemplified in one update:


While I can understand Adobe needs to keep their software fresh to maintain sales, this is just plain old bloatware as far as I am concerned. I don’t need 3D modeling and manipulation in Photoshop. I need a scripting API that actually works so that I can create truly integrated workflows to save me time and money. This 3D update is instead a complete waste of my time and money.

“You don’t choose what will work. You simply do the best you can each time.”

From a blog post by Neil Gaiman in 2009:

Yes, it’s unrealistic of you to think George is “letting you down”.

Look, this may not be palatable, Gareth, and I keep trying to come up with a better way to put it, but the simplicity of things, at least from my perspective is this:

George R.R. Martin is not your bitch.

But beyond that initial blast is this really great gem that I think applies to any creative endeavor including programming:

Sometimes it happens like that. You don’t choose what will work. You simply do the best you can each time. And you try to do what you can to increase the likelihood that good art will be created.

And sometimes, and it’s as true of authors as it is of readers, you have a life.

I have started more projects than I have finished, each for their own reasons. “Finished” is entirely subjective, but in my case it would likely mean “used by someone else” and/or “used in day-to-day production by me.” Some unfinished projects get revisited, but most don’t, again each for their own reasons. Outside of important deadlines, not getting hung up on whether something is finished is important, at least for me. What is just as important, however, is learning something new from that project, including how not to do something. Each project I started has been a learning experience of some kind, so even the unfinished ones have value.

Having a deadline is another matter entirely.

Sleep as a Competitive Advantage

Too many of us continue to live by the durable myth that one less hour of sleep gives us one more hour of productivity. In reality, each hour less of sleep not only leaves us feeling more fatigued, but also takes a pernicious toll on our cognitive capacity. The more consecutive hours we are awake and the fewer we sleep at night, the less alert, focused and efficient we become, and the lower the quality of our work.

The research is overwhelming that the vast majority of us require seven to eight hours of sleep to feel fully rested, and only a small percentage require less than seven. The problem is that we kid ourselves. “Like a drunk,” the Harvard sleep expert Charles A. Czeisler wrote, “a person who is sleep deprived has no idea how functionally impaired he or she truly is. Most of us have forgotten what it really feels like to be awake.”
NY Times: Sleep as a Competitive Advantage

For me, nothing beats a twenty minute nap in the afternoon, maybe thirty minutes. Anything more than that is of little to no benefit. But that twenty minutes can make all the difference in the world for the rest of my day.

I think sleep is really only part of the solution to good productivity, and that exercise and a reasonable diet are needed as well for sleep to be its most effective. I say, “reasonable diet” in that there only a relative few out there that eat truly good all the time; some foods aren’t good for the waistline, but they are good for soul and are therefore irresistible.

I have been working on my health for the past several weeks by working through an exercise regimen from Nerd Fitness. I work out five days a week on average, for an average thirty minutes a day. It’s a well packed thirty minutes prioritizing intensity over time, and within only a couple weeks I found benefits in regards to how I feel overall. Even those nights where I only could get five to six hours of sleep I felt better than before I started working out.

Facebook Paper

Paper presents user updates as “stories”: captions overlaid on large-format photos, auto-playing videos, and even long or short text screeds all in an edge-to-edge, full-screen format. The default “section” in the app is the user’s Facebook news feed, but users can pull new sections up from a set of cards, such as “Headlines” or Tech,” and browse between them in one pane.

“Each section includes a rich mix of content from emerging voices and well-known publications,” Facebook says. This gives the biggest clue to the real intended creators for paper: brands, be they news outlets or celebrities.
Ars Technica: Facebook’s Paper is Facebook without the Facebook

Oh, look, yet another proprietary digital publishing platform targeted at publishers. How quaint. Here, let me add this to my pile of fifty or so I have over here.

“And in truth, I’ve never known a man worth his salt who, in the long run, deep down in his heart, didn’t appreciate the grind, the discipline. The difference between a successful person and others is not a lack of strength, not a lack of knowledge, but rather… a lack of will.”
Vince Lombardi

ars technica: How QuarkXPress became a mere afterthought in publishing

Quark’s demise is truly the stuff of legend. In fact, the story reads like the fall of any empire: failed battles, growing discontent among the overtaxed masses, hungry and energized foes, hubris, greed, and… uh, CMYK PDFs. What did QuarkXPress do—or fail to do—that saw its complete dominance of desktop publishing wither in less than a decade? In short, it didn’t listen.
ars technica: How QuarkXPress became a mere afterthought in publishing

Much of what happened to Quark and Microsoft is now happening with Adobe. I am increasingly seeing criticism of Adobe’s painfully high prices for questionable updates (primitive 3D objects in Photoshop? Why?). The difference this time, however, is that there is no alternative on the horizon. If I recall correctly, InDesign was rumored for quite a while before release. Even if InDesign ended up being vaporware, the enthusiasm was palpable but Quark appeared to simply not give a shit what anyone had to say; Quark’s hubris was just astounding. Today, Adobe has deaf ears if only because they have no compelling reason to listen.

Studies in Semicolons: The Parable of the Carpenter

The carpenter understands the value of something he works with every day, and that’s why he spends so much money on the hammer. But he also understands that value is a double-edged sword: he’s committing to the product he knows, that is reliable.
Studies in Semicolons: The Parable of the Carpenter

Replacing the subject of the punchline with other tools in which I have invested makes this parable applicable to more areas than I care to think about. Interestingly enough, Microsoft Office is not one of them.

Not quite as simple as all that

Nigel Warren:

The fact that iWork on the Mac has lost functionality isn’t because Apple is blind to power users. It’s because they’re willing to make a short-term sacrifice in functionality so that they can create a foundation that is equal across the Mac, iOS, and web versions. It will take time to bring these new versions of iWork up to parity with what the Mac used to have. In the meantime all platforms have to live with the lowest common denominator.

This is what I think, too. Doesn’t make it any easier to stomach if you relied on features that have gone away though. And let’s see how long “short-term” is.
Daring Fireball: iWork 13 is the New iMovie 08

This analogy falls short when discussing Applescript’s lack of support in iWork and its oftentimes murky support from Apple and its partners. From an application/GUI standpoint, sure, iWork is garnering the same reaction as iMovie and Final Cut Pro. Not that I want to point out the obvious here, but Applescript is not a GUI. Applescript is a programming language in its own right that extends the capability of any supporting application to well beyond the confines of its GUI. Looking at the current state of Applescript support is important to take into consideration here because there exists a deeper, more complex, history than what exists for iWork.

  • Search “Applescript” on Apple’s homepage, and there is no evangelism of any kind. There are, instead, links to developer documentation. What evangelism did exist has long since been migrated over to an external site run at one point by a freelancer specializing in Applescript solutions but now any clue of ownership is now hidden. What, exactly, is the Applescript community is to think of this? While there is nothing from Apple stating that Applescript support is going away, but there is an implication that Applescript is less than a second-class citizen in the Apple world, simply sent out to pasture and brought in for the occasional grooming. Attempts to improve Applescript’s profile are either weird or poorly implemented.
  • ApplescriptObjC was created to allow Applescript developers to create Cocoa applications in native Applescript, but it has some serious flaws. The source code file name changes from .applescript to .scpt upon compilation which destroys any links to included files. This is ultimately manageable but that just creates more ceremony before development can begin. Also, blocks are cannot be implemented in ApplescriptObjC, either.
  • Scripting Bridge, which goes the other way by allowing Applescript calls via native Objective-C (as opposed to using the NSApplescript class). But it relies on two command line apps that generate grossly erroneous or incomplete header files (with no tools for troubleshooting issues) and typically results in an API that is severely limited in scope by randomly not allowing the creation of certain classes.
  • Automator appears to be a bridge between budding power users that can’t code to those that can, but is a separate implementation in addition to Applescript despite both use the same frameworks. More work to implement another niche technology? Really?
  • Now we have a major name on the Mac, Adobe, allowing their Applescript APIs to fall apart and currently not allowing external script calls.

Given that context, iWork’s change in Applescript is not “the sky is falling” but rather the latest in a long line of dysfunctional behaviors from Apple.

If an analogy is sought of Applescript’s drop from iWork, then it could go something like this: For a certain class of “power users” (an analogy I equate to “people who drive trucks”), dropping Applescript support from a core application cutting off any further independent development and is akin to Apple dropping the Cocoa frameworks and Objective-C. Hard stop. There is no GUI to fall back on for what Applescript does for a lot of its users.

For that subclass of power users, those that have built processes and workflows that save their companies thousands of dollars and hours each year in productivity, any drop in Applescript support marginalizes those users into maintaining quickly-outdated systems. When talking about those power users, adding a “though” to “Doesn’t make it any easier to stomach if you relied on features that have gone away” is dismissive of the impact. The reaction from certain users is not about iWork but about the state of Applescript in general.

Given this affects a subclass of a subclass of all users, robust Applescript implementations are a relatively small niche. As such, support was never as solid or apparent as, say, Core Data. If support for a technology that I use to automate quantifiably money-saving processes is dodgy to the point where whole code migrations are required, then I, as well as others, will need to seek out more stable platforms. So, try to stomach that.

Wither Applescript

John Gruber linked to an article that explains the dropping of Applescript from the latest release of iWork.

The writing has been on the wall about this for a long, long time. How long has it been since Apple allowed their Applescript pages be allowed to go offsite? Instead is simply lamenting about the impending, far-too-long-drawn-out demise of Applescript, I wanted to substantiate a claim made by the aforementioned article:

What I suspect Apple doesn’t realize is how much small business and small shops workflow depends upon Applescript. Casual use is fine. But a lot of people do more.
iWork 13 — A Huge Regression

iWork is irrelavent in my industry; the lingua franca for developing book content is Microsoft Office, but the red flag being raised is just as relevant. Also, I am not a small company. I work for a large company that is almost a third Macs. But, I think there is the point to be made that Apple might not be aware of the complexity of workflows built around Applescript, and how casually and quietly deprecating support sucker punches any developer regardless of size.


At my day job in a publishing company, I manage a pre- and post-press department that is concerned with the archiving, retrieval, and most importantly re-use of content. (I suppose this could be summarized as “content lifecycle management.”) Content comes in many forms but for me the focus is on art and text.

For art, we have a number of digital products that are derived from the main texts that we publish, all of them an image bank in one form or another. An image bank is essentially a catalog of images that is easily searchable and useable by instructors and students ultimately showing an image on its own page. The term “image” in this context is actually comprised of several elements:

  • The picture itself
  • Callout (Figure 1-1, Figure 1-2, etc.)
  • Caption
  • Credit
  • Relavent metadata, like page number

Image banks come in three forms, two web-based versions—one of which you can see an example of here—and PowerPoint. The PowerPoint-based image bank is literally each slide showing the above components for a given image.

An image bank can have anywhere between 200 to 3,000 images, and not all images have all of those elements. A book will have any or all the different types of image banks, so content must be displayed in each of those consistently. My team receives hundreds of varying types of content requests each month, but the image banks are the biggest project in terms of scale and scope by a huge margin. We do fewer image banks than we do of other requests, but image banks take the longest and are the most time consuming.

A long time ago, we used to make image banks by hand. The process took months and was riddled with errors since someone manually proofed and placed at least 1,000 content and data points. Then, a former employee wrote an Applescript and everything changed.

Enter Applescript

Applescript has helped us make the process much more reliable and faster. Essentially, the way the creation process works is the following:

  • My team collects all content into an Excel spreadsheet templates (this is still done manually, though XML is going to change that really soon)
  • Editorial edits the content to meet common and lowest-common-denominator image bank specs
  • My team takes the edited spreadsheets and runs a script to create the product.
  • The script extract the content from Excel, massage as required, and then transform into the required format
  • The resulting files are returned for proofing and any changes made are done in the spreadsheet (they are almost always typos) and the process starts at the beginning again

The “resulting files” can be made in any number of ways, but Adobe Photoshop is a common tool because all art must be converted to meet web specs or be usable in PowerPoint. Adobe InDesign is another tool in the process because one of the image banks uses some fairly complex layouts.

The Applescripts do a lot for us in the process:

  • Captions and credits are made “web ready” by converting special characters to HTML entities and removing any odd formatting that may have been carried over from the page layouts.
  • Common text styling is captured from Excel and applied in the output files via a simple spec.
  • Layouts are created and optimized dynamically via simple rules with no manual intervention.
  • Files are appropriately named, errors logged, and so on.

Applescript makes inter-application automation a breeze. Most scripts go between the Finder, Excel, and then InDesign or Powerpoint at the click on icon, and I have developed scripts and processes that I can hand off to people with no programming knowledge of any kind. These scripts are anywhere between 1,200-3,000 lines of code; they are major applications unto themselves. My team doesn’t even open the script in Script Editor or Script Debugger to run it. I always felt the real power of Applescript was the ability to create complex workflows so easily, but that’s provided application developers are willing to support Applescript. In this case, Applescript saved the day and continued to for a long time.

Enter JSX, Wither Applescript

Adobe wants to own their entire automation stack. Since their introduction of the ExtendScript ToolKit using their version of Javascript as the basis (the file extension is “jsx” hence what I am calling it here), Adobe’s Applescript support has deteriorated to the point where it is now useless to us.

The first nail in the coffin was when Photoshop could no longer open a file via Applescript. But with the release of Creative Cloud and the associated updates to Creative Suite 6, now their dictionaries are stripped of the needed command to create a hybrid Applescript-JSX workflow. The final nail that came with Creative Cloud is that I have since discovered that the JSX framework is no longer accepting arguments as part of script calls from external commands. Everything just passes through as undefined. This may be a big bug, but given the (very) niche nature of my environment, I don’t hold any hope this will be fixed.

I have been porting most of my Adobe automation code to JSX—rebuilding much of what I have done in Applescript in JSX—an effort that has taken better part of this year to get ahead of these changes. I had originally banked on Scripting Bridge to help with pushing content from Excel to the Creative Suite. My goal was to consolidate all of my significant workflows into a Cocoa application for ease of use and better long-term project management. But since that relies on the same frameworks as Applescript—see Apple’s Open Scripting Architecture that Adobe is clearly looking to drop—I now have to look into alternatives.


Again, from the article:

It wouldn’t be so bad were there an alternative.
iWork 13 — A Huge Regression

Alternatives to Applescript depends entirely on one’s own technology stack and a willingness to accept change. To put it another way, alternatives to Applescript simply do not exist only when one decides to stick with Mac OS.

I am exploring options in still maintaining consistent, reliable workflows to create image banks with Adobe Creative Cloud on the Mac. Right now, I am focused on the idea that since I am working with as much text as I am art, I can leverage tab-delimited files (a perennial favorite around here) saved from Excel and JSX’s baked-in XML parsing to create an content transfer spec by creating an in-house content transfer file specification. This means that one-button-click processes turns into n-button-clicks processes, but I still get to keep my investments in Mac OS. I’m not thrilled with this and neither will my team.

Another option is to remove Creative Cloud from the process completely, especially since we are moving everything to web anyway and layouts can be managed with CSS. The PowerPoints are a sticky wicket since that is one of the most-requested formats, and we are beholden to our customers. If not, I would jump to PDF in a second, making the slides using LaTeX. Convincing Sales and Editorial to migrate to PDF, however, would be a huge leap, but one that I am also considering for a variety of reasons, not just this.

Luckily for me, Adobe’s applications are cross-platform as is their JSX platform, and Adobe still maintains a Visual Basic API. The implication is that when Microsoft decides to drop Applescript support from Office as well—given that Adobe and Apple are moving in this direction, why should Microsoft continue?—I can make the move to Windows for process automation and use Visual Basic to automate Excel and then, with some relatively minor changes, carry over my JSX code as writ.

There are some serious caveats to significant of a migration, training and monetary investment notwithstanding. Primarily, if I can reliably call a JSX script with arguments via Visual Basic, then I have effectively re-established where I was before Creative Cloud was released. If Adobe has not treated Visual Basic with the same disdain as it has Applescript, then I could eventually be back where I was before JSX was released. That will take time, but in talking with our preferred vendors, the fact that we are using Macs for such large-scale production makes us the odd one out anyway. I will always have a MacBook Pro by my side for everything else, but then I lose my ability to effectively replicate my environment across both computers.

Switching platforms is something that I don’t want to do but the enormity of my Applescript code cannot be overlooked. At the same time, I have made significant investments in Mac-only applications and technologies—BBEdit, OmniGraffle, Cocoa framework—and now Unix now that I have been in school these past couple of years. There is still a lot of Applescript code running around here (and elsewhere) that is useful and viable.

But, when I do take a step back and survey the current environment as it pertains to publishing automation, there is little being done these days that is specific to Mac OS, and with the limited resources available to me I need to consider where I will receive the most support from the platforms upon which I am supporting my career. I’ll try a couple things first and then weigh my options.