Present Tense

New Manhattan, Flat Truth, Blackbird Flies, iPad Cursor, Patriotic Hamilton

Everyday is now exactly the same in our COVID-19 reality. “What’s a weekend?” These are observations and jokes as routine as our daily lives in this quarantined world. But it feels like they’re really going to hit home this weekend, at least in the US, as it’s Memorial Day weekend. Normally, this is the unofficial start of summer. Now it will just be a Monday of no Zoom calls. Well, no work Zoom calls. Well, presumably.

I honestly think the biggest difference in my household will be that it’s the first weekend post-The Last Dance. That is, the first weekend without ESPN’s Michael Jordan documentary, since it wrapped up last week. And it was amazing. Beyond the great filmmaking requirement, I chalk it up to the current absence and longing for sports, nostalgia in general (for the 1980s and 1990s — and just a time of things being “normal”), and an amazing soundtrack and score. PEARL JAM!

It also comes down the complicated subject himself, of course. I wrote about it a bit last week. And The New York Times dove into it as well. A couple takeaways from Noam Scheiber’s piece:

Mr. Sutton, the Stanford professor, said in an interview that there might be a handful of instances in which organizations can benefit from otherwise toxic personalities, such as when locked in a bitter, zero-sum competition. In these instances, he said, having a jerk set the tone “helps you vanquish and intimidate competitors.”

His book cites the example of Steve Jobs of Apple, who, according to a recollection by a co-worker, once left this message for a rival chief executive: “Tell him that the Macintosh is so good that he’s probably going to buy a few for his children even though it put his company out of business.” The rival’s company folded a few years later.

Still, Mr. Sutton’s book goes on to note that while some exceptions to the no-asshole rule may exist, they often turn out to be “dangerous delusions.”


In Mr. Van Gundy’s view, the ’90s Bulls may have won despite Jordan’s antics, not because of them. He was so freakishly talented, driven and hardworking that, notwithstanding his behavior, the net contribution to the team still exceeded that of any basketball contemporary. “You’d have to be that level of great to lead that way,” said Mr. Van Gundy, adding that the approach would probably backfire even for an excellent but not transcendently gifted player.

In that sense, Jordan was not unlike a brilliant start-up founder whose impact on a company’s early prospects is so large it dwarfs his or her personal foibles, said David Golden, who helps run the venture capital arm of Revolution, the investment firm of the America Online co-founder Steve Case.

It was interesting to watch the reaction to my piece on the topic as it seemed to serve as a mirror, of sorts. There were a lot of different takes. But one which I feel like not enough people had is what Jeff Van Gundy is talking about above. At the end of the day, if you’re Michael Jordan or Steve Jobs, you get to get away with being an asshole. But the likelihood that you’re Michael Jordan or Steve Jobs is pretty small. So…

Happy Memorial Day!


The “Manhattan Project” for COVID-19

Perhaps this look into one of the many initiatives to find a vaccine is full of too much spin. But there are also some fun and frankly exhilarating tidbits from Rob Copeland:

One of Dr. Cahill’s first calls was to Mr. Schreiber, a founder of several private companies.

Mr. Schreiber looped in a longtime friend, Edward Scolnick, former head of research and development at pharmaceutical giant Merck & Co., where he helped develop 28 new drugs and vaccines. Dr. Scolnick was blunt: A vaccine would take at least 18 months to hit the market under normal circumstances, he told Mr. Schreiber, “if you’re damn lucky.”

Mr. Schreiber responded, “What about six months?”


The team drew up a list of roughly two dozen companies that could benefit from their recommendations and pledged to sell any shares in them immediately. One early member said he couldn’t and was kicked out.

Much of the early work involved divvying up hundreds of scientific papers on the crisis from around the world. They separated promising ideas from dubious ones. Each member blazed through as many as 20 papers a day, around 10 times the pace they would in their day jobs. They gathered to debate via videoconference, text messages—“like a bunch of teenagers,” Mr. Rosbash said—and phone calls.

Even if nothing comes of it, you have to be happy they’re trying to slash the red tape.

Flattening the Truth on Coronavirus

Speaking of that virus, Dave Eggers pretty much nails the current state of things:

Having no plan *is* the plan! Haven’t you been listening? Plans are for commies and the Danish. Here we do it fast and loose and dumb and wrong, and occasionally we have a man who manufactures pillows come to the White House to show the president encouraging texts. It all works! Eighteen months, 800,000 deaths, no plan, states bidding against states for medicine and equipment, you’re on your own, plans are lame.

I wish this were all more funny.

Blackbird Fly

The SR-71 got thrown into the news again recently for an interesting reason (more on that in a second). And it’s something I’ve long had an interest in, so this is a great look back on the plane by Jacopo Prisco:

The task of designing such an ambitious machine fell on Clarence "Kelly" Johnson, one of the world's greatest aircraft designers, and his secret division of engineers at Lockheed, called Skunk Works. "Everything had to be invented. Everything," recalled Johnson, who died in 1990, the same year the Blackbirds were first retired from service.

The original plane in the Blackbird family was called the A-12 and made its maiden flight on April 30, 1962. In total, 13 A-12s were produced, and the plane was a top secret, special access program operated by the CIA.

Yes, that A-12.

Because the aircraft was designed to fly faster than 2,000 mph, friction with the surrounding atmosphere would heat up the fuselage to a point that would melt a conventional airframe. The plane was therefore made of titanium, a metal that was able to withstand high temperatures while also being lighter than steel.

Using titanium presented other problems, however. First, a whole new set of tools -- also made of titanium -- had to be fabricated, because regular steel ones shattered the brittle titanium on contact. Second, sourcing the metal itself proved tricky. "The USSR was, at the time, the greatest supplier of titanium in the world. The US government had to purchase a lot of that, probably using bogus companies," said Merlin.

The initial aircraft were flown completely unpainted, showing a silver titanium skin. They were first painted black in 1964, after the realization that black paint -- which efficiently absorbs and emits heat -- would help lower the temperature of the entire airframe. The "Blackbird" was born.

Using the enemy’s materials to build a plane on which to spy on them is a pretty amazing move. Also:

As a result, no Blackbird was ever shot down by enemy fire. However, its reliability was an issue, and 12 out of 32 were lost to accidents.

I’m not sure which stat is more insane! Also insane:

The pilots also had to suit up in a special way, due to the extreme conditions found at high altitude. "They basically wore a space suit, the same sort of thing that you would later see space shuttle crews wearing," said Merlin. "The cockpit also got very hot when flying at high speeds, so much that pilots used to warm up their meal on long missions by pressing it against the glass."

Why? This:

In 1976, the SR-71 set the records it still holds: flying at a sustained altitude of 85,069 feet, and reaching a top speed of 2,193.2 miles per hour, or Mach 3.3. The program was halted in 1990 -- with a brief revival in the mid-1990s -- once technologies like spy satellites and UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles or drones) had become more feasible and offered instant access to surveillance data.

What a plane.

How Apple Re-Invented the Cursor for iPad

Matthew Panzarino both dives into the history of the cursor:

We don’t know exactly why the original ‘straight up arrow’ envisioned by Doug Engelbart took on the precise angled stance we know today. There are many self-assured conjectures about the change, but few actual answers — all we know for sure is that, like a ready athlete, the arrow pointer has been there, waiting to leap towards our goal for decades. But for the past few years, thanks to touch devices, we’ve had a new, fleshier, sprinter: our finger.

And also talks to Apple’s Craig Federighi about the ways in which they thought about this for the iPad:

“We set out to design the cursor in a way that retains the touch-first experience without fundamentally changing the UI,” Federighi says. “So customers who may never use a trackpad with their iPad won’t have to learn something new, while making it great for those who may switch back and forth between touch and trackpad.”


Simply, they knew that people were not going to re-write the web for Apple.

“Perfecting exactly where to apply these elements was an interesting journey. For instance, websites do all manner of things – sometimes they have their own hover experiences, sometimes the clickable area of an element does not match what the user would think of as a selectable area,” he says. “So we looked carefully at where to push what kind of feedback to achieve a really high level of compatibility out the gates with the web as well as with third party apps.”

This was obviously not as easy as throwing a cursor into iPad OS and calling it a day. It’s not perfect, but I think Apple did a pretty solid job with this. It’s honestly the iPad Magic Keyboard hardware I’m a bit more disappointed with.

Disney Decides To Not Throw Away Their Shot With ‘Hamilton’

Chaim Gartenberg:

Disney is bumping up the release of its recording of the hit stage musical Hamilton by over a year. Instead of the planned theatrical release set for October 15th, 2021, it’ll be out on July 3rd, 2020, as a Disney Plus exclusive.

It’s a huge move on Disney’s part. The company is effectively canceling its planned theatrical run for the Hamilton recording — which it reportedly paid a record-breaking $75 million for the worldwide rights to — to turn it into a streaming exclusive instead.

I always thought it was a bit odd that they were waiting so long to release the movie — which was recorded a few years ago — but it was probably about preserving the exclusivity of the still-running play. Well, it was still running until COVID-19 hit. So now this is a no-brainer, I imagine.

And that’s especially true in an age of intense content demand for all of us stuck at home. Think of it this way: Netflix is sitting pretty with so much content available and still coming out on a regular basis. Disney was in a trickier spot with regard to new content for Disney+. And an even trickier spot with ESPN given, you know, no sports — hence why the Jordan doc was so clutch…

And Apple may be in the worst spot of all given that they have no real back catalog of content for Apple TV+ and the new shows have slowed to a trickle. So it makes total sense they would be exploring buying up back catalogs and bidding up new movies.

The other genius element here: who doesn’t watch this 4th of July weekend?



The Great Asshole Fallacy

On Michael Jordan being a jerk to make the Bulls great…

The New Director’s Cut

Zack Snyder’s cut of ‘Justice League’ should start a trend…

Vantage Point

20 year old movies appear new, 40 year old movies appear old, 60 year old movies appear ancient…

The End of Podcasting’s Innocence

The Joe Rogan/Spotify deal is about leverage and ambition