Walking The Bridges of Siracusa County.
(or, “How I Became A Fan of The Internet Nerd of All Time Without Really Trying, And How You Can, Too.”)
It’s hard to say what I should mention by way of an introduction, to really give you the right kind of background to appreciate his character. Certainly, I would be remiss to leave out his Twitter handle – @siracusa – as that is a primary source of where he communicates with the world and with fans, for sure. Not mentioning his association with the well-loved OS X reviews that used to get nerds in a fervor would be glossing over a huge part of his career, and the fact that he’s hung up his hat as a reviewer is a loss that the Mac Community is still coming to terms with. And, of course he is a programmer by trade, and one of great skill, too. For years now he has supported himself and his family through his work writing code, writing about technology, and podcasting.
Largely, though, John is a geek, and is proud of this fact. He has immersed himself in the world of computers (Macs specifically), and has found a home where he is comfortable, not always easy for the geeky inclined. And yet, while the world of geeks is defined by the technology and the way it is designed and presented to us, Siracusa finds that his immersion within this world makes him the perfect candidate to analyze and define of the problems that nerds go through in a world where software, hardware, and our experiences that go with these things could be so much better designed if someone just took the time to do it.
John Siracusa is about as far off the path from my own life as you can get without being a scientist or an astronaut. An East Coaster and fan of TV and Sports, he is the father of two, and by all accounts, a fairly “normal” nerd in a number of ways. Following the show he does with Merlin Mann – Reconcilable Differences, which is a great way to gain insight into both of their lives – you can tell that he is a family man in many ways, who has to deal with the problems of dinner and raising children and getting to work on time. For him, clothing and fashion, music and film must follow very narrow guidelines if they are to make it on his radar, as it is for any other self-respecting nerd. A lover of gangster movies and anime, a gamer and New Yorker by birth, there are only a handful of areas where our mutual interests come into play.
My childless lifestyle, focused on loosing sleep and collecting LPs, seems light-years away from his own, and his confusion about what drugs are and how they work is so cute as to sound like it is a line from a Disney Kids Movie. (And, he’s a U2 fan, for fuck’s sake!) John’s accent, even, spells a very unique venn diagram of Boston and Nerdy that makes my laid-back, West Coast drawl sound absolutely hillbilly by comparison. And, while I understand what computers are and can use them, I can only just barely follow him when it goes on a rant about programming, or game controllers.
This is a long way of saying that I am none of the things that he is. While my own experience with technology goes back to writing in BASIC on a TRS-80, I learned long ago that my interest in the keyboard really ended with the stringing together of English Text, and I didn’t put my time or energy into learning programming and coding, but rather, how to construct a sentence and a paragraph that read well. I could wack at code for hours and get something that might work for a little while (largely by copying and pasting someone elses work), but in spite of that aptitude, I was more interested in building stories. The last thing I made any effort to learn was HTML, and while I’m okay in Visual Basic for writing Macros, I fare much better when the subject is who played in what band. Once I found that calling, I have rarely looked back except to make sure that I’m not such a grandpa that I can’t use modern remote controls or a wireless router.
So what, then, if not a common background or a similarity in interests, draws me to listen to his podcasts? Particularly, the wealth of back-episodes that exists in the form of Hypercritical, a show where he gets into detail about the things wrong with Apple and related topics? It certainly isn’t the current nature of the conversations. While Dan Benjamin – the co-host of Hypercritical with John – makes a fairly good argument that John’s commentary stands up as something worth reviewing at any time, there is something particularly funny about listening to them speculate about what might be in Lion when it is released, then discuss it after it is released, then wonder what the next Pixar movie will be, then discuss it after it is released… there is a rhythm to it that becomes funnier as the years pass, and the specifics are less and less relevant. But that certainly wasn’t what Dan was talking about, when he suggested that there is something to the archival nature of John Siracusa’s work, and there certainly is. There is some other quality to John’s conversations and observations that seems current, even four years after the fact.
The Incomparable w/ John Siracusa
It’s probably not that surprising that I discovered all of this through Merlin Mann, and to a second degree, The Incomparable podcast. While I wasn’t really a mover and shaker in the world of the early Interweb, there was a core group of nerds who all got online in the early ’90’s, who have stuck with it for the last 25 years, to see it develop and blossom into the racisim-laced comment threads that we see so much of on YouTube. A lot of those same nerds have helped build the digital media landscape into what it is today, through writing, blogging, and building websites of every variety. Many of those early nerds joined forces over at Jason Snell’s The Incomparable, something that began as a book-club and evolved into the media empire it is. Nearly every guest on The Incomparable is part of this core family of early web icons, and Merlin Mann – who I was already a fan of – led me to them.
(How exactly I found Back To Work is sort of lost to the ages, but it was one of those shows that, when I found it almost two years or so ago, I instantly over-dosed on it, and began to trace all the threads that it sent out into other areas of the web. If Merlin wanted to be a guest on The Incomparable, and played in their world too, I reasoned – correctly – that I should be checking out that show, too.)
John’s role on The Incomparable is not much different than on his own show. He’s finds flaws and pokes holes in the world of pop culture as much as he does with Apple and their mixed bag of products and apps. He is the grumpy old man who sits in on these conversations and waits for a chance to offload his argument, his observations, and his criticisms to a group of nerds who just wanted to say how much they loved Real Genius. For him, it is important to use reason and the clues in the works at hand to find the real meaning and value of a work – be it in software, film, or books – and his willingness to make the unpopular point, and to say things that lay bare the design flaws of things we all love, is not only important, but necessary in our culture.
Too often we get caught up in the enthusiasm machine of marketing and rumor. We are often left to consider that we should always accept the things we encounter as having some value in our lives, merely because they are the overwhelmingly popular thing at the time. Apple is a perfect example; the devotees will devour anything as early as possible, but to criticism the design at any level would sound like you’re being a dick.
But there is a value to looking at culture and being critical, and not just because it is easier to distrust and to poke holes in things. Both John and I want culture to be great. We want to enjoy art and music and digital media and have it presented to us in a way that is good, and good for us. John’s desire to find the flaws, to point them out, and to offer insight into why they worked and why they did not, is a lesson we can all learn in life. It is easy to accept everything, and a tiny bit harder to be critical of all things equally. But to take it a step further, and to be critical while offering helpful advice and insight into why that aspect of the work is not functioning properly, that is a skill that takes all of us further in life, and not just at work or in public.
A Look Back At The Recent Past
While I’m enjoying the chance to relive 2011 and 2012 through the magic of podcasts that will live forever on the web, I will warn people that it can be trying to listen to five-year-old stale tech news programs if you are not there for something other than the timeliness. And he does cover a lot of topics on Hypercritical that were valuable then and seem irrelevant now. (Do people care about iBooks anymore? El Capitan more or less makes much of the previous OS X conversations seem antiquated and silly, certainly. And his deconstruction and analysis of programming languages then could probably use an update.)
But even when the topics are not on point, listening to him lay out an argument is a joy to listen to. At several points in the series he gets preachy about Star Wars preservation, and lays out arguments for Fair Use and curating cultural materials for future generations that is simply incredible, and in many ways, still ahead of its time. His ability to looks at software and provide a meta-analysis of its merits and weaknesses is something that is straight out of a literary criticism course, and his no-nonsense attitude (and his absolute, self-admitted lack of cool) makes him willing to say things that others simply won’t. And that, in many ways, is absolutely charming.
He is not offensive. As a father is is looking for culture that uplifts boys and girls too, and he really does want the world to be as well designed as possible for those of us who have to use it. But his eye for films like Goodfellas and Ghost In The Shell gives me pause to consider watching something that I had decided long ago was not for me. While I don’t always agree with him – and, how can anyone always agree with anyone, to be perfectly honest? – his willingness to look at our culture, and to champion where we can make improvements, is absolutely inspirational, and keeps me glued to my podcasts so I can hear another one of his in-depth deconstructions of a book he absolutely hated. (Ready Player One, anyone?)
He is not for everyone. He is certainly an acquired taste, and might not ever be exactly for you. And I even tune out when the tech talk gets a little over my head. (And it does often.) But this kind of show is a challenge to my preconceived notions of what entertainment is, and what it can be, and what perspectives I should be considering when I see something new. I’m getting to view parts of culture through his eyes that I would never look at – and a few things that we both find entertaining, too – and that is giving me pause to re-evaluate my own relationship with parts of culture that I usually never consider. That alone is enough to recommend him for someone who is looking to challenge your own perspectives, and to consider that the world around us is made up of people that thinking differently than I do.
So… Where Do I Start?
So often with these kinds of recommendations, it is hard to give someone a jumping on point. The Incomparable is still running strong, several years and hundreds of episodes deep, and he appears in many of them. Obviously, his current show with Merlin is great, and not only get into the elements that make geeks geeks, but the struggles they have in their own lives with travel, with buying things, witch child rearing, etc. It is exactly what middle aged men love to do – talk about the minutia of life as if it were something of great academic import – and it makes for great listening if you happen to be self-reflective (and middle aged).
However, to get a sense of what I’m really talking about, and to offer something to dig into that is current, I recommend checking out Incomparable #277: Stormtroopers Are People. (You can stream or download it form that link.) This is a THREE HOUR AND TWENTY MINUTE podcast (yes, that is not a typeo) about The Force Awakens, and in it you can hear Siracusa get so excited about this film that even that amount of time seems short for both him and the listener. (John, Jason Snell, Serenity Caldwell & Dan Moren also appear on the panel discussion, all equally excited about this movie.)
I know, I know. I am recommending a three hour commitment so that you can decide if you like a guy who makes a lot of podcasts, and this isn’t even his primary piece of work. But in this three hours you will hear real people who love real things, talk about the way that they love it, and explicate on a story that – hopefully – you also happen to love. (And who doesn’t? I mean, The Force Awakens was fantastic, wasn’t it?) And in this show, you will hear John talk passionately, as a Star Wars fan from childhood, as a person who felt abused and robbed by the CGI Special Editions, as a person who felt betrayed and ripped off by the prequels – and, most importantly, as a human being who was so touched by a movie that he was willing to talk well into the night – for hours – and was still excited to keep talking when everyone else is ready to hang up and get some sleep.
If this does not win you over as a fan of John Siracusa, then I don’t know what will. But I have a feeling you might start listening to The Incomparable now. And that is how all things like this begin.
Let me know when you get a chance to check out his other work, too. And when you are a converted fan like I am, hit me up on Skype. I have a feeling we have a few things that we could talk about, too.