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33 Years of TidBITS: Handcrafted Content from Humans

33 years. That’s how long I’ve been publishing TidBITS, starting in April 1990. Last year was the closest I’ve come to shutting TidBITS down, but with changes that came late in the year, I’m more enthused about TidBITS than I have been in quite some time. Here’s why.

The Story Behind Our Downsizing

I haven’t written much about Josh Centers moving on from his managing editor position other than to say it was a mutual decision (see “Josh Centers: So Long and Thanks for All the Fish,” 14 November 2022, and “Help TidBITS Evolve in 2023 by Becoming a Member,” 5 December 2022).

The background is that I was feeling burned out from our constant desire to cover major tech industry and Apple news, and those efforts were preventing me from doing the personally informed tech writing that I enjoy. Josh wrote much of our news coverage, but I still had to edit everything before it could go live. The level of editing I require of myself for TidBITS takes time because I have to learn enough about the topic to make sure the facts are correct, the opinions are well-supported, and the words flow smoothly.

Plus, since we couldn’t predict when most news would break, I often found myself dropping whatever I was doing to edit Josh’s articles. Much as I liked working with him, I had come to dislike all the editing interruptions, particularly because we found ourselves publishing the same kind of articles over and over again. Outside of the details, news isn’t usually new—stories fall into categories, and after 30-plus years, I have written or edited most of them many times.

Sometime in August, I decided that something—I didn’t know what exactly—needed to change, and that would be difficult while TidBITS was responsible for Josh. Long ago, Tonya and I promised Josh that we wouldn’t make any changes affecting his job without at least 6 months of notice. So I called Josh to let him know that he should start thinking about what would come after TidBITS. After I explained why I was bored and unhappy with what we had been doing, he said he felt similarly and had already started thinking about where he wanted his life to go. I wasn’t expecting that, but it was the best possible outcome: our goals and general timing aligned.

Nothing happened immediately, but matters accelerated once Josh inquired about the Business Journalist position with TextExpander in October. Since TextExpander has been our longest-running TidBITS sponsor and the subject of a Take Control ebook, I made sure to tell Greg Scown and Philip Goward, the company’s founders, that I was encouraging Josh to apply so they didn’t worry that hiring him would be detrimental to TidBITS. A week later, he had an offer, and by mid-November, I was on my own.

Making TidBITS More Personal

At first, the main change was that our internal TidBITS Slack board went quiet without Josh sharing news articles for possible coverage and all the subsequent discussions those articles generated. As much as I enjoyed the interaction, it too was an interruption. That’s one of the reasons I spend hardly any time on social media. Not having to respond to others as often gave me more undisturbed time to work on topics that interest me.

Although I initially thought I’d make more extensive changes—I’m still pondering starting a podcast—I’ve found spending more time in my own head simultaneously relaxing and invigorating. I’m not as stressed when I need to drop everything to cover yet another release of Apple’s operating systems, which many of you say is valuable even when I know little beyond what Apple says. And I’m actively excited to dive into topics that I think will make a real difference in the lives of many readers. Articles like “Apple’s File Provider Forces Mac Cloud Storage Changes” (10 March 2023), “Dealing with Leading Zeroes in Spreadsheet Data” (16 March 2023), and “Notifications Unexpectedly Silenced? Blame Focus” (17 February 2023) have been a joy to write, and reading comments from people helped by such pieces makes my day.

Writing even more of the articles in TidBITS has had another unanticipated effect—even more of a personal voice. There’s a joke among everyone who has worked on TidBITS that subscribers think I write everything. That hasn’t been true since the early 1990s—I highly value publishing other voices in TidBITS—and other writers continue to inform you, thanks to the Watchlist contributions of Agen Schmitz; articles from stalwarts like Glenn Fleishman, Jeff Carlson, and Julio Ojeda-Zapata;  and guest appearances from people like ex-Apple developer David Shayer and consultant Ivan Drucker. Nevertheless, with Josh no longer in the picture and Tonya employed full-time at Cornell University and managing only the high-level financial aspects of the company, TidBITS is feeling much more like an “I” than a “we.”

That’s an odd feeling. When Tonya and I started TidBITS in 1990, we tried hard to be as professional as we could, partly because we were 22 years old and painfully aware that we were pretending to be adults. The corporate plural has long supported that conceit, both creating a sense of size and inserting a little space between the written word and who precisely wrote it. That has been useful at times but increasingly feels wrong—I’m not entirely comfortable saying “we” are doing something when I’m personally responsible for it.

And indeed, when the day-to-day of TidBITS became just me, not me and Josh, I found my writing becoming a bit more personal. It wasn’t intentional; I just like writing about what I’m doing and what I find interesting, and that’s easier when articles by others are exceptions rather than weekly occurrences.

Coincidentally, over the holiday break, one of my high school friends came for brunch (making a cameo appearance in “Hunting for a Dead Mouse: AirPlay Receiver to the Rescue,” 6 February 2023). He has long read TidBITS and works as the creative director for a household name in tech, so I was amused when he said he thought I should focus on writing one article per week on whatever I was doing rather than news of any sort. That was roughly where I was already going, but it makes sense—long gone are the days when TidBITS could break any sort of tech news or offer insider information. I can’t compete with all the tech reporters at the likes of The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, nor do I have the loose-lipped industry sources that whisper secrets to Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman. But unlike me, they won’t delve into the murky details of the File Provider extension for cloud storage services or explain how to resolve nagging problems with a Level 2 clean install.

There’s another competitive benefit to a more personal approach. Generative AI tools like ChatGPT are shockingly good at producing clearly written English. I’m starting to think of them as the textual equivalent of a calculator—just as calculators essentially eliminated simple math mistakes, ChatGPT and its ilk will make poorly written English far less common. My graduate student son was just telling me how international students are using ChatGPT to make up for weak English skills.

But generative AI tools can only put words together in statistically likely combinations. They can’t begin to develop original ideas, and even when prompted appropriately, their content doesn’t hold a candle to what a human mind can concoct. My article on using AirPlay to find a dead mouse under our laundry room counter is far more complete, detailed, and engaging than what ChatGPT spits out when prompted with, “Write an article about using AirPlay video from an iPhone to a MacBook to find a dead mouse under a laundry counter.” If you’re curious to compare, try it yourself.

(Amusingly, Bing’s AI said, “I’m sorry, but I’m not sure how AirPlay video from an iPhone to a MacBook can help you find a dead mouse under a laundry counter.” Google’s Bard was blunter, responding, “I’m just a language model, so I can’t help you with that.”)

So there’s my North Star as we head together into the 34th year of TidBITS: handcrafted content from humans. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoy writing it, and if so, consider becoming a TidBITS member to help me afford to keep doing it.

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Comments About 33 Years of TidBITS: Handcrafted Content from Humans

Notable Replies

  1. Universe Today made the same decision regarding AI. It’s the reason I’ll stick around.

    Still, it will be interesting to see where AI will get us in the end ;-).

  2. Always enjoy your writings. Holy cow! 33 years, way to go.

  3. So thankful for all you have communicated and taught. I’ve been reading you most of the 33 years. TibBITS has always been my polestar for anything Apple/Mac. I began with my first Apple in February 1984, and struggled for any help and direction. Having stuck with it now almost 40 years, I know I could not have done so without TidBITS and my giant TCO books collection. As a side note, one of our children got bit by the Apple and has been an Apple engineer for about 15 years. Thanks, Adam.

  4. Congratulations! The recent articles you cite – and indeed this one too – are the reason I’ve been reading TidBITS from the very beginning. Personal perspective is exactly what makes the publication stand out. More, please.

  5. Congratulations on 33 years.

    WRT ChatGPT, I’d be very careful with it. As I’m sure you’ve already read in the news, it often suffers from hallucinations. That is, it will produce text that is grammatically correct and seems plausible, but is flat-out wrong. In many cases, it will even generate bogus citations to back up its claims.

    Although it might seem like a convenience to assist in writing articles, I think it may end up making your job harder, because you will need to fact-check literally everything it tells you.

  6. I had noticed, and quite enjoyed, the recent shift in tone. Glad to hear the story behind it.

    'Grats on 33 years; looking forward to many more.

  7. As a former newsletter editor and a stint as a conglomerator of aerospace news, I can attest that readers appreciate the human touch in what they read. AI can regurgitate, but it does not invent, and that will always distinguish the human from the machine.

  8. Adam! Thirty-three years … wow! Congratulations, and keep up the good work.

  9. I have been using ChatGPT recently for quick instructions on how to do things (i.e. find items buried in Settings) and it generally does a great job and is better than a search engine, giving you a quick 1-2-3 answer versus having to try to skim several article hits for the details (and most articles seem to hide the answer deep in the text to force you to scroll through a bunch of ads).

    This is great when I’m helping someone else with their tech and I don’t have the same OS version as them or I’m doing something else and can’t mimic their actions to remind me exactly which buttons to push. I can just forward them the AI’s precise instructions.

    The thought had occurred to me that such simple how-tos could eliminate the need for tech publications, which are often how-to articles.

    However, sometimes the AI is wrong: I recently asked it how to turn off Slideover on my mom’s iPad as she’d accidentally activated it and it told me to turn off a “multitasking” switch in Settings that wasn’t there. (I finally figured out on my own that you have to close all the Slideover windows to turn it off.)

    Secondly, since AI’s are trained on existing websites that provide such information, what happens when all such articles are no longer being written because everyone is just using an AI to get the info? Then the AI’s info is dated/wrong/made-up and it becomes useless or a liability, and the demand for human-written articles goes back up? I’m not sure I see a long-term future in that.

  10. As a near contemporary, I feel much the same way you do about news, scoops, rumors, next-big-things; blah. As a reader, I feel the same way I always did about your publication, which is what fascinating thing have I found? What obscure problem can I figure out? Look at this: this is cool/useful/saves time/secures my data. And so on.

    All the voices in TidBits have been pretty useful and I value them all. The years of invaluable, life-changing, urgent advice to help make our Macs connect to the internet still inspire my gratitude, but the many more years of just listening to the conversation keep me a member.

  11. The problem with generative language models like ChatGPT is that there is no actual intelligence (which is why I hate the term “AI”). None whatsoever. It doesn’t understand anything about your question or its answer.

    It generates sequences of words and phrases that have a high probability of following each other, based on the very large corpus of text on which it was trained.

    If you ask it something where the answer appears many times with some consistency in its training, then you might get good data. If you ask it something that doesn’t appear in its training, or appears with inconsistent results, then the odds of getting something useful is going to be much less.

    Which is why it can do things like create bogus citations for statements. Because some of its training consists of articles with citations, and citations in general follow a small number of well-defined forms. But the actual text is virtually random, within the form, because that requires actual understanding, which it doesn’t have.

  12. Adam, Please keep up the good job you are doing. I have been following TidBITS since the beginning. At the time I worked for Digital Equipment Corp. and was helping support our internal users with the Rainbow. At the same time, there were pockets of groups that were using the Macintosh for CAD/CAM work and because of my nosy nature I soon learned the Mac. Our daughter was going to college and we looked at the cost of the PCs and due to their high cost looked at the Macintosh SE. It was so easy to learn, I knew she’d like it and if she got in trouble, I could help. Currently, I’m retired, but still help a lot of friends with their Mac products. I have all of the TidBITS from #759 (13-Dec-04) on my system (for reference). My best to you and your staff!! Be Safe, Al

  13. Adam, bravo :clap:. As a reader since the dawn of time, the work is much appreciated.

    A podcast, yes, I think so, even monthly.

  14. Congratulations. I had noticed and enjoyed the articles you’ve been writing, but had not stopped to think about what was happening behind the scenes. I’m an engineer who turned writer before having worked as an engineer; so I think a lot about how we write about technology. Maybe I’m looking into the engineering of writing. I like your analysis of when it’s time to upgrade; it’s the kind of thing I like to see because I find upgrading problematic. Too often upgrades break things, but waiting too long just makes more things break when I do make changes. And I enjoy the discussions here on Talk. Keep up the good work.

  15. The direction you’re describing sounds pretty much like what I’ve valued most in TidBITS over the years, so I say well done and carry on. See you at renewal time in December!

  16. Adam keep doin’ what ya doin’-it’s all good. I’ve been a fan before your kid arrived on Earth.Thanks

  17. I’ve been reading TidBITS since the setext days. I’ve learned so much over the years, but in the past couple of years I’ve felt like TidBITS had gotten kind of meh. Many publications that used to give info and tips have faded away, and the few that are left are mostly made up rumors. (“See pictures of the iPhone 15!!”) I’ve trimmed my RSS feeds down to just a couple of sources.

    I did notice a while back that I was enjoying reading tb again. While I doubt I’ll ever have the exact situation of trying to find a dead mouse in the laundry room, I now know an uncommon use of Airplay that could come in handy in some other situation I may encounter. This is the value that has kept me reading for 30 years. Glad to see that it is back.

  18. What a great piece of motivational writing! Congrats on finding this extension to your path of 33 years, and may you find much joy following it.

  19. Like many, I’ve been a member from the first word. I’ve always found interesting TidBITS (ha ha) of news, help with problems, and I just flat out enjoy the chatter that goes on here. (Yes, sometimes my life is dull, err, quiet.) :rofl: Congrats on 33 years, and looking forward to whatever you bring to all of us in the future.

  20. Adam, like others I have long appreciated the work you and Tanya have done for the Apple community with TidBITS and other work. Reading this article motivated me to renew my subscription.
    I am sorry we didn’t meet during your time at Cornell. In 1984 I spearheaded an effort to get student services offices to computerize, and I suggested networking some Macs with AppleTalk. IBM’s System 36 won the approval of the computer services’ mavens, so we went that route, but I have been a Mac user since the beginning, always dependent upon advice from people like you to make the best use of new technology.
    Thank you for your 33+ years of service. Keep up your excellent work.

  21. Thanks so much to all of you for the kind comments and support for my renewed enthusiasm for making TidBITS feel more personal. It does mean a lot to me because, as I’ve discovered as I’ve aged, I really like helping people (well, at least when they’re appreciative, which is never a problem here). TidBITS is a great way to scale that desire to a larger group.

  22. Thank you for that attention to detail, which is sadly lacking many other places (and apparently banned on some social media sites, to judge by the content).

  23. Congratulations Adam, and thank you! My subscription to TidBITS is one that I never hesitate to renew. Please keep on keeping on!

  24. 33 years! I found you, Adam, when I bought your Internet Starter Kit for Mac in the early 90s. When I finally got my Mac SE30 and a hulking Hayes 300 baud dialup modem working, I realized there was a whole universe of not much content out there, and the time spent waiting for things to load made the internet more of a hobby than what it is now, indispensable.

  25. Been a reader for most of your 33 years. I started when I was working on the ISS program at McDonnell Douglas and had the good fortune to be supporting all Macs. I can’t tell you how many times TidBITS pointed me to solutions I might not have discovered on my own. Like someone said above, your subscription is an automatic when it comes due.

  26. Congratulations on 33 years, and this is great news! After Josh left, I noticed you were writing more articles. I have greatly enjoyed them, but in the back of my head I was concerned this was a stop-gap measure and it was extra work you wouldn’t be able to maintain. I’m very glad to hear that this is what you actually find joy in and will continue doing. Like others, it’s the unusual and niche topics, along with the detail and depth, that make TidBITS my favourite Mac publication. And the only one I read regularly and exhaustively. There’s too many ways to get Mac news these days (who could have predicted that in the late 90s!), and most of the time just seeing a headline is enough. Detailed exploration of the intricacies of the Mac (and other Apple platforms) is a lot less common, and no one does it better than TidBITS.

  27. Bring back the HyperCard stack!

    In all seriousness, congratulations to you and all of TidBITS. I don’t really read TidBITS for Apple news, as much as for opinionated editorial content. I do value the quarterly Apple results summaries, because they’re not about driving the stck price. But I really value the current return to the TidBITS roots. I’d be interested in an opinionated Podcast, and/or an occasional link post about interesting reading (not just about Apple; I valued Twitter in part for recipes!).

  28. That excerpt was mean! It just showed, “After 33 years of publishing TidBITS, Adam Engst is” and I yelled “Nooooo!” and then opened it and breathed a sigh of relief. I love that you’re writing about the fun, passionate, and sometimes weird things you’re doing with tech. Great move.

  29. Oh, for the days of yore!

  30. I was discussing this with one of our sons and he responded:
    “ I’m not sure it’s actually true that they “can’t begin to develop original ideas.”
    They actually compress some representation of knowledge (encoded as patterns they find in the data they’re trained on) into their mathematical basis. If you poke the basis somewhere new it actually could come out with a new idea…”

    I think this is an interesting thought!

  31. And in fact my son Tristan (getting his PhD in computer vision) suggested in relation to my use of “understanding” that:

    It’s not clear that humans have understanding, or how to disambiguate their understanding from the methodology by which it comes about

    When we discussed this in my computational psycholinguistics class, what you sort of come up with is that intelligence and simulated intelligence are equivalent to any outside observer

    (It’s sort of like quantum, thematically)

    So I think arguments about LLMs being not intelligent today work really well in the sense of clearly it generates dumb outputs

    But not in the sense of it being completely not intelligent, because we don’t actually know what intelligence is

    And then he pointed me here.

    This is getting well into the realm of the philosophers. Although Tristan eschewed humanities classes when he was at Cornell, he would have been really dangerous in a philosophy major.

  32. I used to have students try to tell when they were engaging with Eliza for fifteen minute sessions, and when it was a human. Mostly they couldn’t.

  33. Yeah, I always wondered what the Turing test specified in terms of the human trying to discern whether the other party was a computer or not. Some people will take almost anything at face value.

  34. As I understand it, the Turing test (the original, not the watered-down form researchers use today to claim that their software passes it) requires the investigator to be a trained psychologist, not a random member of the public.

    I think the idea is that it needs to be able to fool someone who is well trained on the subject and therefore (supposedly) knows what to look for.

    Of course, by this standard, I think there are lots of humans that wouldn’t pass either.

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