About Christian

Writer and Director of Design Prototyping at Adobe.

Introducing SCORPION

Cover of the novel SCORPION

My newest novel, Scorpion, is available starting today. Let’s start with an excerpt from Publishers Weekly:

This stunning near-future thriller from Cantrell takes some truly breathtaking turns. CIA data analyst Quinn Mitchell is sent in pursuit of the Elite Assassin, an apparently unpredictable and unstoppable killer. Readers, meanwhile, are introduced to the inscrutable murderer Ranveer, whose killings efficiently carry out someone else’s master plan. Quinn’s clever investigation, using neatly extrapolated high-tech gadgets, is fascinating in itself, and, as the CIA receives missives from the future through the time-bending Epoch Index, Quinn’s search collides with some darkly fascinating thought experiments.

And one from Kirkus Reviews:

All this takes place in an only slightly futuristic world that snaps and bristles with technological capabilities that may seem distant or improbable but which are in fact just around the corner. There’s snappy dialogue, sharp observation, and compelling characters in Quinn, Ranveer, and Henrietta; the technology sings, the physics is plausibly presented, and the suggestion of time travel fascinates.

The story of Scorpion is almost as interesting as the one it tells. It started out in 2010 as a short story called The Epoch Index which was optioned a total of three times — once for film and twice for television. But Hollywood, I’m learning, is as much about timing as good storytelling, so it wasn’t until 2018 that it really began to resonate, attracting the attention of several studios. It ended up with FOX (now Disney) which gave me the opportunity to expand the story into a full-length novel with Random House. Three years later, The Epoch Index is now Scorpion, and while the core of the original story remains fully intact, I’ve had a huge amount of fun expanding the narrative beyond its original twist and cliffhanger.

Scorpion is available everywhere books are sold, so if you don’t mind a little inconvenience, this might be a good opportunity to help your local bookstore recover economically. If you get a chance to check it out, let me know your thoughts. I love interacting with readers!

Breathtaking footage of the Sun makes for stunning desktop backgrounds

I came across a video released by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory mission that I found so mesmerizing that I decided to create several wallpapers from it. After downloading the original UHD video file, I opened it in VLC and exported what I thought were the most dramatic and interesting frames.

They are all optimized for 16:9 4K (3840 x 2160) monitors, but given that they’re such high-resolution, they also look great on 5K displays, MacBooks, and iPad. You can download the full set as a zip file here.

I like these images enough that they are now in rotation with what I consider to be the most beautiful picture ever made: The Hubble Legacy Field, an image that combines nearly 7,500 Hubble exposures captured over the course of sixteen years, including some of the deepest images ever captured of the universe.

Thank you for continuing to inspire us, NASA.

You can plant paphiopedilums in lava rock

20200225_075017You are almost certainly here because you Googled something like “Can you plant paphiopedilums / lady slippers / venus slippers in lava rock?” And the answer is:

Yes. Yes you can.

Or at least I’ve gotten away with it. Lava rock is my medium of choice since it means less repotting, and because it creates a nice heavy base that can usually keep an orchid from tipping over when it blooms profusely. So when I needed to repot my two paphiopedilums, I decided to give lava rock a try.

Unlike phalaenopsis (or “moth orchids” — what most people think of when they think of orchids), paphiopedilums are not epiphytes which means they don’t grow in trees. Rather, they are semi-terrestrial which means they grow in loose medium like leaf litter and can therefore tolerate more moisture. Lava rock dries quickly, so I was worried I would have to water them daily.

But soaking them once every three days or so seems to be sufficient. I use distilled water with a balanced fertilizer (7-8-6), and I soak them for about fifteen minutes — long enough to get the other plants watered. Shortly after making the transition, they began blooming even more robustly than they did before.


Cerberus and the swan.

Increase your focus: Three ways to put macOS “Do Not Disturb” at your fingertips

DND-macOSIf you’re not activating “Do Not Disturb” at least a few times a day and really focusing on what you’re doing, you probably aren’t being as productive as you could be. In my experience, it’s nearly impossible to get any work of consequence done without blocking out distractions for discrete blocks of time.

The problem is that it is sometimes hard to predict when those blocks of time are going to be. You might be on an important call, reading an article, or in the middle of presenting when a barrage of Slack, Messages, email, or software update notifications begin competing for your attention. The faster you can activate “Do Not Disturb” (henceforth known as DND) and get back to the task at hand, the more productive you will be throughout the day.

By default, macOS provides two ways to toggle DND:

  1. Invoke Notification Center, scroll up (I hate that this control is hidden by default), then click the DND toggle.
  2. Option + click on the notification icon (the rightmost icon in your menu bar). When it’s dimmed, DND is activated.

While the option + click shortcut is convenient (and works right out of the box), below are three ways to put DND right at your fingertips to help make transitioning into a distraction-free workflow as rapid and fluid as possible.

1. Add the DND toggle to your Touch Bar

If you have a modern Macbook Pro, the easiest way to make DND easily accessible is to add the toggle to your Touch Bar. You can customize your Touch Bar by navigating to:

System Preferences > Keyboard > Keyboard (tab) > Customize Touch Bar… (button)

Just drag the crescent moon icon down, and you’re all set. But if you don’t have a Touch Bar, and/or if you favor an external keyboard (like I do), there are other options.


2. Create a global keyboard shortcut

No third-party apps necessary. Just navigate to:

System Preferences > Keyboard > Shortcuts (tab) > Mission Control (list)

Check the box next to “Turn Do Not Disturb On/Off” and assign it a keyboard combination. I use ⌥D (option + D).


3. Put that extra mouse button to use

If you use an external, non-Apple mouse, you might be able to map an unused button to toggle DND. I like Logitech mice which work well out of the box, but if you install the Logitech Options utility application, you not only get the ability to customize the behavior of the mouse, but you can also remap buttons. While you can’t map a button directly to the DND toggle, you can map it to the global keyboard shortcut we set up in Step 2.

I don’t use mouse “gestures,” so I always map the gesture button to ⌥D. That means whether I’m typing or scrolling, I’m never more than a quick flick away from quelling distracting notifications and regaining my focus.


Make distraction the exception rather than the rule

Unfortunately, technology has evolved such that distraction is the default. In other words, out of the box, apps and devices are maximally permissive about notifications, alerts, and other forms of interruptions. But if you want to take back as much of your time and focus as possible, you can do what I did: make distraction the exception rather than the rule.

Instead of choosing discrete periods of time throughout the day when I want to focus, I have made DND the default in my life, and set aside time for things like Slack and email. Additionally, I use the shortcuts described above to opt in to periods of time when I’m willing to be disturbed. Office hours, you might say. Fortunately, this is possible with macOS by scheduling DND. Just navigate to:

System Preferences > Notifications > Do Not Disturb (list)


Solving one of smartphones’ most annoying user interface and experience problems

You know how you sometimes go to select something on your phone (or other touchscreen device for that matter), and either the application layout changes, or something like a notification appears just in time for you to tap on the wrong thing? I call that “UI Crossfire,” and I’m proposing a solution I call “Intent Buffering.” Take a look at the prototype.

How to use Project Fi on an iPhone

project_fi_iphoneThe Adobe Design team builds and prototypes software for all relevant platforms: Mac, Windows, iOS, Android, and the web. A twenty-year career in the software industry has taught me that designing and building software that feels native to its intended platform requires an intimate working knowledge of that platform. That’s why I put a tremendous amount of effort into being equally fluent in every operating system and environment we support.

Switching back and forth between Mac and Windows is challenging; having both an iPhone and an Android device not just available for testing, but fully configured, functional, and ready to go, probably qualifies as arduous. But it can be done, and the secret is Project Fi.

My Android phone is a Pixel XL — in my opinion, the best all-around Android device ever built. One of the things that makes it unique is that, in addition to being carrier unlocked, it’s also compatible with Project Fi — Google’s own MVNO network. Not only is Project Fi very competitively priced (with coverage that has never let me down), but it also allows you to order a second data SIM for LTE devices like tablets, smartwatches, or, in my case, another phone. (The SIM is free, and uses data from your existing plan without any additional costs.)

Using a Project Fi data SIM card in an iPhone doesn’t make it a fully functional phone, but it gets it very close. You won’t have voice capabilities, but if you install Hangouts, and if you enable incoming phone calls, you can make and receive calls to and from your Project Fi number though Hangouts over LTE. You can even use Apple’s Messages app at the same time to stay in touch with all your Apple-loyal friends and family (though you won’t be able to use it to send and receive SMS messages; that all happens through Hangouts).


Short of moving your SIM card back and forth between phones, I’m pretty sure this is the best way to have two functional phones that use the same phone number. Additionally, it has the benefit of allowing you to send and receive texts from the desktop — on Mac, Windows, and Linux — though Hangouts in the browser.

If your job requires you to remain platform agnostic — or if you’re just naturally multi-platform-curious like I am — Project Fi is the only way to go.

(For the most comprehensive guide to sending and receiving texts from your desktop, see my post “Everything there is to know about texting from the desktop.”)

The iPhone, fixed.

Merriam-Webster defines an appliance as:

  1. A piece of equipment for adapting a tool or machine to a special purpose.
  2. An instrument or device designed for a particular use or function.

Wiktionary’s definition is similar:

An implement, an instrument or apparatus designed (or at least used) as a means to a specific end (often specified).

In terms of hardware, the iPhone is nearly perfect. But iOS makes it feel more like an Apple appliance than a flexible and versatile computer.

So I decided to fix it.

Welcome back to Windows, developers


I like Macs and iPhones as much as the next guy. With the exception of pregnant iPhone battery packs, the charging mechanisms for the Apple Pencil and second gen Magic Mouse, and, of course, all of iTunes, almost everything Apple produces is phenomenally well designed. In my opinion, no other company in the history of computing has made a better case for Alan Kay’s famous quote:

People who are really serious about software should make their own hardware.

But I have an equal amount of appreciation for the diversity one is more likely to encounter with Android and Windows platforms. I really like iPhones, Macs, and Apple Watches, but I also like mixing things up. I like my Asus monitor, Filco mechanical keyboard, Razer gaming mouse, GeForce video card, Intel RealSense webcam, and my Garmin Fenix watch. After room-scale VR commandeered four USB ports on the back of my PC, I ordered a five-port USB 3.0 expansion card for $15 which took me ten minutes to install. When I subsequently ran out of disk space downloading VR games, I ordered a new Samsung SSD from Amazon, had it delivered that day, cracked open my PC again, and doubled my storage capacity (and RAM, while I was at it). I grew up cobbling together and upgrading PCs, and it has only gotten more fun and more interesting as hardware has gotten more powerful and diverse.

Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to use Windows regularly for several years now. As a web developer, and then an Engineering and Product Manager, it was far easier for my team to standardize on Macs. Most of the command line tools, libraries, and utilities that web developers depend on are optimized for Mac and Linux, and while Windows has its version of the command prompt (and PowerShell), I have years of knowledge and experience invested in the Linux command line experience. (Cygwin was never a great alternative because most of the packages I needed were out of date.)

But with Windows Subsystem for Linux and Ubuntu on Windows, all that has changed. The combination of the two allows you to very easily run a full version of Ubuntu right alongside Windows, and even access the Windows file system.

I recently put Ubuntu on Windows to the ultimate test by trying to build and run a very complex web application my team has working on for the last couple of years. In the process, I installed Git, Node, npm, nvm, and, frankly, an embarrassing number of module dependencies (see How it feels to learn JavaScript in 2016). I also did other common Linux tasks like modifying the hosts file, creating symlinks, writing bash scrips, etc. The first time I tired was about two months ago with the Windows Anniversary Update, and I only got about halfway through before I ran into errors. But this week, I tried with the Windows Creators Update, and everything worked flawlessly.

Finally, for the first time in my nineteen-year software career, I can use the same computer for web development that I use for Microsoft Office and gaming (and more recently, VR). I can update it when I need to, fix it when I screw something up, and every few years, build an entirely new computer from scratch with exactly the components and capabilities I want.

That doesn’t mean I’m done with Apple. I still have a MacBook Pro and an iPhone sitting right here beside me, and I enjoy using them as much as I do my Windows machine and my Pixel XL. But now I can choose which platform I want to use for any given task, and when it comes to technology, choice is every bit as important to me as design.

Seeing (yourself in VR) is believing


I started exploring primitive augmented reality with Google Glass about four years ago. A year later, I began playing with virtual reality using Google Cardboard. And the following year, after watching the Oculus Interstellar Experience at the Air and Space museum (twice — I went back the next day), I ordered the Oculus Developer Kit 2, built a VR-optimized computer, and subsequently spent hours exploring virtual worlds.

It all felt very experimental and forward-looking back then. By the time I finally got the Oculus Rift CV1 (Consumer Version), I had already decided that VR wasn’t quite ready, and that it would be another generation or two before it would really inspire both consumers and content creators. But then something happened that completely shifted my perspective: I picked up the Rift Touch Controllers.

Bringing my hands into VR with me raised the level of immersion to an entirely new level. The experience went from passive observation and consumption to active participation and creation. Suddenly, I was simultaneously controlling time while shattering enemies, climbing breathtaking mountains, and sculpting with light under the stars. Everything about VR I’d been complaining about was easily forgotten, and I was transported. I became convinced — not gradually, but almost instantly — that VR had the potential to become a computing platform every bit a transformative as mobile, if not moreso.

As recent as a year ago, I would have said that tropes like Tony Stark manipulating holographic, virtual objects in 3D space, or the Avatar / Hunger Games / Westworld control rooms, were, at best, aspirational — vaguely feasible permutations of humanity’s non-foreseeable future. Today, I know for a fact that they’re not only achievable, but achievable on a reasonable timescale.

VR still isn’t “ready” yet in the way that mobile was ready in 2007 when Apple introduced the iPhone. VR hardware is expensive, uncomfortable (though it’s gotten much better), and the experience is inherently solitary (at least in physical space). In general, getting in and out of VR is still too big of a commitment for most people to do on a regular basis. But as I wrote in a recent piece on Medium, if we wait for VR to be ready, we will have waited too long.

Prediction: Apple will make monitors again, and the base will be a wireless iPhone charger


If you’ve ever spent time in front of an Apple Thunderbolt display, then you probably know how tempting it is to rest your phone on the stand. And if you’re paying attention to iPhone rumors, then you know that the next iPhone will likely support wireless (inductive) charging. So why wouldn’t Apple capitalize on their customers’ habits by making a new 5K monitor with wireless charging built into the base?

I know the rumor is that Apple is out of the monitor business, but I don’t buy it. First of all, I can’t imagine Apple being content with allowing customers to spend all day every day staring at a logo that isn’t an Apple. And second, as evidenced by LG’s recent technical problems with their 5K monitors, I also can’t imagine Apple permanently handing over such an important part of the customer experience to third parties who might not execute as well as Apple.

I strongly believe that Apple’s partnership with LG is a stopgap measure — a way to cobble together a reasonable but temporary 5K solution to support the launch of the new MacBook Pro. But once the new iPhones are ready to be announced, I think we will discover that Apple has been working on both brand new 5K monitors, and brand new iMacs, in tandem.

Apple’s new 5K monitors won’t necessarily be about directly generating huge profits for the company. Rather, they will be about contributing to the Apple ecosystem — or to borrow a metaphor from Amazon, adding energy to the Apple flywheel. Just like iPhone customers can augment their overall Apple experience by wearing an Apple Watch, and just like Apple Watches can augment the Mac experience by unlocking computers, and just like Continuity augments the experience of using an iPhone and a Mac together, customers will be able to augment both their MacBook and their iPhone experiences by using a single USB Type-C cable to connect a beautiful, extremely bright, wide-color 5K monitor, and to wirelessly charge their new iPhones at the same time.

When trying to peer into Apple’s future from the outside, it’s important to note that they are in the business of inventing the future. That doesn’t mean inventing disparate devices; it means inventing constellations of devices, and connecting all those dots through seamless, wireless services. When Apple removed the headphone jack from the iPhone 7, they didn’t leave it up to third parties to provide bluetooth audio solutions. They did it themselves with both AirPods and with new Beats products to make sure it was done right (they even augmented bluetooth technology with their own W1 chip). And now that Apple has removed almost all the ports from their MacBooks, I can’t imagine they’re going to leave it entirely up to third parties to build out the USB Type-C ecosystem. When it comes to the experiences that really matter (like your Mac’s primary visual interface), Apple will take it upon themselves to do it right.

While I have your attention, I’ll make a few other bold, unsubstantiated predictions:

  • Other Apple peripherals (mouse, trackpad, keyboard, standalone Touch Bar) will eventually be wirelessly charged, as well.
  • You’ll be able to charge the Apple Watch (along with your peripherals) on your monitor stand.
  • And the big one: the next iPhone won’t be called the iPhone 8. I think Apple is going to reset the version number by calling the next new phone they release the Apple Phone.