Force Touch Band

Posted on March 23, 2015

We took a trip to the mall the other day, and I took that chance to check out the new Force Touch trackpad on the MacBook Pro. Force Touch is an incredible feat of engineering, I couldn’t stop thinking about how it was working. If I didn’t know better, I’d assume that Apple just made a few minor enhancements to the trackpad to produce the different click. I really couldn’t tell there was no depression of the glass; the illusion is phenomenally good.

With the Force Touch trackpad, force sensors detect your click anywhere on the surface and move the trackpad laterally toward you, although the feel is the same familiar downward motion you’re accustomed to in a trackpad. The Taptic Engine also provides haptic feedback, so instead of just seeing what’s happening on the screen, you can feel it, too.

I was surprised to find out that there were two levels of force that could be applied to the trackpad for different results. For example, if you hover over a word, and press down, and then keep going down to a secondary click, OS X will pop up the word definition. Likewise, if you do it on a date, OS X will open up a calendar. This demo gave me a new appreciation for how interacting with the Apple Watch will turn out, but it also made me excited for the next generation of iPhones. Assuming this technology spreads to all of Apple’s products, I image an entire new level of user interaction design for iOS apps. There are interesting times ahead.

We left the Apple store and were detoured by a trio of XBoxs in a Microsoft pop-up store. While my boys were testing out the consoles, I wandered around the counters examining what Microsoft considers the best of breed. A flyer caught my eye that advertised a five dollar Starbucks giftcard if I demoed the Microsoft Band. Feeling a bit tired from the mall, I thought a jolt of caffeine would do me good, so I grabbed the flyer and asked the kid behind the counter for a demo.

First, they were out of Starbucks gift cards. But, since I was committed by this point, I tried on several of the bands till I found one that fit, and tried to keep up with the demo. I took three things away from my brief time with the Band:

  1. This thing is bulky and uncomfortable. The top part of the Band, where the touch screen lives, is about an inch and a half rectangle of metal and glass surrounded by rubber. It did not even try to fit to the contours of my wrist. The clasp under my wrist was equally as uncomfortable. The kid advised that it needed to be snug for the laser to be able to read my pulse, which leads me to the second point.

  2. The interface is confusing. I tried to get the Band to read my pulse, and when it didn’t pick it up right away the kid tried to show me a few other things the band could do. Once I was away from the screen reading my pulse, I couldn’t figure out how to get back to it again. The kid showed me how you could check your email, send text messages, and a few other unmemorable capabilities, and then he showed me the kicker.

  3. It has a keyboard. Seriously. I could clearly make out the letters “QWERTY” across the top row. The kid even typed something out on it. The presence of a software keyboard on a device that I’m supposed to wear on my wrist all day, and sleep with it all night, shows a significant lack of understanding at Microsoft of how people will actually interact with the device.

Microsoft is doing interesting things as they reinvent themselves, but I was just as much unimpressed with their Band as I was impressed by the Force Touch trackpad. The trackpad worked seamlessly and invisibly. The Band was uncomfortable and confusing. After demoing the Band, I paid for my own coffee.

The New MacBook

Posted on March 12, 2015

The tech world is once again loosing their grip after Apple has gone, as they see it, too far, too fast with the new MacBook. They can think of a thousand reasons why the Mac’s single USB-C port is a deal-breaker for any sane person. The single port is too restrictive. What if I want to hook up a USB mouse while I’m charging? Why isn’t there a removable battery? Why can’t I expand the storage? Less space than a Nomad. Lame.

The thing to keep in mind about the new Mac is the lack of a “Pro” moniker at the end of the name. The distinction between the MacBook and the MacBook Pro is the difference between a person who needs to hook up their Mac to two or three displays and one who needs a computer to write emails and read Buzzfeed. It’s the difference between someone who takes the time to research and understand exactly what “USB-C” means, and someone who chooses to see the machine as a tool that allows them to do things that have nothing to do with computers.

It would be easy to assume that this is not a computer for geeks.

But it can be. Perhaps the more accurate description is that this computer is not for gadget geeks. Leonardo da Vinci is quoted as saying “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” Apple pursues both simplicity and sophistication in all their products, pushing the public and the industry to abandon awkward technologies before they are comfortable. The floppy disk, the CD-ROM drive, and now all ports but one. Apple understands that technology is at it’s best when it is virtually invisible. When it can integrate deeply and easily into our everyday lives without asking us to make accommodations for it. I’m a Unix geek, and I can tell you that as long as this Mac runs OS X, it can absolutely be a computer for geeks.

It can also be a computer for postage stamp collectors, and bird watchers, and students, and people into following celebrities, and sports fans, home brewers, dog lovers, cat lovers, athletes… in general, people. This may not be the right machine for you if you want to connect it to your USB keyboard, hard drive, printer, and scanner all at once. Not that that’s wrong in any way, it’s just that this particular Mac is not the right tool for the job. Simply because the MacBook isn’t the right tool for this job though is not going to stop it from selling in the millions.

There are a few reasons you might not want to buy this generation MacBook though. It is less powerful and more expensive than a MacBook Air, although that is offset by the Retina display. The new trackpad has no moving parts, and I’m a bit skeptical of how it will feel and perform over long periods of use, at least in the first generation. Subsequent generations of this machine, in this form factor are going to get better, and most likely less expensive. I expect in a few years for this Mac to start at $999.

Apple is moving in new directions, so I’m glad they are still doing interesting things with the Mac. The new MacBook is a beautiful piece of hardware, and an impressive technical accomplishment. On those merits, I expect it will do well.

Reading at Night

Posted on February 25, 2015

A couple years ago I started reading classic books to my boys before bedtime. We started with The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, then Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, followed unsuccessfully by Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea [1]. Next, we read one of my all time favorite books, Treasure Island, the classic pirate story from which nearly all other tellings of pirates are cribbed. We might go back and read that one again someday.

We just finished The Call of the Wild and decided to follow it up with White Fang. Jack London was a brilliant writer; he brings his audience with him to the harsh northern lands, where the law of club and fang is the only law. I’m looking forward to White Fang. So far we’ve only read the first chapter, but it starts out strong with two men, pursued by wolves, are returning the body of a third man from the snowy wilderness with a sled and six dogs.

Besides the books I read with the kids, I have a few in progress of my own. I’m reading through The Maze Runner, mainly so I can talk it over with my younger daughter. I’m also reading The Rough Riders, the story of Theodore Roosevelt’s time in the calvary during the Spanish-American War. Next on the list is Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage by Alice Munro. I picked this one up at the Half Price Bookstore because Munro’s name is on a list of books, and the back cover looked interesting enough.

I also have The Martian by Andy Weir, based on recommendation by The Incomparable. Finally, I plan on finishing Moby Dick before summer, the Herman Melville classic that’s been on my mind to read for years. After finishing the four other books on my plate, I’m going to give that one my full attention.

I’m always looking for new book recommendations. I just add them to the list as they come in. I don’t expect I’ll ever actually finish the list, it seems to grow faster than I can read, which is exactly what I want. I imagine myself as an old man someday, surrounded by books. [2] Sometimes the books are fantastic, sometimes they are duds, but they always enrich my life in one way or another.

I consider myself a lifelong learner. Reading is simply another aspect of my desire to constantly better myself.

  1. I’m a bit mystified by people who enjoy this book. My boys and I found it quite boring, and I wound up skipping large sections devoted to describing, in detail, the fish and other underwater life.  ↩

  2. Paper books. None of that ebook business. I like to own my books, and I’d rather they not run out of batteries.  ↩

The Long View

Posted on January 16, 2015

Computers as tools for creation are unique in that they change and evolve over time as software is updated. A hammer that you buy today can reasonably be expected to perform the same in twenty years, assuming that the tool is taken care of properly. Similarly, the bench that you build with the hammer will still be good to sit on, no matter what happens to the hammer that built it. Not so with computers and software. Not only do the tools used to create change over time and perform in sometimes unexpected ways, the artifacts of our creation are often subject to artificial limitation on use. How ridiculous would it be for a bench to only be able to be sat in if you were holding the hammer you used to build it? And yet, this is the arrangement we agree to with our software more often than not.

Creating documents with Word or Pages, storing precious family photographs in iPhoto, or locking your research away in OneNote or Evernote are all examples of a short-sighted view of technology. They work well for the near term, but taking the long view of technology requires a consideration of the nature of the format your data is stored in.

The amount one should care about the format their data is stored in and their access to their data is in direct proportion to how much one cares about the data. Proprietary file formats come with a built-in expiration date; unlike a gallon of milk though, you don’t get to know when your software’s expiration date is. Sooner or later, whoever controls that format will update it, and eventually leave your important data irretrievable. Are you sure you’ll be able to open that Pages document in twenty years? You may not be able to open a Pages document from three years ago.

Some of this argument may sound familiar to the open source community. Control and longevity of personal computing systems is at the heart of much of what open source stands for. What open source enthusiasts often miss is that the method of manipulating the data matters far less in the long run than ensuring that your data remains in a format that makes the best effort to be accessible in twenty, thirty, or a hundred years from now. That means not locking your important data in proprietary formats that may go by the wayside, but it also means using the best tools for the job at hand.

Using commercial software is perfectly acceptable as long as the tools either offer export of your data to an open format, or work directly with the open format[1]. For writing, I prefer plain text, HTML, and PDF. Occasionally, I may revert back to LaTeX if necessary to create a complicated document intended to be printed, but the need for that is less and less as time goes on. My files are organized in a filesystem, using logical file names and a simple folder hierarchy.

No company is guaranteed to be around forever. Nor are they guaranteed to always keep your best interests at heart. However, as long as there is a way to easily export your data to an open format, it makes sense to use the best tools available. In my opinion, the best computer on the market is a MacBook Pro, and the best operating system is OS X. OS X offers the best combination of usability, aesthetics, and power of any system currently available.

Much of my opinion on this matter comes from my own experience. Much of it was influenced by the writings of Dr. Drang and his series on text files, as well as Seth Brown and David Sparks. If you’d like to read more from people that have been bitten by proprietary formats and/or poor organizational methods, here’s a weekends reading list.

Dr. Drang

Seth Brown

David Sparks

The new and shiny always looks wonderful when new, and shiny, but you don’t really get your value from investment until the shine wears off.

  1. BBEdit is the best example of an outstanding commercial product that works directly with an open format: plain text.  ↩

The Best of What's Around

Posted on January 05, 2015

Marco struck a nerve with his latest post lamenting the declining quality of Apple software. The post was picked up by “analysts” and debated on television by a panel of “experts”. While I understand the frustrations of those affected by more serious bugs than I’ve seen, I can’t help but wonder if they really understand what the alternatives are like.

This whole débâcle reminded me of 2006 when Mark Pilgrim, Cory Doctoro, and Tim Brey left the Mac for Linux. Some of the same reasons were cited then, although for these three I think the openness of Linux meant more than software quality. But, as Daniel Jalkut pointed out, Apple’s software has always had bugs, and people have always been upset about it. It’s easy to look at the past through rose-colored glasses, but the truth is that there were some pretty terrible releases in the past.

We do seem to be at a low point in the ebb and flow of Cupertino software. I use Mail, Safari, Calendar, and iTunes daily, and from time to time I see bugs here and there. My personal pet peeve is that the Dock no longer automatically minimizes when I move a window to full screen mode. Instead, it just obstructs the bottom part of the window. An annoyance, to be sure, but it’s not the end of the world.

Overall Yosemite has been a fantastic release for me. I enjoy the new aesthetic, although I think the transparency could be toned down a bit, and the apps I use daily work great. I haven’t had the kind of problem that forces a reboot once a week, or to see iTunes crash once a day. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen, clearly it does, and I’m just one data point, but I just don’t see it.

Apple’s apps aren’t what make the platform great anyway. What makes the Apple ecosystem a great place to work and play is the abundance of very high quality third party apps. OmniGraffle, DEVONthink, Day One, Soulver, Quicksilver, TextExpander, Hazel, the list goes on. It was Apple’s platform and, more importantly, their taste, which encouraged the developers to build their absolute best. No other platform has this. I know, I’ve looked.

Linux is a mess from top to bottom. Windows is a hollow corporate shell trying to be relevant again. FreeBSD? Not a chance. Yes, it’s important to point out the flaws in the Mac and iOS platforms, and yes it’s good to remind Apple to stay on the path of light, but before we all decide to download the latest Ubuntu iso, let’s also take a moment to appreciate how fantastic these machines and their software really are. In comparison, nothing else even comes close.

PS. Apple, fix your bugs. Seriously, some of this is just embarrassing.

Marco and the Functional High Ground

Posted on January 04, 2015

Marco Arment takes Apple to task over the decline in their software.

Apple has completely lost the functional high ground. “It just works” was never completely true, but I don’t think the list of qualifiers and asterisks has ever been longer. We now need to treat Apple’s OS and application releases with the same extreme skepticism and trepidation that conservative Windows IT departments employ.

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The canary in the coal mine?

Adopting BBEdit Scripts for Vim

Posted on January 04, 2015

In addition to my experiments with the design of this site, I was also testing out BBEdit as my main writing and programming tool. BBEdit didn’t stick, but I did like some of the scripting the good Dr. Drang has done, and wanted to adopt a few for MacVim. I started with three of his scripts today, one to paste and select text in one command, one to convert a tab-separated table to Markdown, and another to even up the Markdown table so it’s easier to read in plain text.

Since Dr. Drang’s scripts read from stdin and output to stdout[1], converting them to Vim was very easy, once I found the right syntax for my vimrc file[2]. My first thought was that I would be able to copy the same syntax I use for calling the outstanding formd by Seth Brown, but formd is meant to parse the entire text of the file, not just the selection. Eventually, I found my answer on StackOverflow.

My vimrc file now has the following lines:

" Even up a markdown table
vmap <leader>mn <esc>:'<,'>!~/Unix/bin/Normalize-Tables.py<CR>

" Convert a tab separated tabel to a markdown table
vmap <leader>mt <esc>:'<,'>!~/Unix/bin/Tabs-to-Markdown-Tables.pl<CR>

The first word, vmap, maps the shortcut to visual selections in Vim. Next, <leader>mn creates the shortcuts ,mn for Normalize-Tables.py and ,mt for Tabs-to-Markdown-Tables.pl.

The next part <esc>:'<,'> grabs the selection and passes it to the command, which starts with an exclamation point[3] and ends with <CR>, which stands for “Carriage Return”.

I need to spend some time in my vimrc file to sort out the naming convention for all the key maps, but for now, I’m thinking “,mn” for “markdown normalize”, and “,mt” for “markdown from tabs”.

For the third part I’m borrowing from Dr. Drang, I wanted to paste and select text at the same time. Once again I had to turn to StackOverflow, and now have this mapped in vimrc:

nnoremap <leader>sp :set paste<CR>:put  *<CR>:set nopaste<CR> <Bar> `[v`]

The first part sets the mapping, ,sp, which I’m thinking of as “select paste”, and then pastes the text from the OS X system clipboard. Next, the <Bar> entry strings two mappings together in Vim. Finally, \[v`]` performs the selection on the last change to the text.

So, now I can take text from Excel like this:

Left align  Center align    Right align
This    This    This
column  column  column
will    will    will
be  be  be
left    center  right
aligned aligned aligned

paste and select it with ,sp, followed by ,mt to convert the table to Markdown.

|Left align|Center align|Right align|

and finally ,mn to even the table up nicely:

| Left align | Center align | Right align |
| This       | This        | This         |
| column     | column      | column       |
| will       | will        | will         |
| be         | be          | be           |
| left       | center      | right        |
| aligned    | aligned     | aligned      |

As always, my thanks to the good Doctor for scripts and inspiration.

  1. As God intended.  ↩

  2. Someday, someone will create the perfect app for managing your vimrc file, but today is not that day.  ↩

  3. Or a bang, if you’re an old Unix guy.  ↩

All Mine

Posted on January 03, 2015

I’ve been experimenting with the design of this site for the past couple weeks. First, I used a default Jekyll template, slightly modified to my liking. Next, I tried out a very nice theme that made good use of hero images and included nice typography. I changed the name of the site to “INTERACT”, and briefly considered leaving it at that. Unfortunately, the more I looked at the site the more it looked like it belonged to someone else.

Something reminded me of Merlin Mann and John Gruber’s South By Southwest panel where John said he wanted to own every pixel of his site, from the top left to the bottom right. I agree. This little part of the Internet has my name on it, it’s jonathanbuys.com, and I want to be able to point at this site and say “I built this”.

It’s not much, I’m not a web designer. I’ve tried to optimize the site to make it easy to read, and easy to port between hosting companies. I’m back to using my own Python script for generating the site, so there might be a few inconsistencies or characters that are missing or not rendered correctly. I’m going to work on that.

In the meantime, once again, I own every pixel of this site. From the top left, to the bottom right.

Cellular Options

Posted on January 02, 2015

I pulled into the gas station on my way home after a long day, picked up my phone in my left hand, intending to put it in my pocket, and opened the door of my pickup. While pushing the door of the truck open, the phone slipped out of my hand and fell face down on the pavement, shattering the screen.

I’m not the type who can carry around a broken phone for months, so the next day I called US Cellular to see what my options were. I was one year into a two year contract, so the prospects of actually getting anything out of my carrier were grim. I was right. The support person on the phone said that since I didn’t opt into the US Cellular insurance program, I either have to look into having the phone fixed, or buy a new phone at full price. Turns out, there are several options.

Buying a new phone at full price is the most expensive up front, and the option where I received conflicting information from the support people. Since the only iPhone 5C carried by US Cellular is the 8GB model (which should be an embarrassment for them and Apple), I was looking to buy a 5S, or possibly a 6. The 5S retails for $549, and the 6 for $650, but when considering the benefits of paying for the phone up front I became confused. The phone is not of much use without the cellular contract to go with it, and US Cellular charges a $40 “connection fee” for each line attached to my $70 per month plan. My question to US Cellular was what is the benefit from buying my phone up front if I still have to pay the connection fee?

Faced with a $650 charge for a new phone, I pulled the ace from my sleeve and said the magic words: “I think I might cancel my account.” The cancellation fee is $350, which some carriers might pay for you, which would bring my out of pocket costs down to $200, or maybe $100 to get into a new phone. Albeit with a new carrier and a complicated situation with the rest of my family still on the old plan. I didn’t think it was a serious option, but mentioning the cancellation was enough to get me pushed through to another level of support, who was happy to move my upgrade eligibility up an entire year to keep me with the company.

So, now my options were a little better. I could buy a new phone at full price, buy a new phone at the discounted rate, I could finance the full price of the phone over two years (which is a new option I wasn’t aware of before), or I could keep my phone and fix the screen.

The question remained though, why would I ever buy a new phone at full price? The source of my confusion centered around the $40 connection fee. One representative told me that the fee was there so the company could recoup the cost of the subsidized phone. If so, they are making a healthy profit off of each phone sold; $40 per month over two years comes out to $960. Another representative told me that no matter what, if I owned my phone or if I bought it at a discounted price, I had to pay the connection fee. The only way not to pay the fee was to finance the phone.

If I financed the phone for two years they would wave the fee, but in place of the fee I would be paying $32 per month on an interest free twenty month loan. Also, financing the phone would make me eligible to upgrade to a new line every eighteen months, if I was willing to pay the remainder of the phone off, or trade in the phone for a new model. This seemed interesting, but it also seemed like a way for me to remain in debt of one kind or another continuously. Even though the total paid out seemed to make more sense over time, financing did not appeal to me.

So, I decided, grudgingly, to buy a new phone at the discounted rate. I found the nearest US Cellular store, and went in to buy an iPhone 5S. While I was talking to the representative I asked her again about the connection fee. This was at least the third time I’d talked to someone at US Cellular about the fee, and this time the answer was different. If you own your phone, and you are not under contract, there is no connection fee. This changed things for me. If there was no fee for my phone that I had now, the best course of action I could take would be to fix the phone. I told her about my change in plans, and the conflicting information I’d gathered. To make her point she removed the fee from my account while I was sitting there.

I left the store without a new phone, went back to my desk, and ordered a $35 replacement screen and toolkit from Amazon. In two days the screen arrived, and I spent an hour and a half replacing it. Now my white iPhone 5C has a white face on it, and a black button, giving the phone some character. Also, I’m not under contract with US Cellular. I think for my next phone, whenever that happens to be, I’ll be paying full price for it, and staying out of contract lock-in from here on out.


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