Posted on April 16, 2015
I often need to work with columns of text; output from commands, text grabbed from a web page, what have you. Since I have a somewhat odd aversion to using a spreadsheet like a normal person, I discovered, nearly by accident, that I could easily select a column of text in MacVim.
To do so, simply position the cursor where you would like to start, hold down option while dragging over the text you’d like to select. Once the text is selected, you can delete it, yank it, or insert new text for every row selected.
For an example, today I needed to comment out a few lines of text in a config file. Just for kicks I selected the first two characters of every row, pressed shift “i” (a capital i), typed the hash symbol, and when I pressed escape every row of text I had selected was commented out.
That example is a bit contrived, what I mainly use this for is just deleting columns to pair down the text I’m working with. Give it a try for yourself. I’m sure there’s a way to do this without using the trackpad, but this is quick and easy enough for me to remember.
Posted on April 15, 2015
John Siracusa hung up his cape today, announcing on his blog that he would no longer be reviewing OS X.
Nearly 15 years ago, I wrote my first review of Mac OS X for a nascent “PC enthusiast’s" website called Ars Technica. Nearly 15 years later, I wrote my last. Though Apple will presumably announce the next major version of OS X at WWDC this coming June, I won’t be reviewing it for Ars Technica or any other publication, including the website you’re reading now.
It’s a bittersweet moment for those of us who have been following John for over a decade, but it’s well deserved, and the volume of work that he’s left is a wonderful gift to the community.
John’s explanation of Spotlight in the OS X 10.4 review was fundamental in my understanding of OS X as not just another Unix system. OS X is something different, something more. I remember this part in particular blowing my mind:
Any file i/o that goes through the Tiger kernel will trigger the appropriate metadata importer. This kernel-level integration ensures that the Spotlight indexes are always up to date.
Read the whole thing, actually, start at the beginning and read every review from DP2to Yosemite. His unapologetically deep dives into the details of OS X were something I and a lot of other geeks on the Internet looked forward to with each release.
Siracusa’s reviews are required reading for anyone wanting a better understanding of how and why their Mac works the way that it does. I’m looking forward to the published, hardcover book, if it ever comes.
Posted on April 14, 2015
Apple released ResearchKit as an open source project on GitHub today. The project is complete with pull requests, a wiki, and a few sample projects to get started. While the project is great in its own right, it was the context of this tweet by Daniel Jalkut that caught my eye:
ResearchKit will probably save and improve more lives thanks to being unencumbered by the GPL.
— Daniel Jalkut (@danielpunkass) Tue Apr 14 2015 12:36 PM CDT
Apple could have kept this to themselves, simply added ResearchKit along with AppKit and UIKit as another capability easily programmed into one of their platforms, but they didn’t. That’s not to say that Apple doesn’t have selfish motivations with ResearchKit. Putting the iPhone at the center of medical research at a time when the healthcare industry is just starting to feel the weight of the baby boomers is clearly a strategic move for Apple, but I’m not sure that’s entirely why they did it. Call me an idealist, but I think Apple created and released ResearchKit for the greater good. Which, finally, brings me to the license.
The license that they chose, the BSD license, permits the most “free” use of the code. If someone wants to port the code to Android, close it off, and sell it, they are perfectly free to do so, and Apple might even be ok with that. I think the spirit of what Daniel was saying is that, despite the ethical arguments on the side of the GPL, Apple is going to actually do more good for society with the combination of their devices and this liberally licensed open source code.
I’ve made similar arguments before. The GNU community far too often overlooks actual utility in pursuit of a utopian dream. But, trust is a complicated subject, and trust and control are at the heart of what the GNU project is fighting for. They believe that if you do not have access to the source code of an application or device, that opens you up to being manipulated, spied on, or otherwise harassed. The license is designed to prevent anyone from taking a GPL licensed code base and closing it to public access. They are correct, to a point. However, the same people who make that argument are more often than not consumers of free online services like Gmail and Google Docs.
The proponents of the GPL like to define different levels and explanations of “freedom”. Free as in beer, free as in speech, and so on. Apple released code today that is designed to make the world a better place, and left it on the table for anyone to do whatever they wish with it. Study it, change it, use it as the base for your next hit app, whatever you like. That is real freedom, all around.
Posted on April 13, 2015
A thread of minimalism weaves through Apple’s products, starting with the Bondi blue iMac and flowing to the Apple Watch. One could argue that the minimal thread weaves back to the original Macintosh, a single, all-in-one device that made computing accessible, but I think the theme is most visible when looking at the modern age of Apple. Jony Ive’s designs have consistently focused on aesthetically pleasing, usable design. A concept that simultaneously puts the device at the center of our day, and almost makes it disappear. Technology is best when it is nearly invisible. The Apple Watch may be the culmination of this invisible tech, but it’s the new MacBook that I believe embodies the design philosophy of Apple best. When the lid is closed on the new 12" Retina MacBook, it’s so small and light that you hardly know it’s there.
I spent a half hour or so with the new MacBook at our local Apple Store today. I walked away from the device with two conflicting feelings: 1. the space gray one is probably the most beautiful piece of computing hardware I’ve ever seen, and 2. I’ll most likely not buy one. Not yet anyway.
I have an allergic reaction to cables. At work I’m lucky enough to have a Thunderbolt display that handles and hides most of the cables from me, so that I only ever need to plug in two things to my MacBook Pro: power and the display. Thankfully, both are part of the same cable that comes from the display, but even this I’d rather not have. The new MacBook seems to really get me, it’s simplified everything down to the absolute minimum of what’s possible.
The retina screen is beautiful, and the case is just big enough to hold the keyboard. It’s astonishing how small this computer really is. It’s comparable to the 11" MacBook Air, but feels to be only a fraction of the bulk, and yet the MacBook retains the solid and sturdy construction we’ve come to expect in an Apple product.
I was impressed with my first experience with the new Force Touch trackpad on the 13" MacBook Pro. I had a hard time believing at first that the glass was not actually moving, and like David Sparks I was wondering if I was actually using the new trackpad or not. The trackpad on the MacBook felt almost the same, but there was something in the feel of the first click that felt off to me. It’s not to say that there was anything wrong with how it functioned, and the second force click worked perfectly, just as before, but the MacBook’s trackpad lost some of the magic of the one in the MacBook Pro.
It could be that I was surprised with how good it was in the Pro, and then expected it to be as surprising in the MacBook. It could also be that the particular models I tested were suffering from “demo version” syndrome, but I’ve rarely come across anything other than the best on display in an Apple Store.
Apple made a big production out of their new keyboard design. The new butterfly key design provides a smoother, more consistent key press than the older scissor keys. As someone who types for a living, the keyboard is very important to me, and the feel of the keys makes a big difference. I’ve tried mechanical keyboards, ergonomic keyboards, and horrible PC keyboards, but I’ve always liked Apple’s aluminum bluetooth keyboards the best. They have the same feel as the notebook keyboards, with just the right balance of resistance and feedback. I know when I’m pressing the right key on a standard Apple keyboard.
I didn’t have the same experience with the MacBook keyboard. The keys are so close to the case that there is almost no travel when pressing down. The lack of travel makes it hard to tell if you’ve actually pressed the key, particularly when pressing one of the special keys like shift, option, or command. I typed out a few paragraphs in a few different apps on two display models, and repeatedly had issues not capitalizing a new sentence, or stopping to make sure I was hitting the right key.
It could be that the new keyboard will just take some getting used to. After all, the current line of keyboards was a change from the previous versions, but I think the current line is the best. I think if the MacBook keyboard stayed the same size, but increased tactile feedback when pressing a key, they’d have a winner. I didn’t have any issues with the arrow keys (I never use them), but I did notice that the esc key was too close to the top left edge. Vim users might find that annoying, most everyone else probably won’t.
The MacBook is certainly a compromised machine, but the deals it make are for the better. Smaller, lighter, more invisible. Stashed away when you don’t need it, there for you immediately when you do, taking up so little space that you barely notice it. The MacBook might not be right for me now, but I’m going to give version two a very close look.
Posted on April 10, 2015
Yosemite 10.10.3 brought a few subtle, but welcome changes to the interface used to look up a word. I normally access this by tapping on a word with three fingers on the trackpad, or right clicking the Magic Mouse and selecting “Look Up”. Since I often read above my level of comprehension, I use this feature all the time.
Apple added the iBooks bookstore alongside the dictionary, thesaurus, and Wikipedia.
Also, since I’m just getting back into screencasting and needed some practice, here’s a goofy video I made with a basic Garageband loop to accompany it.
I’m looking for a new delivery method for hosting videos on this site. I’ll update this post with the goofy video once I’ve sorted it out.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 . 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.  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.
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. ↩
Paper books. None of that ebook business. I like to own my books, and I’d rather they not run out of batteries. ↩
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. 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.
- Text files and me - Part 1
- Text files and me - Part 2
- Text files and me - Part 3
- Text files and me - Part 3.5
- Text files and me IV
- Text files and me V
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.
BBEdit is the best example of an outstanding commercial product that works directly with an open format: plain text. ↩