jb… 


 

On Computing

Posted on June 28, 2015

I often daydream about not caring about my computer, and being able to go blissfully through my life with little concern about the mix of applications, storage of data, and how I interact with the machine, but that’s just a dream. The truth is I do care. I care a lot. I care enough that I’ve developed my own personal philosophy of computer use. I use this to determine which services and applications I will most likely be happy with. It helps me, maybe it will help you too.

My computing philosophy rests on four pillars: security & privacy, long term data storage and retrieval, simplicity, and power. I value these traits in a computing platform because of the amount of information my computer stores for me, and how much I rely on it for my research and work. I’ve been lucky enough, and privileged enough, to be able to turn my obsession with technology into a career, so my livelihood depends on me knowing how these things work, why they do the things they do, and keeping up to date on current trends and happenings in the field. I care because I have to, but also because not everyone understands the effect the choices they make with the technology they use have on their future selves. I’d like to not care, but I look at computers, applications, and the things we keep and I can’t help but see how things could go wrong. I care because I am compelled to.

This brings me to the four pillars.

Security & Privacy

Maybe I’m getting old, but I believe that I shouldn’t have to give up personal information in exchange for using my computer. I should be able to protect my data as I see fit. I shouldn’t have to worry about security because my computing decisions and platform of choice ship with good, sensible defaults, and easy ways to enhance the default choice.

So, I choose to use a Mac running OS X. I encrypt the hard drive using File Vault, and turn on the firewall to “Stealth Mode”. I use Safari for my primary browser, and I don’t install Flash. I’m not storing anything particularly interesting to anyone, just things that are important to me. A scan of our marriage certificate, all of our social security cards, bank statements going back many years, our birth certificates, details about various health related issues. Things that I don’t believe are the business of anyone else.

For more detailed reasoning on why we should all use encryption, see this article by Bruce Schneier, excerpt below:

This is important. If we only use encryption when we’re working with important data, then encryption signals that data’s importance. If only dissidents use encryption in a country, that country’s authorities have an easy way of identifying them. But if everyone uses it all of the time, encryption ceases to be a signal. No one can distinguish simple chatting from deeply private conversation. The government can’t tell the dissidents from the rest of the population. Every time you use encryption, you’re protecting someone who needs to use it to stay alive.

Long Term Data Storage and Retrieval

Paper has a heck of a shelf life. If kept in reasonable conditions, a piece of paper will long outlive all of us. Unfortunately, as the volume of information you keep increases, so does the storage requirements, and if you are storing everything on paper, you are eventually going to need entire rooms filled with filing cabinets to keep your personal data library. It’s simply not a scalable solution in the digital age.

So, I store nearly everything of interest on the computer. Appliance manuals, copies of bills, academic papers, clippings from web pages, and of course, my own creative work. Since I’m storing the data on the computer, the computer needs to be configured in such a way as to enable retrieval ten, fifteen, twenty, or even fifty years from now.

To ensure the availability of my data in the future, I tend to use open formats whenever possible. I use plain text instead of Microsoft Word documents. I print complex documents to PDF. I do use some applications where I store data in a proprietary format as an intermediary step, but when the document is complete and I’m storing for future reference it is exported to either plain text or PDF. Any system that either cannot do this, or makes exporting of data to an open format complex or difficult is quickly discarded.

Simplicity

Even though I care about keeping my computer secure, and about making sure the things I write today will be accessible twenty years from now, doesn’t mean I want to spend hours upon hours tweaking my system. When I plug in my computer to an external display, I just want it to use that display, no mucking about. When I want to install a new application, I want that to be as straight-forward a process as possible.

I want the applications I use to behave in a consistent manner, and I want them to integrate deeply with the operating system. That way I don’t have to think about what key combination to press or how to accomplish a given task. When everything works as intended, the combination of applications all function in a similar way. I have one important exception to the simplicity rule, MacVim, but that is only because I’ve been using Vim for fifteen years and I know exactly how it works. However, in service to simplicity even this old stalwart servant may be removed from my machine soon. Plain text editors and writing tools have gotten very, very good in the past few years.

Power

There is absolutely no need to trade power for simplicity. In a mature, well designed system the two go hand in hand. Power is a general term that could mean many things depending on the context it is used in, even when speaking specifically about computers. The power I’m talking about here is the ability to handle complex, long-running tasks. To be able to keep up with the demands of a high-stress environment and to respond correctly when needed. The ability to run multiple, high-resource applications simultaneously without issue.

In my job I never know when things might need sudden and immediate attention, and I need my computer to be there for me when that happens. That means I don’t have time to recompile X.org or muck about with my network driver or worry about closing apps because I have too many of them open to deal with the issue at hand. I need my computer to be able to handle whatever might come around gracefully and without getting in my way.

Power is similar to flexibility, and incorporates certain attributes of a flexible system, but one that is more flexible than powerful will collapse under stress. A system that allows unlimited customization will not be able to adequately prepare for unexpected shifts in the demands placed on it. It’s easy to mistake one for the other, until the Director of Infrastructure is standing over your shoulder asking why this server just crashed and why it isn’t back up and running again yet. Then the difference becomes crystal clear.

Summary

I’ve grown to use my machines in a certain manner, and expect them to behave in a certain way. I also expect that whatever system I’m using is going to respect my privacy, provide a substantial amount of security, and be powerful enough to do what I need it to do. These requirements may limit my choices, but they also provide focus and clarity on the technology I will allow into my life.

Smartphone Cost and Value

Posted on June 21, 2015

iPhones are expensive. Well, not just iPhones, all smart phones, Android, Windows, what have you. These little gadgets that we can walk out of a Verizon store with without paying a penny now wind up costing thousands later, once you consider the total cost of ownership. This is especially true if you are paying for an entire family, possibly one with two teenage daughters with phones of their own.

Our families phones are getting a bit long in the tooth, so I dropped by US Cellular to price out new ones and see what kind of deal I could get. Sometime in the past two years the phone companies have decided that the two year contract and reduced price for new phones is no good, and that the proper way to sell phones is with a twenty-month, no interest rate loan on the full price of the phone. Here’s how it breaks down.

The Cost

Assuming my wife and I purchased two middle of the road, 64GB iPhone 6’s, and bought two iPhone 5s’s for the kids under the new program, we’d be looking at $32.45 per month for mine, times two for my wife’s, which puts us at $64.90 per month. The girls’ phones are a little cheaper, coming in at $24.95 per month each, so $49.90 per month.

There’s a $60 fee for the 6GB per month data plan, shared between all the phones, and each phone would have a $20 per month “connection charge”. All together, that comes out to $254.80 per month. That number is still a little misleading though, because at this point we would have signed up for a 20 month loan.

At $254.80 per month for 20 months, the real two year price tag on the phones for our family is $5656.00. As desirable as these phones are, that’s a number that should give you pause while browsing through the store. If we kept that cycle up for ten years, the rough back of the napkin calculations put the cost at around $28,280.00.

It’s comforting to think that the price of the phone is worth it; you start thinking about the phone as a utility like gas or electric. A modern necessity you can’t get away from. That’s not true, it’s a lie you tell yourself to make the money you spend on these superfluous, magnificent devices palatable. We love our phones, but we are in uncharted territory now, not only are we spending thousands of dollars on them, we don’t fully understand how they are affecting our society, or ourselves.

But let’s put that concept to the side for the moment, and just concentrate on cost. Let’s say instead of the phones we bought a new iPad for each of us every year. At $300 per iPad Mini for the kids, and $600 per iPad Air 2 for my wife and I, we could buy a new iPad every year for each of us for $1800 per year, compared to $2828 per year for the phones. Of course, that’s not apples to apples, since you don’t buy a new iPhone every year, so the total annual cost for the iPads, replacing them every two years would be $900.

Of course, just having an iOS device doesn’t replace having a cell phone. Flip phones come cheap. You can get one at Verizon for $2.08 per month, and pay $5 per month for 700 minutes of talk time and unlimited texts. This plan still requires a $20 per phone access charge, so for our family the total month cost for flip phones would be $93.32 per month. Multiply that out for two years and it comes out to $2239.68. Ten years comes to $11,198.40.

So, we could, if we so choose, buy a new iPad every year, alternating between iPad Mini and a full sized iPad, and save around $400 every two years. Or, we could skip the iPads and just save $1400 every two years by trading our smart phones for dumb phones. The big question is if that’s worth it or not.

The Benefit

I use my iPhone every day, several times per day. It goes running with me first thing in the morning. I read the news with Unread at breakfast. I listen to Overcast on the drive to and from work. If my kids have a sporting event somewhere out of town, I use Apple Maps to get us there on time.[1]. I chat with my friends and family throughout the day with Messages, and occasionally dip into Twitteriffic to catch up with the world. Occasionally I’ll open up Instapaper at lunch and dive into a saved article.

I keep my world organized with OmniFocus, and make sure I’ve got all the important numbers[2] I need with me at all times with 1Password. All of that could go away and I’d still be fine. What would bother me about going back to life without a smart phone would be the more personal interactions that I’d miss, or that simply wouldn’t happen.

My wife and I were on a date last night and I took a picture of her laughing that’s now my lock screen, and we took a couple of funny selfies to go along with it. Today my daughter sent me a beautiful, and long, text message that must have taken her some time to type up. Would I have either of these things if I didn’t have my smart phone, or if the rest of my family didn’t have theirs? Maybe. Maybe not.

My iPhone is my health coach, my newspaper, my camcorder, my camera, my music player, my talk radio[3], my address book, my wallet, my journal, my temporary distraction, my reminder that right now, this instant, I’m living in a future I couldn’t have imagined when I was a teenager. Giving my family iPhones has meant that I’m there for my kids when they have a question, no matter where I actually am. It’s meant that we can trust them to go farther and stay later, knowing that checking up on them is just a tap away. It’s meant that we can stay on top of the things that are most important to us, and that we can stay connected, even when we are far apart.

It’s hard to put a price tag on that.


  1. I very, very rarely see a problem with Apple Maps, and when I do it’s minor enough that I don’t think much of it.  ↩

  2. Passcodes, door codes, insurance numbers, social security numbers, birth dates, etc…  ↩

  3. Podcasts. Not the crazy kind.  ↩

Select A Column of Text in MacVim

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.

Goodbye to The Annual Review

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.

Research Kit and the GPL

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.

The Invisible MacBook

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.

The Case

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.

The Trackpad

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.

The Keyboard

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.

Compromise

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.

Word Lookup Changes in 10.10.3

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.

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.

 
 

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