Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Archive for December, 2012

Things Patrick Rhone Learned In 2012

An interesting list, as is to be expected from Rhone. He offers this prediction for 2013:

That 2013 will be the year of opt-out. That disconnection will become hipster cool. More and more people will be replacing smart phones with dumb ones, digital with analog, social with solitude, sharing with journaling, etc.

I think this is likely (it has already begun for some), but also completely unnecessary. Technology is like food: have everything in moderation, and don’t go overboard too often. Fad diets don’t work, and neither will unplugging. When Paul Miller of The Verge comes back to the internet, and when Stephen Hackett gets his iPhone back, both will probably resume their usual habits. There’s nothing wrong with that, provided that you moderate your own usage.

The End of the Netbook

Charles Arthur of The Guardian:

Still, there’s an eWeek article from July in which ABI says that “consumer interest in netbooks shows no sign of waning, and the attraction remains the same: value rather than raw performance.”

Actually, the number sold in 2013 will be very much closer to zero than to 139m. The Taiwanese tech site Digitimes points out that Asus, which kicked off the modern netbook category with its Eee PC in 2007, has announced that it won’t make its Eee PC product after today, and that Acer doesn’t plan to make any more; which means that “the netbook market will officially end after the two vendors finish digesting their remaining inventories.”

See, it’s funny because I wasn’t aware that the netbook was ever a hot category.

Rethinking the Value of Scrabble Tiles

As an — as Joshua Lewis refers to it — “enthusiastic amateur player” of Scrabble, I am no stranger to playing quite frustrating words with Qs, Xs, and Zs. Lewis makes a good point that at least two of these letters are overvalued, and I applaud his new values. However, the existing points for each (10, 8, and 10, respectively) have a special place for me, if only sentimentally. Incidentally, they also tend to psych players out, who often groan when they pluck them out of the bag.

Rumours of an Apple/Intel Smart Watch

I generally agree with John Gruber’s analysis, but this is simply wrong:

But there is no way in hell that Apple is working with any other company, Intel or otherwise, on the design of any unannounced new products. Think, people.

Yeah, today’s Apple would never work with Intel on an unannounced product, would they? (Jump cut to Macworld 2008):

Now, we’ve got a great relationship with Intel. Both companies are engineering-driven, and they both love to challenge each other. And Intel’s got enormous amounts of technology. So when we were building this product, we asked them to consider something.

This is their amazing Core 2 Duo chip, right? It’s a screamer. We said that we want that chip in this product, but we need to go to smaller packaging: the same die on a smaller package. It sounds easy, but it’s not. They invested a lot of engineering to create this for us. This is the same chip in a package that’s sixty percent smaller.

Okay, but that was another notebook, right? And the smart watch is something that’s more unique in Apple’s space. They wouldn’t create a brand new, desirable product category with another company, would they? (Jump cut to Macworld 2007):

Our partner [for the iPhone] is going to be Cingular, […] and they’re going to be our exclusive partner in the U.S. It’s a unique partnership, though. We’re not just going to be selling phones and services together; we’re going to be doing innovation together. We worked with Cingular on Visual Voicemail because it’s an innovation that requires both innovation on the phone and in the network.

Gruber uses the word “design” in his comment about collaboration, but that word doesn’t appear anywhere in the linked story, which strikes me as a curious choice. Apple has collaborated with other companies on products before (even on high-value, above-top-secret stuff like the iPhone), and they’ll likely do it again. While I’m not sold on the smart watch concept, Gruber’s reasoning here is off the mark.

Microsoft Goes for the Gimmick

Ken Segall:

It seems that Surface makes an audible click when you attach the keyboard/cover to the tablet. And along the way, someone decided that the click would make a nice “hook” for the campaign. That led to a launch commercial based entirely on the click.

It’s a cute campaign, but it’s entirely ineffective because the product is effectively invisible. An informal poll of people I know who don’t read sites like this one, or Daring Fireball, or The Verge, have no idea that the Surface exists.

Look, not everything needs to be compared against Apple. But their marketing is some of the best in the world purely because it displays the product. The first iPad ad isn’t spectacular, but it walks through all of the commonly-used features of the product. The “What is iPad” spot is much, much better, but it’s the same story: it simply demonstrates the product. That’s all you need to know.

By contrast, Microsoft’s first Surface commercial doesn’t demonstrate a single feature of the product aside from the things that make the clicking noise. Nothing apart from the Start tile screen is displayed, which makes it entirely ineffectual. After it aired, nobody I knew could tell me what the product was.

The success or failure of a product isn’t solely determined by marketing, obviously. But it’s important to get the word out as to what is being launched. If your ad can’t communicate what the product is, it almost never works.

The Best Albums of 2012, Edition Ten: Held

Held — Holy Other

Of their 2012 offerings, Clubroot’s is dark and meandering, Burial’s is lonesome and distant, and Four Tet’s is heavy and precise. Holy Other’s Held is every one of these descriptions in one, but incredibly, it isn’t a mess.

The rhythm section lays below about three feet of fuzz and grime, in a manner similar to Clams Casino’s production style. It’s a vinyl record, replicated digitally (though I was given the LP as a gift this year). But it isn’t all heavy. The reverse sampled vocals over these dark, brooding, and noisy beats offer a sense of delicacy and balance.

The cover art’s photo of sheets in dappled sunlight relay the intimacy that the album frequently reveals through these light and dark contrasts. True, Holy Other borrows tricks from Burial quite heavily, but he does so in a softer, fuzzier, out-of-focus manner. It’s undeniably trendy, but it’s also undeniably one of the year’s best.

If You See a UI Walkthrough, They Blew It

Max Rudberg:

The problem is mainly the lack of visual cues; there is no way to tell that sliding the main screen to the left will toggle the alarm on in Rise, or pinching a list in Clear will minimize it and take you up a level in the hierarchy. It’s not obvious, and what’s often called mystery meat.

Clear is beautiful, but it’s hard to argue that it’s well-designed in light of its mystery interface. It’s important to remember what Sacha Greif said yesterday:

… it’s important to ask ourselves if we’re embracing flat design because it’s a better solution to whatever problem we happen to be solving, or if we’re just trying to be different (and ending up being just the same as all the other people who are trying to be different too).

In many cases, I’m seeing the flat aesthetic used because gloss is just so 2008, without recognizing its ease-of-use shortcomings. Current (and future) UI problems are not gloss vs. flat — they’re something much more nuanced.

The Flat Sink

Sacha Greif:

Now don’t get me wrong. Flat design certainly has its place, and my own personal style is probably evolving towards it as well.

But I think that whenever we use it, it’s important to ask ourselves if we’re embracing flat design because it’s a better solution to whatever problem we happen to be solving, or if we’re just trying to be different (and ending up being just the same as all the other people who are trying to be different too).

Apple Investor Amnesia

I could nitpick a number of downright stupid comments in this article from Antoine Gara of The Street (“underwhelming earnings” last quarter, for instance), but the overall tone of it is worth noting:

Apple entered 2012 with a price-to-earnings ratio of 11.53 and it heads into 2013 at a PE of 11.69, a 1.4% rise over the course of the year. Still, Apple’s stock is up over 25% year-to-date, even after a similar sized selloff from record highs above $700 hit in mid-September.

The key, as many investors such as David Einhorn of Greenlight Capital Management predicted, is that Apple’s profits rose far faster than its stock this year.

The short version: Apple is positioned to go way up yet again.

The Best Albums of 2012, Edition Nine: Grimes

Visions — Grimes

What can I say about Grimes (Claire Boucher) that hasn’t already been said? The 24 year-old released her third record this year, and it has been universally praised as an incredible accomplishment. It’s textured and nuanced, but bold enough for you to take notice. Her voice is absolutely sublime, providing an excellent contrast against the kickin’ beats.

The record kicks off with the requisite intro track for contemporary albums, but jumps right into “Genesis”. It’s a sparkling, meandering exploration of electronica. It’s truly danceable, but it’s also quite listenable. (That description fits much of the record, though — enough to tap your toes to, but not aggressively so.) Boucher treats her voice with substantial amounts of reverb, enhancing its already ethereal quality. But the beats stay dry. It’s a sharp contrast, and particularly noticeable in the rightfully-acclaimed “Oblivion”.

“Vowels = Space and Time” is reminiscent of every 1980s pop song you’ve ever heard, but in the best of ways. It’s ABBA-esque, without becoming grating as so many ABBA songs do. It’s funky, but still somewhat restrained. It’s innocent, but fleetingly seductive.

Just a few songs from the end is the often-overlooked “Symphonia IX”. I’ve rarely heard it outside of my frequent play-throughs of the entire record, but it’s absolutely excellent. It’s part of a selection of songs this year — Four Tet’s “Pyramid” and Burial’s “Loner” being two other examples — which have noticeable dub overtones and influence, but have managed to tame what is often an unwieldy genre. It’s very listenable, and there’s delicacy to it.

Visions closes with “Christmas Song”, featuring her brother rapping over Grimes’ music. It’s an odd way to finish the album, because it doesn’t quite feel like it belongs. But that’s okay — Boucher likes to think of her music as “A.D.D. music”, and it fits that idea. Perhaps it also hints at further explorations of that mix of genres in the future. Which, mind you, would be a long way off, because Visions already sounds like it’s from the future. It’s sublime.

Hipstamatic’s Tintype SnapPak

“docpop” on the Postagram blog:

The Tinto 1884 lens uses facial recognition to recreate a very shallow depth of field unique for each photograph. This is similar in some ways to what some apps do with tilt-shift or radial blur effects, but Hipstamatic’s effect is more customized for faces. Notice, for instance, that it will leave eyes and mouth unaffected, while blurring out the nose and forehead.

Oh, this is clever. Via Rob Sheridan.

Google Designing ‘X Phone’

In 2009, John Gruber wrote:

Don’t aim for the middle of the market. That seems to be what all the other Android manufacturers are doing and it’s the road to NobodyCaresAboutYourPhoneVille. So instead of trying to sell half a million phones to anyone, try to sell half a million phones to a specific target: people in the market for the latest and greatest phone in the world.

Some would argue that the Nexus line was an opportunity to develop this. But the opportunity was squandered with the release of the Nexus 4, the features of which scream “budget phone”.

Three years later, a premium pure Android phone built with the blessing of Google is in development, according to the Wall Street Journal:

Seven months after being acquired by Google for $12.5 billion, Motorola is designing its marquee handset—known internally as the “X phone”—to stand apart from existing phones, though the company is running into some obstacles, these people said. […]

For the X phone, an initiative being led by former Google product manager Lior Ron who specialized in mapping, Motorola wanted top-notch features for the phone’s camera and photo software, such as better color saturation and the ability to take panoramic shots, two people familiar with the situation said.

If they can nail the hardware (and I’m not sure they can), and avoid skinning it in any way, this could be a really great product.

Facebook Takes on Snapchat With New Poke Messaging App

Adi Robertson of The Verge:

The “new Poke experience” will allow messages to be sent between Facebook friends on iPhone only, and messages will expire after 1, 3, 5, or 10 seconds after being opened.

If you didn’t already think Facebook’s “Poke” feature was a sneaky way of getting nudie pics, you will now.

The Best Albums of 2012: Honourable Mentions

  • R.I.P. by Actress. There are so many good tracks on here, but this record feels overlong. It’s pleasing at its best, and frustrating at its worst, but the latter only creeps in after the first ten tracks or so.
  • (III) by Crystal Castles. I was slightly disappointed when this record was not also called “Crystal Castles”, like the two before it. But, where the two that preceded it felt like continuations of each other, this feels like a departure. Half of the tracks on this record are mixed so they sound like you’re listening to them through the outside wall of a club. The other half sound like you’re pressing your ear against the speaker.
  • III – MMXII by Clubroot. Dark, deep, and tense. Truly a record for night owls. A soundtrack to a programmer’s working hours, or a hacking scene in a spy movie.
  • Pink by Four Tet. All of the tracks on this record, save for “Lion” and “Peace for Earth”, have been released prior. That doesn’t mean “Pyramid” gets any less good, though.
  • The Glorious Dead by The Heavy. Modern funk done right. Not a hell of a lot different than 2009’s The House That Dirt Built, but this is the most fun jammed into a 2012 album.
  • An Omen by How to Destroy Angels. The non-Nine Inch Nails-side-project of Trent Reznor, with Atticus Ross and Mariqueen Maandig. Their debut EP had overtones of NIN with female vocals. This EP sounds like a conscious effort to move away from that. “Ice Age” and “The Loop Closes” are highlights, but the latter leaves me longing for more Nails, pronto.
  • Crime by Night Committee. I was saddened by the breakup of Hot Little Rocket, but Night Committee (comprised of half of Rocket, plus an organist/keyboardist) is a great followup act. Jangly distorted guitars, rolling drums, and rock organs. Excellent.
  • Sleeper by Seams. This EP starts with the promising “The Glow”, but tapers slightly with the next two tracks. The six minute closer more than makes up for those, however. Polyrhythmic synths abound.
  • King Animal by Soundgarden. Over fifteen years later, Soundgarden returns with new content that sounds like they never left, which carries implications both good and bad. Good, but not comparable to their greatest work.
  • Trilogy by The Weeknd. I’ve already praised the sexiest three albums of 2011. This year’s re-release contains a few new tracks, and all the rest have been remastered. Does it hold up? Absolutely. A modern classic.
  • Coexist by The xx. Quieter than their breakout debut record. It’s a nice twist, but I can’t help but mourn the loss of some of the tension of their last effort.
  • XXYYXX by XXYYXX. Highlights include the album opener “About You”, and the midpoint “DMT”. Perhaps the most relaxed album of 2012.

This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

You messed it up.

Yes, you.

You read Instagram’s new Terms of Service and, despite a general improvement for users’ rights, you got confused, as Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom explained:

Legal documents are easy to misinterpret.

He was going to add “for illiterate dumbasses like you”, but legal made him remove that.

Well, your whining worked, you inconsiderate buffoon. Instagram is rolling the advertising section back to the October 2010 version:

Going forward, rather than obtain permission from you to introduce possible advertising products we have not yet developed, we are going to take the time to complete our plans, and then come back to our users and explain how we would like for our advertising business to work.

But because you whiners can’t read (cf. Systrom’s comment above), you’re making it worse for yourselves. Bryan Bishop of The Verge explains:

The proposed tweaks made it very clear that advertisers, for example, couldn’t just stick their logo on one of your photos and use it as an Instagram ad. The language the company’s going back to is so broad that such use isn’t out of the realm of possibility — and in that sense today’s development is actually a loss for users.

Well, I hope you’re happy.

Die Standing Up

Jonah Weiner wrote a truly wonderful profile of Jerry Seinfeld:

Beneath the surface, Seinfeld says, much of his act concerns “the pointlessness of life itself. I’ve got jokes where I’m saying your life sucks, your possessions are garbage, you’re not important.” Larry David, to whom Seinfeld remains close, told me, “Jerry doesn’t get enough credit for his misanthropy — it’s why we get along so well.”

There’s a lot in here, but the takeaway is a man who truly loves what he does, and realizes just how fortunate he is to be able to explore that to an infinite degree.

The Best Albums of 2012, Edition 8: ‘Allelujah!

‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! — Godspeed You! Black Emperor

Ten years after their last record together, the collective is back with the massive sonic experience you’ve come to expect from Godspeed. Their previous effort, Yanqui U.X.O., remains their most difficult in their catalogue, largely because it’s just so damn slow. On ‘Allelujah!, they’ve assembled two tracks of roughly twenty minutes’ length, shuffled between two of less than ten. This makes for a much improved pace.

“Mladic”, the album opener, is as massive as you’d expect. It’s symphonic, with a few individual movements that shape it over its length. The build takes over six minutes, but the rewards are satisfying as only that kind of delay can make them. After a frantic middle quarter, there’s a delightful feedback-driven segment, which makes way for a Junkanoo-sounding outro, without horns.

“Their Helicopters’ Sing” (yes, with the apostrophe) is the shortest track on the record and, with detuned bagpipes galore, it had better be. It’s hard to listen to. The droning sounds in the background are sheared by the aforementioned bagpipes. It’s good. It’s painful, too.

That’s okay — the guys in Godspeed are thoughtful enough to follow it with another symphonic guitar-and-drums piece, “We Drift Like Worried Fire”. For me, this is the highlight of the record. The methodical, metronomic guitar work is complemented by the swirling violin that slices through the broadness of the sound. This piece sounds distinctly more story-driven than “Mladic”, the other lengthy piece on the record. There are (obviously) no lyrics, but there are clear sections which point to aspects of a plot.

The album closer, “Strung Like Lights at Thee Printemps Erable”, echoes “Helicopters'” in its tempo and droning quality, but it’s more textured than the latter. There’s depth to this track, especially as the final song. After a solid minute of feedback and noise, it calms to end in what sounds like bells at the end of a massive tunnel. It’s a subtle reminder that this record was the product of a breakup of the band, and many years of searching for their significance, relevance, and meaning. It’s a reminder that they might take ten years to make their next album, so listen to this one and cherish it.