Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Archive for May, 2014

Jordan Golson Wants You to Watch the Monaco Grand Prix

Jordan Golson of Wired really, really likes the Monaco Grand Prix:

The Monaco Grand Prix is the greatest race in all of motorsport. It has everything: yachts, champagne, supermodels, royalty, parties, not to mention one of the world’s most historic racetracks that’s built to generate exciting moments.

Here’s an unpopular opinion: the Monaco Grand Prix is the most overrated race on the calendar. Golson himself explains why:

Most of the track is barely wide enough for two Formula One cars to drive side by side, making passing extraordinarily difficult, and heightening the excitement in the few spots where it is feasible.

On the contrary, the lack of passing ability makes it a tedious race to watch. That’s not to say it’s entirely unenjoyable: the racing through the tunnel is, indeed, spectacular, and the history of the track makes it worthwhile to have on the calendar. But it’s often not a very enjoyable race to watch. The lack of overtaking (especially in contemporary cars) means that it’s like watching a train circle the track. Every so often, someone will make a mistake and have an accident, but the finishing order is often very similar to the qualifying order.

Montreal, on the other hand, is one of the most underrated races on the calendar. That’s two weekends away (June 6–8), and it’s definitely worth watching.

Giants Behaving Badly

Mathew Ingram, GigaOm:

The internet is a wondrous thing — a limitless universe of content and products and information, all of which can be summoned up from the comfort of a chair or the palm of the hand, like some sort of science-fiction dream from centuries ago. Unfortunately, the reality is that massive quasi-monopolies control a large part of that universe, and their self-interested choices and black-box algorithms shape and in some cases define what we see, what we can search for and what we can buy.

In a similar vein, Marco Arment, responding to the recent depressing MetaFilter news:

A depressing look at the ad-funded web today, and what it’s like to depend completely on Google for your business. Google owns the ad-driven web: their search brings all of your pageviews, and their ads bring all of your income. You’re just along for the ride, hoping to stay in Google’s good graces — an arbitrary, unreliable, undocumented metric that changes constantly.

What Backblaze Doesn’t Back Up

I was recently looking into adding an offsite backup to my backup strategy — it is, after all, the smart thing to do. Backblaze is the obvious choice. It comes highly recommended, and it’s super simple. Unfortunately, as Michael Tsai explains, it isn’t a true backup solution:

My other concern is that Backblaze doesn’t actually back up everything. It fails all but one of the Backup Bouncer tests, discarding file permissions, symlinks, Finder flags and locks, creation dates (despite claims), modification date (timezone-shifted), extended attributes (which include Finder tags and the “where from” URL), and Finder comments.

Some of these things may not be that important to you, but attributes like creation dates and file permissions should never, ever be discarded. It would be ridiculous for me to suggest that no backup system is better than Backblaze, but it’s not as good as it needs to be; or, at least, it’s not good enough for me to pay for it.

So, what to do? Dropbox supports many more attributes, but it also does not retain creation dates. Arq supports everything, as does Crashplan. The latter is particularly appealing for its Seeded Backup and Restore-to-Door services:

Backing up many gigabytes over the internet might take longer than you’d like. Seeded Backup service can complete your backup in a just a few days. We’ll ship you a hard drive with instructions to seed your backup.

[…]

In an emergency, we can ship your backup to you on a hard drive, so that you can restore your files locally (processing and shipping times apply).

However, both of these fantastic services are only available in the US.

Right now, the most attractive option for many international users might be to buy three external hard drives: one for use with Time Machine, for quick, local backups, and two for use with SuperDuper!. They can be rotated on a weekly basis, with one onsite and one somewhere else, like a friend’s house or your office.

Tablet-Laptop Redundancy

Casey Johnston of Ars Technica thinks Microsoft’s attempt to merge the tablet and laptop is off the mark:

While the 96-percent statistic seems to support Microsoft’s narrative that tablets and laptops are a redundancy that hardware manufacturers have a duty to fix, overwhelming evidence suggests that is not true. Few people try to or want to use tablets like laptops, save for when they feel like they have to justify the cost and get every last inch of mileage out of it. Tablet popularity arose in a place where people were using laptops like tablets, or smartphones like tablets, but in suboptimal ways that showed a tablet was better.

Time will tell whether Microsoft or Johnston are more correct. But, given that Microsoft’s own research shows that 96% of people who own an iPad also own a laptop, perhaps we like the redundancy.

Myths About Apple Design

Fast Company’s Mark Wilson interviewed former Apple designer and evangelist Mark Kawano. A portion of that interview has been distilled down to clarifying four common myths about Apple, particularly their design process:

It has often been said that good design needs to start at the top–that the CEO needs to care about design as much as the designers themselves. People often observe that Steve Jobs brought this structure to Apple. But the reason that structure works isn’t because of a top-down mandate. It’s an all around mandate. Everyone cares.

The next paragraph is a quote from Kawano:

“It’s not this thing where you get some special wings or superpowers when you enter Cupertino. It’s that you now have an organization where you can spend your time designing products, instead of having to fight for your seat at the table, or get frustrated when the better design is passed over by an engineering manager who just wants to optimize for bug fixing. All of those things are what other designers at other companies have to spend a majority of their time doing. At Apple, it’s kind of expected that experience is really important.”

“No Place to Hide”, Reviewed

More reviews of Glenn Greenwald’s “No Place to Hide” have hit the web in the week or so since it became available, and they’re not exactly kind, as you’d expect from such a multifaceted and guarded issue like surveillance and its relationship to national security.

Geoff Dyer, Financial Times:

In selecting Greenwald as his main media interlocutor, Snowden chose well. Greenwald has pursued the story with passion, ensuring that the documents have achieved the widest possible impact. He has also been a tireless defender of Snowden, even after his recent disastrous appearance on a Vladimir Putin call-in show.

But that single-mindedness, mixed with self-regard, is also Greenwald’s great weakness. He lives in a world of black and white, where all government officials are venal and independent journalists are heroes. “There are, broadly speaking, two choices: obedience to institutional authority or radical dissent from it,” he writes.

Vanity Fair’s Michael Kinsley, writing for the New York Times, took a much harsher angle:

As the news media struggles to expose government secrets and the government struggles to keep them secret, there is no invisible hand to assure that the right balance is struck. So what do we do about leaks of government information? Lock up the perpetrators or give them the Pulitzer Prize? (The Pulitzer people chose the second option.) This is not a straightforward or easy question. But I can’t see how we can have a policy that authorizes newspapers and reporters to chase down and publish any national security leaks they can find. This isn’t Easter and these are not eggs.

After re-reading much of “No Place to Hide” over the past week, I couldn’t shake the feeling that Greenwald’s attempts to shed light on a series of programs that arguably undermine the foundational principles of the United States are couched in conspiratorial language. Greenwald, of course, is the underdog in this, and needs to shout louder to be heard equally. Unfortunately, this makes it far easier to pick holes in his arguments, thereby damaging the potential effectiveness of reform. It is not realistic (nor is it smart) to shut the whole system down, but the lack of nuance in “No Place to Hide” makes it feel as though that’s the only solution.

There are also parts of the book where I considered Greenwald’s position to be indefensible and petulant. As he was working with the Guardian to publish the first of the leaks, the newspaper wished to run it by their legal team and the Pentagon. Greenwald saw this as worrying, and a sign that perhaps the Guardian would back out of publishing the story. I see this as a reasonable position to take to the newspaper could be fully aware of their legal rights, and to allow the Pentagon to comment. That’s journalistic responsibility.

I’m still uncertain about my feelings towards “No Place to Hide”. I stand by my initial judgement that it’s a polemic essay from a singular person, and should be viewed with appropriate levels of skepticism and open-mindedness.

On the Future of MetaFilter

Matthew Haughey has written some more on the state of MetaFilter:

As Winter 2012 became Spring 2013, traffic remained flat and we all took big pay cuts to make ends meet. Google sunsetted their beta program MetaFilter was in and we went back to the standard Google Adsense ads which did pretty well and revenue improved a bit. Over the course of 2013, a series of messages from the Adsense team hit me with varying degrees of severity. We were temporarily banned from the system due to some text questions talking about sexual health (questions from users that include terms for body parts etc., but Google interprets that as the site being “adult”) and had to greatly beef up our ad display blocking by subject matter. Late last year, I was told that despite the past decade of Google’s Adsense pages suggesting ads should match your site, different background colors were now required to better discern ads from content, resulting in another large decrease.

I can’t imagine anything more frustrating than working on or for a website dependant on advertising from Google, who sell an astonishing share of internet advertising. Their policies are unclear and ever-changing, and their hammer comes down swiftly when a rule is broken.

Upheaval

The Iconfactory is getting ready for OS X 10.10’s new visual design language. Craig Hockenberry has penned an excellent, short post explaining that the multi-windowed, multitasking nature of OS X will make non-updated apps look terrible. Gedeon Maheux is redesigning icons to better fit with the new OS.

Here’s what I find a little crazy about this, though: Apple hasn’t shown a single, verified glimpse into the future of OS X’s design language. Perhaps it’s possible to extrapolate it from iOS 7, or parts of iTunes 11, or perhaps the Apple website, parts of which have been tweaked slightly. But none of this is confirmed.

The Iconfactory is pretty well-connected to Apple, so I’m inclined to take their direction seriously. But don’t rush into this thing. All will be clear on June 2.

WWDC 2014 Schedule Released

Typically for Apple, their “release” of the schedule isn’t a list of events so much as a public acknowledgement that the concept of WWDC labs still exists. Instead of a load of “to be announced” labels, though, they’ve had a bit of fun with the placeholder titles this year. You can look forward to “Don’t Even Try Guessing What This One is About” on Wednesday at 10:15 in Presidio.

And, yes, the keynote will be on June 2 at 10:00 Pacific.

iWork for iCloud Updated With Improved Collaboration

Federico Viticci really likes the new iCloud/iWork collaboration features:

I don’t know if the collaborative changes were rolled out today or in the past few months, but I’m impressed by the progress that’s been made so far and it’s worth pointing it out. The native iWork apps for OS X and iOS still don’t support the same real-time editing of the iCloud versions, which is why we can’t switch to Pages full-time yet. I really like Apple’s implementation of collaborative editing on the web (you can “jump” to a user’s cursor by clicking their name), and I can’t wait to have the same features on iOS.

Over the past few months, I’ve seen loads of tweets and articles from people suggesting that all sorts of previously-derided things — from iCloud to Apple Maps, Siri to AT&T — have been noticeably improved. I’m still a little surprised that these collaboration features haven’t made their way into the native apps, which is where they belong. Progress is being made, people.

Surface Pro 3

This third attempt at a “professional” Surface model is vastly improved over previous attempts. The biggest thing of note is the display: it’s now twelve inches but, more importantly, is presented at a 3:2 aspect ratio, not 16:9. That means a lot of extra working space and, critically, something to distinguish it from the standard Surface.

It’s also a high-resolution, touch-sensitive display that includes a stylus, so you can write on it. For those who use OneNote and really like writing with their hand, this is probably going to be great, but I don’t think that’s the killer application of this feature. Microsoft announced that Adobe is working on an optimized version of Photoshop CC for the Surface, so that’s something to look forward to.

I think the Surface makes a lot more sense if you think of it as a laptop with a detachable keyboard and a touchscreen. Microsoft certainly sees it that way — they compared it throughout their webcast to the MacBook Air,1 and even left one onstage for the majority of the presentation.2

But this iteration seems to have many of the same problems as the original Surface Pro did a year ago: it’s not really a laptop, insomuch as all of the weight is behind the display, so, despite the changes to the kickstand and covers, it’s still not great on your lap. And it still (unbelievably) doesn’t come with Office, unlike the “junior” Surface.


  1. The webcast keeps cutting out for me and it’s like watching a supercut of buzzwords. ↩︎

  2. Weird webcast, too. Panos Panay is a solid presenter, but he spent a full minute in a self-deprecating bit about how he and his wife are terrible parents (his words, not mine). Lots of banter with Joanna Stern, too, even giving her a Surface to hold onto and use during the presentation. But there was an awkward bit near the end of the presentation where the Surface Panay was using was supposed to sync with Stern’s, and they cut to a shot of her shaking her head and mouthing “I don’t have anything”. Smooth. ↩︎

State of MetaFilter

MetaFilter’s Matthew Haughey:

While MetaFilter approaches 15 years of being alive and kicking, the overall website saw steady growth for the first 13 of those years. A year and a half ago, we woke up one day to see a 40% decrease in revenue and traffic to Ask MetaFilter, likely the result of ongoing Google index updates. We scoured the web and took advice of reducing ads in the hopes traffic would improve but it never really did, staying steady for several months and then periodically decreasing by smaller amounts over time.

The long-story-short is that the site’s revenue peaked in 2012, back when we hired additional moderators and brought our total staff up to eight people. Revenue has dropped considerably over the past 18 months, down to levels we last saw in 2007, back when there were only three staffers.

Really disappointing news. MetaFilter is still one of my regular reads and influences for the linked portion of this site. I hope it doesn’t disappear.

Apple to Avoid Slide Into Irrelevance by Releasing 3D Printer, and Other Bullshit

Bad news everyone: Apple is about to slide into irrelevance. Today marks the 60 day deadline Trip Chowdhry gave the company to release an iWatch.

But don’t go selling your shares just yet, because Apple’s getting into the 3D printer market. At least, according to — sigh — Trip Chowdhry:

Trip Chowdhry, the Managing Director of Equity Research at Global Equities Research, thinks that both Apple and Google could enter the [3D printer] market, and even argues that Google may have been driven to do so after getting wind of Apple’s plans.

Trip Chowdhry is literally the Onion now.

Google Maps Adds Elevation Profiles to Bike Routes

Frederic Lardinois, TechCrunch:

We asked Google about this and the company confirmed that this is indeed a new — and as of now unannounced — feature. It looks like the elevation profiles are available in all the 14 countries Google offers biking directions. These include Austria, Australia, Belgium, Canada, Switzerland, Germany, Denmark, Finland, Great Britain, Netherlands, Norway, New Zealand, Sweden and the US.

This is such a great feature but, contrary to Lardinois’ reporting, it doesn’t appear to be functional wherever Google has biking directions. I have a couple of extremely steep hills near where I live, and it reported cycling up those as “mostly flat”. I’m very excited for when this feature comes to Calgary.

Apple and Google’s Motorola Settle

Dan Levine, Reuters:

Apple Inc and Google Inc’s Motorola Mobility unit have agreed to settle all patent litigation between them over smartphone technology, ending one of the highest profile lawsuits in technology.

A good step forward, and a step that suggests Apple’s litigation against Samsung is not a proxy battle against Google, but a very intentional series of suits against Samsung itself.

From the File of Historical iTunes Update Bugs

Bizarre bugs aren’t entirely unprecedented in iTunes updates. Here’s a real classic from 2001:

Apple has identified an installer issue with iTunes 2.0 for Mac OS X that affects a limited number of systems running Mac OS X with multiple volumes (drives or partitions) mounted. For those systems, running the iTunes 2.0 installer can result in loss of user data.

Basically, if you had similarly-named partitions or drives mounted, the iTunes 2 updater would erase them.

Investigating the Mysteriously-Disappearing /Users Folder

After some IRC-based investigation, Rich Trouton has a more definitive explanation for the cause of the mysteriously-disappearing /Users/ folder. Turns out it’s not the 10.9.3 update as previously assumed:

After considerable investigation by the folks in the ##osx-server IRC room, it looks like the issue has been tied to two causes:

  1. iTunes 11.2 being installed

  2. iCloud’s Find My Mac being enabled.

The 10.9.3 update does not seem to be the root cause, as the behavior has also been reproduced on 10.9.2 with iTunes 11.2 and Find My Mac enabled.

If anything, that’s even more bizarre than a 10.9.3 update-based bug. Trouton has an even better workaround for fixing this bug.

(Thanks to Anthony Reimer for pointing me to this article.)

Update: Apple has now fixed this issue by releasing iTunes 11.2.1.

Bring Back the Hidden /Users Folder in OS X 10.9.3

Really bizarre bug in the 10.9.3 update released yesterday. Apparently, for some people, the root /Users/ folder is being hidden; using chflags doesn’t work on it because it re-hides itself after a reboot. This doesn’t appear to be akin to the decision to hide ~/Library/, but just a strange bug. I wasn’t affected, but Kirk McElhearn has a couple of great workarounds if you were.

Mac Keyboard Shortcuts

Enough of the heavy, depressing news for today. Here’s Matt Gemmell, explaining why you should use a lot of keyboard shortcuts:

Controlling your Mac via the keyboard isn’t just faster and more satisfying, it can also remove a lot of pain from your life. Physical pain from contorting your wrists to use trackpads and mice, and tension headaches from nudging a pointer towards tiny targets all day long.

It takes time to learn what’s possible, and to re-train yourself to use the keyboard instead of reaching for the mouse, but the payoff in speed and efficiency is more than worth it.

It’s often said that the Inuit have a hundred words for snow. When you’re building your shelter out of the stuff, it’s pretty important to be able to have specific words for different qualities and kinds.

In a similar (though less-life-dependent) way, you should know, use, and customize the keyboard shortcuts for the apps you use most. I spend most days ⌘-tabbing between Coda and Safari; it’s particularly frustrating when I accidentally strike ⌘-Q instead.1 So, I simply changed my “Quit” shortcut for Safari to ⌘-⌥-Q in System Preferences. I like most other keyboard shortcuts, so I’ve kept them default. Critically, though, I’ve learned them, and use them all the time.

Update: A fantastically nitpicky clarification on the “hundred words for snow” thing, courtesy Chris Clark.


  1. Yes, I know Chrome has a great feature that requires you to press and hold ⌘-Q for a few seconds before it quits. But Chrome’s UI looks like ass, and it eats up way more battery than Safari does. ↩︎

Who Has Your Back? 2014

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has published the 2014 edition of their “Who Has Your Back?” report:

This year, we saw major improvements in industry standards for informing users about government data requests, publishing transparency reports, and fighting for the user in Congress. For the first time in our four years of Who Has Your Back reports, every company we reviewed earned credit in at least one category. This is a significant improvement over our original report in 2011, when neither Comcast, Myspace, Skype, nor Verizon received any stars.

[…]

We are pleased to announce that nine companies earned stars in every category: Apple, CREDO Mobile, Dropbox, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Sonic, Twitter, and Yahoo. In addition, six companies earned stars in all categories except a court battle: LinkedIn, Pinterest, SpiderOak, Tumblr, Wickr, and WordPress. We are extremely pleased to recognize the outstanding commitment each of these companies has made to their users. CREDO Mobile, a new addition to this year’s report, demonstrated through its exemplary policies that it is possible for a telecom to adopt best practices when it comes to transparency and resistance to government demands.