Tue, Apr 28, 2015

: Hard Magic

Author: Larry Correia

This is a surprisingly excellent novel. It’s the first in the “Grimnoir Chronicles” and is set back in the 1950s in an alternative history in which magic exists. The idea is that back in the mid-1800s people started being born with magical abilities. At first it was just a few people, but then more and more, and now there are thousands. The novel opens each chapter with a quotation, often from famous historical figures such as Albert Einstein, talking about magic. The presence of magic, of course, has thrown society off course, so this world is quite different from our own.

The tone of the story is very much 1950’s pulp crime novel, but with magical abilities. I love the way magic is portrayed: people generally only have a single ability — such as the ability to heal, control fire, effect gravity, or teleport — but within the confines of that skill they can do some amazing things. The magical battles we encounter are truly exciting and different. There’s also a very deadly edge to everything, as people are severely injured and do die: this isn’t a Mary Poppins world.

The author’s done a lot of serious thinking about the consequences of magic and it shows in subtle details. For instance, one of the key characters is a young orphan girl who has the ability to teleport (she’s a “traveler”). This sounds harmless, but very few travelers make it past puberty: it’s far too easy to teleport yourself into a tree or wall before you’ve learned to master the craft. Even just moving to a place a few feet away is difficult, as the girl learns she has to make herself appear a few inches above the field lest she materialize with grass literally growing through her feet. In one scene she ends up with a living beetle in her heel: it just happened to be in the place she transported to and got embedded inside her. Ouch!

What really impressed me is that though I was perfectly willing to accept as this magic as merely a setting for this world, the author actually comes up with a scientific explanation for why this magic exists. It’s a key part of the plot that’s revealed in the story’s climax. And it actually makes plausible sense!

The story itself is about the battle between good and evil, and it’s really well done with a terrific, satisfying conclusion. Thus we end up with a great story in a fresh setting: a winner all around. I can’t wait to read more in this series!

Topic: [/book]


Sat, Apr 25, 2015

: X-Men: Days of Future Past

A clever time-travel plot gives us a look at both eras of X-Men (prior to X-Men and after), with Wolverine being sent back in time to stop something bad from happening. Overall very good, but it still felt too show-piecey, as the writers try to give each character their moment in the sun. A nice entry in the series, but not enthralling, memorable, or original.

Topic: [/movie]


: High Expectations: Apple Watch

Recently I helped a friend with her iPad. I’d showed her how to use FaceTime for free phone calls, but she panicked when she couldn’t figure out how to hang up on a call. She’d switched away from the phone screen and no longer saw a red phone “disconnect” button. Her problem was trivial and utterly obvious to anyone who’s used an iPhone — touch the colored status bar at the top of the screen that returns you to the active call — but since she only has an ancient dumbphone, it wasn’t at all obvious to her.

This experience made me realize just how much user interface we take for granted. Sure, today’s devices are remarkably easy to use for all the power they give us — but that’s because they’re built upon decades of computer use. No modern person would have a problem in using a simple calculator — but give that to a person 100 years ago accustomed to doing math on paper and they wouldn’t have a clue how to use it.

I bring this up because today we have a new user interface paradigm: the Apple Watch. On the one hand, I’m really impressed with all the incredible work Apple has done. The Watch is deep, full of thoughtful design touches, remarkably powerful, and surprisingly useful. On the other, it’s more complicated than any 1.0 product in history.

If we look back at the original 2007 iPhone, it wouldn’t even be sellable today: no third-party apps, tiny low-resolution screen, feeble hardware, not even support for copy-and-paste! Apple Watch 1.0, in relative terms, is far more advanced.

And yet, in a way, the original iPhone’s limitations were key in making the device acceptable. It was a huge leap forward in capability, but too big of a leap can be overwhelming for many users. That’s the first impression on Apple Watch for most people: “Wow, that’s… neat… but way too complicated for me!”

Apple Watch is new. Apple Watch is different. Just because you know how to use an iPhone doesn’t mean you know how to use an Apple Watch. It uses a different design language, a different metaphor, and has new use cases.

This makes sense. Apple understands at the deepest level that Apple Watch is not a phone. However, if you don’t understand that, it might frustrate you. You might not understand the point of it, wonder why you need it, or chafe at the device’s limitations.

Here’s one example. I received my Apple Watch yesterday (stainless steel with Milanese Loop, if you’re wondering) and allowed the default of installing all available third-party applications onto the watch. (This isn’t all apps in the world: just the ones on my phone that also have watch components.) This meant that a number of apps I barely use or haven’t used in years suddenly showed up on my watch. I didn’t even recognize the icons and most of the watch apps have such a minimal interface that you can’t even tell what app is running. Many of the apps basically showed me an empty screen with a message along the lines of “configure our iPhone app so something shows up here.”

I could look at this as frustrating and annoying. I’m sure many people will. I bet tons of people will just delete these apps as being “useless.” But this is the nature of watch apps: attempting to configure gobs of options on a tiny watch screen isn’t practical. Apple has done a very clever thing in making watch apps be tied in with iPhone apps. Perhaps some day that won’t be required, but for now it makes installing, managing, configuring, and using watch apps a lot simpler.

To elaborate on this with a practical example, I’m heading on a trip next week, one I booked through Orbitz. I noticed the Orbitz app on my watch, but it was empty. I realized I had downloaded but never even run the app on my phone. Sure enough, I wasn’t logged into my Orbitz account. Once I put in my login and password on the phone — not something you’d want to have to do on a tiny watch screen — all the details of my trip were on my watch! I can see my upcoming flights, travel times, eticket codes, etc. That’s awesome info to have on my wrist and will be incredibly helpful and convenient during my travel.

This illustrates the ideal use case for the watch: it is purposely simple and limited (I can’t log into my Orbitz account on the watch; that’s a complicated task that must be done on the phone), but what it does do is even better than on the phone as when I’m going through airports carrying luggage I don’t have to fuss with my phone to find my travel details.

Some will chafe at the watch’s limitations. For instance, you can read emails and delete them, but you can’t move them or reply to them. Text input is via either canned responses (typed on the iPhone, of course) or Siri dictation; Apple Watch has no typing keyboard. Most apps are “baby” versions of the main iPhone app with minimal features.

Yet I think as we use the watch, we will see these limitations make sense. Why would we want to reply to emails on the watch? That’s a complicated task much better suited to the bigger screen on an iPhone. Who would be masochist enough to want to type even a few words on a 1” watch screen?

In demonstrating the watch for my mother yesterday (she happened to arrive just a few minutes after the watch’s delivery), I discovered that just holding my arm up to use the watch for more than a few minutes was quite agonizing. There is no way you’ll want to actively interact with the watch for more than a few seconds. In that use case, it is useful. Having Siri available on your wrist for quick reminders or questions, being able to do a little email triage when you’ve got a minute in a checkout line, glancing at the screen for the latest stock quotes or weather report, or using your wrist to pay for something — these actions are all accomplished in seconds, not minutes, and are more convenient than fishing out your phone.

Once you wrap your head around the watch’s intentional limitations, you’ll start to think about how interact with it in a different way and its user interface, which seemed confusing a first, will begin to make more sense.

The Watch That Isn’t a Watch

It doesn’t take much foresight to realize that just like the iPhone isn’t really a phone, Apple Watch isn’t really a watch. And yet Apple has specifically engineered Apple Watch to revolved around a watch-like interface and features.

This is smart on several levels. It makes Apple Watch more approachable, and it also sets up expectations. While Apple Watch really is a computer on the wrist, it doesn’t work like that. It works like a watch.

The main screen when you activate the watch (by merely raising your wrist) is a clock face. You can add “complications” (extra information widgets) to customize the display if you want, but it’s still basically a watch.

Contrast this with an iPhone or computer screen where the default thing you see are app icons or the contents of your storage device (apps or documents).

On Apple Watch, the watch face is the main screen. While there is an app screen — that colorful collection of circular app icons you’ve seen in pictures — it requires an extra step to get there.

And only from the watch face can you access Notifications and Glances. Notifications are a swipe down from the top of the watch. They consist of alerts from various apps (you can configure which ones and perhaps even what kind of information they’re alerting you about). Notifications are a big part of the watch for many, as if you’re busy they can be faster and more discrete than pulling out your phone all the time.

Glances are far more interesting to me: you can set which Glances are available (and their order) and they provide a simple screen with a little bit of information. For instance, the weather one could show you weather, the stock one the value of your stocks, and so on. Apple includes several for monitoring your watch’s battery level, your own activity level, your calendar, heart rate, music playback, and more. You access Glances with a swipe up (and then swipe left/right to move between them). I’m new to the watch, but already I think these will be used much more than actual apps. (They’re also a really handy way to actually launch the full app as a touch on them opens the app without having to search for it in the icon grid.)

Speaking of apps, prior to playing with an Apple Watch, I was most concerned about the overwhelming nature of the potential of too many app icons. While that’s still a concern, it’s not nearly as bad as it seems. First, you can disable any third party apps you don’t want to see. Second, you can arrange the icons in whatever order you’d like (for instance, putting your most used apps front and center). Finally, I suspect most people will only use a few key apps or access them via Glances. Remember, the watch is not a phone!

A Personal Device

Apple likes to describe Apple Watch as the “most personal device” they’ve created. That sounds like vague marketing-speak, but I believe it’s sincere. Not only is the watch intimately tied to your body, but the way it’s used means that it must be highly customized to your specific needs. You’ll organize the apps you want, the Glances you want, and the watch faces you want. After a while, I imagine putting on someone else’s watch would feel as weird as using someone else’s computer or phone. Yet I suspect the feeling would feel more like a violation, as your watch is you.

While Apple Watch is configurable — especially the watch faces — Apple has limited what you can change in ways that will probably annoy many. For instance, you can’t create your own watch face with a photo. There are no third-party faces, either. There aren’t that many built-in faces (I miss some of the classic watches from my iPod nano), and worst of all, not all support the same complications.

Currently you can add only a handful of complications — the date, temperature, battery level, stock quote, stopwatch, etc. — and you don’t always have a choice of what can be added where. That can be frustrating for tinkerers. I don’t believe it will always be this way, but I think Apple deliberately did this to keep things simple for the initial release. Over time the watch will open up, just like the iPhone. I’d love the ability to design my own custom watch face!

A Learning Experience

Though it feels like I’ve read everything written about Apple Watch since last fall and I played with an actual watch at the Apple Store for over an hour the other day, I discovered I still had a lot to learn. Some things made sense: I’d never gone through the pairing process to tie a watch to my phone before, so that was new (and incredibly well-done by Apple).

Other things were a bit more awkward and the experience wasn’t magical. For instance, I successfully paired my Bluetooth headphones with the watch but couldn’t get music to play through them. It was bizarre and there’s really no trouble-shooting possible on the watch. I searched through every setting I could find and nothing worked: music kept playing on my iPhone instead of the watch.

I finally decided that perhaps that was because the music was stored on my phone, not on the watch, so I figured out how to sync some songs to the watch. That took longer than I planned, because I didn’t notice Apple’s subtle text on the Apple Watch app on the iPhone that explained that syncing would only happen while the watch was charging. Once I got the songs onto the watch, there was still more info needed: I had to read the manual (free on the iBookstore) to discover that I need to hard press on the music app on the watch to bring up a “source” option that lets me choose between watch music and iPhone music.

Once I got through all that, I managed to get tunes playing through my headphones. But I still couldn’t do phone calls. After a lot of frustration, more research finally revealed something shocking: while Bluetooth headsets are required for music playback, they aren’t supported for phone calls!

I don’t know how I missed that info, but my initial reaction was a bit of outrage. It seemed like a critical feature that was missing. While I’m grateful the watch does have a tiny (tinny) speaker on it, it’s not very audible and you wouldn’t want to use it for more than a few sentences. (It also runs the watch battery down fast.) I pictured myself out for a walk while listening to music from the watch, receiving a phone call, and struggling to communicate in the wind and outdoor noise. If that was the situation, it pretty much meant no phone calls with the watch.

However, once I calmed down, I believe the solution for this simple enough: forget pairing a headset to the watch. Just pair it to the iPhone instead. Then it works like always, except you can keep your phone in your pocket and initiate the call answer via the watch. You’ll have more music, too. The disadvantage is you have to have your phone with you, but for phone calls that’s required anyway. The only reason to pair headphones to the watch is if you went jogging without your phone.

I wish that had been communicated more effectively, but it’s not a dealbreaker. Using a Bluetooth headset seems like a natural, but I suspect this is a technical issue: if Bluetooth is already being using to connect the watch to the iPhone to handle the phone call, perhaps there isn’t enough bandwidth to do both at the same time.

Not all the watch’s surprises were negative: I hadn’t realized that Siri could be activated with a “hey Siri” command while the watch is awake. This makes it really easy as you don’t even have to press a button. Just raise your wrist and say something like, “Hey Siri, what movies are showing?” and she’ll give you a list of all your local movies. (Not only that, the listing includes mini-reviews and a synopsis, not just show times.)

I’ve also been pleased by some third party apps. I mentioned Orbitz, but I was delighted to discover that my food diary app (Lifesum) includes a watch app. It is clever in that it doesn’t ask me to enter specific foods and calorie calculations on the watch (which would be convoluted), but simply choose the size of a meal (small, medium, or large). The app then shows me how many calories remaining in my daily quota. Really nice and useful.

It’s also cool that my new Elgato Avea LED lightbulb is controllable via the watch!

Much More to Learn

I haven’t yet had time to use the watch’s fitness features, but already it’s bugging me to stand up every hour (which I find incredibly helpful). We shall see how useful it is during exercising (keep in mind I don’t do anything athletic), but I’m hopeful. I’m really curious about the heartbeat history. I don’t know if that’s useful info to have right now, but it could prove invaluable in the long run (there’s a history of heart trouble in my family).

I have yet to try Apple Pay, though I set it up, and I haven’t tried the remote control features. (Apple Watch will let me control my Apple TV, which is potentially useful. I find the iPhone app too cumbersome.)

There are plenty more watch features I haven’t used yet, but I haven’t even had this thing for twenty-four hours! And much of the watch will be judged by what I’m still using months from now, not what seems interesting during my initial exploration. Plus, there’ll be new apps coming out and who knows what will prove useful.

Is It For You?

The big question that everyone has about Apple Watch is: “Should they get one?”

I honestly can’t answer that. While there are some people who could argue that due to the nature of their jobs (i.e. hands are occupied) they need an Apple Watch, that’s not very many. For most, Apple Watch is a convenience, not a necessity. While it has a lot of useful features, there’s little it can do that your iPhone can’t already do. Even if you want the fitness tracking, there are simpler, cheaper trackers that are possibly more effective.

But Apple Watch is interesting and fun. The value of convenience can’t be underestimated. While saving a few seconds now and then doesn’t seem like much, once you’re used to it, you won’t want to live without it. I can picture Apple Watch becoming essential in a few years.

Apple Watch is complicated. There’s a lot to learn. There’s not much info out there and few experts to help you. Right now I wouldn’t recommend it if you’re not into gadgets or if it seems expensive to you. For many, waiting until version 2.0 or 3.0 is probably the best course.

That said, Apple Watch is useful. I’m not disappointed, nor do I regret buying it. I even splurged on the more expensive stainless steel version. I’ll wear it for a while and see if it feels too heavy (I may decide I prefer the light aluminum version). Right now it feels slightly too heavy, a little too noticeable. That could change with time — it’s been years since I’ve worn a watch regularly.

I do really like the Milanese Loop band I chose. The rubbery sport bands, while not a bad fit or feeling, just seem too cumbersome to put on for me. If I have to hassle with it every morning I probably wouldn’t bother. I love that the loop fastens with a magnet so it’s always perfectly sized to my wrist, but I have had some trouble with the magnet sealing against itself while its off requiring a bit of fidgeting to get it ready to put on in the morning. (I suspect that will change as with experience I figure out what works.)

There are many who say that Apple Watch isn’t jewelry and shouldn’t be priced as such, especially since tech goes obsolete so quickly. While that’s true to an extent and for most the cheaper sport models are all they need, the truth is that if you’re wearing this every day, it by definition is jewelry, and for some folks it’s worth paying a bit more for something more stylish. (I don’t wear any jewelry at all, but even I wanted the higher-end steel watch.)

One thing that occurred to me regarding those who think Apple Watch is expensive is to compare it to the original iPod. I was an early adopter there as well, spending $399 on launch day for a device that was bigger and heavier than a modern iPhone, had only 5GB of spinning rust storage, a tiny black-and-white LCD screen, no wifi or Bluetooth, no sensors, and less battery life than Apple Watch. When you look at it that way, putting all the sensors and electronics into a thing about the size of a stack of six quarters is a steal for $399!

Topic: [/technology]


Mon, Apr 20, 2015

: The Future Is Thin

I’m writing this on Apple’s new radically-thin MacBook. You know, the controversial one with the single USB-C port, ultra-flat keyboard, and gorgeous Retina display. The thing’s about as thick as an iPad — and that’s for the full clamshell, including the keyboard.

Granted, this clearly isn’t the laptop for everyone. For the same money you can get a laptop with a bigger screen, a more powerful CPU, and lots of ports for connecting stuff. I certainly wouldn’t recommend it as someone’s only computer (unless all you did was email and typing), but as a secondary device or travel laptop, it could be ideal.

For me, this replaces my cute little 11” MacBook Air which I used as a writing and travel laptop. While some are criticizing this new MacBook as being underpowered, compared to my slow 2010 MBA with 64GB SSD and a mere 2GB of RAM, this guy is a speed demon. (According to my Geekbench tests, the new one is three times faster than my old one.) With my MBA, I really could only run one app at a time. Anything more would just put too much of a strain on the machine, both memory and CPU. I didn’t even try to run anything complicated on it and pretty much only used it for word processing and even there it lagged on occasion.

On the new MacBook I already have been able to have iTunes playing music in the background while type, have email and chat running, and Safari open for web research, and the thing runs without a hiccup. It doesn’t even have a fan, so while that means the base can get warm during intensive tasks (it got quite hot when I was installing many gigabytes of data onto it during initial setup), it also means that it’s blissfully silent no matter what you’re doing. Combined with its lightness and thinness, that means this guy feels a lot more like an iPad than a Mac.

What you’re really paying for with the new MacBook is simplicity. For some, that feels too expensive, and that’s understandable. Not everyone values simplicity. As a writer, however, simplicity means less distraction and the ability to focus. That’s incredibly valuable, and to me makes this new laptop feel well worth the price.

While some are calling this MacBook a “compromise,” that’s because they don’t understand it. One of those ugly cars with the pickup truck beds is a compromise — not quite a truck, not quite a car — this ultra-thin laptop is a design choice. By getting rid of things you hardly ever use (ports) and simplifying others (lower-power CPU, flatter keyboard), you’re able to create a lighter, more portable laptop. Somehow adding in an ultra-high-resolution Retina screen while still providing incredible all-day battery life, and you’ve got a new class of machine.

Personally, I like the limitations of this device. I’m not going to install Adobe Photoshop on it, or try to do video editing or make it my main computer. This is my distraction-free writing machine. It’ll also be awesome for travel, because it’s so thin and light but still a full Mac and can do anything I need (just a little slower).

I still prefer my iPad for consuming content — reading blogs and ebooks is a joy on iPad — but though I’ve tried hard to use iPad for writing, even with an external keyboard the process just isn’t the same. While a real keyboard provides the essential cursor keys I need, I still find navigating documents awkward, and no iPad word processor I’ve found lets me open more than one document at a time. Writing on a Mac is just more familiar and more powerful. With the new MacBook, I’ve got the best of both worlds — the size and weight of an iPad with the power of a Mac.

(I also find a Mac better for lap typing; since an iPad’s screen also includes the battery, iPads with keyboards tend to be extremely top-heavy. That’s made worse by the fact that they’re touch screen devices, so when you have to touch the screen — and you must on occasion as not everything can be done via the keyboard — the thing tips over.)

That Keyboard

Beyond the shock of only providing a single port on the laptop, the keyboard is the most divisive aspect of the new MacBook. It’s so thin that there’s less key travel so if you like a keyboard you can really press down on, this isn’t it. On the other hand, I’ve heard people say it’s not much better than typing on glass and that’s absurd — it’s far better than that, as not only are there key shapes for your fingers to feel, but there is a millimeter or two of travel; the keys do actually press down.

I can pretty much guarantee that the first time you try it you’ll hate it for a few seconds. It definitely feels different. But try typing and you’ll soon see that you can type on it. It’ll still feel weird, but it works.

I wasn’t ever able to get comfortable typing on the demo unit at the Apple Store, but it wasn’t at a proper desk height with a chair and a regular kind of typing position. Here at home I’ve been able to sit back and actually use the new keyboard for more than a few minutes and I’m delighted to say that already the “weirdness” is wearing off. I can’t say I’m completely comfortable yet, having only typed a thousand words or so, but I’m getting there much faster than I would have expected. I still make some typos as the positions of some of the keys are different, but it’s not as bad as I feared.

(I thought it might take me a week to get used to it and it’s now just thirty minutes in and I’m already typing at near my maximum speed. Note that I’m not a particularly fast typist. I think I range between 60-80 word per minute. Most of the time that includes me thinking about what I’m writing, though, so it’s not just pure typing. What matters to me is how my speed feels and already this is feeling pretty normal in terms of speed.)

The biggest change on the keyboard are the arrow keys. I’d read about them but forgot to test them at the store. Apple did an odd thing: with the previous MacBooks the arrow keys are all half-size. In the “inverted-T” configuration, this meant there was blank space above the left and right arrows. The new layout makes those keys full-height, so the empty space above is gone. I hadn’t thought that was that big of a deal, but so far about 90% of the problems I’ve been having are with the arrows. Because some are bigger, I tend to push the shift key above the up arrow when I want to go up. It’s like my mind assumes that they’re all the same size. I don’t think it’s a dealbreaker — it’s just going take me a little while to get used to the new layout. Since my main computer’s a MacBook Pro with the old layout, it’ll be interesting to see how I adapt switching between them regularly.

All that said, I’ve long maintained that keyboard preference is a bad thing (in the past I’ve purposely tried not to get too tied to one keyboard by frequently switching). Getting so addicted to one particular keyboard that you can’t use a different one is terrible, especially for a writer. Now that doesn’t mean you can’t prefer one over another, or choose a particular external keyboard that fits your needs better, but I just don’t like getting too attached as you’ll never know if that keyboard will be available. I think that attitude has helped me over the years as I transitioned from desktops to laptops and now to this new keyboard.

Force Touch Trackpad

In a way, the new trackpad isn’t worth mentioning. That’s because if I didn’t tell you it was Force Touch, you’d never even know. Force Touch means there is no trackpad button — the thing has taptic feedback which vibrates under your finger and tricks your brain into thinking you pushed down on something.

What’s really creepy is that if you keep pushing down you’ll feel a distinct second click. You’ll swear on your mother’s cookie recipe that you felt the trackpad descend an extra notch — and yet it didn’t.

I played around with it at the Apple Store and came up with two ways you can tell Force Touch from a regular trackpad. The first is that second harder push. A traditional trackpad has only one level of press. You can also tell if you push down on an older trackpad as you’ll feel it depressing on that side, sort of wobbling. With Force Touch, you can tap anywhere and the feedback is right under your finger so it feels like the trackpad went down wherever you pushed it.

You can prove this is an optical illusion just by shutting down the new MacBook — without electricity, the trackpad is utterly dead. Turn on the MacBook and instantly the trackpad starts clicking!

Force Touch isn’t an essential feature right now — though Apple’s already incorporating it in some neat ways, such as that extra-hard push bringing up a word’s dictionary defintion or activating QuickLook — but eventually it’ll be the way all trackpads work. That’s when we’ll see a lot of app developers try to take advantage of the new tech.

Retina Screen

The 11” MBA has long been a favorite of writers and travelers, simply because of its portability. However, the screen was never large or pixel-dense. On the 12” MacBook, however, Apple’s found the sweet spot. With the high-res screen you can choose between several resolutions — my preference is the 1440x900 mode, which gives me more screen real estate. Though menubars, text, and icons are smaller in this mode, everything is still readable and incredibly crisp and sharp. (You may find it easier to make the font size in your word processor larger, though.) The default 1280x800 isn’t bad, though other modes really make the screen seem too small.

Technically when you use the 1440x900 mode it’s no longer a true two-to-one Retina as it’s scaled, but it’s still Retina in the sense that you can’t see the dots. I didn’t find the scaling impacted performance in a negative way, but then again, this is a lightweight laptop for lightweight tasks. If you’re doing anything that’s making this guy struggle, you’re using the wrong tool.

Some might not see Retina as a critical feature, especially for a “low-end” laptop, but if you’re a writer or simply used to Retina on all your other Macs and devices, it’s this machine’s killer feature. Simply put, if this MacBook didn’t have Retina, I wouldn’t have bought it. Then it really would be overpriced. But with Retina you’re getting an amazing machine. I thought it would be years before Retina made it to this form factor — you’d think the extra pixels would be such a battery hog that it would just kill battery life.

If you don’t need Retina, the 11” MBA is fine for you. If you need Retina and having the thinnest and lightest laptop isn’t crucial, the 13” MacBook Pro is for you.

Battery Life

I haven’t had this thing long enough to really test the battery, but so far it’s not bad. I’m not quite sure it’s good enough to truly last an entire day of constant typing, but you might be able to dim the screen and turn off certain features to help you survive longer. For my uses, it’s just fine, and certainly better than my ancient MBA that gets three to four hours.

Just sitting around doing nothing but with the screen on, the MacBook seems on target for the nine hour range Apple claims. Typing in a word processor doesn’t impact the life much (after forty-minutes of typing, it now projects nine hours left), but web browsing, installing applications, multitasking (i.e. playing music in the background), and other activities do take a noticeable chunk out of the projected battery time. In short, if you push the processor, you’ll see worse battery life.

The problem with that is that it can be a significant drop. It’s not like if you do twenty-five percent more you’ll see a twenty-five percent drop in life: it’s more like a forty percent drop. (This is not a scientific judgment, just my rough guess after using this thing for a few days. It’s just the way it feels to me. I haven’t actually measured it.)

The conclusion I have is that if you’re doing simple things: email, word processing, etc., this thing will last all day. But mix in more complicated activities and you may start looking for a wall socket. Certainly not a deal-breaker for this type of lightweight machine, but if all-day battery life is crucial for you, then you need one of the bigger laptops.

One Port

When I first heard about this MacBook, I immediately dismissed it as an option for me. While the size/weight sounded attractive, and I loved the Retina screen, the idea of having only a single USB-C port for power and accessories was just too radical. What would happen when I needed to charge and connect something? I’d be toast!

Then I started to think about it. How many times have I connected something to my MacBook Air? A few times a year I hook up a hard drive for a full backup. (I don’t do it more often since all work on it is on my Dropbox and automatically synced and backed up to the cloud.) I might have plugged in a thumb drive once. Other than that, it’s only connected to power.

Since you can buy a USB dongle for $19, if I did need to connect something to the MacBook, I could. I realized that with the new MacBook’s long battery life, even if I needed to hook up something to it for several hours it wouldn’t be a problem.

Suddenly the lack of ports wasn’t as big of a deal as I’d thought. I do almost everything wirelessly anyway, and this laptop really does represent the future. While it would be nice if this had at least one extra USB-C port (I’d get rid of the headphone jack and put a USB-C port there and just use Bluetooth headphones for audio), it’s not a deal-breaker. If you’re in a situation where you need to connect something full-time (like an external hard drive) while still connected to power, this isn’t the laptop for you. Its whole purpose is to be light and portable, not connected to a bunch of stuff. So even though I’m positive a third-party will come out with a dongle that includes a regular USB and a USB-C port for charging, that’s not something the buyers of this laptop should be needing.

The Perfect Machine

No machine is perfect. A two-seater sports car is fast and nimble, but it’s useless for carrying cargo. A truck is great for hauling, but not so good for passengers. A mini-van is great for the school carpool, but it won’t win any races.

Certainly there are some computers that hit a sweet spot of size, weight, performance, capabilities, and cost — but any extreme machine like this MacBook is going to have specific use cases.

What I do like about this MacBook is that while it isn’t the most powerful and has some hardware limitations, it is still a full Mac. That means that while an app icon might bounce in the Dock during launch a few more times and a video make take a lot longer to encode, you can still do it. The same is true of the single port: you might have to fiddle with ugly dongles and there’s occasionally some inconvenience, but when you really do need to connect something, you can.

For many, those times we need hard-core processing or external accessories are rare enough that this is the ideal machine. Certainly if you’re a heavy traveler or writer and like the idea of working anywhere, this is nirvana. It’s now my favorite Mac for writing.

Topic: [/technology]


Fri, Apr 10, 2015

: Exoskeleton

Author: Shane Stadler

Very strange book. I’m not sure how I ended up with it, but it was not at all what I expected. I assumed from the title it was some sort of science-fiction story involving exoskeleton technology and someone would be doing cool, superhuman feats. It’s nothing like that.

Instead, this book is about torture. And not the good kind. The main character is convicted of a crime and chooses one year in an experimental “accelerated punishment program” instead of twenty-five years in prison. He’s then installed inside an exoskeleton which tortures him every day, taking him to the brink of death but using the exoskeleton’s tight connection with his body to just keep him alive and then repair him after his ordeal so he’ll be ready for more the next day.

Thus about 65 percent of this book is ready about a trapped guy having dental surgery without anesthesia, having his limbs stretched and bent the wrong way, and so on. All in excruciating detail. Literally.

There is sort of an absurd point to all this. I won’t spoil it by revealing it, but let’s just say it’s really out there, involving a government conspiracy, Nazis, and the supernatural.

Yeah. I’ve no idea what genre this book falls under — it’s some sort of bizarre scifi/horror/paranormal category.

In short, the book is an extremely unpleasant read, it makes no sense, and the twist is so ridiculous it’s just silly. I’m baffled at how this even got published, let alone why it’s getting good ratings on Amazon.

Topic: [/book]