Links: Electric cars, the booming erotic toy industry, academic freedom’s worst enemies, iMacs get love, and more

* In California, Electric Cars Outpace Plugs, and Sparks Fly.

* “The Race to Build the Perfect Couples’ Sex Toy,” conceivably NSFW but there are no photos or drawings of humans. I found it interesting throughout.

* “Cinemas must ‘drastically improve’ or lose audiences, says Christopher Nolan.” He’s wrong about the “real film” issue: he should be more worried at the shocking level of dilapidation at movie theaters, and the worse level of food available.

* “Professors teach students how to stifle academic freedom, U.K. scholar argues in new book,” and students are oddly eager to do whatever authority figures tell them to do.

* “Inside the lab: Why Apple still sweats the details on iMac,” a fascinating story; Apple also updated iMacs on October 13. I use a 5K iMac, and it’s an amazing machine. If you order one, make sure you get the Fusion drive upgrade. The 21.5″ models are now reasonably affordable.

* What a city designed only for bikes would look like.

* How Harvard fights unions; it is entertaining to me how university people, who are probably the most theoretically pro-union group in the U.S., can’t or won’t allow unions in their institutions, or actively fight against them.

* “The Porn Business Isn’t Anything Like You Think It Is,” which is safe-for-work.

* “Why ‘game’ and ‘pickup’ are popular in the Anglo-sphere” (otherwise titled “The Male Hunger For Endless Shallow Relationships Is A Symptom Of A Fundamentally Broken Society”); speculative. See also “The appeal of ‘pickup’ or ‘game’ or ‘The Redpill’ is a failure of education and socialization.”

Links: Wasting time, counterintuitive claims, technology won’t fix education, population problems, the modern laptop, and more

* “Why do people waste so much time at the office?

* From “The department of unintended consequences:” “It turns out that generous maternity leave and flexible rules on part-time work can make it harder for women to be promoted — or even hired at all.” Basic economics holds that making something more expensive means less of it is consumed.

* Why Technology Will Never Fix Education.”

* “The Invented History of ‘The Factory Model of Education,’” which is news to me and fascinating throughout.

* An obvious point, but, a story about how people can’t be saved from themselves. In this post I wrote, “It is very hard, if not impossible, to fix most broken people.” Penelope Trunk tried, and failed.

* “Ashley Madison: Is infidelity a billion-dollar business?

* Tugg: A Kickstarter-like method for getting Indie movies in theaters. Brilliant.

* “Germany passes Japan to have world’s lowest birth rate;” the real problem in the developed world is underpopulation, not overpopulation.

* Tech billionaires aim for cheaper spaceflight.

* Someone found this blog by searching for “do musicians get laid alot.”

* The creation of the modern laptop:

Pick up your laptop. Actually, scratch that—read this paragraph first, then pick up your laptop. You are holding one of the most advanced machines ever built in the history of humanity. It is the result of trillions of hours of R&D over tens of thousands of years. It contains so many advanced components that there isn’t a single person on the planet who knows how to make the entire thing from scratch. It is perhaps surprising to think of your laptop as the pinnacle of human endeavour, but that doesn’t make it any less true: we are living in the information age, after all, and our tool for working with that information is the computer.

I use an iMac. Point stands, though, and the iMac’s screen is incredible.

* An interview with Tim Parks.

* On food culture, an interview in which Rachel Laudan points out that industrialized agriculture allows us to live the way we live now, and to romanticize inefficient processes.

5K / “Retina” iMac and Mac OS X “Yosemite” thoughts

Note added Jan. 29: Yosemite update 10.10.2 seems to have solved the software problems noted below. The hardware continues to be excellent. The next version of OS X, El Capitan (10.11), is said to be “a return to slow-but-steady improvement after Yosemite’s upheaval.” Let’s hope so.

I’ve had a Retina iMac with Yosemite installed for close to a month, which is long enough to form a mostly positive impression—except for the bad software situation. The iMac’s “Retina” screen is as beautiful as advertised and is a tangible reminder of progress. If you use it you won’t want to go back, any more than you’d want to go back to celibacy after losing your virginity. But Yosemite crashes about once a day for reasons mysterious to me and to Apple support. Yosemite is a step backwards.

5k retina imacLet’s start with the headline feature: the screen difference between the preceding iMac and this one is real, but it’s not nearly as great as the difference between the low-resolution Macbook Pro and the Retina MacBook Pro. Retina MacBook Pros are not just better but insanely, can’t-go-back better than their predecessors. The Retina iMac is an improvement, a real improvement, but not as startling. If you’re in the market for an iMac-like computer and can afford the price premium, the better display is worth the cost. As noted above, you won’t want to go back. Standalone versions of the screen aren’t even available as of this writing; when they become available, they’ll likely cost $2,000 in and of themselves.

People who bought iMacs in the last two to three years should probably wait for the next iteration because it should be cheaper than this one. My last iMac came from 2010 or thereabouts and I was due for an upgrade, especially because I now do more with video than I previously had. Fast computers are to video what oil is to transportation: It’s almost impossible to have enough.

This iMac is not as quiet as my previous iMac, though it also isn’t noisy enough to make the fuss that would be necessary to return mine and try again. It has an annoying, intermittent buzz that’s noticeable in quiet rooms. I can imagine myself standing in an Apple store, most of which sound like an airplane engine is prepping for takeoff, and trying to get the support person to do what I want them to do, while the support person looks at me like I’m crazy.

In software terms the OS jumped from 10.6 to 10.10. The only day-to-day difference I notice is the addition of Messages, which lets me text to phones from my keyboard. Phone keyboards have always bothered me—which may be a sign of age—and Messages is a significant enhancement. Obviously there are numerous differences in the APIs and libraries available, which developers have leveraged or are leveraging, but they’re not as salient to me as the “headline” features. Still, I think about how every version of OS X from 10.0 – 10.6 saw major feature improvements that immediately made my life way better in an immediate, tangible way. I’m not seeing that in the 10.6 – 10.10 jump.

The major OS X features I love and constantly use were introduced years ago: Spotlight, Time Machine, Exposé. Messages could probably have been backported to 10.6 but wasn’t. Some cool new programs like Pixelmator seem to have been enabled by the backend OS work, but those programs don’t have a huge effect on my day-to-day life. Spotlight is harder to use and doesn’t seem to work as well as it did. Boolean operators also still appear to be absent.

The migration process from old iMac to new was painful and manual; Migration Assistant is notoriously unreliable and works terribly if a person, like me, is moving from two hard drives to a single drive. Permissions problems appeared, as they so often do. I could solve them with time and patience, but they might have stymied less sophisticated users. The general reluctance to upgrade any working computer is reasonable based on my experiences.

Once I had the basic migration done, I spent a lot of time turning off various “features.” Threaded mail messages in Mail.app don’t work very well for me, and the animations were annoying and slowed things down. Some pretty but non-functional could only be turned off through the command line. It would be nice to have a “fuck animations” checkbox in system preferences somewhere. Speed is of paramount importance.

Four years ago I wrote about my uninterest in upgrading from OS X 10.6 to 10.7, and recent experiences have borne out that reluctance. Most of the Apple operating systems since 10.6 appear to be less stable than 10.6. This Hacker News thread is full of stories about problems with Yosemite. Right now Yosemite is only on its .1 release, so the .2 release may solve some of the problems, but the stability issue should have been solved in beta. In addition to the WindowServer crashes linked to above, Flash crashes routinely in the browser. Final Cut Pro X is unusable because it crashes when attempting to import any new video. This will necessitate yet another call to Apple support. aFinder has crashed a couple times for mysterious reasons—despite the fact that the hardware in this machine is by every conceivable metric faster, better, and more tolerant than the hardware in the preceding machine.

What gives? I’m not the only one having these problems. In addition to the Hacker News thread, consider “AppleCore Rot,” another piece on Apple’s apparent quality problems. This in particular resonates: “Stuff that worked for years breaks, while new visual crapware is piled on endlessly.” I would like Apple to make it work first and make it pretty second.

In an email my Dad observed this about Yosemite and the linked Hacker news thread:

The first post [in the Hacker News thread] complains about the phone calling feature. About 22 years ago, I routinely made calls from the IBM PC 1 using Lotus Organizer 1.0 to dial from the address book with Windows 3.1 and the world’s slowest modem. But then again, Organizer was the best PIM [Personal Information Manager] ever and in some respects AmiPro and WordPro were better 20 years ago than Word is today.

I used to use Lotus WordPro too, and it was much stabler than Word today (although Word has been relatively stable in this version and the last version). Some software was better a decade ago than it is today.
That being said, many of the random waits that involved exporting photos from Lightroom or, to a lesser extent, videos from Final Cut Pro X have either disappeared altogether in the case of the former or shrunk dramatically in the case of the latter. That’s the few times FCP X has actually worked, however.  Some simple scripts run faster. Manipulating exifdata with Exiftool is faster. Web browsers no longer choke and sputter (that they did on a relatively modern machine could be the subject of another cranky post). Fast user switching is now genuinely fast. The advance of hardware, and what it enables, is not to be underestimated.

Still, there are other caveats. The larger hard drive is good, but Apple should really be offering four terabyte Fusion drives. I’m puzzled as to why it doesn’t, apart from simple cheapness. Large hard drives are one of the (dwindling number of) reasons people still use desktops.

My iMac had a 256 GB SSD and a 2 TB conventional drive; this one has 128 GB and 3 TB, respectively, which is anemic improvement in capacity terms (though the SSD is much faster and the interconnect between the SSD and CPU is also much faster). Still, 4 TB hard drives are widely available and there’s no good reason why Apple shouldn’t offer bigger hard drives. There are other nice-to-haves: USB 3 ports. Thunderbolt ports. External hard drive speeds are much faster. I’ve gone from having about 2 TB readily available to having 9 TB readily available, between a Drobo and the internal drives.

5k retina imac side viewAesthetics are a wash. From the front, the new iMac is visually indistinguishable from the old, and photos don’t convey the screen’s beauty. The profile shots show a much slenderer machine. Also notable in the pictures in the Elevation Stand, which began as a Kickstarter Project that I backed. It’s by far the best iMac stand I’ve found, and I’ve tried various solutions ranging from wood blocks to books to an expensive stand festooned with screws sold discovered through the Apple store. The Elevation Stand is expensive but it works. The space between the top and bottom of the stand will also fit external hard drives.

My desk is somewhat ugly and I’m perpetually telling myself I’ll clean it off and make it very pure and functional seeming, but for whatever reason it rarely actually happens and as soon as it does I end up re-covering it with books and cameras and cords and other crap. This is obviously not part of the iMac review.

The iMac itself is still beautiful. If you use a computer too much, as I do, you’ll want one.


Here is Farhad Manjoo’s paean to the iMac. Most tech reviewers are ecstatic, perhaps disproportionately to how ecstatic they should be, but they also know computers well and know that the screen is amazing given how expensive 4K and 5K screens cost. I have a 23″ side monitor and no desire or need to upgrade it.

Here is a Reddit thread that hits many of the same points I’ve made about OS stability. Here is Geoff Wozniak on why he quit OS X. You’ll recognize the themes I hit.

The GeekDesk / writing space 2012 post:

Since my 2010 writing space post, quite a bit has changed. Here’s the new setup, viewed from a couple of angles, with an explanation below the photos:

Those of you who looked carefully, or even not very carefully, probably noticed something unusual: the desk is at two different heights. That’s because I’ve been using a GeekDesk for long enough to form an opinion on it, which is that I’d be reluctant to go back to a regular desk or a purely standing desk. I’ll write a longer review when I have more time, but the preceding sentence tells you most of what you need to know.

The other salient upgrade is from a 24″ iMac to a 27″ iMac with an SSD and a conventional hard drive. This machine inspired me to write “Mac OS 10.7 is out today, and I don’t care because ‘In the Beginning was the Command Line,’” because computers have now, finally, become “fast enough” and “good enough for my purposes. It’s taken a long time! I keep meaning to get a better stand than a pair of books, but that’s the sort of project that’s very easy to delay, indefinitely, until tomorrow.

The keyboard remains the same, and it’s hard to see what could make me replace the Kinesis Advantage. Its keys still feel new. The speakers aren’t very interesting, although they are external and thus better than the built-in ones, but they’re probably wasted on me because I don’t listen to music all that often, and they’re overkill for movies or TV shows. The external monitor is a 23” Dell with an IPS display, although I can’t remember the model number and don’t feel like looking it up. It’s a fine panel, but not very interesting. The lights on the back of the iMac are cheap Antec Halo LED lights, which are supposed to reduce eyestrain in dark rooms. Not sure if they actually do. I suspect turning down the iMac from “blinding” to “tolerate” would have as strong an effect.

You can see a Canon s100, which usually rides in my pocket. Sony now makes a better version of the s100—the RX100—but the RX100 is also $300 more. In a couple of shots there’s also a boring iPhone. If I weren’t on a family plan, I’d probably get a cheap Android phone, because I use maybe 5% of its features. Unless you’re doing a LOT of sexting, I don’t think I see the point in getting a more expensive “smart” phone over a less expensive one.

There’s also an Aeron, which is better for me than their recent Embody. Reasons for why I say that will follow when I have more time.

Thoughts on Steve Jobs — Walter Isaacson

I don’t think Steve Jobs, seen as a whole package, holds much of a lesson for us mortals, as Gary Stix argues here. Nonetheless, Steve Jobs the book is as fascinating as one should expect. The broad contours of his life and the book’s contents are well known, so I won’t repeat them here; I will note a few things:

1) As early as 1980, Jobs was “thrashing about for ways to produce something more radically different. At first he flirted with the idea of touchscreens, but he found himself frustrated. At one demonstration of the technology, he arrived late, fidgeted awhile, then abruptly cut off one of the engineers in the middle of their presentation [. . . .]” Notice how early he was thinking about a product that didn’t make it into shipping products until 2007. But I’m not that interested in touchscreens because, at least so far, they’re lousy for typing and other kinds of content creation. More than anything else I’m a writer, and I don’t see much use for iPads beyond checking Facebook, reading e-mails, and watching YouTube videos. Maybe they’d be useful as menus and such too. Charlie Stross gets this, and he a) actually has one and b) explains more about their uses and limitations Why I don’t use the iPad for serious writing.”

2) Not all of the book’s writing is great—phrases and ideas are too often repeated, and Isaacson shies from figurative or hyperbolic language, like a 13-year-old not quite ready to approach the opposite sex. Nonetheless, the books has enough evocative moments to balance its stylistic plodding, as in this moment: “Randy Wigginton, one of the engineers, summed it up: ‘The Apple III was kind of like a baby conceived during a group orgy, and later everybody had this bad headache, and there’s this bastard child, and everyone says, “It’s not mine.”‘”

I have yet to see an “individual orgy,” as opposed to a “group orgy,” but the metaphor nonetheless resonates.

3) Jobs didn’t think the same way most of us do about a wide array of topics. He didn’t think like the idiotic managers who think anything that can’t be measured automatically has no value. One can see non-standard thinking that works all over the book—it would be interesting to look too at people with non-standard thinking who fail—and I noticed this moment, at a Stanford class, where Jobs took business questions for while:

When the business questions tapered off, Jobs turned the tables on the well-groomed students. ‘How many of you are virgins?’ he asked. There were nervous giggles. ‘How many of you have taken LSD?’ More nervous laughter, and only one or two hands went up. Later Jobs would complain about the new generation of kids, who seemed to him more materialistic and careerist than his own. ‘When I went to school, it was right after the sixties and before this general wave of practical purposefulness had set in,’ he said. ‘Now students aren’t even thinking in idealistic terms, or at least nowhere near as much.’

Students are too shocked, and by the time they get to me they’re too often well-behaved in a dull way. I’ve mentioned weed in class, and the students are usually astonished. But I remember being a freshman, and most of the shock is undeserved. I went to school at Clark University, where mentions of pot smoking and LSD seemed fairly normal.

“Practical purposefulness” can be impractical when it blinds one to alternative possibilities that the well mannered simply cannot or will not imagine.

4) The last four paragraphs of the book are perfect.

5) Here’s Steven Berlin Johnson on the book; notice:

After devouring the first two-thirds of the book, I found myself skimming a bit more through the post-iPod years, largely because I knew so many of the stories. (Though Isaacson has extensive new material about the health issues, all of which is riveting and tragic.) At first, I thought that the more recent material was less compelling for just that reason: because it was recent, and thus more fresh in my memory. But it’s not that I once knew all the details about the battle with Sculley or the founding of NeXT and forgot them; it’s that those details were never really part of the public record, because there just weren’t that many outlets covering the technology world then.

This reminded me of a speech I gave a few years ago at SXSW, that began with the somewhat embarrassing story of me waiting outside the College Hill bookstore in 1987, hoping to catch the monthly arrival of MacWorld Magazine, which was just about the only conduit for information about Apple back then. In that talk, I went on to say:

If 19-year-old Steven could fast-forward to the present day, he would no doubt be amazed by all the Apple technology – the iPhones and MacBook Airs – but I think he would be just as amazed by the sheer volume and diversity of the information about Apple available now. In the old days, it might have taken months for details from a John Sculley keynote to make to the College Hill Bookstore; now the lag is seconds, with dozens of people liveblogging every passing phrase from a Jobs speech. There are 8,000-word dissections of each new release of OS X at Ars Technica, written with attention to detail and technical sophistication that far exceeds anything a traditional newspaper would ever attempt. Writers like John Gruber or Don Norman regularly post intricate critiques of user interface issues. (I probably read twenty mini-essays about Safari’s new tab design.) The traditional newspapers have improved their coverage as well: think of David Pogue’s reviews, or Walt Mossberg’s Personal Technology site. And that’s not even mentioning the rumor blogs.

So in a funny way, the few moments at the end of Steve Jobs where my attention flagged turned out to be a reminder of one of the great gifts that the networked personal computer has bestowed upon us: not just more raw information, but more substantive commentary and analysis, in real-time.

Except I’m a native to this environment: by the time I came to be cognizant of the world, this was already, if not a given, then at least very close. The later sections of the book had the feel of stuff I’ve already seen on the Internet, and much of the most interesting work analyzing Steve Jobs’ personality, predilections, and power had been done earlier.

To some extent, it’s always easier to chart rises than plateaus, and this is certainly true in Jobs’ case. The very end of Steve Jobs described the steps he’s taken to try ensuring the company continues in the mold of a company capable of producing great stuff—unlike most companies, which slowly come to be ruled by bean-counters and salarymen. Japanese companies like Sony are instructive here: Akio Morita‘s departure from the company coincided with its stagnation, which is most evident in its failure to see the iPod coming.

6) There are many subtle lessons that would be easy to miss in Steve Jobs and from Steve Jobs.

Thoughts on the new version of Word for OS X: 2011

Microsoft just released Office for OS X 2011, and I’ve been using it for the last day. The upgrade is notable for three reasons:

1) Word 2011 is much, much faster than Word 2008. Vastly faster. Did I mention it was faster? Word opens files faster, becomes responsive faster, and randomly hangs less often. Scrolling is much smoother, especially on a 75,000-word novel. I don’t know what Microsoft’s Mac Business Unit did to achieve this, but kudos to them.

2) The “Elements” toolbar at the top of the screen is still there:

I can’t find a way to get rid of it. This is irritating because vertical space is at a premium relative to horizontal space on modern, widescreen monitors. My 24″ iMac has just enough space to fit two full pages side-by-side. Edit: Someone just sent me an e-mail saying that one can turn off this part of the “ribbon” in the ribbon preferences menu. Great news! There’

3) There’s now a Mellel-like full-screen view:

This is pretty nice. I haven’t found a hot key for full-screen view, although I think there should be a way to assign one, if I can find it. But the full-screen view is much slower than the normal views (three steps forward, one step back…). If I click into a file on my second monitor, the full-screen view goes (glacially) away.

No word (haha!) yet on whether the new version is as crash-prone as previous versions. Word crashes on me at least every couple weeks, usually in ways that are frustratingly random and not reproducible. Find/replace is an egregious cause of crashes.

I’m likely to keep using Mellel for first drafts and stuff that I primarily work on alone and Word for grant writing and stuff I’m likely to share.

Computer post follow-up: The relative reliability of laptops versus desktops

In a post on the merits of laptops versus desktops, I wrote that “the inflated notebook total [regarding units sold] is probably in part due to the disposable nature and limited longevity of notebooks.” Two e-mailers took issue with this assertion because I didn’t have any direct evidence backing it up aside from the obvious engineering constraints that impair notebooks.

Evidence isn’t easy to find. The best I’ve seen comes from a recent issue of Consumer Reports, which says:

Cons: Laptops cost more than comparably equipped desktops. Our reliability surveys show laptops are more repair-prone than desktops. Components are more expensive to repair.

Isn’t that obvious? The miniaturization necessary to cram components into a laptop case combined with inferior heat dissipation and the wear of constantly opening, closing, and moving a computer would reduce the reliability of comparable laptops versus desktops. People who need the mobility should obviously make that trade-off, but to me the benefits of a laptop are overrated, especially given the price premium most already command. This holds true across brands.

One issue bigger than price is hassle: the longer I can keep a computer without the hard drive, logic board, or other components breaking, the better off I am because I don’t have to undertake the tedious process of fixing the computer. By that standard, a long-lived desktop is a beautiful thing indeed—especially when one doesn’t need the portability.

A recent NPD survey on netbooks found that “60 percent of buyers said they never even took their netbooks out of the house.” If your laptop never travels, why bother having one?

Still, my desktop preference may  eventually change. AnandTech’s review of the new MacBook Pro batteries highlights the astonishingly long charge they hold and waxes euphorically in a way most unlike the normally staid tech site:

Ever since I first looked at the power consumption specs of Nehalem I thought it didn’t make any sense to buy a new, expensive notebook before Arrandale’s launch in Q4 2009/Q1 2010. While performance will definitely increase considerably with Arrandale, Apple just threw a huge wrench in my recommendation. The new MacBook Pro is near perfect today. If you need a new laptop now, thanks to its incredible battery life, I have no qualms recommending the new MBP.

But the power/performance of desktops today still beats laptops for those who don’t need the mobility. A MacBook Pro, 24″ monitor, and Intel X-25 SSD run well north of $2,000, compared to $1,500 for an iMac, which, according to Consumer Reports, should have greater longevity.

AnandTech has one other piece that sways me towards desktops, as this 2007 article shows: “Without even running any objective tests, most people could pretty easily tell you that the latest and greatest desktop LCDs are far superior to any of the laptop LCDs currently available.”

Gizmodo has also run a polemic announcing the justified end of the desktop. I’m not buying it.

EDIT: It’s 2016 and I’m using a Retina iMac. Laptops have, however, made impressive strides in screen quality.

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