Constraints Matter

I recently wrote about the value of brevity in regards to being respectful of a reader's or listener's attention, and also how brevity can help me write a bit more frequently as I often overthink things and go on for far too long.

So let's get to the point, shall we? Yesterday, my friend Aaron Mahnke tweeted a few things pointed at those of us using a ceiling word count for some writing. Thankfully, he elaborated a bit more in a blog post.

Writers love to count their words, and that’s a good thing. Let’s just get that onto the table right away.

Fair enough.

Writers count words to measure how far they’ve walked into a story. But here’s the catch: word count isn’t the end goal.

I agree with the first sentence, and somewhat agree with the second, depending on how it is viewed. It's not so cut and dry for me.

Some people, though, think it’s more important to prioritize brevity over clarity and art. […] They believe that the shorter the piece the better it is, that somehow using less words makes the work more admirable and praiseworthy. And they’re wrong.

I can see his side, but I think Aaron is being a bit one-sided here. Brevity can serve a purpose toward fostering clarity and art. I am wanting to embrace brevity more because I know embracing constraints can foster growth and maturity.

Let's look at it another way. I own two cameras. A Canon EOS 40D with a few lenses, and my iPhone 6. I used to take the 40D everywhere and try to take neat shots with it. But I fiddled too much with its various options and, more importantly, I didn't understand how light worked. I jumped in with the higher end of the photography spectrum (at least on a consumer level) and didn't have an understanding of the basics.

As the iPhone's camera kept getting better, I started leaving the 40D at home more. With the iPhone 5 I was leaving the 40D at home a lot. And by the iPhone 6 it even stopped coming along for trips. Why? Because as the iPhone's camera got better, I started using it more, despite the fact it has a ton of constraints.

Having those limitations forced me to think a bit more creatively, a bit more out of the box. I had to really start thinking about how light worked because I couldn't just adjust the aperture or shutter speed or ISO. I take better pictures because constraints left me no choice but to become observant and learn.

And let me tell you, I have had it said to me by plenty of photographers who really know their craft that "a phone camera is just a toy camera" and "that phone camera can't be used to take a good picture." But we all know that's a bunch of bulldonkey.

I mean, look at the beautiful things an iPhone can photograph.

When you write under the pretense that shorter is better, you trade art and care for economy and mathematics.

I wholeheartedly disagree with this statement. Shorter can be better, if you use it to hone the skill of art and care. Brevity does not inherently strive for economy and mathematics.

A writer should write the words necessary to tell their story — no more and no less — and then edit and craft them to fully represent the material.

I wholeheartedly agree with this statement. When I set out to write something with the intentional constraint of brevity, I keep an eye on the word count. I have a target I want to hit. I want to keep that particular writing in the ballpark of something brief. But if the topic requires more, I'm prepared to eschew brevity to complete the thought (as I've clearly done here).

Counting words has nothing to do with that whatsoever.

Word count isn’t a quality of good writing.

Again, this is not cut and dry, black and white, or mutually exclusive. Word count can and does influence writing, both poor writing and excellent writing. Working within constraints forces and fosters creativity.

Constraints matter.

¶ The Annoying State of the Apple Wireless Keyboard

Lately I have had conversations with a couple friends after I expressed rage frustration at how quickly my Apple Wireless Keyboard chews through a pair of Eneloop AA's1. Naturally, once I began to resent one thing, I began to notice the rest of its flaws compared to the modern state of other Bluetooth keyboards. What follows are my gripes with the Apple Wireless Keyboard, and how they should be fixed.

Tim Cook, if you're reading, I would give my kingdom for this keyboard.

The Battery

AA's, while fairly universal, are ridiculous in this day & age of Apple devices. The iPad and the MacBook Air get amazing battery life. I'd like to see Apple bring their expertise in battery tech to their peripherals. Ditch the tube shape on the back that holds batteries, and go to a MacBook Air-like wedge shape with a good sized internal battery. Recharge it via a Lightning cable when needed, and have it still usable while plugged into your Mac.

Also, I imagine moving to Bluetooth 4 would help with energy usage, and every new Apple device in the past couple years has come equipped with that.

The Keys

If you've been paying attention to any of Apple's portable Macs in the last few years, you'd know that the white keys of the Apple Wireless Keyboard look like a turd compared to the elegant black keys of portable Macs. Can you imagine how mismatched this keyboard looks next to the new Mac Pro?

Another thing Apple could borrow from the MacBook line is backlit keys. My proposed wedge shape, which could accommodate a nicely sized rechargeable battery, with a more energy efficient Bluetooth 4, could hopefully handle powering backlit keys. It's darn near 2014, it is time to have black, backlit keys on a wireless keyboard.

Easy to Use Multiple Device Support

The Logitech K811 keyboard is almost the keyboard of my dreams, except it is a little on the ugly side with that black stripe across the top. It has black, backlit keys, an internal rechargeable battery (but over the sucky micro-USB), and this amazing ability to switch between a Mac, iPhone, & iPad with the press of a button. They call it EasySwitch for a reason.

When one of Apple's main goals is to get you to own a Mac, iPhone, & iPad, they should be selling a keyboard that gives extremely low friction in using it with all three devices.

Conclusion

There are some really great keyboards out there that are close to my dream keyboard, the aforelinked Logitech K811 being the closest, save for being a bit on the ugly side. I want Apple to step into this decade of technology with their keyboard, and utilize many of the technologies they've been pushing forward.

So let's recap what the next Apple Keyboard should be like.

  • Wedge shape, like the MacBook Air
  • Good-sized internal battery
  • Lightning port for recharging from an outlet or Mac.
  • Bluetooth 4
  • Black keys
  • Backlit keys
  • Ability to switch quickly and easily between Mac, iPhone, & iPad.

And hey, while we're at it, let's update the Magic Trackpad with the wedge shape, internal battery, Lightning port, and Bluetooth 4.

Again, I'd give my kingdom for peripherals like this.


  1. It is widely believed Apple uses relabeled Eneloops for their rechargeable battery kit.

Aaron Mahnke on Entitlement

Aaron lays it out:

Here’s a great rule of thumb: until you create something yourself and then actually ship it, try to first find the positive in the products around you. Those products are the result of someone’s passion, hard work and innate genius. When we compare them to our own twisted, entitlement-driven expectations, we do nothing but insult their creators.

Aaron, as a member of your audience, I am standing — and applauding.

Authentication Baloney

Everyone and their dog in the media seems to be crying foul about Apple over the fact that the new Lightning connector cable includes an authentication chip. And the media is making it out that Apple included the chip to make sure only their $30 cables would work.

Nevermind the fact that the 30-pin dock connector has had an authentication chip since 2005.

Darrell Tan:

When Apple released the iPod Video that was capable of playing videos in 2005, they added video out (composite and S-video), as well as an authentication chip to allow only authorized docks and cables to receive video out (including audio). Soon enough, China caught up with their release of “authorized” accessories, which contain the authentication chip that can be re-purposed for other use.

Hm, pretty sure you can buy cheap 30-pin cables by the boatload. Maybe Apple puts an authentication chip in to make sure the connector works properly and doesn’t fry your phone.

The Lightning cable hasn’t even been on the market for a week, folks. How about we let Apple and the accessory makers make some accessories first.

IFTTT Forced to Remove Twitter Triggers

If you are a follower of this site on Twitter (@techese), then you have been benefitting from a Twitter trigger I have set up via IFTTT. IFTTT stands for If This, Then That. It’s simply really. For instance, I have it set up for “If a new post hits techese.net’s RSS feed, then tweet the title and link”. There’s a myriad of other useful things the service can do, right down to turning on a light in your home at a certain time if you have the right devices.

Amazing stuff.

Well, Twitter sure seems to hate amazing stuff lately (like, oh, you know, third-party anything). Twitter is forcing IFTTT to remove Twitter triggers. Now, not all triggers are disappearing. The particular one I use to post is staying. But this whole crusade of “all roads lead to Twitter and none lead out” is leaving a bad taste in my mouth.

I have no idea what is going on at Twitter. They really seem to be losing their way.

AT&T Knows How to Treat Its Customers

AT&T responds to the outcry of the Internet over limiting FaceTime over cellular to only its new Mobile Share plans:

…in another knee jerk reaction, some groups have rushed to judgment and claimed that AT&T’s plans will violate the FCC’s net neutrality rules. Those arguments are wrong.

Oh yes, your customers are just having yet another knee-jerk reaction. That’s a good way to start out.

Further:

To be clear, customers will continue to be able to use FaceTime over Wi-Fi irrespective of the data plan they choose. We are broadening our customers’ ability to use the preloaded version of FaceTime but limiting it in this manner to our newly developed AT&T Mobile Share data plans out of an overriding concern for the impact this expansion may have on our network and the overall customer experience.

Translation: We have invested literally nothing in making our network better, and even though we’ve done our best to cripple our network, FaceTime would finish the job. Please use Wi-Fi.

Twitter Parties

Lately I have noticed the proliferation of "twitter parties" on my favorite communication service, Twitter.

Here is how twitterpartyguide.com, the first result on Google when I searched for "twitter party", defines it:

A twitter party is a fast and fun virtual party, using the twitter platform. Usually held in the evening, twitter parties typically last 1-2 hours and are a wonderful way for people to connect and discuss a topic of choice. Most twitter parties have an expert panelist and party host to keep the party on topic.

And how it works:

Twitter users tweet with a specified Hashtag (#) for the party. The party host will announce the hashtag prior to the event. If you look at the twitter party calendar, parties are listed by the hashtag (#). Users use their tweet chat client to search for the hashtag and join in the conversation.

Basically, a twitter party acts as a private chatroom. Participants are focusing in on a single hashtag via search, so for the duration of that party, they only see tweets related to that topic.

I don't like twitter parties. Sure, twitter is a great way to communicate with people, but while people you follow are participating in a twitter party, you have to see their dozens of tweets about it, which are usually not following a context apparent to those outside the party.

The people I follow (or rather, followed) who regularly participate in these have often retorted to me that I should switch to a client that supports muting a hashtag. Yeah, great idea. Tell me, do any of Twitter's official branded clients support that feature? No. (TweetDeck doesn't count. Yes, it is owned by Twitter now, but it is not, as of this writing, branded by Twitter itself). When Twitter rolls this out as an official feature of the service, then this argument can be made. Until then, don't assume every client supports it.

I consider twitter parties to be spam. Their participants rarely pay their followers the convenience of announcing, "Hey, I'm going to be flooding your stream soon, you may want to unfollow for a couple hours". Instead, my time and yours is wasted by having to scroll through party-related tweets, trying to discern whether or not each one is nonsense or not.

The only real solution at that point is to sever ties with the unfollow button. Which blows, because then you do miss out on the good stuff from that person at other times — you know, the kind of stuff that made you click the follow button in the first place.

A Better Solution

Twitter is a great platform to communicate. But I don't think it is the best vehicle for large scale private chatrooms. You know what is? An actual chatroom. It is private to only those that wish to participate, doesn't disturb the rest of the community that you've established, and you can probably get a transcript for further reference.

Heck, even AIM supports chatrooms. And I know you can export a transcript for that.

Wouldn't it be easier for an organizer of a twitter party to announce a site or the name of a chatroom within AIM to host these events? That way, only interested participants are talking amongst each other, and not polluting the streams of all their followers?

Surely using a service that was designed for being a chatroom is much better suited than a service that was meant for casual conversation between two or few people at a time. Seriously, you can only tag so many people in a mention before you don't have room to say anything.

Devil's Advocate

It would be unfair if I didn't point out one criticism that twitter partiers have made against me when I have made my criticism of their parties. I often go a little on the excess with tweets when there is an Apple event.

You see, though, I often do several things leading up to Apple events:

  • I send several tweets at different times of the day prior to the event saying I will be tweeting a lot about the event.
  • I welcome people to unfollow for a day if they don't want to read my tweets about Apple's new stuff.
  • I use a single hashtag for the event, so, in case someone's client does support muting, they can do that. I don't tell people to switch clients to accommodate me.

Also, it's worth noting that I end up having these tweet splurges about once every four or five months. Not weekly. And, if you're following me, it's likely because you want my thoughts on Apple and technology, or you know me personally, which, if you do, you know that's pretty much my thing.

All of this is to say that Twitter is not the best medium for a massive private chatroom. A private chatroom, however, is. Let's not unintentionally waste our friends' time.

VeriFone is Spreading FUD about Square

VeriFone, a payment processor that makes those credit card readers you see in virtually every store (the big gray ones with a number pad), has launched a smear campaign against my favorite payment processor, Square.

Here's the gist:

Today is a wake-up call to consumers and the payments industry. Last year, a start-up named Square introduced a credit card reader for smartphones with the goal of making it very easy for anyone to accept credit cards through a mobile device. Seems like a great idea, but there is a serious security flaw that Square has overlooked that places consumers in dire risk.

In less than an hour, any reasonably skilled programmer can write an application that will "skim" – or steal – a consumer's financial and personal information right off the card utilizing an easily obtained Square card reader. How do we know? We did it. Tested on sample Square card readers with our own personal credit cards, we wrote an application in less than an hour that did exactly this.

And:

A criminal signs up with Square, obtains the dongle for free and creates a fake Square app on his smartphone. Insert the dongle into the audio jack of a smartphone or iPad, and you've got a mobile skimming device that fits in your pocket and that can be used to illegally collect personal and financial data from the magnetic stripe of a payment card. It's shockingly simple.

You know what else is shockingly simple? Someone taking a picture of both sides of your credit card. Or writing down your name, card number, security code, and expiration date.

The key is the word criminal. If a nefarious person wants your credit card info, and they have access to the actual card, they're going to get it. And it is a lot easier to take pictures than code an app.

The moral of the story is "don't give your credit card to someone you don't trust."

Lastly, to cross the boundary from being a jerk to being a troll, VeriFone says:

Don't take our word for it. See for yourself by downloading the sample skimming application and viewing a video of this type of fraud in action.

Today we are handing a copy of the application over to Visa, MasterCard, Discover, American Express, and JP Morgan Chase (Square's credit card processor), and we invite their comments.

So not only is VeriFone handing this app they concocted to Square's business associates, they release it out there for anyone — including criminals — to download and use. I guess criminals don't have to devote an hour to writing an app, because VeriFone did it for them.

Here's my take on this whole thing: VeriFone is spreading a metric ton of FUD, because they are scared of Square. See, Square's reader is free, whereas VeriFone's PAYware Mobile requires a contract, or costs $149 without contract. Square's reader fits in the coin pocket of my jeans. PAYware Mobile is anything but comfortably pocketable. Also, VeriFone requires a merchant account, Square doesn't.

What VeriFone is really scared of is people like you and me being able to accept card payments on the cheap at our garage sales, then telling our friends and family who own businesses how they could be saving money. See, Square went after VeriFone's lunch (and they're eating it). So now VeriFone is playing dirty.

Do yourself a favor and go sign up for Square.

Installers and Updates

One last refinement to the overall Mac OS X experience I’d like to see in Lion is the simplification of installing and updating applications.

This is an area that Mac OS X could very much learn from iOS. Installing and updating Apps on my iPhone and iPad is so straightforward it’s almost funny. Most of all, it’s easy to explain to someone else.

Try to imagine teaching App installation to someone who is new to the Mac, or maybe even computing in general. I do this often, actually; and the hardest thing for folks to grasp are the various methods of installing Apps. It’s intimidating. Some Apps come with installers, some come in disk images. Some disk images illustrate the need to drag the App to the Applications folder. Many don’t. Some even are packaged in a ZIP archive, and leave the uncompressed app in the Downloads folder, with no further instruction.

What a mess.

Some have suggested that Apple should make a Mac App Store. I do not think an App Store is the solution. I am fairly positive many developers agree. However, I’d love to see Lion bring forth a single, unified method for installation and updating Apps. Why can’t installation be more like installing a Dashboard widget? Mac OS X recognizes the .wdgt extension and offers to install it in Dashboard. Why not do the same with the .app extension? Or some other unified method that someone much smarter than me has come up with.

As for updating apps, Sparkle works fantastically in many of the Mac Apps I have. I’d love to see Apple employ something similar. Heck, the developer used to work on Apple’s Installer and Software Update team back in 2008-2009. Here’s the pertinent info from his résumé:

Designed and implemented exciting new technology for the Installer that will be employed throughout Mac OS X—details under NDA, but I can disclose that it’s awesome.

We can only hope.

Blu-ray is a Bag of Hurt

As Steve Jobs famously said back in October 2008, during the unveiling of the unibody MacBook and MacBook Pro, blu-ray is a bag of hurt. I have found this out first hand in the past 24 hours. Yesterday, I bought Iron Man 2 in a Blu-ray, DVD, and Digital Copy set. I saw the movie in theaters and loved it, so adding it to my collection was a no-brainer. But once I got it home, the pain began.

First off, I love the picture quality of Blu-ray (or rather, HD, whether or not it’s on a disc). What I hate, however, is Digital Rights Management, or DRM. In layman’s terms – copy protection. The reason I hate it so much is the undue burden it puts on the average consumer. I experienced such a burden last night.

The movie industry is constantly changing the DRM scheme on new movies, requiring your Blu-ray player to be updated constantly with new firmware to decode the new schemes. What I have fallen into is something I figured would be unlikely. The manufacturer of my player has stopped providing updates.

I hadn’t noticed as I hadn’t bought a new release in quite some time, but LG last updated my BD-390 in April. Iron Man 2 freezes in playback every 20 minutes, and when you press rewind or fast-forward to get over the freeze, it forgets where it was at and drops you ten minutes back in the movie.

At first, I figured it was a defective disc, so I exchanged it. The new disc exhibited the same problem. I decided to experiment a little. I picked a different part of the movie to start from, watched about 20 minutes, and freeze. Same behavior. I nudged past the freeze, watched about 20 minutes, freeze. Rinse, repeat. So it isn’t a physical anomaly in the disc.

I checked for updates via the WiFi connection of my player. Nothing. So I went to Google. It appears that many owners of the LG BD-390 are experiencing the same exact issue. Even worse, folks who have purchased movies made by Lionsgate films that were released since May have had their LG BD-390 spit the disc right back out.

LG lists the BD-390 as discontinued. We’re talking about a 10-month old player that was the top of the game last November. It sure seems like LG has given up on supporting new firmware for a discontinued device.

I talked with LG’s support, and the representative told me my report would be filed with the firmware team. I’m not very confident.

This whole mess is because of constantly changing DRM schemes, and companies discontinuing support for those schemes. I do love the Blu-ray experience when it works. This is the first bump I’ve hit with it, but it doesn’t bode well for the format.

Quite simply, DRM needs to go away, just like it did with music downloads. It’s time to trust the majority of consumers, because DRM sure as heck doesn’t stop the pirates. It just slows them down.