Sunday Selection 2017-06-25

Around the Web

The Largest Git Repo on the Planet

I’m always a fan of case studies describing real world software engineering, especially when it comes to deploying engineering tools, and contains charts and data. This article describes Microsoft’s efforts to deploy the Git version control system at a scale large enough to support all of Windows development.

Why our attention spans are shot

While it’s no secret that the rise of pocket-sized computers and ubiquitous Internet connections have precipitated a corresponding decrease in attention span, this is one of the most in-depth and researched articles I’ve seen on the issue. It references and summarizes a wide range of distraction-related issues and points to the relevant research if you’re interested in digging deeper.

Aside: Nautilus has been doing a great job publishing interesting, deeply researched, and well-written longform articles, and they’re currently having a summer sale. The prices are very reasonable, and a subscription would be a great way to support good fact-based journalism in the current era of fake news.

How Anker is beating Apple and Samsung at their own accessory game

I own a number of Anker devices — a battery pack, a multi-port USB charger, a smaller travel charger. The best thing I can say about them is that by and large, I don’t notice them. They’re clean, do their job and get out of my way, just as they should. It’s good to see more companies enter the realm of affordable, well-designed products.

From the Bookshelf

Man’s Search for Meaning

I read this book on a cross-country flight to California a couple months ago, at a time when I was busy, disorganized, stressed and feeling like I was barely holding on. This book is based on the author’s experience in Nazi concentration camps during World War II. The book focuses on how the average person survives and reacts to life in the brutality and extreme cruelty of a concentration camp. The second part of the book introduces Frankl’s theories of meaning as expressed in his approach to psychology: logotherapy. In essence, the meaning of life is found in every moment of living, even in the midst of suffering and death.

Video

Black Panther Trailer

I’m a big fan of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ run of Black Panther and really enjoyed the Black Panther’s brief appearance in Captain America: Civil War. This trailer makes me really excited to see the movie when it comes out, and hopeful that it will be done well. If you’re new to the world of Wakanda in which Black Panther will be set, Rolling Stone has a good primer.

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Ubuntu should zig to Apple’s zag

It’s another October and that means it’s time for another Ubuntu release. Before I say anything, I want to make it clear that I have the utmost respect for Mark Shuttleworth, Canonical and the Ubuntu project in general. I think they’ve done wonderful things for the Linux ecosystem as a whole. However, today I’m siding with Eric Raymond: I have deep misgivings about the direction Ubuntu is going, especially in terms of user interface.

I’m not a UI or UX designer. I’m sure there are people at Canonical who have been studying these areas for longer than I have. But I am a daily Linux user. In fact I would say that I’m a power user. I’m no neckbeard, but I think that by now I have a fair grasp of the Unix philosophy and try to follow it (my love for Emacs notwithstanding). The longer I see Ubuntu’s development the more it seems that they are shunning the Unix philosophy in the name of “user friendliness” and “zero configuration”. And they’re doing it wrong. I think that’s absolutely the wrong way to go.

It seems that Canonical is trying very hard to be Apple while not being a total ripoff. Apple is certainly a worthy competitor (and a great source to copy from) but this is a game that Ubuntu is not going to win. The thing is, you can’t be Apple. That game has been played, that ship has sailed. Apple pretty much has the market cornered when it comes to nice shiny things that just work for most people irrespective of prior computer usage. Unless somehow Canonical sprouts an entire ecosystem of products overnight they are not going to wrest that territory from Apple.

That’s not to say that Canonical shouldn’t be innovating and building good-looking interfaces. But they should play to the strengths of both Linux the system and Linux the user community instead of fighting them. Linux users are power users. In fact I think Linux has a tendency to encourage average computer users to become power users once they spend some time with it. I would love to see Ubuntu start catering to power users instead of shooing them away.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that Apple does not place its developers above its customers. That’s a fine decision for them to make. It’s their business and their products and they can do whatever they like. However as a programmer and hacker I am afraid. I’m scared that we’re getting to the point where I won’t be able to install software of my choosing without Apple standing in the way. I’m not talking about just stuff like games and expensive proprietary apps, but even basic programming tools and system utilities. That’s not something that I’m prepared to accept.

Given the growing lockdown of Apple’s systems, Canoncial should be pouring resources into making Ubuntu the best damn development environment on the planet. That means that all the basics work without me tinkering with drivers and configurations (something they’ve largely accomplished). It means that there’s a large pool of ready-to-install software (which also they have) and that it’s possible (and easy) to install esoteric third-party tools and libraries. Luckily the Unix heritage means that the system is designed to allow this. Instead of trying to sugar coat and “simplify” everything there should be carefully thought-out defaults that I can easily override and customize. Programmability and flexibility grounded in well-tuned defaults should be the Ubuntu signature.

It makes even more sense for Canonical to take this angle because Apple seems to be actively abandoning it. A generation of hackers may have started with BASIC on Apple IIs, but getting a C compiler on a modern Mac is a 4GB XCode download. Ubuntu can easily ship with a default arsenal of programming tools. Last I checked the default install already includes Python. Ubuntu can be the hands-down, no-questions-asked platform of choice for today’s pros and tomorrow’s curious novices. Instead of a candy-coated, opaquely-configured Unity, give me a sleek fully programmable interface. Give me a scripting language for the GUI with first-class hooks into the environment. Made it dead simple for people to script their experience. Encourage and give them a helping hand. Hell, gamify it if you can. Apple changed the world by showing a generation the value of good, clean design. Canonical can change the world by showing the value of flexibility, programmability and freedom.

Dear Canonical, I want you to succeed, I really do. I don’t want Apple to be the only competent player in town. But I need an environment that I can bend to my will instead of having everything hidden behind bling and “simplification”. I know that being a great programming environment is at the heart of Linux. I know that you have the people and the resources to advance the state of computing for all of us. So please zig to Apple’s zag.

PS. Perhaps Ubuntu can make a dent in the tablet and netbook market, if that’s their game. But the netbook market is already dying and let’s be honest, there’s an iPad market, not a tablet market. And even if that market does open up, Android has a head start and Amazon has far greater visibility. But Ubuntu has already gone where no Linux distro has gone before. For most people I know it’s the distribution they reflexively reach for. That developer-friendliness and trust is something they should be actively leveraging.

Sunday Selection 2011-03-26

Around the Internet

iPad 2 is not revolutionary, but it is great I’ve been lusting after an iPad for a while now and with this refresh I think I’m going to finally crack and get one. This review is worth a read if you’re considering getting one (or wondering what all the fuss is about). It explains why the iPad is likely to be the best tablet on the market for a while (even when all the others stop being vaporware).

How Kickstarter Became a Lab for Daring Prototypes and Ingenious Products I haven’t invested in any Kickstarter projects (starving college student + I’m on a minimalism kick) but I think it’s a great idea that is doing some measurable good in the world. And helping create some beautiful products in the process. Required reading for anyone starting a business or service organization.

The Einstein Principle: Accomplish More By Doing Less This is an older article to offset the other two. I’ve been thinking a lot about focus and concentration, both in terms of mentally energy and actual physical doing-stuff. There’s no big secret revealed here and we’ve probably heard the facts already. But every now and then we need to calm down, take a breath and be reminded to focus on what’s important.

From the bookshelf

Flow: the Psychology of Optimal Experience While digesting the wisdom of the Internet is definitely fun and worthwhile, sometimes you have to go back to basics. This book gets cited a lot in articles on productivity, focus and time management. It’s the distilled wisdom of one man’s journey to understand what makes life worth living from a spiritual and scientific viewpoint. If you’re only going to read one book on self-improvement or time management, this is it.

Software

Instapaper and Readability After my last tribute to the resurgence of web reading how could I not recommend these two wonderful pieces of software? Part web service, part mobile app, these two will definitely make reading on the Internet a much better experience.

Attention to details

Yesterday I decided to subscribe to a friend’s RSS feed. She is currently in Japan and writing about her experiences there (yes, she’s been talking about the earthquake among other things). I’ve been carrying around my Chrome netbook since it’s more comfortable to use than my Eee PC netbook and I was using when I decided to subscribe to her feed. Chrome OS is supposed to be optimized for living on the web and RSS is definitely a part of the web. In fact, Google Reader is the probably the best web-based feed reader out there (and one of the better RSS readers period). However, despite Google’s expertise with the web and their investment in ChromeOS doing something as simple as subscribing to an RSS feed takes three separate steps.

When you get to a webpage that has associated RSS feeds, Chrome will auto-detect them and put a small RSS icon in the address bar. When you click that icon you get  a list of available feeds. That’s fine because it exposes important information in an unobtrusive form and makes more detailed information easily available. Once you click whichever link you do want to subscribe to, you get taken to another page which shows a preview of the feed articles and lets you choose which feed reader you want to subscribe to. To be fair, this step can be removed by picking a default feed reader. In my case I choose Google Reader. But instead of just adding your feed to Google Reader, you are dropped into Reader where you have to click the subscribe button to actually subscribe to the feed. Though I’ve seen far worse signup processes, this could all be boiled down to a single step process if Google Reader and Google Chrome OS worked just a little bit better together (yes, I said Google twice to make a point).

I’ve done this lots of times already, but today it really bothered me. A few hours before I subscribed to my friend’s feed, I read Andy Ihnatko’s review of the iPad 2. If you’re considering buying the iPad 2 (or just interested in it) take half an hour and go read it. I want to highlight the part of the article that really stuck with me (and fueled my annoyance at the Chrome/Reader signup process).

The iPad 2 Smart Cover is emblematic of what makes Apple a great technology company. I kind of want to hide one in my jacket pocket every time a tech company is giving me my first briefing on a new tablet, and bring it out at a decisive moment.

“Halt,” I would say, unrolling the Smart Cover and holding it before me like a talisman to ward off evil. “Did you put as much thought into your entire tablet as Apple put into this deceptively simple screen cover?”

See, I’m increasingly coming to the view that the small things matter. Not only do they matter, they are downright important and worthy of serious attention especially if they are part of products you want to get into the hands of lots of people. Unfortunately this does not seem to be clear to people and companies that are making said products, even companies that should know better.

As much as we’d like to pretend that humans are logical beings and use products and services based purely on their technical merits, the truth is we’re not Vulcans. Using beautiful, well-designed products and living in attractive environments actually makes us feel better and more productive. And when it comes to making a solid, fine-tuned experience, the small stuff matters. It really matters.

Not to sound like a total fanboy, but Apple realizes this and executes it well, and is one of the few companies that do. Interestingly enough, Apple’s penchant for polish and good design spills over into the whole ecosystem of Mac apps. OS X is the only platform where I honestly say that some applications are beautiful. The web is a becoming close second thanks to the increase in quality of rendering engines. I think this is an analog of the “broken windows theory” — Apple actively discourages broken windows on its platform. It’s own products are useful, well-designed and a joy to use. They’re continually raising the bar, in terms of hardware, software and the combined experience.

Demanding perfection and not shipping bad products is not a easy choice to make, but is certainly pays. Again, Apple last made $14 billion in profits. In profits. And is now the second largest company in the world. Companies like Moleskin, Behance and Rhodia make beautiful, thoughtfully designed stationary products and they’re not cheap. But they’re worth it. If you’re serious about creating products and services that people not only use, but want to use, then you should sweat the small stuff and work on creating the filter.

Second hand thoughts on the Macbook Air

As the whole world knows by now, Apple released a new version of the Macbook Air about a week ago. The new Air is a really interesting device: extremely thin, packed with a fast SSD, decent processor and RAM and a high resolution screen. I’m at the point where I’m starting to consider my next round of computer upgrades and I’m seriously considering all Mac. When the new Air was released my initial response was that it would be a great machine to get if I was traveling a lot. But since I need a personal machine through at least some of my grad school years, I would be sticking to a 13 inch Macbook Pro. However, given what I’ve been hearing, I’m starting to reconsider that.

First off, there’s yesterday’s Techcrunch article about the new Air. The headline says it all: Goodbye, MacBook Pro. The New MacBook Air Is That Good. The author comes to the conclusion that the Air is a faster, better machine than his 6-month old Macbook Pro. The only downside is the size of the hard drive. From a personal perspective, I don’t really care about the storage size. I have very little media compared to most off, living off Netflix and Pandora instead.

From my experience of using a 10 inch netbook, I’ve come to the conclusion that 10 or 11 is simply too small for me to use on regular basis. If I were to get an Air, it would be the lower 13 inch model that currently sells for $1299. However, the equivalent 13 inch Macbook Pro has twice the RAM and storage space (non-SSD though), longer battery life (by Apple’s claims at least) and an optical drive. But it is thicker and 1.5 pounds heavier. It is also $100 cheaper. Even though the Macbook Pro might seem like a better deal, it’s not quite so straight cut.

For starters, the SSD is a game changer. I haven’t had the chance to use one on a daily basis myself, but from what I’ve heard (from everyone from Linus Torvalds to fellow students) it’s much more than an incremental upgrade over a traditional drive. As the benchmarks show, the SSD makes a great difference. SSDs are still an early-adopter technology, but they’re at the point where it makes sense to invest in one if you plan on keeping a machine around for a while. To bring the Macbook Pro up to the same spec would cost an additional $350.

The next question is mobility. For a machine to carry around a fair amount, the Air does a damn good job. It’s barely 3 pounds heavy, and about two-thirds of an inch at the thickest point. And according to Techcrunch, it also doesn’t bleed very much heat. This may be a bit of a personal peeve, but I can’t stand laptops that bleed excessive amounts of heat. My netbook starts fanning out warm air really quickly and that annoys me no end. Even the current Pros can get a bit warm after an hour or two of work. If the Air is really as cool as Techcrunch says it is, then its certainly a very big plus, almost as much as weighing less than most of my textbooks. The 7 hour battery life is much more than any other laptop I’ve ever used and should be good enough for a full day of work. Considering the fact that I don’t plan on doing long trips very much that seems sufficient.

The high-resolution screen is definitely a boon. It’s hard to tell how important a high-res screen matters until you’re forced to work with one that’s lower resolution. The screen is also matte, not glossy, which isn’t a major factor until it is (ie it’s a sunny day and you decide to go out into the sun). Glossy vs matte isn’t that big of a factor if you’re working in a good set up with no bright lights behind you. But I’m planning on being able to take my machine out in a  random cafe or park bench and get some work done outdoors. Not having to see the sun’s glare or my own reflection all the time would be nice.

The final thing to note is ports and optical drive. The Air has no optical drive and the only time I use an optical drive is to watch DVDs. I would really not miss the optical drive if all of Netflix were streamed online, but until then I’ll be buying a separate optical drive. And it will probably be one of the Apple drives since I can’t seem to find anyone making a cheaper slot-loading drive (after using slot-loading drives, tray-loaders seem downright clunky and primitive). What that means is that when I have an external drive plugged in, I’ll be down to a single USB port. I would not be able to plug in an optical drive, external storage drive and USB keyboard all that the same which is something I can see myself wanting to do at some point. Again, I’m not entirely certain how much of a problem that would be. Even if that is something I need to do USB hubs are cheap and abundant and it’s not an issue when I’m on the move. The DisplayPort means that I’ll be able to plug in a larger monitor (which is something I’m likely to do when I’m at my desk). The lack of a wired Ethernet port is somewhat concerning. Though being at a grad school means that I’ll probably have all the wireless Internet I need, it means that I’d have to get a wireless router for wherever I end up living.

The Macbook Air is certainly a very respectable machine. However, it’s another question as to whether or not I would actually  buy one. The 13 inch Pro is a strong competitor and for a primary machine, the Pro seems to win. Though the Air lets you do most things you’d want to with a computer, the peripheral limitations mean that you can’t do everything you’d want to. The lack of a cheaper SSD option on the Pro is a bit disappointing, but it’s something that I could add in later if I really want to. If I were getting a secondary travel machine to accompany an existing home machine, the Air would win hands down. But since I want a machine that I can hope to use full time, I still need a “complete” machine. The Pro is the best bargain for that.

Nothing left to lose

Today’s been a productive day. Lot of code written, good conversation and a lot of reading done. I caught up with my backlog of stuff I had to read around the internet and even let myself carry on reading links. Out of everything I read, there are two things I read that I feel worth writing.

The first was about Microsoft and the recent Kin debacle. It’s a good article with lots of remarks from people inside Microsoft and it’s definitely worth a read if you’re interested in technology or business at all. The article paints a pretty grim picture of where Microsoft is going. MS is definitely not my favorite technology company (and I’ve been Windows free for a while now) but it still hurts a little to see a once-great company go so tragically wrong. As I was reading that article I kept thinking that Microsoft really needed a cold, hard reboot. A complete restructuring where they would identify their core strengths (Windows and Office), unify their various disparate projects (Mobile/Kin, all their various web efforts) and bring more developers onto their side (C#, F# and the rest of .NET). Is any of this going to happen? I don’t know. I hope so, but my gut says no, sadly.

However, when I read this next article (about weak AI applied to cars and massive data sets) one line stuck out that pretty much summed up what I thought about Microsoft and its current situation. The line was this: It turns out that, innovation, like freedom, “is just another word for having nothing left to lose.” Very fitting, yes?

I think what everyone is feeling that Microsoft is simply far too big and unwieldy to make the drastic changes that are really necessary for it to stay in the game against the likes of Apple and Google. Restructuring a large company to fend off faster moving rivals is never an easy thing to do and it’s even harder when:

  1. You’re company is violently divided politically into jealous corporate fiefdoms
  2. Everyone in the world seems to know about how bad it is

The feeling that I think is prevalent is that even though Microsoft desperately needs to make an about turn in a lot of different areas, they’re not going to. Not yet, not unless more heads have rolled and not until they’ve lost a lot more, both in terms of interesting products and shareholder value. In other words, Microsoft will have to be forced into a situation where they have nothing left to lose before they start to really make the changes that they need to.

And that is sad. Sure, I’ve bashed Microsoft before and I’m certainly not a fan of Windows, but I too want them to get their act together and become a formidable software company again. I have good friends working at Microsoft who have had good experiences and I’ve heard good things about C# and .NET (language geek that I am). If nothing else, diversity is good and the more sources of interesting technology we have, the better. So I wish Microsoft the best of luck and really, really hope that the Kin (and Courier before it) are what finally kick Microsoft into action and push themselves to get back to the top of the game. Will that actually happen? We’ll see.