Pixel City

Oh look, another blog about design and technology.

"No compromise" design

Steven Sinofsky, president of the Windows division at Microsoft, wrote this piece about the design of Windows 8, which mixes Microsoft's new "Metro" design style for mobile devices with the regular desktop version Windows. He says, 4 times in 4 different ways, "Our goal was a no compromise design." But there is no such thing, becauyse all design is compromise. Joel Spolsky wrote this great article in 2006 and he explains it very simply, with an example of designing a trashcan for use on a city sidewalk:

It has to be pretty light, because the dustboys, er, sanitation engineers come by and they have to pick it up to dump the trash in the garbage truck. Oh, and it has to be heavy, or it will blow away in the wind or get knocked over... It has to be really big. People throw away a lot of trash throughout the day and at a busy intersection if you don't make it big enough, it overflows and garbage goes everywhere... Oh, also, it needs to be pretty small, because otherwise it's going to take up room on the sidewalk... Ok, light, heavy, big, and small. What else. It should be closed on the top, so rubbish doesn't fly away in the wind. It should be open on the top, so it's easy to throw things away... Notice a trend? When you're designing something, you often have a lot of conflicting constraints. In fact, that's a key part of design: resolving all of these conflicting goals.

Steven Sinofsky:

Windows 8 brings together all the power and flexibility you have in your PC today with the ability to immerse yourself in a Metro style experience. You don’t have to compromise! ... you can seamlessly switch between Metro style apps and the improved Windows desktop.

When he says "no compromise", what he means is "we left everything in", which is very much a compromise. How can he not see that he's already made a ton of compromises? More features means more complexity. More disk space is used by the system. More things running at once hurts battery life. Putting in more battery to bring the life back makes the device heavier. Etc etc etc. He is, quite simply, 100% wrong. Design is nothing but compromise."No compromise" design simply doesn't exist. It's like non-wet water.

Backups Are a Pain

Data is not safe if it exists in only one place. The only feasible way to back up a large hard drive is with another large hard drive. If either drive—main drive or your backup—dies, you need to replace it ASAP because as long as one is out of commission, there is only one good copy of your data. Therefore, for every hard drive you own, you need to have a) another drive of equal or greater capacity, and b) enough money in the bank (or available credit) to replace it when needed.

Pen Design

Low-tech Skilcraft pens endure in a high-tech world

The original design — brass ink tube, plastic barrel not shorter than 4 5/8 inches, ball of 94 percent tungsten carbide and 6 percent cobalt — has changed little over the decades... The original 16-page specifications for the pen are still in force: It must be able to write continuously for a mile and in temperatures up to 160 degrees and down to 40 degrees below zero.

Juice design? Of course!

It's easy to not think about the fact that juice companies can somehow make juice that tastes the same all year. Sadly, it's heavily processed and then re-flavored. Even the brands that are advertised as "natural", aren't. Still, it's interesting to see a little of how this happens, if also a bit sad.

After the oranges are squeezed, the juice is stored in giant holding tanks and, critically, the oxygen is removed from them. That essentially allows the liquid to keep (for up to a year) without spoiling — but that liquid that we think of as orange juice tastes nothing like the Tropicana OJ that comes out of the carton. In fact, it's quite flavorless. So, the industry uses "flavor packs" to re-flavor the de-oxygenated orange juice... Juice companies therefore hire flavor and fragrance companies, the same ones that formulate perfumes for Dior and Calvin Klein, to engineer flavor packs to add back to the juice to make it taste fresh. Flavor packs aren't listed as an ingredient on the label because technically they are derived from orange essence and oil. Yet those in the industry will tell you that the flavor packs, whether made for reconstituted or pasteurized orange juice, resemble nothing found in nature. The packs added to juice earmarked for the North American market tend to contain high amounts of ethyl butyrate, a chemical in the fragrance of fresh squeezed orange juice that, juice companies have discovered, Americans favor... Since they're made from by-products that originated in oranges, they can be added to the orange juice without being considered an "ingredient," despite the fact that they are chemically altered.


Fixing a Minor Annoyance

I appreciate that Mac OS X will warn me the first time I run an application downloaded from the Internet. However, I don't like that a) you can't turn it off and b) it warns about things that aren't applications. The worst is when I download a .zip or .tgz with a bunch of PHP scripts—OS X will warn me about every single one. Luckily, this can be stopped with a quick trip to Terminal: just navigate to the folder with the scripts and say xattr -d com.apple.quarantine *

Tip from http://www.macosxhints.com/article.php?story=20071029151619619

Ongoing Omissions

Or, "things that have been in Windows since 1995 and/or Classic Mac OS that have not yet made the jump to Mac OS X, the most modernest OS extant."

  • Colored Labels on files: in Mac OS since System 7; OS 8 and OS 9.
    • Status: Finally arrived in Mac OS X 10.3 (and brings with it crazy circus stripes in List or Column view.)
    • And then replaced labels with tags in Mac OS X 10.9 Mavericks
  • The ability to click on something in the trash and restore it to its original location: in Windows 95, in Mac since System 7 or 8 (for the most recently thrown away item--you could click on it and press "command-Y"--"Put away"--to restore it)
    • Status: Finally arrived in Mac OS X 10.6
  • The ability to reconnect to servers at login and NOT have a bunch of windows pop open (which is what happens if you put server aliases in your "Login Items" list in Mac OS X) - was in System 7, OS 8, OS 9, and Windows 95.
    • Status: Still waiting...

A Couple Small Time Machine Notes

I had to use Time Machine to recover my 10.6 Mac. Two little issues:

1) Quick Look didn't work. It would open up the big grey rectangle but not show anything--pictures, movies, PDFs, Excel files, nothing worked. I was at 10.6.1 and 10.6.2 was out but installing that update (and all the rest available at the time) through Software Update didn't fix it. A tip here http://reviews.cnet.com/8301-13727_7-10398867-263.html suggested downloading and installing the combo update (also for 10.6.2) and that cleared it up. ("Combo Update" is Apple's term for "everything since the last .0", so the 10.5.8 combo update can be run on any system, 10.5.0-10.5.7, and it'll work.)

2) The system folder "/private" was visible in the Finder at the root level of my hard drive. Not a big deal, but since I never need to go there there's no need to see it all the time. Running "sudo chflags hidden /private", as suggested here http://forums.macrumors.com/showthread.php?t=648139 did the trick.

"The iPad is just a big iPhone"

Yeah. And a swimming pool is just a big bathtub.

Details about iPhone backups and restore

When you plug in your iPhone and click 'backup' in iTunes, here's what happens.

The first time you run it, it will copy a bunch of files (your contacts, texts, etc.) into ~/Library/Application Support/MobileSync/Backup/ on your Mac. It will create a folder with a long, random name. (Mine is 4980dcc09ff7069aaea0d8b33f26b7ccff55656f.) The files are also randomly named, like 0a2bd25e8e7419e9e838cf247c5e73e17f1b6b02.mddata. 

When you run future backups, new data will be added. Old files will be overwritten if their counterparts on the phone has changed. (Or, at the very least, the old versions will be ignored if you do a restore.) 

What this means is, say you do a backup on the 1st, then you accidentally delete a text message on the 2nd, if you do a backup on the 3rd, that message will be gone forever. If you want to backup your backups, copy the whole long-named folder to a safe place and give it a descriptive name. If you ever need to restore your phone to any state than its most recent, just move the current contents of the long-named folder to a safe place and put the ones you want to use in there.

Of course, Spotlight in 10.5 and 10.6 will automagically back up your backups, but there might be thousands of files in that directory which would make restoring somewhat tricky. It's best to just have the whole batch stored in one place somewhere safe.

Camera updates in iPhone OS 3.0

Apple has made some nice updates to the Camera app in iPhone OS 3.0. Specifically, they've fixed two things that I really wanted them to fix.

First of all, the nice updates that everyone will notice:

It creates a thumbnail of the most recently taken picture in the lower left corner. You can click this to view the last pic you took. Since this is a common need, it's nice that they added a shortcut to this, rather than having you go back to your camera roll and clicking on the last picture. Also, if you're looking at pics, when you rotate the phone, the whole UI rotates, not just the image. Nice. Also, the camera icon in the top right corner is now a 'done' button, meaning, "I'm done looking at pictures--time to get back to the camera." I think the picture of a camera had clearer meaning than the word "done" but I like the improved visibility (bright blue instead of grey).

Now for my picky stuff:

I had an original iPhone. The camera app used to launch very quickly. Then, after the a software update (1.2, I think) it started launching very, very slowly--it went from taking a second or two to launch to taking TEN seconds to launch. When standing around watching something interesting happening, ten seconds is a long time. I kept hoping that they'd fix this but it stayed slow, both through several software updates and my move to the 3G. But now, they have finally have finally fixed this: the app once again launches in a second or two on my original 3G with OS 3.0. 

They also fixed something else that I was hoping for but not expecting. It used to be that if you were walking and tried to change from portrait mode to landscape, you'd have to stop walking for a couple seconds before the accelerometer would detect that the orientation had changed. It now works flawlessly--not only can you switch modes while walking, the camera adjusts just as quickly as it does when you're standing still. Outstanding. THIS is the kind of fit-and-polish improvement that all apps (and operating systems) deserve. 

Most programs have plenty of features but there is still tons of room left for improvements like this. I'm so happy to see someone taking the time to improve apps like this, instead of releasing them and forgetting about them forever. If all of softwaredom took the year off from adding features and just focused on small usability enhancements like this, the world would be a much better place.