Much of a Universe

NPR: Stephen Hawking, Who Awed Both Scientists And The Public, Dies

There aren’t very many scientists who achieved rock star status. Stephen Hawking, who has died at the age of 76, family members told British media early Wednesday, was definitely a contender.

“He was a great scientist and an extraordinary man whose work and legacy will live on for many years,” the family statement said, according to The Guardian. “His courage and persistence with his brilliance and humour inspired people across the world. He once said, ‘It would not be much of a universe if it wasn’t home to the people you love.’ We will miss him for ever.”

One of the things that always impressed me about Hawking was his future. Despite any physical limitations he faced, despite skepticism for his ideas from some corners of the public, and even occasionally ending up in political crosshairs, Hawking never let bitterness or cynicism take over. He was funny, likable, and brilliant.


Choosing Between Android and iOS

Gizmodo: Why Choosing Between Android and iOS Still Matters

Gizmodo has a nice overview of most of the basic difference between Android and iOS devices that still matter. It’s a good read if, like me, you’re finding yourself torn between the benefits and drawbacks of each platform.

Android and iOS might have borrowed enough features from each other over the years to make the superficial differences not so great any more (iOS even has widgets these days), but dig a little deeper and you’ve got three main ways that Apple’s mobile platform differs from Google’s. This is what you need to know about them, and why your pick of smartphone OS still matters.

One of the big differences in choosing a mobile device platform rather than a desktop or laptop system is that the mobile choice is a far smaller commitment. With the ability to upgrade your device after a couple years, it’s not as daunting a prospect to jump from iOS to Android (or vice versa) as it is Mac to Windows.

Designing Windows 95

Socket 3: Designing the Windows 95 Interface

This link contains a recovered paper that Microsoft UI Researcher Kent Sullivan authored regarding the development of Windows 95’s now famous interface. Two notes about this paper:

  • It’s fascinating to see the evolution of elements — like the Start Menu and the Taskbar — many people have taken for decades.
  • Stick around for the comments after the article. The original author joins in and responds to a few questions.

Although we abandoned the idea of a separate shell for beginners, we salvaged its most useful features: single-click access, high visibility, and menu-based interaction. We mocked up a number of representations in Visual Basic and tested them with users of all experience levels, not just beginners, because we knew that the design solution would need to work well for users of varying experience levels. Figure 5 shows the final Start Menu, with the Programs sub-menu open. The final Start Menu integrated functions other than starting programs, to give users a single-button home base in the UI.


iOS 9 Boot Source Code Leaks

Six Colors: iOS 9 Boot Source Code Leaks

In what one writer called “the biggest leak in history,” someone posted the source code for the part of iOS that is responsible for booting the system on GitHub…


Fortunately, the code is already gone at Apple’s request, and it doesn’t sound like the initial impact is terribly significant.

Security researcher Will Strafach told TechCrunch that while it gives hackers some hints about how iOS boots that might become useful vectors of attack, it probably doesn’t mean much to iPhone owners:

“In terms of end users, this doesn’t really mean anything positive or negative,” Strafach said in an email. “Apple does not use security through obscurity, so this does not contain anything risky, just an easier to read format for the boot loader code. It’s all cryptographically signed on end user devices, there is no way to really use any of the contents here maliciously or otherwise.”

I think the biggest fallout is going to happen at Apple HQ. Someone on the inside had to let this out, and I can’t imagine Tim Cook and team are going to just let that slide.


Does Website Sameness Matter?

CSS-Tricks: Website Sameness™

Myself, I’m not sure how much I care. If a website fails to do do what it sets out to do, that, I care about. Design is failing there. But if a website has a design that is a bit boring, but does just what everyone needs it to do, that’s just fine. All hail boring. Although I admit it’s particularly ironic when a design agency’s own site feels regurgitated.

My emotional state is likely more intrigued about your business model and envious of your success than eyerolly about your design.

As long as I’m playing armchair devil’s advocate, if every website was a complete and total design departure from the next, I imagine that would be worse. To have to-relearn how each new site works means not taking advantages of affordances, which make people productive out of the gate with new experiences.

I’ve certainly leaned on templates and frameworks for web design in the past. (I haven’t even created a unique WordPress template for this site.) And I certainly feel where the author is coming from. Yes, any designer wants to put their own unique stamp on a client’s site or other project, but that should not get in the way of the site’s usefulness.

If your site is useful, clean, and easy to navigate, then I can forgive it having a similar look-and-feel to other sites.


Jason Snell on iProducts

Macworld: Is It the End of the Line for the ‘i’ at Apple? Analyzing Apple’s Naming Scheme

As luck would have it, I came across this piece by Jason Snell after writing that I felt Apple is heading toward a name change for iPhone. He has some very good points against such a move at this time. Though I still think the lowercase i is going to eventually go the way of brushed metal — which Apple also took a long time to phase out.

Apple’s made no pronouncements itself about it. Yes, it seems the “i” prefix introduced with the iMac 20 years ago has fallen out of favor. (I’m reminded of the time when Steve Jobs said that the “power” prefix of the PowerBook and Power Mac had gotten tired.) And yet that same prefix continues to appear in front of some of Apple’s most popular products and platforms! Meanwhile, Apple has announced new hardware—like AirPods and the HomePod—with absolutely no sign of either the letter “i” or the Apple prefix.

Even with the departure of the “i” in front of iBooks, the Apple product catalog is still littered with i-names: iOS, iPhone, iPad, iMac, iCloud. It’s possible that Apple is biding its time and will one day rename all of those products—for several years I’ve been getting emails from people who are absolutely sure that the next iPhone will be called Apple Phone—but it seems highly unlikely to me.

The iPhone, and the iOS platform it powers, are incredibly popular and recognizable brands. The iPad, though less successful than the iPhone, is also a known quantity. I can’t see Apple ditching all of that history, success, and brand recognition for the sake of some kind of inside-baseball corporate rebranding effort.


Interview with a Propaganda Book

Vox: America, Explained By a North Korean Propaganda Book

Sean Illing at Vox Media somehow obtained a book of North Korean propaganda regarding the United States and the Korean War. He uses excerpts from the book to create a fake interview with it.

Sean Illing

What does that “policy of aggression and war” look like today?

North Korea Propaganda Book

In pursuing the policy of aggression on Korea under their postwar “strategy of mass reprisal” based on the “policy of strength,” the US imperialists laid stress on their permanent occupation of South Korea while hampering Korea’s reunification, fortified South Korea as their military strategic base by extensively reinforcing the puppet armed forces, and at the same time lined up the South Korean puppets with the Japanese militarists and sped up preparations for a new war for the occupation of the whole of Korea.

Sean Illing

And what role has the North Korean government played in all this?

North Korea Propaganda Book

All these incidents which the whole world had watched with deep apprehensions could be brought under control and prevented from developing into a big war only thanks to the persistent peace policy of the Government of the DPRK.

Ever since liberation the DPRK Government has invariably held that Korea must be relieved from tension and the question of her reunification be solved peacefully, not by war. It proposed to solve the question of national reunification independently and peacefully on a democratic principle more than 150 times.

But the US imperialists doggedly cling to their policy of of aggression and war … The tense situation and the danger of a nuclear war on the Korean peninsula are an outcome of US policy.

It’s easy to pick something like this apart and demonstrate exactly where North Korean citizens are being misled. But they have no other avenue through which they can gather information. They can’t look through objective sources that will allow them to fact check the information coming to them.

We can.

However, we sometimes choose to believe propaganda over truth. We dismiss anything that disagrees with our predetermined worldview as “biased,” and then we create an echo chamber of voices that will tell us what we want to hear. We willingly create our own bubbles of propaganda. When we do that, we are no better than such a regime.


Moira Donegan On the Media Men List

The Cut: I Started the Media Men List. My name is Moira Donegan.

In the weeks after the spreadsheet was exposed, my life changed dramatically. I lost friends: some who thought I had been overzealous, others who thought I had not been zealous enough. I lost my job, too. The fear of being exposed, and of the harassment that will inevitably follow, has dominated my life since. I’ve learned that protecting women is a position that comes with few protections itself.

This escalated when I learned Katie Roiphe would be publishing my name in a forthcoming piece in Harper’smagazine. In early December, Roiphe had emailed me to ask if I wanted to comment for a Harper’s story she was writing on the “feminist moment.” She did not say that she knew I had created the spreadsheet. I declined and heard nothing more from Roiphe or Harper’s until I received an email from a fact checker with questions about Roiphe’s piece. “Katie identifies you as a woman widely believed to be one of the creators of the Shitty Men in Media List,” the fact checker wrote. “Were you involved in creating the list? If not, how would you respond to this allegation?” The next day, a controversy ensued on Twitter after Roiphe’s intention to reveal my identity was made public. People who opposed the decision by Harper’s speculated about what would happen to me as a result of being identified. They feared that I would be threatened, stalked, raped, or killed. The outrage made it seem inevitable that my identity would be exposed even before the Roiphe piece ran. All of this was terrifying. I still don’t know what kind of future awaits me now that I’ve stopped hiding.

But over the past months I’ve also had many long, frank conversations with other journalists, men and women, about sexual harassment and assault in our industry. Many came to me with stories of their own abuse, some of which they had been too afraid to add to the spreadsheet, even anonymously. Others told me that they had seen their own attacker or harasser on the document and that they hadn’t put him there. That meant that what that person had done to them, he had done to other people, too. In some of these conversations, we spent hours teasing out how these men, many of whom we knew to be intelligent and capable of real kindness, could behave so crudely and cruelly toward us. And this is another toll that sexual harassment can take on women: It can make you spend hours dissecting the psychology of the kind of men who do not think about your interiority much at all.

A lot of us are angry in this moment, not just at what happened to us but at the realization of the depth and frequency of these behaviors and the ways that so many of us have been drafted, wittingly and unwittingly, into complicity. But we’re being challenged to imagine how we would prefer things to be. This feat of imagination is about not a prescriptive dictation of acceptable sexual behaviors but the desire for a kinder, more respectful, and more equitable world. There is something that’s changed: Suddenly, men have to think about women, our inner lives and experiences of their own behavior, quite a bit. That may be one step in the right direction.


Celebrity Politics

Vox: How to Deal With the Age of Celebrity Candidates

In the excitement over a potential Oprah Winfrey presidency, there is an obvious eye-rolling response: We already elected a celebrity with no political experience to the White House, and look how well that’s working out.

And yet there is a reason many are drawn to Oprah’s candidacy — and it’s a primary reason Donald Trump succeeded. In an era of nonstop politics-as-entertainment media, there’s something appealing about a celebrity candidate known for being an inspirational problem solver on television, who makes us feel like great things are possible. Like a president should.

Each in their own ways, and for very different audiences, both Trump and Winfrey play variations on what we think we want in a president — somebody who will tell us a great story, and who exudes authoritative decisiveness.

The problem here is that the actual job of being president (understanding complex policy trade-offs) is very different from the public role of playing president (reveling in broad, inspirational generalizations).

At this point, Oprah has already downplayed the thought of herself running for president multiple times, and I truly hope it stays that way. The idea of celebrity presidents is kind of appalling, but it’s easy to see how we got here. The president is, in many ways, a figurehead who has to capture the public imagination. Think of the way Ronald Reagan steamrolled through his elections or even how no-one could hold a candle to Barack Obama’s presence and charisma.

The author goes on to propose a system where a given political party not only makes presidential nominations official at party conventions, but they will also collaboratively assemble a Cabinet for their potential candidate. Then, when the general election ramps up, people are not voting for a single person; they are voting for an administration. While this may never happens, it’s an interesting take on how we move our public discourse back to issues that really matter rather than get caught up in cults of personality.


John Gruber Reviews the HomePod

Daring Fireball: HomePod

Audio quality is what Apple is hanging HomePod’s hat on, and to my ears, they’ve nailed it. In a side-by-side comparison in a fairly representative residential room during a product briefing with Apple last week, HomePod sounded better than an Alexa-powered Sonos One ($199) or Google Home Max ($399), and so much better than a second-generation Amazon Echo ($89) that it proved only that HomePod and Echo are at opposing ends of the product category.

Apple claims two primary reasons for HomePod’s audio quality. First, an old-fashioned reason: high-quality hardware. Seven good tweeters arranged in a circle around the base, and one good woofer at the top. The second reason is decidedly, well, new-fashioned: dynamic features that adjust playback by analyzing both the music and the acoustics of the room.

During a small media tour of Apple’s audio lab in Cupertino last week, Kate Bergeron, a vice president of hardware engineering at Apple, told us that the HomePod project started “about six years ago” with the basic question: How much better could a small loudspeaker sound if an advanced A-series chip was put to use to dynamically analyze both the audio and the acoustics of the room?

Everything I’ve seen about HomePod says the same thing: the audio quality is great, and the other features are mediocre. This is Apple’s approach to new hardware. Pick a differentiating feature, and refine that one thing to perfection; then iterate the rest. The early Mac was all about the interface. iPod was all about ease-of-use. iPhone was all about the touchscreen. iPhone X was all about a better screen. AirPods were all about easy wireless, and HomePod is all about sound.

The challenge is that the market is not as patient as it once was. When the original iPhone didn’t have third-party apps, it was only an inconvenience. No other phone had a heathy app ecosystem either. In contrast, HomePod is entering an already saturated market with Sonos, Google Home, and Alexa. I feel that HomePod will initially sell well, but continued sales will hinge on how quickly Apple can iterate and add features. For example, I find it somewhat unbelievable the HomePod can’t fall back to simply being a great Bluetooth speaker for those not in Apple’s ecosystem.

I highly recommend reading the rest of John’s review. He’s extremely thorough and is very honest about the capabilities and limitations of HomePod.