Issue 3 - February 2016
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FROM THE EDITOR'S DESK / by Jason Snell

Complex systems

Jason Snell

Six Colors readers may or may not know that I’m a bit of a fan of space and astronomy and science stuff, and have been since I was very young. I have a clear memory of sitting on a chair at the front of my first-grade classroom, boring all of my classmates by reading statistics out of a book about the Solar system. (I replicate this experience fortnightly on the Liftoff podcast.)

In any event, sometimes when I think about technology issues, I liken them to space-related issues. And so when Walt Mossberg posted his column complaining about the quality of Apple’s first-party software, I thought about the Space Shuttle.

Bear with me here.

The Space Shuttle is famously the “most complicated machine ever made,” with more than 2.5 million parts and 230 miles of wiring. And yet sometimes complexity is not a triumph, because complexity leads to complications. The Shuttle was ultimately so complex that it became incredibly expensive to use, took too much time to refurbish between missions, and had a 1.4 percent fatal accident rate. Its replacement spacecraft, while more advanced in many ways, hearken back to the previous generation of space capsules. Simpler designs from a simpler time, being adapted for the 21st century.

Software is complex, too. Operating systems most of all, though huge applications are similarly complex. Apple’s software is a creation of thousands of programmers over more than a decade. It’s bigger than any one person could possibly comprehend. A small alteration in one part of the code base could have a massive impact somewhere else.

Several times--most recently on an episode of John Gruber’s The Talk Show podcast--Apple executives have claimed that Apple software is actually more reliable than it has ever been. And I believe that, at least in terms of what Apple is measuring. Apple reports that, for example, the number of software crashes is dramatically less than it was five years ago. My experience certainly bears that out: On the Mac, especially, stuff crashes far less than it did before.

The challenge is in the stuff you don’t measure. My Mac’s contacts database, synced from Google, became unusable when I updated to OS X 10.11.2. My Apple TV now thinks its name is “Apple TV (2).” iTunes can lose its place in a playlist when you click on a link to the App Store in your browser. The custom icons on Safari’s new tabbed-favorites feature keep reappearing and disappearing. The list goes on. Some of these are annoyances, while others are actual productivity speed bumps. None of them are crashes--and that can make them hard to find.

Or take another piece of complex software from a company that isn’t Apple, Adobe’s Creative Cloud. Like many companies, Adobe cares about fixing software crashes, to the point where it includes a special piece of software to monitor crashes and report back details of those crashes to Adobe. (Apple has something very similar, which is how Apple’s Craig Federighi can make the claims he does about Apple’s software being more reliable than it was five years ago.) But what happens if there’s a bug in the crash-reporting software? In that case, your software might be preventing Macs from shutting down, as I discovered recently. That’s an invisible problem, just as deleting hidden files and folders would be.

Complex systems lead to complex problems, and it’s hard to see them, understand them, and fix them. Which brings me back to space tech. The hardware and software used in spaceships and space probes is ridiculously old and outdated by consumer standards. The Hubble Space Telescope, for example, is powered by an Intel 486 processor. One reason for this is hardening the hardware for the rigors of outer space takes time. But another is simply that if your computer breaks you can get it fixed, but if a computer on a spacecraft breaks, a mission costing tens or hundreds of millions of dollars could be ruined. As a result, the stuff running in space operations tends to be rock solid.

Why can’t our own technology be rock solid? The blame lies with all of us. Consumer technology buyers want new, better features and want them now. Companies compete with one another to provide those features faster than the competition. Speed is of the essence, quality… less so. Members of the tech press and developer community can (and often do) express a desire for Apple to back off the feature updates and focus on stability and reliability, but wouldn’t the press eat Apple alive if it announced that it wasn’t releasing major new updates to iOS and OS X this fall? A huge percentage of Apple’s business is tied to iPhone sales--can you imagine what would happen if Apple bypassed a new iPhone release for a year in order to focus on the stability of next year’s hardware?

This is not an attempt to suggest that there aren’t issues with Apple’s software quality. I absolutely believe the company has much more work to do on that front. I also believe that while they won’t say so publicly, Apple executives probably know all too well about the pain points in their software, and are working behind the scenes to make things better. But these are complex systems, and it will take time--and a massive amount of effort--to make them better.

[This piece was based, in part, on a conversation we had in a recent episode of the Six Colors Subscriber Podcast. Got a comment about this or something else? Drop me a line at jsnell@sixcolors.com.]

What I Use

By Dan Moren and Jason Snell

Jason's tea drawer

Subscriber Diane writes: You've both labeled yourselves as tea drinkers. Would you consider including your individual rituals (tea drinkers seem to have rituals) and tea varieties preferred?

Yes, Diane! Tea is a key ingredient in our workflows.

Dan’s Tea Workflow

I drink a lot of tea. Probably too much, really. As readily as any coffee junkie, I start every morning with a cup. Or two. Or, on those really tough days where your eyes just seem to want to close of their own accord, seven.

On most working mornings, I walk down to my local coffee shop and order a cup of loose-leaf English Breakfast. But if I’m at home, it’s all about the tea robot.

Okay, it’s probably not a robot, at least by the strict Siracusean definition. The Breville Tea Maker (a kind gift from Mr. Snell himself) is an electric kettle that also contains a metal basket which can be lowered automatically into the water once it’s boiled, and raised automatically once the tea has been steeped, thus simplifying the entire process. It also keeps tea warm for up to an hour after brewing, and I’ve found that I look for a second cup about 45 minutes after brewing, almost like clockwork.

Prior to the teabot’s arrival in my house, I generally used a one-cup brewing basket or a small teapot, which was a pain to clean. Truth be told, though, laziness often won out and I just used a tea bag, which I still do for decaf tea.

So, teas of choice. I’m a black tea guy about 95 percent of the time; I don’t go in much for green or herbal teas. My current top picks for loose-leaf, which I generally buy in large quantities from ESP Emporium, are China Black Gunpowder, which is definitely on the maltier side with a hint of smoke that’s not too overpowering; Russian Samovar, which is a great all-day tea; Scottish Breakfast, a slight variation on the classic Irish/English Breakfasts; and, on rarer occasions, Lapsang Souchong, which is very astringent and smokey—but some days, that’s just how you need to roll. Though I prefer loose leaf over tea bags, some days the convenience of a bag can’t be beat: I prefer Taylors of Harrogate’s Scottish Breakfast for a caffeinated blend, or their Decaffeinated Breakfast for after-dinner drinking. Bromley’s Decaffeinated is also a solid choice. (My favorite tea of all time, which is sadly no longer made, was from an Edinburgh department store, Jenners. Their Old Edinburgh Blend was just an amazing cup of tea which shall live on forever in my memory, if nowhere else.)

Jason’s Tea Workflow

It’s funny Dan mentioned European department stores. When I was in Stockholm I was instructed to go to the NK--Swedes apparently joke that it stands for “No Kroner,” sort of like the Whole Paycheck market down the street from my house--and descend to the lower floor for a fine selection of loose-leaf teas to bring home as gifts. And indeed, I brought some home to my wife and it was excellent stuff!

Back in those days we mostly drank tea from tea bags, with loose leaf tea saved for the weekend. My gateway drug was probably Celestial Seasonings Fast Lane, which I first encountered on a tour of the Celestial Seasonings factory in Colorado. (They have a storeroom there that you can’t stand in for more than a few seconds because it’s where they store all the mint--and the scent is absolutely overpowering.)

Anyway, at that point my wife and I got the English Breakfast religion, and that’s been my hot drink of choice ever since. She takes hers with milk, and I take mine with honey. Back in the Macworld days, senior editor Jon Seff and I were both honey tea people, so we created the “honey sharing accord,” in which we each pledged to offer honey to the other if one of us had run out of honey at the office. Jon started to take his tea without sweetening, breaking the accord. But I got custody of the remaining half of his plastic honey bear.

For years I drank British Breakfast from local teamaker Republic of Tea, available in both bags (for home and office) and loose leaf. Now that I’m at home with the Breville tea robot at my command, I’m all loose leaf, all the time. New Mexico Tea Company was a podcast sponsor a while ago, and they sent me a bunch of tea to try before I read the ad spots. I liked their black tea so much that it’s replaced the Republic of Tea stuff--and it’s a lot cheaper, to boot! I like the English Breakfast and the Irish Breakfast, and basically alternate between them. I buy them in bulk, a pound at a time.

In the afternoon I sometimes like to drink tea, too, especially on bitterly cold California winter days. (What?) Glenn Fleishman gifted me with a box of bag teas from Steven Smith Teamaker that are quite nice, including Lord Bergamot, Kandy, and my daughter’s favorite herbal, Meadow. But my go-to afternoon loose tea is Darjeeling Champagne from Argo Tea, which is seemingly unavailable right now! I went to Argo Tea with Jacqui Cheng, editor in chief of the Wirecutter, during a visit to Chicago. The United States is a coffee-drinking nation; it was really novel to be inside the tea version of Starbucks, which is sort of what Argo was. (When I visited Ireland last year, I discovered a country where black tea is apparently a peer of coffee? I was baffled and gratified.)

Anyway, in the evenings I prefer to drink beer--ideally a porter--but when I’m cold and it’s too late for caffeinated tea, I’ll go back to the warm, comforting embrace of Celestial Seasonings Lemon Zinger. Long may it zing.

By Request: Future Tech

By Jason Snell

Her

A while ago Subscriber Dan wrote: I wish Apple could provide just-in-time information and requested information from the iPhone audibly perhaps via a Bluetooth ear bud. An audible approach could be less distracting in a number of environments.

Forgive me if you’ve heard this story before, but at Macworld Expo several years ago I saw Bill Atkinson, the creator of HyperCard, give a presentation about the future of computer interfaces, and he mentioned something quite similar to what Dan is describing. It has stuck with me because it seems like a logical way to interact with an artificial assistant without the weirdness of wearing special glasses or contacts.

If you’ve seen the movie “Her”--it’s very good, by the way--you’ve seen the extreme of this concept play out. Without spoiling what happens in the movie, “Her” is set in a world where people wear earpieces that connect to a digital assistant. The entire interface is like being on the phone--you speak and it listens and responds by speaking back to you.

What I like about this idea in general is that it seems much less intrusive to our existing social conventions. These days you can wear a hearing aid that’s essentially invisible, nestled down in your ear canal. And we’re also used to earbuds and headphones and the like sticking out of our ears. Surely it can’t be too long until companies like Apple and Google and Amazon can make a device you could stick in your ear that would connect to the Internet, speak to you, hear what you’re saying, and maybe even see the world around you. This is the ultimate promise of Siri and Alexa and Cortana and Google Now, really.

(The real drawback I see to this concept is the radiation itself: Sticking an Internet-connected device in your ear canal puts it pretty close to your brain; maybe it’s a dumber device that uses something like Bluetooth to talk to a more powerful radio in your pocket or on your wrist.)

Yes, in this scenario we’re all going to be standing around talking out loud to nobody, but is that much different from what we’re doing today?

Okay, so it may be that what we’re using now is what we’re going to end up using for centuries, only thinner and thinner until it’s just a thin sheet of glass like on the TV series “The Expanse.” (Another thing you should watch, by the way. The entire first season just ended, and it’s been renewed for a second season.)

The Expanse

But whenever I hear someone theorize that where we are is the end of the line, and things will not change from this point on, I will always bet that they’re wrong. I’m only 45 but I’ve seen this end-of-history argument too many times, and I’ve read a whole lot of old science fiction that shows just how wrong our expectations are about how much things can change. As Dr. Manhattan says in “Watchmen” (one of my favorite comic books of all time), “Nothing ever ends.” It just goes on and on and on…

As hard as it can be to envision how the cool technology of today could be seen as old, outmoded, and laughable, it will undeniably be seen as that--and probably sooner than you think. So as much as I appreciate “The Expanse’s” futuristic take on our current technology, it seems unlikely that we won’t be speaking to incredibly intelligent digital assistants in the future, at least as part of how we interact with the nearly inconceivable amount of computing power that will be available to everyone in the future.

The future doesn’t come all at once, though. It comes in increments. Apple and other tech companies get us there one product at a time. And we do our part as consumers by rejecting some ideas and embracing others, and (perhaps most interestingly) subverting the expectations of the products’ creators and using their tech in surprising ways. This is how the future is made, one plodding step at a time.

[Do you have a request for an article in Six Colors Magazine? Send it to jsnell@sixcolors.com and we'll consider it for the next issue.]

The Back Page / by Dan Moren

Depersonal Tech

Dan Moren

Personal technology: that’s the whole ballgame. As the years have gone by, our devices have gotten increasingly personal. We went from machines the size of a city block, to those that sat on our desk, to those that sat on our laps, to those that fit in our pocket, and now to those that strap on our wrist or we wear on our face.

In some ways it’s fitting that the Apple Watch is the current culmination of personal technology. After all, a century ago, the most complex piece of technology most people could carry with them was a watch, although one composed of intricate cogs and gears instead of silicon. We’ve essentially come full circle.

So now what? If the trend towards ever more personal devices continues, then it seems like the only ground left after wearables are things that we actually integrate into ourselves: contact lenses, implants, nano-technology, and so on. Those categories of devices will likely have a much higher threshold for adoption, though. Sure, you might be willing to use a smart contact lens if you’re inured to the process of sticking something into your eye, but as someone who hasn’t had that distinct pleasure yet, I feel like I’m probably going to pass.

That’s not to say those technologies won’t exist; I’m sure they will. If the success of the smartphone is any indication, people crave constant connection at their fingertips.

But it’s not without its risks, and I’m not just talking about health or regulation. Too much information and too much connectedness can definitely be a bad thing, especially when it takes our attention away from the people right in front of us.

If you think it’s bad enough when people pull out their phone or glance at their watch when you’re talking to them, how much worse is it going to be when you can’t even tell if they’re looking at you or not? I imagine an entire generation of kids constantly recording their interactions with others, then quickly replaying the buffer of the last five seconds when their parents ask in frustration “Are you even listening?” After all, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

So maybe there’s a point where technology gets just personal enough, not unlike the uncanny valley that affects robots and computer animation. That might be a controversial stance for a technology writer and enthusiast to take, but given all that’s been written recently about frustrations with Twitter, I think it’s clear that there is such a thing as technological overload. When technology gets too personal, we run the risk that it ends up depersonalizing us.

[You can reach Dan at dan@sixcolors.com.]

Stories you may have missed

Here are links to some of the more notable Six Colors stories from the last month.

Quick Tip: Retrieve a forgotten password for a Wi-Fi network

The secret is in the Keychain.

Quick Tip: Adjust startup sound volume

Let Dan helping his parents help you, too.

Wish List: Document security via Touch ID

Another place it would be great to have Touch ID support.

The mysterious case of the undead iMac

The game is afoot! The solution, unsurprising.

Exterminate… the shows?

The trouble with being a subscriber to a video service: Your shows vanish sometimes.

How Screen Sharing saved my bacon

Jason used Screen Sharing to fix a broken podcast.

Chartopia: More charts about Apple

Do you like charts? Here are a bunch.

Three more observations about Apple’s conference call

Jason's take on the Apple financial results.

Enter the clicky keyboard

Sorry, we can't hear you over the sound of Jason's typing.

iOS gestures you may not have known

It turns out that iPhones and iPads communicate better with gestures, just like people.

Thus ends the February 2016 issue of Six Colors Magazine. Send your feedback to jsnell@sixcolors.com. Feel free to pass this issue on to a friend or two if you like. If you're not a Six Colors subscriber and you're reading this, please subscribe!