(Dis)Ingenuity

As of the time of this writing, Apple is on stage doing their dog and pony show where they’ve announced the “iPad Pro”:

  • 12.9″ screen
  • Detachable “Smart Keyboard”
  • A stylus called the “Pencil”

There’s other aspects of the device that will show up in spec sheets once their show is done, of course, but I don’t have them on hand right now. That’s OK: the nitty-gritty hardware specs are relative, but let’s talk about this gem:

I have to admit, that’s pretty amusing, even prescient, since Steve Jobs hated the idea of a stylus. But it’s also very sad, and very disconcerting because it’s true: there’s a contingent out there, possibly a very large contingent, that will find no irony in that comic. To them, the Surface will always be a clone of the iPad, even when the iPad Pro has clearly cloned features of the Surface.

In some ways, there’s a parallel between Apple and Nintendo. At first glance, both companies seem to march to their own drummers, doing what they believe to be great and innovative things that people don’t know they want because they’re steeped in mediocrity. Following the pack is something that both companies want us to believe they are against.

But there’s a difference in the approach of each company. Nintendo introduced the Wii when other companies were beefing up the processing and graphics hardware. They shied away from always online and relied on friend codes. They wholeheartedly support handheld gaming with the 3DS, even though a lot of people never use the 3D features. Nintendo does different and doesn’t really go out of their way to explain themselves except to say that they do things their way because they want to, and that’s a good a reason as any.

Apple, on the other hand, wants you to know that they’re different. In fact, they hold these media circuses so that you don’t forget it and so there’s no ambiguity that Apple is not Google, not Microsoft, not Dell, not HP. They open with financial and sales reports. They flash products on a massive screen with minimal clutter. They present feel-good video and image montages over acoustic indie rock soundtracks to capture the attention of the trendsetters who are into those kinds of things. If Tim Cooke delivered his presentation while swinging from a trapeze over a pool of flaming lava, I don’t think people would consider it to be out of place. It’s a show for a show’s sake, but also serves the purpose to frame their actual product announcements within the bounds of a spectacle. If you just want to learn about a product, go to CES and be among the common, sweaty masses. If you want to feel like you’re investing in a piece of The Miracle, then ascend and buy Apple.

Apple’s not that different, though, as you can see if you hold up an iPad Pro next to a Microsoft Surface. There’s the precision stylus. There’s the detachable, fold-over keyboard. If the iPad Pro had been announced to have a collapsible kickstand it wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow, except in appreciation of Apple’s apparent design savvy. No one from Apple would ever acknowledge that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, or that they’re imitating at all. On the flip-side, Apple would never claim that they’ve cut their features from whole cloth, because doing so would be considered bad form since it’s no secret that the Surface exists. The good news for Apple is that they doesn’t have to admit or deny anything. The hardcore Apple fans might not even acknowledge the existence of the Surface, allowing them to vehemently argue on Apple’s behalf that they did invent the stylus and the flip keyboard cover. The more moderate iFans will simply claim “so what?” because “Apple has surely done a better job with these features because look how popular the iPad is compared to the Surface”, a conclusion regarding two products with similar features which aren’t even congruent in time. There’s already op-eds claiming that now that Office on the iPad Pro is a first-tier application, there’s “even less” of a reason to invest in a Surface. It’s like to many, the field is up for grabs until Apple decides to step foot on the soil, and then the battle is instantly over. No contest, even if Apple beats their opponents with their very own weapons which have gone from “so what” to “oh mah gawd best thing ever!

By doing what they’ve done — basically, copying a few of the best concepts that the Surface advertises — Apple has both admitted and not admitted that maybe they’re not always overflowing with great and magical ideas. But they also don’t care, because people won’t care except to release pent up snark and irritation with Apple (a la this post). If it has an Apple logo on it, it’s automatically vaulted above and beyond all other offerings. At worst, those other offerings will be derided as the copies, and that’s the level that really bugs me. In the end, it’s all inconsequential: use what you like and what works for you, but for crying out loud, give credit where credit is due and don’t leave a blank space where that credit would reside so your rabid fans can fill it with their unbound love for your brand and do your dirty work for you.

Do What You Love

Sometimes platitudes work; sometimes they’re not worth the paper they’re written on (or the breath they’re spoken with).

Case in point: “Do what you love”. This is a phase whose gravity is the greatest when directed at recently graduated high school seniors or starry-eyed college students.  Expecting kids to decide on their vocation with nothing but the equivalent of a handful of pamphlets to help them make up their minds, the advice to “do what you love” seems less like something fit for embroidery and more like an epiphany. Why wouldn’t you dedicate your life to something that you love doing? Why would you subject yourself to spend your life — your only life — doing anything but what makes you happy?

There’s two problems with this. The first is that we can’t all be sleep-study, ice cream testing Netflix QA subjects. Humanity has been spending the past several hundred years working towards a goal of making life increasingly easier for itself, but there’s still a whole lot of shit-work (relatively) that needs to be done. Things like making sure the trains run on time (literally), or that sewage is routed and dealt with, or that kids get their shots, or that cars are made available for sale, or that bread is baked, floors are cleaned, shelves are stocked, airplanes reach their destinations, nations are defended, A/C  units are in working order, and a billion other jobs that get done but which we never realize are actual jobs. Did you ever stop to think that somewhere, someone is making ball-bearings? Or the plastic bristles that make a broom more than just something you could use to play shuffleboard? People do those things, but consider this: Who the hell grows up wanting to be the man or woman who makes broom bristles?

The second problem is that when you do what you love to do, you fly dangerously close to the sun. When you get that close to the sun you may feel all nice and warm, but you also run the risk of burnout. Doing what you love is really only a small percentage of the greeting card. It comes with an implied asterisk that is so implied that no one ever really considers it to be there at all.

What you do is important. Where and how you do it is even more important still. For example, when I was doing desktop support for a national health insurance company, I spent a lot of my free time building web sites. I built blogs before the word “blog” was a thing. I worked with API systems before there was REST and JSON and fancy stuff like that. I fought (and lost, sadly) legal internet battles over domain names. I loved it. It was awesome. I loved it so much that when I had the chance to do what I loved, I took it without hesitation.

I think that was probably the biggest mistake of my life. I now loathe web development. It’s a cancer in my life. There is absolutely nothing enjoyable about it, but the kicker is that I know exactly why, and it’s not because web development has changed in any negative way. It’s the association based on where and how I do it that’s totally ruined any and all enjoyment for me. I’m not a business-minded person; I’m a technical person, which means that I’m smart enough to know that going into business for myself is guaranteed to end in unmitigated disaster. That means I need to work for someone else. Web development isn’t all done with Nerf guns and open-concept office space; I’m sure that the majority of the sites you see on the Internet (and the under-the-water part of the iceberg representing all the sites you will never see) are built under corporate auspices, and we know how corporations are almost universally poison to the kind of processes that people usually think about when they think of “web development”. The reality is that, like anything else, doing design and development for a corporation involves hands on a keyboard. That’s it. Dictates come from a committee that knows little to nothing about what you do, and doesn’t care. Designs are dictated by the marketing department, with a fuck-all towards actual usability. Got a great idea on how to make the site as awesome as all the hipster design and development wonks in San Francisco are espousing? Tough shit. Boring forms and corporate colors are the limits of your creativity.

That’s to be expected, though, right? Corporate culture is so anti-excitement that the best you can hope for is to be able to say that you’re employed by this time next year. But a lot of the process of learning comes from doing and experimenting and in feeding off the energy of like-minded individuals. Tech people love learning new shit, but unless you’re lucky enough to win the “where you live” lottery and get a job for the 0.000001% of those hip companies you hear about at disproportionate rate, your continuing education is limited to what you can swing on your out-of-work time. This is why “doing what you love” is such pathetic advice. We can’t all do what we love, and often times when we find out how we can, we have to accept that doing it means doing it in a soul-crushing environment that drives us to hate what we love not because what we love or love about it has changed, but because having to do it day in day out in a suffocating environment extracts all of the joy from it.

So find something else to love? That’s about as overly simplistic as “do what you love”. There’s a Rubicon everyone crosses in their professional career which makes it next to impossible make such a massive change. The will may be there, but it’s not just changing a job like you do in high-school; it’s changing a career that you spent years and maybe even decades immersed in. Not only would you probably need to go out for re-education, which takes dedication of time and money, but you’re fighting ageism, and would need to resign yourself to the fact that switching careers late in the game means starting over at an entry level position as the low man/woman on the totem pole. Pay is cut, benefits are slashed — and yet you’ve still got a family to support, bills to pay, and a life to lead that might not be able to weather such a drastic change.

So, suffer for eight hours a day, five days a week so you can continue to spend the weekends in the manner to which you’ve become accustomed, or jump ship and risk throwing away your actual life in the pursuit of something that could very well just end up being exactly what you were trying to get away from in the first place? Some people would say that the choice is not a choice at all: do what makes you happy. A closer inspection shows that, like the advice of “do what you love”, there is no guarantee that you will ever be happy with what you do. There’s too many external factors that you have no control over. If you’re lucky enough to do what you love in an environment that fosters your love of that thing, congratulations! You’ve come as close to winning the lottery as you can get without having bought a ticket. But the bulk of the world isn’t — can’t — be that lucky. We’re stuck doing the jobs that are needed to keep the world moving towards ever greater convenience for humanity, and where the best we can offer when asked how our jobs are going is that we’re really looking forward to retirement.

Side Project: Notecards

NoteCardsV0.01I really like Fantasy Grounds as a virtual tabletop program, but I like it more because it allows a user to create a module within the app. Most vtables are just a way to chat and share maps, but FG’s notecard-style word processor-light capabilities make it a great way to write and play from a module.

Because I like this design, I decided to take a stab at a general purpose app for taking notes, done in the FG style. This app currently allows you to create a new notebook, and then to add individual notecards to the book.

The hardest thing about it so far has been finding a way to link cards together. My original method was to allow the user to manually link text by highlighting it and then right clicking to select an existing note to link to. This turned out to be problematic because of the way the linking was done (I got the code from CodeProject). So instead, the linking is handled automatically, like Realm Works, by parsing the text in the note and comparing it to the titles of other notes in the system when the current note is saved. The problem with this is that you’ll need to define the cards you want to link to before you work on the card you want to link from, or else you’ll need to edit the card after the destination card has been created. Also, there’s no way to prevent text from auto-linking; I suppose it’s better to be overzealous than to have to guess and guess incorrectly.

So far, it’s working as intended, although it’s as ugly as a WinForms app can be. Ideally, I’d like the saves to sync with a central server so that a notebook can be accessed from anywhere. That’s actually the core of the reason why I wanted something like this, as Fantasy Grounds doesn’t have central storage. Plus, it’s a good way to store information, and while FG could be used, it’s “game centric” skinning means I can’t really use it at work, or for work related purposes.

When Video Attacks

I just received a customer satisfaction survey via email for the company that sold me the second iPhone replacement screen that I bought from them. The survey was very short and straightforward, consisting of clicking stars for “how satisfied I was” and “would recommend to others”, but at the end, they offered me the opportunity to leave some feedback in two forms. The first was a text box, and the second was a video testimonial. Their Flash widget would access my webcam (if I allowed it) and I could record myself hopefully showing the fine item I purchased, and gushing about how I loved the company that sold it to me.

Video is getting to be extremely annoying to me. I spend a lot of time on the Internet (it’s part of my job), and so a lot of that time is spent searching the Internet. Increasingly, I’m finding search results that lead to YouTube or other video service hosts. Technically, these results are 100% valid, but I’m finding that there are videos being recommended for the stupidest and most minor results imaginable. More often than not, my search could be answered in a single paragraph, so why should I have to sit through some amateur videographer stumbling through an explanation when a few words would have sufficed, and have been quicker and easier to index for the future?

Among my online circles, many people will use services like Twitch or Hitbox to stream video game play (AKA “Let’s Play”), but just as many in the same circles pop up like gophers to ask “why watch someone else play a game when you could play it yourself?” That’s a very valid question, and it’s one that is going to need a solid answer soon because game streaming is taking off at an exponential rate. A lot of games have it built in now, and both the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 have Twitch streaming included at the OS level.

Video has it’s place, but there’s a pretty large hump that a producer needs to get over before is should be considered as the first response in any situation. If all someone is going to do is stream exactly what they’re doing, the way they’re doing it, with no additional value added, then they might as well not do it at all. But far, far beyond that, people who can produce a slick video or stream, who can keep it interesting, and who can bring something more to the table than a paragraph or blog post could bring are going to be worth watching. In the case of watching gaming streams, I thought about it as the difference between watching the Super Bowl (exciting!), watching Little League baseball (notice how many parents are talking among themselves?), and getting your friends together to actually play a game of basketball (at my age, WAY more trouble than it’s worth). Good production values equals good view-ability, but only if you’re looking to put on a show. Doing it just because it’s a thing isn’t going to net any benefits, otherwise.

Twitter – A Rant

My “official” foray into social media began with Twitter. I don’t count my early blogging days because that was back before these push-button blogs existed, and the only way we had to really advertise was through web-rings. There really weren’t enough people writing or looking at blogs back then to consider them “social”, or even a network.

I met a lot of outstanding folks through Twitter back then, and the platform used to serve me well, until the lot of us realized that our interactions were hampered by the 140 character limit. We were beyond merely “interacting” and had crossed well into the realm of “discussion” on a regular basis, so we moved first to Google Buzz, and then Google Plus.

I’ve maintained my Twitter account for a few reasons. First and foremost, it’s fast. A lot of information comes to me through Twitter, and often times before I can find anything on any news website (makes verification difficult, but that’s the Internet for you!). Secondly, official accounts, when used correctly, can provide a wealth of information and customer service.

Recently, however, I’ve felt that Twitter is a crowd. Not a party, or a gathering, or a mob, but a crowd. Well behaved, for the most part, but when you stand in a crowd in the real world you’re in the middle of a bunch of cells, the majority of which have nothing to do with you, which don’t interact with you, and which you have no reason to interact with. Watching my Twitter stream flow by, I feel that I’m in the middle of other people’s conversations, and that’s not very useful to me. Twitter has taught me that it’s OK to inject oneself into an ongoing Twitter conversation, but not all conversations are worth jumping into. It seems that most of the conversations I see on Twitter these days are like this. Some are worse; some are just circle-jerks in which people will re-Tweet any Tweet in which they’re mentioned, or will insist on including the same people by name in their Tweets, creating a self-sustaining in-joke. Ideally, Twitter is meant to be open; a broadcast platform first, a direct address second, yet some folks use it like an old-fashioned party line in which they ignore the fact that there are actually other people outside of their little sewing circle.

One of my pet peeves is that Twitter is only useful when it actually conveys information. Some people, for one reason or another, are purposefully ambiguous, or are merely forgetful when passing along news. Vague allusions to potentially interesting or important news stories without a link to a source is the absolute worst transgression of this type: “I’ve got something to say about something, but I won’t provide you with the foundation that makes my point actually meaningful.” Sure, Twitter can field a lot of repeat information, but assuming that everyone who follows you already knows is just dumb; as fast as information moves, it doesn’t always move at the same speed in every direction.

Why don’t I quit the platform, then? I probably will, at least of any humans. It’s ironic that I feel that I get more benefit from following companies and brands than I do individuals. Like I said, any conversation of worth happens on G+, and if anything, Twitter is becoming more and more pithy, like Facebook and it’s user’s “begging for attention” posts.

Microsoft Surface Pro

As some folks know (probably the same 8 people who have read this blog), I picked up a Microsoft Surface Pro (128GB) yesterday. After my Nexus shattered (it would cost as much to buy a new one as it would to have Asus repair it), I was tablet-less, adrift in a sea of potential situations where my phone is out of reach, and when I knew something was happening somewhere…but what?

Joking aside, here’s a run-down.

What’s in the Box?

I didn’t take pictures, but there’s a power cable in two parts (power connector is proprietary, which blows), the tablet, the stylus, and a manual.

Physical Presence

The Surface is pretty hefty. I haven’t weighed it, but I’d say it’s about as hefty as Game of Thrones in hardcover. It’s also not svelt. I’d say it’s more akin to the first generation iPad than the current generation iPad. I realize that there’s a contingent out there for whom this will be a problem, but we’ll get to that.

The “VaporMg” case is…OK? I guess? The built-in kickstand is great, but it doesn’t make that cool sucking-sound that it did on stage in presentations. I was kind of disappointed by that. Normally, these devices aren’t very “user-maintenance friendly”, but I think this one takes the cake. Along the edge there’s a series of vents that allow the innards to expel heat, which isn’t something you think about a lot on a tablet, but we’ll get to that also.

There are a few ports and buttons around the edge. The top has a power button and a mic. The right side has headphones, volume rocker, and USB port. The left side has a MicroSD slot, power connector, and a port for external video connections. The power port is elongated, and has a series of magnetic connectors. The power doesn’t snap in physically; it’s just magnetically held there, but it’s a powerful hold. When not charging, the stylus’s rocker buttons (if you know Wacom stylus design) serve as a magnetic male to the female port. I wouldn’t trust the stylus to remain connected during a vigorous trip in a backpack, but it sure beats having the stylus loose on a messy desk. The bottom is given over to the keyboard connector. Again, another really powerful magnet keeps it in place. This time, it DOES make that satisfying sound when connected.

Turn It On

If you’ve used Windows 8 on a desktop system, then there is no difference in presentation between what you get here and what you get on the desk. Except you can smear fingerprints on this screen and have something to show for it. I showed it to a co-worker, and he made one swipe of the Modern UI before professing that he could already see that Windows 8 really does best on a touch device. Beyond that, I won’t review Windows 8. Short answer: I’ve used it with real effort, and I like it.

The screen is pretty bright. The glass was ultra-shiny when I unboxed it, and I debated whether or not to touch it (hint: I did) and foul the fine finish with my human-grease. The sound was just OK; Better than what you’d get out of most tablets, I think, but it’s not very loud. I watched a video last night, and I had to crank the both the Windows and the player’s volumes up to max to hear it. It does have Bluetooth, so I can connect my headset to it.

The resolution is 1900 X 1280, which is what is “standard” for PC’s these days. But I installed a game (Prison Architect) and it couldn’t handle the screen. I was unable to get it to fit properly. But I switched to a 1900×1280 wallpaper, and it fit perfectly.

Performance

It’s fast. There was a lot of talk about Surface RT being sluggish and all that, but I can’t speak to that. Swiping on the Pro is instant and gratifying. Sometimes a bit too instant. I’ve occasionally had to chase tiles around as the screen moved under my timid finger. Be direct. Be forceful. Stab that icon like you mean it!

The big sell for me was the stylus (no matter what St. Jobs claims). I’ve always wanted to get rid of paper: it’s transient, and uncategorizable without additional filing systems. Electronic note taking is great, but adding the layer of handwritten notes and drawings, and it’s basically all you could ask for. I still mourn the  assassination of the Courier (moment of silence…), but so far, the stylus is awesome. The digitizer was designed by Wacom, so it’s got pedigree, and while there’s still a delay between stroke and cursor, the fine tip of the stylus puts those marshmallow stylus poseurs on other tablets to shame. I can take a page of notes in OneNote, sync it to my SkyDrive, and review it on my PC. It’s my organizational Nirvana.

GAMES!

I actually haven’t gotten this far, would you believe? I did install Steam (Suck it, Newell!), though. As mentioned above, I tried Prison Architect with disastrous results, but it’s an indie game in alpha, so I didn’t expect much. This morning, I installed Civilization V because I was reminded that it had touch-screen controls. I fired it up and (after downloading the .NET framework) it had an option to run win Windows 8 mode with touch controls. The game seemed to run well; I was at work, and didn’t get to really PLAY the game, but I’ll check in with it later.

Aside from that, there’s whatever is on the Marketplace, which is to say “almost nothing”. But I have hope: Unity just released update 4.2 the other day, which has FREE support for porting to Windows 8 devices. Assuming it’s not too much work, I hope developers will flip that switch in their existing Unity games to get a piece of the Marketplace before it becomes a dumping ground like those other app stores.

Keyboard

I picked up the Typing keyboard, not the membrane-style Touch keyboard. It’s not tiny, and it’s not full-sized, so the placement of the hands is off. But it’s really nice. It comes with a built-in trackpad because, yes, despite being a touch-centric device, you can use a mouse pointer. The underside of the keyboard is a non-slip felt. No logo, no leatherette material. It’s pretty weak as a fashionable cover, but it’s a keyboard. Cut it some slack! And it protects the screen when not in use.

Problems?

I need to use it more to say for certain, but these come to mind.

Battery! At full charge, the meter says about 3 hours. That was in “performance mode”. Turning off the wifi, setting the power saver mode to something more conservative, remembering to put it to sleep instead of letting it time out…those measures should help, but this is not a marathon-use device on battery.

Proprietary power! EVERYTHING in my house uses micro USB connectors, except for the 3DS and this. That means I have to buy more power cables to have them where I need them, and to avoid having to pack up the power everywhere I go.

Survivability! I’ve never really been a “screen protector” kind of guy, but I’m deathly afraid for this device, mainly because it’s nature demands that it move about a lot, and also because of it’s price.

Fairy Fingers! I actually had it easier on the desktop than with touch when it came to organizing the Modern UI. Deleting and moving tiles is an exercise in patience, as you have to move the tile just a little bit before you can unsnap or delete it. And I still ca’t figure out how to delete pages in OneNote without resorting to the trackpad. You need some very small and nimble fingers to do most of this, I assume.

Windows 8! Nah, not really. Just hater-baiting, because this is really where Windows 8 feels right. Sadly, due to the price and entrenched perception, normally open-minded folks who claim to hate Windows 8 will never get to see it in it’s native environment like this.

Here’s the “More On That Later” Section

I was at Best Buy, standing around waiting to catch the eye of a sales person (you’d have a better time finding Bigfoot with your eyes closed in pitch dark in the middle of a forest) and I was checking out other options. I saw the Galaxy…something tablet. It has a stylus as well, and was 1/2 the price of the Surface Pro. There were also laptops, again at a fraction of the price of the Surface Pro. I caught myself thinking “why not just get one of those and save money?”

The reason is because both of those options only did half of what I wanted. The tablet did tablet stuff, but not desktop stuff. The laptops had a physical keyboard attached at all times, which makes touch-screen use difficult. Both were portable, but neither did everything. That was my main criteria, and my reason for going with the Pro.

But wait! The Internet cries. A laptop is more powerful! A tablet doesn’t have that shitty Windows 8 Modern UI! Well, you’re both right. Had I wanted horsepower, I would have gone with a laptop, but I have a desktop already. I couldn’t take notes or draw on a laptop, and it wouldn’t be easy to stand up, walk around, and still use the thing on the go. If I had wanted a consumption device, I would have gone with a tablet. But I’ve owned an iPad and a Nexus. I have owned an iPhone, a few Android phones, and a few Windows phones. I have enough consumption devices in my life right now that I needed a productivity device instead. Trading the full power of each to have both in one package is what I expected, and what I wanted. So I don’t mind that it’s an “underpowered” laptop or a “Windows 8” tablet.

One thing I’ve noticed over the months since Windows 8 and Surface have been released, any criticism of Surface as a brand have been solely focused on RT, with none of the praise that Pro deserves. I can’t speak to RT, but whenever a blogger on a tech site wanted a punch-line, it was always Surface RT. It would have been really easy for those kinds of people to have their contacts get them a Pro so they could have something worth talking about, but…nothing. It was like a conscious effort to ignore the positive side of the product line.

Pro is a solid piece of hardware that makes a decent home for a solid piece of software. Yes, the price is daunting, putting it out of reach of many who consider price over form and function, which is sad on all counts. Reduce this in price by $300-$500 and I bet you’d be hard pressed to find one on shelves. You can get cheaper laptops; you can get cheaper tablets; you can’t get both in one package for cheap, though. That’s kind of sad, because I think the Pro is “the” device that actually promises a potential death of desktop computing at the hands of mobility, not because it dumbs it down or because it’s portable, but because it’ll do what desktops do, and it’s portable with far less compromise than you get from other devices.