Overlooked

I feel a rant coming on. Bear with me: it’s not political, nor does it have anything to do with television.

Recently, I was talking to an acquaintance about gadgets. He’s, well, let’s say, behind the times, technologically speaking. He’s got a computer, a five-year-old laptop, that he uses two or three times a month, mostly to do banking-related things. He does have a cell phone: it’s a flip-open model with a four line LCD display.

He told me the phone was on its last legs, and he was thinking about getting a smartphone to replace it. “Which would be better for someone like me, an Apple or a Samsung?”

And I realized the only possible answer was “Neither”.

Remember when the first iPhone came out? The idea of a touchscreen in a phone wasn’t exactly new, but the focus on ease of use and a consistent interface was. Learn to use one app–which took about five minutes–and you could use all of them. Granted, it was a limited selection, but that’s beside the point. They were simple and consistent.

Today, not so much. Want to delete something? Do you select it with a tap-and-hold or by tapping a selection indicator? Or do you first have to tap an Edit button, swipe to the left, or swipe right?

Let’s not even consider the number of times Apple has changed the way we get to the Control Center. Or the fact that there are two mutually-conflicting ways to change the font size on an iPhone.

Android is no better, whether you’re talking about “pure” Android or Samsung’s customized version. Has anybody ever figured out exactly how the Back button works?

And Google’s hands-off approach to the apps going into their store means every designer gets to come up with their own interface. Want to turn off the sound effects in that new game? Maybe there’s something in “Settings”. Or “Controls”. Maybe there’s a dedicated “Sound” menu–if you can find it.

There’s no way a rookie can jump in to a modern device and expect to use it without spending hours learning to do the most basic tasks. Be honest here and take a look at your phone. If you were seeing it for the first time, could you figure out how to call someone, hang up at the end of the call, and save the phone number so you could call them again?

I finally told my acquaintance to check into the phones marketed to seniors. They come with a strictly-curated list of apps designed to work together and work consistently. They’re simple and they work. They’re cheap, too.

And the stigma of using one is so great that nobody younger than seventy-five considers them as their first phone.

Year End Reminders

In this, the final blog post of 2019, I want to remind you of a couple of things.

First, change is inevitable.
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I believe the subject Lefty is discussing with Rhubarb is “If this is the dining room, why aren’t the hoomins giving us food?”

Second, technology advances.
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This shot of Lefty was taken with my work iPhone 11 Pro. Over my shoulder. Without being able to see the subject. (I’ll note that the photo is heavily cropped. Lefty was nowhere near the center of the frame. But it still came out rather nicely.)

And third, some truths are eternal.
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Just as the mound is sixty feet, six inches from the plate, the dining room heat vent is exclusively owned by Sachiko from November to May.

A very happy New Year to one and all. May 2020 be better for you and yours than 2019. See you when the arbitrary astronomical odometer kicks over the tens place.

History Repeats

I’ve got to give up swearing off things. It just backfires.

For example, when I was in grad school, far too many decades ago for comfortable remembrance, I lived in Austin, Texas. No offense intended to anyone who thinks of the place fondly, but it wasn’t for me. After I graduated, I left Texas cheerfully, and swore a mighty oath never to return.

So what happened?

My previous job–the one I left to devote myself to writing–required me to visit Texas several times a year.

The universe is a perverse place.

There are plenty of other examples, but I chose that one for a reason. You see, that previous job required me to carry an iPhone.

I’m not really an iPhone guy. I use ’em. I appreciate the effort that goes into the design, and despite my usual snarky comments about the annual WWDC, I do respect the thought that Apple puts into their devices and their software development process.

But, given the choice, I prefer Android*. I didn’t have a choice. There were sound, logical reasons why it had to be an iPhone. And, since I didn’t want to put my contacts, messages, and other private information on a work device, I wound up carrying two phones: a work iPhone and a personal Android.

* Actually, given a totally free choice, I’d go for a pre-smartphone RIM device, from before they became Blackberry. But I digress.

It was a pain in the neck. Literally. Holster technology was primitive, so I usually carried the iPhone in my shirt pocket, and I suspect the unbalanced pressure on my neck contributed to the development of left shoulder issues that plague me to this day.

It was a figurative pain as well. Double entry of contacts. Having to mute two phones every time I went to a meeting–or a movie. Juggling twice as many chargers. And so on. When I left that job, I swore a mighty oath not to carry two phones again.

You see where this is going, right? Fast forward a few years, and guess what?

No, my new job isn’t sending me to Austin. Try to keep up. My new job requires me to carry an iPhone.

Holster technology has improved. I can put one phone on each hip and preserve some kind of balance–though it does make me look a bit like an Old Western gunslinger.

Or I could try to adapt to wearing the phones vertically and put them both on one side. I’m leery of unbalancing myself that much, though. Between the weight of the phones, their cases, and the holster mechanism, we’re talking several pounds of ongoing pressure on my hip.

Any of my massage-and-or-yoga-aware readers want to chime in with suggestions?

The iPhone, by the way, is a new requirement. I just received it yesterday and I’m still trying to get it set up. Preliminary indications are that my Apple ID* is corrupted or not properly set up at Apple. Joy.

* For those of you not in the know*, the Apple ID is an account at Apple which is critical to using some Apple services with the phone. Nothing important, of course, just such minor things as backing up data to the cloud; installing apps; and using iMessage, Facetime, and Find My iPhone. Trivia.

* For those of you in the know, I can use stand-alone services tied to the Apple ID, such as the App Store, but anything that touches iCloud, such as setting up the phone, fails with an “invalid account or password” error. It’s not the phone that’s at fault: I get similar errors logging into iCloud.com with a web browser, but other web-based Apple service are fine. Including the Apple ID site for creating and changing IDs.

So it’s a bit of an adventure. I’ll spare you the saga of getting basic phone service working–let’s just say that Verizon needs to put some serious thought into their user interface. Maybe they can contract it out to Apple.

The universe’s overall message is clear.

You’ve heard the saying “Be careful what you wish for, because you might get it”? I’m here to tell you that you’re in far more danger of getting what you explicitly don’t wish for.

SAST 15

Some days a Short Attention Span Theater is the only option.

The West Coast Ragtime Festival is this weekend. Not much notice, I realize, but stuff happened. Nothing worthy of a story, unfortunately.

It looks like a good group of performers are on the schedule this year. There are several young players, and there are plenty of new faces among the adult performers I’m already familiar with.

The usual caveats about the unexpected apply, including the expected unexpected–this is California, Home of the Majestic PG&E Planned Power Outage and the Diabolical Unplanned Forest Fire–but I expect to be there all day Saturday and most of the day Sunday.

If you’re in the Sacramento area, drop by and say hello. Or, better yet, drop by and listen to some good music. Much more entertaining than hanging out with me*.

* Your Mileage May Vary, of course, but I feel obligated to exercise a little modesty, since the festival wasn’t organized to showcase my talents.

Moving on.

After some work-related delays and distractions and some purely writerly procrastination, I began work on the third draft of Demirep recently.

Yesterday, I reworked somewhere north of 5,000 words. I’ve always said that rewriting is faster and easier than writing* and Draft Three is the easiest one in my usual process. Even so, that’s a lot of words in one go, and it gives me hope that the book is on the right track.

* In some ways, it’s more fun, too. Finding the perfect word instead of the one that’s almost right is the good kind of challenge.

Draft Three is usually the one that goes to beta readers. That’s the real acid test for any book, of course: how does it resonate with people who weren’t involved in its conception? Will I be asking for beta readers? Probably. But not yet. This draft is still in the early stages, and I may yet decide it needs a major change of direction. Stay tuned.

Moving on again, this time to something that’s not all about me.

Perhaps you’ve heard that Apple just announced a line of 16 inch MacBook Pro notebooks.

The timing is odd. MacBook Pros are designed for a small group of professionals–tech, video, and other such industries that need big power on the go–not the general consumer market. There’s no real need to launch the line during the holiday season. Wouldn’t it have made more sense to hold off until next month and launch them alongside the new Mac Pro workstation? Let people spend their Christmas gift money on the consumer devices and then bring out the pro goodies. Aside from those people buying them in pallet loads for businesses, almost anyone buying any Pro product from Apple is going to be financing the purchase, so they don’t need that holiday cash in hand, right?

But then, I’m clearly not a marketing expert. I’m sure Apple has plenty of expertise in that area and neither wants nor needs my advice.

In any case, new MacBook Pros look like great machines. Apple’s usual premium pricing applies, but still, $2800 will buy you a lot of computer. If you’re considering getting one, though, make sure your budget includes a wheeled computer case. Four pounds doesn’t sound like much, but schlepping it around for ten hours a day (Apple claims a ten or eleven hour battery life; these machines aren’t designed for a nine-to-five workday) will put a serious dent in your shoulder.

And finally…

Speaking of those planned blackouts for fire prevention, we’ve been lucky so far.

I’m probably jinxing us by saying this, but the first three blackouts all missed us. In at least one case, it was only by a few blocks, but blackouts are not one of those situations like horseshoes and hand grenades where “close” counts.

There’s a movement afoot to force PG&E to bury all of its power lines. The reasoning is that underground lines don’t cause fires, so there’s no need to shut off the power during high winds. That may be true–as far as I can tell, we don’t have data showing complete protection–but it’s not a total fix for all of PG&E’s woes.

Case in point: while we’ve avoided the planned shutoffs, we had an unplanned outage a couple of weeks ago thanks to a blown high tension line. An underground line.

We’re now in Day Six of PG&E digging up our street and sidewalk to get access to the line and, based on a conversation with some of the workers, the job is going to stretch into December and include at least one planned outage.

Burying the lines may make them safer–though, since this is California, let’s not forget about earth movements, both slides and quakes–but it does make them harder to repair.

And there are secondary effects of outages. Ones that apply regardless of whether a protracted blackout is planned or unplanned. How many stories have we heard recently about fires and deaths caused by improperly maintained or incorrectly used emergency generators?

Before we spend decades and billions of dollars burying power lines, let’s spend a bit of time considering all the implications and hidden costs, financial and otherwise.

Smile!

And here we go again.

Well, not immediately. But another round of furor over hidden cameras is likely on its way.

I can’t be the only person who remembers how much fuss there was when smartphone cameras got good enough to take pictures that were more than vague, fuzzy blobs.

Bans on phones in health club dressing rooms. Mandated “shutter” sounds. And, naturally, the debate over “creep shots,” which is still raging in Britain, years after pretty much the entire rest of the universe has agreed they should be criminalized.

As SlashGear reports, Apple is resurrecting the idea of putting a camera in a watch.

The kid’s “smartwatch” I got for Christmas a few years back has a camera. It’s a lousy camera, but it works. And, as SlashGear points out, it’s incredibly awkward–and obvious–to use. Unless you’re taking a picture of something directly in front of you at sternum level, you’re going to have to contort your wrist in a direction wrists were never intended to bend to aim it, and then hope you can press the shutter button without pushing the camera off target.

Mind you, kids are, generally speaking, much more flexible than I am. Your typical preteen likely would have no trouble at all using the darn thing.

But even on the wrist of a child, it’s still very obvious when they’re taking a picture.

Apple’s patented notion of putting the camera in the watch band will make it possible to snap a picture subtly. And, don’t forget that you probably wouldn’t have to press anything to trigger the shot. After all, Siri is listening through your AirPods. Twist the watch band a little and mutter, “Hey, Siri, take a creep shot,” and it’s done.

Okay, maybe I’m blowing this out of proportion. We can trust Apple with our privacy, right? Maybe they’ll build in a mega-bright red LED that flashes whenever the camera is operated.

Or perhaps they’ll sell an “Apple Watch Camera Blocker”. The Atlantic noted a couple of years ago that Apple had filed for a patent for a device that would use “infrared rays to force iPhone cameras to shut off”.

If Apple built the Watch-Blocker into the iPhone XII, releasing it at the same time as the Apple Watch 6 with iStrapCamera, how many people would plunk down $1500 for the phone?

When I reviewed my Kidizoom watch, I said “Ball’s in your court, Apple.”

Looks like Apple is finally getting ready to swing their racquet.

WWDC 2019

I’m back from Sedalia, mostly caught up on everything that’s been going on in the world while I’ve been out of touch, and feeling guilty about not having commented on Apple’s WWDC last year. I’m sure we can all agree that Apple’s plans for the coming year are far more important than anything else that’s happening (Trade tarifs? Disaster relief? What are those?), so I’ll start there.

Of course, the keynote address, which is where I get all my information was Monday–while I was driving halfway across Missouri–so you’ve probably seen some of this in your local newspapers already. But that’s okay. The extra days should allow me to give a more nuanced, thoughtful take on the story.

And if you believe that, perhaps I can interest you in my new business: selling snowplows to airports in the tropics. (Don’t laugh. Turns out snowplows are the most efficient way known to humanity for clearing storm debris off of airport runways.)

Anyway, the opening announcement gave quick references to Apple News+, Apple Arcade (later this year), Apple Card (later this summer), and Apple TV+ (this fall). Three of the four are extensions to existing things. The fourth? Dunno about you, but I’m not sure I’m ready to have the credit card reinvented. Didn’t it cause enough trouble the first time it was invented?

Moving on.

tvOS, which powers the Apple TV boxes is getting a facelift with a new homescreen. It’s also going to handle Apple Music, and games in the Apple Arcade will support controllers from your PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. That’s a nice ecumenical gesture on Apple’s part. Gamers can be passionate about the One True Controller, so there’s a lot of goodwill in letting them bring their favorite to an otherwise tightly controlled garden.

Moving on.

Apple Watches are also getting enhancements, of course. New faces. Chimes that include physical taps–I like this idea, actually. It should cut down on the “Who’s phone just rang?” dance. Better audio support–voice memos and audio books. A calculator (really? It took five iterations of the Apple Watch to bring out a calculator?) App Store support, so you can still buy apps even if you leave your phone in your backpack.

Naturally, there are also updates to the health features. Progress tracking over the past ninety days with nags if you’re falling behind on your goals. I’m sure those will be amazingly persuasive to get off our lazy behinds and exercise harder.

Hey, I like this one: Apple Watch will monitor noise levels and alert you if they reach levels that could damage your hearing. An actual use case for those new chimes, since you probably won’t be able to hear the old ones. Good to know my watch will be ready to distract me from the music at the next BABYMETAL concert.

Cycle tracking. That one sounds useful. Useful enough that they’re making it available in iOS so even women without an Apple Watch can get the benefits. It looks like initial features are somewhat limited, but I expect enhancements over the next few iterations of watchOS.

And, of course, it wouldn’t be WWDC without the announcement of new Watch bands–including a Pride edition.

Moving on.

IOS 13 will, of course, be much faster than the ancient iOS 12 that came out last year. Apps will download faster, install faster, and launch faster. One hopes they’ll also run faster once they’re launched, but Apple was curiously quiet about that aspect.

There’s a Dark Mode. For all you fans of Darth Vader, I suppose. Personally, I dislike Dark Mode: I find white text on a black background hard to read. But different strokes. Enjoy.

The keyboard now supports swiping. Only about five years behind Google on that one. But, to be fair, Google’s swiped more than a few tricks from Apple during those five years.

Lots of changes in the default apps around text formatting and image handling. Maps are updated with more detail and more 3D geometry. Integration with street level photographs (more maintenance of feature parity with Google).

More enhancements to privacy. One-time permissions: you can require an app to ask you every time it wants access to your location. (I wonder if that applies to Apple’s own apps, or if it’s only for third-party apps.) If you give it blanket permission, Apple will send you reports on what the app knows. They’re also making it harder for apps to use Bluetooth and Wi-Fi information to figure out your location. That’s a nice improvement that’s going to piss off a lot of app makers who haven’t been able to come up with a good excuse to ask for location data.

Here’s a cool one: Apple is introducing a “Sign in with Apple” feature that uses Face ID to authenticate you to websites and apps. The cool part is that it can create single-use email addresses that you can give to websites that require an address. The site never sees your real email address, and Apple will automatically forward messages from the fake address to the real one. Hopefully it’ll also work the other way, so if you reply to an email from a company, it’ll go out under the fake address.

Homekit now supports handling video (motion detection, alerts, and all the other good stuff) on your device instead of sending everything to the cloud. That’s a big win.

A few more quickies: more flexible memoji, if that’s your thing. Improvements to photo taking and editing. Adding camera filters to video. Automatic categorization of photos and AI-generated displays that try to be context-aware. (I suspect the key word there is “try”.)

Moving on.

More capable Siri in AirPods. Allowing temporary pairing of AirPods (so you can share your audio with somebody for the length of a song or a movie and not have them automatically able to hear everything you do from then on.) Handing audio from iPhone to HomePod and vice-versa. Access to streaming radio stations. HomePod can recognize individuals and give them different experiences.

The big change is that iPads are going to get a customized version of iOS, inevitably called iPadOS. Lots of tweaks to take advantage of the larger screen, like widgets on the home screen. Apps can have multiple windows open at once. I love that idea: being able to have two Word documents open side by side, for example, is a major productivity booster when editing.

Support in the Files app for USB drives and SD cards. That’s great for photos, when you want to import or export just a few images without copying the entire photo roll over Wi-Fi.

Safari on iPads can now get the desktop version of a site instead of the mobile version.

Lots of tweaks to editing as well, mostly around three-finger gestures for copy/paste/undo.

I have to wonder if all these goodies are going to make it onto all the supported iPads–for that matter, will iPadOS be available to older iPads at all?

Moving on.

There’s a new Mac Pro. Hugely powerful and much more expandable than the previous version. And a matching monitor. Would you believe 32-inch, 6016×3384 display? Believe it.

Believe the price tags, too. The Mac Pro starts at $6,000 and goes up from there. Which is actually not out of line for it’s capabilities. Want that lovely monitor (or several of them–supposedly the Pro can use up to six of them at once)? Plan on spending $5,000 for each of those. (Again, not unreasonable for the feature set.) Oh, and don’t forget the $999 for the monitor stand. Now that’s just ridiculous. Yes, the stand can raise and lower the monitor, tilt it, and rotate it to portrait mode. But there are plenty of third-party monitor stands that will do all the same things for a tenth of the price.

New year, new operating system. This year’s version of macOS is “Catalina”.

Thankfully, iTunes is getting broken up into three separate programs. One to handle music, one for podcasts, and one for video. That should make life considerably simpler for anyone who only does music, and it should end the current view of TV programs and movies as music that happens to have an inconvenient video track.

Got an iPad and a Mac? Of course you do; doesn’t everyone? With Catalina, you’ll be able to use the iPad as an external monitor for the Mac. That’s been possible with third-party apps, but now it’ll be built into the OS. And yes, it’ll support all of the iPads’ touch functionality, including Apple Pencil, and it’ll do it over Wi-Fi. Very handy, indeed.

Voice control. Find My Mac. Activation lock. For developers, a path to quickly convert iPad apps to Mac apps.

Actually, quite a lot for developers. Much convergence between iOS and macOS. Though the claims that companies will be able to do apps that support all Apple products without adding specialized developers sound suspect. Maybe they won’t need separate Mac and iPhone teams, but they’re still going to need the people–and my cynical side suggests that any developer savings will be totally wiped out by the need for more QA folk who can test cross-platform.

Bottom line here is that, unlike the last couple of years, Apple has promised some things that sound genuinely exciting. Not necessarily revolutionary, but well worth having if you’re in the Apple infrastructure. Just don’t get your hopes high for a continuation next year. Odds are good that 2020 will be a year of minor tweaks and enhancements to the goodies that show up this fall.

SAST 12

Welcome to the twelfth production of Short Attention Span Theater. This installment is brought to you, not by hay fever and inconveniently draped felines, but by Like Herding Cats. I’m deeply enmeshed in what I hope will be the final revision, and don’t want to take the time to develop complete thoughts about much of anything right now.

Act One: Apple introduced new hardware earlier this week. No, not iPhones; that was back in September. The latest goodies-to-be are a new MacBook Air, a new iPad Pro, and a new Mac Mini.

I don’t have any particularly strong feelings about the laptop and tablet. I’ve never used a MacBook of any sort, and while the iPad Pro sounds like a nice bit of gear, it’s way to rich for my wallet–and massively overpowered for my tablet needs.

That said, I do appreciate Apple replacing the iPad Pro’s Lightening Port with a USB-C port. One less bit of proprietary gear, and more access to existing third-party hardware.

As for the Mini, I’ve got mixed feelings there. I’ve got an original Mac Mini around here someplace. It’s not in use because its power supply has wandered off, but it was a nice piece of kit in its day. I’m glad to see Apple hasn’t killed off the line, but I’m sad to see that they’re changing its emphasis.

The original point of the Mini was to bring in non-Apple users. As such, it was cheap. Cheap to the point of almost entirely forgoing the usual Apple markup. It seems, however, that Apple has decided the Mini has attracted all the Windows users it’s going to, and so they’ve decided to make it a more “professional” machine.

In case you didn’t realize it, in the tech industry, the word professional means “more expensive”. As such, the price has gone up $300. It’s still a good deal for the price, but it’s not as good a deal as it used to be.

Act Two: Our darling president’s latest threatpromise has been getting a lot of press, as usual. No, not that one. No, not that one either. I mean the one about wiping out birthright citizenship.

All the hysterical responses to the effect of “He can’t do that! It’s unconstitutional!” are missing the point.

First of all, “unconstitutional” is what the Supreme Court says it is. If you believe the current lineup of justices is a threat to abortion rights, why would you think they’d be any less of a threat to citizenship?

Secondly, Trump doesn’t care whether he can “do it”. It’s a distraction. Just the latest of many. When was the last time you saw any news about Russian interference in the upcoming election?

Third, nobody can actually stop him from issuing a proclamationan executive order. He may well go ahead and do it, on the theory that even if it doesn’t squeeze past the Supreme Court, it’ll be tied up there for months, leaving everyone scared–the administration’s preferred mental state–and providing the Republicans with the chance to spin the battle as “Democrats are soft on immigration.”

Third-and-a-halfth, if there is an executive order, you can be sure it’ll be written to exclude children whose parents are from countries that aren’t on Trump’s shit list. Because there’s nothing the administration would like better than than to divide the opposition by carving out a block of people who are going to feel like they dodged a bullet. Those are the ones who’ll be shouting the loudest about how Trump’s not such a bad guy after all…

Act Three: We end this production on a cheerier note.

The Austin Lounge Lizards are still doing their thing, thirty-eight years down the road (only eighteen years less than the Rolling Stones!)

Maggie and I went to last night’s show at the Freight and Salvage* in Berkeley. The band’s had a line-up change since the last time we saw them, which suggests that it’s been too long since we last went to one of their shows. It happens. The current group seems solid, though.

* Temporarily renamed the “Fright and Savage”. Though we were disappointed to see that the e and l on their neon sigh were left uncovered.

Granted, there were a few rough edges here and there, but to be fair, it’s probably been two decades or more since some of those songs were on their setlist.

The Lizards have tried out a number of things over the years–you can get damn stale doing the same thing over and over (Rolling Stones, anyone?)–including flirtations with folk, gospel, rap, and a few other styles that are currently eluding me.

The current experiment is with medleys, pairing (and sometimes tripling and quadling) selections from their back catalog with songs from across the rock and roll era–all in their inimitable bluegrass style. By and large, it works. I didn’t know the world needed a bluegrass rendition of Radiohead’s “Creep,” but now that we have one, I’m convinced we’re all better for the experience. (For the record, “Creep” goes very nicely with “Shallow End of the Gene Pool,” an instrumental take on The Stones’ “Paint It, Black,” and The Doors’ “When You’re Strange.”)

The current California mini-tour hits Winters tonight, Felton tomorrow, Culver City on Saturday, and winds up with an Election Night show in Houston, TX. Yeah, I know Houston isn’t in California–and thank all the deities for that–but that’s the Lizards for you. If you can make one of the shows, do it. Show some support for an American icon.

Apple Hardware 2018

Hey, guess what? That’s right, it’s new Apple mobile technology announcements.

Note the lack of an exclamation point at the end of the previous sentence. ‘Cause really, I’m finding it increasingly difficult to get excited about Apple’s hardware, especially in the mobile space.

Considering that the most exciting bit of news they could come up with to kick off their event is that the Apple Watch is “the number one watch in the world,” I have to figure even Apple is finding it hard to get excited about their own products.

There’s a heck of a lot of marketing gimmickry in that claim, by the way. Number one by what measure? Are we including all the different versions and variations from launch, or just the current models? What time period? And why do we care, anyway? Apple isn’t (officially) a watch company after all.

Anyway, yes, there’s a new set of Apple Watches coming: the Series 4. They’re about a third bigger than last year’s watches. Does this sound familiar? First we have smartphones getting bigger and bigger, to the point where they’re inconvenient to pull out for a quick look. So we get smart watches. Which are now getting bigger and bigger.

What happens when your watch gets too big for your wrist? Will we see a return of the pocketwatch? I rather hope so, actually. Though that chain across my chest could be a bit awkward at times.

Anyway, that extra space can be used to display all sorts of information: sports scores, exercise data, or Apple’s favorite app, the one that reminds you to alternate inhalation and exhalation.

The new CPU is so fast it’ll display a minute in thirty seconds. (That is what “twice as fast” means, right?)

One bit of actually useful functionality: the Series 4 watches can detect the “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” scenario and call your emergency contact. It’s too bad you have to buy a $500 watch* to get the feature, because it’s literally lifesaving.

* Yes, you can get a Series 4 for $399, but those variants don’t have cellular capability. To make calls, you’re looking at a minimum of $499. Or get last year’s Series 3 for a measly $279–though it won’t have the fall-detection capability.

On a somewhat related note, the watch will also alert you if your heart rate is too slow. Better take the watch off before your afternoon nap. (It’ll also alert you to signs of atrial fibrillation and let you take your own ECG. I’m less enthusiastic about these features. FDA clearance or no, they seem designed to appeal to the hypochondriac in us all.)

Moving on.

The iPhone X is now, Apple claims, the number one smartphone in the world. Again, no indication of how they’re measuring that. So, this being an alternate year, we’re getting the iPhone Xs.

Which is just like the iPhone X, but with a bigger screen and smaller bezels so the device as a whole is smaller. Unless, of course, you opt for the iPhone Xs Max, which has the largest iPhone screen ever. Remember what I said about phones getting bigger and bigger?

Look, I like my Pixel 2 XL, but I freely admit it’s big. Well designed to be usable at that size, and I’m sure the same is true of the Xs Max, but it can still be awkward. The Max is even larger than my XL.

Of course, the new phones are faster than last year’s. 15% for the CPU (and 40% lower power draw), 50% for the GPU. Better cameras (dual cameras on the back, and a single, faster camera on the front.) Other fasters–networking, for example–and tweaks, such as dual-sim capability. But really, couldn’t you have guessed that this year’s phones would be bigger and faster than last year’s?

Well, except for the iPhone XR. It’s a bit smaller than the iPhone 8 Plus (albeit with a larger screen). Think last year’s iPhone X, but a bit smaller and cheaper. Slightly.

The XR starts at $749, the Xs at $999, and the Xs Max at $1099. Of course, that means price cuts on Apple’s older phones. You’ll be able to pick up an iPhone 8 for a mere $599, or if you’re a real cheapskate, you can get an iPhone 7 for as little as $449. No more iPhone 6s (or original X, for that matter).

So, are you more excited about Apple’s new hardware than I am? You couldn’t be less, that’s for sure.

Nanny Speaks

A final thought on Spectre and Meltdown: while you’re updating your systems, don’t forget about your video cards. Modern cards have powerful processors. Even if the card itself isn’t vulnerable, there could be interactions between the video card and the main CPU that could be exploited. Nvidia is currently releasing new drivers that eliminate at least one such vulnerability.

Moving on.

In the latest sign of the impending Collapse of Civilization, a couple of Apple’s shareholders, the California State Teachers Retirement System and Jana Partners, are demanding that Apple modify their products to avoid hurting children.

Let that sink in for a moment.

Okay, ready to continue. Yes, there is evidence that overuse of smartphones (or, I suspect more accurately, apps) can result in feelings of isolation, anxiety, and depression. But the key word there is “overuse”.

The groups say that because the iPhone is so successful, Apple has a responsibility to ensure they’re not abused.

Apparently, less-successful companies don’t have a similar responsibility to their users, but leave that aside.

Apple certainly doesn’t have an unfulfilled legal responsibility here. So I’m assuming the groups believe Apple’s responsibility is moral. The same moral responsibility that forces companies that make alcoholic beverages to make them less attractive to teenagers and to promote them in ways that don’t make them seem cool. Ditto for the companies that make smoking and smokeless tobacco products, automobiles, and guns.

There are bigger, more important targets for Jana Partners and CSTRS to go after, in other words. But leave that aside too.

What their argument seems to boil down to is that Apple isn’t doing enough to protect the children who use their devices.

Keep in mind that currently parents to can set restrictions in iOS to limit which apps kids can use (including locking them into one specific app) and to require parental approval to buy apps or make in-app purchases.

The groups’ letter asks that Apple implement even finer degrees of control, so that parents can lock out specific parts of apps while allowing access to others.

Technically, that could be done, but it would be a programming and testing nightmare–and make customer support even more hellish than it already is. Every app would have to be modularized far more completely than they are now. That often results in apps getting larger and more complicated as critical functionality gets duplicated across the app, because developers can’t count on being able to invoke it from another module.

And just how fine-grained would it have to be? Could a parent prevent their kids from, say, messaging anyone with certain words in their user name? Or only prevent them from messaging anyone? Would Apple have to implement time-based or location-based restrictions so certain parent- or teacher-selected functions couldn’t be used at school?

How about a camera restriction that prevents teenagers from taking pictures of anyone the age of eighteen? That’ll stop sexting dead in its tracks, right?

The groups’ other suggestion is that Apple implement notifications to remind parents to talk about device usage with their kids.

Sorry, but if the parents aren’t already paying attention to what their offspring are doing on their phones, popups aren’t going to suddenly make them behave responsibly.

And that’s really where the responsibility lies: with parents. Responsible parents don’t buy their underage children booze and smokes, they don’t let their kids get behind the wheel on I-5 before they have a driver’s license, and they don’t leave their guns where their rugrats can get to them.

It’s a good goal, guys, but the wrong approach.

OS Power Up?

My phone is running Android Oreo.

As I type this, my iPad is downloading iOS 11.

And I’m asking myself why. It’s not like either OS introduces new features on my years-old devices. Yes, there are security fixes. Those are important, certainly, and in both cases installing the entire update is the only way to get those fixes.

Okay, yes, some of my current disenchantment is depression brought on by looking at the current news. But still, why do we have to have major OS updates on an annual schedule?

Remember, Android and iOS upgrades are free. Google and Apple aren’t making any money directly off of them, and they’re spending a bundle to tout the new features. Sure, the iOS release is tied to the release of new iPhones, which is where Apple lives. But they’d sell just as many iPhone 8s and iPhone Xs if they came with iOS 10 point something.

For the record, it’s not just phones and tablets. OS X is doing the same thing. Windows is even worse–we’re getting two upgrades a year.

And every time an upgrade comes out, we get reports of bricked phones and scrambled computers, followed by the eternal reminder that “it’s impossible to test every combination of hardware.”

I’m not suggesting the OS vendors should stop upgrading their software. Just thinking the annual upgrade cycle might possibly have more downsides than up.

What about a slipstreamed approach: roll out new features year-round in a series of smaller upgrades that’ll be less likely to break things?

Of course there are problems there. Problems in design, development, and testing. I may not be doing much formal QA these days, but I haven’t forgotten that much about software development. But the approach works well at the application level. It’s worth a try at the OS level.

On a related note, remember a couple of years ago when I griped about software upgrades violating user expectations? I just found a nice example of not doing that in iOS 11.

For the past couple of iOS releases on iPad, swiping up from the bottom of the screen with four or five fingers has brought up the list of running apps. Quick and easy, and I’ve gotten used to it. (Windows users, think “Alt-Tab”.)

In iOS 11, Apple introduced a new “Dock”: a list of frequently-used and currently-running apps. You can pop the dock up over your current program by swiping up with a single finger. And swiping up a second time brings up the new-and-improved list of running apps.

But, and here’s the important thing, the four-finger swipe still works! Even though there’s now a new route to the task switcher, I can still use the old route.

Mind you, I wouldn’t be surprised if the four-finger gestures disappear in a later release, but at least my muscle memory is safe for another year.