Good Times

The good times never last forever. That’s a universal law–just ask any Warriors fan. It’s true in baseball, and it’s true in technology.

Since I wrote about the winning ways of the Mariners, Orioles, and Giants, the three teams have gone a collective 3-10. It’s not hard to see why: in those thirteen games, they’ve scored 43 runs and given up 86. With run differentials like that, it’s a minor miracle they’ve won any games. (Kudos to the Orioles, who contributed two of the three victories.)

There are around fifty games left in the season. The Mariners are trying to figure out their next few seasons, the Orioles are looking for ways to earn some self-respect, and the Giants are hanging onto a small chance of making the playoffs.

Meanwhile, we’ve recently gotten a lesson in how the universal law applies in the wonderful world of technology.

Maggie’s much-beloved cell phone passed away. Maggie refuses to give up a physical keyboard, so she clung resolutely to her BlackBerry Q10.

Let it be noted that I’m not casting aspersions on her choice. I see the appeal of a physical keyboard and still fondly recall my RIM 750, from back in the days when pagers were state-of-the-art. Where we differ is that I’m not willing to put up with the compromises necessary to have that keyboard.

Those compromises are on the software side of the equation. BlackBerry is, if not the only company still making phones with keyboards, the only one with any actual US distribution. Their latest phones run almost-stock Android–although updates can be erratic–but the Q10 runs BlackBerry’s proprietary operating system.

That, naturally, makes it hard to find software to do some very basic things. Like, for example, back up your data.

There is, or was, a Dropbox client for the Q10. It was hard to install, confusing to configure, and usually refused to run automatically. These are not desirable traits in software you want to back up something as precious as years of cat photos.

Then there are all those years of collected emails, text messages, and the contacts that go with them. Turns out that even though the Q10 requires you to use a GMail account for setup, it only uses GMail for transport. Received emails and contacts live on the device. Contacts can be synced to Google, but it’s a manual process.

Want to see if anything has been backed up to your user account on the carrier’s system? Better hope you don’t have Sprint: they require a two-step authentication process that involves sending a text message to your phone. You know, the phone that doesn’t work.

The lesson here is NOT that BlackBerry sucks or that Sprint is horrible.* It’s not even that one should avoid unusual systems or devices.

* Ironically, it was exactly here that Firefox crashed, taking Windows down with it and forcing me to turn the power off without saving anything. Fortunately, I had just saved two minutes before, so I didn’t have much to recreate.

The lesson is that the good times will end. They’ll be back eventually, sure. But they’ll return much faster if you prepare for them. In baseball, build up your farm system. In computers, backup.

Backup everything. Frequently. Make it part of your daily routine. If you can’t do an automatic backup, do it manually.

Ite, missa est

Not So FasT

Can anyone explain why there’s so much resistance to FasTrak?

That’s a serious question.

But let me back up. For those of you not in California, FasTrak is the local automated toll payment system. Currently used for bridge tolls, but in the not too distant future, it’ll probably also be used for paid access to express lanes. There’s a radio-triggered transponder in the car; when it’s tripped, a toll is debited from the user’s account.

The reason I ask is that this past weekend I got stuck in a multi-hour traffic jam on my way to work. The cause, as far as I can tell, was the non-FasTrak users blocking all the lanes as they tried to move across the freeway into the Cash Lane at the toll plaza.

This is not the first time I’ve gotten caught in one of these crunches–which is why I’d allowed enough time to get to work on schedule despite the jam–but it was definitely the worst.

I can’t believe so many thousand people don’t know that they’re going to have to get into the Cash Lane, nor that they don’t know they’re going to have to pay.

So there must be some reason they don’t sign up with FasTrak.

Granted, the program has some features I’m not happy with. Most notably, if you back your account with a credit card, FasTrak controls when your balance will be replenished and how much they’ll put in each time. But if that’s a problem, just don’t give them a credit card. Mail them a check or money order periodically. Or manage the account actively. If you make a manual deposit when the account gets low, the automatic payment won’t trigger.

The main concern I hear is about privacy. “I don’t want the government to know where I’m driving.” It’s a legitimate concern.

But FasTrak isn’t the problem. The toll plaza cameras record every license plate that goes through, whether you’re using FasTrak or paying cash. Sure, it’s partly–even mostly–to back up the FasTrak readers, but it’s also to catch toll evaders and to protect toll takers. If memory serves, the cameras were there before FasTrak.

Bottom line, the state knows where you’re driving. Or can figure it out with minimal effort.

And FasTrak does allow you to set up an anonymous account. No name or vehicle identification attached. Pay cash. Sure, they can use the camera data to tie your vehicle to the transponder, but see above–they can figure out who you are anyway.

I’ve also heard “It’s too expensive.”

Well, okay. If you use cash, there’s a $20 deposit for the transponder. But that will be returned, albeit without interest, if you return it in good shape. That aside, tolls are the same or lower if you use FasTrak. I’m not buying that argument.

How much is your time worth? If you’re on an hourly salary, you know exactly how much sitting in traffic costs you.

“I’d only use it occasionally.” So? There’s no charge for not using it. Why wouldn’t you get it for that one drive across a bridge a month or a year? If you go three years without using it, they’ll close your account and refund your outstanding balance. And if you use it enough to keep the account active, you’ll save time on those infrequent trips.

Look, I try to be among the first to condemn silly or stupid uses of technology. But I don’t think FasTrak falls into either of those categories.

So why do so many people think otherwise?


We all have bad days.

I hate having to correct mistakes, but one is warranted here. On Tuesday, I said that Massage Envy had pulled their ads off of the MLB.TV broadcasts.

This is not the case. The spots aren’t running as frequently–I only say four or five during a game yesterday, rather than the dozen or more I’d been seeing–but they are still running. I suspect the most likely explanation is that the cost to pull the ads entirely would have been more than the budget would allow.

And my point still stands: regardless of what Mike Pence might think, a massage, even one involving multiple genders, can be a non-sexual thing. And if Massage Envy is going to be in that business, rather than the sexual sort–or rape–they should be taking active steps now, before the suit goes to trial, to confirm their trustworthiness in the eyes of the public.

Moving on.

It’s only Thursday, but I think we’ve got a hot candidate for the “Bad Day of the Week” award.

The California Department of Motor Vehicles has had so many bad days of late that even their good days are pretty bad. The public outcry for Somebody to Do Something have gotten loud enough that some wild approaches are being tried.

According to the SF Chronicle, Governor Newsom has decided that the best approach is to neuter the department.

No, I’m not kidding. The Chron’s headline on a story yesterday says “Silicon Valley vet tapped to fix tech-addled DMV”.

I’m not sure I see how forcing the DMV’s employees to display shaved tummies for a few weeks will reduce wait times, improve data management, or contribute to customer satisfaction, but if you can’t trust the governor, who can–what?

Oh. The new head of the DMV is an IT expert, not a veterinarian. Nobody’s tummy will be non-consensually shaved and no pockets will be picked–aside from the usual levels of graft found in public service.

Granted, the DMV’s computer systems are archaic, but modern technology is no automatic panacea. I like that the new guy says he’s not planning to do anything new, just pick up the best bits of available technology. As long as the focus stays on customer needs rather than speculative technological nonsense like electronic license plates, he might actually accomplish something.

So, a significant oopsie on the headline writer, but not a world-class bad day, even if the headline was on the front page. But then we get to Page A8, where we learn that Hawaii has been invaded by a movie monster.

“Protests spread as activists fight giant telescope” says the headline.

Once you get past wondering why they don’t just call in Gamera to take on the giant telescope–or borrow San Francisco’s Martian War Machine, aka the Sutro Tower–you find that they’re not fighting the telescope.

They are, in fact, fighting plans to build one. In other words, their beef is with the scientists who selected the site and the government bureaucracies that approved the construction.

No laser death rays, underpowered military defenders, or badly dubbed dialog. Just another front in the ongoing culture wars.

And a headline writer who needs a day off.

I suppose they got it. I didn’t see any howlers in today’s paper. But who knows what tomorrow will bring?

Not That Simple

To those of you celebrating the Fourth of July and what remains of our civil liberties, happy holidays. Stay safe and sane.

I thought I’d give you a bit of a tech post for the occasion, because what could be more American than spending money on electronics? Remember, most retailers are having holiday sales through the weekend.

Note: I have not been paid for any of the comments below, nor will I receive any benefit should you run out and buy anything on my recommendation. That said, if the various manufacturers mentioned want to toss piles of cash in my direction, I’ll be happy to accept.

As you may have gathered, I did not wind up crushed beneath a pile of USB-C hubs and docking stations. As it turned out, my first test subject proved adequate to the task. You may recall that the goal was to connect two monitors, one with a VGA input and one with a DVI input to a thoroughly modern laptop which has only a single USB-C port.

I chose to begin my search with the j5create JCD381.

Note the symmetrical layout: two HDMI ports on the left, two USB 3.1 ports on the right, balanced around the network port. Symmetry may not be important in a device’s functionality, but it is aesthetically pleasing. There’s also a USB-C input on the end next to the cable. As that leaves the end unsymmetrical, I’ve chosen not to show it here.

The big selling point for the JCD381–aside from its cheapness compared to similar, larger docks–was that none of the ads I saw warned against using HDMI-to-something-else converters.

And it works fine with my converters (more on that later). It does not, however, Just Work. It is necessary to install driver software for the computer to recognize the HDMI ports. And, in a reversion to the Days of Yore, it was even necessary to reboot the computer after installing the drivers. I may be a fan of tradition, but that was a little too retro for my tastes.

However, drivers installed and computer restarted, I plugged in the cable and darned if both screens didn’t light up. A quick trip to the display settings made the biggest monitor the primary, and presto! Word processor in front of me, email to my left, and system monitor and other low-priority attention grabbers on the smallest screen where I’ll have to make a conscious effort to see them.

The JCD381 isn’t perfect. (You’re not surprised to hear that, are you?) This is not the dock to choose if you’re running a Mac. There are multiple reports that even after installing the drivers, you won’t be able to have different outputs on the two HDMI connectors. I can’t vouch for the accuracy of those reports, but they’re pervasive enough that I wouldn’t take the chance.

More significant to Windows users, the dock lacks an audio/headphone jack. That would have been handy and including one could have fixed the lack of symmetry on the cable end.

That, however, is a quick and cheap fix if you’re converting one of the outputs to VGA. Behold!

This is the Rankie HDMI-to-VGA adapter. Micro-USB port on the left to power it (and yes, it comes with an appropriate cable) and audio on the right. Eight bucks from that well-known purveyor of fine (and not-so-fine) goods whose name begins with an A.

Sure, I could have saved the eight dollars and just plugged my speakers into the computer’s headphone jack, but that would have meant an extra plug or unplug every time I moved the machine. Well worth the octodollar to have everything on a single cable.

There are other issues.

The USB-C input on the j5create box is a bit loose. If I accidentally move the dock when plugging or unplugging it, it can disconnect the power. Annoying, but not fatal, and I could probably find a way to anchor the plug more securely in the dock.

The dock does get hot in use. Not burn-your-fingers-and-set-the-desk-on-fire hot, but significantly toasty. Make sure it’s well-ventilated.

And, finally, the computer has lost track of the network port a couple of times. I’m still troubleshooting that one, but I suspect the problem is at the computer end–either a driver issue or a Windows bug–rather than with the hardware. Since the computer automatically falls back to Wi-Fi, I hardly notice. And the port comes back to life the next time I reboot the computer, so it’s not that big a deal. I’ll find a fix eventually, but it’s not affecting my quality of life right now.

So there you have it. Maybe not quite so simple that only a child can do it after all.

One Step Closer

San Francisco has its Transbay Center back.

You may note there’s a word missing from that sentence.

Actually, purists would argue there are a couple of words missing. But I just can’t see calling it the “Salesforce Transit Center”. Corporate naming is the modern equivalent of product placement.

Back in the day–mostly even before my time–companies would sponsor a radio or TV program. For underwriting a large chunk of the cost of the show, the sponsor would not only get to put their name in the show’s name (remember The Jell-O Program Starring Jack Benny or more recently, Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom?) but would also get to have their products appear in the show.

Now sponsors pay a small fraction of the cost of production (Salesforce is paying $110 million over twenty-five years; the total cost of the terminal–not counting the recent repairs–was around 2.2 billion) but still want total recognition.

Is it any wonder people ignore the new names or nickname them into oblivion? I suspect that building in downtown San Francisco will be widely known as “The Transit Center”.

But I digress.

Anyway, the rooftop park, complete with its new non-decomposing concrete paths, reopened to the public yesterday.

Crowds were, well, not very crowded. But then, the reopening was only lightly publicized. Judging by the Chron’s reporting, most of the traffic came from people who stopped into one of the coffee shops that have doors leading to the park and decided to add a little sunshine to their caffeine fixes.

Fair enough. I’d likely have done the same if I’d been in the vicinity. (Let it be noted here that my previous employment was a short block away from the large hole in the ground now occupied by the terminal. I dare say that if I were still working there, I’d be hanging out in the park at lunchtime on a regular basis.)

But back to that missing word. There isn’t yet any transit in the Transit Center.

Debris from the repairs and the major re-inspections is still being cleaned up. And, naturally, the bus drivers who’ll be using the center need to be retrained in how to get in and out of the building. Or in many cases, trained for the first time. Those direct freeway on- and off-ramps can be tricky (and no, I’m not being sarcastic here; it seems like a potentially confusing transition.)

No date has been set to resume bus service, but official-type people are bandying “August”. Let’s recall that the center officially opened last August 10th. It might be nicely symbolic to have the official re-opening on the same day this year. (And it would be almost purely symbolic. The tenth is a Saturday, and most of the transbay buses don’t run on weekends.)

As for the ground-level businesses that everyone hopes will attract non-commuters to the Transbay Soon-To-Be-Transit Center, they’re not scheduled to open until “fall”.

But the park is open. That’s progress.


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.

It’s So Simple…

Oh, yeah. It’s Thursday, isn’t it? Sorry about that. Got distracted by the Internet.

Actually, what distracted me was trying to figure out how to rearrange my computers. I’m trying to change my setup to make it easier to switch between working at home and working elsewhere. There were a number of reasons why I didn’t get much writing done in Sedalia–starting with the music, of course–and one of them was just the simple disruption of not being at my usual computer with all my usual tools.

The answer seems simple: set up my portable machine as my main writing machine.

But wait. This is computers. It’s against the law for anything computer related to be simple.

Or, in the words of Tom Lehrer, “It’s so simple / So very simple / That only a child can do it.” Anyone got a child I can borrow?

If I’m working at home, I don’t want to use the comparatively small laptop screen. I want the big screens on my desk. Yes, plural. (A hint for the budget-minded: at any given price point, two medium-sized monitors give you more screen real estate than one big monitor.)

I like to have the document I’m working on directly in front of me on one screen. Then I put my research web browser on the same screen, but off to the side where it’s handy for looking things up at a moment’s notice*. And then I shove my email onto the second screen, where it’s out of my peripheral vision; that way it doesn’t constantly distract me, but it’s running, so it can use audio alerts to get my attention for important messages.

* Most recent mid-paragraph search: how much space would twenty pounds of gold take up? Hey, it’s an important plot point. I couldn’t leave it to fill in later, right?

Sure, there will be compromises in doing all that on the road. But I work at home more than anywhere else, so the goal is to tune the home experience for maximum efficiency, then scale it down for traveling.

The big gotcha, though, is that laptops aren’t really designed to connect to multiple external monitors. “Hey,” the manufacturers say, “it’s got a built-in screen and an HDMI port. That’s plenty.”

Not in my universe.

My laptop doesn’t even have an HDMI port. What it does have is a USB-C port and there are zillions of USB-C docking stations. Many of them even have multiple video outputs.

And that’s where I got distracted.

The most common combinations of ports are two HDMI or two DisplayPort. Next most common are one of each. VGA? Not so common. DVI? Hen’s teeth.

You know what’s coming, right?

My monitors are so amazingly outdated that they don’t have either HDMI or DisplayPort inputs. VGA and DVI all the way.

Which has never been a problem before. Every desktop computer I’ve owned for the past decade or more has had DVI outputs. HDMI-to-VGA and HDMI-to-DVI adapters are cheap and effective.

Every single docking station I’ve looked at has had warnings against using adapters. “They may not work” is the usual phrasing. That’s tech-speak for “It probably won’t work, but we want you to buy the product, so we’ll cover our posteriors with a maybe.”

I found one line of docking stations that have one DP, one HDMI, and one VGA output. I figured I could go VGA-to-VGA on one monitor and take my chances with an adapter for the other.

Then I saw the small print: if you use the VGA output, the DP and HDMI are disabled. Seriously!

I refuse to buy new monitors for this project. The ones I’ve got work perfectly well.

So, if you don’t hear from me or that kid you loaned me for a while, assume that we’re buried beneath an enormous pile of docking stations and video adapters, fruits of the search for the one magic combination does something mindbogglingly easy.

A Forgotten Virtue

Seen this paean to obsolescence? I hadn’t until Jackie brought it to my attention, and now I’m passing the favor on to you.

It is fairly lengthy–though that shouldn’t bother anyone who reads my ramblings here–but if you don’t have the patience right now, the tl;dr is that the author, one Ian Bogost, believes that computing technology reached its peak in the early 1990s.

He argues that all of the advances since then–the ability to run quietly, multitask, go online without dialup, use a display big enough to see clearly, and so on–are actually regressions.

I detect a certain amount of Mr. Bogost’s tongue in his cheek, yet the final impression is that he’s quite serious in his praise of archaeo-computing*.

* Yes, I know that the term “retrocomputing” is in common parlance. Mr. Bogost, however, takes the concept to a whole ‘nother level.

Look, I’m not immune to the lure of the small, underpowered computer. You know my love for my Windows tablet. I’ve got a couple of netbooks*. They still work, and I still use them occasionally.

* I’m convinced that what doomed the netbook was not its lack of power, but its lack of screen resolution. 1366×768 just isn’t big enough to get any serious work done in a GUI environment. Give me a ten-inch screen large enough to display something close to a full page of text at a readable size, and I’m in. Why do you think that the iPad is so popular? It’s basically a netbook that swaps the keyboard for a high-resolution screen.

But there are things that just can’t be done with a small computer. Writing, sure. Editing? Probably. Software development? Only if you’re building something to run on that same device. Art? Video editing? Forget it, unless you’re okay with an input lag measured in seconds and rendering times measured in weeks. Games? Anything more taxing than a crossword puzzle or hand of solitaire is going to run slower than real time.

Mr. Bogost, it appears, considers the greater part of the last two decades to have been wasted effort. There is, he says, virtue in a computer that makes you wait and that pummels you with noise while you twiddle your thumbs.

The lack of capability and speed and the noise generated combined to force computer owners to limit their screen time (to use an expression that dates to 1921).

Apparently he missed–or has forgotten–the online communities of the time. There might not have been a Facebook sucking up hours of users’ time. But there was GEnie. Prodigy. AOL. Usenet, for crying out loud.

Text adventures. I can’t count how many hours I spent on the computer game of “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”. Heck, anyone else remember “Leisure Suit Larry”? I wonder if Mr. Bogost remembers “Zork”.

It’s the final paragraph of Mr. Bogost’s piece that really sets my teeth to grinding. He concludes by turning off his ancient computer and declares that act to be literally impossible today.

I’ve got news for him. Every flipping piece of technology he references–his laptop, his tablet, and his smartphone–has a power switch. He can do exactly the same thing as with his Macintosh SE.

Why doesn’t he? Because he doesn’t want to wait for them to turn back on. Waiting, it seems, is only a virtue when you have no choice.

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.


They can’t all be winners, I suppose.

Ideas, that is.

Case in point, I’ve been sitting here for the last hour, trying to make something entertaining out of my recent discovery that Google Calendar supports time zones.

The key word there, of course, is “trying”.

It’s a useful feature, especially when dealing with an event that spans multiple time zones (hello, plane flight to Missouri). But entertaining? Not so much.

There’s some minor humor in the fact that the feature has been around for nearly a decade–the oldest references I can find to it date back to 2011–but I only discovered it last week. And you all trust me to be on the cutting edge. Sorry about that.

Maybe it says more about the user interface designers than it does about me. Google does have something of a fetish for hiding controls behind menus, so they can display the actual information in a sea of whitespace.

That’s a fetish they share with Apple, by the way. Which means most of the rest of the tech industry falls in line. Arguably, it’s an improvement over the previous state of affairs, where every possible control was squeezed onto the main screen, or at most, moved one menu level down.

There are still some holdouts in the old style–Microsoft’s Ribbon Bar, I’m looking at you–but I digress.

In any case, I can’t blame the UI here. There’s a prominent “Time Zone” button right next to the date and time fields on the event creation/edit page.

Clearly, there’s a lesson here about willful blindness, seeing only what we expect to see, and the triumph of imagination over reality.

Puts a whole different light on climate change deniers, Trump supporters, and anti-vaccination activists, doesn’t it? It’s not that they’re denying the evidence. They literally don’t see it, even though it’s right in front of them.

Not that that’s a legitimate excuse. The Time Zone button is right there, whether or not I saw it.

Does make me wonder what else I’m missing out on, though.