Handling the notch

apple / tech

Apple-watchers agree that iPhone Pro’s screen will feature a hardware “notch”—a cutout in its otherwise bezelless design for the camera, earpiece, and other sensors. But there’s less agreement on how the notch will be handled in software. The current status bar doesn’t seem to fit. Where will the omnipresent, centered clock go—if it remains onscreen at all?

One potential approach, which I’ve hacked together and included above, is to adopt a “two-row” status bar. This would take advantage of the vertical screen space to the notch’s left and right. Here, I’ve center-aligned the various indicators, since the rounded top-left and top-right corners made left- and right-alignment look odd. The clock gets pride of place at top left.


Thanks to Evan Blass for the iPhone Pro render and to Olivier Charavel for the notch mock-up. ■

Letterman’s moving to Netflix. Who’s next?

internet / TV
David Letterman

From a Netflix press release:

“David Letterman, the longest-serving host in U.S. late night television – the original host of Late Night (NBC) and The Late Show (CBS) – is returning to television for a new series for Netflix.

The yet-to-be-named, six-episode series has Letterman combining two interests for which he is renowned: in-depth conversations with extraordinary people, and in-the-field segments expressing his curiosity and humor.”

This makes sense. Letterman has occasionally expressed admiration for Jerry Seinfeld’s highly successful web series, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee (which recently announced its own transition to Netflix).

Conan should have gone online-only when NBC fired him back in 2010.

So… comedians are leading the Internet TV charge. One other star I’d like to see join the fray? Conan O’Brien, who should have gone online-only when NBC fired him back in 2010. Instead, he transplanted his network show to basic cable, where he continues to rehearse the tired late-night talk show model. But his absurd, amazing remote bits would work well as a standalone short-form web series. ■

A better iPad lap stand

tech
iPad lap stand design

Yes, there are already 1,001 tablet stands out there, ranging from $5 cardboard easels to aluminum docks that cost nearly $200. But very few existing models work well on the lap. Either they’re fixed at limited, inconvenient viewing angles (e.g. Apple’s Smart Cover), or they’re too narrow to span the gap between your thighs (a la my beloved Satetchi R1).

Here are the key features of my proposed alternative:

  1. This stand offers a place to rest your keyboard—but does not include the keyboard itself. Although I liked the BrydgeAir keyboard dock while I had it, I don’t like plunking down $100+ for an accessory that may not be compatible with future iPad models. This stand invites the user to add his favorite Bluetooth keyboard rather than rely on a proprietary port or form factor.
  2. The BrydgeAir keyboard dock inspired the drawing’s hinge design. These pivoting arms grip the iPad across its widest bezels, so that its screen remains unobscured. They’re rimmed with a rubbery material to prevent scratches on the iPad’s screen. They allow the iPad to be removed quickly (unlike bulky keyboard cases). The hinges rotate 180 degrees, allowing the user to lock in her preferred viewing angle. And these arms would ideally slide sideways along a channel or rail, so that the stand could be used with smaller tablets—or with the iPad Pro in portrait orientation.
  3. Because the iPad Pro is fairly heavy, the base would probably require some counterweight to prevent the assembly from toppling over. Admittedly, this would make the lap stand less portable. The anchor weights could be extra batteries—to charge the iPad on the go. But that would add complexity, inflate the cost, and (most critically) impact the stand’s longevity (since batteries lose their capacity over time). Better to embed some other dense material near the stand’s front edge in order to counterbalance the iPad itself.

There are probably engineering concerns that make this design impractical, and the market for 12.9″ iPad accessories may be too small to justify much experimentation from third-party manufacturers.

But something like this stand would go a long way towards making the iPad Pro a true laptop replacement—i.e. by letting it perch on my app.

“How the Coal Industry Flattened the Mountains of Appalachia”

environment
MTR mining

The New York Times editorial board, commenting on a recently-released Duke University study:

The report holds little hope of returning to the verdant Appalachian past, where underground mining at least left the lofty horizon and snug hamlets undisturbed. As the industry decapitated mountains to get at the lucrative coal seams below the surface, it reassured residents that there would be adequate restoration. The resulting tabletops of hedges and grass are derided by residents in nearby hollows. “Lipstick on a corpse,” says Ken Hechler, a tireless environmentalist and public servant in West Virginia.

Two thoughts:

  1. Mining companies should never have been permitted to alter the landscape so irrevocably. If you can’t afford to restore the mine site completely—with its exact contours, substrata, and rich topsoil—then you can’t afford to mine there at all.
  2. Within a few decades, we’ll look back on the mountaintop removal era with disgust and national shame. We’ll remember the practice in much the same way that we remember, say, forced lobotomy programs or the decimation of America’s old-growth forests.

‘Where Electric Vehicles Actually Cause More Pollution Than Gas Cars’

environment
power plant

Eric Jaffe, writing for CityLab:

A view from the tailpipe gives EVs [electric vehicles] a clear edge: no emissions, no pollution, no problem. Shift the view to that of a smokestack, though, and we get a much different picture. The EV that caused no environmental damage on the road during the day still needs to be charged at night. This requires a great deal of electricity generated by a power plant somewhere, and if that power plant runs on coal, it’s not hard to imagine it spewing more emissions from a smokestack than a comparable gas car coughed up from a tailpipe.

We live in the remote West Virginia mountains, an hour’s drive from the nearest hospital or Wal-Mart. It’s a beautiful locale, but you don’t have to search long to find the scars of coal. Our local river has run acidic for nearly a century, thanks to unsustainable mining practices. On clear afternoons, the nearby coal plant’s sulfurous smoke plumes loom on the horizon.

That power plant generates electricity for more densely-populated areas east of here. Virginia drivers who blithely buzz to work in their Nissan Leafs may assume that their plug-in cars protect the environment. In reality, electric vehicles effectively outsource urban pollution to rural areas. As EVs replace gas-guzzlers, suburban smog may dissipate, but—at least in the coal-dependent eastern U.S.—rural skies grow ashen and rural rivers turn poisonous.

But, hey, “Out of sight, out of mind,” right?

“Apple’s Battery Suppliers Use Cobalt Mined by Child Labor”

tech
iPhone

From Amnesty International:

Major electronics brands, including Apple, Samsung and Sony, are failing to do basic checks to ensure that cobalt mined by child labourers has not been used in their products

If true, this report paints the entire industry—not just Apple—in a shameful light. But as I’ve written before, Apple is uniquely positioned to address such injustices:

Maybe it’s unfair to expect Apple to shoulder the cost of responsible manufacturing. But the truth is that no other company is in a position—financially or philosophically—to effect such a change.

As consumers, we also bear some responsibility here. Too often, we’re content to ignore the unjust systems that deliver the latest iPhone or laptop to our doorstep.

But what if we told device makers that we valued human life over battery life? Would you be willing to boycott unjust practices—and forgo your biannual iPhone upgrade? Let’s assume that Apple upped its vigilance over the supply chain, then baked the cost of that oversight into its device prices. How much extra would you pay for a “conscience-friendly” iPhone?

Avoiding iPhone spoilers

movies / tech
Star Wars

In last year’s run-up to The Force Awakens, some Star Wars nerds went to great lengths to avoid even the slightest spoiler. These super-fans eschewed movie rumor sites, where the film’s plot outline appeared months before the premiere. They muted keywords on Twitter (e.g. “Skywalker”, “Falcon”) and installed spoiler-blocking browser extensions. They even refused to watch Episode VII’s official trailers, choosing a “virgin” first viewing experience over short-term excitement. Their hard work and self-discipline was rewarded on December 17th, when they sat down in a packed theater with no idea what they were about to witness, beyond “a new Star Wars movie.”

Apple’s product announcement events aren’t quite as entertaining as a J.J. Abrams blockbuster. But for tech nerds, it’s pretty close. The Cupertino company has a decided flair for the dramatic. Climactic reveals and slickly-produced videos punctuate its keynotes. And, like Hollywood studios, Apple shields upcoming releases from the public eye. It would prefer that customers first learn about products in an official announcement, where Apple’s marketing department sets the stage and controls the narrative.

Unfortunately for Apple, the Chinese supply chain doesn’t share this commitment to secrecy. For almost every product announcement over the past half-decade, the Apple blogosphere learns what’s coming before Apple has a chance to announce it. Often, we see the new iPhone in fine detail long before its “official” reveal. In at least one infamous case, a gadget blog had the actual prototype in hand, lost not in Shenzen but in Redwood.

If you’re like me, these unofficial rumors are endlessly fascinating. But if the official Apple keynote is the best way to “experience” the announcement of a new iPhone, shouldn’t I treat prerelease leaks like Star Wars spoilers?[1] Wouldn’t keynote day be more fun if I had no idea what’s coming?[2]

N64 Classic ‘Zelda: Ocarina of Time’ beaten by blind gamer

games
ocarina of time

This is incredible. Terry Garrett, a blind gamer, has beaten the Nintendo 64 classic “Ocarina of Time”. The man’s a gaming god.

How did he do it? First, Garrett relied heavily on the game’s soundscape to orient himself around its 3D space. He even used the venerable Zelda hookshot “as a form of echolocation,” listening for the difference between the weapon striking walls and whiffing through open air. He also relied heavily on software emulation—Garrett saves his game state every few seconds, then restores that state when experiments go awry.

Garrett’s achievement testifies to his perseverance and ingenuity; it took five years of occasional gameplay to finish the task. Few gamers have the patience to do that sort of repetitive, time-consuming work.

Nintendo also deserves credit—for putting such care into Ocarina’s soundscape. The game’s sound engine places each noise in its proper stereo location. Plus, key occurrences on-screen have discernible audio equivalents. For example, when Link chaperones Zelda through Ganondorf’s castle, Zelda’s feet make tiny, just-perceptible noises.[1]


What if every game developer took low-vision accessibility more seriously? What if game studios put the same care into their sound engines that they put into graphics and physics? What if every game’s sound design made it possible for blind gamers to play—withoutresorting to trial and error?

Imagine, for example, if your avatar’s footsteps reverberated more like real life. The sound would echo differently depending on your distance from the nearest wall, the texture of the floor, or the proximity of a deadly chasm. Just this one feature would allow a blind gamer to navigate virtual realms much like Daniel Kish explores the real world.

Games might even implement a “low-vision mode.” With this setting enabled, on-screen events would create constant, audible cues.

Take the recent Arkham Batman series as a theoretical example. How might these games sound if they were programmed with the sight-impaired gamer in mind? Each mob thug would grumble and yell incessantly; that way, the player could tell exactly where each foe stood, relative to Batman’s current position. Or, as the Batmobile motored through Gotham City, audio cues could distinguish open street intersections from adjacent buildings. That way, a gamer could hear exactly when to hit that e-brake. Finally, for less action-heavy sequences, Batman might speak his inner monologue out loud—describing the environment or the puzzle at hand in exhaustive detail.

If more game developers attended to such details, a standard “low-vision vocabulary” would solidify over time. These conventions would guide devs’ work and allow blind gamers to quickly grok new games. Game engines (e.g. Unreal, Unity) would incorporate these features, giving developers a head-start on building blind-accessible titles. Design studios might even hire blind game developers to ensure that their games met the needs of the sight-impaired.


UPDATE: Reader Ian Hamilton responded via Twitter with a series of helpful thoughts. In particular, he notes that many fighting games (e.g. ‘Mortal Kombat X’) already include audio cues that make it easier for sight-impaired gamers to compete. Ian also linked to an interesting Game Developers Conference panel on “Reaching the Visually Impaired Gamer”.


  1. ‘Ocarina of Time’ isn’t the only Nintendo 64 game whose sound effects empower the blind to play.  ↩

Why does Apple brag about the Watch’s accurate timekeeping?

tech
Apple Watch

Apple’s marketing copy for the Watch:

High-quality watches have long been defined by their ability to keep unfailingly accurate time, and Apple Watch is no exception. In conjunction with your iPhone, it keeps time to within 50 milliseconds of the definitive global time standard.

Since the Watch was announced in 2014, Apple has touted its extraordinary accuracy. I’ve never understood why I should be impressed by this.

For over a century, quartz oscillators have made it possible to build incredibly precise timepieces. As early as 1929, the federal Bureau of Standards relied on quartz clocks that drifted from actual time by less than half a second per month. These days, even a $10 Casio wristwatch from your local gas station likely loses less than a minute per year—accurate enough for nearly every practical use.

Digital devices—including laptops and phones—also rely on quartz-based oscillators. But they have an additional advantage over “dumb” timepieces: an Internet connection. Using the Network Time Protocol (NTP), our devices synchronize themselves against precisely-tuned time servers on the Internet. NTP keeps our computer clocks within a few dozen milliseconds of “actual” time; that probably explains Apple’s “50 millisecond” figure in the marketing quoted above.

Now, Apple actually claims that the Watch is “far more accurate as a timekeeping device than the iPhone.” This makes little sense to me, since both devices presumably depend on the same NTP servers.

And even if the Watch were somehow slightly more accurate than my other digital devices… should I care? Do average consumers even need the exact time, down to fractions of a second? Are atomic physicists timing their experiments using the Watch? Do NASA engineers schedule booster ignition using Siri? Do international secret agents synchronize their capers by watching Mickey Mouse’s hand? I honestly can’t imagine a realistic scenario where even a few seconds’ aberration makes a difference in everyday life.

‘For the New Year, Let’s Resolve to Improve Our Tech Literacy’

tech

Farhad Manjoo, writing about tech illiteracy in the New York Times:

This year we began to see the creaking evidence of our collective ignorance about the digital age. The sorry showing ought to prompt a resolution for the new year. In 2016, let’s begin to appreciate the dominant role technology now plays in shaping the world, and let’s strive to get smarter about how we think about its effects.”

The article chides those leaders and institutions whose tech naïveté made them look foolish this past year. And Manjoo is right; tech now figures prominently into many headline news stories. It’s no longer possible to govern or lead effectively without understanding technology’s impact.


Tech dominates the news because tech now dominates our lives. Our computers fit in our pockets, and they accompany us from dawn to dark (then on through the night). We rely on cloud services for everything from settling bar bets to storing baby photos to driving safely through new locales. Tech is now the air we breathe, the sea we swim through, and the language we speak.

Yes, tech-literate leaders govern more effectively. But tech literacy also helps us to live well. On the one hand, tech can streamline our lives—making time for those things that truly matter: self-awareness, family, relationships, and community.

Conversely, when used thoughtlessly, tech can amplify bad habits and empower self-destructive behavior. Our gadgets isolate us from each other. Online anonymity brings out our gross, secret hatreds. Instant access to information devalues knowledge and tempts us to stop learning.

Yes, as Manjoo implores, we should commit to tech literacy in this new year. And that resolution certainly means we should understand how technology impacts government and society. But we must also think critically about tech at the scale of our day-to-day.[1]


  1. I’m hoping that this blog can explore such issues in 2016.Who needs another speeds-and-feeds rundown or list of app features? There are a thousand other writers who handle those topics better than I ever could. To be honest, I’m a rank amateur in traditional tech fields. I know enough JavaScript to be dangerous, but my code is cludgy. I appreciate good typography and can do basic work in the Adobe suite, but that hardly makes me a world-class designer. I’m familiar with some marketing principles, but I’ll never become a titan of business.So what can I contribute to the conversation? My educational work in biblical criticism familiarized me with hermeneutics, semiotics and interpretation. I’d like to point these skills at tech and see what happens.  ↩