Wed, 22 Nov 2017

Airpods Are Awesome (With a Couple of Caveats)

See Airpod in ear. I need a shave. I’m often an early adopter when it comes to Apple gear. I picked up my Apple Watch, iPad, and a few other things on launch day. When Apple introduced Airpods in 2016, though, I held back a while, for a few reasons.

  1. I’m not a huge fan of earbuds. I think I’ve got slightly funny-shaped ear canals, so they never quite feel right in my ears (i.e. they always feel like they’re on the verge of falling out)
  2. Though I’m by no means an audiophile, I’m not a big fan of open-ear headphones. They don’t really isolate you much from outside sound (which has its pros and cons, more on this later), and... I like bass.
  3. At $159, they’re not an impulse buy. The only time I’ve ever spent more than $75 on a pair of earphones was for a pair of Sony studio monitors (which were totally worth it, BTW.) These are also tiny, which potentially translates to “easy to lose.”
  4. Bluetooth largely sucks (but Apple seems to have eliminated most of the pain points -- see below.)
  5. They were a 1.0 product with a lot of unproven tech.

Let me get the other disclaimers (the caveats mentioned in my title) out of the way first. If you’re not completely inside the Apple ecosystem, these are probably not for you. Like a lot of Apple products, a lot of their virtues come from their integration with the rest of the ecosystem. If you’re an Android person with a Windows or Linux laptop, keep looking.

If you primarily buy earphones/headphones for audio quality, keep looking. These are (quite) decent as far as earbuds go, but they’ll never sound as good as a set of high-end closed-ear phones.

fins for yr. airpods The solution to my “earpods fit weird in my ears” issue was surprisingly simple.

That said, I finally found a use case that justified picking them up. We live in an open plan house, and I like watching TV at night (really, it’s the only chance I get.) I’ve tried other solutions for balancing the TV volume, but generally speaking I’m either in a situation when I can’t hear programming well enough to enjoy it, or I’m annoying others in the house. The killer feature for Airpods, for me, is that I could pair them at the iCloud account level. This means that after pairing them once on my iPhone, they automagically became accessible from my Apple Watch, my iPad, my MacBook, and, most importantly, my Apple TV. Plop them in your ears, then hold down the play/pause button until the audio output device selector pops up. There is no step 3.

I use them sometimes from my phone (mostly when grocery shopping), but where they’re most useful is at the office (paired to my MacBook Pro) and on the aforementioned Apple TV. Since they’re not completely audio-isolating, they work well in an office where people may actually have need to get your attention, and since you’re sitting down, you’re not really worried about them falling out. They also work surprisingly well for conference calls.

I haven’t even gotten into how clever the charging case is, or how slick and painless it is moving them between your various devices, or how much better the AAC compression sounds than A2DP.

In short, they’re great and I’m very glad I bought them.

:: 17:19
:: /tech/gadgets | [+]
::Comments (1)

Sat, 07 Oct 2017

Fez-Wearing Dragon in the Living Room

I don’t know if AR is “cooler” than VR, but at least you don’t need a stupid looking hunk of geek strapped to your face to try it.

AR Dragon

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:: /tech/computers/os/ios | [+]
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Thu, 18 May 2017


As someone who lived through the Syndication Wars, I find this interesting.

I’m way older and balder than last time. I also have a 4-year-old, so I’m sitting this one out. It looks like a PyBlosxom plugin would be a Saturday afternoon project or so, but I don’t really have Saturday afternoons free anymore.

:: 17:24
:: /tech/computers/internet | [+]
::Comments (0)

Sun, 13 Nov 2016

Scripting A Light Bulb

This is adapted from an email I sent to an internal "gadget fan" mailing list at work in response to a question someone asked about controlling lighting electronically.

I went “simple” and I’m pretty happy with it.

I bought this bulb from Amazon.

It’s made in China and sold under several different brand names, most commonly “Flux” and “Magichome.”

You can get the WiFi RGBW version from Amazon (and a domestic seller) for ~$35.

If you feel comfortable shopping via Alibaba (I don’t) you could probably get it for ~$20.

There are several client tools for interacting with them. I’ve used one written in Go and an (easier to work with, IMO) one written in Python.

It doesn't do the dumb thing (UPnP on the open internet) so no, my light bulb isn't helping to bring down Twitter.

In addition, if you live in the iOS universe there’s a plugin that makes it work with Homebridge (and hence HomeKit.)

I can tell Siri to control my lights. Useless, but fun.

More practically, I wrote a Python script that turns on the lamp in my son’s room in the morning and gradually eases him up with subtle color changes.

It kicks off from a cron job running on a Raspberry Pi. (It doesn’t have to be a Pi, of course — any Linux machine or Mac would work.)

I’m sure it could be made to work from Windows, too, but that’s Somebody Else’s Problem. 😁

:: 19:57
:: /tech/gadgets | [+]
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Mon, 26 Sep 2016

Home Server Addendum

GkrellM AdamMicro Center is selling the Raspberry Pi Zero for 99¢ as a loss leader. I bought one, then spent another few bucks for a boot disk and a USB-to-Ethernet adapter and a minimal case. Total investment: about $15.

I’m using it as a Pi-Hole machine.

:: 15:44
:: /tech/computers/os/linux | [+]
::Comments (0)

Wed, 10 Aug 2016

A Home Server in 2016

gkrellm display for raspberry piOver the years, I’ve had various boxes around the house that you could consider a home server. Often, these were just my desktop machine doing double duty. Occasionally, they’d be some old semi-retired tower machine shoved under a spare table, gobbling frightening amounts of electricity with spinning drives and cooling fans making way too much noise.

Raspberry Pi 3 in a pretty box

It’s really funny to think that this ~$50 guy is really just as powerful as the >$100,000 “medium iron” HP-UX box I was sysadmining barely more than a decade and a half ago.

HP 9000 / 800 Series

These handled the typical home server tasks: holding photos, music, backups, whatever. Serving media inside the house. For many years, this very weblog lived on home servers. With the advent of ubiquitous cloud storage, I’ve outsourced most of these tasks.

It’s still useful to keep some of these things within the home network. What doesn’t really make sense anymore is devoting floor space and lots of watts to some ugly, oversized tower.

Earlier this year I finally bought my first Raspberry Pi system. They’re basically teeny tiny Unix boxes (roughly the size of a pack of cigarettes) for hobbyists. They basically pack a smartphone-level SoC on a small board that can be deployed with minimal fanfare for all sorts of applications.

:: 18:25
:: /tech/computers/os/linux | [+]
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Wed, 13 Jul 2016

Ḭͯ'͓̤̹̗͓ͣ͆m̨̼̺̆́ I͈̦̭͘n̥̳̯̓ Y̮͚ͦ̈́r T̵͓͈̪̯ó̻͒o̾̆l̜͓̩̳ͯͅc̙̙̮̟̅ͣḫ̖ͤ̚͡a̪ͧ́in̥̦͕̱͎,̢̩̠̫ B̪̥̖̟͈̾͘r͉̠̱ͫ͘e̠͚͙̹̻a̙̦̻͔k̬̜͕̠̭i̟̫̰̲̝̋n̖̱͓̲̗̋̑'͆̊͝ Ỹ̨̪̺r̕ I̖ͧ̔n͇̿̐͠te̦̩͚̓ͦr͔̝͖͕͙ͧn̆͒͜è͈̪̫ͅt̄ͬs͎̻͙̭̭

Every now and then, you need to stress test your tools.

:: 16:16
:: /tech/computers/internet | [+]
::Comments (0)

Tue, 12 Apr 2016

New MacBook Pro

apple logoI’m probably the last Mac owner in the world to switch to a Retina MBP. My problem has been that Macs stay useful for so long — my previous machine was over 5 years old, and quite honestly, still works fine. It really only had one real limtation — it maxed out at 8GB of RAM, which made it uncomfortably tight when I needed to run virtual machines on it.

I was really getting frustrated with it at the end of 2014, but then I replaced the spinning rust with an SSD and got another 18 useful months out of it.

Compute-wise, I went from

It’s enough of an improvement to feel during everyday use, especially when I’m doing a lot of things at the same time (I gained 2 compute cores and a lot of cache, and the built-in SSD is much faster than the third-party one I installed in the old machine.)

Honestly, though, the biggest difference is the screen. The gorgeous, gorgeous screen. Combined with subpixel anti-aliasing, I’ve never seen a sharper display.

:: 08:43
:: /tech/computers/os/osx/apple | [+]
::Comments (0)

Tue, 29 Dec 2015

Autodesk Graphic

Autodesk Graphic header image

Treated myself to this as a late Christmas gift. Just playing around with it I’m pretty happy so far. Between 1990-1999 I used to support a small company’s worth of artists, illustrators, and layout people. I’ve never claimed to be any sort of artist, but out necessity I picked up some facility with the applications those folks used (primarily the Adobe suite.)

If you’d told me that I’d one day be able to buy an application that had essentially all of the functionality of Illustrator (at least the parts I used) for 1/20th of the price I’d have said you were nuts.

Apparently there’s a pretty feature-comparable iPad version that reads and writes the same files. I’ll try that out later.

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:: /tech/computers/os/osx/applications | [+]
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Thu, 20 Aug 2015

Boarding Passes

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:: /tech/space | [+]
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Sun, 20 Apr 2014

It Only Took Spammers 12 Hours To Find The “New” Blog


At least 2 of them hit me last night. I’m pretty sure I don’t have that many human readers. I’ve implemented the world’s simplest countermeasures.

:: 10:54
:: /tech/computers/pyblosxom | [+]
::Comments (2)

Sat, 08 Mar 2014

That Is One Chilly Yak

Biggest hassle was extracting disk images in the right format. I didn’t realize Apple kept around so much of the old stuff here

VMac WriteNow 4

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:: /tech/computers/os/osx | [+]
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Wed, 29 Jan 2014

The Joy of Tape @ The Register

Rosita Commander Luxus

:: 15:13
:: /tech/hardware | [+]
::Comments (0)

Sun, 20 Oct 2013

Linkblogging Aid: Frontmost Safari Tab's URL and Title Formatted For Markdown

This AppleScript snippet is probably useful to no one except me, but if it saves even one other Mac-based Markdown-using linkblogger a few seconds, why not?

I have it attached to an Alfred hotkey. (download)

tell application "Safari"
	set myTitle to name of document 1 as string
	set myURL to URL of document 1 as string
	set mdstring to "[" & myTitle & "]" & "(" & myURL & ")"
	set myResponse to (display dialog "Selectable Markdown Link Text" default answer mdstring)
	if myResponse's button returned is "OK" then set the clipboard to myResponse's text returned
  end tell

:: 03:47
:: /tech/computers/os/osx/scripts | [+]
::Comments (0)

Wed, 20 Jun 2012

I Welcome Our Mechanical Flapjack Overlords

I’m familiar with hotel breakfast bar waffle irons, but completely automated pancake makers were a new one on me.

Pancake Machine


spotted in Brooksville, FL

:: 14:19
:: /tech/gadgets | [+]
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Thu, 06 May 2010

The iPad As A Book Reader

This is fifth in an indeterminate series of posts about my experiences with the iPad I bought on 2010-Apr-12.

It’s still very early.

As it stands now, Apple launched their iBook reader and the iBooks store simultaneously with the iPad. Amazon’s Kindle reader app showed up a few days later, as did more specialized readers like GoodReader, InstapaperPro, Marvel Comics, and Zinio.

I’ll concentrate on iBooks, since that’s the experience Apple is leading with. The first release is actually pretty functional, at least for reading fiction and light nonfiction. I don’t really know how it stands up as a reader for technical documents or more specialized fare. My first iBooks purchase was William Gibson’s Neuromancer, which seemed somehow appropriate — it struck a good balance by being a book I’m pretty familiar with, but at the same time it had prabably been 20 years since I’d last read it.

iBooks: the Good

As you would expect, there’s a lot of polish in the iBooks interface for common tasks like navigating within books, setting bookmarks, and searching. The controls are evident and discoverable, without the “747 cockpit” too-many-widgets problems of a lot of other reading tools. The “real book” accents (like the visual page illusion and the fake inside-cover you see when reading a page) are visually appealing without being overdone.

Despite the cries of “lock in” predictably hurled at Apple from the usual corners, it’s pretty trivial to get books for iBooks from sources other than the iBookstore. Just as iTunes and the iPod family support MP3 files from wherever you buy/find/borrow/steal/convert them, any book you can get into an unencumbered ePub file will be cheerfully synced by iTunes once you’ve added it to your library. It’s pretty simple to run pretty much any non-DRMed book in the most common formats through a tool like Calibre or Stanza Desktop to create an .epub file that’s readable in iBooks. As with MP3 files you find on the web, you can make the resulting book as nice as you want, provided you’re willing to put a little effort into metadata grooming.

There is a lot of backlight control in the iBooks application. It’s very easy to make the screen equally readable in a brightly-lit room or in a completely dark one.

I may have read on a spec sheet once that the iPad gets less battery life than a Kindle between charges, but I’ve yet to run my battery all the way down in a single day doing anything on the device, even performing far more CPU-intensive tasks than book reading, so, um, I haven’t found cause to care.

iBooks: the Bad

The biggest problem I’ve noticed, at least with reading, is the the insistence on full justification without hyphenation. It simply makes text harder to read. I can understand that good hyphenation is nontrivial to support, but until we get it couldn’t we at least have the option to display text ragged-right?

Despite all the scare stories from E-Ink partisans about how reading on a backlit screen would make our eyes bleed (conveniently neglecting that most office workers spend several hours a day reading on, um, backlit screens), the real visibility problem I’ve hit with the iPad is reflective glare off the shiny screen when reading in direct sunlight. Like the iPhone screen before it, the iPad screen is pretty much a mirror, so don’t expect to get a lot of beach reading done unless you take an umbrella.

The iPad weighs a lot more than the “pure” e-readers (Kindle, Nook, etc.) If you do a lot of reading in bed, you may find yourself switching the iPad from hand-to-hand a fair bit as your wrists become fatigued.

Diversion — an important clarification re: copying text from iBooks.

A friend linked the transcript of a speech by Steven Berlin Johnson where he expressed concern and disappointment that he was unable to copy text from Charles Darwin’s “The Descent of Man”:

But there are worse things than paywalls. Take a look at this screen. This, as you all probably know, is Apple’s new iBook application for the iPad. What I’ve done here is shown you what happens when you try to copy a paragraph of text. You get the familiar iPhone-style clipping handles, and you get two options “Highlight” and “Bookmark.” But you can’t actually copy the text, to paste it into your own private commonplace book, or email it to a friend, or blog about it. And of course there’s no way to link to it. What’s worse: the book in question is Penguin’s edition of Darwin’s Descent of Man, which is in the public domain. Those are our words on that screen. We have a right to them.

copying the uncopyableThe important bit in that paragraph are the words “Penguin’s edition.” I haven’t downloaded “Penguin’s edition” of the Descent of Man because it’s $12.99 and the Project Gutenberg edition, which is returned by the same search query in iBooks, is free. What I can confirm is that I am able to highlight and copy text from the exact same passage in the Project Gutenberg edition of the book.

I am not arguing that a publisher flipping the “copy inhibit” bit in an eBook isn’t lame — it is. What I am pointing out is that the symptom pointed out by Johnson is under the control of the eBook publisher. It isn’t an Apple mandate, and it’s not some inherent failure of the iBooks platform (nor an Insidious Apple Plot To Lock Up Culture.)

Next up: some nice native apps.

:: 17:12
:: /tech/gadgets/iPad | [+]
::Comments (0)

Mon, 26 Apr 2010

iPad Built-In Applications

This is fourth in an indeterminate series of posts about my experiences with the iPad I bought on 2010-Apr-12. I originally planned to post this last Friday, but, um, whatevs…

The iPad’s built-in applications are a bit of a mixed bag. A few of them benefit massively from the increased screen real estate and speed (Safari, Mail, Maps), but don’t really add a lot of functionlity over their iPhone equivalents. In a lot of cases it begins to feel like the applications are just being allowed to exist at the sizes they always wanted to be, if that makes sense. Others (e.g. Notes) feel like a bit of a missed opportunity.

Safari is, in many ways, the most important application on the iPad. Just by being a fast as hell browser you hold in your hands and interact with gesturally, it may be all some folks need to justify the iPad. As I mentioned in a previous post, it handily whips Chrome and Firefox on an Ubuntu netbook, both in page rendering speed and pure joy of use — desktop browsers on small screens are seriously compromised applications, being designed, really, for a very different form factor. There are some small but notable improvements over the iPhone’s Mobile Safari as well. The most immediately noticeable is that videos (both native mpeg4 and embedded YouTube, at least… not yet sure about other h.264-friendly sites yet) are displayed inline, instead of forcing a trip to the video player. There’s also an (optional) bookmarks bar. I even have some of my favorite bookmarklets (or at least the ones that make sense there, like Readability and TBuzz) there. It doesn’t do Flash, but if you care about that you’re probably not reading this post.

It’s hard to tell if Mail on iPad is rewritten from scratch or if only the interface has been redone. Like Mail on the iPhone, it lacks a unified Inbox, but switching between accounts is so fast I don’t really mind. It’s pretty easy to plow through emails on the device. You’re not going to type epics on the onscreen keyboard, but reading emails is almost unreasonably pleasant.

iPod application displaying Candy-O by the CarsWorthy of note is the iPod application. Aside from the not really portable thing, it’s easily the most visually yummy presentation I’ve ever seen in a music playing application. The screen size allows displaying CD inserts at full size (assuming you’ve embedded suitably large cover art in your metadata), and it’s really striking with a pretty album cover. The onscreen widgets are all consciously finger sized, including the volume slider. It’s all very tactile.

The Maps application is functionally pretty much identical to the iPhone version, but being bigger makes it prettier. That’s pretty much enough for now.

Notepad is pretty pointless. The only difference is the larger screen size. It brings nothing new in terms of syncing or easy exporting of notes. Meh. Even something as simple as being able to use Bluetooth file sending would help matters. It still insists on Marker Felt.

The Photo viewing app is gorgeous, but it’s not the easiest thing in the world to find the one photo you’re looking for among thousands. For some unfathomable reason, it doesn’t support iPhoto keywords. As an adjunct, you can turn the iPad into a really expensive digital photo frame from the lock screen. It’s also got that “cool to demo, but kind useless”-feature of being able to click on an album and pinch-zoom on a bunch of pics at once. It’s worth noting that the first time you sync photos from your computer to the iPad, it’ll spend hours “optimizing” them. This is irritating when you have a new gadget you just want to play around with. I recommend aborting the process and deferring it until overnight.

The iTunes Store and the App Store are pretty much exactly what you’d expect, nothing more, nothing less. The YouTube app is presentable, and pulls off the admirable trick of allowing you access to the worst comments on the Internet without shoving your face in them.

I suppose I could treat iBooks as a built-in application, seeing as how you’re prompted to download it from the App Store the first time you go there, but I suppose it’ll get a separate post all its own anyway.

:: 18:36
:: /tech/gadgets/iPad | [+]
::Comments (0)

Wed, 21 Apr 2010

iPad Hardware Impressions

This is third in an indeterminate series of posts about my experiences with the iPad I bought on 2010-Apr-12.

iPad posed on stand

There were a lot of fanciful hardware designs being bandied about by people before the launch of the iPad. There were things that had all sorts of ports, buttons, and frippery, obviously coming from people how haven’t been paying attention to the ruthlessly minimal designs coming from Apple for years.

I didn’t really pay any attention to them, because I knew that externally, anything they shipped would be a moderately sized piece of aluminum and glass wrapped around some very understated functional engineering. It would be something with no fans, no battery covers, and the bare minimum of external controls and ports.

Steve Jobs seated w/ iPadIn retrospect, the idea of scaling up the iPhone/iPod touch form was the most logical thing they could have done. This device isn’t being aimed at the neckbeards on Engadget whipping out their spec sheets and measuring units, it’s a device aimed quite specifically at the tens of millions of people whose first experience with Apple was the iPod and/or iPhone. The end result is a device that has a very small number of external controls and interfaces that will feel completely familiar to lots of people. It’s the gadget equivalent of printing “Don’t Panic” across the front in large, friendly letters. It so happens that the chosen form factor is very comfortable for sitting on a couch or an easy chair. There was some grousing that they went with a 4:3 aspect ratio instead of 16:9, but 4:3 makes a lot more sense if you expect that the device is going to spend as much time oriented vertically as horizontally.

After a week of carrying an iPad around in various contexts, I’m very pleased with the form factor. It is a very comfortable thing to carry. The weight, which is somewhat greater than I’d expected, gives the thing a reassuring feeling of solidity. I know, intellectually, that a great part of the weight is the fairly massive battery assembly, but it really gives the impression of being a solid block of aluminum in the hand. As you would expect from an Apple device, the whole thing feels very constructed: there arent any gaps or seams, and there is no “flex” when you grasp the opposite corners in your hands and apply slight twisting pressure. The weight isn’t all good, though. When reading in bed, it’s definitely noticeable if you’re trying to hold the device in one hand. One and a half pounds may not sound like much, but when you’re lying on your back supporting it at eye level, it’s quite noticeably heavier than you’d probably like.

As I stated earlier, it never warms to the touch, even when playing video. There’s some serious hardware witchcraft in this little slab.

All of my performance remarks are subjective. I have an iPhone 3G, and the iPad is dramatically faster in all aspects than the phone. Switching between screens on the Springboard has no delay at all. As stated earlier, the browser is desktop-fast. I don’t know how much of this can be ascribed to the A4 chip, the video hardware, or low-level OS tweaks, but the performance is really quite remarkable.

The multitouch screen is very responsive, of course. I’ll come back to this in a later post, but the iPhoneOS UI really comes into its own when paired with an extra large control surface. There are all sorts of interface niceties that work better on the iPad than on the iPhone, simply because there’s so much more screen and control surface area to work with. The battery life and charging experience is worth a whole post on its own. Suffice to say, being able to get 10+ hours on a charge, even under intensive use, is a huge win.

One minor complaint I have about the form factor is, since the device is perfectly happy to work in any of the 4 possible orientations, it’s very easy to lose track of where the external controls are. I often find myself reaching for the rotation lock or volume controls, only to find they’re on a different edge of the iPad than I thought.

Next up: the included software.

:: 21:49
:: /tech/gadgets/iPad | [+]
::Comments (0)

Experience is a good teacher, but she sends in terrific bills.
— Minna Antrim, “Naked Truth and Veiled Allusions”