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A Eulogy for 2D Animation

Ironically, it’s been John Lasseter who’s championed 2D animation within Disney. Since Lasseter became the Chief Creative Officer at Walt Disney Animation Studios, they’ve released two traditionally-animated films to critical acclaim: 2009’s The Princess and the Frog and 2011’s Winnie the Pooh. Unfortunately, they weren’t financial successes, and CEO Bob Iger has no plans to continue the program. The bottom line: CGI films are making more money.

Cinderella’s Castle Set Against a Blue Sky

The past century taught us to expect more of Disney. From the Apple-like attention to detail in their early animated films to their equally detail-oriented theme parks, Disney built a corporate identity that didn’t look all that corporate. The Disney we love isn’t focused on profits, it’s focused on art.

That Disney still exists, but only in one private division: Pixar. I’m not harping on CGI films at all. I love Pixar. Thanks to Pixar, quality animation continued into the computer age. Computer animation can be just as beautiful as hand-drawn, traditional films. But is anyone arguing that Wreck-It Ralph is superior to The Princess and the Frog? I don’t think so.

Pixar has its strengths, and it sticks to them. Brave wasn’t its best effort and Cars 2 didn’t do so well commercially, but that isn’t going to stop them from pushing on with their craft. Pixar (like Apple, hmm) is a company with a culture based on the quality and artistry of their product, and not on making money. Revenue is secondary, needed only to finance the next piece.

It’s fine if Disney wants to experiment. Experimentation is good! But it should be done for artistic reasons, not monetary, and not if it leaves your core culture in tatters. Wreck-It Ralph and Tangled are great films, but Disney need not abandon their roots. It makes good business sense, but it rejects their values. Here I’ve been harboring under this idea that good business sense isn’t Disney’s top priority. Maybe I’m deluded.

There’s still artistic value left in traditional animation, and Disney has traditionally been the only consistent purveyor of the form. It burns me to see this company I’ve respected, and whose products I’ve cherished, abandon the medium and values I associated with it.

The Apple Alarm Clock

In June, I speculated on the future of Apple TV, and that was fun. I thought to myself gee, this speculating thing is fun, I should do it again sometime. So let’s talk about clocks.

More specifically, the bedside clocks meant for rousing non-morning people in the morning. The most disruptive thing that’s happened to the alarm clock industry was probably the smartphone. I and (I presume) many others have switched full-time to using our smartphones as our only alarms. It’s terribly convenient to open the Clock app on my iPhone to quickly toggle an alarm on or off or readjust the going off of one.

(The best part is the ability to adjust my alarms when I’m out and about. There’s a German word for the anxiety felt when One’s out of the house and unforeseen events force the adjustment of the time One must wake the next morning, and One must force Oneself to remember to adjust One’s alarm accordingly when One gets home, because One remembers the last time this happened, when One forgot to adjust One’s alarm, and One remembers the hatred One felt toward Oneself that following morning when One woke up two hours too late.

I don’t know what it is, but I’m sure it exists. One, you poor bastard.)

Thing is though, a smartphone is a terrible alarm clock. Smartphones are designed to be carried with you wherever you go, to sit in your pocket until called upon. They’re meant to be held, so they are thin and light. They’re meant to do everything, so they have minimal physical buttons.

They’re not meant to sit on your nightstand for all the hours of their existence, dutifully displaying the time, all the while bottling up their desire for attention, only to let loose in the one daily moment they’re called upon. They’re not meant to be chucked across the room in anger at the realization that One stayed up way too late last night. They’re not meant to have the snooze button punched as One decides to risk it and doze for another 10-er.

Such is the purpose of the alarm clock.

The Dream Machine Next to a Dream Machine
The nightstand is no place for a smartphone.

With that in mind, I made the decision to switch back to using a dedicated alarm clock and — to my chagrin — I discovered that alarm clocks haven’t progressed at all past iPhone docks. The best you can do (and what I’ve settled on) is a $15 Sony Dream Machine1. It’s pathetic, really.

What if Apple isn’t going to disrupt the watch industry after all? What if, instead, they’re going to change the way the entire world wakes up in the morning? (OK, they’re not, but keep reading.)

If we could combine the benefits of the the smartphone alarm and the dedicated alarm clock, well wouldn’t that be dandy. We could. Next year, what if iOS’s Clock app has an API that broadcasts its alarm settings over WiFi. Alongside this new API, Apple releases a well-designed alarm clock accessory, the “iWake”. iWake plugs into a wall outlet and connects to your home WiFi network through AirPort Utility on your Mac or iPhone. Jony Ive heads its design, and we get a revival of the classic Dieter Rams/Dietrich Lubs DN 40. iWake has a single button on top (and it is one seriously great feeling button); press it once for snooze or long press it to silence the alarm for good. iWake is made of polycarbonate, and comes in a multitude of bright spring colors.

With the Clock app on your phone (or iPad, or the dashboard widget on your Mac, which now sync via iCloud), you can adjust your alarms and tell your iWake which ones to go off for. If you’re out and about and you find out you’ll need to wake up early tomorrow, open the Clock app on your phone, set the alarm and that information is automatically pushed to iCloud and then to iWake. Tomorrow morning, your alarm goes off without you giving it a second thought. Goodbye, mystery German word.

I want iWake three years ago. The technology is there but no one is doing it. While I’d love for it to come out of Apple, I realize they probably have bigger things going on. So why not someone else? This shouldn’t be too hard to do and do right. You don’t even need that Clock API I talked about to make it work, just write your own app.

Well, what are you waiting for? I have somewhere to be tomorrow, get to it!

  1. Which has actually been discontinued, but you can still pick them up at Walgreen’s, so there you go. ↩︎

Casual Indeed

When the wealthiest author in the world, the author of a series of books that sold over 400,000,000 copies, a series of books that spurned the most successful film franchise of all time, releases her first out-of-franchise followup, it is expectedly a big deal.

The Casual Vacancy on a Red Chair

It is unexpected that that followup is an idle political novel about a pastoral English village. No one could have predicted The Casual Vacancy. It’s true that we didn’t know really what to expect, but at the least I and others probably thought her next book would land to similar praise and adoration as her others. As I read through it, I constantly was waiting for something big to happen. My expectation of a “Rowling” novel was bent by the fantastic adventures of Harry and friends. Unfortunately I could not appreciate Vacancy for the earth-bounded story it is. I found myself guilty of the thing I’ve poked fun at so often. As so many have lambasted Apple for not delivering earth-shattering revolutionary products at every single event, I was heartbreakingly disappointed with Rowling for not delivering another smash hit.

Stylistically, Vacancy is exquisite. I mustn’t have realized it, as I grew up alongside the Harry Potter novels, reading each of them in turn as they came out, but Rowling’s writing has really matured. Comparing Vacancy to Philosopher’s Stone, the quality of the writing has gone from great to lust-worthy. Don’t get me wrong, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is one of my favorite novels, and the writing is great. Vacancy is just that much better.

To use a specific example, this was my first encounter with extended parentheticals, and I love them. Syntactically, they are super effective delineating a passage (often a long passage) that breaks from the set narrative. Whether it be a flashback, an extended description, or other diatribe, it is made clear that this little bit (right here) is separated. Of course they wouldn’t be so effective if they weren’t placed with the utmost care. J.K.’s shows an amazing aptitude for placing them exactly where they ought to be, providing clarifications and deviations at exactly the times they are needed and never when they would disrupt any of the import, climactic business going on. I could continue attempting to explain exactly why they’re so delightful, but honestly it would be much easier if you read the book and discovered for yourself.

In this novel, for the first time in her writing career, Rowling experiments with out-of-sequence, Pulp Fiction-y storytelling. Throughout the first part of the novel, the point-of-view shifts between different characters and different moments in the timeline of their lives. As we’ve come to expect from Rowling, the backstories are richly detailed. Often tidbits from their background are revealed through those extended parentheticals. The impression given is that Rowling has spent many months in the village of Pagford researching all of the intricate details of every single one of her invented characters. She must have volumes of notes in equivalent detail to those she created for the Harry Potter universe, but with every detail of Pagford jotted.

(I like to imagine that the Harry Potter series, The Casual Vacancy, and the Cormoran Strike series all take place on the same alternate Earth. Actually, I prefer to imagine that it isn’t an alternate Earth at all.)

Fortunately since I read it I’ve had many months1 to reflect. Over time my opinion of it has grown fonder, and my disappointment has waned. The Casual Vacancy is a read not meant to keep you up into the wee hours turning pages. The characters aren’t remarkable. They are human. Humans are boring. They are relatable. Muggles. When you can accept all of that, it’s a lot easier to praise its delights.

I was initially disappointed but this novel isn’t disappointing. It can be difficult to accept that your favorite fantasy author isn’t actually a “fantasy author”, but it’s a good thing. Limiting J.K. Rowling’s talents to one genre wouldn’t be any fun at all. The Casual Vacancy is a superb example of the kind of novel I wouldn’t usually read.

A detective novel, though… that’s something I could get into.

  1. Including the four months it’s been since I promised this review↩︎

I Don’t Need to Sleep

I’m belted into the window seat and the sun’s going down. My flight was delayed on the tarmac for two hours but that doesn’t upset me. What was already going to be a late bed time has been pushed back further. I have to be at work early tomorrow. But that doesn’t upset me. I am upset, though. I’m upset because my favorite place in the world is behind me and two months of longing is in front.

For years now I’ve had the idea that I’d live in Manhattan. When I was a high school sophomore the idea sounded nice, but distant. It was exciting but I wasn’t anxious about it. When I applied to colleges, I didn’t seek schools for English and Political Science. I saught schools in New York. I made the enormous mistake of visiting before I heard back, so when I returned home all I could think about was how upset I’d be if I didn’t get in. I did. The idea was becoming more real. Grades, AP exams, and graduation kept me distracted and the waiting didn’t hurt.

For the past year I’ve known this is where I want to spend the next four years of my life. Now, with sixty days until I move in, New York feels farther away than ever.

It was this latest trip that did me in. When Daddy Warbucks and Annie broke into “NYC” during my first Broadway show, I wanted to cry. In the observation room on the 102nd story of the Empire State Building last night, the idea that I’d call this magnificient city home hit hard. On the steps of Tiffany and Co. on Fifth Avenue, pastry in hand, immitating Audrey Hepburn… It was romantic. Sixty tedious days as an ITO intern at a car dealership contractor in west central Texas separate me from a life in my favorite city.

The Island of Manhattan from the Staten Island Ferry

I’m belted into the window seat and the sun has set. I’m begging the pilot to turn around.

Raindrops on Roses and Whiskers on Kittens

The first computer I remember loving was my 12-inch “second generation “dual-USB” iBook.

I owned many computers before it, hand-me-downs from an eccentric grandfather. All of them ran Windows XP, often poorly. When the last of them crapped out, I was given the iBook. This was in 2007, and by then the machine was going on six. It too was recycled, this time from my schoolteacher grandmother. It was my first experience with a Mac, and it was great.

If I was handed an equivalent machine today, I’d probably toss it. Back then, I dealt with the quirks that come with owning an aged, outdated machine because I didn’t know any better. It had a 10 gigabyte hard drive and a PowerPC processor whose speed was measured in megahertz. The ethernet port demanded constant upward pressure to maintain a connection1. If you dared to alter the position of the hinge, the backlight would eek revenge and shut off. To adjust the angle of the display, you had to put the machine to sleep, make your adjustments, and wake it back up again. My iBook’s idiosyncrasies were nothing if not infuriating.

But god dammit, those details didn’t matter. That machine was reliable. Every single day I trusted it to boot up and run Firefox and AIM2 and TextEdit and every single day it did. I was involved with a couple internet communities (far too deeply than I care to admit) and my iBook was my only method of connection. And it did. I’ve never since used an Apple product for so close to its intended use. I was uninhibited by the computer and its components, and I just used the damn thing.

With college coming this fall, a laptop was at the top of my shopping list. When the MacBook Air was updated two weeks ago, I made a purchase. I’ve been using it for a week now, and it’s great. It’s the best computer I’ve owned. In so much of it I see my punchy little iBook.

I’m savvier now, but I find myself just as uninterested now in the specifications and details of my laptop as I was then. Rest assured, the storage is measured in triple digits and the clock speed in gigahertz. Many laptops on the market are boasting about their super high-resolution touchscreen displays. The Air might seem archaic in comparison. Its screen is small and low-resolution. It isn’t even and IPS panel. As with my iBook six years ago, these details don’t matter.

The Thine Edge of the MacBook Air

My machine is reliable and solid. It runs the best operating system in the world. It runs all of the apps I need, and runs them well. Most importantly, it gets out of the way and allows to me do my best creative work. That’s the essence of every thing Apple makes. Six years ago I missed this remarkable distinction of Apple products. Now I’m fully aware.

While the 2013 iteration of the MacBook Air isn’t too different from the last, and though it might not match up in a checklist comparison to other Windows notebooks on the market, it is the best computer I have ever owned. Perhaps the best in the world.

  1. Mine was not AirPort equipped. ↩︎

  2. Those were cool once. ↩︎

Modern Vampires

Last year when Jukebox the Ghost released their third album, Safe Travels, I was critical of it for getting too serious at a detriment to the fun and upbeat style I loved about them. I posited a theory of “third album syndrome” and wondered if Vampire Weekend could escape it. Turns out they could. Modern Vampires of the City, Vampire Weekend’s third effort, is out now. I’ve been listening to it for a week now, and it’s my favorite album of all time.

Modern Vampires is a continuation of the technological experimentation first pushed with 2010’s Contra. Auto tune, pitch-shifting, and echoes all play a part in the first single off the album, “Diane Young”. It’s modern, in that it is available to the band only through computers, but it sounds and feels completely natural. It’s so tastefully done you don’t recognize it as techno. It’s just good punk rock.

Modern Vampires of the City on Vinyl

Modern Vampires pushes also the clever lyrics and wordplay we’ve come to expect of Vampire Weekend. “Leave me to myself / Lead me to my cell” is a particular favorite, off “Everlasting Arms”. “Hannah Hunt” is brimmed with eloquent lyrics: “A gardener told me some plants move but I could not believe it / Til me and Hannah Hunt saw crawling vines and weeping willows / As we made our way from Providence to Phoenix”.

“Hannah Hunt” is my favorite track off the album, and I think Vampire Weekend’s best track to date. It, like all of the songs on Modern Vampires, has been ceaselessly iterated upon. Nuances catch your attention the third, fourth, and eighth times you listen to it (and you will). When Ezra Koenig sings “In Santa Barbara…” the guitar shifts to a tropical sound and you can hear the lapping waves of the ocean in the background. It may sound cheasy reading about it, but trust me, it is beautiful. “Hannah Hunt” is a soft track for two and a half minutes, and then five drum beats bring it into the most equisite ninety seconds of songmaking I’ve ever heard.

All of the songs give of this aura of development and iteration. It is clear that the Vampires have been relentless pursued perfection on this record. Each song is handcrafted and stands on its own. At the same time, they are together cohesive and tell a story. Said Rostam Batmanglij (guitar, keyboard, and backup vocals) in a recent interview:

I think we realized there’s no easy way to arrive at having twelve songs that you’re very proud of. There’s no shortcuts that can be taken. You just have to write and write and write and rewrite and revise. Hopefully that’s what we’ll always do. We’ll always be as hard on ourselves as we were on this record.

If I had one major criticism of Vampire’s debut, it would be that the tracks were too individual. Individually great, yes, but as a whole it eas clear the album was a collection of singles. Contra swung perhaps too far in the other direction; the songs didn’t stand quite so well on their own. Modern Vampires of the City is right in the middle. It’s best listened to as a whole, straight through, but you can shuffle it into your other music as you please. I don’t imagine you’ll want to listen to anything else, though. At least for a while.

Waiting three years for Modern Vampires sucked, no doubt. But if this is what Vampire Weekend can deliver with three years of work, then bring on 2016.

The iPhone 5

Word on the street is I’m a little late with this review. Sorry about that. To answer the most pressing question: yes, the iPhone 5 is not only the best iPhone ever made, it is the best phone ever made. Period.

Last year I got my first iPhone, a 4S, and this week I upgraded that device to a 5. While I loved my 4S (still do), I am amazed by how much better the 5 is. Apple took the previous best phone ever and made every part better.

The aluminum body is stronger, lighter, and feels better in the hand. The Apple logo and legal copy on the rear of the phone are now much more subtle and beautiful. The buttons and ringer/silent switch all feel excellent. The earpiece (now with noise cancellation) sounds fantastic. The phone is exceptionally thin.

The iPhone 5 Leans on a Coke

The new display is beautiful and obviously better once used. I had doubts, before I used one, about the height being awkward, but it isn’t. There’s no going back1. Speaking of no going back, LTE is wonderful. With few bars on AT&T, I consistently get 5 Mbps down and with full bars, I’ve seen as high as 63 Mbps.

And battery life is actually improved over the 4S. When I go to bed at night, the 5 has about 30% of its juice left. That’s with 6 hours of usage, which a week ago would have killed my 4S. I don’t know how Apple added so much, made the phone smaller, and got battery life. But I’m glad they did.

OK, praise over: I have two caveats. First, while the taller is screen is awesome, I wish the physical height of the device had remained the same. Conceptually, you could fit a 4-inch screen on a phone the size of a 4/4S. Now, I am sure Apple wouldn’t have been able to make all of that fit, but I’d love to see the next form factor return to the physical height of the 4/4S.

Number two: the headphone port. It’s been relocated to the bottom in a seemingly arbitrary move. I assume this had to do with fitting everything in the device, and it isn’t a major annoyance but: prior to the 5, I never once even thought about the location of the headphone port. Now, though, I think about it every time a 3.5mm jack gets in the way of my typing.

The iPhone 5 is a huge upgrade over the 4S. I recommend to any one that can justify it to upgrade (if you haven’t already).

  1. Apple added exactly the number of pixels necessary to add exactly one row of app icons to the home screen, turning the aspect ratio to exactly 16:9. That worked out so perfectly that I’m inclined to believe this was planned from the beginning. ↩︎

EarPods: Better Late Than Never

While most blogs probably have their hands on iPhone 5, I’ll talk about something a little more within my means: EarPods. Audiophiles will want to skip this review.

I first got my eyes on EarPods when I linked to a leak out of Vietnam. I was pretty certain that leak was legitimate, and at the time I said so because of a rule I came up with all by myself. Let’s call it ‘Defomicron’s 1st Law’: if purported Apple product makes current Apple product look like outdated pile of poo, then purported product is probably authentic. In the case of EarPods, this is certainly true.

I never hated Apple’s old earphones; I was not in the camp that claimed they had unforgivably terribly audio quality or were a child of Satan. I’ve owned several pairs of Apple’s earphones, and can say that since 2001 they have definitely improved in sound quality and durability. Calling each step along the way gradual, however, might be overstating it. EarPods are orders of magnitude greater than any earphone Apple’s ever created, including the $39-turned-$79 in-ear models.

EarPods on the Pier

For the first time in a $30 pair of buds, I can hear bass. Not teenager-in-a-Honda-at-the-stoplight bass, mind you, but bass that enriches the music in the way it was meant to. If you’ve been hearing your music through an older pair for a while as I have, you might have forgotten by now that ‘Oxford Comma’ isn’t supposed to sound like it’s being drummed on aluminum pie pans, but trust me when I say you won’t want to go back. According to Apple, slits in the bud and step of the EarPod allow for the acoustic chamber to breath and give us that bass. I can independently confirm that if you cover a slit, audio quality degrades instantly.

Apple says they spent three years developing the EarPods, and I believe them. For one thing, Apple has kept the old design way too long. For another, EarPods really are that good. The new shape both looks straight out of 2001, and fits much better1. Despite the body being entirely made of hard plastic, I find them very comfortable. I can leave EarPods in for hours at a time without any semblance of ear strain, a feat unrivaled, in my case, by any other bud.

While I can’t comment on long term longevity, I will affirm that EarPods look like they’re going to outlast their predecessors, if only for the absence of the rubber rings that tended to fall off. Since an EarPod is made entirely of plastic, there doesn’t appear to be a weak point in the bud itself. On the cable side of things, Apple has added a second sleeve wherever it connects with another piece. Hopefully this additional insulation will prevent the cable from tearing as it has suffered from for years. EarPods certainly seem poised for the test of time.

The new remote control is heavenly. It has been lengthened and widened, and the buttons given a much more satisfying click. Around back, gone is the microphone grill. Instead, we get a glyph that I find rather awkward. As it turns out, the microphone grill on older earphones was a placebo, meant to comfort those of us who just aren’t quite comfortable speaking into something that isn’t mesh. That’s a roundabout way of saying that audio quality is the same as or better than before, even without creature comforts. Oh, and I wouldn’t be surprised if a future refresh of EarPods removed the microphone glyph altogether.

It would be wrong of me to detail my experience with EarPods without revealing the one weakness I’ve found, so here it is: a lot of my earbud usage is on a bicycle, which has consistently been a week point for them. Apple’s old earphones, while usable, were distorted by wind interference and struggled to make themselves heard over the noise. EarPods are, if anything, worse. The microphone works just fine on a bicycle, even for Siri. So there’s that.

EarPods are a marked improvement over all of its predecessors. I think it signifies a rededication at Apple to doing every little bit right. As with the Lightning connector, Apple is looking at each individual aspect of their creations and making it the best it can be. Are EarPods the greatest earbuds that have ever been made? Naturally not. But they are the best $30 buds you can get.

  1. Notably, my sample pool is two. ↩︎

Third Album Syndrome

Safe Travels, Jukebox the Ghost’s newest album, is out this month. I’ve finally got the chance to give it a listen, and I’m sad to report that Jukebox has fallen ill to what I’ll call “Third Album Syndrome”.

The album, their third, lacks the upbeat, happy that hooked me into Jukebox about a year ago. With Let Live and Let Ghosts and Everything Under the Sun, Jukebox crafted a masterpiece that I can listen to on repeat for hours and never tire of. The only other band that’s captured me in such a way is Vampire Weekend. I’ve actually drawn several comparisons between the two groups: in both cases, the first album contained many great singles that are fantastic to listen to on their own. Both band’s sophomore albums contained more mature tracks and more cohesive albums that are enjoyed best when listen to as a whole. And with both bands, their songs (at least on a surface level) talked about inconsequential topics (commas, UFOs) that might be a bit obscure, but — importantly — aren’t whiny, bitchy, or moany.

Safe Travels, on the other hand, is definitively serious. I’m not necessarily even referring to the lyrics, but to the songs in general. There’s a certain moodiness and angst to the entire album1 that makes it a much less fun to listen to, and Jukebox the Ghost’s fun was one of its best attributes. “Everybody Knows”, the twelfth track from Safe Travels is the notable exception and my favorite track from the album. It manages to capture some of the magic of “Schizophrenia” and “Hold It In”. So there’s hope.

A Plucked Guitar String

This is a blind and probably ignorant/arrogant assumption, but I get the impression that young (or maybe just small) bands think that at a certain point they need to “get serious” with their music. The problem is that their Hakuna Matata-nature2 is what we fell in love with in the first place, and if you change that, what do you have left? That’s what I call “Third Album Syndrome”, and I hope Jukebox can come back from it.

Perhaps I haven’t given this album enough time, and perhaps my opinion will change like it did with Contra. I still love Jukebox’s non-standard instrumentation and Ben Thornewill’s vocals, but I am concerned for album number four, and worried about Vampire Weekend’s third.

  1. I have no idea how to write about music. ↩︎

  2. Seriously, not a damn clue. ↩︎