Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Another LOL at Apple's app approval process...


I'm not laughing at the fact they approved this particular app. I'd probably sell it in my hypothetical independent app store (if it was actually good, and if I thought it would sell), and I've never smoked a thing in my life.

What I'm laughing at is this part at the bottom where Steve Jobs tries to make a moral stand about not wanting porn in his app store. Despite that Apple allowed all kinds of awful, degrading porn apps for years before throwing down the banhammer. And that it still allows Playboy and SI apps. Also, the iPhone still has a web browser, and last I checked the web browser was the greatest porn app of all time (of all time! — sorry, I'm pretty sure that's not funny anymore).

If Apple had made the right decision and not involved itself in every app sale it wouldn't have to worry about any of this. Steve Jobs wouldn't have to go and proclaim his moral superiority on something he pretty clearly doesn't care about. He could instead go on about things he does care about, like user interface design. Have you heard the one about how he didn't put arrow keys on the original Mac keyboard, to force programmers to create new interfaces around the mouse? Now that was taking a stand! This is just silly grandstanding.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The smell of cattle country

I grabbed this article out of Jess' Twitter feed. Obviously, pretty serious stuff. It reminds me of a few things about the midwest. Now I'm not a farmer or even very knowledgeable about farming or its affect on the land. But I've been to Iowa and Wisconsin. Huge parts of Iowa just reek of manure all summer. And Wisconsin, as all Illinoisans know, smells like cow farts. And anyone that's been on the University of Illinois campus when a big wind kicks up from the south has caught a whiff of that same odor. Lynn Henning is from Michigan, and I can't personally recall any awful smells coming from Michigan, but I don't think I've ever been around her part of the state. I think I'll take her word for it.

Now I'm living in Wyoming. Cattle country. A midwesterner might be inclined to ask me about the smell. There are a few cattle ranches within running distance of my house, not much farther than the South Farms are from most of the UIUC campus. And I go on long runs and bike rides past herds of grazing cattle all the time. And there is, honestly, no smell. There is lots of public land where farmers are allowed to graze their cattle, and I run on some of that land often. Some days you have to dodge a cow-pie every couple steps. I bike through ranch country all the time, right up next to fences with cows lined up looking out across the road. There's certainly a much higher concentration of manure from one animal in those fields than you'd ever see naturally. But there's no nasty midwestern-style cow smell.

So that tells me that the cows in Wisconsin, the pigs in Iowa, and whatever they have down on the South Farms must be packed in a lot tighter than cattle in Wyoming. And, indeed, it turns out that modern CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, a term used in the above article) have giant manure pits because the land can't possibly absorb all of it (this is graphically documented in Jonathan Saffron Foer's Eating Animals). That sometimes they just spray the manure into the air when they have no place to put it. These are massive concentrations of animals. Consider the old Chicago Stock Yards, where there was once a layer of congealed blood six feet deep at the bottom of the Chicago River. That was one square mile of extremely dense slaughtering and packing facilities -- the “hog butcher to the world”. Now Lynn Henning documents a creek running red with bloodworms. She and many others have documented the diseases running rampant in factory farms. We'll destroy the countryside as thoroughly as we destroyed Chicago. In some places we already have.

And it's completely unnecessary. I've heard that cattle and sheep herds have caused their share of problems in Wyoming, that native grass species have been wiped out by grazing and that the landscape has thus been changed forever. But we aren't creating toxic waste pools. Our creeks don't run red. It seems plausible that Wyoming agriculture could go on with relatively few changes for a long time (it might require growth and sprawl to stop eventually). So maybe, just maybe, it's possible to raise lots of animals for slaughter without completely devastating everything (land, water, air, wildlife, human health... care to think of anything more?) nearby.

But there's a trade-off: we can only do it at Wyoming density. Yes, Wyoming exports beef, but it imports plenty of other things, and we'd need lots of land to produce many of those things in a minimally-destructive way. If we wanted, as a nation, to raise and eat as many animals per-person as we do today, and also wanted to avoid the massive abuses of factory farming, I'd guess our population density would have to be closer to Wyoming's than the nation's as a whole.

The other option, of course, is to cut back severely on meat production and consumption. Animals raised for slaughter eat vastly more calories in grain over their lifetimes than they provide (were this not so we'd have some explaining to do to the Thermodynamic Police). This is even true of protein, by several times (the average meat-eating American eats way too much protein anyway). Without animal agriculture we'd need far fewer fields of corn and soybeans, which are no great friends to the environment themselves.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Hi, my name is Al Dimond and I am a waver.

On my run Friday morning in Seattle-land I waved and said, "Good morning," to almost everyone I passed on the Sammamish River Trail. They mostly ignored me completely. Except the old people. Old people rock it. Jess and I are the oldest twentysomethings we know, and I frequently wish people got old faster. Anyway.

I grew up in the west suburbs of Chicago (Elmhurst, IL, to be specific). On the Prairie Path and Great Western Trail in that area, if you wave at people as you go by you have a decent chance to get a response. In Champaign-Urbana, where I went to college, there weren't so many opportunities -- on campus you're mostly dodging people and off campus you don't run into too many people on foot. When you do you typically give and get a wave. Cody is sort of like that, minus the campus part; when I pass someone on foot here there's almost always an acknowledgement.

Running on Chicago's Lakefront Trail is sort of like trying to run on the Quad at UIUC on a weekday in terms of how busy it is. Maybe it's more like a human-powered highway. I'd say its users act toward eachother basically like drivers on a very busy two-lane road. So it's not a great place to run. And Chicago's sidewalks, in many places, are packed with people trying to do very different things than you are. Nobody will wave to you in those places. But if you're on some of the minor trails, or in certain parks in the city, a few people will say, "Hi."

I would have expected, based on their purpose and density, that when running the trails at Rancho San Antonio in California, people would have returned my waves, like they do on the Prairie Path. But they almost never did. And I would have expected the same on the paths in suburban Seattle, but again, they almost never did. I don't think very many people consider Chicago to be an unusually friendly place (and many people consider Seattle to be one); maybe the Prairie Path is just an unusually friendly running trail.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

More on Seattle

Well, at least that's what my notebook says at the top of a few pages. I ran out of reading material and just started writing. I have enough professional sense to not blog about job interviews exactly. There's probably an unintended connotation there, that were I to do so I'd have nothing nice to say. I have enough professional sense to not blog even positive things about job interviews. Similarly, I think there was an unintended connotation when I told John that I couldn't grasp Seattle. Really, I just hadn't had much time to absorb Seattle; I'd been there just over 24 hours and spent a lot of time interviewing, sleeping, eating, driving places (it's hard to absorb a place at anything more than 15 MPH or so)*. I had a long and beautiful run from the hotel in Bothell, but you know, I run for truth, not beauty.

* I rushed my excursion through Pike Place Market and downtown because I thought I had to get to the airport. And even though I had trouble finding an entrance to I-5 at first and eventually took a back surface road most of the way, I got there way too early. It's safe to say I did have time to grasp Sea-Tac, and SLC airport, too. Airports take very little time to grasp. They are mostly culturally blank, purely commercial spaces. Denver Airport, as far as places go, is only marginally interesting, but as airports go it's downright fascinating. There are places in the concourses where you can sit down surrounded by big art installations, and there are places where you can just go where there's just nothing going on at all, not even ads (fr rlz, ppl!). And then there's the terminal, which has all sorts of weird and semi-controversial art and design elements. Plus the conspiracy theories. I'm sure some day the airport will fill out its frame and it will all be ruined.

Maybe the biggest problem was that I kept trying to see Seattle through the lens of Chicago. And it just doesn't make any sense that way (despite the newspaper bringing news of a strip club scandal involving prostitution and political favors, the underground sidewalks, and a street grid that's very Cartesian in places). Memphis has bumper stickers that say Midtown Is Memphis. I don't think Seattle calls any part of itself “Midtown”, but it pretty clearly has lots of Midtown to it. Chicago has rather little Midtown. There's some in River North and River East. Maybe in the northern part of the South Loop.

Ultimately I think if I ended up in Seattle I'd love it.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Bobo marketers gone mad, parts six, seven eight, and nine.

From a bag of potato chips: “We start with farm-grown potatoes, sliced nice and thick.” Emphasis theirs. Yes, really.

I'm not even sure where to go with that.

Friday, April 16, 2010

You Know You've Made a Good Decision When...

You all know I'm not the biggest fan of Apple. But I had to give them some props while trying to figure out some Audacity behavior today. Audacity has some bugs and weird behavior with closing windows on Windows and Linux (Bug 151, if this sort of thing interests you at all). One problem is that it's unclear what should happen, in a multi-window application, when you use an internal program command to close the last window. You might quit the program (this is what Firefox does, for example). Or you might clear out the window so the user can start a new document (like at least some versions of Microsoft Office).

On Mac it's perfectly obvious what should happen when you close the last window. The program stays open and active, just with no windows. It retains control of the menu bar, from which you can start a now document. An application with no open windows is perfectly natural on the Mac. Some programs even start with no windows open (like XCode with the splash screen disabled). Apple's decision to conceptually separate the concepts of windows and applications has stood the test of time. Other platforms have seen the rise and fall of the MDI. On Windows the taskbar once listed open windows. With Office 2000 you sometimes had one entry for the application plus one for each document. Then windows from the same program might be combined. And now, in Windows 7, they're always combined, with the additional change that some tabbed programs treat their tabs sort of like windows (I dislike this change a lot).

The mark of Apple's great design is that it left no other decisions to be made. It hasn't changed in years, while programmers on Windows and for X11 have come up with lots of different solutions and continue to do so, never satisfied. Windows and X11 do not give programmers what they need to have a nice, clean solution, so we cycle through various different sub-optimal solutions. We have to make tricky decisions over and over again.

Why do I mention this? Because of how it contrasts with Apple's position on the iPhone development ecosystem. Apple decided in the beginning that their app store was the only place you could legally get iPhone apps. This has left them an infinite number of other decisions to be made. Every time someone writes an iPhone app Apple has to decide whether it wants to sell that app or ban it.

Now that's a hard decision, and I don't envy Apple in having to make it. Selling something is a pretty strong mark of endorsement. And refusing to allow it on a device is a very strong mark of disapproval. There will inevitably be apps where Apple should logically fall somewhere in between, but Apple has forced itself to make this tough decision every time. I imagine myself in this position. If I opened a software store I would not carry "hot babe picture collection" apps that mostly serve to titillate men and objectify women. But if I created a computer or phone I wouldn't ban them from it. Free speech and that. In an independent store I might consider carrying porn apps that I thought were basically egalitarian — according to True Porn Clerk Stories, which is apparently no longer available on the Web, gay porn tends to be much better in this regard than straight porn. At the very least I'd carry apps full of politics that could be described as radical and language that could be described as obscene. But if my store was officially associated with my device I might take a more guarded stance to avoid alienating customers of the device.

Apple wants to sell apps, so it carried lots of dumb softcore porn apps for a while, and they sold in great quantities. Then it threw down the banhammer, unfortunately citing obscenity. It wanted to avoid alienating customers, so it banned political apps, but it will back down if it doesn't want to appear an onerous censor.

If only they had decided on an open development ecosystem with multiple software sources in the first place. They could directly sell just the apps that reflected well on them, and wouldn't have to ban anything. Their constant equivocation on issues of app availability and censorship is a reflection of their initial mistake.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

"Un-Mac-like" = Apple Apologetics

Have you ever heard a Windows user complain that a common program is un-Windows-like? I doubt it. But you've probably heard Mac users complain about un-Mac-like programs. If you follow through to his screencaps and specific complaints you'll see that they're just general complaints about lousy UI. It would be lousy on Windows or Linux as well. But the idea that Apples have special, magical UI properties has another purpose beyond shaming programmers that didn't check their designs: an excuse for Apple's iron-fisted platform control.

Since I started working on Audacity, a GPL-licensed audio editor that uses the cross-platform WxWidgets toolkit, we've received far more complaints from Mac users about un-Mac-like behavior than from any other platform. And I get out the world's tiniest violin. For the most part, when we make UI mistakes they're mistakes everywhere. And a cross-platform toolkit is what allows us to maintain feature parity across all platforms — we just don't have the resources to write independent UIs for Mac, Windows, and GTK (though the architectural changes that would make this possible would probably benefit the project). My guess is if we did the Mac UI would fall farthest behind. At the very least, Mac users benefit a lot from the common code base in terms of functionality.

So when this blogger writes at the end of his post that iPhone users will probably benefit from Apple's restrictions on development practices, and smears the cross-platform Qt toolkit, I just can't buy it. Believe me, I'm no great fan of Flash (one of the major stake holders in the iPhone/iPad dev tools debate). But the idea that users are better served by having fewer programs available is silly to me.

Sears Catalog Victorians

A week or so ago Jess told me something I never knew about Illinois' built landscape: that many of its homes were built out of plans from a Sears catalog. There's some history about this phenomenon here. Just about anything I present as a fact comes from something linked from there.

I'm just starting to read about this but I already love it. They'd give you the plans free if you ordered all the supplies from Sears, and when you did, two boxcars full of lumber, paint, varnish, nails, and shingles would arrive at the nearest train depot. Then you'd have to find local skilled laborers to perform the parts of building you were unable to do yourself.

I'm trying to think of this through the lens of Christopher Alexander's The Timeless Way of Building. These houses were largely built in the suburbs during the post-World War I housing boom, in the dawn of American car culture. It appears that in some cases a single entity built an entire neighborhood full of these houses at once, but in most cases individual families decided on and supervised construction of the designs. This autonomy could allow for a house built somewhat around the land and the needs of the builder. According to the oldhouseweb link, customization was common and encouraged by Sears, and the houses were often built largely by the homeowners themselves.

Through Alexander's lens, one of the saddest trends in modern housing development seems to be that people mostly don't build or even help design their own houses anymore. Specialized architects plan entire subdivisions and people are left with a small set of generic models. A builder of a Sears Catalog house, though choosing from a catalog, had hundreds of designs to choose from and an infinite array of possible customizations. The houses were built one-at-a-time on land owned by each home owner, allowing neighborhoods to form, and for houses to rise and decay and crumble in their own time. I don't think I'd call the Sears Catalog a "pattern language" exactly, but it seems a lot closer to that than anything being done today (also, you should not pay attention to what I call things because I don't really know anything).

So you can count me as fascinated. I think I can get this book about Sears houses through ILL here, so I'll give that a shot once I'm done with the two books I'm working through currently. Woot.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

I am moving to Los Angeles...

...because I've always wanted to live in the greatest, most beautiful city in the world.

April fools.