I do a lot of sitting.
Like, a lot. I sit in my home office for eight to nine hours every day doing TR-related work. Once I'm done, I go on sitting there doing other things—working on personal projects, playing Trackmania, wasting my time on Reddit, and so forth.
I take breaks, of course. Every now and then, I'll walk to the kitchen, open the fridge door, decide that I'm not hungry, and walk back to my desk. If it's not raining, I'll go outside for a walk. Even if it is raining, I may venture out into the city to run errands.
But, yeah, I mostly sit. That's why, nearly six years ago, I paid an almost outrageous sum of money for a fancy ergonomic chair.
The Herman Miller Mirra served me well. It encouraged me to sit properly, and even when I slouched, it was far more comfortable and supportive than the cheap office chairs I'd sat in before. I could get the lumbar support and seat depth just so, and I could make the chair lean forward when I needed. And, heck, the thing looked plain cool, like something out of Star Trek. I was delighted.
Well, at least at first. A couple of years ago, I started noticing some tingling in my right pinky and ring fingers. I blamed my mouse initially, and when changing mice didn't help, I fiddled with the armrests and tried to use my left hand to mouse for a while. Some of those things helped. I got better, then worse, then better, then worse again. Finally, last winter, I got some x-rays done and went to see a physiotherapist. I was told that my upper back and neck were the problem. In short, it was a posture issue. I started going to the gym, doing stretches, and watching my posture more closely.
But it wasn't just me showing signs of wear. Over the years, the curve of the Mirra's back had flattened somewhat, and the lumbar support had lost much of its rigidity. The other day, I tried sitting in my girlfriend's cheap Ikea chair for a few days. And guess what? The tingling in my fingers got better.
In the end, I decided to call my local Herman Miller distributor and get the Mirra serviced—then to sell it and buy another, better chair.
I settled on the Steelcase Leap. The Leap is a favorite among many, and some, like the folks at TheWireCutter, recommend it over the venerable Aeron as well as Herman Miller's new flagship, the Embody. The Wall Street Journal called the original version of the Leap "Best Overall" in 2005. I ordered the V2 model, which has softer arm rests, a taller back, and other design tweaks. It set me back $755 before tax, which is a lot, but not that much for something in which I spend most of my waking hours.
On October 4, the Leap showed up at my door. Here's what I typed in our staff IRC channel immediately after sitting in it and making the requisite adjustments:
wow, this steelcase chair... instant relief
The Leap looks pretty unimpressive next to its Herman Miller counterparts. It has padded cushions instead of fancy mesh materials, and there's a lot of plastic covering things up. Steelcase has put an adjustment guide under each arm rest, too, and it has labeled the adjustment knobs with both printed text and Braille. Looking at this thing, you get the sense the Leap was designed to populate boring offices filled with normal people—not European design studios rife with iMacs and glass-top desks. If Herman Miller can be accused of favoring form over function, Steelcase is the polar opposite.
Yet, as boring as it looks, the Leap is just as adjustable as the Mirra—and, more importantly for my needs, its back has a much more pronounced curve with some much-needed padding. Adjusted properly, the Leap almost punishes me for not sitting up straight. Even brand new, the Mirra only ever encouraged good posture, and it never insisted too terribly much.
The Leap made my back better instantly, but it took me over a week to get really used to the thing. See, the Mirra has a flexible mesh seat, kind of like a hammock, that molds itself to the shape of your butt. The sides and front of the chair are rock-hard, but the part where your butt hangs is very soft. The Leap is the other way around. The front edge never cuts off circulation to your legs, and the sides are soft, but the part where your butt goes is quite firm. There's a couple inches of padding and a hard surface underneath, and that's it.
This is a deliberate design choice on Steelcase's part. Here's what the company says about it:
Does a thicker seat cushion mean a chair is more comfortable?
Not necessarily, some chairs have thicker foam that may feel softer initially, but will lead to user discomfort after an hour or two of sustained sitting since thicker foam typically provides little ergonomic support. This is not good for the life of the chair or the long-term comfort of the user. In essence, foam that feels great initially does not always translate into long-term seated comfort.
Steelcase also badmouths mesh seat designs like the Mirra's. It claims they restrict user movement and cause discomfort when your body touches the hard frame supporting the mesh. "Moreover," it adds, "the side forces that are felt when you push down on mesh will have a tendency to 'squeeze' you into the chair, resulting in uneven pressure distribution."
I don't know about that; the Mirra's seat was pretty comfortable. The Leap, on the other hand, is literally a pain in the butt unless it's adjusted just so. Seriously, it's very unforgiving.
However, now that I've found the correct seat depth, lumbar height, and back tension to accommodate my flabby body, the butt soreness has given way to a feeling of firm support. The firmness keeps me alert and aware of my posture—and every now and then, it encourages me to change position or to get up and walk around, which is what you're supposed to do. The back isn't cold and hard like the Mirra's, but it's just as punishing as the seat if you slouch. When I get up at the end of the day, my back is still curved, and the whole middle third of my body is a little sore—but in a good way, like after a visit to the gym.
More to the point, the Leap helps to keep my ulnar nerve from getting pinched. Even after a long day of typing, benchmarking, and Excel jockeying, I feel little to no tingling in my fingers. And now, sitting in other chairs—even the Mirra—brings back the symptoms in a hurry.
So, yeah. Good job, Steelcase. You made me super uncomfortable for a week or so, but it was worth it.
When the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One were announced earlier this year, I saw it as a victory for the PC.
Soon, it seemed, bringing major blockbusters to the PC would be easier than ever. There would be three major gaming platforms—the PlayStation 4, the Xbox One, and the Windows PC—and each one would be only a slight twist on the same basic formula. Each one would feature an x86 processor, a DirectX 11 graphics chip, and its own, custom-tailored operating system. How could it get any simpler?
It couldn't. Instead, it got more complicated.
Last month, Valve announced SteamOS, a Linux-based operating system built around the eponymous game distribution service. SteamOS will show up on a whole lineup of Steam machines next year, and although it will let users stream games from Windows PCs, it will also run games natively. On the operating system's reveal page, Valve teases, "Watch for announcements in the coming weeks about all the AAA titles coming natively to SteamOS in 2014." In other words, big, third-party publishers may soon offer games for both Windows and SteamOS.
On the heels of Valve's announcement, AMD revealed Mantle, an API that lets developers optimize games for AMD hardware. Unlike Valve, AMD wasn't shy about naming one of its partners. A version of EA's Battlefield 4 optimized for Mantle will be released in December, not long after the game's scheduled October 29 debut. Other partners will no doubt follow, as will other titles.
Now, all of a sudden, next year's gaming landscape looks to be shaping up very differently. Instead of three major platforms based on a common hardware architecture, game developers will face two monolithic platforms and a fragmented one—the PC—that will have two starkly different operating systems and three different APIs—Direct3D, OpenGL, and Mantle.
SteamOS will complicate things by virtue of its existence. I wouldn't be surprised to see it become so successful that games must be ported to it, yet not successful enough to dislodge Windows completely. If that happens, then developers will have no choice but to support both Windows and Valve's operating system. This will mean extra work. Given the funding and time restrictions game studios often grapple with, we may see longer delays between console and PC releases as a result—not to mention lower-quality ports.
Mantle is kind of a double-edged sword, as well. While it may simplify some facets of cross-platform development, allowing console optimizations to be shared with the PC, Mantle may also encourage developers to prioritize AMD hardware at the expense of Nvidia GPUs and ever-faster Intel IGPs. In a worst-case scenario, non-AMD systems will end up delivering a second-rate experience, with worse performance, worse image quality, and more bugs.
This could all make PC gaming somewhat daunting to newcomers. Today, buying a decently powerful PC opens up access to a huge library of games, from point-and-click adventure titles to the latest cross-platform shooters. Next year, things will be different. Because of SteamOS, not all gaming PCs will be able to run all PC games, unless one is prepared to install a second operating system. And because of Mantle, buying a machine with a GPU from the wrong vendor could mean missing out on critical optimizations.
Now, don't get me wrong. SteamOS and Mantle also have the potential to do great things for the PC. Microsoft's custodianship of the platform has been marred by stagnation and split loyalties, and Valve could do a far better job, especially in the living room. Mantle may also enable optimizations that let PCs match or surpass the performance of next-gen consoles more easily. That could make PC gaming more, not less accessible, even if buying an AMD GPU is required.
Nevertheless, I think it's a dangerous time to tinker with the PC gaming formula. We're on the verge of a new console cycle, and the PS4 and Xbox One are about to reduce the PC's performance and image quality lead by a long shot. Next-gen consoles will likely be more affordable than comparable gaming PCs, as well. If the PC becomes too fragmented, and if playing games on this platform becomes too complicated, then I fear we'll see many folks take the easy road and switch to a console.
There's always been talk about innovations on the console front spelling doom for PC gaming, and it's never been true. Today, however, I worry that innovations from within the PC camp are threatening the platform. At a time when the line between PCs and consoles is getting blurrier than ever, too much fragmentation could damage the platform beyond repair. And PC titans like AMD and Valve would only have themselves to blame.iOS 7: replacing the elegant with the tolerable
If I had to describe the totality of Apple's hardware design during the final years of Steve Jobs' tenure, I would use one word to do it:
My iPhone 4 was elegant. When I got it, I would often take it out of my pocket just to tinker with the software and to admire the hardware. It was sleek, sexy, modern, and fast. It was like Scarlett Johansson in a red dress or George Clooney in a tuxedo. It wasn't just effortlessly desirable; there was something special about it, a magnetism that made you want to keep looking, and staring, and admiring.
The same goes for many Apple products I've used over the years—my old aluminum MacBook, my new iPhone 5, the wired aluminum keyboard on which I'm typing this blog post. Even the lowliest of Apple cables and connectors have an elegance about them. Sometimes, when I have to charge my phone, I'll take an extra moment just to look at the Lightning connector—and then I'll plug it in, and I'll get a small whiff of satisfaction from the way it clicks into place. This doesn't happen consciously. Something about Apple's hardware design just seems to trigger that kind of reaction.
Apple owes this all to one man: Jony Ive. Sir Ive has been in charge of the company's industrial design for close to two decades. Recently, he was put in charge of human interface design, as well. iOS 7, the first release to bear his mark, came out yesterday, and millions of Apple users rushed to download it.
I was one of them.
I was excited about iOS 7. As an admirer of Ive's hardware creations, I was excited to see what he'd contribute to the software side of things. Plus, iOS was starting to look a little dated. Some of the UI widgets had been around since the release of the original iPhone in 2007. Seven years is a long time. In seven years, even the prettiest thing can start to get tiresome. It was high time for a new injection of elegance.
Well, I've been using iOS 7 for about a day now. I've used it on my iPhone and on my girlfriend's iPad. I've poked around the UI, agonized over a new wallpaper selection, and rearranged my home screen icons.
My verdict? It's okay. It's a little bit cleaner, a little bit brighter, and a little bit more colorful than the previous release. Apple has added some nice features, like Control Center, and it's made much-needed improvements to old ones, like multitasking. The animations look neat, although they do make the phone seem a little slower. Using iOS 7 kinda makes you feel like a disembodied spectator sometimes—unlike iOS 6, which was very fast and responsive.
For the most part, though, iOS 7 is okay. It's new enough not to look old, and it's pretty enough not to look ugly. It's fine.
And that's exactly what's wrong with it.
There's no elegance anymore. No magnetism. Nothing about the way iOS 7 looks makes me feel happy to be an iPhone user. Nothing about it makes me want to poke around the interface just to admire it. There's some mild curiosity, perhaps, but no admiration. Nothing like what I get from looking at Apple hardware and holding it in my hand.
Part of the problem, I think, is that Apple went overboard with simplifying the UI. Simple design is good, but make something too simple, and there's real a danger of it losing its identity. Some of the new iOS 7 apps, like the Calendar app, remind me an awful lot of Google apps. The Apple version is usually a little nicer, a little cleaner, but the difference is subtle enough not to matter much.
Some of the icon and button designs also feel a little half-baked. The Safari icon looks sort of sad. The Music icon has an angry red-orange gradient. The Reminders icon is kinda nondescript, and the Calculator icon is bland and not pleasing to the eye. In Safari, three of the five buttons in the bottom bar have pale blue outlines and a roughly rectangular shape, so they're instantly forgettable (and a little tricky to tell apart at first).
Then there are the new, over-saturated backdrops that clash with the icons and obscure the text labels on the home screen. See the image of the iPhone 5C variants above. Where's the elegance? Where's the charm?
iOS 7 will no doubt be improved, refined, buffed out. Jony Ive will hopefully get better at the whole UI design thing. But until then, iOS 7 will dilute the elegance of Apple's hardware with a look and feel that's merely tolerable. At a time when Apple's dominance is being challenged more than ever, being merely tolerable is very dangerous.The desktop PC needs a makeover
My PC is too big. Much too big. I'd always vaguely suspected it, but testing Corsair's Obsidian Series 350D case earlier this week made it quite clear.
My PC is full of air and unoccupied slots and bays. I have four 5.25" optical drive bays that I don't use. The top one houses a DVD burner, but I can't remember the last time I stuck a disc in it. I moved to Canada over three years ago, and I'm positive that I've never purchased a blank DVD in this country.
Half of the expansion slots on my motherboard are set dressing. I only have a dual-slot graphics card and a sound card. In fairness, I use five of my six hard-drive bays—but that's because I'm still holding on to old drives, including a 320GB WD Caviar SE16. If I were to build a new system today, I would probably need just two 3.5" bays, with one 4TB hard drive in each. Add a 2.5" solid-state drive for my OS and applications, and I'd be set.
I'm sure I'm not alone. In fact, I'm willing to bet the vast majority of PC gamers and enthusiasts out there have just as much empty space in their PCs. Oh, don't get me wrong; leaving room for upgrades is fine. However, in the age of laptops, iPads, and smartphones, it seems a little strange that we should all have humongous mid-tower PCs full of air.
Over the past few days, I've been trying to picture what a modern desktop PC ought to look like. We could redesign everything completely, of course—introduce new form factors all over the place and wind up with something close to perfection. However, I think we can already improve things greatly with a few simple, practical steps:
That's about as far as I've gotten just now, but I'm sure there are other things we could do. And I'm sure you folks have ideas, too.
The broader point, though, is that desktop PCs could use a makeover. With just a handful of good initiatives, and maybe a new standard or two, we could make desktop PCs substantially simpler to build, more straightforward to use, and easier to carry around. Not every enclosure needs built-in cabling for everything plus a dozen front-panel ports, but we should at least offer those options. The easier it is to build a PC, the more people will do it, and the better the industry will be.I choose to be spied on
I choose to trust Google.
I choose to trust Facebook, Microsoft, and Apple. I choose to give those companies access to all my data—every picture I take, every e-mail I send, and every document I save online. They get my vacation photos and birthday wishes, and all the Skype calls I make with family members and coworkers. I could use the phone, but why bother? My phone calls are recorded, too.
I choose to trust the government. Not just the government of Canada, where I live, but also the governments of the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and other western countries that monitor online communications. I know that fighting terrorism is just a pretext; I know there are a million reasons to keep tabs on citizens, because knowledge is power, and power is irresistible. But I choose to trust that that knowledge won't be used to blackmail me, to detain me indefinitely, or to get me to inform on my friends, family, and coworkers. That kind of thing went down in East Germany, but Canada and the U.S. aren't East Germany. Our countries are free and democratic and governed by the rule of law, and free nations never become un-free.
I choose not to hear too much. When I see the latest leak about how my data is harvested, or about how the government coerces businesses into collaborating, I read the headline, sigh, and move on. I know how the rest of it goes. I know things are ugly. But the more I know, the more I hate myself for my own inaction. Each news story is a reminder that I've been robbed of my privacy and that I've done nothing to take it back. I should close my Facebook account, encrypt all my communications, and disable iCloud on my iPhone... but what's the point? They can keep my data forever. And one day, they'll be able to decrypt anything.
Thankfully, there aren't that many stories. There aren't that many reminders. In the news, I mostly hear about Edward Snowden. What was his girlfriend like? Will he seek asylum in Venezuela? I hope they don't catch him. I think he's a good guy. I'd hate to see him rot in prison for the rest of his life.
I choose to go on with my life. I'm a busy man: I have a job, a girlfriend, and hobbies. I have movies to see and cable shows to watch. These flagrant incursions on my privacy don't affect the way I live, because for the most part, I'm still free to say what I want and to do what I want. When you have a job and a home and a flat-screen TV, complacency is always the easiest course of action—even when important ideals need safeguarding.
I choose to leave it up to others. The enormity of it all, the way it's all coming out in the open, makes me hopeful that someone, somewhere will do something. Maybe congressmen and MPs will stand up for my rights. That's what they're supposed to do, isn't it? Or maybe activists will walk down in the street and wave flags, shout slogans, and wash pepper spray out of their eyes until the NSA and its Canadian and British and French counterparts are neutered or dismantled. If enough people started marching, I would probably join them. But I wouldn't go down there all by myself.
I choose to wait. Subtle changes are always subjectively nonthreatening, whether it's the oceans rising or the Internet turning from a wild frontier into a mass surveillance tool. There will be plenty of time to solve it tomorrow. Or next Wednesday. Or next year. I haven't been personally inconvenienced yet, so what's the rush? Wait, hold on... I think Futurama is on tonight.
Finally, when it's late at night and I can't sleep, I choose to feel hopeless. Because I understand technology. I've been using technology, thinking about it, and writing about it for most of my life. I know what it can do and what it shouldn't. I of all people should be getting royally, supremely worked up about all this.
But I'm not.
And if I'm not, then who is?At WWDC 2013, Apple showed its new soul
There was something different about Apple during yesterday's WWDC keynote. I couldn't put my finger on it at first.
Part of it was the glitchy developer demo at the start of the keynote. Right around the time Tim Cook should have been waxing poetic about Apple's accomplishments, two scruffy guys from a small robotics start-up took the stage and horsed around with toy cars.
Then came Craig Federighi. Apple's new software chief made the OS X Mavericks and iOS 7 demos come alive. He joked around with the audience and poked fun at himself. He came across as warm and personable—the polar opposite of Scott Forstall and Bertrand Serlet, the former iOS and OS X gurus, who always exuded cold intensity and rarely, if ever, strayed from their rehearsed remarks.
And then there was the new Designed by Apple in California campaign. After years of squeaky-clean, product-centric ads, Apple ditched the white backdrops, the oversaturated colors, and the catchy indie hits. It gave us honesty and emotion, and it tried to communicate something profound about its identity.
I think I know what's happening: Apple is growing a new soul. It's growing a new identity based not on one man's ego, but on human ideals we can all connect with.
It did something similar in 1997 with the Think Different campaign, which changed Apple's image from that of a dying PC maker to that of a champion for idealism. But then Jobs fused his identity with Apple's, and there was no longer a need for the "Think Different" credo. From 1997 until October 5, 2011, Jobs was the soul of Apple. He shaped the business, vetted the products, and stood on stage alone to introduce everything that came out of the company. He made Apple seem like a flawless machine whose only purpose was to bring his vision to fruition.
When he passed away, Apple became soulless. The people Jobs had hired were still there, and so were the products he had helped create. So, too, was the design and management infrastructure he had put in place. But there no longer seemed to be anything holding it together. The loss was so great that, after just a few months, people began to wonder if Apple had lost its way. They wondered this even as Apple continued to carry out Jobs' plan and to release the products he had vetted. Because he was gone, the magic was gone.
Apple stayed in this uncomfortable limbo for 20 months. Then, at WWDC 2013, we saw it finally fill the void left by its founder's death. There was no bold talk of corporate restructuring or rebranding. Rather, the new ad campaign, the tweaked keynote style, and Federighi's antics showed a side of the company we'd never seen before—a human side, a relatable side that might have been stifled by Jobs' perfectionism and arrogance before. Watching the keynote, I felt like Apple had gotten a new lease on life. The company seemed emboldened by its founder's legacy yet free from the weight of his influence.
And all it said was, "We are Apple. This is who we are."
Companies without soul can prosper. Firms like Microsoft and ExxonMobil post healthy profits and, for the most part, delight their investors. But nobody feels a personal connection to them. I think Apple came dangerously close to following those companies down that dark and dreary road. However, I think Tim Cook and his team were perceptive enough to steer clear of it and, once again, imbue Apple with human qualities. Those aren't the qualities of the old Apple—charisma and persistence and arrogance. They're new qualities like warmth, playfulness, devotion, and humor.
That's the sense I'm getting from yesterday's keynote, anyway. The new Apple may never be like the old Apple, but from what I saw, it could turn out even better.An ode to the Kindle Paperwhite
Oh Paperwhite, my sweetest Paperwhite
In softness clad, and black as moonless night
Submerged in all thine words, I do thee clutch
And thou, to me, feel'st like a lover's touch
My eyes aloft o'er fonts as clean as dew
So easy 'tis to lose myself in you
Caecilia and Palatino, my dear
Did not before look quite so fine and clear
I loved thy sister, trusty Kindle Touch
But next to thee, my sweet, she lacks so much
Face sunken in and fussy as a bee
Could not tell cloth from skin, it saddened me
And when the sun at day's end went to rest
The words at once became as dim as west
So dark were they, I huddled by the light
of bulb, or tube, or candle in the night
One day I laid the words on fine a slate
A thing with bigger screen and greater weight
Yet soon my eyes grew weary from the glare
And seeing the faint reflection of my hair
But thee, O fairest reader of them all
Have no such flaws, no penchant to appall
When set all day upon thine front-lit face
Mine eyes do not fatigue, do not give chase
To chapter's end, to hasty epilogues
They seek the words like famished pollywogs
And though 'tis true you are not free of kink
One glowing edge, one corner tinted pink
Your screen, when dimmed to match the light around
Is fairer than what printed things abound
Except, perchance, a Gutenberg Bible
But paperbacks were never as noble
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