This is more for me than for you. I love Git, but some of the most useful commands are incredibly idiosyncratic, involving various flags or punctuation ("git push remote :branch-you-want-to-remove" to delete a branch, anyone?) in order to carry out something that really isn't that uncommon to want to do.
Okay, so whenever I add or checkout a branch, I usually want to configure Git to know about the relation. Usually I end up opening up my .git/config file and adding the lines manually:
[branch "branch-name"] remote = origin merge = refs/heads/branch-name
However (as a quick google search will also turn up), as of Git v1.7, you can "simply" type:
git branch --set-upstream branch-name origin/branch-name
It doesn't save you all that much typing, I suppose, but I like not having to involve the editor in such a common task (and you can always alias it to make it easier to recall). That's it. If the act of writing it down doesn't force me to remember, at least now I can save myself the google-fu in order to re-discover the syntax!
There's one small change that comes with OSX 10.7 (Lion) that I'm finding fascinating from a user interface perspective: the reversal of scrolling direction with the touchpad. By default in Lion, when you move your fingers down, your view goes to the top of the page, and when you move your fingers up, your view goes to the bottom of the page.
At first, this feels incredibly awkward, and I was thankful that there was a setting to reverse everything back to normal. I mean, of course when I move my fingers down on the touchpad, I want to go further down the page, right? Why would Apple dare change something so obvious and intuitive?
But wait a minute... the obvious way wasn't the way I scrolled on a touch surface like the iPhone or iPad and I didn't remember those feeling awkward. So I decided to experiment with leaving the reverse (back to "normal") setting off.
A few days later, and now the crazy new way of scrolling feels obvious. I suspected that it might, that it just felt odd because I was used to doing things the other way. But I didn't expect to be able to switch back and forth between old and new easily, which is what happened. I now hardly notice the change from a 10.6 default touchpad scrolling style to the 10.7 default style.
Why is that?
Well, the best I can reason is that both are pretty decent mental models. To make the "old" way feel natural, you simply imagine that the portion of a page that you see represents your field of vision, and to see more beyond the last point at the bottom, you need to move your "eyes" (via the touchpad) down. To make the "new" way feel natural, you move the virtual page instead of your virtual field of vision. So, just as you would read the bottom of a real page if you couldn't move your eyes, you push up on the "page" (via the touchpad).
You could make an argument that the "page" model is the more accurate one, as you can actually see other parts of the screen (and thus the page isn't really just out of your field of vision, but rather it's completely obscured by other elements on the page or the bottom of your monitor). If you think of it, it seems like a lot less work to push one element up in order to see the bottom of it, as opposed to pushing all the other elements down. And that's effectively what you're doing with the "old" style of scrolling.
It will be interesting to see if Apple manages to push overall change in this area. I imagine they're going to have a few things going against them: (1) the option they provided to switch back is probably easier than forcing your brain to recalibrate its expectations, (2) most people will probably mistake "habit" (or "tradition") for "natural" (it's not like we don't do this in other areas of life), and (3) the touch interface isn't directly connected to the display like it is with an iPhone or iPad. I think the last of these is why this "new" method feels odd in the first place. When the touch interface is the display, we have to construct even less of a mental model. Most of it's just there for us. With a touchpad and regular monitor, our brain has to do one extra translation step, and that's just enough to make it a challenge to switch models.
To be clear, I think both ways are completely valid and don't think that one provides a huge advantage over the other when the touch interface and viewing interface are disconnected as with a laptop or desktop. But I think it raises an important question that should be on the mind of anyone designing user interfaces: are you adapting the machine to the person, or are you counting on their ability to adapt to the machine? The former can feel frustrating and nitpicky and far more trouble than it's worth, but after you get it right, it's hard to imagine settling for the latter.
While the proof is still going to be in what they do with these discussions, I was happily surprised at how the Shaw UBB session I went to played out. Now, it's important to remember the purpose of this sort of discussion for a company. I would be incredibly surprised to see any exact implementations come out of any of what was suggested, even though the folks running the discussion seemed very enthusiastic and encouraging over most ideas. One of the major challenges for any business is to figure out the right mix of choice vs convenience. And it was very clear from hearing what other customers had to say that ideas of fairness and what constituted acceptable use varied. Sometimes a lot. And I think that some of the ways in which they varied were quite interesting.
The one point that everyone on the customer side seemed to agree upon was that transparency was essential in the process. Shaw doesn't think that the figures from folks like Netflix and Michael Geist, regarding the last-mile Internet delivery costs being anywhere from 1-3 cents per GB, are quite right. I had in my head the 10 cent or less per GB cost of Amazon EC2 machines. As someone else pointed out, adding more capacity for Amazon in this case involves running a cable across a room, whereas adding more capacity for consumer internet potentially involves laying fibre over miles.
Shaw's own introduction was an interesting look into the challenges of providing residential Internet. They're looking at having to do around 500 "node splits" this year. What's that? Well, you have cable going into houses, but the signal starts to get distorted with cable after a short distance, so you have that cable going to nodes backed with fibre optic lines. Those nodes can only handle so much before another one needs to be put in. I'm not sure whether that's due to the fibre optic bandwidth itself or the processing capacity of the router. Regardless, at that point, if I remember correctly, they'll "split" the node, doubling the capacity and moving half of the residents to the new node. Those nodes go to more and more central stations along the way, which eventually link to the vast web of systems we all know and love. Now, putting in another node means obtaining permits, equipment, and not-exactly-plug-and-play installation. From the decision to "split" to the actual implementation it sounded like anywhere from 6-8 months until the thing would actually be operational. Certainly not trivial by any stretch. From their perspective, they're worried that next year it'll be 1000 splits, the year after 2000, etc. They saw a 60% increase from July 2010 to now. They feel this is unmaintainable.
I work with algorithms and software design. If anyone has a better understanding on the above, please enlighten me. I'm sure there are more than a few errors in what I picked up on.
So that's their side of the story, and they laid it out rather compellingly. I walked in with the impression of the big cable companies and telcos sitting on their thumbs, watching the money roll in and crying that the sky is falling. I left with the impression that they were sincerely trying to keep up with demand.
That said, there was a lot they didn't say and/or couldn't answer. Where did congestion tend to be a problem, for example? At the nodes or more centrally? Was it in the capacity of the fibre itself or the speed of the switches? It makes a bit difference whether you have to lay a bunch of new fibre to double capacity as opposed to letting Moore's law do it for you with better components at the nodes. Was it their efficiency in processing/routing traffic at the more central hubs? Problems there can be solved by smarter design and opening up to competition like the telcos have been forced to do. So while they laid out a compelling argument that it's not easy keeping up with network demand, there was still a lot of room for debate.
Back to transparency. At the end of the night, this was surprisingly the thing that they seemed to feel they would have the most trouble with. I had walked in thinking it would be the easiest. If you can give me numbers that I can independently verify, showing what it costs you to deliver me that GB, then I can decide for myself whether or not you're being fair. I don't have to just take your word for it. And I'm more than willing to pay for my usage by the GB if I feel I'm being treated fairly and you're doing everything you can as a business to be at your best. We know Canada has different challenges than countries where the population is more dense. Just show us the numbers. From their point of view, though, keeping those numbers to themselves plays a big part in business strategy. And in this, they seemed a lot like most more established businesses these days. Transparency seems natural to us, but it's alien and worrisome to an organization. Hopefully they'll find a way to satisfy our need to verify their claims with their need to keep some stuff to themselves, though, as that seemed to be the single idea that united almost everyone in the room.
Going on to the other suggestions...
I found that a lot of people shared my feelings that if you've got a certain cap and you're under one month (and they've demonstrated that they can easily measure that), you should be able to go over by that amount the next month and not be penalized. It's really hard to argue that one, and they didn't try. In fact, they seemed to like the idea themselves. From reading up on other sessions, it has been a popular one.
Raising the cap to something like 250GB was also suggested, of course. For most users, that was equivalent to saying "don't cap me", at least for now. That's of course where my cynicism rears its ugly head, suggesting that something like this would just be too easy for us and too generous of them, given their initial offer. But who knows?
Not monitoring (or providing discounted rates) non-peak hour usage was an interesting suggestion. This would work for those of us who have started using online backup solutions and/or occasionally have to download really large files (full games, for example). Upon hearing about our use of online backup, they asked what we would think of if they provided an in house solution to that. A service like Netflix's was also suggested. I can see the benefit from their perspective. This would allow them far more control to make sure the service met their quality standards and keep it from interfering with more general Internet traffic. I do have monopoly-type concerns with that, though. There's a reason I prefer Netflix to Shaw on Demand. It's quite simply a better service. And though they might be able to copy it, I don't think they would have come up with it unprovoked. I want them to be a pipe. A very good pipe. And I don't mind if they do offer some of their own versions of these services. But I still want to feel choice. I'm intrigued by the backup idea, but if, for example, it didn't offer client-side encryption and encrypted-only storage (so that not even an employee could see what's stored), I wouldn't use it for backup. There's just too much of a chance for a bad employee to compromise personal data unless you're the only one holding the key. I'm able to choose between Dropbox (great interface and tools, but no real encryption - besides creating your own encrypted image and storing that) and Jungle Disk (not a great interface, but client side encryption) and any number of other similar services out there. If the cost of transferring data is prohibitively expensive in choosing anything other than a Shaw solution, that's not enough choice.
Decoupling speed from usage was also brought up, which was something I hadn't considered. Discussion of it also led to, in my opinion, a much more nuanced way of handling network congestion. I feel it's because it gets to the root of the "capacity" problem. See, the problem isn't so much in the number of bits as the number of bits being transferred at one time. That's obvious, you say. But that isn't the problem that caps would be solving. Someone listening to Internet radio all day is probably not hurting network speed for others on the same node, even though when the month is over, they could well be considered a "heavy user". Meanwhile, the person who decides to download a bunch of huge files at a peak hour could be causing a disproportionate strain on the system. The latter may be under their cap but be the actual source of the network capacity issues.
So, is it more important that any time you download something, you can get it at 100Mbit/s, or would you rather be free to use 500GB throughout the month at a rate that's going to be somewhere between 5-25Mbit/s? Personally, I'd be happy with the latter. Gamers or DB admins who need to transfer large database dumps might prefer the former. The one-size-fits-all approach is still necessary for the vast majority of Internet users, as most won't want to think about it. But more customization would allow customers with highly specialized needs to get what they need without being considered a scourge on the system. The guy who's using 100Mbit/s at peak hours and downloading a terabyte per month may be out of luck until that becomes the norm, but most people would probably be able to find something that suits them in the meantime.
Oh the drama of the "usage based billing" debate! Or is it really a debate when one side is a few huge companies with a virtual monopoly on high speed internet and the other side is pretty much everyone else?
The sparring match between the Prime Minister and the CRTC seems to be concerned more with the telco providers than cable providers, as the latter falls under slightly different rules. Also, the CRTC ruling doesn't change anything about what rules can be imposed on end users – it's concerned with the relationship between the telcos and independent providers which need to use the same infrastructure. So it was a nice surprise when Shaw took some initiative and scheduled some discussions about their recent decision to start imposing bandwidth caps.
I decided to take them up on their offer of attending a consultation session and thought I might get a little feedback from my millions of readers on what I should bring up. I'm walking in assuming that they'll see "no caps!" as a non-starter for debate, so with that in mind, this is what I plan to suggest:
- A more reasonable overage charge. If Amazon lets me run a server at ten cents or less per GB of bandwidth, why does my ISP think charging me $1-2 per GB is fair?
- Allow banking of GB under the limit. Most months, I'm using less than half my cap. This month I changed online backup providers and went way over. But throughout the year, it would even out. I think a lot of people are in the same position. Even fairer would be to get money back for the GB you don't use, but somehow I see them less likely to go for that. Businesses like the subscription model for a reason: it makes them a steady income per customer.
- A higher cap. I seem to remember hearing that high speed internet in the U.S. tends to have around a 250GB cap (if anyone has a reference to this, I'd appreciate it!). This seems a lot more reasonable given the rise of services like Netflix, that cause people to legally use a lot more bandwidth. In fact, Shaw's initial decision to start imposing caps shortly after Netflix was introduced in Canada was rather suspicious, as the service obviously competes with Shaw's TV offerings.
- Netflix and Michael Geist have both talked recently about the real cost for last-mile internet delivery (which would presumably be the part where congestion was really a problem). The figure ranges somewhere between one and three cents per GB. If ISPs are claiming that UBB at $1-2 / GB over the cap is fair, they should provide some publicly available numbers to back that up. Otherwise, they shouldn't be surprised when customers think they're just trying to milk them for more money.
Anything I should add? Any corrections to make to that information, or ways that the argument could be strengthened and/or made more persuasive (recognizing the fact that they're in it to make money and are going to be balancing how much the anger of customers is going to cost vs. the amount any concessions are going to cost)?
No, I'm not expecting much from this, but as with voting, I feel that an attempt at positive participation secures a certain amount of the right to complain afterwards. Please get any comments in before 6PM on Monday, March 7th, as that's when I'll be attending. I'll be sure to report back on how things go.
It’s an interesting time to be involved in technology. We’re just starting to figure out how to appropriately compensate artists in the digital age, having finally come to terms with the ones and zeros that made fans more effective music distributors than record companies. Privacy has been completely reframed, from something we expected others to respect to something we’re expected to manage. And now the world’s last superpower watches helplessly as its secrets flood out day after day at the whim of a bunch of idealistic hackers.
Now, and into the foreseeable future, bits will travel faster than law. The sooner we accept that, the better.
For artists, new business models prove more effective than digital locks and battalions of hungry lawyers. In the area of privacy, a simple helping or two of empathy might do the trick. Look for yourself in the face of the kid you’re cyber-bullying. Think of your own wild weekend in Cancún before digging up e-dirt on a potential employee. Maybe her personal life has nothing to do with how well she does her job.
And what about national security? Perhaps Julian Assange and company shouldn’t have tried to usher in total transparency overnight just because they had the power to do so, but perhaps those entrusted to uphold the public good are being unnecessarily secretive out of a similar capriciousness.
Bits move faster than law.
Technology made secrets easier to keep before any sort of reasonable limits could be established. Like it or not, Wikileaks acts as a necessary balance to power. There’s every reason to hold it accountable for whatever damage it might cause, but to call for it to be prematurely silenced simply because we find what it says embarrassing is to betray the very democracy we’re claiming to protect.
Despite not being completely blown away with it (the "it's indistinguishable from magic" propaganda from Apple was a bit much, even though I think the company is probably still the most innovative out there when it comes to making tech products that are actually a joy to use), I decided to line up for the Canadian debut of the iPad. From a pure software developer perspective, it's hard to imagine the future not being filled with more and more touchscreen devices like this, and I've had a few ideas rolling around about apps that might be cool when used with the larger screen (over the iPhone) that the iPad gives. Maybe I'll even be able to beat the expected dilution of the market as the app store gets flooded with iPad apps to do just about anything. (Need to walk your dog, but too lazy to do it yourself? There's an app for that!)
And, admittedly, although I don't share the love of Star Trek that has become part of the caricature of your average software developer, I do find it hard to resist getting to know a new gadget.
So now that I've had a few days to play with it, here's what I do think is amazing about the iPad. Here's the spoiler: it has nothing to do with the hardware.
That's not to diss the people who actually make those electrons flow down the proper channels in such a way that I'm able to hold a tiny screen in my hand for ten hours per charge that makes the room sized computers of fifty years ago seem like a joke. It's just not my domain. I don't see the value of objects in and of themselves. But if we can do something really, really cool with them, well that's when it starts to get fun.
And I think this might be why Apple's iPad has been met with a more dimmed enthusiasm than previous products. It probably doesn't have any more or any less innovation involved than any of their previous products had at the time. It just doesn't seem like as much of a leap. Why is that? I think that a big part of it this time around is that none of the software that Apple has bundled with the iPad is that much different. Hell, they're even using the same operating system that they use for the iPhone with it. I can have an extra column when I use email? A fuller looking calendar? I can read an eBook on it? Well, woohoo.
Then I decided to pull down the first iPad edition of Wired Magazine and I saw the full potential of what devices like the iPad might bring to at least one very troubled industry.
It's mainly about the advertisements.
I found myself almost more interested in them than the various articles. If this isn't the moment for the advertising industry to lead a full charge away from old media forms and onto the Internet, I don't know what is. While everyone uses television commercial breaks to go to the bathroom or refill their drink, the ads in Wired magazine actually made you want to poke around and learn more. They were able to prove you with a simple and elegant, non-intrusive introduction. No blinking neon signs here. Just flip the page to be onto the next article. But maybe something caught your eye? Well, there's a play button you can press to see a video version of the advertiser's message. And if you touch some of the headings, they'll pop up more info for you. Just if you're curious. You don't have to. It's up to you. And hey, if you're really, really interested, here's a link that will take you to their website to actually buy the thing.
It's like being able to have an entire website of information about your product embedded into a single page of a magazine. The purpose of advertising is to interrupt your routine. And that's not always a bad thing. Imagine if you had to actually go out and search for that brand new technology that will make your life so much simpler. How would you even know what to search for? While convincing us of needs that we didn't even know we had can be predatory, and in the current world of advertising it often is, there is nothing inherently evil about wanting to inform people about something they don't know about. What ads like these allow is for the advertiser to catch your attention with the typical "this will change your life" sort of appeal. But it also allows them to be more honest and give you more information right away so that you can decide for yourself how much your life will change and whether it will actually be for the better. I'm not so silly as to be utopian about this and say it's the end of deception in advertising. But I do believe that it provides an avenue for companies to get their message out in a way that doesn't litter our day-to-day lives so much. And that's good for everyone involved.
I imagine there'll be more than a bit of money out there in making these sorts of content rich ads easier to produce and embed. And I don't think there's much argument anymore that the Internet friendly ads like those in the e-edition of Wired are more valuable for advertisers and consumers alike than their old-media predecessors. It must be a heady time for the ad networks to consider the exciting possibilities ahead of them if they decide to go for quality over quantity.
So what else am I interested in seeing on the iPad? Textbooks. Imagine being able to open your calculus textbook, look at a graph it uses to explain a concept, and actually change values to see what changes on the graph? Or to be able to step through a virtual chemistry experiment? How about seeing the effect of your incorrect physics solution on the orbit of a space shuttle around a planet? I think that this level of interactivity could have an amazing affect in the area of education. And who out there doesn't believe that this is an area that we need to pay more attention to?
It's never the hardware that changes the world. It's how we decide to use it. And I can't think of any other device at the moment where this is more apparent than in the iPad and it's soon-to-be brothers and sisters. They could easily be a throw away fad or the future of computing, depending on whether or not they're able to capture the collective imagination of the software development world...
As this article points out, the Wired app may be, technologically speaking, a horrible mess. I agree that simply slicing up images to build your interface when you could be using a lot of HTML 5 to get the same effect is incredibly kludgy, and the amount of space that requires for an app is unacceptable in the long term.
However, I disagree profoundly with the idea that it was a mistake to move away from a more browser-like experience for the e-version of a magazine. I think us techies are sometimes too dismissive of the importance of how something looks. The success of Apple in recent years should have proven that to some degree, but maybe it's one of those never ending arguments. I've read other articles that suggest it's a step back that the Wired app doesn't try to more closely resemble a regular web browsing experience.
But I'd suggest that we shouldn't be so quick to say that the way information is organized right now on the web is at all optimal for every situation. In fact, an article in the current edition of Wired (which, granted, I couldn't have linked to in the app version) points out what I think anyone who still enjoys sitting down to read a real book or even magazine article will intuitively know.
The fact that we tend to follow links, etc. while reading content online, often only skimming content for something in particular that we're interested in, can result in a much more superficial form of learning. To be sure, we're able to get many more viewpoints around any particular issue, and thus get a more well-rounded perspective on it (and I think this is a very positive result of the web), but we're also less willing to sit down and give a lot of time to considering a single viewpoint before going elsewhere. There is a value that you get from sitting down with a single work (be it a novel, essay, or whatever) from a single mind, and giving it your full attention that you can't get in any other way. It may not seem as useful in the fast paced world of the web, but I think we ignore that at our own peril.
So I actually like the fact that the Wired App presents a unique and visually engaging experience that makes me want to actually sit down and read an article all the way through. It doesn't leave me feeling fidgety, wondering what else is out there on the Internet that I'm missing out on because I'm focusing all my attention on this one thing. And I hope that as we bring the experience of reading things like novels more into the electronic realm that we consider this. Yes, it's great to be able to cross-link and do all manner of Web 2.0 stuff with a novel. But I don't want that stuff to be in my face. I want it to feel like I'm reading a book most of the time. I think that's valuable. I like the idea of giving a designer control over everything, even the font face, so that he or she can present their full vision to me for a given publication.
There's a lot of thought that goes into laying out a magazine or even a novel for printing. Just go to any bookstore and pick out a pulp book to compare to one from an author du jour. Don't look at the quality of the writing. Look at the quality of the presentation. Taking away anything about the actual content (i.e. remove the actual author and subject matter from the picture). Which one's easier to read? Probably the one with the bigger budget. And that doesn't mean you need a big budget. It just means that considering those minute details involved in choosing typefaces, line spacing, layout, page-breaks, etc. (which tends to happen for books with a bigger budget) makes a difference. It's nice to be able to change fonts, etc. on something that's poorly laid out. But I'd rather just get a good quality layout. If I'm still paying $10 or more for an e-version of a book, I actually expect it. A plain text document might give me all the power in the world, unless my interest is actually reading the thing.
So, yeah. Can Wired on the iPad use some improvement? Certainly. But I still think it's a step in the right direction, especially for an avid reader, not to be confused with an avid web-surfer, although you often find people who fall into both groups.