Numbers

Let’s do a thought experiment – imagine if Twitter changed its service so that the number of followers one had was completely hidden from public view. So when you encountered a person on Twitter and looked at their profile, you’d have no idea if they had 5 or 50,000 followers. Would that change how you used Twitter? Would that change how you decided to follow people or what weight you gave to their tweets?

What if we went further and simply got rid of all numbers on Twitter, public or private. No one would know how many followers they themselves had, no one would know if their tweets got favorited or retweeted. People would simply talk to each other and see what they had to say, without having to worry about all the metrics that have become so commonplace on social networks. You’d still have indications of whether you were popular or if people liked things you tweeted, but they’d be more natural and less robotic.

In real life we don’t go around with the number of our friends plastered on our forehead. We don’t have metrics to figure out how many times the joke we told at a party was then retold to others. We interact more naturally than that, and it has worked for thousands of years. We actually are forced to observe others to determine if we like them, instead of distilling their entire self down to a number. We don’t know everything about everyone all the time, and that can be a good thing. The unknown can spur us on to find out more and seek out people we might not have interacted with if we saw they only had eleven followers.

However, I see the counter-argument that these numbers are simply a short-cut, a way to quickly determine social dynamics without having to really understand social dynamics. You can tell immediately if a joke is funny by the number of favs and retweets the joke gets. You don’t have to pick up on any social cues anymore, it’s simply mathematics. I’m sure this appeals greatly to people that are bad at socializing in real life and like the more simplified set-up that boils things down to clear and obvious data points. It’s probably not a coincidence that computer geeks are the ones that created these systems.

But, ultimately I don’t think this distillation of socializing down to numbers is a good thing. I do realize I might just be living in the past and have some idealized view of social interactions before the internet. However, I think these numbers are stripping a layer away from our humanity that is important. When we focus more on the numbers and less on the actual people behind the numbers, we lose something. Our interactions become skewed towards getting those numbers, and socializing becomes more a video game with a set goal, rather than simply enjoying people’s company.

What’s the solution though, can this trend be reversed?

I think if someone did create a new social network similar to my thought experiment, without any stats or metrics, that might help eliminate this phenomena. People would sign up and start interacting with others, not knowing how many followers they had on the service or whether their posts got shared or liked. They’d start to care more about the actual interactions, because that’s all there would be. I’m not sure this network would be successful, but at least it would be something different and pull us ever so slightly back into reality.

Earspeakers

So, I wanted a new pair of headphones.

I had a number of random headphones laying around the house, the best being the Apple EarPods that came with my iPhone. While they were actually fairly high quality and had gotten some pretty good reviews, they were still on the lower end of the headphone spectrum. I wanted to step up to “over-ear” headphones, which most audiophiles claim produce the highest quality sound. So I began my search.

The thing about me is I have to heavily research a product before I take the dive and buy a certain model. For the type of research addict I am, the internet provides the drug I crave. Forums, review sites, blog posts, YouTube videos, etc. A person can go down some very deep rabbit holes trying to find the absolute best version of whatever product category they are seeking. For headphones, it’s a very deep hole, as there are literally hundreds of models out there and no shortage of opinions on what are the best.

I began my search where I almost always begin – Wirecutter.com. I find them to be one of the most valuable resources on buying the “best” version of something, and they are very highly respected. They had two categories for “over-ear” headphones – $150 and $300 ranges. I had a budget and didn’t want to go over $150, so stuck with that category. Their top pick were the Sony MDR-7506 headphones, which are considered a classic model. They’ve been around for over 20 years, are fairly widely praised by audio engineers, are durable, and overall produce a supposedly very balanced and high quality sound. They also were going for only $85 on Amazon. Perfect, this seemed like a can’t lose headphone, and I should have just bought them then and there.

That’s not how I do things though.

Instead, I continued the search and looked at competing models, dug through endless Amazon reviews, scoured audiophile sites, and even started asking around on Twitter for advice. My mind kept going in circles as everyone had an opinion and many times the advice was conflicting. I’d read a review stating the Sonys had too little bass, then one that said they had too much bass. I’d read someone claim Audio-Technica’s were the superior brand, then another state they sounded loose and boomy. I’d get recommended a lower cost model of something, than someone would say the higher cost model was what I really wanted. The information soon started to become an overload and making the right choice seemed close to impossible. I wasn’t going to find perfection.

After an entire weekend of research, I pretty much realized I just needed to make a decision and end my indecision. So I came back to the Wirecutter article and decided to just go with the Sony MDR-7506s. I bit the bullet and ordered them on Amazon. Two days later they came in the mail.

I was slightly nervous putting them on for the first time and queuing up a song on my iPhone. What if they sounded like crap and I made a horrible choice? What if I should have gone with the pricier brand? What if they didn’t sound any better than my EarPods? But I pressed play and my fears vanished. They were amazing – crystal clear sound, great bass, great balance on all levels. They were simply the best pair of headphones I’ve ever listened to.

So basically I could have spent five minutes reading the Wirecutter article to find what I wanted instead of two days of endless internet research. However, I don’t really see it as wasted time. While I came back to the place I started, along the way I learned a tremendous amount about headphones, and I kind of enjoyed the search. It was fun, and the minute it started to not seem as fun is when I gave in and bought the headphones. I think it’s fine to geek out on researching products, as long as you know it’s not all that necessary. You are mainly doing it for yourself, not as a way to find perfection.

The Simplified Complexity of Apps

On a recent episode of CMD+Space, Russell Ivanovic, one of the creators of Pocket Casts, discussed the competition that has grown around his app:

I think the downside though of us kind of being one of the bigger players is that a lot of these new apps that are coming out, their selling point is that they’re super simple. We started with that concept originally. In fact there’s an app that came out recently, Castro, and the way that app is laid out, obviously not the way it looks, but the way it’s laid out is very, very similar to version 1 or version 2 of Pocket Casts, even down to the podcast and episode toggle thing at the top. I’m not saying they copied us, I don’t think they would have ever seen those versions of Pocket Casts. But more that a lot of the ideas these guys are having are ideas we’ve had originally, and we’ve kind of refined those ideas and changed them over time. But the benefit they have is they can come into the market and they can say – here’s something super simple, way simpler than Pocket Casts, and so much easier to understand, and not many features and nothing to get sort of tripped over by. Where as we can’t really do that.

Once you have a customer base and once you’re supporting all of them and once they come to love all the different features that you have, it’s never easy to try and pare that stuff back. But I mean on the flip side of that is I see a lot of those apps that launch and people are like “I love his app, it’s so awesome, so simple.” And then they’ll request every single feature that they have in Downcast or Pocket Casts or Instacast or whatever podcasting app they use. It’s interesting to see what those guys do with that then. Do they keep their app simple or do they start slowly adding those features in?

CMD+Space “87: Developing a Podcast App, with Russell Ivanovic” 1:03:00

For years I’ve noticed that most applications slowly evolve from simple to complex. In some ways it’s just the natural order of the universe, that things will always evolve over time and become more complicated. However, the rapid pace of technology seems to push apps extremely quickly in this direction. Something like a stapler can pretty much remain in its original form for decades. However, a word processing application can’t remain the same for even a year or two without people complaining and wanting updates and new features and more functionality.

Therein lies the difficulty in making an app with the intention of having it be simple – can you keep that up indefinitely? Say you want to make a simple, elegantly designed photo editing app. You release it and it’s popular and widely praised for its simplicity. Then what do you do? Can you just decide you’ve achieved your vision and leave it in the app store, untouched, for the next five years?

Past history seems to give a resounding “no” to that question. Apps that aren’t updated or changed are seen as languishing or even dead. Users usually quickly flee and something almost always steps in to corner the market. So app developers are always under this constant pressure to iterate and improve an app – the biggest way being to add more features and complexity. Yet, that then quickly takes away the minimalistic aesthetic that made the app so appealing in the first place.

The quote about Pocket Casts shows the churn that this type of app development causes. You first have the super simple and elegant app that becomes a hit in version 1.0. However, as the versions continue, features are added, the interface is overhauled, more settings are added, more options, more of everything. At a certain point, a competitor usually tries to swoop in with a “simple” alternative and many flock to that. However, that simple competitor than will undergo the same evolution as the original hit app, and the cycle continues.

This isn’t exclusive to apps either. A great example of this churn can be seen in the evolution of Apple’s operating systems. Look all the way back to the early 80s and Apple had the rather complex and hard to use Apple II system in place. However, it ditched that for the Macintosh, a much simpler, easier to use OS. But the Mac OS followed the usual pattern of gaining more and more complexity over the years.

So what eventually happened? The churn continued when Apple introduced the super simplified iPhone, a complete break from all the complex baggage of the Mac. Version 1.0 of iOS (then simply called iPhone OS) didn’t have apps, multitasking, or even copy and paste. Yet, seven years later, iOS is tremendously more complex compared to the original 1.0 release. Yet, users wanted that, they cried out for features every year, and Apple added them back in every year.

I don’t see an easy way to solve this problem. It seems users have this conflicted nature of wanting both simplicity and complexity, and app developers can’t keep both sides happy. You can initially satisfy the simple side, but soon users shift their focus and clamor for complexity. It’s contradictory behavior, as is much of human nature. It becomes a game of tug of war – the developer pulling on one side to keep his or her app’s ideal minimalist vision, and the users pulling on the other side by requesting more and more functionality. There doesn’t seem to be a clear cut answer to this issue, and instead we are left with the ever present churning of simple to complex, simple to complex…

All the Information

Yesterday, Google acquired the company Nest and set off a small firestorm in the Apple community. In most circumstances this acquisition, of a company who’s only products are a thermostat and a smoke detector, would go little noticed and probably has for 99% of the world. But the Apple community has more stake in the game because Nest was founded by ex-Apple engineers Tony Fadell and Matt Rogers, who were the driving forces behind the iPod. They seemed to run Nest with a similar ethos to Apple, by focusing on design, simplicity, and respect for the customer. However, selling their company to Google, who many see as having an opposite ethos of Apple, has riled many people.

Now, I think there is a legitimate argument that Google acquiring Nest is bad because it has a completely different philosophy from what Nest seemed to represent and also has a history of killing products from companies it acquires. Yet, I think some people in the community have gone a little overboard in viewing this acquisition as a way for Google to have access to your house and be more evil and garner even more sensitive information to sell to advertisers. The fact is Google already has access to your house, it’s on everyone’s devices right now. While maybe Nest gives them a few extra data points, the vast majority of people already use Google search, which can give Google much more private information than simply the temperature of your house.

That’s the real issue here, not simply that Google now has an extra way to garner information, but that we already give up so much information already. Our privacy has slowly been whittled away in the last twenty years and most people haven’t much noticed or cared. The reason is we’ve all traded that privacy for the wide open world of the internet, and haven’t looked back. I’ve completely gone along with the crowd and so much of my life is now floating around as ones and zeroes, just waiting for anyone to do the right web search and unveil my innermost secrets. I know this intellectually, but it still hasn’t changed my habits and I continue right on exposing my life everyday.

I think the end game of this might simply be all our information will one day be exposed on the internet. Yet, it will happen so gradually that we won’t notice. We’ll be wowed by internet connected devices that track our movements, our sleep, even the foods we eat. We’ll be amazed by services that organize our social lives and connect us with others. We’ll voluntarily connect into these things, never thinking about the fact that all our personal secrets are now readily available to the world. Eventually we might simply accept that this is the way things are, that privacy as people used to know it has changed and most people’s lives are an open book.

But that fact is privacy has always evolved over time. As societies grow larger and things become more interconnected, people are forced to give up more and more of their once held private lives. I think the internet has exponentially increased this in a short period of time, but people adapt fairly quickly. Most likely anyone born the 21st century will have a completely different view on privacy and may think nothing of the fact a simple Google search can reveal every small detail of their lives.

Right now, I think for all of us born in the 20th century, and who still want to keep some semblance of privacy, we must do it ourselves. It’s become a proactive fight that we have with companies like Google and Facebook and even Apple. We have to keep guard as to what information they are keeping and expose them when that information is handled in improper ways. We also have to speak with our actions and not use services if they are collecting or revealing too much of our personal information.

Yet, I fully realize this is very difficult and time consuming fight. It’s so much easier to simply go along with whatever the new service or gadget is and not pay attention to how that is actually slowly degrading your privacy. It’s a trade-off all of us must make, our privacy for the wonders of technology. While most now seem willing to make that trade-off, I hope they at least think about, if only for a moment, what they are giving up.

The Joy of Technology

I remember being ten years old at a garage sale with my parents when I saw an old cardboard box sitting nondescriptly underneath a table. It caught my eye because it had a computer keyboard sticking out of it wrapped inside a tangle of beige cords. I carefully examined its contents and realized it was an entire computing system, some type of old Atari machine that used floppy discs. I was completely unfamiliar with what it was or what it could do, but it was fascinating to my ten-year old mind. It was only around $10 and I managed to convince my parents to buy it for me.

I remember taking it home and feeling like it was Christmas morning. I brought it down into our basement and started figuring out how to hook it up to our old TV. There was no instructions, but after numerous trial and error, I got it working. The TV started blaring out computerized beeps and the screen flickered with monochromic menus. It had a simple baseball game that I played with for awhile, and some other random discs with various software. Looking back, it shouldn’t have been that exciting, and I didn’t get much use out of the thing. Yet, I was fascinated with the fact I could take this old box of electronics, figure out how it worked, and make it do things.

I feel that many others have similar stories about their childhood joy in experiencing technology, however, I wonder if most of us have let that joy wither as we’ve gotten older. It’s very easy to become so entrenched in technology that you take it for granted and become cynical. You forget how utterly amazing these products being released actually are and focus on relatively minor issues.

This tablet weighs a few ounces too much… this color gamut is slightly off… this button is a bit too small.

There, of course, is a need to focus on minor issues, yet, it doesn’t need to be our sole experience in technology. We should also occasionally remove our blinders and see the big picture. We have miniature computers in our pockets that wirelessly access an interconnected network that spans the entire world – that’s fucking amazing! If I went back in time and gave my ten year old self an iPhone, I think his head would explode. We should appreciate how truly advanced things have become and try to recapture a least a little of that sense of joy in technology we all had as children.

On Battery Life

While the march of progress in technology has been swift and exponential, the one area that seems to lag behind the most is battery life. It has remained fairly consistent over the past few decades, with little “revolutionary” advances being made. There have been improvements of course, but nothing like the Moore’s Law increases we see in memory and processing power. While Apple has always placed battery life fairly high on its list of priorities, it’s faced the same road blocks as every other tech company in increasing battery life in its portable devices over the years.


Looking at the graph of the evolution of Apple’s battery life in its laptops, you can see Apple started off with a bang, having the original Mac Portable computer run with a stellar 12 hours of potential battery life. Yet, that was the result of them shoving in a two pound lead-acid battery, the same type used in cars. Apple quickly realized giant lead-acid batteries would not be feasible in future products and transitioned into more modest NiMH and Li-ion based batteries and entered a long lull in battery technology. For around two decades, Apple laptops had battery lives only averaging around 5 hours. Some were on the lower side and a few higher, but it wasn’t until the last few years that Apple has been able to reach into the double digits of battery life.

In 2010, Apple managed to touch the magical 10 hour battery life for two of its products – the final version of the plastic MacBook and the 13-inch MacBook Pro. For the MacBook Pro, the increase was the result of Apple having transitioned the MacBook Pro line to non-removable batteries and its use of new software technology. However, a year later the MacBook was discontinued and the MacBook Pro was refreshed, reducing its battery life back to 7 hours. It wasn’t until this summer that Apple managed to again reach double digits in terms of battery life in one of its laptops, with the current 13-inch MacBook Air getting an estimated 12 hours. So a mere 22 years after the Mac Portable, Apple has again managed to make a portable computer that has 12 hours of battery life.1


In addition to Apple’s laptops, battery life is a very important part of their iOS devices such as the iPhone and iPad. However, both have been fairly stagnant in terms of advances in battery life over their lifetimes.

The graph above unquestionable illustrates the utter lack of increase (or decrease) in the iPad’s battery life – with every single model, including the Mini, having the exact same 10-hour battery life.

The graph for the iPhone shows there has seen some increase in the past six years, although nothing terribly revolutionary. The original iPhone had only six hours internet browsing over wifi, which has slowly increased over subsequent generations to reach the 10 hours on the current iPhone models. Talk time has also slowly increased to match web browsing with an estimated 10 hours.2


It seems Apple believes 10 hours is currently the magical number in terms of battery life, with all of their devices hovering around that number. It’s interesting that given the dramatic size differences between devices, that the battery life remains fairly close. You’d think the larger devices would have proportionate increases in battery life, since you can fit in larger batteries. However, the larger devices have more power hungry features that eat up the extra battery, such as the large, retina screens in the iPads and the Intel processors and full fledged OS in the MacBooks.

While 10 hours is more than twice the average battery life than previous Apple portables from the past two decades, it still seems rather weak in comparison to other technological advances. Compare the specs of a PowerBook 2400c from 1998 and a MacBook Pro from 2013. The MacBook Pro has a processor that is at least 20 times faster, has over 200 times the amount of storage, and has 500 times the amount of RAM. Yet, despite being exponentially superior in almost every way, the MacBook Pro’s battery life is only a measly two hours more than the PowerBook’s battery. How can all the other technology increase so astronomically, yet battery life basically stand still?

A big part of the reason is battery tech is still rather crude, with batteries being made merely out of mixtures of chemicals such as nickel and lithium. This basic concept of a chemical-based battery hasn’t fundamentally changed for over two hundred years. While batteries have gotten more efficient to some degree, most increases in battery life in the last twenty years are the result of software working more efficiently to make better use of the available battery. But there is a limit to how much you can squeeze out of these small packages of chemicals. Portable devices are only getting more powerful and feature filled, so something will have to give to even retain the current levels of battery life.

With how important these portable devices are becoming in our lives, I think a revolution has to be on the horizon. Some new tech that will blow away chemicals and give exponential increases in battery life. There are candidates out there, such as a silicon supercapacitor, but these are still in the experimental stages. In the meantime, it remains rather disappointing that I can barely get a full days use out of my iPhone, and not even that if I use it more heavily. I hope future generations will laugh at how terrible battery life used to be, and devices will eventually get days, if not weeks of power without having to be charged. Right now, however, that is still a ways in the future.

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1. Later Apple Newtons did get fairly crazy battery life, with the MessagePad 2100 getting an estimated 12-36 hours of continuous use, and 2-3 months of “average” use. However, its hard to compare the very limited Newtons to laptop computers or even iOS devices.

2. This is caluclated using 3G talk time, except for the original iPhone which lacked any 3G capability.

Live Like It’s 1993

Over the past weekend I decided to perform an experiment – cut myself off from all internet. No iPhone, iPad, computer… nothing. I would turn them all off and forget my entire online life existed. I admit this experiment was not really groundbreaking or life altering. Others have done more extreme experiments and most people go without internet for short periods of time for various reasons. It was merely a small, controlled way to gauge what effect the internet had on my life and maybe give me a glimpse into how society in general uses the internet.


The kernel of the idea behind giving up internet was simply to see how people lived twenty years ago and whether things have changed all that much in the present day. In 1993, our computing lives were completely different. The internet was still a small network that only super geeks accessed and the average person had no idea even existed. Some people had personal computers in their homes, but most did not. Cell phones existed, but were the size of bricks and used mostly by rich business executives. It was completely different from what many people’s digital lives have become twenty years later, in which we have 24 hour, unlimited access to the internet on multiple devices.

Given how far technology had evolved in the last twenty years, I anticipated I’d be severely handicapped by not having the internet –cut off from the world at large, isolated in my antiquity. However, what I overestimated was how integral the internet was to existing in our modern society. In fact, the biggest issue wasn’t that I couldn’t function without the internet, it was I simply found myself becoming tremendously bored.

At one point I was waiting for take-out food at a Chinese restaurant and was forced to simply sit quietly and stare at a faded panorama of the Great Wall for 15 minutes. If I had my iPhone I would have automatically pulled it out in that situation, clamoring to find some stimuli by aimlessly clicking through my sites and apps and networks. That was my habit, any time I felt bored for any reason, I’d check the internet. A commercial comes on the TV – check my Twitter. Stuck in traffic – check my email. Sitting in a waiting room –check the news.

This endless clicking around was second nature and probably how I spent the vast majority of my time interacting with the internet. I wasn’t usually looking up useful information or creating rich content or having meaningful interactions with others; I was simply mindlessly checking up on things. This is where cutting out the internet definitely changed things. While I found myself at times becoming extremely bored, it forced me to be more productive. Sitting at home and having no internet to occupy my time, I decided to get some projects done around the house that I had been putting off. Sitting at the coffee shop and not being able to check my phone, I picked up a newspaper and read it, exposing myself to articles I never would have bothered to read on a website. The boredom actually spurred me on, as I couldn’t rely on the crutch of using the internet to exclusively occupy my mind.

On a bigger picture level, a major revelation I had by eschewing the internet for the weekend was how much society hasn’t changed since 1993. We tend to think the internet was so revolutionary, that we live completely different lives than we did even twenty years ago. That if a time traveler came from 1993 he would be totally out of place and not be able to function in our modern society. However, while in some ways the internet, and technology in general, has greatly changed our lives, it still hasn’t completely washed away the past as much as one might believe.

Mail is still hand delivered to our front doors, newspapers are still being printed, landline telephones are still being used. We still go to restaurants, shop at malls, watch movies in theaters. Kids still ride bicycles, go to playgrounds, eat ice cream. People still drive gas powered cars, buy greeting cards, and use paper money. One can still live fairly trouble-free without ever using the internet – many of our parents or grandparents do this everyday. Society has changed, but the growth line of that change is much more gradual than many might realize.

Yet, I’m not recommending everyone give up their internet permanently. That’s obviously not a viable solution and won’t actually help anyone in the long run. People simply need to be more conscious of the way they use the internet. You should be in control of how you use the internet, and not let it control you. Instead of aimlessly checking things every five minutes, maybe check in every few hours. Most likely nothing important will happen in the meantime. Use the time you save to go out into the real world. If you don’t believe me, simply take a Saturday, turn off all your devices, and live like it’s 1993.


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