Happy Valentine’s Day (to those who celebrate it)!

Random Notes, February 14, 2020 Edition

The New MacBook Update

I really love my new MacBook Pro. I’m going to say it: it’s my favorite. Computer. EVER!!! This includes any personal laptop, desktop, server, or WorkTop I was issued. OS X MacOS has a few quirks that drive it into tablet territory, but it is still very much UNIX under the hood. The tight integration with the hardware makes it quite stable. I don’t spend hours trying to figure out how to make something work (or have some fix blow up when I update), and I don’t have to reboot to a different operating system just to use common applications, like Word or Zwift.

I thought the Touch Bar was a bit of a gimmick. But for GUIs, I always found the function keys to be a bit superflous. I’d say laptop manufacturers agree: they tend to default them to control buttons (volume, brightness, etc.). If the software it Touch Bar aware (or I take the time to configure it in BetterTouchTool), it becomes more useful. I like how I get a timeline controller for music and video, for instance.

Where it really shines, for me, is that it is a real computer that is portable, as opposed to transportable, in a meaningful way. Every laptop I had in the past was relativley heavy and bulky. My more recent WorkTops, even when fresh out of the box, might get three or four hours of use on a charge. This could work for a meeting or, maybe, a flight, but you were committed to bringing a charger (which, in turn, adds bulk and weight). If I needed a device I can count on for a day, I’d be looking at my iPad, but that has its limitations in terms of capability and use (on screen keyboards are OK for short notes, but hard for anything more).

In contrast, this MacBook is quite compact for its screen size. It’s as thick as a 13” MacBook Air (the “portable” model), though it maintains that heigh front to back (as opposed to the Air, which tapers down), and doesn’t weigh much more. It is about two-thirds the height of my WorkTop, a Lenovo T490, itself fairly thin and light. I can slip both into the laptop sleeve of my backpack, and not feel like I’m taking that much extra weight.

More importantly, the battery life is outstanding. Most reviews claim around six hours, and that seems to be a conservaitve figure. If I’m just surfing the web or doing some basic documents and have minimal accessories, twelve hours is in reach. If I’m doing something more processor intensive, like Zwift or video editing, it consumes battery faster, but stil quite acceptable. It is quite realistic to put just my MacBook in my bag, and use it all day.

I only have two complaints: the ports and the keyboard. I’ll come to the ports in a minute–I have deeper thoughts on USB-C, but will note that having only two ports on the whole machine, while providing a clean look, is a limit that I bump up against and find frustrating.

While I like the touch bar, the system lacks a physical ESC key. As an EMACS user, this is a bit of a limiting thing. I’m getting the hang of it not being there, and can almost do a no-look hit of its spot on the Touch Bar, but I still would rather have the real thing.

The main keyboard, however, is not my favorite. There were reports of the “butterlfy” keyboard having issues in its first few iterations. The actual number, while higher than prior keyboards, was not super-high, and they’ve made improvements to the technology and warranty coverage. My understanding it was created to allow for the thinness I spoke of earlier. That said, I just don’t like the feel of the keyboard. It is almost like I’m having to push into the case, and the tactile repsonse is…off, somehow. I have a mechanical keyboard I rescued from a data center trash pile I can use, but I can’t tote that everywhere.

All in all, I love my MacBook Pro. It has a few quirks, but ones I can live with, and can even appreciate.

Transportable vs. Portable

I think of computers-you-can-take-with-you in two categories: transportable and portable. I would expect a portable computer to be:

  • Small enough you can take with you easily
  • Reqiure minimal “infrastrucutre” to work (i.e. not a dedicated desk)
  • Self sufficient for a meaningful amount of time (i.e. have enough battery life, compute power, and other hardware for, at least, a morning or afternoon)

A transportable computer does not offer much in one or more of these categories. While an extreme example was the old-school Compaq “luggables” (about the size of a sewing machine), a lot of laptops, while technially portable, are really more easily-moved desktop systems.

For instance, my 15” HP Omen could be taken from place to place, but was awkward to use without a decent table or desk, and chewed through it’s battery life rather quickly. I could move it around the house easily, and maybe even spend an hour or so at a coffee shop, but I couldn’t count on it if I needed to work on it for an extended period of time.

It’s not really a binary situation, but more of a quesiton of degrees. This is not an official categorizaiton–it’s more something I think about.


XKCD on Standards

I have a love-hate relationship with USB-C.

It seems like a great idea: to have one port that can do anything–power, data, networking, and video–and can be daisy-chained to allow a variety of functions at the same time. With the hub I got, I can do networking, data, and video on one of the two ports on my machine. It has made the device more modular: I don’t have to have a video port if I’m just taking it to the coffee shop, and thus can have a thinner machine.

USB-C is becoming a standard for charing laptops. Both my Macbook and my WorkTop charge with USB-C. This commonality means I don’t have to drag my charger home each night–I can just use my MacBook’s. I even bought an extra USB-C charger so, if they are dressed in to my desk neatly, I don’t have to dig it out. It wasn’t Apple branded, so it was inexpensive, and I wouldn’t buy a charger for my WorkTop otherwise. My extra charger and the Apple USB-C charger just have a port for a cable–I can buy a USB-C cable of any length relativley cheaply as well.

Right now, however, you need to buy hubs or adapters for almost any device. I have a few cables and adapters that let me just plug in a legacy USB device, like a hard drive or my Ant+ dongle. The adapters, designed for one device, stick out well beyond if I was plugging in to a native port. For a drive, it’s not a big deal–the drive is relatively big no matter what you do, and generally don’t stay in the computer 24x7. The dongle for a wireless mouse, on the other hand, is meant to live in there. When plugged in to a standard USB port, doesn’t stick out that much, but it’s considerable with an adapter. It’s not practical to leave it in the port when I stuff the laptop in a bag, and it’s awkward wehn moving it around the house. I mitigated this by getting a BlueTooth mouse (so no dongle is needed).

The frustration grows when you need additional devices. When I bought the MacBook, I got an inexpensive hub so I could use my existing devices with my new computer. The specs looked OK, and it does quite fine for a lot of day-to-day stuff. What I’m discovering is it does have a few limitations:

  • It does not do any sort of power pass through or charging. If I’m using the hub and don’t want to run off battery, both of the USB-C ports are occupied. In-and-of itself it’s not a big deal except…
  • It’s a hub, not a switch. If I plug two USB drives into it with the intent to transfer data between them, it becomes a bottleneck. I can plug each drive into its own port (or one into the hub), and the transfer speed beocmes acceptable. With only two ports, however, I get concerned about battery life–powering the drives is a hit, and it takes a while to copy stuff.
  • It does not have a USB-C port on it–not an issue today, but may become one.

I’ve yet to find a hub/switch that has the ports I want, does power, and isn’t expensive. The exact scenarios I’ve come up with don’t come up that often, but it is frustrating when it does.

The larger issue, for me, is that, once I get all the dongles, hubs, and other gadgets to make a laptop work with equipment that is not just legacy but quite common, I’ve added a cost to the laptop. It may be that, five years from now, USB-C devices will be as common as legacy USB, and some of this becomes moot with more wireless device sand cloud services. It is still frustrating at this stage.

WebCams and Laptops

While looking for specs for my WorkTop, I came across an article wondering why laptop webcams were 1 megapixal. The basic response from manufacturers was that most people didn’t base their laptop decision on the webcam, and, in fact, favored their SmartPhones for such functions. The writer seemed incredulous–wouldn’t a 4K camera be better?

I have to say, I don’t get the author’s ire. While I’ve been in organizations that pushed for video conferences, the follow-through has been spotty. More commonly, I see the webcam covered with a piece of tape. In fact, one of the things I like about the T490 is that it has a physical shutter.

I’d say that phenomenon is evidence that the manufacturers have a point. I could see upgrading it if it was as cheap or cheaper to use the higher resolution camera (may be the existing line), but it does not strike me as a selling point.

Deep Cuts, Windows Edition

I started my career in the early Nineties. This was the start of the transition from a physical to a digital office. During the two-and-a-half years I was at my first job, we went from maybe a dozen desktop computers for a company of 100, to almost a system-per-desk. At the time, being “good with computers” was a way to start a career, which I was able to grow, moving into servers, consulting, and eventually operations managment.

I was quite technical back in the day. While I don’t need to be at-the-prompt technical anymore, I try to keep current with what’s out there (so I can follow a converstation), and have my own systems (such as this one), to have some idea what it takes. I think it helps me follow converstaions that, even if I don’t know the exact technology or circumstance, I can kinda follow along.

Recently, at my new job, I was asked to look into something. I was told by an systems administrator that, for reasons associated with Microsoft Windows networking and security, it couldn’t work. I accepted his answer at the time, but thought about it: we did something similar back in the day. It was a kludge, kinda ugly, but worked. As a work-around, it may be applicable.

I remembered the key to all of this was the lmhots file, which allowed manual pointers to domain controllers to be set. I typed up an email explaining the idea, and sent it to the SysAdmin. He came back later, and told me that, while he didn’t need to use that file, he determined we could do what I was trying to accomplish. I don’t know if my noted called him out technically, or merely demonstrated I was serious in wanting them to look at it. My hope is that, if nothing else, I established some geek cred with that team.

What I Don’t Know About Text Editing Makes an Inadequate Post

I had some bits from the Top Ten Pieces of Software I Don’t Use Anymore (But Miss) post that got edited out, but seemed like it would make the basis of a different post, about the state of Word Processing in the Twenty-First Century. I had a few points that seemed relevant:

  • In the Twenty-First Century, most document are never actually printed
  • I was going to mention (again) my EMACS/Markdown/Pandoc system.
  • Right after the post went up, I decided that I really would rather use Microsoft Word instead of Apple Pages (as I initiatlly thought I might). Word processing, these days, really just means Word.

I started to write a draft.

I started over.

I re-read my notes. I reread the bits I was recycling.

I thought some more.

I realized it was more complicated that I thought. I did’t know what I was talking about.

What were the points that stopped me.

  • While most people type things, only a handful of it winds up as a “document.” Put another way, what constitutes a document in the Twnety-First Century might be a document, e-mail, extended comment on a web post, or any number other things.
  • …it might also include things even less obvious, like an Excel or PowerPoint file, where the tool was used because it was easier than a traditional platform.
  • Today, Word may be king, but my daughter’s generation is not assuming that as the default. She tends to use Google Docs–it’s what they use in school (the price is right), and, while it may not have all the features of Word, it does have everything they need, and very strong collaboration tools.

If I wanted to predict the future, I’d guess it’d be some combinatoin of Google Docs and Slack, where collaboration is favored over having ever feature, and printing is optional. But the key take aways is I really don’t know.