I’ve accepted a new job, and for the first time in 15 years I’ll need to commute by car. A mere 8 or so miles, which I might occasionally cycle (though the half-decent cycle route is a lot longer) or even run (hey, it might happen) but realistically I need a car. We have a family car already, but I can’t take that to work everyday as the rest of the family need it, so car number two is required. Ideally a nice, reliable, every day driver, that’s comfortable, practical, good in stop-start traffic, and with great fuel economy.

So I fulfilled a long-held dream and bought this twenty five year old Porsche 944 S2.

Porsche 944 S2

It’s a beautiful thing, to me at least, though perhaps others see a relic of everything that was bad about the 80s. It’s a 1991 model from the end of the run, but basically an 80s car. It has a three litre inline four engine, putting out 211hp, that’s basically half of the eight cylinder 928 engine, with balance shafts to keep it smooth in four cylinder configuration. It has pop-up headlights. It even has a really very useable boot – seriously. Finally, and critically, there are two seats in the back that are genuinely big enough for my two kids. It’s lucky I and the wife have relatively short legs, so the front seats aren’t pushed back too far.

I was a bit worried about picking up the car and driving it back down the M1 to its new home, as the critical rubber timing belt has not been changed for 11 years, which is tantamount to engine suicide in these cars. If the belt breaks, the valves and pistons collide in a most unfortunate and expensive mess. The saving grace is that though the belt is elderly, it hasn’t done many miles – just 12,000. I will be having it changed and the whole car given a once-over by a local specialist ASAP. It’ll be interesting to see how much it ends up costing.

So what else is wrong with it? Lots! It’s a twenty five year old car, and I didn’t pay top-dollar so wasn’t expecting perfection. My inspection and test drive were a bit of blur, but here are the key things I picked up on.

  • Patches of lacquer gone in a couple of spots.
  • Some very minor dings, stone chips.
  • A small amount of rust bubbling behind front wheels.
  • Gear gaiter tatty.
  • Steering wheel tatty.
  • Some dash issues: ‘rosette’ grill slightly broken; trim lifting slightly.
  • Buttons worn – can’t make out the symbols on some of them any more.
  • Mats not secured well in the footwell because lugs they connect to are broken/missing.
  • Groan from steering at low speed.
  • Boot release switch doesn’t work.
  • No luggage blind or sunroof bag.
  • Some minor signs of oil from cam cover gasket in one spot.
  • Messed up rubber/foam thingy inside spring at front on one side.
  • Oil pressure gauge suspiciously showing 5 all the time when running.

These are all fixable or tolerable I reckon.

There was certainly enough good stuff to make me buy it.

  • Oil level and condition good.
  • Electrics all seem to work – though in my excitement I admit I failed to test every last thing.
  • Looks stunning from 2+ yards – i.e. the body is straight and paintwork pretty good.
  • Radio sounds good, with CD changer in the glovebox.
  • Tyres are brand new (Avon) and wheels in tip-top condition.
  • Very original – no nasty mods.
  • Drove nicely – comfortable cruising, smooth engine, decent gearbox.
  • Well kept history folder with each receipt in a plastic pocket. A good sign.

I should point out that for all its looks and sporty credentials, it’s not actually an especially fast car by modern standards. It doesn’t quite have the shove of the two-litre turbo diesel estate I normally drive – those turbo diesels are so torquey when the power whooshes in from the turbo. But it’s a beautiful classic, to be cherished and cosseted and most importantly, tinkered with! Expect more posts on the travails of old Porsche ownership as I get to grips with it, good and bad.

Watch_clock

The allure of being able to walk into an Apple Store, try one on and get instant purchasing gratification was just too much, and I caved. Having decided to get an Apple Watch to develop apps against, but never having actually liked the look of them, my opinion changed the moment I fondled one in the store. The quality feel is simply exceptional and it was immediately comfortable on my wrist, but the best and most surprising thing was the size.

I don’t have large wrists but the larger 42mm watch sits very nicely indeed. It is definitively not a hefty lump of technology struggling to masquerade as a watch. And I say that because I had expected it to be ungainly and oversized, based on my limited experience of Android devices.

But how have they achieved this? Wonders of electronic miniaturisation of course, with miserly power consumption allowing for a tinier battery than the competition. But that’s not the most cunning part in my opinion.

The crucial trick was to employ a rectangular screen and a user interface with a black background. This affords many subtle wins over much of the competition!

Rectangular screen

Many Android watches have gone for a circular screen – which best mirrors the classic round watch look. But it’s hard to use the circular space efficiently for displaying information other than a clock face. Apple’s rectangular screen is (comparatively) easy to fill up with well-spaced information, even though it’s tiny. To show a block of text on a circular screen means lots of wasted curved scraps of space. As a developer I’m glad I don’t have to create apps for circular screens!

Black background – black bezel

The Apple Watch user interface employs a black background throughout, which merges seamlessly into the black bezel around the screen, with the glass wrapping over both. The shine of the curved glass edge and the super-deep black of the OLED screen means it really is an invisible transition. This means that the user interface elements can run right out to the edges and corners of the screen, without requiring any padding to space them pleasingly away from those edges. The physical bezel outside the screen is that padding.

Again, this maximises the usable space whilst keeping the package small. Competing watches that have a distinct bezel have to inset UI elements and so a surprising amount of power-draining screen real-estate is wasted.

Also, with an OLED screen, a black background is directly better for power consumption, as each pixel is individually illuminated (there is no separate backlight) and black pixels consume the least power.

UI tricks to maintain the illusion

The ‘home screen’ is a hexagonal grid of circular icons, which immediately diffuses the rectilinear reality. The most cunning part of all though is how the icons smoothly shrink down to nothing as they approach the physical limits of the screen. This stops them being chopped off at the straight edge and so maintains the inky black illusion.

Watch_home

Elsewhere in the user interface, elements with non-black backgrounds are heavily rounded. Of course the screen edges reveal themselves when scrolling vertically through content, or sideways between glances, but those are usually fairly brief transitions, and the illusion can only go so far.

Bonus: no lugs

Unrelated to the points above, but worth mentioning for its vital impact on the sense of size, the strap connects to the case seamlessly via Apple’s custom attachment (all the better to sell you expensive replacements) but this negates the need for two lugs top and bottom, sticking out and increasing the height of the device.

Finally, some amateur prognostication

As smart phones evolved it turned out that telephony was way down on the list of real users’ activities. There will probably be a similar story with ‘smart watches’, with years of exciting evolution ahead, not just for the raw technology but to establish a successful form and function. It’s anthropology as much as it is technology. People’s habits and expectations, and fashion too will evolve alongside the gadgets.

Right now many vendors are trying to replicate the traditional watch in form, it being the obvious starting point, but I predict that we’ll quickly move on from that as people get used to having their digital lives reflected in miniature on their wrists. One of the clock faces that Apple provides is named “Modular”  – shown in the image at the top of this post – and is a very utilitarian grid of configurable information. At first I didn’t like it, but already it has won me over and I find it striking how far I’ve already been moved away from the traditional watch. Once again, the rectangular format plays well to this direction.

On the fashion front, I notice in the mirror that the Apple Watch on my wrist is a featureless, glossy black blob on a black strap when it’s not illuminated. This is quite a departure from the aesthetic of a traditional watch, and right now I’m not especially keen on it. But before long that will be an accepted norm that doesn’t seem strange or out of place.

Who knows – maybe my thoughts here are completely out of whack with what Apple were thinking. It’ll be interesting to see how things develop.

 

CQRSLaptopTablet
Allow me to wax philosphical for a moment with an observation about where computers and their operating systems are heading.

In the world of software development CQRS = Command Query Responsibility Segregation, which in its simplest sense recognises that it's sometimes better to use a different mechanism for reading data than it is for writing it. See Martin Fowler's exposition of the concept if you want to know more, but this post isn't actually about software development at all!

I reckon that we're at a critical juncture in the evolution of personal computing devices and that the CQRS principle is necessarily coming to the fore to save the human race.

Tablet computers are taking the world by storm, in case you hadn't noticed. Apple could barely make enough iPad Minis for me to be able to get my wife one for Xmas, though I did manage it at the very last minute, and shortly thereafter bagged one for myself too. Frankly it's bloody brilliant, but I use it predominantly for consuming rather than creating and I'm far from alone. This is partly because the human populace is inexorably dumbing down towards being fat blobs with brains wired directly into the 'net, consuming inane banter, amusing picture of cats and the latest celebrity news, 140 characters at a time. But that aside, it's just not very pleasant to write large quantities of text, manipulate images or perform other expansive creative works by prodding a tiny screen. Or even a big screen.

To write software, construct lengthy blog posts (ahem), edit movies, sequence the human genome or design great buildings requires a proper computer! On that basis I posit that there will always be a place for desktops and laptops, or indeed whatever replaces them but which necessarily has a non-trivial input mechanism. I genuinely worry that the market for serious computers will be increasingly neglected by the manufacturers, refocussing as they are on the mass consumer market, inevitably leading to the downfall of humankind. Perhaps I exaggerate – at least I hope so.

Now I've never used Windows 8, indeed I shudder at having to use Windows 7 on a daily basis at work, but I understand it represents something of a chimera. It is best known for its shiny, touchy, slidey 'Metro' UI, beckoning your greasy fingers to caress its tiles. However it also allows you to fall back into the more staid world of traditional Windows where presumably you can get some proper work done, as long as you have a keyboard and a pointing device other than your finger. I understand critics are conflicted about this hybrid approach, but it's CQRS writ large and may therefore be the way forwards. One way or another, at least some people will need to create great works. I do hope to be one of them, and to have the equipment to be able to do it.

Detail
I see irritating problems. Every tangible thing I use, every service I consume, I can't help but notice all the little things that could have been a bit better. And it really frustrates me when these are details that seem so very simple to fix.

For instance, when I buy a train ticket from FCC's machines at St Pancras I can't actually see the text on the card payment screen unless I squat uncomfortably, because it's low down and inset out of sight. I know it's low down so disabled/short people can use it, but at least provide a direct line of sight for the average sized person standing in front of the machine – i.e. 95% of your customers!

I recently bought a D-Link powerline networking kit on Amazon, which is a wonderful product by the way, that worked straight out of the box with zero configuration. But the Amazon page did not state that there were two ethernet cables in the box – though I suspected there might be and was explicitly looking for this information. Worse than that, it provided a handy link to buy the product along with two separately supplied ethernet cables. So I went with that (better safe than sorry) but lo and behold: two cables in the box and now I have two extras I paid for and don't need. I feel I have been poorly served by Amazon.

Often when travelling by train, announcements are made that are inaudible due to the low volume (compared to background noise) or muffled by unhelpful acoustics. But these are sometimes really very important announcements and there's precious little point making them if they can't be heard.

Whenever I visit the hairdresser they ask me what I want doing, and I struggle to articulate it, especially when it comes to the intricacies of the back of my head. Why don't they take photos and notes (in special hairdresser shorthand) so that they can sort me out consistently every time, even when it's somebody new cutting my hair. As far as I'm concerned this is a no-brainer.

There are many little disappointments just like this that I spot on a daily basis, with physical and virtual products and services and I'm increasingly wondering whether there's a way to turn this into a job: detail consultant. Available for hire by companies small and large, I would tell them what could be improved to give their customers a delightful rather than frustrating experience. It's not rocket science but apparently there's a gap for this sort of common sense supplied from an external viewpoint. Please form an orderly queue!

In fact I'm surprised that larger organisations don't have full time employee roles with exactly this mandate: roving throughout the company and in the field spotting and fixing these subtle issues. In a competitive world where bad publicity is only a Tweet away, this seems like a very good use of resources to my naive mind. If you have any pride at all in what you're doing that is.

The problem with a lot of industrial design is that it's cynically conducted to sell the device in the first place, rather than to actually be any good in the long run. That is to say, the device is designed to appeal to the shop-floor browser who's making a snap judgement between competing products, rather than to actually be a brilliant product for them to use year after year. Once they've bought it the game is over as far as the manufacturer is concerned, as long as it doesn't actually break down, because poor usability does not invoke the warranty! I came across a great example of this recently in the control panel of a Siemens fridge. Behold:

SiemensFridge

There is one button on here that you will use several times a day. The rest you may use either never or once every year or two. Care to hazard a guess which one is the magic button of actual usefulness? It's the one marked "dispenser". Or to be precise it's the one marked "dis-penser" split over two lines, such is their lack of grace. This button switches the ice/water dispenser between water, ice and crushed ice. To get a glass of iced water, you have to press it a few times to cycle round the options as you fill your glass with ice, then water.

This should be the only button on the front of the fridge immediately above the dispenser, and it should be very clearly labelled. In fact arguably there should be three buttons, for water, ice and crushed ice, with LEDs to show which one is selected. They should be labelled "Cold water", "Ice" and "Crushed Ice". Imagine a visitor to your house approaching your Siemens fridge for a cool drink. They will probably accidentally defrost your freezer then child-lock the fridge before giving up and having tap water. Maybe it's an eco feature?

The controls that are not related to the water/ice dispenser should be far away from it, possibly inside the fridge door or behind a panel, so as not to pointlessly engender confusion and accidental fridge reconfiguration when trying to get a refreshing beverage.

So why have Siemens chosen to take this insane path? I don't believe they could be so obviously dumb, so I assume it's a cynical ploy to sell more fridges. Imagine Joe Shopper, strolling through the aisles of Currys, looking at endless gleaming monoliths of cool technology. Joe wants a high-end fridge, the sort of fridge that says "Joe is a classy guy who won't let anything stand between him and a glass of brain-freezingly cold water." Given two stainless steel slabs of Germanic engineering with largely identical specs he's going to go for the one with the most 'impressive' control panel. So actually Joe, it's your fault, but the nice guys in the Siemens design department must cry themselves to sleep at night.

Our kitchen had one patch of bare wall but nowhere to put cookbooks other than in a pile on a worktop. A perfect opportunity for some bookshelves! I planned a custom construction made from pine, comprising two uprights resting on the floor with four cross pieces (for three shelves and a top) with the whole thing screwed to the wall for rock solidness.

KitchenShelves

I originally expected to use 18mm thick sawn pine timber, but in B&Q it was clear that these were actually quite warped end to end – the top of a 2.4m plank was about 30 degrees twisted compared to the bottom so that it would have messed up the result something chronic. Instead I bought pine "furniture board" which is engineered from multiple pieces of pine glued together (edge to edge, not ply) which gives a much less lively result with hardly any warp whilst looking quite attractive. It's quite a lot more expensive mind you, and having waited 30 minutes for the timber cutting service to re-open after lunch I was told my 20cm wide boards were not suitable for the machine. At 2.4m long they weren't going to fit in the car so a hasty re-planning was required, resulting in the purchase of a number of smaller 25cm wide pre-cut pieces. I'm glad I went for that width actually as many of the books are 22cm and there's room to accommodate that depth from the wall even though I was worried there wouldn't be.

I had been keen to get all the lengths cut in store for a perfectly square, straight cut with identical lengths for all the shelves. I don't have a table saw so I was going to struggle to do this easily myself, but I was forced to saw the boards down to the right length with a hand saw. It was tough to get a good result here and to get them all the exact same length, but the flex in the uprights accommodated the differences. I simply put two number 8 screws into the end of each shelf to hold it in place, with carefully drilled countersunk screw holes, and that seems to have done the job. The countersink bit I bought recently is a godsend – it really makes the results look so much more professional.

A couple of simple metal angle brackets off the peg from B&Q allowed me to screw the whole ensemble firmly to the wall and it really is very rigid. Also note in the picture (click for bigger version) the 45 degree cut off on the tops of the side pieces and the cut-outs at the bottom to allow it to sit flush against the wall above the skirting.

Overall I'm extremely pleased with the result apart from one thing. I slightly lost track of of the height of my biggest books between start and end of the project, the result being that they don't quite fit on the shelves by a few millimetres. I'm kicking myself about this, but I'm a novice and I'll learn from these mistakes.

The temperature controls in most fridges really get my design goat. Are they a thermostatic  'temperature' control or a 'power' control? They're not giving anything away! If I want my fridge to be colder should I turn up the control to 5 for maximum cooling power, or turn it down to 1 as in 1 degree centigrade? Labelling it 1 to 5 is just begging for confusion. If it's truly a thermostat (and well enough calibrated) then make it clear with 'c' markings. If it's a power control then make that clear with "cooler" / "warmer", red / blue gradients or something. Perhaps I need to buy more expensive fridges with digital thermostatic controls.

FridgeControl

Precisely one week after it was launched, my copy of Mac OS X 10.6 "Snow Leopard" landed on my desk at work. Apple claim to have posted it last Friday, but the bank holiday weekend and postal strikes have conspired to keep me waiting this long.

On my recent Mac Pro it installed in 28 minutes and recovered a startling 31GB of disk space. I'm not quite sure how it managed that to be honest, as it's a lot more than most others are reporting. [Update: actually I suspect it's because Apple have changed the definition of a GB for Snow Leopard, so my comparisons of space used before and after are not comparing like for like. Now 1GB = 10^9 = 1,000,000,000 bytes, whereas previously it was 2^10 * 2^10 * 2^10 = 1024 * 1024 * 1024 = 1,073,741,824 bytes.]

That same Mac Pro is also capable of booting into the 64 bit kernel by holding down '6' and '4' during boot. You can check it's worked in System Profiler, where on the Software page it should say  "64-bit Kernel and Extensions: Yes". I've not noticed any abnormalities and supposedly it might run a bit faster this way, so if it stays good then I'll probably set it to 64 bit kernel permanently.

Note that only XServe machines boot with the 64 bit kernel by default, and many 64 bit Macs (like older Core 2 Duo MacBooks) can't do so because they lack 64 bit EFI (Extensible Firmware Interface).

SnowLeopardDockMenu

In general I like Snow Leopard – it's the same as Leopard but all round snappier and a bit nicer. Some changes confuse me though. Take the new arbitrarily styled menus for dock items, as shown below. Nothing else in the system looks the same, and that's probably a good thing because it's hard to read, with the section heads and tick marks being far too low contrast. They're almost invisible! A real UI own goal if you ask me. Maybe they designed it before they set the gamma to 2.2