A Modest Proposal

I think if we’re going to have guns they shouldn’t be concealed. They should have day-glo grips, stocks, and cases — mandatorily lurid pink I suggest, have built-in GPS sensors, and make wah-wah noises when they’re moved around; the battery that runs the GPS and buzzer also allows the gun to be fired; and every gun should have sample fired bullets and casings registered in a national database (paid for by the bullet tax, see below). After all, if they’re supposed to deter crime shouldn’t criminals know they’re there? I certainly want to know who has guns and avoid them.

Now of course people will argue “if it’s illegal to conceal weapons then only criminals will have concealed weapons”. That’s true, but they need to be careful, especially if the penalties are harsh. E.g. if someone doesn’t like you they can just tell the police you habitually carry a gun. Similarly, it would be illegal to sell guns without these things and when you tear out the mechanism your last known location would be in the cloud.

The GPS sensors and buzzers will run out of batteries and also could be gouged out but not keeping your batteries charged would also be a crime and when your gun stopped responding the authorities would know when and where.

We could require gun ranges to run every bullet fired on the range, and every casing to be matched against the database (expensive, but the bullet tax will pay for it). If a bullet doesn’t have a registered match (e.g. the gun’s owner is not the right person or the gun’s rifling has been tampered with) then we either arrest the owner or register the new bullet.

The buzzers and day-glo would kind of mess up hunting, but the right to go hunting is not enshrined by the constitution — the second amendment is solely there for purposes of preserving us from tyranny, and at such time as we desire to overthrow the government we can always pull the crap out, right? After all, armed insurrection is also illegal. Perhaps to honor the second amendment we can require the mechanisms to be removable in some straightforward way — on the strict understanding that it’s a felony.

All this might sound horribly draconian. It’s supposed to be. The argument is that the 2nd amendment protects our right to overthrow tyrants. I would argue the 4th amendment is far more important (and we can set up the GPS system so it merely tracks your gun anonymously until it’s involved in a shooting).

When a gun owner moves into your neighborhood they should be required to post a public notification in the “known sex offenders and gun owners” registry.

Chris Rock suggests that we simply put a huge tax on bullets. (“That guy must deserve it, they put $50,000 worth of lead in him.”) I would point out that the right to bullets is actually not enshrined in the constitution, but certainly we can put a hefty federal tax on them or require a prescription. After all, they’re kind of a potentially lethal drug (“lead poisoning”) and should be properly controlled. Better make sure you have all your tax stamps and prescriptions ready when you get your hunting license.

The bullet tax can also pay for free kevlar body armor for all citizens who want it, and perhaps provide guns and bullets (which are after all rather expensive as a result of all this) to the poor.

Google’s New Logo

Google's new logo overlaid with circles (top) and Futura (bottom)
Google’s new logo overlaid with circles (top) and Futura (bottom)

Let me begin by saying that I don’t hate it — and I like it a lot more than the old logo which seems to have been the word “Google” in Times New Roman or whatever browsers showed by default as Serif back in the day. The old logo had the chief virtue of being unpretentious and not looking like, say, Marissa Meyer had devoted a whole weekend to it.

I saw someone claim that the new Google logo was an awesome piece of economy because it could be build entirely from booleans of circles and rectangles. I think that would be pretty cool — and in fact conceptually far more interesting than what it actually is, but you can see at a glance that it’s not so.

The new logo is simply a slightly bespoke version of Futura, a nice, modernist typeface which — in very much the Bauhaus style (which it was inspired by — looks simple and industrial but is actually the product of careful design. Google’s logo is essentially some Futura variant, hand-kerned, with slightly modified glyphs. Much like the subtly rounded corners on iOS7 icons and rounded rectangles.

Many corporate logos are simply examples of slightly customized typography — in this case Google seems to have taken the most common variant of Futura (the default weight of the version bundled with Mac OS X) and tweaked it a bit. Not great, not horrible, and better than Times New Roman. I imagine a lot of designers are incensed either because they’re anti-Google and like to disparage anything it does or they’re pro-Google and would like to see it put a bit of effort into picking a logo.

Google in modified Futura (top) vs. DIN Alternate (bottom)
Google in modified Futura (top) vs. DIN Alternate (bottom)

Personally, I think Google should have picked a more interesting typeface that somehow reflected its values. I would have picked a member of the DIN family (or similar) — a typeface designed first and foremost for legibility while being more attractive (in my opinion) than Futura. Google is, at its heart, a supremely utilitarian company, and I think DIN would deeply reflect this. Futura, with its Bauhaus underpinnings, strikes me as pretentiously faux-utilitarian. It looks geometric at the cost of practicality and legibility, but sacrifices design purity in the interest of aesthetics.

Affinity Photo — No Good For Photography

Sydney Harbor by night — processed using Photos
Sydney Harbor by night — processed using Photos

This is a pretty important addition to my first impressions article.

After reading a comment thread on a photography blog it occurred to me that I had not looked particularly hard at a core feature of Affinity Photo, namely the develop (i.e. semi-non-destructive RAW-processing) phase.

I assumed Affinity Photo used Apple’s OS-level RAW-processing (which is pretty good) since just writing a good RAW importer is a major undertaking (and an ongoing commitment, as new cameras with new RAW formats are released on an almost daily basis) and concentrated my attention on its editing functionality.

(There is a downside to using Apple’s RAW processor — Apple only provides updates for new cameras for recent OS releases, so if you were using Mac OS X 10.7 (Lion) and just bought a Nikon D750 you’d be out of luck.)

In the thread, one commenter suggested Affinity Photo as a cheaper alternative to Phase One (which misses the point of Phase One entirely) to which someone had responded that Affinity Photo was terrible at RAW-processing. I wanted to check if this was simply a random hater or actually true and a quick check showed it to be not only true but horribly true.

Photos default RAW import
Photos default RAW import
Affinity Photo default RAW input
Affinity Photo default RAW input

White Balance

Acorn's RAW import dialog
Acorn’s RAW import dialog — it respects the camera’s white balance metadata and also lets you see what it is (temperature and tint).
Affinity simply ignores WB metadata by default
Affinity simply ignores WB metadata by default
Affinity with WB adjustment turned on and the settings copied from Acorn
Affinity with WB adjustment turned on and the settings copied from Acorn (note that it still doesn’t match Acorn, and I know which I trust more at this point).

Affinity Photo ignores the white balance metadata in the RAW file. If you toggle on the white balance option in develop mode you still need to find out the white balance settings (somehow) and type them in yourself.

Good cameras do a very good job of automatically setting white balance for scenes. Serious photographers will often manually set white balance after every lighting change on a shoot. Either way, you want your RAW-processing software to use this valuable information.

Noise Reduction

Top-Right Corner at 200% — Photos on the left, Affinity on the right
Top-Right Corner at 200% — Photos on the left, Affinity on the right

Affinity Photo’s RAW processing is terrible. It somehow manages to create both color and brightness noise even for well-exposed images shot in bright daylight — night shots at high ISO? Don’t even ask. (If you must, see the Sydney Harbor comparison, earlier.) It’s harder to say this definitively, it seems to me that it also smears detail. It’s as if whoever wrote the RAW importer in Affinity Photo doesn’t actually know how to interpolate RAW images.

Incidentally, Affinity Photo’s noise reduction filter appears to have little or no effect. An image with noise reduction maxed out using Affinity Photo is far noisier than the same image processed without noise reduction using any decent program or Apple’s RAW importer’s noise reduction.

Now, if you’re using Affinity Photo in concert with a photo management program like Lightroom, Aperture, Photos, or iPhoto — programs which do the RAW processing and simply hand over a 16-bit TIFF image — you simply won’t notice a problem with the lack of white balance support or the noise creation. But if you actually use Affinity Photo to work on RAW images (i.e. if you actually try to use its semi-non-destructive “develop” mode) you’re basically working with garbage.

I can only apologize to any photographers who might have bought Affinity Photo based on my earlier post. I mainly use would-be Photoshop replacements for editing CG images where RAW processing isn’t a factor, but my failure to carefully check its RAW processing is egregious.

If you want to use Affinity Photo for working on photographs I strongly recommend you wait until its RAW processing is fixed (or it simply adopts the RAW processing functionality Apple provides “for free”).

Remember when I discovered that Affinity Designer’s line styling tools simply didn’t work at all? That’s ridiculous. Well, a self-declared photo editing tool that doesn’t do a halfway decent job of RAW processing is just as ridiculous.

So, what to do?

Photos offers powerful RAW processing if you figure out how to turn it on
Photos offers powerful RAW processing if you figure out how to turn it on

Apple’s new(ish) Photos application is actually surprisingly good once you actually expose its useful features. By default it doesn’t even show a histogram, but with a few clicks you can turn it into a RAW-processing monster.

And, until Apple somehow breaks it, Aperture is still an excellent piece of software.

Acorn does a good job of using Apple’s RAW importer (it respects the camera’s metadata but allows you to override it). Unfortunately, the workflow is destructive (once you use the RAW importer if you want to second guess your import settings you need to start again from scratch).

Adobe still offers a discounted subscription for Photographers, covering Lightroom and Photoshop. It’s annoying to subscribe to software, but it may be the best and cheapest option right now (especially with Apple abandoning Aperture).

If noise reduction is your main concern, Lightroom, Aperture, Photoshop, and other generalist programs just don’t cut it. You either need a dedicated RAW processing program or a dedicated noise reduction program.

RAW Right Now speeds up RAW previews and makes QuickLook more useful
RAW Right Now speeds up RAW previews and makes QuickLook more useful

Finally, if you’re happy to use different programs for image management (I mainly use Finder with these days), RAW processing, and editing then you have a lot of pretty attractive options. FastRAWViewer is incredibly good for triaging RAW photos (its Focus Peaking feature is just wonderful). DxOMark and Phase One offer almost universally admired RAW-processing capabilities and exceptionally good built-in noise handling. Many serious photographers consider the effect of switching to either of these programs for RAW processing as important as using a better lens. Even the free software offered by camera makers usually does a very good job of RAW processing (it just tends to suck for anything else). If you don’t use Affinity Photo for RAW processing there’s not much wrong with it (but you don’t have a non-destructive workflow).

Email E. Neumann

Email E. NeumannHow stupid is email?

Actually, email is great. It’s robust, widely-supported, and highly accessible (in the 508 and economic senses of the word). The problem is email clients.

Security

A colleague of mine and I once considered starting up a business around a new email client. The problem though, is that it works best when someone send emails using your email client to someone else using your email client. E.g. you can easily implement PGP encryption:

  • if you’ve previously exchanged email, you both have each others’ keys — snap you’re done;
  • if you haven’t, your client asks whether you want it sent insecurely or asks you for authentication information (something you know about the person that a man-in-the-middle probably doesn’t, or an out-of-band mechanism for authentication such as calling you on the phone; and then sends an email initiating a secure authentication process OR allowing them to contact you and opt to receive insecure communication; all this can happen pretty seamlessly if the recipient is using your email client — they get asked the question and if they answer correctly keys get sent).

It’s relatively easy to create a secure encryption system if you (a) opt out of email, and (b) have a trusted middleman (e.g. if both parties trust a specific website and https then you’re done — even a simple forum will work). But then you lose the universality of email, which is kind of important.

The obvious goal was to create a transparently secure email client. The benefits are huge — e.g. spam can be dealt with more easily (even insecure email can be sent with authentication) and then you can add all the low-hanging fruit. But it’s the low-hanging fruit I really care about. After all, I figure if the NSA can hack my storage device’s firmware, my network card’s firmware, and subvert https, encryption standards, and TOR — and that’s just stuff we know about — the only paths to true security are anonymity (think of it as “personal steganography”) or extreme paranoia. When dealing with anyone other than the NSA, Google, China, Iran, etc. you can probably use ordinary caution.

Well, how come Windows Mail / Outlook and Apple Mail don’t do exactly what I’ve just said and automatically handshake, exchange keys and authentication questions, and make email between their own email clients secure? If it’s that easy (and really, it is that easy) why the hell? Oddly enough, Apple has done exactly this (using a semi-trusted middleman — itself) with Messages. Why not Mail?

OK, set all that aside.

Why?

  • Why can’t I conveniently send a new message the way I send a reply (i.e. “Reply with new subject and empty body” or “Reply all with new subject and empty body”)? When using an email client most people probably use Reply / Reply All most, then create new message and copy/paste email addresses from some other message second, and create a new message and type in the email address or use some kind of autocomplete last. Furthermore, many replies are actually intended to be new emails to the sender or sender and recipients. Yet no email client I know of supports the second — very frequent usage.
  • Why does my email client start me in the subject line? Here’s an idea: when you create a new email you start in the body. As you type the body the email client infers the subject from what you type (let’s say using the first sentence if it’s short, or the first clause with an ellipsis if that works, or a reasonable chunk of it with an ellipsis otherwise).
  • Why does my OS treat email, IMs, and SMSs as completely separate things? Studies show grown-ups use email and hardly SMS. Younger people use SMS and hardly use email. Both probably need to communicate with each other, and both are generally sending short messages to a person, not a phone number or an email address.
  • (While I’m at it, why does an iPhone treat email and IMs as different buckets? How come they had the nous to merge IMs and SMSs, and even allow semi-transparent switching between secure and free iMessages and less secure and not-necessarily-free SMSs based on whether the recipient was using an Apple device or not? I don’t ask why Android (or heaven forfend Windows) does this because (a) Android generally hasn’t even integrated mailboxes, and (b) don’t expect real UI innovation from Google; they can imitate, but when they originate it tends to be awful — aside from Google’s home page which remains one of the most brilliant UI decisions in history.
  • Oh yeah, and voicemail.

Nirvana

Now imagine a Contacts app that did all this stuff. I’d suggest it needs to be built into email because email is the richest of these things in terms of complexity and functionality, but let’s call it Contact. Consider the nirvana it would lead to:

  • Instantly, four icons on your iPhone merge into one (Mail, Phone, Messages, Contacts (the existence of the last has always bothered me, now it would make sense). Three of those are likely on your home screen; now you have more space.
  • You no longer have to check for messages in four different places (e.g. if you have a voicemail system that emails you transcripts of voicemails, you can mark them both as read in one place, or possibly even have them linked automatically.)
  • Similarly, when you reply to a given message, you can decide how to do so. (Is it urgent? Are they online? Is it the middle of the night? What is your preferred method of communicating with this person?) Maybe even multiple linked channels.
  • Message threads can cross message domains (imagine if you reply to an email with a phone call and Contacts knows this and attaches the record of the call to the thread containing the emails, SMSs, iMessages, voicemails, and so on). Some of this would require cleverness (e.g. Apple owns iMessages, so it could do things like add subject threads to messages on the side, but SMSs are severely constrained and would lose their thread context).
  • Oh, and you can use the same transparent encryption implementation across whichever bands make sense.
  • Obviously some of these things won’t work with some message channels e.g. you can’t do much with SMS because the messages aren’t big enough, but MMS, which is what most of us are using, works fine, similarly Visual Voicemail could support metadata but doing it with legacy voicemail systems isn’t going to happen.

Consider for a moment how much rocket science was involved in getting Continuity to work on iOS and OS X devices. To begin with it requires hardware that isn’t on older Macs and iOS devices. And what it does is pretty magical — I am working on a Keynote presentation, walk over to my Mac and automagically I am working on the same document in the same place. But really, how useful is this really and how often? Usually when I switch devices I am also switching tasks. Maybe that’s because I grew up in a world without Continuity.

Now consider how this stuff would require almost no rocket science and how often it would be useful.

 

 

The Second Amendment

protesters with guns and confederate flags
Protestors with guns and confederate flags. (Photo from dailymail.co.uk.)

A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

As a result of the sideshow over the Confederate flag that has replaced any substantive debate about racism and gun violence in the US (something had to, right?) I ended up having a bit of an argument with a pro-gun commenter on an Economist article suggesting that it may not [just] be guns that are the problem in the US.

This isn’t a particularly novel argument. People generally assume Bowling for Columbine is a standard left-wing anti-gun polemic, but at the end Michael Moore — a card-carrying member of the NRA — ends up discussing Canada, which is nearly as well-armed as the US and yet has a far lower homicide rate, and concludes that there’s something paranoid at the heart of American culture that may be the real problem. Well, this blog post isn’t about the flaws in American culture — it’s about the right to bear arms.

Anyhow, my anonymous adversary argued that the point of the second amendment is that it has kept the US safe from the kind of ethnic cleansing and other large scale atrocities that afflicted Europe and Asia during the 20th century. In other words, for the enormous benefit of not having large scale ethnic cleansing occasionally we pay the price of having a high murder and suicide rate. “A well regulated militia” is meant to be understood as “The regulation of the militia by civilians”.

OK, I get it. My adversary is right. The NRA is right. The right-wing militias are right. The purpose of the second amendment is to allow us to regulate the militia — i.e. to overthrow the government so as to maintain our “free state”. Their interpretation is correct.

My adversary is wrong, I think, on his history.

The US has had plenty of opportunities for unjust government or corporate actions to be prevented by the armed populace — consider Douglas Macarthur’s use of cavalry and tanks against the Bonus Marchers — unemployed veterans no less! Or the Battle of Blair Mountain (John Sayles’s movie Matewan depicts the prelude to it). Oh yeah, and slavery. Where is there an example of real government excess being prevented by the right to bear arms? There are plenty of examples of government excess being resisted by the right to bear arms, the largest and most depressing examples being the resistance of some American Indians to the government, others (such as Ruby Ridge and Waco) simply being unsuccessful.

Perhaps the best example in favor of this argument — i.e. the one case where people bearing arms were able to inflict a defeat on the over-reaching Federal government — is Little Big Horn (and that victory was Pyrrhic).

And if you believe that the Confederacy was right, then that’s the largest example of the populace (including a large proportion of the military) being unable to prevent government overreach, no?

On the other hand, Mahatma Gandhi defeated a superpower without using weapons. And when the injustices that were not prevented by the right to bear arms were mitigated (Congress paid the Bonus Army, Roosevelt allowed the miners to unionize), it wasn’t the right to bear arms that made it happen.

It seems quite clear that given the intent of the amendment, we should have the right to nuclear submarines, tanks, nerve gas, atomic warheads, and so forth. After all, how can we credibly regulate the militia with semi-automatic rifles, shotguns, and handguns? The disparity in power between the government’s forces — military and paramilitary — and ordinary citizens has never been greater and shows no sign of narrowing. Even when the gap was considerably smaller, the second amendment proved of little use in preventing horrible injustices (or defending slavery). The only real conclusion is that we need to abolish the second amendment — it fails to provide the promised benefits; it costs us too much and gives us nothing.