The New Macbook Pros

As someone who was forced to pick a new laptop about two weeks ago, i.e. just before the new Macbook Pros were announced, I have to confess that I’m a little pleased that the new machines don’t blow my current machine away. But, for all the pissing and moaning on the interwebs about Apple’s underwhelming new laptops, people seem to forget that PC performance has pretty much stagnated for the last eight years.

My 2012 Mac Pro (which was, effectively, a 2009 Mac Pro) still seems perfectly decent compared to the latest and greatest, and if I gave a damn it could be upgraded to give the 2013 Mac Pros a run for the money (in CPU benchmarks at any rate, the 2013 Mac Pros have stunning throughput).

The problem here is that CPU speed has hit a wall, pixel counts have gotten ludicrous (so that people are complaining about game performance on 4K displays), the benefits of GPUs for everyday computing haven’t really materialized, and 8GB of RAM is probably still plenty for most people’s daily use, and 16GB is ample.

Still, what happened last time Apple was forced to release an underwhelming upgrade after a long pause? The Intel transition. So, I’m willing to bet that the “let’s switch Mac OS  — oops macOS — over to our ARM architecture” faction within Apple is now winning a lot of arguments it was losing two years ago. (I suspect that the Macbook is the form factor of the first ARM-based macOS device.)

We’ll see — my predictions are often correct but wildly premature.

Affinity Photo — Redeemed!

Affinity Photos "Assistant Manager" dialog
Affinity Photos “Assistant Manager” dialog

An observant reader has pointed out that Affinity Photo (now?) offers the option of using Apple’s RAW converter instead of its own, which mitigates the single biggest problem with this otherwise excellent and inexpensive tool.

I think this should be (and should always have been) the default or only option until and unless Affinity’s RAW converter is improved to the point of being useful, but in the mean time this allows photographers to use this program for their entire work flow.

To switch to Apple’s RAW converter:

  1. Open a RAW (or DNG) file in the Develop persona.
  2. Use menu item View > Assistant Manager
  3. Set the RAW engine to Apple (Core Image RAW)
  4. Cancel the develop (the change does not take effect immediately)
  5. From now on Affinity Photo will use the far superior Apple RAW converter.

The workaround is documented here.

As a final aside — this process exposes several user interface warts.

First, why the heck is this buried in an obscure, vaguely named dialog you can only reach in one mode?

If you try to quit when you're developing an image you get cock-blocked
If you try to quit when you’re developing an image you get cock-blocked

Second, if you try to quit Affinity Photo when you’re in the middle of a RAW conversion it will simply stop you. (This is why I put in step 4.) You can’t opt to “discard changes to all open files” and get on with your life. This is very un-mac-like. If I were in a hurry I’d probably have been forced to Force Quit.

When you find the Cancel button (at the top left, kind of) you then get this terrible dialog.
When you find the Cancel button (at the top left, kind of) you then get this terrible dialog.

Third, when you Cancel a RAW conversion (which is what you have to do if you get into the situation above) the dialog box offers “Yes” and “No” options instead of useful verbs, such as “Abandon” and “Continue”.

And, finally, could software companies please pull their heads out of their asses and give their applications usefully distinct names? Half the time when I try to launch Affinity Photo via Spotlight I accidentally launch Affinity Designer. Don’t bury the lede.

Tech Free Saturdays with the Kids

Romilly with her iPad
Romilly with her iPad

Like many parents, Rosanna and I are concerned about our kids’ obsession with “technology”, so we tried “tech free Saturdays”, and it worked for about an hour (I — more than slightly ironically — spent that hour with the girls playing with an Elenco electronics set — something far better than the “150-in-one” electronics kit I dreamed of when I was a kid), and then gave up. Short of getting exercise outdoors — which while almost certainly a Good Thing To Do is hardly something of which I am an examplar — what was there to do without “technology”?

I don’t pretend to know what stuff is going to be important to the success of my kids. A lot of the stuff I learned in school has turned out to be useful, or at least makes for interesting conversation (apparently, most people forget almost everything they learned in school, and — having had no interest in it when they were 14, find it intriguing as adults). But the most useful stuff I learned as a kid is the stuff society — i.e. teachers and parents — made me feel guilty about spending time on. And I don’t think this is rare. I think it’s the people who were obsessed with computer games, or Science Fiction, or Dungeons & Dragons, back in 1982, who are creating the world we live in today.

We won (or, at least, we’re ahead — when we all die young from heart disease and diabetes because we never get any exercise, the jocks from high school whose knees still work can gloat).

And having won by willfully ignoring society’s ideas of what a “healthy” obsession was when we were kids, who are we to impose our ideas of what a “healthy” obsession is on our kids? Well, we’re parents, of course, and “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds”. Perhaps we’re just that much smarter than our parents and teachers.

Another possibility that occurs to me is that a passion for anything — programming, role-playing games, the collected works of Jack Vance — only turns into something powerful and character-building if it involves pushing against social pressure. In other words, it’s OK for us to try to stop our kids from doing what they want to do, but it’s even better if they defy us and it anyway.

In the end, I don’t mind if my kids are obsessed with Minecraft, or even Youtube. What worries me is that its too easy to feed those obsessions, and I don’t think technology is the problem. But, having said that, my father narrowly avoided the Holocaust and my mother lived through famine and the Vietnam War, whereas I had to cope with the poor selection of science fiction in local libraries and the fact that our school only had one Apple II computer.

Returning to the Adobe fold… sort of

I remain very frustrated with my Photography workflow. No-one seems to get this right and it drives me nuts. (I’m unwilling to pay Apple lots of money for a ridiculous amount of iCloud storage, which might work quite well, but it still wouldn’t have simple features like prioritizing images that I’ve rated or looked at closely over others automagically, or allow me to rate JPEGs and have the rating carried over to the RAW later.)

Anyway, Aperture is sufficiently out-of-date that I’ve actually uninstalled it and Photoshop still has some features (e.g. stitching) that its competition cannot match. So, $120 for a year of Photoshop + Lightroom… let’s see how it goes.

Lightroom

I was expecting Lightroom to be awesome what with all the prominent folks who swear by it. So far I find it unfamiliar (I did actually use LR2, and of course I am a Photoshop ninja) to the point of frustration, un-Mac-like, and ugly, ugly, ugly.

Some of my Lightroom Gripes
Some of my Lightroom Gripes

A large part of the problem is terrible use of screen Real Estate. It’s easy to hide the menubar (once you find where Adobe has hidden its non-standard full screen controls), but it’s hard (impossible) to hide the idiotic mode menu “Identity Plate”. (I found the “Identity Plate Editor” (WTF?) by right-clicking hopefully all over the place, which allowed me to shrink the stupidly large lettering but it just left the empty space behind. How can an application that was created brand new (and initially Mac-only) have managed to look like a dog’s breakfast so quickly?

But there are many little things that just suck.

  • All the menus are horrible — cluttered and full of nutty junk. Looks like design by committee.
  • The dialog box that appears when you “Copy…” the current adjustments is a crime against humanity (it has a weird set of defaults which I overrode by clicking “check none” when I only wanted to copy some very specific settings and now I can’t figure out how to restore the defaults).
  • The green button doesn’t activate full screen mode. There are multiple full screen modes and none of them are what I want.
  • Zooming with the trackpad is weird. And the “Loupe” (nothing like or as nice as Aperture’s) changes its behavior for reasons I cannot discern. (I finally figured out that the zoom in shortcut actually goes to 1:1 by default, which is useful, although it’s such a common feature I’d have assigned a “naked” keystroke to it, such as Z, which instead toggles between display modes.)
  • The main image view seizes up after an indeterminate amount of use and shortly afterwards Lightroom crashes. (This is on maxed out Macbook Pro 15″.)
  • I can’t hide the stupid top bar (with your name in it). I can’t even make it smaller by reducing the font size of the crap in it.
  • Hiding the “toolbar” hides a random thing that doesn’t seem to me to be a toolbar.
  • By default the left side of the main window is wasted space. Oh, and the stupid presets are displayed as a list of words — you need to mouse over them to get a low-fidelity preview.
A crime against humanity.
A crime against humanity.

I found Lightroom’s UI sufficiently annoying that I reinstalled Aperture for comparison. Sadly, Lightroom crushes Aperture in ways that really matter. E.g. its Shadow and Highlight tools simply work better than Aperture’s (I essentially need to go into Curves to do anything slightly difficult in Aperture), and it has recent features (such as Dehaze — I’m pretty sure inspired by a similar feature DxO was very proud of a while back). After processing a few carefully underexposed RAW images* in both programs, Lightroom gets me results that Aperture simply can’t match (it also makes it very tempting to make the kind of over-processed images you see everywhere these days with amped up colors, quasi-HDR effects, and exaggerated micro-contrast).

(* Quite a few years ago someone I respect suggested that it’s a good idea to “underexpose” most outdoor shots by one stop to keep more highlight detail. This is especially important if the sky is visible. These days, everyone seems to be on the “ISO Invariance” bandwagon which is essentially not doing anything to the signal off the sensor (boosting effective ISO) when capturing RAW, in essence, “expose to the left” automatically — the exact opposite of the “expose to the right” bandwagon these clowns were all on two years ago — here’s a discussion of doing both at the same time. Hilarious. On the bright side, ISO Invariance pretty much saves ETTR nuts from constantly blowing their highlights.)

The Photos App is far more competitive with Lightroom than Aperture
The Photos App is far more competitive with Lightroom than Aperture. And its UI is simply out of Lightroom’s league (see those filters on the right? Lightroom simply has a list of names).

Funny thing though is that the new Photos app gives Lightroom a much better run for its money (um, it’s free), has Aperture’s best UI feature (organic customization), and everything runs much faster that Lightroom. The problem with Photos is it is missing key features of Lightroom, e.g. Dehaze, Clarity, and (most curiously) Vibrance. You just can’t get as far with Photos as you can with Lightroom. (If you have Affinity Photo you can use its Dehaze more-or-less transparently from Photos. It’s a modal, but then Lightroom is utterly modal.)

On the UI level, though, Photos simply spanks Lightroom’s Develop mode. Lightroom’s organization tools, clearly with many features requested by users, are completely out of Photos’ league.

I also tried Darktable (the open source Lightroom replacement) for comparison. I think its user interface is in many ways nicer than Lightroom’s — it looks and feels better — although much of its lack of clutter is owed to a corresponding lack of features), but the sad news is that Darktable’s image-processing capabilities don’t even compete with Aperture, let alone Photos. (One thing I really like about Darktable is that it applies “orientation” (automatic horizon leveling), “sharpen”, and “base curve” automagically by default. Right now this isn’t customizable — there’s a placeholder dialog — but if it were it would be an awesome feature.)

The lack of fit and finish in Lightroom is unprofessional and embarrassing
The lack of fit and finish in Lightroom is unprofessional and embarrassing. If it’s not obvious to you, the red line shows the four different baselines used for the UI elements.
Hilarious. Lightroom's "About Box" uses utterly non-standard buttons that behave like tab selectors.
This is hilarious. Lightroom’s “About box” uses utterly non-standard buttons that behave like tab selectors. This is actually regression for Adobe, which used to really take pride in its About boxes.

At bottom, Aperture doesn’t look or feel like an application developed by or for professionals. It’s very capable, but its design is — ironically — horrible.

Photoshop

Photoshop’s capabilities are, by and large, unmatched, but its UI wasn’t good when it first came out and many of its worst features have pretty much made it through unscathed by taste, practicality, or a sense of a job well done. Take a look at this gem:

Adobe Photoshop's horrible Radial Blur dialog
Adobe Photoshop’s horrible Radial Blur dialog

This was an understandably frustrating dialog back in 1991 — in fact the attempt to provide visual cues with the lines was probably as much as you could expect, but it hasn’t changed since — every other application I use provides a GPU-accelerated live preview (in Acorn it’s non-destructive too). What’s even worse is that it looks like the dialog’s layout has been slightly tweaked to allow for too-large-and-non-standard buttons (with badly centered captions that would look worse if there were a glyph with a descender in it). At least it doesn’t waste a buttload of space on a mode menu: instead there’s a small popup lets you pick which (customizable) “workspace” you want to use, and the rest of the bar is actually useful (it shows common settings for the currently selected tool).

In the end, Photoshop at least looks reasonably nice , and its UI foibles are things I’ve grown accustomed to over twenty-five years.

I can’t wait until I get to experience Adobe’s Updater…

Free Business Idea

I’ve mentioned this idea casually many times, but I’m posting it here begging for someone to steal this idea and run with it. I think it’s technically simple to do, and there’s money in it.

The idea: time-shifting radio, i.e. TiVo for (car) radios.

Why?

  • NPR fund-raising drives
  • Commercial radio ads
  • Repeating songs (e.g. to find out their names)
  • Pausing and archiving interesting stories
  • Catching radio programs that are on at inconvenient times.

You know, like TiVo, but for radio. In your car.

Other benefits

  • Hurts commercial radio, more convenient than podcasts

Possible Downside

Hurts NPR fund-raising. But, seriously, you can pay Sirius/XM the cost of a typical NPR annual donation and NPR with get no fundraising at all.

Please, someone. Do this.