Morning Coffee

October 17, 2015

How many ways are there to start a weekly linkage piece? It turns out, more than I thought, but not nearly as many as I hoped.

Every week I try to find an original, kind-of-witty introduction to ease the reader into the piece. This week, alas, I’m fresh out of ideas, so there will be no remarks about the quietness of summer, the busyness of autumn, or the closeness of the holiday season. Nope.

Instead, I propose we simply dive into the week’s most interesting pieces of writing right away. Imagine that.

Issue #19: More iPhone reviews, Marco’s Controversy of the Week, the troubled state of the web, and blowing up the Universe

This issue starts off with some more iPhone reviews, followed by a couple pieces on Apple as a company. Then it’s time for the controversy of the week: Marco Arment and his new business strategy for Overcast. This segues nicely into two more pieces on the reality of abuse on Twitter and the problems that arise when companies and products cater exclusively to male audiences. Finally, we explore some more personal topics, and we finish on a lighter note by drinking our whisky neat and destroying the Universe.

Wait, what?


The iPhone 6S | Josh Ginter →

Great review by Josh, as usual. I find it particularly interesting that this is the first piece I’ve come across where someone who last year went with the iPhone 6 Plus decided to switch to the smaller iPhone 6S this time.

Everybody else who jumped to the bigger iPhone last year, like Relay FM’s Stephen Hackett and, famously, Myke Hurley, seem to still be absolutely convinced that the Plus is the better device. That’s all well and good, but I suspect that for some of those people, at least on a subconscious level, there may be a bit of post-purchase rationalization going on.

The Plus is an awesome device, but its tradeoffs in terms of size are significant. That so many people are dismissing it as a mere inconvenience you can get used to reeks of cognitive bias to me.

For that reason, it is refreshing to see a different take on this. Josh is a person who isn’t afraid to question his own assumptions, which is why his reviews are always so insightful. Here’s what he has to say about his choice this time around:

So I’ll take the next year to decide if the 6s is the superior of the two iPhones. When it’s time to write a review of the iPhone 7, I’m sure I’ll be left with the same conclusion as today: Apple’s continual improvements have made the iPhone the most widely loved smartphone on the planet, and having to choose between the two sizes is more a lesson in knowing who you are and what you like than defining which is technically superior.

A level deeper | M.G. Siegler →

M.G. Siegler also shared his thoughts on the iPhone 6S/6S Plus earlier in the week. Good read:

But I know I’m an extreme case and not everyone is willing to spend hundreds of dollars on a new phone each year (though the new-style subsidies probably make it even more attractive). To those folks, I normally wouldn’t recommend an “s” upgrade if you just bought the last version of the iPhone. But this year, thanks solely to 3D Touch, things may be different. This is the future of not only this device, but all devices.

The inside story of Apple’s new iMacs | Stephen Levi →

Great piece by Stephen Levi over at Backchannel:

There are many reasons why Apple is the world’s most valuable company. Tim Cook is celebrated as a supply chain Maester who has internalized the focus on innovation that his predecessor inculcated in the culture. Jony Ive has drawn global raves for making Apple a design icon. Its marketing and branding practices set industry standards. But a visit to the lab where its legacy products — computers — are made suggests another reason.

Sweating the details.

On Apple’s insurmountable platform advantage | Steve Cheney →

Great piece by Steve Cheney:

In 2007, when Steve Ballmer famously declared “There’s no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share. No chance”, Jobs was off creating a chip design team. If you study unit economics of semiconductors, it doesn’t really make sense to design chips and compete with companies like Intel unless you can make it up in volume. Consider the audacity back in 2007 for Apple to believe it could pull this off. How would they ever make back the R&D to build out a team and pay for expensive silicon designs over the long run, never mind design comparative performing chips? Well today we know. Apple makes nearly 100% of the profit in the entire smartphone space.

It is – in fact – these chip making capabilities, which Jobs brought in-house shortly after the launch of the original iPhone, that have helped Apple create a massive moat between itself and an entire industry.

Apple’s in-house chip design expertise was and continues to be instrumental to Apple’s success, and yet most people seem to be oblivious to this fact. If you want to compete in the smartphone business with Apple, using off-the-shelf components isn’t going to cut it. The problem is, building your own chip design team takes years. That’s why Apple continues to be well ahead of the curve in terms of performance: this expertise is something their competitors simply can’t copy.

Pragmatic app pricing | Marco Arment →

Marco stoked quite the fire the other day when he announced his new business model for Overcast, which is based on the idea of patronage. In an attempt to clear things up, he wrote this follow-up piece explaining his reasoning:

I’m trying not to repeat my mistakes, and one of the biggest mistakes I made was putting short-term gain from paid-app sales above long-term growth. I watched my biggest competitor clone all of my features, raise VC money, and hire a staff. I knew he’d go completely free months before he did. He wasn’t doing anything I couldn’t do, but I wasn’t doing it. I knew I was vastly outgunned, but I just sat back and let it happen.

Ah, the inevitable race to the bottom. There’s a lot more nuance to this issue than Marco would have you believe here, but I trust his motivation to be genuine. Still, that doesn’t take away from the uncomfortable fact that one of the most influential iOS app developers just told the world that he believes apps should be free if they want to have a shot at long-term success.

That’s a very, very dangerous statement and, although I know Marco isn’t suggesting his idea applies to every indie app out there, the reality is his words carry far more weight than even he seems to realize.

The elephant in the room | Samantha Bielefeld →

Samantha Bielefeld had a problem with Marco’s narrative in the above piece, and the consequences his actions may have on his competitors and the podcasting app market in general.

This article earned Samantha tons of criticism, most of it pretty nasty, from Marco’s followers. It’s unfortunate that these things continue to happen whenever someone — particularly a smart woman — dares share her opinion online. As a community, we really need to put and end to this shameful behavior, and the sooner the better.

Enraged Internet people aside, be sure to also read Samantha’s follow up post, where she clears a few things up, restates her point, and lays out her theory for the future of Overcast. It’s not pretty, but it’s honest, which is more than I can say about those attacking her.

Why Twitter’s dying (and what you can learn from it) | Umair Haque →

Fantastic piece:

Here’s my tiny theory, in a word. Abuse. And further, I’m going to suggest in this short essay that abuse — not making money — is the great problem tech and media have. The problem of abuse is the greatest challenge the web faces today. It is greater than censorship, regulation, or (ugh) monetization. It is a problem of staggering magnitude and epic scale, and worse still, it is expensive: it is a problem that can’t be fixed with the cheap, simple fixes beloved by tech: patching up code, pushing out updates.

To explain, let me be clear what I mean by abuse. I don’t just mean the obvious: violent threats. I also mean the endless bickering, the predictable snark, the general atmosphere of little violences that permeate the social web… and the fact that the average person can’t do anything about it.

Many people lead a pleasant everyday existence on Twitter, but for many others, Twitter is a cesspool of abuse, filled with threats, fear, and violence. And this is a problem that won’t go away on its own.

When things you love stop being yours | Chris Brosnahan →

Another great article by Chris, on the recent shift that we’re starting to see — even if just barely — in comics, video games, and even wrestling, from a focus on a male-first or male-only audience in order to be more inclusive:

I have never seen anything like this in wrestling before.

Nor in comics.

And this is my complaint.

What the hell took so long?

There’s nothing to gain by limiting your audience. Nothing. When you look at anything – be it movies, books, horror, wrestling, comics, or (and yes, this is a big one) videogames – the longer that it’s purely aimed at young (and, in my case, not so young) men, the longer it becomes a defensive monoculture.


An open letter to my daughters | Erin Brooks →

What a beautiful letter:

The truth is, for your whole life at times, you will feel uncertain. You will battle your body. You will see images plastered everywhere of women who you don’t, and can’t, look like, because even they don’t and can’t, and are a product of photoshop, and an industry that provides them with an entire team of people to keep them at an almost-starving body weight. They risk losing their careers if they don’t maintain that weight. Isn’t that terrible? I would hate to live with so much pressure and fear.

Break | Matt Gemmell →

Deeply personal — and moving — article from Matt. This is one of those pieces that don’t deserve to be spoiled, so go ahead and read it in full.

The nonsense of “smooth” whisky | Mark Bylok →

Now, let’s go for a more light-hearted topic. Mark Bylok’s recently revamped site has been wonderful to read these past few months. Take this piece, for example, on how the popular trend towards smooth, flavored whiskies is deeply misguided:

When I run whisky tastings, there’s often a group of people that are new to the whisky world. I encourage them to drink their whisky straight, without water or ice, to get a flavour for what whisky tastes like on its own.

An interesting thing happens when new whisky drinkers have their whisky straight. Those cheaper products taste about the same as they remember them—one note, not entirely fun to drink. The more expensive sipping whiskies are not without harshness, they often contain even more alcohol by volume, but there’s flavour there to reward the tastebuds.

Palates are adjusting. With the enjoyment of higher proof and flavour-forward whiskies comes the appreciation of what’s inside the glass.

I couldn’t agree more. Over the summer, particularly on those unbearable tropical nights, I drifted towards drinking my whisky with ice. That had nothing to do with me wanting the drink to be smoother, though, I just wanted it to be slightly cooler to better cope with the heat.

Now that the nights are getting chillier once again, I’m back to drinking my whisky neat, as one should, and I’m finding I very rarely need to add water anymore, something I also used to do quite often when I first started my whisky journey.

I’ve always enjoyed pure flavors, and drinks that stay true to their original character. In that sense, I couldn’t agree more with Mark’s take.

Proton Earth, electron Moon | Randall Munroe →

This week’s What If? set a new record for the most destructive scenario to date. So great.

Revisiting the Olympus OM-D E-M5 in Moldova | Jordan Steele →

Great reminder that we don’t need the latest and greatest equipment to capture great photos.


Today I want to talk to you about something important: empathy.

Empathy is defined as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. That’s a very succinct definition, but it perfectly encapsulates the reasons behind the incidents we’re seeing time and time again on the web, particularly on Twitter.

You see, Twitter makes it awfully easy to not empathize with a person. The whole system is designed with bluntness in mind: you only get 140 characters to make your point, so there’s hardly any room for subtlety or nuance. Instead, all that is left are raw, elemental ideas, the very essence of what would otherwise be a several-paragraph-long argument.

That’s precisely what made Twitter so incredibly popular to begin with, and why it continues to be the Internet’s preferred medium for exchanging ideas and broadcasting unfiltered thoughts. Unfortunately, it’s also the reason Twitter has become the preferred medium for harassing, attacking and abusing people.

When you don’t have to see the real person in front of you, it’s so much easier to be hurtful, and aggressive. When the system, by design, allows you to insult someone and then blissfully move on with your day with zero repercussions, it’s hardly a surprise to find out that some people actually do so.

I believe the vast majority of individuals who insult and harass other people online wouldn’t have the courage to say and do those things to the other person’s face. That would require a much greater effort on their part to suppress their empathy. It would require them to be willfully, consciously inhumane and cruel to a fellow human being, which is something that, luckily, very few people in this world can stomach. At least, that’s what I choose to believe. Then again, I was always an optimist.

I was tempted to use the expression “in real life” before, but I immediately realized it was the wrong thing to say. Saying Twitter is different from “real life” is giving ammunition to those who enjoy making fun of others, as if the impact of their actions is somehow lessened by the fact that they were only done jokingly on an irrelevant forum.

That couldn’t be farther from the truth. This is 2015, and Twitter is very much real life. For many of us, it’s actually the primary way we interact with many of our colleagues, friends, and even family members every day. The times when you could brush aside what happened on the Internet as irrelevant and negate the impact it had on your very real life are long gone, I suspect never to return.

We need to start acknowledging that fact, and we need to start now. If a person’s actions could land them in jail — or, at the very least, in front of a judge — in real life, then our reaction should be exactly the same when it happens online. There’s just no discernible difference between the two anymore, and it doesn’t make any sense to continue pretending there is.

Impunity needs to stop, and as soon as it does, many of those instances of harassment will probably disappear with it.

Online harassers are real people, and I’m sure the majority of them don’t see themselves as particularly bad persons, either. But they’re taking advantage — consciously or not — of the fact that the system makes it incredibly easy for them to just not care. To have a few laughs at other people’s expense and just move on with their day.

It is a deeply flawed system that allows that to happen, and breaking that dynamic won’t be easy. Twitter the company bears some responsibility here, but the bigger battle will be fought by us, the people at large, every day. And if we hope to preserve what makes Twitter great, this is a battle we can’t afford to lose.

That was intense. To finish the issue in better spirits, allow me to share a couple pictures from my last portrait session with you.

On Wednesday, I arranged a meeting with my friend Sabina and we headed to a nearby park. I took all my lenses with me, as well as, for the first time, a flash. I recently purchased a Sony HVL-F43M flash unit, and I have to say it adds a whole new dimension to the shooting experience.

By being able to actually manipulate the light in the scene, I’m finding I can create some images that were previously outside of my reach. I love the possibilities this has opened up for me, and I’m having so much fun with it in my shoots.

However, what I still can’t do is position the flash off-axis — that is, away from the camera and at an angle — because I would need something to trigger it with. Unfortunately, Sony flashes aren’t compatible with radio triggers, so it appears the only way forward is to buy a second flash unit to act as an optical trigger. And that’s where we have a problem.

I could buy an inexpensive flash like the Sony HVL-F20M, but that model won’t allow me to control the remote flashes’ power ratio in a multiple-light scene. I’m thinking my money would be better spent on another HVL-F43M, or perhaps on the slightly smaller Sony HVL-F32M. This model offers a better compromise between features and price, and is also smaller to boot, so it may not be a bad choice, after all. We’ll see.

Lighting in photography is a deep, deep rabbit’s hole, and I’m looking forward to learning more about it. For now, I’m content with what I already have, but the journey is only just beginning.

Thanks for reading, and I hope you have a peaceful weekend.