Mac Pro: all apologies, signed Apple pundits

John Khelt:

It took Apple 6 years to correct its last mistake, the trashcan Mac Pro. Part of the reason for Apple taking so long to correct mistakes is so many apologists uncritically support them. The pundits don’t get how outrageously insulting it is to drown out and ignore what enthusiast/users say they want (e.g., Macs with upgradable slots) and instead decree what pundits think you need and should be happy with. That level of uncritical support helps Apple ignore problems. The pundits are sure they know best. Remember, they declared how the trashcan Mac was also for pros, rather than being critical about how it served neither pros nor enthusiasts. Despite being wrong then, they’re happy to reassert the same now. The pundits can’t seem to think beyond wanting to curry Apple favor.

Being an Apple sycophant has its privileges after all. Maybe they’ll get to interview some Apple exec where they’ll ask banal questions and incessantly fluff Apple plastic talking points. And if they don’t play ball and choose to call Apple out on mistakes, maybe they wont get the next Apple event invite.

But maybe, if more pundits could think for themselves, and more of them would speak up for enthusiasts and users, then just maybe, Apple would be motivated to do a better job.

Right on the money.

How VisiCalc’s spreadsheets changed the world

It’s the 40th anniversary of VisiCalc, the first popular spreadsheet program, and the anniversary has prompted some new remembrances of the killer app that, true to its “power to the people” origins, got people playing with data — and, by popularizing personal computers, helped to change the world.

Something about spreadsheets popularising the PC always fascinated me. Out of all the things computers can do – it’s tabulating numbers that played an important role in their spread.

Microsoft considering a dedicated Office key for keyboards

Microsoft is considering adding a dedicated Office key to keyboards. The new key would provide additional keyboard shortcuts for Office apps, including the ability to quickly share documents and files. Microsoft has been conducting a survey with testers of the Office key, spotted by WalkingCat, and is getting feedback on how the dedicated key operates.

Microsoft appears to suggest the key will replace the secondary Windows key on the right-hand side of a keyboard, or the dedicated menu key. Microsoft’s survey, which requires a work or school Microsoft account to access, includes questions around Office key shortcuts, and asks whether testers would like to see this dedicated key on laptops. Microsoft appears to be testing the concept with its latest Windows 10 May 2019 Update.

How about we all collectively decide not to do this? The Windows key is an affront enough as it is, and I really don’t want OEMs to be strong-armed into adding another annoying, useless, user-hostile key that accidentally takes you out of games and other fullscreen applications and that is entirely useless on non-Windows operating systems.

Just, no.

Why Mazda is purging touchscreens from its vehicles

What an interesting coincidence – a story from earlier this year that lines up well with our story from yesterday.

Tablet-like touchscreens have become the ubiquitous interfaces of choice, and they’re seemingly everywhere in daily life, on everything from thermostats to coffee makers and refrigerators. But Mazda really doesn’t think they belong in cars—or at least anywhere near the driver’s seat.

It wasn’t a decision that was hastily made, according to company officials. However, as they started studying the effects of touchscreens on driving safety (and driving comfort), it soon became clear what the priorities should be with this completely new system that makes its debut in the 2019 Mazda 3.

This is a bold move by Mazda, especially now that touchscreens in cars have become such a hyped supposed selling point. I hope other manufacturers follow suit.

Lyrics site accuses Google of lifting its content

“Over the last two years, we’ve shown Google irrefutable evidence again and again that they are displaying lyrics copied from Genius,” said Ben Gross, Genius’s chief strategy officer, in an email message. The company said it used a watermarking system in its lyrics that embedded patterns in the formatting of apostrophes. Genius said it found more than 100 examples of songs on Google that came from its site.

Starting around 2016, Genius said, the company made a subtle change to some of the songs on its website, alternating the lyrics’ apostrophes between straight and curly single-quote marks in exactly the same sequence for every song.

When the two types of apostrophes were converted to the dots and dashes used in Morse code, they spelled out the words “Red Handed.”

This is such a clear and shut case – but I do wonder, can anyone other than the actual copyright holders even claim ownership over the lyrics? I mean, neither Genius nor Google wrote these lyrics in the first place, and yet, here they are fighting over ownership. Posting lyrics online may fall under fair use, but I doubt you’d be able to make a fair use appeal if you have a massive library of lyrics online, paid for through ads.

The touchscreen infotainment systems in new cars are a distracting mess

When I’m in charge of a car company, we’re going to have one strict rule about interior design: make it so it doesn’t cause you to crash the car.

You’d think this would already be in effect everywhere, but no. Ever since the arrival of the iPhone, car designers have aspired to replicate that sleek, glassy aesthetic within the cabin. And it never works, because you tend to look at a phone while you use it. In a car, you have this other thing you should be looking at, out there, beyond the high-resolution panoramic screen that separates your face from the splattering june bugs.

If a designer came to me with a bunch of screens, touch pads, or voice-activated haptic-palm-pad gesture controls, I’d trigger a trapdoor that caused the offender to plummet down into the driver’s seat of a Cadillac fitted with the first version of the CUE system—which incorporated a motion sensor that would actually change the screen as your finger approached it. And I’d trigger my trapdoor by turning a knob. I wouldn’t even have to look at it.

I couldn’t agree more. One of the things I dread about ever replacing my 2009 Volvo S80 are these crappy touchscreens that are added to every car these days, often of dubious quality, with no regard to user interface design or driver safety. For instance, I don’t want to take my eyes off the road just to adjust the temperature of the climate control – there should be a big, easy to find knob within arm’s reach.

This just seems extremely unsafe to me.

Subway history: how OS/2 powered the NYC subway for decades

The role of OS/2 in the NYC subway system is more of a conduit. It helps connect the various parts that people use with the parts they don’t. Waldhauer notes, “There are no user-facing applications for OS/2 anywhere in the system. OS/2 is mainly used as the interface between a sophisticated mainframe database and the simple computers used in subway and bus equipment for everyday use. As such, the OS/2 computers are just about everywhere in the system.”

At this point, we’re talking about an OS designed in the late 80s, released in the early 90s, as part of a difficult relationship between two tech giants. The MTA had to ignore most of this because it had already made its decision and changing course would cost a lot of money.

It’s sad that OS/2 – in its current form available as ArcaOS 5.0 – has a relatively steep entry price, because it’s an incredibly fun and unique operating system to play around with. I’d love to set up a VM just for fun and playing around, but at $129, I really can’t justify that.

R.T. Russell’s Z80 BBC Basic is now open source

More news from the CP/Mish front:

As part of the work I’ve been doing with cpmish I’ve been trying to track down the copyright holders of some of the more classic pieces of CP/M software and asking them to license it in a way that allows redistribution. One of the people I contacted was R.T. Russell, the author of the classic Z80 BBC BASIC, and he very kindly sent me the source and agreed to allow it to be distributed under the terms of the zlib license. So it’s now open source!

I’ve made the 37-year-old source build and added it to the cpmish respository; it works fine and is shipping with the cpmish disk images.

Ada/SPARK on Genode

The Genode OS Framework is written in C++, but has support (to one degree or another) for writing components in several other languages. Perhaps foremost of these is Ada/SPARK, thanks in part to active development/support by Componolit, which maintains the Ada/SPARK toolset for Genode (SPARK is a subset of Ada, designed to be verifiable).

On Genodians.org, there have been three recent articles exploring the use of Ada/SPARK on Genode, each approaching the subject from a different angle.

First, in “C++ and SPARK as a Continuum“, Genode co-founder Norman Feske shows how to create hybrid C++/SPARK components. There are a few restrictions, but the results fit well with the Genode component philosophy.

By regarding C++ and SPARK as a continuum rather than an black-and-white decision, we can use SPARK at places where we regard formal verification as most valuable while not restricting Genode components to be entirely static. It gives us Genode developers the chance to slowly embrace the application of formal methods and recognize their benefit in practice.

Second, Martin Stein takes the first steps toward converting (a fork of) the in-house “base-hw” kernel to Ada in “Spunky: A Kernel Using Ada – Part 1: RPC“. This is just the beginning of this project, so stay tuned.

What should I say? Thanks to the almost pedantic need for correctness of the Ada compiler and the sheer endless chain of complains it kept throwing at me, the final image worked out of the box and put a big smile on my face.

Third, Johannes Kliemann of Componolit dives into the deep end of the pool in “SPARK as an Extremum: Components in Pure SPARK“, which describes the arduous journey that led them to create an API for creating components completely in SPARK.

With the realization that generated bindings are not feasible and both binding and API need to be created by hand, previous API limitations such as functions that are not allowed in SPARK could be removed. This API should not resemble any characteristics of any language or platform that implements it. The goal was to create a pure SPARK API for asynchronous verified components. The result is the Componolit Ada Interface, an interface collection that provides component startup, shutdown and platform interaction.

As you can see, even though the Genode core has become pretty mature, there is still much interesting research and experimentation being done on the eternal quest for more trustworthy computing.

Windows 10 build 18917 begins splitting the Shell from the OS

For those who don’t know, Windows Core OS is supposed to be a new version of Windows that can adapt more easily to any kind of screen, thanks in part to a new infrastructure for the Shell, which separates it from the system itself. This means that Microsoft can create different Windows experiences for different form factors such as Lenovo’s foldable ThinkPad, while using the same core components as a base.

Yesterday, Microsoft released Windows 10 build 18917 to the Fast Ring, and while it included some welcome improvements, perhaps the most interesting change went unnoticed. Twitter user Albacore has discovered that with this build, the company has started implementing some work towards the separation of the Shell from the rest of Windows. There’s now a Shell Update Agent, which is meant to be able to update the Shell on demand.

Windows and a possible new shell are like multiplying by 0.5 – you never get quite to zero. There’s been so many rumours and leaks for so long now, one has to wonder if it will ever actually happen.

SwiftUI and Catalyst: Apple executes its invisible transition strategy

And then there’s SwiftUI, which may be a harder concept for regular users to grasp, but it’s a huge step on Apple’s part. This is Apple’s ultimate long game—an entirely new way to design and build apps across all of Apple’s platforms, based on the Swift language (introduced five years ago as yet another part of Apple’s long game).

In the shorter term, iOS app developers will be able to reach to the Mac via Catalyst. But in the longer term, Apple is creating a new, unified development approach to all of Apple’s devices, based in Swift and SwiftUI. Viewed from this perspective, Catalyst feels more like a transitional technology than the future of Apple’s platforms.

Apple’s own SwiftUI page provides more details. This is the future of application development across all of Apple’s platforms, so if you have a vested interested in the Apple world, you’d do good to get yourself acquainted with it.

Google defends Chrome ad blocking changes

For a while now, Google has been working on changing the way Chrome extensions work. Among other changes, the Web Request API will be replaced by the Declarative Net Request API, which is stricter in the kind of data extensions need to function. However, current ad blockers also use the Web Request API currently, and the replacement API limits these extensions in what they can do.

Google has written a blog post explaining their reasoning. It concludes:

This has been a controversial change since the Web Request API is used by many popular extensions, including ad blockers. We are not preventing the development of ad blockers or stopping users from blocking ads. Instead, we want to help developers, including content blockers, write extensions in a way that protects users’ privacy.

You can read more about the Declarative Net Request API and how it compares to the Web Request API here.

We understand that these changes will require developers to update the way in which their extensions operate. However, we think it is the right choice to enable users to limit the sensitive data they share with third-parties while giving them the ability to curate their own browsing experience. We are continuing to iterate on many aspects of the Manifest V3 design, and are working with the developer community to find solutions that both solve the use cases extensions have today and keep our users safe and in control.

I don’t doubt that Google’s Chrome engineers are making these changes because they genuinely believe they make the browser better and safer. I’m concerned with the bean counters and managers, and Google’s omnipresent ad sales managers, who will be all too eager to abuse Chrome’s popularity to make ad blocking harder.

AMD Zen 2 microarchitecture analysis: Ryzen 3000 and EPYC Rome

We have been teased with AMD’s next generation processor products for over a year. The new chiplet design has been heralded as a significant breakthrough in driving performance and scalability, especially as it becomes increasingly difficult to create large silicon with high frequencies on smaller and smaller process nodes. AMD is expected to deploy its chiplet paradigm across its processor line, through Ryzen and EPYC, with those chiplets each having eight next-generation Zen 2 cores. Today AMD went into more detail about the Zen 2 core, providing justification for the +15% clock-for-clock performance increase over the previous generation that the company presented at Computex last week.

The 16c/32t Ryzen 9 3950X looks quite attainable at $750 – a price that is surely to come down after launch.

CERN’s Microsoft Alternatives project

CERN has started a project to replace all of the closed source, proprietary software that it uses with open alternatives.

Given the collaborative nature of CERN and its wide community, a high number of licenses are required to deliver services to everyone, and when traditional business models on a per-user basis are applied, the costs per product can be huge and become unaffordable in the long term.

A prime example is that CERN has enjoyed special conditions for the use of Microsoft products for the last 20 years, by virtue of its status as an “academic institution”. However, recently, the company has decided to revoke CERN’s academic status, a measure that took effect at the end of the previous contract in March 2019, replaced by a new contract based on user numbers, increasing the license costs by more than a factor of ten. Although CERN has negotiated a ramp-up profile over ten years to give the necessary time to adapt, such costs are not sustainable.

I always find it strange when scientific institutions funded by public money get locked in by proprietary software vendors, to the point where they are so reliant on them it becomes virtually impossible to opt for alternatives. Good on CERN – although a bit late – for trying to address this issue.

CP/Mish: an open source CP/M reimplementation

CP/Mish is an open source sort-of-CP/M distribution for the 8080 and Z80 architectures (although for technical reasons currently it only works on the Z80).

It contains no actual Digital Research code. Instead, it’s a collection of third party modules which replicate it, all with proper open source licenses, integrated with a build system that should make it easy to work with.

[…]

CP/Mish is not CP/M, but it’s enough like CP/M to run CP/M programs and do CP/M things. And, if you want the real CP/M, CP/Mish uses the standard interaces so you can just drop in a Digital Research BDOS and CCP and it’ll work.

Some companies bet on CP/M, some bet on DOS. We know who won, and who lost. Still, CP/M inspired a lot of DOS, so anybody with experience with DOS should feel right at home on CP/M.

Apple unveils new Mac Pro

The all-new Mac Pro is an absolute powerhouse with up to 28-core Intel Xeon processors, up to 1.5TB of ECC RAM, up to 4TB of SSD storage, up to AMD Radeon Pro Vega II Duo graphics with 64GB of HBM2 memory, and eight PCIe expansion slots for maximum performance, expansion, and configurability.

The new design includes a stainless steel frame with smooth handles and an aluminum housing that lifts off for 360-degree access to the entire system. The housing also features a unique lattice pattern, which has already been referred to as a cheese grater, to maximize airflow and quiet operation.

I love this machine. Not because I need it, will buy it, or even understand the kind of professional workflows people use these for – but because I’ve always had a soft spot for high-performance, no-compromises professional workstations. Whether it be the Sun or SGI UNIX workstations of the ’90s, the PowerMac and Mac Pro machines of the early 2000s, or the less flashy but still just as stunning powerhouses HP, for instance, makes with their Z line of workstations, such as the Z8.

This new Mac Pro fits that professional workstation bill more than probably any PowerMac or Mac Pro before it, and I love it for it. While not nearly as insane or crazy, it reminds me of SGI’s most powerful MIPS workstation, the crazy SGI Tezro, which had a list price of tens of thousands of dollars. In that light, I’m not even remotely surprised that this is an expensive machine – anybody who has spent even a modicum of time in the world of professional workstations knows how expensive these machines are, and why.

In short, if you are appalled by the price, this machine is not for you.

Apple also unveiled a new professional display, and while the specifications look impressive, the stand that’s sold separately for 999 dollars has already become a meme. I’ll leave the display talk to those of us who know more about the kinds of demands professionals place upon displays.

KDE Usability and Productivity: are we there yet?

KDE’s Usability & Productivity initiative is now almost two years old, and I’ve been blogging weekly progress for a year and a half. So I thought it would be a good time to take stock of the situation: how far we’ve come, and what’s left to do. Let’s dive right in!

This initiative has been a lot of fun to follow. If you always update to the latest KDE release – for instance by using KDE Neon – you’ll see the weekly fixes and polishes highlighted in the blog posts appear on your machine very quickly.

Apple announces iOS 13, iPadOS, macOS Catalina, and so much more

I wasn’t available for about a week due to emigrating from The Netherlands to Sweden, so I’ve clearly got some catching up to do when it comes to Apple’s WWDC keynote. Apple detailed iOS 13 for the iPhone, the renamed iPadOS for the iPad, macOS Catalina for the Mac, updates for watchOS and tvOS, and so much more.

I’m not going into great detail on everything here, since you’ve most likely already delved deep into these new releases if you’re interested. I do wish to mention that I’m insanely happy with mouse and multiwindow support for the iPad – it turns my iPad Pro into a very useful and powerful device, and I can’t wait for the first keyboards with built-in trackpad to come onto the scene.

I’ll keep the other big announcement – the new Mac Pro – for a separate item and discussion thread.