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tech

“Apple’s Battery Suppliers Use Cobalt Mined by Child Labor”

From Amnesty International:

Major electronics brands, including Apple, Samsung and Sony, are failing to do basic checks to ensure that cobalt mined by child labourers has not been used in their products

If true, this report paints the entire industry—not just Apple—in a shameful light. But as I’ve written before, Apple is uniquely positioned to address such injustices:

Maybe it’s unfair to expect Apple to shoulder the cost of responsible manufacturing. But the truth is that no other company is in a position—financially or philosophically—to effect such a change.

As consumers, we also bear some responsibility here. Too often, we’re content to ignore the unjust systems that deliver the latest iPhone or laptop to our doorstep.

But what if we told device makers that we valued human life over battery life? Would you be willing to boycott unjust practices—and forgo your biannual iPhone upgrade? Let’s assume that Apple upped its vigilance over the supply chain, then baked the cost of that oversight into its device prices. How much extra would you pay for a “conscience-friendly” iPhone?

Categories
movies tech

Avoiding iPhone spoilers

In last year’s run-up to The Force Awakens, some Star Wars nerds went to great lengths to avoid even the slightest spoiler. These super-fans eschewed movie rumor sites, where the film’s plot outline appeared months before the premiere. They muted keywords on Twitter (e.g. “Skywalker”, “Falcon”) and installed spoiler-blocking browser extensions. They even refused to watch Episode VII’s official trailers, choosing a “virgin” first viewing experience over short-term excitement. Their hard work and self-discipline was rewarded on December 17th, when they sat down in a packed theater with no idea what they were about to witness, beyond “a new Star Wars movie.”

Apple’s product announcement events aren’t quite as entertaining as a J.J. Abrams blockbuster. But for tech nerds, it’s pretty close. The Cupertino company has a decided flair for the dramatic. Climactic reveals and slickly-produced videos punctuate its keynotes. And, like Hollywood studios, Apple shields upcoming releases from the public eye. It would prefer that customers first learn about products in an official announcement, where Apple’s marketing department sets the stage and controls the narrative.

Unfortunately for Apple, the Chinese supply chain doesn’t share this commitment to secrecy. For almost every product announcement over the past half-decade, the Apple blogosphere learns what’s coming before Apple has a chance to announce it. Often, we see the new iPhone in fine detail long before its “official” reveal. In at least one infamous case, a gadget blog had the actual prototype in hand, lost not in Shenzen but in Redwood.

If you’re like me, these unofficial rumors are endlessly fascinating. But if the official Apple keynote is the best way to “experience” the announcement of a new iPhone, shouldn’t I treat prerelease leaks like Star Wars spoilers?[1] Wouldn’t keynote day be more fun if I had no idea what’s coming?[2]

Categories
games

N64 Classic ‘Zelda: Ocarina of Time’ beaten by blind gamer

This is incredible. Terry Garrett, a blind gamer, has beaten the Nintendo 64 classic “Ocarina of Time”. The man’s a gaming god.

How did he do it? First, Garrett relied heavily on the game’s soundscape to orient himself around its 3D space. He even used the venerable Zelda hookshot “as a form of echolocation,” listening for the difference between the weapon striking walls and whiffing through open air. He also relied heavily on software emulation—Garrett saves his game state every few seconds, then restores that state when experiments go awry.

Garrett’s achievement testifies to his perseverance and ingenuity; it took five years of occasional gameplay to finish the task. Few gamers have the patience to do that sort of repetitive, time-consuming work.

Nintendo also deserves credit—for putting such care into Ocarina’s soundscape. The game’s sound engine places each noise in its proper stereo location. Plus, key occurrences on-screen have discernible audio equivalents. For example, when Link chaperones Zelda through Ganondorf’s castle, Zelda’s feet make tiny, just-perceptible noises.[1]


What if every game developer took low-vision accessibility more seriously? What if game studios put the same care into their sound engines that they put into graphics and physics? What if every game’s sound design made it possible for blind gamers to play—withoutresorting to trial and error?

Imagine, for example, if your avatar’s footsteps reverberated more like real life. The sound would echo differently depending on your distance from the nearest wall, the texture of the floor, or the proximity of a deadly chasm. Just this one feature would allow a blind gamer to navigate virtual realms much like Daniel Kish explores the real world.

Games might even implement a “low-vision mode.” With this setting enabled, on-screen events would create constant, audible cues.

Take the recent Arkham Batman series as a theoretical example. How might these games sound if they were programmed with the sight-impaired gamer in mind? Each mob thug would grumble and yell incessantly; that way, the player could tell exactly where each foe stood, relative to Batman’s current position. Or, as the Batmobile motored through Gotham City, audio cues could distinguish open street intersections from adjacent buildings. That way, a gamer could hear exactly when to hit that e-brake. Finally, for less action-heavy sequences, Batman might speak his inner monologue out loud—describing the environment or the puzzle at hand in exhaustive detail.

If more game developers attended to such details, a standard “low-vision vocabulary” would solidify over time. These conventions would guide devs’ work and allow blind gamers to quickly grok new games. Game engines (e.g. Unreal, Unity) would incorporate these features, giving developers a head-start on building blind-accessible titles. Design studios might even hire blind game developers to ensure that their games met the needs of the sight-impaired.


UPDATE: Reader Ian Hamilton responded via Twitter with a series of helpful thoughts. In particular, he notes that many fighting games (e.g. ‘Mortal Kombat X’) already include audio cues that make it easier for sight-impaired gamers to compete. Ian also linked to an interesting Game Developers Conference panel on “Reaching the Visually Impaired Gamer”.


  1. ‘Ocarina of Time’ isn’t the only Nintendo 64 game whose sound effects empower the blind to play.  ↩
Categories
tech

Why does Apple brag about the Watch’s accurate timekeeping?

Apple’s marketing copy for the Watch:

High-quality watches have long been defined by their ability to keep unfailingly accurate time, and Apple Watch is no exception. In conjunction with your iPhone, it keeps time to within 50 milliseconds of the definitive global time standard.

Since the Watch was announced in 2014, Apple has touted its extraordinary accuracy. I’ve never understood why I should be impressed by this.

For over a century, quartz oscillators have made it possible to build incredibly precise timepieces. As early as 1929, the federal Bureau of Standards relied on quartz clocks that drifted from actual time by less than half a second per month. These days, even a $10 Casio wristwatch from your local gas station likely loses less than a minute per year—accurate enough for nearly every practical use.

Digital devices—including laptops and phones—also rely on quartz-based oscillators. But they have an additional advantage over “dumb” timepieces: an Internet connection. Using the Network Time Protocol (NTP), our devices synchronize themselves against precisely-tuned time servers on the Internet. NTP keeps our computer clocks within a few dozen milliseconds of “actual” time; that probably explains Apple’s “50 millisecond” figure in the marketing quoted above.

Now, Apple actually claims that the Watch is “far more accurate as a timekeeping device than the iPhone.” This makes little sense to me, since both devices presumably depend on the same NTP servers.

And even if the Watch were somehow slightly more accurate than my other digital devices… should I care? Do average consumers even need the exact time, down to fractions of a second? Are atomic physicists timing their experiments using the Watch? Do NASA engineers schedule booster ignition using Siri? Do international secret agents synchronize their capers by watching Mickey Mouse’s hand? I honestly can’t imagine a realistic scenario where even a few seconds’ aberration makes a difference in everyday life.

Categories
tech

‘For the New Year, Let’s Resolve to Improve Our Tech Literacy’

Farhad Manjoo, writing about tech illiteracy in the New York Times:

This year we began to see the creaking evidence of our collective ignorance about the digital age. The sorry showing ought to prompt a resolution for the new year. In 2016, let’s begin to appreciate the dominant role technology now plays in shaping the world, and let’s strive to get smarter about how we think about its effects.”

The article chides those leaders and institutions whose tech naïveté made them look foolish this past year. And Manjoo is right; tech now figures prominently into many headline news stories. It’s no longer possible to govern or lead effectively without understanding technology’s impact.


Tech dominates the news because tech now dominates our lives. Our computers fit in our pockets, and they accompany us from dawn to dark (then on through the night). We rely on cloud services for everything from settling bar bets to storing baby photos to driving safely through new locales. Tech is now the air we breathe, the sea we swim through, and the language we speak.

Yes, tech-literate leaders govern more effectively. But tech literacy also helps us to live well. On the one hand, tech can streamline our lives—making time for those things that truly matter: self-awareness, family, relationships, and community.

Conversely, when used thoughtlessly, tech can amplify bad habits and empower self-destructive behavior. Our gadgets isolate us from each other. Online anonymity brings out our gross, secret hatreds. Instant access to information devalues knowledge and tempts us to stop learning.

Yes, as Manjoo implores, we should commit to tech literacy in this new year. And that resolution certainly means we should understand how technology impacts government and society. But we must also think critically about tech at the scale of our day-to-day.[1]


  1. I’m hoping that this blog can explore such issues in 2016.Who needs another speeds-and-feeds rundown or list of app features? There are a thousand other writers who handle those topics better than I ever could. To be honest, I’m a rank amateur in traditional tech fields. I know enough JavaScript to be dangerous, but my code is cludgy. I appreciate good typography and can do basic work in the Adobe suite, but that hardly makes me a world-class designer. I’m familiar with some marketing principles, but I’ll never become a titan of business.So what can I contribute to the conversation? My educational work in biblical criticism familiarized me with hermeneutics, semiotics and interpretation. I’d like to point these skills at tech and see what happens.  ↩