The Moonlander Keyboard – First Impressions

When ZSA announced a new keyboard a couple of weeks ago and said it was in stock and ready to ship immediately, I managed to last about five minutes before clicking the Order button. ZSA, makers of the Ergodox EZ and more recently the Planck EZ, have stepped things up with a new keyboard that is an entirely new design (the Ergodox and Planck EZ are based on open-source keyboards).

I was interested in the Moonlander primarily as part of my initiative to experiment with keyboards that are Planck-like but have some extra thumb keys to make things a little easier for me. The Moonlander has an extra row on top, which makes it more similar to a Preonic with extra thumb keys.

But one thing in particular caught my eye about the Moonlander: the thumb clusters are on a hinge and adjustable. Being someone for whom the thumb keys often either are in my way or are a real stretch for the thumbs to reach (looking at you, Keyboardio Model 01), this seemed quite promising.

Fast forward to today (well, yesterday), and my friendly UPS driver drops off a surprisingly compact box on my doorstep. I open it up and find it has a beautiful unboxing experience, and the keyboard comes with a nice little carrying case.

Moonlander box with Planck EZ on top for scale

Moonlander keyboard in its handy carrying case

I immediately got to work adapting my own keyboard layout to this keyboard (That’s right! I’m giving it my own custom layout. This keyboard is fully programmable so its layout can be whatever you want it to be. More on that in a bit). Instead of using the layout it came with, I am instead making this layout a superset of my Planck layout, which is what I’ve been doing with all the ortholinear-layout keyboards I use. They’re all at least as big as a Planck, so they contain a Planck inside of them.

Onions have layers, keyboards have layers

When using a relatively compact keyboard like one of these, you will find the need get multiple keys’ worth of mileage out of each individual key on your keyboard, and one easy way to accomplish this is with layers. You can assign keys to let you switch between layers. They can either work like a standard modifier key where you’re on the other layer as long as you hold the other key down, you can have the key toggle the layer on/off, or you can even have a one-shot layer switch, where you tap the key quick, then the next key you tap is on that layer and the keyboard automatically switches back. You can even have a key that lets you hold to momentarily switch layers, but will toggle the layer on if you tap the key.

Your computer traditionally is none the wiser about these layers; all the computer knows is that the keyboard sends keypress events to it and it processes them, and the fact that there are layers is not really known to the computer. But ZSA have made a clever feature in their keyboard configurator called “Train” that allows you to actually explore your keyboard layout in real time, and it gives you visibility into the layer keys you’re pressing. Let’s have a peek at that now:

animation of training mode

This goes beyond a traditional typing tutor application because it also provides visibility into the layers you have on your keyboard and it indicates which is active and what keys are available on that layer. If you’re new to the whole concept of layers on keyboards this is a really valuable learning tool, and even an experienced curmudgeon like myself enjoys this as a testing/debugging tool.

And if your keyboard layout turns out to be unusable? No worries! You can just reprogram it and re-flash it.

Keyboard features and quality

tl;dr: It’s a quality keyboard. Nothing to worry about here.

The keyboard itself is surprisingly thin when unfolded. It’s just over half an inch thick. It can be used flat (which is how I’m using it currently), or you can tent it at whatever angle you like. Actually getting the tenting situated looks a little bit fiddly, but there’s a helpful YouTube video demonstrating how to do it.

The key caps it comes with come in a DSA profile, which means that the height and angle of the keys is the same on every row. If you don’t like this, there is a cottage industry of small makers selling their own third-party key caps for mechanical keyboards. You might have to buy some add-on kits to get enough caps for this keyboard, but for most key cap sets a base kit plus an ortho kit will probably be just fine.

The keyboard has RGB LEDs under each keyswitch, and the firmware for the keyboard comes with a variety of fun animations built right in. The LEDs’ brightness and hue can be adjusted on the keyboard, and they can be turned off entirely for those who hate the whimsy. And the keyboard isn’t just a visual delight; it also has a built-in PC-style speaker which can even be used to play little tunes if you’re into that kind of thing (and the speaker can also be turned off if you don’t want it making a chirp when you connect it to your computer).

The build quality is absolutely fantastic. The keyboard is made of plastic but it has a decent amount of heft to it (something I can’t say for ZSA’s Planck EZ which is so light it feels cheap).

As any good modern mechanical keyboard, it uses a USB-C connector on the back, and the switches aren’t soldered onto the board; they are instead hot-swappable, so if you change your mind and want a different type of feel to your keyboard you can just pop out the switches and put in new ones.

The keyboard comes with a 2 year warranty as well, and I can say that all of my interactions with their support team are spectacular. They helped me troubleshoot a pretty gnarly issue last year with my Planck that ended up being caused by the animation code using up too many processor cycles and causing my keyboard to not respond correctly in all cases.

The switches

I chose Kailh Box White switches for this keyboard. ZSA offers a decent selection of switches with their keyboards, but one thing I really wish they and other keyboard vendors would offer is an option to buy a keyboard with the key caps but no switches so I can pick exactly the ones I want later, because these wouldn’t have been my first choice.

My first choice would probably have been Kailh Box Jade or Box Navy switches, which are part of their “thick click” series. They’re… so luxurious to type on. But I digress.

The Box White switches are nice and clicky, and have a bit more of a “chonkier” sound than, say, Cherry MX Blue switches, often the default keyswitch people think about when they think about a loud and clicky keyboard.

The click from these switches is lower in pitch compared to an MX Blue.

Let’s hear these compared to a couple other of my favorite switches:

In person the differences between these sounds are quite different (in particular the Box Royal switches are much quieter in person than the recording would have you believe). And if you don’t really need or want a loud and clicky keyboard there are plenty of much quieter keyswitch choices available to you, although they often have a more dampened tactile feel to them as well when you type on them.

A… nonstandard configuration

I got used to the layout of this keyboard pretty quickly, but one thing kept driving me nuts: as a long time Planck user, that top row of keys felt superfluous and the keys were getting in the way.

I initially worked around this by making the top row of keys do the same thing as the second row of keys in most layers, but it still felt clumsy.

Then I realized: It’s a totally customizable keyboard with hot-swappable switches; I can do something about this!

So… I just took the top row of keys out entirely.

blinded by the light

It looks silly and I am getting blinded by these extra LEDs while I figure out how to make some plastic placeholders to go in place of these keyswitches, but it works pretty well!

Of course, if ZSA makes a compact Moonlander that drops that top row I’m totally dropping another few hundred bucks.

I also might explore trying to find a super low-profile MX-compatible key cap that can go on that top row so that I can retain those extra keys, but without them always necessarily being in my way. I might even look into 3D printing some miniature caps that go right over the stem but don’t cover the rest of the switch, leaving the keys accessible, but not in a way I’m ever going to mistake for a regular key. I might also put in a row of artisan key caps on that top row.

Verdict: should you buy one?

Yeah, if you want one! It’s a great choice of keyboard.

If you’re currently using a standard keyboard layout, you need to give yourself time to adjust to this one though, because it’s pretty radically different. It’s a split keyboard, for one thing. It also uses a columnar (aka ortholinear) layout, which is going to feel unnatural to someone who is used to staggered rows of keys on traditional keyboards. And if that’s not enough, you have to get accustomed to the fact that there’s not a space for all of your symbol keys in the normal spot on this keyboard.

You’re not going to be typing at full speed on this keyboard the day it arrives on your doorstep like I am (unless you happen to be adapting a very similar keymap from another similar keyboard like I did)

And I think ZSA is a great little keyboard shop and they’re very deserving of your business.

Verdict: will it unseat my Planck as primary keyboard?

It could.

One thing that I really love about the Planck is how accessible every single key feels on it. I necessarily can’t get that same experience with these bigger keyboards because, well, they have more keys and when you add more keys, you’re eventually going to end up with some that are a farther reach.

What I can say so far is that once I got my layout on here, I’ve felt completely at ease and at home on this keyboard. It makes for a great keyboard for my desk, and it has a very good chance of becoming my daily driver.

Of course, when you have the massive collection that I have (that keeps getting larger), you can end up with an awful lot of daily drivers!

The Dunning-Krueger Years

I’ll periodically get these flashbacks to moments in my career where I can now realize that I was way out of my element and didn’t know what the fuck I was doing. Having worked at an early stage startup I ended up in a role where I was managing other engineers and I was not yet experienced enough to realize just how unqualified I was.

On one of these occasions, one of the engineers on my team was struggling to get some work done in time for an upcoming deadline.

And since I was presumably this clever and brilliant manager I figured I’d be able to swoop in, work my magic, and get this engineer back on track. There was a company-wide outing coming up that week, and I told him “hey, let’s both stay back at the office and we’ll knock out these issues together.” For me, this was perfect because I considered the event to be a waste of time anyway and I also got to be the down to earth, hands-on manager who rolls up his sleeves and gets shit done.

So we stayed behind to hold down the fort while the rest of the company went to this fun outing. In practice, I was of little use to him because I wasn’t intimately familiar with the codebase he was working on, and despite him working primarily in JS, he was perfectly proficient in Ruby and didn’t really have any need for 26 year old me’s sage advice as an expert Rubyist of… probably a couple of years at the time.

So I mostly spent the afternoon dicking around on the internet, not really helping with much, and I guess he got to chip away at his issues for an extra afternoon, and an extra afternoon wasn’t make or break. In retrospect, this was mostly a dick move. Instead of singling this lone engineer out and keeping him from a bonding activity with peers, I should have been monitoring the project more closely so that I could have directed some help his way weeks prior, when it would have mattered. And I would have been a much more down to earth manager had I been a good sport and attended this outing.

This engineer’s life has since then taken a dramatic turn; he eventually left tech entirely and according to his Facebook profile he teaches yoga and practices healing through sound baths and meditation. And to be honest, having worked in tech now for a little while, that does sound like it would be a refreshing and fulfilling departure from the shenanigans people like past me subjected people to.

I’m glad that I’ve grown enough that I can look at my past self and facepalm so hard. I’m not proud of whatever collateral damage I’ve left in the path I took to get here, and I hope I still have enough growth ahead of me that I can look back at even this post and think “wow, I was insufferable.”

A new WWDC

Speaking as someone who’s never attended a WWDC in person, today’s sessions felt like an overall improvement over an in-person event. Presentations felt tighter and more polished overall. It was probably a little less nerve-wracking for the speakers to have everything recorded ahead of time, even if they miss out on some of the live audience feedback and applause.

I realize that for the people who have attended WWDC in person this is for sure a downgrade for a lot of reasons, but for the tens of thousands more developers who get to experience the conference this time as first class citizens, this is an overall upgrade.

WWDCs for the past… decade or so have felt stagnant in their format that dates back to Steve Jobs. This year’s WWDC feels like Apple is finally breaking free of that legacy and trying something new that is true to the reality of Apple’s scale today. This year’s WWDC format also feels more true to the nature of working as a developer, something Apple hinted to in the outro video for the Platforms State of the Union, showing developers working in a variety of settings, sometimes late at night, sometimes with children around. By embracing a distributed and more asynchronous conference format, you are making WWDC feel like it’s for everyone, not just a privileged relative few who can make the journey.

Apple didn’t want to do this year’s WWDC like this; they were forced to do the event like this because of COVID-19, and I’m sure they’re eager to do live events again when it’s safe. And that’s great! I can’t imagine it gets much better than working hard on something great for people and hearing that thunderous applause when it’s introduced on stage. But the community has changed, and the defaults should change too.

ARKit and the taller skyscraper

Having seen some of the apps that were put into the App Store this week with ARKit support, it really hearkened back to an analogy Steve Jobs loved to make when OS X was first being developed.

Building software, he opined, was a bit like building a skyscraper. There’s a certain number of floors that you can build on your own before the whole thing collapses under its own weight. At a certain point it just gets too complex for you or your team.

But with good APIs (such as the ones OS X provided), you still can build that same number of floors, but with the help of those great APIs, you are already many floors higher when you first start building. 

ARKit perfectly embodies this principle. A few years ago, building your own AR system was a ton of work and was hard to get right. But since Apple has included AR APIs in its SDK, you now get AR for free. 

That suddenly means that a ton of little apps can now be made and have AR as part of them, when they wouldn’t have been practical to build at all before. Adding an AR component to a simple game? Easy! Want to make a tape measure app that lets you measure things around you? Now that’s easy to do with AR.

I don’t think AR is going to be a revolutionary change to how everything in mobile apps works. But it’s now within easy reach of every iOS app developer who wants to try something with it. Investment in these APIs give Apple incredible long-term advantages that are hard for competitors to catch up with.

You Don’t Need To Be First

“Guys, it’s crunch time.”

You feel dead inside as you process the words.

“We’re gonna need to be doing some late nights here for awhile. We need this done by July 16 or… ” he trails off.

“or it won’t be done by July 16,” you think to yourself.

So one late night you’re eating pizza with the project manager and you ask, “why the rush?”

“Well, our competitor is working on this thing too, and if they come out with it first then they’re going to win this whole market and we won’t have a future.”

“Of course,” you respond after looking up from your Blackberry. “I’ll stop messing around on MySpace and get to work.”

You open up Rhapsody to find some music to jam to, then you fire up WordPerfect and finish up with the report you promised to get done.

Yep, you think to yourself. We better get this project off the ground first or no one will ever use it, like when that one company tried making their own version of Hydrox. What were those called? Oh, yeah, Oreos.

Aaron’s Simple Guide To Security

Ben grossblatt cybersecurity jpg

There’s a lot of hysteria going on about cybersecurity as of late. Even President Trump knows the importance of “the cyber.” In theory, cybersecurity is really scary because there are a lot of moving parts involved and vulnerabilities are everywhere. However, a lot of recent high-profile breaches were a lot more old-fashioned in nature: someone got a hold of someone’s password.

By doing a handful of simple things you can be protected from a lot of potential attacks.

You don’t need to be good with computers for decent security to be within your reach, nor should you have to be. You aren’t expected to be a locksmith just to secure your home and your belongings. Why should your digital belongings be any different?

More and more of the important things in your life aren’t physical things, but digital ones. Keeping this secure isn’t just for paranoid delusional nerds. You have something to lose. David Brooks put it best:

 

Privacy is important to the development of full individuals because there has to be an interior zone within each person that other people don’t see. There has to be a zone where half-formed thoughts and delicate emotions can grow and evolve, without being exposed to the harsh glare of public judgment. There has to be a place where you can be free to develop ideas and convictions away from the pressure to conform. There has to be a spot where you are only yourself and can define yourself.

 

This isn’t going to make your digital life NSA-grade, but if you follow all these guidelines you’ll probably be fine.

Passwords

Most of the time, when someone says “my Facebook got hacked!” what they really mean is “someone guessed my Facebook password” (which is a polite translation of “I had a shitty Facebook password”) or “someone tricked me into giving them my Facebook password” or “I use the same password on every site and somebody got my password from another site and tried the same one on Facebook and they got into my account!”

Good passwords are the foundation of good digital security.

Live by these password rules:

  • Every login you have should use a completely different password (don’t just use simple variations of one password!). If some rinky-dink company you have an account with (like, I don’t know, Sony) has hackers making off with your password, it’s not as big of a deal because it’s only good on that one site.
  • You should pick good passwords. Good passwords are lengthy and have a lot of entropy (think of entropy in terms of a rubik’s cube. If you have solved it and all sides are solid, that’s low entropy. If you have it all scrambled that’s high entropy). aaaaaaa isn’t particularly high entropy but 1 award for my pony Isabella is quite good. A lot of sites force you to include numbers and symbols in your password and that’s great, but a password that is a long phrase is as hard to guess as a short password made of cryptic numbers, letters and symbols. If a site says your password can be up to 32 characters long, make it 32 characters long. It’ll be that much harder for hackers to guess.
  • Use fake answers to security questions, and keep a record of your fake answers. The answer to a security question is as good as a password, so make sure that your answers aren’t things others can find out about you easily. I use random phrases as answers to security questions and keep track of those in a password manager. Your mother can’t change her maiden name, so don’t use her real one as your security answer!

There’s no way you can remember all those passwords. You need a password manager.

I have logins for HUNDREDS of sites, and I actually know maybe half a dozen of the passwords for them. My password manager knows all, and it keeps them in a securely encrypted virtual vault.

Password managers used to be a tool for nerds like me who have a ton of logins. Nowadays that’s pretty much everyone. They work on your computer and on your phone/tablet, and they have the added bonus of saving you from typing in repetitive information in forms on the web.

I use 1Password on my Macs and iOS devices. It’s cheap and totally worth it. If you’re more of a tightwad you can use iCloud Keychain (assuming you use Safari). Lastpass works well too (and is free, and is available on virtually all platforms).

A password manager takes some getting used to but it’s worth getting into the habit.

One very important note: Your password vault’s password needs to be REALLY good. Pick a long one that is super hard to guess (but make sure it’s easy to type on your phone! 

don’t get phished

“So Aaron, what’s the easiest way for a hacker to get my password?”

“You’ll voluntarily give it to them.”

“Whaaaaa?”

Yep, hackers don’t need to build some sophisticated computing cluster to break past a firewall. Instead, they rely on the biggest security hole of all: the humans that use these secure systems.

It’s surprisingly easy to harvest users’ passwords by sending them official-looking emails that lead to fake web pages that make you think you’re logging into a real site. It’s gotten even more targeted nowadays, too. There might even be people trying to phish you at work, convincing you to share some proprietary company information.

Be suspicious of emails telling you that you need to verify stuff. Be suspicious of an email from Amazon or eBay telling you that you just bought some expensive item you didn’t buy.

If the email is from a site you use and it’s suspicious looking, don’t click a link in the email. Instead, go to your browser and log directly into that web site, then deal with the matter from there.

Always double check URLs in your browser’s address bar to make sure you’re on the site you expect to be on.

Get in the habit of always using your password manager to log into sites. If you think you’re on Target’s web site, but you’re actually on target.com.myphishingsite.biz, your password manager won’t fill in your target.com login.

If your web browser tells you that it might be a phishing site, believe it.

Ad Blocking

I recommend that you equip all your web browsers with ad blocking extensions.

There are ethical issues for sure. Most of the sites you use serve ads to pay their bills and using an ad blocker is kind of like leeching off of them.

The problem is that most sites don’t directly control the ads that appear on their pages. Instead they let a complex series of shady middlemen manage these ads, and as a result, a lot of otherwise reputable sites have lately been feeding you shady ads and sometimes malware.

Ghostery goes a long way to protecting you; it blocks hundreds of trackers. I also recommend AdBlock Plus and uBlock Origin.

If you’re on iOS you can get ad blocking now too; as of iOS 9 Apple had added the ability to develop content blocking extensions for Safari. They’re super fast and they make Safari load pages a lot faster!

Nowadays a lot more sites try to detect if you’re using an ad blocker and will bug you about if if they think you’re using one. Wired won’t even let you read the article. If you land on a page like that, don’t whitelist the site like it asks you to. Instead, just open that page in an incognito window. In iOS you can also press and hold the refresh button to reload the page without content blockers.

As an aside, I strongly recommend that you find sites that make cool stuff and support them. Spend the $10 on YouTube Red and enjoy ad-free videos without guilt. Pay for a news site subscription. Patronize people on Patreon. There’s stuff on the web worth giving your support to, and if more people start paying creators with cash dollars, we won’t be expected to pay for stuff with our eyeballs.

Maintenance and Security Updates

OS updates don’t just give you the latest emoji; they usually include security fixes, and they’re an important way to protect yourself! Always install your security updates promptly. 

I recommend iOS over Android to all friends, not just because iOS is so much nicer overall, but because security updates on Android are a total crapshoot. If you insist on using Android, I recommend using the Google-branded phones. Google-branded Android phones get Android updates the soonest. 

Most modern web browsers are very aggressive about updating themselves and that’s a good thing; don’t try to stop your browser from updating. Most people are doing a lot of their computing inside of a web browser and so that makes your browser a big attack vector. 

Miscellany

I think the above steps are essential, but there are a handful more things you can do to make yourself just a little more secure.

On iOS if you set a six-digit passcode, all the data on your phone is encrypted with a strong key, and iOS works really hard to prevent people from guessing your passcode by brute force. (And to be clear here, that hard work on iOS’s part is the really important part here, otherwise a six-digit passcode is laughably inadequate. Do not let this give you the impression that six numbers makes a good password for your other accounts.)

You should absolutely have a passcode on your iPhone/iPad.

On OS X you can enable FileVault, which encrypts your entire hard drive. You should have FileVault enabled, but make sure you keep the recovery key in a safe place. When it’s on you won’t really see any difference in how your Mac works. It’s great.

Windows offers full-disk encryption as well.

If you want some more security for your accounts, Two Factor Authentication is a great thing to add. With 2FA, your password alone doesn’t get you access to your account; you also provide an extra six-digit code that changes frequently to get into your account. 1Password can work with these. I recommend turning on Two Factor Authentication for your iCloud account or your Google account.

I could go on, but this is a good start. If security interests you, you should dig into it more!

This stuff is important

Maybe you live in a home in a pretty safe neighborhood. Not much crime is happening around you, and you feel nice and safe. 

Being just a regular average Joe on the internet you might think you’re also in a safe internet neighborhood and that no one’s gonna hack your account. After all, why would they?

On the internet, we’re all living in the unsafe neighborhood. On the internet you’re just as accessible as any other citizen on the internet. Your private photos are on the same iCloud as all the celebrities whose private photos got leaked awhile back. You’re the same one phone call or email away from some scammer who tries to get you to install some app that watches everything happening on your computer.

I don’t secure my digital belongings because I’m a computer enthusiast; I secure them because they’re mine. You don’t leave your car unlocked on a busy street because “you’re not a car guy.”

Security habits benefit everyone, and I believe they should be accessible to everyone, whether you’re the President, some CEO, or a high schooler named Jessica.

Bose QC35 headphones: finally!

I’ve long been on the quest for the perfect pair of headphones suitable for using for work and pleasure. For the past year or so I’ve settled on Beats Studio Wireless headphones as my “good enough” headphones that get the job done because they offer two things I find essential: 1) they’re wireless, and 2) they offer active noise cancellation. 

While my Beats headphones were getting repaired awhile back I took to using my Bose QC3 headphones, a fantastic pair of on-ear, noise cancelling headphones, and I was a bit surprised to remember just how good Bose’s noise canceling technology is (after all, they invented the category). Due to a very luckily timed tweet Bose caught wind of my desires and they were kind enough to send me a pair of QC35s which they released last Sunday (full disclosure: Bose gave me these; they aren’t a review unit).

Thumb IMG 0109 1024

I plugged them in to charge them up (silly superstition of mine that I like to give brand new stuff a full charge before using) and I put them on and powered them on. They were easily paired with my iMac and I was off to the races.

I didn’t want to post knee-jerk impressions so I have held off, using these over the past few days to really get a sense of what they are like to use, and I have to say, I’ve never been more impressed by a pair of headphones.

Mind you, I’m not an audiophile; most of the things I’m looking for in a pair of headphones are convenience features, and I’m not listening to music to really appreciate every single detail of a song with perfect fidelity; I’m usually using headphones because I work in an open-plan office with a bunch of other folks and I want to provide some sense of isolation to help me concentrate, and I want to enjoy sound that is relatively high quality. Of course, I assume that if you’re reading a post about Bose headphones you aren’t the type to snub your nose at them anyway, so you’re probably going to be fine. I know that Bose stuff may not be an audiophile’s dream but they do a great job of making quality sound equipment for the mass market.

Noise Cancellation

The noise cancellation on these is remarkable. I’ve used the Bose QC15s and the Bose QC3 and have always found their noise cancelling to be quite good, but the QC35 uses Bose’s latest tech, incorporating microphones both inside and outside of the cup to vastly improve noise cancellation performance. And it makes a huge difference. I feel like I’m the only person in the room when I’m listening to music with these on. I can’t hear my coworkers typing on their clicky keyboards or chatting or laughing. It’s really quite fantastic.

Compared with my Beats headphones, Bose’s acoustic noise canceling is wildly better. In particular, I appreciate that on the Bose headphones I don’t hear my pulse echoing when no music is playing (something that will drive you nuts if you just want to enjoy the noise cancelling without any music playing).

Wireless

Being wireless might just seem like a box to check off in a features list, but to really do it well takes a lot more than that. The QC35s will pair nice and easily with Bluetooth. You can pair the headphones to up to eight different devices and the headphones can be connected to two devices at once (though audio will only come through on one device at a time). These aren’t the first headphones to offer this kind of functionality, but allowing you to control it via an iOS app means that for the first time in my life I’ve been able to use wireless headphones with two devices at once without it being a huge pain in the neck. It’d be super cool if they offered an OS X app for doing this, but I can live without that, especially given that one of my connected devices is bound to be an iOS device anyway.

Example of this multi-connect functionality in action: You’re at your desk, listening to music on your computer, when you get a phone call. You pause the music and answer your phone, carrying on the conversation all through the headphones. When you’re off the call, you play the music again and you’re right back to where you were. 

If you’re actively listening to sound on one device and the other starts playing something, you won’t hear it until you stop sound on your current device, which is a smart behavior; you don’t want your phone hijacking your headphones just because someone is calling.

Sound quality is excellent. I know Bluetooth headphones get a bad rap for having poor audio quality but in the past couple of years I think they’ve crossed the “good enough” threshold for 98% of consumers. Music sounds clear and detailed, with a decent (but not overpowering) amount of bass. The noise canceling helps you appreciate your music even more because less of it gets drowned out by outside noises. You’ll be able to keep your music at a quieter level while still blocking out the environment around you.

Bose prides themselves on reducing what they refer to as the “electronic noise floor;” that is, that soft buzzing sound you can hear when the headphones are on but nothing is playing. My Beats Studio Wireless headphones have a particularly noisy buzz that makes them seem cheap, but the QC35s don’t exhibit this at all. If there is any buzz it’s totally inaudible for me.

Bluetooth performance overall is great. I can freely move around at my desk without causing so much as a jitter with the sound. I’ve had audio skip on me a bit on my iPhone and iPad, but I believe in these cases the devices were at fault; it could either be related to being connected to two devices at once, or it could be just that iOS skipped the audio for a fraction of a second when notifications came in or I switched apps. I spent awhile using these with my iOS devices and the issue was rare and nothing to write home about.

Battery Life

I have been using these headphones since Wednesday, which means two and a half full workdays plus a couple hours this afternoon, and I didn’t charge until last night when I still had about 15% left. Bose rates these as offering 20 hours of battery life and I think in practice they perform even better.

If you want to go wired you can enjoy twice as much battery life. Having the wired option is nice on these headphones; if you want to use someone else’s device or share the headphones quick it saves you from needing to go through the Bluetooth pairing process for just a quick listen on another computer. If this were my ideal pair of headphones I’d also be able to plug it in via USB and have it be a USB audio device, letting me charge and listen to high quality audio. Another day, maybe…

Comfort

Bose put an incredible amount of thought and effort into this. While my personal favorite form factor is the on-ear design (found in the discontinued QC3 but still available in their spiritual successor headphones, the SoundLink on-ear wireless headphones), the QC35s are building on years of experience making comfy headphones. The materials feel light but premium, and the ear cups feel soft and easily fit around my ears. They don’t make my ears feel too warm or sweaty either. They’re very easy to wear all day.

Conclusion: Buy

Again, audio purists would probably reject headphones like this outright; acoustic noise cancelling and Bluetooth have both traditionally been considered things that adulterate the sound. But as I said, purists probably don’t care how good these are and they probably aren’t reading this.

The people who are reading this are most likely people who want a quality pair of headphones that sound great, are comfortable and convenient to use, and can provide you with a little sound isolation in a noisy environment. I’m confident that the QC35s are the best headphones for that job. Bose may not have been the first to put noise canceling Bluetooth headphones on the market, but they are for sure the first ones to do it right.

My favorite things: iKlear cleaning products

If you’ve ever worked in the same office as me you may know that I have a sort of… obsession with keeping glass screens completely pristine. My favorite (and only) tool for this job is iKlear’s suite of cleaning products. 

They’re the only thing that keeps my Apple stuff looking incredible, the stuff doesn’t smell of volatile chemicals, and the material of the cloths included work incredibly well. The iKlear kits include a blue chamois microfiber cloth good for surfaces and matte LCDs and this gray microfiber cloth said to be anti-bacterial and recommended for use on glass.

I use these for everyday electronics cleaning, cleaning my glasses, and removing sticker residue from my laptop when I get rid of stickers.

Thoughts on Swift going open-source

Swift going open-source today is for sure exciting news, but we need to temper our expectations for what that means for the language. For sure it’s better to see an open-source Swift than a closed-source one, but merely being open-source isn’t a panacea for Swift.

Lest you think I’m just being a pessimist, Objective-C is open-source for decades, yet the only people using it to build real apps are building them on Apple-owned platforms.  Despite the language’s merit, it’s risky to build your software or your own framework with a language whose roadmap is entirely dictated by another company. This is why many incredibly popular frameworks are built on languages that aren’t primarily associated with a particular company’s platform (for instance, this is why you don’t often see OS X apps written with Mono, or Windows apps written in Objective-C.

Outsiders could now theoretically contribute to an open-source Swift, but that’s almost certainly not going to happen. Typically in the past Apple has worked on open-source work in secret, then released it all to the public once it was unveiled. It’s not super collaborative. Apple might accept a pull request here or there, but they’ll be working on it alone.

The most sure benefit I can see with an open-source Swift is security. With public source code, any security researcher can dive right into Swift’s source code and the source code of the compiler and find potential vectors for attack in a way that’s a lot more difficult if you don’t have source access. 

Swift is an incredibly interesting language, though. It lets developers write very high-level code with the performance of a very low-level language. It also gets the head start of being the lingua franca of the army of iOS and OS X developers in the wild. At the same time, there are many other new languages coming into the fray, many of which are offering similar things (high performance, easy concurrency, safety, all with high-level abstractions). If Swift can successfully gain some independent frameworks and communities to grow around them, it just might stand a chance.

I’m so sick of hearing about microservices.

As I walked out out of the conference hall after DHH’s RailsConf keynote this morning, I felt this vibe that people are regarding him as out of touch with reality. Indeed, DHH did give off this sort of church sermon-like tone in his keynote, railing (pun sort of intended) against microservices and JS frameworks.

For some reason, SOAs and JS frameworks have gotten a reputation for being something you want to use instead of something that you have to use. From what I’ve seen with each, I struggle to understand how they got to be in vogue.

SOA proponents will make the usual arguments. When apps are made of small services it’s easier to scale them individually. If your app hits big enough scale a monolith would be crushed under its own weight. That sort of thing. But I’m also hearing proponents discuss how small services are better because each app is simpler and it lets its developers move faster and with less cognitive load. And that’s a load of bullshit.

Architecting your application as a set of microservices adds a large upfront cost in the form of new complexity, and it takes a lot of traffic for that to pay off. Your uptime is reduced with every codependent service running at the same time, so you need systems engineers to help keep as many nines as possible in your uptime. You start discussing things like putting your services in  a VPC so that they can quickly talk to one another keep traffic private. Each app needs fault tolerance against other services being unreachable. Debugging becomes wildly more difficult. You need to be on your monitoring game.

Oh, and by the way, you need to consider your application-level architecture. Applications don’t break up easily into super independent components; in the real world these components tend to deeply intermingle with one another. It’s challenging to design the services in a way that adding one feature doesn’t end up touching 3-4 services.

I feel like no one ever talks about these application-level issues. I hear people speaking in generalities about ensuring apps only have a single responsibility, but I’ve yet to hear a real-world story of a real-world app that is built with an SOA and takes business need changes in stride and the developers are happy and work with minimal cognitive load. 

Big companies like Google and Amazon aren’t using services because it’s faster or more productive; they’re doing it because they have to.

DHH isn’t trying to cling to some foregone notion of cowboys taming the wild west on their own with their Rails monoliths; he provides real examples of large scale monoliths (Basecamp, GitHub, Shopify). I hate seeing those 3 examples getting reused, but those apps remain successful, and I am not hearing about equivalent SOA-based counterparts.

I’m not snubbing what other frameworks have to offer, but I take comfort in that I can ship real products using Rails with minimal developer manpower. If the app is just as nice, customers won’t care or notice. As everyone around me is levitating toward over-engineered collections of microservices I can see it going two ways, both positive for me. If the world ends up being right and microservices are a productivity panacea, I’ll embrace them with open arms (using Rails 5’s new API mode that DHH was none too excited to announce). If they’re wrong, then I’ll churn out more value faster while they spin their wheels with services.