“How the Coal Industry Flattened the Mountains of Appalachia” 

If you can’t afford to restore a mine site completely—with its exact contours, substrata, and rich topsoil—then you can’t afford to mine there at all.

The New York Times editorial board, commenting on a recently-released Duke University study:

The report holds little hope of returning to the verdant Appalachian past, where underground mining at least left the lofty horizon and snug hamlets undisturbed. As the industry decapitated mountains to get at the lucrative coal seams below the surface, it reassured residents that there would be adequate restoration. The resulting tabletops of hedges and grass are derided by residents in nearby hollows. “Lipstick on a corpse,” says Ken Hechler, a tireless environmentalist and public servant in West Virginia.

Two thoughts:

  1. Mining companies should never have been permitted to alter the landscape so irrevocably. If you can’t afford to restore the mine site completely—with its exact contours, substrata, and rich topsoil—then you can’t afford to mine there at all.
  2. Within a few decades, we’ll look back on the mountaintop removal era with disgust and national shame. We’ll remember the practice in much the same way that we remember, say, forced lobotomy programs or the decimation of America’s old-growth forests.

‘Where Electric Vehicles Actually Cause More Pollution Than Gas Cars’ 

Electric vehicles effectively outsource urban pollution to rural areas.

Eric Jaffe, writing for CityLab:

A view from the tailpipe gives EVs [electric vehicles] a clear edge: no emissions, no pollution, no problem. Shift the view to that of a smokestack, though, and we get a much different picture. The EV that caused no environmental damage on the road during the day still needs to be charged at night. This requires a great deal of electricity generated by a power plant somewhere, and if that power plant runs on coal, it’s not hard to imagine it spewing more emissions from a smokestack than a comparable gas car coughed up from a tailpipe.

We live in the remote West Virginia mountains, an hour’s drive from the nearest hospital or Wal-Mart. It’s a beautiful locale, but you don’t have to search long to find the scars of coal. Our local river has run acidic for nearly a century, thanks to unsustainable mining practices. On clear afternoons, the nearby coal plant’s sulfurous smoke plumes loom on the horizon.

That power plant generates electricity for more densely-populated areas east of here. Virginia drivers who blithely buzz to work in their Nissan Leafs may assume that their plug-in cars protect the environment. In reality, electric vehicles effectively outsource urban pollution to rural areas. As EVs replace gas-guzzlers, suburban smog may dissipate, but—at least in the coal-dependent eastern U.S.—rural skies grow ashen and rural rivers turn poisonous.

But, hey, “Out of sight, out of mind,” right?

Frinkiac, the search engine for Simpsons screencaps 

What if typing in your favorite Simpsons quote returned not just a still image—but the actual video clip?

Behold, Frinkiac, which takes Simpsons quotes as input and returns the corresponding screencap. I’d echo John Siracusa on this:

“Towering achievement” indeed.[1] I quickly found Sideshow Bob’s H.M.S. Pinafore performance using the line “He himself has said it.” Want to see Ralph Wiggum deliver his “That’s where I’m a Viking!” line? No problem. Or Homer’s expression while listening to the National Fatherhood Institute’s hold music? Easy. I could spend all day exhausting the Simpsons quotes that repeat viewings burned into my teenaged brain.

If I ran Fox, I’d buy Frinkiac and build its functionality into simpsonsworld.com. Imagine: what if searching for your favorite quote summoned not just the screencap—but the actual video clip? Once you had found your scene, the site would let you embed it elsewhere on the web—or generate an animated GIF (with subtitles) to share on social media. Boom: infinite pageviews.

  1. Here’s more on how this was done.  ↩

A Bill Murray cameo for ‘Ghostbusters III’? 

How might Venkman have shown up, if a third Ghostbusters movie had been greenlit?

From a film treatment for Ghostbusters III by John Landis’ son Max:

Ray, in the meantime, has made his way back to the firehouse, to find it destroyed.  He walks through the rubble of his life’s work, utterly broken. All those moments. Slimer in the ballroom. The TV commercials. The fame. The statue of liberty. He was a hero. They were all heroes. He picks up a photo of himself, Winston, Egon and Venkman, and tries to call Venkman.

We cut to Venkman who’s on the beach on a tropical island with his grandkids. [Venkman] forwards the call.

This would be a throwaway cameo for Bill Murray, who gave the original Ghostbusters its wise-cracking soul. Murray famously passed on Dan Aykroyd’s own treatment. Who can blame him, given the Blues Brothers 2000 train wreck?

(Landis’ treatment isn’t great, either; it reeks of nostalgia and features a convoluted subplot about failed Ghostbusters franchises all across America.)

Dreams of Dalí 

This might be the first time I’ve been genuinely intrigued by virtual reality.

This might be the first time I’ve been genuinely intrigued by virtual reality. This Dalí Museum exhibit allows visitors to “go inside and beyond Dali’s 1935 painting Archeological Reminiscence of Millet’s ‘Angelus’ and explore the world of the surrealist master like never before.”

Jean-François Millet’s seminal work Angelus haunted Dalí as a child, and there’s a nightmarish quality both to his painted meditation and to this digital recreation. Dalí’s signature surrealistic style translates well to VR; ironically, his abstract imagery somehow feels more real than a photorealistic equivalent might.

If you can’t make it to the Florida museum, check out the 360º video in the YouTube app on Android or iPhone; the on-rails experience tracks movement (via your phone’s accelerometer) and allows you to peer in any direction.

9to5Mac on Apple’s rumored 4-inch iPhone 5se 

Apple should make the 4-inch model a first-class iPhone, not a sloppy-seconds device.

Zac Hall, writing for 9to5Mac about the rumored 4-inch iPhone 5se:

The trickiest part here is that the 4-inch iPhone still won’t be up to speed with the larger 4.7-inch and 5.5-inch models, so it’s hard for me to jump on board knowing that there’s technically a more state-of-the-art iPhone to be had.


My final thought is that the decision would be made all the easier if there was truly a state-of-the-art version of the 4-inch iPhone, not a “special edition” version with a mix of hardware from various generations….

This fall, iPhone buyers will be forced to choose between an ergonomically superior handset hindered by last year’s tech and a device that’s cutting-edge but harder to use one-handed.

My wish? Apple should make the 4-inch model a first-class iPhone, not a sloppy-seconds device. Split the iPhone lineup into three equal size classes: the “vanilla” 4.7-inch model, the 5.5-inch Plus, and the 4-inch Mini. All three phones would boast the same specs, except for their screen sizes (and some size-dependent features, like optical image stabilization and battery life).

A full-featured 4-inch iPhone would simplify the product line. Customers could make their purchasing decision based on a single, simple factor: “Would you like small, medium, or large?” Relatedly, this approach would give Apple a more accurate picture of customer preference; as things stand, sales of the 4-inch form factor will be artificially handicapped by the 5se’s inferior specifications.

So why doesn’t Apple adopt this approach? Maybe its execs worry that a top-tier iPhone 7 mini would undermine the line’s average selling price. If so, here’s an idea: make the 4-inch phone the new $649 retail baseline, and bump up the other models’ prices by $100. Fans of the larger phones may balk at the price jump, but Apple could finally ditch the controversial 16GB models to compensate.

Anandtech’s iPad Pro review 

Wouldn’t using the iPad Pro in bed feel ridiculous?

Anandtech released its mammoth review of the iPad Pro last week. As the author notes,

Despite [the Pro’s] increased size I didn’t really notice that it had gotten significantly harder to handle in the hands than an iPad Air 2.

I haven’t used the iPad Pro yet, but I wonder if this conclusion applies to using the device in bed. The Air already feels awkward there; wouldn’t the Pro feel even worse?

The problem isn’t so much the device weight. After all, in bed, I can prop the iPad up on the mattress or a pillow. Rather, the tablet feels too big to use while lying on my side. With one arm pinned beneath my body, I’m left with just one hand to both grasp the iPad and to navigate its UI. Reaching the entire screen thus requires some serious finger gymnastics.

In other words, lying down forces me to use the iPad Air 2 like a ten-inch phone. That’s technically possible, but it also feels kind of ridiculous. A thirteen-inch “phone” would border on the insane.

Why is it impossible to completely mute the iPhone?

When I silence my phone, I want it to shut up! No ringer, no media playback, and no notifications.

I use my iPhone in bed a lot. In the predawn dark, I scroll through Twitter to find out what happened while I was asleep. And every night, I read until my eyelids grow heavy. These cherished rituals bookend each day. I’m loathe to give them up, even if they do undermine my sleep.

But what about my wife’s sleep? I hate the thought that my bedtime habits might sabotage her rest. My iPhone’s LED-lit screen casts bright, bluish light into our otherwise pitch-black room. To minimize the impact, I dial down the brightness to zero, block the offending light with my body, and avoid apps that lack an eye-friendly “night mode.”

Noisy videos can also threaten my wife’s slumber. Frequently during my nighttime browsing, I’ll stumble across a clip that I want to watch. I can’t don headphones, since retrieving them would create a racket (Click. Tap-tap-tap. Draaaaag).

Instead, I resolve to watch the video with no sound. After all, many short snippets—say, a funny slapstick clip or a sports highlight—don’t need audio to be appreciated.

You’d think that muting my iPhone via the side-toggle would prevent the device’s speaker from making noise. Only it doesn’t. This mute switch applies only to the phone’s ringer and app notifications. Even when muted, the phone plays back media at full volume.

The next option, logically, would be to use the phone’s volume rocker buttons before hitting ‘play.’ That doesn’t work, either; by default, volume up / down applies only to the phone ringer—i.e., again, not to media playback.

So until the audio actually starts playing, I can’t tell how loud it will be. And I can’t change the volume until playback starts, either. All too often, I’ll tap ‘play’, and a video starts blaring. I desperately scramble to press ‘volume down’ until the damned thing finally silences. Meanwhile, my wife rolls over and groans at my stupidity.

Why can’t the iPhone’s “mute switch” act more “mutey”? When I silence my phone, I want it to shut up! No ringer, no media playback, and no notifications.[1]

UPDATE: Kudos to Joel Ross, who points out that the volume slider in Control Center (swipe up from the bottom of the screen) applies only to media playback.

  1. Maybe user alarms deserve an exception. No one wants to obsess over whether she detoggled the mute switch—remember the nightly dance with old school alarm clocks? Then again, even if the alarm didn’t sound, the iPhone’s vibrator is loud enough to wake the dead.  ↩

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

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?

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?

Avoiding iPhone spoilers

What if we treated leaked prerelease product specs like we treat Star Wars plot details?

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]

  1. As it turns out, some Apple aficionados do.  ↩
  2. Then again, some leaks come directly from Apple itself. “Sources familiar with the matter” often reveal tidbits to the Wall Street Journal or the *New York Times.” The motivation for such controlled leaks isn’t always clear to me—maybe Apple’s trying to set expectations for the stock market, or to brace analysts for potentially unpopular changes? Either way, do Apple-sanctioned prerelease rumors count as spoilers?  ↩

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

What if every game’s sound design made it possible for blind gamers to join in on the fun?

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—without resorting 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.  ↩