Design & engineering during an active shooting...

In a recent active-shooter crisis at UCLA, many students found themselves in rooms without door locks. It's a grim and terrible situation, but one that can still benefit from quick design and engineering. Pranasha Shrestha shows one example of the lengths some went to keep the doors closed - copied above, complete with hashtags - and Gizmodo cataloged many more. Locks are basic tools, whose presence or absence can be used for good or bad; the ability to improvise a change to the lock situation can be, literally, a lifesaver.

Beer Trough Picnic Table: Impractically Fantastic

I know it's impractical: tough to fill, quick to melt, hogging precious table real estate, and more. But damned if it isn't gorgeously inviting, like a cornucopia of booze right there for the taking! You don't even have to stand up to get a new drink! Sometimes maybe the un-usability of a product (or DIY project, as most of these seem to be) is justified by a fleeting moment of sweet, satisfying perfection. Now let me grab another beer out of that trough.
[via Core77]

The Ugliest Color (and a good use for it)

Want to make cigarettes as unappealing as possible? You can put warnings on the box, show photos of smoke-ravaged lungs and other organs - and you can find the ugliest color in the world and swaddle the packaging in that, too. Market research firm Gfk Bluemoon determined that Pantone 448C, delightfully named "Opaque Couche," was deemed least attractive in a poll of over a thousand smokers. It's now on duty in Australia, UK, France, and Ireland, making cigarettes look just as repulsive as they are.
[via Core77 & The Evening Standard]

Visual Voicemail on Android: An Unfulfilled Promise

Another reason I'm relieved to be going back from Android to iPhone: Visual Voicemail on Android hasn't worked out. It was a truly innovative part of the original iPhone, forced by Apple on carriers as a condition for carrying the must-have handset (and removing a sneaky profit-making annoyance in the process). As Apple tends to do, it took full control of the feature and implemented it with high quality.
Android is different, with the vision that "carriers are free to implement their own vision of Visual Voicemail!" But with nobody enforcing it, the task was met with near-apathy by carriers who know the feature isn't central to their profits. And so we have the sad, half-baked abomination that is AT&T Visual Voicemail, guilty of the following sins:

  • The phone will double-notify of voicemails: once with a prompt to dial the non-visual voicemail number (what am I, a caveman?), and once much later to notify that the visual version is available. Separate apps, of course.
  • For a loooong time, the app didn't use the proximity sensor to turn off the touchscreen when listening to a message without headphones or speakerphone. My ear usually triggered the notification shade and pressed god-knows-what buttons up there.
  • The current version of the app doesn't keep the screen alive while playing back a message over headphones or speakerphone. So the phone falls asleep halfway into playing the message - which also causes the audio to stop (unlike most audio-playing apps). I have to wake the damn phone up and press "play" again to resume the message.
Bugs are bugs, and the first issue may be more related to insufficient integration at the OS level. But the prox-sensor and stay-awake behavior are basic, easy design issues that shouldn't have made it past a single design review - if there ever was one. So in this case, it'll be a relief to go back to an ecosystem overseen by a zealous tyrant obsessed with user experience - it's better than a wild-west where nobody's motivated to offer something competent.

Lolo Lids for Sneaky Drinking

Sneaky drinking may be mostly in my past (well, except for golf courses), but it's still nice to see some innovation in the area. Lolo Lids are the latest clever iteration: looking just like the Solo lids used on to-go coffees everywhere, they attach to your choice of disposable coffee cup. But secretly inside that cup, they're holding a beer can with plastic clips and a spill-proof silicone seal. Pretty convenient - and preferable (for reasons I can't quite seem to enumerate?) to just pouring the beer into the coffee cup. Cheers!
[via Gizmodo]

There and Back Again: iPhone to Android to iPhone

This post is about my personal experience choosing between phone ecosystems, which (to possibly overstate the case) is one of the most impactful decisions many of us make as tech consumers. The difference between iOS and Android is significant, each carrying features and restrictions that have real effects on daily life. I'm not a professional tech writer, so I don't have test units to constantly test-drive and switch between; for me, like most people, the chance to choose only comes once every year or two. It's not to be taken lightly.

Just after the dawn of the smartphone era, I hopped on the iPhone train - it was objectively ahead of anything else, and I loved it. But after four years with an iPhone 3G and 4S, I needed something different: a bigger screen (available on many Android phones but no iPhones at the time); more freedom to tweak and customize; a device that worked natively and by default with my many Google services. So began three years with Android phones, a Nexus 5 and 5X. I loved them too; but when the next round of phones comes out this fall, I'm switching back to iPhone. It breaks my heart, but it's also a relief. Here's why:
  • My original reasons for switching are less valid now. iPhones have larger displays, iOS is more open, and Google services are almost universally available and work smoothly.
  • iMessage Purgatory burned me. I was dropped from conversations by iPhones that still thought I was on iMessage. Texting is perhaps the most crucial thing phones do these days (it sure isn't phone calls), so switching back will be a real relief - but I still blame Apple for the technological fumble.
  • It's just tougher being an Android user. Lightning cables and iPhone-compatible headphones are everywhere, but USB-C and Android-compatible (3-button) headphones are tough to find. Other accessories are the same way, as iPhone leads the premium US market and makes it easy on accessory makers with only 2 or 3 models they need to accommodate.
  • You know what you'll get with an iPhone. You'll get a damn good camera, a good-looking (if not crazy-hi-res) display, a highly-polished experience, and killer build quality. With Android phones, those things are all up in the air, so you need to do your homework.
  • Things I'll miss about Android: wireless charging (though the 5X dropped that anyway, much to my dismay), low cost (though for something I use many times every day, I've come to the belief that it's worth the price to get just the right thing), widgets, custom launchers, the "back" and "menu" buttons, the plastic body that feels so drop-resistant. The feeling of being a techie who goes my own way.
  • Things I'll welcome back with iPhone: getting new apps earlier, tighter control of the experience (it was sometimes choppy on Android), 3D Touch (if I ever use it?), Find My Friends (so I can stop wondering or asking about ETAs), iMessages actually working, compatibility with my AppleTV, the silence switch, the metal body that feels so good. The comfort and ease of being part of the market majority.
What might happen that'd make me switch back? I suppose Apple would need to open its services (iMessage, Find My Friends, iTunes music and movies) to Android, or at least definitively fix iMessage Purgatory. Or, Android would have to pull so far ahead in some respect that it would override those things, or in a very un-Google way, choose to make some of its services exclusive to Android devices. None of those things seems likely in the short term, so it's time for me to bid Android a fond farewell, and welcome iPhone back with open arms.

Passport Photos with Photoshop-Added Suits

Looking presentable in an ID photo can have immeasurable intangible benefits: you're taken more seriously,  respected more easily, given the benefit of the doubt. So when Cubans have their passport photos taken, Lian Marrero will Photoshop a suit onto them. It's much more cost-effective than buying or even renting a suit for the purpose, and in a world where aesthetic perception matters perhaps more than it should, the service sets his customers up for success. Not a bad deal!