Chrome for Mac – Thoughts

I’ll start out saying that I really want to like Chrome on the Mac. After seeing it blow away the competition on the PC, I looked forward for months to having a fully baked version on OS X. Even though I’m an unabashed Apple partisan, I’m eager to see Google competing with Apple on so many fronts. Even though Chrome and its open source foundation, Chromium, are based on Apple’s pioneering WebKit project, I think Chrome has admirably differentiated itself from Safari. Unfortunately, I cannot acclimate myself to daily use of Chrome, for several reasons. First, however, I should mention some strengths that Chrome has going for it.

The Good

The big thing that Chrome offers on the PC, its speed, is its strength on the Mac as well. While I did not do any actual measurements, pseudo-scientific or otherwise, to compare the performance of Chrome versus that of Safari, Chrome just feels faster. Actual numbers have been crunched by others, but these results may be significantly changed now that Safari 5 is in the wild. Numbers aside, Google has managed to craft a browser that feels lighter and faster than the already minimalist Safari – no small feat.

The other great thing about Chrome is its search bar. This thing is a fantastic innovation, and yet it’s also no surprise that Google would implement such a feature. The ability to search from Google right within the search bar is very nice and convenient. Also, until last week, the ability to search one’s history in a natural way (i.e. not depending on URL syntax) was a major win for Google as well. Fortunately, this ability is now baked into Safari 5. We’ll therefore call this but a narrow win for Chrome.

The Bad

Now then, despite these positives from Chrome, I can’t make myself switch to it for everyday use. After using it regularly for about a week, there were too many little annoyances that kept getting in the way of my browsing workflow (leisure-flow?). Here are all the deficiencies that I found annoying:

  • Zero support for AppleScript. This is a major sticking point. I use AppleScripts all the time to send bookmarks and archives to Yojimbo. Not supporting AppleScript means that Chrome is not a fully fledged OS X citizen. Google has got to fix that.
  • No ClickToFlash. This is such an integral part of my Safari browsing sessions that I barely remember that it’s an add-on. I know that there are ways to partially block Flash in Chrome as well, but ClickToFlash is the whole enchilada, it works fantastically, and it’s only for Safari.
  • Speaking of add-ons, I find that Chrome extensions are a bit pokey in general. More in line with my actual usage, though, is the lack of a good 1Password implementation in Chrome. I know that Agile is working hard on getting this fantastic product to work with Chrome, but I’m spoiled by how flawlessly it works in Safari.
  • Lastly, the Find dialogue in Chrome. You know, the standard Command-F shortcut. While it sometimes works just fine, there have been times when I’m looking for a word on a site, and Chrome refuses to show me a Find dialogue, no matter how many times I try to invoke it. This is a bug that will be fixed, I’m confident, but Safari wins here.
  • No Readability-like feature. This is a recent addition, but I have to mention the amazing utility of the newly-added Safari Reader feature in Safari 5. While I had the Readability bookmarklet installed before having Safari 5, I never used it. Building this ability into the browser and having it just a shortcut away was a great move on Apple’s part.

I admit that two of these issue stem from my use of particular add-ons in Safari, so I’m not trying to claim that Chrome is useless by any means. These are simply the things that kept me from keeping Chrome as my daily browser. With that said, I’m leaving it installed, and will periodically update it. I’m very confident that Google will keep making Chrome for Mac better and better.

You’d think Apple broke up with Adobe

Much has been made in recent weeks about Flash, Adobe, Apple, and the iPhone OS. Collating a list of links here pertaining to the debate would take all day, and it seems like everyone has their two cents to throw in. This is not even accounting for the protracted geek debates that I’ve seen on Twitter on the subject.

My opinion is this: Flash gives me nothing, as a user of the Internet. Actually, I take that back: Flash gives me crappy ads that have a good chance at crashing my browser, even on the relatively crash-proof OS X. Even with an add-on like Click2Flash installed, Flash gives me ugly, randomly sized gray boxes in the middle of websites. The Internet didn’t always have this shabby look that many sites have taken on due to Flash.

Think back 10-15 years, to a much earlier Internet. Sites specializing in displaying text (a vast majority of sites at that time) did not have anywhere near as many obtrusive animated ads that brought one’s computer to its knees. Yes, I admit the era’s animated .gifs were annoying, but it was nothing like today, where I can’t even read a newspaper article without Flash ads being shoved in my face in three different sections of the text. Google might be an evil empire trying to seed its ads to the all the ends of the Earth, but at least their text ads don’t bother me and don’t crash my browser.

The flip side is that on that same early Internet, online video was essentially limited to playing in RealPlayer, usually at convenient postage stamp resolution. Yes, Flash eventually allowed better solutions to this problem, and yes, we should remember Flash fondly for that. However, HTML5 has solved this issue. Go to YouTube and turn on the experimental HTML5 feature – the videos are no different, except now you won’t have to engage in an aural battle with the din of your laptop’s fans, since Flash won’t be busy kicking your computer in the CPU.

The real issue is that developers have invested time in using Flash. I’m not saying that Flash is completely useless, but it certainly has no relevance on a platform like the iPad, whereupon a developer can write a native app that looks, feels, and functions ten times better than a Flash equivalent would. Cross-platform development tools, speaking from a user’s point of view, are rubbish. Have you ever preferred using a Java-based app on your Mac (or PC, for that matter) over using a native application?

The iPad and the iPhone present an environment on which we can finally start leaving a dated development model and tool behind us.

Steam for Mac cannot…

  • minimize properly and on command using command-M
  • close properly all the time, giving crash notices
  • have a “Start when I log in” item that is not checked by default
  • download reliably, for some reason liking to pause active downloads
  • avoid installing game data in my ~/Documents folder as though that makes sense

I know it’s just a version 1.0 for the Mac, and I’m really excited about having access to my games, but heavens. It feels like a Windows app with a Halloween costume on.

Thrift store find:
Two pair of Allen Edmonds. In black and brown, balmoral style, with brogued toe caps. Same size (mine). $12.75 a pair. The black pair will be worn at my wedding.

Also picked up: Florsheim shoe trees, for storage and polishing. Circa $4.50

Here’s a snippet of Markdown code from the homework schedule on my class web page. You can get a good feel from this how Markdown allows you to simply do what you’re trying to do instead of worry about web formatting minutiae. One asterisk is italic, two is bold, and pound signs represent heading levels. Easy-peasy.

Geeky tech = easy course webpages

One of my duties as a teaching assistant is to maintain a website for my class section that lists information about me, useful links, and all the homework for the next two weeks. The solution that foreign language learning support tech service provides is Dreamweaver, installed on all of the office computers.

I’ve got two problems with this approach to course website design. To wit:

  1. Dreamweaver is complete overkill for editing the webpage equivalent to a form letter.

    The way these pages work is quite simple – every teaching assistant uses the same page, with all the same resources (button images, navigational headers, etc.). The only difference is the information for the individual TA’s class, and his or her picture.

    Editing a webpage like this is trivial for Dreamweaver, yes, but also causes complete confusion about how Dreamweaver, and web editing in general, works on the part of non-techheads.

  2. Using Dreamweaver on office computers means that the TA has to be in the office, on the office computer, to edit their site.

    This is what initally pushed me away from using Dreamweaver completely to edit my own site. My distate for Windows really does run that deep. Seriously though, why shouldn’t the TA be able to make these (trivial) edits on his or her own computer?

My initial solution to this (admittedly small) problem was to simply use Bare Bones Software’s great TextWrangler, a free text editor, to edit the HTML code of my site directly. That way, I could work on it whereever I wanted.

The other day, I taught one of my fellow TAs how to edit the code of her own site as well. It was then that I realized that the edit-the-code-yourself method can only go so far, inasmuch as you’ve got to be a techhead to find your way confidently around the sea of HTML code that comprises the stock site in order to get to your homework schedule (i.e. your editable content).

I’ve known about John Gruber’s Markdown language for a while, but I had never seen the utility of it before now. I spent some time using it tonight, editing my class homework schedule, and I’m now a convert. It’s a complete solution for editing small bits of websites by hand without the need to know full HTML or the intricacies of big programs like Dreamweaver. In a department full of literary folks, not having to know any confusing code to do basic web editing could go far.

I’m still using TextWrangler as my editor of choice, but I’ve added the script to it to allow it to turn Markdown-formatted text into HTML in one keystroke. I’ve now got two files open all the time – the index.htm file of my webpage itself, and what I call hwk-mrkdwn.txt, where I write the edits to my page in Markdown. From there it’s a simple copy & paste, then a shortcut to convert Markdown to HTML.

When I add this nice trick to storing both files in my Dropbox, I’ve now got a way to quickly and easily update my students’ homework, in simple plain text, from any of my computers. Another win for technology.

On manned spaceflight

I’m going to indulge in a bit of protracted opinion here, because this is a topic that’s important to me. Unlike the general theme of this admittedly heretofore short blog, it has nothing to do with graduate school or French. Forgive me.

I was inspired tonight by this article on Ars Technica about NASA’s new budget. Go ahead and read it for details. My take on the issue is: okay, I admit it’s probably a good idea for NASA to get out of the putting-people-in-low-orbit game, because they don’t seem to have much direction for it. With that said, I don’t want to think that NASA is headed down a path where it lets private companies handle all of the heavy lifting. I’d rather not have Sony be the first entity to land a human being on Mars, for example. A government agency should be the ones to conquer that frontier for the first time, using money drawn from all of us. Furthermore, NASA has lost sight of its former grand vision, both from lack of funds and lack of political & national will.

A brief aside: I’ve been watching Mad Men a lot recently. I never realized how great a show it is before. It really transports you back to the 1960’s. You’re struck not only by the vastly different attitudes about nearly everything, but also by the lack of the technological comforts we take for granted – someone has a car crash in the middles of night and nowhere, and this is a very serious problem because she doesn’t have a cell phone.

Now, think about that time again, the 1960’s. There are no cell phones, no computers to speak of, not even any pocket calculators. And yet, a bunch of smart folks put a human being of the surface of the Moon. No one even appreciates what this means – 252,088 miles. The guys in those vehicles took 4 days to get there going at thousands of meters per second. All I can say is, I’ll buy any of them a beer any day of the week.

Why did we, and they, do it? Because we wanted to beat “the Reds?” Sure, but I’d like to think there was something else in American society that drove us. President Kennedy knew it, and he tapped it. I say that potential exists in human society, not just American society. We just have to let it show outside of a Cold War.

Conservatives will balk at this proposition; the idea that we use taxpayers’ money to get to Mars? Oh the horror. “For what reason, for what purpose, are we bankrolling a trip to Mars?” they’ll ask. I’m sure they asked it about the Moon then, and they’re right to ask it now. What benefit to us is a rock millions of miles from us?

To the conservatives’ pleasure, I’m sure, the immediate answer is admittedly “not much,” except of course to the scientists. Of course, their research inevitably brings improvements in our lives down the road – it usually has, over the course of history. There’s a greater issue, however, than our benefit from such things. Let me show you something:

This photo was taken by one of the Voyager probes. See that dot? That’s you. Not only is it you, but it’s everything you know, and everyone you know. Every single event that’s ever happened in your entire life, and in the lives of everyone you know, and in the life of every other human being that has ever lived in all of history… happened on that speck. Carl Sagan said something similar on seeing this image, and it couldn’t be simpler.

The universe is incomprehensibly vast, and the happenings on one little speck such as this have no impact on that vast elsewhere around us. That’s not to say that human life is meaningless. Quite the contrary, we’re lucky enough to be among the matter in the universe arranged in such a way as to be capable of self-reflection. Planets, stars, rocks, water, dust, gas… most things in the universe can’t reflect on themselves. We have a gift. With that, and our speck, in mind, my question is simple. What are we doing here? If we have this gift of self-reflection that most matter doesn’t have, shouldn’t we be doing our best to have that mean as much as possible in the vastness?

Robert Zubrin, ambitious though he is in his proposed plans for Mars exploration, cites a human duty, and I agree with him. We have a duty to life itself to spread life, because most things in the universe are not alive and thinking, but rather are inert and cold. If we can make Mars a living world, followed by any number of planets, we should do it. We can’t destroy native ecosystems, if we find any, but evidence so far shows us that we won’t find them often – most planets are rocks & gas, and not much else.

So, I guess my concluding point is that while we could stay on our speck for the duration of our race, it seems as though our existence as human beings would mean a lot more if we reached out. We’ll never be able to physically explore the whole universe, but we can at least live up to the great gift that we have as a thinking race of people. Am I idealistic? Absolutely, but someone has to be.