Is It Apple’s China Problem or China’s Apple Problem?

By now I’m sure everyone has heard at least something about Apple’s use of Chinese labor at Foxconn. The story has been around for years, but it’s blown up in recent days, stemming from a New York Times article that comes down pretty harshly on Apple’s apparent inaction. It was followed up with another story only days later. Then Tim Cook sent out an employee email that sounded both hurt and indignant. He touted Apple’s efforts to audit suppliers and make sure everyone was held to the highest standards. Such a nugget is news fodder, so it’s no wonder that numerous blogs and news outlets took up the story. Now Tim Worstall at Forbes takes the labor critics to task for suggesting that an Apple boycott would solve technology’s cheap labor problem. This is a tough topic, but it seems obvious to me that blaming any one (admittedly very large) company for a whole country’s institutionalized workforce regulations is a bit out of touch with reality.

The argument breaks down into two factions: the people that feel that Apple, with its record profits, can afford to treat its workers better and maybe even move back to the U.S. The other side patiently explains that modern business isn’t that simple and China is probably the only place where technology could be manufactured on a large scale. At any rate, this is hardly an Apple-specific issue, since Foxconn manufactures almost every consumer electronic on the market.

The economic facts clearly rest with the “China is a poor country, so China’s workers are impoverished and there’s nothing we can do about it” line of reasoning, but part of me keeps rebelling against such a pessimistic viewpoint. Apple should be better than this. China should be better than this. People should be better than this.

Of course the reality is that Apple wants to make products, China wants to keep its rich customers and centralized regime, and everyone wants money. Chinese workers are probably better off in factories than rice paddies. They’re committing suicide at rates far lower than the national average. But they’re still threatening to kill themselves for better wages. No matter what economists say, it’s tough to know that people are living like this and we’re helping (in even a very small way) to perpetuate the situation. Some problems simply can’t be solved rationally without some emotion getting in the way, and this is one of them.

– image from Cult of Mac.

Year One – Looking Forward

Today marks one year since I posted the first little snippet here. At the time, I was looking for a hobby and curious to see what writing a blog was like. Turns out it was pretty rewarding, and I had a great time writing in my spare time. I didn’t gain much of an audience right away, though I attribute that more to my inconsistent schedule than anything else. I’m sure the site’s horrible SEO didn’t help any, but that’s not why I chose the name or the topic. At any rate, it looks like I’ve met my expectations for year one. Here’s what I’m planning for the next one:

Read less, write more. This might seem a bit counterintuitive since I cover so much news, but the truth is I spend far too much time buried in Reeder. It’s easy to get pushed over the edge by the internet’s constant news stream, and I’m too close for my liking. I plan to pare down my RSS subscriptions substantially, only keeping the very best sources. The upshot is that I’ll have much more time to actually write my own stuff. My current pace is about one post per day, which I’d love to see at least triple. There’s no better way to grow the site than to add content.

Grow the readership. This is pretty much the point of having a website. I don’t ever expect to earn money from legomac, and I’m quite content to post what interests me in my spare time. But it’s hardly worth it if no one ever reads. A regular writing schedule should help, as will creating a real website.

Mature the site. It’s time to grow up and get my own domain. I don’t know squat about web hosting, but I’m sure I can figure it out with a little effort. Not only do I need to move on from, but the site needs a redesign. Clean Home is a great theme, but it’s not perfect. I’d like to get rid of the ugly tags and author info under the title, and I need to lose the borders around pictures. There are also a few things I’d like to add, like category-specific RSS feeds. I’m sure some tech readers out there couldn’t care less about LEGO, and vice-versa. Since I can’t do that myself, it probably means hiring a professional web designer. This is probably the most important step, but it’ll have to wait until I have some extra money to throw at it.

Make connections. Both the AFOL and Mac communities are incredibly close-knit and friendly, and I’d like to forge some relationships there. That means reaching out more on Twitter and Flickr, attending conferences like Brickworld, and reaching out to people I read via email.

In the meantime, I’ll plan in keeping up with the site and writing about what interests me. Thanks for reading, and I look forward to another fun year ahead.

New LEGO at the London Toy Fair

As they do every year, LEGO has shown off its 2012 lineup in London, and it’s looking good so far. Unfortunately, photography of the sets is not allowed, so we have to make do with descriptions from people who saw them in person. The booth’s outside is fair game, so plenty of exterior wall pictures are floating around. Gleaning from my favorite LEGO sites, like Brickset, Smashing Bricks, and FBTB, here’s what was revealed.

Lord of the Rings: The most anticipated new theme kicks off in August with seven sets: Gandalf Arrives, Shelob Attacks, Uruk-Hai Army, Attack on Weathertop, The Mines of Moria, The Battle of Helm’s Deep, and The Orc Forge. Yes, Gollum is featured in Shelob’s Attack, and we get a tiny ring to slip on Frodo. You can see it in the photo above. Other news includes a new horse figure with rotating legs and the fantastically detailed figures. You have to purchase multiple sets to get the whole Fellowship, the collection is sure to be very popular. I’d expect Hobbit sets to come next year, after the movie’s Christmas release.

Super Heroes: Last year featured DC sets, so we get Marvel and the Avengers this year. Many sets seem to be pulled directly from the upcoming Avengers film, so we see a lot of Loki as the main villain. Captain America’s Avenging Cycle looks to be a great low-cost set for my favorite Avenger, and we also get Wolverine’s Chopper Showdown, Loki’s Cosmic Cube Escape, Hulk’s Hellcarrier Breakout, and Quinjet Aerial Battle. The minifig stars are undoubtedly Iron Man, with a flip-up helmet, and the Hulk’s massive new mold. He looks a lot like the big Orcs from a few years ago or the Wampa.

Monster Hunters: This is a new theme, featuring a Halloween-style monster paired with a hunter in each set that resembles something out of Adventurers. The theme looks interesting, but it’s clearly not a priority for LEGO this year. It probably won’t sell terribly well next to the promising LOTR and Star Wars sets that always steal the show. Personally, it reminds me a lot of the classic movie monsters from the old LEGO Studios sets in the early 2000s. Figures look good, with Wolfman, Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy, a new Ghost, and a Swamp Creature. The heroes also look great, and I particularly like the robotic arm on one, à la Ash from the Evil Dead series. The whole thing seems very retro.

Star Wars: Three new planet sets: Yavin 4, Bespin, and Endor. The included vehicles are a mini X-Wing, a Cloud Car, and an AT-ST. For traditional models, we get General Grievous’s Malevolence flagship (obviously nowhere near minfig scale), Saesee Tin’s Jedi Starfighter, the Desert Skiff, Jabba’s Palace, and Gungan Sub. There are also some Expanded Universe sets this year, with Striker-Class Starfighter and Fury-Class Interceptor. I’m not familiar with those ships, so there isn’t much for me to say. All reports confirm that Jabba’s Palace is the standout, with a posable Jabba, Salacious Crumb, Boussh, and Oola. I am eager to see the new Queen Amidala figure included with the Gungan Sub. As usual, minifies are the standout from what is an increasingly stale lineup of redesigned sets.

Friends: Eight more sets on the horizon, with lots of horses (modified so they can be ridden this time). Mia’s Bedroom, Andrea’s Bunny House, Olivia’s Speedboat, Heartlake Flying Club, and Summer Riding Camp are very close to what I predicted with my snooping through the instruction manual a few weeks ago.

Miscellaneous: Ninjago gets a green ninja and a massive new dragon, as well as the new snake villains. Series 7 of the collectible minifigs was on display, and some massive new Technic sets. There are three Advent Calendars this year – Star Wars, with a Santa Darth Maul, City, and Friends. Now new sets are slated for Dino or Cars, and Pirates of the Caribbean, Alien Conquest, and Harry Potter are set to exit in July. Looks like it’s time for me to get my hands on Earth Defense HQ before it’s retired!

That’s about all the notable news, though I recommend looking at Brickset for a more detailed coverage broken down by theme. I look forward to seeing more pictures later in the year, but this is a nice taste of 2012 so far. It looks like a good year, depending on the quality of the LOTR sets.

Via Email

To continue with my series of posts wrapping up the first year of legomac, I thought I’d share my writing and publishing workflow. I always like hearing how other people work, and I think my strategy is a little unusual.

From what I’ve gathered, there are two main established systems for publishing a blog. If you’re a casual writer, the browser suffices. Typing directly into WordPress or any other service is easy and fast. The other way, usually for more serious bloggers, is to choose a favorite text editor like TextEdit, Byword, or MarsEdit and save posts to your hard drive. After editing, posts are uploaded to the website and published.

I dislike WordPress’s browser composition page, so I tried experimenting with text editors last year to find one I liked. That wasn’t perfect either, since few programs let you seamlessly sync between a computer and an iOS device. That’s gotten a lot easier with the advent of a whole new genre of minimalist writing apps which invariably sync well. At the time though, nothing fit my needs. Another problem was the limitations of writing in plain text. As the name implies, plain text prohibits style formatting unless one writes in Markdown or HTML, and including all that code was a real pain while writing. I’m much more of a GUI type, and I’d much prefer just hitting command-b.

So I resolved my dilemma by turning to the oldest tool I could find – email. The issues I was running into with sync, saving drafts, and formatting were all solved by the Apple Mail client on the Mac. WordPress allows users to post via email, so I just compose a new message, style it however I want with Mail’s capable formatting controls, and hit send. I can even include inline photos, videos, or tags with ease.

The best part is the ease of transferring drafts to any other device. I use my iCloud account with legomac, so I can fire up on any computer and have an attractive and full-featured writing app at a moment’s notice. I’ll never lose a draft or lack a complete history of every post I’ve ever sent.

At this point, you might be wondering how this all translates to my iPhone. After all, doesn’t work in mobile Safari, and the iOS Mail app doesn’t do formatting. For composing on the go, as I am right now, I use iOS 5’s handy text expansion feature. I’ve configured shortcuts for the most common HTML style commands, and now I only need to type a few letters to autofill a command that would take forever to type on a touchscreen. For example, this blog uses links in every single post. On my iPhone, I type “href” and get “text” instead. Pasting in the URL is a piece of cake. I can do bold and italic text in the same way.

This system is both efficient and platform-agnostic, yet completely native on the devices I use every day. The many minimal writing apps on the App Store look great, but what’s more minimal than using the default Mail apps? It works for me, better than I thought it would. Now bus rides to work can be spent composing a new post, and it’ll be available on my work computer as soon as I arrive. It’s the future, using the tools of the past.

Money Machine

Apple’s Q1 financial results are in, and the company made money. Shocking amounts of money. Unbelievable amounts of money. As in double last year’s revenue and profit. $13.1 billion in profit, $97.6 billion total in cash. As reported by MG Siegler at TechCrunch, their revenue is more than double Microsoft’s, and their profits put them 4th on the list of all-time largest quarterly earnings. Note that Apple is the only company on that list that doesn’t sell oil. The iTunes store alone generated more revenue than all of Yahoo. The iPad market is now bigger than the desktop PC market. An Apple store is worth, per square foot, as much as the White House.

The hardest thing for me to believe is that we still see, day in and day out, countless articles calling for Apple to change its ways or risk impending doom. Meanwhile, smarter people who bought Apple products (and stock) are laughing all the way to the bank. Numbers don’t lie, and neither does this handy chart from Macworld.

Maybe they’ll use all that cash for some philanthropy? That would be even more incredible.

The LEGO Gender Gap: A Historical Perspective

David Pickett at his Thinking Brickly blog covers the LEGO Friends backlash with the most detailed post I’ve seen. He dissects the m/f figure ratio of every year since the minifig was introduced, and explains why the past girl-centric themes failed. The suggestions he offers on how to improve the inequality are creative and useful, such as supporting new projects on Cuusoo that feature female protagonists. I set out to write the best justification I could for Friends, but David has done one better. His conclusions are a little more negative than mine, but we’re pretty close overall.

This is how you construct a strong argument against LEGO Friends. Not by filling a petition with blatantly wrong information and blaming LEGO for taking away our daughters’ creativity. While I don’t agree with a few things David says (like his criticism of the minidoll figures), I can’t fault his logic. His point regarding the LEGO family motto (“Only the best is good enough”) is particularly poignant. I’m glad to see there are other people taking a rational, detailed, and thorough approach to this. That’s something I can get behind, no matter what the conclusion.

Apple’s Textbook Strategy

Yesterday’s Apple announcement was predicted to focus on textbooks, and it didn’t disappoint. Apparently Apple executives see a new market in textbooks, one which they can revolutionize threefold. If done correctly, digital textbooks could be very profitable for Apple, save a struggling publishing industry, and give children a better education than traditional textbooks can provide.

So let’s review what they came up with. First, iBooks 2.0 has been reworked on the iPad to display rich textbooks filled with handy galleries, videos, and interactive quizzes. Apple has partnered with several major publishers (Pearson, McGraw Hill, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and DK) to provide high school texts for $14.99. The E.O. Wilson Foundation is also releasing their new book Life on Earth for free, which I can’t wait to try. There’s a long way to go, but it looks like publishers are happy with Apple’s new model for now. iBooks is available for free on the App Store. Keep in mind that the new textbooks will only run on the iPad, not the iPhone or iPod touch’s smaller screen.

Second, Apple has released a promising tool called iBooks Author to design these fancy new books. It’s basically a melding of Keynote and Pages from its iWork suite, and allows just about anyone to compile their own rich textbook. Surprisingly, this is also offered for free on the Mac App Store. This comes with a few restrictions, since the .ibooks file you create with iBooks Author can only be sold through Apple. Realistically, there aren’t any other ebook readers that can play such complex files, but it’s still an onerous condition. You can, however, give free copies away to anyone without dealing with Apple.

Third, Apple released an iTunes U app for both teachers and students. iTunes U has gained quite a following over the years, offering free courses from universities worldwide. As of yesterday, K-12 schools can also use iTunes U to post courses or materials online. The new app lets teachers post and monitor progress through the material, while students can read, watch videos, or listen to audio. I’m trying out a British Ecosystems course, and so far I’m impressed. I’ve watched BBC videos, studied book chapters in iBooks, and followed lectures from prominent ecologists around the world. I’d say it’s leagues better than the online courses I took in college, and I’m excited to see how the service develops. Unlike the iBooks texts, iTunes U is available free for any iDevice.

So what does all this new stuff mean for education? Only time will tell. I applaud Apple for trying to help America’s struggling schoolchildren, but I’m concerned that schools will have a tough time getting pricy iPads for everyone. Like every new technology, it faces the “chicken and the egg” problem. If schools don’t purchase enough iPads and use the new apps, publishers won’t want to design digital textbooks. And if there aren’t enough digital texts, why would schools adopt the new program? I think the textbook market, especially at the college level, is ripe for disruption, and the cost savings over 4 years would be immense. If I had the chance to purchase one $500 iPad at the beginning of college and several $15 books each year, I’d spend significantly less money than if I bought paper books, new or used.

The K-12 sphere is harder, since schools will need to purchase iPads for students and likely recycle them year after year. This requires support and retooling of the current textbook purchasing model. But if Apple were to offer a cheaper iPad, either through an education discount or by selling a discounted iPad 2 after introducing the iPad 3, schools would certainly have an easier time raising the funds. Of course, there’s still the issue that only iPads can run the new books. Why not, at the very least, make iBooks for Mac?

All in all, Apple seems to be trying to revolutionize yet another stale industry, and I’ve learned not to doubt their prescience in these matters. Digital textbooks through iBooks may well become the standard, but we’ll have to wait and see if they can help children as much as Apple claims. iPads are insanely popular amount kids, and I would have killed to study with one as a child. One thing’s for sure – it will always be the teacher, not a textbook, who unlocks a student’s true potential. But better books could definitely help.

Year One – Looking Back

Legomac is approaching its first anniversary, so I thought I’d post some reflections about the year. After a couple years of avidly following tech news and interesting LEGO creations, I resolved last January to start a website and stick with it. I think I’ve accomplished that goal, although I haven’t been terribly consistent with my posting schedule. Legomac continues to be a hobby back burner of my “real life.” I guess it’s sort of the Apple TV of my daily routine. All in all, I’m satisfied with how the site has evolved in its first year and how my writing has changed in that time.

I’ve even managed to compose a few pieces that I’m fairly proud of. If you’re looking for an introduction to the site, here’s a list of my favorites this year:

Most of my LEGO posts were photos of exceptional MOCs from around the web. These usually didn’t require too much commentary, so I’ve highlighted the posts in which I was able to write to my heart’s content:

  • Friends or Failures – I just got this one posted before the one year mark. I take on the critics of LEGO Friends with a tour through the murky history of LEGO’s more feminine toys.
  • Red and Yellow – Two MOCs I made on LDD based on the original generation Pokémon games. 3-D representations of the main character sprites.
  • Exocycle – My favorite MOC of the year, made to test out some new wheels.
  • Steve Jobs looking at things – A new set on Flickr I’ve started in imitation of Kim Jong-Il’s famous site.

It was a pretty big year for Apple, and I had trouble narrowing this list down to only my favorite posts. Hopefully next year will be just as momentous, but less tragic.

I did two rather long reviews of iOS games, as well as a Shawn Blanc-style review of my Magic Mouse.

Some things I wrote about didn’t fit into any particular categories but still deserve to be mentioned.