I’m : a programmer, writer, podcaster, geek, and coffee enthusiast.

Tea Sachets Exist

Last night, I outed myself as an occasional tea drinker by posting this photo, which was immediately jumped on by tea people on Instagram and Twitter decrying my use of the teabag. Fortunately, it wasn’t a teabag.

I’m no tea expert, but I know the basics and the rhetoric enough to make a good cup of green tea1 when I want a bit of caffeine at night when it’s too late for responsible coffee use.

I’m well aware of the basis for snob teabag hate: bags contain very small leaf pieces and dust, tightly packed in, which supposedly leads to crap taste for various reasons. I, too, heard Kevin Rose promote Adagio on almost every Diggnation episode in 2006. I, too, have a cabinet shelf of tea accessories including two IngenuiTEAs, various balls, and other straining implements2 that have sat mostly unused since 2006 because most of them aren’t worth the effort or cleanup to me.

But I recently discovered tea sachets: large, spacious, pyramid-shaped3 bags of fine mesh, containing single servings of loose-leaf tea.

A sachet of Harney & Sons' Japanese Sencha green tea.

Sachets strike a remarkable balance of quality and convenience. To me, they taste just as good as loose tea. And there’s no measuring, dispensing, or cleanup. It’s the tea version of the promise of coffee pods, but it actually delivers on that promise because good tea is so much easier to brew than good coffee.

When they’re individually wrapped, like the one pictured above, they’re even more convenient. Not only do they retain their flavor for a long time, but they’re great for travel: you can bring a couple on a plane or pack a handful for the hotel and have great tea in restricted conditions with zero equipment, as long as you have some ability to make or request a cup of hot water.

I’m a big fan of two green teas from Harney & Sons:

(Note that the sachets in the 20-count boxes are individually wrapped, but the ones in the 50-count bags aren’t. And I don’t recommend buying Harney tea from Amazon — they never have much stock, and it’s usually cheaper from Harney’s own site.)

Sachets are more expensive than loose tea or bags — these run about 50 cents each — but it doesn’t add up to much of a premium unless you drink a lot of tea.

For me, and for a lot of casual tea drinkers, I think sachets are as good as it gets. I wish coffee had an equivalent.

  1. 170–180°F for 1–2 minutes. I know. ↩︎

  2. I also have the Clever Coffee Dripper, which is basically an IngenuiTEA with the top shaped for a coffee filter. It works exactly the same way. (Not recommended. Since cone filters — yes, even the fancy metal ones — are designed to release liquid slowly, delaying the filtering with the Clever usually results in over-extracted coffee.) ↩︎

  3. More specifically, since all four sides are triangles, they’re tetrahedrons. ↩︎

Slightly defending podcasting

Allen Pike, in The Fall and Rise of Podcasting, first recounts the podcast landscape around 2007:

…the bubble around podcasting popped. Without top-quality shows, serious advertisers, and loyal listeners, the hype died.

It’s important to clarify: podcasting never really “fell”. The mid-2000s hype around it certainly did, but it was mostly limited to a handful west-coast startups and investors in the first place. That hype, and its fall, never reached most podcast producers or fans — the medium has mostly grown slowly and steadily.

Back to present day, Allen describes the current (awesome) podcast landscape:

So the number of geek-oriented shows is definitely going through a boom. That’s great, but it’s driven me to wonder: is this is actually sustainable, or is it just another bubble of perception like Odeo was? …

Unlike advertising elsewhere, podcast advertising is dominated by a few players like Squarespace and Hover. Are these big advertisers going to burn out on podcasting ads, or do they know something other companies don’t know?

It does seem like, for instance, Squarespace dominates podcast sponsorships, but that’s mostly because they advertise so broadly and frequently. When you’re exposed to the same ad a lot, it sticks, while you more easily forget the others.

If you actually look at all of a show’s sponsorships over a few months, you’ll see that any one sponsor — even Squarespace — rarely buys more than about 20% of the inventory. It would hurt to lose all of the big sponsors, but no single sponsor is big enough to crush the industry if it left.

Podcast sponsorship can be very valuable, but like most forms of advertising, it brings a high customer-acquisition cost. If you’re selling a 99-cents-up-front app with no other revenue, it’s going to be hard for you to recoup your investment. But if you’re selling hosted services, or anything else in which the value of a customer up front or over time is more than a few dollars, podcast ads can be extremely effective and profitable for you — especially when targeted to a focused, profitable market like tech geeks or software developers.

I believe it’s reasonably sustainable.

With all this growth, what improvements are we seeing in the tools? As of this writing, a horde of developers are building podcast listening apps. Podcast recording apps, on the other hand?

Well, more about that soon.

I’m glad to see people realizing that podcast production tools are mostly awful, and at best, not especially optimized for podcasting.

But I’m not a believer that everyone should podcast, or that podcasting should be as easy as blogging. There’s actually a pretty strong benefit to it requiring a lot of effort: fewer bad shows get made, and the work that goes into a good show is so clear and obvious that the effort is almost always rewarded.

People can go through a lot of bad text to get to the good stuff, and they’ll read a lot of bad sites for the occasional good post. Audio and video, on the other hand, have a time dimension and aren’t easily skimmable. Podcasts need to be consistently good to keep an audience around, and the biggest long-term limitation to podcast growth is simply how much time people have to listen. We already have a huge oversupply of great podcasts in many genres — most podcast fans wish they had more time to get to them all.

Anyone willing and able to make a good podcast should have access to usable, affordable tools to do so. But nobody’s going to be able to dump out a great podcast with little effort, just as nobody’s able to produce great video quickly and easily. Making a good podcast will never be as easy as writing text, and if you’re a podcast listener, that’s probably for the best.

Roast, Grind, Brew

I once daydreamed of building a machine that could roast, grind, and brew coffee, all in one. After becoming a home hobbyist roaster almost three years ago, I gave up on the dream machine when I realized that even if I somehow pulled it off, in practice, it would actually kinda suck.

Well, Bonaverde actually built it and wants your money on Kickstarter, and everyone has asked me about this today. It’s been widely reported by the coffee-gear-obsessed tech and gadget press, but I have some concerns.

A lot of their messaging is about coffee farmers with progressive-sounding music, but they’re conflating very different things: bean sourcing, unroasted bean distribution, freshly roasted coffee, home roasting in particular, and using one integrated machine to do roasting and brewing. The machine is the new part. The rest of it is a nice story, but unroasted (“green”) bean sourcing and home roasting have been easily available for years.

Conceptually, there are a number of potential problems with an all-in-one machine:

To be fair, all of that is speculation — the Bonaverde machine may blow all of those concerns out of the water. Time will tell.

But the biggest problem is the inflexibility of having these three very distinct roles — roasting, grinding, and brewing — locked into one integrated machine.

Want to roast a pound of coffee to take to your parents’ house for Thanksgiving or give as a gift? Too bad. Want to use a different grinder? You can’t. Want to brew with an AeroPress? At best, you’ll need to stop it halfway through and pull out the grounds, which is inelegant and error-prone. How about a French press? Nope, the grind size is too small. Serving a lot of coffee at once for, say, a dinner party? You’ll have to wait for an entire roast between each pot, not just brewing.

And when one part breaks, or you’d like to upgrade just one role, you’re out of luck.

Freshly roasted coffee is awesome, but I don’t think this is the way to do it. For the same price, you can get a standalone Behmor home roaster today. Sure, you’ll need to buy a grinder and brewer separately, but you probably already have those if you’re considering this machine, and the separate components will be far more versatile in practice.

  1. This is one reason why the Behmor is a smarter design than the HotTop — far less chaff and oil builds up in the roaster, and it’s much easier to clean when it does.

    Remind me to finally write my Behmor-vs.-HotTop review sometime. ↩︎

“Significantly Hotter”

When the iPad 3 brought Retina to the iPad family for the first time, I was blown away. (Most of us were — that was the biggest high-DPI screen that most people had seen at the time.)

That screen was so good that it temporarily blinded me to the iPad 3’s major compromises: it was noticeably thicker and heavier than the iPad 2, it had lopsided performance,1 and it ran noticeably warm even under normal loads. I forgave all of those, and even made fun of Consumer Reports for trumping up the warmth.

After a few months of using the iPad 3, it really did feel like a big, heavy brick, the warmth was actually annoying (much like on the original iPhone), and it was a pain in the ass getting Instapaper’s pagination to be fast enough on its underpowered CPU. But we wanted a Retina iPad so badly, and the screen was so great, that most of us (myself included) overlooked its flaws on launch and raved about the screen.

Many initially great-seeming products have obvious compromises and shortcomings in retrospect, and modern Apple devices aren’t immune to this. The first MacBook Air was painfully slow. The original iPad didn’t have enough RAM. The iPhone 4’s camera was very slow, its proximity sensor was flaky, and its home button wore out easily. And the iPad Mini’s screen resolution was embarrassing for a late-2012 midrange tablet.

At the other end, some products strike an amazing balance, are executed extremely well, and make significant progress from their predecessors while having no major drawbacks. Apple tends to make a lot more of these than most tech companies. I think the strongest examples among each Apple product family in the last few years as being noteworthy for the time and fantastic in retrospect are the 2010 13” MacBook Air, the iPhone 5, and the iPad 2.

But if I had to pick runners up, it would be tempting to pick three of Apple’s newest products in the respective families: the latest Retina MacBook Pro (both sizes), the iPhone 5S, and both new iPads. This is a very good time to be a fan of Apple hardware,2 and this says a lot about Apple’s product status and leadership — I’d rather have just a perfect iPhone than a half-assed iPhone and a half-assed watch.

If I had to make one nitpick about the new iPads, with the caveat that I haven’t used the new Mini yet, it would be the lack of Touch ID. Getting accustomed to Touch ID on your new iPhone, then not having it on your new iPad, is like installing a soft-close toilet seat on just one of the two toilets in the house — once you’re accustomed to Touch ID, it’s disruptive and subtly annoying when it’s not on both devices.

Otherwise, by all accounts, and my own playing with my wife’s new iPad Air, the new iPads are so good that they’ll almost certainly belong on that amazing-devices list. It’s just a little early to say.

  1. Its A5X had more GPU power to drive the increased pixel area, but it had the same CPU cores as the iPad 2’s A5. So, while most purely-GPU operations performed decently, any CPU-bound operations on pixel data could perform much worse, as they were processing data for four times as many pixels with the same CPU power.

    For developers, the iPad 3 remains one of the hardest iOS devices — possibly the hardest — to support for games and custom animations. ↩︎

  2. Well, it’s a very good time to be a fan of iOS devices and laptops, at least. The desktop world is still uncomfortably waiting to go Retina. ↩︎

Image Retention on Retina iPad Mini

Last week, a rumor came out that many Retina iPad Mini LCD panels manufactured by Sharp were suffering from image retention.

This problem was also present in many first-generation 15” Retina MacBook Pros, including mine, which I discovered by making a test page that first shows a large black-and-white checkerboard pattern for a few minutes, like this:

Then it switches to a solid gray:

If the LCD panel has an image retention issue, a faint impression of the checkerboard will still be visible on the solid gray image, usually fading over the next few minutes.

Well, I picked up my Retina iPad Mini tonight, and it failed:

A failed image-retention test on my Retina iPad Mini: note the faint checkerboard pattern in the solid gray area. It’s pretty hard to see in photos — it’s easier to see in person.

It’s not the sort of problem that I’m likely to notice in actual use — I’ve never noticed it on my Retina MacBook Pro, and it has worse image retention than this iPad on my test page.

Since Apple’s using multiple panel manufacturers, I could exchange it and hope for a better one. But it’s also possible that, given the extremely low volume that’s trickling into stores, any replacement I get in the next couple of weeks could be from the same batch with the same issue.

I had some friends run the same test on their new Retina iPad Minis, and they all passed — no image retention. So I’ll try an exchange.

(For whatever it’s worth, I also ran it on my wife’s new iPad Air and my iPhone 5S. Both passed with zero retention.)

Turbo Boost and the New Mac Pro’s CPUs

With the new Mac Pro’s release imminent, it’s important for prospective buyers to understand the odd-looking CPU options:

ModelCoresSpeedL3 CacheTDPLikely costTurbo Boost
E5-1620 v243.7 GHz10 MB130 W+$0(0/0/0/2)
E5-1650 v263.5 GHz12 MB130 W+$500(1/1/2/2/2/4)
E5-1680 v283.0 GHz25 MB130 W+$1500(4/4/4/4/5/7/8/9)
E5-2697 v2122.7 GHz30 MB130 W+$2500(3/3/3/3/3/3/3/4/5/6/7/8)

It looks like you’re paying a lot for slower clock speeds as the cores increase, but that’s not the entire story. Those weird Turbo Boost numbers, which are easy to pull from here and here, are worth understanding before choosing a modern Intel processor.

They indicate the number of extra 100 MHz increments by which the CPU may ramp up its speed with a given number of cores in an active, high-power state. The sequence begins with all cores active, then counts down to just one core active. For instance, the 6-core’s increments are “(1/1/2/2/2/4)”, which means:

This is probably a more helpful way to compare:

Active Cores
Maximum Turbo GHz Per Core

(The two red entries — the 6-core E5-1660 v2 and 8-core E5-2667 v2 — are not available in the new Mac Pro, but I wish they were. Faster, the same TDP, and the same or larger cache, for a few hundred bucks more.)

This is why the AAPLJ90,1 Geekbench results make sense: the single-threaded performance on all but the 12-core is effectively identical, and the 6- and 8-core’s multithreaded results scale almost perfectly linearly with their respective core count despite an advertised 500 MHz base clock difference.

You can also see why I don’t recommend the 12-core model to anyone except those whose software will definitely make very good use of all of its cores, at least most of the time — because for any other conditions, it’ll be slower than the others.

Turbo Boost is also why the iMac and 15” MacBook Pro are matching the new Mac Pro already in single-threaded benchmarks, why the 15” MacBook Pro is so much faster than the 13”, and why the Air can keep up despite a much lower base clock speed:

Active Cores
13” MacBook Air 15 W4 MB
13” RMBP 28 W4 MB
15” RMBP W6 MB
27” iMac W8 MB
Mac Pro 4-core W10 MB
Maximum Turbo GHz Per Core

So why buy a Mac Pro for CPU performance at all?

The increased L3 cache helps certain workloads, but the biggest difference is the TDP, which specifies the maximum sustained heat output of each CPU.

Turbo Boost can only sustain its higher speeds as long as it’s being adequately cooled and is under its TDP limit. This is why the clocks decrease as the core count increases: since all of the Mac Pro’s CPUs have the same TDP, Intel can’t just offer a 12-core that can sustain 3.9 GHz.

While the MacBook Air can match the 13” MacBook Pro’s clock briefly, it won’t hold it for as long because it can’t afford the heat. Those giant 130 W TDPs in the Mac Pro can accommodate much more than the laptops and iMac under a sustained heavy workload — especially if the CPU is being stressed but the GPUs aren’t, due to the shared-giant-heatsink design. (And if the GPUs are being stressed, the Mac Pro should be justifying itself quite well already.)

But there’s little reason to get the higher-end Mac Pro CPUs unless you know you’ll use all of the cores. And if you won’t be sustaining heavy parallel loads and you won’t take advantage of heavy GPU power, there’s a lot less reason to get the Mac Pro at all.