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I have a number of friends who can’t understand why I pay what they refer to as ‘the Apple tax’: the premium paid for Apple products over alternatives that offer much the same functionality.

I can argue about the functionality, of course. The usability, stability and (usually!) security of OS X are all things worth paying for in my view, but I’m not ashamed to admit that aesthetics also matter to me. When I’m going to spend 8+ hours in front of a computer, I’d rather I was looking at something sleek and beautiful rather than something plastic, ugly and a chore to use and understand.

I feel the same way about the other technology on my desk and in my office, but it isn’t always easy to find kit that works well and looks the part too. I can’t help thinking there’s a lot of office technology that could use the Jony Ive touch … 

I’m not just talking about aesthetics. Anyone who has ever set up a typical wireless printer will likely remember the pain for some time. As Ive himself has said, design is not just about how a product looks, but also how it works. An Apple-specced printer should connect via USB, ask me for my wifi network credentials and ten seconds later tell me it’s configured and I can remove the cable.

A scanner, likewise, should not require a separate utility to be running, I should simply connect it and be able to immediately scan a document, with OS X asking me what I want to do with it, and whether I want to do that just this once or always.

It also took about 30 seconds for someone to read this post and make this suggestion:

I couldn’t agree more: definitely a category that could use some Apple-like usability.

But in general it’s easier to find kit that does the job than tech that looks like it belongs on the same desk as a Mac.

There are some third-party companies out there that do a great job. My iCube speakers (seemingly now discontinued) look right at home there, as do my B+W P5 headphones. In fact, pretty much anything by B+W or B&O would pass the test.

But my printer, scanner and shredder, not so much. The best that can be said about those black plastic items is that they are inoffensive. Not a slice of anodised aluminum in sight.

It does this job better with some product categories than others. There’s a good selection of Apple-like audio kit to choose from, for example, and some of the external hard drives also tick the design box. But printers …

Scanners …

I’d argue that the best of them fall into the ‘inoffensive’ category; nobody is going to mistake any of them for anything designed by Apple.

I recognize this is pure wishful thinking on my part, of course. Macs are now a relatively small part of Apple’s business, and the numbers only make sense at all because the average retail price is far higher than for iDevices. Mac peripherals would be just that.

iPhone accessories (beyond cases) might make more sense in terms of numbers, but less sense in terms of revenue: the vast majority of them are low-cost items.

On the other hand, accessories could be viewed like AppleCare: a relatively easy add-on sale to bring in some extra bucks. Offer a matching printer and scanner with zero configuration alongside a Mac purchase, and I’d have thought enough people would go for it to make it viable.

It might also go some way to appeasing analysts, at least briefly pausing the incessant demand for new product categories. An Apple printer, scanner or speaker system is hardly a revolutionary growth product, but they could bump up the average value of a sale by a worthwhile amount, and analysts care about dollar signs, not technology.



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What If The Green Line Actually Worked?

What If the Green Line Actually Worked? An urban transit expert on how to fix the MBTA

Terrance Regan, who teaches urban transportation and policy at MET, has an insider’s view of what went wrong with the T this winter. Photo by Cydney Scott

Terrance Regan tries to impress upon students that it’s more important to maintain existing infrastructure than to spend millions on major expansions—like, say, the extension of MBTA service to Somerville. And for Regan’s Metropolitan College urban transportation policy and planning class, the winter of 2023 is turning into one big teachable moment. Outside his classroom window on Comm Ave is what could be considered Exhibit A in failed transportation policy and planning: the 70-year-old Green Line, which has shut down after each of the recent big snowstorms.

Regan, a MET adjunct professor of city planning and urban affairs and an expert on transportation policy, finance, and intelligent transportation systems, brings to the classroom impressive real-world experience. As the chief researcher for the Massachusetts Transportation Finance Commission, he wrote a report that came out in 2007 analyzing the funding needs of each of the state’s transportation agencies and identifying an overall $19 billion structural debt. The report states, “The Transportation Finance Commission has concluded that our system has been neglected for years, and that the system we take for granted will fail if we do not take prompt and decisive action.”

Regan is a public transportation geek, and for all its recent failures, he remains a champion of Boston’s bus and subway system. He lives in Cambridge and takes the Number 64 bus to his day job in Kendall Square, managing day-to-day operations for the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and Federal Transit Administration’s Transportation Planning Capacity Building program, as well as FHWA’s Office of Innovative Program Delivery, which promotes innovative finance methods for states and cities. Regan coteaches the MET course with Joshua Hassol, an adjunct professor of transportation and environmental planning and a senior manager at the Volpe National Transportation Systems Center.

BU Today talked with Regan about what went wrong with the MBTA this winter, the importance of investing in what is called “state of good repair,” why he worries about current plans for the Green Line extension to Somerville, and why he loves the Ashmont-Mattapan High Speed Line.

BU Today: Were you surprised at what happened with the T this winter, or did you anticipate it?

Regan: If you had a 45-year-old vehicle, do you anticipate it would break down? The biggest problem we have is with aging vehicles and infrastructure. The snow is really just showing the problem that has been there. The Red Line has degraded in quality probably each year for the past 10 years because the trains are getting older. They’re more likely to break down. The average age of an Orange Line car is 45.

Fundamentally what happened is, we have underinvested in maintenance and existing infrastructure for several decades. On the MBTA, I think we have focused too much on expansion and not enough on what is called “state of good repair,” which is shortened to SOGR.

If you asked the guys who actually make the T run on a daily basis, they would probably put every penny they have in state of good repair. But the final choices are up to the policy makers.

Do you think the lack of infrastructure maintenance is the responsibility of any particular agency or administration—or person?

It’s a bipartisan issue. I don’t think you can blame any of the previous governors any more than the others. They all love new stuff. It’s not very sexy to replace a motor on a train or upgrade a signal system.

So what’s sexy in terms of the T?

The Green Line expansion to Somerville, if you have a lot of extra money. It’s a very worthwhile project, except the Green Line in front of BU doesn’t work—on any day. What we’re doing is extending a line that doesn’t work as opposed to applying money to an existing line. It’s the equivalent of putting an expansion on your house when the roof leaks. Think what would happen if we put $400 million into the Green Line above surface. You’d speed things up. What if the Green Line actually worked?

That would be amazing. So what are your ideas for making that happen on the Green Line? That sounds great. What other planning problems do you see with the Green Line?

I can’t say that the Green Line has ever worked well. If you take just the B line, how many aboveground stops are there? It seems you stop every couple of hundred feet. That’s a problem. If you’re going to the BU campus, look at how many times the B line stops. They’ve tried to do some stop consolidation. The city of Boston is redesigning Commonwealth Avenue on the other side of the BU Bridge out to Packard’s Corner. So they’re looking at stop consolidation along there.

Do you take the Green Line?

I try and avoid taking it.

So how do you get to BU and around campus?

I walk.

How would you rate Boston’s public transportation system compared to other cities?

On a good day Boston’s transportation system is actually very good. If you were going to rate transit agencies in the United States, first would be New York, then there’d be Chicago, then there might be Philadelphia—it has a great bus system and a very good commuter rail system—and then you’d probably have Boston.

Do you think Boston can recover from this public transportation disaster?

Rahm Emanuel, the mayor of Chicago, had a saying: “Let no good crisis go to waste.” I hope that this is the MBTA’s crisis that we can use to properly fund the maintenance and ongoing needs of the T. This was going to happen sooner or later. The snow just kind of exacerbated it. I actually think in a perverse way this is a good thing, because it points out all of the problems and truly forces a debate about what we’re going to do.

Are we having that debate?

I hope we will. But I haven’t heard a single person in power say we should have to raise taxes or fees to provide the system with more money.

What are the main things you think need to be done?

If you halted expansion for a few years and put those funds into SOGR projects, you would be able to allocate a couple of hundred million more a year. This is why I have always been worried about the Green Line extension and Fall River/New Bedford Commuter Rail projects.

What was it like working on that big transportation finance report?

It was really, really hard. One of my theories about government is that it takes at least 10 years to get anything done—especially on transportation, which has such a long lead time in getting projects built. I think there are a number of issues that we raised that the legislature tried to address. There is increased funding. In response to the report, it created MassDOT to restructure how the transportation agencies worked together. In addition, the legislature allocated an additional $160 million a year to help the MBTA cover the debt service for Central Artery–related transit projects [the Big Dig]. But there is still a long way to go to meet the needs of transportation in the state. If I gave you an extra $100 every week, I hope you would use it to pay off your credit card, but you might go out and buy a good meal.

You really seem to love public transportation…

I do. My kids laugh at me. Whenever I would take a vacation with them when they were younger, we always had to get from the airport by public transit—in Paris, London, Chicago, wherever. When we were in Paris, we had to ride every one of the 14 subway lines. They wanted to go to Euro Disney and I wanted to ride the subway. We eventually accomplished both.

What about in Boston—what’s your favorite line?

The Mattapan High Speed Line—there is nothing more fun. Oh, God, when my kids were little, we would take it as an amusement ride.

What’s so great about it?

The cars are from the 1940s; you start out at Ashmont, you get on this rickety old car, and then you’re heading to Mattapan, you’re going down this hill, you’re swaying right, you’re swaying left. It’s like you’re in 19th-century Boston.

Students in your class have to do a final presentation on how they might do a public transportation analysis and how they would fix things. What would yours for Boston be?

I would allocate several million dollars for the state to give half a million each to Harvard, BU, MIT, and Northeastern. You would say to them, “Wipe the bus system totally clean and come up with a new bus system that works for Boston today.” Most people don’t realize that the bus system is the workhorse of the MBTA. The top 11 buses in the MBTA bus system carry more passengers per day than the entire commuter rail system.

I didn’t know that.

Nobody does.

Sara Rimer can be reached at [email protected].

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Farmers Accidentally Created A Flood

To control unpredictable water and stop floods, you might build a dam. To build a dam, you generally need hills and dales—geographic features to hold water in a reservoir. Which is why dams don’t fare well in Bangladesh, most of which is a flat floodplain that’s just a few feet above sea level.

Researchers published the system they’d uncovered in the journal Science on September 15. And authorities could use the findings to make farming more sustainable, writes Aditi Mukherji, a researcher in Delhi for the International Water Management Institute who wasn’t involved in the paper, in a companion article in Science.

“No one really intended this to happen, because farmers didn’t have the knowledge when they started pumping,” says Mohammad Shamsudduha, a geoscientist at University College London in the UK and one of the paper’s authors.

[Related: What is a flash flood?]

Most of Bangladesh lies in the largest river delta on the planet, where the Rivers Ganges and Brahmaputra fan out into the Bay of Bengal. It’s an expanse of lush floodplains and emerald forests, blanketing some of the most fertile soil in the world. Indeed, that soil supports a population density nearly thrice that of New Jersey, the densest US state.

Like much of South Asia, Bangladesh’s climate revolves around the yearly monsoon. The monsoon rains support local animal and plant life and are vital to agriculture, too. But a heavy monsoon can cause devastating floods, as residents of northern Bangladesh experienced in June.

Yet Bangladesh’s warm climate means that farmers can grow crops, especially rice, in the dry season. To do so, farmers often irrigate their fields with water they draw up from the ground. Many small-scale farmers started doing so in the 1990s, when the Bangladeshi government loosened restrictions on importing diesel-powered pumps and made them more affordable. 

The authors of the new study wanted to examine whether pumping was depriving the ground of its water. That’s generally not very good, resulting in strained water supplies and the ground literally sinking (just ask Jakarta). They examined data from 465 government-controlled stations that monitor Bangladesh’s irrigation efforts across the country.

[Related: How climate change fed Pakistan’s devastating floods]

The situation was not so simple: In many parts of the country, groundwater wasn’t depleting at all.

It’s thanks to how rivers craft the delta. The Ganges and the Brahmaputra carry a wealth of silt and sediment from as far away as the Himalayas. As they fan out through the delta, they deposit those fine particles into the surrounding land. These sediments help make the delta’s soil as fertile as it is. 

Where a dam’s reservoir is more like a bucket, Bangladesh is more like a sponge. During the dry season, farmers dry out the sponge. That gives it more room to absorb more water in the monsoon. And so forth, in an—ideally—self-sustaining cycle. Researchers call it the Bengal Water Machine. 

“The operation of the [Bengal Water Machine] was suspected by a small number of hydrogeologists within our research network but essentially unknown prior to this paper,” says Richard Taylor, a hydrogeologist at University College London in the UK, and another of the paper’s authors.

“If there was no pumping, then this would not have happened,” says Kazi Matin Uddin Ahmed, a hydrogeologist at the University of Dhaka in Bangladesh, and another of the paper’s authors. 

The researchers believe that other “water machines” might fill fertile deltas elsewhere in the tropics with similar wet-and-dry climates. Southeast Asia might host a few, at the mouths of the Red River, the Mekong, and the Irrawaddy.

But an ominous question looms over the Bengal Water Machine: What happens as climate change reshapes the delta? Most crucially, a warming climate might intensify monsoons and change where they deliver their rains. “This is something we need to look into,” says Shamsudduha.

The Bengal Water Machine faces several other immediate challenges. In 2023, in response to overpumping concerns, the Bangladeshi government reintroduced restrictions on which farmers get to install a pump, which could make groundwater pumping more inaccessible. Additionally, many farmers use dirty diesel-powered pumps. (The government’s now encouraging farmers to switch to solar power.)

Also, keeping the Bengal Water Machine ship-shape means not using too much groundwater. Unfortunately, that’s already happening. Bangladesh’s west generally gets less rainfall than its east, and the results reflect that. The researchers noticed groundwater depletion in the west that wasn’t happening out east.

“There is a limit,” says Ahmed. “There has to be close monitoring of the system.”

Amazon Is Thinking About Routers And You Should Be, Too

Eero is now part of Amazon. Eero

Your router probably doesn’t get enough credit. Routers wouldn’t be fun to get—or give—as a gift, and you probably won’t obsess over your choice when it’s time to upgrade like you would with a smartphone or a laptop. But your router does a ton of work for you and it also knows a lot about you.

Earlier this week, Amazon bought Eero, a hardware company that makes networking gear to create mesh networks around your home. Mesh networks decentralize your connection, spreading signal-slinging duties to several devices throughout your home rather than relying on a single box stashed in the corner dishing out spotty connections that fade over a distance.

Reactions to the acquisition ranged from hopelessly negative to unrealistically optimistic. And while we won’t know exactly how it will shake out, it has—or at least it should—motivate people to give a little thought to their own routers.

What can routers tell Amazon?

One of Amazon’s big motivators for picking up Eero, however, is to make connecting smart home devices simpler for the average user. In doing so, that would give the company access to information about other devices on the network by way of their unique network ID. So, even if Amazon couldn’t exactly pinpoint the kind of smart TV you have, it would reasonably know that there’s a smart TV in your home.

Data is extremely valuable for Amazon, largely because it helps the company sell you stuff. Eero has collected and analyzed user data since the beginning. The data is anonymized, so it hasn’t been looking at what specific users are connecting with or for, but it knows what the most popular smartphone among its users is, for instance.

Still, it’s a big leap from analyzing anonymized data to tracking specific user behavior. And if that’s what you’re worried about, then you should take a peak at what your Internet Service Provider might be up to. Last year, the FCC repealed a regulation that protected users from ISPs collecting and using their personal data without consent.

As of now, Amazon has denied multiple times that it will change any of the privacy policy rules Eero had in place before the acquisition, but that can change down the road

What about your current router?

With all this talk of internet access points flying around the web, this is a good moment for you to take stock of your own router situation since it may be doing you a disservice and opening yourself up to even more serious security and privacy issues.

If you’ve never looked at your router’s settings, it’s possible the default security info is still in place, which makes it vulnerable to attacks, but fortunately, that’s mostly not the case anymore. Du says, however, that a good password for your network doesn’t solve all of your security problems.

“Attackers don’t need your password,” says Du. “If there’s a vulnerability in the router’s firmware, they can use that as a way in.” The process of updating the firmware on your router is—let’s face it—incredibly boring, but it’s important because out-of-date software can open you up to hacks that are otherwise easily fixed. Many routers update automatically by default, but it’s not universal and older devices are less likely to keep current on their own.

Du says experts often recommend replacing your singular router every two to three years. As we move into mesh networks that are made of more access points, the shape of your hardware setup may change even more frequently. And if Amazon starts building Eero access points into gear like Echo speakers, your hardware situation could become even more dynamic, which is even more motivation to keep on top of the updates.

If Amazon starts adding more networking features to its other products like Echo speakers, it will add more complications to making sure the whole system is secure. “You’re adding these new devices,” says Du, “and that broadens the attack surface.”

Apple Wants Court To Rule If It Can Be Forced To Unlock An Iphone

Apple has requested a court in New York to rule finally whether it can be compelled to assist investigators to get around the passcode of an iPhone 5s belonging to a defendant in a criminal case.

The Department of Justice, citing a statute called the All Writs Act, tried to get help from Apple to bypass the security of the phone in government possession.

Apple’s lawyer said in a letter to U.S. Magistrate Judge James Orenstein of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York that the company would like an order as it has received additional requests similar to the one underlying the case before the court.

The government had informed the court in October last year that Jun Feng, the accused in a methamphetamine possession and distribution case, had entered a guilty plea, but it said that its application to order Apple’s assistance to bypass his iPhone 5s passcode was not moot as the government was still looking for evidence from the device as part of a continuing investigation, and because the criminal defendant still had to be sentenced or a judgment entered.

Apple now also argues that the matter is not moot because “it is capable of repetition, yet evading review.” The question of whether a third party like Apple can be compelled to assist law enforcement in its investigative efforts by bypassing the security mechanisms on its device has been fully briefed and argued, according to the letter. “The Court is thus already in a position to render a decision on that question,” Apple said.

Judge Orenstein has not passed a final order for around three months, presumably to assess whether a decision is relevant in the wake of subsequent developments in the court.

The current thinking among some lawmakers and law enforcement agencies in the U.S. is also veering around to the view that companies should provide backdoors to investigators, so that they can get access to encrypted data on smartphones. Legislation introduced in California aims to require manufacturers of smartphones and operating system providers to provide such decryption support to law enforcement, while another in New York would ban the sale of encrypted phones.

The All Writs Act gives federal courts the authority to issue orders that are “necessary or appropriate in aid of their respective jurisdictions and agreeable to the usages and principles of law.” But as the Electronic Frontier Foundation pointed out, the Act is “not a backdoor to bypass other laws” and the Supreme Court has set out limits to the Act, including requiring that a court cannot use it to bypass other laws or the Constitution, or require third parties to assist in ways that would be “unreasonably burdensome.”

Apple said it was possible to access certain types of unencrypted user data from the iPhone 5s phone running iOS 7, though it would not have been possible if it was a device running iOS 8 or higher. But it pointed out that the process, including possible testimony by Apple staff at trial, would be unnecessarily burdensome as the number of government requests increase.

The DOJ said that Apple had previously assisted investigators in federal criminal cases to extract data from password-locked iPhones under court orders. Apple said its previous acquiescence to judicial orders does not mean it consents to the process.

Jony Ive Returns To Apple Design Management Role After Two Years

Jony Ive, Apple’s chief design officer, is returning to his management role within Apple’s design group after handing off managerial duties in 2023. 9to5Mac noted that Ive’s design deputies Dye and Howarth were no longer listed on Apple’s leadership page earlier today, and news of Ive’s return broke from Bloomberg.

From our story this morning:

Also of note, Apple’s Leadership webpage no longer lists Alan Dye, VP of user interface design, while VP of industrial design Richard Howarth is also no longer listed. We assume there has been no change of roles here, as Apple has not announced anything, but we’ve reached out to the company for clarity and will update when we hear back.

Bloomberg got confirmation on the record about Jony’s new role:

“With the completion of Apple Park, Apple’s design leaders and teams are again reporting directly to Jony Ive, who remains focused purely on design,” Amy Bessette, a company spokeswoman, said Friday in a statement.

Ive famously led Apple’s legendary design team on a day-to-day basis prior to July 1, 2023, but shifted his role two years ago amid Apple Park’s development. This was the original memo announcing the shift two years ago:


I have exciting news to share with you today. I am happy to announce that Jony Ive is being promoted to the newly created position of Chief Design Officer at Apple.

Jony is one of the most talented and accomplished designers of his generation, with an astonishing 5000 design and utility patents to his name. His new role is a reflection of the scope of work he has been doing at Apple for some time. Jony’s design responsibilities have expanded from hardware and, more recently, software UI to the look and feel of Apple retail stores, our new campus in Cupertino, product packaging and many other parts of our company.

Design is one of the most important ways we communicate with our customers, and our reputation for world-class design differentiates Apple from every other company in the world. As Chief Design Officer, Jony will remain responsible for all of our design, focusing entirely on current design projects, new ideas and future initiatives. On July 1, he will hand off his day-to-day managerial responsibilities of ID and UI to Richard Howarth, our new vice president of Industrial Design, and Alan Dye, our new vice president of User Interface Design.

Richard, Alan and Jony have been working together as colleagues and friends for many years. Richard has been a member of the Design team for two decades, and in that time he has been a key contributor to the design of each generation of iPhone, Mac, and practically every other Apple product. Alan started at Apple nine years ago on the Marcom team, and helped Jony build the UI team which collaborated with ID, Software Engineering and countless other groups on groundbreaking projects like iOS 7, iOS 8 and Apple Watch.

Please join me in congratulating these three exceptionally talented designers on their new roles at Apple.


At the time, it seemed certain that Apple was carefully preparing for Ive’s eventual retirement from the company. Dye and Howarth, who served as VPs of User Interface Design and Industrial Design, respectively, were presumably being groomed to be the face of Apple design post-Jony, but the duo received little public exposure following the initial announcement. No keynote slots and limited interviews.

Meanwhile, Jony Ive has remained in the spotlight at Apple, publicly discussing Apple’s new campus and appearing publicly to talk about the state of Apple design. 9to5Mac reported on a recent appearance at The New Yorker’s TechFest in October where Ive spoke about his history at Apple and the future of design.

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