Jim Cloudman

Back on the Applesauce

September 10, 2016 Permalink

My tech gadgetry history has been a big, sloppy mess this past year. My experience with watches has been particularly fraught:

  • Bought a Moto 360 (1st gen), returned it immediately because it was crap.
  • Bought a Samsung Gear S2, the bands & the development environment I was working in both fell apart rather spectacularly.
  • Bought a Moto 360 (2nd gen), returned that one immediately because it was also crap.
  • Bought a Huawei watch, used it for months until I decided I hated charging watches, and gave up on all "traditional" smartwatches (if something that's only been around for 2 years can even have traditions).
  • Bought a Withings Activité and now it's one of my favorite possessions.

As you might have guessed from the above, I've been using an Android phone for the past year. I couldn't argue with the price of the plans, and Google's Project Fi is a really impressive network around here. However, my circumstances changed and I switched networks, and found myself going back to iOS. Those same circumstances provided the opportunity to get a new notebook, having sold my XPS 13 last year.

So now my laptop and phone are Apple gear, and I hope that I don't end up switching them anytime soon. As such, I put a good deal of thought into my needs for both, and I came up with a couple odd answers. Instead of getting a MacBook Pro and preordering an iPhone 7 like you might expect, I have bought a 12-inch MacBook and the iPhone SE.

The MacBook has plenty of detractors. One port? A super shallow keyboard? A trackpad that doesn't actually click? Am I mad? Maybe, but let's leave that aside. Crucially, none of these things matter for my use, which is as a secondary, portable computer.

I only need to charge it and plug in a mouse, and Bluetooth works fine for the latter. I actually somewhat like the keyboard, probably because my style of typing is mostly slamming my fingers into the keys. The trackpad I'm not a huge fan of, but it's good enough. For these compromises, I get a very small laptop with a beautiful screen. For what I use it for, it's solid.

The iPhone SE I just got yesterday, taking advantage of the most recent price cut on the 64GB model. I'm going from a Nexus 6P, which is iPhone 6 Plus sized. Going from a phablet to a 4-inch screen is a shock... but you get used to that after a day or two. Having a swipey keyboard like GBoard helps a lot with typing, and reducing the text size helps with information density.

The biggest issue is that some apps, mostly newer ones, were not really designed to be shrunk down to the old 4-inch screen size. I've yet to find an app that didn't work, but there are several apps where the buttons and UI chrome take up too much of the view. I also had issues hitting the handy 1Password shortcut buttons on login screens. For the most part, though, I've found it to be a refreshing change to have a phone that I can actually hold and use in one hand, and I still prefer the iPhone 5 design to the current 6/7 generation. The Leica-like look and feel somehow feels more substantial than any of the more modern iOS offerings, and in a sea of iPhones 6/7 and Android copies, the SE and 5-series phones remain unique.

iOS 10 also resolves many of the things I liked Android for. The notification dropdown and the widget pane are now two different swipes, and it makes using both much more enjoyable. HomeKit is awesome for controlling the Hue lights in my apartment, and Night Shift has been long overdue.

Maybe in a year I'll have sold these for whatever new shiny thing catches my eye, but at the moment these tiny gadgets are growing on me.

Apple Laughs at Your Usability Concerns

June 23, 2016 Permalink

I've been perturbed and entertained by the ongoing anti-headphone-jack debate raging in the tech news lately. A quick summary:

If that weren't enough, I have a couple more points for you.

For one (and Andrew mentioned this as well), headphones using Lightning have access to much more than just two channels of audio; they can draw digital data and power too. It's not hard to imagine headphones with integrated sound cards and/or amplifiers drawing power from the phone, nor is it hard to imagine features like surround sound or noise cancellation (without the headset needing its own batteries).

Now, remember that Apple owns Beats as well. Imagine, if you will, Apple announcing that the headphone jack is going away, followed immediately by the introduction of a new range of headphones with new, innovative features competitors can't match without also using the Lightning port. Depending on the features, this may make stereo, analog headphones seem old and outdated to the average user - and this would work to Apple's benefit, perhaps enough so that they'd toss out the analog port to get adoption rates up.

The second point is that Apple has a storied history of making changes that are user-hostile, often for reasons rooted solely in aesthetics. Take the buttonless iPod shuffle, which forced users to control their iPods with voice commands just because it made the iPod itself look pretty. Or to a lesser extent the 6th generation iPod Nano, which at least had a touch screen. Or the latest MacBook, with one port on it because two would make too much sense, and an inferior keyboard caused by saving an extra millimeter or two of thickness that no sane person would have noticed. (But hey, it still has an analog headphone port!)

Taken in that context, the fact that there's actual technical justification for ditching the headphone port aside from "it looks prettier this way" makes me wonder why Apple hasn't tried it already. This is totally something they would do, and they actually have legitimate reasons this time to do so.

And to be clear: I'm no fan of this idea. For all the reasons Nilay mentioned, but also because I like being able to charge my phone and listen to audio at the same time.1 I'm also worried that Apple may give Beats de facto exclusive rights to that port (perhaps by making the process too difficult for third parties to adopt it), which is also something Apple would do. That would be a very sad moment indeed for people who appreciate audio quality - few of whom appreciate Beats.

If there's any glimmer of hope, it's that Apple does thankfully also have a history of walking back some of its more controversial omissions - both of the iPods mentioned above were eventually reverted to their previous forms with physical buttons, for instance. With any luck, they'll eventually settle on the scheme that makes the most sense for both Apple and their users.

  1. You can actually do that today with Lightning - but it involves a Lightning to 30-pin adapter, a 30-pin to USB/analog audio converter, poor quality audio output, and no way to change the volume. That's no way to live.


May 16, 2016 Permalink

I'm not a fan of snobbery.

People will swear that something is "the best" of a category - like pizza, or TV shows, or programming languages. For you personally, that's great, but once you insist that your choice should be everybody's choice, you ignore two fundamental truths: that people have different value systems than you do, and the things that make up those values - taste, disposable income, spare time, nostalgia, etc. - do not stay the same over time. This is what snobbery looks like.1

The most recent Accidental Tech Podcast episode is a spectacular case in point; their arguments about fast food and pizza were an excellent showcase of rejecting other people's tastes and values. Casey seemed to have the right idea, but the overall message from the other two was "Stop eating this garbage you lunatic." I'm sure they said that more for laughs than to try and make Casey confess to crimes against cuisine, but I don't like the implication that ridiculing someone's choices is totally OK.

As with ATP, let's take pizza as an example. The best pizzas I can have right now are my homemade pan pizzas, or pizza from a New York style place nearby - but those are time consuming and/or expensive. However, if I'm short on time or cash, I will often get Little Caesar's hot-and-ready, or a frozen Jack's pizza if I have it in the freezer. When I'm craving pizza, and I don't have time on my hands, those are the best choices possible - and if you want to mock me because they don't have award-winning flavor, then you can bite me, because they are the best decisions I could have made; I damn well know it, and you should too.

Like I said, I'm sure Marco and John were having those arguments all in good fun, but I don't accept that it's OK that someone's choice is wrong because you wouldn't make it yourself. You're basically telling someone that they screwed up, which is bad enough. On top of that, you're probably not even correct, because their situation is not your situation.

Did you hear that PHP is a terrible language? Marco writes most of his stuff in PHP, so he must be totally, totally wrong, and he should never write another line of PHP ever again, right? Yeah, no. It turns out that Marco has solid reasons to stick with it, and in his world it makes a lot of sense to use it for many things. All you would accomplish by saying this is being a jerk.

The best response is to investigate and inform - ask them why they made that ridiculous choice, and offer alternatives. Explain why you wouldn't make that choice, but in a way that doesn't reject their beliefs. Nobody's insulted, and maybe one of you will learn something new about your choices. That is, unless you're debating politics - in which case, you're screwed.

New Star Trek TV Series in 2017

November 3, 2015 Permalink

After far too long, we're going to see a new Star Trek TV series in January 2017. If Reddit is anything to go by 1, the general reaction to this is excitement blended with skepticism, and a dash of offense at having to pay $6/mo to view it through CBS's streaming service. How dare they make you pay for yet another thing?

The way I see it, however, using it to relaunch a streaming service actually gives me hope.

The typical TV show has one mission: to get as many viewers as possible, for as long as possible. This means that as a network, you generally try to keep the show's appeal as broad as possible, and the shows in primetime reflect that. They make choices to bring in new viewers at the expense of the core audience, because the core audience is still going to watch it anyway. They have to like it, but anything more means little to the network.

Star Trek has an entirely different mission, however: it has to effectively sell the entire streaming service. That makes the barrier to entry much higher - you won't get random people dropping by to check it out, and too many who do will decide that it's not worth $72/year. This means that it's not enough to just like the show - you have to love it.

That works against something with broad appeal, in favor of something that really appeals to the core audience. That's practically Star Trek's reason for being - few other shows have such an enormous appeal to those who watch it.

If you need to get more people to buy your streaming service, you need the kind of show that is beloved. That's likely why Amazon paid $250 million to get Jeremy Clarkson and his team when he punched out of Top Gear. I would bet Yahoo bought Community for the same reason, and I would also bet that's why Star Trek is going to this streaming platform.

So why does that give me hope? Because CBS is more incentivized to make it a show that some people love, rather than a show that everybody kind of likes. To do that, they'll be forced to rekindle at least some of the magic of the old Star Trek series. I, for one, will hold out just a little hope that CBS realizes this.

  1. It usually isn't.

Cheap & Cheerful: The Moto X on Republic Wireless

October 1, 2015 Permalink

If money were no object, I'd still have my iPhone that I had for the past few years. I think. A month ago I gave that up, and found myself needing a smartphone and a cheap phone bill. After weighing my options, I went with a Moto X on Republic Wireless.

The reason I went with that is pretty simple: my phone bill is around $15/month. Achieving this requires keeping your data usage around 500MB or so per month, but that's easy enough if you're careful. Verizon charges $50/month for their cheapest 1GB plan, so your phone bill is 70% cheaper on Republic. Over two years, you'll have an extra $840 to spend. Hard to pass that up!

The biggest catch is that Republic Wireless devices can only receive affordable data over Sprint's data network. However, they can call and text over not just other CDMA networks (Verizon mainly), but over WiFi too. Anywhere in the world that you have WiFi, you can receive calls as if you're at home. If you don't rely on data a lot, you may find the WiFi call feature is worth more to you.

Another catch? You can only choose from two phones that have Republic's custom cellular logic, required to make WiFi calling work. Fortunately the phones are two of the better phones out there: the Moto E and the Moto X. The E at $130 is much better than it has any right to be at that price, but I sprung for a 32GB Moto X for $400 all-in. 1

It's worth noting, by the way, that you can go with Ting if you're set on an iPhone. You'll pay about twice as much for the cell service as you do for Republic, but you can get almost any phone, and you'll still save money over a major carrier.

So what is the Moto X like? Design wise, I prefer it to the iPhone. The ergonomic shape with the thin aluminum frame around the edges make it somewhat easier to hold, and the optional leather back is grippy enough that I won't easily drop it. The phone size is in between that of the iPhone 6 and the 6 Plus, which turns out to be ideal for my hands. With no hardware buttons to take up top/bottom space, the screen gets to be almost as large as that of the 6 Plus without being too awkward to hold.

That screen - with the same 1080p resolution as the 6 Plus - is an AMOLED display. Anandtech was disappointed with the color accuracy, but I don't notice that in most situations. What I do notice is the inherent lack of backlighting. Using this phone in the dark is a revelation - it's easier to read and you can dim it to crazy levels with the help of a screen filter app. If you're driving at night, you can keep the screen on without ruining your nightvision. I'm reluctant to ever go back to an iPhone on this basis alone; I love having an OLED screen.

The phone also has a nifty feature called Active Display, enabled with IR sensors around the display. Wave your hand over it, and it lights up with recent notification icons & the time. Tap them to get more details, or drag down to unlock your phone. I find myself using that feature all the time.

Android has come a long way since I last used it in 2011. The OS is very responsive in most places, a change from the constant stuttering of only a few years ago. It's also much more stable; I've had more reboots on my iPhone 6 Plus than on my Moto X.

The quality gap between the best Android apps and the best iOS apps is much narrower than I expected. They used to feel like they were barely adequate for the job and were designed as an afterthought. Now they have the quality I would expect from most iOS apps. I can find better iOS versions of most Android apps - but usually only a single app, and the difference is not that pronounced in most cases. An example would be Android's Press versus iOS's Reeder. Press is worse than Reeder, but only in that the design is a little less refined - and I do mean a little; Press is still a nicely designed app. Functionally, both work equally well.

The nature of Android also allows for features that iOS doesn't permit:

  • All my photos are automatically (over WiFi) uploaded to Amazon Cloud Drive. To sync photos on iOS the application must be manually opened.

  • I hate the icons on some apps, so I simply set their icons to new ones from a popular icon pack called Rondo.

  • One of my home screens features widgets providing detailed weather information from Forecast.io and speed dial buttons; a simple swipe takes me there and I don't have to wait for anything to load like with iOS's notification center.

  • When it gets dark, I use the Darker app to apply a filter to cut down on blue light - similar to the wonderful f.lux app on the desktop.

It's not all fun and games. Without badge notifications, it's too easy to remove all trace of a notification you received. On iOS, though, there's no meaningful persistence of notification banners & alerts at all - that badge is all you can depend on. I would call that a draw. Another annoyance is that playback of podcasts, at least from Pocket Casts, is very glitchy over Bluetooth. In addition, iOS allows extensions for Safari and content blocking; Chrome for Android has none of these. It's strange to see iOS have more extensibility than Android in that area.

Nor is the hardware perfect. Battery life is always Apple's trump card; the Moto X's battery is barely adequate - like most Android phones, depressingly. The camera is also not very good; I don't use it much but this is not the phone for an Instagram addict. No Touch ID should be very irritating, but Android's Trusted Devices & Trusted Locations features allow you to get around that. If you're at home or own a nearby Motorola Keylink, your phone will unlock itself, thus removing the need for it in most cases. Also, I'm no fan of Micro USB after being spoiled by Lightning. However, the included Micro USB cable tells you which way is up by feel, so the frustration is reduced.

I really don't know how I feel about this versus an iPhone. When I add everything together, I get very similar results. The higher-quality apps and hardware on the iPhone are counter-balanced by the affordability, more practical design, OLED screen and greater extensibility of the Moto X. If money is no object I think I'd go back to the iPhone, but as it is, the Moto X works wonderfully for me. I wouldn't blame you if you got one either.

However, you may want to hurry. This Moto X is going out the door soon; the next one, already on sale elsewhere, is a 6" device and has a traditional LCD display. Proof that newer is not always better in the Android world.

  1. For the love of God, don't buy a 16GB phone!

Hello, Ghost!

September 20, 2015 Permalink

If you're reading this right now then the switch from Tumblr to Ghost, necessitated by the two-factor-authentication screwup I had with Tumblr, went fairly successfully. Ghost is a simple and well-crafted blogging platform, with a laser focus on writing articles as opposed to all the social noise of Tumblr or the extensible mess that is WordPress.

The biggest issue so far is that any external links to articles are now effectively ruined. The only way to prevent that was to build my own blogging engine or modify the hell out of an existing one, and I decided that wasn't a smart use of my time. It's a good thing I haven't been blogging much over the last couple of years, so nobody's bothered to link to me. (If you can really call that a good thing...)

I was able to use the Tumblr to Ghost webapp written by José Padilla to migrate my old Tumblr posts into Ghost, so I do at least have my old articles even if the links are broken. The RSS feed address should be the same as before as well, though I suspect there may be some duplicate entries in the feed readers. My apologies!

I feel bad about all the breakage and changes, but I'm glad to have all this behind me now. I can focus on writing again.

So long, Tumblr

September 13, 2015 Permalink

A word of advice to anyone using two factor authentication: when switching devices, test out the authentication before giving up your old device. Because I didn’t, I’m only able to post to this blog on my phone, and only until it next asks for authentication.

I’m not sure how things got messed up so badly. 1Password’s 2FA feature means you should be able to sync the same authentication between devices without reconfiguring it, so my money’s on Tumblr losing the configuration when I changed my phone number. I saw nothing to indicate this when I changed it, but I can’t say for sure that I didn’t miss something. 1Password could be the culprit too, but I had no trouble with other platforms using 2FA with it. Google, Dropbox & Microsoft accounts all work fine.

Tumblr’s support offered an option to verify my identity, but it required a picture of me to be on my blog, and I’ve never taken a self-portrait that I thought good enough to post. They then told me there was nothing they could do, so that’s it, sadly. My fault, I know, but this is going to be a rough transition.

The biggest problem is that I have no backup of my blog. I know Marco Arment wrote a backup utility for OS X, but I haven’t had a Mac in years - I have one now, but it came too late to help. That means I either have to lose the last six years of posts, or when creating a new blog somehow redirect old links to the old Tumblr pages to keep them alive. That’ll take custom programming, which I can do, but that’s not going to be ready quickly.

Finally, don’t let this dissuade you from using 2FA for your site; it’s a very powerful security feature that you should take advantage of. Just be careful when migrating to a new device.

The Hamburger Menu Doesn't Work

August 19, 2015 Permalink

The Hamburger Menu Doesn't Work

Mostly summed up as: just tell me what’s hidden away already!

It’s sad to see usability take a back seat to minimalism; it can often lead to frustrating products. Case in point: Windows 8, and everything being hidden away behind hotcorners and swipe gestures. It looked pretty, but it was so annoying to actually use in practice, because you had no idea what options were hidden away unless you randomly swiped and poked.

In that context, the hamburger menu is an improvement. However, getting malaria would be an improvement over hotcorners and swipe gestures.

Jeff Atwood: "Why I'm The Best Programmer In The World*"

August 6, 2015 Permalink

Jeff Atwood: "Why I'm The Best Programmer In The World*"

If software development is an area of interest to you, you should read Jeff’s short article - I’d quote it here, but I would really just be quoting the whole thing, and that wouldn’t do anybody any good! Let’s just say that it’s an article that really resonates with me and my experiences as a software developer for the past four years. 1

I do want to talk about this though:

When interviewing candidates for programming positions, I always look for someone who is brave enough to say “I don’t know” when they need to. Candidates who can’t or won’t do this get red flagged; those types of programmers are dangerous. “Can-do” attitiudes [sic] have a superficial allure, but they’re actually poison in our field.

I’m hardly a veteran of the software development world, but I’ve seen many occasions where we got into trouble because someone didn’t recognize that they didn’t know what they were doing, or because they said “sure, we can do that” to everything that was requested of them. To be a good programmer, you have to know both your limitations and the limitations of your environment. To gloss over either is to invite a trainwreck.

  1. No, I’m not saying I’m a programming god - read the article and you’ll know what I mean! -

Web Tiles for Microsoft Band

July 10, 2015 Permalink

Web Tiles for Microsoft Band

Make a watch app by publishing a JSON feed? As a software developer, that’s the most useful thing I’ve seen in quite a while. Making a watch app for iOS takes a considerable amount of time, no matter how simple. I could build a tile for the Microsoft Band in half an hour.

An app has considerably more capability, but are you going to write an app just to show you how many applications have spit out error messages in the last day? Or report the unique visitor count for a site you’re running? It’s not justifiable to spend a week on something when you’re the only person who benefits, but 30 minutes is nothing.

Of course, you could just pull out your phone and launch the quick-and-dirty web app that you made. But what fun would that be? Now I just need to wait for this kind of thing to make it to Apple Watch, or for Microsoft to make a wearable device that I actually like.