Recent blog posts

The VTech breach

1 December 2015


Our customer database contains user profile information including name, email address, password, secret question and answer for password retrieval, IP address, mailing address and download history. In addition the database also stores kids information including name, genders and birthdates. In total about 5 million customer accounts and related kids profiles worldwide are affected.

Over the last few years we’ve seen some pretty big breaches of security at the world’s largest retailers. You would assume, incorrectly, that these heists were incredibly elaborate and would require an incredible amount of sophistication to pull off. Most of the heists were of general sophistication to get to the data but once the data is found it has been easy to extract, parse, download, etc.

It is scary how much personal data companies are willing to store and not even try to encrypt or store securely. I’ve seen it myself and even warned several companies. None of them ever think it will happen to them.

Motherboard has more about the breach and some specifics as to how much, and of what make up, the over 190GB worth of data this hacker got from VTech was.

An interview with James Gurney

27 November 2015

I had the privilege of interviewing James Gurney, creator of the illustrated book series Dinotopia, over on my other “blog” The Watercolor Gallery.

Gurney also runs a daily blog called The Gurney Journey. During our interview I asked him about his experience with running the blog:

Doing a blog is a lot of work, and it doesn’t pay directly. The bottom-line benefits are hard to quantify. Does it lead to jobs or to recognition? Perhaps, but that's not why you do it.. Potential employers or collectors will scan your entire Web presence to get a feeling for you and your work. I suppose blogging is a form of marketing, but I don’t think of it that way very often. The truth is paradoxical: You give stuff away so that you can sell it later.

His interview, and all of the others I’ve done so far, are worth a read.

A recap from the future

25 November 2015

Back in October Kyle Ruane (Plain & Coalwork co-founder) put together an opening for Great Scott! A Back to the Future art show that he held in our space at Coalwork.

He did a fantastic job with the opening and I’m glad he’s written about what he learned on Plain Text and also put the art that is on display and some photos from the opening up on the official site for the art show.

Humbly he remarks:

It was the first time we’ve hosted something of that scale so we fumbled through some things and likely forgot others entirely. But, all-in-all the event was a success so we got some stuff right.

A lot more goes into a show like this than you’d think.

Ben Brooks on exposure vs. money

20 November 2015

Ben Brooks on his own stinkin’ blog:

In short: never give your writing away for free. Even if you don’t make money on your site at the moment, don’t give your writing away for free. On more time, all together now: don’t give your writing away for free.

Read his entire piece. You’ll come away thinking that in no way, and under no circumstance, should you give away your writing for free. I completely agree with him.

I wonder if Medium counts as giving away your writing for free? I know they are working on a monetization platform for publishers (at least, they’ve said that they are or will) but to-date I’d say that is exactly what people are doing; publishing for free but with the hope of exposure.

So every single person that has published to Medium that has not been paid (I’m sure there are many that have been paid for their pieces there) has gone against Brooks’ recommendation. Just FYI.

Simplenote’s moment

19 November 2015

The running theme the last few weeks is how many people, including myself, are leaving Evernote behind for either Apple’s Notes or Simplenote.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that the people that are leaving Evernote are those who first started using it when it was still simple and mostly text-based. So while there are likely thousands and thousands of people who fit the criteria of just wanting a simple text-based note taking app, it may not put a huge dent in Evernote’s overall numbers. Evernote’s broader user base likely does use the myriad other features it has. But this exodus could help build a smaller competitor into a much larger one.

This is why I think Simplenote is about to have “a moment”. Simplenote is likely pretty popular already, though I doubt they rival Evernote’s numbers. I remember using the service pretty early on as an API to store data to using nvAlt. I loved how great Simplenote’s syncing was. It is still far better than Evernote’s is today. Being purchased by Automattic likely gave it another bump in its user base. But I think they are seeing or will see a fairly big influx of people trying it out over the coming months as people leave Evernote behind.

Also, if Evernote doesn’t IPO and fails to find a home they may run out of runway and fail. If that happens Simplenote is going to have an ever bigger moment. One that could compare to the moment WordPress experience when Six Apart/Typepad/Moveable Type started getting shakey and everyone was looking for an alternative. Thousands found WordPress.

What does Simplenote need to do to capture these people? Not too much. There are always going to be features that I wish Simplenote had that Evernote has. It is the nature of software to want more features. However, Simplenote is pretty great as-is and so only some small additions may make it the perfect place for people to land from Evernote.

If I may be so bold as to suggest some Simplenote features that would help them gobble up Evernote users:

  • Importing from Evernote - I had to do this manually. It was painful. Evernote does not have a good export tool so I couldn’t save my notes in a format that Simplenote could read. But they do have an API. So even if there was a tool that I needed to use it’d be better than doing it manually. A simple guide for Simplenote to follow: Notebooks become tags, be sure to retain creation dates, optionally include shared notebooks in the import.
  • Font choices in the apps - Right now Simplenote only allows you to change the size of the font. Allow people to choose whichever fonts they have on their devices (including Mac).
  • Duplicate note - I use “templates” that I create to start new text documents. E.g. I have a template for when I hop on a phone call. (I put it on gist) This way I can capture the call easily. In Evernote it was one click to duplicate a note. This is a time and frustration saver.
  • Markdown preview - This isn’t a personal request since I seldom use Markdown. I use something like Markdown for my files but I know so many people that use Evernote’s rich text formatting tools that at least having some way to add formatting may help. It’d be a big feature to add to allow for formatting that outputs Markdown so I think adding a Preview of files based on Markdown may help a lot. Simplenote on the web already has this so adding it to mobile and desktop apps may already be a step they are planning.

Some of these things may already be on the roadmap for the Simplenote team but I think having these would strike a balance between keeping Simplenote simple and also being attractive to Evernote users that are leaving.

One side note that causes me a little fear: Being that Simplenote is now part of Automattic I fear that it doesn’t quite get the attention it deserves. I have no way of knowing this but as is typical with acquisitions you really never know where the service will end up. Is the Simplenote team’s time being used on services that are more important (financially) to Automattic (like WordPress VIP)? Or, is there no internal drive to continuously make Simplenote better because it has already “landed” at its home and has less to prove? I don’t know. Two good signs, however, are that they’ve made some key updates to the service and the apps at least 3 times this year according to their blog, and their Twitter account is responding to mentions. I don’t want Simplenote to change too much so I shouldn’t expect too many software updates. I just want it to continue working really, really well.

I’m optimistic that Simplenote is the right choice for me.

Update: Some have asked “why not Apple Notes?” For me it is about being cross platform. I’m an all Apple guy today but that could change. I’ve been keeping a close eye on Surface and Lumia lately. So, who knows? I’d rather have my notes somewhere I can jump from platform to platform and while Apple does have a web interface Simplenote has apps on all platforms.

A new start for Ignite

17 November 2015

Brady Forrest on Medium:

The goal was to have a night where geeks could share their ideas. We gave the speakers just 5 minutes on stage with 20 slides that auto-advance every 15 seconds.

I remember going to my first Ignite in early 2007. I went to three more that same year I think (Philly, Austin, Phoenix?). It is a great platform that usually results in very unexpected, creative, and fun presentations. I’m glad to see it getting some fresh juice.

Windows 10 update

12 November 2015

Terry Myerson:

Today, we reach our next milestone as the first major update to Windows 10 is now available* for PCs and tablets. With this update, there are improvements in all aspects of the platform and experience, including thousands of partners updating their device drivers and applications for great Windows 10 compatibility.

Looks like a good update especially for older devices. One update, multiple device categories, on the same day. How I wish someone else was doing this same sorta thing!


12 November 2015

Speaking of very different use cases for the iPad Pro … how about as a 3D sketch tool? uMake makes a pretty compelling use case I think.

Obviously this sort of thing can be done with a Wacom tablet or even with an older iPad. But with a Wacom tablet you’d need to bring along the accompanying computer and with an older iPad you didn’t have nearly the same pixel density, touch accuracy, pen, screen size, or computing power. So as of today the iPad Pro may very well be the best digital drawing tool available for artists, engineers, and architects.

/via Designer News.

Horace Dediu and the iPad Pro

12 November 2015

Horace Dediu of Asymco “reviews” the iPad Pro in this video by going through the evolution of the “desktop computer” as Apple has posited it over the last 5 or 6 years.

Horace attempts to be funny in this which I think misses (no offense Horace) but the point he makes about the iPad Pro being used in a fixed location with two hands is one I hadn’t thought of. The iPad Pro seems like a whole different device that would have very different uses that I’m sure may take a few years to realize. Watch his video and you may be able to think of some yourself.

His demonstration of using the iPad Pro helped me finally make a decision regarding the iPad Pro. I definitely do not want one.

Firefox for iOS

12 November 2015

Firefox for iOS just hit the App Store and will work on iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch. Why would you use Firefox for iOS? Benjamin Mayo of 9to5Mac:

You might want to use Firefox for iPhone and iPad if you use Firefox on the Mac, due to UI similarities for the browser chrome or just for syncing convenience. The Firefox app will sync bookmarks, open tabs across all your devices by logging into your Firefox account. These are the main differences between Firefox and the native Safari app.

I would argue the reasons for using Firefox on iOS are similar, if not exactly the same, to the reasons you’d use Chrome on iOS. The rendering should be identical (I think?). But if you use Chrome or Firefox on the desktop there are a lot of conveniences to using them on iOS.

Due to a service we use at Plain I’ve had to switch to using Chrome on the Mac recently and I sincerely miss the conveniences of using Safari across all platforms. It worked perfectly. Switching to Chrome on iOS would help but it wouldn’t solve the issue since iOS does not allow me to pick Chrome as my default browser.

I’m not the sharpest tool in the barn but why was Microsoft investigated by the Justice Department for the stranglehold that Internet Explorer had on the Windows community and Apple isn’t being forced to allow this same choice on iOS? This is an honest question because I’ve looked into it a little and, while there are some differences (E.g. IE was used to power Windows Explorer on Windows as well. That’d be like Safari powering Finder), I still view this as Apple making a poor choice for the end user.

Gruber’s iPad Pro review

11 November 2015

You can see why I believe Apple is going to regret not making OS X available on iPads by reading some of the points in John Gruber’s iPad Pro review:

First, when the iPad Pro is open with the keyboard attached, holding your arm up to touch the screen for anything longer than a moment or two is ergonomically uncomfortable. Apple has stated for years that this is why they don’t make the displays on MacBooks or iMacs touchscreens (that, combined with the relatively tiny click targets of Mac OS X, which are designed for very precise mice and trackpads, not imprecise finger tips). Scrolling through a long document using the iPad Pro touch screen is uncomfortable when it’s in laptop position. Going through a slew of new emails, likewise. In laptop mode, I want to use the keyboard for these things — and in most cases, because of bugs and/or software limitations, I can’t.

I don’t know if John has ever used a Surface or even a Windows 10 device so I do not know what he would think of them. However, the fact that Windows 10 can switch between Tablet mode and Windows mode is exactly what makes it work better in these in-between situations and on these in-between devices. Devices that are both touch capable and can have keyboards and mice, I mean. Windows 10 handles this exact situation far better than iOS or OS X do today. And as someone that uses an iPad daily I long for the ability to switch between iOS and OS X on a single device.

Don’t take my quoted bit out of context. Read his entire review.

Microsoft Surface Book vs. Surface Pro 4

11 November 2015

Lee Morris of Fstoppers sits down with the Surface Book and Surface Pro 4 side-by-side in this video review. He also has a short write-up on their site when they compared the Surface Book to the MacBook Pro.

At the end of the day the Surface Book is an amazing achievement. I don't understand how they made that magnetic hinge, it works so well that it's a pleasure every time I detach the screen from the keyboard but the poor battery life of the tablet portion of the Surface Book makes it pretty useless to use without the base. It's also not the power house that I thought it would be. 4k video footage is quickly becoming the new standard and the laptop was unable to edit it without rendering first, that alone would keep me from spending $2700 on it but I realize that the average Surface Book user, and even the average Fstoppers reader, does not edit 4k video footage. For you, the Surface Book may be powerful "enough" but that's up to you to decide.

I’m glad to see this comparison done between the Surface Book and Pro 4. One thing I did not notice that Morris points out is that the Pro 4 has the kickstand and the Surface Book does not. I don’t know how I missed this. This is huge. This alone makes these machines wholly different.

Something I also noticed about all of the reviews I’ve read so far (and I’ve read far too many) is that everyone says the Surface Book is a technological feat, and one to be admired, but that the price, battery life, and need to keep the keyboard around soften the value. I agree.

I’ll be watching closely over the next few revisions of Surface Book as I think Microsoft is onto something both with this line of product and with Windows 10 being one OS for all devices. Something I think Apple will regret not doing themselves five years out.

I’ve tried multiple times to have Microsoft PR send me a few of these devices but I’ve been unable so far. I think I’m going to keep trying.

git from the inside out

9 November 2015

Mary Rose Cook:

The essay focuses on the graph structure that underpins Git and the way the properties of this graph dictate Git’s behavior. Looking at fundamentals, you build your mental model on the truth rather than on hypotheses constructed from evidence gathered while experimenting with the API. This truer model gives you a better understanding of what Git has done, what it is doing, and what it will do.

I use git every day and I have read many pieces like Cook’s in the past. This was my favorite one to-date. I recommend giving it a read.

Side note: I prefer “git” over “Git”.

Pen vs. Computer

6 November 2015

Mike Vial on his blog about using a pen or using a computer to write a song:

They may be right, but I’ve tried abandoning my computer many times to no avail; I always come back to the laptop, breathing a sigh of relief.

See also.

I see this as a shift. My mom? Pen over computer. My nieces and nephews? Probably would look at a pen and wonder what it does. Me? I’m in between hence my generations struggle to find the balance between the tactile and the digital.

Split-Screen on El Capitan

6 November 2015

Josh Ginter:

It’s taken a little while, but OS X El Capitan’s split-screen multitasking (see also, iOS 9 for iPad) has become one of my favourite features of Apple’s latest desktop OS.


Kayaking in Back Bay, Sandbridge, Virginia

4 November 2015

In late-September Eliza and I drove to Sandbridge, Virginia for two weeks with a bunch of friends, food, beer, and of course the kayaks.

The first week was a wet, raining, windy disgusting mess. But that didn’t stop my niece from Florida, Leyana, and I from getting out and doing some paddling in the rain.

I remember Leyana saying “It is OK that it is raining I’ve been trying to get this mascara off for three days.” What a trooper!

My friend Justin and I went out for a rainy paddle a few days later.

I didn’t even bother wiping off the lens of the GoPro as there was no use.

Fortunately the second week of the trip the sun wasn’t nearly as wet and we had beautiful, if windy, days for the rest of the trip.

Since I was with five girls for the entirety of the second week I ended up paddling every single day alone save one — Eliza felt bad for me and went out for a bit.

Can we talk about wind for a second? I learned a lot about wind and how it affects the water in a bay and also my general ability to survive while paddling. Two times I got caught with my pants down while paddling. Figuratively speaking.

First, I was caught in the bay when the water was pushed south out of the part of the bay that I was in. So, I spend a while walking my kayak back through the bay in a few inches of water… dodging slithering characters that have a bit of venom at the ready. Second, I got caught when the water was pushed north into the part of the bay I was paddling in when suddenly the wind stopped and the current of water going back down south had me moving at around 10mph in the wrong direction. Interesting moments both.

What an incredible area to paddle in… far too large to explore in just a few weeks with my general abilities as a paddler. I hope that if we return to this area I can find a local to show me around.

Scranton does not understand bicycling

4 November 2015

The aforementioned Nick Semon on his attempt to pick up a bike plate today:

I stopped into the Licensing, Inspections, and Permits office today. They handle everything from building permits to food trucks to entertainment licenses. But all three of the friendly folks had never even heard of a bike license plate.

Scranton Pennsylvania does not understand bicycling. Spend a few minutes downtown and you’ll see people riding bikes on the sidewalk. Where on earth did they even get the idea to ride on the sidewalk?

So many US cities are terrible at supporting bicycling — many so obviously never designed to even think about it — but Scranton is small enough that with a few adjustments and some public education it could be a pleasure to ride around and would free up some traffic.

For fun (or, perhaps to depress yourself if you live in the US), read up on Cycling in Denmark and Cycling in the Netherlands.

I don’t know if I “Like” your tweet yet

4 November 2015

Twitter is pulling a switcharoo on Favorites and is now calling them Likes and using a heart icon rather than a star icon.

People went a little nuts about this for a variety of reasons but I’m writing this post to point to when/if people ask me why I liked, or didn’t like, a particular tweet.

Like John Gruber I favorite tweets for a few reasons. This one button provided me several uses. First, I may hit favorite if I enjoy, appreciate, or respect the tweet. Like a thumbs up. Second, I favorite a tweet that has a link if I’d like to read it later since it automatically gets added to my Unmark queue.

So, chances are… if your tweet has a link in it and you see me “Like” it — I don’t know if I like your tweet yet. Because I haven’t read what you linked to.

I don’t know if this is a good move, a bad move, or even why Twitter made this adjustment but at least people are talking about Twitter? Who knows.

Analog remembrances

4 November 2015

Sarah Pressler, also a fellow Coalworker by extension via Texas since she is our Project Manager at Plain, writes about giving up note taking on paper:

I’m not willing to give up on my love for paper, planners, and photos from film, but I think it’s time I join the 21st century and stop taking work-related notes on paper that ends up lost and I waste time looking for it and then waste more time wishing I had just used a dang digital method.

I’ve hit this wall many times. Taking notes on paper in a meeting is usually less obtrusive to others than using a laptop (though those days may be numbered) but they are a pain to get back to later on. Even using the Bullet Journal method of taking notes means that you have to hunt through several notebooks.

I prefer digital.

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