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Colin Devroe

Reverse Engineer. Blogger.

My personal blogging tips

I’ve been writing things down on my own blog for a few decades. I wish more people did too. If you’d like to have a personal blog but struggle finding things to write about, here are a few tips that may help.

  • Don’t post about what you will do, post about what you’ve already done – In other words, I try to avoid the “I should blog more” posts and just get on with blogging more. Also, I like posting photos and status messages sometime after they’ve happened.
  • Find a theme – Niche blogs do extremely well. So stay on topic. Personal blogs do less well but they should still have a theme and that theme should be you.
  • Create reasons to post – My What I saw series and observations series give me a reason to write. Should I feel writer’s block I can fall back to one of the series.
  • Have a schedule – I try to post one or two posts per day prior to 9am. Some are scheduled in advance some aren’t. Everything else that happens is completely random.
  • Be totally fine with missing the schedule – Sometimes I don’t blog for a few days or weeks due to time off away from the computer or just being focused on something else. And I’m totally ok with that.
  • Don’t post test posts – Create a staging or a local development environment to test your site’s features. It is really easy to do.
  • Try not to care about stats – Stats are useful for a number of reasons but obsessing over them won’t help you at all. Check them once a month to see how you’re doing.
  • Create an inspiration list – In your notebook or notes app write down some topics you’d like to write about someday. Make it long. Like, 50 items. Don’t worry too much about what should be on it just start writing the list down. When you can’t think of anything to write about look at that list and simply pick any one at all and check it off.
  • Subscribe to a bunch of blogs that interest you – More than likely the conversations started by others will give you more than enough to write about.
  • Perfect is the enemy of good – Just hit publish.
  • Have fun! – I’ve thoroughly enjoyed blogging all these years and I don’t imagine I’ll be stopping any time soon.

If you have a neglected blog or are just starting one – jump in! Oh, and don’t forget to email me the URL.

Following Twitter accounts via RSS

I haven’t missed Twitter that much since deleting my account. The first week or two I missed Moments – but once that subsided I realized that Moments are generally a waste of time. Realtime reporting of most newsworthy events result in ill-informed, unsubstantiated tweets. I’m at a point now where I’d much prefer to get the real story after-the-fact rather than realtime.

There are instances where realtime reporting can be incredibly useful, such as when there is a fire, a traffic accident, or a natural disaster happening. Those tweets can save lives. But, in general, I’m perfectly OK with reading up on the news once or twice daily to see what really happened.

I do miss certain Twitter accounts. Especially those that do not have a blog or web site counterpart that I can follow along through another medium. And since Twitter is still web and developer hostile (meaning their API is far too limited and they don’t support open web distribution technologies like RSS) I’ve missed out on a lot of great content from those Twitter accounts.

So today I went searching around for some RSS feed generators that would use what little access to Twitter they have (presumably the limited API or HTML scraping or both) to create an RSS feed from accounts or hashtags or lists. And there are a number of services out there, some of which you have to pay for, others that toss in some ads, or others that are severely limited.

Then I found Publicate. I’m using Publicate’s Twitter RSS Feed Generator to create a few feeds based on some Twitter accounts I miss the most. You simply type in the URL you want to create a feed from, give them your email address*, and they provide a feed URL. So far it seems to be working. I’ve created a new collection in Feedly to store these feeds. Hopefully I’ll get the tweets I wanted to see most and I won’t have to deal with the drivel and hate I’ve seen on Twitter over the last 18 months. Or even Twitter itself!

* I certainly don’t mind my email address being a form of payment to a company. So I gave it to them. But, if you’re a bit of a hacker it is quite easy to dismiss the overlay, read the page’s source, and grab the feed URL without giving Publicate your email address. I want this tool to stick around so if my email address helps them to keep it up-and-running so be it.

Snapchat is a party, LinkedIn is a business lunch

Colin Walker, like me, struggles with what should be syndicated to networks and what should be brought back into the blog context. He makes this specific point about replies:

Social replies like on Twitter or Facebook don’t, in my opinion, need to be owned – they belong in the context of the social network and that particular conversation.

I suggest reading his entire post so that you get a clearer picture of his struggle.

As you may know I’ve decided to leave social networking altogether and so I don’t have this struggle any more. However, one analogy came to mind when I was reading Colin’s post.

When Snapchat arrived on the scene many in the blogosphere thought it was crazy to have such an ephemeral medium sucking up so much oxygen. I didn’t see it that way. Perhaps I didn’t love Snapchat but I didn’t see it as bad simply because you couldn’t save what you posted there. It reminded me of going to a local pub. If you drop in at a pub for a pint and rattle off some diatribe about your favorite sports team to the other pub-goers – does that really need to be saved somewhere? If I’m having a random conversation about a movie I saw recently while sitting around a campfire with a friend, does that belong in the Internet Archive?

If we view each site on the web as a real physical place then we begin to realize that some places are museums, some libraries, others local pubs, and still others are rowdy nightclubs. Each have their place to make up the human existence but not all need to be saved or syndicated or shared.

I simply do not view Facebook and LinkedIn and Twitter and Snapchat and Instagram the same as I do my blog. So I do not believe that all of the content that I post here should end up there and vice versa. Some things deserve to disappear. And there is a certain beauty in that. The same way I enjoy a good local pub rant.

Colin’s struggle is real – it isn’t easy to choose what gets saved and what doesn’t. What should go to one network and not another. Especially in the moment it is very difficult to know. And, it is complex for a single person to maintain that connective technology to allow that to happen in the first place.

I don’t envy his position. I don’t know what I would do if I were him. But, for me, not being on any social media currently has made my decision very easy. What I share here stays here. Everything else you’ll never see. And I’m totally cool with that.

Observations on using the iOS 11 Public Beta

The iOS 11 Public Beta is the first beta OS I’ve installed from Apple. I did so in part because I want to help improve the OS by providing feedback and analytic data, but also because I wanted to test my aforementioned app that I’m building, and lastly I’ve wanted driving mode since very early iOS days.

I waited until the second developer beta (which was the first public beta I believe) was released before I updated my iPad. And I waited until the next developer release (or, second public beta release) before I updated my iPhone. I waited in hopes that there would be a great enough improvement in these builds that I didn’t have to worry too much about my iPad or iPhone not working at all.

I thought I’d jot down some observations during my use:

  • So far the “biggest” problem I had was charging my iPad. During the first public beta the only way I was able to charge my iPad was by first plugging the lightning cable into the iPad first and then plugging that cable into a power outlet. Weird, I know. But the next public beta has seemingly fixed that.
  • While there are minor UI niggles that could be easily pointed out, I’m going to refrain since they seem to be cleaning up the loose ends very quickly. This last public beta build fixed a slew of issues.
  • Driving mode is beginning to work very, very well. I’ve had trouble starting a song via Siri via Apple Music after a podcast episode in Overcast is finished playing – but perhaps that will get fixed in an upcoming release. Overall, this feature is going to be a lifesaver.
  • The style and controls aesthetic are much better in my opinion. Previous releases of iOS attempted to be too “elegant” (unsure if this is the term I’m looking for) by being overly thin and translucent. This latest release of iOS brings some sanity to the UI. Also, as I get older I’m beginning to appreciate the larger text sizes throughout.
  • The new App Store should prove to be a huge improvement over the previous versions. It remains to be seen whether or not Apple’s team will keep up with the editorial (since they’ve yet to update any content in there) but I’m hoping they’ll do this part great when the time comes.
  • Though I use iCloud Drive, Dropbox, and other file sharing platforms I’ve not put the Files app to the test just yet. Perhaps I don’t see the need for it as much as others will. I’ll report back after I’ve used it more.
  • The Notes app is incredibly good at this point. I switched to it from Simplenote and I’m loving it.
  • iOS 11 shines on the iPad.
  • The new keyboard on the iPad is particularly cool. You essentially pull down slightly on a key as you type if you’d like the letter you’d usually get by holding down the shift key modifier. Great idea.
  • Oddly enough, the new multitasking capabilities on iPad don’t work as well yet for me as the old way. I’m sure I’ll figure it out and get used to it but the “dock” and dragging icons out of it, etc. does not work for me very well. It could also be that apps haven’t yet been released with support for that feature.
  • iOS 11 has “broken” a ton of my apps. Not beyond usability but I’m guessing that developers are scrambling to get new iOS 11 builds ready. Some of the oddities could be very difficult to fix.
  • coreML and ARKit are incredibly cool.

While I don’t yet recommend updating to iOS 11 Public Beta for most people – if you’re willing to deal with a few hiccups the driving mode feature may save your life. I can’t imagine going another day with out it. Apple can not get this version of iOS out soon enough in my opinion.

Presenting at the July NEPA.js Meetup

Earlier this week my Condron Media cohort Tucker Hottes and I presented at the July NEPA.js Meetup. Our presentation was about automation and all of the things we can automate in our lives personally and professionally. And also how we employ automation in our workflows for creating applications and web sites using our own task management suite.

Here are just a few examples of reproducible tasks that you can automate that perhaps you haven’t thought about:

  • Your home’s temperature
  • Applying filters to multiple photos at once
  • Social media posts
  • Combining many files together into one
  • Deleting unused files
  • Calendar events

There are countless others. Perhaps you’re doing some of these things now. You might set a reminder for yourself to clean the bathroom every Tuesday. Or, your using a Nest to control your home’s temperature based on your preferences.

But there may be others that you’re not doing. Posting regularly to social media can seem daunting to some. But automating those posts can make it much easier to set aside time to schedule the posts and then go about your day. Or editing photos or video may never happen because you don’t have time to go through them all and edit each one individually. But these are tasks that can be automated.

We showed a quick demonstration of automating the combining of multiple text files using Grunt. There are a lot of ways something like this can be useful. Combining multiple comma-separated value (CSV) files that are reports from many retail locations, web development, and others.

Then Tucker provided a list of all the tasks we do when we get a new client at Condron Media. The full list can take a person up to 1.5 hours to “start” working on that customer’s project. So we’ve begun working whittling away at that list of tasks by using another task manager called Gulp. We call this suite of automation tasks Bebop – after one of the thugs from Teenaged Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Bebop is separated into the smallest tasks possible so that we can combine those tasks into procedures. Creating new folders, adding Slack channels, sending Slack messages, spinning up an instance of WordPress, adding virtual hosts to local development environments, etc. etc. Bebop can then combine these tasks in any order and do them much quicker than a human can clicking with a mouse. We estimate it will take 1 minute to do what took 1.5 hours once Bebop is complete.

Another benefit of automating these types of tasks is that you can nearly eliminate human error. What if someone types in the wrong client name or forgets a step in the process? Bebop doesn’t get things wrong. Which saves us a lot of headaches.

Here is the example Gulp task that we created to demo Bebop to the NEPA.js group.

We then asked the group to take 5 minutes and write down what they would like to automate in their lives. The answers ranged from making dog food to laundry to simple development and environmental tasks. Every one in attendance shared at least one thing they’d like to automate.

Tucker and I had a blast presenting but we enjoyed this final session the most. Similar to my event suggestions to Karla Porter earlier this year, I find that the more a group interacts with one another the more I personally get out of a meetup or conference. Presentations can be eye opening but personal connections and calm discussions yield much fruit for thought.

Thanks to everyone that showed up. I think we had 14 or 15 people. The NEPA.js community is active, engaged, and I’m very happy that it is happening in Scranton.

Observations on building my first iOS app in Swift

In early June I decided I wanted to learn iOS app development using Swift.

I’ve made a lot of progress over the last month, building two apps that I can use on my own phone, and one app that I’m now in beta testing via TestFlight with a few friends. Over the last month I’ve made some observations on the process of building an iOS app, the Swift programming language, Xcode, iOS frameworks, and the various other bits needed to make an app. I thought I’d take the time to jot those down.

These are in no particular order:

  • Swift is growing on me rather quickly. The idea behind Swift has always interested me, but I hadn’t really given it a try until now. Like any new language you need to work with it for a time before some of the things that you may not like about it, you end up seeing the wisdom in.
  • I’m very glad I waited until Swift 3 before trying it in earnest. The tutorials I’ve come across for earlier versions make it clear the language has matured in a short period of time.
  • Using Storyboards in Xcode is not intuitive whatsoever. I know many people avoid them altogether (from what I’ve seen on YouTube). Unless you watch someone build a Storyboard you’d likely never, ever just figure it out.
  • iOS frameworks are bulky. It is no wonder so many apps are so big. Just including one or two frameworks for my very simple first app ballooned the app to over 15Mb.
  • That being said, iOS frameworks are very useful. With just a few lines of code you can get something working quickly.
  • Playgrounds are very useful to learn Swift.
  • The Playgrounds compiler can become stuck rather easily. Especially if you paste in a bunch of code from your project to mess around with and get it to work. I’ve had to restart Xcode several times.
  • Xcode has crashed on me a few times over the last month. Crashes on macOS (and also most Apple apps) are very rare. So to be working on something so fragile seems out-of-character. Especially with how simple my apps are currently.
  • Auto Layout baffles me still. I have a working UI for one of my apps that works across multiple device screen sizes. But it is far from what I’d want to ship with. I’ve watched a lot of videos on how to use Auto Layout but I still can’t make heads or tails of it. I’m waiting for the moment it clicks.
  • The connection between labels and buttons and other UI elements in your Storyboard and your Controller class is far too fragile. You should be able to rename things, delete things, move them around without completely blowing everything up and starting over. Example: If I CNTRL+Drag a label onto my Controller and create an Reference Outlet for it… I should be able to rename that Outlet without needing to CNTRL+Drag again. I don’t know how, but somehow.
  • Did I mention that Auto Layout baffles me still?
  • Building and deploying an app to iTunes Connect in order to add to the App Store or Test Flight is an entirely un-Apple-like experience. There is no Step 1, Step 2, Step 3 type of workflow. Similar to Storyboards it is not something you can figure out – you must watch or read to learn. It feels like it was never designed by a Product person.
  • Building an app that resides on a device like the iPhone is an amazing experience. While I’ve always been able to load my web apps on a phone, and I’ve built some apps that use a WebView to deploy across multiple platforms, this is the first time I feel like I’m touching my app when I use it. There is nothing that comes close to native UI.
  • Also, building an app that requires no connection to the web has been really fun. It is so fast! I’d like to move forward by trying my best to keep HTTP request at zero or as low as possible.
  • The amount of information an iOS device knows at any given time is pretty amazing. It can know (with the user’s permission) where it is, what altitude it is at, which way it is pointing, how many times the person’s heartbeat that day, what it is looking at, etc. etc. Amazing to play with these features.
  • The Xcode IDE is really incredible to use. You may not remember a framework’s properties but you can just begin typing a reasonable word and expect that Xcode will figure out what you’re trying to accomplish. Also, if you happen to write older syntax because you’re following an out-of-date tutorial, it will automatically convert it to the most recent syntax.

Overall I’ve had a positive experience learning to build an iOS app on my own. Going from having an app in TestFlight to shipping an app feels like preparing to cross a desert on foot. But, I’m enjoying my experience so I’m going to trudge forward to do so.

I hope to ask for public beta testers of the app in a few weeks or a month.

Observations on Apple Music

I switched from a paid Spotify account to a paid Apple Music family plan earlier this month. Since doing so I’ve used the service nearly every single day via my Mac desktop, my iPhone, and my iPad. I’ve created playlists, downloaded tracks, loved and disliked albums, followed artists, used Siri’s built-in “What’s this song?” feature, and more. So I think I have had enough experience to jot down some observations of the service so far.

If you work at Apple and are reading this right now; first, thanks for listening to your customers. Second, you’ve doubled-down on Apple Music once in the past when you realized it wasn’t good enough. I hope you do so again because the service could be excellent.

Here are my observations in no particular order. They are mostly negative, not because I dislike Apple Music overall but because the things I make note of the most are the things I expect to work well that haven’t. And at the moment, I’d say that Spotify is “better” than Apple Music. That said, I see a lot of potential in Apple Music becoming incredibly good.

  • Apple Music via iTunes is incredibly slow, difficult to navigate, and feels like it is on the cusp of being replaced. Slow may not even be the right word, because there are times when choosing an artist in Apple Music’s search results in a blank screen in iTunes. It happens regularly. This leads me to believe that Apple will break apart the monstrosity that is iTunes sometime in the very near future and give us an Apple Music app.
  • Apple Music via iOS is quick, easy to use, and even fun to play with. I’d wager the vast majority (like, 95%) of Apple Music’s use is on iOS. If it were not, they already would have given us the standalone Apple Music Mac app.
  • Song history sometimes doesn’t sync between devices. I listened to a song that was suggested by Apple’s “For You” algorithms at work in iTunes on my Mac. Later that evening I wanted Eliza to hear it so I looked it up while I was at home on my iPhone and I couldn’t find the song. I know I listened to it. But the history didn’t have that song in it. I fired up iTunes, looked through my history, and sure enough it was there.
  • Music streaming overall is good quality and quick. Via iTunes songs can take a few seconds to begin but on iOS they seemingly start instantly.
  • Trying to watch my friend Gary’s new Apple Music show Planet of the Apps wasn’t very easy. I couldn’t stream it to my Apple TV from my iPad (unsure why) and looking for it on my Apple TV didn’t yield any results. I’m one generation behind on Apple TV and so I think this is Apple’s way of telling me that I need to spend more money. We ended up watching it on my iPad.
  • Connect, the feature that allows you to follow artists like you would on Facebook or Twitter, is a joke. I honestly do not know why Apple even tried again. (They used to have a similar feature in iTunes called Ping.) They should consider showing the artist’s most recent activity on other social media platforms, but creating Apple Music’s own network is worthless. It didn’t work before. It won’t work now. Most artists have only posted once or twice to Apple Music Connect. And most of the time the posts are the same as the ones they put on Facebook. Artists post to where most of their fans are. Some artists have tens-of-millions of followers on other networks. The Apple Music Connect feature should simply be replaced by the ability to “Love” an artist the same way you “Love” a song or album. This way it can still inform Apple’s algorithms for suggesting music to you. Other than that, show their most recent tweet and be done with it.
  • Apple Music’s “For You” playlists are OK but nowhere near as good as Spotify’s. I remember when Spotify released their Discover Weekly Monday playlist feature. Each week you’d get a curated playlist (presumably curated by bots) based on what you’ve listened to recently. It was incredibly good. I constantly read tweets where people were surprised at how good this was. Almost every week I felt as if someone created a mixtape for me. I’ve never had that same reaction to Apple Music’s playlists. In fact, just writing this makes me want to switch back to Spotify.
  • Speaking of playlists. Spotify has huge collections of playlists based on mood, or if you’re exercising, or genre, or just random crazy things. Apple Music doesn’t have anything like this at all. It might suggest a “90s playlist” or a “new music” playlist. Other than that, the selections are thin. When a catalog of songs is as large as Spotify’s or Apple’s… the only way to surface new stuff to customers is to slice that information 1000 different ways and keep putting it in front of people.
  • Many of the artist’s pages on Apple Music seem lacking attention. I’m sure their creative team is working hard on making sure that every single artist has an excellent looking page. I think every artist, from old to new, deserves an amazing artist page with images, bio, etc. I hope they have a ton of people assigned to this. It is worth giving people the experience that every artist is important to Apple.
  • Creating a playlist in Apple Music in iTunes is very, very odd. I think it is due to the fact that Playlists end up in your Library – which, to me, feels like the old days of having your own collection of MP3s. Perhaps a younger crowd doesn’t even see this as an issue because they’ve never purchased, ripped, or downloaded MP3s. On Spotify this issue doesn’t exist because “Your Music” is just a collection you’ve created. Again, if iTunes is disbanded it would alleviate this weirdness I think.
  • Beats Radio is fun to pop into now and then but it hasn’t been something that I listen to regularly. I don’t have any specific suggestions for how this could change other than to say that I wish the best segments from these programs somehow popped up from time-to-time so that I’d see them.
  • Using Siri’s “What’s this song?” feature is fun. It makes it easy to find a song that you’ve heard, add it to your library for later, and be able to listen to it again.
  • However, Siri in general to interact with Apple Music is less than good. Siri, in general, as I’ve said before, is just bad at this point. So as Siri improves so will its ability to interact with Apple Music.
  • One last comparison to Spotify; Spotify has an “easter egg” that if you’re playing a Star Wars album the progress bar turns into a lightsaber. Silly? Yes. But it shows that they put time and effort into making the experience fun. I’m sure there are other similar features that I simply haven’t stumbled across. I don’t see any of that whimsy in Apple Music yet. Perhaps because they are still playing catch-up but I’d love to see some “fun” thrown into the app itself.

I believe Spotify is winning on many fronts right now save one; integration. Apple will always hold all of the keys to iOS and macOS. As a result they’ll always be tightly integrated with Siri, the devices and hardware, etc. But even at that disadvantage Spotify proves itself to love music, to have found many interesting ways to surface music you will like, and is easy to use. But I do believe that Apple Music still has a chance to catch up.

Whether you use Apple Music or Spotify you’re in for a treat. You can pay just a few dollars per month (far less than a single album used to cost) and play any song you want at any time. Or, have music constantly playing while you cook, clean, shower, drive, etc. There is no limit on usage. If you like music, subscribing to one of these makes so much economical sense.

 

Likes vs. Saves

Many social networks are adding “Save” in addition to “Like”. You can see this now on both Instagram and Facebook. You can “like” something and tell the publisher of the content that you like what they published and you can also “save” the post (presumably to find it later).

Mature content publishing platforms need both of these features. They shouldn’t only have “Like” and force their communities to use that as a way to find something later. For years I’ve used Likes on Twitter to save things for later. If they only pick one they should go with “save”.

Jack Baty takes this one step further and says that likes should be private:

Likes should be visible to only the Like-or and the Like-ee. Liking something is a simple, unobtrusive way to let someone know I appreciate what they wrote. It’s also a way to get a little bump when someone likes what I wrote. No one else need be involved.

I totally agree.

WWDC 2017 recap

I wanted to take a few moments to jot down a comparison between my wish list for this year’s WWDC and what was announced. Also, towards the end, some quick thoughts on the surprises that were announced.

Here are my wishes, in order from the previous post, and whether or not we got them.

  • Shared iCloud Photo Libraries. Nope. It doesn’t appear so. I think if they had finished this they would have announced it.
  • iCloud data Family sharing. Yes! And, they gave us 2TB for the price of 1TB. So, a very good update here.
  • An all-new Mac App Store. Kinda? While they didn’t show this off, Phil Schiller did hint at it during John Gruber’s live interview with him and Hair Force One.
  • App Store demos. Nope. While the new iOS App Store looks very nice (and it getting great reviews all over the web) it didn’t include this.
  • App slimming. Not sure. I’ll wait for the public betas of iOS and macOS to determine if they’ve done any work in this area.
  • More Camera app filters. Yes! While the camera app may not have more filters built-in, the Photos app has tons of updates in this area. I’ll take it.
  • Apple Prime. Nope.
  • Rename iCloud Photo Library? Nope. But, not a big deal.
  • Apple Watch Series 3. Nope. Not yet. And the watchOS updates that were featured were lackluster. But, I think they were holding back for the event they’ll have in the fall.
  • Apple Photos improvements. Yes. Tons. I’ll wait until I get my hands on it to do a direct comparison with my wishes.
  • More iOS Extensions. Nope. I didn’t see much in this area mentioned, but I think they made up for it with the drag/drop features.
  • Siri. Nope. Read Manton’s post on this. He wrote what I was thinking.
  • Apple Maps accuracy updates. Nope. Not a single mention about Apple Maps that I saw. So, again, I’ll have to wait and see with the betas.

My last minute wish that I threw in was for driving mode. And that is a huge yes!

If we’re keeping score that’s like 8 nopes, 1 kinda, and 4 yeses. Which doesn’t seem like a good score but somehow I was very impressed with WWDC overall. I think we’re in for a great year of software updates coming from Apple.

Now, onto some of the surprises.

  • HomePod. While not a total surprise HomePod looks interesting. As a piece of hardware I really like it. As a device that allows you to access Siri I’m less excited because of how poor Siri is still. For example: Ask Siri “how far is New York City” compared to “Driving directions to New York City”. How can’t Siri answer the first question if it can answer the second? I refuse to believe that Apple isn’t staying up late nights to bolster Siri’s offering so hopefully we’ll see a massive improvement in Siri within calendar 2017 or 2018.
  • iMac Pro. What an incredible computer! My first Mac was an iMac and I bought Eliza an iMac somewhat recently. I really love all-in-one computers I just prefer to have a notebook myself due to working remotely, at work, in coffee shops, at a client’s, etc. If I were to buy a desktop computer for myself the iMac Pro would be it.
  • Macbook updates. I got my new Macbook Pro with Touchbar somewhat recently. But, these updates aren’t enough to make me regret my upgrade. They look solid though.
  • ARKit. As I’ve already noted, this will be huge.
  • New iPads Pro. The updates to the iPad (both software and hardware) are very, very good. Makes me wish I needed to upgrade.
  • iPad iOS features. Though it appears some of these could come to iPhone (or, perhaps the 10-year anniversary iPhone) – these features are amazing like drag and drop and the dock, etc. Pretty cool.

There are of course many things I haven’t mentioned but ll-in-all a solid week of Apple updates.

One last thing; recently Tim Cook has been quoted as saying that Apple is focused on autonomous driving (which we knew) but that they are focused on it as a category rather than a feature. Apple finds autonomy as an interesting area moreso than simply self-driving. I’m very interested to see how this idea manifests itself in future products.

Back to Apple, again

Each year WWDC week gives us new and updated Apple software that is easier to use and more tightly integrated. As a result, each year I find myself wishing that I used Apple software exclusively instead of using third-party applications.

Forgive me, but I’m about to quote an entire post that I wrote in June 2014 as to the pros and cons of using as much Apple software and services as possible. Stick around, though, because at the end I’ll fill you in on how I’m feeling today and what I’m doing to use more Apple software and services.

There are hundreds of thousands of third-party apps that you can use on your computer, phone, and tablet. Some of them are amazingly good and far better in a number of ways than what ships with these devices by default.

By using third-party apps, however, you sometimes give up a level of seamless integration between all of your apps in how they share data and function across multiple devices.

Using the default apps — whether they’re built by Microsoft, or Apple, or Google — you can end up losing some of the personality, the extra niche features, and the one-on-one support that you get from third-party app developers.

So, there are pros and cons to making the choice between using an app that was built by the makers of the device and or operating system or by choosing to buy a third-party alternative.

Over the last several years I’ve acquired a stockpile of third-party apps on all three of my devices. I’ve been using third-party apps for everything, even the most basic of tasks like email and calendaring and listening to music. While most of these apps are extremely good, and I had no trouble paying for them, I’ve been missing that seamless integration. I’d get into work and I couldn’t pick up where I’ve left off listening to music or a podcast episode in the car. My mail clients on Mac and iPhone don’t know how to work together (in my case, Airmail and Mailbox respectively). And so on.

So I’ve decided to double down on Apple apps and services. I want that seamless integration back. I want my mail box to look the same across all devices, I want to see my podcast subscriptions on my Mac be exactly the same as on my iPhone, and I want all of my photos in one spot, etc.

OS X Yosemite and iOS 8 seems like a huge step forward to making it even easier for third-party apps to work better together across both operating systems and all devices. So perhaps this issue will get easier and easier to manage in the future. But today, I’d like to manage and learn less apps and get more work done.

I started to make the transition back to Apple late last week and over the last few days I’ve been so pleasantly surprised at the progress Apple has made on their apps. It has been like an entirely new experience.

This week Apple announced macOS High Sierra and iOS 11. And, again, it is a big step forward. So I found myself preparing for these updates in the fall by moving away from third-party services and using more Apple products and services.

This week alone I’ve put more data on iCloud (so it was nice to see the storage bump), I’ve moved from Simplenote to Notes, moved back to Safari from Chrome, subscribed to Apple Music’s family plan and ditched Spotify.

When I made this adjustment in 2014 I didn’t do a good job of following up with how it all worked. So I’m making a mark in my calendar to do so two weeks after macOS and iOS ship this fall.

JSON Feed to Twitter using PHP

In 2009 I scrawled together a simple PHP script that tweeted links based on an RSS feed. I then updated it to support OAuth and open sourced it on GitHub.

I haven’t really touched it since (though I get about 3 emails a month about it). Just a small update here and there.

This morning, with all of the JSON Feed hubbub going on, I decided to recreate that same simple script to parse JSON Feed rather than RSS. I also updated to the latest release of the PHP Twitter OAuth class by Tijs Verkoyen.

You can download the latest release or clone the repository on GitHub.

This took me mere minutes thanks to JSON Feed being much easier to deal with.

Is VR overrated?

Kristopher B. Jones, an entrepreneur from near my neck of the woods, weighs in on VR in a recent Forbes piece debating the applicability of the technology:

I’m a strong believer that virtual reality is overrated, as it has limited applications outside of very specific industries. Industries like gaming and medical training are likely to see a boom from VR, while other industries such as food service, retail and finance with have limited to no applicability of VR. Much like Google Glass and 3-D television, the buzz will eventually die down.

In November of 2016 I said VR wasn’t ready. But that I thought it wasn’t far away. I was wrong because I was lumping VR in with a much larger mixed reality landscape. It wasn’t until I dug deep into mixed reality that I understood the subtle nuances between VR, AR, and the various other degrees of mixed reality experiences.

Kris likely understands this landscape even better than I do. He’s is right. VR will never be as big as the hype. In fact, I’d bank on it. However, “mixed reality experiences” (such as augmented reality) are popping up in every single app we currently have and will continue to do so. You already see it in Facebook, Instagram, Apple’s Clips app, even within the Uber app and Google Maps app. Facebook, Microsoft, and Google are already shipping platforms, frameworks, and APIs to help developers bring MR into their apps and services. And Google recently demonstrated an amazing technology called Lens that will be inside of Google Assistant and Google Photos soon. I also think the automobile dashboard and windshield is a huge future play for AR.

I don’t think Forbes or Kris lumps VR together with AR. But I do think that many consumers do. They think mixed reality is all about wearing huge goggles. It isn’t until you dig a little deeper that you see that mixed reality is all around us already. It’s already a hit. And it is just going to keep growing.

VR as a subset of MR is overrated. But, MR is far from overrated.

WWDC 2017 wish list

It has been an exciting year for developers so far. Facebook is making the camera a platform, Microsoft is making cloud computation happen with two clicks of a mouse, and Google is doing everything that everyone else is doing plus a billion more things.

WWDC is next week. So what are my wishes? Since I use Apple products far more than Facebook, Microsoft, or Google products, I tend to want more specific things from WWDC.

Here is my list, in no particular order:

  • Shared iCloud Photo Libraries. There are a few ways that Apple could do this. The simplest, in my opinion, is for me to allow access to my iCloud Photo Library to anyone in my iCloud Family Plan. All photos taken from all family members in the same library. Perhaps somehow filtered by device or person. That’s it.
  • iCloud data Family sharing. I buy 1TB for me and 50GB for Eliza. I’d like to purchase 1 set of storage for both of us and be able to share the space allotment. Not only to save the $1 per month but also to combine the accounts.
  • An all-new Mac App Store. The app store app on macOS feels incredibly dated and fragile. It doesn’t seem to work nearly as well as its iOS counterpart. This part of the OS should be rock solid and perform very well. But there are little idiosyncrasies (like how the progress bars look weird when downloading, or how the fonts look…).
  • App Store demos. If Schiller is serious about bolstering the App Stores I think it is time to bring true demos to both App Stores. I don’t have a silver bullet model (7 days, 14 days, 30 days, etc.) but I do believe this is achievable and would be a boon for app developers.
  • App slimming. Apple announced something about this a few WWDCs ago I think. And I believe it is on the developers of the apps to make their apps as small as possible. However, I think Apple can lend a hand to the most popular apps (Facebook, Uber, Twitter, Messenger, SnapChat, Instagram, etc.) and ask that they somehow combine frameworks or resources in order to shrink their apps considerably. Just think, every megabyte Apple can help slim from those apps would be hundreds of terabytes of data usage saved.
  • More Camera app filters. I use the Camera app a lot. Even with the numerous camera apps available (which I’ve likely bought dozens of and installed even more of over the last decade of having an iPhone) I usually gravitate to the camera that I can swipe to from my Lock Screen. Once and a while I’ll use a filter. Either in editing or even in shooting. Its fun. I’d like to see more added. Like, 50 more with me being able to select my top 12 somehow.
  • Apple Prime. Amazon Prime comes with a slew of things; music, movies, photo storage, free shipping, etc. etc. I’d like a one-payment Apple bundle that would give me iCloud space, iCloud Photo Library, Apple Music, Apple TV (or whatever their TV service will be if it ever happens), etc. Some “prime” membership per year that I can be all-in on Apple stuff.
  • Rename iCloud Photo Library? Perhaps it should just be called Apple Photos. If every app simply had an iCloud switch that allowed you to store / sync its data with iCloud we wouldn’t need separate names for things. The apps simply can have an iCloud feature.
  • Apple Watch Series 3. I’ve said since the beginning that the first Apple Watch I’d buy would likely be the Series 3. (Actually, I begged Apple not to make a watch at all. But, since they did, the first one I’d likely buy might be the next version.) My wish list for series 3 would be slimmer (less tall), no phone needed at all for it to function (network-connected with no additional plan), much, much faster, and easier to update/install apps. Essentially, a stand-alone device rather than an iPhone accessory.
  • Apple Photos improvements. Only a few of my wishes from May 2016 have been addressed. I would like to see Apple Photos get substantially better this year. However, Apple seems to improve things much slower than they used to. (Remember the iPad 1 to iPad 2 jump? I wish we saw more of that speed from Apple)
  • More iOS Extensions. Perhaps Apple’s purchase of Workflow won’t bear fruit so quickly, but I’d like a lot more Extensions in iOS. I often find myself limited in what I can do with a file on iOS. I think it should be much more powerful to send files from app-to-app or to a service or run a routine on it, etc. I think we’ll see that in future iOS releases.
  • Siri. I’ve nearly given up on Siri. My WWDC 2016 wish list still has Siri items on it that haven’t been addressed. Still, if Siri was 5% better I’d take it.
  • Apple Maps accuracy updates. Apple Maps has improved a lot since its debut. Its design is far better than it was and its feature set has grown too. But, for me, its accuracy is still terrible. Google Maps gets me to the correct location every single time. I can’t remember when it hasn’t. Apple Maps routinely gives me the wrong location when I ask Siri for directions somewhere. Somewhere around 75% of the time. Three out of four. This is not an exaggeration. So, I do not use it. With each update to iOS I give it another try. Then I go back to Google Maps. I don’t think Apple Maps needs any new design, or any new features, it just needs to be accurate. Side note: I was in Philadelphia with Eliza recently and we relied on Google Maps for all transportation. It was excellent at getting us around via Uber, walking, and driving. It was perfect the entire time.

I’ll stay away from any hardware wishes as I don’t have any needs currently. I’m all set on the hardware front. Our iPhones, iPads, MacBook Pro, and iMac are all just fine the way they currently are. And, I don’t need an Apple Home (if they release one) because I have enough terrible Siri devices laying around the house.

The drawbacks of scheduling posts

Scheduling posts to my blog has a few drawbacks but I think the most annoying one is that the topics I write about could be out-of-date pretty quickly or the topic could be covered by someone else.

I have a personal publishing goal to publish an image and blog post per weekday. Sometimes I go for long stretches making that goal and other times I go stretches without. To do so I schedule a bunch of posts in advance.

I wrote about this process in October of 2016 when I wrote a custom WordPress plugin to make it easier (for me) to schedule image posts.

I don’t just schedule image posts but also links, regular posts, and audio bits. For example, I’m writing this post on Tuesday and I’m going to schedule it to be posted on Thursday (the next available slot that I have open in my personal publishing calendar). This particular post contains nothing that needs to be published on a specific day so it doesn’t matter when I decide to publish it. However, earlier today (Tuesday) I wrote a quick post regarding JSON Feed, a topic I’ve been writing about a bit lately, and scheduled it for tomorrow morning. Then, not a few hours later, I noticed the same topic written about by someone else and mainly covered my point. So now I’m faced with allowing that post to publish as is, editing it, or deleting it.

Or, maybe I shouldn’t care at all?

This is one of those posts that I’m glad I wrote because by the time I distilled my thoughts on the matter, edited this post, and re-edited it, I’ve come to a conclusion. Starting June 1 (today) I’m going to continue scheduling posts that do not contain any timely subject matter (like image posts) and set aside some time each morning to write posts for the day. So I’ll be switching my strategy from publishing each day to writing each day. It should be fun.

 

 

 

Aerial photos of a few wineries

In late April Eliza and I took a weekend day drive to visit some wineries in the tristate area of New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. We wanted to visit a few wineries we had never been to before and the beauty of that region alone is worth the drive.

We both take tons of photos on days like this but for a change I thought I’d take a photo of each winery we visited with my drone. I didn’t know how this would work out logistically – would the wineries let me, would it be a pain to do, would it take too long and put a damper on our day? It turns out none of my fears were founded. It was super easy to do (with some initial set up) and the results came quickly and easily.

Here are the aerial photos along with my personal ratings of the wineries.

Belmarl Winery and Vineyard – ★★★★★

Brotherhood Winery – ★★★★☆

Demarest Hill Winery – ☆☆☆☆☆ (sorry, it was terrible)

Warwick Valley Winery & Distillery – ★★☆☆☆ (region worth visit, spirits are not)

Now that you’ve seen the photos, I’ll give you a quick rundown of how I prepared so that taking these photos wouldn’t ruin our day. Before we left I set up the drone and my small take-off table in the trunk of the car ready to fly. Props attached, batteries in, bag unzipped. The only thing I needed to do at each winery was find a safe place to fly, turn the drone on, take a photo or two, land, and turn the drone off. I focused on only taking two or three photos of each winery. So I chose my angle, flew to a decent height, took my shot and left. These were only for my own personal collection anyway. My guess is that my longest flight was 5 minutes long.

This idea of looking at things slightly differently using the drone fits my principle of having an excuse to explore.

I wouldn’t change much about my technique here. And it likely seems like an odd thing to obsess over. But, I’m satisfied with the shots (they are photos that I never would have if it wasn’t for owning a drone) and my set up. I hope to do this again on similar jaunts.

Speaking to the Social Media Gurus class at Misericordia University


Me, doing my best Neil deGrasse Tyson. Photo credit: Richard Baldovin/Misericordia University.

In early April I had the privilege of speaking to the Social Media Gurus class (or COM 485) at Misericordia University. My friend Dan Kimbrough is the Assistant Professor of Communications in the Mass Communication and Design Department at the university and he invited me to speak to the class.

It was great to speak to these students and see what was on their minds, the challenges they were having, and what they did day-to-day to learn the ropes of marketing via social media. I was impressed with how attentive the class was. I’m just some guy coming in and spouting off about my experience with social media. But they seemed engaged and really wanting to learn. Many of them were putting into practice what they were learning through various class projects, non-profits, internships, etc. so I’m willing to bet that any practical tidbit they can pick up is valuable to them.

My view of the class.

Something I learned from this presentation was that the paths in social media marketing are just starting to be paved. Some methods and techniques have already come and gone but the true best practices still have yet to be worked out. Also, in our region here in Pennsylvania many businesses still have yet to see the value in social media marketing but they are seemingly being forced into it by their nearest competitors.

Thanks to Dan for the invite and to the class for being so welcoming.

Slowing down my hike to see new things

I’ve spent a lot of time outdoors in my area. A lot. Especially when I was younger I was outside more than I was inside. And now that I’m older my main hobbies are hiking, kayaking and photography. All of which force me to explore.

This weekend I was pleasantly surprised to have seen a few new creatures for the first time. I believe I saw them because I was paying more attention than I have been lately. Usually I’ll go on a hike with tons of photo gear, my drone, or a goal of covering a certain trail or distance. However, this weekend my goal was to observe my surroundings and it paid off.

During my hikes I saw an Indigo Bunting, a Scarlet Tanager, and a Snowberry Clearwing for the first time. Not to mention the deer, rivers I crossed, ticks I flicked off, countless birds and insects and blooming plants.

Where normally I would have covered 13 to 20 miles during my hikes I only covered just over 6 miles. But I saw a lot more wildlife, understood where I was physically more than usual, and enjoyed the relaxing sounds of nature far more.

I’m all for picking a trail and hiking it for the exercise… but this weekend has shown me that it pays to slow down, even sit for a while, and look around more often.

 

JSON Feed

Manton Reece and Brent Simmons have created a new specification for creating feeds using JSON. They write:

We — Manton Reece and Brent Simmons — have noticed that JSON has become the developers’ choice for APIs, and that developers will often go out of their way to avoid XML. JSON is simpler to read and write, and it’s less prone to bugs.

JSON Feed has been implemented on a few platforms already and it was talked about a lot since its debut. I’m glad someone has created a spec around this so that the developers that would like to use this can now rally behind a unified specification. However, JSON Feed won’t be replacing RSS any time very soon.

RSS is something you could call a “good enough” solution. It is already in place, tons of stuff supports it, and works fine. And while the developers of all of the apps and services that use RSS could update their software to create and parse JSON Feed it is doubtful they will very quickly as the benefits aren’t all that great. The advantage of JSON Feed mostly comes when creating new services not replacing old ones.

I don’t think Manton and Brent believe JSON Feed will replace RSS. I don’t think that is why they created the spec. I believe they feel this is a good alternative for the developers that would like to use it and that they wrote the spec out of a need that they had. Which is good.

I’ve discussed the benefits of replacing RSS with JSON in the past. Me, in June 2015 on one of the benefits of replacing RSS with JSON:

RSS is a fairly bloated specification. It is a bit verbose and the file sizes for even a small blog can get relatively large quickly. JSON is, by its very nature, a bit more succinct. This would result in faster load times, easier caching, etc.

So while there are definite benefits, it is doubtful that RSS is going anywhere for a long time. There have been a few attempts to replace RSS with something that is smaller and easier to parse over the years and they simply didn’t catch on. This weekend Dave Winer (the inventor of RSS) chimed in on JSON Feed and he has a similar reaction to it as I have had; it is great that the specification exists but it will not be replacing RSS for news or blogs any time soon.

I’ve added a JSON feed to this blog because Manton created the WordPress plugin already.

Side note: How did I not see this one coming?

 

Google I/O 2017 wish list

I figured that since I wrote my Build 2017 wish list and the reviewed that list after the event, and that I plan on doing the same for WWDC this year, it would only be prudent to write down my wishes for Google I/O as well. At first when I sat down to write this list I could only think of one item:

  • Improve Google Accounts

I’ve always had issues with Google Accounts, particularly when using Google Hangouts (or whatever they’re called this week), but I must say this issue has somewhat improved lately. Likely because I’m primarily using one Google Account regularly now rather than three but I also think Google has made adjustments for those of us with personal and business Google Accounts.

However, after thinking a little harder, here are some things I was able to come up with that I’d like to see from Google this week.

  • Android. I have no idea if this possible, but I’d like to see Google flex some muscle and demand less fragmentation in their Android-versions across carriers, devices, etc. This fragmentation has been a huge headache, if not the single biggest reason Android apps can’t be “great”. Some would argue this and that is fine. But Apple’s biggest advantage in this area is that they can be relatively certain what hardware the OS will run on and as a result software developers can be fairly certain the OS will be up-to-date.
  • OK, Google. I’d like to see Google’s assistant have a much larger footprint, particularly on iOS. Again, another thing that may not be possible. I simply cannot use this service because none of my devices will run it natively. But for this week I’ve installed the Google app again on my iPhone to see how good the assistant is these days.
  • Material Design update. They been releasing updates to Material since it launched but I’d like to see something similar to what Microsoft announced at Build with Fluent. A way to tie in a much larger range of devices and perspectives (like Mixed Reality) would be well served in a design language.
  • Photos on Mac to Google Photos bridge. The linchpin on iOS/macOS for me personally is iCloud Photo Library. I have over 340GB stored there and it shows no sign of slowing down. Google Photos, though, has shown itself to be far superior in terms of visual search than Photos. However, Google Photos doesn’t allow me to have a private, local library since it doesn’t have an app for Mac or Windows. So I think I need to use both Photos on Mac and Google Photos on mobile. I would like to see them release a bridge for this. It would also make it easier to switch away from Apple products if I ever wanted to.
  • Google MR. Google has dabbled with mixed reality on several fronts. But I don’t think strapping a phone to our heads is a longterm solution – regardless of the fancy materials you use to do it. Similar to my wishes with Microsoft and HoloLens I’d like to see Google make a considerable investment in furthering a stand-alone MR device focused on business use.
  • Open-source Autonomous Driving. If anyone is going to open source their Autonomous Driving technology it might be Google. Since they have employees giving the information to their competitors anyway, perhaps they’ll be willing to push that source up onto Github and let the self-driving revolution really get into full swing. The money in this is going to be in licensing and support in the long run anyway. Think of it as the self-driving operating system.
  • The Death of AMP! I wish they’d just shoot this in the head. But, it appears they aren’t. I can’t see why this is good for the web.

I re-watched Google I/O 2016’s Keynote a bit yesterday. Hard to believe Home has only been around for far less than a year. Also, Sundar is hitting his stride around that time too (also the Alphabet split) so I’m guessing the productivity at Google is through the roof. So I expect a lot of great things this year from Google.

My thoughts on Build 2017

I have a few thoughts on Build 2017.

First, how did Build 2017 measure up against my very short wishlist?

  • Windows Phone. Although a few presenters over the few days managed to get an applause from the crowd when referring to Windows Phone, we saw zero announcements from MSFT in this area. The complete opposite of what I was hoping for. For now, it seems they are embracing iOS and Android.
  • HoloLens. MSFT seems to be leaning away from a 1-brand approach and more towards providing all of the tools needed to do Mixed Reality. This approach, for a company like Microsoft, is likely better but I still wanted to see HoloLens (a standalone MR system) be invested in heavily. Maybe they’ll have announcements in the future.
  • Windows or Office being open source. This was a long shot. But, I’ll keep it on my list in perpetuity. Esp. Windows.
  • Band. I don’t think Microsoft mentioned wearables at all (besides the amazing Emma). Did they?

So I completely struck out. So it goes.

I’m not unhappy though. Microsoft had some amazing announcements and, overall, had an impressive amount of work accomplished since the last Build.

Sayta Nadella started the conference off by reaffirming their commitment to build hardware, software, and services responsibly and inclusively. It is obvious that Nadella’s Microsoft wants to build solutions for everyone (including even the smallest groups of individuals). I really enjoy seeing this from them and I hope it continues to be the driving force behind their decisions.

What Microsoft has been able to do with Azure (and its related services like Azure Stack), OneDrive, and other cloud-based services is really incredible. Between what Amazon and Microsoft currently offer developers – there is almost no excuse a start-up can make that they cannot bring software to the market at scale in an affordable way. And, even if you’re not worried about scale, the ease of development, testing, iteration, and deployment is much more simple. All developers know that these “one click demos” are never that in reality. But it is still very, very impressive to see what Microsoft has been able to create and is able to sell and support.

It was telling, too, that Microsoft swapped their Keynotes from last year. Day 1 was all Azure and day 2 was all Windows.

One more note about Azure; it seems to be a runaway hit in a similar way to Amazon’s S3. A few years ago S3 took over the entire cloud storage market backing so many services we use every day. When it has gone down (only a few times in recent memory) everything we use went down. I think the same could be said for Azure. Azure is the platform upon which an incredible amount of large scale services are built. I don’t know if this is still the case but Apple’s services were once built on top of Azure. If Azure goes down expect a similar blackout to S3 going down.

Windows 10 being on a twice-a-year release cycle is very refreshing. It makes Apple’s already aggressive once-per-year updates to macOS look snail-like. The pace of software updates for an OS are critical since software needs to be nimble to react to the market. Things like mobility, connectivity, speed, memory, device size and screen size, and wireless technologies seem to change weekly. The OSes need to keep up. Longer development cycles can no longer keep pace.

Microsoft also announced their own design framework called Fluent. I’m sure Windows developers will welcome this coherence across all of their devices but I do not think it will have the wide-reaching affects of both Apple’s flat iOS 7 design language (which is nameless?) and Google’s Material Design. I see iOS-inspired and Material-inspired design in every piece of software I use.

Overall, I continue to be super impressed with Microsoft under Satya Nadella. Seems I’m not alone.

I recommend watching the videos from Build 2017. There is a ton to glean and I’m sure we’ll start seeing some amazing things come of the announcements made. Well done yet again MSFT.