Archive for the ‘Misc’ Category

Black Cyber Friday Monday and the art of the outdated iPhone

I decided to replace my aging iPhone 6+ a few months ago with a refurbished one- or two-years old iPhone model. The iPhone XR seems like a solid choice and I looked forward to some Black Friday/Cyber Monday deals. I assumed I’d purchase a “renewed” model rather than pay full price from Apple.

Then reality hit.

The “renewed” unlocked 128GB XR went from about $560 a few weeks back to $600 on Black Friday and soared even higher over the weekend. Today, it’s back “down” to $630 although it exceeded that price at its height..

Apparently, secondary markets plus high consumer demand create different pricing outcomes than shiny loss leaders.

This lead me to a sea-change in my planning and expectations.

An unlocked brand new SIM-free 128GB XR retails for $649 from Apple plus they throw in a $50 gift card today. If I hand over my existing iPhone 6+, my price goes down $80 (although I’m tempted to hand it down to a child). Not having to deal with Gazelle or the vagaries of Amazon vendors seems like a happy outcome.

Oddly, this is the last major purchase from my yearly “Pick up on Black Friday/Cyber Monday” list. The rest all went fairly smoothly, especially the $129 Apple Watch 3 for my middle child (Thank you David Ashman!) and the $649 MBA for my eldest.

I find year-by-year my purchase requirements are shrinking and changing. I’m spending more on services like iCloud and Backblaze, VPNs and NoIP, and less on hardware. I didn’t bother buying any external backup hard drives this year as I still have a couple in boxes from last year.

For those keeping track, I didn’t replace or upgrade my 2012 Mac mini although I am seriously considering the dual drive upgrade several of you recommended. I now run Mojave and Catalina installs on separate machines because I don’t want to lose access to thousands of dollars of software from the 32-bitpocalypse while I need access to the latest dev tools and OS. It’s a fairly frustrating situation.

So where did I spend my BF/CM money? This year, it was mostly about  gifts (carbon fiber PLA filament for the boy, Switch games for the girls), education (the watch and the laptop), and prosaic things-we-simply-needed (replacing a broken space heater).

It was also a good lesson on what not to buy during the rush.

Review: In praise of Ring Fit Adventure

I bought my son Ring Fit Adventure as a reward for bringing home good grades. Little did I know that I would soon monopolize the game. Yes, he uses and loves it too, but only after school. For me, it is full of 2-10 minute exercise breaks perfect for pausing work and getting myself moving.

I recently left a position with a massive commute to a nearby city, ridiculous hours, and lots and lots of sitting. It completely broke up my routine, which had previously included a well considered mix of resistance, strength, flexibility, and aerobics (mixed with a bit of Restorative and Yin yoga, which are the bomb).

My fitness pre-job was hard earned. Lots of its early ramp-up was due to a mix of physical therapy and Wii Fit (or as I like to call it Wii Fiit). Despite the harsh criticism Wii Fit gets, it is an amazing tool for convalescence and several of its activities (most specifically boxing) can get a good heart rate and sweat going. I particularly love its quirky “yoga”, which opened me up to a much wider world of non-scare-quote yoga.

Wii Fit eventually evolved into Wii Fit Plus, which I have never played, mostly due to the fact that we own a bunch of Wii Fits and I never saw enough value to upgrade to the newer system. When the Switch debuted, I hoped they’d continue Nintendo’s fit tradition, and Nintendo finally delivered with Ring Fit Adventure. (Also, it tickles me silly that the Wii Fit trainers are now in Smash.)

Ring Fit Adventure is basically an interval training system based on jogging in place mixed with resistance training using a Pilates Ring and some minimal stretching. It doesn’t sound like much but it works brilliantly. If you regularly move a lot of iron around in your life, this isn’t going to do much for you but if you’re coming off six months of nearly complete inactivity and want to get back in shape to take advantage of more physicality, it’s perfect.

I find it’s never hard to build a sweat and get my heart moving for a good 20-60 minutes. In addition the game has incentivized many of my most hated activities (I’m looking at you, Mr. Squats) and turned them into something I am determined to conquer. Yes, being short means the travel of the thigh sensor may be occasionally tricky to detect (meaning deeper squats for me) but the pilates-style ring is deservedly the star of this show.

From what I can guess, it has some interior material that changes resistance as it bends to allow the system to detect interaction both pushing in and pulling out. There’s a larger-than-expected vocabulary of fitness activities you can incorporate using those two actions including overhead presses and pulls, forward and rear, and the star of the show, the engaged “ab-guard”, which when done correctly allows you to engage your gluts, abs, and shoulders, or basically all the things my PT regularly tells me to engage.

Technically this is a game and there’s some kind of irritating storyline about a picked-on pilates-ring and his steroid abuser ex, but you can ignore most of that and enjoy the beautiful tracks and vistas. There’s a bit of repetition from world to world and a “cheat” system that involves drinking lots of smoothies (because pure sugar is always what people trying to control insulin metabolisms want in their system, right?) but these, too, are minor issues.

Mostly, the game is great because it is, at least for me, hard and it ramps up its difficulty level to level. I’m savoring each “world” and I am in no hurry to finish.  Most recently, I spent time pushing and pulling blocks along a running track with my arms so I could run without falling into holes and by the end of the course, I felt it. For me, finding that physical edge and training to that point of exhaustion just before it’s too much is what makes a great workout.

No, the biggest issue is that we have the one Switch and occasionally my child wants to use his toy without his mom demanding 100% access through the day.

This isn’t a cheap hobby. A basic fully fitted Switch with dock will set you back $300. Add in a second pair of joycons, and that’s another $70-$80. The game alone is $80. And if you end up destroying the pilates ring (the “ring controller” or “ring con”) that’s $45 + shipping direct from Nintendo. (And if you do break that, chances are good you’ll have banged up a joycon as well.) Fortunately, our ring is doing well despite the abuse we have put it through. And we have, as yet, not flung any joycons across the room or into the TV.

Despite the price, most of the cost involves things we would have bought anyway or already own. They’re expensive but have proved to be a delight for the family.

As for Ring Fit Adventure, you shouldn’t have to wait for your report card to treat yourself or your kids to this. I suspect the adults will be playing it longer than the kids unless you treat some of its minigames as pass-and-play so you can enjoy it together.

I hope there will be follow-up fitness products but based on Wii Fit/Wii Fit Plus, Nintendo has a respectable heritage of a single, focused fitness title.

I’ve been waiting for great training and fitness innovation products that combines the Apple Watch and Apple TV but so far, nothing has grabbed me in the way that Wii Fit and Ring Fit Adventure have.

What about you? Any amazing finds?

Lightweight To-Do list formatting

I recently ran across the todo.txt format project, which allows use to use plain text action item lists to create and manage your projects. I love the simplicity of the idea but there were a number of items that prevented me from wholeheartedly adopting it.

First, I think it’s really ugly. It’s hard to scan, especially when there are lots of things to do. I know that the idea is this is an intermediate representation but that representation is visually heavy.

Second, it’s missing notes. Freehand notes are an important part of task management, whether noting down the phone number for the car place when you need to get your snow tires put on.

Third, it’s order dependent, with a left-to-right layout that really doesn’t work for me.

Fourth, I don’t think the (A)-(Z) priority format is particularly readable.

Even though I do like the +Project and @Context annotation, I feel like todo.txt is a few steps  short of a much more flexible and readable intermediate form.

So I started brainstorming on how I might tweak this concept to be more flexible. For one thing, I think the example strains to make the project and context “fluent” in a way that they don’t have to be. Yes, you may want to query to see “what are all the projects I am working on?” and “what contexts do I work in?” so I can support differentiating them but I don’t think they need to be integrated into the to-do text.

What follows is a very lightly-considered redesign that I have pulled entirely out of thin air. I did not spend much time on this and I’m sure there are better ways to redesign this to support text-based lightly annotated human-readable to-do lists. I’m throwing this out there as a starting point in case any of you want to carry this discussion further. It’s a design exercise for me, one that allowed me to take some of these thoughts out of my head and throw them into a blog post. So take this for what it is.

Imagine tagging that looks like more like this, depending on whether you’re annotating project or context values. Part of me pushes back at the notion of the two types of tagging but I appreciate that you might want to query “show me all my projects” and “show me all my contexts”, and I recognize the value in that:

@(tag) or +(tag)
@(key: value) or +(key: value)
@(priority) or +(priority)

A priority can be as simple as a number, which I think people would process better than “A”, “B”, “C”, etc. As a pattern of (0-9)+, it would also allow easy differentiation in parsing between a tag (arbitrary text) and a priority. Priorities would range from 0 (highest priority) to any arbitrary number (lower priority). I doubt people would use more than two or three priority levels (low, medium, high), if they use them at all.

Because dates are critical for todo deadlines, you could pull them out with NLP or be more explicit: @date(due: 2019-05-02). The single keyword would allow you to parse a date with more flexible keys and disallow an explosion of keywords you might encounter by trying to pre-design specific scenarios like @due(2019-05-02), @checkin(next Tuesday), etc.

Relative dates would need a creation date, which if you’re using an editor rather than the raw format could be injected as @date(created: 2019-05-02). The second you do that, though, you’re moving away from the idea of human-readable, simple annotation, tool-consumable.

In my head, a better system would not be single-line. Adding blank spaces between items significantly increases vertical space so python-inspired indentation can avoid that:

Set up appointment for snow tires
  Call and talk to Judy 505-555-1212 # comments are always great
  She says to contact them at least one thursday before the weekend you want # Not thrilled by the manual line breaks here
  to bring the car in.
  @(home) +(winterizing) +(2) @(before: 2019-12-01)
Put snow scraper in car
  @(car) +(winterizing) @(done) # yay me!
Get flu shots for Bob and Francis
  Already got them for Fred and Mary
  @(family) +(health) +(season) +(Costco) +(1) +(shopping) # It's a shopping run, even if it's not strictly buying something

This is rough, obviously, but I think it’s a bit more readable than blockiness of the current format and a bit more flexible:

If working with an editor tool, I’d prefer if done items were automatically moved down to the bottom or maybe removed entirely or added to a different “done.txt” list.

Also, once you have the power of full tagging and categorization, a well built tool should allow you to pull on each of those to view related items in more structured ways. The format is simple but the way you present tagged information doesn’t have to be.

Anyway, those are my thoughts. I see a project with good bones that misses out on a bunch of human factors. What kind of changes would you make to turn this into a more usable and universal approach? Or would you just say “plain text is not really appropriate here” and use OmniFocus or Things instead? I’m curious as to what you think.

Update: Readers mention:

Flipping the switch and the 32-bitpocalypse

I think I’m ready to upgrade my Mac mini to Catalina. I know, I know: “But the 32-bitpocalypse! Are you ready to lose all that investment?” I think I’ve worked through that. Haven’t I?

The last few weeks I’ve been busy. I bought a smallish (0.5 TB) external SSD drive and backed up a good chunk of my Mac mini to it. Today I’ve been running tests on how it works booting on my MBP, not my mini. That’s because my underpowered mini just isn’t strong enough either in boot speed or  running off the external drive to make this a reasonable approach.

On the MacBook, however, the SSD responsiveness is pretty fine. Once booted, I’ve tested Office, Photoshop, and a bunch of other 32-bit apps and while they’re not going to win awards for speed, they run and appear to be stable.

That leaves me with the dilemma. Do I flip the switch? Do I go full Cat on my main work machine? It’s been a reasonably time since release, so what mine fields should I expect to encounter? I honestly don’t want to upgrade and then have to start restoring from Carbon Copy Cloner backups from regret. (My backups are run nightly so they’re there if I need them.)

What do you think? Pull the switch or walk away? I hate being out of step with the latest OS, even if I do have Cat installed on my MBP and am happily using it there. Give me your advice. I’m not ready to walk away from so many apps that I still use many times a week but I don’t want to freeze my mini in the past. Thanks in advance for your advice and suggestions.

Mac Dictation 101

Dictating to text is one of the great things that macOS gave us a few years ago. In both Mojave and Catalina, you enable dictation in System Preferences in the Keyboard > Dictation Pane.

I use the “double-command” shortcut to enable dictation but I also find it helpful to set up the Mac version of “Hey Siri”. To start, hop over to Accessibility > Dictation (Mojave) or Accessibility > Voice Control (Catalina) to extend your interaction. Enable dictation or voice control, as supplied. On Catalina, you may need to download additional elements which takes a moment or two.

In Mojave, you can set a dictation keyword. I go with “Computer”, because it sounds very Scotty from Star Trek TOS. I prefer to enable sound feedback so I know when my command has been picked up properly.

To ask Siri about the weather, I say, “Computer. <beat> Open Siri. <wait for tone> What is the weather for today?”. There’s a definite pause needed after “Computer”.

Catalina offers an always-on version when you enable voice control.

This little control panel lets you sleep or wake your mike:

Once in place, you can say “Open Siri”.  Confirm that you want to enable Ask Siri and you know that employees or contractors somewhere — I believe it was Ireland — will be laughing at you, but privacy is an illusion these days. Search for articles similar to “Apple Resumes Human Reviews of Siri Audio With iOS 13.2 Update” for more details. As with Mojave, you’ll need to develop separate dialects for iOS and Mac for controlling your system, with significant pauses to let the OS catch up with you.

Always-on dictation seems to send my MBP into windtunnel spasms, so you may want to use those keyboard shortcuts instead.

Once on, you can request “What can I say” and a list of commands pops up. It’s pretty basic and uninspiring as a support doc goes but it’s a start and the commands are quite extensive.

For example, say “Open TextEdit <pause> New item (assuming you don’t have TextEdit setup to create one on launch).”

Next, try dictating. I recommend opening a browser tab apart from TextEdit and just speak from a reference document. For example:

Listen my children and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five;
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year.

You’ll immediately see some of the weaknesses involved in dictation.

Starting over, I’ve used some dictation-fu. For example, when “here” is mispelled, I used “correct that” and “choose 1”.

“New line” gets me to the second line. “Select word” highlights the most recent and “Capitalize that” changes “revere” to “Revere”. The next line after that is just ridiculously hard. I’ll leave that one as an exercise for the reader. Finish it off with “semicolon. press Return key”.

The rest is easy, particularly because TextEdit did the uppercasing on my behalf. Don’t forget to insert a new line and say “period” (Or, I suppose, full stop. Hi Paul.) at the end of the sentence.

As with iOS, Catalina appears to be using a scaled down version of Dragon Dictation so it’s always helpful to be able to use the Dragon documentation, even when you run up against some pretty hard edge cases.

It’s honestly not the worst dictation system but I prefer the one on iOS.

 

 

 

WebsearchFodder: My mouse moves but won’t click

Weirdest thing this morning. My mouse stopped working right. I could move the cursor but not click the mouse. So I swapped it out for another mouse. Same problem. So I rebooted. Same problem. I then switched to a wireless mouse and then a Bluetooth one. Same problem across the board.

I won’t make you sit through all the problem solving that went on: same issue meant that this was not a mechanical error, and not tied to, for example, specific wires, or bulging batteries or whatever. The tl;dr is this: I had taken out a magic trackpad a few hours earlier, intending to use it (but never got around to it), and left it on a counter and a child had put something on top of it.

The magic trackpad had not only powered on but was continuously, due to the weight, issuing some sort of mouse press because of the weight of the stuff dumped on top of it. Once I took the weight off, everything started working again back at my computer.

Diagnostically: the cursor moves, any right-button works, any scroll wheel works, but not the left-button. Solution: hunt around for a wireless pointing device that might be interfering. If you have Screen Sharing enabled, you can disable Bluetooth and see if that resolves the problem.

I took the batteries out of the trackpad, and put it away gently.

I’m leaving this blog post in case it ever helps anyone else out on this very weird issue. The advice out there on the web all assumes a mechanical issue either with a built-in trackpad, with a pointing device, or a system issue. This was such a sideways situation that surely I can’t be the only person it will happen to but it probably most everyone will never be affected.

Things I love about Apple Watch

I bought my Apple Watch to track. As I have learned over the last few months, the watch kind of stinks as a tracker and a fitness tool. It loses track of my workouts or fails to pick them up entirely. My movement in real life and my watch’s rings often fail to align. I may be wiping sweat from my brow as my watch thinks I’m taking a nap or something. And if tracking were the only thing my Watch offered, I’d write it off as an expensive failure.

Much to my surprise, though, I have fallen in love with my watch. The reasons surprise me, and had nothing to motivate my purchase. In looking back over the past months, I am constantly astonished by the watch’s convenience  and comfort (at least once I was able to get a band I could live with, because my first few attempts with the band didn’t go very well…)

Let me step back and speak of my watch’s best points.

For one thing, it lets me answer calls on my wrist. This is not a feature I would ever have wanted or searched for or asked for or desired. And yet, it’s one of the greatest things my watch does.

I bought the basic watch. It’s the one without built-in cellular so I receive calls only when my watch is near enough to my phone. I find the reach is good enough that I can answer my phone from my wrist anywhere within my house. I no longer  have to run to grab the phone from its charger. That’s amazingly convenient.

Sure it’s just weird speaking into my wrist. I’m not Dick Tracy and the ergonomics aren’t the best. And yet, I can handle a quick convo and get on with my life and I don’t have to start digging through my backpack to find the phone, which always manages to slip between things or slide into a notebook or otherwise hide itself away.

It’s a feature I didn’t know I wanted and it’s one I use daily. That alone is close to justifying the purchase price.

And, if I need to find the phone to open an app or do something that demands more real estate, I don’t worry about it slipping away in my backpack anymore. Now, I just pull up the watch’s quick utility panel and tap the phone pager. My phone pings and I instantly find wherever it has slipped. Brilliant!

But wait, there’s more.

This may sound absolutely ridiculous, but I no longer have to dig out that same self-hiding phone to look at the time. I can now glance at my wrist and the time is right there. Yes, I am the only person alive who is surprised and astonished that a watch tells you what time it is or that might be a reason for its purchase. This probably explains a lot about me.

When I put the Mickey face on the watch, I can even touch the watch without looking and hear the time. I wish that feature was available on other faces and without the creepy pedo-vibe that Mickey gives. I’ve sort of given up on Mickey because 1. pedo and 2. not enough complications (the add-ons that let you stick mini-app widgets onto the main display, kind of the “Apple Watch Dock” metaphorically) and switched to the Infographic display instead. But I love the “tap to hear the time” feature, even if I don’t use it very much.

Not only do I now know the time just by looking but my watch also tells me what date it is: perfect for writing checks, filling out forms, what have you. I don’t have to check my computer’s menu bar or drag out that phone. Again, this is about as deep into Captain Obvious territory as you get. It’s also a simple pleasure I did not consider when buying this hunk of expensive tech strapped to my arm.

And if that’s not enough, I also know what appointments are coming up next because my calendar events appear in the center of my main screen. These events travel with me no matter where I am and I can review, analyze, and plan even on the go. I didn’t realize how much I checked my schedule until I stopped looking at my calendar on my computer all the time. My watch freed me from that.

My most-used complication (again, that’s a “docked” app widget) is my timer. And I use it constantly throughout my day,  whether I’m cooking or working or doing physical therapy. I never knew how much I needed a $400+ timer on my wrist. You can pick from the presets (1 minute, 3, 5, 10, etc) or customize exactly the timing you need. I wish I could run more than a single timer at once, as there are often several things I’m doing at once. (Making waffles? 2 minutes, one after another. Stew? 90 minutes. etc)

I love how I can download audible books and music to my wrist and listen to them completely without a phone as I work out. Yes, I wish I could use the built-in speaker but even with Bluetooth-only audio, it freeing to step away from my big old 6+ and fashion-forward (yeah right) fanny pack. At some point I’m going to buy all kinds of tinkly yoga music but for right now I’m doing my PT stretches at the gym to the strains of “Funny in Farsi“.

I’m really pleased that Siri is along for the ride. I get a lot of the same utility from wristSiri as phoneSiri in terms of quick math calculations, sending a text, making a call, and so forth. I love Siri!

I’m also a big fan of both the breathe and stand app, items that have…mixed…reception and utility in the wider watch world. I use the breathe app not just to work on breathing but to exercise my back muscles and sitting strength. The stand app gives me the opportunity to stretch and move and challenge myself. I’d like to push these even further and have been shopping for a good coaching app that instills physical, mental, and personal habits via the watch. If you have any recs, let me know!

I haven’t installed many 3rd party apps on this, but I’m particularly pleased with the Just Press Record app, which does exactly what the name suggests for noting down quick thoughts when there’s no pen or paper around. On a similar note, I like that you can draw messages in the built-in texting app. It’s not ideal but it’s saved me a few times when I needed to respond to family quickly, even if the response sometimes looks like “Yes you CaN buy IT but nto mre than $10“.

I’d love to hear what 3rd party apps you’ve found that work well for you. I used the Sleep++ tracker (paid with IAP) for a while but it’s not great and I like not having to wear a wristband to bed. I also own the irritatingly meticulous Rules game, which I occasionally play when I’m desperate for something to occupy me. I feel as if I’m missing out on some great apps but I wouldn’t know where to begin.

Speaking of apps, every now and then I need a quick app that I can grab and take with me and the watch is perfect for that. To be honest, writing for watchOS is annoying (and testing is horrible) but for simple things, I can write and throw an app onto my watch for immediate use as I need it and then unload it when I don’t need it anymore. I’ve done this to scrape schedules for quick reference, to store a few important pictures to show and share, and a few other apps of various utility.

Again, this is an unexpected pleasure that doesn’t involve having to drag the phone along with me when I use them and despite the development process not being ideal, it’s a fully customizable thing that gives me the tools I need when I need them in a form that is the most portable I could imagine.

Let me finish by talking about my wristband, which I mentioned earlier in this post. When buying the watch, I first went with the sports loop, after trying all the bands on at the store. Once at home, I found it uncomfortable when worn for multiple hours at a time. So from there I bought a very cheap milanese loop knockoff for about $10 at Amazon. It’s very pretty, but had the same no-flex/no-give issues as the sports band.

In the end, I purchased a third party woven elastic band from Tefeca for just under $30 with tax shipped. I still don’t love having something physical on my wrists but this seems to be the best compromise I’ve found.

So what do you love about your watch and what advice do you have for me as a new watch owner? Please let me know.

MacBook Pros and External Displays

Today, I hooked a newly purchased display to my MBP. (Looks like they’re out of stock right now, but it was $80 for 24″ when I bought it last week.) This isn’t intended to be my display. It’s replacing an old 14″ monitor for a kid. I thought I’d just steal it now and then during the day. It’s extremely lightweight and easy to move between rooms.

What I didn’t expect was how awful the text looked on it. I hooked up the monitor to the MBP using my Apple TV HDMI cable. The text was unreadable. I use similar TV-style monitors for my main system and they display text just fine. However, I’m using normal display ports and cables for my mini. This is the first time I’ve gone HDMI direct.

So off to websearch I went. Sure enough this is a known longstanding problem that many people have dealt with before. The MBP sees the TV as a TV and not a monitor. It produces a YUV signal instead of the RGB signal that improves text crispness. Pictures look pretty, text looks bad.

All the searches lead to this ruby script. The script builds a display override file containing a vendor and product ID with 4:4:4 RGB color support. The trick lies in getting macOS to install, read, and use it properly. That’s because you can’t install the file directly to /System/Library/Displays/Contents/Resources/Overrides/ in modern macOS. Instead, you have to disable “rootless”.

I wasn’t really happy about going into recovery mode. Disabling system integrity protection feels like overkill for a simple display issue. But it  worked.  It really only took a few minutes to resolve once I convinced myself it was worth doing. If you have any warnings and cautions about installing custom display overrides, please let me know. It  feels like I did something morally wrong even if it did fix my problem.

My external display went from being unusable to merely imperfect. The text is still a bit blurry but you can read it without inducing a migraine. Not nearly as crisp as normal display ports (which looks fine when used with this monitor) but I don’t have to buy a new cable and I don’t plan to use this much.

If I were going to use this monitor regularly with the MBP, I’d definitely purchase a proper cable. As it is, I’m happy enough to have found a workable-ish solution. The monitor is quite nice especially in “shop mode”, and has so far worked well with Chromecast, AppleTV, and Wii.

Why we develop

From my inbox:

I have been steadily using folderol in order to help me define which folders are important, as well as which ones are not.

Folderol has also been handy to me in developing subfolders within folders and having those subfolders be different colors, which helps me find the information inside of them quicker.

Thank you for developing such a great product.  If the folderol app is any indication of other products that you might have developed or that are in the development stage, I look forward to seeing what other applications you have.

Respectfully,

Demetrius Moyston

Folderol at the Mac App Store