Archive for the ‘Musings’ Category

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.

Teaching collections: shifting paradigms and breaking rules

Just because some things look alike and may act alike at some level, doesn’t mean that they should be taught at the same time, under a unified umbrella of learning. Consider bagels and donuts. They are both toroids . You can layer several instances onto a stick for storage or serving. You can cut them both in half. If you have no taste or sanity, you can place custard — or, cream cheese, salmon, onions, and capers — interchangeably between the two sides of either item.

Despite these common API surfaces, their use-cases, edge conditions, and recipes share little overlap. Conformance to ToroidFoodstuff does not correlate with each preparation of dough, the cooking process, or the serving and accoutrements associated with either food.

So why do we always have to lump arrays, sets, and dictionaries into a single lesson on collections?

A new language learner has little interest in traversing dictionaries, although it’s possible, or taking a set’s prefix, which is also allowed. Nor are new learners always prepared to take on optionals, the core return value for dictionary lookups, early in the language learning process.

I’ve recently spent some time helping to outline an introductory sequence for Swift learning. I pitched eliminating collections as a single topic unto itself. I want to reject superficial similarity and build language skills by introducing simple, achievable tasks that provide measurable and important wins early in the learning process.

Take arrays. They can store numbers and strings and more. You can grow them, shrink them, slice them. They have a count. They have indexes.  Arrays are perfectly matched with iteration in general and for-in loops in particular. Arrays and for-in iteration work hand-in-hand. So why not learn them together?

The answer is generally that arrays belong with collections and for loops belongs within a larger set of iteration topics. Ask yourself whether new coders actually need while and repeat-while loops in their initial approach to the language? How often in normal Swift coding do you reach for those two for simple reasons in simple code?

I’m not saying while-loops shouldn’t be taught. I’m trying to figure out what sequence of incremental learning provides new Swift developers with the most coherent set of basic tools they need to express themselves and expand their understanding over time.

Every classroom minute spent mastering while is a minute that could expand and practice for. Introductory lessons should focus on the core terms and patterns most commonly used in the workplace. Expressive language vocabulary can always be expanded through practice and engagement. Classroom minutes represent the restricted path.

Dictionaries, I argue, should be taught late. Every lookup is tied directly to optionals, a dictionary’s native return type. And optionals are quite a conceptually heavy topic. Dictionaries are the perfect pairing.  The type is a natural source of optional output, and an opportunity to discuss nil-coalescing and default fallbacks.

From there, you can pull in failable initializers, and optional chaining.  Dictionaries also lend themselves to advanced concepts like (key, value)-based for-in loop tuples, the key-value basics of Codable, and how custom structs relate to key-value coding, not to mention the entire conversation about nil, errors, try?, and more.

As for sets, well, I love sets and use sets, but are sets even appropriate for new learners outside of some sense of “completionism” learning? Should they be taught only because they’re one of the “big three” collection types? I’d argue that people should learn sets when they are already proficient in core language basics, not in the most introductory setting.

For example, you can tie sets into a lesson on view touches. Just because they’re a collection doesn’t mean that the newest students have to learn every collection right away, just as they don’t need to learn NSDictionary, NSArray, and AnyObject, and so forth, in the first days or weeks of exposure to Swift.

Trying to structure a plan to create a solid foundation of incremental learning is a challenging task for any non-trivial topic. When it comes to Swift and Cocoa/Cocoa Touch with its vast range of potential interests, ask the questions: “What core concepts and patterns best reward the language learner with immediate benefit?”, “What grouping conventions should be tossed overboard to better focus on the skills with highest returns?”, and “What critical paths allow learners to proceed towards measurable skills and performance with the least overhead?”

Justify each topic with an answer that’s not “it’s covered that way in the Swift Programming Language book”, especially when working with new learners versus developers moving into the language with existing programming experience. And even when teaching more experienced students, let the daily realities they’re trying to move towards mold the curriculum of what you choose to teach.

The best learners teach themselves. The best curriculum sets them up to do so.

Musing on API names for trailing and functional closures

When a call returns a value, I almost always use in-line closures. I prefer to surround functional calls with parens. I know my style is not universally popular, as many developers prefer the look of raw braces. It’s not uncommon to see calls like this:

numbers.sorted { $0 < $1 }.forEach {
  print($0)
}

The functional sort is chained to the non-functional loop, both using braces. Mandatory functional parens do two things. They differentiate expressions and they add the clarity of role labels that are lost with trailing closures. Compare these with the preceding call:

numbers.sorted(by: { $0 < $1 }).forEach {
  print($0)
}

// or even

numbers.sorted(by: <).forEach { print($0) }

In each case, the combination of name and label (in this case, sorted(by:)) is clearer and more easily read. Many APIs are designed without initial labels for Void-returning closures. They’re intended from the start to act as language-like constructs, so adding labels is either superfluous or detracts from the call when omitted:

public func forEach(_ body: (Self.Element) throws -> Void) rethrows

Omitting labels shouldn’t cloud intent even when a closure meant for functional calls is used. I could imagine common API naming rules to help guide labels and functional use (for example, “omit labels for Void-returning closure arguments” or “include role hint labels for functional closure arguments used to process and pass through values”).

Such rules might help but there’s one class of closures that doesn’t normally follow. Completion handlers, especially those sourced from Cocoa and Cocoa Touch, are almost always labeled as completion or some close variant. They’re designed for non-returning (and often asynchronous) execution. For example, you might see:

func run(_ action: SKAction, completion block: @escaping () -> Void)

or

func dataTask(with: URL, completionHandler: (Data?, URLResponse?, Error?) -> Void) -> URLSessionDataTask

These items are normally called as trailing closures, so why shouldn’t their API naming follow suit? Wouldn’t it make more sense to have _ completionBlock: or _ completionHandler: than to use explanatory labels that are most commonly hidden when called?

What do you think? Let me know.

Prototyping CoreGraphics in the Playground

No matter how flaky, I love using playgrounds to prototype Core Graphics, SpriteKit, and many other see-as-you-go technologies. They’re fantastic for building out specific custom content with a bare minimum of coding investment. You get a lot of win for very little time.

I was helping someone out the other day, explaining the strokeEnd keypath (versus the path keypath) and building a playground showed it off to perfection.

Admittedly, it helps to have quick helper code on-hand for quick starts. I have playground-specific setup code, handing me a view controller (called vc) and a centered view, ready to start demo-ing in this one.

I also have a couple of pages of code (like the layer(path:) constructor, the animateStrokemethods, and the schedule() utility off page, in the support module. They’re all highly reusable. It’s a pity in-playground debugging is so dreadful. It would be an ideal module-building tool if not for that: build and explore (and ideally build tests) in a single place, without having to be in a fixed workspace lacking the exploration feature. Adding “convert this exploration into a test” would be icing on top.

I’m disappointed that playground-specific visualizations built for teaching and demos don’t transfer to the debugger for real-world production support. I don’t see any reason why a CGPoint instance should get a pretty graphic representation but a CGAffineTransform, for which I have quite a full presentation, does not.

I can use custom mirroring to produce valuable output for dump, and therefore for printing objects in the debugger but not for debug quicklooks. Plus as far as I can tell the custom NSObject-only quicklooks haven’t been updated in years and there’s no hint of extending this to structs and enums.

By the way, what’s the deal with all the API audits? How long are these going to go on? If you thought updating the app delegate was a minor nuisance, you haven’t seen what’s happened to all the constants and Core Graphics APIs. This update is huge and disruptive…

Return to Sender: My first dive into watchOS

Just wrote my first two watchOS apps. The first, intended to provide voice coaching for physical therapy exercises, was a failure. Timing just wasn’t reliable and the errors built up more and more over a session of repeated counts, holds, and “almost there”/”two more”/”last one” prompts.

The second was a simple D&D dice set and much more successful. (Barring, of course, my miserable sense of interface design.)

It consists of an iOS app paired with a watchOS extension, which runs as its own watchOS app, allowing anyone with an arm and a need for d20 to roll at will.

The WatchOS APIs were disappointing at first glance. For one thing watch buttons use target-action but provide no sense of sender. A single iOS call must be split into 7 calls on the watch:

// iOS. I used tags. Sue me.
@IBAction func roll(_ button: UIButton) {
    let value = Int.random(in: 1 ... button.tag)
    let percent = button.tag == 100 ? "%" : ""
    label.text = "\(value)\(percent)"
}

// watchOS
@IBAction func d4()  { label.setText("\(Int.random(in: 1...4))")  }
@IBAction func d6()  { label.setText("\(Int.random(in: 1...6))")  }
@IBAction func d8()  { label.setText("\(Int.random(in: 1...8))")  }
@IBAction func d10() { label.setText("\(Int.random(in: 1...10))") }
@IBAction func d12() { label.setText("\(Int.random(in: 1...12))") }
@IBAction func d20() { label.setText("\(Int.random(in: 1...20))") }
@IBAction func dPercent() { label.setText("\(Int.random(in: 1...100))%") }

There’s no auto-layout so far as I can tell, so you either “fill” things or you give them fixed sizes. I couldn’t figure out a way to split my buttons into thirds of the available screen space.

Setting a label’s text is a matter of a function call not a property assignment. That was surprising to me. I’m not sure what advantage was gained here beyond violating the principle of least astonishment.

I had to design my app’s interface in the WatchKitApp target but implement it in the extension target. This may be perfectly normal and in-line with other extensions on iOS but I haven’t spent much time there so it raised my eyebrows a bit. You add your app assets in the app, your complications (which I did not build) in the extension.

Right now on my priority list, I’d like to build something similar to the “breathe” app. I don’t entirely know where to start. I need to use a notification system to launch the app at set intervals, n times a day, preferably during the work day, and then use some kind of coached interaction with haptic feedback. My immediate goal is one that has me regularly exercise my sitting back muscles to build up strength.

I’m a bit sad about the timing issues I encountered with my first jab at the coaching app. I may approach that again with a new design as having my wrist count and prompt would be a lot better than having to do all the work myself (I always lose my place) or having to keep my phone nearby.

My need for reps, holds, and rest periods are simple. And while I don’t particularly like the scrolling wheel that seems to take the place of segmented controls, I can live with them.

If you’d like to see my first project (either to be inspired or to offer critiques), I’ve left a copy at github.

Tuple Initialization

I’ve been wanting  tuple-initializable in Swift for Core Graphics, where it’s a drag to always use long and cumbersome initializers when I’m not building production code:

let point: CGPoint = (100, 50)

Yeah, it is better form to use labeled initializers but I’m anyone using CGPoint understands the correspondence between (x, y) coordinates. And I don’t want to just build CGPoint.init(_ x:, _ y:) extensions. I like the tuple form.

Right now, the closest you can get is the silly:

let point = (CGPoint.init as (CGFloat, CGFloat) -> CGPoint)(100, 50)

And that’s (pardon the pun) pointless.

It would be pretty cool to allow memberwise tuples with or without labels in place of  initializers when the tuple field types could be unambiguously determined:

let point: CGPoint = (x: 100, y: 50) 
// instead of: let point = CGPoint(x: 100, y: 50)
let person: Person = ("Mary", nil, "Santos")
// instead of: let person = Person(first: "Mary", middle: nil, last: "Santos")

It may be ugly but it would be hella useful in Playgrounds.

Pronouncing “Tuple”

A tuple is a finite ordered list of elements. It is presented as a parentheses-braced, comma-delimited list. In Swift, you can use them as stand-alone heterogenous lists of values or pass them as arguments to functions and closures.

A tuple is pronounced “tupple” (TUH-ple), not “two-pull”. It’s a shortcut pulled from “double, triple, quintuple, sextuple, octuple”, etc. Yes, please note that “quadruple” doesn’t fit with the others and is not used as a basis for speaking the word. Rules about long and short “u”s that apply to other English words are also not relevant to this case.

In Swift, a tuple is analogous to an anonymous struct. Its members are indexed numerically (.0, .1.2, etc). You can also use labels to access members by name:

let point = (x: 5.0, y: 2.3)
print(point.1) // 2.3
print(point.y) // 2.3

Swift 3.0 and later no longer supports splatting, so you cannot decouple a tuple from a function call. You can read more about this in SE-0029, which disallowed the ability. Before the change, you could call a function either with its direct arguments or by passing a tuple:

func foo(a : Int, b : Int) {}
foo(a: 42, b : 17) // still allowed
let x = (a: 1, b: 2)
foo(x) // no longer allowed in Swift 3+

The continued work on SE-0110 is still resolving on how tuples and closures interact.

The word “arity” describes the number of members in a tuple. (It also describes the number of arguments or operands accepted by a function, method, or closure.) The examples above use an arity of 2. You can call this a “2-arity tuple” or the shortcut “2-ary tuple”. Some shorten that further to a “2-tuple”.  All are acceptable.

Some fun facts to finish with:

  • A figurative tuple with an arbitrary arity is an “n-arity” or “n-ary” or “n-tuple”.
  • A tuple with a variable number of arguments is variadic.

The problem with Swift Playground localization

Starting in Swift Playgrounds 2, you can now use localized strings to guide the narration of your interactive lessons. As the screenshot above demonstrates, you can used localizable markup to provide the most appropriate text for titles, introductory text, and feedback.

However, what you can’t do is localize Swift members. Your French and Chinese consumers must tell Byte to moveForward(), not avancer() or 向前移动().

One of the guiding principles of the Swift language is demonstrated in its embrace of unicode for identifier symbols. This approach accommodates programmers and programming styles from many languages and cultures.

Xcode 9 has introduced major advances in code refactoring. It seems an obvious win to allow that technology to be applied to Swift Playgrounds 2, enabling identifier localization.

That’s because identifiers play such a key role in Swift Playgrounds. Unlike standard development tasks, where it’s unnecessary to create idiomatic APIs like IUContrôleurDeNavigation, the point of Swift Playgrounds is to teach and instruct. It uses small, limited, controlled API exposure, nearly all custom and supporting of the teaching story.

The anthropomorphized Byte character acts as a stand-in for the learner coder. And in doing so, it should communicate with commands that this coder identifies with, turnLeft and moveForward, not incomprehensibleForeignPhrase1 and evenMoreConfusingForeignPhrase2.

I think this is an opportunity waiting to happen, and I can’t imagine it would be all that hard to implement given the expansive identifier suite and the limited API visibility presented in a typical playgroundBook.

What do you think? Is it too much to ask for a localizable.Members.plist?

Bug reporter complaints

I wasn’t part of the bug reporter preview but having used it today, I’ve got to say that I am not a huge fan of the updated interface. It may be pretty, but for me it’s harder to use. I’d rather see icons and names at the start of the entry screen than scroll through three pages of iconless text (and their subtables) as I try to recognize the phrase that best matches my issue.

It’s funny because this design is a clearly cognitive mismatch between how I used to find the right items, which was just a matter of a single-screen scan, and trying to construct or detect the right verbal phrase that now matches the target issue. The new system is hitting the wrong part of my brain.

If you look at it, it’s laid out very nicely, with big clear areas to enter text and the “drop a screenshot” system is vastly improved over the old system. (Nice job there!) I like the font choices, can live with the sickly purple, and a lot of thought has gone into streamlining issue entry.

That said, the whitespace feels like there’s too much there, the left-to-right range of field width is too hard to scan to review the information you’ve entered, and as I mentioned before, the ‘What are you seeing an issue with?” tables are a little too much for me to process.

If I were to redesign it, I’d:

  • Change the wording to be more business-like: “Classify this issue:”, not “How would you classify this issue?”. “Affected Product or Area”, not “What are you seeing an issue with?”. “Bug or Suggestion”, not “What kind of issue are you reporting” (with the bias being towards ‘bug’, since that’s the primary purpose of the tool.) “Reproducing the issue”, not “What steps can we take to reproduce this issue”, and so forth.
  • In the prompt text, I’d eliminate weasel words. “Step-by-step instructions to reproduce this problem”, not “Please provide a step-by-step set of instructions to reproduce the problem (if possible).”
  • I’d cut back massively on the vertical whitespace, allowing more of the report to be seen at once. There’s just too much floaty gray for my taste.
  • I’d apply one of the “optimal line length” studies, which suggests anywhere between 50 and 75 characters per line for text (which is most of what this tool provides) and 80-160 characters for code entry. (I’d also consider a code-specific “related code” field.) The current width is about 98 characters if I counted correctly. It is very hard to track from the right back to the left while maintaining vertical positioning.
  • I’d explicitly mention Markdown/Common Mark support for bullets and numbering, as well as other markup.
  • I’d change the Suggestion/Bug toggle into either a radio control or a visual toggle with Bug, which should be to the left, pre-selected.
  • I’d massively increase the size of the “Cancel/Save/Submit” buttons and move them from the bottom bar to the main field under attachments.
  • Finally, I’d add a specific call out on completion. Thank the developer for taking time from their busy workday and express appreciation for participating in the radar process. Enroll them either in a rewards-for-radars program or a random giftcard giveaway for the month. It’s a small price to sweeten that “Radar or GTFO” message and it lowers frustration of typing into a big, faceless, low-feedback system.

Those are my thoughts. What are yours?

That API thing

Today, Nikita Voloboev was trying to wrap his head around how this whole Cocoa/Cocoa Touch API thing worked. The conversation started when he asked, “Is UIKit part of Cocoa?” The docs weren’t really giving him an idea of how it all worked. After a few minutes back and forth, he derived this concept using the tools at mindnode.com:

It was a good first guesstimate even though it doesn’t exactly capture Apple’s API design. I hopped into Preview and sketched out this diagram instead. (And yes, some day I may write a book about all the cool things you can do for free in Preview):

I explained how the API families shared certain frameworks but that the frameworks weren’t uniformly implemented across all the platforms within that family. Cocoa and Cocoa Touch, I tried to explain, were the API families specific to four operating systems: macOS, iOS, watchOS, and tvOS.

I pointed him to this definition, which I pulled up by a web search for define cocoa apple:

Cocoa is Apple’s native object-oriented application programming interface (API) for their operating system macOS. For iOS, tvOS, and watchOS, a similar API exists, named Cocoa Touch, which includes gesture recognition, animation, and a different set of graphical control elements.

He then threw that definition into another mind map, which he uses to keep notes. This was a cool and unexpected way of exploring new knowledge:

 

I’m fascinated by his learning toolset, which includes both mind mapping and Anki Decks (see https://apps.ankiweb.net and this explanation of Spaced repetition.) I tend to turn to paper and pen, or other familiar tools, to take notes or to share.

What kind of tools do you use to explore and explain new areas of learning?