Category Archives: Snippets

Micro Blog

I started a micro blog at mjdescy.micro.blog this week. It is not to replace this blog, but to supplement it with a more frequently updated stream of short comments and asides about my life, or about news items that directly affect my life in some way. I want it to be like Twitter was for me back when I first joined it: a stream of consciousness, and a window into my life. My plan is to keep this blog (my macro-blog?) free of micro blog posts and life blogging, and more focused on longer articles, bigger ideas, and more complete thoughts—as it has been from the very start.

What I want is Twitter that isn’t Twitter

I love Twitter. So much information and commentary is shared there, so quickly, that it is a vital source for “what is going on on the Internet today”. At the same time, I hate Twitter, for all the bad behavior performed on the platform that Twitter, the company, tolerates. I’m not alone. A lot of people I follow feel the same way. I see tweets like this almost every day:

Brad DeLong: “I wish there was a network like twitter, but not, you know, actually Twitter”

 

The thing is, practically since Twitter’s inception, alternatives did exist. I know. I used them: Identi.ca, StatusNet (the successor to Identi.ca), Pump.io (the successor to StatusNet), and App.net (a for-fee Twitter that got a lot of press but not so many users). And, I abandoned them and went back to Twitter, despite its flaws. So did everybody else.

Why is Twitter so sticky, and nothing else is?

What makes Twitter is valuable not what it does—microblogging is relatively easy to implement these days—but who is on it: Famous people! Intellectuals! Politicians! Journalists! These people and many more are not only publishing there, but reading there, too. Communication with, and between, influential people there can be two-way, and is usually in public, which is fascinating to read and unlike any other communications platform that had come before it. Twitter can amplify the voice of the non-famous and non-published people, too—the under-represented—which is often great.

Why is Twitter described as a cesspool?

Sometimes, though, amplifying under-represented voices is not great. Some voices are under-represented because they are malicious: Racists! Nazis! Liars! Sexist doxxers! Spammers! Russian bots! Malicious people have unique incentives to exploit and abuse a communications platform like Twitter. First, simply having a medium and a platform to spread their message is unique to them, because these people have been barred or banned elsewhere from spreading their message. Second, access to this new platform may be fleeting, because they could be banned there, too, for the same reasons they have been banned elsewhere. Third, people who want to spread malice are not the type of people who are concerned with preserving the health of the platform’s community, or the platform’s reputation in the wider world. Therefore, they can destroy the platform in the process of spreading their message.

Why can’t Twitter fix this?

The world is too complex to separate people, or Twitter users, into good and bad actors. What is unpopular or under-represented today may be celebrated tomorrow; it may be true and worth spreading today. Understandably, Twitter doesn’t want to choose who gets to speak on their platform. Therefore, they tolerate hate speech on their platform to a degree that makes some of their users angry. It puts the company in a difficult position when hate speech is broadcast (retweeted) by the President of the United States, as it was this week.

I understand Twitter’s problems as a company. It needs eyeballs on it to sell ads. Controversy on the platform, and the sheer number of active users (whether they are real people or bots), lead to greater traffic, greater revenue, and greater return on investment for their investors—at least in the short run. In the long run, however, poisonous speech on the platform poisons the platform.

What to do about it, as a Twitter user?

Basically, it is hard to see how, as users, we can improve Twitter. Twitter, the company, owns the platform. Consequently, it has the sole power to fix its flaws. Improvements to blocking and reporting abuse that Twitter has implemented have not satisfied the users who need them the most.

Moving away from Twitter entirely, onto another, similar platform, can work for small communities who primarily wish to communicate amongst themselves. It is unlikely, however, that a critical mass of influential users—the celebrities, journalists, etc., who make the platform valuable—will move to a different platform at this point. Without those users, another platform, however superior from a technical or community management standpoint, would not have as much value.

As a Twitter user, you really have two choices now: live with the abusive users, and report and block them as well as you can; or, if Twitter abuse is bothering you enough (or worse, threatening to your safety), stop using Twitter entirely. That is a sad conclusion to make, but I think it is realistic. Twitter’s ad-based model, need to generate both traffic and return on investment to satisfy its shareholders are, in the short run, at odds with its stated goal to improve safety, and therefore community, on its platform.

Fortunately, there are other ways to write content on the internet for free, such as WordPress. The problem is, you may never achieve the same reach with these other platforms as you would with Twitter. That is why I am sticking with Twitter myself. From a moralistic point of view, I would love to ditch it for something else. Despite that feeling, I get enough value from Twitter to keep using it, despite the sick-to-my-stomach feeling the Twitterverse gives me some days.

Back to RSS and the Indie Web

At the end of last year, I quit using RSS. It was a big step for me. I had been using RSS practically since it first became available. My first RSS reader was the Sage plugin for FireFox, which I started using in 2004. I subscribed to Slate, LifeHacker, a couple other professional publications, and a fairly large number of personal blogs, covering topics ranging from technology, economics, and personal finance to cooking and television shows. I was obsessive about skimming my feed many times a day, reading every headline, and often every article, of Slate and my favorite blogs.

I eventually dropped Sage for Google Reader, and used it, and later Feedly, as a back-end to whatever smartphone RSS reader I was using. For years I checked my feeds a dozen times a day, read a ton of articles (though not all of them, as I used to), and generally felt pretty happy with the experience.

Why I quit using RSS

I stuck with RSS long after I became a habitual Twitter user, long after I started to see articles linked to from Twitter before they hit my RSS reader, and long after most technology writers and podcasters started disparaging RSS as some antiquated technology that, like dial-up internet service, was hopelessly out of date.

Eventually, though, I quit using RSS—not because it was uncool, but because it was no longer making me happy. Like those writers and podcasters said, the basic need RSS fulfilled for me—keeping current, and entertained with fresh reading material—was being fulfilled by other services. Twitter did so more timely, and with more commentary from the writers. News aggregators, such as Apple News, did so with a slicker visual style. (I am emphatically not a regular Facebook user, so I miss out on whatever is going on there.)

I thought these services were more hip, modern, and fun than RSS. Most importantly, I thought they were keeping me more current. After all, for a long time, my RSS reader (the wonderful Reeder app for iOS) fed me the same articles that I had already seen on Twitter. Worse, it fed me five or six different publications’ takes on the same subject every day, which was interesting a few days of the year (such as when reviews of new Apple devices hit the streets), but was otherwise completely redundant.

What I missed without RSS

After a year RSS-free, I started to think something was missing. I was literally missing articles that I would like to read, especially those from bloggers I liked, such as Erica Sadun and John Gruber, because they would pass by in the timeline before I would see them. I was missing bloggers’ voices in general, because most of my Twitter list (like everybody’s, I’m sure) is heavily news related. I could keep up with what the New York Times and Washington Post are publishing each day pretty well; but what about what Manton Reece and Tyler Cowlin are publishing? Their voices were being buried in my Twitter feed by the daily (hourly?) news cycle.

Without RSS, I missed the spirit of the independent web: all those individuals and small publications who are sharing knowledge and expressing opinions that don’t fit into 140 characters, or even 280.

Back to RSS (and Atom, and JSON Feed)

After many months away from it, I realized that RSS wasn’t the problem—I was. I wasn’t using RSS in a way that made me happy. Worse, I supplanted it with Twitter, which both sucked up all my attention every day, and reduced my attention span for content to 140 characters (a length perfect for snipes and jabs and headlines, but insufficient for most cogent thoughts). Fortunately, RSS has not died since the rise of Twitter and Facebook. It has quietly remained a fundamental internet technology, undergirding nearly every online publishing platform. Many, many sites support it without advertising it the way they used to ten years ago. Luckily, any good client can find feeds using just the site URL.

Not only RSS is still there: my longstanding RSS software is still there, too. Like in 2013, I am using Reeder on iOS as a front end, and Feedly as a back end. Reeder has been around almost as long as the App Store. It is rarely updated, but it just works. It’s simplicity, elegance, and stability make it one of the finest apps on the platform. Feedly, the back end service that actually checks my feeds, is a free service that I basically never look at. I don’t use their website. I don’t use their app. I don’t really know or care how they make money off of me. It, like Reeder, is solid, stable, and just works.

Using RSS with a different perspective

After returning to my RSS reader after such a long break, I had thousands of unread items and dozens of subscriptions. I decided to start over, so I unsubscribed to all my feeds, and started thinking about what I really wanted to get out of RSS, and, in general, out of the Internet.

I decided to use RSS differently now. I no longer need it to drink the content firehose and keep current with the minute-by-minute news cycle; Twitter is available for that, for good or ill. Instead, RSS enables me to follow a few interesting voices on the Internet, read their actual, in-depth thoughts, and not miss anything they have to say.

To these ends, I no longer follow big media sites. Primarily, I follow blogs: real blogs, written by actual people, rather than published by massive organizations. I’m mostly following Apple-focused tech bloggers and Swift programmers, which reflects my favorite hobbies—but that’s just what I’m doing for now. Lastly, I’m not checking my RSS feeds a hundred times per day. I am checking only a one or two times per day, and often I don’t have any updates. Instead of adding more feeds, I just accept it now. Sometimes there’s nothing new to read, and that’s OK.

I’m happy with RSS again. All it took was figuring out what I really needed to get out of it, and taking control of how I used it. It’s a really great technology, no matter how passé or uncool it seems to be.

What makes you love or hate a smartphone?

I wonder this, as smartphones are maturing into what may be their final form: bezel-less slabs of glass with high-res screens, microphones, and sensors, that all look pretty much the same. The iPhone 8, for example, is the fourth generation of iPhone with the same basic form factor. A few years back, this would have been unheard of. A few years from now, though, I wouldn’t be surprised if there still is a “legacy” iPhone out there with this form factor, discounted several hundred dollars below what the iPhone X form-factor phone of the day will cost.

If all smartphones have the same basic shape, does it even matter which one you have? I think it does. You can still hate one phone and love another with the same case design. There are other things that matter, beyond the obvious distinction in operating system and/or Android skin. My experience with the iPhone 6S vs. the iPhone 7 is a case in point.

Nearly identical phones can be vastly different

Last September, I traded in my one-year-old iPhone 6S Plus for an iPhone 7 Plus, though Apple’s iPhone upgrade program. I hadn’t originally intended to do this. I had always kept my phones for two full years, and I chose the iPhone upgrade plan to get a nice monthly payment that also included AppleCare+.

The reason why I upgraded last year is that, after a year with it, I decided that I hated the iPhone 6S Plus. My 6S Plus was fine, and I never had any problems with the hardware or software, but I never really liked it, for several reasons. First, it was big, and I wasn’t used to big phones at that point. Second, it was ugly: the space gray aluminum finish was dull and drab. Third, it was ungainly: not only was it a large phone that strained my hand and my pockets, but its edges were smooth and slippery. Its Apple leather case was awful, too: it had mushy, hard to distinguish buttons, and its patina became slick and unpleasant after only a few months of wear. (Yes, I know the leather case is not the phone, but as it was an Apple product released alongside the phone, I think it is fair to include it in my assessment here.) The phone’s camera and software ecosystem were great, but it didn’t feel good in my hand, and that is crucial to how attached you can get to a handheld device.

While I grew to hate the iPhone 6S Plus, I quickly grew to love the iPhone 7 Plus. This surprised me, because the 7 Plus is basically the same phone. Sure, it has several major improvements—most notably, dual rear cameras and a much faster processor. Its minor improvements, however, contribute a lot more to my love for it. First, it looks great: the black finish is gorgeous and even blends seamlessly with Apple’s black leather case. Second, it feels great: I like the feel of the back much better, and the Apple leather case that came out with it has better quality leather, and clicky buttons on the sides. Its Taptic Engine, which provides force feedback for 3D Touch, the home button, and various user interface interactions, is absolutely amazing. It makes certain interactions, like scrolling picker views, 3D touching app icons, or pressing the home button, feel like you are interacting with actual, three-dimensional objects. It doesn’t vibrate as much as tap you with a reassuring, nearly soundless thud. The force feedback feels so good that it is almost addicting. It’s the kind of thing you would never think is important before you have it, but you don’t want to live without it once you do—like having heated seats in your car, for instance, or even the Apple Watch.

It isn’t just about the iPhone

I have the Essential Phone, now, too, which runs Android. I love it, too, though not as much as the iPhone. Why I love it, however, is a similar story to the one above, but it takes into account other manufacturers’ phones as well.

The Essential is one of a new breed of “bezel-less” phones. (These phones all still have bezels or notches or cutouts somewhere.) It is a smaller phone with a larger screen, much like the iPhone X, Pixel 2 XL, and Samsung Galaxy Note 8. Its lack of bezels make it smaller, and therefore easier to hold and pocket, than my iPhone 7 Plus, and other flagship phones of yesteryear.

Its glass screen and ceramic back make it like an impossibly smooth and cool piece of jet black soap. Its flat sides and smooth edges make it just grippy enough to feel secure in the hand, as opposed to slippery and droppable. Holding it, rather than using it, is the luxurious part of the experience. It feels just fantastic in the hand.

It doesn’t hurt that it has snappy performance as well—but you could get that from other phones as well. In fact, I vastly prefer it to the Samsung Galaxy phones and Pixel phones (the last generation, alas) that I’ve held. While those are the top Android phones in performance, hardware design, and features, I just don’t like them. It’s hard to put my finger on exactly why, but the materials and case design do not suit my tastes at all. They feel icky to me, in a way the Essential Phone never did.

The emotional connection

It isn’t 100% rational what makes a piece of technology suit you. It’s emotional. And sometimes the most subtle things—such as the color and feel of the materials, or the quality of the haptic feedback—can make you love a phone, or hate it.

Great haptic feedback is a major contributor to why the iPhone 7 Plus is my favorite phone. It feels great, and it feels alive when I touch it. I didn’t expect that feature to even matter to me, let along bind me to that particular model of phone. But it did. I don’t think most handset manufactures get that. After all, feeling is not a checklist feature.

I think Apple does get it, and little things like the Taptic Engine feeling so different than anything else are intentional parts of their industrial design and marketing strategies. Their industrial design and marketing teams have started (first, in my opinion, with the Apple Watch, and then with the iPhone 7), to really concentrate on what makes personal technology personal—that emotional connection you can have to your devices. And what they are doing is certainly working on me.

Deciding Whether to Upgrade to the iPhone X

Last year, prior to Apple’s announcement of the iPhone 7, I had hoped for the “all-screen” design that was announced last week for the iPhone X. I was sure that would be my next phone. Now that it is here, one year later, I am not sure if I want it—at least not yet.

As an iPhone Upgrade Plan customer, I have three options at my disposal:

  1. Do nothing, upgrade to something new next year, keep my iPhone 7, and give it to one of my kids, put it in a drawer, or sell it for peanuts in 2018.
  2. Pre-order the iPhone 8 Plus, which would presumably be available soon, as the most rabid Apple fans will prefer to skip it and get the X. I would have to turn in the iPhone 7 around month 12 or 13 of my 24-month payment plan.
  3. Wait until next month and pre-order the iPhone X via the iPhone Upgrade Plan. I would likely have to wait a couple months for the phone to be available (probably January). I would have to turn in the iPhone 7 around month 15 of my 24-month payment plan.

Cost: the main reason to skip the iPhone X for me

The iPhone X starts at $999. The model with more storage that I would buy is $150 more, and AppleCare Plus costs about $200 on top of that. That represents a huge outlay for the phone. I don’t begrudge Apple for pricing the iPhone X so high, or other people for buying it without worrying about its cost. The high price is, however, a hint that the X may not be for me—at least not this year.

Additional switching costs of an early upgrade

While I love the idea of “renting” a smartphone with a fixed monthly cost (hardware as a service), it doesn’t really work that way. You actually have to buy the phone, and deal with the downsides that entails.

When I upgraded to the iPhone 7, I was surprised that I would have to pay 100% of the taxes on the new phone (about $100), plus a fee to activate it on my Verizon account (about $20). I had been thinking only about the difference in the monthly phone payment I would make, which was minuscule, and the expected cost to buy a new, compatible case. I was out over $100 for the new phone, and realized that I had already paid those costs one year earlier for the 7, and was giving up that hardware completely. On top of that, the case cost a lot, too (about $50). It is easy to forget about these costs when (1) the cost of the phone dwarfs them, and (2) the main cost of the phone is a relatively small monthly payment.

This year, wiser about the switching costs, I am just not sure if it is worth it to go from the 7 to the 8 Plus or X.

Other reasons why I am iffy on the X

Coming from the Plus, the iPhone X actually represents a step down in screen size (though it has a higher native resolution), lacks Touch ID, and has a smaller battery. I am not sure how my apps will look on the iPhone X screen. I bet developers will have to figure out how best to handle the notch and curved corners. (I am a little worried about my iOS app, SwiftoDo, too.) Face ID might be slower or less convenient than Touch ID. Battery life might not be as good as on my one-year old, heavily used iPhone 7 Plus, or even the new iPhone 8 Plus.

Considering these minor drawbacks and unknowns, it might be nice to sit out the period in which users and developers figure out the new hardware, and Apple fixes any iPhone X-related software bugs.

What about the iPhone 8 Plus?

The iPhone 8 Plus is actually pretty attractive, despite having the same old (but good!) case design as the iPhone 6, 6S, and 7. I’m sure demand for it will be rather low, by iPhone standards. I would actually be able to get one soon. It is at least $300 cheaper than the iPhone X. The model I want costs $949, which is really expensive, but my monthly iPhone Upgrade Plan payment would not change.

What to do?

If money were no object, I would buy the X outright sometime soon and never use the iPhone Upgrade Plan again. Because that is not the case, I am leaning most heavily towards skipping an upgrade this year. I will deal with decreasing battery life and knowing I don’t have the best camera or performance anymore, but I will not suffer much. Or, I may just order the iPhone 8 Plus and not worry about the X until next year. I will go to an Apple Store in the next few weeks to test my resolve.

Sublime Text 3.0 Officially Released

Sublime Text, my text editor of choice on Windows, Linux, and sometimes on the Mac, released version 3.0 tonight.

I was surprised to learn the news, because I have been using Sublime Text 3 since 2013. Those were betas, of course, but were more solid and stable than most production software I used. I have been using beta versions for so long, I basically forgot that a final release would ever be forthcoming. There was, famously, about a year over which there were no beta updates, but the developer pulled through more recently with more frequent updates and meaningful new features (like High DPI support). Now, after several years of development, the release is marked complete.

I am a huge fan of this text editor. I use it constantly for many things. I even wrote popular articles about it in my Plaintext Productivity guide. Congratulations to the developer for wrapping up the release.

Now is a good time to buy a license, or pursue an upgrade. My 2013 Sublime Text 2 purchase qualified me for a free upgrade, so I am a very happy customer now.

New A List Apart wants you!

I am a fan of the open web, and also a fan of people asking their audiences directly to pay to support content they find worthwhile. A List Apart announced yesterday that they are pulling away from their advertising-based funding model, which apparently was not working well for them anymore, toward a volunteering and patronage model, which will draw from the community that reads and loves the site. I think this reflects a trend that is starting to separate “the open web” (community-based sites) from the big commercial sites (Google and Facebook, mostly), based on funding models and even content types.

I learned so much from A List Apart over the years. As a publication, it means an awful lot to me and my professional career. I am somewhat sad to admit that I stopped reading it after I shifted away from its core topics, web design and development, and moved toward finance, data analytics, and audit. I am not longer part of its core audience or community, but I wholeheartedly wish them, and the site’s readers, writers, and editors, well.

The iPhone home button

There is news today that Apple’s next-generation iPhone—the rumored high-end one—is not only going to remove the physical home button (everyone has assumed that for a while), but it will also not replace it with an on-screen simulacrum (people like me have expected a circle icon to act as the home button). The plan, apparently, is to kill the home button entirely, and replace it with a dock of icons, like the iOS 11 betas have on the iPad. That is a bit surprising to me. Whether it is true or not, this news made me want to pause a minute and reflect on how brilliant Apple’s home button was.

Simplicity

As the one, single button on the front of the phone, it was the ultimate escape key. Can’t find an exit app button onscreen? Did an app hang? Does an app confuse you? Is the screen black for no reason? Just press the only physical button on the front of the phone and return to the home screen.

It sounds so simple and obvious, but no one else had anything quite like it. (OK, Samsung copied it soon afterward, but that barely counts.) Most Android phones came with “soft buttons”, onscreen buttons or tap-able areas below the screen. But there were more of them–remember back, home, menu, and search?–or they had weird, almost meaningless icons-square, circle, triangle-that you had to figure out.

Physical orientation

A side benefit of a physical home button was that you could feel it with your thumb, and always know which way you were holding the phone by touch alone. When it inevitably goes away, I will miss the familiar sensation of finding it when the phone is in my pocket, to orient my hand and to use as a pivot as I swing the phone around to use it.

Consistency

Over time, the home button was overloaded to do multitasking and Touch ID, but it always served its original purpose, and Apple never screwed it up, even with its non-moving, Taptic Engine-driven style in the iPhone 7. (That phone’s haptic feedback feels incredible.)

Obviously, Android’s early move from physical buttons to soft-buttons approach worked out all right, but, to me, Apple’s stalwart refusal to ditch the physical home button over many generations of iPhone reflected, in my opinion, a design ethic centered upon simplicity and humanism, which I really respected.

I’m not sorry to see (presumably) the home button go, but it was definitely one of the reasons I admired the design of the iPhone, and ditched my Android phone for one years ago.

Software subscriptions

I just spent $30 on an annual subscription to Ulysses, my favorite writing app (it is not quite a "text editor") on macOS and iOS. It was a relatively expensive macOS and iOS app for years, and I thought of it as the best buy I ever made on the platform, because I always bought it on steep discount the day it was released, and upgrades have been free ever since. As much as I love it, I have never used it enough, mostly because I spend time programming rather than writing. That may change now, however, because I am paying now a lot more for the privilege to use it. Overall, I decided it is worth my money to continually support the software I love. That said, the much higher cost of Ulysses and other apps I rely on probably means I will be trying and buying far fewer alternatives.

There is a limit on how much I want to pay each year, total, for software. I am not sure what that limit is, however. It is over $100, I guess, based on my spending history. But it's not that much higher than that—and I am a person who loves software. I will have to choose my apps with way more discipline and effort now that many will be an ongoing cost to me. I will be choosing just one text editor for $30 per year, rather than buying the top six of them for $5 apiece and maybe upgrading one or two of them to new versions, for another $5 apiece, after a couple of years.

I hope this arrangement will lead to better software, and more well-supported software, overall. It looks like it will have the side effect of reducing the number of apps on my home screen to an essential, more costly, more sophisticated few. That's not necessarily a bad thing. But it further raises the bar for new indie developers—those without venture backing—who are working on the next new thing.

Starting a blog in 2017

Why did I start a blog in 2017, when nobody reads blogs anymore?

Simple: I want to own my content.

I want to write posts, and to have something that reflects myself and my work on the Internet. Plus, it’s nice when Google Searches for my name turn up something more interesting than my LinkedIn profile.

I care more about writing right now than reaching the largest audience. I’ve found from blogging in the past that people eventually find your best content; you just have to put it out there. So I’m not going to worry about social networking and search engine optimization. I’m just going to write.