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I canceled our Amazon Prime membership

I canceled our Amazon Prime membership

As you may know, Amazon is raising the price of Prime to $120 per year. Initially that struck me as too much, but after sleeping on it, today I decided to cancel our membership. I did it for two reasons.

Value

Over the years, Amazon has been packing Prime with a ton of different services including streaming video, music, and discounts on certain product categories. But the only thing Jessi and I cared about was two-day shipping. Prime makes a lot of sense if you use some of the other things it offers, but we simply don’t.

And while free two-day shipping on most (but not all) stuff is great, it isn’t that novel anymore. A lot of companies offer the same thing, and none that I’ve used require a membership for it. There’s usually a minimum purchase amount, but with the way we shop online, it isn’t a problem for us.

In other words: the one thing that made Amazon Prime valuable to us has been eclipsed—internally by all the other features Amazon stuffed into Prime, and externally by an industry that stepped up to compete.

Principles

This is the tougher one to discuss and quantify, but in short: I’ve grown to dislike Amazon, the company. Some of its warehouse workers have to pee into bottles to avoid punishment or losing their jobs. It has far too many stories about employee intimidation and making them wear tracking devices. I get that some consider tracking to be a standard in some parts of the warehouse industry. I’ve worked in warehouses and on assembly lines, so I get it. But this discussion is for another time.

Amazon is also quietly one of the last major holdout advertisers on Breitbart, a dangerous and destructive website that frequently publishes anti-Semitic screeds, insidious propaganda, and drivel like “Would you rather your child had feminism or cancer?” No I’m not linking that one. Yes it’s still online.

Sum of the parts

Individually, would any of these reasons be enough for Jessi and me to cancel Prime? Outside of ‘we don’t get our money’s worth,’ maybe not. But I haven’t even touched on other increasingly important problems plaguing Amazon, like counterfeit products and fake reviews. It’s getting harder to just find the legitimate product I want and trust that its reviews are from genuine owners who bought and actually used it.

After a good night’s sleep and a morning cup of coffee, all of this added up to a clear answer for us. Our Prime membership ends in May. But I started shopping elsewhere a couple months ago ago to see what life was like after Amazon Prime.

It’s fine.

Photo by Jesse Bowser, Unsplash

What if we didn’t have to grant access to *all* contacts?

What if we didn’t have to grant access to *all* contacts?

Granting permission for an app or service to upload our contacts can be quite useful. It can also be dangerous to the privacy of everyone involved, and people are understandably losing trust in large parts of the tech industry.

But what if it wasn’t a binary, all-or-nothing permission? What if we could limit access to a specific set of contacts?

Maybe it’s a group we add contacts to, maybe it’s a switch we could flip on each contact (something like ‘Shareable’ or ‘Public’). It would be nice if we could also flip this switch on our own cards, for when we share them with someone new.

An obvious drawback is that the onus is on the user. I might be willing to flip that switch when a friend or colleague asks, but I wager a lot of people wouldn’t want to bother. It might lesson the very meaning of having this mechanism. A possible logical conclusion of all this might be some kind of centralized service for storing, sharing, and controlling our contact information (setting aside my distaste for the business side of Facebook, it does have some great options here, right down to controlling which friends, if any, can see each personal detail such as your home address, email, and phone). But that’s another discussion.

I don’t think these controls would be a panacea, but they might give more people the flexibility and privacy to use contact-powered apps and features. Between some of my contacts being my various doctors and a few friends who don’t want their information uploaded to most services (for good reason), I would certainly like to see more attention spent on these problems.

Some recent changes to the newsletter

I just posted a short roundup on Patreon of a few changes I made to the newsletter. You should check it out there, but I’ll summarize here.

First, it’s back to being free to everyone. I tried Patreon-only for a while, but subscriber growth plummeted. I get great feedback on the newsletter overall, so maybe I didn’t do something as well as I should have, or maybe I need to add something more to justify a Patreon-only tier. We’ll see.

I also switched the backend from MailChimp to Revue. It’s a newer alternative to MailChimp that focuses on things more in line with what I care about: writing and sharing good reads from around the web.

If you haven’t seen this week’s issue or are thinking about subscribing, you can check out a few past issues and subscribe here.

I wish Blendle worked more like a feed reader

Blendle is an attempt at micro-transactions for news. Whether you use the website or its iPad and iPhone app, you can pick your favorite topics and publications, dump a few bucks into your account, then skim a tailored selection of stories Blendle thinks you want to read. You get to see headlines and brief summaries. Clicking through to read an entire article will quickly and silently pull anywhere from 15¢ to 50¢ out of your balance.

As much as I want to help news get as far away from advertising as is pragmatically possible, I think Blendle’s approach to curating articles could use a pivot. Or maybe it just needs an alternative interface for people like me who want to skim all available news and cherry pick what we want to read.

In other words, I wish Blendle had the option of looking and working like a traditional newsreader a la Fiery Feeds, NetNewsWire, Feedly, and their ilk.

I have around 350 feeds in my Feedly Pro account, organized by topic across some two dozen folders. I use Fiery Feeds to read, so my typical approach is to tap a folder like Apple, Game, or Photography and skim through headlines and brief excerpts from the sites I follow for each of those topics. When a headline grabs my attention, I tap it and read.

I like this approach because it allows me to quickly get at least a basic snapshot of the happenings in any of my interests and industries at any time. Algorithmic, curated content has always proven to miss things that I deem important, whether it’s Facebook, Instagram, or Blendle.

I like Blendle’s overall mission, and I’d like to see it grow and gain more of a foothold. I’d also like to see more experiments in this space. At the least, give it a look, maybe a try, and share it with some friends who might like the way Blendle serves up news and interesting articles.

The downside of paid upgrade pricing for apps

I haven’t used a particular app in a little while. I just got a new Mac and I wanted to start fresh with it, so I had to re-download said app.

As it turns out, the app received a major paid upgrade since I last used it. The bad news is that I can’t find a download for the previous version for which I have a serial number. Now I need to spend $40 if I want to use this app again. Hooray?

By comparison, I re-downloaded a subscription app from the Mac App Store. I started it up, and it found my App Store receipt/account whatever and started working right away. No serial numbers. No $40 dead-stop paywall. No digging through email. No contacting support. It Just Worked.

I’m not trying to make a grand blanket statement about one business model or another. This is a large, complex discussion, and there is no One Business Model to Rule Them All.

But in this particular instance, I need to spend $40 I wasn’t planning on spending if I want to get back to work. From a user perspective, this sucks.

A flaw and solution for iMessage group conversations

Group iMessage conversations can get pretty notification-y, what with all the GIFs and LOLs and thumbs ups. It may be tempting to shut off notifications altogether, but then you might miss actually important messages, including those meant for you.

I think a strong solution to this problem is part technical, part cultural.

The technical part

Apple has a partial feature solution in place. But it isn’t applied evenly across macOS and iOS, and I would argue it isn’t very discoverable.

In short: Messages on macOS has a feature in Preferences > General awkwardly called Notify me when my name is mentioned. This means that, if you’re in a busy group conversation, you can click Details in the upper right, then turn on Do Not Disturb and ask people to include your first name in any messages you really need to see.

It’s like @ mentions in Slack or Discord, except you don’t need the @ in Messages. In the screenshots with this post, my brother’s message triggered the alert.

The ‘uneven’ problem comes in with iOS. While you can enable Do Not Disturb on your iPhone and iPad (although it’s strangely called ‘Hide Alerts,’ which is a separate problem), there is no “Notify me when my name is mentioned” feature. All messages, even those including your name, will arrive silently on iOS.

To me, the obvious technical solution is for Apple to bring feature parity to iOS and, ideally, pick one name.

The cultural part

I’m making an assumption, but I don’t think there is a strong culture in group messaging of “mention my name to alert me for something important.” In most apps I’ve used (Messages, Telegram, Wire, Line, Skype, etc.), you either get alerts for every message, or you don’t.

But if Apple could bring feature parity, and/or if you work mostly on a Mac, it might be worth trying to bring this idea to the table with your regular chatting friends. Group conversations could become more flexible, and we may not have to draw such a hard line between joining, staying in, or Do Not Disturb-ing them.

In with a new MacBook

In with a new MacBook

In 2015, I switched from a 13-inch MacBook Pro to a first-gen, 12-inch MacBook. In my enthusiasm for iPad and all things thin and light, I figured I could get by with the tiniest retina MacBook yet, running what was basically a netbook CPU.

For a couple years, I did get by. But it can’t keep up anymore, especially since a growing amount of my client work requires more intensive tasks. Thanks to AppleInsider, I found a killer deal on a 2017 13-inch MacBook Pro with Touch Bar (Space Gray), on which I typed this post.

This thing is amazing. I know the first gen redesign in 2016 had some keyboard problems, but I hear the 2017 model much improved on that issue. Overall, I really like what Apple did here. The 13-inch Pro body dropped at least a full pound with this form factor, which makes it nearly the same weight as a 13-inch Air.

I think I’ll need time to understand the Touch Bar. Coming from an iPad, I’m certainly interested in the potential of a section of my keyboard that can adapt to the task at hand. Already, in a couple apps, I found shortcuts in the Touch Bar for which I didn’t know the keyboard shortcut; that was quite useful.

But then, just now, I wanted to use one of my favorite shortcuts—Command + Mission Control—to shove all windows aside and get something on the desktop. But the Mission Control button wasn’t there, it was a typing suggestion bar. Yes, I can tap the keyboard control on the right side to unfurl that ‘section’ of the Touch Bar to get the Mission Control button and trigger my shortcut. And yes, it’s still faster than manually minimizing or moving everything. But it is a bit of new friction that wasn’t previously there for this somewhat infrequently used shortcut.


Update: Toph Allen on Twitter pointed out that a 4-finger pinch outward can also invoke this command. After a little practice, I’m getting that down pretty well. This might be a good solution for me.


We’ll see how this plays out. I know there are a few ways to customize the Touch Bar’s behavior, so I’ll have to explore those in the coming weeks.

I’m a day into using this, but so far I’m really happy. This new MacBook has the screen space and horsepower I need to work, and I didn’t have to sacrifice too much in size or weight to get it.

👍🏻 👍🏻 for the 2017 13-inch MacBook Pro with Touch Bar so far.

📱 Anti-reminders can help build healthy habits, stick to your values

📱 Anti-reminders can help build healthy habits, stick to your values

For a little while now, I’ve been focusing on building healthier habits. I’ve used a combination of creating a morning routine and the habit-tracker Streaks to regularly remind me of things I want to do. More recently, though, I’ve started tinkering with what I call ‘anti-reminders.’

The idea is to create a task or reminder in whatever app to nudge you to not do something. Don’t have your regular morning coffee before that doctor appointment. Don’t have more than two drinks at next month’s family gathering. Don’t play games next Wednesday when you really want to work on that side project. Set the reminder to ping you shortly before or during an event, and it could help keep you on track.

It isn’t about being negative. I think of it as the other side of the habit coin–there are good habits to build, and bad habits to break. Or sometimes there are just healthy or neutral routines to… sigh, ‘disrupt’ when it matters.

Siri + Reminders are my vehicles for anti-reminders right now. “Hey Siri, remind me to not have coffee next Thursday at 7:30am.” I also want to tinker with a Streaks feature called ‘Negative Tasks’–don’t smoke, don’t bite nails, don’t eat bad food, and you can make your own. These actually start each day as complete, and you only mark them if you miss your target and partake in the thing you want to avoid.

Anti-reminders have been helpful for me so far. If the idea sounds interesting, give them a try and let me know what you think here or on Tumblr or Twitter.

New habits and hobbies for 2018

New habits and hobbies for 2018

I’m not generally one for new year’s resolutions. But I do pay attention to those times one has to draw a line in the sand to start something new. I’m going through a few of those times right now, so I’d like to share some thoughts and tools that might help you with your goals.

More journaling for me

I highly recommend journaling. Learning to catalog more of my life for me, not social media, has been great for posterity, being honest with myself, and when I need help remembering how far I’ve come or grown. I occasionally feel stuck, personally or professionally, and I find that my journal entries increasingly help me get unstuck.

Speaking of getting unstuck, I need to get in a better habit. I’ll admit to sometimes thinking I don’t have time, or punking out because I thought I need a cohesive thesis or “have it all thought out.” Maybe it’s ok to have a stream of consciousness entry or even just notes about an event. I can always clean it up later. Or not.

Toward this goal, I put Day One in my Dock on both iPhone and iPad. I’ll also tinker with a couple reminders to help me get in the habit.

Another tool I added to my first home screen is One Second Every Day. It’s a clever app that collects video clips and even Live Photos. It can then build a video overview of a week, a month, or the past year of your life. Neat idea.

Temper news in and out for my health

The United States, indeed the world, are a mess right now. I don’t want to unplug and shut it out. But for the sake of my emotional health and sheer productivity, I can’t stay plugged in all the time either.

I deleted my Facebook account last year (more on that in a minute). I’m also going to try four things over the coming weeks and, likely, months:

  1. Unfollow a few news-heavy accounts on Twitter – Some people and publications use their Twitter accounts as a 24-hour play-by-play of the nightmare unfolding in the U.S., and that’s fine; I still like Twitter for some news. I also feel there’s a time and place for everything, but “always” and “Twitter” for news and politics aren’t quite my thing right now.
  2. Stop posting so much of this nightmare – People know how to find news when they need it, and I’m not Rachael Maddow. I don’t need to contribute to the nightmare, but from time to time, maybe I can contribute to spreading positive help.
  3. Filter my newsreaderFeedly is my reader of choice, and Pro accounts have the option to filter all feeds for keywords and phrases. I’m going to start using them. One catch: filters can only be set in the web app, hopefully just for now.
  4. Find a healthy way to stay informed – I don’t know if that will be some kind of periodic roundup service or what. But some balance is in order.

More conversations with people

Social media can be fun (can), even useful. But I’ll cop to letting it nudge out some of my personal, direct conversations with friends and peers. I want to reverse that this year. More real conversations. More face-to-face time, or at least FaceTime.

To that end, I have a tip I’ve started to use and want to share. I like sharing things directly with multiple people, but not always in a group chat. I use iMessage for most conversations, and there is finally an iOS app that makes it easy to send the same individual message to multiple people.

Interact Contacts for iPhone and iPad is a contact management and messaging app from Agile Tortoise. It has a number of great tricks, including actual contact group management! A handy one is its app extension, which can send just about anything you select to multiple, individual conversations. Yeah, it’s pretty great.

  • Use the Activities/Share Sheet on something, pick Interact
  • Select a few friends, use the search option if necessary
  • Tap the multi-message button at the bottom (the icon of multiple chat bubbles, not the individual icon)

Write more

Like this post. I’m going to write more on personal and professional levels. I want to help more people with tech, explore how all this stuff is affecting us, and try to share a little more about some personal struggles.

For a while now I’ve written nearly every word in Ulysses for iPad (and iPhone). It’s great for writing, organizing, and publishing directly to WordPress and Medium. Like this post.

Create art, even if it’s just for me

IPhoneography. I really enjoy mobile photography. It’s a great way to explore Chicago, I love that I can do it anywhere, and it’s a little cathartic.

These days I post more to EyeEm and my personal blog. I also just picked up a Moment Photo Case and wide lens for my iPhone X, which should make things interesting.

Tinkering with pixel art has also been surprisingly fun, and this year I want to spend more effort and maybe even create a few things worth sharing. I use Pixaki for iPad with an Apple Pencil.

I hope that helps

Even if you don’t have much more than a loose idea for something to start in 2018, I hope this can help move you one step forward.

Thoughts on the Mac mini, running a business, and long teeth

Thoughts on the Mac mini, running a business, and long teeth

Parts of the Apple community have been upset lately about the Mac mini left in update limbo for nearly three years. I get that the mini has a following. But at the end of the day, I don’t blame Apple for spending so much of its attention elsewhere. It’s a business, after all, and businesses have to spend time on things that are either important now or show strong signs of being important soon.

Here are a few things that might bring context to the situation.

Intent

Tim Cook recently answered a customer email about the Mac mini. Without offering any details of a forthcoming update, he stated that the Mac mini is “an important part” of the Mac’s future.

Some dismissed it as empty promises, claiming that Cook simply said what any CEO would about a current product. But here’s the rub: it’s a great bet that Tim Cook’s (public) address gets a ton of email. He—or more accurately, Apple’s marketing department—could simply have sent that email to the circular filing bin with so many others. They knew responding to that email would spark media coverage and expectations.

Numbers

As for why Apple hasn’t updated the Mac since December 2014, let’s do some fuzzy math on its sales over the last few years. Starting from a bird’s eye view, Apple sells around one Mac for every 6-10 iOS devices, at least in the low or normal quarters. By itself, the iPhone is a majority of Apple’s revenue.

Among those Mac sales, the various flavors of MacBook take a whopping 85 percent. That means desktops—iMac, Mac mini, and Mac Pro—are just 15 percent of Mac sales. Apple does not get more granular than notebooks vs desktops, so the mini’s portion of that 15 percent is anyone’s guess. My guess is the iMac takes the lion’s share of that 15 percent, followed distantly by the Mac mini and Pro.

In its most recent quarter (non-holiday, mind you), Apple sold 46.7 million iPhones, 10. Million iPads, and 5.4 million Macs. That means Apple sold, at most, around 810,000 desktops last quarter. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Mac mini sold in the very low six figures, or less.

Priorities

Businesses spend time on things that are either important or show strong signs of being important in the future. Retail employees spend time on assigned tasks. Actors focus (mostly) on projects that further their careers. Small business owners like myself spend most or all of their time on things that will help the business and support themselves and/or their families.

When we look at the numbers, and take a guess at what Apple knows about how and how often the Mac mini is used, I don’t fault the company at all for spending its attention elsewhere. Even if we get more speculative and try to look at products which experience big upgrade cycles, I have a hard time believing the Mac mini ranks anywhere significant. It sure seems to me like people swap out their smartphones, notebooks, and even tablets more often than Mac minis.

Sum

Looking at Apple’s numbers, perceived priorities, and statement of intent, I do buy that the company still cares about the Mac mini and plans to update it. If I were a gambling person, I’d bet it would be within the next year, give or take. A mention at WWDC 2018 would be convenient, but so would an addendum to either the iMac Pro event later this year or Mac Pro event early next year.