The wonderful future, or my phone is slowly becoming my wallet
Since Alicia and I moved back into Boston proper, I’ve started to hold cash on me much less frequently. Back in NYC or up in Salem, most of the establishments we frequent only accepted certain credit cards; many were cash-only.
Now, I can use Apple Pay or order online from pretty much anywhere I frequent - cabs & Uber, groceries from Trader Joe’s, Starbucks and most other local chains - for everything else, I’m only really using one of two debit/credit cards. My only actual use for cash, except when I’m not in Boston, is to pay my barber every month. This has been a wonderful way to live, if anything because I have to worry about having less with me at any given time. My only further request is that I could get my driver’s license and MBTA subway pass somehow onto my iPhone - then I could ditch my wallet almost completely.
Having a thinner wallet is kind of amazing, but my iPhone is starting to feel like a single point of failure. What if I drop it and crack the screen or damage the NFC chip or the Touch ID button? The 6s Plus has amazing battery life[^1], but what if it dies? Do I replace my wallet with my little Anker portable charger in my back pocket? What if I lose or forget that? What if I get mugged? Or worst yet, what if I lose the phone due to my own idiocy? How will I get my goddamn Venti iced coffee?
It gets me thinking about product redundancy - the physical wallet begins to act as backup for my virtual Wallet. But what happens when I have no need for a physical wallet anymore, other than to cover my ass if my phone dies? That’s kind of an annoying prospect? Is that what Apple’s betting on with the Apple Watch, if you ignore the lifestyle play? When does the “all-powerful device” with several obvious Achilles heels require redundancy, especially when you don’t want to also carry your phone in an Otterbox case and with a portable charger constantly?
It’s all really fascinating, is all. It’s interesting to me that we still don’t have a good, trusted, redundant solution here that’s also convenient and cheap. We have it with our digital files thanks to name-your-cloud-storage-and/or-backup solution, but credit cards, identification and other highly physical-world things are still confined in your pocket or purse one way or another.
I get excited for our inevitable Minority Report-like future in which we could have public kiosks where, via a retina or thumbprint scan, you could retrieve a temporary copy of your ID, driver’s license, last credit card used, or whatever you lost while out in the world. Dropped your phone and it’s useless? Scan your finger at a Touch ID kiosk and you can automatically have a temporary ATM card printed instantly for use. Got mugged or lost your phone in an unfamiliar place? A quick scan could get you quick access to emergency response care, your Medical ID and history, and/or automatically wipe your phone and notify a loved one that you’re okay. I don’t know nearly enough about the technical complexity of making this work in practice - the scanners would need to be sanitary, damage-resistant, weather-proof, whatever else - clearly there are a lot of holes to this. It’s almost certainly easily hackable if we’re not careful.
But it’d at least be super cool, right?
In Defense of Miley Cyrus and Her Dead Petz
Music that challenged me in 2015, part one
I haven’t written a “favorite albums” list in a few years, mostly because I realized that mine were virtually identical to most of those my friends would write up. That’s one of the unfortunate downsides of having friends in the music industry: if a band gets enough hype to be in a Top 10 list, everyone’s talking about that band.
2015 was one of the first years in a while, though, in which a lot of the buzzed-about music was downright ambitious: while there was plenty of crap for the masses to party/drone to, there were also plenty of musicians who stopped giving a fuck about playing nice and made cool, interesting, challenging music. Cases in point: Kendrick Lamar, Bjork’s Vulnicura, “Hotline Bling” and Titus Andronicus’ 90-minute manic depression rock opera, just to start.
I felt inspired by all this and had one of the more prolific years of writing music I’ve ever had. Some of the music I found most challenging and inspiring, though, was reviled, dismissed, or missed entirely by mainstream music journalism. I’d like to spend some time reflecting on the hidden genius of those songs and albums.*
Let’s start with a doozy: Miley Cyrus and her Dead Petz, released via SoundCloud & VMA surprise in August.
I don’t dance much, but two songs this year made me start dancing more than any other: “King Kunta,” for obvious reasons, and Miley Cyrus’ “Slab of Butter (Scorpion).”
Don’t ask me why. I can’t explain it. But that damn bouncy synth texture paired with a fuzz bass made for my downtempo jam of 2015, and I’m not mad about it. I’m only mad when it ends, and then after 45 seconds of Miley talking about how drunk she is, the beat comes back in the form of a fun diss track called “I Forgive Yiew” (sic, but who cares? Miley sure doesn’t). The slow bounce continues for another 3 minutes, and it’s kind of glorious.
The next song, “I Get So Scared,” haunted the shit out of me when I first heard it. It still does, which is a weird thing to digest given that this is BASICALLY HANNAH MONTANA telling me that “they say love grows / but I’ve only seen it die.” After that happens, I find mellow euphoria in “Lighter,” a highly underrated 80s throwback.
People HATED this album. I don’t. It’s weird and sprawling and usually inappropriate, but every time I come back to it, I find another nugget of something charming, dark or downright beautiful. “I Get So Scared” is one of those nuggets.
Sure, it starts with the silly “Dooo It!”, but immediately after you get 2 solid ballads in “Karen Don’t Be Sad” and “The Floyd Song.” For every stupid track on this album, you get multiple gems. Sure, “Milky Milky Milk” is probably a song about lactating, but it has one of the coolest beats of the year. Sure, Miley cries when singing about Pablow her dead blowfish, but you can’t fault her for expressing some real emotion in a song. The 6-song run of “Cyrus Skies” to “Lighter” is pretty fantastic, and could make for an excellent psych-pop EP in itself.
I do think Miley brought some of the bad rap and flat-out dismissal upon herself - the “complete, full-metal DGAF” approach to album structure and focus, plus the fact that she made this album outside of her recording contract, lends the album to be taken both less seriously and more like it’s trying be taken seriously. Most of the negative or apathetic critical reaction has been based on the assumption that this album should be interpreted as higher-concept than it probably should be. And to those critics, it disappoints as a high-concept pet project.
But why should we treat Dead Petz as anything beyond what it is at face value? It’s a long, sprawling collection of songs covering several topics, some of which are very silly. Nobody gave Prince any flack about that when 1999 came out and contained a song about vinegar strokes and another one with 2 uncomfortable minutes of orgasm sounds. Why should Miley Cyrus be dismissed for calling a song “Bang Me Box” when Nicki Minaj can release a song glorifying her own ass, or a song about a girl who makes crack cocaine became one of the top hits of the year? (Oh and remember when a song about shooting up a school became a pop hit? Great job, music industry.) Dead Petz doesn’t need to be anything more than it is, and critics shouldn’t dismiss it because it doesn’t reach their impossibly high standards of long, ambitious works that break political or spiritual ground. It’s as if critics are no longer willing to let their subjects just unwind and not be taken too seriously.
If anything, this album disappoints me because it makes me wonder how it would have been accepted if a few throwaway tracks were removed and it was a bit more polished. If “Fuckin’ Fucked Up” (which should not be treated as anything more than an interlude) was removed from the track listing and was attached to “BB Talk” as a prelude, would people use it as an excuse to dismiss the album? “Something About Space Dude” is effectively a coda to “The Floyd Song” - what if Miley positioned these two separate tracks as a single 8-minute space rock epic, like what JT did with some of his solo material?
For those who want to give this album a second chance but can’t deal with the full 23 tracks, I propose a revised Dead Petz track listing, which is only an hour long:
- Dooo It! <— only because nothing else really works as an opener
- Karen, Don’t Be Sad
- The Floyd Song (Sunrise) w/ optional coda: Something About Space Dude
- Space Boots
- BB Talk
- Milky Milky Milk
- Cyrus Skies
- Slab of Butter (Scorpion) w/ optional coda: I’m So Drunk
- I Get So Scared
- I Forgive Yiew
- 1 Sun
- Pablow The Blowfish
- Miley Tibetan Bowlzzz (bonus track)
It’s really hard to take Miley Cyrus seriously, and that’s okay. Bizarrely enough, the thing that convinced me to have respect for her is the album in which she takes herself the least seriously. You should give this album a chance if you didn’t yet this year.
—- Oh, and lastly, I put out an EP too, but it’s probably not on anyone’s best-of lists because I barely promoted it. Check it out, though! It’s fun.
Engaged, tone deaf & color blind
I proposed to Alicia over the weekend. It took almost a year, but I finally did it. I had a custom engagement ring made and I took her out to a beautiful dinner overlooking Boston Common and I walked her around the Public Garden and then we celebrated at the Omni Parker House.
Simple, but classic us.
The amount of anxiety that you get when trying to pull off a proposal is staggering. It’s not even necessarily the hardest decision of your life — since we’re madly in love with each other and it was a no-brainer — but it’s still a massive commitment that relies on a level of faith & confidence in both the relationship and oneself. I had wanted to say something ultra-romantic and profound before getting down on my knee…but I totally choked under my own anxiety. I ended up just kissing her repeatedly to hide my sweating and buy myself time to figure out something to say.
Which is when I reminded myself, again: if you really love someone (or something, for that matter), why the anxiety at all? Drop the anxiety. Just do it.
So I did! And now we can call each other our fiancés.
Oh, here are some pictures of us being cute and engaged and stuff.
My must-have OSX products of 2015
I became a heavy reader of the Macstories blog this year, both as an ardent Apple fanboy and as a proponent of good, honest, analytical writing about tech. With tech journalism being largely pandering clickbait these days, it’s nice to read Federico Viticci and his team’s insightful and personal writeups about the state of Apple tech, supporting independent developers and great ideas along the way.
Since he went full-iOS this year (and wrote about it like crazy), I tried to do the same. However, with my heavy interests in music production and learning to code better, I could not get rid of my Retina MacBook Pro - it’s just too deeply ingrained into my lifestyle and, frankly, is too damn beautiful and powerful to pass up. It’s also been a fantastic year for development of Mac products, not just for Macs themselves, but for hardware and software developers in the space.
Here are some of the most indispensable apps for Mac I discovered this year.
2Do for Mac. Federico’s write-ups, while great and detailed, only touched on the amazing new 2Do for iOS, but I wanted to call out this app as it relates to Mac OS X. I got 2Do for free earlier this year thanks to a great Apple promotion, and it got me more on top of my to-do’s than I’ve ever been before. Adding a Mac app into the mix (at half price, thanks to yet another promotion!) turned this helpful task organizer into a full-fledge productivity suite for me. I used 2Do for Mac similar to how Federico uses it on his enormous iPad Pro screen - bulk-moving, delegating and dating tasks with ease, relying on Task Actions to easily get to websites and emails I need to check on, and even multitasking split-screen in El Capitan. It’s a pretty fantastic tool.
Reeder 3. Reeder has been my RSS/news reader app of choice for years, but when v3 for OS X came out this year it gained even more value in my day-to-day. With new Instapaper API integration and a beautiful new look, I can get all my news updates and long-form reading done - without ever having to open a website.
Coda 2.5. This year, my fiancée and I launched Tone Deaf & Color Blind, a blog in which we try to explore more creative outlets in our lives (one of which is writing - hey!). I had done plenty of Wordpress tinkering before, but this was the first website I built and launched fully by myself - from creating a local dev environment to hacking major blocks of PHP. I was originally trying to make sense of Sublime Text and all its plugins, but I wanted something that (1) was easy enough to manage without having to constantly tweak the program, and (2) something I could also use on the go. Coda overwhelmingly has satisfied my needs here, between the comprehensive and easy-to-use Mac app and the newly-revamped Coda for iOS.
Ulysses. Starting Tone Deaf & Color Blind, as well as realizing a need to write more in my life, made me want to seek out a good means to organize & execute upon my thoughts. I tried out a few different apps - Editorial, Byword, a few raw text editors - and none of them seemed to jive with my organizational style. I wanted an app that could both let me focus on writing things down and easily access different blurbs, notes, etc. and group them together however I wanted. Ulysses was that app - after getting over the slight sticker shock of its price, I’m happy to have added this app to my personal ecosystem. And now that Ulysses for iPhone is available in beta, I can even manage this stuff on the go.
Tweetbot. I also tried to start building my personal brand this year on Twitter. Part of why I sucked at this previously was due to the lack of a good free Mac app. Twitter’s own app was never great, and Tweetdeck/Hootsuite were always too ugly and buggy for me to buy into. However, when Tapbots updated Tweetbot this year I decided to try it out - and between their Mac and iOS apps I’ve become far more interested in what’s out there in the Twitterverse.
Slack. We don’t use Slack at my day job, sadly, but it’s become invaluable to me - both as a water-cooler-of-sorts with some of my close colleagues and a vital means of bouncing ideas for my side projects. While I love the ability to quickly act on messages from my iPhone, I love having a full conversation thread on my MacBook screen while I research UX ideas or wireframing an idea.
Copyfeed. I used to think that my Mac and my iPhone were, other than some compatible apps, largely separate. I could sync photos and email, but text was elusive beyond text messaging to myself. Drafts and other iOS-only apps solved this between iOS devices; Copyfeed makes text (and images) easily and instantly shareable across my phone and my laptop.
Divvy. Sometimes I plug my MacBook Pro into an ultra-wide LG UM95 monitor, which is the best screen for managing large recording sessions. However, when I have many modules (or apps) open, the screen gets fairly chaotic. Divvy lets me easily organize things on the screen simply, either by dragging across a small grid or with keyboard shortcuts.
Alfred. Alfred has and will always replace the stock Spotlight function for me, if only for the ability to perform a Google search outside Safari. I’ve also become incredibly dependent on some awesome workflows for checking the weather, finding emojis, instantly create a note or search all my Trello boards, to name a few.
1Password. For as much buzz 1Password got for its stellar iOS integration last year, I think it’s integration into the OS X ecosystem is almost more invaluable to how I work. I absolutely love having constant access to my logins from the OS X menubar or any browser window, and I trust it as my main directory for all things private & secure.
F.lux. This thing keeps my eyes from going bloodshot far more often than I give it credit.
Numi. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve had to do more and more math: for doing my own taxes, for settling bills, for budgeting a move and an eventual wedding. Each of these use cases require a lot of context beyond just the numbers - it’s necessary to know what numbers correspond to what in reality. Having Numi to both store this context and automatically perform complex mathematical operations has been absolutely invaluable, and I cannot recommend it highly enough for Mac users.
Wallcat. I’ve become obsessed with something crazy - my laptop’s desktop background - thanks to Wallcat. Every day I have new beautiful artwork from the wonderful folks at Unsplash, and every day I think, “This one’s lovely - I should stick to this one.” Then I forget to set it as my permanent background and get another amazing image to enjoy the next morning.
Logic Pro X. I’ve gone back and forth with a few different DAWs for a while for making music: Sonar and Cubase interchangeably in college, Reason once it could do audio too, Pro Tools for a minute, Presonus Studio One because I was begged to try it. But once Apple dropped the price of Logic Pro to $200, I was compelled to try it out. I haven’t turned to any other
Reason 8. Logic has unfortunately led to a drop in my Reason usage, but the Kong drum machine, Thor synthesizer and surprisingly great piano sampler (see: Concert Grand Piano Combinator preset) make this very much worth keeping around.
Balsamiq Mockups. This has been my wireframing app of choice for years now. I firmly believe in designing functionally and essentially, and not getting wrapped up in the visual details of a design. Balsamiq is intentionally ugly (sooooo much Comic Sans), but it allows me to explore a functional idea and focus on getting the most important elements into the right place.
Trello. For some reason, I hate hate hate web apps - I guess you could blame my browser tab anxiety. Trello is the one exception to this rule, and it’s become my go-to for project collaboration. Fortunately, someone made a Mac app called Xccello to contain it’s awesomeness.
There you have it. In the spirit of Perd Hapley, I wrote this to communicate something, and that thing was a list of products I relied on this year, and the story of those products is that I used them on a Mac.
On “pop writing”
I’m gonna repeat the chorus, and I’m gonna sing it ’til I’m blue in the face
This is a note in response to various posts written on Medium in the last few weeks: one of which was effectively a ripoff another, one of which brought up the fairly obvious point that top content producers (by means of likes & shares, not quality, which is subjective) might simply rip each other off, and a final one which brought to light the inherent problem with all of this.
The problem described isn’t specific to Medium: virtually all written nonfiction on the Internet that gets clicked on by the masses is specifically meant to get clicked on by the masses. A great subset of writers on Medium are no different. Original, interesting writing gets shoved into obscurity while the majority of readers see these repetitive listicles, hollow advice columns and “thought pieces” about Startups, Wanderlust and Life Hacking - because that’s what people appear to want to read. The numbers show it.
I’m fine with that, sure, in small doses. These days, you need some positive motivation to deal with the shitstorm mess that is modern reality. But after a while, as Ben Belser suggests, it gets old. Thousands of “influencers” circlejerking on hearts and fuzzies to promote themselves without giving a shit about what they’re actually saying, robbing the Internet of its soul.
I realized something the other day: Isn’t this basically the same as pop music?
Hundreds of thousands of songwriters, composers and performers over generations, mostly working within the same general realm of tonality, mostly attempting to portray the same general emotions and ideas, oftentimes even ripping each other off for the sake of marketability. There are millions of blog posts, ironically enough, about how to do this.
Think about it: all of the most popular songs in the US right now can be confined to a tiny number of styles (hip hop, synth pop, country, with a few rock hits and retro throwbacks). Almost all of these songs are about the following: love, sex, drugs, partying, loneliness, angst. Many even feature the same ideas (emotional or musical) or even the same artists (looking at you, Tay Swift). There are incredibly few exceptions to this rule in the past 15 years - nu metal was an incredibly dumb angry fad, but even Limp Bizkit’s lyrics largely stayed within the confines of the aforementioned 6 topics.
How is this any different from going on Medium one morning and seeing virtually the exact same blog posts you saw 2 weeks prior? The posts are obviously not the same - maybe a different author, a different sponsor, a different tip to make you fitter, happier, more productive - but they’re largely interchangeable. Sometimes they are even virtually the same. Like pop music.
So I’ve started to call the majority of what Medium feeds me something else: pop writing. Marketable, interchangeable writing to satisfy the masses. Blogs (at least the most popular ones on Medium) are no longer personal or honest or catering to a particular interest - their sole purpose is to maximize the marketability of the writer’s brand. Not unlike any top 40 artist, CamMi Pham (whose writing and general vibe mostly infuriate me) has a carefully curated personal brand, which draws elements from positivity-pumping wellness and advice writing (and sometimes, directly from other writers). She’s trying to be the Tay Swift of your Medium feed. This fine - millions of people love Taylor Swift, and thousands of people love CamMi Pham’s deliberate, speech-like writing on learning and unlearning and bettering oneself.
You want to figure out how her written brand works? It’s pretty simple, actually.
Come up with a really fucking edgy, attention-grabbing title.
Start with some one-sentence paragraphs.
Write increasingly powerful and emotional statements in those paragraphs.
Maybe a sentence implying initial self-doubt.
Then throw out a big initial thesis.
Usually in bold or headline style.
Then repeat that thesis verbatim, followed by a supporting reason.
The repeat that thesis verbatim again, with further reasons.
What about this other reason? No need to worry, because here’s that thesis again. With another supporting reason.
And that is the thesis, verbatim once more.
Pure, unadulterated crap.
King Crimson (which most people probably know, sadly, from when Kanye West sampled them) have this great song called “Happy With What You Have To Be Happy With” which is basically a brilliant exercise in hollow meta-songwriting. Most of the lyrics discuss the structure of the song itself:
And when I have some words this is the way I’ll sing through a distortion box to make them menacing
It makes for a great commentary on the cookie-cutter nature of pop music construction - there are tropes that one can follow to clearly evoke some kind of emotional response, so we exploit them for maximum feeling. Adrian Belew (the singer) clearly describes the section of the song, what emotion must be evoked within it, and how he intends to portray that emotion; by the time he’s in the second chorus, he’s made it clear the song itself has no meaning: “I’ll brew another pot / of ambiguity.” The bridge, “you have to be happy with what you have to be happy with,” just reinforces that - it’s a nothing statement, weirdly urgent but pointless, endlessly repeating like the advice pieces on my Medium top feed.
(Ironically, that song was written music-first, and the lyrics were thrown in last minute as placeholder. Do you think Adrian Belew cares about what I think the song means? He’s not even making pop music.)
Like how pop music leverages chord progressions and romantic/lonely/excited feelings, Pop Writing leverages the nurturing nature of self-help, the inspiring nature of startup culture & life disruption, pandering political fluff and a few other obvious topics. Let’s call them “subgenres.” Each subgenre, and some artists within that subgenre, have particular conventions that are proven to be more effective than others. It’s already obvious that clickbait article titles is a common theme among all subgenres of pop writing. Some others: pick an icon and find an obscure fact about him or her; pick a bad quality about yourself and gradually turn it good; pander to the founders of an amazing product; respond to that pandering by shitting on said product; give advice to the most blogged-about professionals.
Like how pop music is hard to pigeonhole by conventions but easy to pick out, pop writing is hard to pigeonhole by topic to easy to pick out. One can easily pick up on the writing style of a blogger and exploit it for their own gain. Just pick a topic (even if it’s been beaten to death), read a few popular articles on that topic and pick up on the sentence and paragraph structure. Write a few test-drive articles to hone your skill, and then start marketing your brand. You’re basically doing what Taylor Swift did when she decided she wanted to move into pop music - developing your brand to reach a new audience.
If that’s what you feel like doing with your spare time, weirdo.
Medium is going the way of the music industry, but that’s fine.
Nothing should stop CamMi Pham from writing like she does. Medium definitely shouldn’t stop her. That’s the free market blogging economy at work. Instead, let’s just call it what it is: happy, cookie-cutter, highly targeted pop blogging that will gain her new followers. The market demands it.
The problem seems to ultimately lie in the writer’s convictions. Yann Girard might be more genuine in his writing, but he might not be. Someone writing about a life tip they just discovered might genuinely be so excited about it that they’re compelled to share it with the world. S/he might also be plagiarizing someone else. Who knows?
Maybe the problem ultimately lies in the newfound stigma for content marketing and “social influencers” - people who are paid to get clicks and followers, and thus the honesty of their writing is instantly called into question. Maybe these people could rebrand themselves to appear more honest. CamMi Pham is unapologetic - she admits to being a total fraud and attempts to justify it (within her standard writing convention, of course). Yes, she might be encouraging young writers to steal ideas from others and develop a contrived style of writing that eschews honesty for marketability - but again, if that’s what people want to read, then more power to the writers.
For those who don’t like it: welcome to the beginnings of literary snobbery. Three immediate suggestions for you:
If you don’t like pop writing, simply don’t read it. Just as I usually avoid the Top 40 like the plague, stop reading the Top Posts on Medium and find writing you like via other means: use Medium’s tags, start curating who you follow, or look elsewhere entirely.
If you think Medium isn’t listening and want to help out writers you care about, start your own subculture. Radio failed to capture many niche music genres and scenes, so music blogs popped up to try and promote music in those niches. Maybe fans of certain types of writing will subscribe to a blog or network that heavily caters to a certain niche of fiction or nonfiction. There doesn’t need to be one blogging platform.
If you do genuinely have some honest advice or learnings to share with the world, do so genuinely. Please refrain from marketing tropes, because people can see through that shit. Tell the world what you know, how you feel about it, and if you pulled it from somewhere else, be honest about it. I love reading Jason Fried’s posts for this reason - he’s honest, witty and daring and has legitimate reason & experience to pull off all three.
I’m going to tag this post and hope it gets some likes and shares (which, by the way, you should do if you think it’s useful). It probably won’t, though, because I’m not a digital influencer with 500+ followers on Medium.
Because I’ll keep trying.
Maybe I should read one of those “Top 10 Ways to Find Success on Medium” posts for help.
On Macs and focus
I own an iPad, but I really only use it to watch Netflix in bed with my fiancée since my iPhone 6s Plus is just too small enough for both of us to watch simultaneously. Outside of this pretty obvious use case, I’ve struggled to find a purpose for the gorgeous device in my life.
Everywhere I turn, though, I read about another person finding the iPad completely invaluable in their daily lives. It now exceeds the processing power of the average PC; its app ecosystem is generally much cheaper than the PC app ecosystem; it’s “more fun” to use than any device before. A lot of people who write about the iPad suggest that it allows for a level of focus beyond what Macs or PCs can allow.
I call bullshit. Anyone who says the Mac is too distracting has not given the Mac a fair shot since, well, 2 or 3 versions ago of OS X. Apple has made a series of beautiful, powerhouse laptops, build for demanding technical work - that also happen to be incredibly pleasant to use and conducive to focus.
I’m not suggesting that the iPad isn’t a great device - it truly is a pleasure to use. However, so are Macs, and some tech pundits seem to forget this. Efficiency on a Mac isn’t even a question worth asking - sure, you eschew a touch screen for a keyboard & multi-touch trackpad, but the sheer ergonomics of having both the keyboard & trackpad within millimeters of each other compared to jumping between keyboard and screen are staggering. Sometimes you want to lay back and relax, but when you need to work, the Mac wins every time.
The question really is about one’s ability to focus on a single task or project while working on a laptop/desktop computer. Tons of people have written about this. Those same people have tried incessantly for years to justify usage of an iPad for as many possible use cases as possible: blogging, note-taking, long-form writing, designing, music producing, analyzing spreadsheets, chatting with many people at once. I keep asking myself: what’s the goal of being able to do all these things on an iPad, other than attempting to justify my impulse purchase of an iPad?
If the goal is focus, I’ve wanted to try and tame the beast and have my Mac work to my advantage. Basically, a means of avoiding this:
Hey, guess what? It’s really to avoid the above with really minimal effort and discipline. Between the iterative improvements brought to OS X and its huge app ecosystem, it’s really easy to make a Mac your portable productivity powerhouse. (Alliteration intentional.) And while the Mac app ecosystem is technically smaller than that of iOS, that has its benefits: less crap to weed through.
I have to give Apple props for identifying the key aspects that make iOS so pleasant to use and employing them in some fashion within OS X. For instance:
Launchpad is a solid app launcher and organizer; after a bit of reorganizing, it effectively replicates the iOS home screen. With Spotlight (or the more powerful Alfred) on top of this, finding and opening an app on a Mac is far quicker than anything performed on an iPad.
Full-screen mode and Mission Control in El Capitan is arguably an even more elegant app switcher than iOS 9’s. Split screen mode is actually useful on my MacBook Pro unlike the iPad Air 2.
Automator isn’t new or even quite that extensive without mild technical know-how, but Workflow wouldn’t be the iOS powerhouse it is without Automator coming first.
Plus, you can enable Do Not Disturb just like an iOS device.
Still having trouble focusing after trying these wonderful solutions? There’s apps for that, including two literally called Focus (here and here) - some of which also have iOS counterparts but many of which are Mac exclusives such as:
- Bartender, a great menu bar cleaner-upper
- Hazel, an automatic file organizer so you don’t have to clean your crap up yourself
- Alfred, an amazing launcher and workflow tool that allows you to quickly ask a question or start something without pulling yourself away from the task at hand.
- Ulysses, Byword, 1Writer, ia Writer, or any other number of free/cheap minimal writing apps for writing without distraction
Some of these are real boons to focus, like the first Focus app, which blocks you from accessing distracting websites and replaces them with inspirational quotes. I could argue that this makes the Mac BETTER for focus than the iPad, since you can actually stop Facebook from loading after you impulsively type the “f” into your browser’s address bar. Can’t really make the impulsive tap on the FB app icon on your iPad less compelling than it already is.
Disclaimer: I use a MacBook Pro with Retina Display, which has a solid state drive and 16GB RAM, so I’m not really ever concerned about my laptop exceeding the performance needs I have. Yes, it came at a higher price point than the average iPad and I purchased it primarily with music creation in mind.
But considering the top-of-the-line iPad Pro is virtually the same price as (and comparable in spec to) the ultrathin MacBook, it ultimately comes down to user preference. I’m here to suggest that while tablets are so fun and exciting, many of the reasons why find tablets so fun and exciting are right there in your average Apple laptop.
As with any tech write-up, this is my opinion, but I’d love your thoughts too. Agree? Disagree? Let me know. Like how I write? I’d love for you to share this post and follow my writing, either here or on Twitter. Thanks!
You Won’t Be Successful, Unless This Medium Post Is
You’ve probably seen a ton of #content appearing on your various social media feeds lately offering inspirational stories, Life Hacks and general tips that might make you a better person. It might not, but at least it’s yet another new thing to try at some point in your miserable life-in-need-of-constant-stimulation-and-improvement.
But that’s not what I’m here to talk about.
You clicked on this post because I wrote a highly-targeted, urgent, actionable title that caught your eye. I got you with a trope. You idiot.
I, however, am an influencer. And I would like to influence you. Did you know that the following people employed tactics to lead successful lives?
- Steve Jobs
- Mark Zuckerberg
- Oprah Winfrey
- Sheryl Sandberg
- Richard Branson
- Howard Schultz
- Warren Buffett
- George Soros
- Barack Obama
- Most of the other writers on Medium
You probably did learn this by reading or hearing about it somewhere else. But I don’t care about that. I want you to think of me and this post next time you think about any of those famous, successful people. I want you to consume my
#content and subscribe to my
#newsletter and buy my endorsed #products, so I will inject myself into your life wherever and however I can. You will thank me for whatever Life Hack or tactic or change you made to your life, and consuming all that I spew is the first step.
So, to recap:
You are basically a massive failure until you follow all the points I lay out below.
1. Like and recommend this post and all my other Medium posts.
You might have read dozens, even hundreds of tips, posts, articles or even novels about what you can do to improve your life. But before recommending any of those, recommend my juicy content first.
2. Tell all your friends and followers to also like and recommend all my Medium posts.
Write your own content on Medium where you link to this article and generally reference my wise words and/or expertise on a field I totally have credibility writing about.
But what about the other social networks, you might ask? Yeah, share this post there too. It’s just more content for your friends and followers to digest. But it’s content YOU endorsed.
3. Follow me on every possible social media network & channel on which you can find me.
If you’re not on a network…well, get on it, dammit. I may or may not have profiles on the following sites:
- Product Hunt
- various Slack channels
When in doubt, assume I have a profile there. Follow and watch me as I grow my following of minions!
4. Click on every paid advertisement you see that has my name and/or face on it.
I’m not just talking about the sponsored posts on BuzzFeed, Medium, etc. that I clearly paid for to get your attention; I’m also talking about Facebook ads. I even have an in at Forbes who hooked me up with advertising there - you know the 3 second ad you see every time you open up a Forbes article? You might start to see me there. Click on me there. I’ll make some money and burn my image into your brain some more.
I also have some sponsored content on ESPN. I don’t even like sports.
But I LOVE developing my brand shamelessly.
5. Subscribe to my newsletter (because of course I have one) and read it, every single time you receive it, to completion.
Because I know how much you love and value every single email in your fucking inbox. You might already be subscribed to the newsletters of various other writers, marketers and influencers - so what’s another?
Also make sure to click every link in the email several times.
Me, me, me. This is all about me, and not at all about you or your inbox or your attention span.
6. Praise my success with me.
Once this post and my various social profiles reach a certain amount of attention, I will write about it. I will convey to the world how I did it, how you helped me, and what my next steps are going to be.
Then, you can read that and repeat the 6 steps I’ve laid out in this post.
Did you like what you just read? Have you not followed me yet on all my social media channels? If not, it is the single most important thing you can do as a living, breathing adult. Click on this link and this link and that link, and maybe this link too.
Content content content content content content content content content content content content content content content.
Special thanks to all the other digital marketers and social media people who made this satire possible! Sorry, I got frustrated this week with #content. This is not representative of ALL inspirational writing, just a li’l joke about that writing which is dishonest, contrived and/or pandering for the sake of marketability.
Also, sorry that I have to make that clear as to not inadvertently offend anyone.
On Maker Overload, or why I’m okay with not solving all the problems
Following up on this, which was dead on. In the words of indie darling Courtney Barnett, sometimes I (want to) sit and think, and sometimes I just (want to) sit.
I’m a product manager, which means I spend virtually every weekday (and some weekends) doing two things: solving problems and making things happen to ship good, need-fulfilling products. Anyone who does product management can obviously break this up into many more buckets of duties, glorify it, debate its role in larger business culture, whatever - but that’s essentially what we do.
Sometimes I think I want to build something on my own - I wouldn’t be surprised if most PMs also get this urge. Thanks to a handful of tools that now exist, virtually anyone with Internet access and some spare time can build anything in a matter of hours or days. There’s a lot of people who create their own products on their own these days, using free or cheap existing tools, then publish them on sites like Product Hunt and write about them on Medium. When I read all these posts about “makers” making “products,” I react in a few ways.
First, curiosity, then a little bit of envy.
I love that we now have technology and platforms available for anyone to turn some idea into a packaged product in a matter of hours. Some of the problems people have solved are incredibly niche - I would never have thought of them. Sometimes I wish I had.
Then, jealousy-fueled anxiety.
Why aren’t I identifying those problems? Why can’t I be making those things? What do those people have that I don’t? What do I need in order to build amazing profitable things myself? WHAT AM I DOING WITH MY LIFE??!!?!!?!!!
Then, a ramble.
Hours and hours on Product Hunt. More things made by more people. Curiosity and anxiety on subsequent repeat.
Then, I’m tired.
I burned myself out worrying about other people’s problems instead of solving my own or those problems which I care about.
Why did I do that?
We used to have information overload. Then people rebranded this as \#content in an attempt to legitimize it. Now, if the content wasn’t enough, we’re in maker overload. New startups and new people announcing new products being announced almost every hour on the hour. Call it a lovechild of social media and freelancer culture, both powered by the good ol’ Internet - now everyone can have their own voice, so there’s millions more voices, all yelling incessantly over each other for top placement on your Twitter feed. All so you try the hot new products they each built on their own.
What is the impact of all those new products? Sure, it’s huge in aggregate - if anything this is proven by how much pundits are talking about Product Hunt. But what value does each individual new solution to a problem have in the scheme of things?
Product management is really all about solving (the right) problems and enabling the people around you to solve them. Some of the “products” I come across solve problems that aren’t relevant to me at all, but because everyone is posting and writing and tweeting and retweeting about them I run into them anyway. Some of these products don’t solve any problem at all - they generate a problem of their own and attempt to solve it, even if the average person didn’t even need to recognize that as a problem in the first place. Some of those products are really just repackaging the exact same #content that other products already contain, only presented in a slightly different way. Just this year there were 50 products launched, all featured on Product Hunt, that repackage existing tools and content that already wasn’t too hard to find with a bit of Googling. Some of them are totally redundant with each other.
I’m not saying this is inherently a problem - after all, competition makes the world go ’round. But is this really what makers want to be known for?
Maybe so, or more likely those makers are just trying to make some money or followers. This isn’t new - companies have been making redundant products for the sake of staying competitive a long time - but now that the Internet has enabled for a product to get noticed and hyped in a matter of hours, there’s too much noise to be continuously making products that don’t matter in the scheme of things. It only adds to the information overload, except under the guise of something meant to solve a problem - so people who read about this product (especially those who religiously follow communities like Product Hunt) are inclined to take them more seriously than your standard clickbait. When they do, the maker gets noticed for a day, then just like clickbait, it usually gets lost in the ether of the Internet. Some makers then keep trying to optimize their offering and market fit until something sticks.
But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I’m not suggesting that people stop building things for my own sake. Eventually you might happen across a brilliant solution to a truly challenging problem. Making things to satisfy urges or curiosities, make money, or to grow a personal brand is not inherently problematic - it does, however, create envy within others who aren’t sure they have those same needs. Especially when some of the most “popular” of those products made are redundant with each other or debated incessantly as to whether or not they’re dead.
I thought building my own things was what I should be doing with my life, but it turns out all the product overload is toxic for me. I get into a vicious cycle of anxiety and regret and forced ideation around problem spaces that really don’t need solutions at that moment. I don’t personally build things constantly to satisfy some inner need, but I also don’t want to build a career out of making things that follow trends.
I solve problems all day, some of which are incredibly rewarding (like those that make my fiancée happy) and some of which are incredibly dull or frustrating (solved typically between the hours of 9am and 5pm, but even those are sometimes challenging and/or rewarding). In a world where an app can launch and die in a matter, and much of the writing about said app is about whether or not it’s actually dead, I don’t want to come home every day and keep doing the same thing - it only stresses me out more. My catharsis is writing songs or posts (like this). Sometimes I want to just watch something mindless or live vicariously through someone else.
And that’s probably why I go on Product Hunt for hours on end. Now I understand the appeal of reality television.
I came into 2016 thinking that I wanted to launch a product, and now that I’m understanding myself better in 2016, the less I feel a need to do that. I have a day job, I better satisfy my curiosities via music and writing, and I don’t have any immediately-obvious solutions to problems I care about. It’s more important to me to be with the people I love and be reflecting and thinking about those problems I do want to solve. If you think you need to be launching products for the sake of launching products, take a minute to think about the merits of doing so. Don’t be a maker just because everyone else is.
Did you enjoy reading this? Feel the same way about maker and product overload? Nice. I’d love a like or share if you do, or you can follow me on Twitter. Thanks!
A small set of apps to keep me creative
There’s something I keep having to remind myself: no matter how little time I have to put into art, I’m still an artist.
Still an artist, still making art. Music’s my medium of choice. Finding time to work on it is hard though, between wedding planning, an increasingly-demanding day job, other side projects - when can I play or write some music, dammit?
Short, obvious answer: block my time like nobody’s business. That at least gets me time dedicated to working on the things I want to be working on. Once I’m there, how can I explore purely creative ideas and save them when my brain is full of all this other stuff? Equally short, equally obvious answer: technology helps me. But how?
I used to think that Evernote should be my catch-all for organizing my stuff to stay focused: important notes, snippets, ideas, lyrics, receipts, anything possibly necessary to retrieve in the future. Tagging and shortcuts, stacks o’ notebooks, so much control. I tried storing my lyrics, song ideas, high level album cycle plans, even task lists and reminders in there - but, as others have noted, I ended up overwhelmed anytime I even attempted to find something in the depths of Evernote’s robust (to a fault) categorization system. I had access to too many things all the time - I had to remember which tags corresponded to what in my bizarre system of organization, not to mention the hours blown trying to establish the system in the first place.
Then I tried 2Do for a while - I figured that if I could abstract my tasks out of their various places into a single, meticulously organized place, I could get to all the other pertinent content via links. 2Do’s various features are great - but again I felt overwhelmed, like I was spending more time organizing my ideas than actually executing on them.
I realized that these approaches contradicted my way of thinking through my various blurbs of information when I need them.
So I worked out a new system. Here’s what my core criteria was for this:
- I cannot put all my things in one place, due to the sheer overwhelming of having to parse through it all each time.
- Centralize the blurbs in the app best for those blurbs. For instance, the app that gets me quickest to my notes is the best one for the most important or most frequently used notes.
- More abstract ideas that require gestation and iteration don’t require as quick access, but I need the flexibility to adjust, merge, rearrange those notes as my ideas come to fruition.
- Markdown is amazing, but some ideas may require sketching, images, etc. so I can’t limit myself to just text.
I need this system to play nice with day-job work and creative work.Turns out I was able to devise a system that works for me quite well - and it’s not far off from what others have written about recently. Here’s a shortlist of the apps I use in this system:
Reminders.app: my high-level starting point
Apple’s stock Reminders is what holds all my shit together. I tried using so many different task management apps and realized that the overcomplexity of these apps was what caused all my wasted time and lost focus in the first place. With iOS 9 and El Capitan, I can now save virtually anything to a Reminders list and have direct access to that thing, regardless of where it lives. I can even dump tasks straight into a list thanks to 3D Touch.
Disclaimer: A big reason why I went with Reminders was due to iOS Exchange integration. We use Exchange at my work, whose Tasks feature I rely on to organize to-dos each day. Having access to them on my phone is invaluable, and while I loved 2Do for my personal projects, I haven’t found a great iOS task manager that handles Exchange tasks.
I have a few key lists I rely on:
- I created an “Inbox” list that functions as my collector of tasks. I rely on Siri and share extensions to put everything into this list, and I sort out as needed later.
- I have a list for each major focus area: Wayfair (via Exchange), Sophomores, wedding planning, writing topics (for the blogs I contribute to), etc. I also have a generic “big goals” list for personal bucket-list items (starting a podcast, writing a book, etc.)
- I also have a few lists for other things to reference: stuff to buy (Shopping), stuff to watch/listen (Media), stuff to take care of around the house (the Family list I share with Alicia).
- I rely on Smart Reminders to link to the given Note, Trello board, Ulysses sheet, or whatever else is pertinent to the given task. These were pretty problematic for the first few revisions of iOS 9, but the 6th beta of iOS 9.3 seems to have fixed most of the problems I’ve had.
- The default “Reminders” list itself is used for everything I need to do on a particular day, but I don’t care about until that day. Recurring tasks reside here, like laundry, taking out the trash or renewing my driver’s license.
My one gripe with Reminders is a simple limitation on iOS: only manual sorting. The OS X Reminders app lets me sort easily by priority or due date, but I can only manually sort on iOS. If Apple adds a sorting feature to Reminders (like they’re doing with Notes), Reminders will finally be an app you might not scoff at.
Notes.app: for all quick note access & entry
Apple’s surprisingly pretty (to me - sorry, haters) and nimble Notes is my go-to for quick essentials: important links, high-level project plans and lists, account numbers (thanks, password lock!), stuff like that. I also use it as a less technical Drafts clone, for quick note-taking (thanks 3D Touch!) for sharing to other apps when needed. The goal here is to get to important things quickly and start writing quickly.
I’ve started to find Notes really useful for quick lists at a lower level than Reminders - for example, production & mix notes. I listen back to my demos constantly while on-the-go, and I’m constantly writing down ideas and feedback for them. I don’t want to create a single Reminders list for each song or album I’m working on - that feels too heavy - but I can create a note for the songs I’m working on, and then create a Smart Reminder about them so I don’t forget to review those notes next time I’m in the home studio.
Ulysses: for all creative / open-ended writing
Ulysses has become my ultimately creative scratchpad. Lyric ideas, blog post topics, sketches for a book I may write. The beauty of Ulysses is that it allows for endless organization, reorganization, merging, splitting and impeccable Markdown formatting of text.
In my workflow, this app (and how I use it) is especially important because it ONLY contains creative writing: blog drafts, lyrics, ideas for novel or album concepts, etc. I don’t get distracted by other life stuff when I have Ulysses open full-screen on my Mac or iPhone (like right now as I write this!), so I can actually focus on finishing that song or
Ulysses’ new iPhone app is totally invaluable, too, so I can do any of the above on the go. I didn’t at first value this since I typically need a keyboard for writing lots of text quickly - but now I can easily review my writing and rework snippets of it anywhere I like, without having to wait.
Trello: for all collaborative work
Trello is everything collaborative. Now that Trello’s iOS app is just as solid as it’s beautiful web interface (and I can jump across either via Handoff) I can easily share ideas with my collaborators or comment on theirs. I rely on this for mixing/mastering my music with my friend James, planning trips with Alicia and building apps with some of my NYC friends.
Thanks to Smart Reminders, I can also reference any board or card on a Reminders list and quickly jump back to it later. For instance, if James sends me a new mix via Trello comment, I can pull it up via push notification and then immediately tell Siri to remind me about it next time I can give it a serious listen.
Pause: for focus-switching and relaxation
Pause is one of those mindfulness apps, and I’m experimenting with it in my creative workflow. It’s allowing me to clear my head of the other life noise by just relaxing my motor functions before jumping into a recording session, new blog post or brain dump. I usually use it for a few seconds before jumping straight into a new context.
I used to think that over-organizing my life was necessary in order to achieve what I wanted to do creatively - but all I ended up with was tasks on tasks on tasks, multi-tier prioritization systems and even a literal Gantt chart at one point. All I needed was an easy way to see what was most important at any given time for a particular context, be able to act on it easily and without distraction, and discipline myself to switch contexts mindfully. This system seems to be working out well for me - let’s see how it works out over time.
Eight months, in an office
10 months ago, I was living what I thought was a dream: working remotely for a decently-buzzed tech startup where I was the lead product guy. I could work in my underwear, start and end whenever I wanted, have free reign to work and travel wherever I pleased.
Then in May, said startup laid me (and pretty much everyone else) off with a week’s notice.
I had seen this coming for almost a year for various reasons I won’t get into - but what did surprise me was the ease of getting back on my financial feet. Those of us who got laid off were offered a new job pretty quickly by Wayfair, an e-commerce giant also based in Boston. So that’s where I ended up.
Eight months later, I find myself finally in my element again. The first three months in this job were total culture shock: I was uncomfortable around so many people, all of them wanting to talk to me all about the work and nothing but the work. I was frustrated with having to commute to an office at all, let alone walking down the street like I would regularly do in New York.
But over the last few months, I figured out a rhythm to make it work for me. It’s certainly not a perfect situation - but then again, what job is, really? - but I’ve had some time to reflect about being in an office again.
(Disclaimer: this is primarily about the experience of working in an office environment, particularly after a stint in startup culture, and is in no way intended to be a reflection of the work I do, or my employer, at all.)
Wayfair employs thousands of people and has an office right next to Copley Square in Boston. When you walk into the office for the first time, it’s hard to not feel like you’re part of something massive, given just how many people are flocking to the Copley Plaza complex between 8 and 9am. You’d think one of the stores in the Copley Plaza Mall was having a blowout - nope, these are just Wayfair employees trudging into work.
After a few weeks, though, the awe of big company size and impact turns into drone-like fatigue…especially as wintertime sets in. Droves of sleepy, freezing employees passing through subway turnstiles, huddling underneath half-broken umbrellas and avoiding puddles of slush (and being forced above ground to avoid MBTA construction), just to stare at a PC screen and talk in corporate-speak.
Simply having to be at the mercy of weather sucks. When I was working from home, if it was snowing out, I could just stay inside. I technically have the facilities to work from home in my current job, too - so it can be frustrating to eschew all this technological capability just to be present in the office culture. Wayfair has offices in several locations around the US and Europe; I can’t tell you how many times I questioned my battling of snowstorms to get into the office, only to sit on calls with my Berlin colleagues all day.
That said, if you’re stuck on calls all day at home, you might never leave the house. Get this: working in an office forces you out into the world. This is something I completely took for granted as a remote worker - I would occasionally run out to a coffee shop for a while to get stuff done, but nothing was more comforting than parking it on my couch for 9 hours straight save bathroom and lunch breaks.
Speaking of which, when you begin to compare home-work and office-work life, tiny subtle details start to surface about your lifestyle. For instance, The cost of your utilities start to become something you scrutinize monthly - I drastically underestimated how much I was spending to run electricity and heat during the ’14-’15 winter while working at home. Finding food to eat in an office is a really hit-or-miss thing, depending on where your office (or home) is located. I have the benefit of being right near Copley Square, where food trucks and solid restaurants abound. My last office job was in an awkward part of East Cambridge, MA, where our best culinary options were in a mall food court. At home, you’re really at the mercy of your grocery list or what (if any) restaurants are nearby; back in NYC, this wasn’t a problem, but in quieter parts of the world, this could certainly be a drawback.
Everyone who Product Manages knows the difficulty of trying to herd cats - oops, I mean colleagues - toward a shared product vision, and this difficulty is only amplified when doing it from afar. Being in the office ensures presence from everyone who matters, including my/yourself. I find myself more productive overall, simply because I had face time with colleagues working on projects with me - and no at-home distractions, like my guitars or my television. I can also use my commute to unwind and/or focus on things I’d never be able to focus on given those distractions. I’ve started writing again simply because I have over an hour of “free time” on the train every day.
Working in an office can be painfully social. To avoid talking only about the work, you need to find common interests with your colleagues: in Boston, it’s generally assumed that this is Boston sports. If you’re not actively following the Bruins/Pats/Sox (or worse yet, following another city’s team) you’re already at a disadvantage. I’ve come to develop a personal brand around music snobbery, pop culture savvy and a more casual tone, which people seem to appreciate outside of my general apathy for sports.
Once you figure your general vibe out, though, working in an office can be delightfully social. You actually start to make friends and engage in social conversations and outings you never would’ve had sitting at home or in a coffee shop all day long. Sure, there’s spontaneity involved with serendipitously meeting new people at your local coffee shop, but there’s something equally spontaneous in the side conversations that happen at work. My aforementioned music snobbery may manifest itself during a discussion of weekend plans, which may lead to a colleague/friend to check out a band with.
And what happens when the work gets to be too much, and you find yourself stuck at the office all day? Isn’t that the beauty of working wherever you choose? What about those giant cultish companies who directly incentivize their employees to spend all waking hours at the office, or even sleep there?
Well, so, you can just leave. If there’s more work to be done, and your company has a VPN, you can catch up on work at home after having a lovely dinner at a reasonable hour with your significant other. I’ve come to realize (again) the importance of balance - not necessarily the lofty, unattainable “work/life balance” construct of 9-5, but finding a personal balance where I’m challenging myself and working hard, but not burning myself out and still finding time to reflect and find fulfillment elsewhere in my life.
Certain parts of the tech/startup industry paint office culture as a thing of the past, rendered unnecessary by new collaboration technology. Fully-distributed organizations are popping up everywhere, promising uber flexibility and balance. I admire these companies’ ability to embrace technology to try and bring more happiness to their employees - though it is certainly not perfect either. Remember that distributed companies (or remote work at all) is a fairly new concept, far from perfected by any one organization - and the larger the company is that you work for, the harder it is to adapt the necessary processes and technology to enable that flexibility.
All in all? I certainly don’t hate everything. My commute is sometimes frustrating, as can be the work, but that’s part of dealing with everyday life. I genuinely like quite a few of my colleagues (both in and outside of work), which after being remote for a while is quite refreshing. And I’ve achieved a balance that, at least for now, I’m happy with.
The question I now find myself asking more frequently is: where does this go? Do I advance up the food chain of a strong brand with its corporate quirks, or do I keep my hand in some things that could result in more personal freedom? What will ultimately make me a better, happier person?
Tracking technology and the vote
I originally wrote this for the ￼Mathys+Potestio￼ blog, this really cool employment agency based in Portland, Oregon. ￼Here’s￼ the link to the original post.
I’ve noticed that, for the first time in my life, I’m overwhelmed by politics. In high school, it was just a topic that sometimes came up among my debate-team friends. In college and my early years of employment it was a side conversation.
Now I can’t go a day without someone mentioning a candidate at least 3 times, and my Facebook news feed is covered almost exclusively in images, GIFs and video clips lampooning or praising candidates. Maybe I’m just at that age now when we begin to center conversations around politics unlike when we were young. Maybe it’s all media buzz. Maybe, even if it’s overwhelming, it’s actually a good thing: voter turnout since 2008 is up from where it was in the 90s.
Regardless, I find myself asking the question more frequently: why are so many of my friends and colleagues suddenly in tune with the election? What changed to make this a central part of our lives again?
You could easily argue that the trying times we live in begets political action in itself - but during every time of significant political activity in American history, technology seemed to come along for the ride. Think about the 1960 Presidential debates, during which technology (that is, television) presented candidates in a wholly new light: everyday people could truly see the candidates in person for the first time. This almost single-handedly swung the election in favor of the younger, more energized JFK - it gave apathetic or indecisive voters a new context in which they could base a political stance.
After the major TV broadcast networks got stale in terms of their political coverage, other players started to get involved. During the 80s we saw niche Cable television networks spring up everywhere covering virtually every popular interest. MTV found an opportunity to politically engage its audience in the early 2000s with Vote or Die, a campaign run by Puff Daddy aimed at young popular music fans to get out the vote. Had cable television never come to be, enabling specialty networks like MTV, that would never have happened.
Of course, Vote or Die is basically dead and gone at this point, but that’s only because the idea also went stale. In a blog post written before the 2014 midterm elections, Benjamin Studebaker suggested that “when P-Diddy tells young people to vote or die, he can give all sorts of reasons why millions of young people should vote, but no reason why any given person should vote.” People were able to easily ignore the message on an individual level - while strong in tone, it falls flat. However, “there are many ways to get the influence you need to make a difference” - Studebaker doesn’t necessarily fault the program or any candidate tactic, per se - but perhaps a more intimate connection with voters to clearly understand and respond to concerns was the next place to go.
While Vote or Die was briefly capturing the attention of America’s youth, Facebook was plotting its eventual cultural takeover. Facebook feels like it’s been around forever at this point, but its influence on social behavior and pop culture is obvious; just 8 years later, it hosted its first Town Hall meeting. This was yet another way for disengaged citizens (specifically, younger, tech-savvy ones) to engage with politics and find reasons to vote. The rapid expansion of the social media space has introduced yet more interactive solutions for candidates to interact with potential or apathetic voters - for example, every candidate in the 2016 election has Instagram, Periscope and Snapchat accounts, and their marketing teams are finding new ways to leverage these platforms to interact with young voters.
Technological and cultural innovation has, quite literally, given apathetic citizens new reasons to vote by presenting new contexts on which to base voting decisions.
If social tech is hugely influencing my network to get out and vote, is it affecting the same change in other demographics throughout the country? Are fervent Trump supporters in the Midwest endlessly posting about their fervent Trump support to their friends, like how my friends are nonstop blabbing about their liberalism? Software is eating the world, and the world has a smartphone and a Facebook account, so why don’t I see this?
Much of it has to do with context-setting, and much of that can be done by friends and family. In 2010, a single Facebook message got over 300,000 people to vote because that message got stuck in a viral loop - the original writer shared the message to his closest friends, who then shared the message with their own friends, and so on. In the past 2 years, various people have speculated on Facebook’s massive direct impact on voter turnout. Facebook’s audience tends to skew younger and female, so the impact on voter turnout is naturally felt most in these demographics. There are also plenty of businesses out there whose sole purpose is to thrive on “viral” content - and some of them, like Upworthy, focus on the most viral content with a meaningful underlying message. These topics also generally skew more liberal - perfect for the young, predominantly female audience on Facebook and other networks on which this content is shared.
But it’s fairly obvious that social networks have also had their negative effects on the political process - namely, they’ve encouraged polarization and filtered confirmation bias.
That begs two questions:
- As social media hype starts to lose its luster in the face of content overload and social upheaval, what is the next technological advance that affects the political participation?
- How does technology encourage voter turnout within those who are generally more resistant to technological change?
I certainly can’t answer either of these questions today - but some startups are exploring them now. Startups like Agora and Civis Analyics are working to bring better opportunities for voters to engage with their candidates, and better data to those candidates such that they can reach out to untapped audiences. Perhaps that’s the next major area of innovation that will affect the vote - rather than presenting the candidates in different ways to the voter, reconfigure how the voter and candidate interact. Elsa Sze, founder of Agora, positions the platform as a means to a voice every day: live streaming town hall meetings that anyone can set up at any time, publicly-accessible Q&As, detailed insights for officials. It makes sense, given our current sociocultural landscape, driven by interactivity and choice and media over-saturation; what’s better than being able to easily target your perfect voter and engage in a wholly two-sided, honest dialogue with him or her?
Only time will tell how these advances affect how citizens engage (or not) in our political process. The challenge (as many have mentioned when attempting to disrupt the political process) is adoption - how do you engage reluctant citizens while also providing new value to candidates and their supporters? How do you provide meaningful connections that influence positive social and political change while still capturing an increasingly distracted public’s attention?
Questions aside, it’s hard to deny that, regardless how directly technology is aiming to disrupt the vote, changes in each go hand in hand. I’m curious to see how, in the modern political landscape, how new advances in app development, virtual/augmented reality, hyper-local social networking, and political science bring voter turnout to its next natural progression.
It’s a glorious day when Apple fixes your bug
It takes a minor miracle to get Apple to fix a bug in any of its software or services. Just look at all the discussion threads on their forum.
The thing that’s been killing me for months? Dumb Smart Reminders. Apple claimed that, in iOS 9 and OS X El Capitan, you’d be able to remind yourself about virtually anything on your device - a note, a text message, a Trello card, a file on your FTP server - and the reminder would be saved with a simple contextual link for quick access.
Problem is, it’s been categorically broken. Ironically enough, it’s broken when you try to use your phone in the way Apple keeps pushing us to use it - through Siri’s (admittedly mostly great) voice recognition.
If you wanted to remind yourself about a website you were viewing on your phone, and you decided to use Siri to do that, Reminders would (sometimes) create a link correctly to Safari. If you happened to have another app installed on your phone at all (in my case, Ticketmaster, Google Chrome and TripAdvisor), Reminders would instead link to one of those apps - then if I tried to access the website, iOS would attempt to open Ticketmaster and fail to render the website.
It wouldn’t have been as infuriating if this was only an issue on iOS - but of course it happened in OS X too. If I saved the same website to Reminders on my Mac using Safari, for some reason, Reminders would instead create a link to Chrome. This wasn’t as bad - at least the site would load - but when you’re like me and strictly use your web browsers for specific reasons (eg. Safari for personal, Chrome for work), this gets annoying.
The worst part, though, was that I could totally see what was happening: if I uninstalled TripAdvisor from my iPhone, Reminders would stop linking to it - but instead link to Ticketmaster. Then it’d link to Chrome if I uninstalled Ticketmaster. If I reinstalled TripAdvisor, it’d start linking there again. Basically, Reminders would work without any other apps potentially risking the link to Safari. You’d think that Apple coded this such that Reminders was aware of the source app of the Reminder, and persisted that link forever. There was some dumb app prioritization happening that was causing TripAdvisor to take preference over Ticketmaster, which got preference over Chrome, which got preference over Safari. (No offense to any of these apps, they’re all great - which is why I have them on my phone, god damnit.)
So, while I wanted to use Reminders for exactly what Apple intended it for, I couldn’t, and had to rely on another (admittedly great, but not for me) app, 2Do, to manage my tasks.
Six days ago Apple released the sixth (sixth!) public beta of iOS 9.3. Yesterday morning, I got frustrated because I was duplicating task lists for my upcoming wedding in both Trello and 2Do - so I decided to try out Reminders again. Saving Trello cards as a Reminder seemed to work. Saving a Note seemed to work. Reminding myself about something in my Amazon wish list worked. Even a stupid webpage someone had sent me went correctly into a Reminders list.
Yesterday was a glorious day.
Google sometimes drops the ball because Google is a massive company
The other day I finally subscribed to Connected, a great consumer tech podcast, and in their most recent episode, Federico rants about the inconsistent feature support across Google’s iOS apps. (He ranted about it 2 months prior, and the rant still stands.) They’ve failed to provide consistent support for now-core iPad features, including support for the iPad Pro’s bigger screen and Split View. How can you write in Google Docs and do research simultaneously without split view?
Not even being sarcastic. I have to imagine it’s really annoying and hard. If I had an iPad Pro, I’d probably agree with him; in fact I’d probably stop using those apps altogether until Google made them work for me. It sucks even more to notice that Google has updated some of their apps with support for these features. But why not the others, arguably the ones that are the most widely used purely in a productivity context?
I was listening to his rant on my way into work - a place of work where I am one of over 4,000 employees. I started thinking about the different projects that are in flight at any given time within my company and reminded myself: I have no idea who is held accountable for some of those projects. Who knows if they have the same priorities that I do? In just nine months at my current company, I’ve had to deal with multiple fits and starts around projects that involved multiple key teams, only to find out that those teams suddenly had to prioritize these same projects completely differently than mine, due to other external factors beyond my control.
Google is an even more massive organization. It has over 10,000 employees working on any number of products or initiatives. There are teams of hundreds dedicated to Google Docs, Google Sheets, Google Drive, even just the different iterations of messaging (Hangouts & Voice & Chat across all platforms). Each of those teams contain different people, each with strengths and weaknesses and a certain propensity to work harder or less hard than others, or even make occasional mistakes. They also may have different priorities, backlogs and possibly even internal politics.
We have to remind ourselves that each of these factors may translate into different results per product. I would bet that Drive (which coincidentally I think is one of the best Google apps on iOS) has a lot more of its core functionality together and had the capacity to fit split-view support into its roadmap shortly after it was announced. Docs (or more specifically, Docs for iOS) is probably run by a different team that still hasn’t been able to prioritize one of these features. Or perhaps they have it built and in a testing phase, but some QA analyst ran into a massive, crippling bug that Spilt View caused in Docs for iOS but was not a problem in the other iOS apps. Maybe there’s another feature they’ve been pushing for that took precedence over Split View or caused a UX problem when rendering on the larger iPad Pro screen.
Remember when Google+ finally got its Material Design update for iOS almost a year after it did for Android, even after people declared it dead? Why does the Google Analytics, one of the most widely used Google business tools, have a terrible iOS app with an outdated icon and no 6+ screen support? When was the last time anyone tried out Google Earth for iOS? Did you even know that Google has a dedicated Street View app separate from Google Maps? Who decided to make that?
These apps are different priorities for different teams under the same friendly Google brand, so we can’t be surprised when their adoption of features or design principles aren’t totally consistent.
Managing a product roadmap is hard. Managing a roadmap for a single product that plays nice with the roadmaps of other products under a single company is exponentially harder. As frustrating as it can be to see individual products under a brand fall behind others, it’s worth reminding ourselves about these difficulties - especially with amazing new features on which we rely in some contexts of our daily lives.
Moving to iOS: an experiment in creative restraint
On Monday I’m receiving a company laptop. I have mixed feelings about this - it inevitably and subliminally will have me working more on trains and on weekends, but I’ll be able to do so much faster than I currently do via Microsoft Remote Desktop.
Why do I bring this up? I bring this up because I have a beautiful, expensive Retina MacBook Pro that I’ve been using for the bulk of all my work for almost 3 years. It’s my indispensable sidekick for recording music, writing, (attempts at) coding, managing my finances, pretty much everything. Since starting my current job, though, I’ve started to spend less and less time with it - occasionally pulling it out on crowded trains, opportunistically pushing it to its limits by recording for hours at a time on weekends, painstakingly RDP-ing into my work machine just to run a few SQL queries. Sometimes it sits on a desk for days at a time, neglected.
Now that I’m getting this other laptop, I have even less use for the thing.
I have an iPad Air 2 - this thing is also generally neglected in my household. Alicia will occasionally use it to watch TV in bed, and I’ll occasionally check Twitter or read some blogs with it, but that’s about it. I had downloaded Ulysses for iOS a few months back thinking I could use this iPad as a blogging machine, but even that felt redundant with the MacBook Pro.
I realized, however, that the work laptop has given me an opportunity to change the way I work outside of my day job a bit. After reading about the amazing power in the new iPads and the app potential brought by iOS 9, I’ve decided to run some day-to-day experiments using the iPad Air 2 in attempting to make it my primary computer.
There’s already been a ton of writing on this - I’m really happy to have dug into the writings on iPad on MacStories, Daring Fireball, the Music App Blog and other sites, so I have plenty of foundational ideas to work with. I’m interested in seeing how I can leverage my iPad for my personal use cases:
- rapid blogging in Ulysses,
- music recording in Auria Pro with a plethora of synth/sampler/effects apps wired together via Audiobus,
- pseudo-local website development with Working Copy, Coda and Transmit,
- managing my music, technical and personal projects with Trello and various stock iOS apps
…and I’m sure many more along the way. I’m mainly interested in testing just how portable my tech can be and moving to a single operating system (that is, iOS), but I’m also curious as to what new possibilities there are brought by the iOS framework and app ecosystem.
More to come. I should probably start getting used to this tiny keyboard…
iOS experiment 1: changing and tinkering with a Wordpress site theme
As I mentioned last week, I’m trying to make my iPad Air 2 actually useful in my life. Currently, it’s a rarely used content portal despite being almost as powerful as my MacBook Pro and having a fantastic app ecosystem.
Plenty of folks have talked about the beauty of being able to code on an iPad - there’s apps like Coda and Textastic that have been germinating for years in the App Store - but there’s so much more to web & software development than just writing code. You need a local development environment. You need to be able to manage changes to your code via Git or Subversion. You need to be able to show people real changes before pushing those changes to your live site or app. You need to be able to read and manipulate data. There’s plenty more I can’t even think of, since - hey now - I’m not actually a full-time developer.
That said, I manage a few sites built in self-hosted Wordpress, one of which is this site. I got tired of having to find and fix bugs with the old theme, so I wanted to see if I could simply change a theme and hack it to my liking, all via my iPad.
Why is this not so intuitive to the untrained eye?
Wordpress has an amazing theme directory of its own, which allows for direct installs to your website; plus there are thousands of premium theme repositories across the Internet which package beautiful themes in nice .zip packages, which can be extracted easily within your hosting environment for use. I’ve been doing this for years and it’s second nature at this point to launch a Wordpress site and tinker with countless themes. However, this is a bit harder to do on iOS:
- Wordpress’ iOS app has no awareness of its own theme directory;
- There’s no true in-house file management solution in iOS;
- iOS’ handling of .zip files in itself is murky at best;
- There’s no obvious way to set up a local environment of your Wordpress site on iOS to tinker with the theme before pushing it live
So, how should we deal with this?
Finding and getting a new theme
As I mentioned before, it’s really easy to find Wordpress themes on the Internet - just Google it. When I find a theme I like, I need to download the .zip file containing its assets and somehow get it onto my hosting platform.
I’ve come to really appreciate Readdle’s Documents app for all my file downloads and management. It has its own built-in browser, which handles file downloads much more seamlessly than Safari’s stock file handling. I’ve found that some Wordpress theme providers require a login to access a theme’s files (ThemeForest, for example), so having Documents for both the logged-in experience on one of these sites and the downloads I need to perform is really helpful. I can then open up and look at the files within Documents, and upload them straight to my FTP server provided by my hosting provider - all within Documents.
Testing the theme out
Web & software developers commonly refer to a ‘local’ environment for making changes to their code & testing those changes. I haven’t yet found a good way to do this all directly on my iOS device; however, with websites, it’s pretty easy to set up a private sandbox to test out new themes before pushing them to my live site.
I use Namecheap for both my domains and shared hosting; they give me a pretty robust SFTP server to host all my files for my websites. I’ve set up my 3 main websites to point to this server, as well as 3 “sandboxed” versions of those websites in a subdirectory - /sandbox/brandonlucasgreen/, for example. In that folder is another Wordpress install which is private to the world and only accessible to me, which I set up simply through the cPanel interface. Setting up a new Wordpress install in iOS Safari isn’t quite as speedy as it is on my MacBook Pro, but it’s not terribly hard to get done.
What doesn’t work well on a 9.7″ screen is Wordpress.com’s stock post editor.
Thank goodness for Ulysses, which is so much more pleasant to look at, extremely good at organizing my writing (both long- and extremely short-form), and can get my posts to Wordpress via a simple Workflow.[^8]
Having a sandbox to break things within is great, but I also wanted to try some sort of revision management on the iPad. Turns out there’s a great app for that in Working Copy. I love this thing - I can make simple code changes right inside the app, push them to the sandbox git repo I created, see the changes instantly, and then push them to Github and production once I’m satisfied.
Messing with data
Occasionally I need to hack together posts and other Wordpress settings in various states, and sometimes it’s easier to do that directly in the database Wordpress uses, rather than in Wordpress’ (admittedly slow) admin interface. Wordpress operates on MySQL, and I’ve found that Navicat’s MySQL client for iOS is a solid app for dealing with this.
This is just a start, but after messing around with a few apps and getting comfortable with a smaller screen, I’m reasonably confident that I can manage my website entirely from an iPad. Next up: working with audio on an ipad.
iOS experiment: evaluating mixes
I haven’t written in a bit, but here’s some more stuff I’ve been thinking about in my spare time: listening to my music projects-in-progress in as many possible contexts as I can.
Why is this more than a simple task? Audio files are big. Important: these are not your favorite streaming service’s audio files. These are hi-res, uncompressed, 24-to-32-bit audio files that are being semi-professionally mixed and mastered by a sound engineer for me. I can’t stream these without murdering my data plan, and there’s no easy or obvious way to put all these files I listen to within the stock iOS ecosystem. Plus, I need to manage and track changes to mixes easily as we address notes about those mixes.
issue 1: managing the recording project
I use Trello for all my recording projects currently, and their iOS apps are pretty fantastic and getting new and more complex features monthly. So no issues here.
issue 2: getting the mix
When James, my mixing/mastering engineer friend, has a mix for me, he usually posts a comment on Trello with the private S3 download link. I love how easy it is to just spin up a mix for listening, but this gets problematic when I’m on the go. I listen to a lot of music (including these mixes) on trains to and from work - streaming a 50-200 MB audio file is murder to my data plan, and way too slow for any meaningful listening.
So I need to download to my phone as soon as I get James’ mix. I’ve come to really appreciate Readdle Documents as my storage system for audio files, or any files, really. Documents has the ability to auto-sync any folder from any major cloud service. James (my mixing engineer) and I primarily rely on Google Drive and Amazon S3 as our main repositories for managing and sharing files around our music projects; Google Drive’s got some nice revision history tracking that allow us to keep track of what’s changed in a particular file or session. I can dump any of James’ mixes into a Google Drive folder, and in less than 20 seconds, it’s on my phone ready for offline listening.
Amazon S3 is a different beast, though - we use it primarily for large session storage and archiving - but I still occasionally need to access that on the go. Panic’s excellent Transmit app makes browsing S3 buckets super easy, and it’s beautiful on my iPhone 6s Plus. Frankly, if Panic built Google Drive support and some local file sync support into the app, I’d probably use Transmit exclusively for all file management on iOS.
issue 3: mix notes
As I mentioned above, we use Trello to manage the recording project at a high level. But sometimes I’ll be listening to a mix on the go and get a quick idea that I want to write down. Apple’s stock Notes app, with 3D Touch, makes for really quick note-taking that I can access later from anywhere. I love the new checklist feature in Apple Notes, mainly because it’s nice to look at and super responsive.
If you don’t have an iPhone with 3D Touch, Drafts is an excellent alternative here. It’s super minimal and uses Markdown syntax to easily organize notes you take. You can even set up very custom share actions that allow you send your drafts anywhere in a swipe.
In either case, I can easily take notes on the fly and share them to James in Trello or whichever messaging app in which we’re talking.
That’s pretty much it. Not much to it, but I find it valuable to review how I perform more file-heavy, less-simple tasks with the constraints of iOS such that I can waste less time and have easier access to the projects I love working on.
Creative work on an iPad
We all have smartphones. Some people even have a smartphone and/or a tablet in lieu of a computer.
The rest of us still rely on laptop or desktop computers, sometimes multiple, in our daily lives. My office is lined with ugly black desktop PCs sitting underneath thousands of desks, each with dual monitors attached. My mixing engineer relies on a souped-up PC to run massive Pro Tools sessions. My designer/photographer fiancée pretty much lives in Adobe’s Creative Suite.
Since starting my current job, I’ve had some spare time to audit the devices I use in my daily life. While I still rely on my trusty Mac for recording and sequencing music ideas, I’m opening up to the idea of being more portable. I got an iPad Air 2 a while ago which sat for months on a table, idle except for occasional bits where I decided to read an article on a bigger screen than my iPhone.
The iPad is a beautiful device, and rather than feel obligated to sell it, I tried using it for actual work - and (for the most part) it was a lovely experience. The smaller screen and ergonomics of having to touch the screen allow for less distractions and more fun, natural interaction with daily tasks and communication with my contacts. One might feel initially slower in their workflows when starting on an iPad as a result of this stuff - I know I did - but that in itself caused me to be switching between apps less, and focusing more.
The problems of the iPad are largely due to the nature of the software itself - for example, there’s no file system. You basically need a cloud storage solution (Dropbox, Google Drive, etc.) to get one. It sounds like Apple may be trying to remedy this with their own solution, but it’s a tough thing to get used to and is troubling for those working with many large files. Also, the smaller screen isn’t for everyone in a productivity context - some creative workers rely on their larger screens to make careful edits to their work or make sense of lots of content at once.
Hardware: you don’t need a lot of it
The iPad Air 2 is an amazing piece of hardware - and Apple has only improved upon it with the iPad Pro - but for lots of users, this isn’t enough. For starters, you only have one input jack - the Lightning adapter - which also is required for charging the thing. That is a clear limitation for those working with lots of hardware peripherals, like musicians and videographers. Don’t expect your external RAID storage or Thunderbolt interfaces from working in this context. However, there are some options here - like using a powered USB hub, which I’ll come back to in a bit - and many manufacturers are beginning to make iPad-friendly versions of their devices, like iOS-ready hard drives and audio interfaces.
Also, a touchscreen keyboard isn’t going to cut it for long-form writing or significant productivity. That’s probably why there is a whole market dedicated to 3rd-party keyboards for iPad, plus a whole host of other accessories to beef up your tablet game. I bought myself the solid, minimalist and affordable Anker keyboard, but there’s hundreds of options to match your typing habits and personal style.
There’s also a market for plenty of other iPad accessories - cases, stands, chargers are just a few things for which you can find hundreds of options. Generally, go for what fits your style; if the reviews are good, it’s probably a reliable product. The point: while you won’t have the sheer power and flexibility of several inputs on an iPad, you don’t need a lot of hardware to make your iPad useful.
I’ve had a lovely, if not challenging, time making my iPad work for me musically. The learning curve is quite low, and while the possibilities aren’t endless there’s a bunch you can do, both for fun and for work.
Those who have recorded music on desktop and laptop computers know the possibilities regarding digital audio hardware. There are hundreds of audio interfaces available, with tons of inputs and outputs, various connectivity protocols (Thunderbolt being the newest), and more. With the iPad inevitably comes restrictions, but they’re surprisingly less than you’d think. With an Apple Lightning-to-USB adapter (the name doesn’t do this thing justice), you can hook up any USB-powered audio interface to your iPad. My personal favorite is the newest Apogee Duet, which is optimized for both Mac and iPad and has an extra USB out - this allows me to run both audio and a MIDI controller into my iPad Air 2. That said, there are still plenty of options to choose from - other popular favorites are the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 and the new Novation Audiohub, which bizarrely has no XLR ins/outs but has 3 USB outputs (perfect for iPad DJs).
Let’s go back to Lightning-to-USB for a second. Given that you only really have 1 USB input to work with on an iPad, your controller options are limited. This can be mitigated, however, through powered USB hubs or expansion-ready hardware. Personally, I haven’t yet found a powered USB hub that works 100% reliably with an iPad (though many have recommended this one before), but the possibilities brought upon by the Apogee Duet are interesting. I’m currently planning an experiment to daisy-chain controllers through the Duet, by using the new Korg Micro series of controllers, the keyboard of which has additional USB outputs.
Now, onto software. If you search the App Store for musical instrument apps, or even effects apps, there’s a ton of them out there. Apple’s own Garageband app has plenty of music-making tools within for only $5. However, the most essential app I recommend to musicians experimenting with iOS devices is Audiobus. This thing is, by far, the best signal-routing solution for an iPad. You
Once Audiobus is set up on your iPad, you can expand quickly - they even have an app directory built in. Some of my favorite apps to use with Audiobus are:
- Loopy HD - if you watch Jimmy Fallon’s show, you probably already know about this app, but it’s hands-down the best live looping solution I’ve ever had the privilege of using. I use this to write constantly, and will be incorporating it into my live performances in the near future.
- Auria Pro - this is the closest thing to a proper DAW on iPad.
- Novation Launchpad
- iGrand Piano - for piano-playing on the go. It’s a little pricey at $20, but it’s the best sounding piano I’ve found and is far quicker and easier to start up than opening up Logic or Reason from my Mac. Tap and go.
- DM1 - this is my favorite drum machine for iPad. It has a surprisingly large set of drum machines to try out, plus a solid few acoustic drum samplers. Plus, it’s only $4.
- Any Reason users out there? If so, check out Thor, which is the same amazing polyphonic synthesizer you know and love but in a smaller package.
- The Holderness Media suite of effects apps are dead-simple, beautiful and cheap add-ons to your iPad music arsenal. My personal favorites are Echo Pad and Crystalline
Last, but not least, dealing with audio files. If you’ve ever messed around with Garageband before, you know that the sharing options are limited: M4A-quality audio pushed to the iTunes Store, Apple Music Connect (which, who cares, honestly?) or SoundCloud. The aforementioned Auria Pro has the lovely capability of exporting WAV mixdowns of your works, but how do you get that out to collaborators or for public consumption? Here’s a few suggestions I have:
- Many iOS music apps have built-in Dropbox integration. I’ve found that Dropbox is a fabulous cloud storage solution for working with audio. If you don’t have or want to use Dropbox, however, iCloud or Google Drive should work fine, and the aforementioned Documents app can act as your central repository across all your cloud storage devices.
- Need to quickly convert audio for sharing? There’s surprisingly an app for that - check out Audio Convert. It’s dead simple and dirty cheap.
Writing on an iPad is one of the most pleasant experiences I’ve had with technology lately. Sure, you can blog from your laptop - but the propensity for distraction is high, and much time can be wasted. I’ve come to realize that the ergonomics of an iPad - eschewing a trackpad immediately in reach in exchange for a touchscreen - allows me to focus more directly on writing; in order to switch contexts, I’d need to move my hands up to the screen.
What’s the best way to write on an iPad? Of course, there’s a ton of options. It sort of depends on your line of work. I mainly blog, write lyrics and occasionally sketch ideas for longer-form writing. For this, I prefer Ulysses - it’s pricey ($20), but it’s worth it. It gives you a full-on ecosystem for any writing you do, from note-taking to entire novels. There’s a ton of case studies on its use in a writer’s daily life, and they’re pretty compelling. Hey, I wrote this blog post using Ulysses!
Not ready to take that plunge? There are plenty of other options. Byword iA Writer and 1Writer are all beautiful, solid options that don’t quite have the same organizational feature set as Ulysses, but are easy-to-use, powerful and beautiful on an iPad screen.
Alternatively, if you’re used to writing text to perform tasks more than for creative purposes, Drafts and Editorial are interesting (read: amazing) apps to explore. These apps let you write with nearly the same scope as the above options, but with additional scripting capabilities built in. Both apps allow you to easily share your texts to other apps in various contexts.
For artists & photographers: the options are endless
Artists, designers and photographers have a whole host of apps to aid in their design workflow. Unlike the music space, the iPad lends itself well to visual artists on its own thanks to a beautiful touchscreen and new peripherals like the Apple Pencil.
Let’s talk about software then. I’m not a photographer or designer, but I have a need to tinker with visuals on an tablet occasionally. For this, I rely on Procreate, the pre-eminent drawing and coloring app for iPad, and Pixemator, a beautiful, surprisingly powerful Photoshop replacement.
Regarding photography apps, I will only say this: there are literally thousands of options here. From simple filters and effects to full-on photo retouching apps, there are plenty to try to your liking. I personally love Afterlight, Filters, VSCOcam, and (of course) Instagram.
Last, but certainly not least: for people familiar with Adobe’s ecosystem, most of their apps have an iOS counterpart. They’re not quite as powerful as their desktop counterparts, but if you’re on the go and need to make a quick edit, pull in your Creative Cloud files and Photoshop away. I personally love Adobe Photoshop Elements for iPad, and Lightroom is a solid counterpart to try as well (or at least my fiancée told me so).
Creative work still begets lots of day-to-day management of said work. Fortunately, the iPad can also be a productivity powerhouse thanks to beautiful and detailed task management, client management, mind mapping, and many more apps. Some of my favorites follow.
For task management, I can’t recommend highly enough 2Do and Trello. The former is a highly customizable Apple Reminders replacement, and the latter is a more visual project management tool that I’ve been writing about for years. Anyone running a business or managing multiple projects should try these apps out. 2Do has a high price point, but frequently gets discounted; Trello is free with some nice business power ups.
For brainstorming, I like MindNode - it allows you to easily sketch out related ideas in a mind mapping framework and can easily take in text ideas from places like your Reminders.
Sometimes you have to do math, and sometimes you need to keep track of a lot of math around the same idea. For that, Soulver is amazing. It molds basic text and complex arithmetic into a framework that lets you perform calculations and annotate them in line, which is helpful for things like budgeting.
In virtually all lines of work, there are lots of files and documents to be managed. For this, I love Readdle’s Documents app. It integrates directly with virtually all cloud services, including FTP servers, lets you auto-sync files to your iOS devices, and even has a built in media player and PDF viewer. I love this thing for keeping track of mixes of my own songs-in-progress.
Sometimes you need your apps to talk to each other. This, for a while, was nearly impossible in iOS - however, two apps have made your apps (and data and content) more extensible than ever: Workflow and IFTTT. These two apps have done wonders for me (and millions of other people) to easily pass files, text, data and other content across many apps and manipulate it for pretty much any purpose. I won’t get too deep into either app, because the possibilities with both are massive; however, if you find yourself using more than a couple of apps daily, I highly recommend trying both apps out. I use Workflow daily for sharing content across multiple social networks, grabbing audio from the Internet, organizing my thoughts into coherent bundles, and more.
Productivity, simple or complex to your liking
Let’s be honest: there are way too many apps in he iOS App Store. There are dozens of perfectly capable and powerful apps for all sorts of productivity needs. I’ve found countless times that, despite the souped-up functionality many 3rd-party apps provide to increase your productivity, you most likely waste more time optimizing and tweaking those apps that you end up losing time. This is a problem - and I’ve found the recommendations of a few trusted sources really valuable here.
Personally, I love Apple’s stock Mail, Calendar, Notes & Reminders (as of iOS 9) to manage my day-to-day workflow of tasks, notes and email. Each of these apps have much more functionality than what appears on the surface:
- Trying to get your inbox under control? Mail gives you a nice set of Smart Folders to focus on only unread email, only emails from today, and more. You can also bring any mailbox or folder to the top-level with a simple few taps.
- Calendar is beautiful and it works. I don’t know about you, but I don’t need a different version of the same thing.
- Reminders is my top-level view of everything I need to do or worry about. Need a special view to see to-dos in a particular context? Just make another list for it. Or search your tasks for common keywords. You don’t need that super-special smart folder.
- Need to quickly change a due date? Got an iPhone 6s/6s Plus? 3D Touch your reminder. Just do that.
- Need to remind yourself to check a website? Remind yourself about it via the Share extension in Safari…or pretty much any other app that allows for sharing. I rely on this thing daily to keep track of things I find during the day but want to revisit at night after work.
- Need to remind yourself about a whole list of things? I’ve become incredibly reliant on Notes and Reminders in parallel. I’ll type up a note containing a bunch of information and checklists around something I need to do, and then add a Reminder for it via Siri.
Need something more for your email, tasks or notes? There’s a ton of options here, many of which you’re probably already using on your Mac. Evernote, Trello, Wunderlist, 2Do, Google’s suite of apps, Microsoft Office - each of these are amazing on the iPad, and worthy contenders for managing your creative projects and communication.
If technology has given us anything, it’s given us a ton of options for how we do things in our daily lives. That can be overwhelming, so anything one can do to control or constrain themselves is essential to retaining some sense of calm. I’ve found that working on an iPad forces a certain level of restriction, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised with the results so far.
32 places to put stuff
I have a lot of places in which I put things I care about.
I use Reminders to store…well, reminders of things I need to do. Basic lists. I have a wish list of stuff I want to buy on Amazon, but then I have another list of other non-Amazon stuff to buy in Reminders. I also have a few lists and notes for things in Apple Notes. I keep my passwords securely in 1Password. I use Trello to manage projects, but not all projects because not everyone uses that. For some things, I need to make a Google Doc or Sheet. (Somehow, I’ve literally never had a need for a Google Slides presentation.) Sometimes those projects have other materials. If I’m collaborating, they get shoved into Google Drive or (occasionally) Dropbox. If it’s a personal project, it’s most likely iCloud Drive. If it’s something in Adobe’s ecosystem, it might end up in Adobe Creative Cloud - I barely ever use it, but sometimes things occasionally end up in there. I use Scanbot to scan papers, receipts and stuff for storage in one of these places If it’s a work thing, it goes to Sharepoint which also includes a hook into OneDrive. Sometimes it’s a manual or guide book for something, in which case it goes to iBooks, which is basically iCloud but also sort of not. Speaking of iCloud services and reading, Safari Reading List also houses some reading materials that I care about.
Photos can of course be stored in many places - it doesn’t really matter where they go as long as they’re everywhere all the time. In case they aren’t, well, they start in iCloud Photo Library, then go to Google Photos and Amazon Prime Photos.
All this stuff backs up to one of two external hard drives, and an Amazon S3 bucket.
Sometimes I write. I like Markdown for my own personal writing, so I write lyrics, creative ideas and blog posts like this one in Ulysses. I can’t use that for my day job, though, so for that I use OneNote to write & share notes & documentation with my team. We use a proprietary solution for managing technical projects. Roadmap documents? Excel and Word. Not Trello, at least yet, because I need to get people to adopt it and we’re a pretty tight Microsoft shop. Speaking of which, Powerpoint. We still use Slack to communicate, and I use it for some other things. Sometimes I save notes and to-dos as starred Slack messages. Of course, there’s always stuff in one of 3 Gmail inboxes, my work email via Microsoft Exchange.
This is a list of apps in which I can put things I care about. They all have incredibly discrete functions in which they’re invaluable to me, but they all each have storage capabilities too. There’s also all the physical papers and forms and stuff filed away in a bookcase.
Thank goodness cross-platform search technologies these days aren’t awful, because if I had to remember in which place I stored something, I would be lost pretty much constantly. As much as the app economy and tech startups fascinate me, it’s almost too easy to lose track of everything. If productivity tools like Workflow and IFTTT make it so much easier to keep things in sync, and there’s backup solutions galore, why does the digital side of my world still feel so fragmented?
As much as Apple’s plan to store users’ entire Desktops and Documents folders within iCloud for syncing purposes is slightly nerve-wracking, I appreciate the effort to help consumers keep their shit in one place. I realize this anxiety is partly my own neuroses and my being raised on a file system paradigm, but I also have to imagine that the fragmentation of the cloud storage (and general digital storage) markets are part of why tech is so overwhelming for some.
Twenty-eight days in
The last post I wrote on my personal blog was back in September. That was a time when I was about to enter peak stress - planning for my upcoming wedding was ramping up, I was about to enter my first e-commerce peak season as a senior manager at work, and I had just moved into new apartment. I used to be able to write entire pieces on a single train ride to work; now I can walk at my own pace to the office in half the time, at the expense of a dedicating writing session.
New Years Resolutions are stupid, but I had made one to write more.
Twenty-eight days later, I literally don’t know what to write given the past week with our new America. Instead, I think about my wife, my colleagues (many of whom are immigrants or on work visas). I think about egomania. I think about yelling and screaming and fighting for the rights of those I care about, plus everyone else who is entitled to those rights. I think about curling up and hiding.
Before the break, I used to write about technology and products and music things. It doesn’t seem right to do just that. It seems more appropriate to think about how I, a financially stable white man, deal with this. It seems appropriate to try and help amplify the voice of those suffering or overwhelmed by all of this, so these voices overpower that of the irrational and heartless and hypocritical. I’m not sure of all the ways I can do that, but I might as well try something.
I’m currently with my wife in France, en route to Berlin, where we’ll be living for at least a year. My company is sending me there to do some product management things for its relatively young European business; more generally, we’re using it as an opportunity to live outside the US during a both personally and politically anxious time. I don’t want to talk any more about politics, since that’s basically all that American news talks about and it’s all stress all the time, so instead, here’s a picture of the lake Alicia and I are sitting next to: This is Lac Annecy, a large lake next to a small and very cute city in Southeast France, right near the Alps. We’re here to detox from life for a few days before re-immersing in a somewhat different one in Germany. Because I naturally assimilate into the culture around me instead of actually trying to relax, here are a few quick observations about life in Annecy:
- Service in restaurants is slower, but also it’s so pleasant that I rarely ever mind.
- Everyone says bonjour, bonsoir, pardon and au revoir to each other - almost no exceptions. It doesn’t feel fake either; the locals seem genuinely cordial and kind, almost like a European version of Southern hospitality. If you don’t speak English, there is a genuine attempt to try and make the language barrier work (though the variability of English understanding here is wide).
- I feel like an asshole trying to fake French, realize I don’t know what I’m saying, and then asking for English. I need to learn German quickly.
- Espresso is much better than coffee here. The best espresso.
I hear the coffee is fantastic in Berlin.Posted on August 31, 2016