Using my smartphone for good, not evil

Actually it would be more fair to say I’ve been using my smartphone (currently an iPhone 8) for harmless nonsense, which is still better than using it for evil.

I’ve made a few recent posts to the blog during my morning commute, using the Ulysses app to slowly tap out a post and then upload it directly to my blog. I marvel at the technology, even as I lament how few will see my carefully-considered nonsense. I even just recently had a two-day stretch of zero visits on June 21 and 22. This is bad even by my own sad standards. I clearly need to work on the SEO and other acronyms to boost hits. More clickbait! More gossip! More whatever it is people want. Maybe just a redirect to Facebook.

It feels like the writing muscles are finally starting to halt their atrophy, as I am using more little blocks of time to write errant thoughts down, moving ever-so-slightly closer to perhaps engaging in some fiction writing again.

Mainly, though, I am not using my phone for social media, except for using Slack at work, which is not really in any way fun, so doesn’t count. There’s hardly any clickbait.

What do I use my phone for? Here’s a list. I like lists.

What I use my smartphone for, in order of most to least

  1. Listening to music
  2. Sending and receiving text messages with my partner. A lot of this includes Bitmoji nonsense, which I love and adore.
  3. Logging food/water in the MyFitnessPal app
  4. Adding or removing stuff in the Reminders app
  5. Checking stats in the Activity app
  6. Occasionally checking email, either personal (Gmail) or work (Outlook)
  7. Checking calendar appointments (almost exclusively work-related)
  8. Adding errant thoughts using the Drafts 4 app
  9. Adding errant and less-errant thoughts using the OneNote app
  10. Sometimes checking the weather or news
  11. Using the flashlight function
  12. Making or receiving an actual phone call
  13. Playing a game
  14. Writing a blog post (this one may move up the list over time)

What I never use my smartphone for

  1. Making the world a worse place (to my knowledge)
  2. To smash open walnuts
  3. As a level
  4. To play music without earbuds or earphones. Seriously, why do people do this? Do you do this? Don’t do this.
  5. To plug in a nice set of headphones (zing!)

I sat beside Mitchell on the SkyTrain today

I don’t know Mitchell, but I do know he was sitting next to me on the SkyTrain this morning. I know this without having spoken to him and without interacting with him in any way at all.

How did I know his name? Was he wearing a name tag? Did someone nearby shout out to him, “Yo Mitchell dawg, what’s up?”

The answer to these questions is no.

I found out his name because I was writing a blog post on my phone. Yes, it was the magic (and menace) of technology.

The Ulysses app allows me to compose WordPress posts and send them magically to my blog to be published. On the iPhone this is done through the export function. But the first time you use it, the default is to open the share sheet. One of the options that appears here is AirDrop, Apple’s way of allowing iPhone users to easily share files.

And lo, there was Mitchell’s iPhone. He was indeed using his iPhone. I thought about sharing my blog post just to see how he’d react, but opted not to. But it also made me think how people could use AirDrop to creep on others.

Scenario: Unrelated man and woman sit beside each other on train, both have AirDrop enabled. Man opens up Photos app and goes to the share sheet after selecting a particularly appalling example of his manhood. He then opts to AirDrop it to the woman sitting next to him. She puts his phone in a place one might have considered physically impossible.

She could just choose not to accept, but you still get a preview of the image, so Unwitting Commuter is still going to see something grossbuckets before declining. I should test this sometime to see just how it works with someone you theoretically don’t know. With a picture of a kitten, you pervs.

Anyway, now I’m kind of wondering how Mitchell’s day is going.

Possibly made internet famous on an app I never use

The other day Jeff and I were returning from Save On Foods, carrying bags of groceries and walking along the mind of awful Brunette Avenue, where people drive at highway speeds (it is not a highway). I happened to notice one of the vehicles that blew past (actually, it was probably doing the speed limit) was an Apple Maps car. I’ve never seen one out in the wild before.

Now, I never use the Apple Maps app on my iPhone. It had a disastrous launch and I’ve never had a reason to go back and check the improved version, since Google Maps still works fine. But now I am officially part of an Apple Map. My face will be blurred out, but every time I check out a map of my neighborhood, there I will be. I’ll be internet famous!

The shiny new version of Apple Maps isn’t out yet, though. It’s coming in the next release of iOS, macOS, iPadOS and WhateverElseOS Apple comes out with. This should happen in September. I’l check back then, as that is when their version of Google’s Street View, called “Look around” (Apple is very bad at names) debuts. I’ll report back then and will sign autographs shortly after.

The return of the quiet keyboard

Today I bought my second Logitech K750 solar-powered keyboard. I kind of broke the original version at work when trying to get it working with the USB receiver. But I got a lot of use out of it before my gentle destruction of it, so I’m not perturbed.

But you may be thinking (well, probably not), why would I buy one when I have the CTRL mechanical keyboard with the best keys ever? A good question! These are the features I wanted:

  • Wireless. I could easily swap it in and use it as needed.
  • Numeric keypad. This is one of those things I occasionally need.
  • Quiet. The keys are very quiet, making it the perfect alternative when even I get a little tired of the CLACK of a mechanical keyboard. It happens!

And that’s about it, really. The solar part is a bonus, because it means I never need to buy batteries. It was on sale for $20 off, so I decided to go for it. The only issue right now is the keyboard has a slight curve to it, making it a bit bow-shaped. This means that if I press hard enough on the keys or the board itself, it noticeably flexes, as most of the bottom surface is actually not flush against the desk. This is an issue I did not have with the previous model. It’s not terrible because the keys work with a fairly light touch, but I may still take it back. I’ll mull for now.

And so my vast keyboard collection expands by one more. In a way it’s good that my new PC’s motherboard doesn’t support Bluetooth (a baffling omission, really), as it prevents me from trying out any of the vast number of Bluetooth keyboards out there. Mind you, a $15 USB Bluetooth adapter would fix that…

The low tech fix

Today I began what I was convinced would be the maddening task of further troubleshooting my PC. I pulled out the ram and video card, but nothing changed.

Then I noticed a bunch of the tiny little headers on the motherboard weren’t fully plugged in. How they came unplugged, I don’t know. Even more mysteriously, the honking big header for the front USB ports was completely disconnected and sitting well away from where it would normally be plugged in. All of this was strange, but easily fixed by just making sure everything was nice and secure.

I pressed the power button…and the PC powered up without issue. Windows didn’t even report a bad shutdown or anything. Everything is working again without any parts having to be replaced, and with minimal downtime.

To this I say: Yay!

Bringing work home with you through bad karma

Or maybe not bad karma, but something. And bad.

I recently celebrated the arrival of my new PC, which was a tad more difficult to assemble than expected, but in the end booted up without issue and has hummed along nicely since.

Until last night, at around 3:30 a.m. At that time it disconnected from IRC while I slept, unaware of what was to come.

In the morning I immediately spied something wrong. I normally set the keyboard to its bizarre, useless backlight configuration of “strobing rainbow” because it makes for a groovy night light. Instead of seeing this, the keyboard backlight was off. The power light on the monitor was also amber. Amber is never good.

But the sinister red LED on the HSF was still on, so the unit apparently had power. My first bit of troubleshooting was to hit the reset button to reboot the PC. This had the unexpected effect of cranking the fans up to super turbo mode. Alarmed, I held down the power button to shut the machine off. This had no effect.

I used the switch on the PSU itself and this worked better, turning the whole thing off. I flicked this switch back on and this time nothing at all happened. The sinister red LED on the HSF remained dark, as did the keyboard and display. I was sad. I was also out of time, as I had to head off to work.

Upon getting home I opened up the case and inspected everything, looking for things that might be loose or unplugged. Everything checked out fine, except for one of the cables plugged into the modular PSU. It seemed to be ever-so-slightly loose, so I reseated it. I put the case back together, plugged everything back in and hit the power button.

Nothing happened. My troubleshooting is now over.

I’m thinking it may be the motherboard for the following reasons:

  • there is evidence power is still getting through, as things like the network light still work
  • bad ram or CPU would produce an error message
  • a bad video card would not affect the keyboard (to my knowledge)
  • the video and keyboard not working both point to the motherboard as the source of the problem

It’s possible the PSU may be at fault, and it would be easier to swap it out to test first, but I still lean toward the motherboard based on all other evidence. I’ve asked for other opinions and am willing to be persuaded otherwise, but I suspect part of tomorrow will be spent buying and then installing a different motherboard and seeing what happens when I press the power switch. I am hoping my reaction will not be this:

The new computer: Installation of everything

First, the bad news: I somehow missed the USB headers and so the two front-mounted USB ports aren’t working. I actually rarely use these, anyway, as I have six USB ports available between the Asus monitor and Seagate back-up drive. I may eventually open the case up to fix this, but in terms of priority, it’s low. Maybe low++.

The good news: On turning on the PC for the first time, it worked. Yay! I got prompted to go into the BIOS because a new CPU had been detected. Once there, I confirmed all hardware was recognized (storage, chassis fans, memory, etc.) and rebooted with the USB drive containing the Windows 10 Pro installation.

The Windows installation went by quickly (really, I think I’ve had games take longer to install) and after answering the five hundred prompts about settings from Microsoft, I logged into my Microsoft account and was good to go. It still feels weird to have my preferred wallpaper already set up.

I installed drivers for the mouse, video card and, well, that’s it. That’s all I needed. I then installed programs I knew I’d be using right away:

  • Firefox (the one time I use Edge is to download Firefox. Well, and view PDFs)
  • Irfanview. Free image viewer/editor I’ve used for a thousand years.
  • Greenshot. Handy screen capture utility. Maybe I’ll try the new snipping tool Windows has built-in at some point, but I’m comfy with Greenshot.
  • Affinity Photo. For when Irfanview is not enough. It’s like Photoshop, but without the rental fee.
  • mIRC. IRC chat client I’ve used for 10,000 years.
  • battle.net. Because I know I’ll eventually play Diablo 3 again.
  • GOG Galaxy. For the games on gog.com I might play.
  • Steam. For the gamews on Steam I might play.
  • iTunes. As much as I dislike the mess of trying to restore my music library, it’s what I need to listen to my music on PC.
  • iCloud. More janky “We gotta have this on the PC I guess” software from Apple I need to access photos and other iCloud junk.
  • Microsoft Office. Mostly for Word and OneNote.

That’s about it so far. I am taking a “do not install until I need it” approach on everything else.

In terms of speed, the new system has some perhaps surprising results. Here’s a look at how the Geekbench 4 results compare between it, the old PC (2013), MacBook Pro (2016) and the Mac mini (2018):

As you can see, the single core score beats the MBP, as expected, but it only edges the 4th general Haswell CPU in my old PC, and actually comes in a bit behind the Mac mini.

On the other hand, the multi-core performance demolishes the old PC and is ahead of the Mac mini, as well. The thought of replacing the CPU with a more powerful one gives me the cold sweats.

So far everything feels snappy and fast and in some ways it’s nice to have a stripped-down set of applications. I’ll resist adding stuff just because, but–you know, as I type this, I remembered another one I need: Calibre. But apart from Calibre, I’m holding off until I actually have a need. No more impulsive installs, ever! I swear.

For now.

Also, the AMD Ryzen 7 CPU has a bright red LED that circles the HSF. It’s weird and somehow I missed that it features this (it is mentioned on the retail box). So my new PC is partially blinged out, despite my best efforts to prevent it.

Also also I’m resisting the urge to get a second SSD already, because only having a single drive for now irrationally makes me feel like I’m going to run out of space any minute.

My new PC is built

Built but not actually connected to anything. For the moment it is perfect. And perfectly quiet.

I assembled the parts this evening and went about the task of putting the guts into the mini-tower case I had picked. As with my current PC, I picked every component on this one, then assembled it myself.

The total time of assembly was bout three and a half hours, which was longer than anticipated. I expected this to be quicker and easier than the mini-ITX system I built five years ago. Wrong again!

The points where I had issues:

  • Installing the heatsink/fan combo. This should be easy, as it’s just screwing in four screws to a plate mounted under the motherboard. But first I had to remove brackets for an alternate design. That was easy. Getting the four spring-loaded screws to screw in was not. I had to carefully balance each screw, lest the other side of the HSF suddenly pop up. This happened a lot. I finally got all four screws in when I realized I had to exert a certain amount of force on the HSF to keep it level, so it wouldn’t pop up. This took maybe 20-25 minutes alone. I can say with full confidence this is something I never want to do again.
  • Installing the cables to the power supply. Easy in theory, but threading them from the motherboard and down to the PSU “shroud” proved difficult, as there is a drive cage mounted next to the PSU. I had to unscrew the PSU assembly and pull it partly out to get the cables connected.
  • Plugging in the headers for Power LED, etc. These are labeled on the motherboard, but are virtually impossible to read because they are tiny and/or partly hidden by other components. I had to take several pictures and examine them closely to get everything connected. I think I got it right. Maybe.

These three things were, at times, maddening. And I haven’t even mentioned the IO shield, that infernal piece of aluminum that goes into a spot on the back of the case, and is designed to pop out 20 times before you can actually get it to stay in place. Despite these issues—which have convinced me to never build my own PC again—some aspects of the build were easy:

  • RAM was a simple case of snapping in the modules, same as it’s ever been.
  • The SSD is an M.2 drive, about the size of a stick of gum. It plugs directly into the motherboard and uses one tiny screw and support to keep it fastened in place. No power cables, no SATA cables, that’s it!
  • The video card went in place quite easily. This is often the trickiest thing to get in, but the case had plenty of room for it.

As I write this it is 11:48 p.m. and I have powered off my current PC. I am not keen on hooking up the new PC yet. I’m not ready to go through the ritual of installing Windows. I’m even less ready to deal with inevitable BIOS errors, the video card not working and whatever else may go wrong.

I do not have a good feeling about this.

But for now, the PC is built and it is ready.

I am not.

But maybe tomorrow.

Lousy keyboards of yore

The Wall Street Journal published a column today by Joanna Stern in which she reports that Apple’s butterfly keyboard used on its MacBook, MacBook Air and MacBook Pro laptops is still having issues three generations in. This prompted Apple–currently facing a pair of class action lawsuits over the design–to offer an apology of sorts:

“We are aware that a small number of users are having issues with their third-generation butterfly keyboard and for that we are sorry. The vast majority of Mac notebook customers are having a positive experience with the new keyboard.”

Apple didn’t say they were sorry for first or second generation butterfly keyboard owners, likely because every one of those keyboards is guaranteed a free keyboard replacement up to four years after purchase.

Apple has effectively admitted there are issues with all three generations of the butterfly keyboard. I have gone from hating the feel of the keyboard (mine is the dreaded first generation) to tolerating it. I’d prefer to have more travel on the keys and have them be quieter/less clicky, but could otherwise adapt to them. The third generation, with its silicone membrane is apparently a little less noisy, but I’ve yet to test it out in a quiet-enough environment to notice a difference. Also, the membrane apparently contributes to heat build-up, creating a new avenue for issues to arise.

All said, what John Gruber calls “the worst products in Apple history” are perhaps hopelessly flawed. I mean, if issues are still coming up after multiple fixes, maybe it’s time to move on to another design entirely?

The MacBook is overdue for a refresh. If Apple doesn’t kill it, the next version of it may show if Apple is staying all-in on what appears to be a fundamentally broken design, or gives up and goes for something else, like adapting the low-profile scissor switch design used in their external keyboards for their next generation of laptops.

I’m leaning toward the latter at this point, mainly because of today’s apology. It feels like the beginning of the groundwork to kill the butterfly design and bring in something butterfly-like, but with none of the fragility.

And while reading about this today, I came across PCWorld’s The 10 Worst PC Keyboards of All Time. The butterfly keyboard isn’t on the list, as it dates all the way back to 2007. Still, it’s a fun–and horrifying–read. It’s kind of amazing how many computer keyboards didn’t have a backspace key.

Collected technology opinions from the internet, Volume 1

Yes, this is shooting fish in a barrel, but sometimes you have a barrel of fish and a loaded gun and you just can’t resist.

There is a larger meta-commentary here about literacy or something, but I’m just amused by glaring typos and people making wildly wrong guesses about how something is spelled, and more generally what people are willing to commit to virtual paper.

On Apple being boring:
“Not boring, rediculuslly gready!”

A browser less likely to be charged with sexual assault:
“it’s like Chrome, but doesn’t rape your privacy”

Sony’s upcoming console, with rows of cartridges in golden fields:
“If Sony goes cartridge for the plantation 5 than those Blu-ray’s will be obsolete.”

On WoW wooing back players and the need for departments:
“You need to fix the class system for those people who quit to come back. Classes need more dept and more abilities that define the class.”

Good advice for your next system build:
“For the graphics card to work, you need to plug it into the mobo.”

On wearing costumes?
“i keep hearing this, it seems that many people only cares about share holders, that’s very nice but what about costumers, i am a costumer that’s why i care about the costumer side”

Fixing MacBook keyboards with insects:
“In real life users are very happy with this keyboard, without even saying that 2016-2017 keyboard “issue” is just fixable blowing air with your moth lol”

Windows 10:
“Windows 10 is nice if you don’t actually have to use it for anything in my experience.”

Samsung vs. Google or The Goggles Do Nothing:
“The Samsung UI is better then Goggles and has a USD storage”

The “cash cow” model for apps

Drew McCormack has an article on Medium from January 15, 2018 in which he explains the rationale behind the somewhat unorthodox purchase options for the Mac/iOS note-taking app he helped create, called Agenda.

It’s a hybrid model that is related to, but not the same as the dreaded subscription model. Even more now than before, we are seeing signs of subscription fatigue from users–something that must be weighing on the minds of Apple’s executives as they get ready to unveil multiple new subscription services at their event tomorrow. McCormack cites the example of Ulysses, pointing out how people have gleefully torpedoed the average rating for the app by one-starring it solely for switching to a subscription model.

And I think that’s valid. It is and should be a dealbreaker. Ulysses’s devs may go on about how it only costs the equivalent of a Starbucks coffee per month, but their subscription doesn’t exist in a vacuum, it’s one of many apps to now demand a subscription simply to use it. The subscriptions add up and eventually the user will say, “No more” and may even start cutting back. In the case of Ulysses, there are plenty of other writing apps out there that do not charge a subscription fee for use. (Note: As I’ve also reported, I finally gave in and reluctantly subscribed to Ulysses, but only after holding out for 18 months. And my loyalty will only last until I find a better non-subscription writing app.)

This leads into what Agenda is doing differently, and it’s an approach I really like, and hope that other developers will adopt it (maybe some have–it’s been over a year since the blog post was written).

Agenda is free to use–there are no ads, no up-front costs, no subscription. There are, however, a set of premium features that require in-app purchase. This purchase gives you permanent access to the premium features, along with any added over the next 12 months. You can keep using this version of Agenda forever and never pay again. If a new premium feature or set of features comes out after the 12 months has lapsed, you make the same in-app purchase and get those features and any others added for another 12 months, again keeping them permanently.

My only quibble is the actual price–$35 is not a ton of money, but it does seem expensive for a note-taking app. Also, the Mac and iOS versions must be purchased separately.

Still, I think this is an excellent way to avoid subscriptions, while still allowing for an ongoing stream of revenue for the developers, and I’d like to see it adopted more widely.

Maybe if Ulysses switched over to this model they would finally rid themselves of the plague of the 1-star reviews.

New PC 2018: Parts chosen (until I change my mind)

Ironic note: This post was written on a Mac mini.

My current PC is about five years old and truthfully, it still does most things I need it to do without any major issues. I can browse the web, check email, write, read, play games, chat and so on, all without gnashing my teeth about the system being infernally slow, laggy or otherwise annoying to use.

It has an SSD as the main drive, so Windows 10 boots and restarts quickly (even if I notice that the Thinkpad X1 Carbon boots Windows 10 and programs even faster). It has 8 GB of ram, which still allows multitasking of as many programs as I’m likely to run. Its 4th generation Core i5 CPU is officially five generations behind, but it’s clocked at 3.3 GHz and still capable.

In the time I’ve had the PC, I’ve only upgraded three components:

  • The monitor, which isn’t even directly part of the PC. I went from a 24″ Samsung TN panel to a 24″ Asus IPS monitor, and the change was totally worth it. The color, clarity, viewing angles and brightness of an IPS monitor are so much better than a TN display. I still have the Samsung as an emergency backup.
  • The video card, from a GeForce GTX 570 to a GTX 770. This was also worth it, though I bungled things by not doing enough research, as the even-better GTX 970 came out just weeks after I got the 770.
  • The OS, from Windows 8 to Windows 10. And technically this isn’t a component of the PC, anyway.

Apart from that, the system is exactly the same as the day I put it together. I’m even using the same 2 TB hard disk from the previous PC as the secondary drive in the current one.

So with everything working, why build a new system?

The best answer might be that while everything works, I am starting to see the upper limits of what the current PC can manage. As programs–and especially browsers–become more bloated demanding, the 8 GB of ram is becoming an issue. Having a small primary drive (256 GB) is slowing down overall performance when loading and saving, because I simply don’t have room for everything on it. Older and less demanding games can still run fine on the GTX 770, but more often I have to turn down settings, accept lower framerates, or just play stuff released 10 years ago. Which Diablo 3 halfway to, luckily.

Also, we are at a point where technologies and pricing have both stabilized with some really good offerings.

If I stick to what I’ve picked out, here’s how the new system will compare to the current PC:

  • 4x the storage on the primary drive (1 TB vs. 256 GB). I would add additional storage on an as-needed basis.
  • 2x the memory (16 vs. 8 GB)
  • Faster video card with 4x the memory (RTX 2070 with 8 GB vs. GTX 770 with 2 GB)
  • A CPU with 2x the number of cores (8 core AMD Ryzen 2700 vs. 4 core Intel Core i5)
  • A larger case (microATX vs. mini-ITX)

The new case is an improvement because I’ve moved the PC back under the desk, so I don’t need a super-small case anymore. A taller one will make the front-facing ports and jacks easier to access, and the case itself should theoretically be easier to work with.

I’ve already gotten the video card, the next step is to figure out where to get everything else. Having amazon.ca ship everything to a locker is appealing (and simple) but amazon’s pricing and selection is surprisingly inconsistent, so I may be going to local dealers, like I did before NCIX self-immolated.

I am both excited (that new toy feeling) and filled with dread (piecing everything together, turning it on, nothing happening). And of course, it doesn’t address one critical aspect–I’m back to using Ulysses, a Mac-only writing app. I’m hoping the developers will eventually use their alleged subscription-fed largesse to port the program to Windows. I don’t think they will because they seem beholden to Apple’s ecosystem, but it would be nice. I like the app a lot more than I like macOS. Maybe I’m just too used to Windows after a hundred years of using it.

But maybe WriteMonkey 3.0 will eventually come out of beta, actually support indents and fulfill all my writing needs. It could happen!

Perhaps most importantly, my giant backlog of games can’t be played on a Mac mini. It’s new PC time.