I Don’t Want Your Curation

Spotify made two acquisitions. An expected one, Gimlet Media, and an unexpected one, Anchor. The latter is a big deal. Anchor has become a huge player in podcasting as a very easy way to create and publish.

I’m very worried that the very thing that makes podcasting special will be lost here. And Spotify’s announcement is not helping.

Just as we’ve done with music, our work in podcasting will focus intensively on the curation and customization that users have come to expect from Spotify.

I don’t want your curation. I want every independent creator to continue to have the same level of access to me that NPR has. This kind of gatekeeper structure already took the promise of the web, chewed it up, and spit out the horror show that we now call Facebook.

Oh but it gets worse.

…builds an even more robust business model for Spotify in an industry we believe will become significantly larger when you add Internet-level monetization to it.

Right, because Internet-level monetization has worked out really well for journalism. And retail. Hell even the music industry has suffered here, in many cases by Spotify’s own hand! South Park lampooned this BS over a decade ago. Unless you are Facebook, Google, or Amazon, there is no internet money for you. Expect to see yourself squeezed out of existence. This is just tone deaf.

Maybe there is an explanation though.

Along the way, we broke the grip piracy had on our industry and restored the growth of global music through paid on-demand streaming.

Spotify apparently exists in an alternate timeline where the iTunes Music Store never happened.

Apps for February 2019

Yeah yeah I missed a few months. They were busy months.

  • Mail: It seems no matter what I do I keep ending up back at Spark. No one else has the reliability and features.
  • To Do: Things continues to impress. I briefly tried 2Do again, attempting to live in the Apple Reminders system as it can sync with them. But syncing was just not reliable enough. I lost a few tasks. I rely too heavily on my task manager to have this be even a remote possibility. Things is rock solid. I’ve also come to rely on their Apple Watch app more and more. They have one of the best watch apps out there in my opinion.
  • Finance: Despite my longtime use of Banktivity, I’ve decided to give MoneyWiz another go. They have really caught up in a number of ways. And unlike Banktivity, which still seems to treat mobile as a secondary extension of the desktop app, MoneyWiz puts its full power on all platforms, mobile included. I had issues in the past with manually entered transactions not matching up with downloaded ones. This seems to work much better now.
  • Text Editor: Kodex is awesome. Simple, clean, and works with Apple’s Files app. This last feature has more or less become a requirement for me.

Apps for October 2018

It has been brutal for email apps with Newton, Alto, and Inbox all being discontinued. For email I have gone back to Mail.app once again. While I like the new features in Gmail, I don’t love the web UI, and I find the iOS app maddening. They brought over snoozes from Inbox but not the very convenient swipe gesture. And it still does not support split view on the iPad, three years after the feature was introduced.

The nice thing about Mail.app is it is always there and always works. The main feature it is missing that I do like is the ability to snooze an email. But it does work nicely with Things. All emails in Mail have a unique identifier that can be linked to. Dragging and dropping into Things creates a new to do item with this link back to the email.

The only problem is the iPhone does not support drag and drop to another app. The solution here is to use Dispatch. I’d probably consider Dispatch as a primary app if it were still getting updates, but development seems to have stalled. Also there is no Mac version. What it does get me is a way to send an email to Things with the link back to the email in Mail.app. While I wish Apple would just natively include a share sheet, this is the next best thing.

This allows me to use the same app on iOS and macOS, with one workflow shared between them. I have notifications turned on only for VIPs, and I have only a few of those.

Aside from email I am giving the new Pocket a try. While I have long preferred Instapaper’s design, the new Pocket looks for the first time like it may be catching up. And Instapaper has not had much going on post Pinterest. A side benefit of using Pocket and Inoreader together via IFTTT is that tags from my RSS reader transfer to Pocket. So if I want to see just tech articles, I can do so in Pocket without manually tagging.

It isn’t a new app for me, in fact it is one of the oldest, but major shout out to 1Password for supporting the new password manager feature of iOS 12 on day one. No more copying and pasting into apps that have not supported password managers in the past. Every login is only a tap away.

Google Maps and CarPlay

I tried out Google Maps via CarPlay this week. I’m very glad Apple finally allows third party navigation. Lots of people have ignored CarPlay because they couldn’t use Google or Waze (which is also Google). Using CarPlay is definitely safer than a mounted cell phone.

But I am sticking with Apple Maps. I have a few reasons.

First and foremost is the design. I find the display on Google Maps to be far too busy. All the side streets show traffic indicators. In an area like Queens with a lot of side streets this results in far too much visual clutter. While I can see the utility of this feature I very much prefer Apple’s approach of highlighting only the route. I found it easier to understand where I was supposed to go.

Nearly as important is voice control. My steering wheel has a dedicated button to launch the voice assistant. Via CarPlay this is Siri. Siri does not work with Google Maps. To use my voice with Google I had to press the microphone icon on the screen. Again there is a safety issue here. I can trigger Siri without taking my eyes off the road and my hands off the wheel. It’s an Apple restriction, but it is one to consider. Even worse was that in my testing the Google Assistant did not hear me at all. Not sure why, but driving is not the time to troubleshoot.

Speaking of troubleshooting, while using Google Maps I experienced the only crash of the CarPlay interface I have ever seen. Suddenly I was back on the Hyundai screen and had to relaunch.

Finally, and this is a minor point, and a highly subjective one. I prefer the Siri voice. I find the Google voice to be terse. Mixing the two makes this all the more apparent.

Apple Maps is still struggling to shake off the terrible reputation it gained at launch. But I’ve not had a problem with it at all in the last year. And we have driven all over the northeast, not just the NYC metro area. It has not led us wrong yet. It will be interesting to see how Waze does when it comes out of beta. But for now I’m more than happy sticking with Apple.

Apps for August 2018

Not too many changes to the lineup this month.

  • Social: None. All gone. And I am better for it.
  • Read Later: Instapaper is breaking free of the shackles of Pinterest and I am overjoyed. I never got into the styling of Pocket, and I really missed the Kindle integration. So glad to have Instapaper back and looking forward to it actually getting some love now that it will be independent again.
  • Shelf: I tried several of the “shelf” apps when they came out following Viticci’s concept. None really stuck with me. But I like the feature. Turns out DEVONthink actually makes a great shelf app. As a bonus, it has basically the same feature on the Mac.
  • Call Blocking: Taking Marco Arment’s recommendation here and trying out RoboKiller. Nomorobo was really struggling lately. Far too many spam calls getting through. Especially the local extension spoofing numbers. I’m not sure I even know anyone with my same local extension (not uncommon in NYC). Hoping this will help put a stop to the noise. I will report back.

One thing I did over the last month was an app purge. I got rid of many redundant apps and squashed down my home screen to a single page. A few folders at the top, and my most used below that in easy reach. Even more so on the iPad where I launch nearly every non-dock app via Spotlight. Next up is an account purge where I intend to get rid of many of the internet accounts I no longer use. It will be interesting to see which ones even allow for this.

Workflow as a Hugo Blogging Tool

I recently switched away from WordPress to the Hugo static site generator. For the most part I have been very happy. The biggest downside has been related to publishing a new post. Unlike WordPress, there is no app. Publishing requires SSHing into a server and running a series of commands by hand. What I wanted was a one click posting option. In addition I needed a way to load the article into Apple News.

Workflow to the rescue.

Now that the future of Workflow seems secure in iOS 12 Shortcuts I decided to use it to automate the process of posting a new article. The workflow takes in text, asks for a title, generates a preview, then posts to both the site and Apple News.

My setup consists of two Linux servers. One runs the Hugo software where the raw text files live. The other is the actual webserver. Everything is previewed in the first server. Then the site is built there and synced over using rsync.

The workflow accepts plain text. Currently I am not using images on the new site. So this workflow does not account for them. The nice thing is I can use basically any app that can generate text. I am not locked in to anything. Then a prompt asks for a title in proper title casing, saves it as a variable, then generates a file name by transforming to lowercase and converting spaces to hyphens. The final variable is the date in ISO 8601 format.

Now I generate the markdown document in the format my theme requires. Using cat I send it up to the test server over SSH.

Next I want to preview the post to make sure it looks how I want. Hugo has a built in preview server for this very purpose. My idea was to generate the preview over SSH and then jump to safari to see it. But I hit my first snag. When you use the hugo server command, it does not return to a prompt until you kill the running process. So using the SSH block in workflow causes the whole thing to pause at this point.

The solution was to open the Hugo server in screen. This runs it in the background and lets the workflow continue. I use the server IP instead of a domain name because I will be previewing the server over regular http. Since I am in the HSTS preload list I would be unable to get to it using the domain.

Workflow then opens this page in Safari so I can preview. It pauses until I return. When I do it kills the screen session, which terminates the preview server.

Next I ask whether to continue. If the preview had a problem I can abort at this point. Otherwise the workflow continues. I delete the public folder that was built the last time I ran Hugo. Then run it to build the new site, sync it to the webserver using rsync, and push the changes to a private GitHub repo as a form of backup.

And now the post is live. The last step is to get the it into Apple News. This was tricky because back when I was on WordPress I switched to the Apple News format away from pulling an RSS feed. This means the post needs to be uploaded using the API. But there is no Hugo plugin I can find. So I’m doing it myself.

Still in Workflow I generate a JSON file for Apple News. Thankfully News supports markdown. All I need to do to my article is to replace all newline characters with a literal BACKSLASH N to get the whole thing onto a single line. Using regex, Find BACKSLASH N, and replace them with the literal BACKSLASH BACKSLASH N. Yes, I am avoiding typing those characters out here so as not to break the workflow.

Then I use the Apple News ruby client on my server to upload the article.

And that’s it. I now have a full publishing app built right within Workflow. It really goes to show just how powerful this app is. I am beyond relieved that Apple is keeping this after purchasing the app, and that iOS 12 will probably allow for even more powerful apps to be built. And it serves as another reminder that iOS really has become a productivity platform.

Apps for July 2018

As my process of de-socialization continues, my app list for this month reflects dropping the last of an entire category.

  • RSS: Still using Fiery Feeds, but my backend sync service has gone back to Feedbin. The main reason has to do with the next app category.
  • Twitter: Also using Fiery Feeds and Feedbin. I no longer enjoy using Twitter. In fact I have really grown to hate it. It has become clear that the thing we all enjoyed a decade ago is gone forever. Unfortunately there are still some people I wish to follow there. Enter Feedbin’s amazing Twitter feature. While Inoreader does allow you to subscribe to Twitter streams as well, the presentation is not nearly as good as Feebin’s. For tweets with linked articles, Feedbin will load the entire text. Inoreader uses the entire tweet as the article title, which just looks incredibly messy. The whole Twitter experience in Feedbin just looks so much nicer. Since I have deleted my entire Twitter history and will be using it as a read only feed, Feedbin’s superior Twitter parsing makes it a clear winner.
  • Browser: I still like Firefox, but I am back on Safari for now. Mainly due to the mobile experience. Firefox tried too hard to be different than mobile Safari. I don’t need different, but I do need open tab syncing. So Safari is really the best option still. Plus it will be gaining some very nice anti-tracking features this fall.
  • Writing: I’ve spoken about how much I love Drafts before. But these last few articles I have written entirely there instead of in Ulysses. Drafts is such a natural place since my articles fit the write here and send it somewhere else mentality of Drafts. Plus it integrates great with Workflow, which is how I am now posting all of my website articles.

The HomePod is Good

I had no interest in the HomePod when it was announced. I had no interest when it was finally released after months of delay. I ended up buying one, almost on a whim, because of Sonos.

I’ve had Sonos speakers in every room for years. I really like them. But two things happened recently. The first is that Sonos announced AirPlay 2 was coming, but then didn’t bring it to a single speaker I own. Then they announced the Beam. I was all ready to buy a Beam. But somehow, despite years of its users begging for great audio codec support (Dolby Digital Plus, DTS, to say nothing of Dolby Atmos), and despite now having the HDMI port that was previously missing for these to be supported, Sonos is stubbornly sticking to its anti home theatre support position on its home theatre products.

Aside from the home theatre setup, I mostly listen to Podcasts, but the podcast service selection on Sonos is not great. PocketCasts is about it. Yes, Stitcher is there, but I would prefer to live in a world where I can pretend that it isn’t. And even with PocketCasts, you don’t get important features like 30 second skips, chapters, and silence trimming.

I tried Bluetooth speakers, but I hate them. I don’t mind Bluetooth headphones, but speakers are terrible. I switch between devices often when listening at home, and Bluetooth makes this a chore.

So I decided to try a HomePod. And you know what, it is really good. I like it more than I expected. As every other review has noted it sounds amazingly great. Nothing else in that size compares. No matter where I place it in the room, it fills it.

I can AirPlay from any device with ease. Well, almost. Mac support for AirPlay is still odd at times. Though AirFoil does fix this for the most part. Not everything is AirPlay 2 yet, but the fallback to the original AirPlay works for me for now. I know it seems like it should be minor but the difference in sending audio to a Bluetooth speaker vs sending to an AirPlay speaker really makes the latter a far superior experience for me.

And then there is Siri. Siri is imperfect, and definitely does sometimes fall down in places where Alexa does not. However, this is not always the case. Oddly our ceiling fans, which are compatible with both HomeKit and Alexa work far better with Siri. I would say about half the time Alexa fails, even though it indicates success. Siri commands work nearly every time. In fact, for smart home devices I now prefer Siri over Alexa. A big part of this is the Home app. Having an option beyond voice control is really nice.

The biggest issue for the HomePod at this point is price. That $349 is really a tough sell. I think if they could knock $100 off it would be more interesting to people. They don’t need to get it to Echo Dot levels, but there is something about sub $250 that makes it easier to justify.

But overall I think it is a solid product. More solid than I expected. I am excited to see where it goes. I am really hoping that iOS 12 Shortcuts is a preview of how Apple is going to finally push Siri forward. Should you run out and get one? Probably not. I fully expect a version 2 at some point, and likely a price drop. If Apple’s usual pattern holds, the current HomePod will eventually become the entry model with a newer one above it. It’s a wait and see game for now. No, it has not taken the world by storm, but this product doesn’t have to. Steady improvement is what it needs. I am hopeful that this will happen.

Apps for June 2018

I swapped out a few apps for June.

  • Browser: I have not given Firefox a try in a while. I like Mozilla. I believe they actually care about the open web, as well as have a respect for user privacy. So far I have been quite happy with the performance of the browser. Their tracking protection is basically a built in content blocker. One of the few third party browsers on iOS with a functional blocker. And calling it “Tracking Protection” is genius. Sites that want you to turn it off can’t hide their true motivations.
  • Podcasts: Oh boy has a lot happened here. Pocket Casts, my pick last month, was purchased by a combination of NYC and Chicago public radio. I am a member of WNYC. I love public radio. But this acquisition makes me nervous. Then came Castro 3. Wow oh wow. I am so loving this app. It fixed nearly all the issues that kept me from using it previously (almost - my kingdom for an iPad app.) The queue system in Castro is simply genius. Aside from some bugs I am extremely happy here.
  • Mail: I was really excited for Spark 2. Then it came out. I am no longer excited by Spark 2. Not only was the launch unstable for days, but the app seems to be moving toward a “suck up all your data” model that makes me really uncomfortable. They now keep your actual full emails on their server according to their privacy policy. The teams feature is not compelling at all, but seems to be their focus going forward. And they use Facebook analytics. Lastly the design is starting to look very dated. I’ve moved back to AirMail, hoping the many months since I last tried has brought it stability.
  • Productivity: When Agenda launched on macOS I found it interesting but ultimately didn’t do much with it. Now that it is on iOS also I’m going to give it a fair shake. Not sure if it will have the ability to knock me off of Bear and Things. That will be incredibly difficult. But I am interested in if I can find a place for it, particularly around project management.

Day One's Bad Week

Day One is my favorite journaling app for Mac and iOS. But they had a bad, bad week. Sync was down for several days due to a hardware failure. When it finally returned, the fallout turned out to be pretty catastrophic for an app that stores private information. From their post:

New user accounts are created with sequential IDs. Since the restored cluster did not contain the newest account IDs, new accounts created on May 8 were receiving lower IDs than expected, which overlapped with existing accounts in the original database. As a result, those new accounts had IDs matching some of the existing journal records, and received access to a few existing journals.

That’s really bad. Who knows what kind of deeply personal information may have been disclosed to unknown parties.

Day One has an optional end-to-end encryption feature.

We do not currently have information on how many of those journals used end-to-end encryption, but any such journals would have been protected against disclosure.

This is precisely why those of us who care about encryption are so absolute about having strong, backdoor-free encryption. It not only proactively protects your data, it reactively protects your data. What happened to Day One was an accident, but if you had end-to-end encryption turned on, you were safe. The problem here is that it is off by default, and not easy to discover within the app, so I expect the number of people using it is incredibly low.

If you are a Day One user, go to Settings > Journals and turn it on for all of your individual journals now. The only downside is that the Android app and Web app currently do not support this. Assuming you don’t need either, there is no reason not to. Put the private key in your password manager and you are good to go.

Day One did the right thing in disclosing what happened. But going forward I would love to see them, and everyone who stores sensitive data on a remote server enable end-to-end encryption as the default. The only data that you cannot leak is the data that you do not have.