The second unit in my course on User Experience and Evaluation was on competitive analysis — looking over the competitive landscape in a given marketplace, and using that data to figure out both the low-level design and high-level strategy you should use to effectively compete.
While I considered doing an analysis of the productivity management/to-do-list marketplace (an area on which I havemanyopinions), I realized that the end result of that analysis would be “the marketplace is saturated, and the ‘table stakes’ level of functionality is prohibitively expensive to achieve.” Not the most exciting result.
Instead, I looked at another area where I’ve gone through a surprising number of apps: fitness tracking. Specifically, workout planning and tracking – I did a previous assignment on how people use the gym, and one of my findings was “hoo boy are there a lot of different systems for planning and tracking a workout.”
After downloading quite a few apps and compiling a rather monstrous spreadsheet, I put together the results into a report, which I’m now posting here.
(Will I be using these findings to develop an app? … No comment.)
For those using screen readers, or who prefer their own reading environment, you can download the full presentation PDF here:
I mentioned in my last review that I was reading this omnibus; I didn’t review the short story in the middle, as it seemed a bit too short to be worth the effort, but did enjoy it. And it provided a good introduction to the characters here, eased the transition of skipping forward half a millennium or so.
I’ll start off by saying that I enjoyed “Children of the Eighth Day,” but temper that by saying it wasn’t as good as “Dance for the Ivory Madonna.” It’s more removed — it’s a space opera, and I’m much less familiar with the goings-on of an interstellar empire than I am of the modern world.
The overall flow was interesting — the first half of the book wraps up far more than I thought it would, and the second half has an entirely different set of issues for the characters to confront.
In retrospect, I think the short story leading in to this is not just helpful, but perhaps necessary, to be able to at all follow the events of the first few chapters. Things kick off very quickly, and trying to figure out the context of the Empire and the Family would be a bit much in addition to the actual events of the plot.
Final verdict: I do recommend the omnibus as a whole, but it might be worth reading it out of order — there’s a bit of spoiler effect for “Ivory Madonna,” as historical context, but I don’t think it gives away enough to really ruin the book for you, if you do read it in that order.
This is… the most fun piece of cyberpunk I’ve read. I was going to add a qualifier to that, but in trying to come up with one, I realized it doesn’t need one; it’s just the best one.
Unlike most cyberpunk, it doesn’t feel dated by the technology. Sure, it’s set in the future, which helps, but it’s set in a future that feels like a reasonable future based on our current technology, not based on the 1980s.
The setting is fascinating: the world map has been severely redrawn, most noticeably by the USA splitting into several pieces, and by the fledgling African Union actually taking off and becoming a (if not the) world power. At the same time, however, those national divides have become less important, with the UN finally taking over global police actions, aided by a technocratic NGO, the Nexus.
The protagonist is a Nexus operative, and as the story goes on you find out he’s veritable royalty — his father a founding member of Umoji, the African economic union, his grandmother the person whose ideas gave birth to the Nexus, and a few other fun surprised along the way. (I won’t spoil any more than that, it truly was fun finding things out as I went.)
Throw in the global economy being run by AIs, a well-explained split between AR and VR, and a space program based on a mix of ion thrusters and orbital velocity cannons paired with gigawatt-laser-pumped-solar-sails, and I am sold on this setting.
I’m interested to read more of this — I’m reading the Worlds Afire omnibus, which includes three books in the series, if I’m remembering correctly. However, the series isn’t just in this one era, it’s apparently operating on a truly enormous scale, so it’s very possible that the events of the next book will be more than a billion years removed from what I just read.
As long as the next is further into the future, though, I can reasonably expect to see at least historical references to the characters here — the results of the plot certainly feel big enough that they’d carry a long ways throughout human history.
If I’ve sold you on this book now, which I rather hope I have, because it’s a delight, you can go grab the omnibus.
This is another book that I put off reading for a while. I knew going in that it was the last in the series — Roberts’ blog made that pretty clear — and then, shortly after I bought it, his publisher went under (or something? I’m unclear) and seemed to pretty effectively tank any hope for future works in the amazing world he’s built here.1
And that’s what always shines to me about his books: the world-building. Roberts has a gift for showing without telling, and manages to perfect balance explaining a little bit and leaving a bit to the imagination. One of my favorite scenes in “… You Believe Her” was Penny, sitting on a train, watching a couple boys study. It’s just that one of them was using his telekinesis to levitate the book instead of holding it with his hands. And she goes off on a little tangent, thinking about the statistics of superpowers, and we find out that the superheroes and supervillains are the statistical outliers, while there are also sorts of normal people who use their powers to… not wear spandex and beat each other up. To study. To do their jobs. To make music, or build cool computers.
That’s what I love about the series. It’s a great big world, and Roberts wants to follow the same “but what about-“ trail of implications that I always do.
It’s also hilarious, if my gushing over the world building hasn’t sold you. This book introduces Gerty the Animatronic Goat, who I described to my friend as “the single best comic-relief character I’ve ever read.” It’s silly, and wholesome, and my jaw is a little sore from how much I smiled while I was reading the book.
And the thing is, Gerty is present throughout the book, and it’s necessary. She’s comic relief, because what’s actually happening in the plot is heavy. It’s probably a requirement to read the previous book first, to be able to follow what’s going on, as it starts off pretty in the middle of things.
It’s dark and sad, and happy and silly. It’s an excellent read. Check it out.2
Happy follow-up, though: I believe he’s since got the rights sorted out enough that he can resume his plans to write more in this world. ↩
And join me in reading Roberts’ new book, in a totally different setting. I had the chance to read an early-release version of the first couple chapters a while back, and I’ve been looking forward to the full novel ever since. Hopefully I don’t take quite as long to get around to reading it as I did this one. ↩
I put off reading this one for a while, because it seemed like it was going to be dumb and fluffy, the sort of thing I like to save for when I’m stressed and need something easy and happy. And I’m quite happy to have been wrong about it, in part: while it’s certainly fluffy, it’s less dumb than I was expecting. Sure, the protagonist spends a bit too long not quite grasping what’s going on, but that actually gets turned around pretty well later on. And it’s a surprisingly good political novel, too — the backdrop of “being the son of the President” isn’t left as window-dressing, instead becoming a significant driver of the plot.
The cast is delightful — there’s a good deal of family drama going on, and it feels real, and rough at times.
All in all, I loved this book — stayed up too late reading it, laughed the way through, and would happily read it again. I can heartily recommend it.
I’m not sure what it says about me that all of my nonfiction reading is about the Cold War, but here we are again.
The funny thing about this book — and there isn’t much of that, because it’s a detailed account of some truly horrible things — is what did and didn’t stick in my mind. A lot of the book was about trying to humanize the victims of the experiments, and that aspect didn’t really land for me. The actual experiments, what was done, did stick, to a degree; having just finished my read, the ones I most remember are the prison experiments in Oregon and Washington, the radioactive iron supplements at Vanderbilt, a bit about the total-body irradiation experiments, and, of course, the titular plutonium trials. Some of the accidents also stood out to me — there’s a discussion of a man who took a plutonium criticality to the face, and the summary of how thoroughly screwed you are by that is that, when he threw up on the floor of the hospital an hour or two later, after they’d cleaned the floor, they had to get out a geiger counter to check if it was safe for anyone to walk there. (He didn’t survive; to add insult to horrible injury, his body was then parceled out to labs around the country, without the permission or knowledge of his next of kin.)
There were also a couple figures, dropped in as part of an anecdote in the portion of the book about the pilots who flew planes through mushroom clouds to measure their effects, that lodged in my head pretty effectively.
The first set of tests after WWII ended were called Operation Crossroads. The second of these was an underwater detonation; I’ve heard the story before that, during the explosion, a Japanese battleship was thrown — 30,000 tons of metal, launched out of the water. (I’ve been trying to confirm this story in writing this, but haven’t found any clear evidence either way, so I’m going to call it apocryphal and move on.)
This story, though, was from the Castle series, Castle Bravo, the first thermonuclear weapon test. 15 megatons of TNT; while it wasn’t a useable weapon — the device was the size of a small building, and had to be constructed in-place on the ‘target’ island — it was mind-boggling in scale. Because, 15 megatons of TNT, that’s… a number. But what the book described was a 20-mile-wide column of water and mud, 45,000 feet tall. Again, mind-boggling in scale, but slightly easier to conceptualize; just imagine a mountain, and then… make it taller.
The figure that truly got to me, though, was the statement that it took hours for the water and mud to finish falling back into the ocean. Hours.
These nuclear tests were also so bright that test animals, 350 miles away, got retinal burns from looking directly at it.
It’s a scale of destruction that I can’t fit in my mind. Humans aren’t equipped to think about this sort of thing.
And it’s not the scariest part, is the thing. Sure, you can erase a city in the blink of an eye.
This is where the book shines: it’s about the radiation, and just how scary and insidious it is. I’ve mentioned before that people aren’t afraid enough of nuclear war; at risk of sounding like a broken record, I’ll say it again. Write your Congresspeople, and advocate for disarmament, everyone.
It’s rather fitting that I’m writing this review on my iPhone. Parts of the book were written on an iPhone, I suspect, and the author mentioned that a good deal of the interview recordings and photos were made on his iPhone.
Structurally, the book is interesting — there are two through lines, and they’ve got the same writing style but different feels. The more story-like one is the historical aspect, going from the beginning of the project through to the keynote where Steve Jobs introduced the world to the iPhone. And it’s a story, for sure: there’s a narrative to it, characters being introduced, politics and inventions, failures and triumphs. It’s the best telling of the story I’ve read so far, though admittedly I don’t think I’ve actually sat down to read the full story before.1
The other part is more of the ‘now’ aspect, which explores the impact of the iPhone as a product, focusing on the manufacturing process. The author tells how he… made his way into the Foxconn plant where iPhones are assembled; predictably gets hacked immediately after arriving at a hacker convention; goes on a claustrophobic tour of a tin mine; under-details an agoraphobic tour of the salt flats that produce most of the lithium used in the iPhone’s battery; and a few other stops along the way.
All told, it’s an interesting read. Some of the historical context was new to me—the history of ARM was inspiring, for example—and while I already knew a lot of things—photos of those lithium flats are pretty striking—I’m glad I took the time to read it. If you’re at all interested in the history, I can recommend the book.
Creative Selection is on my list to read, so I’ll get there eventually. ↩
This is… a work in progress. I got this phone in September, and while it’s been on my mind to do a full reorganization, I haven’t had time to do a full “tear it all down and start from scratch” process. The top two rows, especially, are very temporary — for the first time since iOS 7 came out, I’ve disabled Reduce Motion, and the parallax makes the fake invisible icons trick look terrible. So rather than go through things in top-to-bottom, right-to-left order, I’m just going to talk about them in whatever order strikes my fancy.
Things remains my task management app of choice. I love it across all platforms, and happily recommend it to anyone who’s looking for something more robust than Reminders or a list in Notes. For me, it strikes the right balance of features without getting too heavy, and while I’ve got one or two things I’d like to see added, I have no great complaints.1
FoodNoms has been a very nice addition – it replaced Calory, which had replaced MyFitnessPal, which had replaced Lose It!. I’ve got a long history of tracking food, and while I quite liked Calory, FoodNoms is the first time I’ve gone “ah, never mind, don’t need this” and tossed out my notes on how I would build a food-tracking app. I haven’t yet gone for the subscription, because it just doesn’t have any features that interest me, but based on the rate of development, I’m expecting to make that change within the next few months.’
Timery is another stellar addition. It’s in that same category as FoodNoms — I had some sketches started of how I’d make an app in this category, and Timery made them completely irrelevant. The last two updates have added some truly excellent Shortcuts integrations — the last one added conversational shortcuts, so I can now just say “Hey Siri, Toggl” and talk through starting a timer with a specific project and description, or kick off a few frequently-used ones with a short phrase. The newest updated added some more programmatic stuff, and I’m planning to take some time over Christmas weekend to rebuild my old Toggl shortcuts, based on Federico Viticci’s examples, with Timery instead of custom web API calls.
Toolbox Pro – speaking of Shortcuts, Toolbox Pro is a neat little collection of Shortcuts actions. I’m most excited about the Variables feature, which I’m hoping I can use to improve some of my daily automation stuff.
Mail has replaced Airmail. I’d been vaguely looking for a replacement for Airmail, because it had a nasty habit of crashing all the time, and then they did a terrible job of switching to a new business model, and I threw my hands up in the air and decided to try the system default. It’s been working perfectly on iOS; on macOS, I’ve got a cobbled-together system using BetterTouchTool that sorta gives it real keyboard shortcuts,2 and a launchd script that relaunches it when it crashes.3
Day One remains my stalwart for journaling, but I’ve been slowly increasing the things I use it for. It’s my archive of Instagram, where I store my sketches, and the app I used to record some interviews I did for class.4
Ulysses is where I’m writing this article! It’s still my go-to for any long-form writing, and I love it. I haven’t yet made much use of their recent ability to store Ulysses files in Dropbox (or other arbitrary locations on disk), but I do have a collection of plain-old-markdown files that I edit in Ulysses on my Mac and Sublime Text on Windows.5
Reeder is a continuation and an addition all at once — I’ve been using it on my Mac for a while, but didn’t have it on iOS. I hit the maximum number of feeds on the free level of Feedly, and was extremely unimpressed with their paid offerings; I considered making a second account to keep syncing, but decided that was sorta rude to them, and instead opted to not have sync at all. That worked for a while, and then I got a Synology, and after setting it up as a Plex server, spent some time looking into RSS server options. At the moment, I’m using TT-RSS with a plugin for Fever support, but if anyone knows of something that’s easy to set up and has Google Reader API support, I’d appreciate it.6
Dark Sky’s recent redesign has me pretty happy. If they let me reorder the types of information, I’d be happier, but the clarity of the “when is it going to rain” charts is still excellent.
Overcast remains my podcast app of choice. Podcasts have been a great way to help me establish a gym habit — I established a podcast habit, and then decided that podcasts are things I can only listen to while driving, cleaning, or working out. (If you want podcast recommendations: Cortex, Do By Friday, ATP, 99PI, and MBMBAM are my mainstays.)
Strong, speaking of a gym habit, is the driving force of my time at the gym. A couple of my friends have been helping me out with designing actual workout programs to do, but Strong is where I put those in. It’s easy to use, remembers all the numbers so I don’t have to, and has instructions, often accompanied by images or GIFs, on a lot of exercises.
Streaks is where I track all my habits, from “did you remember to take your meds” to “do some writing for your blog” to “have you gone to the gym enough times this week?” It’s very good at what it does, and I’m still a fan.
Fluidics is a bit self-serving to include here, but I use it all the time. I’m planning to update it eventually — I’d like proper Dark Mode support, at the very least — but it’s hard to find the time.
Wallet has gotten more and more important over time, though not as fast as I’d like it to. Let me put my driver’s license in there, already. Apple Card is slowly taking over as my main credit card, Apple Cash is even more handy with the cash back in there, and it’s not too hard to make your own pass of your gym membership.
Sleep Cycle is possibly on it’s way out; I’m strongly considering getting a beddit, although I need to do more research — does it have the ‘smart alarm’ feature? How accurate is it? Is Apple going to kill the app soon? Lots of questions.
Dark Noise is a new addition in the past few days; I’ve been switching from a ‘sleep’ playlist to white noise in an effort to get Apple Music’s recommendations to not be entirely useless.7 I tried to use Sleep Cycle’s white noise feature for a while, but it assumes that I want the white noise to stop after a while, which is absolutely not the case. Dark Noise’s actual noise is a bit less interesting overall, which is possibly the point, and the app itself is delightfully well-made.
I was, admittedly, tempted by OmniFocus, because OmniFocus for Web means I could have a single unified system across my Mac, iOS devices, and work PC, but it’s still just too much for my needs. And expensive. ↩
Listen, Apple: you can either comp me the cost of getting a new keyboard that’s got the Inverted T arrangement for the arrow keys, or you can let me go from message to message using j/k. (And even if they did give me a free keyboard, I’d still complain; I’ve been using j/k to get around for two decades now, and it’s just easier.) ↩
And on Windows, both Outlook and Windows Mail crash frequently, too; apparently IMAP, despite being 30-something-years-old, is still an unsolved problem? ↩
In typing this, I’ve just realized that I think I’m using Day One the way Evernote wants to be used. Huh. ↩
I’m very excited about SwiftUI, and have been using what little free time I have to do some tinkering with it. I started during the beta period, which was fun in between being very frustrating; a lovely side effect was that some of the knowledge I picked up is… entirely wrong. One that caught me was the implementation details for the Picker type.
Based on the rather rough state of the SwiftUI documentation for Picker and ForEach,1 I’d assumed that combining the right binding with a .tag(_:) on the items would work:
If you tapped “Second” in the picker that SwiftUI generated, however, the text wouldn’t read “You’ve selected item 3!” like it should; it would be “You’ve selected item 1!”
A bit more tinkering revealed that, instead of pulling the value from the .tag(_:) on there, it was just using… the index in the ForEach.2
After some frustrated Googling, utterly despairing of Apple’s documentation, and a lot of StackOverflow searches, I finally figured out the solution:
Quite frankly, I don’t have a good explanation of what’s going on here; last time I was tinkering with Pickers, the .tag(_:) provided SwiftUI with the information it needed to do the binding. (When I’ve got more time, I’d like to do another test — now that I’ve got the id keypath, do I even need the tag?)
I’d love a good explanation of what all the id keypath gets used for, and where else it might be necessary, but alas:
It’s a bit unfair for me to link to No Overview Available when referring to SwiftUI; the coverage is low, but the problem isn’t so much that as the fact that ‘documentation coverage’ just doesn’t work as a metric for something like SwiftUI. The tutorials are a start, and a good sign that Apple was at least trying to rethink their approach to documentation, but they’re not nearly complete enough. ↩
Zero-based index, of course, which seemed obvious to me, but got me a “???” response when I was complaining about this issue to a non-programmer friend. ↩
As a recent assignment for one of my design classes, we were told to find a website whose design we didn’t like, build a moodboard for a new version of the site, and then create a high-fidelity prototype of the new version of the page we’d called out.
For my uninvited redesign, I selected Calibre’s homepage; I love what Calibre stands for, but I haven’t used it in years, because… well, I’ll just drop in my analysis portion here:
It could use some love, is the short form of it. (After I built that and submitted, I realized I’d forgotten to turn off my content blockers for the screenshot; the unaltered version of the site looks the same, but also features ads along the side, which explains that awkward hanging line in the latter screenshot.)
Next up, build a mood board. This was pretty fun to do – I basically just wandered around, not only the internet, but a nearby library, and my own bookshelves, looking for inspiration. Here’s the result:
I couldn’t not pick Baskerville, c’mon.
The final part of the assignment was to put together our own redesign, using what we’d put together in the mood board. I almost sat down with Sublime and coded it in HTML, because that’s what I do in my day job, and it’d be easy, but made myself use Sketch instead – what better way to learn than by practicing?
That’s the end, right?
Well, no, if you looked at the featured image on this post, you already know I did a bit more. The extra credit portion of the assignment was to do a redesign of a different part of the brand; I opted to do a quick take on “Calibre, if it was designed for macOS”. (For reference, Calibre was designed for/using Qt, which means it looks somewhat out of place… basically everywhere.)
(I would like to clarify – I’m throwing a lot of shade at Calibre here, but I really do respect what it is, does, and stands for. DRM-free ebooks are a very good thing. Support your authors.)
This last bit was, in no small part, just an excuse to play around with the Sketch resources that Apple provides. They’re neat!
As I’m sure I’ve mentioned, I’m currently working on a master’s in design. (I’m not sorry for talking about it a lot, I’m excited!)
In the first week, we spent a lot of time sketching. Which is… not something I’ve done a whole lot of, in the past; a bit here and there, especially while I was planning out Fluidics, and I do some at work on occasion, but never as much as we did in that first class.
One of the things that our professors mentioned was that it’s something that takes practice. Which, duh, except I hadn’t really thought about it like that. I’d done the thing that so annoys me when people do it with music: "oh, I’m just not talented at that."
That’s wrong. It’s not that I’m not talented; it’s that I’ve never practiced. So I made a resolution of sorts: I’m doing a degree in design, sketching is an important skill in design, so I’m going to practice this skill. I added it to my habit tracker, and off I went.
Since then, I’ve been trying to do a sketch every day. Mostly sticking with pencils (or rather, ‘pencils’; most of these were done in Moleskine Flow – it’s a pretty good app for this, and I’m quite enjoying the Apple Pencil), a bit of pen here and there. And sketching whatever catches my eye – there’s a good deal of the random items around my house, and a small collection of light fixtures in the various Starbucks’ I’ve found myself in over the past month or so.
It’s been fun. And, looking back over my sketches to put this post together, I think I’m improving. So, hey, practice: it works!
In my Design and Prototyping class, we recently did an assignment called "Add a Feature". We were supposed to take an app or site we frequently use, find a competitor or two, and identify a feature that the competitor has. We would then sketch our take on that feature, if it were added to the original app, and wireframe it in Sketch.
As my original app, I chose Things. I’ve been a user, and fan, for years. I have also, however, tried OmniFocus, and know there’s a feature there that I would love to have in Things: sequential tasks.
The basic idea of sequential tasks is that you can set a project, or a group of tasks, to operate in parallel – the normal way, where you can see all the incomplete tasks – or in sequence. When they’re in sequence, you can only see the next incomplete task, not all of them.
Which would be very helpful to me, at the moment – I’m taking classes, and a lot of what’s going into Things at the moment is "do this reading, watch these lectures, then do this assignment." Except, of that sentence fragment, things doesn’t support the word ‘then’, so I see the whole list all at once. I’d rather only see the reading, then only see the lectures, then only see the assignment. Perfect candidate for the assignment.
So, first thing’s first: sketch it.
I kicked around a couple different ideas, but pretty quickly arrived at the conclusion that it should be integrated into Things’ ‘When’ menu.
The other question was how to display these in the list. The point, of course, was that sequential items wouldn’t show up in the ‘Anytime’ list, but they do still need to be visible in some circumstances – namely, when you click through to the project itself, future items still show up.
I actually tried a couple variations – it’s at this point that, were I working for Cultured Code, I’d say “we should build both versions and do some testing to see which is better.” I’m not, though, so I just wireframed them both and turned in the result.
I’m fairly happy with the way I integrated it. Clicking, tapping, or typing “After” pulls up a second menu, where you can search for the item you want to attach to. Instead of thinking about it in terms of the project, the mental model is just “after x, I’ll do y.”
All told, I really enjoyed this exercise – it was the first wireframing I’ve ever done in Sketch, and it was neat to think about integrating a feature into something I use all the time. (And, hey, Cultured Code, if you’re reading this: feel free to use this idea, because I’d love to have the feature.)