Categories
Technology

State of the Apps 2020

I suppose I’m making this a tradition, now, writing up what I have on my phone and what’s changed since last year. And why not? It’s fun, and it helps me a bit with the fact that I’ve let my blog post queue get very near empty.

Screenshot of the iOS 14 'today' view, showing several widgets.
Screenshot of an iPhone home screen, with a mix of widgets and applications.

This year saw the release of iOS 14, and with it, the ability to put widgets directly on your home screen, and to banish apps from your home screen to the App Library. Both of which I have pretty thoroughly taken advantage of – though I’ve only got the one page of apps, I almost certainly have more apps installed this year than I did last year.

Widgets

Let’s do a quick look at my ‘widgets’ screen. I believe the official name is ‘Today View,’ but that’s a piece of information that I’m going to estimate seven people outside of Apple know off the top of their head, so we’ll move right along.

The upper half is a dashboard; at top left, we have a Smart Stack, showing Calendar above, and beneath it are a pair of Timery widgets that show me totals I want to keep an eye on throughout the day.

Top right, batteries; I used to think the idea of the bigger battery widget was ridiculous, but if I do everything precisely wrong, I can overwhelm it – think, phone, watch, AirPods with distinct battery levels, and the AirPods case, to boot. Still, I like that at-a-glance view, and I actually like that it doesn’t show percentages, it feels a lot lighter as a result.

Below that, I’ve got another Stack with a pair of Things widgets, showing my Today and Upcoming lists. I originally had a couple of my Areas displaying, as well, but found I wasn’t really using them.

Finally, I’ve got another Stack, this time a pair of the larger-form Timery widgets. The one you’re seeing is my “my projects” collection – including a deliberately-blank bottom-right, so that with a timer running I’ve still got a way to tap into the app without starting or stopping a timer. 1 The other one, which I won’t be showing for “NDA” reasons, is stuff for work.

Home

Now the home screen, which my mental model has in five segments.

The four apps at top left are the “aspirational” section – Books, as I’m trying to train myself to reach for a book rather than searching the web for Content to keep myself entertained; fitbod, as part of my ongoing fitness routine/goals; Shortcuts, because I want to be free to automate tasks with ease; and Files… doesn’t particularly fit the theme, but I use it often enough for it to have earned that spot.2

Top right is the ‘health’ pile. It is, you guessed it, yet another Smart Stack.3 Topmost is FoodNoms, which I still heartily recommend to anyone who wants to start calorie counting.4 Below FoodNoms we have Streaks, which I’m using less than I did last year, but I still find it helpful. Despite the fact that I’ve been taking the same meds every morning for several years now, I still forget at least once a week, and Streaks is what reminds me. Finally, at the bottom, is Activity, which I think you could call one of the canonical widgets of the new style – a glanceable bit of information, always there.

Below these two we have… an unnamed section.5 It is, once again, a Smart Stack. On top we’ve got my main-use Shortcuts – the bottom two for playing music, ‘Things’ gives me a menu of various Things items/projects that I use semi-often, and ‘Auto’ is a lovely piece of work that does what Siri Suggestions was advertised as doing.6

Below Shortcuts is Weather. Apple’s Weather app still feels a little lacking in accuracy compared to Dark Sky, but I’m hoping they’ll rectify that (and get their display of “amount of rain” lining up with my actual expectations for what it means, a la Dark Sky) before they disappear Dark Sky entirely. The widget, though, makes me want to write a chapter for a UI textbook about how well it contextually displays information.

The final item in this stack is Fluidics. It’s not just shameless self-promotion, it’s also dogfooding! (And I really do think the widget is a beautiful piece of design, if I do say so myself.)

The bottom section is Regular Ol’ Apps.

  • Overcast is holding steady as my podcast app. I’ve finally gotten below 5 gigs of podcasts downloaded to listen to, so in the next month or so I expect Chase to finish convincing me I need to download the entire back archive of Roderick On The Line.
  • Photos has actually grown in how much I’m using it – I decided to go all-in on it this year, and spent some time loading a bunch of the photos from my DSLR archives in, and some more time labeling faces so the ‘people’ album would work. I’ve had mixed results.7
  • Mail. What do you want me to say? It’s Mail, and I wanted the most boring of email apps.
  • Reeder I’ve updated to version 4, and am continuing to drive the actual RSS sync off of TT-RSS/Fever on my Synology. The one addition is RSS-Bridge, which I’m using to scrape a few Twitter feeds into RSS as well. I’ve also finally moved wholesale into Reeder’s Read Later service, leaving Instapaper behind.8
  • Ulysses still fulfills the same use case for me. I’ve found it to be a… reasonable editor for GitLab Wiki articles, and a much better viewer for them than GitLab itself.9
  • Day One has continued to expand the list of things I use it for. I think the most interesting is a pair of journals I’ve got – “Inbox” and “Archive.” “Inbox” is in as dark a theme as I can make it, and is the default journal on my phone; any time I’ve got a midnight idea, I jot it down in there, and once a week or so I’ll go through, processing things from “Inbox” into “Archive.” It’s a nice little workflow.
  • Slack made its way onto my home screen courtesy of MHCID, and remains there because it’s the main way I communicate with some of the friends I made through the program. It’s a much better UI than Teams.10
  • Paprika might belong in the ‘aspirational’ category in place of Files. I’ve got more than a thousand recipes in here, and I’ve made, like, twenty of them. One day…

Finally, we have the dock, which is only a visual distinction given that I’ve only got the one page.

  • Music remains a very important thing to me, and I’m in and out of it all day. Every time I use it, I miss when Apple allowed you to customize the tabs – they have five tabs in there, and I literally never use three of them. Let me have playlists as a top-level tab, Apple, please. Stop trying to make Radio happen.
  • Messages is the only social network I’ve got, these days. It’s nice to see Apple putting effort into it – I am a heavy user of threads and tapbacks.
  • Things is a stalwart as my task management app. Outside of drawing apps, it’s the only iPadOS app that does handwriting recognition correctly – you just start writing, anywhere on screen, and it reads it in.11
  • Safari, because what would an iPhone be without the internet communicator? Admittedly, my Safari is a very different Safari than most peoples’, because I’ve got a mountain of content blocker rules via 1Blocker, and on top of that I have JavaScript disabled.12
  1. You may have noticed that the Timery app icon isn’t present on my home screen – I like this way of getting to it.
  2. I suppose you could call it part of the Automation subcategory, considering that I’ve got a lot of iCloud Drive -> Hazel stuff going on…
  3. I absolutely love the stack mechanic; my only complaint is the little bit of animation-delay between when I finish swiping and when I can tap to interact. Yes, Apple, the little ‘settling into place’ animation is lovely… but I’m trying to do things, so get it out of my way and let me do them.
  4. It’s a beautiful, and very iOS-y piece of work. The food database isn’t as full as MyFitnessPal’s, but that’s honestly a good thing – MFP’s database is full of trash data. FoodNoms starts with the FDA’s database, and has a ‘community-sourced’ database on top of that, where every entry has been manually validated, so it’s solid. If something isn’t in there, tap a button and scan the nutrition label, and the app reads the whole thing in – and then, once you’re done, asks you if you want to submit the resulting data to the community database. It’s an incredibly slick interaction, and I adore it.
  5. I wasn’t really planning on the naming at all when I started writing this, so it makes sense that I’d run out eventually.
  6. The tl;dr version is “it checks the time and some other contextual information and automatically picks from a list of other shortcuts to run based on that.” My morning routine is a series of single taps on that button, and it feels downright magical.
  7. It can identify my grandmother with ease, regardless of if the photo is from this year or a scan of one of her wedding photos; my grandpa, on the other hand, it can’t spot if I give it two of the same photo and manually tag him in one.
  8. I’ve still got Instapaper connected to Reeder, on the off chance that I have to use the Windows machine my work provided, but I’m something like 99.5% on macOS these days, so that’s exceedingly rare.
  9. We’ve got a wiki monorepo kind of thing at work, where we’ve got articles on anything that may be useful. GitLab’s wiki can show something like 15 pages at a time in the list, and makes it rather difficult to find that list at all; they really didn’t expect anyone to use it like this. However, you can sync the whole thing, like any other repo, at which point you’ve got a regular ol’ folder full of Markdown files, and Ulysses handles that pretty well. It does have a bad habit of escaping escape characters, and I know I’ve got at least one file somewhere that opens with something like 30 backslashes before a single tilde. Whoops.
  10. Teams, which we use at work, isn’t on my phone at all. Maintain that work-life balance, folks.
    While I’m talking about Teams: the UI, across the board, feels like exactly as many little “oh, nobody thought about how this interaction would go” and “oh, nobody tested this” moments as I expect from any Microsoft product. Unfortunately for my distaste for Microsoft products, it has one notable advantage over Slack – calling support. Slack’s iOS app still doesn’t support video calls, so for actual workplace purposes it’s effectively useless. (And yes, I am hoping someone at Slack will cite this as evidence to give the iOS app the resources it needs to get that feature.)
  11. This has been a subtweet at Messages, whose support for handwriting recognition consists of “you may write up to two words, and you’ll probably drop the iPad trying to do it.” If iPadOS 15 doesn’t make the entire thread pane a valid handwriting recognition target, I’m going to have to write Tim Cook some very unhappy emails.
  12. And this is a subtweet at every news site that either entirely fails to render without JavaScript, or doesn’t load images without JavaScript. You are weak, and I scoff at you.
Categories
Technology

State of the Apps 2019

Inspired by CGP Grey’s post that started a Cortex tradition, here’s the current state of my phone:

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.

  1. 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. 
  2. 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.) 
  3. And on Windows, both Outlook and Windows Mail crash frequently, too; apparently IMAP, despite being 30-something-years-old, is still an unsolved problem? 
  4. In typing this, I’ve just realized that I think I’m using Day One the way Evernote wants to be used. Huh. 
  5. All synced by Git, because… why not? 
  6. The Fever API neglected any form of subscription management, and needing to pull up the TT-RSS frontend in a web browser whenever I want to add or remove a subscription just feels silly. 
  7. Fun fact: the “use listening history” setting that all Apple Music clients have? Doesn’t appear to do anything. Neither does “stop recommending music like this.” 
Categories
Review

“What Dreams Shadows Cast”, or, “the cave isn’t haunted, but it does hate you”

Barbara J. Webb
So, a year and a half ago, I read the first book in what I assume is an ongoing series. At the time, I was quite clear on the fact that I loved the setting of the book. If you want all the explanation, hit up that link; for now I’ll just say it’s a new take on post-apocalyptic, where the apocalypse was being abandoned by the gods who’d previously been quite happy to intervene on people’s behalf.
That gap between reading the first and the second wasn’t the greatest thing for my enjoyment of the second — I spent a bit too long trying to remember where we’d left off, and some of the references back to the first I gave up on trying to remember. Things are in a slightly better place than they were in the first, though in order to avoid spoilers I’m not going to explain how, but you still get the sense that the world is deeply broken. Which, true, it sorta is; they’d based their entire economy and governmental system around an external force, which one day decided to up and leave. Maybe not the best way to have done things.
Honestly, I’m a bit annoyed with the handling of business in Miroc, the city where the first book took place; in the aftermath of that one, it’s set up to begin recovering from the Abandonment. In this book, we’ve skipped forward six months, and aside from a couple references to tentative recovery, nothing much seems to have changed. Sure, it’s only six months, but it’s also a metropolis that just finished making itself entirely self-sufficient, there should be more happening.
Which is rather the crux of my opinion on the book: “there should be more happening.” There’s background details — mentions of an influx of immigrants, as well as an increase in emigration — that aren’t explored very well.1 Instead, there’s a digression, ignoring the leftover villains from the first book to go have an Indiana Jones adventure in the desert.
This book feels like it was supposed to be either the second of two books, or possibly the second of a trilogy, but halfway through someone decided they wanted it to be an ongoing series. And to match the expansion in scale, they tried to expand the setting — the already compelling villains from the first book are almost entirely ignored, despite having been clearly set up to be the main antagonist throughout the series, and what was set up as the background for the whole setting got awkwardly retconned.
It just didn’t work as well as the first book. Which is a shame, because that first one was amazing, and this, while still captivating, left me disappointed at the end. Nonetheless, here’s the link; that said, if you haven’t yet read the first one, go do that instead.


  1. That specific example is actually a huge plot thread that’s just… entirely dropped partway through. Everyone is all secretive about where they’re emigrating to, and then something new comes up and the characters decide to leave that Chekhov’s Gun just sitting on the table, ignored. 
Categories
Review

Pay Me, Bug!

I finished Christopher Wright’s Pay Me, Bug! last night, and I’ve gotta say, I enjoyed the heck out of it. It was a space opera in the best sense of the term; in fact, I think I’d argue that it’s the best example of a space opera I’ve ever read.1 It’s got, at least, that most important aspect of a space opera: a sense that huge things are happening… in the background.

Categories
Review

The Improbable Rise of Singularity Girl

I finished reading The Improbable Rise of Singularity Girl last night. I also just got the book yesterday morning, so that really tells you what I thought of it. I can definitely see why it passed the Immerse or Die test.1 Which is, incidentally, how I wound up hearing about the book, as a tangential reference from an author I follow who has a book in the Immerse or Die StoryBundle. I’ve been meaning to get that book2 and read it at some point, and the descriptions of some of the other books fascinated me.3 So I dropped enough money on it to get the full bundle, Bonus Books included.4 And now, having burned through the first of those books in a single day, I figured, clearly I enjoyed reading it enough to ignore a bunch of my responsibilities5 and curl up in a chair and read for hours on end, so I should probably do it the honor of a review.

Categories
Technology

Cities: Skylines

I may or may not have spent four hours yesterday playing Cities: Skylines. It was, to me, a worthwhile use of my time.1 The game is very enjoyable, and I’m planning to spent a lot more time playing it over the next week.2

Seriously, go check it out.3 The game’s really nice, looks great, and runs on approximately every operating system.4 I had fun gaming on my MacBook5 – it is what I refer to as a beast of a machine, because it’s got the best specs you can cram into a MacBook without doing your own modifications, and it runs the game at near-maxed settings with ease. Sure, the fan is screaming and the battery percentage drops faster than a lead weight in a vacuum, but I’m gaming on a laptop, so I really can’t expect more.

I’ve got one or two issues with the game, but they don’t come up until later – the most noticeable is the same thing that my favorite “reviewer” mentioned when he talked about it – there’s no real way to lose. No disasters, and no negative levels on the RCI demand.6 Now, I’m not really complaining about the lack of disasters – I was always too frustrated by them in SimCity 4, because the learning curve on that game was too steep for me to ever really get off the ground. Cities is distinctly easier – more ‘casual,’ I’d say. And I like that lot.

Oh, right, I said I had one other issue, although it’s not technically an issue with the game. I wanted to tinker with the sandbox-style settings, so I used the built-in mods7 to give myself unlimited money and unlock everything. Except… the ‘unlock everything’ one only pushed the population numbers to max just long enough to hit those unlocks. Plenty of things were still locked due to not having hit their prerequisites, and that really bothered me. Mostly because I just wanted to build the fusion reactor, and I couldn’t! It was very tragic.

Oh well, I got to build a space elevator at least, so I’m still happy. It’s a good game, and now I’m going to go write a paper so I can play some more. Priorities!


  1. I don’t do much gaming anymore because I’m so very busy, and I tend to find lower-time-useage ways to get rid of my stress. 
  2. Some people party over spring break. I am not one of those people. 
  3. Today the link is to the Humble Store, instead of AmazonSmile. Humble has a lovely bit in their checkout process where they split the proceeds of the sale between the developers, a bit to ‘keep the servers running,’ and the rest to charity. Plus, you get Steam keys! 
  4. I believe it’s listed as being compatible with Linux, though I’m not sure which distros. If you’re running linux, though, I figure you’re smart enough to make it work. 
  5. If you’re going to be gaming on a MacBook, though, go into Steam’s settings and disable the in-game overlay, then quit out of Steam, then use Activity Monitor to force quit the inevitable bits of Steam that locked up instead of closing, then reopen steam, then launch the game. Otherwise, it’ll crash instantly. Shoutout to Valve, you’re doing good work over there.  
  6. Okay, there’s clearly negative numbers, but they aren’t visible to the user, they’re just used to run the internals. I can tell by the way the demand for everything says ‘zero’ but the map says ‘all these buildings are being abandoned because nobody wants them.’ 
  7. Somehow that feels wrong to say.