Tech

Plantronics Voyager 5200 by Erin Wade

Plantronics Voyager 5200

Okay - I realize that the days of anyone looking cool wearing a Bluetooth earpiece, if indeed they ever existed, are long since past. However, there are some types of work activities that truly do benefit from the use of these devices, regardless of whether they make you look douchey.

I’ve had my struggles finding good, uncompromising solutions in this area. As I’ve discussed here before, the market for high-end Bluetooth earpieces seems to be be dwindling, replaced largely by lower end items that either price the market down enough to drive out high end players, or work adequately for listening, but aren’t necessarily well set up for conversation.

For a while I’d decided to get by with my Jumbl Bluetooth receiver. This device has the benefits of working with any set of wired headphones, which lets me put the conversation in both ears - a bonus around background noise - and being inexpensive.

When my first Jumbl failed, I went looking again and came across an earpiece by Honshoop (nope - I’d never heard of them before either) that promised noise cancellation and a bevy of other features for about $30. While that seems too good to be true, the price of entry was worth the risk, so I took the leap. I wrote up a brief review of it... sort of. The thing is that, a couple of weeks into owning it, it disappeared from Amazon. There were other models under the Honshoop name, but not the one I’d purchased. This is not confidence inspiring, but given that I already had mine and it was working well, I moved on.

And the Honshoop worked great until I lost it. It just disappeared one day - I’m sure I must have dropped it out of my backpack - never to be seen again. And so the search began anew.

The remaining standout in the high-end market - aside from Apple AirPods, which I’m sad to say don’t fit in my ears - appears to be Plantronics. Unfortunately, back then when I tried to purchase one through Amazon I had to pay for shipping, and attempting to purchase thru the website got me nothing but an error page. I decided to look again and I was delighted to find I could now order a Voyager 5200 thru Amazon with Prime shipping.

With about a month of experience I have to say that this is what I’ve been missing from the dearth of high-end devices. Sound quality is very good, and I’ve actually had a colleague who thought I was in my office rather than in the car during a call. There is a video on Amazon that demonstrates the efficacy of the noise cancellation and, after experience, I believe it. The 5200 has a comfortable, over the ear design (similar to the Honshoop, which I assume copied from Plantronics). It’s lightweight and feels good even after having been on the ear for an extended period of time. It has multiple buttons with clear purposes, allowing for the activation of audio, such as podcasts, or for Siri, without any confusion between the two.

A separate button provides for on-device muting, which is an absolute bonus feature for taking calls on the go. This feature means you just have to tap the earpiece button to mute the microphone instead of reaching for the phone. An additional component of this feature is that the device detects if you start to speak with mute engaged and tells you that mute is on. This is a great idea, since you don’t have a visual indicator for it, and it promises to prevent unheard soliloquys that otherwise occur. However, in practice I’ve found the reliability of that feature to be mixed at best.

Battery life is good, lasting through long days with multiple calls so far. Putting it on towards the end of the day and hearing that it still has five hours of talk time available inspires confidence in the device. Plantronics does offer a case for it that has a battery pack in it for charging, similar in concept to the AirPods case. This is an extra cost item that looks well put together, but so far I haven’t run out of battery between charges. If I were traveling in a situation without easy access to other charging sources it might be worth considering.

Plantronics Hub App

An additional feature for the Plantronics Voyager 5200 is the Plantronics Hub iOS app that can be downloaded for it. The app offers some basic information, including an indication as to whether the device is connected, a readout of whether it is on the ear or not, and the amount of available talk time. Included here are also two components that function as a replacement for the paper owners manual. Buttons and Lights shows you what the different components on the earpiece do, while How do I provides the step-by-step instructions for things like pairing, answering, muting, and launching Siri (or your personal digital assistant of choice).

The app also offers the ability to change multiple settings on the earpiece, including things like ring volume, whether you want to use voice commands to answer or ignore a call, and the settings for the aforementioned mute features. Anyone who has ever had to follow the arcane multiple button-press dance that it used to take to set up these kind of features on a Bluetooth earpiece will appreciate the app for this reason.

And let me give a special mention of appreciation to the answer or ignore voice feature. In this day and age even cell phones routinely get spam calls. I don’t know anyone in Coral Springs, FL or Cumberland, MD, so I’m certainly not going to answer a call from them. However, the ringing of the phone takes over the whole device, so any such call that comes in interrupts the music or podcast that is playing until one dismisses the call. Typically that means reaching up to the screen and tapping "decline", which is not ideal in the car. With this feature you can simply say "ignore" and the bot on the other end simply disappears.

And given the disappearing act performed by my Honshoop earpiece, I also appreciate the fact that the app has a "find my headset" feature which, like Find My iPhone, makes your missing earpiece put out an audio tone to help you locate it. You’d still have to have a rough idea of where you lost it, but at least it’s a start.

It should also be noted that the app works with multiple Plantronics models, so if a different version trips your fancy, the app may be available for that as well.

The two niggles I have with the device thus far center around the location of the volume buttons and the "earbuds" it comes with.

For some reason, the volume buttons are placed at the top of the device. Just to look at them this may not seem to be a problem, but in practice the location is not ideal. Try to simply push down on the buttons while wearing the device and you simply push the whole device down on to your ear. And because of where they are at, and the general shape of the earpiece, finding a location to hold against when pushing down is a bit awkward. Ultimately, I ended up placing my thumb at the bottom of the battery at the back of the ear to hold against it while pushing the volume buttons. This will likely become second nature over time, but it isn’t terribly natural.

In addition, when volume buttons are at the back of the device, as with similar models, the top button is "up", and the bottom is "down" - straightforward and intuitive. Because they are on the top, there isn’t an intuitive sense of which button is "up", and which is "down". They are marked with a "+" and "-", but of course you cannot see these when you are wearing it. It’s a small thing, but a curious one, because it appears as if there is room on the back for the volume buttons.

volume buttons

The challenge with the “earbuds” - and this is how the documentation describes them - is that they aren’t earbuds. They are flattish silicone gel discs. With some fiddling about I finally figured out that these are the Plantronics variation of the type of earpiece that puts gentle pressure on the inner earlobe to keep it in place and against (but not in) the ear canal.

Approached that way sound quality with the discs is good, even allowing me to hear clearly in my considerably not quiet car, and they even sound clear using it to listen to podcasts while riding my trike. Playing around with the three different sizes of these allowed me to select the one that made the earpiece feel secure on my ear as well - e.g. that it wouldn't jiggle about when I shook my head. For me, surprisingly, that was the biggest disc (I have smallish ears).

Although sound quality was good, I did decide to see if I could improve it with something like a more traditional earbud fitting. To test this, I ordered one such kit from Amazon. This was not inexpensive, given what you get - about $14 for what amounts to earbud gels and (what I suspect is the cost center) a bespoke piece that fits into the earpiece and mounts the earbud gel.

After some testing back and forth, I find that these do not result reliably in the earpiece being solidly in the ear canal. I wonder if it’s simply the case that the design sits too far outside for this to be practical. That’s fine, though, because I also do not detect any significant difference in sound quality between the stock silicone discs and the aftermarket earbud. And, given that the disc sits outside the ear, it may well be the case that they will be comfortable for longer time periods.

Your mileage may vary, of course, but I’d recommend spending some time with the stock earpieces before dropping coin on the aftermarket item.

TL:DR

In summary, the Plantronics Voyager 5200 turns out to be an excellent bluetooth earpiece. Notable features and pro’s include:

  • Exellent incoming sound quality
  • Phenomenal noise canceling features
  • On-device mute
  • Long battery life
  • Comfortable for long wearing sessions
  • The bonus of a supportive iPhone app for settings and features

Downsides:

  • Confusing use of terminology surrounding the “earbuds”
  • Less than ideal placement of volume buttons

If your needs include the type of usage that goes with a traditional bluetooth earpiece like this the Plantronics Voyager 5200 is an excellent choice. It’s more expensive than many similar looking competitors on Amazon, but you are getting what you pay for.

Cycling Resources: Google Maps by Erin Wade

One of the tasks that goes with cycling is sorting out routes to ride on. While it’s fun, at times, to simply pick a direction and see where the road takes you, much of the time it’s good to have an idea of where you are going, and how you are going to get there. This is especially true when you are trying to add distance to your regular routes. It’s pretty easy to use any mapping software or - if you still happen to have one about - a paper map - to sort out a five or ten mile ride. But as ride distances climb it becomes valuable to have a way to lay out clear routes that will work for the desired distance, and, particularly when riding on public roads, for safety purposes (it’s not fun to suddenly find that you’ve come to a point where your only choices are to either ride along a heavily traveled highway or backtrack).

Google Maps offers a free, readily available resource for this.

The first, simplest thing that it offers is cycling directions.

Cycling Directions

Usually this results in a route that avoids higher traffic areas, and it provides other information in a fashion that is specific to cycling - for example, travel times are at cycling speeds, and it gives a general impression of the terrain over the course of the route.

It also includes maps of biking trails and routes, identified in various shades of green lines on the map. The picture below shows biking trails in and around Rock Cut State Park in Rockford, Illinois.

Rock Cut Biking Trails

Unfortunately, it doesn’t provide a key, so you are left to interpret on your own, but the Google blog says the following about the key:

  • Dark green indicates a dedicated bike-only trail;
  • Light green indicates a dedicated bike lane along a road;
  • Dashed green indicates roads that are designated as preferred for bicycling, but without dedicated lanes

Some of the maps also show red, or perhaps brown, lines which were perhaps added in later (?). Based upon some familiarity with one of the areas they show up in, it appeared to me that these were either hiking or off-road trails, and that seems to be supported by this article on using Google maps for cycling on Lifewire.com. That article also offers step-by-step directions about how to use the cycling directions, though they appear to be specific to a desktop/laptop interface. In Google Maps for iOS, you tap the layers button in the upper right-hand corner:

Tap the Layers button...

Then select the cycling option in the menu:

...then select the cycling option

This will turn on the cycling route overlay so you’ll see bike trails and such on the map. You also want to make sure you select "biking" for the directions when you punch in your destination. This means that your directions will be set for cycling rather than driving, so if you use Google Maps for driving directions, you’ll want to remember to switch it back when you are in the car.

That Google Maps offers cycling directions isn’t new - it’s been around as a feature since at least 2010 - but it’s one of those things that you only really notice when you have a use for it.

The cycling specific directions are a great feature when you are trying to determine how to get from one specific location to another, but Google Maps offers another feature that is extremely helpful when trying to add distance to routes: the Measure Distance mode.

To turn this on using Google Maps for iOS you want to find your starting point on the map, and do a long press to drop a pin. This will bring up a menu on the left that includes "measure distance":

Measure Distance

(Note that, if you accidentally tap on a notable feature, it may not offer this option, so you may have to re-adjust your starting point slightly. I had to do that for this example, because I apparently tapped on just the right spot for Lock 2 of the Hennepin Canal for my first try).

Once you’ve selected this option, you’ll get a blue circle with a dotted line, and a distance readout at the bottom left hand corner. The trickiest part of this to get a handle on is that you don’t move the blue dot, you move the map under it. As you move the map the dotted line will extend. When you reach a turning point in the route you are exploring, you tap the "add point" button in the lower left-hand corner. This sets a marker and allows you to move the line in another direction (without it turns will get lost and the line will move at a diagonal direction - cool if you a traveling as the crow flies, but otherwise doesn’t work for the rest of us). This means that you’ll only need a few points set for a route with a few turns and mostly straightaways, but a lot more for routes that curve and turn. My example below marks out the distance for the Hennepin Canal Trail, which has a combination of straights and curves:

Hennepin Canal Trail

I’ve zoomed out a bit to give a larger picture here, but you can zoom in pretty close to make the map more precise as you are making it.

Ultimately, this lets you lay out a route for the distance you want. I find myself using it often to select routes for the distance I want in a way that avoids major thoroughfares, and takes me in a circular route from start to finish while avoiding re-covering the same territory as much as possible.

I don’t necessarily love Google products as a rule - I use Apple Maps on iOS for driving directions, don’t use their office software at all, and don’t generally use them for search. But I do generally try to use the best tool I can find for the job, all other things being equal. For cycling routes and directions, and for finding cycling trails, Google Maps is absolutely a step above.

Old Sounds by Erin Wade

As technology advances, one of the things that I find I struggle with is this:

What does one do with the old technology?

This isn’t a new problem - rather, it’s a familiar one when one looks at things that have become functionally obsolete. Old computers are an issue for many in the first world. Who among us hasn’t come to the point where we have an older desktop or laptop computer that works perfectly well in terms of what it was originally designed to do, but has since been replaced with something newer; that replacement either because the newer device does something - has a feature, or runs newer software - that the older one does not, or simply because we wanted something new and shiny. Some companies actually offer a trade-in program for such devices, but even then, many of us still end up with one or more sad devices sitting in a drawer or on a shelf.

For myself, the recurring concern is an old stereo system. This is a setup that I spent several years on, acquiring the components, purchasing one item and then selling it in an effort to trade up to the next. Ultimately, I ended up with the following components:

For the kids out there, a cassette deck was a device that played cassette tapes. These were things that we used to contain large amounts of the music we wanted (as opposed to what a record label wanted to give us) before recordable CD’s came along. And CD’s were things that held music before we all got MP3 players. Oh, and MP3 players were things your parents listened to before we all just had the music on our phones. Phones were a different thing then too, by the way. Look, they were dark times, and we all lived like savages - let’s not bring it up again...

I’d explain the turntable, but vinyl records are, inexplicably, a thing again, so no need there.

Back when this setup it was originally assembled, speaking of CD’s, this setup also had an Onkyo 5-disk changer (I was fond of Onkyo equipment), but it was apparently mechanically more fragile than the other devices, and so it went to the great maker. But the rest of the equipment soldiers on, stalwart in its readiness to produce great sounds.

But it hasn’t produced sounds in several years.

For a long while it was part of the central sound system that was hooked up to our television, DVD player, and media pc (remember those? Kids, this was a thing... you know what, never mind - google it if you want to know), along with an aux hookup for an iPod. But then a couple of things happened. First, one of the speakers began to fail; and second, my father-in-law got a new sound system for his tv, and wanted to find a new home for his old one - a Panasonic surround-sound setup. It physically fit better into our entertainment center and offered much smaller speakers than the Advents (which I love, but which have always been a decorative thorn in MLW’s side).

So I had the speakers repaired (of course) and moved it all up to my office, planning to hook it up eventually to listen to music while I work. I figured I could hook up an Apple TV to it to allow me to stream to from an iPhone or iPad over airplay, and I’ve even purchased a converter to do this (the Apple TV’s digital audio output not being compatible with the analog inputs on the Onkyo receiver).

But eventually is a non-specific time frame. And wait-time allows for other discoveries.

One discovers while waiting, for example, that one can get a set of Bluetooth over-the-ear headphones for a fairly reasonable price. One can pair those headphones with one’s iPad almost effortlessly, and listen to whatever one wants with no one else complaining about the choice or the volume. And one can use those headphones everywhere in the house, not just in the office. And that, when one does this, one does not have to struggle to figure out where to place the speakers, nor does one have to spend time running speaker wire and sorting out how to hide it (I lack the math skills, and more importantly the will, to accurately calculate the amount of my life spent on that particular activity). And now I realize that speaker wire, also, is a thing the kids will need to google...

Now, I typically embrace new technology. And, in most respects, virtually everything about the advances that replace my old setup is better. I realize audiophiles will clear their throats to utter "well, actually" in preparation for discussing audio quality over Bluetooth, but probably their nurses will wheel them off before they can finish their sentence. The reality is that it’s generally good enough, and the rest of it is so much better. The four devices I have in my list above are effectively replaced by two - an iPhone (or iPad, or whatever) and headphones or a speaker. There are no wires to run, they are much smaller, and they can move with you from place to place.

So why am I pining over this now archaic setup? I suspect that a part of it has to do with the amount of time, effort, and energy that went into constructing it in the first place. For those of us of a certain age and inclination, putting together your audio setup was a fetish-level activity. It was important to have the right speakers, and the right equipment to drive them. Assembling the "rightness" was a scholarly activity, involving pre-internet research. This meant poring over audio magazines and the Crutchfield’s catalog in order to ensure it was all... correct. Ultimately this would give one a setup that pumped the music through the speakers loudly, but without distortion, so that you (and your family, and your neighbors, and maybe the people in the next town) could enjoy it properly.

Properly. Dammit.

And yet, here I am, myself, listening to my music on a set of Bluedio Hurricane headphones that I purchased for less than $30 on Amazon, when I should be setting up that audio system and listening to it that way.

Shouldn’t I?

Pessimist Archive Podcast by Erin Wade

The Pessimist’s Archive Podcast is a treasure trove of historical information about people’s reactions to new technology as it emerges. Before I go into detail on it, here’s a little spoiler: they typically don’t like it.

The podcast has been out for about a year, and it has a... casual release schedule (there are 9 episodes so far), but what it lacks in quantity it more than makes up in quality. The episodes are well researched and tightly produced. The host is Jason Feifer, who is also the Editor-in-Chief of Entrepreneur magazine. Each episode also features a variety other voices from people related to the topic on one way or another, and the delivery is done in a delightful tongue-in-cheek fashion. Episodes run around 30 minutes, give or take.

They also run a wonderful twitter feed that provides details supporting both the podcast and the general concept, like this one:

4 MPH?

Overall, the podcast and twitter feed bring a new perspective to the very common complaints we hear nowadays about how screens, or social media, or fill-in-your-own-example-here are a menace and/or are destroying our society.

Perhaps my favorite episode thus far, unsurprisingly, is Episode 6: Bicycle, which reviews and reveals the severe dangers to society, the economy, and women’s morals, represented by the demon two-wheeler. All from the perspective of the 1800’s mindset, of course.

As is always the case, each episode is also accompanied by a list of links to the articles and references discussed, giving an opportunity for a deep dive into the topic in question (How the Bicycle paved the way for Women’s Rights, might help explain that concern about the impact on women’s "morals", for example).

If the general sky-is-falling perspective on our ever-changing times makes you a little crazy (as it does for me), or if you are just a fan of the bicycle and all of its iterations, I highly recommend checking this out.

Files, iWork, and Dropbox - Resolved by Erin Wade

At the beginning of the month I wrote about an issue with using Dropbox in the iOS 11 Files app with iWork documents in a shared Dropbox folder (yup - that’s a long, complex sentence to parse, made longer still by this parenthetical observation about it... sorry).

This issue appears to be resolved with the most recent update to the iOS Dropbox app, version 70.2.2,which came out earlier this week. I’ve had a chance to play with it for a few days now, including doing actual work, and it appears to be functioning perfectly.

What this means is that one can now open, edit, and save-in-place documents from iWork files that are stored in Dropbox on an iOS device. This seems a relatively simple thing - we’ve been doing it on computers for years prior to the development of the iPhone and iPad. However, it has been one of the key remaining limitations to the iPad when using it for work activities, particularly in conjunction with Dropbox. As I mentioned when I brought up this issue earlier in the month, the process for using these documents has looked like this:

Depending upon the app one uses, for much of the history of Dropbox on iOS, if one has wanted to work on a file stored in Dropbox, it’s been a multiple step process:

  • Export the file from Dropbox into the app (which typically opens a copy of the file in the app)
  • Perform the edits one wishes
  • Export (copy) the edited file back to Dropbox
  • Delete the copy from the app

The long dark winter of toiling at copy deletion on the iPad has finally come to a close!

Too dramatic?

Probably so, but in reality, it is actually a pretty significant change. I have been using an iPad for work since 2010. Initially it worked as a laptop replacement, but at this point it has largely replaced both my laptop and my desktop. I have a handful of tasks - mostly legacy activities that simply require older machines to run on - that I still need a Mac for, but the overwhelming majority of my work is done on an iPad or an iPhone. And to be clear, the multi-step process above wasn’t something that was preventing the use of these devices for work, but it was the rare, remaining activity in my regular workflow that was more complicated on iOS than on OS X.

A Brief Flirtation with Google Drive by Erin Wade

As is true for most of us, I have my systems for doing things, and I get comfortable in those systems. Still, it is good to periodically check out other options to make sure one is not missing out on something better.

I've recently been exploring the possibility of changing my email service, and I was considering the option of using Google's email service - not basic gmail, but rather the email thru their G Suite service, which allows you to use email addresses based in your domain (e.g. that end with your own address rather than "gmail.com").

G Suite, as the name implies, doesn't just offer email, but an entire office suite of features, many of which present the option of potentially replacing systems I already use. They have a secure video conferencing service (Hangouts Meet), they have their suite of office software, and they have an online file storage service, Google Drive.

Some of these things are of interest to me, while others are not. For example, I'm open to exploring Hangouts Meet as an alternative to our current service, but prior experience leaves me with exactly zero interest in Google Docs, Sheets, or Slides. The feature set in Apple's iWork suite is perfect for me, and it's integration into iOS devices, particularly the iPad, makes it a solid winner for me every time. I also am well aware, both from personal experience and from the reports of others, that Google has historically been slow to update the iOS versions of their products to use the features available on the iPad.

Among the products in G Suite is Google Drive. Aside from looking up documents from my kid's school, I had very little experience with this service. I'm a long-term user of Dropbox, but as I said at the beginning, it's good not to let comfort keep one from exploring other, potentially better options. Since, like most of the free world, I have a personal Google account, I also technically have a personal Google Drive. I decided to play with it a bit and see what I thought.

I downloaded the app to my iPad and made a couple of documents to put into the drive for testing purposes. Some of what I found was what one might expect. It handled PDF documents just fine - you can render a preview of the document, export it to another location, etc, just as you might expect.

The iWork files were another story entirely.

I specifically made up a Pages document for the test. What I found initially was that there is no preview option for a Pages file - rather, Google Drive just tells you that it is an "unsupported file type".

Unsupported File Type

This isn't entirely surprising in and of itself. iWork files, as I understand them, are actually packages, and in the past that has confused some file systems. But it is inconvenient if you want to take a quick look at the document before opening it to make sure it is what you want. Dropbox and iCloud (naturally) readily render previews of these files.

While this is inconvenient, it is not necessarily a deal-breaker. I'd prefer to be able to preview my iWork files, since I use them regularly, but there isn't that much confusion between one file name and another for me.

But then something else happened: The Pages document that I had entered into Google Drive started duplicating itself. The first time I tried the app it multiplied the file into some 40 or 50 copies, and I said to myself "well, that's that, then" and deleted the app from my iPad. After a few days, and a little bit of thought, I considered the possibility that the experience might have been a fluke, so I tried it again, this time bringing files into the app in multiple ways. When I sent a copy to the app directly from Pages using "Send a Copy", it did not appear to make duplicates (though it did, inexplicably, append "-1" to the file name, despite there being no other file with that name in the folder). However, when importing from Dropbox what I found was that, it after it was sitting in Google Drive for a few minutes, it began to make multiple copies of that file without being asked to do so.

Files duplicating like bunnies

I'm not sure why this would occur, but if I were to consider Google Drive as an option for me, it would be in place of Dropbox, which would mean that I'd be sending a lot of files from Dropbox to Drive. I love The Tick), but I certainly don't need a replay of the attack of Multiple Santa to occur in my file storage.

Of course, there is also iCloud Drive on the iPad. What I found there was that any attempt to import a Pages document into Google Drive from iCloud Drive caused the file to simply hang there, with its progress bar seeming to be finished, and yet never fully resolving. This was only true for the iWork file. I was able, for example, to import a PDF from iCloud into Google Drive just fine.

One could argue that I was functionally warned up front that Google Drive wasn't going to play well with my files with the indication that the Pages document was an unsupported file type. I suppose that is true, to some degree. It's worth noting, however, that the iWork suite - Pages, Numbers, and Keynote - has been around now for over a decade, and it comes free with the iPad - this isn't a new product, nor is it obscure, so it seems reasonable to ask why a product that presents as a general storage tool would not be prepared to support these file formats properly. One suspects, if one is conspiratorially minded (as one might be) that it is because Google would prefer one to use their office suite.

A quick check of the weather finds that Hell has not, in fact, frozen over yet, so that won't be happening on my iPad.

So, as the title says, this was a brief flirtation with the product. I might have been able to live without the ability to preview my iWork files - though in retrospect, I do use that feature quiet frequently. Not being able to reliably import my files, and finding them duplicating like bunnies, however, largely seals (or, rather, breaks) the deal.

Station Breaker - A Review by Erin Wade

Station Breaker

Station Breaker by Andrew Mayne is a speculative fiction piece surrounding a private company astronaut, in a near future setting, where trips to and from space are handled by a Space X-like company. The setting is somewhat reminiscent of The Martian, in that it presents bits of technology that might not quite yet exist, but you know are just over the horizon.

That setting in time, however, is where the resemblance ends. Astronaut David Dixon is on his first actual space mission and, even before liftoff, things don't seem quite right. Why is the mission commander, a seasoned NASA astronaut, surreptitiously packing along a pistol?

This story is a breakneck-speed adventure from start to finish. Setting development is efficiently handled, giving a feeling for time and location while trusting the reader to come along quickly, and then never looking back or slowing down. The narrative is in first person, mostly present tense, giving the impression you are seeing things as David Dixon sees them, and keeping you directly in the moment. You, as has David, have been dropped into a very difficult situation with no explanation of what is really happening, nor of why, keeping you on the edge of your seat.

For the hard science fiction aficionados there is real time and attention paid here to the physics of things, both in space and otherwise. Still, this is done in a way that won't be intimidating to readers unfamiliar with these components - if proper physics is important to you, it's there. If it isn't, you won't be forced to pop over to iTunes U and take a course to understand what is going on - it's nicely laid out mostly as color to the overall story, and briefly, clearly explained when it's more important to what is going on.

The physics, and the story, don't only happen in space. This story rolls its way across multiple locations, Indiana Jones style, with some considerable effort on the part of our main character. It's an adventure from moment one.

As (almost) always, I experienced Station Breaker via audiobook. This story was my companion for many a bike ride thru the countryside (one ear only, the other open to the road, of course). It is read by Kyle McCarley. He narrates a number of audiobooks on Audible - 61, based on a narrator search - but this is my first experience with him as a reader. It sometimes takes me a little while to adjust to a new reader - each narrator has their idiosyncrasies, and while an audiobook is certainly the presentation of the author's material, it's also a performance, and the narrator is absolutely a factor in the experience of the book. In this case, I enjoyed his voice, but initially found his way of emphasizing certain words - particularly the word blood (which appears several times early in the book) - took a little while to adjust to. However, I often find that, if I press on a bit, I do adjust, and this was the case here. And in fact, given that time I found that Mr. McCarley does an excellent array of voices, and is able to maintain them consistently throughout, which is certainly not the case for every narrator.

All in all, the book was an excellent companion for multiple rides. It ends on a bit of a cliffhanger, and there is a second book in the series - Orbital - which I have lined up in my cue. Notably, the second book is also read by Kyle McCarley, which offers a nice bit of continuity - it can be somewhat jarring when the narrator changes partway thru a series and all of the characters you've come to know sound different.

If you are looking for a high-adrenaline thrill-ride, with a bit of a science fiction angle to it, I can happily recommend Station Breaker.

Drag and Drop on iPad: by Readdle by Erin Wade

At the World-Wide Developer's Conference (WWDC) on June 5th, 2017, Apple made a number of announcements, among them significant changes coming for the iPad in iOS 11.

One of the changes garnering the lion's share of attention is the upcoming addition of drag-and-drop capability to the iPad. This isn't entirely new - there has long been the ability to drag around items within a given app, but not between them.

This represents a significant advance for the iPad in general, and is particularly exciting for those of us who work at or near an iPad-only status. Unfortunately, it's mostly a tease at the moment. iOS 11 won't come out until the fall, and while it is possible to sign up for early beta's of the software, working with an operating system still in development on one's work devices simply is not the wisest of choices.

However, if you are looking to get some experience with how drag-and-drop works now without taking the risk of using a potentially unstable operating system on your production machines, Readdle has you covered.

Their announcement likely got a little lost in the excitement of WWDC, but back at the end of May, Readdle announced the capability to drag and drop files between their apps - specifically between Documents, Scanner Pro, PDF Expert, and Spark. I use all of these apps except Documents (PDF Expert largely replicates the capabilities of Documents while adding the PDF functionalities), and I'm pleased to say it works extremely well.

Say you've received some documents via email that you want to review and mark up. Open your email in Spark, and open PDF Expert in a split window, and simply drag the files from the email across to the folder you want in PDF Expert. It's that simple and straightforward. You can see it in their video, below:

The utility of this is quickly obvious, and Readdle has just about the perfect family of apps to use it with. Their is a brief explanation in their blog post of how they are doing it - servers opening and such - which would make it seem like something potentially clunky and slow, but it's seamless in application. The only limitation here I've seen thus far is that, because it relies on off-site servers, it doesn't work if you don't have an internet connection. Under those circumstances the file you are dragging simply stops at the window split. If you have, or go get, these apps you can test that yourself by putting your iPad into airplane mode.

Readdle has a fairly long history of developing applications that recognize and address some of the limitations in iOS, and this is a nice example of that. I actually feel a little bad for them that the announcement of this capability came such a short time ahead of the WWDC announcement, which takes Readdle's drag and drop capability and applies it system-wide. WWDC also announced a Files app, which appears to largely do everything that Documents does. Still, Readdle puts on a brave face on their blog entry about WWDC, indicating:

It’s great to see Apple focused on unleashing true iPad potential, while adding some tremendous improvements to the dev tools and kits. People will enjoy the new experience on the App Store, get more apps, and do more stuff done with their iOS devices.

We will dig deeper during the week and come up with awesome ideas on what we are going to do with iOS 11 and Readdle apps.

Based on their history thus far, I suspect they are up to it.

New TV by Erin Wade

I had finally come to the conclusion last week that our dead TV was not going to miraculously heal itself (again), and ordered a new one.

It has since arrived, and I've learned a few things in the process:

  • Though it doesn't sound like a lot, 40" looks a lot bigger than 32".
  • A decade of improvement in LCD technology, and moving from 720p to 1080p, makes for a noticeable difference in picture quality.
  • That decade of improvement also results in a larger television that is noticeably lighter in weight than its smaller predecessor.
  • As is true for so many things, having Amazon deliver a TV to your home is infinitely better than going to a store and hauling the thing home yourself.
  • Taking measurements ahead of time is vital. The new TV fits in the cabinet, but only just. It presses up tight against the sliding doors, and you would have to turn it if you wanted to access the manual controls on the side. Any larger and it simply would not have fit unless I were to take off the cabinet doors.

By way of comparison, here's a picture of the old TV in the entertainment center:

32" Vizio TV in Entertainment Center

And here's the new one:

40" Spectre TV in Entertainment Center

All in all, though it is not yet the big-ass TV that I want to have in the long run, it's an improvement in nearly every respect. It literally took minutes to hook up, and continues to work with all of the various and sundry devices that we had attached to the old one.

The only thing that doesn't work as before is the audio-out. We have the TV hooked up to an external sound system - an older Panasonic surround-sound set-up that continues to work quite nicely. This is fed through the analog audio-out port on the television. For the old TV the sound level on the audio-out was controlled through the television volume, while this one does not appear to be. What this means, in practical terms, is that we can no longer control the volume by means of the TV remote. And because I do not have a remote control for the Panasonic setup, I have to get up and walk across the room to change the volume.

Like an animal.

I've spent some time trying to get the old Vizio remote (which, unlike the TV, still works) to accept the programmable remote code for the Panasonic, but it refuses to accept it. Perhaps it is in mourning for its lost partner. There are other solutions, of course - you can find the Panasonic remotes on eBay, or I could pony up for a modern universal remote. Still - given the price that some of the universal remotes run, I may need to continue to be an animal...

iPad at Work... by Erin Wade

For those like myself who use their iPads for work, it is always helpful to find out how others are using their devices. As time goes on the list of people doing this has been getting longer.

Over recent months Serenity Caldwell at iMore has begun looking into starting a column interviewing folks who use the iPad Pro for work. She interviewed herself for the first iteration of this, and gave some insights from the perspective of a person who does creative work as well as more traditional tech journalism.

Matt Gemmell, a tech writer and novelist has recently returned to the road of working on the iPad only, and has documented that series under the category iPad-only website. Like Frederico Vitticci has done over at MacStories, he chronicles both his experiences over time, and discusses using the iPad for different tasks.

I've also come across Denny Henke, writing at Beardy Guy Creative, who has put together his own ongoing series on the iPad at work, under the category iPad Journal.

For anyone looking to understand how to get more out of their iPads, and/or understanding what can be done with them and how, these sites are a good place to start, and to bookmark for future reference.


Update: The newest article in Serenity Caldwell's series on the iPad Pro at work is now out. Enjoy!

Dropbox - Moving Forward by Erin Wade

Back in January I discussed a bit about apps that had not yet been updated for the multitasking features in iOS 10. In particular, I was frustrated with Dropbox - I rely on the service heavily, and the lack of support for a feature that would make it much more useful for the device seemed problematic.

The long drought is over - Dropbox has now been updated to work with iOS multitasking.

dropbox multitasking at last

This feature has been in place for the past several weeks, and it is well implemented. My primary desire for the feature was for looking at reference materials. Dropbox for iOS offers a pretty good file viewer, making it unnecessary to open documents in a separate application if all one is going to do is read them. The lack of multitasking support meant one had to either go back and forth between the apps when looking at other documents, open them in another app that already did support multitasking (thank you, PDF Expert), or view them in Dropbox on another device. I've used it many, many times since the update was released.

There is also an additional benefit that I did not expect. With Dropbox open in the secondary pane (on the right) one can open files into the app one is using without the iPad going through the app dance - out of the app, in to Dropbox, only to watch the file open in the app. What happens now is that, when one exports the file out, it simply begins to open in the app - no switching back and forth. The same is true for saving files back to Dropbox - initiate the action in the app on the primary pane (to the left) and the save dialogue finishes up in Dropbox on the right. I don't know if any of this is technically faster than the older method (a very rough test with a stopwatch suggests not), but it absolutely feels faster.

This is headway, and finally brings to the iPad Pro app an option that was sorely lacking once multitasking came into play.

There are other capabilities that would help to round out the iOS application that are not yet present:

  • Syncing/saving folders on the device - The app has had a feature to do this with individual files for some time, but folders have been left out. This feature is apparently on the way, but won't be available until next year.
  • Edit-in-place - This is the feature on iOS that allows you to open and edit a file directly from the storage location, and have it automatically save back. There are several apps that have been developed so that the app handles this instead of the operating system, but Dropbox has not yet done the work of making it available everywhere. This means that often one has to copy a file to another app, work on it, and copy it back. This leaves stray copies of the app in each location, and adds the work of going back and deleting the strays (doesn't that sound ominous) later on.

Dropbox says that on-device folder syncing is on the way, but the copy in their announcement of the feature suggests a possible misunderstanding of its real relevance. That post uses getting caught in a train tunnel or on a bus without wifi as the reason for the feature. While these periodic inconveniences will be made less problematic with the feature, the reality is that there are entire folders I simply want immediate access to all the time. With the desktop/laptop app the option of "selective sync", allowing one to have some folders synced to the computer while others are not, has been available for quite some time. It seems clear the decision to keep virtually everything off the device for the iOS app was a nod to the smaller amount of storage spaces on the devices. However, at this point you can get your iOS device with up to 128 or 256 gigs of space. This means it is quite possible to have a iOS device with more storage than many modern laptops. If Dropbox is still thinking of iOS devices as secondary devices that might need this feature occasionally they are off base - an iPad (or iPhone, for that matter) kitted out for work can easily replace a laptop for most general work at this point.

Packing for Mars by Erin Wade

Packing for Mars Cover

Author Mary Roach is a national treasure.

Ms. Roach is a science writer who tackles topics that other authors might shy away from or, if not, would handle in a dry and stale fashion for fear that, to do otherwise would somehow tarnish their reputation. My introduction to Mary Roach's work was a book called Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, an account of the myriad possibilities that may happen to the body when it is donated to science. I had never heard of this book or of Mary Roach until it was recommended by a friend (thanks Greg). That recommendation opened up for me a world of delightfully irreverent, yet informative writing on topics that one does not often see treated in an entertaining way.

That book - on a topic I might not have otherwise explored not for squeamishness but rather for lack of interest - revealed a narrator with an incredibly earthy approach to topics others might find distasteful. In addition, there is a clear zeal and intense curiousity for the subject of each book that simply becomes infectious. In reading Stiff one could see that she was fascinated with how cadavers are used - whether for medical training or forensic exploration or as crash-test dummies (really!) - paired with an unflinching willingness to get into the nitty gritty (sometimes very gritty) components of that exploration. She quickly joined David McCullough on my very short list of non-fiction authors I will read regardless of the specific topic.

My most recent journey down the road paved by Mary - or perhaps I should say off the launching pad - was Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void. Though told against the backdrop of a manned mission to Mars, the book is more an exploration of what we have learned and understand about the effects of prolonged exposure to life in space, and how we have learned it.

In characteristic fashion she jumps delightfully to the point: "To the rocket scientist, you are a problem. You are the most irritating piece of machinery he or she will ever have to deal with." It is a relatively simple thing to launch satellites into orbit and even rovers to other planets compared to determining how to manage human beings in space. She goes on:

You and your fluctuating metabolism, your puny memory, your frame that comes in a million different configurations. You are unpredictable. You're inconstant. You take weeks to fix. The engineer must worry about the water and oxygen and food you'll need in space, about how much extra fuel it will take to launch your shrimp cocktail and irradiated beef tacos. A solar cell or a thruster nozzle is stable and undemanding. It has no ego. It does not excrete or panic or fall in love with the mission commander. It has no ego. It's structural elements don't start to break down without gravity and it works just fine without sleep.

In the course of this book the author spends time in a Russian space training facility and interviewed former cosmonauts, took a ride on the "Vomit Comet", and along the way explores all of the realities - including the most real, human components - of the challenges of spending extended periods of time in space. Some of the simplest activities that we take so very much for granted rely far more heavily on the effect of our natural environment - especially gravity - than one might think. Anyone making their way through Packing for Mars will never think of the word "separation" in quite the same way again.

With any of her works be sure to read the footnotes as you go. They are, by design, asides from the topic of the moment, but like the marginal art of Sergio Aragonés, it adds little bits of additional delight as you work your way through the book. As is usual for me, I listened to the book on Audible, and the reader understood this implicitly. She made sure to include the footnotes as she went, inserting bits of additional factual fun.

One of my favorite facts revealed - one of many - was the sizing on the condoms used as a part of the urinary catheter system developed by NASA. The devices come in three sizes but, knowing the ego of the human male, those sizes are Large, Extra Large, and XXL - proper fit is vital, and they knew no male astronaut would choose a small or medium...

And while it's all great fun as you go, I don't want to leave the impression that it's not rigorously composed. Whether it is finding that accounts reported and repeated in multiple NASA histories have no reliable basis in fact, or determining whether someone actually did film the act of coitus on a parabolic flight (I'll let you discover that for yourself), Mary Roach demonstrates an admirable tenacity for getting her way to truth behind the story.

For anyone with even a passing interest in science writing and/or the space program I can heartily recommend this book.

The MacStories Review of iOS 10 by Erin Wade

Every year for the past several years Frederico Viticci at Macstories has been writing reviews of each new version of iOS just following it's release.

MacStories, as you might guess, is a website focusing on Apple products, software, and accessories. They do a nice job at all of that, and if you are interested in that sort of thing (I am, as one might guess) I can happily recommend the site for that purpose.

However, Frederico Viticci's iOS reviews are something very special indeed:

The iOS 10 Review

While it is called a "review", these articles could just as well be considered unofficial user's manuals for each new version of iOS. Frederico delves incredibly deeply into each new version of Apple's mobile operating system and describes, in detail, what is new and different, and how to use the new features, in addition to providing critique. If you've ever wanted to know how to get more out of your iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch, or been uncertain whether the new version of the operating system could do a given thing, these articles are the way to get there.

At first blush the articles can seem intimidating - the review for iOS 10 is 30 pages long, and that's 30 web pages: Each page is on a specific topic, and is as long as the topic requires to cover. If it were a book (and if you are a MacStories club member, I believe you can get the review as a book) each page would essentially be a chapter. But the intimidation quickly dissipates when one realizes that the website actually has a table of contents for the article that lets you move through it at your own pace and allows you to quickly find and read the portions you are interested in when you want. Don't have an iPad? Skip the section on that device. Don't care about Apple Music right now? Move on to the next chapter.

iOS Review TOC

The review is written very clearly, in language that is not overly technical or techie oriented - it is clearly intended to help guide everyday users in how to take better advantage of their devices. Frederico was in the vanguard of people determined to use their iPad as a primary computing device, and so had strong motivation early on to find ways to wring all of the functionality out of these machines. These articles have been incredibly helpful for me in my own travels down a similar path. I strongly recommend checking it out if you are interested in learning more about what your device can do.

What Happened to Bluetooth Earpieces? by Erin Wade

As a general rule, I fall into the "if it can be texted instead, it should be texted" school of thought. Despite this, I end up talking on the phone a fair amount, particularly for work.

If I must talk on the phone, I do not want to be stuck actually holding the device up to my ear like an animal. For years my go-to device for solving this particular first-world problem has been a Jawbone Era. However, time appears to be taking its toll on the device - it no longer activates voice control as it is supposed to, and when the little British voice promises "four hours of talk time remaining" she proves herself a liar a short time later, announcing I have only fifteen minutes left (I have blown right past the fifteen minute mark with no problems multiple times, so perhaps it's due to onset of earpiece dementia rather than deceit). More importantly, either the sound quality, or my ear quality, has declined to the point that it's often hard to hear conversations at full volume.

I've gotten a good five years out of the device, and it's endured some harsh treatment, spending time in my pocket with keys, for example, and at least once being dropped out of my ear while at downhill biking speeds, so I can't complain about the use I've gotten from it, but it is clearly time to look for something new. My first stop on this journey, given those five years of good service, would normally have been to look a the new offerings from Jawbone.

There aren't any. Though the website blog denies it, Jawbone appears to be going through hard times. Once a seller of high-end earpieces and Bluetooth speakers they shifted their focus to fitness trackers a few years ago. The earpieces are almost impossible to find on their website, and are marked "sold out" when you do find them; and, as for the fitness trackers... well... how often do you see someone wearing a Jawbone Up?

So, with a heavy heart I went looking elsewhere.

What I am finding is that the market for these types of devices appears to have changed. Because the time that I spend talking on the phone is virtually always for work, my priorities are on audio clarity in both directions. For that reason, I tend to look towards the higher end devices for features like noise reduction and with the expectation of good call quality. What I'm finding is that there doesn't appear to be much of a high end market any longer (which might explain a thing or two about Jawbone's change in focus). There are a few - The Wirecutter recommends the Plantronics Voyager Edge, with a couple of runners-up to consider, including the Plantronics Explorer 500, which they prefer for noisy environments like the car (The Wirecutter does a pretty good review). Given my use, the Explorer looked like the device for me.

Unfortunately, you apparently cannot get it with free shipping through Amazon, and multiple attempts to purchase through Plantronics website resulted, each time, in this:

Session Timeout

Very frustrating and rendered in Times New Roman, which makes it inexcusable.

This leaves me, today, somewhat in Limbo. And it makes me think: I have been using my Jumbl receiver with cheapie earbuds in the interim because I can hear the calls much better through them than with my Jawbone, and I'm not getting complaints from the folks on the other end of the call. The Jumbl costs $19.99 on Amazon...

...And maybe this is the sort of thing that has happened to the Bluetooth earpiece market...

Minimalizing by Erin Wade

I am sitting amid chaos.

I made the decision to finally replace my old, World War II era office desk with a more modern desk arrangement. That more modern arrangement currently sits, scattered around the office, in a state of disarray. It turns out (who knew) that radically altering the work and organizational system that one has been using for 20+ years takes more than a couple of hours to do.

For most of my adult, working life I have had the same desk in my home office. The old girl is a wood office desk from the 1940's. I picked it up in the early 1990's at a rummage sale in a small office building in downtown Loves Park for $10. It was actually the second desk that I'd purchased within a few days. The first was a particleboard and veneer thing that I'd purchased from a big-box store that I thought would work fine until I brought it home and placed my computer - an IBM PS/2 - on top of it. That computer - the relatively small all-in-one design - simply dwarfed my big-box store desk, so when I saw the old girl a few days later I snapped it up and took it home... With some help from a friend (it's very, very heavy), and promptly disassembled the particleboard jobbie and returned it to said big-box store.

The big old desk has moved with me from the apartment to our first house and now to the Homestead. MLW, who has never been unclear about her feelings regarding the relative attractiveness of my old office desk, had hoped that I would set it aside when I set up the home office here - a fresh start in a new place. Still, when the time came to claim that office I went ahead and cleaned up the old girl and put her in place.

I mean come on - I got it for $10 - how does one turn one's back on a deal like that when the old girl still worked perfectly fine?

There was much (well-deserved) eye-rolling at this decision, and the old girl sat in place, doing her duty in the new office, for the past five years or so. This, while I periodically looked at desks in catalogs, online, and during trips to IKEA.

It was finally time.

Advice to the wise - if the office furniture you are moving can be disassembled, don't wonder - just disassemble it.

Part of what I am re-realizing with this process is a bit of why people use big old office desks. That array of drawers has the potential to hide a lifetime of organizational sins. Taking the things out of it is a little like watching clowns exit a tiny car - one is amazed at the volume of things that can emerge from what otherwise seemed a relatively small space.

And this is why I sit amid chaos. What I pictured as a single day of relocating things, moving a bit of furniture and placing things anew did not go strictly as planned. Most of day one involved relocating things in a fashion that makes them accessible for re-relocating later. On day two.

What it illustrates as well is the struggle of trying to work towards a more minimalist office approach. I am extremely fond of the visual and philosophical aesthetic of the minimalist workspace. The reality of it, however, is considerably harder to achieve.

If one were starting anew - as a young person without the encumbrance of years of work and accumulation of cruft - it might be relatively simple to attain and - perhaps more importantly - maintain that ideal. For someone with a couple of decades of work under one's belt, however, it involves removing that accumulated cruft. This is, of course, consistent with the concept - hell, it's a core tenet of the concept, that one is freed from being owned by the things one owns - but it also means that one has to sort through that cruft and determine what remains and what does not.

This is considerably more challenging than never having accumulated it in the first place.

For millennials and subsequent generations this might well not be the same issue. As we work towards a more digital world - one that some people continue to hold out against - the need for all of the assorted office supplies designed to manage paper will diminish and disappear.

To be clear, this - and one other item - is the bulk of the remaining struggle. As a person who began his career towards the dawn of the digital age, and working within a field that still has not entirely entered that age, my office continues to contain the paraphernalia needed to cope with King Paper. So: what to do with all of the envelopes - Manilla and otherwise - hanging files, paperclips, printer paper, etc? I cannot simply be rid of all of them (if I could, this would be much simpler) because my work still continues to require them. This is a progressively smaller and smaller need, to be sure, which I realize when I look at the astonishing pile of paperclips that I have gained as the papers they used to secure have been either digitized or simply eliminated, but how much of it will I need going forward - how much do I retain.

The one other item that enhances the challenge towards a delightfully minimalist space is the older technology. Desktop computers - even sleek, streamlined machines like Apple's iMac, a version of which sits on my desk as I write this (on my iPad), require an array of cords and cables to sustain them and their peripherals. This means that my futuristic desktop machine has attached to it an embarrassing tangle of wiring that was readily, easily hid behind the solid facade of that old desk. The iMac and I both knew it was there, of course, but we never spoke of it.

This will be manageable, of course - I've already got the cable organizers and such ready to be applied (more of day two - or perhaps three?). This is again a transitional problem. As we move ever forward towards mobile devices most of what all of that wiring does is now manageable wirelessly. But legacy requirements still present the periodic need for these wired machines, at least for my work and, I suspect, still for the work of many others.

It does seem that, in the near future, our homes and home offices will be able to achieve that clutter free ideal that you see in the IKEA catalog; or as I think about it, my Victorian-era homestead will return to the appearance that it had before the electric, and then digital, age modified it. It seems close.

But it's not here yet.

2016 Chevrolet Volt by Erin Wade

As anyone who comes by this spot with any type of regularity will already know, transportation issues - whether it be roads, cars, bikes, trains, etc - fascinate me. In part this is because I believe that our approaches to transportation have a significant impact on the lives we lead; and, in part, it's because I'm a person who lives in a rural area and must travel considerable distances both for work and personal activities.

To the latter end, automobile efficiency has a significant impact on my life, and I've often tried to select my cars accordingly. When the original Chevrolet Volt came out back in 2011 I spent some time trying to understand how to figure out whether it would be a good choice for me. This turned out to be more complicated than I thought it would be:

The Chevy Volt has a problem.

Confusion.

This past February I had the good fortune to attend the Chicago Auto Show with the inimitable Ted E. Dunphy. We go to the auto show every year or two, but this year I was particularly interested in seeing and having the opportunity to ride in the Chevy Volt. The ride was fun - around a short track inside McCormick Place, the cars running entirely on electricity.

What was more interesting - and perplexing - was trying to figure out what kind of mileage I would get with the car. Usually this is a relatively straight-forward thing, published clearly on the window sticker of each new car. But if the Volt were treated the same way, it's sticker would just say "it depends".

In a nutshell, because the car has an electric only range, how much gas a person would use would depend upon how far they drive - the more driving done outside the range of the electric motor, the less attractive the Volt becomes.

In that original post I compared the 2010 Volt to two of my own cars - a 2007 Mini Cooper S and a 2010 Honda Fit - as well as the Toyota Prius, which is probably its primary competitor. I also included the original Honda Insight, a car I have always been interested in, albeit one that is very different than the rest of the group.

For the original Volt it turned out to best all of the others in real-world mileage for people driving less than 25,000 miles per year, over which the two hybrids - the Prius and the Insight - caught up with it. Even then, though, the Volt was still competitive in terms of mileage.

Where it suffered, though, was overall cost of ownership:

But gasoline is not the only cost of owning a car. Most people buying a car will borrow, and that cost will always be a relevant factor. If one compares the same cars, including the monthly car payment assuming a five year loan with no down payment for each new car, and the blue book value and a two year loan for the Honda Insight, and my current car payment for the Mini, one gets a considerably different picture... Because of it's relatively high purchase price ($32,780 after government rebate), adding in the car payment ramps up the cost of Volt ownership considerably.

I found then that, ultimately, the cost of monthly payments completely reversed the situation, and the Volt moved from least to most expensive to operate. The price of entry was a more relevant component than the fuel costs.

Several important things have changed since 2011:

  • The electric range of the Volt has increased considerably - from about 35 miles to 53 miles.
  • The MPG rating of the gas generator - the mileage the car gets after it runs out of battery charge - is also much higher, rising from 37 mpg to 43 mpg.
  • The original Volt required premium fuel, while the new one gets by with less expensive, regular unleaded.
  • The price of the Volt has dropped. With the government rebate in place, the purchase price is now $26,495.00

So the question is, what kind of a difference do those changes make?

This time around I compared the 2016 Volt to the 2016 Prius and the 2016 Honda Fit. I also included my 2010 Fit as a comparator to evaluate against a fully paid-for, relatively efficient compact car as an option. Assumptions made were:

  • An average fuel price of $2.183 per gallon, based upon the Midwest price on 5/2/16 from the US Energy Information Administration website.
  • Mileage ratings of 34 mpg for the 2010 Fit (based upon my personal measurements), 37 for the 2016 Fit, 52 for the 2016 Prius, and 43 for the 2016 Volt.
  • To account for the Volt's all electric range, the number of miles it traveled was reduced by that range, assuming overnight charging only (e.g. no opportunity for additional charging during the day). For example, a yearly travel amount of 10,000 miles was averaged out to 200 miles per week, or 40 miles per day over five days (a work week) for the other cars. The 40 miles per each day was decreased by the electric range of the Volt - 53 miles - to calculate the remaining average miles traveled per day, and that remaining mileage was calculated against the Volt gas generator mpg of 43 miles per gallon.
  • The same price of $26,495.00 for the Volt and the Prius. This decision was made because there are so many option levels for the Prius that it's price ranges from about $24k up to well over $30k. This seemed simpler and more straightforward.
  • The 2016 Honda Fit model selected was an EX with a handful of options based upon my personal preferences (The EX is the highest end Honda Fit that is available with a manual transmission) for a purchase price of $19041.00.
  • Monthly payments were based upon a 5-year loan, with no down payment, a 6.25% sales tax (Illinois), and 3.26% interest, calculated on the car payment calculator on Cars.com.

With all of this done, what I found was this:

The Volt is still the hands-down winner in terms of fuel cost:

Low Fuel Cost

If you drive less than 10,000 miles per year, odds are good that you will pay virtually nothing for fuel over the course of that year, and the cost for folks at 15k/year is less than $100. Back in 2011 the Volt's advantage leveled off with the Prius's for people who traveled 25k or more miles per year. With the improvements in range and fuel efficiency the 2016 Volt maintains a considerable advantage in fuel economy all the way up to 30k per year. If you are a high mileage driver deciding between a Prius and a Volt, on average the Prius will use $1259.42 worth of gas per year, while the Volt comes in at $850.35.

As in 2011, things change when we add in the cost of purchase:

Economy cars are cheap to own

What we see here, unsurprisingly, is that your cheapest option is still to own your own economy car outright (the 2010 Fit), and that the amount of fuel savings of neither the Volt nor the Prius is sufficient to compensate for the difference made by buying a conventional economy car that is several thousand dollars cheaper. If you must buy a new car, and you are looking for the least expensive overall cost of ownership, something comparable to the Honda Fit is still your best option.

What is pleasantly surprising to learn, however, is that the improvements made for the 2016 Volt make it less expensive to own than a price-comparable 2016 Prius, even for very high-mileage drivers. If you must buy new, and you are comparing hybrid options, the Volt is your best bet. General Motors has come a long way down this road, and it's worth noting that this is only the second-generation of the Volt. Toyota is on it's fourth generation of Prius, and has been building them now for nearly 20 years (the first Prius came out in 1997).

Of course, one does not have to buy a price-comparable Prius. The Prius comes in at a lower base-price, and one could opt for that car, which costs $24,200.00, according to Toyota's website. But it turns out that the cheapest Prius comes out to mostly be comparable to the Volt:

Base Prius

So - if you are selecting between the Volt and the Prius, you aren't really saving much in terms of overall cost of operation by opting for the base Prius to get in at a lower initial purchase price. Given Toyota's head start on this I'd still call this advantage Volt.


And Now for Some Speculation

I noted above that the fuel savings of neither the Volt nor the Prius were enough to make them less expensive than a conventional economy car like the Honda Fit. This is the case, in part, because gasoline is relatively inexpensive in the US at the moment. Out of curiosity I adjusted amounts to see what gas prices would need to be in order for that savings to make the difference.

The Volt takes the advantage here as well. It starts to become cost-comparable with the Fit for low mileage drivers at a gas cost of about $4.75 per gallon:

$4.75 per gallon

And it's comparable or better for all drivers if gas rises twenty-five cents to about $5.00 per gallon:

$5.00 per gallon

As can also be seen here, the Prius is still more expensive to own than the Fit, though it's getting closer to comparable for super-high mileage drivers. The Prius reaches a comparable level for those at 40k miles per year if prices rise to $5.75 per gallon, but at that price the Fit is still the better deal for anyone driving 35k or fewer miles per year:

$5.75 per gallon

For the Prius to reach a point at which it was comparable or better for every mileage point on the graph I had to ramp the cost per gallon up to $20.00:

$20.00 per gallon

And, at this (hopefully) unbelievable cost level, buying a new Volt is actually a better deal than keeping your old economy car, regardless of how many miles you drive per year. Or it would be, except that it seems likely that, were gas to reach $20.00 per gallon, we'd be cruising the wastelands in Police Interceptors, heavily modified dune buggies, or gyrocopters searching for food and a bit of juice... But I digress...

The larger point to this last bit of fiddling with numbers, I suppose, is that the Volt becomes the most economical new car choice in this mix at a fuel price not that far above prices we've seen in the past decade. This suggests that, from an economical standpoint, General Motors appears to be, at this point, far ahead of Toyota in terms of having a realistic financial savings based upon fuel economy.

Perhaps the only remaining caveat here is that the Volt's purchase price continues to include a federal tax subsidy, and things would be somewhat different - the Volt loses its cost advantage over the Prius under those circumstances. But the current reality is that the tax break is in effect, so it remains a part of the calculation here. And, given the progress GM has made on all fronts with this car, and its ongoing work on the electric side with the upcoming Bolt as well, it doesn't seem too optimistic to believe that they will reach a point of unsubsidized price parity with Toyota in the not-too distant future. This all leaves me far more excited about American - and specifically GM - vehicles than I have been in a very long time.

Apple's New Notes by Erin Wade

With iOS 9 Apple has given some serious love to its Notes app, including many features that you often have to purchase an app to get - drawing, some rich text editing features like bold, italics, etc, and capabilities like making different types of lists (in particular I like the checklist option - great for making shopping lists).

With iOS 9.3 they have added the capability to lock individual notes so the content is kept from prying eyes.

Under lock and thumb

This is great. Because Notes is a system app, it's likely to fall to hand for marking down all sorts of information on the phone, some of which the owner might not want others to see. But its implementation of this feature is, well, a bit odd and clunky.

First, the feature has to be turned on in settings, and then an individual note has to have the locking feature enabled by tapping the share sheet. To finalize enabling it, the user has to either enter the password or use Touch ID. All of this is fine, I suppose, though a bit obscure, particularly with the enabling feature in the share sheet menu (which otherwise mostly houses ways to, you know, share things).

How to Lock a Note

What's odd here is that this process enables the lock, but doesn't lock the document. You have to then tap the little lock symbol in the upper right hand corner to formally lock the document. What's more, you also have to do that every time you exit the document in the future.

Make sure you tap the lock!

And now we're secure

What I mean is this: Say you go through the process of locking a document, and then go back to read it again, edit it, etc. When you get done with that, and navigate out of the document, it remains unlocked unless you manually choose to lock it. What's more, unlocking that note to edit it also unlocks every other locked note you have in Notes.

To their credit, there is a "lock now" button at the bottom of the document menu screen which, when tapped, locks all open notes. And when I manually lock the note I was working on, it also locks all of the other notes that I inadvertently opened as well. But why this manual process to lock? If I really am protecting sensitive information in a note, wouldn't it be better for it to lock automatically when I exit, always requiring a password or Touch ID to open it again? Then I would know it, and all of my locked notes, are always locked - there would be no need to, say, check to see if my notes were locked before I handed my phone to someone else to look at.

One suspects that this is an attempt to compromise. Other notetaking and writing apps can have a password applied, but this is typically to access the the entire app. Here you can access the Notes application itself without entering a password, but your notes themselves can be protected. One can see the value in that - I can show another person what's on a note without giving them free access to everything I've written. The same cannot be said for an app like Day One, an otherwise excellent journaling program. There, when you enter your password or Touch ID and hand your device to another person you have just granted them free access to anything you've ever written in that app. The Notes solution is better, I suppose, if you want to be able to show others selective information on your device. But honestly, those notes I want secured should automatically secure themselves when I exit them - period.

Things That Actually Kind of Suck: Facebook - Part Deux by Erin Wade

So.

Facebook is a platform that is supposed to keep us in touch with our friends, our families, even when separated by vast distances. And, to some degree it does that. It's obviously immensely popular, in the literal sense of the word - a lot -lot - of people use it.

It's also doing a delightful job of illustrating some of the worst, and frankly creepiest features of the Internet in general and social media in particular. I submit, for your consideration, three examples, in order of escalating creepiness.

The first is the insistence Facebook has presented in suggesting that I follow Mark Zuckerberg. I assume absolutely everyone sees this particular recommendation, and it seems to be working, as he has a metric shit-ton of followers already:

Follow the Zuck!

Now, I've repeatedly tapped that little "X" in the upper right hand corner to make him go away, and yet he repeatedly returns, like the veritable bad penny or the frustrating bit of dog poo on your shoe that is too tiny to find so you can remove it, but stinks to high heaven. Facebook supposedly uses algorithms to determine who it should recommend you follow. Apparently the salient variables in this particular algorithm are:

  • Does this person exist on the planet earth?
  • Does he or she have a Facebook account?
  • If yes to both, recommend the Zuck.

To be clear, Facebook, I would not, could not follow him on my phone.

I would not, could not, look at him in my home.

I would not, could not tap him on my iPad.

I would not, could not - this recommendation makes me mad.

(Apologies to the estate of Dr. Suess)


The second item is the eerily targeted advertising. The other day I was listening to the ladies on the Nerdette Podcast interviewing Sarah Vowell. It occurred to me that I had a friend, who is a history buff, who might enjoy one of Sarah's books, Assassination Vacation. I hopped over to Amazon to see if it was available there so I could send her a link.

That evening I sit down on the couch and begin to scroll through my Facebook news feed, and I see this:

Why are Amazon and Facebook Stalking Me?

This has become a regular occurrence. My child needed to read the book Life of Pi for school, so I sent it as a Kindle gift and, sure enough, there on Facebook was an ad for Life of Pi.

And let's just set aside, for the moment, just how f&@king stupid it is to advertise a book, that I just bought, to me. Is there some hope that I will have been so excited about my purchase that I will run off to Amazon and buy it again?

And - while we are at it, have you ever noticed how many of the sponsored links that show up on Facebook say that your friends have "liked" that particular item? It's clear that at least some portion of this is an outright lie - check with your friends and ask them if they've done so. I happen to have two of my Facebook friends living here in the same house with me, so I've had the opportunity to do exactly that, and it turns out the answer is "not so much". One of those two - my child - is on Facebook only by protest (apparently the cool kids nowadays prefer Instagram which, I've been informed, I would know if I were a cool kid... But I digress...), and it's quite rare that they even open the Facebook app. And yet, there they are, liking products on a routine basis.


Item number three has to do with phone numbers - specifically, mine.

For some time now, Facebook has been encouraging me to share my phone number with them "for security purposes". This is irritating, to be sure, but it's only that. It's likely an artifact of the extremely limited amount of personal information I actually put on my Facebook profile. As a matter of principle I limit this - ultimately, Facebook is an advertising company - yes, it's a social media platform, but advertising is their source of revenue, so this is really what they are - and I just don't see handing my particulars over to such an entity.

So - irritating I can put up with. In fact. Irritating would describe about 80% of the Facebook experience anyway. So, you know, c'est la vie.

But the other day, something different happened. Instead of "tell us your phone number" I had a notification indicating a specific phone number, and asking if it was mine.

It was. It was my personal cell phone number.

That number is unlisted, and is on the do not call list. I share it sparingly. I have never entered it into Facebook, and won't ever do so.

And there it was, right on my screen, waiting, wanting for me to verify it.

Where did Facebook get it? After a bit of thought, I realized: Facebook got it from my friends.

Periodically this evil little service will ask its users to upload their personal contacts to its servers. If you scroll down to the bottom of the "Friend Requests" page it will offer you that option again, and you will see a list of your Facebook friends who have already done so.

And, of course, some of those people have my phone number.

So let's take this in for just a moment.

This means that Facebook has scanned the contact information uploaded by other people, pulled my phone number out of that information, and used that data to try and get me to give them my number.

Which, let's be honest, they already have, so why would they need to ask me? And in what universe does it register as being okay to both do this in the first place, and to then think that it will be well received to present it to me and ask me if I'd like to verify it?

It's uber-creepy.

What universe is it in which these things seem okay? Mark Zuckerberg's universe.

Which is why I won't be following him.

iPad Pro Keyboard by Erin Wade

iPad Pro set in portrait orientation on the left, iPad Air 2 (in a BookBook Case) in landscape orientation on the left.

iPad Pro set in portrait orientation on the left, iPad Air 2 (in a BookBook Case) in landscape orientation on the left.

I have had an iPad Pro now for a couple of weeks. I have had some difficulty incorporating it into my workflow. I knew that having it was going to be useful, and I have some ideas about how, but it will take some time to fully integrate it.

One of the more frustrating things is how long it is taking some of the app developers to update their apps for the device. In particular this means apps don’t take full advantage of the features of the device, and I am particularly struggling with the failure to integrate the iPad Pro’s new virtual keyboard (which is, in and of itself, pretty awesome - it’s essentially a full keyboard).

In part, this presents an issue because it will take me a bit of time to learn the new keyboard. After five years of typing on glass with the 9.7“ iPad I have a lot of habits based upon that device’s keyboard. For example, I use a lot of dashes in my writing, and I have a habit of hitting the little ”.?123“ button in the lower left-hand corner in order to access that item. But two things are different on the new keyboard. First, there is now a dash on the main keyboard, right where you would expect it on a typical physical keyboard. Second, the Pro reverses the location of the ”.?123“ button and the emoticon button; this means that I keep accidentally accessing the emoticon keyboard when I intend to access the ”.?123" keyboard.

One of non-updated apps in question is Day One, the journaling app I use to do the overwhelming majority of my writing. This means that, when I set the app up in landscape format, I get a comically-large version of the keyboard from the 9.7" iPad, which is spaced all wrong, making typing a challenge.

To better incorporate the new iPad Pro I considered actually pairing it with a Bluetooth keyboard, something I haven’t actually done since the first-generation iPad[1]. And then I remembered something: the size of the iPad Pro is frequently described in articles as being, in landscape, about the size of two 9.7“ iPad screens side by side. This also would mean, that in portrait the iPad Pro is about as wide as a 9.7” iPad in landscape.

Which means that the portrait version of the old keyboard on the iPad Pro is almost exactly the same size as the landscape version on the iPad Air. So I turned Day One to portrait orientation and started typing. This entire entry has been typed on the iPad Pro in portrait orientation. It’s worked quite nicely.

This won’t last, of course. Eventually Day One and the other apps I use will update to put the new keyboard in, and I will be writing on them in Landscape, and learning the new keyboard. But it’s nice to have found a work-around in the meantime.


  1. When the iPad first came out this was exactly how I pictured using it - with a keyboard paired, writing in that format all over the place. But, as often happens when a new system presents itself - in this case, the virtual keyboard - I became curious about using the new thing instead. It turns out that it’s quite possible to type very quickly and effectively on a virtual keyboard.  ↩

Old Soldiers by Erin Wade

image.jpg

For the past decade we have been an Apple household. Among the reasons for this - and one that continues to surprise me - is the longevity of these machines. I may have mentioned before that my first Mac, a 2005 Power PC Mac Mini, continues to soldier on as our media server, a decade after I bought it and several years after it reached the end of its service as a work machine.

The Mini was replaced by a late 2006 iMac, which served for several years before being placed into retirement as a machine for my daughter to use for school. Still, longevity and all aside, it appeared over the past year that the iMac had finally reached the end of its useful life. It was having trouble running for any significant period of time without locking up, and varying white lines across the display suggested to me that the graphics card was on its way out. It was set off to the side, and replaced with a lightly used and well-cared for 2012 MacBook Air that I purchased from Dan Benjamin at the 5by5 Podcast network.

By "set it off to the side" I essentially mean literally that. It sat, for months, on the floor beside my desk, waiting for me to have the time to decommission it by wiping the hard drive and sending it off to the recycling center.

I finally got around to it over the weekend before Thanksgiving. I dragged the Snow Leopard disk out of one of my drawers-o'-technology, and used disk utility to do a secure wipe of the hard drive. Done right this takes a while, and I let it run for several hours (and overnight) while I did other things.

When it was done I noticed that, while running off of the install disk, none of the white lines appeared. This, despite the fact that it had been running for hours. Given this, I went ahead and did a clean install of Snow Leopard just to see what I'd get.

The iMac has been running more or less continuously since the Sunday before Turkey Day, a full two weeks now, with only a brief interruption due to a power outage. The screen is free of artifacts. Essentially, it appears that the machine itself was fine, it just needed a clean install to recover from nearly a decade of continual use.

Of course, now this leaves me wondering what to do with it. Its operating system is several generations behind (10.6.8 vs 10.11 for El Capitan), and it doesn't have some of the bells and whistles of the newer systems like Handoff, for example. However, a little exploring after the clean install finds that it does, for example, run the iWork suite just fine through iCloud.com (though, ironically, I had to install Google Chrome to do this). So, it could serve as a backup desktop system for now, I suppose, while it waits to take its turn as a media server when (if?) the Mini finally shuffled off.