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.

Mind the Gap - The New Mutants on Marvel Unlimited by Erin Wade

Over the past couple of months I have been working my way back through the first run of The New Mutants from Marvel Comics. I am referring here specifically to the version of the series that started in 1983, and ran 100 issues (not including annuals and other special issues, of course). This series is, perhaps, a little less well known than some of the others which have generated the big screen movies. Still, it has been the source for at least one one TV series - Legion on FX (which I discussed here) - and has a movie lined up which was supposed to be coming out in April, but which has been delayed now until next year.

I read the series the first time when it was new, collecting each issue as it showed up on the racks at Fact and Fancy, the hobby shop in our little town. It was something very different for 12-year old me - a series featuring characters that were around my age, dealing with actual teenage problems. It was about adolescents, but it wasn’t adolescent in its presentation - it was written at the same level as the other comics of the era (or arguably better, given the creative teams involved with it). And yes, with super powers, but these figured central to the theme of the series - for mutants, powers emerge in adolescence and, like so many of the other things that emerge during that turbulent time of life, they are often uncomfortable, awkward, embarrassing, intrusive...

This is a theme that does emerge in other stories since, of course - it’s a central component of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and it’s used to good effect in the first two of the three Sam Raimi Spider-Man movies. I wouldn't argue that it’s unique to The New Mutants or originated there, but it’s particularly well done in the series, and I would be unsurprised to find that the series influenced those later story tellers.

Excepting some of the story telling tropes of 1980’s comic books - for example, the need to give As You Know, Bob’s about various components of the characters powers and the ongoing storyline in virtually every issue - the series stands up well. I’m slightly older than 12 years old now, and I’m still really enjoying it.

As will surprise no one who reads this space, I have been doing my re-reading digitally - specifically using the Marvel Unlimited app. This is my preferred approach for multiple reasons, not the least of which is the fact that a 12.9" iPad screen is bigger, crisper, and cleaner than the original books.

But I ran into a snag.

Marvel Unlimited, for the uninitiated, is a lot like Netflix for Marvel Comics - for an annual fee you have access to everything uploaded to Marvel’s servers. Also, like Netflix, the app knows which issue is next, making it easy to roll through multiple issues in the continuing storyline across the course of a weekend afternoon or evening.

Still, as I was reading and enjoying the series I had a moment where there seemed to be a jump in the timeline. I flipped back to the prior issue, looked at where it ended, and then moved forward again. It was a jump, but not so large that I couldn't follow what was going on. I chalked it up to storytelling decisions (Sometimes, for example, things are handled in an annual issue that doesn’t appear in the series itself on the app), shrugged, and continued to read. Then it happened again, and it was clear that I was missing material.

I pulled back out of the series reading mode and looked at the lineup on the app. This is what I saw:

Marvel Unlimited

It’s a lot of visual material to process at first, and it took me a moment to catch it myself. But it’s there:

Its a leap!

There is a 9-issue gap - the app just jumps from issue 61 to issue 71 (I clearly wasn’t paying attention to issue numbers as I was going from one book to the next). So this got me thinking about that prior story jump and, sure enough, it also jumps from issue 50 to 55. This was a small enough gap that I was able to rationalize it away, but it was a real thing.

This sent me on a search - perhaps I could download the issues from Comixology? But no, the same gap appears on their store as well. They didn’t seem to be available online elsewhere either, at least not with a casual search. This was vexing because - and I’m sure this will be surprising - I’m a bit of a completist. When I go back to read a series, I want to read the entire series.

And then it occurred to me: I still own the paper versions of these.

Many of the comics I’d collected over my childhood have since been sold, but there are a few key series that I held on to, and The New Mutants was among them.

Accessing them was no small feat - they were buried in a closet, in a wooden box built by my grandfather, under multiple other boxes. I can’t honestly say for sure why I’ve held on to the comics that I have - predominantly sentiment, I suspect, if I’m going to be honest. But if one needed a rationale for one’s seemingly irrational retention of material, here it is.

Of course, I brought out not only issues 62 through 70, but also 51-54. It meant having to drop back in the storyline a bit, but dammit, now it’s complete.

Making things complete

I’m sure there are those out there who will start to think about the joy of holding a paper book in hand versus the cold, impersonal experience of reading them on an iPad, and look to this entry to be an endorsement of that. Those folks should prepare for disappointment. It’s not like I only just remembered that I had these up in a closet - I could have simply chosen to re-read the series in paper from the get-go. Honestly, though, paper comics are a disappointing experience relative to digital. Among the things one realizes when going back through these:

  • The colors are muddy and faded. The color scheme in older comics was one of filling in through pixelation, and the quality of this varies from one issue to the next. This might be partially due to age, but it’s also a reality of the medium from the era.
  • Printing is inconsistent. There are sections that are washed out or where text is missing because the print head (or whatever - I’m no printing press expert) simply didn’t hit the page square on. These aren’t due to the ravages of time - I can remember being frustrated with these issues when I was a kid.
  • Having a stack of comics to work through is kind of a pain in the ass. Where do you put them, how do you work around the stack with other things? This is amplified by the fact that these are now part of a collection that I’m trying to keep relatively pristine, and so makes what should be a casual activity, occasionally involving the presence of food and drink, somewhat less so. (I’m actually pleasantly surprised that I did not find cereal flakes and milk stains in any of the books - I wasn’t nearly so careful when I read them thru the first time).
  • Advertising! I’d actually forgotten that these are full of ads (the digital versions are not). It’s a little jarring at first, and there is some nostalgia to seeing the ads for New England Comics and Charles Atlas. I can remember wondering exactly what Sea monkeys were (spoiler alert: brine shrimp), and how the Sales Leadership Club worked. TSR role playing games and Nintendo game cassettes also feature prominently in these. Still the reminiscent curiosity wore off quickly and soon they were just intrusive, like all other advertising.

Fortunately I’ve worked through these now, and can move back to the digital haven whence I started. Of course, that also means I need to put them away and stack all of the crap back in the closet...

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?

Streamlining the Presentation Kit - Amaz-Play Mobile Projector and Wapow Lightening to HDMI Cable by Erin Wade

As a part of my work I give talks and do training many times a year. One of the things I learned long ago was that you cannot rely on the training venue to have all of the equipment you need to do your presentation. This is true in general - you can bank on the fact that they will fail to have a proper cable or connector or to offer an outlet for your device. The worst example of this was the "conference center" where I asked whether they had a projector I could rent, and they took me to a very dusty closet and said "you mean one of these?"

They were pointing at an overhead projector - the kind that people of a certain age will remember their teachers putting transparencies on to throw them up on a screen. This would almost be forgivable, except it was earlier this year - 2017.

Although it is getting better, historically things became even more complicated if you were bringing along your own equipment to hook up. Many places would happily direct you to the Windows laptop they have hooked up, and ask for your flash drive. I cannot count the number of times I’ve seen the smile first freeze, and then fade from their faces when I’ve pulled out my MacBook or, more recently, iPad, and indicated that I’d be plugging that in instead.

For those reasons I have, for a very long time, maintained my own presentation kit. The composition of this has varied a bit over the years, but the mainstays of it have been:

  • An Apple TV (third generation) and its remote control
  • A power strip with a 10’ cord
  • A projector - specifically a ViewSonic PJD5133
  • HDMI Cable
  • VGA Cable
  • Power cords for the ATV and the projector
  • An Anker 5-port USB charger

(The iPad and iPhone are a part of the mix, but they are always with me instead of being part of the kit).

By far the biggest item in this kit is the projector. It has served me well over the past five years, but it is nearly a foot wide, three inches thick, and weighs more than five and a half pounds. The combination of the projector and the power strip have functionally necessitated that I maintain my presentation kit in a separate bag (in my case, an old Trager Backpack). This means that, whenever I go somewhere to do training, I’m hauling in at least two backpacks. It’s a first world problem, to be sure, but a problem nonetheless.

Given that the projector is the largest part of the problem (no pun intended), that seemed a reasonable place to start. Pica projectors have been around for a while, but they typically have very low light outputs (making them hard to see in anything but a very dark room), and they had historically been expensive. However, it had been several years since I’d looked at them, so I thought I’d give it a shot.

I landed on the Amaz-Play Mobile Pico Projector.

Amaz-Play Mobile Pico Projector

This device had a few key benefits for what I was looking for:

  • It’s small - it will fit in your hand
  • It comes with its own tripod and it will mount to a standard camera tripod
  • It’s powered thru a micro-usb cable. This last part means that I can plug it in to the Anker USB charger rather than needing a slot in the power strip (I otherwise only use two slots - one for iPad and one for iPhone)

And while I was searching for the projector, I also came across this Wapow cable that sends from lightening to HDMI and also plugs in to power.

WAPOW lightening to HDMI Cable

What the cable offered was the potential ability to plug my iOS device - iPhone or iPad - directly into the projector. This meant that I could also pull the Apple TV from the kit and that everything I was using was powered thru USB, so I could also pull the power strip out and just go with the Anker charger. Even with everything plugged in I would still have two ports to spare. The direct HDMI connector also means that it will work in those cases where I’m plugging into a television rather than a projector.

By way of comparison, these are the bare essentials of the old and new projector setups side by side:

One of these things is not like the other.jpg

I’ve had the kit out a couple of times since putting it together, and so far it is working well. The Amaz-Play projector is not as bright as the ViewSonic (of course), but it does seem to be bright enough. Because I tend to be cautious with such things - don’t want a presentation to fail for lack of equipment - I’ve brought the old kit along in its backpack for each of the trainings so far. However, I haven’t needed anything out of it, so it’s looking like that will be able to be left back in the office going forward.

There is a fan in the projector, and it does make some noise, but not anything significant. It does have a speaker, but it’s small, as one might expect. If your presentation includes audio, you may want to plug in a separate speaker (and it does have an output for that). It apparently offers wireless connectivity using WiFi, and there is purportedly an app for that, but I have not used it. The reviews on Amazon mentioning that feature are not kind, and it wasn’t something I planned on using. I typically plug in one iOS device and use the other as the remote over Keynote.

The WAPOW connector does get warm around the HDMI connector but so far that does not seem to be an issue. It does bear mentioning that the connector works for screen mirroring and playing slide decks (Keynote or PowerPoint), but it won’t play protected video content. This means that you can show video thru the YouTube app, but attempts to play Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Video, or anything from iTunes is going to fail. This didn’t matter to me, but it might be a limitation for others.

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.

Lack of Support (TTAKS) by Erin Wade

The 12.9" iPad Pro was released in November of 2015 - nearly two years ago. One of its many key features was a new, full-sized virtual keyboard configuration. As a regular user of the iPad for work, this was a huge leap forward in typing on glass.

Nearly two years in, as one might expect, virtually every app available for the iPad has been updated to support the full keyboard configuration. Virtually every one.


The standouts? On my iPad Pro there are two that are notable:

  • Facebook
  • Mint

This might - might - be considered forgivable for the Mint app, which is primarily a dashboard for looking at your financial accounts. But Facebook?

Open the Facebook app and you are greeted at the top of the timeline with a box that asks "what’s on your mind" (or whatever this month’s vapid prompt is). It immediately invites you to write something about your day. Unfortunately, if you are interacting with the Facebook app on your 12.9" iPad Pro, tapping into that box gets you a keyboard that looks like this:

Why so much space?

This ungainly laid out key formation is the one designed for the 9.7" iPad and, when displayed on the much larger iPad Pro screen, stretches the keys out to a distance that might be useful for Andre the Giant, but is quite a reach for a person with hands that are a perfectly normal size.

One might ask whether Facebook is possibly unaware that Apple released this larger version of the iPad some 23 months ago - perhaps they are busy sorting through other issues, and so have missed this development. One might think this until one has to contact someone thru Facebook Messenger.

Facebook Messenger, of course, is an app owned and operated by Facebook. An app which, incidentally, has been updated to work with the iPad Pro’s keyboard.

Messenger seems to have been updated

Ok, so, that not being the case, maybe it’s just that Facebook hasn’t had an opportunity to update the app.

Not once. Not once in the 144+ times they have updated the app since it was created...

Version 145.0...

So to be clear, this company makes an app that invites you to type things, has already written the code for the new keyboard and put it into place in another app, and updates the Facebook app approximately every other day, but can’t seem to find the time to make this change.

The living definition of a first world problem? Absolutely. But this is a company that a huge percentage of the country interacts with on a routine basis. Of course, we’re not their customers - we pay nothing for it. Facebook’s customers are the advertisers that buy space in your timeline. But they need our eyes, our attention, to sell. They might not to consider stepping up and making things more pleasant to use.

Files, iWork, and Dropbox Issues by Erin Wade

One of the banner features of iOS 11 is the addition of the new Files app, which works in a fashion similar to the Finder in Mac OS, and offers the promise of giving a central location for all of your file access needs in iOS. For those of us who have been shepherding around files from app to app ove the past seven years, this is an exciting prospect.

It is often the case that other developers aren’t ready to take advantage of the new features in iOS on day one. Sure enough, Dropbox was not ready to fully integrate into the files app on the iOS release date. However, I was pleasantly surprised to see that Dropbox shipped an update within a week of the emergence of iOS 11, promising to integrate with Files and, perhaps more importantly, allowing save-in-place.

What does this mean?

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

Much more complicated than the simple open-edit-save routine that one would prefer. What’s more, it’s easy to omit the last step in the routine, and end up with a batch of leftover files in the app, visually clogging up the works. To be fair, Dropbox has offered an API to allow apps to save into Dropbox - 1Writer, the text editor I use to write these posts, is an example of this. But Dropbox has never before embraced save-in-place for apps like Apple’s iWork office suite, which I use routinely for work. This means I’ve been routinely doing the dance I described above for the past several years. To say I was excited about the prospect of no longer doing this would be an understatement.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work.

Let me dial that back just a bit. Strictly speaking, it does work to open an iWork file from Dropbox using the files app, and that file saves back to the same location in Dropbox when you close it. Just the simple open-edit-save routine that one hopes for.

Where the problem comes in is that this only works in an unshared Dropbox folder. Use a shared folder - arguably a primary reason for Dropbox’s existence - and things go directly south. It is possible to open an iWork document from a shared Dropbox folder using Files, but that’s where the joy ends. It is not possible to modify the file and save back.

When one opens a document under these circumstances one is greeted by a warning indicating "Couldn’t connect to iCloud".

couldn't connect to iCloud

Disregard that warning, and attempt to make any change at all to the document, and you’ll interrupted by a warning indicating "Couldn’t Connect: Pages [or Numbers] couldn’t connect to iCloud. There may be a problem with the server or network" or "Couldn’t Connect: Pages couldn't Connect to iCloud. Try editing this shared document later, or edit a copy."

couldn't connect 1

couldn't connect 2

The second warning suggests that the app (Pages, in this case) thinks this is a shared document - one that is being shared by multiple people using iCloud. It’s not - the only shared thing in the scenario is the Dropbox folder it is resting in.

Turn off the integration between Files and Dropbox and things continue to work the way they did before iOS 11 (well - except for Keynote Files, which now inexplicably cannot be uploaded to Dropbox from the iOS app at all, but that is outside this discussion). It’s possible that this issue is only occurring on my devices, but I suspect this is not the case. I’ve filed but reports with both Dropbox and Apple, and I’m hoping others experiencing this will do the same to get this issue addressed quickly - I’d really like to see this work as promised.

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.

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.

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!

Another Step Away from the Desktop: QuickBooks Online by Erin Wade

Bookkeeping software is a pain in the ass.

One of the tiny handful of things that has kept me running a desktop machine over the past couple of years is the bookkeeping software that I've been using.

Sometimes people keep using older systems because there is something they love about the old way. People profess their love for paper books despite the presence of electronic options; I maintain a fleet of fountain pens for writing by hand despite three quarters of a century or so of advancement in terms of other options.

This is not the case with respect to my desktop bookkeeping software. Not even a little bit.

A couple of times per year over the past two or three years I'd find myself wistfully googling for alternative options, trying to find an option that would meet my small business needs, would not put a vast array of unneeded complications in front of me, and would, ideally, work on my iPad.

Oh - and that would not be QuickBooks.

You see, several years ago, after years of happily using a version of Quicken Home and Business that was two or three generations behind the then most current version, I clicked the wrong button and triggered an unwanted update. In a fit of pique I declared myself finished with any and all bookkeeping products offered by Intuit and went in search of alternatives.

One of the best ways to make your decisions about things that have a large impact on your personal and professional life is to make a rash decision in the middle of a tantrum.

Despite that, the drive to search for alternatives maintained itself for quite some time. For personal finance tracking I switched to Mint, an online application that offered the ability to connect to and track all of your accounts in one place, and would do a fair-to-medium job of categorizing your transactions for you. And it wasn't an Intuit product.

...Until 2009, when Intuit purchased it. More on that below.

For professional purposes I searched high and low for an option that would meet a variety of needs, including tracking of expenses and invoicing. I ended up using a product called AccountEdge. Never heard of it? Neither had I. But it was available for Mac (and Windows), had reasonable reviews, would sync across multiple machines, and otherwise seemed to meet my needs. I took the leap.

My relationship with AccountEdge has been... complicated. While time has blurred the events somewhat in terms of timeframe, at some point relatively early in my use of this app I found that I needed a feature that AccountEdge Basic did not have. So I upgraded to AccountEdge Pro.

The perception of the small business bookkeeping world seems to be that you will want your business to become an international corporation shortly after founding it, and AccountEdge Pro appears to be set up to make you feel like that's already happened in your bookkeeping software.

But not, you know, in a good way.

Setting up things like invoices in AccountEdge Pro requires thinking like a database developer - in most cases you cannot simply type something into the invoice directly - rather, the database consists of fields that have to be filled from information you have entered elsewhere. This means developing reference "lists" for everything - clients, jobs, activities, vendors. Want to do a one-time activity for a client? Gotta enter it on to the activities list, where it will remain forever despite its one-timeness. And AccountEdge offers an app that supposedly syncs with iOS devices and offers some functionality, but I've found setting it up to be inscrutable.

I remained with it for quite a while longer than I wanted, but I was often contemplating straying. Every few months I would find myself searching the App Store and google for iOS bookkeeping software. QuickBooks was always the top hit, but there are other options. Still, the hurdle of moving to something else always seemed to big a hill to climb.

While it would be tempting to think I was lost in the sunk-cost fallacy - I did spend a lot of time setting AccountEdge Pro up. But ultimately it was prospective cost, in terms of my time, that I was concerned about. I've set up these systems multiple times, and they are typically complicated to learn and time consuming. Most programs offer a trial period, but really understanding how they will work for you means setting up your entire business in them, a daunting prospect just to try something out.

The beginning of the year is the perfect time to make a change if your fiscal year mirrors the calendar year. As 2017 rolled into focus and I had a bit of time off for the end of the year, I found myself looking. And, of course, QuickBooks showed up at the top of each search. But I still wasn't using Intuit's products out of principle.

Principle can be a funny thing. When the state of Illinois rolled out their Ipass system (it's called "EZ Pass" in the rest of the US) and MLW picked up a transponder for her car, I made a bold statement about how I wasn't going to use such a thing. Why would I agree to put something in my vehicle that allows me to be tracked? And it was clear the system could be used to track speed between tolls and to then issue tickets. It was just a matter of time! I would not be duped into entering into such a situation.

...About the third time I asked to borrow MLW's Ipass "just this one time" she suggested I might be a touch hypocritical. I have my own Ipass now.

And you know how I mentioned that Intuit bought Mint? I wasn't pleased about that, but I was already bought in, and Intuit mostly seemed to leave it alone, so I left it be. In the intervening years they've developed iPhone and iPad apps, and it remains one of the easiest ways to quickly see what is going on with virtually everything in your financial life. It still works just as well, if not better, as it did back when it was an independent product.

Plus, I never actually stopped using TurboTax. There are other tax prep options, but TurboTax is very familiar, and works very well for me.

And when I needed to start producing 1099's, and could not sort out any easy way to do so with AccountEdge, I ended up holding my nose and going on Intuit's website, setting up an account that not only allowed me to make them, but also to send them electronically to contractors and to file them electronically. So convenient and straightforward... felt a little like getting the first hit for free...

So, yep, I realized I'm using an awful lot of Intuit products for a man engaged in a principled stand against using products by Intuit. I set my prospective cost concerns aside and went ahead and took a shot at the 30-day trial.

About two hours in I had all of my account information set up and was ready to design invoices. By early afternoon I was able to send out my first invoice, complete with the option for customers to pay electronically (an option I've explored but have never cleared the hurdle of setting up before). Some of the setup - like designing the invoices - had to be done on the desktop - but it appears virtually all of the day-to-day activity can be done on the iPad or on an iPhone. And it may be possible that all of it can be done on an iPad, as invoice designing can be done in a web browser. I didn't try this option - I had invoices to send out and, while I am writing this for you, I tried out the software for me .

If you've never set up financial software before you might think this description sounds like a lot of time was taken to set up. It was about six hours across the course of a single day, to be sure, but that was learning completely new software and getting almost entirely up and running. In the past - as with AccountEdge - this has been a process that can take days to accomplish. I was astonished at how quickly everything came together.

It's early days, of course, and I haven't done everything yet - I have yet to need to print a check, for example. But initial experience is positive. I often prefer to go with smaller, independent software company options when I can find something that will work for me. Still, there are times when the combined experience and expertise of an established company pays real dividends. And assuming everything continues to go well, I'm one more step away from the desktop.

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.

Mac OS Sierra iOS-Style Keyboard Settings by Erin Wade

On a whim the other day I took a moment to dig into the keyboard settings on my iMac, which I recently upgraded to Sierra. What I was curious to see was whether there might be any way to get parity in the typing behavior between iOS and MacOS.

On any iOS device there are two features to typing, setup by default, to which I have become very accustomed:

  • Double-tapping the space bar generates a period; and
  • Auto-capitalization at the beginning of each sentence.

I was surprised and delighted to find that these are now features that can now be turned on in the keyboard settings in MacOS:

iOS-style settings

Why is this important?

These features started with the iPhone, and appear to have been put in place to make typing faster on the iPhone's virtual keyboard, which for space reasons buries the period in the second-layer. Still, it was continued on the iPad when that device was released, despite the period being at the first layer. I've been working - writing - on iPads since 2010 and, as a result, my habits on the virtual keyboard have grown to expect this behavior.

Although I can do - and do - the majority of my work on iOS devices - primarily my iPad Pro - there remain a handful of activities that I must log in to my iMac to complete and, because I'm frequently away from the office, this is often done remotely from my iPad. Although I am not doing long-form writing over the remote connection, I do periodically have to write notes or short passages during this process. Inevitably, because I'm working from my iPad, this results in errors in which I am forgetting to capitalize and/or forgetting to punctuate. (These notes are for my own reference and consumption, typically, so if I were another person I could consider just leaving them as they are... if I were another person). With this new setting in Sierra that issue is no longer a problem.

In fact, it works so well that, for fun I've begun taking to simply using the iPad Pro as the keyboard for my iMac on occasion. I do this sitting right in front of the iMac at my desk, using a neat bit of software called TouchPad. I originally purchased TouchPad to allow me to work at servers - machines where there is no external keyboard connected - from my iPad. However, it works quite nicely in this application as well, such that I could easily envision a future in which even desktops and laptops simply have a virtual keyboard and trackpad attached to them. And I'm not the only one:


Virtual Keyboard?

However, for my purposes, having the iPad Pro set up as a keyboard at my desktop is a benefit because I am more comfortable doing most things on the iPad. When I am sitting at my desktop machine it is typically because there is some specific activity that I have to use it for, but I may need to reference other things. For example, I may be doing bookkeeping on the desktop, but need to reference receipts or similar documentation in Dropbox. I can obviously pull these up in Dropbox on my desktop screen, but I'm often more comfortable - and quicker - with Dropbox on my iPad. With the iPad Pro set up in split-screen I can quickly reference materials in Dropbox and then switch back to TouchPad - by tapping on it on the other side of the split screen - to enter that information on the iMac.

TouchPad on iPad Pro

The top part of TouchPad you see in the picture is a virtual trackpad - the app covers both duties, so one can sit at a desktop or laptop machine with no other input devices, And simply work from an iPad. Or an iPhone, if one were so inclined. It's also very handy if you have a computer set up as a media server (e.g. providing audio or video to your television), where it may be inconvenient or unattractive to have a physical keyboard and mouse attached.

Way of the future? I'm not sure about that. People still grouse about typing on glass. Still, for each one of those folks there is an entire following generation that is becoming more and comfortable with virtual keyboards...

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.

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.

Orphan Apps by Erin Wade

Like anyone else with a smartphone, I have a lot of apps on my devices - 145 on my iPhone 6s+, 165 on my iPad Pro. Some of these are apps I use every day, some routinely, and others only on rare occasion. And - lets be honest - a few of them are leftovers from a bygone era. Did I really download and play Heads Up!, the app from the Ellen Degeneris show? I guess I did, because here it stares at me. And I'm sure I'll play Plants Vs. Zombies again, so I'll just go ahead and keep it there in my games folder...

Some of the apps on my phone, as it turns out, have become orphans - applications that are still there, that I may use with some regularity, but which are no longer being actively developed by their creators.

When one goes searching for a given type of application there are often dozens of options to choose from in each category, and prices range from free to much farther up the spectrum, with options across that price range within every category. The array of choices can make selecting an app challenging - when you have dozens of versions of the same basic thing, which do you choose? Do you go with price, with features, with...?

I've begun to select apps based, at least in part, on a pair of different features: Longevity and active development. All other things being equal, I will prefer an app that has been around for a while and which has been actively and readily updated. In iOS, this information is available in the App Store on a given item if you scroll down a bit:

PC Calc is a long-term app

PC Calc, an advanced calculator app for the iPhone and iPad has been around for a long time - it's on its third major upgrade version (e.g. Version 3.5.3), and it's been updated as recently as March of this year. This is a clear example of an app being actively maintained by a developer who has demonstrated longevity in the iOS app market. In relative terms it's not an inexpensive app - $9.99 for a calculator app will seem to many a high price when there are multiple free options in the same category. But for my money a part of what these variables indicate is that the app will be much less likely to become an orphan in future updates of the operating system.

Unfortunately this perspective comes from experience. I have one app, for example - AccuFuel, a Mileage Tracker by a company called Appigo, which also makes a fairly popular to-do productivity app called "Todo" - that I've been entering mileage into since 2007, all told, and since 2011 for my current vehicle. All told, I have nearly four years worth of mileage data entered into this app (I am, shall we say, mildly fond of data).

Unfortunately, the company stopped updating the app back in 2010 and, while it continued to work for some time, it didn't make the transition to iOS 8. Since that update the entry interface is buggy (although it works), and it is impossible to export data out of the app. The company was aware of the problem, and claimed they were working on an update to the app.. Still - that was over a year ago, and nothing has happened with it. The company could have, at the very least, honestly admitted to users that they didn't intend to update or, ideally, provided an update that at least allowed the export to work so a user could get his or her mileage data out of the the app. Instead, it's clear the app is an orphan. I've given up up on it, and set up a spreadsheet for mileage in Numbers instead. While I like to support independent developers, it seemed best to move this task to an app developed by a more stable company.

And I'll be unlikely to use anything produced by Appigo in the future.

In other cases there is a middle ground, where I can see the orphan status in the cards. I have a speedometer app called aSmart HUD by Atoll Ordenadores. The app hasn't been updated for a year and a half, and while it works under iOS 9, some features are buggy (trip time sometimes starts in the negative numbers, which makes me seem faster than I am, I suppose, but cuts down on accuracy). The developer no longer lists the original app on the website (though it does have updated versions of it), and has provided no communication regarding intention on providing further updates or supporting this version of the app going forward. It looks like this apps parents are, metaphorically speaking, preparing to drop this app off at the orphanage.

Overall, the lesson in all of this is that I've found that it pays dividends to make some evaluation of the level of support and stability of the company producing the applications you use, particularly if I they are things that you intend to use over the longer term.

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.

Time Change... by Erin Wade

Today is, of course, the start of Daylight Savings Time here in the United States - a day that presents distaste and a bit of dread for many. It steals an hour from us each year simply to make it lighter later in the day, a phenomenon that, with the nature of the seasons, was already well on its way toward taking care of itself without our crazy clock dance.

This also leaves me with the weighty responsibility of moving about the house and adjusting the time on the analog clocks that we have scattered around the home. It occurs to me that this latter activity is one that, like so many others, is likely on its way out due to the changing nature of technology. For many of us, the clock dance is taken care of automatically, as our cell phones are also our primary timepieces, and they update religiously based upon location and event. In addition to updating for DST, anyone who has traveled across the country with their phones in recent years is also familiar with the fact that they update to the local time zone when you pass across those borders.

It's certainly a convenience, even in my household, as I no longer need to calculate whether I'm advancing forward or taking back - I just look at my iPhone and make the clock on the wall match it. And as I do this I find myself considering the relative value of those clocks at all.

I enjoy an analog clock. I find, with a lifetime of practice, that I can quickly determine the approximate time by glancing at the positions of the hands on a clock face. But my daughter would not say the same. We will routinely be standing in the kitchen, which has two wall clocks opposite one another, and she will say to me "what time is it?" For my own personal entertainment I will point at the larger of the two clocks, as if perhaps she is unaware of its presence. This is then followed by her departure as she moves about the house to find her phone in order to read the time on its digital display.

Like handwriting or paper books, it's unlikely that analog clocks will disappear in their entirety but, as time goes on, it seems likely that they will fade back to become luxury and/or fetish items. And, upon reflection, it isn't all that surprising that this is occurring. Analog clocks are significantly harder to read than a simple digital display of the time.

The thing is, they don't actually need to be. The other day I came across something - or more accurately, I realized something about a thing that I've been looking at, off and on, for a few years now. I have, on my iPad, an app called Emerald Observatory.

Alt text

This lovely looking app has a number of features that are tied to the movement of the planets, including a display of the relative daylight across the map, and so on. It also includes both a standard analog clock with two hands, and a single-hand 24-hour clock. I'm a little embarrassed to say that I don't believe I realized, until now, that this was part of what I've been looking at over the couple of years that I've had this app.

And it turns out that single-hand clock faces are a thing.

Setting aside one's own lifetime of experience reading traditional analog clocks, how much simpler would it be for a new learner to pick up reading the time on one of these? Rather than sorting out what to do with the minute hand, and remembering that the hour hand isn't going to point directly at the current hour unless it's the exact top of that hour, and so on, one only needs to look at the relative position of the hand between the hours. If it's quarter past, the hand will have moved a quarter way past the hour. Half past? Halfway. Quarter till?... You get the idea.

Our history is replete with examples of society adopting and keeping less than ideal versions of things due to primacy, or political or business strategizing - highways instead of railways, the failure of the U.S. to adopt the metric system, the proliferation of Microsoft Windows, etc. This, combined with the fact that digital clocks are both ubiquitous and easier still to read, makes this an idea who's time has past or, more honestly, essentially never came. Still, an intriguing idea in the abstract.

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.  ↩

Upgrading to Worse by Erin Wade

I'm no fan of doing my taxes, but I've long found that process to be made significantly less painful using Turbo Tax. I've used the software most of the years I've done taxes probably since the late 1990's, originally on whatever desktop or laptop I had at the time; since 2011 I've been using Turbo Tax on my iPad. 

While I've always found the software to be pretty decent (something that can't always be said about Intuit's products), there was something special about doing it on the iPad. It was clear that they'd thought thru the interface and optimized it for touch - it was no half-assed desktop port. In addition, anyone who does their own taxes knows that it involves shuffling a lot of documents back and forth. This is easier, somehow, when the device you are interacting with isn't chained to a desk. Plus it made it easier to use the desktop computer for reference (for scanned receipts, spreadsheets, and the like).

So - while I don't love doing my taxes, I do enjoy interacting with well designed software, and this took the sting out of having to sit down and interact with my W-2's. I opened up the App Store on my iPad, did a search for the Turbo Tax app, and downloaded so I could get started. 

It was immediately clear that things were different. 

First, it was locked in portrait orientation. I had hoped that this was just for initially opening the program up, after which it would move to allowing landscape, but alas, no; Portrait until the cows came home (which they never did  - I don't have any cows). Data entry on the iPad's portrait keyboard is something significantly less than stellar. 

The first thing it asked for - in portrait orientation - was a login. Prior versions of this app have always asked for the password from the previous year, after which it then imports information from the prior year's app. This significantly streamlines data entry for information that doesn't often change - home address, names and identifying information for family members, etc. 

This year it asked for my username and password. This was somewhat confusing, as my records don't show a username, and when I looked at last year's app, there's not even a place to enter such a thing. So I made a couple of educated guesses - which failed - before shamefully clicking the link admitting that I'd forgotten my username and/or password. 

Except that I hadn't. 

Instead of using the information from the prior year, it took me to Intuit's website to make an account - a new account. 

The splash screen that the app shows when it opens up talks about doing your taxes on any of your devices, with generic pictures of a tablet, a laptop, etc, standing side by side in supposed harmony. This was the harbinger of the craptastic experience that followed. It quickly became clear that what Intuit had done this year was to ditch their entire prior software model and essentially make the iPad app (and, one assumes, all of the other versions of the app as well) a front end for their website. This would be fine, I suppose, if it worked well. 

It does not. 

With this new approach, one first learns that the app will not be accessing data from prior years. All of your demographic information and vital statistics have to be re-entered. In portrait orientation. This significantly extends the time that one spends doing the lovely activity of preparing one's taxes, and the suck did not end there. 

Because it is now just a front end for the website, the app apparently keeps very little information actually on the device. This means that, when one's internet connection gets hinky, or if Intuit's website is having problems, the app simply stops working. No more data entry, no more tax advice, no more nothing. For me this happened a few times through the process, most notably at the end when I was about ready to submit, at which point it told me Intuit's website was unavailable (but their engineers were aware and "hard at work" solving the problem). Heaven help you if you are doing your taxes on April 15 using this app and Comcast experiences an outage. 

And then we get to this:

No - I most certainly do not want to leave the app and go to your crappy browser, but since I need to file my taxes you've got me by the short hairs.  

No - I most certainly do not want to leave the app and go to your crappy browser, but since I need to file my taxes you've got me by the short hairs.  

Here's a hint to Intuit, and to all other app developers:  the moment your app requires me to leave the software and go to a web browser to do *anything* it has failed. This is a clear indication that you've half-assed your product.

As a bonus, I also use Mint.Com to keep track of my accounts. I actually moved to Mint to get away from the suck that Quicken had become several years ago, only to have Intuit then buy Mint. What I soon discovered was that Intuit had decided I also wanted to change my password for Mint when I created the account to do my taxes (umm - no, I did not). 

None of this would be so painful if the prior versions of the software had not been so very much better. Using this god-awful product this year was like having years of mornings where scrambled eggs and bacon are there for breakfast, and then suddenly walking in and being handed a single piece of dry white toast. 

Not that I'm bitter.