Alan Watts, South Park style

A couple of days ago, Open Culture highlighted some Alan Watts talks that were animated by the creators of South Park back in 2007. That was news to me. What an unexpected pairing. If you enjoy these videos, be sure to see the ‘related content’ links at the end of the Open Culture post.

My exploration of the quirky, entertaining, informative, and often enlightening talks of Alan Watts began about 12 years ago when I started studying Zen Buddhism with his introductory book, ‘The Way of Zen.’ That fairly dry book led me to a raft of Watts audio recordings. Listening to a Watts lecture is a completely different experience. You may not agree with everything that he has to say, but it may lead you to think about the world quite differently. I think the bulk of his talks stand the test of time (although you may notice beat generation lingo and the occasional anecdote that would be considered quite politically incorrect by today’s standards).

If you’re unfamiliar with Watts, YouTube is a good place to start for some free content. Despite what some of the online fan comments convey, it helps to know that Watts didn’t see himself as any kind of a guru. He said he was a mere ‘spiritual entertainer’ with ‘nothing to sell.’ Alas, decades after his death, the Alan Watts collection of audio recordings are now for sale (and they aren’t particularly cheap). Years ago, I subscribed to a free Watts podcast that presented highlights from many of his talks. I checked to see if it still existed today. Apparently it does, but it appears that it has only recently been relaunched or refreshed. There is only one available episode which was published just a few days ago.

I was surprised to see that the people behind the podcast and the audio collections (the primary being Mark Watts, son of Alan Watts) also offer an iOS app which, while also pricey, does include 21 hours of lectures. I admit that I’ve added this app to my ‘maybe someday’ list. I also own a lengthy audiobook that I think is worth the price of admission, given that I’ve listened to parts of it many times. Final note: looks like the nonprofit behind all of this Watts merch, curiously called the ‘Electronic University,’ has big plans for the future. At least we know they aren’t spending it on pizza and beer.

I Won’t Miss Google Reader

I’ve used Google Reader for years, but I won’t miss the service when it shuts down later this year. There are plenty of alternatives (and more on the way). A few of the more intriguing choices are Feedly, Feedbin, Fever, and NewsBlur.

Like many users, I never actually visit my Google Reader page. I rely on third-party services that suck in my Google Reader subscriptions. For the desktop, I use Feedly. For iOS, I use Reeder. Will it matter that I’m no longer using Google Reader on the back-end? Not really. I take solace knowing that I’ll be using fewer Google services. My main concern is that this may be part of a broader trend with Google: trying to funnel us all into Google+ and clamping down on how (and if) third parties can use Google services. I wouldn’t be all that surprised if Google were to lock down Gmail someday soon so that it could only be accessed via Google’s mobile apps or their web-based service. It is an ad-based company, after all.

In any case, of the many alternative news aggregator services, my bet is that Feedly will rise to the top of the pack in terms of popularity. They’re poised to seamlessly transition existing Google Readers (without any required user action). That’s very handy, but it would only go so far if the service was so-so. On that front, I think the Feedly experience is one of the best out there. It looks great, it’s easy to customize to fit different workflows and visual preferences, and they’re aggressively honing the service to make it better.

As an example of this, I’ve just rediscovered Feedly’s mobile apps. I’ve used Feedly on the desktop for quite a while and like how easy it is to view and manage feeds in various ways. While I tried the Feedly iOS apps early on in their history, I wasn’t drawn in. Reeder was still a better experience on iOS. However, I tried the apps again last night. I’m glad I did. These apps have come a long way and I’m fairly convinced that they’ll work for me quite well.

As an aside, I also enjoy news aggregation services like Zite and Prismatic, but I tend to put these sort of services in a different category as they focus on presenting stories based on reader interests. They are fantastic for discovery and casual browsing and are certainly worth a look. Lastly, you may note that I haven’t mentioned Flipboard anywhere in this article. I must be one of the few people out there who just don’t care for it. Nothing personal, Flipboard. I note it here, though, because it’s an alternative highly-regarded reader that is also certainly worth a test drive.

On Apple

A few loosely-formed notes related to Apple’s latest announcements:
  • The Retina Macbook Pro is lovely. I’m not planning on purchasing it, though. If I were going to get it, I’d spring for expensive upgrades (16 GB of RAM, largest hard drive), as I’ve read that there is apparently no way to upgrade this machine. I also have a more existential concern: if were to buy a Retina laptop, would I still be able to tolerate my crappy external monitor? 
  • The $20 upgrade fee to install Mountain Lion on all your Macs is a good deal. 
  • I’m lamenting the unmistakable signs that the desktop hierarchical file system is going the way of the floppy drive. App libraries are in, in which each app houses its own files and data, iOS style.  I suspect that, within the next iteration or two of OS X, the file system will join Console, Terminal, and Activity Monitor in the utility bin. And as with most Mac utilities, it probably won’t be used by many. Still, as long as access to the file system remains, I’ll be OK. 
  • Here’s one thing that worries me about app libraries. A lot of people organize files on the Mac by topic, not by app. For example, I have documents (created with many different apps) that are related to my house that I’ve tagged and filed away in one place. How will a walled-in app library solution allow me to organize documents across apps? Maybe a tagging solution will be offered. And what of plain text files, which may be opened and manipulated by scores of iOS and desktop apps? That’s the beauty of the flexibility of Dropbox text file storage. It’s so very flexible.
  • Speaking of files, I love my PathFinder. And EagleFiler. And Launchbar. With every OS X release, my insecurity grows about the future of these and many other desktop apps. Imagine how the developers feel.
  • Every time I see more iOS features come to the desktop, I can’t help but think, ‘Winter is coming!’
  • Apple demos of new OS features are consistently drool-worthy and slick, but they need to help us users more in terms of follow-through. My point is that Apple could do a much better job in documenting how to use their apps and operating systems. Updates come fast and furious, but new features and usage scenarios are poorly documented.
  • I’m surprised that Apple has yet to offer a better password solution for logging in to web-based accounts across devices. Stated another way, I’m surprised that Apple hasn’t yet Sherlocked 1Password. Couldn’t you see Apple offering a password solution that syncs across your Mac(s) and devices via iCloud, but only works with Safari to encourage browser lock-in. Speaking of, does anyone know of a site that lists all third party apps that have been Sherlocked over the years?
  • Passbook looks promising. I hope it expands to include supermarkets, chain stores, and gas station membership bar codes. It’s the 21st century. Why do I still need a Petco plastic dongle on my car keychain?
  • What of Dragon Dictate? Curious that I received a newsletter from Nuance for the first time in a long while on the day of the WWDC keynote offering a special discount to buy Dictate for Father’s Day. And I received another similar email today. So I’m wondering if the new OS X dictation feature will obviate the need for Dragon Dictate … or if this product will differentiate itself by offering a more robust voice-recognition package for Mac. I should note that I’m a happy Dragon Dictate user.
  • Facebook integration thoughts: blah. I’m not a fan.
  • Siri’s new ability to open an app by name isn’t enough. What if I don’t remember the name of the app? This is a good step forward, but we need more and better ways to navigate our hundreds of iOS apps. By keyword, for example. Wouldn’t it be nice to ask Siri to serve up all weather-related or board game apps?
  • The Mac Pro update was weak. Did you see that the Mac Pro had a little ‘new’ tag on it in the Apple Store on the day of the keynote? The next day, that notation disappeared … no doubt because of the deluge of feedback from outraged power users who were expecting a real update. That won’t come, apparently, until next year.
  • iTunes remains a bloated mess. 
  • When on Earth is the iWorks desktop suite going to be refreshed?
  • iOS, iTunes, iLife, iEverything. Am I the only one who is sick of the ‘i’ thing?  

It’s May!?

Acorn 3 last week (while it was still on sale) based on rave reviews from trusted sources. I used it to prep this image collage. I’ve been using Photoshop since the 1996, so this is a significant change.

Will it replace Photoshop? Maybe, someday. I’d like to be able to migrate away from Adobe, mainly because the software updates are expensive; I, a relative power user, really don’t need many of Photoshop’s capabilities; I find I need the other Adobe tools in the Creative Suite (web edition) less and less; I like supporting indie developers.

The problem is that my Photoshop workflow has evolved over many years. I can whip out images quite fast with the tool. Acorn appears to offer many of the tools I need (if not most, to be honest), but learning a new app and getting that speed back is going to take some time.

Learning to use Acorn efficiently feels akin to the time, years ago, when I learned to type in Dvorak instead over Qwerty. The above image would take me a minute to create in Photoshop. It took me 15 minutes in Acorn. But that’s to be expected.

So far, it’s doing the job well … and it’s fast, fast, fast. I also appreciate many of the little touches in Acorn that make it pleasant to use (e.g., when I add a guide, I’m shown the pixel measurement in a little bubble window as I scroll the guide into place). And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that it supports all of my Dvorak-Qwerty keyboard shortcuts, which is something that I can’t say for my version of Photoshop (CS3). So I’m sticking with it as my primary editor to see if I can make the switch. Even if it doesn’t meet all my needs, I still have Photoshop CS3 to fall back on if I need more advanced features. My hope is that I won’t need to upgrade to the newest CS version of Photoshop. Ever.

Apple’s Last Mouse

I finally broke down and bought an Apple Magic Mouse a couple of weeks back to replace an aging Logitech MX Revolution. I’m happy with my new input device, but I suspect it will be the last Apple mouse I ever buy. That’s because I’m convinced that this is Apple’s final mouse.

When I first started using it, I thought of the mouse as a hybrid device that cleverly combines old and new input ideas. After using it for a while, I’ve started to think about it as a transitional device. The Magic Mouse isn’t about the mouse at all. It’s all about the Multi-Touch surface. 

My guess is that Apple will soon proclaim the mouse dead and drop it from their product line. Only the Magic Trackpad will remain for desktop computers. 

Is the Magic Trackpad a superior input device? Based on my experience using the Trackpad on my Macbook Pro, I’d say it’s better for most tasks but not as good for tasks that require fine control. The Multi-Touch, finger-driven interface is great, but it would be even better to have a large Trackpad that could transform into a Wacom-style pen tablet device. Perhaps a gesture could toggle modes.  

Of course, even touch surfaces may someday be obviated by eye- and voice-controlled desktop computing. I can see how such future tech might work well for routine tasks, but I wager we’d still need some sort of physical input device for precision work (e.g., detailed selections, drawing). I bet that device will look a lot more like a Trackpad than a mouse. It could also look like an iPad running a Trackpad app.

Vonnegut’s Biographer

Author Charles J. Shields has started a blog about writing ‘And So it Goes,’ a Kurt Vonnegut biography due out this November. What better name could a Vonnegut biography have, really? I look forward to reading it. I’m always struck by how Vonnegut talked in the same fashion as he wrote. From Shields’ post about his first meeting with the author:

He walks rather slowly, loping along, and stoop-shouldered too from writing for nearly sixty years. During the walk, we made small talk. Nothing memorable. I had a strange feeling of not being able to get much of a purchase on the conversation. Vonnegut doesn’t converse with you as much as make pronouncements. Apropos of nothing, he mentioned that only one-third of New York City public school students graduate. “Most of them who drop out are black,” he said. “Slavery was not such a good idea. My hero, Voltaire,” he went on, “speculated in the slave trade.”

When we reached the restaurant, the owner, a tall, slim blonde man in his late thirties opened the door and beamed. No one else was there.

“Welcome on a cold and rainy day,” he said, in a Dutch-accented voice.

“This is my biographer,” Vonnegut said, indicating me.

“Well, it’s about time,” said the restaurateur happily.

“No, it isn’t,” Kurt replied with a shrug. “It’s too late.”

Vonnegut died months after they met. Shields plans to post a new entry each Saturday chronicling his five-year journey to write the biography. 

I’ve read and own nearly all of Vonnegut’s books. Slaughterhouse Five is certainly great, but my all-time favorite is surely Cat’s Cradle. If you’re a fan, do yourself a favor and get a copy of ‘Kurt Vonnegut’s Audio Collection.’ It includes Slaughterhouse, Cat’s Cradle, Breakfast of Champions , and short stories from Welcome to the Monkey House, all read by Kurt Vonnegut. Even if you don’t like audio, you owe it to yourself to hear Vonnegut reading his own works.

On Finite & Infinite Games

Wellcome Image Award. This small collection led me on a small tour-de-link this evening that began with the offerings of The Wellcome Library, turned to the ever-absorbing Tree of Life Web project, and ended with thoughts about IBM’s Watson.

How did I get there? I’m not sure. I do know, though, that I found myself looking up the James Burke Knowledge Web somewhere along the way—a project that aims to serve as a counterpoint to specialized, stove-piped knowledge by connecting overlapping bits of history, technology, science, and culture. I used to read Burke’s ‘Connections’ column in Scientific American and recall, long ago, watching episodes of the TV series. I’ve loosely followed Burke’s web project for many years, hoping it would take off. Unfortunately, the site looks much the same now as it did when I last checked several years ago. I think it’s long been surpassed (or, rather, bypassed) by other collaborative projects, namely Wikipedia.

Yet I don’t think today’s offerings on the Web come anywhere close to meeting the intent of the Burke project. The nearest example I can think of that emphasizes discovery across disciplines and through history is the Wikipedia Game, although it’s only a shadow of the bigger idea. 

While searching for the rules of the Wikipedia Game, I inadvertently came across a reference to something altogether new to me, called The Game:

The objective is to avoid thinking about The Game itself. Thinking about The Game constitutes a loss, which, according to the rules of The Game, must be announced each time it occurs. It is impossible to win The Game; players can only attempt to avoid losing for as long as they possibly can.

Funny stuff. This obscurity reminded me of one of the first philosophy books I ever read: Finite and Infinite Games by James P. Carse. It’s an abstract book that I find myself revisiting over the years, as I’ve found that it means different things to me as I grow older. It’s what you might call a long-term reading experience, in much the same way that Sun Tzu’s Art of War isn’t something you really read. The content is best sampled, sparingly.

Of course I had to look up the Carse book in Wikipedia, too. I was delighted to find a reference there to the Clock of the Long Now, which is a project to create a 10,000 year clock. This interesting idea comes from the Long Now Foundation—another site which I frequent—dedicated to long-term thinking. If there’s one thing we humans need to do more often, it’s surely long-term thinking. 

What do finite and infinite games have to do with long-term thought? I’ll quote what seems to be the most-often quoted part of Carse’s slim book (from the first chapter):

There are at least two kinds of games. One could be called finite, the other infinite. A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play.

The Long Now is about playing the infinite game. What could help us become better players? At least one answer is to improve our ability to connect the dots between our history, technology, science, and culture.

I wound up my evening Web surf with a really interesting post about IBM’s Watson performance on the Jeopardy! game show. Watson certainly put in an impressive performance, demonstrating how computing power is starting to make inroads into the realm of knowledge and language.  Certainly, it showed great promise at answering questions based on ambiguous, misleading, and subtle clues (with notable exceptions). Perhaps we should introduce Watson to the Wikipedia Game. Then we could see how it does at assembling Burke’s Knowledge Web. I bet Watson could turn up some interesting connections.

Rethinking Mailplane

mailplane

Following yesterday’s Mailplane post, I received the following comment from Mark Munz, the developer of TextSoap (an app I purchased at full price in 2008 and greatly value):

Mailplane’s price for a year’s usage = $0.07/day. I bought it 2+ years ago, so the cost for me has been less than $0.03/day. We’re all on tighter budgets today. That’s fine. You can wait for another promo opportunity to come around. You can list out missing features that would add more value to the package. Both are reasonable responses. But to just publicly devalue a developers efforts like you did is completely unfair. You apparently want an app that cannot be sustained by the developer long term. Honestly, there is nothing worse than public price whining, except maybe price whining about a relatively low price point.

This really gave me pause to think about what I wrote and how I wrote it. After mulling it over, I’ve concluded that he’s right about the price. If you consider the price of an app based upon daily use, the cost equation looks quite different. And a mail client isn’t an occasional-use application. It’s something that is used all the time. So is $25 too much? What I realize now is that this is the wrong question to ask. What I should have asked is if it’s worth it to me to pay the $25 registration fee. This is an entirely different question, and it leads to the next point.

This should be a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ decision. Not a ‘maybe not now, but I’ll keep using it past the expiration’ decision. I regret that I advocated using the app beyond the trial date. I’m going to make a rule for myself to either delete an app or buy it after the trial period. While it’s true that one can keep using the scaled-back version of Mailplane past the 30-day trial (which, as I said yesterday, is a classy thing to allow and is not at all common), is it the right thing to do? No, it’s really not. The right thing to do is to make a choice at some point within the trial period. If you like it, buy it. If you don’t, delete it.

One can argue that Mailplane is just a Google front-end, or one can argue that it’s a tightly-integrated, feature-full mail app. I think it’s somewhere in between right now. The important point is that I had a lengthy trial to check it out, and now I should choose. For me, I think my last post makes it clear that I really like Mailplane. While I may have come across as whiny about the price, I hope my comments didn’t come across as a devaluation of the developer’s efforts. That was not my intent. I consider myself an ardent supporter of indie Mac developers.

As Mark said, budgets are tight all around. I’ve been thinking a lot today about the effect of low prices in the iPhone/Touch App store (not to mention the glut of bundle deals over the past few years) on evolving perceptions about what Mac desktop apps should cost. Are we starting to expect to pay only a couple of bucks? Did that play into my thinking about the cost of Mailplane? Perhaps so.

What I’ve realized is this: if we all start to expect to pay less and less for Mac desktop apps, we may end up in a place where we have very few indie developers left. That would be terrible. As I’ve noted before on this blog, indie third-party apps are the best part of using a Mac. And that’s another important point about cost that I’m going to keep in mind going forward: paying the registration fee is as much about supporting a particular developer as it is about supporting the community.

So I went back and looked at the features I like about Mailplane: access to all of my accounts in one place, tight OS integration, easy photo resizing, drag-and-drop support, Address Book integration, signature and snippet storage, and UI tweaks that let me make my Gmail accounts look great. Is this worth $0.07 a day to me? You know, I think it is.

So I’ve changed my mind. I’ve decided to buy Mailplane. I was wrong. Thanks for the comment, Mark.

A Greener Apple?

A bunch of wasted Apple packaging material

I received my iPhone AppleCare warranty extension in the mail this week. Above, you can see the included shipping material and Apple packaging.

The important part of this package is a registration number printed on one small card. This number must be entered on Apple’s Web site to activate the warranty.

Let’s review this process: I order AppleCare for the iPhone online. The only available delivery option is to have it mailed to me. I wait for a week for the package. It arrives in a box. Inside this box, I find packaging material, a printed packing list, and an AppleCare box. I tear off the shrink wrap from the AppleCare box. Inside, I find a small pamphlet containing the AppleCare Protection Plan and a small card. The small card contains a printed registration number and directs me to go online. Once online, I’m prompted to enter the registration number and my iPhone serial number. Seconds later, I receive an email from Apple. It is an AppleCare Protection Plan Certificate. Among other useful information, this certificate contains the AppleCare registration number, my iPhone serial number, and a link to the full Protection Plan documentation.

Hey, Apple: do you see anything wasteful about this?

Apple Feedback | A Greener Apple

The DNS choice

Last week, the tech world was abuzz with the launch of Google’s new public Domain Name System (DNS) resolution service.

Since I posted a while back about OpenDNS, I thought I’d share my thoughts on this subject. The main question I set out to answer is whether or not I should switch from OpenDNS to Google’s Public DNS?

As I began this experiment, my most important criteria was speed. Which service offers the fastest browsing experience? To answer that, I searched around and discovered this helpful post on TechSutraGoogle DNS vs OpenDNS: Google Rocks for International Users.

One of the readers over at TechSutra (Stevan Bajić) wrote the following bash script to test out the speed of four popular alternative DNS services. To use this script, run this in terminal (you can enter any domains you want here):


#!/bin/sh
isp=$(dig +noall +stats 2>&1 | awk '$2~/^SERVER:$/{split($3,dnsip,"#");print dnsip[1]}');
m="-------------------------------------------------------------------------------";
s=" ";
h="+${m:0:25}+${m:0:12}+${m:0:12}+${m:0:12}+${m:0:12}+${m:0:12}+";
header=("Domain${s:0:23}" "Your ISP${s:0:10}" "Google${s:0:10}" "4.2.2.2${s:0:10}" "OpenDNS${s:0:10}" "DNS Adv.${s:0:10}");
echo "${h}";
echo "| ${header[0]:0:23} | ${header[1]:0:10} | ${header[2]:0:10} | ${header[3]:0:10} | ${header[4]:0:10} | ${header[5]:0:10} |";
echo "${h}";
for i in "lifehacker.com" "facebook.com" "viewfromthedock.com" "reddit.com" "tb4.fr" "bbc.co.uk";
do
ii="${i}${s:23}";
echo -ne "| ${ii:0:23} |";
for j in "${isp}" "8.8.8.8" "4.2.2.2" "208.67.222.222" "156.154.70.1";
do
r="${s:10}$(dig +noall +stats +time=9 @${j} ${i} 2>&1 | awk '$2~/^Query$/{print $4" "$5}')";
echo -ne " ${r:${#r}-10} |";
done
echo -ne "n${h}n";
done

I ran tests at different times of the day, and on different days. For me, OpenDNS and Google were consistently fast. Results for Level3, DNS Advantage, and my ISP varied widely (sometimes I’d get decent results, sometimes response times were abysmal).

While the results I received from Google and OpenDNS were best, the difference in speed between the two was negligible. We’re talking milliseconds here, after all. I don’t think I’m really going to notice the difference between a response time of, say, 11 ms and 13ms (although research indicates that milliseconds do makes a difference).

 

One think to keep in mind is that the initial test you perform may return slower results than subsequent tests for some obscure sites. The first time you search for www.threetastes.com, for example, (my wife’s blog) the DNS service will likely have to go out and get this IP address from an authoritative server. After that first lookup, the IP will be cached with the DNS server, so the response time will be quicker for subsequent tests. In short, run multiple tests.

My results jibe with those coming in from readers at TechSutra: that OpenDNS may have a slight edge for many U.S. locations, while Google DNS may have the edge for users outside of the U.S. Best to test it out the alternatives for yourself.

So, I’ve established that Google DNS and OpenDNS offer comparably faster DNS lookups compared to my ISP. Both services also offer security features to make browsing safer (my ISP may have these features, but I have no way of knowing what’s going as these details aren’t published. I have greater confidence that Google and OpenDNS DNS servers are not and will not be compromised).

Now, which to choose?

1. Do I want to use yet another Google service?

I’m not too worried about this. Google privacy policy is very clear. I’ve experienced no cause for concern with my Google services.

2. Do I have a problem with the way OpenDNS operates?

When I began this comparison, the answer was ‘not really.’ After pondering this for a while, I have to say I do have a problem. With OpenDNS, if you type in a domain that does not exist, you are redirected to an OpenDNS ad-based search page. This is bad behavior. I knew this already, but I didn’t worry about. I turned off NX Domain redirection in my OpenDNS user settings. Here’s the part that annoys me: OpenDNS describes this feature as ‘typo correction,’ but say nothing about how this is tied to redirection to their own ad page if the domain can’t be resolved. They should take a cue from Google and explain this more clearly. Sure, this service corrects typos (changes .cmo to .com, for example), but this is only a minor feature of a service that’s really about generating revenue from the mistakes people make in entering URLs. In addition, when you perform a Google Search using OpenDNS, your request is redirected to an OpenDNS server before going to Google by default. This may also be turned off (by unchecking ‘Enable OpenDNS Proxy’) but it’s not really clear how to do it. And let’s face it, most users aren’t going to mess with OpenDNS advanced settings. Lastly, you must have BOTH ‘Enable OpenDNS Proxy’ and ‘Typo Correction’ turned on to enjoy the benefits of OpenDNS’ content filtering features (one of the big reasons people like OpenDNS).

Here’s the bottom line: OpenDNS offers a fast DNS service that includes many extra free or pay features. It’s a good option if you need those extra features and aren’t worried about the way the service handles your requests. The main gripe I have with OpenDNS is that they are not transparent about how they’re doing business. Google, on the other hand, offers a fast DNS service and reliable security features. It’s a good option if you don’t need extra bells and whistles.

Think I’ll switch over to Google DNS.