Regarding Technology

Silent Journey

11th July 2015

We speak and we hear and we rely on our sense of hearing a great deal for communicating between ourselves and others. In the context of attracting the attention of other people, visually waving or jumping up and down will also work beyond yelling and screaming, but if we want to keep our signals discrete how best to do this?

In the theatre, a restaurant, a lecture, a business meeting, a gentle tap on the shoulder doesn’t disturb other people audibly and is barely visually noticable, but to do that you need to be physically next to that person. What if there was a device that you could wear that allowed other people to inaudibly tap you to get your attention but didn’t have to be in the same room?

The telephone started all of this notification stress. When it rang, large bells were hit by a hammer driven by an eletromagnet to get your attention. You could be on the other side of the house, so it had to be loud. Before long it was mobile devices, mobile phones, and of course the pager. Mobile devices didn’t have to be as loud (since it was always on your person) but bringing them into places where sound-making devices had never been taken before created hostility, frustration and resentment in social or business groups.

Vibrate to the rescue…sort of…

Manufacturers began introducing Microdrives into their mobile devices to provide a vibration when the device was not in sight. Visual indications alone (flashing lights when there is an incoming call/message) only work if the device is visible when not in use and aren’t enough. Relying on our sense of touch seems like the best solution.

Early vibration motors were very subtle but a problem became evident: our mobile devices often sit loosly in our clothes pockets, belt clips, handbags etc. In order to be certain the device got the users attention, they had to vibrate a significant amount and therefore vibration grew to be significant. Adjusting the level of vibration on the fly was technically difficult and became non-adjustable, being either fully on or fully off. That would be fine for discretely getting someones attention except for one problem.

They made noise

The problem is that making a vibration motor that used only small amounts of power, was light and vibrated vigorously enough to overcome the unreliable body contact problem had made the vibration function noticably audible. In order to overcome this, and be able to truly discretely notify someone we need a device that attaches to the body at all times. We need a wearable device. That way, the vibration function could be turned far down to a point at which it was essentially silent.

The Jawbone UP in late 2011 introduce a vibrating alarm notifier, followed by the FitBit One in late 2012. At that point the notification was restricted to alarms with no integration with smartphone notifications.

That came in late 2013 and it wasn’t very reliable. Around this time some Android Wear devices and the Pebble also were starting to integrate haptic notifications with smartphones. I wanted these devices back then. However I was heavily invested in the Apple Ecosystem at that point (still am) and as much as these devices were tempting to me, they did not integrate well with Apple devices.

In order to integrate as reliably and completely as possible with an Apple Smartphone, Apple would need to support those devices at the operating system level, or make their own wearable device. I decided to wait for that, just as I had done with the iPhone before it (I have never owned an iPod).

Apple Watch

Finally following rumour after rumour Apple announced the Apple Watch in September 2014, but released it for sale online only in late April. I visited a store to try one at that time as I was most interested in the haptic notifications. I was suitable impressed - it’s what I had been waiting for and once finances aligned on the 21st of June I purchased my 42mm Apple Sport Watch and have been wearing it now for three weeks.

The "Taptic Engine" as Apple calls it, is simply a linear actuator which makes significantly less noise than a traditional vibration motor. It is effectively silent on it’s lowest setting and unless your ear is within an inch of the watch, it’s practically silent even on its maximum setting (so-called Prominent Haptic).

The iFixIt Teardown Step 14 shows the linear actuator in all its glory. Because it’s attached to your wrist (wear your watch so it’s snug and doesn’t slide around and you’ll only need the gentlest intensity setting) and because it’s linear, you can more easily adjust the intensity of the tap sensation to suit your personal preferences.

How I Set Up My Notifications Post-Watch

I downloaded a silent ringtone and set my iPhone volume off. Every other sound in the Settings->Sounds is off, actually. Initially I also turned off Sounds in Notification Center for 3rd party apps like Tweetbot, eBay and so on, however I found out that if you do that the notifications won’t go through to the Apple Watch AT ALL (correct as per v1.0.1 of the watchOS). In the Apple Watch iPhone app I systematically went through every account and App on the watch and set a custom notification setting for it, turning off the "Sound" option for each one. Finally the watch Sound & Haptic settings - audio off and the lightest possible Haptic setting.

Mail Settings in Apple Watch iPhone App iPhone Sound Settings Apple Watch Sounds & Haptic Settings

Beyond this I also moved all of my alarms from my iPhone to the Watch only, since I’m always wearing it when I’m not charging it. I forward my work mobile and my work desk phone to my iPhone 6+ already, so they never ring either. I’ve muted my iPad and only turn sound up on my Macbook Air when I’m listening to music or watching video.

Charging Habits

The big downside of a smart watch is the need to charge it every day or every few days depending on the model. Clearly this is the tradeoff we make over a standard watch for all the additional functionality a smartwatch can provide us. Most people are charging their watches overnight, each and every day. I don’t do that.

I wear my Apple Watch all day and night when I’m working the following day and use the Taptic alarm to wake me in the morning. No longer do I wake up to a loud startling noise. The tapping is enough to rouse me even from a deep sleep and having done it reliably for several weeks now it hasn’t failed me once.

It only takes 90 minutes for a full charge from flat and most mornings the watch still has a residual 20-30% charge which takes only 1 hour to top up. Hence on a work day I come in to work and sit at my desk for the first hour of the day, going through EMails, answering queries, preparing for meetings etc. During that time I’m sitting in front of my laptop and I have all of the notifications in front of me. Discreteness isn’t required when you’re looking at a screen.

On weekends I don’t (generally) need to wake up at 4:30am and thus on those occasions I charge the watch overnight. In future I have no doubt that Apple will add sleep monitoring to the watch. When that happens, that information will be a nice bonus to track my sleeping habits.

Not Exactly Misophonic

Retrospectively I’ve wondered if I was suffering from a mild case of Misophonia but that’s probably an extreme diagnosis. Our brains learn to associate emotions with sounds and when an alarm noise is heard we associate inconvenience and frustration with that noise. It’s especially noticable when the alert sound you’ve used as your alarm clock sound for years is being used by the person sitting next to you as their phone ringtone.

Over the years I’ve built up a learned memory of emotional reactions to the many different alarm and ring tones I’ve used over the years. Like the music we hear at a loved ones funeral, it’s hard to listen to those sounds again without triggering some emotional response. It’s hard to put a dollar value on how much less stressed I feel now that the notification noises are no longer part of my daily life.

Gone are the buzzes, beeps, alarms, noises and musical ringtones. No longer does my heart skip a beat when a notification alert sounds in the next cubicle, someone elses pocket, or from the next room because I know that notification can’t be for me. Ever.

I’ve come to realise that with notifications, it’s not what the Apple Watch adds, it’s what it subtracts that makes the biggest difference.

For me at least, my Apple Watch journey has been a silent journey. One that has made me fall in love with this device so much more than I thought possible.

Twitter Debates

14th July 2014

I’ve seen some truly horrible Twitter debates over the last few years and I’ve been involved in a few myself - just not for a while. I’ve stayed out because they don’t offer an outcome that I’m interested in. In the parlance that follows I have essentially chosen to leave the room more often than not. Thinking about it, there was a subconscious train of thought behind why and it’s taken a while for it to percolate down into this post.

Use Your Imagination For A Moment

Picture a room full of people, none of which you’ve met in person before. Each person can only say one full sentance at a time, everyone can talk at once and respond to any other persons sentance in whatever order they choose. Any person in the room can walk out at any time but comments made when they left the room are recorded for them to listen back later.

If it sounds like a cacophonic catastrophy that’s because it is. And THAT is how Twitter debates work, minus vocal tonality and visual gesturing which makes it easy to misinterpret how words are intended to be conveyed.

Debate vs Discussion

It’s generally considered rude to be interrupted and taking comments out of context is a well-know dirty practice in the media, yet in Twitter debates little regard can be definitively given to the context as reponses can only be directed to a specific 140 character comment. There’s also no indication when the other party is typing so it’s possible that faster typists or those in situations where they have time to respond more quickly1 can fire off multiple shots whilst the first party is still working on their first response.

In many respects it’s even impossible to call such discourse a debate at all. For it to be a structured debate you should have the following:

  • Nominate two people to talk to discuss the pros and cons of a specific issue (i.e. no other participants are allowed)
  • Each debater is provided a minimum amount of time to state their position without interruption
  • Each debater must allow the other an opportunity to respond without interruption
  • Once the debate has been fully delivered it may be opened up to anyone else to ask questions and each debater can choose to address them with answers

That’s Nice BUT I Don’t Want a Debate or a Discussion

More often then not I’ll post something I think is funny, topical or silly. I don’t really want a debate or a discussion about it. Feel free to start one of course but when people with tens of thousands of followers (i.e. not me) post that they like coffee (for example) they get all sorts of @mentions telling them why coffee is terrible or the one they drink is terrible or it gets personal and they are a terrible person for liking coffee or that they are a totally terrible person and its probaby because of the coffee. Meanwhile the original poster looks furtively around the room and wonders why they bothered saying anything about coffee in the first place.

Fearing reprisal the original poster refrains from responding and in the process of not responding is derided for not defending their position and eventually people either disengage completely from Twitter or just stop posting lest they get abused for having an opinion about anything.

They’re Not Trolls They’re Just at a Different Point on the Curve

I like to think that we’re all on a learning curve. Well, an infinite series of different learning curves that span all aspects of our lives, but yeah, a learning curve. Interacting with others on Twitter is an opportunity to engage with people but you have no idea where they are on their respective learning curve. They could have been on Twitter since day one, tweeted every day with dozens or hundreds of people, have learned how to balance opinions with their responses and learned to respect others, or they could be inexperienced, socially awkward and easily outraged.

I hate the terms "troll" or "jackal" because they’re simplistic, derogatory and dismissive. Most people just want to be heard and because of where they are on the learning curve may sometimes say something provocative in order to get a response from someone else. I try not to dismiss people in that situation because I used to be that person a long time ago and I learned that’s not the best way to get the attention that I was seeking. If I judge others that do that then I’m just judging how I used to be - albeit some time in the past. I never saw myself as abusive but then I am not the best to judge that of myself, let alone others.

I may well be my own harshest critic but then I also believe that everyone passes through that stage at some point. It’s only a question of when and how long they do it before they learn better.

No-one Makes You Follow Someone Else

We choose to follow who we choose to. If we don’t like what someone else is saying the answer is simple: don’t abuse them, don’t judge them, don’t be angry with them and certainly don’t track them down or tell them to die in a fire (although that last one’s become somewhat tongue-in-cheek of late). Unfollow them and move on. If you’re mingling at a party and you got bored with the conversation with one group you would just excuse yourself and go elsewhere or perhaps just quietly slip away… Is that so hard on Twitter without making a big fuss about it?

A: It’s not.

Twitter is a wonderful place to meet people you wouldn’t otherwise meet but it’s not a good place to have debate and a sub-optimal place to even have a discussion. Keep in mind everyone is in a different place on their learning curve with behaviour on Twitter. One final thing: why not cut some slack to the Twitter "personalities" that have thousands of followers they didn’t ask for. Chances are that hundreds of others will respond to their tweeted opinion anyway since all those other responders haven’t read this yet.

  1. Or they could be responding via a tablet or smartphone which is usually slower to type on or maybe they’re multi-tasking or wrangling children or have just started to drive between two locations and aren’t about to text and drive or if they’re driving they can’t use voice dictation due to screaming children in the back and the list goes on and on and on… 

AAC Now Live

2nd July 2014

As previously discussed the HE-AAC v2 feed of all Podcasts hosted on TechDistortion are now live. Each is linked individually on their main podcast page as well as on individual episodes and their pages. The existing web player will remain working off the original MP3 feed as will iTunes in an effort to avoid confusion. It’s a little bit of extra work but not too much that will hopefully help those users in both situations. As always, please let me know if there are any issues and if the changes were of any benefit to you personally as I’d love to hear your feedback.

Main Page AAC View Individual Episode AAC View

Podcast Feed Hell

18th June 2014

There are no things I consider myself to be an expert on: there is always something more to learn. When it comes to RSS feeds and podcasting, I’m still learning so go easy on me.

In my move away from WordPress to Statamic I needed to transplant my old podcast "Exastential" as well as the TechDistortion Audio Article Feed. I did what I usually did - grabbed a copy of some XML HTML source files from a bunch of sites on the internet and quickly read through the RSS fields and set them up the way that I thought they would need to be set up. The episodes came across, were posted and away we went. Using the FeedValidator it came up healthy and I smiled and moved on.

Then came the surgery, going indie with Pragmatic, and suddenly it was time to bring the feed across from Fiat Lux. Ben Alexander had set it up nicely but I wanted to serve the feed from my site, not from LibSyn. I redirected the feed from LibSyn to TechDistortion and within a day I received notification from a fan of the show that Pragmatic had vanished from iTunes. When I checked, so had Exastential and the TD Audio Feed.

Mistake #1: Rushing My Work

The truth was that everything had conspired to result in a close to one month gap from the move of the old two feeds to when I was ready to move Pragmatic across. I scrambled to get everything ready and in the rush I cut a few corners. If I’d had more time I would have been more thorough. First mistake. Stupid, stupid John. The rush drove all of the mistakes that follow.

Mistake #2: Copy and Paste

How many times have I rapped younger programmers across the knuckles about reusing code without understanding it well first. Especially code fragments and here I was rushing my work and doing it myself. I’ve begun to think that in our minds there’s a switch: when we’re in ‘teaching mode’ we have a different level of self-criticism but when we’re in ‘doing mode’ we end up cutting corners because, we know what we’re doing right?

I had unfortunately overlooked a single but rather important tag <iTunes:block> that was in an old feed I had extracted tags from and it was unfortunately set to "Yes". Since it was a common XML source template in Statamic it was therefore stopping all three feeds from appearing in iTunes. Additionally I’d inadvertently copied the <itunes:new-feed> tags redirecting the feeds to their new one: essentially redirecting the feed back to itself endlessly. I removed that once I figured out it made no sense.

Problem solved? No.

Mistake #3: Choose Your Validators Carefully

Validate, validate, validate. I did. What I didn’t appreciate is that the RSS Feed Validator I’d always used for the site RSS feed didn’t support iTunes podcast tags. After lots of reading online I then discovered Cast Feed Validator which did a podcast-specific check and if it found problems sent you to a standard RSS Feed Validator. In addition I enlisted the help of Feeder, a Mac app designed to help create, modify and validate feeds locally on your machine.

No matter how good your validator is there are some things it can’t detect. The redirection of the feed back to itself is a good example that passed through every single validator that I tried.

I had missed episode-specific summaries, summaries couldn’t have HTML in them, colons in title text messed up the parsing of the titles, plus there were a bunch of tags at the <channel> level that needed to be repeated at the <item> level for no adequately explained reason. At one point I was hacking and slashing code on the train on the way home. Having used up the trains Free WiFi quota (a paltry 50Mb) I switched to my iPhone tethering and noticed that the reception kept dropping out all of the time. Sometimes halfway through an online edit or an upload. Desperation had well and truly set in.

Mistake #4: Assumption

Previously in WordPress I’d used the excellent PowerPress plugin. It did everything for you. There was no XML anywhere. It all seemed so easy and straightforward but unfortunately it wasn’t. Assuming that I’d done this before was clearly, quite simply, stupid.

Mistake #5: Report A Concern

iTunes has a built in mechanism where you can go to a podcast and select "Report a Concern" then ask for help with the feed. This is essentially useless if the three feeds you’re having trouble with have already vanished. It wasn’t until I tried that I was able to get a response. In fact when I told them what had happened I received a response within 18 hours. From what I’ve read on other sites on the internet that’s unusual so I’m either lucky or special - not sure which.

Apple Responds

Hello John, We apologize for the inconvenience. It seems our system ran into an issue when updating from your feeds. The podcasts have been reviewed and re-approved. Please allow 24 hours for the podcasts to appear in the iTunes Store. Best, Kyle

In fact it was significantly LESS than 24 hours. The feeds were literally back within 3 hours time of that email, although all of them lacked their artwork. Exastential gained its artwork the following day but TD Audio and Pragmatic took closer to a week before their artwork showed in the store. (Curiously the artwork showed up when you subscribed to the show itself just not in the search)

The Podcatchers

Thanks to some help from some Twitter fans and friends notably Clinton Philips, Matt Foster, Gabriel Visser and Brian Shand I was able to confirm whether the shows were appearing both in their searches and subscriptions for Castro, Downcast and Instacast. I was already testing with (redacted) and (redacted) made sure it worked despite an initial glitch due to my bad feed information leaving only one popular app 2 that was causing an issue at this point was PocketCasts.

Although it took a few days to get sorted PocketCasts came through not only with fixes for all of my shows but they were also kind enough to generate custom landing pages for the shows on their site.

Lessons Learned

It’s really quite simple: Statamic is great but there are currently no Podcasting plugins for it that I know of. This means that you’re hard coding the XML yourself and whilst there are plenty of examples, read up ALL of the documentation first, validate, validate and validate again across as many podcast feed validators as you can find and only then submit to iTunes and publish your RSS podcast feed.

One more lesson to learn: everyone makes mistakes, cuts corners and does stupid things. This time it was me. Next time it could be you.

  1. Popular in terms of the download proportion of Pragmatic as reported by LibSyn.