TechDistortion Articles https://techdistortion.com/articles en john@techdistortion.com Copyright 2009-2019 2019-03-23T05:30:17+00:00 TechDistortion Articles Sat, 23 Mar 2019 05:30:17 GMT From GitLab to GitHub https://techdistortion.com/articles/from-gitlab-to-github https://techdistortion.com/articles/from-gitlab-to-github From GitLab to GitHub I previously wrote about a new website publishing workflow that used Netlify CDN as the front end, using my own Private GitLab repository, hosted on an OpenVZ 2GB SSD VPS from Hosted Simply. I wanted to have my own fully private repo for projects and to host the websites I maintain for as little expense as possible.

So about that.

After having my VPS shut off by the Hosting company due to high CPU usage, and experiencing multiple build failures and web interface non-responsiveness, I tweaked every setting that I could, disabled everything non-essential to running GitLab, and finally gave in.

Turns out that following GitHubs acquisition by Microsoft in late 2018 they decided to make private repos completely free and announced that in January this year. By that time I’d already built my GitLab instance, but with the issues I was having I decided to switch between the two. Turns out that took all of about one hour, Netlify integrated without complaint and my GitLab is now disabled.

I don’t blame the hosting company for protecting other users in the OpenVZ Shared environment, that’s totally fine. Ultimately the 2GB VPS simply wasn’t enough for the GitLab instance to function on. Looking back there were some updates applied that fixed a bug I was experiencing but bundled with that bug fix was new functionality that caused higher memory and CPU usage. Hence what used to work (just barely) on my VPS, would no longer function reliably without a higher spec.

GitLab has a lot of enterprise-type features that ran in the background and consumed all of the memory with a lot of performance issues on the VPS I had available. If I didn’t mind spending more money I could have reinstalled it (and maybe in future I will do that) but for now GitHub is working much better with Netlify and technically it’s free - so there’s that.

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Technology 2019-03-16T07:45:00+10:00 #TechDistortion
Engineered Space Take 2 https://techdistortion.com/articles/engineered-space-take-two https://techdistortion.com/articles/engineered-space-take-two Engineered Space Take 2 Some time ago I started my own Mastodon server and opened it up for invites. What I learned quickly is that I wasn’t alone and plenty of others were doing the exact same thing. There was no shortage of options for anyone wishing to join the Fediverse, including lots of bigger servers with far more funding than mine. I then learned more about the problems Mastodon faces on a server - there are a LOT of moving parts and the gentleman driving the Mastodon standard was (and still is) having some trouble with direction now its popularity has exploded. For my little server it had only a handful of users and the VPS it was installed on was struggling, with constant delays and timeouts and an overall lack of reliability I started looking for other options. My original instance used the address @chidgey@engineered.space which was associated with Mastodon and part of the spoken outro-ductions of all of my podcast episodes as the way to get in touch with me.

I investigated and fell in love with Pleroma and wrote about how you can Own Your Social Graph late last year, mentioning Pleroma as my now preferred Fediverse server and at the time it easily outperformed Mastodon on a VPS with only 256MB of RAM (Mastodon was slow even with 1.6GB of RAM). I tried it briefly to confirm it’s functionality on a sub-domain: @chidgey@pleroma.engineered.space and after a few weeks tried a backend switch (move Pleroma underneath the original Mastodon address and domain) only to discover that followers wouldn’t and couldn’t be migrated between the servers. Messaging was a complete mess and I was unable to follow or be followed by anyone that had followed me previously. I hence ended up sticking with my “new” pleroma sub-domain in the longer term than I’d planned, and asked people to follow me there instead.

Since I wrote the social graph article there have been a few incidents with Pleroma as they progress towards a formal release. The first was a series of backend changes that meant it would no longer operate as reliably on low-spec VPSs like mine. The second was when the Pleroma team changed the ID data type for posts, which broke a lot of apps and scripts that I had come to rely on for various things (Auto-Posting, iOS apps, MacOS apps). Given how unreliable it had become at that point I decided it was time to shift to a newer, bigger VPS, and to try shifting back to my original domain again.

Now I have a freshly installed Pleroma instance, on my original Mastodon domain: @chidgey@engineered.space and my pleroma-sub-domain will be deactivated by the end of this month. In order for people to do what I’ve done, effectively switch the backend but keep their domain remains impossible to perform without losing followers. Interestingly, it’s the only way I know of to pull that off. The sequence:

  1. Start on Domain X
  2. Create a different Domain Y, then ask followers to follow you there instead
  3. Re-create your original Domain X, then ask followers to follow you there again

There’s currently no option to import, or auto-re-follow if you swap out the server side components that I’m aware of. I have exports of my original timeline posts for both the Mastodon and first Pleroma accounts, but to date I have not been able to successfully import them. On the plus side the broken apps and scripts have now been mostly fixed with everything I need to use back up and running, fast and reliably again.

So in the end, apologies to all, but I’m done shifting servers and instances around. I think that for the broader fediverse these sorts of issues moving servers will inevitably lead to the same problems as EMail addresses. There is no one true EMail address for most people and knowing someones address on the Fediverse will never be as simple as a single siloed solution because it can not be. Coming from a siloed world it’s annoying but a small price to pay for more control over your own social graph.

If you’re looking for me I’m back at @chidgey@engineered.space and you can follow me there on the Fediverse.

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General 2019-02-16T14:00:00+10:00 #TechDistortion
The Need For Speed https://techdistortion.com/articles/the-need-for-speed https://techdistortion.com/articles/the-need-for-speed The Need For Speed After a lot of deliberation and consideration I’ve decided it’s time to push the web-front end further forward for all of my sites. Not happy with just going Static with Hugo, and after many months of pushing local caching as far as I could on NGinx, I’ve finally joined the rest of the web developers from 3 or so years ago. All of my sites are now backed by the Netlify CDN:

Ultimately you just can’t beat a distributed high-performance, low-latency Content Delivery Network. The website tests vary from a 5x to a 11x pageload improvement on average from multiple points around the globe. Locally for me it’s been amazing, but then packets for me generally traverse the Pacific to get to my backyard so that’s not really surprising.

Wishing to have control of my environment (yeah I know) I snagged a OpenVZ 2GB SSD VPS from Hosted Simply for a New Years special of $15USD/yr and built my own Private GitLab repository, then linked that to Netlify. I’m now using a well-known developer workflow with each site it’s own self-contained Git Repository, with the GitLab remote origin mapped to the Netlify CDN with a Webhook for auto-deployment whenever I commit a file to the repo. In addition since it’s Hugo and I want to publish pages into the future, I’ve also added a webhook to trigger a page rebuild periodically.

On the Mac I’m using the passable SourceTree App for Source Control and the awesome Sublime Text 3 for text editing, and on iOS I’m using the excellent Working Copy App with Textastic for text editing. To be honest I feel a lot more in control of what I’m doing now, and being able to run up my changes locally with Hugo, create custom development branches for public/private testing through Netlify and with the ability to rollback changes at the source code level, well, it makes web page maintenance and blogging a lot more like programming.

And as a programmer, I have to say I finally get why so many others do the same workflow. It’s pretty neat :)

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Technology 2019-01-27T22:30:00+10:00 #TechDistortion
Fediverse Series: Definition https://techdistortion.com/articles/fediverse-definition https://techdistortion.com/articles/fediverse-definition Fediverse Series: Definition This third post in a series about the Fediverse focuses on micro-blogging platforms. My first introduction was to Mastodon, then Pleroma and finally most recently to Misskey. Let’s look briefly at each in turn.

Mastodon

Currently the most popular in terms of active users Mastodon (approximately 2,500+ servers) originated in late 2016 and is a complex application that uses a long list of frameworks and components to deliver what is considered to be the best Web-user interface experience at the moment for both end users and adminstators. However scaling the platform remains a concern and it is driven effectively by a single developer. It originally supported OStatus, but in v1.6 about a year after it launched it added ActivityPub support.

Pleroma

Launched informally in 2017 and like Mastodon, originally supported OStatus but later adopted ActivityPub though a tighter subset known as LitePub, in March 2018 and at time of writing, despite there being over 400 instances they are still running pre-v1 software with no formal release to date. Installation however is much simpler than Mastodon and can run on extremely low-capacity low-performance hardware as a result. It has a native web user interface which is similar to Twitter in some aspects, however also comes with the Mastodon-FE (Front-End) and supports the Mastodon v1 API allowing most Mastodon compliant client and server applications to work with it seamlessly.

Misskey

Reaching v1.0 in April 2018, Misskey is developed predominantly with a strong Japanese influence and elegant styling, conforming to the ActivityPub protocol and a very tidy web interface design. It has similar installation requirements to Mastodon though is considered easier to install and maintain and at time of writing has only 40 servers in operation with posts predominantly in Japanese, but gaining in popularity in other regions.

Server vs Instance and Application vs Fediverse

Let’s be clear, a server running the software for any of these three platforms on it, is “an instance” of that software. Hence you can consider an instance to be a server usually, but technically if you’re load-balancing then things get more hazy. Each instance is for a single domain or subdomain so it still makes sense to think of an instance by its domain name and not call it a server (technically).

It’s also better to separate the application names such as Misskey, Pleroma and Mastodon from the Federated protocol they utilise, such as OStatus and ActivityPub. During the OStatus era (which technically we’re still in however OStatus use is on the decline in favour of ActivityPub/LitePub) the term “Fediverse” was coined to describe the network of federated messaging between different platforms and applications using a common protocol. As naming goes it seems to have stuck, despite a suggestion to use IndieWeb and ActivityWeb and alternative naming conventions based on their current protocol names respectively.

What I’ve Installed

Well the Fediverse sees all, including my Mastodon and my Pleroma servers and tells the story. I’ve had no end of problems with my Mastodon server, with its higher VPS specification to run it, problematic upgrades and poor availability I decided to give Pleroma a shot and haven’t regretted it. They recently added web push notifications which was really great and my script authetication issues also work now so my automation scripts are behaving at last. Having said that make no mistake, they aren’t claiming it’s done yet and their current optimistic GitHub tag of v0.9.9 tells the story indirectly, though the Pleroma development team are keen to ensure it’s as solid as possible before touting a 1.0 release.

Under-the-hood Migration

To date swapping the server and messages under-the-hood as it were it isn’t supported. Meaning if you start up an instance using Mastodon with posts/toots/messages from that instance, becuase how messages are represented by the software on the server, it’s currently not possible to take a message list from one server, migrate the entire lot to a Pleroma server running different software on the same domain. I tried this and too many things broke.

I suspect migration may someday be possible but for now at least shifting to a different domain (or in my case, sub-domain) was the next best option.

No More Mastodon: FEDIVERSE

The truth is that I might set up a Misskey server someday, I might set up a blog that federates using Plume, WriteFreely or a Hugo-ActivityPub bridge might be developed, and I want to be able to describe the means to find me, NOT the technology. In modern conversation we might say “Send me an EMail”, we don’t say “Send me an Outlook” or “Send me a Thunderbird” which, well, could be interesting. In the same fashion I no longer intend to tell people to find me on Mastodon, or Pleroma, or whichever platform I’m using since they all Federate. You can find me now, on the Fediverse.

Updates Across the Board

To reflect this I’m adopting the proposed Fediverse iconongraphy on all of my sites, will be updating URLs, podcast intros/outtros you name it to reflect the Fediverse so when you hear me mention it you’ll know what and why. TEN was updated recently to reflect this.

So if you’re looking to get in touch, you can follow me on the Fediverse @chidgey@pleroma.engineered.space, just log into your Fediverse account on any instance of Misskey, Pleroma or Mastodon, type that into the search box and you’ll find me, follow/remote follow me and say ‘Hello’.

Catch you on the Fediverse everyone :)

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Technology 2019-01-01T22:10:00+10:00 #TechDistortion
Fediverse Series: Facebook https://techdistortion.com/articles/fediverse-facebook https://techdistortion.com/articles/fediverse-facebook Fediverse Series: Facebook This second post in a series about the Fediverse (this one, somewhat more tangentially) focuses on the usefulness of Facebook pages as they relate to the future of TEN as it has been used as a Full-Length Blog Link MicroBlogging-page (of sorts). NOTE: I’m not going to be looking at all of the other ways Facebook is a problem, and if you want to look into Fediverse alternatives there are a few including Diaspora

Not wishing to re-hash the entirety of my previous post a quick refresher about Twinkblogs…Links to full-length Blogs posted as Microblog entries that aren’t intended to convey much other than a title and some brief text, drawing potential listeners to the episode in question. In that regard it’s the size of the audience you can reach through that channel that matters the most.

So far as feedback via mentions goes, if you’re interested in comments on your podcast then that’s something worth exploring and whilst Facebook had this functionality I seldom got comments via that page. Any feedback from readers is welcomed to either myself via the feedback form or via the Fediverse directly to me personally.

Federation support may someday include embedded audio and the simplicity of being able to consolidate into a single window is quite appealing. Unfortunately I remain concerned that such functionality is unlikely to be as fully featured or as useful as a dedicate podcast client application. For this reason until future support for federated posting via Hugo with embedded audio becomes a reality, it will remain off the table.

Facebook Page Algorithm

Lifting the mostly uninteresting curtain behind the TEN Facebook Page, the same number of posts occurred in 2018 as 2017. In 2018 only 3 Likes in 12 months, and all but six Notifications I received on the page came from Facebook helpfully suggesting “…people who like Engineered haven’t heard from you in a while…Write a post…” Uh-huh. Thanks. The reach of these posts expressed as a percentage of Like(s) in the month of December averaged 22%. Some 15 months earlier it exceeded 100% regularly.

Early in its life, Facebook encouraged businesses, groups, organisations to host their pages on Facebook for organic growth and a wide distribution. However changes to Facebooks algorithms in the past few years with dozens of weighting factors now used to tweak what people see in their timeline makes trying to get organic visibility essentially impossible unless you want to A) try to game the system (sounds like a full time job) or B) pay $43AUD to reach an additional 3,400 people per day, so claims another ‘helpful’ Notification from Facebook on the page. Uh-huh. No thanks.

Future Plans

Currently when a podcast episode goes up on TEN, an RSS Feed scraper takes a copy of the title, a URL link to the episode, then publishes it to a Mastodon account. From there a second script takes that and re-tweets it to the Engineered_Net Twitter account and Facebook is manually added later. With a significant following on Twitter the Engineered_Net account will remain for the immediate future. However the same can not be said of Facebook.

Based on the above Twinkblog rationale, manual posting requirements (Facebooks API requires regular re-authentication which is annoying), Facebook asking for money to ‘give back’ organic reach, and finally with my move to gradually step away from Facebook, I’ve decided to close the The Engineered Network page on Facebook. All other subscription methods will remain unchanged including RSS to Causality, Analytical and Pragmatic as well as the TEN Master Feed. My recommendation is that people that have Liked TEN on Facebook and use it for show notifications either follow the TEN Twitter account @Engineered_Net or better still, jump on the Fediverse somewhere and following me @chidgey@pleroma.engineered.space where I’m active every day.

Failing that just subscribe in your podcast player app of choice. There’s PocketCasts on Android and iOS, Overcast on iOS, and Apples Podcast app is also much improved in recent times as well.

Reflecting on podcast distribution for a moment: It’s funny (okay it isn’t…it’s brilliant!) how an open standard like RSS that powers podcast subscription and distribution remains the best option, whilst centralised platforms like Facebook, once they get big, turn-coat on everyone and charge for visibility. Hopefully this explains why so many people are leaving their Facebook pages and highlights some of the risks of using centralised, company controlled sites for notifications and distribution.

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Technology 2019-01-01T20:35:00+10:00 #TechDistortion
Fediverse Series: TechDistortion https://techdistortion.com/articles/fediverse-techdistortion https://techdistortion.com/articles/fediverse-techdistortion Fediverse Series: TechDistortion This first post in a series about the Fediverse focuses on three aspects as they relate to the future of TechDistortion (this blog): Full-Length Blog Link MicroBlogging, WebMentions and Federation support (ActivityPub/LitePub/OStatus).

Twinkblog

Links to full-length Blogs posted as Microblog entries don’t intend to convey much other than a title and some brief text, drawing potential readers to the full article. I mentioned the phenomenon of Twinkblogs 5 years ago, but really it’s an avenue of communicating an article exists, not the content of the article itself. In that regard it’s the size of the audience you can reach through that channel that matters the most.

WebMention

IndieWeb are popularising the WebMention as a method of allowing users to reply to a blog or article with the article then able to aggregate all comments, mentions, reblogs as part of the article. Any WebMention compliant site would allow that interaction to occur creating a common point for all comments in a federated way between users from different accounts on different systems, like Disqus but not centralised and more flexible. If you’re interested in comments on your blog then that’s something worth exploring. I’ve never had comments enabled on TechDistortion in the decade I’ve been writing articles and don’t intend to add them now. Any feedback from readers is welcomed to either myself via the feedback form or via the Fediverse directly to me personally.

Federation

Not all platforms are so text-length restrictive as Twitter (280 characters) and Mastodon (500 characters) with Pleroma allowing administrators to set whatever limit they like. On my Pleroma instance I’ve left it at the default 5,000 characters but might change that at some point in the future. The idea is that using ActivityPub/LitePub a blog could be subscribed to as if it was a regular account on the Fediverse. That seems convenient however scrolling through a 9,000 character long article on a smartphone screen application intended for short posts might not be as clean an experience as a dedicated long-article reading application like Unread (for example). That said, the simplicity of being able to consolidate into a single window is quite appealing. Unfortunately when moving away from Statamic to Hugo, Federation wasn’t a thought I had in mind, and hence since neither supports Federation it will not be explored in the short term.

Future Plans

Currently when a blog entry goes up on TechDistortion, an RSS Feed scraper takes a copy of the title, a URL link to the article, then publishes it to a Mastodon account. From there a second script takes that and re-tweets it to the TechDistortion Twitter account. Currently counting the number of actual people and lists on the TechDistortion Twitter account, there are more real people subscribed to the sites RSS Feed directly and also to both my personal Mastodon and old Twitter accounts.

Based on the above Twinkblog rationale and also with my move to gradually step away from Twitter, I’ve decided to close the TechDistortion Twitter account. I will instead be posting those links only to my personal Fediverse account, which is copied to my ‘old’ personal Twitter account. RSS will always remain for anyone to subscribe to. My recommendation is that people following the blog on Twitter either follow my ‘old’ Twitter account @johnchidgey or better still, jump on the Fediverse somewhere and following me @chidgey@pleroma.engineered.space where I’m active every day.

In future if a Hugo–>Federation intermediary service is developed I’ll probably look into that, since I really like Hugo ;)

Thanks everyone.

Oh yeah…Happy New Year.

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Technology 2019-01-01T17:30:00+10:00 #TechDistortion
7-11 Slurpees https://techdistortion.com/articles/7-11-slurpee https://techdistortion.com/articles/7-11-slurpee 7-11 Slurpees Being that it’s the middle of summer in my hemisphere, after a hard days work in the yard a nice cold frozen drink is always well received. Recently the pricing war between McDonalds, Hungry Jacks and the old-faithful 7-11 has led us to an over-supply and low prices of frozen drinks. All that’s lovely for consumers, and if you’re keenly interested in the zilch-sugar (sugar-free) options then 7-11 is the way to go (or if large amounts of sugar don’t worry you, I still think 7-11’s Slurpees have more/nicer syrups)

7-11 Slurpees

They offer three primary sizes, but if you actually measure the cost per volume it shows how 7-11 are making their money: they want you to upgrade to the bigger drink.

Name Size (mL) Cost Cost/L
Large 650 $1 $1.53
Super 850 $2 $2.35
Mega 1150 $3 $2.60

Based on the above therefore I’d suggest that if you’re REALLY thirsty, getting x2 Large drinks is the clear winner. Otherwise stick to the $1 size and save your money.

Oh yeah, and don’t drink it too quickly either…

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Technology 2018-12-20T21:30:00+10:00 #TechDistortion
Fediverse: Own Your Social Graph https://techdistortion.com/articles/own-your-social-graph https://techdistortion.com/articles/own-your-social-graph Fediverse: Own Your Social Graph Imagine a world where you could pick and choose what server backend you wanted for your social media (if you want to - like picking a bank to bank with?), pick a social media identity that is truly canonical for all time (you know, like your name is in the real world), and pick whatever application(s) you want to use on your platform of choice so you get to interact the same way no matter who you’re talking to. They’re ALL your choices. Are we there yet?

Nope.

This is the story so far as we all collectively (hopefully) move towards that goal.

In April 2017 I wrote about Engineered Space and recorded an episode of Pragmatic about my experiment with Mastodon. I was attempting to ‘take control’ of my Social Graph and Mastodon held a promise of that.

The reality hasn’t entirely lived up to expectations for me so far, although I still prefer it to Twitter and Facebook. The truth is that currently Mastodon is still a silo of a sort, which I discovered as I attempted to move to a different platform.

One EMail-like social address to rule them all

When I started @chidgey@engineered.space I had a longer-term intention in mind: purchase a domain that I liked, and then with OStatus and now ActivityPub, it should be possible to use whatever standards-compliant backend server setup I wanted, and I should be able to retain the same Fediverse username for all time.

Not only that, I could also then choose whatever front-end client I wanted to and it would connect to the standards-compliant backend server infrastructure I was running.

What’s Wrong With Mastodon?

There’s three issues I have: how it’s having its feature-set prioritised, a lack of testing for upgrades with regular mis-steps, and finally it’s resource-hungry. I was running my instance that had only my account on it and about 10 others with minimal traffic, on a VPS with 1.6GB RAM, a reasonable CPU and if I tried to refresh my timeline it would regularly throw a 502 error. Image posts regularly failed, it would also completely fall over once or twice every week requiring a server reboot to recover with no obvious cause. In short, it became a hassle.

The production guide to install Mastodon is very good though, with plenty of examples for different Linux distros to install it on and it takes a bit of effort requiring Rails, PostgreSQL, Redis, Sidekiq, NodeJS and ElasticSearch (if you want search functionality at all). It also wouldn’t install and run on Centos 6 and whilst I don’t mind admitting that Centos 6 has had its day, sometimes you can snag a cheap VPS that won’t run Centos 7. Upgrading required a series of git pulls, rake commands and database migrations and could take half an hour to fully compile, requiring me to kill the NGINX server or it would never complete.

I was advised to throw more money at the problem. I could upsize my VPS at more expense or I could shift my hosting elsewhere and let someone else deal with it. Altenatively, I could look for a different ActivityPub compliant platform…

Pleroma

Lain walks through what Pleroma is and I won’t repeat that but essentially it’s 90% of what Mastodon is but only requires Elixir and PostgreSQL, it runs on Centos 6 (although you won’t find any Production guides for that) and it’s happily running on a Speedy KVM VPS (DAL-VOL0), 1 E3-1230 3.2Ghz CPU, 256MB ECC RAM, 12GB HDD for $18USD/yr. If it keeps chugging along nicely, I’ll fork out for three years for $36USD ($1/month).

Not only is it cheap to run, it’s quick. I can refresh and refresh and fill gaps in my timeline and it responds in a second or two and never fails. Uploading images works every time now and if you’re like me and you’re not really into the TweetDeck-esque Mastodon FrontEnd (Pleroma offers this front-end option if you really want it though) then it has a far more Twitter-eque Pleroma FrontEnd that I much prefer.

Before you think “John’s ready to marry Pleroma…” stop. It’s not perfect. In fact there’s a few significant drawbacks:

  • There are no dedicated Pleroma client applications I’ve found, but becuase Pleroma also implements the Mastodon API, most Mastodon client applications will mostly work with Pleroma
  • Web Push Notifications aren’t implemented yet (since most Mastodon clients use this for push, that’s annoying) More on this in a minute…
  • Many site layout tweaks are buried in the config.exs file on the server
  • Documentation is generally lacking in a lot of areas if you want to deploy/understand it
  • It’s v0.9 at time of writing (Yes, it’s not ‘officially’ released yet…)

On the plus side some of my favourite Mastodon apps work almost perfectly with it (notifications generally not withstanding):

iOS

MacOS

All of the above notwithstanding, there’s a strong beating of the open-source drum by the development team on Pleroma. Whilst Gargon on Mastodon makes no bones with the fact he wouldn’t mind if Twitter collapsed tomorrow, he supports whatever clients, forks of Mastdon, other projects that support ActivityPub in whatever form they might take. The Pleroma team on the other hand have actively and aggressively shamed non-open source developers trying to get more involved with Pleroma. I’ve seen sole developers that are making apps that are free but closed-source, paid and closed-source, and even federated services like Micro.Blog trying to open up connectivity with Mastodon be shunned all becuase they aren’t open source.

The future of federation will ultimately be a blend of open and closed source software running on servers and clients from different groups, inividuals and companies around the world, all talking on a common standard or sub-set of standards. The fear that one closed-source player will “take over” neglects the nuance that people will vote with their feet and that if a corporation does wrong by their users, they will eventulally abandon that server for another (like many have abandoned Twitter for Mastodon already).

“Open Source” mantra is an idealology, not

Pleroma need to consider their position in the cross-platform game, supporting other standards to improve operability and usability otherwise they will be outgrown by Mastodon and will become irrelevant before they start.

Attempting to Migrate

Mastodon provides the ability to export a user list as a CSV: this worked as expected. Pleroma also imported what it could, but when instances are offline (I discovered I wasn’t the only Mastodon instance that was regularly offline) if Pleroma couldn’t verify that an imported user actually existed it wouldn’t add it to the follows list. Over the duration of a week I successfully added all but 6 of my follower list progressively with the import script in Pleroma smart enough to not create duplicates.

Exporting my “Toot” history proved impossible through the web interface in Mastodon. I tried many times and it failed every single time.

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Fediverse 2018-10-31T07:00:00+10:00 #TechDistortion
Accessibility Driven Opportunism https://techdistortion.com/articles/accessibility-driven-opportunism https://techdistortion.com/articles/accessibility-driven-opportunism Accessibility Driven Opportunism Originally Drafted 13th October, 2016

We’re lazy creatures. That and things cost money. When things take too much effort or cost too much money, we don’t take advantage of them. Only those people with enough spare time or money can do them. I first came across this phenomenon when studying traffic engineering. Widen a freeway and the amount of traffic it conveys will increase to utilise that new capacity. The newly accessible capacity of the road becomes quickly known by local residents that previously took public transport, rode bicycles, walked or just didn’t travel at all, and then they decided to utilise this additional capacity. The opportunity to travel either more directly, in more comfort or more quickly than the alternative drives the opportunistic behaviour to utilise that additional capacity. Theoretically it should be possible to build a freeway with an extremely large number of lanes that has capacity that far outstrips the physical quantity of vehicles that could ever use that route between two set locations, even including for external visitors. The sheer cost of doing so generally precludes this from ever happening on a macro scale but the limit still exists. Hence there’s a point at which increasing accessibility reaches a point of diminished potential such that it is unlikely to ever be exceeded.

A more popular example I came across recently relates to watch bands on an Apple Watch. The watch itself is quite expensive, however unlike many other watches in the world, it may have its bands easily replaced in less than a minute when the wearer needs to exercise, change to a dressier outfit or go off to work. Changing the band changes the appearance, feel and usefulness of the watch without having to have a second watch as was previously the tradition: two watches, one for normal day use and one as a dress watch. Replacing bands on a traditional watch is a cumbersome, frustrating exercise but with this watch in particular that’s no longer the case. As changing the bands becomes more accessible, the possibility of changing bands becomes easier. As cheaper alternative bands become available, this further drives accessible choices for more people. Of course people will eventually reach a limit whereby they have more than enough bands to cater for every circumstance they personally desire, at which point the maximum potential is exceeded once again.

A final example is changing code in mass-deployed devices. When I was starting out my career software updates were handled by physical ROM ICs, that were attached by sockets to the motherboards of the control cards in the field. Changing out the firmware was a manual, slow, annoying task that was very expensive. Many locations didn’t have a network connection of any kind and wireless was very uncommon and even less common for data connectivity so this was just accepted as reality. At time progressed and the internet became what it is today, with mobile data networks becoming wide-spread, there was a more and more accessible data path to end devices for manufacturers. Over the air updates then became the preferred method of fixing problems and this accessibility drove opportunistic updating of end devices. This seems like a good thing at first with manufacturers able to correct problems even ofter their devices had left the factory, however it drove manufacturers and engineering companies down another route: minimally tested software. As the speed to fixing bugs after the device shipped improved, management circles pushed the key features (heavily tested we hope) out the door with the devices quickly, leading to many features being far less tested and requiring future OTA updates to be applied. Provided these were low-impact bugs then that’s probably a good trade off but end users don’t always see it that way.

As always no one complains about good software, they only complain when it breaks and just because you can ship something today less tested with the aim of “fixing it later” doesn’t mean that you should. The opportunity to quickly fix problems is tempting but rigorous testing and qualification will generally save time and money in the long run. The only question to ask to ponder is whether the availability has driven opportunistic thinking and if it has, what opportunistic cost will you incur for it? Opportunity cost cuts both ways.

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2018-10-15T16:45:00+10:00 #TechDistortion
Three Site Strategy https://techdistortion.com/articles/three-site-strategy https://techdistortion.com/articles/three-site-strategy Three Site Strategy After a lot of deliberation and consideration I’ve decided it’s time to refine (slightly) where I keep what on my sites. In the past I’ve maintained two primary web-presences: TechDistortion and TEN. The problem was that I didn’t feel like grouping all of my podcasts together under a single site in 2015 made sense, so I kept older pre-TEN episodes of shows under TechDistortion, with only newer episodes kept on TEN. The other problem was that TD had blog posts on a wide variety of topics including Statamic guides, cartooning (it was a brief fancy for a while), tech-related blog posts and engineering-related blog posts.

Under this grouping, someone visiting TD would find podcasts, articles/posts on a huge variety of topics and a few references to TEN, and someone visiting TEN would find podcasts and the occasional TEN-specific post, but miss some back-catalogues of shows. Based on years of feedback and with the excuse of migrating away from Statamic, I’ve finally finished re-organising my online web miscellaney as follows…

TEN

The Engineered Network TEN will now be the sole repository for all podcasts I’ve ever made, past and present with a new archived section that contains all past episodes of shows long since ended. The hosts and guests list has been extended to include all shows, past and present. I intend to do more with TEN in the future including transcriptions and transcription search which I am determined to complete. (For those receiving the NewsLetter, you already know the sad story there…)

Control System Space

A new site launched in August this year, it’s focus is completely engineering-specific articles called Control System Space. (I’m going through a ‘space’ phase clearly…) In truth it was my first real attempt at a Hugo website and since then I’ve learned a lot. I’ll probably revisit/tweak/refine it in coming months but the intentions behind it are three-fold:

  • Be a repository for professional White-Papers, supporting independent knowledge-sharing in Control Systems Engineering
  • Remove J-O-B “job” related posts from TechDistortion and keep them together in a single place
  • Be a professional-facing outlet that I can direct those to with whom I work with or the greater CSE industry

As a litmus test I posted two articles on LinkedIn, and distributed links within the organisation both in and beyond the Automation Systems Team at work and they were well visited and very well received. In this way engineers that are less interested on my thoughts on Apple or Microsoft will see the most heavily polished, relevant articles for them.

TechDistortion

TD will remain for blog posts however there will be no podcast episodes and no engineering-specific articles there any more. In addition the whole site has been completely redone in a newer darker-high contrast view with all articles merged into a common article feed.

The Future

It’s been an interesting journey from Static (1996) to Dynamic (WordPress 2000s) to Statmic (2013-2018) to Static again (Hugo 2018-?) but with everything I’ve learned along the way, the tools we use aren’t always as important as the content, but with Hugo my life is easier, site maintenance is easier, sites are more responsive and reliable and that should leave more time for content. And now with the content hopefully more logically grouped by type and audience, anyone visiting will be more likely to find exactly what they’re looking for.

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Technology 2018-10-14T16:25:00+10:00 #TechDistortion
LTE Apple Watch App List https://techdistortion.com/articles/lte-apple-watch-app-list https://techdistortion.com/articles/lte-apple-watch-app-list LTE Apple Watch App List With my aforementioned goal to ditch my phone when outside the house and use the watch for as much as possible, I am compiling a list of all of the Apps that I’m using that meet my current needs, and noting gaps where they exist. The configuration I use is a 42mm Stainless Steel Apple Watch Series 3 with LTE enabled and AirPods connected.

Criteria for an Apps usability is based on three criteria:

  • (Create) Can create items on Watch
  • (Modify) Can modify (including delete) items on Watch
  • (Sync) Can sync new/changed items to Cloud via LTE

In addition on the Watch there are three primary methods of data input:

  • (Siri) Siri voice dictation (speech-to-text)
  • (Num) Numeric Keypad (where applicable)
  • (Scr) Scribble finger drawn letters, one by one, on the watch screen

The following table list listed in order of Apple native apps first (denoted with an asterisk *), followed by installed third party apps, followed by notification-initiated interactions with apps not physically installed on the watch.

Function App Create Modify Sync Notes
EMail Mail* Y Y Sometimes Exchange/GMail (non-Apple) EMail generally works but not consistently. Read items don’t reliably sync their read marker status with the Cloud. Moved my work EMail across until Outlook gets LTE capability.
Music Music* N N N Synced playlist music only, with streaming (coming in watchOS 4.1). Possible to add music to a playlist via the iPhone.
Locating Find My Friends* N N N/A Shows map, photos, names, distances but the map sometimes doesn’t load. Huge update and pleasantly surprised how well it works
Messaging iMessage* Y N Y Emotional reactions, replies, scribble, Siri dictation
Navigation Maps* Y N/A N/A Siri can create new navigation requests, provides Turn-by-Turn Steps, Location on Map. No Live Map Navigation, but this is an understandable restriction given GPS and screen power drain.
Digital Wallet Apple Pay* Y N/A N/A Per Series 0, 1 and 2 it works without any wireless connectivity by design
Appointments Calendar* Y (Siri) Y (Delete only) Y Previously used Fantastical due to its configurability however creating Reminders/Events via Fantastical (Siri only) didn’t work over LTE. Can’t use Scribble to create appointments. Can’t modify appointment times on Watch, though can delete.
Calls Phone* Y (Siri/Num) N/A N/A Works via Speaker or either/both AirPods. Possible to pick up calls with AirPods even if they aren’t in your ear when the call comes in.
Weather Weather* N N N/A Locations have to be configured on iPhone first. Previous favourite apps were BeWeather, Rain Parrot, and Weather AU but none work on LTE. Still no app that shows the radar map on the watch that works in Australia. Dark Sky doesn’t work here. Alas.
Reminders Reminders* Y (Siri) N Y Can only create using Siri not via app. Can not modify anything once created and always put in Default reminder list.
Web Search Siri* N N N/A Only basic Siri answers are possible via the Watch. As there is no browser on the watch, there’s no mechanism to get detailed search results returned to the Watch, and you’re directed to the iPhone. On-watch functionality works over LTE (setting timers, music playback etc)
Calculator PCalc Y Y N/A Never required iPhone other than to configure.
Podcasts WatchPlayer N Y (Delete) N Sometimes loses its place between listens, Syncing episodes is annoying. Previously used Overcast but for the moment the Watch playback functionality is being worked on by its developer.
Passwords 1Password N N N/A Doesn’t use data connection. Can’t create logins on the Watch, not sure I want to anyway. Need to set up on the phone first
Digital Wallet Stocard N N N/A Doesn’t use data connection. Can’t create cards on the Watch though could be a useful feature provided no photo is needed. Need to set up on the phone first.
Sleep Tracking Autosleep N N N/A Provides basic report of sleep duration, but requires iPhone to perform sleep analysis. Limited to showing last night, as well as 7 day average.
Notetaking Drafts Y (Siri/Scr) Y (Siri/Scr) N Syncs to iPhone only when in range, however there is no other note-taking app on the Watch as a first-party app and Drafts works well in that respect, except for Cloud sync.
Voice Recording Just Press Record Y Y (Delete) N/A Records audio notes quickly and easily and allows playback via the speaker or AirPods. Only syncs with iPhone when in range.
What’s The Song? Shazam Y N N Can’t ask Siri to identify what song is playing on the Watch, but Shazam works perfectly and more discretely. Syncs the list of Shazam’d songs when iPhone is in range.
Twitter Tweetbot (Not On Watch) N/A N/A N/A Notifications from Tweetbot allow basic reactions like Favouriting and Retweeting.

Biggest misses for me at the moment:

  • Reminders isn’t a good To Do app, and I can’t wait for Things (or similar) to support could sync but knowing they rolled their own Cloud sync this may not happen for a while (if ever)
  • Inability to modify anything about a Reminder or Calendar appointment
  • Composing a basic tweet, mention or direct message not possible (same for Mastodon)
  • Notes absent; even a stripped down text-only version would be fine

With time, developers will update their apps to use direct data interaction with servers rather than via the paired iPhone so the list of third-party apps should get much longer in due course. I’ll endeavour to update this list every few weeks or if a major app update is released.

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2017-10-22T15:00:00+10:00 #TechDistortion
Phoneless https://techdistortion.com/articles/phoneless https://techdistortion.com/articles/phoneless Phoneless I’ve always loved my Apple Watch. When Apple announced LTE in the Series 3 I was initially disappointed that they hadn’t given us always on screens, but also shocked that they’d managed to get energy efficient LTE into the device at all without killing the battery in 5 seconds flat. Truly impressive. Without going into the details of how I’ve routed what to where (it’s convoluted trust me) I’ve upgraded from my 42mm Silver Stainless Steel Series 2 to the equivalent Series 3 model earlier this week, and also linked it to an iPhone.

My goal: ditch my phone when outside the house and use the watch for as much as possible.

An Apple Watch paired with AirPods (or even a single AirPod) is already lighter and more convenient than a phone for phone calls since it’s more discrete and less intrusive. I’ve made phone calls both on AirPods and the speaker and they’re both passable though the AirPods are better, you could live without AirPods in a pinch. In which case, you’ve got a fully waterproof phone on your wrist that you can’t lose, is harder to break/scratch/damage, and with the sound off is totally silent when notifications come through your wrist.

I thought at length over the past month since the announcement about what I use my phone for, exactly. It’s a longer list than I initially thought, but I use my iPhone for:

  • Taking photos (less these days since I bought a DSLR)
  • To Do Lists (Things 2 was my favourite)
  • EMail (Outlook for work, Spark for TEN, Apple Mail for Personal)
  • Music (Apple Music)
  • Find My Friends
  • iMessage
  • Navigation (Sygic/Apple Maps)
  • Passwords (1Password)
  • Stocard (Wallet reduction)
  • Apple Pay
  • Social media (Facebook/Twitter/Mastodon)
  • Autosleep (Sleep Tracking)
  • Checking the Weather (BeWeather, Rain Parrot, Weather AU)
  • Calendar Appointments (Calendar/Fantastical/Outlook)
  • Playing Podcasts (Overcast)
  • Notetaking (Notes)
  • Surfing the Web (Safari)
  • Making/Receiving Phone calls
  • Checking Bank Balances
  • Calculator
  • Light

That’s it. Not a trivial amount, for sure.

Of the above, I can do all of those items now, using the Apple Watch on LTE with no phone nearby, except:

  • Checking Bank Balances (rare thing but could get annoying)
  • Social Media (have stopped using it anyway)
  • Outlook for work (I still get the notifications though, so that’s fine and my work calendar is mapped to Calendar for Fantastical anyway)
  • Spark Mail (Will migrate to Mail)
  • Things (migrated already to Reminders)
  • Playing Podcasts (Reluctantly moving to WatchPlayer, but it works okay)

With time, developers will update their apps to use direct data interaction with servers rather than via the paired iPhone so that list should get shorter in due course.

The main idea here is that at work I’ve gone full iPad Pro anyway, and I’ll have that with me on work days and at home. When I’m out on personal errands I won’t have it, but under those circumstances, the ONLY thing that I’ll miss is web searching, and Siri can help with a small number of those searches, but that’s really the only big hole.

There are other niggly-holes though like having to abandon Overcast for podcast playback, but I know its developer (Marco Arment) is working hard on a solution as we speak (so to speak). Preparing to listen to podcasts now must be done ahead of time, preloaded, and transfer them to the Watch over WiFi (not Bluetooth) unless you’re a masochist and it works okay. (Podcast spontaneity will be on hold for now)

I had to add each song in Apple Music to a monster playlist to force it all onto my Watch but that works fine now and the 16Gb of storage is enough for the vast majority of my music collection I’d want to listen to regularly. It’s easy to add songs via my iPad and it will sync up when I get home plus WatchOS 4.1 will bring streaming to the Watch which will be very nice as well.

I realise that Apple isn’t trying to make the smartphone obsolete, and I and many others are going to use the watch as a standalone device when that’s not really its intent. But really, if it’s going to work for practically everything I need, I’ll leave my iPhone at home, plugged in and just use my Watch for everything else. In time the Watch won’t be tethered to a phone anymore, and apps will all communicate directly to servers rather than via a proxy system. At which point I probably won’t bother with a phone, but that’s probably a few more years away - and that’s okay.

I’m not the first nor will I be the last person to try this, but this is going to be a fun experiment. Let’s see how it turns out…

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2017-10-14T16:05:00+10:00 #TechDistortion
BubbleSort https://techdistortion.com/articles/bubblesort https://techdistortion.com/articles/bubblesort BubbleSort Today, Vic Hudson, Clay Daly and I are launching a new podcast called BubbleSort. Vic has been my most regular co-host on Pragmatic over the past four years and also hosted the wonderful App Story Podcast for 14 episodes in 20142015. Clay Daly is one of the hosts of the wonderful Cybrcast which has been running since 2014.

We all wanted to catch up to discuss what’s happening in the world of technology in a medium that was better than Twitter, Mastodon or Facebook and it turns out you can talk on Skype, press record and share it with anyone else that’s interested and you have a podcast. (Okay, maybe trim out some bits and pieces in post…)

Bubblesort can be found at bubblesort.show and on Twitter at @bubblesortshow.

Bubblesort is not part of TechDistortion nor part of TEN. It is its own standalone collaborative effort. We’re not trying to take the world by storm, we’re not trying to make money. We’re doing it because it’s fun, and if we’re having fun, maybe you will too.

My thanks to Vic for tackling the audio editing and musical score, to Clay for developing the artwork and to both of my co-hosts for making time in their busy schedules to catch up every two weeks or so to make a thoroughly fun and relaxing podcast.

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General 2017-07-11T07:00:00+10:00 #TechDistortion
Engineered Space https://techdistortion.com/articles/engineered-space https://techdistortion.com/articles/engineered-space Engineered Space I’ve been discontented with Twitter in the past year or two, as the company tries to become profitable it stabs the developers that made it great, ever so subtly and deeper as the gap between the official client(s) and the once leading client applications widens ever further. Not just that, the lack of action from abuse, and also the wide open nature of the platform leads to a huge spread of information, mis-information and randomness that isn’t worth the time to filter through.

I’ve been discontented with Facebook, for, well, forever. It badly attempts to insert itself between the open internet and eyeballs in a reductive, arrogant fashion that seeks to make us, the users, the product much the same way Google has done with our search data for approaching two decades.

I’ve been discontented with Linked In because of the endless (yes, I mean ENDLESS! And then some…) spamming EMails, notifications and requests to connect from random people you’ve never met, in a so-called business network. Between this and advertising it’s becoming a random wasteland of junk not worth using either.

There have been many attempts to pull off alternatives for micro-blogging that aren’t as personal as Facebook, that are decentralised, like EMail. App.Net doesn’t count because it wasn’t decentralised, but there’s been GNU Social and more recently Tent that I enjoyed using until the wheels fell off due to multiple API changes breaking then re-breaking client applications and a pivot that effectively ended its usefulness for the masses and the majority of users lost interest.

And then there is Mastodon. This is a sorta-new-kid-but-not-really on the block and it’s gathering a lot of steam in somewhat of a perfect storm of discontent with the existing platforms. I won’t list off everything about it since that’s been done elsewhere, rather I’ll highlight the current short-comings, how I’m intending to use it and why.

First some light reading…

I particularly enjoyed the last link regarding Facebook.

I’ve spent a few hours and put together my own instance and taking a nod from TEN I’ve called it the engineered.space because it’s meant to be a space for engineers to hang out. It’s free, it’s never going to be huge-huge so it will have things that you can’t get anywhere else:

  • A local stream from all users on the instance
  • It’s free and has no advertising
  • You can use your account to follow anyone else on Mastodon outside the engineered.space instance

In order to keep the local stream as focused as possible I recommend only boosting content that fits within the rules. To further support this, it’s currently going to be semi-closed, and by that I mean it’s technically closed to random drive-by sign-ups. However if you’re an engineer and you want to participate directly on engineered.space and want to have an account there, send me:

  • Your preferred EMail address
  • Your preferred user name on the instance
  • Send either via EMail to admin@engineered.network
  • OR send via Direct Message me on Twitter though that seems odd, in retrospect…

Since Mastodon is an open source software project, there are many people excited about it’s capabilities and are actively contributing to its future. One of the many features that it lacks currently, I’m confident will be available in coming weeks and months:

  • Deleting accounts yourself (currently if you want out, EMail me and I’ll delete the account on the instance)
  • Invitation sign-up Links OR Moderated sign-up staging
  • Easier history backup/export/import process when shifting instances

In terms of the web interface it’s really quite impressive given its stage of development. I’ll use that on my iPad Pro and my desktop at work and it’s really very good. If you’re looking for native applications on Mobile currently there are:

  • Amaroq for iOS (I use this one and it’s pretty good but iPhone only for the moment)
  • Tusky for Android
  • Mastodon for Windows Phone

Of course it’s early days but you have to start somewhere and given that Mastodon is only 7 months into its existence at nearly 12 million accounts across 1,300+ instances, I’d say there’s some interest and it’s worth a shot.

If you’re looking for me I’m @chidgey@engineered.space and you can follow me there on Mastodon. I’ll run the Engineered Space server for as long as I can fund it, and if it grows too big I may reconsider this but for now at least, the door is open. Drop me a line and let me know if you’re interested.

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General 2017-04-24T21:30:00+10:00 #TechDistortion
John's Hierarchy Of Focus https://techdistortion.com/articles/johns-hierarchy-of-focus https://techdistortion.com/articles/johns-hierarchy-of-focus John's Hierarchy Of Focus If you prefer a podcast version of this article look here under Analytical

“Focus means saying no…” so once said Steve Jobs though the context he was mentioning it in was more related to products and features for those products, it applies on many levels. Individually our time is precious and that’s buried within that statement at a deeper level.

To be productive you need to decide how to say no, and if you possibly can - perhaps avoid needing to say no altogether. It’s not always a good coping strategy to just say “no” in all situations nor is it realistic to expect people to “just leave me alone” so you can focus on getting something specific done. When working in groups you can look at which situations allow you to say “no” since they’re not all created equal.

Productive time in businesses fall into four basic time groupings:

  • Collaborative time (meetings, group discussions)
  • Planning time (usually the individual, planning what needs to be done, sometimes in consultation with others)
  • Consulting time (obtaining information and direction from specific individuals - i.e. You’re disrupting others to further a requirement you have upon yourself but you need to consult with others to deliver it)
  • Lock-down time (individual, with full focus on the task at hand and minimal distractions)

Lock-down time is the best way to shut-out the rest of the world and the best way to control the single biggest source of distraction: communication. These days we have about four levels of communication distraction: Emails, Instant Notifications, Phone Calls, and In Your Face.

John’s Hierarchy of Focus

Scale: 4 is the least distracting to 1 as the highest distraction meaning: it’s the hardest to escape once you’ve been drawn into it.

EMail (#4)

Email was the first major use of networking for businesses in particular and it’s been around for decades and ironically was originally intended to replace nuisance office memos. For those that have been working long enough there were these “In Trays” and “Out Trays” on everyones desk at work. You’d get some special paper with a carbon copy sheet underneath (or multiple thereof depending on how many copies you wanted) and you’d write or type up that paper Memo, keep the original and give the copies to those people you Carbon Copied via the carbon paper sheet(s). The electronic form was so easy to send to so many people, that’s exactly what happened. Previous limits of Carbon Copy layers were gone and the result was email memo spam. People just copied everyone even if they weren’t directly affected:

  • “Oh I should copy Bob - he was involved in that project about 2 years back - he might be interested…”
  • “Oh I should copy my boss so he knows what’s going on…”
  • “Plus the person I’m sending it to, and their boss and the project manager and the other developer and blah blah blah oh my god I’ll just send it to 20 people…”

I get about 75 Emails every day, most of which don’t require a response I’m just copied as an FYI. Great. Thanks everyone. Every one I need to read, comprehend and decide if I need to do something. The problem is that reading takes time and evaluating takes time and that’s time I don’t have if I’m trying to focus on something else.

Turning off Email for me looks like muting all Notifications on my iPad, my iPhone and my Laptop, which ultimately means that I can’t see if Emails are coming through in real time and at that point it’s down to my own nerve - my internal resolve NOT to check my Email. Avoiding a habitual “refresh” of the Inbox is easier said than done for those where it has become a learned behaviour.

But is that okay? I think most people expect that Emails aren’t real-time communications and don’t expect a response immediately even if they set an Important flag for the Email. So if I don’t respond for a day, it’s probably okay. If I don’t respond for a few days, it’s probably annoying to others. If I don’t respond for a week, it’s probably pushing the friendship a bit there, but overall it’s okay with the risk of offence being quite low for most people. The benefit of the eliminated distraction is great and real and the more Email you get, the more gain you’ll get from turning off your Email notifications.

Instant Notifications (#3)

There are so many different messaging platforms out there I’m not going to list them all but some of the bigger ones at the time of writing are Twitter, Facebook and Snapchat. Instant Messages are sent specifically to you unlike most Emails and they’re not “Fred just built yet another sandcastle and posted a photo on Instagram” types of messages. There’s a difference when we get a personally directed message that puts it a cut above an Email such that there’s more of an expectation that you’re going to respond. It’s like a quick verbal conversation except typing requires more cognitive load than talking does for most people and when you think you’re done with a conversation, it doesn’t mean you ACTUALLY are.

You type “See you later,” hit send and think that’s it, I’m done, put the phone down to refocus and then it’s another message back. Quick now, stop what you’re doing to read it and probably respond again. If you don’t respond to an instant message in a little while there’s really two flavours: instant messaging systems that track when you’ve read the message (read-receipts) and ones where the other person doesn’t know you’ve read their message. My suggestion: if you can turn off read receipts - do it. It makes you look like a jerk when you read the message and then choose not to respond immediately. Turn read receipts off and leave them off and set expectations early on in your texting ‘relationship’ that you’ve done that.

Assuming read receipts are turned off and someone instant messages you, you choose not to respond, what’s the consequence? After a few minutes they’ll probably forget all about it anyway and after a day it’s ancient history. It will annoy people more than if you ignored their Email but not too much more especially if you turn off your read receipts first. For most it’s a case of taking the application(s) instant messaging you and turning off their notifications or if there are too many switch your messaging device(s) to Do Not Disturb mode. The risk of offence is higher than Email but not by too much and the benefit of the eliminated distraction is as great and just as real as Email and in some cases worse for a lot of younger people that have grown up with instant messaging at their fingertips. For a lot of people though, this one is a harder habit to break than shutting out Email.

Phone Calls (#2)

Yes…people still make phone calls. It’s been around for a hundred years and the expectation has long ago been set: when the phone rings, you answer it. In the last thirty or so years has it become possible to call you wherever you go, wherever you are, any time of the day or night rather than only ever at home or at work. No answer meant “they weren’t at home” or “they weren’t at their desk” and that was it.

Now it’s assumed phones are on you at all times, always charged, always on, and that level of accessibility is very hard for a lot of people to resist intruding on. Hence it’s above text-based messaging it’s like a tap-tap-tap ring-ring-ring are you there? They test your instinct to not answer the phone. That said, there’s the send to voicemail option and if you’re trying to avoid people then send them voicemail. Sometimes a variant of this is called “call screening” where you listen to the first 2-5 seconds to see who it is before answering or not. Then again you could just send them all with a divert to voicemail.

Always diver can be problematic because certain people will start to get offended if you just divert all calls to voicemail. There’s an expectation in business that whilst Emails and IMs might not require an immediate response if I call twice or three times then it’s urgent and I need you to pick up. That said, the phone ringing suggests they’re not in the same room which means they technically can’t tell if you’re there or not. For people that get lots of phone calls: I’ll get about 20 on an average workday for example, it can be quite frustrating when you’re trying to concentrate. If you answer that phone, you’re stuck with a conversation where you need to go through pleasantries, get to the nut of what they actually want from you, answer or try to give them what they want or need, or make a commitment to get them something that they want or need, more pleasantries and then hang up, followed by taking some notes, setting some reminders and oh wait - here comes the next phone call.

I have a policy that I’ll answer calls when: (Your list of rules may vary and this is just what I do)

  • I’m not in a business critical meeting
  • I’m not in training (or giving training)
  • On call - no matter what or when, during business hours

When I put myself into self-imposed lock-down (I’ll talk more about that shortly…) I only answer if it’s my boss or about a pressing issue I’m aware of already and I’ll send the rest to voicemail and if they don’t leave a voicemail I never call them back. If it was important they’d leave a voice mail or call me back.

I think people get very annoyed if you repeatedly and consistently ignore their phone calls but it’s also relative to position. I’ve found that people with higher positions in companies get cut more slack and the lower you are in the hierarchy the more expectation there is that you’ll just drop everything and answer the phone. Repeatedly screening calls from the same person carries a definite risk you’ll offend that person since there’s no chance to provide context as to why you’re doing it, but generally it’s not much more offensive than ignoring IMs.

There’s a huge saving in terms of focus to be had in sending all of your calls to voicemail but do so with caution. I prefer call screening and checking my VMs periodically as a better balance.

In Your Face (#1)

Sometimes I’ve heard it called “Cubicle Bombing.” You’re at your desk, trying to work and they just rock up and say “Hi!” For added impact, sometimes they hunt in packs. They’ll stand and look at you, or tap you on your shoulder, or talk loudly next to you, pretty much anything to get your attention. Humans are social animals and we don’t usually like to offend other people but if you’re like me and you tend to wear your emotions on your sleeve it’s hard to hide annoyance and frustration when you’re genuinely busy and get cubicle bombed.

I think that people need to know that you’re busy and you really can’t talk but rather than come across as impatient and disinterested I’m getting more direct in my old age. I try to be firm and say “I need to finish this Email/report/whatever for [insert name of important person here] so can I drop by later?” or something similar and most people will respect that. Then comes the “Oh it won’t take long…” and yeah, sure, there you go for an hour or longer conversation.

Some people think that work is just going and talking to other people but the reality is that talking is not actually work for the vast majority of the workforce pretty much of the time in an average day. If you’re in Human Resources even then it’s not really true since there’s plenty of paperwork or data entry to do too.

Then there are the cubicle bombers that just won’t leave. I’m not saying I’ve tried all of these but here’s few I’ve seen others pull:

  • Faking a phone call on your mobile
  • Needing to visit the restroom/washroom/bathroom, but not really needing to
  • Having an “help me” sound or gesture with your cubicle mate across the way and get them to interrupt somehow

People generally come to see you as a last resort these days, not the first. Which is both good and bad. The truth is though if they can find you, just ignoring them will offend them and telling them to go away will also offend them. You might be in a position in the organisation where the risk of offending them is far too great to risk for fear of loss of your position.

So if you need focus, you need to find a way to make yourself harder to find.

The Bottom Line

Why these distractions annoy me so much centers around when someone needs something from you, it’s all about them and what they need or want, not about how they’ll make your job/life easier. They distract you from the task that you care about or are accountable for delivering, to make you refocus on the task that THEY care about or need to deliver themselves. The truth is when they distract you, almost always they win and you lose.

The flip side is clear: what about when you need something from someone else? Do you have the right to distract THEM? If you do because they’re the nominated person what’s the right way to do it? I suggest working your way up the list from bottom to top. Email first, if there is no response, message second, phone call third, plan a meeting about it (30mins or less if possible) and finally if there is no other choice, track them down physically. Waiting more than 10 minutes between each escalation is also advisable.

If you need to get something done, you need to focus and you need to say NO then lock-down is what you should do.

Eliminate the distractions that will cause minimal offence to others and maximum your potential for distraction-free time. I’d suggest this order of hierarchy:

  1. Turn off and don’t check your Email.
  2. Go to Do Not Disturb for your IMs.
  3. Screen your phone calls and let unimportant, non-urgent calls go to voicemail.
  4. Get out of the office, or if not find a place in the office where you don’t normally go and can get a quiet spot to work without distraction. If they can’t find you they can’t get in your face.

Even if you don’t do them all, do as many as you can because focus does mean saying no and it sometimes means saying no without saying it at all and putting yourself and your focus ahead of others.

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General 2017-01-15T05:45:00+10:00 #TechDistortion
Everything Is Cyclic https://techdistortion.com/articles/everything-is-cyclic https://techdistortion.com/articles/everything-is-cyclic Everything Is Cyclic Wash - Rinse - Repeat

So says the instructions on the shampoo bottle, or was that Lather, Rinse, Repeat? Either way the idea that sequences are part of our lives is pervasive in ways we often don’t recognise cognitively. The sun rises, it sets, the seasons change and repeat each year and so on.

Yet when it comes to personal desires we seem to not recognise this cyclic nature in ourselves. Though in humans it seems to be more driven in some people by the urge to refine, to iterate and to improve. A perfect example from my own life is commuting to and from work. A common problem set at the foot of many people in the world.

Your options: Drive or take public transport.

For a few years I drove to work whenever I could, which was never exclusively, but when a project had a downtown car park that I was able to utilise every day for a few months I took that option. I had been on a combination of buses and trains for the preceding 2 years and grew tired of the scheduling problems, late trains, breakdowns and so on.

All of that was replaced by traffic jams and being stuck on a freeway unable to get off. Large accidents setting me back 3 hours on one occasion from getting home.

Back on the train again for another 2 years, drive for 6 months, back on the train for 2 more years and so the cycle goes on.

The more I think about it the more it’s about forgetting the frustrations that drove us away from the previous pattern to explore a different pattern, or to tweak a previous pattern in the hope of finding an improvement. Hopefully there’s progress towards the ultimate goal of optimisation but I fear in some cases the cyclic nature drives itself with no end.

I’ve seen it time and again in management circles: We need to centralise to reduce bottlenecks, followed by a decentralisation to improve efficiencies of each department, only to become centralised once again years later.

The same cyclic nature seems to be pervasive in technology circles as well. I started with a MacBook Pro 15” and tried that for 3 years, then I switched to a Mac Pro and used a 1st Gen iPad for mobile work, then switched to a MacBook Air 13” for a few years then back to the MacBook Pro 15” again. The rough sequence of events was:

  • Old MBP wasn’t getting used as a laptop (always connected) so let’s switch to a desktop instead
  • Desktop/iPad combination wasn’t flexible/powerful enough for my needs to let’s use a light laptop
  • Light laptop not powerful enough for audio/video editing so let’s switch to a MBP
  • MBP is to heavy too lug around with me so let’s try an iPad Pro instead
  • and so on…

Of course my usage requirements changed at some points along that journey and that drove some of those changes but ultimately no single requirement ever wins out and we romanticise the good elements of our previous cycle which drives the idea that we should try something different.

Is this attempt to refine our life-flows actually beneficial? I begin to wonder how much money and time is spent worrying about little niggling details we try to optimise and lose sight of the bigger picture.

“Oh you’re never happy,” my wife sometimes tells me in my endless pursuit of a refinement or a tweak that to her seems trivial. As I sit here I think she’s right.

If it’s not broken, don’t fix it, so I’ve been told. And mis-remembering past experiences doesn’t mean present experiences are broken at all. And if the problem is just our memory, then we need to carefully examine the truth about our past cycles, and make a pragmatic choice, not an emotive, selective-memory driven decision. Much as it would disappoint the many thousands of companies that want you to upgrade or try their new widget that will “make you more efficient” maybe you just shouldn’t.

Maybe everthing isn’t cyclic after all. It doesn’t need to be. In many cases that choice is up to you.

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General 2016-02-20T21:30:00+10:00 #TechDistortion
Good Notes https://techdistortion.com/articles/good-notes https://techdistortion.com/articles/good-notes Good Notes The iPad Pro and the Apple Pencil are amazing products but they aren’t any good without good software that supports their hardware features. Naturally the Notes app on the iPad itself has been optimised for the Pencil, and it shows with excellent pressure sensitivity and tilt support with some of the cleanest lines you’d like to see.

It has one big drawback though: there’s no OCR and with it no searchability. Maybe I’m asking too much but this isn’t the days of the Palm Pilot where I learned to write in “Graffiti” one letter at a time. OCR is becoming quite common and honestly with support now in OneNote it’s becoming very mainstream as Microsoft are leveraging their decades of experience with pen support.

Apple don’t have a native solution for it on iOS and whilst I recognise that typing will always be significantly faster than handwriting, in engineering I spend a significant amount of my time making hand-written notes and drawing diagrams with a reasonable amount of text. Being able to search that handwritten text would be a dream come true.

OneNote to the rescue - kinda…

The problem is that in my office environment access to the servers is firewalled and I have to tether to get external access to my OneDrive for OneNote sync and Microsoft do OCR on the notes on the server side, feeding the results back to the document when they’re done. They suggest 5 minutes but I’ve waited hours. The advantage of that method is it’s genuine image OCR and it should therefore work for any image of sufficient quality in the OneNote document (more on why that matters later) but it requires the server side and that’s a problem for me in my use case.

I need something that works locally on the device. Maybe it’s coming someday but for now, OneNote can’t help me.

Good Notes 4

I’d spent a week or two of work with my iPad Pro just prior to Christmas and used Notes and it was fine, except it began to mirror my real-world notes problems: they were an unsearchable, poorly indexed mess but at least I could look at them wherever I was without having to drag my engineering notebook everywhere with me.

I’d researched a lot of software and after watching several how-to videos forked out the $7.99USD ($12.99AUD) for the iOS and shortly thereafter another $7.99 for the Mac version because it blew me away so completely.

GoodNotes 4 allows you to create Categories for your notes starting you off with “Uncategorised” and “Trash” but I simply added Work and Home and went with those. When you create a Notebook you can choose several different kinds of Covers with options ranging from Bright, Calm, Dark, Enclosed, Plain and Simple: each with a subset of interesting patterns. Being me, I stuck with the default cover: Simple Blue.

The first page (and each subsequent can be added prior or after any page you’re on quite easily) gives you options for different paper sizes with pre-ruled and graph-style papers. My two favourites I use are Standard (A4) because that’s the standard in Australia, and I always choose between Narrow Ruled (if I’m writing a lot of words), Narrow and Quad Ruled (aka graph paper for sketching diagrams) or just Plain (just for freehand sketching).

Swiping between pages is easy with a two-finger slide left or right, with pinch to zoom works as expected plus there’s a handy zoom in close function for fine work that all worked nicely and were quite polished compared to the standard Apple Notes app.

A single tap along the top selects your drawing implement be it a stylus as a pen, a highlighter, an eraser or to enable the handy Lasso tool for selecting areas of your notes and cut/copy/paste/resize them as required. A second tap for those drawing implements with colour selectivity brings up a palette with line thickness control as well. There’s shape recognition which I found to be passable but Grafio does a far better job as does OneNote.

There are options to sync your content via iCloud which works fine between my iPhone 6S+, iPad Pro and Macbook Pro, but also includes Import/Export options for Google Drive, OneDrive Box and DropBox as well as using DropBox for Automatic backup beyond iCloud if you so wish. You can also import content from other iCloud Drive sources, Photos or the Camera directly.

Ultimately though that’s not what hooked me.

Searching Handwritten Notes

Open a workbook and select the ellipsis in the top right corner then “Search” and type in the text you want to find. GN4 then does a real-time handwriting recognition search through the workbook and highlights in yellow all instances it found of the text. It works on the device in isolation, which I tested by killing the WiFi, writing something then searching for the text I’d just written.

Selecting the search entry takes you straight to that occurrence as per any standard typed-text search. My handwriting cursive is terrible so I switched to printing when I was in Grade 7 to make my handwriting legible. It’s not as fast as cursive but it works and you can usually understand what I’ve written. Unlike the days of the Palm Pilot and Grafitti, GN4 had no problem recognising my handwritten notes provided I didn’t overlap too many letters.

I’ve only used the English (US) handwriting recogition so for other languages I can’t make comment. I did try to trip-up the software by underlining through y’s and g’s but it didn’t skip a beat.

Speed

As you can see my cursive (bottom) is terrible, and my slow printing is quite readable, with my normal writing speed for notes is, relatively okay. That said, GN4 found the search text “speed” in all three sentances.

Friend

GN4 also found “friend” in the cursive section. Not that I’m intending to write in cursive though.

The Not So Good

Like all things, it’s not perfect and it would be remiss of me not to mention the issues I’ve encountered.

  • Palm rejection is somewhat twitchy when I’m taking notes in Landscape the most common annoyance is the iPad bringing up the app-switcher randomly and drawing a line across the document in the process that I see when I return to the app. There is a hand-angle adjustment I’m playing with to try and improve that but it throws me out about once every 20 minutes or so of writing. The Notes app never does it, so I’m assuming that will improve with time.
  • Broken lines appear from time to time when I’m writing quickly and it might be based on pressure sensitivity though it’s hard to be certain. Notes does a better job but the broken lines don’t seem to affect the handwriting recognition as it’s only a 2 or 3 pixels and it’s really only a visual annoyance if you zoom in closely.
  • Handwriting search being restricted to the open workbook only is honestly my biggest gripe. When searching workbooks at the top level screen it only text-searches the workbook titles. To search for handwritten text you need to open the workbook and then search within it. If I’m trying to organise my workbooks for different purposes but need to find something I wrote I need to open them all in turn and search individually.
  • Handwriting search is not OCR in a traditional parlance and at first that doesn’t seem to be a show stopper until you try and import notes taken in another app, like Notes. To get handwriting recognition to work on my old notes I’d taken, I saved them as images to the Camera roll, imported them into GN4 then I traced them over the top and deleted the original image. That’s fine if you have 20 pages of notes like I did, but if you have more it’s a big deal.
  • Desktop app is an iCloud viewer for the moment at least as it’s only been out for four months. It’s what I mainly need (handwriting search works here too) but I’m hoping in future they add synchronising to other sync-services and some editing features but honestly I’m using it as a reference on my desktop/laptop. I enter/write all of my notes on the iPad Pro anyway.

Standard Zoom

It’s a rare issue but broken lines aren’t too bad at normal zoom.

Zoomed In

Zooming in the broken lines are quite pronounced. It’s not a common problem but I never experienced this with Notes app.

How I’m Using It

To overcome the restrictions on search I’ve created two Categories, one for work and one for home each with a small number of workbooks in them. For Work in particular where I’m going to need as much searchability as possible I’ll be keeping a single workbook for every 3 or 6 months (let’s see how unwieldy it gets after 3 months) before starting a new one. This is analogous to how I operate in the real world and in future hopefully they will add searching across multiple Workbooks or I could just copy and paste each into a master “searchable” file.

Conclusion

I’m still hoping for an open-pen format that’s widely supported for pen-captured data that would allow handwritten notes to be copied and pasted between documents. We have that for text but OCR can’t be the answer for every such problem. That said, searching handwritten text allows me for the first time ever to take notes the way I always have with handwriting but not require paper or a pencil, and then have all of my notes available on all of my devices; not stuck in a set of physical notebooks that turn ragged and fall apart and requires storage for years.

We are so close to going paperless. I can feel it.

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General 2016-01-10T21:20:00+10:00 #TechDistortion
The iPad Pro and Apple Pencil in Engineering https://techdistortion.com/articles/the-ipad-pro-and-apple-pencil-in-engineering https://techdistortion.com/articles/the-ipad-pro-and-apple-pencil-in-engineering The iPad Pro and Apple Pencil in Engineering A great deal of digital ink has been spilled (pixels have been randomly arranged?) over whether the iPad is actually a useful productivity tool and much of it has been written by artists, technology journalists and bloggers, but I have yet to see much of a comprehensive examination of the iPad from an engineering perspective.

Before I go further, if you prefer listening to podcasts, I talk about it extensively on Episode 68: Paperless of Pragmatic on The Engineered Network.

I know several other engineers that aren’t interested in the Apple cult, and prefer the configurability of Microsoft products of the past and they latched on to the Surface when it came out however reports of its sluggishness and heft as a tablet made it more of a laptop with a detachable keyboard than an actual tablet, and the Surface Pen was not held in very high regard either. I heard of issues with palm rejection and accuracy as well as lag, but observation is the best tell and I’ve observed those people using their Surface almost exclusively as a laptop, and seldom if ever using the Pen.

As I am more personally invested in the Apple ecosystem, I’ve owned and throughly used an iPad 1, iPad 2, iPad Air, iPad Mini, iPad Mini 2 and now an iPad Pro. In that time I’ve used a Griffin 2-in-1 Pen/Capacitive Stylus, an Adonit Jot Pro and now an Apple Pencil. So with those qualifications out of the way…

What’s Special About Engineering?

Engineering involves conveying a lot of information diagrammatically and it’s not the only profession that does. In that sense marking up drawings, flow charts, red lines and whiteboards are our tools for this job, but what frustrates me more than the old tongue in cheek comment “the age of the paperless office” which apparently happened in the 80s but the world must have missed it somehow, as I intuitively know that moment is coming. What device/service or combination thereof will finally deliver on that promise-turned-running-gag?

To be effective as an engineering tool for me personally it needs to solve several problems I have:

  • An engineering notebook everywhere that stores sketches, handwritten as well as typed notes
  • Accurate markups of PDFs without loss of resolution
  • Creating flow charts and diagrams quickly and easily
  • Portable enough to take everywhere with me
  • Able to physically sign documents, in Word and PDFs accurately

The goals are to eliminate three issues I encounter every day at work:

  • I need to carry three pens everywhere (Blue, Black and Red) and they leak, they get lost, they run out of ink, they suck
  • I currently have to print a document, write my markups on it, then scan it in again which erodes the resolution every time and makes the original document unsearchable even with the best OCR software currently available.
  • I make notes in my engineering notebook (a legal requirement) and need to take it everywhere with me but its size is limited so I move from book to book with transitional periods between books requiring that I carry multiple at once.

iPad for Engineering: Take 1

The iPad Pro for engineering is therefore first and foremost about the stylus, but the ability to use the device with a touch screen keyboard would be a huge plus as well if it could pull it off. That said I’d tried styluses before without much luck and touch screen keyboards as well without any success, so call me skeptical from the outset.

I drew several Enginerd comic strips using my iPad Mini 2 and the Griffin and Adonit mentioned previously but to be honest it was difficult and frustrating. I tried to use older iPads and styluses at work and the two big issues that kept arising were:

  • Stylus accuracy and speed made drawing markups, signatures and notes effectively impossible to do
  • I found myself regularly erasing and trying strokes and signatures again and again and eventually giving up (signatures bared no resemblance to my signature with a traditional pen and paper)
  • Typing was slow because the key sizes on the Mini were too cramped and on the original iPad the typing lag was beyond horrible much of the time

Of course the typing problems of an iPad can be overcome in some ways by using an external keyboard. To that end I used an original iPad keyboard dock with all of the models from time to time, even using a 30-pin dock to lightning adaptor with a box of old business cards to support the weight of the iPad (a trick that worked fine until the iPad Pro came about). It was excellent, however only useful on my desktop at work and for portability to meetings and on the train it was useless.

I also tried the Clamcase, but it just wasn’t stable enough even on the train with the keyboard component regularly disconnecting and being horribly sluggish at the best of times. I wrote about it, I podcasted about it and honestly I gave up on the iPad as an engineering productivity tool.

That was, until the iPad Pro and the Apple Pencil were released.

iPad for Engineering: Take 2

Ever willing to give technology another chance, I obtained an iPad Pro, Apple Pencil and Smart Cover and took it to work for several weeks in the lead up to Christmas determined that if it didn’t work out, I would return them. If they couldn’t earn their place then they had no place. The TL;DR: I still have them all.

Double Touch Typing

Yes I did a year of typing classes at high school and I’m a touch typist as a result of those hard yards. Keyboard key spacing is critical when I’m going from device to device. I’ve tried many times to use touch screen keyboards for touch typing, but there have always been two issues: No locators for your index fingers (see those notches on your F and J keys on your physical keyboard? Yeah those things) and the key-sizing and inter-key spacing a were always just off/small enough such that when typing on the screen like it was a physical keyboard, many keys didn’t align. Typing on older/smaller iPads was slower, very inaccurate and ultimately frustrating typing and in the end I just gave up.

When I’m talking about key-sizing and inter-key spacing, what I’m referring to is that the physical dimensions of the screens on iPads make it physically impossible to create a virtual keyboard that matches a physical equivalent. The same is true of the iPad Pro, actually but it’s damned close. The key sizes and spacing on the iPads 1, 2, Mini, Pro, Smart Keyboard and a Apple Wireless keyboard for comparative purposes as shown below:

Device / Keyboard Width (mm) Height (mm) Key Spacing (mm)
iPad Mini Landscape 12 11.5 14.5
iPad Pro Portrait 12 11.5 13.5
iPad 1 & 2 Landscape 15 14 17
iPad Pro Landscape 16 15 18
iPad Pro Smart Keyboard 15 14.5 19
Standard MBP and 1st Generation Aluminium Physical Keyboards 16 15 19

A real world physical keyboard is 273mm wide from the left hand edge of the Caps Lock to the right hand edge of the Return key. The full width of the iPad Pro screen is only 263mm, and that missing 10mm has to come from somewhere. As you can see from the table above, Apple shaved it off the inter-key spacing, which is the obvious choice and honestly the one I would have made as well.

Touch Typing: How Fast is Fast?

As a way to test just how different the typing was between the touch screen and a real physical keyboard, I took a good old-fashioned typing test, using a 1st Generation Aluminium Apple physical keyboard as well as the new Smart Keyboard vs the iPad Pro touch screen keyboard in landscape mode. I used the app “TapTyping” and each test was performed three times in each configuration and the best time taken from each.

Just for good measure I threw in a test on the same hardware and software by using the iPad Pro in portrait mode whose keyboard dimensions closely approximates my previous failed attempts to get screen touch typing utility from the iPad Mini keyboard. Hence, same software, same hardware iPad with only the keyboard data entry as the variable. The results:

Device/Keyboard Speed (wpm) Accuracy (%)
iPad Pro soft keyboard in Portrait Mode 39 94
iPad Pro Smart Keyboard 63 96
iPad Pro soft keyboard in Landscape Mode 67 97
iPad Pro with Apple Bluetooth Keyboard 85 98

It’s important to note that the typing test accuracy does not rely on auto corrections and letters must be corrected prior to proceeding. That said, the occasional need to glance down at my virtual keys really hurt my speed and the slightly different key spacings also hurt my accuracy, but it’s the same old story: physical keyboards will always be faster for raw speed.

Without a physical edge to feel for, once your fingers are visually aligned on the F&J keys, the maximum error on the iPad Pro is now only 1mm for the standard keyboard keys. For me at least, that turns out to be the threshold of usability for the first time for touch typing on a touch screen. (I henceforth refer to that as double touch typing)

I’m still slowed down initially when I glance down at the glass to position my fingers for the first letters but after that it doesn’t require any further thinking or retraining and I’m happily typing away. My fingers sometimes need to realign on the stretch keys that can drag my hands away from their home position over the F&J keys which then slows me down.

The verdict though: the iPad Pro is by the far the best and perhaps only iPad out there that I can double touch type on.

Smart Keyboard

The Smart Keyboard is designed to work only with the iPad Pro and uses the three small and well disguised pins located on the left hand side of the tablet. It has several folding configurations depending upon whether you want to use the keyboard or not, or in carrying mode. All of these took a fair amount of practice in the store to get your head around.

I tried typing on the Smart Keyboard in an Apple Store several times for up to 30 minutes at a time trying to decide what I thought about the key mechanism but I ultimately came away with the impression that it felt rubbery, sluggish and annoying.

Interestingly though, despite being a physical keyboard, I wasn’t able to type faster than the touch keyboard, but as the results show it’s not by much of a margin. The marginally smaller keys and texture of those keys made it harder to feel the edges than the standard Bluetooth keyboard but those locating notches were nevertheless helpful.

The truth is however, if I wanted to lug around a physical keyboard it needs to have more normal physical keys on it. The keys on the Smart Keyboard feel like a material compromise too far, most likely as a weight reduction measure, thinness and possibly also for moisture resistance, but either way it doesn’t feel that great, and for that kind of money it needs to.

I wanted to try the touch typing experience on the touch screen before I spent money on the smart keyboard and with the results of the touch keyboard being promising, for the moment at least I think I’ll pass on the smart keyboard. If I didn’t have a laptop and the iPad Pro was my only device then I could understand buying a physical keyboard as well.

Such a big screen needs some sort of protection however so if you’re serious about protecting your investment then the ideal typing experience could include a Smart Cover and an external keyboard of some kind. To that end I looked at two Apple-based options.

Device Cost (AUD) Cost (USD) Weight (g)
Smart Keyboard $269 $169 337
Apple Wireless Keyboard $165 $99 231
Smart Cover $89 $59 162
(AWK + SC Combination) -$15 -$11 +56

The best typing experience would be to buy the Bluetooth keyboard and the Smart Cover and only take the keyboard when lots of typing was anticipated. I dare say for the vast majority of tablet owners the Smart Keyboard will get little use if they have another computing device with a genuine keyboard. I think, to borrow Tim Cooks expression, the keyboard makes the iPad a more “confusing product” than it needs to be. Especially when you consider just how good the double touch typing experience now is on the iPad Pro screen.

Also to prove the point that the touch screen is plenty good, this entire article was typed in double touch.

Apple Pencil

I’ve always dreamed of having both a responsive and an accurate stylus but until I tried this one, I hadn’t found it. Yes I did the slow motion thing and I know there is still lag, and yes some apps haven’t been updated to fully utilise the Apple Pencil specific APIs. Honestly though, those apps that have been updated are a dream to use and the drawing lag is barely perceptible unless you’re trying to find it.

Before we get to that though, as a drawing device I had no option but to compare them with the competition:

Writing Implement Weight (g)
Papermate InkJoy boring old normal ball-point pen 7
Apple Pencil 20.5
Adonit 23

Of course it’s not a fair fight since the Apple Pencil is an active device with a battery and such, and the metal case of the Adonit makes it quite a bit heavier, but the thing I noticed the most was that the Apple Pencil feels like the heaviest pen to hold in your hand when you’re writing like due to its weight distribution. I sometimes remove the lid from pencils to make them lighter and reduce their overall length when using them for longer periods. (Reduces hand fatigue) This also has the effect of reducing the pressure I write with when I do so. The plug/cap on the end of the Apple Pencil doesn’t make much of a difference to either the weight or the length of the device and it still feels just as heavy.

Okay that’s a bit of a nit pick for sure but I personally don’t like a hefty pen when I’m writing with it for a long period of time. It feels unnecessary and adds no real value since it appears as though they’ve added steel to weight it to prevent rolling and also to be attracted to the magnets mounted in the iPad. Directly comparing it then, I’ve found using it for longer periods tires my hand more so than a traditional pen would, which is understandable given the additional weight.

I can get used to that of course, since I used to be able to write six pages of text notes during a two hour lecture 20 years ago without my hand cramping. Those were the days…(insert old man comment here)

Logistics

Carrying the iPad Pro between meetings is no different to bringing my traditional notebook, and the battery life easily lasts the day with practically constant use. I do get annoyed about the short battery life of the Apple Pencil with a full day of use in my job requiring an emergency charge mid-afternoon on two separate days. That said, the charging was quick even though inserting it into the Lightning port looks ridiculous and is particularly prone to accidental damage if you or someone close by is careless.

Software

I started out using the built in Notes app for taking my notes but moved to GoodNotes shortly thereafter and even transcribed my notes into that app for its amazing handwriting recognition features. I’ve been using Grafio for charts and diagrams and PDF Pen for marking up PDFs. Sync services via iCloud and Dropbox for those apps work really well but refer to my individual reviews of those apps for more about the software component of the iPad Pro equation.

Non-Engineering Tasks

Having owned and extensively used all of the iPad form factors now, I can safely say that the size extremes have clear use cases with the mid-size model being a bit of both.

  • Mini is for single handed use and great for reading novels
  • Pro is for two handed use and great for newspapers and comics
  • Air is a bit of both and balances portability with the above two

There is something magical about being able to touch the screen and see things respond directly to your touch. When I used my first light pen in the late 80s I was impressed but it was nothing like what we have now. I worry that people get a bit blasé about it with the near ubiquity of smartphones these days, but the fact remains the immersiveness you feel interacting with a touch device only draws you in more, the larger the screen is.

I use my laptop on the train a few hours each work day but primarily at my desk. I use my iPad on the couch or in a comfy chair. For reading Twitter, the newspaper, Instapaper, my RSS feeds, and just surfing the Internet the iPad Pro has been the best iPad yet for those tasks.

I thought that I would miss the one handed operation of the Mini but ultimately I just prop the Pro up on my leg or knee bent at a comfortable angle and don’t really hold it at all and I’ve been fortunate to spend a few hours in that position over the Christmas holidays and it hasn’t been an issue.

Video and audio playback is simply amazing with excellent bass reproduction and the volume can easily fill a small room. Much to be happy about there.

I’ve been avoiding using my iPad in bed for a few months now since I’ve trying to avoid artificial light before bed so that hasn’t been issue either. In short: one-handed operation of an iPad turns out to not be a big issue for me. Your mileage may vary.

Conclusion

There is no doubt that achieving a truly paperless office is a challenging task. Asking yourself the question: ‘do I really need that printout?’ certainly helps, but truly collaborative software tools are only just now becoming available that allow the sorts of digital collaboration we need to bring ourselves over the line technologically speaking.

So long as organizations and legislators rely on wet ink-signatures, we’ll be stuck with paper. So long as employees are given laptops and not tablets and styluses for their jobs, we’ll be stuck with paper. Where we have a choice, or decide to draw a line and stump up our own funds to try and escape the shackles of the paper world and all of its flaws, I think going paperless is absolutely possible.

The iPad Pro and the Apple Pencil, in conjunction with GoodNotes has allowed me to completely ditch my written notebooks. I can search those notes with good accuracy, and I can double-touch type on the tablet with no external keyboard or special (heavier) cover required, at quite a respectable speed for the first time ever.

For me at least, I’ll be keeping this device and using it for my job every day, and for many days to come.

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General 2016-01-10T19:00:00+10:00 #TechDistortion
The Engineered Network https://techdistortion.com/articles/the-engineered-network https://techdistortion.com/articles/the-engineered-network The Engineered Network I’ve been working on a project for a few months now with the aim of providing a platform for other engineers that want to create a podcast and get themselves out there. It’s a podcast network and it’s called “The Engineered Network” and it launches today with three shows: Pragmatic (returning from the ashes), Causality and Neutrium.

Rather than reiterate what I’ve already said on TEN, check it out directly.

What that means for TechDistortion should be clear: I’m focussing on TEN for the forseeable future and TD will only be updated occasionally as I have something to say that isn’t network-related.

Thank you in advance for your support everyone.

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General 2015-10-10T05:30:00+10:00 #TechDistortion
Two At A Time https://techdistortion.com/articles/two-at-a-time https://techdistortion.com/articles/two-at-a-time Two At A Time I had weight loss surgery 16 months ago and I’ve had many requests from friends, twitter followers and pragmatic listeners for an update to how it’s going. How I’m doing. If it was worth it, where this flight of stairs has taken me and if that was a good destination.

To answer in that order:

  • It’s going okay so far
  • I’m doing fine
  • It was totally worth it so far

Consider that the TL;DR and stop reading there if that’s all you want to know. Otherwise…let’s talk.

This article is broken down into the NEGATIVES and the POSITIVES. Do yourself a big favour and read through the whole lot to understand the trade-offs. It’s not as simple as you’d think.

Note: Some on this was discussed on Episode 57 of Pragmatic

Like being a parent explaining parenthood to a non-parent there will be a limit to what I can convey to you, the reader, the potential patient even, about what this surgery will do to you. It’s not for my inability to annunciate that which I have experienced, nor is it a judgement of your inability to comprehend it. Rather the language and the feelings are difficult to fully convey in this medium.

Beyond that dilemma we also have the consideration that my experiences are my own, and whilst some of the symptoms I have experienced are common and shared amongst those that have had the same or similar surgeries, there is no way I can possibly know all of the permutations and combinations of experiences of everyone that has undergone this or a similar procedure.

Noting the above points we’ll do the best we can with what we have.

I had a Gastric Sleeve (technically referred to as a Laparoscopic Sleeve Gastrectomy) which has elements in common with the older Gastric Bypass procedure but nothing to do with a Gastric Band. And yes, the Band probably should be banned…but I digress.

What A Sleeve Is

The sleeve is essentially a staple-line along the major length of the stomach and between 75-80% of the stomach (lower-back) is physically removed below the staple line. This heals and then forms a sleeve-like, tubular stomach. No other modifications to the intenstines are performed. Titanium staples are most commonly used (and were in my case) and most surgeons will use either 2 or 3 rows of staples to ensure there are no leaks.

The sleeve performs two functions: It reduces the total volume that the stomach can hold and because the food in the stomach stays in the stomach for significantly less time, less is absorbed by the body. Beyond this many patients lose their sense of hunger (more on that shortly) and the taste of certain foods change. That’s probably the next part to mention.

Everything About Food Changes

Well maybe not everything, but forget what you knew, what you thought you knew about food and start again. I used to enjoy sweet food, fatty food, lots of carbohydrates and lots of spicy food with few side-effects but now, after only small quantities (maybe 3-5 mouthfuls of carbohydrates mostly) within 2-30 minutes I feel nauseas, faint, my heart races, I feel drained and sometimes even shake and break into a cold sweat with shallow breathing.

The gotchas I’ve learned and the way I eat and what I eat is a daily relearning that I’m continuing to struggle with. What follows are some of the changes I’ve had to make in my eating habits to give you an idea of the consequences of this type of surgery.

NEGATIVES

Only Eat (don’t drink) and Eat Very, Very Slowly

That’s the age old advice: chew your food, don’t “guts” your food, don’t rush it or you’ll get a tummy-ache. The sleeve puts that “ache” part to shame. Rush it and it won’t just ache. It will HURT and HURT and HURT. I’ve learned that moment of bracing myself, if I swallow something I haven’t chewed well enough. Holding your arms up above your head helps a bit. Standing up and walking around with your arms stretched high above your head also helps a bit more.

I try to face it by pretending I’m doing an extended arm-stretch but it’s obvious after the first minute of doing it, that your arms as stretched as they’re ever going to get without deploying a torturing rack. I must just look odd to other people when I do that, but it helps with the pain.

Due to the lack of pliability of the stomach in the first few years following the surgery each mouthful of food tends to pack the air in front of it behind it like a plug. The increasing pressure exerted by this gas build-up after the first 2-4 swallows of food starts to get painful if you don’t carefully burp to let that gas build-up out. I’ve gotten a lot better at quiet-burping as secretly as possible but sometimes you just risk the embarrassment rather than take the more painful route. It’s become easier after 12 months post-op but it’s still a problem.

The other point is to only eat: meaning don’t drink a liquid at the same time as you’re eating. The liquid takes up valuable real-estate down there and can create painful pressure as the food is compacted after each swallow.

Fear Eating In Public

I’ve grown to greatly dislike eating in public. I have to take a long time to eat my food and when you’re a big surly looking bloke like me (5’11” and solidly built) and you’re surrounded by other similar people at the table, you all get the meal at the same time but you’re barely on your 4th mouthful when everyone else has finished.

But it gets worse. Many places serve food and drink together.

It’s bad enough when the others at the table (that don’t know you’ve had this surgery) look at you, your plate, back at you again and ask if there’s something wrong with it or “not hungry?” they’ll ask. What’s worse though is when the table-staff or even owner comes over and asks you how your meal was. For so many years I nodded and said fine, they’d see a cleared plate, nod, smile and move on to the next table. Now they stop, pause and look concerned.

Usually they ask if something’s wrong with your meal, if you’re feeling well, but the one that took the cake was a waitress in Miles where they don’t pull any punches: “If there’s something wrong with your meal you should tell me sooner, and I’ll just bring you something else mate…” she said to me somewhat impatiently.

Whatever you may think of customer service out West, on that occasion I explained the situation, got them to box up the food that was left and slowly ate it over the next two days for lunch. It’s not so bad the first few times, but after two or three dozen times, it wears just a teeny, weeny bit fucking thin.

It’s far easier for me to ask for a starter and say, “I’m not that hungry today…”

Also I’ve given up asking for a mains without any carbs. Good god they look at you like you’re a freaking nutcase.

Me: “No rice please.” Server: “I’m sorry?” Me: “I can’t eat the carbohydrates. No rice please.” Server: “Can you say that again? You don’t want rice??” Me: “That’s right. No rice.” Server: “The meal comes served with rice. We can’t NOT give you rice with your meal.” Me: “A glass of water then.”

For the record, the dish in question had been served to me in the past at other restaurants with the rice in a separate bowl and sometimes not at all. But I’ve become so tired of asking for things like that, I just don’t bother any more. It’s not worth wasting my time trying to explain it.

Eating out? Here’s the sales pitch post-sleeve:

  • Be charged a fortune for a meal that you can only eat a quarter of at most and the rest will usually be thrown away
  • Be grilled by service staff about what was wrong with you or the meal they served you
  • Be grilled by your friends or family about the previous item for good measure
  • Take 4 times longer than anyone else at the table and feel guilty because they’re all waiting for you to finish before they order dessert

Get Used To Reheating Your Food

Because you eat slowly by the time you’ve nearly finished any hot food, it has long since gone cold. I’ve been reheating hot meals sometimes partway through eating them but that’s not always practical and in many cases it’s never quite the same after that anyway. Doesn’t seem to be any way around that one.

Avoid Alcohol

I wrote recently about how I’ve decided that it’s just better for everyone if I gave up Alcohol altogether. It’s simply impossible to pace yourself and be responsible behind the wheel of a vehicle post-surgery. Read that article if you want the details.

Goodbye Hunger

I no longer feel hungry. I can walk into a food court at a shopping center (mall) and smell the delights of a dozen of my previously favourite cuisines and feel absolutely nothing. My mouth doesn’t water. I just don’t care. I don’t feel hunger. Although recently I’ve noticed having a feeling of emptyness when I haven’t eaten for several hours but it’s nothing at all like hunger used to be. It’s more of a niggling sub-note rather than a craving starvation.

I’ve read extensively on the subject and many sleevers report hunger returning between 6 months to even 5 years post-op however for me at least, it’s nowhere to be seen.

The problem is that hunger is the bodys way of reminding you it’s time to eat. If you forget to eat you feel faint and can pass out. I nearly passed out on two separate occasions before I learned that I had to remind myself to eat by the clock. Sometimes it gets annoying.

Other items of note

  • Buffets become completely pointless
  • Other people talking about food becomes incessantly annoying
  • Chewing becomes a chore
  • You’re just ‘over’ food, cooking shows, etc.

POSITIVES

My heaviest recorded weight was 145kg (320lb) and initial consultation weight was about 136kg (300lbs) and my pre-operative weight was 128kg (280lbs). Keep in mind I lost 8kg on the two-week OptiSlim pre-op diet which was designed to reduce the amount of fat stored in the liver and improve the safety of the operation.

I now weigh 84.5kg (186lb). That’s a total loss of about 60kg (130lbs) from heaviest to now.

I have not felt this good since I was 20 years old and yes, that’s half my current age. If I stick to protein rich foods, stay away from sugar and carbohydrates, keep my fluids up (not too much coffee and plenty of water) I feel like I could run a mile in no time at all. It truly is amazing and eye-opening just how unhealthy I had become carrying around all that weight.

My new ritual: is it time to pull another notch in on my belt today? I’ve had four belts in the last 16 months and I’m fitting in a “Large” Shirt size which is bizarre to me. I’m able to shop at “normal” and even fashionable clothing stores for the first time in my adult life.

I’ve thrown away all of my oversized baggy clothes, updated all of my internet avatars to newer photos, started riding my bike again (now I can do that with the kids!) and occasionally, just…occasionally…breaking out into a sprint.

Because I can.

Kirsten and I are discovering “fine dining” at nice restaurants on our monthly date-night, where previously we would have balked at small serving sizes, meticulous presentation and seemingly poor value for money; now we see a small but amazing tasting steak, perfectly cooked and still a touch more than we can eat actually being spot on and we can enjoy it.

Food is no longer the boss of me. I am in control. Its hold over me is gone. And good riddance.

When all that is said and done though, thinking back over the past 2 years there was one event a few months ago that brought it all home. It was stupid, silly, juvenile even. You’re expecting me to say it was something to do with my kids, my wife, my family or friends. Perhaps a compliment or dozen about how great I looked? Nope.

It was the stairs.

I take the train every day to work and have to climb three flights of stairs to get up and over to the center platform to go to work. A few months ago, without even realising it, I reached the top and I wasn’t panting, wheezing or out of breath. I wasn’t fatigued and I looked back down the stairs and realised I’d just walked up them two steps at a time.

I hadn’t walked up a set of steps like that since I was a teenager. And there it was, the last two decades of my life captured in those steps. I was alive, I was crippled for a time, now I am alive once again.

This weight loss journey I took in steps, one at a time, so now I can enjoy my life two at a time.

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General 2015-08-16T02:30:00+10:00 #TechDistortion