Total of 267 posts

Herein you’ll find articles on a very wide variety of topics about technology in the consumer space (mostly) and items of personal interest to me.

If you’d like to read my professional engineering articles and whitepapers, they can be found at Control System Space

I have also participated in and created several podcsts most notably Pragmatic and Causality and all of my podcasts can be found at The Engineered Network.

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.

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.

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.

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…