Trying a new coffee. A nice change from my usual dark roast.

The addition of table support to Agenda is very welcome.

Currently reading: Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir 📚

Delightful when text aligns across lines, yet also frustrating when the alignment is so slightly off

Choosing a podcast player 🤔🎧

There’s been a fair bit of discussion over on about podcast players recently. I’ve switched among Overcast, Castro, and Apple Podcasts players over the years and, mostly to help myself think it through (again), here are my thoughts.

For me, there are three main criteria: audio quality, episode management, and OS integration. Though, I completely understand that others may have different criteria.

Like most podcast listeners, I listen at high speed, usually around 1.5x, which can distort the audio. Apple Podcasts player is definitely the worst for this criterion. For me, Overcast’s smart speed and voice boost features give it the edge over Castro, in terms of audio quality at increased speeds.

Castro is definitely the player of choice if you subscribe to more podcasts than you can listen to. The queue management features in Castro are very good. You can replicate some of this with Overcast, but that isn’t one of the app’s main features. Apple Podcasts player doesn’t offer much in this regard. Despite listing this as a criterion, I’ve actually elevated to subscription, rather than episode, triage. I carefully curate my list of podcasts and don’t add new ones very often. Given this, Overcast’s approach is more than sufficient for me.

OS integration is a bit unfair, as Apple has given themselves some nice features that independent app developers aren’t able to use. Nonetheless, Apple does a good job of intermixing podcasts and music into their Siri-powered widgets in iOS and the HomePods. With my reinforced interest in less screen time and use of home screen widgets, Apple Podcasts wins out here. This may change once Overcast releases a widget.

As just one example of the integration, here’s what happens when I plug headphones into my iPhone: a selection of music playlists and podcasts appears. I use this feature a lot.

Screenshot of the iOS audio widget

After all that, I’m using Apple Podcasts for now, mostly to take advantage of the OS integrations while I’m experimenting with a widget-based iPhone. I’m quite certain this is short term and that I’ll return to Overcast soon. In addition to the better audio quality, Overcast also has some nice refinements, like per subscription speed settings (I like to play music podcasts at 1x) and skip-forward amounts (Quirks and Quarks, for example, always has a two-minute preamble that I skip). These small refinements are typically what distinguishes the stock Apple apps from good indie apps.

I’m glad there are so many solid apps for podcast listening. Whatever your preferences, there’s sure to be one for you.

Season 3 of Star Trek: Discovery was entertaining. Despite some awkward plots that were perhaps necessary to get to the right ending, they really did well with character moments. My only disappointment was the diminishment of Saru in the last few episodes. The sudden conflict he felt about choosing between Kaminar and the Federation seemed really out of character to me. Despite that, I like where they ended and look forward to S4 🖖

I absolutely agree that Facebook has been a major contributor to the mayhem we see in politics these days. I also have significant concerns with how they harvest and use data. All that said, I was able to quickly solve a problem by posting a question to my neighbourhood’s Facebook group. While I have great hopes for the IndieWeb, it is really hard to compete with that kind of reach and ease of use.

Transforming boxes of components into a gaming PC 📦🕹

Like any 12-year old, my son is pretty keen on gaming. As an all Apple house, his options were a bit constrained. So, we decided to build a PC from components.

I’d last built a PC about 30 years ago, when I wasn’t much older than him. I remember thinking it was cool to be using a machine I’d built myself, plus as a parent it seemed like a good educational experience. I have to admit to being a bit nervous about the whole thing, as there was certainly a scenario in which we spent an entire weekend unsuccessfully trying to get a bunch of malfunctioning components to work.

After much deliberation and analysis, we ordered our parts from Newegg and everything arrived within a couple of weeks.

Following along with this great step-by-step video, we assembled the components.

Given my initial anxiety, I was very relieved when we saw this screen. The BIOS booted up and showed that the RAM, SSD, and other components were all properly connected.

With that done, we then got to what ended up being the complicated part. Evidently part of the point of a gaming PC is to have lots of fans and lights. None of this was true when I was a kid and there were a daunting number of wires required to power the lights and fans. Sorting this out actually took a fair bit of time. But, eventually success!

Then our last challenge, which I likely should have anticipated much sooner. We didn’t bother ordering a DVD drive, since everything is online these days. But, our Windows installation showed up as a DVD and we couldn’t create any Windows install media on our Apple devices. Fortunately, we checked in with a slightly older kid down the street and he provided us with a USB drive with the right software. With that challenge solved, we finished the project!

Not counting choosing the components online, the whole project took about 5 hours from opening the boxes to booting into Windows for the first time. I’d definitely recommend it to anyone that’s tempted and technically inclined. My son is quite excited to be using a computer that he built from parts.

A nice tribute to Neil Peart in Rolling Stone Magazine 🥁

I appreciate Sam Harris’ call for competence and compassion in his most recent podcast episode

Having spent countless hours in grad school arguing about frequentist and Bayesian statistics, I appreciate Richard D. Morey’s take on the importance of p values:

The mistake many statistical commentators make is to interpret the p value as attempt at a quantification of evidence, or as a posterior probability. It is none of these things, nor is it meant to be. It should not even, really, be thought of as means to make an inference (although, it is in the most simplistic interpretation of the Neyman-Pearson paradigm). It is, instead, a means to critique a potential inference.

My experiment to avoid Twitter for a week has now grown to two weeks. I’m surprised by how much I don’t miss it. I thought that it was a good source of interesting news, tailored to my interests. So far though, I’m still finding good content to read with a renewed use of NetNewsWire and Apple News.

Scheduling random meetings with a Shortcut ⚙️🗓

Staying in touch with my team is important. So, I schedule a skip-level meeting with someone on the team each week. These informal conversations are great for getting to know everyone, finding out about new ideas, and learning about recent achievements.

Getting these organized across a couple of dozen people is logistically challenging and I’ve developed a Shortcut to automate most of the process.

Borrowing from Scotty Jackson, I have a base in AirTable with a record for each team member. I use this to store all sorts of useful information about everyone, including when we last had a skip-level meeting. The Shortcut uses this field to pull out team members that I haven’t met with in the past four months and then randomizes the list of names. Then it passes each name over to Fantastical while also incrementing the date by a week. The end result is a recurring set of weekly meetings, randomized across team members.

The hardest part of the Shortcut development was figuring out how to get the names in a random order. A big thank you to sylumer in the Automators forum for pointing out that the Files action can randomly sort any list, not just lists of files.

I’m not sharing the Shortcut here, since the implementation is very specific to my needs. Rather, I’m sharing some of the thinking behind the code, since I think that it demonstrates the general utility of something like Shortcuts for managing routine tasks with just a small amount of upfront effort.

Currently reading: Blueprint by Nicholas A. Christakis 📚

Of the 30 books that I read this year, A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine was my favourite fiction book. And, What is Real by Adam Becker was my favourite non-fiction one. 📚

Lost in Yesterday by Tame Impala was my most played song released in 2020

And Phoebe Bridgers was my favourite artist

Thanks to Federico Vittici’s Apple Music Wrapped shortcut for analyzing my music library.

I enjoyed season 1 of The Man in the High Castle. A suitably realistic alternative history with an intriguing mystery of the strange films. I’ve heard seasons 3 and 4 are disappointing, so I’ll likely stop at the end of season 2 📺

Currently reading: Ego is the enemy by Ryan Holiday 📚

20 Macs for 2020 was a fun series and, overall, I agree with the ranking.

Strictly for nostalgic reasons, I would have included the PowerBook G3. This was the first Mac I ever bought and I spent a lot of time with it in the first few years of grad school.

I ran the public beta of Mac OS X which was both incredibly slow and amazingly interesting. My recollection is that I only used AppleWorks and Audion. But, it led to a long interest in and use of open source software like R and LaTeX that continues to this day.

The Value of Everything by Mariana Mazzucato is an effective description of how our economy is constructed by decisions and assumptions over time. By defining value as the same as price, we confuse value creation and value extraction, which leads to many of the problems we see in today’s economic structures. Her proposals for change would help us achieve the world we’re striving for. 📚

Year of the Tangible

Inspired by Coretex, I’m declaring Tangible as my theme for 2021.

I’ve chosen this theme because I want to spend less time looking at a screen and more time with “tangible stuff”. I’m sure that this is a common sentiment and declaring this theme will keep me focused on improvements.

Since working from home with an iPad, I’m averaging about 9 hours a day with an iOS device. This isn’t just a vague estimate; Screen Time gives me to-the-minute tracking of every app I’m actively using.

A generic day is something like:

  1. Exercise via Zoom in the morning
  2. Meditate with Waking Up on the iPhone
  3. Read news on my iPad while having breakfast
  4. Back and forth between Teams (almost 3 hours a day!) and Outlook on the iPad throughout the work day
  5. Learning guitar on YouTube and reading books in the iPad in the evening

Throw in some Netflix, journaling in DayOne, social networking, and random YouTube videos and I’m spending an incredible amount of time looking at a screen.

I’m certainly not a Luddite! The ability of these rectangles of glass to take on so many functions and provide so much meaningful content is astounding. There’s just something unsettling about the dominant role they play.

So, a few things I plan to try:

  • Although I’ll continue reading ebooks, since the convenience is so great, I’ll be rotating paper books into the queue regularly.
  • I’ve lost my running outdoor routine. Getting that back will be a nice addition to the Zoom classes and add in some very much needed fresh air.
  • As a family, we’ve been enjoying playing board games on weekends, just not routinely. Making sure we play at least one game a week will be good for all of us.
  • My son is keen on electronics. We’re going to try assembling a gaming PC for him from components, as well as learn some basic electronics with a breadboard and Arduino.
  • Our dog will be excited to get out for more regular walks with especially long ones on the weekend.

I’ll be adding much of this to Streaks, an app that I’ve found really helpful for building habits. I’ll also add a “tangible” tag to my time tracker to quantify the shift.

My hope is that I can find the right balance of screen time and tangible activities with intention.

Merry Christmas! 🎄🎅

Quite disconcerting that I don’t know how or when I cracked the screen on my Apple Watch. The top left half still works, so not completely broken 😢

Three episodes in and I’m really enjoying season 5 of The Expanse 🚀🪐📺

I’m very happy that Tripping with Nils Frahm is released. Great music for working at home with headphones 🎧🎹