Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

my year in technology

Last year I wrote a “my year in tech" post, so why not this year also?

It’s been a one-step-forward one-step-back kind of year. Some of the changes I implemented last year have stuck this year, but not all of them.

1) The big difficulty of this past year was Twitter, thanks almost wholly to the Presidential election. As I explained in last year’s post, I had mostly escaped public Twitter, venturing there only on rare occasions — and regretting every such venture: I still sometimes forget just how many responses from strangers are uninformed or belligerent or both. (However, my moments of forgetfulness have become rarer, and maybe at last I have learned my lesson for good.) So I had confined myself to the much calmer sanctuary of a private account — but during and immediately following the election private Twitter was no refuge. Even given the small population of that world (fewer than a hundred people) the anger just pulsed and radiated — 24 hours a day, it seemed. So for a while I escaped altogether, deactivating my private account and thinking I might never return. But soon enough I found myself really missing my friends there, so I re-activated it, though making sure to disable retweets for almost everyone, hoping in that way to minimize the amplifications of wrath. We'll see how it goes. In March I will have been on Twitter for ten years. Maybe ten years is enough.

But even if I shut down the private account I have to admit that I'm not likely to shut down the public one. In a better world, the great majority of people would learn about interesting posts and articles and sites through RSS readers; but in this world the great majority of people learn about those things on Twitter. If a post falls in the forest of the internet and there's no one there to tweet it, does it really exist?

2) I took a further step towards owning my turf by (a) downloading the posts from my various Tumblrs, (b) copying the more relevant and significant posts to my personal site, and (c) deleting my Tumblr account. Tumblr had become an increasingly annoying platform to be on, thanks to ads and the various hokey ways they were constantly trying to get me to use more of their "features," so escaping that crap has been a big plus. Also, as long as I had access to the site I found myself thinking about whether I wanted to use it: deleting my account altogether solves that problem. I had created a tumblr for my forthcoming book How to Think but then bought a proper domain name and now own my thoughts about the book and its themes.

By the way, I did this through Reclaim Hosting, which is an amazing company focusing on people in academe. If you are part of the academic world and are not using Reclaim, you're really missing out. Their customer service is state-of-the-art, and through the various apps and services they offer you can expand to your heart's content the elements of your online presence you want to control: from static sites to blogs to galleries of images to email to ... well, you name it. Reclaim is the best.

And in case you’re wondering how to download an entire website: If you're comfortable using the command line, wget is the way to go (just make sure you set the parameters correctly or you could end up trying to download an entire domain, like tumblr.com). But if you have a Mac then you could try the accurate and easy-to-use SiteSucker.

Next step: deleting my Google account. — But I can't! This site runs on Blogger!

3) This year I have written more and more often by hand — that's one change I don't think I'll ever go back on. When I am writing my thoughts in a notebook I think better — that's all there is to it. I have a clearer mind and a clearer prose style when I hold a pen in my hand. My preferred notebook: the Leuchtturm 1917, which works wonderfully with the Bullet Journal method of organizing tasks and ideas. My preferred pen: the Pilot Metropolitan. I have a dream, a dream that I could write a book in that notebook with that pen and have some publisher turn it into editable copy.... I mean, come on, it worked for Dickens and Tolstoy.

4) I'm still listening to CDs a good bit, but the flexibility of digital music is hard to resist — right now I'm writing this post on an iPad and listening to music through the truly remarkable Deepblue 2 from Peachtree Audio — I didn't know a Bluetooth speaker could be this good. Irresistible (for me) convenience.

5) I'm still using a dumbphone — but not as much as I had hoped I would. I go back to an iPhone when I'm traveling, in part because I'm a light-packing fanatic and when I bring that phone I don't need a camera or maps, or for that matter a computer. But then when I come back home and ought to switch out the SIM card to the dumbphone, somehow I manage to forget. Oh well. Here again my problem is having choices: if I just sold one of the phones, my life would be simplified. But that I struggle to do.

6) If the biggest difficulty of the past year was Twitter, the second-biggest was what seems to me the decline of both software and hardware quality on the Macintosh. And I think the Mac problems are just going to beg bigger, as more and more of Apple's energies go into the growth and development of iOS.

When I upgraded to Yosemite, I discovered that Bluetooth had ceased to work, so I couldn't send audio from my Mac to external speakers. (I think that's when my return to CD listening began.) When I upgraded to El Capitan, Bluetooth worked but wifi was totally borked — and since wifi is more necessary than Bluetooth, I reverted to Yosemite. When Sierra came out, earlier this year, I upgraded with fingers crossed, and discovered that Bluetooth works as well as Bluetooth ever works (which is: inconsistently), and wifi works pretty well, though not as reliably as it did in pre-Yosemite versions — but now switching between apps is chaotic. I can use the Dock or my preferred command-Tab method of changing from one app to another and I have no idea what will happen. Sometimes it switches to the app I want, sometimes it continues to show me the app I was in when I switched, sometimes it goes to a third app I didn't ask for. No way to know in advance. Similar problems arise with the use of apps in fullscreen mode, so clearly the code that generates windowing behavior has gone awry in Sierra. My chief point: Every new release of MacOS introduces major new bugs.

Apple's official response to problems of this kind is simply to deny that MacOS has any serious problems, which makes me wonder whether I need to find ways to switch to iOS. After all, that's clearly where the company's focus is. So I've been writing lately on an iPad using Editorial, a very good app, but one that hasn't been updated in so long that I'm assuming it's abandonware — one more iOS update and it could well become unusable, though for now it's fine. (I'm using it to write this post.)

(And by the way, I am also one of those people who thinks that the MacBook keyboard is really terrible — I can type much faster and more comfortably on my Logitech iPad keyboard, which has enough key-travel to give me significant haptic feedback. It also has backlit keys. It's the best iPad keyboard I've used, by a mile.)

In hopes of finding tips for shifting to iOS, I read this post by Federico Viticci on using the iPad Pro as (more or less) his only computer. Viticci's claim is that the iPad Pro fits his needs: he loves working with it, and never wants to go back to the Mac. But as I read his post I almost laughed aloud at the endless hoops he has to leap through to make it all work. I mean, to cite just one example among many possible ones, the guy uses at least six different text editors to make his "workflow" work — it seems to me that that's anything but flow. On the Mac, I almost never have to leave BBEdit, thanks to the ability of pandoc to convert text files into whatever format I need. And given that pandoc is based on underlying UNIX features that deeply embedded in MacOS, and BBEdit has been around for more than twenty years and is still updated regularly, I don't feel nearly as vulnerable as I do when using Editorial on the iPad.

Riccardo Mori, who uses both iOS and MacOS, has written about the logistical complications of using iOS:

The flip side of iOS’s modularity, of iOS’s model of accomplishing a complex task through a series of simple apps, is… well, it’s that often you have to go through unnecessarily long-winded routes and seek the assistance of multiple apps to get stuff done. It’s that in order to find the ‘perfect’ app to handle a task or a series of tasks, you end up installing a lot of similar apps with overlapping features. A personal example: I’ve been toying with the idea of just using my iPad to work when I’m not at home. I’m a writer and a translator, so I shouldn’t need very complex tools or intricate workflows. And yet my experience with iOS has been surprisingly frustrating due to the unexpected fragmentation of what, on the Mac, is a trivial thing to achieve.

Moreover, some of the most basic elements of computer user interaction are still rough and inconsistent on iOS: for instance, selecting text, which in my experience works about 80% of the time. The other 20% of the time I put my finger on one chunk of text and a different chunk gets selected, or I try but fail to find the right pixel to activate the little handle that, were I to find it, would allow me to extend the selection to the length I desire. And I am by no means the only person to have this complaint.

Yet I feel that the far more mature and efficient Mac platform is vulnerable indeed — vulnerable to further degradation and its own inconsistencies of behavior, especially involving any form of wireless connectivity. Old bugs are not being fixed, and new ones keep cropping up, and Apple as a company shows no signs of giving a rat’s ass about any of it. Mori has written about this too: the possibility, perhaps even the likelihood, that “Mac OS is demoted to ‘hobby status’ inside Apple, and that iOS receives all the attention from now on.” For Mori this will likely mean that iOS will need to develop more “desktop” skills:

When I walk down this hypothetical path, what I see in iOS’s trajectory, more than sheer innovation, is a reinvention of the wheel. iOS was born as a simpler, streamlined version of Mac OS X; its multi-touch interface was ingenious and groundbreaking when applied to a smartphone and (similarly, but less strikingly) to a tablet; to then evolve — through a series of iterations and feature creep — into… Mac OS X?

Sounds like a freakin’ disaster to me.

So here's what I think is coming for me in 2017: a concerted effort to move towards Linux, where I can readily replicate much of what I do on the Mac. I've been spending more time lately in emacs, and especially in org-mode, and I just received a nice Christmas present — this could finally be the year I make the Big Switch.

Mind you, I'm not promising anything. It wouldn't be easy for me to abandon a platform that I've been relying on since the beginning of Ronald Reagan's second Presidential term. And I’ve had enough experience editing configuration files in Linux that I am filled with dread at the prospect, and praying with some desperation that Ubuntu has addressed many of those old bugs. But that after all these years I'm even considering dropping MacOS ... well, that should tell you just how big a mess Apple has created for me.


  • Just have to wave from another die-hard BBEdit freak/fan, it's been my primary tool for web work since 1993-- they had me at "Software that doesn't suck" -- regular expressions search and replace across entire directories, oh my. Also, since then Fetch has been my go to app for ftp (I'm a fan of the running dog icon and it's developers use of tv game show winnings to reclaim it from original university owners).

    I'm still running my main Mac on Mavericks, and until I run into a work stopping issue, I'll keep on this evolutionary dead end (a second older machine has a current system I use for playing music).

    I might be sorry one day, but will wait til then.

  • Regarding Linux, the Mint distribution (based on Ubuntu) worked well for me when I decided a few months ago to make the switch from Windows. The desktop environment (I'm using Cinnamon) is majorly improved from days gone by, enough so that I don't give it much thought and have only done minor tweaking.

    I probably wouldn't have managed to switch without also running Windows in a virtual machine (I use Virtualbox), since there are a few non-Linux programs—InDesign, Photoshop, a couple of oddball utilities—I need for my everyday work, and performance is acceptable. In the beginning it was a security blanket, but a mildly sluggish one which encouraged me to commit fully to a Linux workflow.

  • I haven't run into those bugs on the Mac, but I agree that it increasingly feels neglected. They no longer produce laptops that are pleasant to type on. I've made a very serious effort to use both Windows and Linux, but they are still far less reliable. It will be intriguing to hear if you make any headway.

  • All right, you—and Tumblr's general horror—have convinced me to try shutting down the Tumblr and owning my own turf this year. So does your main ayjay dot org site run on Wordpress, or another platform? It would be nice to use something simpler, but I'm not sure what my options are without getting into some serious hacking that I'm probably not up to.

  • Sorry for the delay in replying, Matthew! To answer your question: ayjay.org is just static webpages, uploadable in various ways; blog.ayjay.org is WordPress. But probably the easiest way to get started is to do it all via WordPress, since every WordPress installation allows you to distinguish between "posts" (as in "blog post") and freestanding "pages" (which don't show up in the chronological blog but can be linked to and made visible in various ways. You can do pretty much anything online with WordPress.

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