A Year Complete

One year ago I wrote an article about a failed extortion attempt. Little did I realize it at the time, but this would be the start of an entire year where I would write and publish an article every day. At first the challenge was just 50 days. Then 100. Then 365. This post is the 366th consecutive article and I'm wondering if I should keep going to hit some other arbitrary number or perhaps take a break, publishing things that might be of actual value to the reader. Of course, while on the subject of numbers, this article is the 2,999th; making for an average of 0.636 posts being published per day since the launch of this particular blog run1; a number I wouldn't have expected to reach when this started 13 years ago.

Have I learned anything about blogging over the last twelve months? Absolutely.

There's no denying that writing in a format like this on a daily basis is not particularly easy when there are so many competing priorities. One thing that has not helped has been the lack of a decent blogging tool on my phone. Byword is a pretty decent tool for writing, but it's not particularly effective when trying to search through articles. Markdown is still my preferred format when writing so that I can be 100% certain there aren't any empty tags or other spurious elements wasting space, but this isn't particularly useful when trying to work with images, audio, or video files. Moments where I want to quickly jot something down generally involves an investment of at least 60 seconds due to the speed of application loads, which is not always feasible. One thing that I would really, really like to do is find a dedicated blogging application for the phone that excels in all of these areas. So long as I can find a way to hook it up to 10C, then it'll be a welcome addition to the phone's limited number of applications.

There are a number of apps that might fit the bill, such as Ulysses, but I've not yet invested the time to see which tools might work best.

Writing daily is not at all easy. It takes time. A lot of time. Some of the articles I published were decent. Many were not. Some of the goals I set were met. Many were not. What this past year has reinforced more than anything else, though, is that I enjoy writing for the web quite a bit and would likely enjoy it even more with some better tools.

  1. The first involved using static HTML files written in Notepad and uploaded via FTP to a GeoCities site. The second involved using Windows Live Spaces while dating someone I met on IRC. I'll probably write more about the evolution of this third blogging run for the 3,000th post.

Pucks for Menus

Way back in the spring of 2013, when App.net was a vibrant community, there were a number of dedicated applications that were vying for people's attention. The first app I used after joining the network in March of that year was Netbot, a relatively straightforward port of Tweetbot, which was from the same group of developers. This worked for a while, but I wanted something that received updates and could use all of the new features on the rapidly-developing platform. Riposte was an alternative that saw regular updates and had a solid, clean interface that "just felt better". However, despite the strengths of Riposte, the application that I relied on the most1 was Felix; an application that introduced a form of navigation that I have since built into a number of my own software tools because it's just so darn efficient: the Puck.

Felix for App.net

Up until Felix, social clients all had a similar navigation pattern in their applications. Buttons would run along the bottom of the screen for Home, Replies, Interactions, and other views. Most apps would have four to five of these, and the design worked well enough. Felix, when in full-screen mode, would show just a single item in a rounded button that would sit docked in a corner2. Tapping the circle, generally known as the Puck, would make it expand to show all the menu options available. This simple, elegant solution made it possible for Felix to have far more than five navigation items in their menu and I liked it so much that I reached out to Bill Kunz, the developer of the application, and asked if I could use the Puck in my own apps3. One thing that I find odd, though, is that nobody else seems to use this form of navigation in their mobile applications. Instead there are a plethora of hidden gestures that people must figure out and memorize when they first use a piece of software, which I've often found to be rather frustrating. Why would anyone want to hide functionality that took time and effort to create?

In App.net's heyday Felix was one of those applications that I looked forward to using everyday because it just worked, it was visually attractive (for the time), and it was incredibly intuitive. This is the same bar I set for my own software and, if I do my job right, maybe a creative person will see the value in something I've made and carry it forward into their own projects, too.

  1. Well … I relied on it until spam in the Global Timeline became a bit too excessive, resulting in me building the first version of Nice.Social which sat on top of the NiceRank API. Remember when Nice.Social was a web-based App.Net client? Yeah … that was a long time ago.

  2. One of the early releases of the app would let a person swipe the puck to move it into a different corner. This was often quite finicky and would be infuriating to return to the proper location … which is why the puck menu in my tools is static in the lower-right corner. I really should look at making an option for people to choose the other corners if they so choose.

  3. He said he didn't mind, and I went to town with it.

Because of the Playlists

Earlier today a neighbour asked which music streaming service I preferred. My response was instant: Spotify. This caught the older man by surprise who has jokingly called me an "Apple otaku". He figured I would have said  Music but, given my history with Apple's music offerings, it's just not something I'm willing to mess around with. The reason comes down to something that is probably irrelevant to most people, but is exceedingly important to me: playlists.

Apple vs Spotify

Apple's services have lost my playlists far too often. iTunes would occasionally delete the things when I used to sync my iPod or phone via the cable. When I joined iTunes Match many years ago, the playlists were wiped out on all of my devices. When I joined  Music soon after its release for the 90-day trial my playlists were once again removed then, when I opted to leave the service, they were removed again. The number of times I've lost and rebuilt my playlists on Apple devices has been beyond stupid. As a result, the only time I use Apple's applications for music is when I'm listening to an entire album, which itself is also a playlist.

Spotify, on the other hand, has never once lost a playlist. I've joined, upgraded, downgraded, abandoned, and rejoined the service over the years and have never once observed a problem with this basic feature. Adding something on the phone sees it appear instantly on the tablet and vice versa. What's more, Spotify will actually make pretty decent suggestions for songs that might find a home on the playlist and this has helped me fill out some of the albums from my youth that I couldn't remember until after hearing an old song again.

Apple does a lot of things right but, if they want my $10 per month, they'll need to seriously take care of their playlists problem because I'm sick and tired of recreating them every so often. These collections can become quite long depending on the type of music. Ideally, I'd like to see Apple get really basic and just have a dedicated directory in iCloud that contains individual JSON files for each playlist. This would make it possible to hand-edit or migrate the lists elsewhere if desired as well as configure some sort of backup via Time Machine.

This might be too simple for Apple, though.

For Better or For Worse

At some point in the last year I was thinking about For Better or For Worse, a comic strip that was first published 40 years ago today. Much to my delight, I found that every strip of the comic was available online with daily updates via a handy RSS link. I subscribed at once and have looked forward to seeing the daily update ever since.

For Better or For Worse Books

The run itself was from 1979 to 2008, which is when Lynn Johnston retired and decided to have the comics start again from the beginning. This wasn't a "reboot", but a literal rerun with all of the characters and drawing styles being left intact. There would occasionally be edits to the wording but, for the most part, the comics that ran from 2008 to current are the very same ones that were printed in newspapers around North America 29 years earlier. As one would expect, some noisy people didn't like this and others have gone so far as to say the comic should be taken out of print because it's "out of date". Michael and Elizabeth aren't holding cell phones in every frame. Elly and John aren't talking about Amazon or looking things up on Google. It's like grabbing the VHS tape to watch Back to the Future.

Personally, I think this is just perfect.

The people who read For Better or For Worse today are generally not kids, but adults. The adults reading the comic now will remember the strip from their own youth. This is one of the reasons I read it. When I was growing up, Michael — the oldest child — was a few years ahead of me and I could relate to him and his struggles. Elizabeth was about the same age as one of my sisters. My mum saw a lot of herself in Elly, the mother, and I saw it, too … which is another reason for me to read the stories again.

My mother and I haven't had so much as a phone call in a dozen years for reasons I'm not too sure about. Getting in touch with her proves to be quite the challenge and will likely only happen if I'm physically in Southern Ontario and knocking at her door. Reading this comic reminds me of what my mum was like before things went sideways at home and she separated from my step father. This was a story that we shared for a number of years and, by reading it again, I feel that we're somehow sharing it again … though I know it's just a one-sided idea.

Now that I'm married with a child, mortgage, and puppy, I can better understand John and Elly; the parents. The struggles they face and the challenge of doing the right thing, day in and day out, without a word of appreciation. It makes sense now. 40 years have passed since the first strip. The everyday habits of people have changed to fit the electronics that permeate our lifestyles. But none of this matters because the problems people face with relationships, households, careers, and dreams are the same today as they were decades ago.

Five Things

Another Sunday another rewrite of the week's instalment of Five Things. The previous version of this post was written on my phone while the boy was drifting off to sleep. I generally keep him company at night so that he can relax more easily and fall asleep sooner. When he's left alone, the kid will sing every song he knows on repeat until well after 10:00pm, which usually results in a pretty cranky boy the next morning. Reading two books1 and staying with him for the next half hour is generally enough to have the intended results, and this is a prime opportunity to take out the phone and hammer out a quick post in Byword — my casual writing tool of choice.

Unfortunately, the previous post was heading in a direction that I wasn't too keen on sharing with the world. It came across as unnecessarily harsh towards someone's online project and I thought it was unfair. As my grandmother — and grandmothers the world over — used to say: If you can't say anything nice ….

These are words of wisdom.

When we're young, we often hear our elders give us these bits of knowledge. Some of them we take to heart. Others we outright ignore. A few stick with us for life. This week I thought it would be interesting to share just five of the many bits of wisdom that wiser people have tried to share with me.

It is better to hear the rebuke of the wise, than for a man to hear the song of fools.

This is from the King James version of Ecclesiastes 7:5 and is sometimes seen in the New Living Translation of the bible: "Better to be criticized by a wise person than to be praised by a fool." The meaning is self-evident and important to remember when receiving feedback. I generally listen to a person critiquing my work so that I might learn something new. This isn't always the case but, when something actionable is offered, the end result is almost always better.

Therefore by their fruits you will know them.

Another bit of wisdom from the King James version of the Bible and sometimes translated as "just as you can identify a tree by its fruit, so you can identify people by their actions." A lot of people can talk the talk, but few are willing or able to perform actions that align with their words. Sanctimonious people are generally not worth the time of day and it's better that we identify and avoid them early on.

People who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those who are doing it.

Attributed to George Bernard Shaw, this is something I read a couple of decades back in a magazine article about a start-up called Google. The general consensus in the late 90s was that the Internet was already so vast that it would be impossible to index all of it. While there may not be 100% coverage of every publicly-accessible page that currently exists, Google has remained the only search engine that gets pretty darn close. Bing, DuckDuckGo, and others put on a good show, but they're far less accurate and far less current than the company that once tried very hard to not be evil.

If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough.

A quote from Albert Einstein who has managed to summarize to much of physics with E = mc² which basically says that mass and energy are the same thing. This quote is providing us with a litmus test for explanations that people give us throughout life and I've used it religiously at work and when learning new things. This has generally resulted in me getting a small "taste" of an idea from one person, then going in for a deep dive with a book or better-spoken professional. Mind you, this goes the other way as well. In situations where I'm trying to explain something and I can't answer all the follow-up questions, I've seen exactly where my knowledge on a subject was deficient and needed improving. This has generally worked out for the better.

I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it.

From Pablo Picasso comes this interesting idea encourages people to push their boundaries at every opportunity. The things I don't know could fill a warehouse … or probably an entire continent of warehouses. Fortunately this means that there is always some new challenge ahead. Sticking to what we know is also an incredibly rapid way to become obsolete. A spouse wouldn't be interested in a person who didn't grow. An employer has no need for a person with outdated skills. It doesn't make sense to stagnate.

These are just five of the thousands of bits of wisdom that I've been exposed to over the course of my lifetime and there are undoubtedly millions more to be found online in an inspirational image gallery. My grandparents were all well read and would say things like this all the time, though most of the ones I act out came from books. Perhaps by the time my kid has children of his own, I'll get a chance to share the ones that have worked best over the years.

  1. I've given him a cap of 2 books, otherwise he'd want to have every book in the house read to him. Fortunately he doesn't know about the hundreds of digital books that sit on the tablet nor does he know anything about the Internet and the plethora of reading material that is available day and night.

Nozomi Update

Last weekend Nozomi developed a bit of a problem using her hind legs and it resulted in me playing nurse for the week. Today, after what feels like an eternity, the puppy managed to actually walk a little bit outside. She's struggled quite a bit these last few days, generally walking no more than a few paces before sitting down and remaining stationary for an hour or more. Seeing her cover about 20 metres of relatively flat park all by herself was a wonderful thing.

Nozomi on Moss

Miniature Dachshunds tend to have lifespans of 12 to 16 years, which is bad news for me as I'm rather fond of Nozomi. She doesn't heal nearly as quickly as she used to, but neither do I. There are some other dogs in the neighbourhood that are just a bit older that are unable to walk to the park. They're generally brought either on a bicycle or, in one case, a Radio Flyer wagon before being set on a patch of grass and allowed to walk around. This week Nozomi's been carried on my right arm and has been given the same treatment, being set in the shade near her preferred pooping place in the morning, and set near an "interesting" patch of grass in the evenings. Both locations are her preferred places to explore and relieve herself, so being carried works to her advantage. She gets to do less work while still reaping the benefits of living so close to a park that is regularly frequented by puppies of all breeds and ages.

Should her hind legs remain too weak for the trek to the park and back then our routines will be updated so that she gets carried. The park is less than 80 metres from the front door, making a bike or wagon a little excessive. Besides, carrying the puppy is nice. She gets to feel calm and safe while I get to be strong and maternal. It's a win-win for both of us.

Hopefully she'll be back to her normal self in the next couple of days.

Burnt Out ... Again

All of the signs have been visible for weeks and it's just been the last two days that I've observed that the doldrums associated with burn out have returned. Despite feeling tired all day long, sleep is not something I'm interested in doing until sometime after 2 o'clock in the morning. Interesting projects appear dull and without long-term viability. A blank page remains devoid of purpose for much longer than I'm comfortable with.

Burnt Out

Why do I not learn? The symptoms of burn out tend to appear early, offering a month or two of advance warning that it might be time to slow down or disconnect for a little bit in order to re-align the mind. The reluctance to heed the signs has nothing to do with the amount of work at the day job, as I tend to control how much work I take on and output. It's also not necessarily the result of the stress of the day job, as I'm mostly removed from the politicking that creates 95% of all problems within organizations.

When the last deep bout hit a little over a year ago I did a bunch of reading on the subject and decided to follow some of the key advice that experts had to offer on ways to mitigate the cycle. One of the recommendations was to take up a new hobby so, me being me, I decided to invest in two hobbies: reading and writing. The theory goes that by consuming the mind with something that is not work, a person can generally go for longer periods of time before running on empty. This has proven true to a certain extent, but I've clearly been doing it wrong.

The problem runs deeper than distraction can counteract. Fact of the matter is that I've been thinking about work almost constantly for years. If it's not the day job, it's personal projects, or client projects, or something that I'd like to do in the future. The mind is forever in search of problems to solve and, so long as people exist, there will always be a plethora of suboptimal situations that could use some attention. While I've wound down the freelance work I do to reduce the range of projects that require attention, I've not done enough to actively distance myself from the subconscious problem solving that goes on. In the past I could do this with a few hours of video games1 or some long walks, but neither of these options are available anymore. They're unrealistic given the responsibilities that come with having young children. What's needed is a hard disconnect from the day-to-day routines.

What's needed is a vacation.

Reiko has been dropping hints that the whole family should go either to the Universal Studios theme park in Osaka or one of the two Disney parks just outside of Tokyo. Seeing as how the boy doesn't know any of the Universal Studios characters, it would make more sense to travel twice the distance and spend some time at Tokyo Disney or DisneySea … or maybe both. Going would mean staying at a hotel for two or three days, leaving the work computers at home, and actually being cognitively present while everyone has fun and spends several hundred dollars a day2 burning calories and forging memories.

The last time Reiko and I were at a Tokyo Disney theme park, we went on a whim and had a blast. This was easier back in 2010 given that we were living an hour from the park and didn't have nearly as many responsibilities. If we decide to go this season, planning will be required. Money and logistics aside, getting away from coding, databases, and the unending list of tasks to accomplish would be a welcome change. I have 39 vacation days banked and have avoided using them for the irrational fear of "falling behind". Given that the day job does not pay out unused vacation days, there's zero incentive for me to let more expire for the sake of getting things done … especially when the quality of my work during times of burn-out is so low that it's probably better for everyone if I disappeared for a little while.

  1. Age of Empires or SimCity were excellent uses of time in this regard.

  2. Disney isn't cheap. Not in the least. Three people going for three days would likely cost about a week's wages … and it would be worth it.

What Is Discovery Trying to Say?

This week I've set aside the books in order to catch up on Star Trek: Discovery. My hope was that the second season would be a little more focused than the first but, after just a handful of episodes, it seems that the purpose of this round of shows is to entertain teenagers with flashy lights and litres of tears rather than tell a story to adults. This is unfortunate, but not completely unexpected.


From the first episode, I thought that there would actually be some pretty interesting story telling going on. An unknown benevolent alien that appears in times of need. A mystery involving a galaxy-wide event1. Characters who appear to have career ambitions. This is the foundation of a decent story. By the third episode, however, things very quickly started going south.

There are certain things that should no longer appear in any Star Trek story, and here is a partial list:

  • Section 31
  • Captain Philippa Georgiou / The Terran Emperor
  • Time travel
  • Immortal characters
  • More than 30 seconds of tears

I can live with the endless last-minute problems with the transporters. I can even accept the occasional bending of canon. What I am not at all impressed by is situations where nobody truly dies, the chain of command is a suggestion rather than a distribution of responsibility, and the same faux cross-double-cross-surprise-reveal cycles that seem to happen more often than one would find in the most recent instalment of Pirates of the Caribbean. If nobody dies and clandestine organizations are more visible a neon light in the desert and 20% minutes of every show involves people crying … then the story is pretty weak and probably needs to be reworked.

Discovery doesn't have to be a weak show. There is a lot of universe to explore. Unfortunately, it's just treading over the same track over and over and over like a NASCAR race involving one car driving at 50kph.

  1. What struck me as odd about this is how the seven signals all appeared to happen at the same time despite the massive distances that would need to be travelled. This would mean that some of the signals were sent hundreds of thousands of years ahead of others and, by sheer happenstance, lined up to appear at the same time in this part of the galaxy. Sure, Starfleet has some pretty interesting tech, but you can't change the laws of physics.

The Lies Parents Tell

As the boy is in the throes of his "Terrible Twos", certain tactics have become necessary in order to ensure basic routines are performed. There was a time not too long ago when brushing teeth, taking the evening shower, and getting into pyjamas were easy tasks that took just a couple of sentences and a hand gesture1. Now it seems that every one of these is a battle most nights, with the boy screaming as though someone threw his favourite toy into an incinerator. Like many people his age, the boy is driven by his emotions.

This evening I wanted to get him to finish his tea. Despite talking almost non-stop every moment he's awake and despite the tears and runny noses that come with every outburst, he's not yet learned the importance of keeping hydrated. Unfortunately, he finds tea "boring" unless there's nothing else available. So, seeing as he's two, I decided to ask a slightly related question that — when examined in context of the situation — might come across as a lie. I held out his cup of tea and asked "Would you like some orange juice?" This had the intended effect, as he took a couple of sips of his drink before pushing it away. Not a day goes by where he doesn't ask for orange juice, so my question was presented as a simple Yes/No which, based on context, appears as deception of the innocent.

I'll probably do it the next time he won't finish his drink, too.

A lot of people likely start out thinking that they won't lie to their kids, but this is simply untenable. Parents must lie to their children in order to get things done. "If you're really good, maybe Santa will bring you a new bike" and "But you like spinach!" are just two that I remember my parents saying to siblings over the years. Here in Japan, there's a mobile app that people can install that'll allow a parent to pretend they're calling an oni2 to report their child to. "Kenji won't clean his room," the parent would say. Because the application already had the child's name stored, and because the app uses the main speaker rather than the ear piece, a loud, angry voice would be heard saying "Kenji won't do what! Do I have to come over there?" By this point, if the child is under the age of six, they'll likely start crying and beg their parent to hang up. Demons are scary creatures, after all.

As children grow up and learn the various lies, they learn how to make their own in order to manipulate their parents. At this point it becomes an arms race to see who can better prepare and devise fibs and half-truths in order to achieve an agenda. In a "typical" family, there is likely more honesty than fabrications but, so long as the end justifies the means, there will always be some degree of inaccurate statements from the parents. For the moment my kid is young enough that these sorts of manipulations are still effective and will be forgotten. As he gets older, though, I'm really hoping that the need to lie or misdirect becomes less necessary.

  1. Generally a "come on over" gesture.

  2. a horned demon.

Ice Cream in the Freezer

A month ago Reiko bought some ice cream with the intentions of giving it to the boy. However, rather than offer an incredibly energetic toddler refined sugar, she decided that it would be better to stick with the regular snacks that he's already accustomed to such as a yogurt drink, certain kinds of bread, and the occasional cookie. Not wanting the frozen treat to go to waste, Reiko suggested I have the ice cream and has left me to it for the better part of this past fortnight. Today she noticed that it's not yet been touched.

A little over a year ago I would have jumped at the opportunity to consume something sweet. When I worked at the office, not a day would go by where there wasn't something on my desk that contained a large dose of white sugar or salt. There's no denying that I had an insatiable desire for foods that contained tiny white cubes. That said, this past year has been quite different. Not only am I much less interested in eating sweet or salty foods, I rarely feel hungry anymore. This isn't the result of a diet or fasting program, but just the way things have turned out.

While working at the office, I'd get in about 10,000 steps every day while also working frantically on whatever was in front of me that day. Here at home I get in about 2,500 steps a day while working slightly-less-frantically1. As I'm no longer as active as before, it seems logical that the body is less interested in processed foods. The three meals, four coffees, and five glasses of water I consume every day has proven to be sufficient regardless of how much thinking is going on2.

This does create a problem, though. There's untouched ice cream in the freezer. Who will eventually enjoy it?

  1. It's a little hard to focus intently on stuff when a young child is occasionally screaming for attention from a different person.

  2. I do generally have a snack when consuming the odd alcoholic beverage, as it's not good for me to drink on an empty stomach. That said, this is not a regular activity by any stretch of the imagination.