Favorite iOS Apps of 2016

In recent years, I’ve occasionally ended the year with some blog posts on my favorite iOS and Mac apps from the previous 12 months, although I haven’t written one recently1. These aren’t necessarily apps that have come out in the past year but the notable ones I’ve been using the most. But first, a few thoughts on how I use iOS devices.

I now own an iPhone 7 Plus, upgrading from an iPhone 6s Plus this year. I’d held off on getting the bigger phone in 2015, worrying that it would be just too large for me, because I have short, thick fingers. (I will never play violin or reach a whole octave on a piano.) I shouldn’t have worried. The new phone is amazing with an immense screen that I use two-handed and it gives me benefit of a bigger battery and the better photos in the camera that the smaller phone doesn’t have.

This year I upgraded to an iPad Pro 9.7” from my old iPad 4. I had dropped the iPad 4 months before in 2015 and cracked a corner of the screen and so had put it in a thick leather case to prevent further damage. Unfortunately, it is now prone to turning off randomly while using it and it was showing its age, running modern apps much slower than the iPhone. We also have a handful of iPad 2s and an iPad mini around the house, acquired here and there from family and friends upgrading to newer iPads, but those are mainly used by Melanie and the kids.

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College and Travel In A Time of Smartphones

Melanie and I both went to college in the early 1990s and we were just reminiscing about what campus culture was like back then and how it must be different today in the age of social media and smartphones.

When we were in college, most dorms had pay phones and sometimes dorm rooms had phones too, but the roommates had to pay for them. At our colleges, no one had email. I lived off campus for my four years at Franciscan University of Steubenville, so I had a phone in my apartments. Long distance calling was still a thing and expensive back then so I didn’t talk to my family on a whim.

In order to organize people, you had to call everyone or see them between classes and pass the word.

In Steubenville, I didn’t have cable. For my first two years I had an ancient black-and-white TV that got two channels. My last two years I had a color TV and we had basic cable, but still didn’t get all the normal channels So I totally missed the first few years of “The X-Files”, but was able to binge watch “Road Rules” on MTV instead of studying for finals one semester.

Melanie spent a semester at the University of Dallas’ Rome campus. They had one pay phone for the students to use to get and receive calls, but international calling costs… Yikes! When they were traveling about Europe, they had to rely on guidebooks, posters and pamphlets in foreign languages, and gestures and pidgin English with helpful strangers to figure out train schedules and the like. They were flying without a safety net.

Today, students can message with anyone back home or anywhere in the world from a device in their pocket. They can call home on a whim. They can look up any information they need anywhere.

Life changes. In my grandparents time, traveling to Europe took weeks on a ship, not hours on a plane. Going to college meant almost total disconnection from family for four years.

I do wonder sometimes though how a “smaller” world in which communication is so easy and ubiquitous changes the perception of travel. If it’s easier does it’s value change? Are there new lessons to learn in place of the old ones? Or does it still teach a kind of self-reliance even if help might be a phone call away?

How has social media and smartphones changed college campus life? With everybody tweeting and instagramming and facebooking everything, how does it change how people interact and socialize and connect? Our kids are years away from college, so it will be different again undoubtedly from now, but I do wonder how their experience will differ from ours.

Cancelling Mass on Christmas?

At first, I was going to comment on this article, “Why Churches Shouldn’t Cancel Services on Christmas Day,” by pointing his out as an essential difference between Protestants, on one side, and Catholics and Orthodox, on the other.

It seems many Protestant churches, especially of the Evangelical and mega-church variety, won’t have any services on Christmas Day, even though it’s a Sunday. That’s because they don’t usually do Christmas services so people can spend it as a “family day.” Instead, many of them are planning candlelight services on Christmas Eve, but many don’t even do that.

But it’s Sunday! The Lord’s Day, the feast of the Resurrection in which we commemorate the passion, death, and resurrection of the Lord. Remember the first commandment? Keep holy the Sabbath. As a Catholic, I can’t even conceive of not going to Mass on a Sunday. Or can I?

The fact is that we Catholics have started to fall prey to this as well, except in a slightly different way. How many Christmas Eve Masses will there be at your parish this year? Our parish has four. Most parishes around here have similar numbers. I know one parish where the parish tried to reduce from five to four and got an earful from parishioners. Everybody wants to go Christmas Eve so they don’t have to get up and leave the house in the morning, so they can stay in their pajamas amidst the gifts until it’s time to make Christmas dinner.

That’s sounds nice, but it kind of misses the point, doesn’t it? If we’re braving the scrum on Christmas, packing in like sardines, barely able to hear or participate in the Mass, checking off our obligation in order to say it’s been fulfilled so we can have Christmas Day for ourselves, are we really putting Christ in Christmas? Oh, of course, I applaud those who actually make the effort to go to Mass at all. That sets you apart from most, to be sure. But is that really what we should be offering?
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Why Did Leia Seek Out Obiwan Kenobi Now?

As I was falling asleep last night, after having watched a Star Wars Rebels, I had a sudden thought: Why now? The new movie Rogue One will end where Star Wars: A New Hope begins, with the delivery of the Death Star plans.

But my question is this: Why was Princess Leia delivering the plans to Obiwan Kenobi. From the trailer for Rogue One, it’s very clear that it is the Rebellion, lead by Mon Mothma, who sends Jyn Erso and her team to retrieve the Death Star plans. So why aren’t the plans delivered back to Mon Mothma? At the beginning of A New Hope, Leia’s ship—which was presumably at the battle where the plans were stolen—is racing back to Alderaan. As the opening crawl writes:

It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire. During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the Death Star, an armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet. Pursued by the Empire’s sinister agents, Princess Leia races home aboard her starship, custodian of the stolen plans that can save her people and restore freedom to the galaxy…

So, intercepted by the Imperial Star Destroyer, Leia instead makes for Tatooine. Why? In her hologram, she tells Obiwan that she was sent by Bail Organa to get him to help in the Rebellion.

General Kenobi, years ago you served my father in the Clone Wars. Now he begs you to help him in his struggle against the Empire. I regret that I am unable to present my father’s request to you in person, but my ship has fallen under attack and I’m afraid my mission to bring you to Alderaan has failed. I have placed information vital to the survival of the Rebellion into the memory systems of this R2 unit. My father will know how to retrieve it. You must see this droid safely delivered to him on Alderaan. This is our most desperate hour. Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi, you’re my only hope.

And thus my question:

Why now?

Update: Having watched Rogue One after writing this, my question has been answered to some degree, but not completely.

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The Tech Press is Sad So Everything is Terrible

The tech pundits are sad and it shows in their reporting.

It’s fairly evident that most tech pundits writing for the big blogs and publications and making podcasts and videos lean left in their politics. Most of them are based either in the Northeast or on the West Coast where the liberal bubble is the strongest. If you have read The Verge or Engadget over the past couple of months, for instance, their disdain for Donald Trump and Republicans have been quite clear. (Heck, even non-tech blogs, like Food52 and TheKitchn food blogs, have engaged in the misery-making.)

And so, ever since the election on November 8, much of the tech press has sounded like a bunch of emo teens whose future prospects include unemployment, student loans, and their parents’ basement. Everything sucks.

The new Apple MacBook Pros suck. Amazon’s Echo sucks. New videos games aren’t very good. Smartwatches are done. There are no more good gadgets being developed. Fitbit buying Pebble is the end of the scrappy Kickstarter success stories. Samsung’s phones are exploding (okay, that one is true.) It’s an unrelieved pottage of doom and gloom.

Plus, these supposedly tech-focused publications seem to veer off into pure politics an awful lot, editorializing on US national politics that have nothing to do with tech, perhaps in an attempt to make themselves feel better.

This is connected to the now-tired meme that 2016 is the worst year ever because, I guess, Donald Trump is president instead of Hilary (and less often now, Bernie Sanders) and because a bunch of famous people died. Not that famous people didn’t die in other years, but these are famous people important to Generation X and we have now replaced Baby Boomers as the most self-important generation.

Sometimes I want to just shake them all and tell them to snap out of it. I’ve already taken a break from several podcasts, like MacBreak Weekly, which has descended into a purgatory of “Apple is doomed” rhetoric, where all of the hosts spend their time taking about which non-Apple gear they’re switching to. Instead, I’m spending my time on podcasts like Mac Geek Gab and Mac Power Users, where I can actually learn something about how to use my gear to be more productive and make my life better.

I get being disappointed after an election, but a whole industry going into a funk over it? That’s a bad sign of an industry that may be a little too monolithic in its composition.

If Only We Could Drive the Speed Limit

This is a bit of media criticism and a bit of political criticism. First the politics. The Boston City Council and the mayor have decreed that the default speed limit in the city will decrease from 30mph to 25 mph starting January 9. Their stated purpose is to reach their goal of eliminating traffic fatalities by 2030.

Whatever the practicality of that goal (I think it’s a bit naïve to think you can eliminate traffic fatalities in a city this size), the fact that they believe lowering the speed limit will accomplish their goal is astounding. No obeys the speed limit now, so why do they think lowering it 5 miles per hour will make anyone obey it more than they do today?

Then there’s the reality that traffic in Boston rarely moves at the speed limit anyway because it’s always so congested.1 Even the photo the Globe uses to illustrate its story (click the link), shows standstill traffic on a 30mph road. Yet, this is the basis of their claim.

At least 17 people have died in car accidents this year on Boston’s streets — 12 of whom were pedestrians. In a statement, Walsh’s office expressed hope that the stricter rules would lead to fewer deaths, because crashes become more deadly at higher speeds.

However, as I think of all the auto vs. pedestrian fatalities I recall from reporting, most have been due not to speeding vehicles, but from large vehicles trying to maneuver through congested intersections, like the truck that took out a bicyclist in Allston or the Duck Boat that took down the scooter on Beacon Hill.

In fact, it would be helpful to know just how many traffic fatalities in Boston were due to speed as opposed to other causes. It might even be something an enterprising reporter could find out. Unfortunately, and this is my second complaint, the reporter didn’t bother. All too often, journalists fail to ask the basic questions of fact that help us understand a story and put it into context. We’re often left with more questions than we began with. So the journalists fail their basic task.

Eliminating traffic fatalities is a laudable goal, but Pollyanna-ish, ineffectual gestures are’t going to get us there. Would that journalists would help hold politicians accountable for making them.

  1. Roads where traffic travels faster at times aren’t city roads, but state or federal highways, like Storrow Drive or the Central Artery.

Christmas Gift Idea: Survival Kit in a Stocking

My mother-in-law got me a survival kit in a stocking for my birthday this year. Weirder sentences than that have been written, I’m sure. In reality, though, this was a rather cool gift.

What I got was a Tactical Christmas Stocking with Survival Gear pack. Amazon has something similar, although the exact gear is slightly different. This is the one from the vendor, National Parks Depot, but they also show a slightly different loadout. What makes it “tactical”? I’m guessing it’s the nylon material and zippers and MOLLE straps.

Here is a photo of what was in my ice blue stocking.

tactical_christmas_stocking

A. whistle with compass and thermometer

B. reusable flint match

C. emergency blanket (a classic!)

D. steel wire saw

E. 20-in-1 multitool

F. paracord bracelet

G. EMT knife (this one)

H. LED flashlight

I. 11-in-1 multitool

Yes, that’s two different multitools. They say on their web site that the exact contents is subject to availability so the military-style compass was not available for mine, alas.

It’s actually a pretty good emergency kit. I’m particularly interested in the 20-in-1 multitool. This is the True Utility Fixr pocket multi-tool. It’s compact enough to fit in my pocket or on my key ring, although I’m a bit wary of the nail file on one side. I want to keep that away from my precious iPhone at all costs. When sold separately it comes in a little leather pouch, but mine did not.

The other multi-tool is cool too, and I originally thought to keep it in my wallet. I wasn’t sure what all the “tools” were, especially the “direction ancillary indication”, which is a notched hole with lines radiating out from it. It turns out that if you place it in water on something that floats1 the notch will align with north. That’s cool as a compass in a pinch, but it means the multi-tool is magnetized and I don’t want to carry that next to my credit cards.

The reusable flint match is especially neat. It consists of a square of flint covered by plastic with a metal rod screwed into it. The rod has a wick soaked in lighter fluid. You light it by scraping it along a groove in the flint and it works pretty well.

I’ve decided to keep the kit in my car for any eventuality. This is New England after all and we’ve been known to get blizzards that bury us. But while the stocking is fun packaging, it’s not exactly practical as a go-bag. For that, I’ve moved everything into a medium-size Eagle Creek Pack-It Sac, which works much better.2

eagle_creek_mesh_bag

If you’re looking for a fun stocking stuffer for someone who spends time outdoors or spends time in their car (maybe a college student with long drives back and forth to school?), the Tactical Christmas Stocking with survival gear kit isn’t a bad idea.3

  1. A small rock, perhaps? Or more likely a bit of styrofoam.
  2. The Eagle Creek bags are good for all sorts of things. I use them to keep cables and adapters organized in my computer bag, for instance.
  3. Be sure to get the one with the kit included. They also sell the empty stockings as well, for almost the same cost.

No Spice For You, You Racist

I used to buy all my spices from Penzey’s Spice online and did so for a number of years, but that all changed in June 2014 when they decided to send out an email to their customers pushing gay marriage in our faces. My response:

Now Rod Dreher writes that Penzey’s is at it again, this time excoriating people who voted for Trump as racists in need of being called on the carpet and required to make amends, you know, to the guy who sells them spices:

Whether any of us like it or not, for the next four years the 80% of this country who did not just vote for an openly racist candidate are going to treat you like you are the kind of person who would vote for an openly racist candidate.

You can get angry at everyone else for treating you like you just did the thing you just did, or you can take responsibility for your actions and begin to make amends. If you are lucky and younger family members are still coming over for Thanksgiving, before it’s too late, take a moment and honestly think about how your actions must look through their eyes. Simply saying “I never thought he’d win” might be enough. But if you have the means, leaving a receipt from a sizable donation to the ACLU or the SPLC accidentally laying around where you carve the turkey, might go over even better.

Or we can just buy our spices from someone who doesn’t hate us for our politics. I switched my spice purchases to The Spice House in 2014. Rod has done the same, while reporting the irony that doing so might be especially galling for Bill Penzey:

While looking around online to see what Bill Penzey’s problem is, I discovered that his sister Patty Erd and her husband Tom run a competing (but much smaller) spice business, called The Spice House. Bill Penzey Sr. and his wife started the business in the 1950s, and Patty inherited it. Bill Jr, her younger brother, started his own catalog company, Penzeys. I have no idea what the Erds’ politics are — far as I know, they could be commies, or they could be Trumpkins — but they don’t seem to make a habit of getting on their high horse and insulting their customers.

And that’s why I recommend that my friends buy their spices from The Spice House. Rod also lets us know that the Spice House is offering free shipping to new customers on their first order by using the promo code NOPOLITICS.

Google PhotoScan May Let Me Finally Digitize This Box of Photos

Update: See the end of this post for more information

Google has released a new iOS and Android app called PhotoScan that lets you quickly digitize a print photo and get into your Mac Photos and/or Google Photos libraries. Watch the the video for an amusing introduction to how it works, but basically it works better than simply taking a photo with the phone’s camera by eliminating spot glare.

Anyone over a certain age has a box of printed photos somewhere in storage, in an attic or garage or shed or closet. And like most of those people, for years I’ve resolved to scan those photos into the computer, saving them for posterity and saving all that space. Ask anyone who’s suffered a devastating property loss through fire or flood or other disaster and you’ll hear that the biggest loss—apart from loss of life, of course—is the loss of photos. So I want to get those photos out of the box and into my computer and backup drives and cloud backup. Plus, having the photos in digital form means we’re more likely to see the photos in screensavers than we’re likely to pull out the box and start pawing through.

I’ve tried many times to start scanning. I’ve had flatbed scanners of various qualities, sheetfed scanners not really made for the purpose, multifunction printers. While the quality can be good, it takes forever to scan each photo. And I’ve looked into those services where you send in your photos and they scan them, but they’re expensive, you’re sending your precious photos through a delivery service usually overseas, and you still have to go through the photos to cull out the good ones from the duplicates, the blurries, and the shots out of airplane windows.

But in 30 minutes with PhotoScan last night, I scanned 57 photos, skipped dozens more, and then color-corrected and edited the photos I scanned. These photos are now safe in iCloud Photo Library, Google Photos, and Amazon Prime Photo. And I’ve—horrors—tossed nearly all of them in the trash, although I have kept a couple that I think are especially nice in their current form and would stand to be scanned using a higher quality process.

Some may think I’m crazy for throwing away the originals, especially since the PhotoScan process does not result in the highest quality digital photo, but here’s my thinking: If I never scanned the photos at all, they would remain in their boxes and envelopes, slowly fading and discoloring and decaying and soon enough their quality would soon be even worse than the scan quality. Meanwhile, I’m keeping all the negatives because they take up so little space on their own. And honestly, I’m no Ansel Adams. The world will not be worse for the lack of high quality scans of my vacation and college photos from my single days, even as the photos that document my immediate family’s history was digital from the beginning.

PhotoScan is quick and easy and worth a try. Meanwhile, here’s a sample of the results of the scan below, a photo of my brother John in Paris in 1997 during World Youth Day.

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How to Increase MacBook Pro Storage Space Without Touching a Screw

When I got my MacBook Pro 13″ last year, I purchased it with a 256GB internal solid state drive. That was a serious downgrade from my 2011 MacBook Pro which had a 240GB SSD, but also a 750GB rotational drive that I had put in place of the CD drive. I had to make some tough decisions about what I would be carrying about with me.

That worked out well for most of this year as I pared back my applications and files. I went with iCloud Photo Library and iTunes Match, keeping my very large photo and music libraries on the old MacBook Pro which now resided permanently on a shelf. But even then my new MBP’s drive was filling up, primarily due to a an Adobe Lightroom catalog containing lots of photos for work.

Replacing the internal SSD on my MBP would be too expensive (those drives have not come down in price much), so I turned to another technology that lets me use a previously unused port: the SD card slot.
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