Essays on Technology and Culture

Rethinking iOS Power User Apps

About a year and a half ago, I wrote two pieces on how I use Launch Center Pro, and how I use Drafts on my iPhone. A lot has changed in the iOS ecosystem since them, almost universally for the better, despite whatever nonsense is happening with App Review. Extensions in iOS have made it easier and faster to do tasks like save links to Pinboard and Instapaper, or share things on social media. New apps on iOS, like Workflow put easy automation in the hands of a less technical audience in a way that’s far easier to understand than URL Schemes. In fact, thanks to Workflow, I now have an easier way to generate code for Linked List posts. [1]

Though since iOS 8, if not some time before, I slipped out of using many of the cool automation shortcuts I’d built for myself. Much of what I’d set up to move data around were obliviated by the new features in iOS 8 and apps that took advantage thereof. Why copy a link from Safari, switch to Launch Center Pro, and tap an action to send it to my Pinboard client, when I could just do it from the Share Sheet. Launch Center Pro just became another home screen, Drafts just a place to collect notes. The release of Workflow left me thinking about the potential I was no longer tapping into, beginning with Drafts, and in no small thanks to Dr. Drang, as well.

Drafts is now the starting place for all things involving text on my iOS devices. Writing an essay? It goes into Drafts. Writing a note for later? Drafts. Writing a Tweet? Drafts. Capturing tasks? Drafts. Sending an email to my boss on the go? Drafts. Searching the web? Drafts. I have a whole section of searches that I can summon from a Drafts action screen, replacing a bulky Action Group in Launch Center Pro. It’s a natural place to do things with text, because it launches quick and lets you start typing right away. The only text-related thing I’m not using Drafts for is searching logins in 1Password. That is staying in Launch Center, for now.

The trick to making these powerful, and intimidating apps work, is to decide on the role they’ll play on your devices. For me, Drafts is where I type things to deal with later. Launch Center Pro is transitioning into a place for quick actions and deep jumps into apps. If I want to call my folks, I’ll do that with two tap in Launch Center Pro. Workflow is the glue that ties various features of my iOS devices together, and I can summon up its power from within Launch Center Pro, as an App Extension, or icons on my Home Screen, depending on the workflows I set up. The whole thing is still a work in progress, but if I’m going to get the most out of my investment in these apps, I need to spend time thinking about what problems they can solve for me. So far, that thinking’s paying off.

  1. This post was the first use of my Linked List post workflow, and it works really well. Due to some limitations of the app, it takes an extra tap to copy the text I want to use for the excerpt, but I’m promised that grabbing selected text in a web page, or the like, will come in a future update to Workflow. I’ve since updated the workflow to dump the Markdown text into Drafts so I can add commentary.  ↩

The Advertising Shadow War

Put another way, if your site, or your apps, are saturated with pop-up windows, screaming videos impossible to mute or skip, you are encouraging the adoption of AdBlock Plus — and once it’s installed on a browser, do not expect any turning  back.

The Rise of AdBlock Reveals A Serious Problem in the Advertising Ecosystem | Monday Note

There’s a shadow war between advertisers and readers. The harder advertisers try to force themselves into our vision, the more readers will look for ways to get rid of the most obnoxious offenders. Caught in the crossfire are companies and publications with subtle, reasonable ads, like The Deck. We’re heading for a reckoning in the ad space, and it doesn’t look good.

In the meantime, I’m keeping AdBlock Plus and Ghostery installed in my browsers.

False Transparency

Following the shooting death of unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown at the hands of a police officer, there was a push for body camera on police officers. The idea being that cameras on cops would reduce the potential for police brutality, and help officers behave. There may still be merit to this, as pilot programs for police body cameras show a decline in both the use of force, and complaints. However, it seems that data comes from a sum total of five studies, according to a piece in The Atlantic.

A few days ago, here in New York City, a Staten Island grand jury chose not to prosecute an NYPD officer accused of killing a non-violent offender, with an illegal chokehold. Unlike the Ferguson shooting, where all there was to go by was eyewitness testimony, the death of Eric Garner was caught on video. Even with the entire incident, from initial contact, to death, to the arrival of an ambulance all on video, the Staten Island grand jury opted not to prosecute. Grand juries often elect to prosecute, that is, unless they’re dealing with a police officer.

The principle behind body cameras on police, is that the officers will know they’re being watched—never mind the the cameras are worn on their bodies, meaning everyone but the officer is the one being watched—and as such, behave more ethically. It’s the same basic attitude behind other attempts to bring transparency to public organizations. The idea that enough people will have their eyes on what police officers, politicians, and any other organization that relies on the public trust will be enough to convince them to behave ethically only works if there are consequences for violating that trust. And if they can be caught doing so. Cameras can “malfunction,” video files can be lost in a crash. For other public servants, they can just dump enough data that even the most civically minded hacker can’t sort through and analyze it. Even adding a CAPTCHA before allowing a person access to data can be enough friction to shut down citizen watchdogs.

But why even bother with all of that work, when you know that you won’t even be held accountable when there’s incontrovertible evidence of your action spreading all over the Internet?

Technological solutions to societal problems are often a band-aid applied to a festering cyst. It’s a surface treatment that ignores the underlying issue. Or, as Douglas Adams said, “A common mistake that people make when trying to design something completely foolproof is to underestimate the ingenuity of complete fools.” When trying to put a stop to corruption, it’s easy to both under- and overestimate the ingenuity of complete assholes, to say nothing about the complacency of common individuals with no stake in the game. Of course, changing the expectations we have of public servants, is harder than just throwing money at hardware that provides false transparency. No wonder we’re so much more willing to do the latter.

The Right To Be Heard

In the United States, many people don’t understand the true, legal meaning, of their right to “freedom of speech.” It’s been shown time and time again that First Amendment protections towards speech have limits, ranging from protection against libel and defamation, controls on commercial speech, and restrictions on speech that can bring harm upon others: e.g. shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater. These limitations leave a very wide open space for someone to express their opinion, though I bring them up to contrast with a right that does not exist: the right to be heard.

Case in point: the Gamergate Block List, as created by Randi Harper, a developer, and part-time GamerGate target. The idea such a tool exists has been met with cries of “censorship” among the people it keeps out of its users Twitter timelines. Never mind that the same tool can be turned around and used to block any group of people you don’t want appearing in your timelines, even the “Social Justice Warriors” that GamerGate rails against. [1] In other words, “freedom of speech” allows you to shout someone into silence, but not for them to tune you out. Particularly if you’re sea-lioning someone.

This is patent bullshit.

Freedom of speech is not, and has never been the same as freedom to be heard. Censorship is an organized effort of a governing body to silence something they don’t like, and it can be done by a government or a corporation alike. Individuals choosing who they do not wish to hear, and collaboratively tuning them out is within their rights by any legal framework. If Twitter, or any other service, were bound to force users to see replies from any Tom, Dick, or Harassing Harry on their service, it would be akin to Fox News having the legal right to pre-empt you watching CNN on your TV. (And that analogy works if you flip the networks around.)

There’s a culture of entitlement in the Internet age. Something’s brought out a craving in people to have their opinions acknowledged, approved of, and amplified. Perhaps it’s a relic of early days of Internet life where the space was small and intimate enough that it was easy to keep up with the demands of acknowledgement from your “audience”. Or, perhaps it’s because so much of the Internet is on-demand, we assume other people must be as well. Whatever the reason, it’s not the case that anyone is entitled to a response, or an acknowledgement via Twitter, email, or even face to face. To claim otherwise is to misunderstand, often deliberately, one’s relationship to others. The Internet and social media do not change that.

  1. Such a list exists, and I’m on it, but because of some concern around its creator, I’m not going to link to it. Google it.  ↩

Other People’s Home Screens

People love to look at home screens. The current wave of interest may have started with Episode 11 of Connected, at least among the indie tech writers and podcasters I follow, but the launch of Betaworks’s #Homescreen app has way more people talking about what’s on their iPhone home screen. It got [the crew of Accidental Tech Podcast to post and talk about theirs](and how they organize them.). Hell, even I posted my home screen with #Homescreen, [1]mostly because I’m a sucker for an easy to climb on bandwagon. Plus, #Homescreen is way easier to use than, and lets you identify the apps.

This isn’t a new phenomenon. The site First and 20 was posting the home screens of famous tech folks as far back as 2009, though stopped around the time Apple went to a phone with 24 app slots. David Sparks runs an ongoing series of interviews about home screens, going back almost as long. David, and his co-host Katie Floyd, even did a deep dive on their home screens on the latest Mac Power Users. Home screens are also common parts of interviews over at The Sweet Setup. Even when meeting fellow nerds in real life, we’ve swapped phones to check out home screens.

And I can’t get enough.

What is it about people’s home screens that intrigues us? In part, it’s a peek behind the curtain of people’s lives. When you see people’s phones—if you see people’s phones—you often see them running an app. If my morning commute is any indication, it’s usually Candy Crush. A home screen reveals someone’s priorities—the tools or toys they want immediate access to on a daily basis. These little rectangles in our pockets are capable of being so many things, the few we choose to give primacy says a lot about us. How we organize them—or if—says just as much.

Oh, and there’s the discovery thing. It’s hard enough to find apps in the App Store. To see the icon of something you’re curious about on the home screen of someone you admire is an endorsement. To see an icon you don’t recognize is a call to explore. I’m trying to get better at not installing apps without thinking about their utility, but I still can’t resist something shiny that could help me get more out of the screen in my pocket. As vices go, it’s a comparatively minor one. A voyeuristic desire to learn about other people, their relationship with their gear, and what I can take away from it a bad thing.

And I know I’m not alone.

  1. Bonus points to anyone who can identify the source of my wallpaper.  ↩