I’m a designer, husband and father living and working in Western Michigan. I created Mind Vault and host a podcast called The Way Station. I use this site to post my work and write. Check out my work or download my resumé. If you want to talk feel free to contact me on Twitter or ADN.
I recently listened to Episode 24 of The Prompt and was intrigued by their discussion of what the iPad is for, responding to Marco Arment’s post, who was in turn affirming Matt Gemmell’s take. In short, the disagreement comes down to whether or not people should use iPads for workflows (requiring URL schemes and other hackery) that could be more easily accomplished on desktop operating systems. My own opinion lies somewhere between Viticci’s iPad only approach and Gemmell/Arment’s practicality approach. I use my laptop for the vast majority of my work because it is easier, quicker and more straightforward for most of what I have to do. On the other hand, I love that people are pushing the iPad further in automation and scriptability, because this pushes the platform forward and ultimately makes all apps better. The larger point is that I think both sides of this argument ignore the huge productivity that is being unlocked by the iPad right now.
If computer usage is a spectrum between hard-core users (programmers, designers, media producers, scientists) on one end and casual users (web surfers, Twitter users and email readers) on the other end, there is a huge range of activities and potential in the space between. This is the market that the iPad is opening up like no computing platform has before. There are many parts of our lives that have stayed relatively computing free and the iPad is addressing those. Many people who rarely used a computer in and out of their work are using tablets in productive ways. Sometimes their iPad usage overlaps with traditional computing work, but often it does not. Apple has highlighted a few examples of this phenomenon on their Life on iPad page. When I saw these examples I was impressed by two things. First, I would never have thought of using an iPad that way. Second, a laptop would never work as well in that circumstance.
I have seen the same phenomenon in places where I would not have imagined technology a few years ago. I serve in my church’s youth program and, as part of my responsibilities, I attend regular meetings with other volunteers. I have been in meetings like these off and on for the last ten years and something has recently changed. I now see iPads all over the place. People take notes, write themselves reminders or todos, email assignments to people, look up leadership resources, refer to past notes, etc. These things happened before, but not anywhere near the level that they happen now. Overall it is a huge win for the productivity of our organization, with very little traditional mouse/keyboard computing involved.
iPads are making inroads in many people’s lives and making them more productive than they probably would have been before. Will the majority of people learn Python or chain URL schemes together? I doubt it, but I’m not sure that matters. The iPad opens up computing to parts of our lives that we didn’t consider before and I think this is the real story that should be highlighted, by the tech press and Apple itself.
For me the iPad is nowhere near replacing the Mac for productivity, but it is getting better and better. I am grateful for tools like Pythonista, Editorial, and Launch Center Pro. I am confident they will push the platform forward and the limits of mobile software will expand.
There is a narrative that the iPad is a consumption only device where nobody can get real work done. If the examples I have detailed above aren’t persuasive that this is a bogus line of thinking then I think we need to redefine what real work is. Having used rather high end productivity, design and programming software on a regular basis I would say that if that is the litmus test for real work I fear for the state of humanity. The iPad is being used for real work all the time and the biggest concern I have for the platform has little to do with its capabilities, but with its economics. The race to the bottom on app pricing makes it difficult for developers to justify the investment necessary to create more powerful and fully featured apps. This is why I applaud developers like The Omni Group, who charge a fair price for their software, despite market pressure to give everything away for free.
In conclusion, I will reiterate that the iPad is built for real work and it can make you more productive in ways that you might not have considered before. It may not be better for Excel, but is that really all you do?
I once received the firm admonition to be thankful for my nation. I am having trouble mustering gratitude for the country this year as I watch the ever expanding security/surveillance state encroaching on the laws and freedoms of our nation, with seemingly little public outcry. At times like these I have found it helpful to remember that my country and my government are not always the same thing.
I am extremely grateful for the opportunities I have been given living in the United States. I have been able to find employment in a profession of my choosing, support my family, move freely from state to state, speak my mind as I see fit (although recently I can’t help but choose my words more carefully since it is clear that people are listening), worship and live my faith according to my own conscience, own transportation and a home, choose how I will vote and more. These things are all elements of my country, aside from offensive actions that my government takes.
It is important to undertake this exercise and find things to be grateful for. Without them, why would I change the things that need changing? Gratitude grounds motivation, and clarifies what is worth defending.
Yesterday was a big day for me. My son turned two and got a Little Tikes car to prove it. I also started a new full time job at Mighty in the Midwest, a web design and development agency in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Mighty is a fantastic company with a talented team and great clients. I have been working part time with Mighty for the last few months and have been impressed as I have seen how they do what they do. I feel very fortunate to take a full time position with them.
During my contract work at Mighty I have been able to help with the Downtown Market website and work extensively on a site that launched yesterday, Hand2Hand. Hand2Hand is a charity that partners schools with local churches who provide food filled backpacks for hungry children to take home over the weekends. It’s an inspiring organization with sincerely passionate people and I am proud to have been involved in their new website. You can visit the site here and learn about the great work they do.
I am looking forward to working on many more projects with the Mighty team and encourage anybody who needs a great website to get in touch.
I recently replied to a question on Yabbly, a great website for QA and product recommendations, regarding travel tips for Peru. My tips were all food related, as that is my primary motivation most of the time. I thought I would post the same tips here and expand them in a couple points. Here are my top places to eat in the cities a traveller is most likely to hit making a trip to Peru.
Tanta in Miraflores, excellent contemporary takes on traditional Peruvian dishes from one of Peru’s top chefs Gastón Acurio (who also owns Papachos and Chicha, two of my other favorites below). I like the Arroz con Pollo. There are a few locations. You can find them at Larco Mar or the corner of 28 de Julio and Vasco Nuñez de Balboa
Pardo’s Chicken. Peruvian rotisserie chicken. Super good. They have locations all over the place.
Papachos in Miraflores. If you need American food they make burgers. They also have several delicious vegetarian burgers with really interesting patties. The best burger in Peru, and some of my best ever. 28 de Julio and La Paz
Chicha. Traditional Peruvian dishes with local flavors from the mountains. This is some of the best food I have ever eaten, hands down. I got the Lomo Saltado. It’s one block southwest of the Plaza de Armas on the Plaza Regocijo.
Greens Organic Restaurant. Healthier food, but still delicious. I ate the Alpaca medallions and loved it. This is just around the corner from the Plaza de Armas directly east.
Aguas Calientes (base camp for Macchu Picchu):
Indio Feliz. Delicious Peruvian/French fusion, run by a French expat. My parents thought this was the best food of our most recent trip. They are a big relief as most of the rest of the food at Aguas Calientes has been disappointing in my experience. They are off of Av Pachacutec. Ask around for them.
It is not as likely that a tourist would visit Ica, but it’s a city a few hours south of Lima in the desert where I lived for 6 months so I can offer a couple recommendations.
Huarango. More rotisserie chicken. Some of the best I’ve had in the country.
Helena Chocolatier. The Helena factory is in Ica and has some awesome chocolates. Get the Chocotejas with Pecans. They’re my favorite.
I have been deeply disturbed by recent revelations about the US government’s spying operations. The NSA’s flagrant disregard for the Constitution, as well as the Executive branch’s defense of spying, is what I consider to be a serious affront to the rights and liberties of American citizens. I have wanted to share something about the current situation that goes beyond outrage (my social streams have already been inundated with enough of my snarky comments). I think that the efficiency trap is what I can offer.
Greater efficiency seems to be a universally desired characteristic, but should it be? Efficiency is about automating any process that will shorten the distance/time between the beginning and end of any action. Gains in efficiency have lead to tremendous economic growth in virtually every sector of our society. It has led to wonderful and elegant solutions to the problems and annoyances of day to day life, especially in the technology realm. I am for greater efficiency in many of these areas. I love online banking, bill pay, better gas mileage, wider public transportation, online shopping, and all the other modern conveniences that have come from the drive for efficiency.
There is one part of civic life that seems to have been missed by all this efficiency, government. It seems that every time an issue arises for congress to deal with, the level of outrage among the American people rises.
“Why can’t these people work together?”
“If only the (insert your least favored political party here) would play ball they could get something done.”
These familiar complaints can lead people to wonder why our government works the way it does. As I have thought about this I have come to think that our government works the way it does on purpose. This inefficiency of the process is what was intended by the framers of our constitution, and that is not a bad thing.
Checks and balances are not just a civics class factoid, they are essential to a functioning democracy. Each branch of government has power to check the other and it is easy to see why this is important in theory, but it is not efficient. The most efficient form of government would be a dictatorship, one chain of command with nonexistent or ineffectual checks to power. It is precisely this type of efficiency and singular vision that Apple has in the tech sector and Microsoft reorganized to achieve. We may like the outcomes from this structure in business, but the side effects of the same structure in government are widely condemned.
The ideas behind checks and balances are put to use in courtrooms, where trials are adversarial with impartial judges and juries deciding the outcome. This is why activist judges are roundly denounced (unless of course you agree with their leanings). Checks and balances exist (supposedly) for security agencies, in the form of congressional oversight from senators who approve their budgets. The fact that the military is divided so sharply into different branches helps prevent the type of power consolidation that so often topples governments (see Egypt for a recent example).
Checks and balances cannot prevent all problems in our government but their existence greatly reduces them. The framers of the Constitution knew first-hand the consequences of unchecked power in the form of a King effectively unchecked by a parliament that, in turn, was not accountable to the people it represented. History had taught them that unchecked power usually, if not always, leads to abuse of that power and the people with the least representation suffer the most. They created our form of government, with extensive checks and balances, as an answer to that problem and the American people have been the beneficiaries for over two centuries.
This is why the NSA spying revelations are such a huge problem. This and many of the laws passed in the last 12 years have introduced a tremendous amount of unchecked power into our government, the executive branch specifically. After 9/11, the intelligence community were caught flat footed. The problem, as they saw it, was a lack of efficiency caused by a lack interdepartmental cooperation. They were asked by the White House what they would need to fight terrorists and prevent another attack. Their recommendations resulted in The Patriot Act, a set of war powers that gave the intelligence community broad license to streamline their work with little real oversight. The NSA would need court orders to spy on Americans, but to promote greater efficiency they set up their own secret, non-adversarial courts that work off secret legal interpretations. Instead of congressional oversight where the issues could be debated openly by our representatives, all oversight was done by secret committees who were banned from discussing disturbing revelations publicly, if they were told the truth at all. In effect there is no check to the power of the NSA. Any semblance of oversight is tightly controlled by those who are supposed to be watched.
We have given our presidents war powers before, World War II comes to mind, but there was always an end objective in those conflicts. The “War on Terror” has no end point, so these laws that empower the executive branch and security agencies to act with impunity, will we be with us perpetually unless we do something about it. What can we do? We can do something hard, be squeaky wheels. Here are my suggestions, take them how you will:
Contact your representatives. Let them know that this breach of the Constitution should not be tolerated and that they will lose your vote should they not work to make secret surveillance of US citizens clearly illegal (this will mean repeal of much, if not all, of the Patriot Act) and defund any agency that does not comply. Let them know that the choice between safety and security is a false choice and they are in Washington primarily to guard our liberties and uphold the law, not be lifeguards. If your representative does not comply then actually vote for someone else and tell your family and friends to do the same. Their willingness to stop these programs is probably best indicated by how they have voted for The Patriot Act in the past, although, being politicians, they can change if properly motivated.
Tell everyone you know about it. The disregard for our rights being perpetrated by our government would have seemed like conspiracy theories a few years ago, but they are real and every revelation is worse than the last. If you’re wondering where to point people, this timeline, the Washington Post’s Top Secret America, The Guardian’s NSA articles, The Economist’s op ed, and Bruce Schneier’s piece on privacy are good places to start. This is an issue that should not be bumped out of focus by Syria or whatever else the executive tries to distract us with in the coming months.
Let tech companies know, by your lack of patronage or by direct contact, that it will hurt them monetarily to leave open backdoors for the NSA. They may not have a choice, but they’re much more likely to make a bigger stink in Washington if it’s costing them money.
Make life difficult for the NSA. If you are technically inclined, increase the time and effort it takes them to track your information. Here’s an article showing you how to get started.
The organizations that are abusing our fear of terrorism by increasing surveillance may seem so entrenched that we can’t do anything about it, but America was unique in the world when it was formed in an interesting way. We have the ability through our electoral system to have a peaceful revolution every few years. We can choose our leaders and no matter what they say about the benefits of institutional knowledge they can be replaced, just as all their predecessors have been. If we do not like the way our government treats us, we can replace them, all of them. The road to tyranny may seem long, but the NSA and the executive branch’s powers are shortening it a great deal. It may be hard to imagine our nation turning to tyranny today, but try to imagine who will be in power in 15–20 years. I can’t and I imagine you can’t either. This is too much power for any government, no matter how well intentioned. Let’s do something about it. We can show the world that efficiency is not more important than checks and balances and that liberty is more important than expediency.
Napkin is a Mac App for image annotation and sharing. I used it recently to send quick feedback to developers on their implementation of designs and it is a joy to work with. It is clear that Napkin’s creators have focused on the details and flow of the app and made them great. Here’s how I have used it so far.
I capture screenshots of the app/website I want to send feedback on and then import them into Ember (which I wrote a review about last week). From here I drag them out of Ember onto Napkin, where all the images are thrown onto a new canvas. Here it is simply a matter of selecting the appropriate tool to point to, zoom, annotate, etc. different parts of the image. One of the best parts is how unnecessary clicks and steps have been eliminated. Arrows are created not by clicking a start point and an end point, but by drawing a line. In order to write a note you just start typing, without first picking fonts, location or color (these things can be changed after the fact). It’s all the little efficiencies and well considered design decisions that add up to create a great experience.
If Napkin seems like something you might find useful, learn more at their website or pick it up from the App Store.
Ember for Mac is a new app from Realmac Software that replaces their previous offering, Littlesnapper. It is a fantastic product that improves on its predecessor while offering some helpful new features.
Ember and, before it, Littlesnapper can basically be described as iPhoto for inspiration. In fact my first task, years ago, when I bought Littlesnapper was to import inspiration images from an iPhoto library. These images included, in my case, photos of school projects, WWII propaganda posters, wallpaper for my desktop, cool icons, etc.. The apps also contain screenshot tools to capture windows, user defined areas or the entire screen. Additionaly a built-in web browser can take full length screenshots of websites (a huge help in design work and research for projects). All the shots can be tagged for later search. These major features that I used consistently are shared by Ember and its predecessor Littlesnapper.
I had been a user of Littlesnapper for a few years, but stopped for a couple reasons. It was sluggish, especially with a large library, and it seemed to be a low priority for its developers as the updates were infrequent and fairly insignificant for the user. Ember addresses the first issue handily because the app is fast and doesn’t get sluggish with large libraries. Its existence seems to be an answer to my second second.
One of my favorite features in Ember is the RSS reader. You can subscribe to RSS feeds, which will then display the images from each feed, stripped of all other content. This is a huge plus for me as it keeps my visual inspiration feeds separate from my news feeds and gives them to me in a nice interface. As I process the images from my feeds each morning (there’s some nice gestures for going through this, which shouldn’t be a surprise from the makers of Clear), if I see something I want to add to my library I simply hit the space bar. You can also jump quickly to the link from which the image is coming.
The RSS feed is the most exciting addition in my opinion, but also the one that needs the most work.
There is no option, that I am aware of, to hide seen items in the RSS feeds or see Unseen items only. This makes it complicated if you are like me and see an RSS feed as something to process.
It would also be nice to be able to ignore thumbnail sized images in the feed, especially since they are usually accompanied by larger images.
The last quibble I have with the RSS functionality is the fact that large images appear to be downsized. This might be one of the reasons that Ember is so performant, but it would be nice to have some of the photography blogs I follow give me the full sized images.
Another notable feature that I find helpful is smarter tagging. For example, screenshots from iOS devices are detected from their size and automatically tagged as Tablet or Phone shots. This type of tagging makes it especially helpful when reviewing app designs. Tagging is something about which I usually have good intentions, but rarely actually do. It is nice that Ember leaves me without excuse and tries to do some basic work on my behalf.
Overall, everything about Ember is a thoughtful improvement over Littlesnapper and I can easily recommend it. There is evidence of sweating the details throughout, the option to resize for different device sizes in the browser comes to mind. At $50 it can seem pricey, but if, like me, you prefer to have an inspiration library that is local and not subject to the unpredictability of online services, Ember won’t disappoint. Check it out and then pick it up from the Mac App Store.
I suffer from an affliction that most designers I know share. A few months ago I looked at my website and couldn’t stand it. It was time for my annual tradition of overhauling the website. This time I decided to do some IA changes that I had been putting off along with the redesign. With the IA changes it seemed like a good time to try a new CMS. As you can see, the process quickly spiraled into from a visual refresh to something much more significant.
One of the things that began to bother me about the previous design was how contained and constricted everything felt. There were borders and rules and all the content felt very boxed in, especially the portfolio section. The design was responsive but the design shifted at different sizes in ways that seemed very forced.
The solution to these issues was to vastly simplify the layout to a single column which would shift type-size and margins as the browser resized. This puts a renewed focus on the content and allows me to find ways to create visual interest through the content itself instead of relying on a clever layout (which is rarely clever at all). I decided that the site would focus on text and imagery. These are the two most important elements of most content so it seemed appropriate.
All the imagery in the work section extends the entire width of the browser in order to give the viewer as big an experience as possible. The headers for the blog posts do the same. In order to make sure these large images would not effect download speeds unduly I decided to use Filament Group’s suggestion of heavy compression on larger images, as they are often smaller in download size than more technical solutions. Between heavy compression on JPGs and ImageOptim I found that the loading speed on my anecdotal testing is acceptable.
One potential issue with the design moving forward is the requirement for blog posts to have a header image. This has not been an issue so far, but some older posts simply don’t have a header image. We’ll see how this design decision pans out.
I had been using Wordpress for the site and had a few problems with it:
My designs called for custom fields often enough that Wordpress seemed limiting. As far as I know there is no way to make a specific custom field show up automatically in the dashboard for every new post without even more 3rd party plugins (a constant pain point for continued maintenance).
I also knew that I wanted to simplify the IA so all posts would be formatted as blog/post-title. Wordpress was organizing everything by category. Don’t ask me how or why I got it to do that, I have no idea.
I don’t know how bloated Wordpress actually is, but I realized that when I looked through my template code I did not understand half of what was going, never a good sign. I needed something more straightforward.
One other issue is that I wanted something that would stick fairly close to the static templates I would use for my front-end development and my Wordpress templates were almost unrecognizable to me.
I decided to go with Kirby, a static site generator, for the latest revision. It addressed each of the four issues I have listed above:
Each post is a plain text file in a subfolder of its appropriate section (work and blog in my case). This file contains the title, date, text, tags, categories, plus any other custom field you might want. It’s as simple as typing out another field in the appropriate syntax. If you template code calls for that field any post that has content for it will just work.
IA is dead simple. It’s just folders. I have a blog folder and a work folder, and all the posts are subfolders in one of those. The URLs are built off of this structure. My URLs make sense again. There’s even some simple instructions on how to deal with broken Wordpress URLS. Did I mention there’s a Wordpress importer? A related advantage is that loading time is quick because there is no database to query.
It is pretty easy to understand everything that is happening in your site’s structure and template code. It’s still PHP so some base knowledge is helpful, but there is some great documentation and tutorials that made me feel pretty confident pretty quickly.
The lack of extraneous template code makes it really easy to go from a static template to a working site. I used Hammer to build my templates and very quickly had all the pieces together for Kirby. In fact the static and site code are close enough that I can still do CSS changes in my Hammer project and then just copy it straight over to the Kirby site without worrying about breaking anything.
There are disadvantages to Kirby, the panel is still in public beta so there are some bugs when creating new posts through the panel (the fact that folder numbers are not appended for new posts seems like an oversight and results in posts being listed out of order in the control panel). Most of the time I post using FTP, but am planning on upgrading from a shared host to a VPS in order to setup git deployment. Another small quibble is kirbytext, a slight variation on Markdown. It has enough small differences, the way links are written for example, that there could be potential content portability problems in the future should I want to move off of Kirby. It will parse plain Markdown so how big an issue this is remains to be seen.
Overall I am very happy with Kirby and could easily recommend it for personal sites, blogs, portfolios, etc. to people familiar with building sites. It is something that I would not feel comfortable handing over to a client as there is not an easy, reliable dashboard. I would recommend something like Expression Engine to clients with bigger more extensive needs, although I am itching to try out Craft. For smaller, personal scale sites, I would recommend something like Wordpress (although the need for constant 3rd party plugins is a huge pain) or Squarespace (I used Squarespace for The Way Station site and am happy with it so far) for a client.
I am currently pretty happy with my new site. We’ll see how I feel next year.
Today I am launching a new podcast called The Way Station. It is an interview podcast with people who are following their own career path. I am pretty excited about it and hope that people like it. Check out the website and give a listen to the first guest, Amber Hooper.
The idea for The Way Station has been percolating for the last few months and I am very happy to see it finally available for everyone to hear. I am a huge podcast fan, especially podcasts, and spend most of my work time listening to them in the background. As I listened to great interviews with interesting people, mostly in the tech world, I realized I know some people with some great career stories that would resonate with others. So far I have interviewed an industrial designer, landscape photographer and iOS developer and will be recording more in the weeks to come. I think having a good mix of interests and careers represented is important. No matter what your particular focus, listening to people in other fields can helps me relate to my own in new ways. I think others would say the same thing. So take a listen, subscribe and, if you like it, tell some friends.
Today is an exciting day for me. Geekbench 3, the app I’ve been working on with Primate Labs, was released. I handled the design for the iOS versions, as well as the new results views on the desktop and Android versions. You can learn more about it on the website or get it from the App Store.