Hi, I’m Noah Read

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. If you want to talk feel free to contact me on Twitter or ADN. You can also find me on Dribbble.

Facebook and Google are Not the NSA

As the initial shock of Edward Snowden’s leaks has begun to wear off and the media has moved on to new scandals I have heard a fallacious argument about government intelligence gathering. People perceive a false equivalence between the personal data technology companies gather/exploit and the efforts of government agencies. “The world has changed,” the argument goes, “and if Google has access to the personal information of its users, certainly the public servants tasked with protecting us shouldn’t have their hands tied.” The naiveté of this argument is frankly mind boggling to me. A corporation and the government are not the same thing and should not be conflated in discussions of our constitutional rights to privacy and due process particularly.

Facebook and Google are companies that face frequent criticism for their exploitation of user data in order to empower advertisers. Google’s executives have made several tone deaf statements that seem to demonstrate a lack of sensitivity to those concerned about the brave new, transparent world they wish to create. Facebook faces bad press regularly because of shifting privacy policies that have exposed people to embarrassment and potential harm as their personal information becomes public. Several other tech companies face similar problems as they gather vast quantities of personal data and try to use it to their own advantage in providing services to their customers and users. Abuse of their position can lead to real problems, but nowhere near as much as the same information collected, secretly and relying on dubious legal authority, by government agencies.

This same type of personal information has been used historically by some governments to intimidate, embarrass political opposition, target dissidents, and even imprison, torture, and kill citizens. This is the greatest difference between any corporation and the government. Governments can enact their dictates by force and will only be remade through drastic internal reform or revolution. Corporations, on the other hand, can be brought into submission to the law or will of the people through legal force and the power of the market. The difference between information gathering by companies and the government is a difference of kind, not degree.

Even if you disagree and see information gathering by business and government as similar pursuits consider the ability of a user of Google or Facebook to opt out or cease use of their services (in fact, you opted in to their information gathering, unlike any of the NSA programs). It may be inconvenient or difficult to find alternatives to their services, but it is certainly possible and legal. An American citizen has no effective right to guard their information from the NSA and other intelligence agencies. In fact, efforts to do so through increased encryption and choosing secure/anonymous services seems suspicious to the government and makes you a target.

When a user of a business’ services feels a breach of trust they have recourse; ceasing commerce with/use of their services, free speech (unlike holders of National Security Letters), and lawsuits, to name a few. When a citizen feels a breach of trust with the NSA their only recourse is to literally change the government through electing officials that place importance on due process, privacy, and upholding the constitution (all qualities that seem to be in short supply). With a company you can always walk away, you cannot walk away from those who feel they have a legal right to spy on you.

Tech companies should respect their user’s privacy and be made to keep the law when they don’t. However, despite all the damage they can do, they are nothing compared to the threat of government agencies with the same information. Facebook may regularly annoy and embarrass you, but a government, today or in the future, can take all that you hold dear.

Building Mind Vault 2.0

Recently I released a major update for Mind Vault, which is funny to say, considering there are only 2 things that users will notice. The first is an updated design, reflecting the current state of iOS 7, and the second is options for sharing what you are memorizing via email, messages or social networks.

It was a major update because of all the work that went into the new design. iOS 7 arrived last summer and threw the whole iOS development community into redesign mode, myself included. The design of Mind Vault has been greatly simplified to focus around what a user is actually working on, the passage they are trying to memorize. The design was actually fairly quick, but implementing it with the latest frameworks and technology took more time.

The Future

Apple really opened up the floodgates with iOS 8 this year. The new developer tools create a lot of opportunities that did not exist before and I do have plans to implement some new features that take advantage of them. It’s going to be a busy few months.

In the meantime, check out Mind Vault 2.0 on the App Store.

Oral History

A year and a half ago I sat down with my father and started recording an oral history. We spoke for over an hour and covered topics from his childhood through High School. It was a great conversation and I hope to be able to continue these interviews with family members in order to have an extensive resource of our heritage.

Why oral history?

I really enjoy writing a journal, which I keep in Day One. As I have become more proficient and persistent in doing so, I have come to think of it as one of the most important things I can do in life. What remains for our descendants are memories we make together, momentos, and, occasionally, personal records. The benefits are not simply for my children, but for myself as well. I love to read old entries and reflect on how I felt at important, and not so important, events in my life. Journaling has helped me grow as a person as I have seen how far I’ve come in certain ways, or how, on the other hand, I want to get back to things I may have abandoned. Records of our lives are important, but they take time, effort, and patience to build.

Many of the people close to us have experiences and insights that are simply not shared. They go unsaid because people are busy, or don’t see their own life as very unique or compelling, or a myriad of other reasons. If you can get a cherished family member or friend to sit down and talk about their life, they will love the experience, and you for caring enough about them to ask. You will learn things about them you never knew and they will have a chance to reflect on their lives in ways they probably haven’t in a long time. The topics will wander and vary, from profound to mundane, but you will find yourself caring tremendously about what kind of food they ate when they grew up, how much time they spent with their relatives, and what their first jobs were. The foundations of character you respect will come into sharp relief. Recording an oral history with someone you care about will bring you closer and cast your own life in a richer context.

How to do it

If this sounds like a worthwhile pursuit to you, let me share some tips:

  1. Create a relaxed setting. Regardless of the logistical things discussed below, make sure you do not detract from a relaxed, natural conversation.
  2. Write a handful of things you want to ask about, but keep it limited. The conversation should flow on its own, but a couple notes will help you feel confident that you didn’t miss anything too important.
  3. Choose your medium. I think video is fantastic, but because of technical issues it may not be practicle for every situation. You can record audio easily with a smart phone or inexpensive audio recorder.
  4. Choose a presentation and storage strategy. Finding a private way to share the oral history with family members will spread the rewarding experience to them as well. Be sure to also save digital files consciously, and back them up redundantly. Don't let your hard work get erased or lost!

Video Tips

If you’re choosing to use video here are my recommendations:

  1. Use a camcorder. Digital SLRs shoot great video and are wonderful for beautiful, “cinematic” videography, but they typically have a clip limit of 8–10 minutes. This means you have to stop the conversation frequently to start another video. Camcorders on the other hand go as long as there’s space on the SD card. You can find camcorders for $200–500 at places like Costco and Best Buy that are better than the one I paid 2–3 times that for a few years ago.
  2. Use a tripod. This should go without saying, but handholding these types of videos is crazy. Plus, you can frame the subject much better from a tripod than setting a camera on makeshift surfaces.
  3. Use a lot of light, but avoid backlight. Having a well lit subject will make your video pleasant to watch, just don’t put them right in front of a window in daylight, because they will look like they’re talking to you right from heaven.
  4. You might want to record audio separately. Mics on video cameras are typically terrible. When you know what software you will be using to output the video look up how to do audio syncing with it on YouTube. If that process doesn’t seem too overwhelming, try recording audio separately with a decent mic and then syncing it with the video in post-production. You will always have the video camera mic to fall back on.
  5. Do a couple test takes with someone else sitting in for the subject. This way you can make sure everything is working before you begin.
  6. Output the video in the best quality/resolution possible with your equipment. It will take a long time and bog down most computers for hours, but the advance of visual fidelity is relentless in the video world and you’ll be happy you didn’t skimp a couple years from now.
  7. Backup, backup, backup. This is so important, but almost nobody does it. Professional videographers have insane backup systems that are impractical for most people; so I will point you to a series of articles by The Sweet Setup about backing up a Mac that should get you started. Be sure to read all the links from this article, as they are very descriptive, helpful, and persuasive.
  8. Share with family members. I do this using Vimeo. You can set videos to private, allowing people to access them via password. I upload the video and then share the link and password with my family. You can also do this on YouTube, but I prefer Vimeo because you can offer the video file for download.

Hopefully these recommendations will help you realize how worthwhile and doable oral histories are. I encourage you to try it out, you will be surprised at what you learn and how much you enjoy the process.

Paralympics

When I was at West High School in Salt Lake City in 2002 I had a unique opportunity, to work for the Winter Olympics. My school was less than two blocks from where most award ceremonies and official non-athletic events were to take place, so rather than figure out how to get us all to class in the crowds and post 9/11 influenced security boom, we got a couple weeks of vacation. A month ahead of time some recruiters from the Games came to West High to get people to work. I signed up.

I worked at the figure skating/short track speed skating practice rink managing traffic. I helped direct vans from the tightly secured Olympic Village to the back entrance without delay while sending everyone else to the front where the metal detectors were. It was a lot of fun, we made new friends, ate lots of free food, got to see the athletes practice during our frequent breaks and even got to see the bomb squad robot blow up something suspicious looking (it was probably just trash). It was a lot of fun, but exhausting because I had to wake up between 3-4 every morning to arrive for work on time. There wasn't much time or energy to see the attractions or events that were happening all over the city. In the end I had fun and made enough money to buy my first Mac, a G4 Tower, and didn't feel cheated that while working I had missed all the fun.

A couple weeks later I got tickets to go see the Paralympic downhill skiing. I don’t know what I was expecting but what I saw was amazing and still one of the most inspiring memories I have. These athletes were flying down the course at speeds that I will likely never approach (I was a regular snowboarder at the time), seemingly without regard for the danger or difficulty. There were many skiers without limbs, but to me the most amazing ones were the blind skiers. They were led by a spotter a few yards ahead at breakneck speed. Trusting someone else and your own abilities that much is a singular thing to behold. If you are ever in a position to see a comparable event I hope you take it. In the meantime check out all the wonderful photos over at The Big Picture.

Snippets

Over the last few weeks I have undertaken significant changes to my site. The design has been slightly updated, with Vollkorn replacing Calluna for a heartier reading experience. The navigation has been simplified, removing the social icons from the top right of the navbar and linking to them in my bio. Navigation items on mobile sizes are now icons as well. These visual updates will keep coming as I refine the design, but the biggest updates have happened under the hood in order to empower the new Snippets feed. I migrated to a new CMS, Craft, which allows for very simple, yet totally customizable content and has a great control panel. This flexibility allowed me to take control of a lot of the content that I have been publishing on social networks and create a canonical feed of little things I want to share. I call them Snippets.

Snippets

I really enjoy Microblogging, in Twitter, ADN, or Facebook form. These social networks are great places to share, discover, and talk about almost anything. Some of the content is so great that it seems a shame to be dumping it into 3rd party services, which may be gone within a few years. Microblogging and social sharing will survive, whether or not the current players do. So I wanted to take control of the things I publish on these networks, without abandoning the great things only they can provide, the conversations and reactions to what is shared. So Snippets are the way I will post to these services from now on. I create and own the canonical material, which is then posted to Twitter, ADN, Facebook, Flickr, etc..

The way I have configured Snippets allows me to tackle another problem of social sharing, cross posting. In the past I have used IFTTT to post what I share on ADN to Twitter and Facebook. This is not ideal, it leads to truncated posts on Twitter and posts on Facebook that I end up deleting because my friends there don’t care what I think about some mundane aspect of my job. Cross posting lives in the tension of differing social network capabilities and distinct spheres of social connections. The flexibility of Craft allows me to bypass all those issues. When I create a new Snippet I write the canonical post, then I select which social networks it will be published on. I also edit the post to fit each selected network’s capabilities (character limits for example). Once the post is published each service has an RSS feed that is used, by IFTTT, to publish their version of the post. This process deals with both the differing capabilities and desired audience for each service. Facebook friends may see an article I liked and not necessarily my comments about responsive web design, but both will live on my website.

I am not trying to log all my activity on these networks, just the content that I want to claim because it originates with me. This does not include retweets, likes, comments, or any of the unique things that makes each of these services great. I am happy with the possibilities of Snippets and am excited to see how they expand.

Homesteading and Sharecropping

There have been a few articles lately regarding the place that personal websites have, and have lost. The rise of blogging services, such as Tumblr and Medium have led to concern over the value of owning a proprietary domain and personal publishing platform. Frank Chimero’s post compares building your personal site to building your own home, homesteading instead of sharecropping. This is a wonderful way to think about it, and I agree.

This year I’m planning to make some significant changes to the way I structure and publish on my site, the first order of business is transitioning to a more robust CMS and tackling an issue that has been a constant headache for me, reclaiming microblogging from social services and leaving those services to do what they do best. I have something in mind that I’m eager to implement. Check back soon.

Hand2Hand

Hand2Hand is a charitable organization that connects schools with a local church who provides food filled backpacks for needy students to take home over the weekend. This benefits the children’s nutrition, provides help to their families and improves their performance in class. With over sixty schools and forty churches partnered in western Michigan, the growing organization needed a new website that signaled to potential partners the effect they have already had and the seriousness they bring to their efforts to combat hunger in the community.

There were two parts of building Hand2Hand's website that I would like to highlight; style tiles and the Content Management System (CMS).

We presented style tiles to Hand2Hand very early in the process, which made it easier to proceed with confidence toward a design. A style tile is similar to what an interior designer might present with paint swatches, carpet samples, etc.. In our case, we present different button styles, colors, textures, typefaces, image treatments, etc.. These seemingly mundane elements can become stumbling blocks later in the design process, so getting a feel for a client’s taste and the tone they are seeking early is helpful. With the style tiles we learned that, as a growing organization, Hand2Hand wanted to inspire confidence in their own capability to any potential partner.

Once the style tiles were chosen, proceeding to wireframes and design was straightforward. Front-end development began and proceeded quickly because of the streamlined design phase. Then it was time to begin the back-end development, building a CMS.

We chose to use Craft to build Hand2Hand’s CMS. It is a fairly recent entrant in the market, but is under very active development, and its makers come with a respected pedigree in Expression Engine development and add-ons. The flexible nature of Craft meant that we were able to build the CMS that Hand2Hand needed, without the control panel bloat and historical baggage of some other platforms. There are a couple major features that are helpful for people using the CMS worth highlighting; live previews when editing content, and a responsive control panel, as well as many features that make building a custom CMS straightforward for developers. I loved working with Craft, in fact it has been the most enjoyable first experience with a CMS I have ever had. I can easily recommend it, the only caveat being that the plugin community is still new so integration for obscure services/features and niche plugins might not be available yet. You should, however, not need any third-party help with the structure of the CMS as this is extremely flexible and intuitive to set up. Likewise, there is a tremendous amount of power in the base CMS and its first-party packages.

Conclusion

The Hand2Hand site was a wonderful project to work on for an organization that I respect and people I enjoyed working with. In addition, it was the first project I worked on, from beginning to end, at Mighty in the Midwest. I am eager to see Hand2Hand’s continued growth and apply what I learned with future projects at Mighty.

Where Does the iPad Fit?

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?

Why Gratitude?

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.

Mighty

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.