Pocket Premium: A Review

Yesterday, less than an hour before an entirely different version of this review was about to go live, I received an email from Pocket’s community manager, Justin:

Hello again, Shibel!

I have some great news for you – we finally heard back from our search partner, and were able to track down the the cause of some of the search operator issues that you reported.

The good news were that almost four weeks after I’ve reported a series of bugs, Pocket Premium’s search was no longer dysfunctional. The not so good news, for me at least, were that the 2,508-word review that I was about to publish was rendered irrelevant.

This made me think about why technology fascinates me to the extent it does, especially web and software: If you ship a tangible product with faulty hardware design, like a phone, you’re screwed. At least until your next production batch. If you launch a broken web app, though, you can fix the most significant of issues very quickly. Your only dependencies are your own priorities and skills.

Anyway, here’s the revised review.

The way I organize what I read online, which I wrote about in January, has changed. This is a review of Pocket Premium and my experiences while using it as the sole tool for reading and filing articles. I’ve been using Pocket Premium for almost a month now, testing it very actively for the first two weeks.

Unique Circumstances

For me, a good bookmarking service allows the user to send links independently of where they are, or what OS they’re using. At home, I have a MacBook and an iPad. At work, I’m forced to work on Windows PCs with corporate settings, something that prevents me from customizing them for my needs. I can’t install bookmarklets or browser extensions, let alone applications.

It doesn’t help, either, that I work in a news-desk, which at many stages of the day can be an inordinately busy and chaotic place. This means that I can’t bring my MacBook there, because someone will inevitably spill coffee, sit, or stomp on it. Moreover, I often have to give my seat pretty quickly during sudden emergencies and events, so staying logged in to my web accounts isn’t an option. Try standing in the way of a producer whose interviewee isn’t picking up two minutes before his show starts.

The Previous System

The way things worked previously was that I used Pocket (the free version) not only as a read later service, but also as a “docking station” for stuff that I may want to save to Evernote for future reference. What I save doesn’t have to be an article: it can be a YouTube video, a product homepage that I want to check out later, or a tweet with an embedded image1.

So, at different stages of the day I’d scan my Pocket list, and there would usually be three kinds of items on it:

  1. Articles that I saved to read later: This is the typical use case of Pocket. Some of these articles would be tagged and sent to Evernote once they’re read, and some would get archived inside Pocket.

  2. Articles that I’ve already read and wanted to save to Evernote: Funny, but Pocket was (and is) better at sending bookmarks to Evernote than Evernote’s own apps.

  3. All kinds of other content and media that weren’t really text, but that I wanted to save for one reason or another.

For this type of role, Pocket has a few strong advantages over its competitors:

  1. Wider and better support by browsers and third party developers.

  2. A better sharing system on iOS: Pocket uses its own share sheet and supports export to a plethora of services. Better yet, sharing is done in-house, meaning you don’t have to leave to the destination app to share something from Pocket. For Evernote, you can tag an article quickly from the share sheet, something that isn’t possible in Instapaper because it sends you to the Evernote app. Which, you know, sucks just like Evernote’s apps.

  3. Save by email: I called this the “X factor” in my workflow review in January, and it still is, especially when I’m browsing at work: I don’t have to be logged in to any service, not even my own email address, to add something to my Pocket queue. I just set up Pocket to accept all items sent to add@getpocket.com from my workplace’s address, and since Outlook is always open there, adding an item is a breeze.

  4. Tags: Instapaper, for example, uses folders, which limits the user to one reference point per article.

My previous workflow was entirely device agnostic, something I always look for in services and products. But its weakest link, Evernote, gave me little incentive to take advantage of the hundreds of items that I’ve accumulated. What made working with Evernote such a bad experience were its iOS and (especially) OS X apps. I don’t think I need to expand on how buggy and slow they are; anyone who’s used them knows. CEO Phil Libin himself admitted in January Evernote wasn’t focusing on “the core experience,” and promised better Evernote apps were coming “in a matter of weeks”.

As I was writing this review, Evernote rolled out version 5.6 of their OS X app, a few days after shipping version 7.5 of their iOS app. On Macstories, Federico Viticci seems impressed with Evernote’s new sharing extension on iOS, and while it does sound versatile, it still does not support tags(!). As for OS X, while Federico writes that he found the new version “to be faster and more reliable than before,” it’s not something I can corroborate since this version hasn’t hit my local App Store yet.

In any case, for me the ship has already sailed.

What Changed

A few things have changed since January, the last time I revisited my workflow:

  • Pocket launched Pocket Premium, with three features that aren’t available for free members. I’ll cover those in a bit.

  • One month later, Pocket began offering a 45% lifetime discount ($25 instead of $45) on its annual Premium plan to original “Read it Later Pro” customers, who I’m one of.

  • iOS 8 was released in September, introducing extensions.

  • Evernote, meanwhile, continues to be Evernote, and I don’t have the patience for it to prove otherwise.
    Continue Reading

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September 17, 2014

iOS 8 Review on Pixel Envy

Yesterday I was wondering aloud whether I’m the only person on the planet who’s more excited about iOS 8 and Yosemite rather than the new iPhones and the Apple Watch. I got some quick reassurance from a few people, including Sam Hutchings who said:

iOS 8 and Yosemite working together is Magic. iPhones are iterative upgrades, and Apple Watch is just too far away just now.

I don’t know about the iPhones or watch, I’d like to ponder a little more before I make up my mind. But “magic” is exactly the word that came to mind during and after this year’s WWDC. The multitude of new features introduced for both operating systems, and their binding together through Continuity, are more appealing to me than a bigger screen size. And yes, more than being able to pay with a phone.

I’ll leave the analysis and sales predictions regarding the Sixes and the watch to Apple’s certified pundits, but iOS 8 and Yosemite are (supposed to be) a revolution, no less, as far as heavy users are concerned.

For its release today, Nick Heer of Pixel Envy published a comprehensive review of iOS 8:

This is what I have gleaned from using iOS 8 every day since June 2 on my primary (and only) iPhone 5S and my Retina iPad Mini.

I usually try to extract a longer pull quote to give readers a better idea of what they’re about to read, or highlight something that was especially relevant to me. I couldn’t quite do that with Nick’s review. I’ll tell you, and this is coming from someone who thinks superlatives are the devil, that this is the best software review I’ve read in years.

The first public version of iOS 8 is a step forward, but Apple clearly has work to do before it can function anywhere near what we saw during the announcement in June.

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Welcome to The Pickle Theory

If everything worked as planned, you are reading these lines on a new domain name, and if you’re not reading these lines inside an RSS reader, you’ve probably noticed the new look, too.

Welcome to The Pickle Theory.

Let’s start with some administrative notes:

  • The domain name is now pickletheory.com. You’ll still get here if you type in the old address, so previously saved bookmarks should work just fine.

  • Accordingly, the RSS feed is now at feed.pickletheory.com. Subscribers to the old feed should be redirected automatically without having to worry about any of this, but if you do experience any hiccups, switching to the new one should help. Apologies for the inconvenience.

  • The site now has a dedicated Twitter account at @pickletheory, which will auto-tweet newly published articles.

  • There’s a new weekly newsletter for those who prefer to receive updates to their inbox. You can sign-up here.

The Name

Here’s “the story” behind this very unconfusing name as it currently appears on the new about page:

The Pickle Theory is a hedge against a change of mind or taste.

The toxic combination of perfectionism and indecisiveness has led this site to several different directions over its short lifespan. Seeing as it already went through more drastic changes than it should, I wanted to protect myself from myself or any future pivots by choosing a name I could relate to today and in the long haul.

But how can one protect against change when we all know change is inevitable? And that what you write about today may not be what you write about in two years? That not only your interests and priorities are bound to change with time, but that your personality — you — might as well?

Life takes you to places you could never expect to be, and it might in time alter things that you hold high and take pride in: opinion, philosophy, belief.

So I had to pick a constant. I figured that no matter who I am in three, five, or ten years, pickles are something that I’ll always enjoy. A radio guy or a businessman; writing about technology or Chivalric romance; rich or broke; it doesn’t matter. The pickle will always be there for me.

And this is The Pickle Theory. It’s the cold realization that, after all, our most durable characteristics may also be our most frivolous.1

I’ve talked with fellow writers about this, and they all said they liked “The Typist”. It’s a good name, with “a sort of allure to it,” as one of them put it. But the truth is I knew from day one it was temporary, and for many reasons. It implies singularity and author-focus, and is a tad bit too romantic. I’ve been sitting on this decision for a while now, but I wanted to couple it with the unveiling of my name so this weblog doesn’t become a diary about itself.

The Design

Unlike previous redesigns, this one isn’t a mere facelift: it’s almost 40 hours of typography research, sketches, fonts, color schemes, CSS, and PHP. Every element you see has been modified, line by line. Don’t worry, I’m not going to document each one of them.

One thing I do want to talk about though is the typography: Earlier this year, I had decided to change the main typeface from the very humanist Ideal Sans to a less pretentious, plainer one. I went with Proxima Nova, the deservedly acclaimed font by Mark Simonson.

With this overhaul, I’ve gone even further within the geometric sans-serifs family, to Avenir. Avenir isn’t available on non-Apple devices, so those devices will be served with Segoe UI. Titles are set in Tablet Gothic.

Making a geometric typeface readable is quite a challenge. I’ve spent much of my time adjusting line-heights and margins, but most of the attention went to characters per line (CPL), so even though the body text is bigger than it was before, the content area has been narrowed. This means less words per line, and hopefully less eye travel and neck strain.

But I think the biggest practical improvement is the new mobile design: Over 47% of this site’s visitors in the last 3 months were on a mobile device, and the previous version — while responsive — didn’t treat this segment too well. The fonts are now bigger, the layout tighter, and there are three breakpoints instead of one, which will ensure proper typography for both smartphone and tablet users.

Many of you have kindly taken out of their time to preview this design and give feedback, and it proved immensely helpful. Thank you. There isn’t enough space between these lines to express my gratitude.

If you see anything out of place, or have any suggestions, let me know on Twitter or send an email.

Also get in touch if you want to take the 1-year over on the next redesign..

  1. But really, I was just getting sick of trying to come up with a name. 
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My Name

My name is Shibel Karmi Mansour1 and I’ve been writing this weblog (in its current incarnation) anonymously since December 2013.

Not a lot will change now that I’m writing under my real name, but I guess an explanation is appropriate for those who’ve been following this site during the past few months and who might have noticed some narrative holes in certain pieces.

So let me explain. There are two notable radio stations that cover news here in Israel. Both are public, and together they compete for (and hold) the lion’s share of talk radio listenership. I work as the lead news anchor for one of them.

I was appointed to this role by the station’s then-new CEO2 in September of 2012. At the time, I was hosting a one-hour weekly show, studying for a bachelor’s degree in business administration, and pretty much settled with the idea that my future wasn’t in journalism. The offer presented to me was one that I couldn’t refuse, and so I took it.

I was younger (22) and even more inexperienced at the time, so the credit given to me was… well, huge. The transition was accompanied by some media attention, but more importantly it came with a journalistic responsibility that warranted thoughtfulness and diligence.

I feel fortunate and privileged, not only for the opportunity, but also — perhaps more so — for the environment it took place in. I was surrounded by smart, experienced, and supportive people who offered genuine advice that I really can’t put a price on.

Anonymity, to me, was primarily a hedge against unforeseen conflicts or developments. If stripped of its original context, I think Donald Rumsfeld’s controversial “Known Unknowns” can help explain some of my motivation behind the decision to start out anonymously:

There are known knowns; there are things that we know that we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don’t know we don’t know.

There were things I knew that I knew, like the fact I wanted to write, mainly about technology. There were things I knew that I didn’t know, like whether writing a weblog as a hobby in my spare time would be in significant conflict with working as a news-anchor for a public media outlet. I didn’t see anything wrong with it to start with, but again, considering my age, I assumed there were more things I didn’t know than things I could possibly know; so I decided to take a hedge. Then, along the way, there were things that I didn’t know that I didn’t know.

I’ve been writing here for a little under a year and I have a better idea of what kind of writer I am. I’ve also learned a great deal about what type of journalist I am, in my two years here at the station. I still have a lot to learn in both areas. But as things stand now — with many unknowns out of the way — I don’t see a reason to keep maintaining my anonymity. It was annoying and counterproductive. The hedge is no longer worth its premium. And so here I am.

What’s Next?

Except for an upcoming design overhaul and a name change, I don’t foresee any major changes. I will continue to impose certain limitations on the scope of topics I write about, but since this was the case from day one, I don’t think the typical reader will notice a difference in style or content before and after this announcement.

Thank you for reading.

  1. First name pronounced like nickel ,giggle, pickle, or what have you. 
  2. Who’s someone I respect on so many different levels and go to for all sorts of advice. My bosses were made aware of this weblog’s existence since its inception. 
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August 14, 2014

Why It’s Hard to Catch Your Own Typos

Typos are mostly a solved problem in our day and age, but the psychological explanation in this WIRED article is interesting nevertheless:

Generalization is the hallmark of all higher-level brain functions. It’s similar to how our brains build maps of familiar places, compiling the sights, smells, and feel of a route. That mental map frees your brain up to think about other things. […] We can become blind to details because our brain is operating on instinct. By the time you proof read your own work, your brain already knows the destination.

This explains why your readers are more likely to pick up on your errors. Even if you are using words and concepts that they are also familiar with, their brains are on this journey for the first time, so they are paying more attention to the details along the way and not anticipating the final destination.

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August 14, 2014

Bathymetric Wood Charts by “Below the Boat”

Below The Boat — Manhattan Chart

I’m not big on art, but I totally see myself buying a couple of these when my future home is ready. The hard part will be choosing which ones to get. Below the Boat is a Bellingham-based, husband-wife company. The charts are “designed in the United States, crafted in a family-owned shop overseas, and imported”:

Starting with a bathymetric chart (the underwater equivalent of a topographic map), the contours are laser-cut into sheets of Baltic birch and glued together to create a powerful visual depth. Select layers are hand-colored blue so it’s easy to discern land from water, major byways are etched into the land, then the whole thing’s framed in a custom, solid-wood frame and protected seamlessly with a sheet of durable, ultra-transparent Plexiglas.

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August 13, 2014

Robin Williams and Suicide Porn

Vaughan Bell, on Mind Hacks:

One of the first things I do in the morning is check the front pages of the daily papers and on the day following Robin Williams’ death, rarely have I been so disappointed in the British press. […]

It seems counter-intuitive to many, that a media description of suicide could actually increase the risk for suicide, but it is a genuine risk and people die through what is sometimes called suicide contagion or copycat suicide.

Sometimes I wonder if the extent to which this stuff frustrates me is disproportionate.

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Adblock & Collective Punishment

In an interview for The Next Web, the guy behind @evleaks and serial tech leaker Evan Blass explains the motives behind his decision to retire:

I also started a website, and it’s actually done somewhat respectably, but with all the leaks going out on Twitter anyway, people have little incentive to visit, and most of my tech-savvy-heavy audience seem to be pretty heavy ad-block users, as well. It all adds up to an unsustainable living, and with a progressively worsening disease [Ed; Blass was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis], I need to make sure I can prepare myself better for the future, financially.

I think the fact “evleaks” was born on Twitter and continued to be Twitter-first even after the website went live was the dominant factor in Blass’s (financial) failure. That’s a discussion for a different day though.

Adblock is one of the first extensions I install upon getting a new computer. And I’m not alone: A report published by PageFair last August showed the percentage of visitors using ad-blocking tools to be as high as 23% and growing at 43% a year. The numbers for technology websites should be even higher.

I’ve been contemplating this for a while, and I should have done it from day one, but from now on I will use Adblock in “blacklist” mode: This means the extension will be enabled only for specific domains that I add. For me these are mainly news websites: The local ones here are plagued with ads.

The truth is, most of the websites I enjoy reading are written by independent individuals. A non-negligible number of them are relatively unestablished and rely on advertising to offset some of the expenses or justify their time commitment. Coincidentally, none of them use the sketchy strategies of big, traditional websites, and most of them have only one little ad placed in unintrusive areas. I’ve previously whitelisted a handful of websites, but I don’t want to rely on my memory anymore. If I’m annoyed enough, I’ll bear the 30 seconds it takes to add a website to the blacklist.

Yes, the web is full of bad practices and Adblock successfully deals with some of them, but to use it indiscriminately is to automatically punish the minority of honest publishers. And guess who’s more likely to close shop because of such sanctions? I mean, not everyone are as venerable as The New York Times to get on this new big thing called native advertising.

When I hear people randomly saying “I don’t want any ads” as some sort of a blanket policy, I wonder whether they would be willing to sustain alternative models.

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Four Years in Apple’s Ecosystem: An Expenses Report

By late 2009, when carriers and official retailers began selling the iPhone here in Israel, I was already an owner: My father had gotten me the original model a few months after it came out in 2007. I can get reminiscential here, but there’s a lot to cover in this piece as it is. I’ll only say that like many others, I never imagined the iPhone would become such an elementary object in my life. As of today, I own an iPhone 5S, a first-gen iPad mini, and a beefed-up 13’’ MacBook Pro (2013 model).

My first iTunes receipt dates back to July 7, 2010. Apple’s App Store launched in July 2008, so I can think of two reasons for why I’ve only bought my first app two years later:

  1. I’m pretty sure that like the iPhone, Apple’s App Store became available in Israel only at a later date. No matter how I phrased my search queries though, I couldn’t corroborate this remembrance, so there is a possibility I’m mistaken.

  2. Since getting my first iPhone, I’ve left iOS for two, separate and brief periods: The first time was to try a phone with a real, physical keyboard. Remember those? Anyway, it was the less-than-horrible Nokia N97. Later, in mid-2010, I wanted to find out what the Blackberry craze was all about — fittingly, after the craze had already died — so I got myself a BlackBerry Bold. If you haven’t closed this page yet, things only get better from here..

The primary goal behind this compilation was to become more familiar with Apple’s Numbers, to satisfy my growing interest in statistics, and learn more about data visualization. See, my lifelong mission is to one day become half as good as Horace Dediu. I guess it doesn’t hurt to also have my Apple related expenses in check, but that’s just collateral mental damage.

I know for a fact that even with this statistically meaningless set of data, I’ve done some mistakes and missed some key points, so I’m happy to hear from you (via email or Twitter) and improve it after it’s published. I am aware this data is anecdotal by nature. I’m also aware that becoming half as awesome as Horace is quite a challenge.

Continue Reading

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July 25, 2014

Brain Crack

Hello Internet, a podcast by YouTube star CGP Grey and Brady Haran, is climbing rather quickly on my favorites list. Check it out if you’re interested in web culture. In episode #16, CGP shares the concept of “brain crack”, coined by vlogging pioneer Ze Frank. I found the original video from 2006 on YouTube, and here’s a mildly edited transcription of CGP explaining what it is:

[41:36] This is from Ze Frank from ages ago, and his best episode is this episode where he talks about the notion of brain crack, and it’s a very useful thing to think about: The idea is that what can happen sometimes if you make things is that, you have an idea… and what can happen is over time, if you don’t actually work on that thing, you start to think about how good it will be, as opposed to thinking about “How am I going to get this thing done?” As time goes on, your kind of abstract notion of how good this thing will be becomes very large, and very outsized [sic] anything that could possibly happen.

I suffer from brain cracks very often, particularly with ambitious or longer essays. One good example is “The Future of Information”, a piece I plotted in my head for a very long time. By the time I began writing it, my expectations and perception of the idea had become so grandiose that I couldn’t possibly be satisfied, no matter how many times I re-wrote it or edited my text.

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July 18, 2014

The Price (and Cost) of Cheeseburgers

The average cheeseburger price in the US is $4.49, but what is the cost of one? Mark Bittman explains the difference between the two and the implications in this interesting New York Times column: (via Khoi Vinh)

Almost everything produced has externalities. Wind turbines, for example, kill birds, make noise and may spin off ice. But cheeseburgers are the coal of the food world, with externalities in spades; in fact it’s unlikely that producers of cheeseburgers bear the full cost of any aspect of making them. If we acknowledge how much burgers really cost us we might either consume fewer, or force producers to pick up more of the charges or — ideally — both.

Our calculation of the external costs of burgers ranges from 68 cents to $2.90 per burger, including only costs that are relatively easy to calculate.

Related archive item: “The American Grocery Bill” — notice the inverse correlation in the chart I’ve put together in that piece. It was partly inspired from a show I had watched on the Discovery channel: The change in food expenses and that in healthcare spending were plotted on the same graph, which resulted in an almost perfect “X” shape — one down, the other up.

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July 18, 2014

“Explore Your Creativity” Promotion in the Mac App Store

Some good apps running at 50% off right now in the Mac App Store. Among them is Pixelmator, which I own and think is a real steal at $16 if you need a good photo editing app. I’ve also got the trial version of the acclaimed text-editor Ulysses (currently $21.99), and while Byword does the job just fine for me, I’m tempted to pull the trigger.

Here are the other participating apps:

I’ve read many praises of Scrivener and Slugline, too.

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July 17, 2014

Google Launches Official Analytics App for iOS

I’ve tried many Google Analytics apps over the years, and all of them, including the paid ones, came with one or more deal breakers: Lack of elementary features, bugs and crashes due to poor maintenance, or/and horrible usability. I’ve only been playing with it for an hour so, but Google’s just-released app looks very promising.

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July 16, 2014

‘All Art to Me Is About Problem Solving’

A great Esquire interview with director Steven Soderbergh:

I think about art a lot only in two contexts. One is narrative. That we’re a species that’s wired to tell stories. We need stories. It’s how we make sense of things. It’s how we learn. When we look at what’s going on in the world and we see the immense level of conflict that seems to always be happening — you can always trace it back to competing narratives.

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July 14, 2014

Lessons on Meditation

Ian Welsh has been meditating intensely for the last two months. Intensely as in five hours a day on average, and as much as ten (!) hours on some days. I’ve had a lot of colleagues and friends invite me to try meditation over the years, but Welsh’s remarks make it sound attractive (and scary) for the first time:

Meditation has a “woo” reputation, an idea that it’s peaceful and serene and lovely. Now maybe that’s where you’re aiming to get, but meditation is a tool, a process, and it is hard bloody work and often unpleasant.

Meditation gives you a good hard look at your mental habit and fixations, and you probably won’t like what you see.

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I Am the Cheat

According to a recent Business Insider survey, 86% of iPhone owners use a case, with almost 60% of them citing damage protection. Of those who don’t, 50% say “cases are too bulky”. Nick Heer explains why he’s among the minority in a short post titled “I Am the 14%”:

Avoiding bulkiness isn’t an aesthetic decision, it’s a practical one. I don’t wear super skinny jeans by any means, but adding thickness and weight is unwelcome.

Here’s a true story about technology, and idiocy: Sometime in 2012, my childhood friend “Ed” started working as a marketing agent for a company1 that claimed to sell “the world’s strongest, easiest and fastest-to-apply drop and scratch protection system for the iPhone”.

Back then I had a cheap silicon case laying in my car that I’d only use rarely. Like Nick, I thought the premium for the insurance that cases provided was too high — aesthetic, comfort, and weight-wise. I refused to trade these off.

Ed had a very effective marketing technique: With the almost unnoticeable sticker-set applied to his iPhone, he’d approach pretty much anyone with the same device, and ask them what they think would happen if he dropped — or worse, threw — his own iPhone intentionally. Regardless of the answer, he’d then proceed to do just that, from about a head’s height, with a haughty smile on his face.

By the time he’d pick the iPhone back up — totally unharmed — little to no marketing would be needed, and the awed spectator was ready to shell an amount equivalent to 60 American dollars. I’d also be in awe.

I mean, I’d also be in awe hadn’t I watched Ed do this dozens and dozens of times already. On every. Possible. Occasion.

I guess it got to me that night at a wedding party we both attended. After I heard his phone drop for what seemed like the 57th time, I went up to Ed and thought I’d play a joke between two good friends:

“You know it has got nothing to do with those silly stickers right? I’m gonna prove it to you now. Here.”

When I picked up my caseless iPhone, the screen was shattered to pieces. Little and small.

I’ve purchased and (unintentionally!) dropped a few iPhones since then. The first thing I do upon receiving one is go to Ed to get a new sticker-set. It adds little to no weight, is almost invisible to the naked eye, and provides better protection than many bulkier solutions. It almost feels like cheating.

But isn’t that what good technology always does?

  1. I don’t feel overly comfortabe sharing the company’s name in the body text. If you’re curious, get in touch. There’s a clear disclosure policy on the about page, but just to be sure: I have no affiliation with this company. In fact, after publishing this piece “Ed” has told me they no longer operate here in Israel. 
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July 10, 2014

Pinboard Turns Five

I’m not a Pinboard user. I find the RSS-Pocket-Evernote trio that I set up in January to work just fine. But reading Maciej Cegłowski’s fifth-anniversary post has left me wanting to* has made me become a paid user just for the sake of it. Cegłowski shares numbers and stats transparently, something I always look for, but this time I dig the writing as much as the numbers:

Avoiding burnout is difficult to write about, because the basic premise is obnoxious. Burnout is a rich man’s game. Rice farmers don’t get burned out and spend long afternoons thinking about whether to switch to sorghum. Most people don’t have the luxury of thinking about their lives in those terms. But at the rarefied socioeconomic heights of computerland, it’s true that if you run a popular project by yourself for a long time, there’s a high risk that it will wear you out.

More than anything though, I like Cegłowski’s levelheaded attitude towards entrepreneurship: He’s building a business in the age of startups. A useful service in the age of sexy, meaningless apps. He’s going for revenue in a time when everyone seems to be after snap acquisitions and fantastic exits. He has clients, not users.

It’s a little ironic, but in many ways, Pinboard (as a web enterprise) is an oddity. And an exhilarating one at that, if I may.

*I’ve purchased a Pinboard account hours after publishing this piece.

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July 9, 2014

Risk and Uncertainty

Nate Silver’s book, The Signal and the Noise, is on its way to join my all-time favorites, alongside both of Michael Lewis’s The Big Short and Liar’s Poker.

I’ve been experimenting with the application of expected value in different fields of life, and the distinction between risk and uncertainty — often used interchangeably — is definitely important in this context:

Risk, as first articulated by the economist Frank H. Knight in 1921 is something that you can put a price on. Say that you’ll win a poker hand unless your opponent draws to an inside straight: the chances of that happening are exactly 1 chance in 11. This is risk. It is not pleasant when you take a “bad beat” in poker, but at least you know the odds of it and can account for it ahead of time. In the long run, you’ll make a profit from your opponents making desperate draws with insufficient odds.

Uncertainty, on the other hand, is risk that is hard to measure. You might have some vague awareness of the demons lurking out there. You might even be acutely concerned about them. But you have no real idea how many of them there are or when they might strike. Your back-of-the-envelope estimate might be off by a factor of 100 or by a factor of 1,000; there is no good way to know.

Regarding the latest financial recession, Silver concludes:

The alchemy that the ratings agencies performed was to spin uncertainty into what looked and felt like risk. They took highly novel securities, subject to an enormous amount of systemic uncertainty, and claimed the ability to quantify just how risky they were. Not only that, but of all possible conclusions, they came to the astounding one that these investments were almost risk-free.

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Coming to OS X after many years as a PC power user, Chrome was the first application on my prearranged hotlist. On Windows, it had long displaced Firefox, which before it, had long displaced Internet Explorer. The only reason I even bothered with Safari when my machine arrived last December, was my curiosity as to how a Mac works out of the box; before I overcrowd it with apps. It wasn’t supposed to be a real chance.

But Safari was lightweight, surprisingly fast for browsing, easy on the battery, and slick in design. When I went back to Chrome, it felt bulky and lacked the UI cohesiveness that its Apple counterpart exhibited. That’s something I could live with, and I might have been OK with the fact that Chrome doesn’t support multi-touch gestures.

What I couldn’t tolerate was Chrome’s dramatic effect on battery life. I didn’t measure it scientifically at the time, but I didn’t need to: The difference in battery drain between Chrome and Safari was glaring. And it wasn’t within the range of a few minutes or percentages.

A few Google searches were enough to realize that I wasn’t alone: It seems that many OS X users, mainly owners of Retina MacBooks, were experiencing the same battery drain problems (to varying degrees) with Chrome. I had tried almost every suggestion in every thread that I found, but to no avail. I made the switch to Safari, which as explained, I liked better anyway.

I wasn’t going to install Flash on my system, and that was the only reason to keep Chrome around: It comes with Flash preinstalled. Sandboxed, restricted, confined Flash — the way it should be. Whenever I stumbled across a video that my Flash-less Safari couldn’t play, I’d use Federico Viticci’s macro to quickly launch its URL in Chrome.

But while Chrome’s overall battery consumption was unusual, Chrome’s battery and CPU consumption with Flash active was just crrrazy.

Update July 11, 2014: Safari started sandboxing Flash with the release of OS X Mavericks, as correctly noted by Jonas Lopes on Twitter. One key difference to keep in mind is that with Safari the player has to be downloaded and maintained regularly by the user.

All this only started to concern me two days ago, as I was streaming a World Cup match. I observed the battery life meter and it was dropping at an astonishing rate of 1% per minute. Not only that, the machine was getting really warm and the fans wouldn’t settle down. This was no longer an inconvenience, but a real concern for the longevity of my battery.

Inspecting OS X’s Activity Monitor and Chrome’s task manager, it became clear that the combination of Chrome and Flash is even more battery hungry than expected. Streaming from the same source interchangeably, Chrome’s energy impact was more than twice that of Safari’s.

Giving up videos wasn’t an option, of course, but neither was exposing my system to security flaws by installing Flash just to use it in Safari.

Relative to how fantastic the solution I found is, the search took quite some time. This isn’t the case with most obvious solutions — they tend to spread and capture the first or second spot in search results rather quickly.

This solution is an open-source, highly customizable Safari extension called ClickToPlugin, spun from Jonathan Rentzsch’s original ClickToFlash, and well-maintained and developed by Marc Hoyois.

The layman’s explanation to what it does with browser video players is that it attempts to load them in HTML5, a format which Safari supports. Battery consumption is (obviously) higher than with web browsing, but nowhere near the power hog that Chrome and Flash were.

I tested ClickToPlugin with several websites, including YouTube, several streaming services, and even custom players that you might see on websites like Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show. It takes a tad bit longer to load, but has worked flawlessly so far.

Appendix 1: A Provincial Rant That You May Skip

I’m especially concerned with my MacBook’s lastingness since Apple products and their respective accessories and parts cost hundreds of percents more in Israel than they do in the US, thanks to a reseller monopoly. Said monopoly wants to punish consumers who — like me — choose to buy their Apple machines abroad, either due to price or availability. Here’s the answer I got today from this company’s representative when I called to ask about a battery replacement: “I can’t give you a price for a new battery until you bring it to our labs, but I can only tell you that the hourly rate at our lab is 449 NIS” (around $131).

Based on some digging I did on the web, I conservatively guesstimate that two years from now, a battery replacement for a 2013 13” Retina MacBook Pro would cost around 1,300 NIS (~$380). That’s conservative, trust me.

Appendix 2: Where Chrome Still Triumphs

I no longer need Chrome installed on my MacBook, but there are still, in my opinion, three aspects where Chrome remains superior to Safari:

  • Tab and window management (see update): You can reopen multiple closed tabs, drag a separate Chrome window into another window to turn it to a tab within it, or vice versa — drag a tab out of a certain window and turn it into an independent window. This is especially convenient when you accidentally click on “Open in New Window” instead of “Open in New Tab”.

    Update July 8 & 12, 2014: My pal Riccardo Mori informs me on Twitter that it is possible to drag tabs out of their windows in Safari (click, hold, drag). Later, Jordan Rose and Jared Cash explained (within seconds of each other!) that “tabbing” a separate window into another is also possible, but first, one has to choose View Tab Bar in the View pane. Thanks all!

  • Web inspector: I’ve found Chrome’s web inspector (developer console) to be far superior to Safari’s — it’s faster, better at targeting certain elements, and allows you to export your changes (such as CSS changes) in a separate file.

  • Extensions: For example, although I’m sure alternatives could be found in other extensions or through AppleScripts, I do miss CoLT — a markdown compatible plugin that allows for smarter copying of links.

Hopefully Safari will catch up with these in Yosemite.

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The Bear Case for Paid News

Nowadays, it seems, a report on the state of journalism pops out every other week. The latest I examined, by The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, surveyed 18,000 people from 10 countries on the issue of digital news. As a news-anchor, I was especially interested in this one.

The survey presents data in nifty interactive charts, and covers areas like social media, mobiles and tablets, disruptive vs. traditional, and paying for news. The latest should be of special significance in light of Pew’s recent study, which showed a decline in advertising dollars, and a sharp fall of 33% in total revenue in the last 7 years (based on US data).

Data Highlights

  • Momentum: There has been very little change in the number of people who pay for online news. In most countries the figure dances around the 10% mark.

  • Upside potential: Of those who aren’t currently paying, 15% say they are likely to pay in the future.

  • Reach: In most countries print still accounts for more readers than online, and newspaper groups have kept their substantial reach and influence.

  • Social media: 57% of Facebook’s and 50% of Twitter’s users say they use them to find, share, or discuss a news story in a given week.

  • Mobiles and tablets: Tablet owners are twice as likely to pay for online news. A stronger correlation was found among Apple tablet owners, but no significant correlation towards any manufacturers or operating systems was found in the case of smartphones.

So, the days of print may not be as few as initially predicted, but the upward trend in digital subscriptions, caused by the introduction of many online-paywalls, is flattening. It seems like news organizations are struggling in the arena where the battles are headed.

More from the report:

Our findings are consistent with the recent Pew research report in the United States which suggests that industry activity does not necessarily mean more individuals are paying for news but rather that ‘more revenue is being squeezed out of a smaller, or at least flat, number of paying consumers’.

Time will tell, but I don’t see paywalls being a sustainable long-term model for mainstream. Not with the kind of journalism it produces today.

The definition of journalism at Wikipedia reads like so:

Journalism is a method of inquiry and literary style that aims to provide a service to the public by the dissemination and analysis of news and other information.

And the twentieth century journalist was indeed tasked with both the delivery (dissemination) and the interpretation (analysis) of information. But can the twentieth century news company still do both in the twenty-first century?

As I’ve written before, I believe not. Not profitably anyway:

I think big organizations will dominate news breaking and reporting for a long time to come. They will still be responsible for the “what,” but less and less for “what does it mean?”. They’ll serve mainly as middlemen of information — an important and nontrivial task in itself — but not much more beyond that.

With their current business model, big syndicates operate horizontally and therefore cannot satisfy dedicated crowds. They can’t go in-depth with the subjects that matter to some of us all of the time, only those that matter to all of us some of the time.

The only comparative advantage legacy organizations still have today is in pure news reporting — the kind that relies on precedence, accuracy, and speed. But this kind of information quickly becomes abundant (through social media) and/or irrelevant, which effectively drives its value to zero. The only way to monetize this content — meant to be consumed by many but not valuable to most — is through wide-reach and advertising.

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