Why I Buy “All Those Apps”

Ever since my fascination with technology became known by my colleagues, I’m often asked for my opinion regarding all sorts of quibbles and buying decisions. Most of the time, I’ll do it willingly, as I enjoy talking about this stuff anyway.

There’s one type of conversation, though, that usually leaves me a bit… frustrated.

“Oh, that’s very cool. But I wouldn’t pay for it.”

“Who pays for apps these days?”

“I don’t work hard just to spend my money on this stuff. Besides, there must be a free version that does the same thing.”

See, it’s not like I walk around, stomping my feet and mumbling grumpily; I couldn’t care less what apps individual people choose to buy.

In the abstract, though, I do.

The opinions above are a symptom of a broader underlying issue: we still look at these ever-shrinking machines — our phones and computers — as harmless toys. And logically, if you think of something as wielding little influence in your life, it can neither benefit nor harm you too much.

And I care because those who under-appreciate the benefits of technology often fail to notice or take seriously the potential hazards of the march forward. We know intellectually that technology affects every single aspect of our lives, but this fact doesn’t hit home on a visceral level.1

Let’s zoom out a little.

Money

What is the purpose of money?

Why do we go to work? Why do we need money? Why do we want money? Why do we want more money? Why do we save, invest, why do we start businesses?

The purpose of money is time.

“Nope,” you might say: “For the poor, the purpose of money is survival.” To which I would counter: Survival is the continuation and extension of life, and life is made up of amounts of time. When you die, you have no more time.

Almost everything we buy or do with our money is a way to give ourselves more time.2

Time

What is the purpose of time?

The purpose of time is self-actualization.

The term was originally introduced by the organismic theorist Kurt Goldstein for the motive to realize one’s full potential. Expressing one’s creativity, quest for spiritual enlightenment, pursuit of knowledge, and the desire to give to society are examples of self-actualization. In Goldstein’s view, it is the organism’s master motive, the only real motive: “the tendency to actualize itself as fully as possible is the basic drive… the drive of self-actualization.”

Self-actualization can mean a variety of different combinations of the following (and more):

  • Living as much as you can among your loved ones
  • Becoming the president
  • Writing a book
  • Helping those in need
  • Inventing a revolutionary product
  • Buying a Picasso
  • Becoming a Picasso

In many instances, self-actualization will result in financial prosperity, but again, only as a by-product: A successful entrepreneur who enjoys innovation and business is bound to be well-off.

Time vs. Money

Time is more important than money. But why?

Because time is irrecoverable: unlike your bank balance, your time balance is always going down, no matter how you are spending it. And once it’s spent, it’s gone forever.

Because time cannot be generated: And money can. There is no mix of two or more ingredients out there that will yield you time. You can’t go to the store today and ask for two hours of life. You can ask a bank or a friend to lend you money, but they can’t give you time. You can’t “make” more time in the literal sense, no matter what you do.

Because time is limited: and money isn’t.

Whatever self-actualization means to you, you need time. You might need money, but you must have time.

Today, the End, and the In-Between

In the Druze religion, it is believed that both the time of a person’s birth and the time of their death are predetermined. That’s quite an incentive to spend time wisely, if you ask me. But you don’t have to be Druze or even religious to understand that the time of your death is predetermined, in a way.

Am I forcing religion on you? God forbid! I’m only suggesting that you are going to die. Maybe you’ll live a whole century, and maybe tomorrow a car will have smashed into yours and killed you. We don’t know. But however far or near the day of your death is, you have exactly the amount of time between now and then — that unknown point in time — to live.

And so if the purpose of time is self-actualization,3 one should want to spend as much of it as possible on this purpose.

Time Now for More Time Later

The good news is that — within the remaining quota — time can be traded profitably. A profitable trade is when you invest a certain amount of time that yields you more than that amount in the long-term. Optimization, delegation, automation. This is the essence of productivity. (It’s also possible to make unprofitable time trades, like the time yours truly spends fiddling with this website’s design.)

Take a look at this ingenious chart from xkcd, titled “Is it Worth the Time?“:

is it worth the time?

To the left of the chart is the time you can save on a certain task, and above it is how often you perform that task. So, if it’s possible to save one minute from a task you do 5 times a day, you can (and should) spend six days of your life to attempt that.

You can also convert one or both measures in this chart from time units to currency and estimate whether a product or service is worth the price. It’s most obvious for freelancers, where theoretically almost every hour can be a work hour.

Money for Time

And the Jobs to be Done with Productivity Apps

Where financially possible, people also trade money for time. We hire assistants, maids, secretaries, gardeners, and babysitters. These are very common and legitimate money-for-time trades. We also buy products to save us time: microwaves, espresso machines, clothes dryers…

So why don’t we “hire” apps for the same purpose? Among the people I know, there aren’t many whose time (and money) couldn’t be better utilized with a simple automation trick or a dirt-cheap app.

One obvious reason is the maturity of the industry. Applications are much younger than the products and services I’ve mentioned above.4 Even amongst younger people today, there’s still some sort of psychological block associated with paying for intangibles. If you can’t grab it, it’s not real, and if it’s not real, then you certainly shouldn’t pay for it.

Ultimately, most people are skeptical towards buying apps for utility because they perceive that the “jobs to be done” with apps are still limited to the entertainment and leisure categories.

This is economically irrational, of course. If we remove the prejudice and examine these icons on the screen as money-time propositions, much is to be gained:

  • I introduced Hazel to a friend of mine, a successful voice actor, just a few months ago. He says it has saved him hours on uploading, editing, and sending recordings to his clients. And Hazel costs $29, mind you, which is considered expensive for an app. In the long-term though,not buying it would have been a costly decision on his part.5
  • Fantastical saves me a lot of time arranging my calendar and maintaining a sense of control over what needs to be done.
  • Overcast, with its Smart-Speed feature, has saved me over seven hours of listening time. Why have 1 hour of Horace Dediu when I can have 1.3 hours of Horace Dediu?6
  • TextExpander makes sending a quote to potential clients a matter of seconds, not minutes; even from a smartphone.
  • Scanbot/CamScanner let you use the iPhone camera as a scanner.

Notice that most of the above have very clear (and much more expensive) tangible parallels: personal assistant, secretary, photocopy/fax machine.

Not only do they save time in the obvious sense, they also spare stress and frustration that could’ve been regarded as unavoidable. The impending yearly car test, why do you need to remember when that is? The house insurance you need to renew, the phone call you promised to make for a friend, your mobile plan expiring soon, the meeting you just agreed to. You think you don’t spend time thinking about these little, mundane bits, but they are there, accumulating brain-cruft at the back of your head, not letting you achieve a “mind like water.”

I hope it’s clear I’m not blindly advocating paid apps over free ones. Here too, there are unprofitable trades (and please don’t remind me how many text editors I’ve paid for.) I certainly don’t expect anyone to pay for something if they can get it elsewhere for free. But the idea that applications can’t be worth your money just because they’re imperceptible, again: plain irrational.

If You Just Want to Win the Argument

So next time somebody says nobody should ever pay for apps, send them this article.

Or, just ask them this insightful question from David Sparks 7:

Imagine you’re on your deathbed and you’re told you can live another hour and that it’ll costs you four dollars. What are you gonna say?

I haven’t tried this one yet, but I’m sure not many people would answer with a “no.”


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  1. Think privacy. ↩︎
  2. One rather sad exception to this rule are the group for whom money has become the purpose, even if they’ve got plenty. It’s not their sheer greediness that bothers me, it’s the irrationality. At a certain point, the amount of time spent trying to save or make more money does not yield you enough time in the long term to justify the effort. At this point, one should be spending more money buying time than time trying to make money. ↩︎
  3. Which might be a fancy term in this essay for self-fulfillment, which might be just a fancy term in for “things you care about.” ↩︎
  4. The microwave oven was first sold right after World War II. ↩︎
  5. That’s another distinction people fail to make: expensive vs. costly. ↩︎
  6. Every minute spent listening to The Critical Path is self-actualization time to me. ↩︎
  7. Around the 1h:12m mark of his debut on “The Talk Show” ↩︎
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June 25, 2015

The Price of Music

David Pakman in a guest piece for Recode:

The data shows that $120 per year is far beyond what the overwhelming majority of consumers will pay for music, and instead shows that a price closer to $48 per year is likely much closer to a sweet spot to attract a large number of subscribers.

For this reason, I believe the market size for these services is limited to a subset of music buyers, which in turn is a subset of the population. This means that there will be fewer subscribers to these services than there are purchasers of digital downloads unless one of two things happens:

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June 23, 2015

President Obama’s Interview on ‘WTF’

I agree with my friend Carl Holscher: This was a fantastic, humanizing interview. As someone who’s been at the heart of mainstream radio for the past eight years, I will also add that a well-tamed radio host would have never been able to achieve the level of intimacy Marc Maron did. Never. Even if his editor didn’t remind him about nailing a sync for the bulletin. Even if her Editor in Chief told her to forget about the ratings.

This one could turn out to be a nice growth stimulant for the medium that is podcasts,1 but regardless: it’s wonderful to witness the rise of doctrine-free radio.


  1. The only significant stimulant being friction elimination↩︎
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Gmail in a Box

For me, any service that deals with text has to meet an additional criterion: right-to-left support. Luckily, this just happens to be the case with my most valuable app (Drafts). I say luckily because the huge segment of RTLers is consistently left out by most app developers, including those of desktop email apps. You can imagine the tediousness in loading Gmail in a browser.1

This is what Go for Gmail aims to solve: it’s a free Mac app that sits in the menubar and can instantly display your account inside a web-view. You can customize notifications and configure shortcuts to toggle the inbox and compose windows. Clearly, most of this website’s readers only write LTR, but I can see other benefits to having the full web interface available.

By the way, a supposedly supercharged compeer of Go for Gmail is coming out tomorrow, called Kiwi for Gmail. It costs $5 if you pre-order ($10 otherwise) and supports gestures, direct Drive access, and streamlined account switching.

I ordered Kiwi and will do a write-up soon. But if you simply want Gmail inside an app, GfG does the job. (via Matt Gemmell)


  1. Please don’t bring up the native Mail app. ↩︎
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June 21, 2015

A Better OS X Dictionary

James Somers read an essay by writer John McPhee in which the latter mentions how he employs the dictionary in his editing process. The problem was — as Somers details in his own piece — that he and McPhee appeared to be using very different kinds of dictionaries. None of the dictionaries Somers had been using offered the richness that McPhee’s one seemed to. So he went out to find out which dictionary that was, and added it as his default dictionary on OS X.

Being a non-native writer, I followed Somers’ instructions at the end of his post and did the same. The second quoted paragraph below reminded me of what I wrote in my introduction to Honing My English Vocabulary More Effortlessly. Emphasis in the quote are mine:

Recall that the New Oxford, for the word “fustian,” gives “pompous or pretentious speech or writing.” I said earlier that that wasn’t even really correct. Here, then, is Webster’s definition: “An inflated style of writing; a kind of writing in which high-sounding words are used, above the dignity of the thoughts or subject; bombast.” Do you see the difference? What makes fustian fustian is not just that the language is pompous — it’s that this pomposity is above the dignity of the thoughts or subject. It’s using fancy language where fancy language isn’t called for.

It’s a subtle difference, but that’s the whole point: English is an awfully subtle instrument. A dictionary that ignores these little shades is dangerous; in fact in those cases it’s worse than useless. It’s misleading, deflating. It divests those words of their worth and purpose.

(via Brett Terpstra)

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Logitech K480 Keyboard: A Review

To be fair, I’ll prelude this review by pointing out that I only bought the K480 because my first choice, Incase’s Origami Workstation, doesn’t ship to Israel. This isn’t to say I didn’t have expectations: Logitech’s keyboard boasts an average rating of 4.2 stars on Amazon and has received generally positive verdicts in other reviews.

The goal with an iPad setup was being able to leave the expensive, heavier MacBook at home on most days. Already in my arsenal were Rain’s mStand and Apple’s wireless keyboard. After crossing out the Origami, it was time to find a different keyboard-compatible case, or a combo proposition.

The criteria (in this order) were weight, comfort, size, and look. If you’ve read other reviews on here, then you know I also aim for pragmatic setups: those independent of future purchases.

On Paper

The Logitech K480 debuted in September 2014 and was marketed as “the computer keyboard that also works with your tablet and smartphone”. It’s an agnostic’s wet dream, promising to not only work flawlessly on Windows, OS X, Android, and iOS — but also make switching between devices frictionless.

It currently retails on Amazon at $48, available in white or black.

Weight & Portability

The first thing you notice about the K480 is its weight. As I removed it from its package, my hope was that the cartons accounted for most of what I was carrying.

Nope.

The K480 weighs 820 grams, or 1.81 pounds.

One could argue I should’ve known this by looking at the specifications. And I did. But like most people, not only could I not translate that number meaningfully, I also did a poor job in estimating its significance by testing against lighter or heavier objects.

Device Weight (grams) Weight (pounds)
iPad mini 331 0.73
Logitech K480 820 1.81
iPad mini + K480 1,151 2.54
13″ rMBP (late ’13) 1,570 3.46

The iPad-K480 carry is 419g lighter than the MacBook. While this difference isn’t insignificant, there are two factors the calculation above excludes: the additional weight of an iPad case (if one is used), and the fact that the rMBP is among the heavier laptops within Apple’s current lineup.

There is one very valid argument to be made for this keyboard’s weight: it needs to bear the weight of at least one iPad without things getting shaky.

Look

Reading other reviews, you may notice some complaints about this keyboard’s appearance. Indeed, compared to Apple’s, this one looks a bit…economic. But in fairness, how many other keyboards don’t? The K480 isn’t a sexy device, but I think “cheap” is a little harsh here. Its plastic build might make it look a bit toy-ish, but this doesn’t translate to inconvenience, or ostracism.

In hindsight, I would’ve gone with the black version of the K480 instead of Logitech’s definition of “white,” as I find the latter to be somewhat dull. No biggie.

The Dock

The dock is about 27 centimeters (10.62″) long; enough to fit both an iPad and an iPhone in portrait mode. The device-slot is deep enough to hold any iPad without completely covering its home button.1 The rubberized inner edges mean you can plug the iPad quickly and firmly — fearing neither a fall or a scratch. However, this also dictates that you’ll have to remove most cases if you want to be able to dock it.

side-view of an iPad docked into the K480 keyboard by Logitech

Because multi-device support is one of this keyboard’s biggest selling points, the slot’s width isn’t ideal for the iPad. In portrait mode – my preferred for writing – I feel the mini leans back a little too much, which doesn’t allow me to lean back comfortably enough. I’m not sure why, but when the iPad is docked horizontally, things get much better.

The viewing angle isn’t as bad as I’m making it sound — it isn’t bad at all — but neither is it perfect.

Ergonomics & Key Build

The above becomes more of an issue when you take into account one additional factor: the flat K480 sports an unadjustable base that sits 20mm above surface, providing a somewhat problematic typing angle.

But the keys..

The keys are where Logitech messed it up.

The first thing you should know about these keys is that they are loud. Not typewriter loud, but definitely the closest to that that I’ve heard from a keyboard. This can be good or bad depending on your taste, but I wouldn’t use the K480 in a classroom or bedroom.

More importantly, the keys are excessively round. If this was a stylistic decision, then may the Lord have mercy on Logitech’s designers. But stylistic or not, there are practical ramifications: keystroke misses and mistypes. The keys seem too far apart, and the space between them is often disorienting. I can’t tell with certainty whether the travel distance is longer compared to other keyboards, but the fact the keys protrude as far as they do makes me instinctively press harder.

The ergonomic experience with the Logitech K480 isn’t great. I don’t know how it compares to other iPad keyboards — and this is important to keep in mind — but while using it, I can’t help but feel I’m adjusting either my neck’s or wrists’ posture uncomfortably.

Button Placement

The switch dial is well-designed and offers just enough resistance to avoid accidental switching. I would’ve liked it to the right side, in-place of (or near) the pairing buttons, but I figure lefties would say the opposite.

What isn’t up for debate is the power switch location: Logitech has decided to put it on the back of the keyboard. It’s somewhere around the upper left side, not overly perceptible. If you’re energy conscious, you may find yourself a little annoyed by this.

Battery Life

But you have to be especially energy conscious to care about the power switch. Logitech claims two AAA batteries should last two years assuming “two million keystrokes/year in an office environment”. Eight months in, and my K480 isn’t showing any kind of slowness associated with battery drain. Take this testimony with a grain of salt though, because these days I rarely couple it with the iPad, and instead use it daily with my HTPC.

Pairing and Multi Device Support

This is where this one shines.

Thanks to its pragmatic key-mapping, which was well thought out, the K480 makes for an excellent cross-platform device. It does so without overly sacrificing cleanness or creating confusion.

Pairing new devices is a breeze on all operating systems; so is switching between paired devices and replacing paired slots. OS X and Windows controls work just as expected, and more importantly, so do the iOS controls on the top row. This makes multitasking on the iPad more plausible.

This section isn’t brief because it lacks importance, but I simply have nothing but positive things to say. Logitech gets an A+ here. Period.

Final Thoughts

I’m much less romantic about tech gear nowadays, so when I’m writing about one, I tend to focus more on aspects that I dislike and assume you’ll deduce that everything else works fine.

The Logitech K480 is an excellent multi-device keyboard. Those who use different operating systems will appreciate what it has to offer. Strictly as an iPad companion, however, this keyboard isn’t exactly a match made in heaven. I’m not sure whether I stopped carrying it because of its ergonomic shortcomings, or due to my own unrelated challenges with writing.


  1. The home button shouldn’t be of concern anyway, since it’s one of the custom-mapped functions on the top row. ↩︎
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A Brief Thought on Common Sense

People find it intrusive for someone to rummage through stuff they already threw in the trash, but don’t mind Gov & Corp systematically examining their most intimateautobiographical items.

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Apple Music: The World’s Biggest Paid Music Service

This comparative chart appeared in one of The Wall Street Journal‘s articles this week:

The Wall Street Journal's Chart

We’ve seen products create, rejuvenate, and expand small, crowded markets before, but I’m certainly not claiming this about AM at this point. It is also definitely true that Apple Music currently has zero users, free or paid. But looking at the users row in this chart can be very misleading. Here’s Jan Dawson on Twitter:

>400m people with app auto installed plus 3 months free should add up to lots of paying users a few months from now for Apple Music

In this crowded business, Apple also owns one of the platforms on which these services are competing.

Given 400 million iOS users and the day old news of Spotify reaching 20 million paid subscribers, roughly 1 in 20 iOS users would have to renew their 3-month trial for Apple Music to become the biggest music subscription service in the world.

Roughly, but probably not more: this disregards the fact Apple Music will also be available on Android, that 400 million is actually a conservative estimate for the number of active iOS users, and that Spotify — barring any retaliative moves — is bound to lose some of its paying customers to Apple. If we take those into account, and despite Apple Music launching in “only” one hundred countries, a conversion rate of 3-4% is going to be just enough.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see this milestone celebrated — surely not outwardly — but I sure do hope Apple is aiming for much more than just the number one spot.

So, the real headline a few months from now would be Apple not having become the biggest paid music service in the world.

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June 11, 2015

‘The Muse’

Eric Lawrence:

There’s a writer living in my head, and he’s a genius.

Or so he tries to convince me, as his prose flows freely day in and out, filling most idle moments– while I’m showering, driving, dining, taking out the trash, or performing any of the other mundane tasks of daily life. His prose is brilliant– his points always well aligned, his recall of long-ago events and facts uncannily perfect, and his agility in seamlessly transitioning from one topic to the next is above reproach. He never needs spell-check or a thesaurus, and he never struggles to find the right way to approach the topic. His efforts are frequently interrupted by periods of basking in the glorious reception he imagines for his easy labors, and is certain that untold rewards are sure to follow.

Unfortunately, this genius is a huge jerk.

There’s a draft I have lying around titled Pilcrow Angst. Had the genius writer in me showed up to write it, it would read exactly like this.

I came across Eric’s weblog because another piece of his regarding Apple’s new ad-filtering API is currently trending on Hacker News. Read it too. And check out his other posts — good stuff.

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June 11, 2015

Ad-Blocking Could Be Coming to Safari in iOS 9

Nieman Lab:

An Apple partisan might argue it just wants to give users control of their iPhone experience, and having debuted extensions in the last version of iOS, allowing them to alter web content is a natural next step.

An Apple realist might argue that its great rival Google makes more than 90 percent of its revenue from online advertising — a growing share of that on mobile, and a large share of that on iPhone. Indeed, Google alone makes about half of all global mobile advertising revenue. So anything that cuts back on mobile advertising revenue is primarily hurting its rival.

An Apple cynic might note that the company on Monday unveiled its new News app, which promises a beautiful reading experience — and a monetization model based on Apple’s iAds. iAds will, one can assume, never be blockable by third-party extensions available in the App Store. Ads that appear at the operating system level — as opposed to in HTML and JavaScript on a web page — have a rather invulnerable position so long as you keep using Apple products. (It’s good to be the platform.)

They had it coming! was my knee-jerk reaction too, but as I wrote in Adblock & Collective Punishment, I oppose ad-blocking as a blanket policy.

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May 30, 2015

Ross Ulbricht Sentenced to Life in Prison

The Verge:

Ross Ulbricht, founder and mastermind of the Silk Road, has been sentenced to life in prison after being found guilty of narcotics conspiracy and other charges earlier this year.

I’ve been waiting for an update on the affair so I can share with you this must-read twopart story on the rise and fall of Silk Road. If you missed it somehow, send it to your reading queue now and thank me later.

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Half a Herd

Well, this place has been dormant for a while, hasn’t it?

“Dormant” might not be the right word because this was never supposed to be your source for breaking news. Maybe breaking views. But that’s the way the cookie crumbles.

I did publish some pieces I’m proud of, like The Future of Information and Radio Revolution. But by and large, career developments and other life matters got in the way. Excuses.

There are so many things I want to write about.

Like Grandpa.

That man. Worth writing a whole book about him.

My grandfather died one and a half years ago. Me, my father, and my sister were on a vacation when that happened.

In London. Two thousand miles away from Israel.

We couldn’t catch a flight early enough to make it to the funeral.

But this isn’t going to be a post about Grandpa.

There are parts of your life that are so significant, you can’t just write about them. Everything feels reductive. And you never want to settle for that. It’s like that bottom-most drawer that contains so many… things. You don’t just open that. How do you make sense of it all? How can you get any one thing out for strangers to see, leaving the others hidden, never to be shown?

It could never do this man justice.

So I’ve never written about Grandpa, and probably never will.

But I would like to tell you a story.

This is not a post about Grandpa.


My grandfather was born on the 31st of September, 1938. As a teenager, he was already working the land in a town 15 miles away from his small village. He had no car, so to avoid the commute, he often slept in the field, or in a nearby cave in the mountains.

He started out working for others, but before long had enough to buy his own piece of land. Landowners from his village found the commute and the hard labour too much. They preferred to work closer to home.

For twenty years, my grandfather worked close to twenty hours a day. When my father and his brothers were old enough, he gradually left the day-to-day management to them. But he never, in his life, missed a day of work. The fact his body couldn’t do as much anymore didn’t mean his head and heart weren’t devoted to the (now-expanded) business and its future.

Grandpa was a man of vision. He amassed all of his assets single-handedly.

He was also a religious man.

“Any dollar you make by means of deception or with unclean intentions, you will lose ten against,” he would say, with a stern smile on his sun-beaten face.

He loved the land, not for its future worth as real estate, but for what it was now. “My late father always told me, never trade a piece of land for something that air can pass under,” he once told me, meaning – never trade land for money or anything that isn’t land.

My grandfather was an agronomist. “I’m a farmer, you can leave that fancy word to those with a diploma on their wall.” Okay, my grandfather was a farmer. He never felt it was a derogatory term, so neither should I.

Indeed, Grandpa’s clothes — plain jeans, khaki shirt, and Tembel hat — did well to camouflage his acumen. I owe much of my financial security — so scarce these days — to his sweat and tears.

But this isn’t a post about Grandpa.

So, the story.


My grandfather owned several herds of livestock. Some were his, and others were jointly owned.

One day, his partner in one of the herds informed him that he wanted to part ways. “Okay, how would you like to do it?,” asked Grandpa.

“I don’t know, friend, it’s a herd, you know. There are milk cows and there are calves, and sheep. They are all different ages and sizes. How in the world are we going to split a herd?”

“Well, we could appoint a…”

“I don’t want to spend no money on middlemen! I don’t have the money.”

“Alright,” said Grandpa. He nodded his head towards two cups of coffee that were now in front of them, inviting his nervous partner to relax a little.

How could there possibly be a solution that would leave both men feeling they got a fair deal?

“I’ll tell you what. You head to the field now, and you divide the herd into two groups. After you do that, call me. I’ll come by and choose the half I like better.”

The man was speechless.

“Or, we can do it the opposite way — I split, you choose.”

And that’s the story of how you split a herd of cattle fairly.

It’s not about Grandpa.

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May 17, 2015

People of Sheep, Government of Wolves

Ars Technica reports:

The UK government has quietly passed new legislation that exempts GCHQ, police, and other intelligence officers from prosecution for hacking into computers and mobile phones.

While major or controversial legislative changes usually go through normal parliamentary process (i.e. democratic debate) before being passed into law, in this case an amendment to the Computer Misuse Act was snuck in under the radar as secondary legislation. According to Privacy International, “It appears no regulators, commissioners responsible for overseeing the intelligence agencies, the Information Commissioner’s Office, industry, NGOs or the public were notified or consulted about the proposed legislative changes… There was no public debate.”

“I, the government of the United Kingdom — established for the sole purpose of ensuring the liberty of the people of this land — hereby restrict citizens from hacking into computers. I deem my many extensions and branches, however, completely exempt from prosecution for doing the same thing to citizens, for any reason.”

Is there a more flagrant violation of a people’s rights? Oversight for all, but not government? Made possible behind closed doors?

I know a definition for this.

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May 14, 2015

Call or Message Contacts with Alfred

Every time I needed to use Handoff to contact someone, especially calling, I thought to myself “surely there’s an Alfred workflow that shortcuts all this clicking.”

I finally Googled it this afternoon. Bingo.

Simply precede a contact’s name with Call, SMS, or IM. A tiny quibble is that it opens the Contacts app in the background (minimized) after each query.

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May 14, 2015

Las Vegas, the Next Brooklyn?

Freakonomics radio’s latest show was very intriguing:

Tony Hsieh is the CEO of Zappos, the online shoe and clothing retailer, presiding over a corporate culture that most corporations wouldn’t recognize. Among Hsieh’s priorities at Zappos: having fun, empowering his call-center employees, and making customers happy at almost any cost. We’ve written about Hsieh and Zappos before – how, for instance, company meetings are sometimes held in a bar. And why customer reps are encouraged to talk to a customer for as long as they want, all without a script, how they authorized to settle problems without calling in a supervisor and can even “fire” a customer who makes trouble for them. And how Zappos gives new employees a chance to quit their brand-new job and get a quitting “bonus” because Hsieh figures he’d rather weed out anyone who doesn’t really, really want to work at Zappos.

Now Hsieh (pronounced shay) has basically bought part of downtown Vegas for $350 million. “The Downtown Project,” as it’s called, is merely interesting per se, but anything this guy does, I want to know more about.

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May 10, 2015

How to Get into Harvard

LRB blog:

WikiLeaks has published all the Sony emails that had been hacked last November, and made them searchable by keyword. In 2014, a senior executive emailed an Ivy League vice-president of philanthropy: he’d like to endow a scholarship, anonymously, ‘at the $1mm level’. In another email, he tells a development officer that his daughter is applying to the college as her first choice. It’s all very decorous. The development staff arrange a ‘customised’ campus tour for his daughter and a meeting with the university’s president; but he asks for no favours and nothing is promised. An email from the president says that his daughter’s application will be looked at ‘very closely’. She gets in. He writes to his sister: ‘David… called me. he is obsessed with getting his eldest in Harvard next year.’ She replies: ‘If David wants to get his daughter in he should obviously start giving money.’ Obviously.

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May 7, 2015

Psychology of Pricing

Compelling yet concise laundry list by Nick Kolenda:

Welcome to a massive list of psychological pricing strategies.

Whether you’re launching a new product, selling items on eBay, or negotiating a deal on your house, you’ll learn how to choose a price that will maximize your profit.

Kolenda got some heat for some of the techniques he mentioned, but to be fair he emphasizes the purpose of his compilation upfront. It’s one surely worth contemplating.

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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 frivolous1.

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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