Angry Robot

RE: Magic Pens: Nebo

Funny how just after I post that article talking about magic notebooks and how I use One Note for handwriting recognition and how it’s not quite there yet, I discover this app Nebo.

Nebo is a handwriting recognition app. And it works. Really well. Just to prove it to you, I’m using it right now. here’s the screenshot of what I wrote:

screenshot of my crappy handwriting in the nebo app

Part of what makes it effective is that it displays its interpretation of your scrawl live as you write. So if you do get a little too sloppy – ironically, this happened to me with the wards “handwriting recognition” – you can immediately adjust. It has a lot of neat pencil gesture tricks, too. Like to erase a word, you scratch it out. Or underline for bold, etc. But the major part of it is that the text conversion works really, really well. Living-in-the-future well.

Anyway, this app is taking a place in my home screen IMMEDIATELY.

Magic Notebook

I wrote seven years ago about magic books. By that I meant various technologies that were transforming the way I/we read: RSS, read later services like Instapaper, e-readers like the Kindle, audiobooks and podcasts, etc. etc. What would a magic notebook be? Something that transformed the way we create, not just consume? For many years this has been a notebook computer, i.e. a laptop. But for me, the magic notebook is now the iPad Pro.


Let me go out on a limb and declare writing with a pen or pencil as far more natural-feeling than typing on a keyboard. We learn to do it earlier, and because it’s easier to switch to drawing, and to use space to arrange your writing, it’s more versatile. I love handwriting, especially for brainstorming. But I’m not a Moleskine dude. I’m terrible at keeping track of physical pieces of paper and I am so totally into having everything all digital and linkable and searchable and easily revised.

I’ve had iPads since the first and almost as early on I was buying various styli. My dream was, I hand write something onto the sheer sparkling glass of the iPad and it converts itself into glorious digital text. Now that’s a magic notebook. But it was not to be, not then. The early styli felt like writing with someone else’s finger. But I knew I wanted to play around with the iPad Pros once they came out, more or less because of the Pencil.

So I got one. (Note: I got one a couple months ago, so I’m referring to the previous generation iPad Pro 9.7”, not the new ones that just came out (d’oh!).) And: my dream isn’t here, but it’s a hell of a lot closer.

The pencil works really well for my purposes, which are short on drawing, long on hand-written notes. I use OneNote and although the Pencil support isn’t the greatest, it lets me keep everything in one place. Also, it has handwriting-to-text! It’s not great, especially as my handwriting looks like something you might write in mud with a stick as death spasms wracked your mutilated body. Plus, seems that feature only works on Microsoft OSes right now (speaking of death spasms).

UPDATE: See this post about the app Nebo for some seriously next-level handwriting recognition.

But it’s getting there. So let’s imagine a near-future utopian world in which Microsoft has enabled this on the iPad. Then let’s imagine that same world where the machine vision craziness has continued to proceed apace. Assuming we’re not all cowering in the muck as T1000s hunt us down to force us into indentured servitude in SkyNet’s underground sugar mills – or something – then perhaps my dream will be here. Writing longhand, tapping convert and leaning back as my insta-posted genius blog post / promo script goes out into the world and somehow causes dollar bills basically to start flying out of my screen as I give a double thumbs up and grin wildly, revealing a full set of solid gold shark teeth…

Sorry, where was I?

Something something iPad something.

The Other Accessories

So anyway, I’m using it for brainstorming and rough notes and then kinda formulating my first draft with an actual keyboard. And oddly enough, here’s where two other Microsoft products make an appearance, in hardware form.

Number one is a $5 loop with adhesive, the Surface Pen Loop, which you can use to affix your Apple Pencil… well, anywhere really, but I’m sticking it to the edge of my case like so:

That way the pencil’s always with the iPad.

The case is a cheapo number, the Moko Ultra Slim. I’m… very fussy. There, I admitted it. So I bought two other cases and returned them, and tried a few others in-store, and this $17 Moko is my favourite. It’s like an Apple Smart Cover in principle, except a lot cheaper and the back is clear plastic. Importantly for me, it’s light and slim.

When I do need a keyboard I have Microsoft product number two, The Microsoft Universal Foldable Keyboard. Like I said I tried a lot of cases, including the two premier keyboard cases, the Apple Smart Keyboard and the Logitech Create. I didn’t find the Apple Keyboard comfortable to type on. The Logitech Create was great for typing, but as a case it’s not great – it doubles the weight of the iPad, for one. And both of them are expensive. The Microsoft folding one is thin and light, costs half as much, and stays in my bag until I need it. Most of the time I don’t need the keyboard, and so the iPad is as light and portable as possible until I do. in that case it folds out wider than the screen of the tablet, giving the keys more room. I will not lie: some of them are still cramped. But I find it quite agreeable to type on. I still have a full-sized Bluetooth keyboard at home and I figure if I ever need to write for hours on my iPad I will bring that.

The Experience

Short answer: I fucking love this thing.

Slightly longer: this iPad is my favourite thing for: reading the news, browsing the web, editing photos, writing, and general purpose computing. Certain things I still need a computer for: video editing, web stuff (although thanks to the incredible Coda I still do a bunch on the iPad), design. The pro apps are still lacking on the iPad. I love the portability compared to a laptop – I mostly have it in my bag by default.

The Future

My iPad is already out of date with the advent of the 10.5″ model, which has a slightly bigger and significantly better screen, is faster, and boasts better pencil performance. Thing is, I’m happy enough with this one to not care. I’m good. Mine is already overkill in all of those areas. (It could be, though, that the Smart Keyboard is greatly improved by the added width; that’s my one regret with this model, but it’s not much of one.)

IOS 11 has a shitload of iPad-specific improvements: easier app switching, better multitasking, a file browser, and more pencil functions. I’m excited about all of those.

The area that needs real improvement is the pro app world. I can’t find a good pro video editor: where is Final Cut iOS? I am having trouble finding a design app that meets my needs. I’ve run into situations with relatively simple photo manipulations, say wanting to rotate a batch of images at once, where the stock photos app doesn’t do the trick and I don’t know where to turn. Hopefully Apple pushes forward in this area. It certainly looks like they are. They’ve been touting the iPad as the future of computing for a while, and only recently have they begun to back that up. And only recently do I think I agree with them.


Certainly the most depressing, possibly the most emotionally powerful superhero movie ever made, Logan recasts two signature X-Men in a bleak future western about familial bonds in an uncaring world. This is the superhero movie Cormac McCarthy would make.

It’s 2029, mutants are near-extinct, and The Mutant Formerly Known as Wolverine, Logan (Hugh Jackman) is driving a limo to pay the medical bills of self-described nonagenarian and Alzheimer’s victim Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart). When a nurse seeks Logan’s help taking the lab-raised mute mutant child Laura (Dafne Keen) to the Canadian border (bonus points for casting Canada as Utopia again, American filmmakers!), he must decide what he’s going to do with the rest of his life, which may not be that long.

If that sounds grim, it’s because it is, although the despair is leavened by four setpiece action sequences that – by virtue of this film’s R rating, a first for the franchise – are more skull-stabbingly true to the Wolverine character than anything he’s done before. Part Western runaway slave story, part poignant family road trip, the film explores the parent-child relationships between several sets of characters, and shows the anger produced by our families, both biological and non-, may be overpowered only by the rage that comes when they are threatened, the rage born out of love. The film is both a reminder of the versatility of the men-in-tights genre and a moving swan song for one of its most beloved and perfectly cast characters.

Free Fire

I tried to describe this film to a friend. “It’s set in the 70s, about a arms deal gone wrong. A bunch of crooks are in a shootout in a big warehouse for basically the entire movie. Hey, I’m making it sound pretty great.” It’s the latest film from director Ben Wheatley (Kill List, High Rise). It’s a decent film best understood as a black comedy in the Tarantino vein, and it does manage some deliciously dark laughs, but it falls short of the significance of most Tony Scott films, let alone QT. (Tony Scott directing a reboot of The Hateful Eight might be the closest analogue.)

The film’s biggest flaw is that it moves into action mode a good 15 minutes too early, not having had enough time to fill out any of the largish number of characters, which wastes a capable cast (Brie Larson, Cilian Murphy, Armie Hammer). One finds oneself not caring which ones lived or died, which one could describe as suboptimal from a dramatic perspective. It’s definitely watchable with some great, funny moments, but life’s too short.

Apple WWDC Keynote 2017

Some not particularly unique thoughts.

WatchOS stuff was all welcome, but relatively minor. Would like to see third party faces and maybe smart complications, i.e. same principle as the Siri watch face except for any face. But I suppose it’s been a good year for the watch, so there’s no need to rock the boat.

Mac stuff: OS and app stuff not particularly thrilling. New Macs! It’s nice to see them revving the MacBooks Pro so soon after the latest update – it’s gotten so that Apple refreshing hardware at faster than yearly pace is eyebrow-raising. I think it’s been longer than that for the other Macs, but they updated a lot of things at once: modern GPUs! VR support!

The iMac Pro looks sweet but obvs so expensive that I doubt I will ever get near one. Although I suppose it does put them back into contention in the workstation class.

As usual there was a lot more heat on the iOS front, and especially for the iPad. They implemented almost the entirety of an iPad nerd’s wishlist: improved multitasking, drag and drop, pencil improvements, proper file browser. Interesting to see Apple Notes getting a lot of improvements including a document scanner. And of course new iPads Pro to seal the deal. I just bought a new 9.7” iPad Pro a couple months ago, but I don’t even feel bad about it. For one, it’s waaay faster than I need it to be already, and for two I will get all the software improvements anyway.

The ARkit stuff is interesting. I’m fairly sure Apple will release some sort of AR device at some point in the near future (Apple Glasses? Apple Monocle? Apple Telescoping EyePiece?), and this is a significant step in that direction.

And the speaker. It’s overpriced, which is not really a shocker considering we’re talking about Apple here. Especially so if you consider it an Amazon Echo competitor, which Apple doesn’t want you to. They positioned it as a cross between an Echo and a Sonos. I have two Sonos speakers, so I have a dog in this hunt. I went with Sonos not so much because of the multi-room capability but because they deliver reliable wireless playback. Neither Bluetooth nor Apple’s AirPlay was able to do that for me, and believe me, I gave it a shot. So no matter how good this thing is I doubt I’ll sell my Sonoses as I love them, but I’d pay special attention to how reliable AirPlay 2 is.

Just to warn you that I’m gonna be experimenting with this thing. The logic is articulated here. Basically, on the major social media platforms you don’t own your content, increasingly the platforms themselves act as gatekeepers, and they are selling your information to advertisers. It’s more in keeping with the traditions of the web to treat small social media posts like tweets as micro blog posts (hence the name of this effort), and ideally such content should live on one’s own blog.

That’s where it gets complicated.

So I’d rather keep these micro blog posts on this blog rather than starting a new one. I can have a different “post format” called “aside” that will look more like my current quick links than my normal posts. So far, so good. But it would make sense to cross-post these posts to twitter, right? And not duplicate efforts across two networks? Sure. But I have two twitter accounts, my personal one and the one for this blog, which parrots anything posted here. If I auto post from to my personal twitter, which makes most sense to me, the net result will be people who follow both accounts will see things twice. I will try to figure some way around this, but bear with me.

TL,DR: I may break things here soon, sorry!

OCR in OneNote

Here’s a note about notes. It turns out that there is some serious OCR (optical character recognition) in OneNote. I knew text in images and PDFs would show up in searches, which is handy but not mind-blowing as it’s been in Evernote for like 10 years. But what I didn’t know is:

  1. You can copy the text ‘out of’ an image and paste it as regular text, or simply convert it. I have been wanting this… For like 10 years.
  2. OneNote will OCR hand-written notes. I mean if your hardwiring has fallen into disrepair for lack of use like mine, it will be rocky, but OneNote will give it the college try.

Yup, it’s how I made this note. I wrote it last night with the Apple Pencil on an iPad Pro. I converted it and had to do some editing, and there’s the downside. Of course it’s not 100% or even 80% accurate (again, I mostly blame my handwriting). But also you can’t actually convert to text on the iPad. I’m using the Windows client right now which is the most full-featured, perhaps unsurprisingly. Checking…

No, you can’t do it on the Mac app either. That’s a shame. OCR is working in the background, indexing images so they show up in search results, but there is no feature in the interface that will convert to text.

Anyway, when this feature makes its way into the iOS client, this will be a wonderful option for note-taking. I definitely prefer handwriting for meetings, brainstorming, and some other uses – it’s great just to get away from a keyboard for a bit. It’s certainly one of those things that tablets are good at and feel a lot more delightful than typing. But the ability to turn that scrawl into usable text is to me, kind of a killer app.

The Nintendo Switch

Is there a nerd who hasn’t felt the sweet breath of obsessive-compulsive disorder whisper in her ear as she is forced by the cruel demands of life to quit her gaming den to sleep and/or go to work: I wish I could keep playing in bed and/or on the subway. That voice does not encourage you to just play a different game on your phone on the subway, it wants you to keep playing this game on the subway, which of course is never possible.

Nintendo understands this more than most companies, having for decades produced both portable and home consoles, yet only now producing one that is both at the same time.

The Switch feels like a remix of everything Nintendo’s ever made. It’s physically similar to the failed Wii U GamePad, as it’s a games-specific tablet. The slide-off “Joy-Con” controllers are motion-sensitive like the Wii Remote, yet physically evoke the tiny NES gamepads. The tablet screen is touch-sensitive, like that of the DS and 3DS.

From the pictures before the launch, I couldn’t really place the size of the thing. I knew it had a 6.1” screen which didn’t sound that big… my phone’s is 5.5”. Yet in hand, it’s much larger. It’s more the size of an iPad Mini, except thicker and more squat. Compared to Apple engineering, it feels clumsy, or amateurish: too thick, too heavy, too much bezel, too much plastic. Yet of course your hands are given space away from the screen, making the viewable area bigger compared to using a phone.

I’ve had it only a couple weeks, and already I am in love. The convenience of this thing is unparalleled. Let alone taking it out of the house, it’s really handy in the house as well. We don’t have a TV in our tiny living room; it’s in the rec room in the basement. I love playing down there, but there are times where it doesn’t make a certain kind of sense to go down there (killing ten minutes while cooking, waiting to make sure the kid has settled), let alone those times when someone else is using the TV.

The Switch is by nature a compromise device, sitting somewhere between portability and immersion. That it never feels like it is remarkable. That compromise is instead its very essence, cleverly captured by its name and brand identity.

It feels fetishistic to discuss a console without talking about the actual games, and the only one I have so far is Zelda, so I will move on to that in the next couple days. But a quick word first! Nintendo’s historical weakness is third-party software. They come up with quirky, underpowered hardware, so unlike their competitors’ machines that third party publishers either dial in low-quality ports (Wii), or ignore the platform altogether (Wii U). Traditionally, they make up for it with stellar first party titles (Mario, Mario Kart, Zelda, Metroid, Fire Emblem, Pokemon, etc. etc.). I’m sure that will continue to be the case, but the really encouraging thing is the developing slate of indies. Sounds like the Switch is easier to develop for, and Nintendo is doing a better job of talking to independents, so if this keeps up it could be a pretty good situation.

The iPad These Days

So the iPad has issues. After exploding out of the gate in 2010, with sales growth greater even than the iPhone, sales have decreased over the past few years, as Horace Dediu discusses in iPad Optics:

The iPad is considered to be failing, with a presumption of an end of life in the near future. The evidence of this failure the year-on-year decline in units sold… The iPad decline is paired with a steady increase in the Mac. The iPad exhibits a four year decrease in overall volumes. This has, as they say, bad optics.

Neil Cybart notes:

A quick look at overall iPad sales reveals an ominous trend. Sales have declined for 12 consecutive quarters. After topping out 74M units in 1Q14, the annualized iPad sales rate has declined by 42% to 43M units.

Yeowch! Except it’s not all gloom. As Dediu notes,

the iPad is still a much loved and much used product. … Tablet ownership among US adults increased from 45% in April 2015 to 48% in April 2016 and 51% in November 2016. The rise has been steady. Although this counts tablets, the iPad had 85% share of the U.S. market for tablets priced above $200 so it’s a fair assumption that the iPad audience is growing.

Furthermore, iPads are still growing in “non-consuming” markets. iPad posted double-digit growth in both Mainland China and India, it continues to attract a very high percentage of first-time tablet buyers.

His explanation for the odd numbers is that “iPads remain in use far longer than phones, and perhaps even longer than some computers.”

Interestingly, Cybart blames iPad’s troubles on something else: its little brother.

People aren’t buying as many iPad mini devices these days. Excluding 7.9-inch iPad mini sales from overall iPad sales results in a completely different sales picture… iPad mini unit sales have declined 70% after peaking in 4Q13 and 1Q14. The product’s value proposition has been permanently reduced due to larger iPhones. Apple has clearly experienced Peak iPad Mini.

Whatever the reasons for the “bad optics” are, Apple is suddenly pushing iPad really hard, as Cybart notes. And they’re pushing it in two different directions, as indicated by the two main model lines. The Pro is more expensive than a normal iPad and has added hardware features, mainly the pencil and the keyboard. The iPad Pros are the subject of a new ad campaign, which Apple is clearly targeting at people who want a PC replacement.

Going the other direction, the regular ol’ iPad has just been refreshed. The biggest change is that they dropped the starting price to $329 US. That’s a big deal! The cheap new iPad will compete with Chromebooks in education, it will entice owners of ancient iPads, and it has at least a chance of competing against cheap Android tabs.

There’s a lot interesting about Apple’s strategy on both fronts: they think iPads are their best chance in education, and they think iPads are their best chance at switchers. It wasn’t so long ago it was to the Mac they were encouraging PC users to switch. We’ve known for some time that the iPad was Apple’s “vision for the future of personal computing”. But its latest moves indicate it’s their vision for the present.

The Dallas Runaway Cart GIF

"This GIF has so many characters and subplots, it's like a Shakespearean tragedy"

Indeed. It even has its own oral history article, which contains this amazing quote:

I was hurt probably more than I’d ever been hurt before. But honestly, it was hilarious. I laughed like crazy for about 15 minutes the first time I watched that video, and for the next three or four months I’d just pull that video up and laugh. I was like, man, that cart didn’t have nobody on it, and I wondered if it was Bugs Bunny was driving it or something. There was just something hilarious about that video. I mean, nobody was even driving it!

(via Josh Marshall's twitter, which had a lot of amazing discussion of the GIF he calls "the last supper of fail")

Meta update 3

Most of the legwork moving the site to WordPress is now over, along with some spit-n-polish and nice-to-haves I’ve been meaning to implement for some time now. Such as… give me an unordered list-themed drum roll…

Lately I’ve been working on a big elaborate Workflow for posting here, something I’ve been really dying to do, and it’s pretty cool, but that’s probably a separate post.

Pretty soon I’m going to launch a new project for the site, and it’s not about Trump! Or Apple! Or video games! Is it blowing your mind yet? I just have to figure out some design stuff and then we should be good to go.

Nintendo Switch!

This Switch thing coming from Nintendo is interesting. Here’s the full announcement video for reference:

Some random thoughts now that we have some more details on the thing:

More Meta

Ok! In terms of this redesign: now we are cooking with fire! White-hot blogfire, I would say. The feed should be working right; so too the search and the contact form.

Also, I’ve reanimated the long-dormant Angry Robot Twitter Parrot Bot and it should be squawking out whatever gets posted to the site. In addition, there is now an Angry Robot Facebook Page that should also link to everything here. So if you prefer reading web sites without actually going to the web, you have options now!

That should be the last of the meta posts for now – now back to our regularly scheduled Angry Roboting.

Apple Watch: The Pretty, The Bad, and The Pretty Damn Cool

Ed. Note: this is my first post in a series on the Apple Watch. I mostly wrote it in September, in the weeks after I first got the watch. My views have changed somewhat since, but rather than rewrite this whole damned thing I’m just posting it as-is. It’s still got some good points.

I sat out the first incarnation because it sounded bad. Slow, mostly; too fussy; unnecessary.

I started to change my mind with reports of speed and interface improvements in WatchOS 3. And with the new hardware announced at the event last September, I decided to pony up.

I got the “Series 1” model, because price is an issue, and I don’t need full waterproofing or GPS, not being a swimmer or a jogger. (What they’re calling Series 1 has the same processors as the Series 2 models.)

Pretty Things

I always liked the look of the things in the abstract, but was surprised at how striking the hardware is in person. My plan was to swap out the strap with third party (read: cheaper) ones anyway, so I got the rubber strap, which I really like. It feels and looks great.

The “rings”, the visualization of physical activity, are inspired design. They fit into a tiny complication, they can be understood at a glance, and they match the general iconography of timekeeping in a way a straight step or calorie count number doesn’t. Closing one’s rings feels like a physical act itself.

apple watch rings
The outside ring is active calories burned, the middle is minutes of exercise, and the inside is times you've stood for a minute each hour.

Bad Things

Pricey, sleepy, and needy. The three worst dwarfs, and also the problems with The Watch. It costs a lot. I think the numbers may not be that bad in the US but in Canada they seem really high for something that doesn’t really do anything your phone can’t do. They would sell a lot more if you could get in for like $200.

The screen doesn’t always stay on. I understand why, but I don’t like it. “Raise to wake” means you have to do a big, pantomime stage-acting I AM LOOKING AT MY WATCH gesture. Or you can tap it. But you can’t discreetly glance at it hoping to see how long the meeting is dragging on for. This makes it worse than a normal watch in a significant way. Hopefully at some point soon they can squeeze out enough power to let it stay on indefinitely, perhaps at low brightness.

Needy as in, this watch needs an iPhone to work. Things will get more interesting once it has its own cell modem and one has options to maybe not bring a phone, maybe to not even have a phone.

Pretty Damn Cool Things

This watch may be unnecessary, but it is still a pretty awesome gadget. Paying for things with your watch is strictly baller behaviour. Same goes for controlling your TV, lights and speakers with it. And people seem to love the idea that you can answer phone calls with it (more than I find it useful, certainly).

As a fitness tracker, and a fitness encourager, it works really well. Not having used a FitBit I don’t know which is better. But I know I like the way the Watch works for this.

Siri is a little bit hit and miss but I’m still using it and there is definitely something cool about responding to a text by speaking into your wrist, Kirk-style. Phone-siri doesn’t work properly in my car, so it’s nice to be able to ask wrist-Siri to play whatever song it is my kid wants to hear.

The Watch is in some ways the anti-phone. One of its greatest strengths – and one it is difficult for Apple to highlight in marketing materials – is how it saves you from having to fuss with your phone too much. This is mostly about sneaking a peek at incoming notifications without having to do anything more than look at your wrist. When you think about this it’s more useful the more active your are, as if you’re already looking at a screen at that moment it won’t help you. But when you’re out, active, and maybe holding groceries with your other hand, being able to triage notifications with a glance is a big help.

I love complications. Basically the idea is your different software watch faces have little areas for customizable data display slash quick links to open apps. A simple example is having a date display that when tapped opens the calendar app. The different faces have spots for three to five of these things.

What’s really cool is with the latest OS, it’s easy to switch between watch faces, which means you can set up different faces for different modes of your day. I have one face for the morning, which shows weather in detail, plus sunrise, the date, the next calendar appointment, and a link to a transit tracking app. Once I’m out of the house I have a moving around face that has activity rings, weather, the workout app and transit again. At work I have a different one that features OmniFocus, and for home later on I focus on a timer, the AppleTV remote app, and something to control the Sonos system. For timers alone this thing is really handy – I use them a lot when cooking and that’s also when I tend to have wet/dirty hands which makes using my phone a little awkward.

That’s it for now – next I’m going to write up how I’m currently using watch faces, and which apps I use the most. Beyond that – third party bands! Totally obsessed!


Well, that took a while. This site is now on wordpress. Most things should be good. (all the old posts are moved over! even all the old comments, but they’re not being displayed! but they exist!) Some things are still broken. That I know of:

You will also be seeing the new design. Not that different. But here are the highlights:

Any issues or comments, try me on twitter @dsankey, or you could try the new contact form on the contact page? Maybe it even works!


Alright so I have been not posting a lot because I’ve been labouring away behind the curtain here hupdating this ol’ blog to work with this thing they call the wordpress. Also, I’ve been redoing the design. Actually you’ll probably LOL at how much it looks like the current design! Hey man when you achieve perfection there is no reason to set it alight in the name of novelty amirite? You know I am.

So anyway. This is just to say that should the site be unreachable, or visibly upset, or basically in ruins the next time you visit, it’s (hopefully) because I am in the process of making the move-over final and things will be back to normal right quick. Theoretically. Cross your emoji fingers for me.

A Great Disturbance in the Robot

Well I’ve started moving the site over to WordPress. The site currently runs Textpattern which is a little outdated and there are a bunch of things I’d like to be doing that I can’t do. Unfortunately, this blog was started about ten years ago, and I also imported most of the posts from my previous blog, so… there are something like 4,000 posts. A) It’s making me question my life choices, B) it seems to break every available import script, so there may be no way of doing this without some manner of schism, rupture, lacuna, or scene kinda like at the end of The Force Awakens where there’s a bigass earthquake and a huge rip in the ground and on the one side, this blog’s entire history, sweaty, overweight, insecure and broken, and on the other side, angrily waving its lightsaber, the svelte, cocky, and bug-eyed Future.

We’re not there yet, so bear with me. Blog rupture.

No Man's Blog Post

I don’t personally recall an indie game that received as much hype as No Man’s Sky, and I’ve been gamin’ since you were naught but a twinkle in your daddy’s ball sack. That it presents some aspect of Ultimate Nerd Fantasy has something to do with it. (I’m talking about space exploration, in case you thought I meant fussy inventory management.)

High expectations usually mean huge disappointment, and NMS didn’t disappoint in the disappointment department. By that I mean it was disappointing, to a lot of people. Just to clarify. Man what a disappointing paragraph.

I get the disappointment. I feel you, man. Here is a clear technical and artistic marvel of a game: a procedurally generated actual universe of unprecedented size, uncommon beauty, set to haunting music, and with such a frustrating initial gameplay loop that it seems to accidentally pose some deep questions about the pointlessness of existence. I can go anywhere in the fucking universe and I’m worried about how much iridium my ship can carry? What the fuck is wrong with me?

You get the sense that developer Hello Games struggled to find some gameplay that could be tacked on to the bundle of infinite beauty they had somehow dreamed up, and what they arrived at goes something like: Space Minecraft, but instead of collecting resources to build things, you collect ‘em to upgrade ship, suit and tools. It’s more complicated than that – there’s some plot, and yes you can fight pirates kinda. But that’s the base loop, and at the beginning it’s made much harder because you are randomly presented some subset of ALL the resources, depending on what random planet you spawn on. And you don’t know which resources you need to fuel this or that engine or improve this or that device. And your inventory is much too small.

As you upgrade your stuff, and learn what each resource is needed for, the gameplay becomes less frustrating. 25 slots of inventory means waaay fewer fussy decisions than 12 slots. The loop continues, though; you see pretty ships and they cost millions of space bucks. You start finding out which rarer, riskier resources might yield some real cheddar if systematically harvested. But is that really the point? It’s gameplay loop as existential crisis: a prettier ship, is that all I care about? It won’t get me to the finish line any faster. Is getting to the finish line faster even what I care about? It’s a real Conan, what is best in life? sort of situation. And I’m not sure that crushing your enemies is all that necessary.

In my opinion: the real joy of this game is exploring, discovering new worlds, seeing what strange beings have fluked into existence, and then speeding off for the horizon again. Zen Space Drifter should be the gameplay loop, not Soulless Min-maxing Resource Bandit. It’s odd to have a game’s own systems try to herd you away from that realization, but I suppose the original plan, open-world style, was to have a variety of activities that could constitute gameplay. Trading! Piracy! Taking pictures of rare space birds! Then most of them got stripped down to virtual non-existence in the rush to ship. Hopefully they also crib the continual updates from Minecraft, too, and this becomes a lot more fleshed out down the road.

I don’t mind it, though. After some light bingeing to start, I went a few days without playing it, and actually missed it. I’m a relaxed space tourist – I scan a lot of new lifeforms, take a lot of screenshots of cool animals and pretty sunsets n’ shit. It feels like getting high in your buddy’s van and looking at prog-rock album covers. Is it worth $80 CDN, the…. Eighty dollar question? I guess it depends on how many nights I hang out in the procedurally generated Imagination Van. Is it cheaper to just pay for some gas n’ grass and albums or… no wait, I’m min-maxing again.

OneNote Notes

It’s funny for me to be trying a Microsoft product willingly! I have been using a Mac since my parents got a Mac Plus in 1985, and back then Microsoft was the ENEMY. Then I was forced to use shitty busted up old Windows PCs at work for many years, which did not foster any love. But nowadays you could make a stronger case for Apple as Evil Empire of the tech world, and Microsoft in its post-Ballmer era is hustling hard in the corners. That OneNote is currently even a possibility for me shows how things have changed. A couple years ago OneNote would only have had apps for Windows and Windows Mobile, but now it’s got apps for macOS, iOS, Android and the web. And they’re really good.

OneNote has got got a rather forceful notebook interface metaphor: you open a notebook and then you have section tabs along the top, and lists of notebook pages along the side. To continue the paper metaphor, you can type anywhere on a note “page”, it will start a new text box. You can drag in whatever you want, and position it wherever. If you had a tablet and a stylus you could just start writing or drawing anywhere, too. I didn’t need that, but I do like it. Kinda fun!

If anything, the app seems to have more features than Evernote. It’s not what I was looking for, but at least they are gracefully hidden away when not in use. There are lots of formatting features, drawing, file embedding, note linking, video recording? OCR? Page versions? Page Templates? There’s a lot here.

The Windows app is actually ten years old and has that typical Microsoft thing where it’s absolutely rammed with features, and not very intuitive when it comes to discovering them, but you can customize almost everything in it. The Mac app is more recent and not quite as insanely customizable, but it is very nice. The iOS app, at least on iPhone, is much more stripped down, quite sensibly so.

There is a reasonably well-featured web clipper that works in Chrome and Safari, and saves either as “article”, “full page” or “section” (which means drag-for-a-screenshot). The separate iOS app Office Lens does your document scanning and sends stuff into OneNote. You can forward emails into OneNote, too.

The OneNote business model is interesting. The app is free, but storage is done through Microsoft’s online Dropbox-alike OneDrive, which gives you 5GB for free. After that it’s $2/mo for 50GB, and after that you go up to OneDrive + Office 365, which gives you 1TB for $7/mo, but also includes licenses for all the Office apps (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook). So OneNote isn’t really a product at all, but a way of upselling you to Office. There is a decent Evernote importer app for PC, and I imported everything from eight years of Evernote use and it takes up under 2 gigs, so I think this product is free for my purposes. For now anyway.

Downsides: inexplicably, there is no way to sort the list of notes other than manually. There were some goofups with the Evernote import, and now my notes are sorted in the right notebooks, but in random order. And all images are scaled up to wacky, scrollfest size. Another potential downside is that if you completely freak out with the “place anything ANYWHERE on the page maaaaan” attitude those notes are gonna be another scrollfest on your phone.

But these are minor gripes really, and for now, I have a winner. I’m surprisingly happy with OneNote, and if you’re looking to switch from Evernote, this is definitely the leading candidate.

NoteStation Notes

This is the third in a series of posts about note apps/services. In part 1 I explained why I was going to try to move from Evernote. In part 2 I tried Apple Notes.

So, here we are in “Note Station”, which is Synology’s built-in attempt at an Evernote competitor.

Let’s back up a bit – Synology makes Network Attached Storage computers, or NASes. That’s basically a bunch of hard drive bays wrapped in a server. They are known for the quality of their built-in software, and they market these things at both home multimedia enthusiast type users, and small- to medium-sized business. So they include apps for photo sharing, video collections and downloading stuff as well as a mail server, Exchange integration and stuff like this (relatively newly introduced) Evernote-alike. If you don’t have a Synology, sorry – this article won’t be much help for you. But if you do, read on! Because I have one (nyah nyah)

Some trepidation is warranted: so far, I don’t use too many of the Synology-made apps as I usually find them not quite up to their native competitors. Part of it is the web app thing. Synology builds iOS clients (and maybe Android?) which are usually good, but on the desktop your only option is a web app. They tend to be good web apps, but I’ll pick a good native desktop app over a web app every time, and in most of the categories Synology plays in, there are indeed good desktop apps already.

Anyway. Synology’s Note Station web app definitely does less than Evernote, but Evernote does too much, so that’s mostly good. It’s much simpler and less crufty than Evernote. Some features that are present: rich formatting, tags, lists, note encryption, tables and charts(!). A plus is the robust web clipper Chrome extension, which gives you options for full content, simplified content, screenshot and whole page screenshot.

Aaand here I am in the iOS DS Note app which is surprisingly full featured – possibly even more than the web app? You can insert files and even “note links” – an obscure wiki-like feature that Evernote has but keeps buried in its menus.

Not bad!

Now for the cons. First, yes, having to use a web app is a con. I hold out a dream that someday Evernote Mac client extraordinaire Alternote allows one to use other back ends, but until then, no dice. Secondly, the web clipper is only available on Chrome. Maybe that’s not a huuge problem? But I definitely prefer Safari on my macs. 

Third and most unfairly disqualifying: IT at my workplace really loves blocking ports, and I think that’s why I actually can’t connect at all anymore to my Synology from my main work computer. I can connect from the phone and from other computers, but not the one that is ergonomically most advantageous for me to use. Not necessarily a deal-breaker, but it does mean I will keep trying out alternatives. Next time: Microsoft! OneNote!

Notes on Apple Notes

​So here I am using Apple Notes. It has some pros worth mentioning. It’s built in on Apple devices, and free. It syncs via iCloud. The web app means it can be accessed on Windows, although that’s mostly a con – more later. You can dictate notes via Siri. You can sketch stuff. I actually really like the sketch feature, but without an iPad Pro and Apple Pencil it’s more of a novelty.

Web clipping: you can save web links via share sheets in iOS and I assume macOS. This gives you a little rich preview thing but does not save the content, which I dislike. The one thing I do like is you can actually append links and other share sheet-selectable stuff to existing notes. (Siri can also append, which is cool.) Evernote couldn’t do this and it leads you to a bunch of separate atomized notes per unit of content, rather than, say, one note having to do with your web research into summoning demons.

Cons, besides no web archiving: no tags. The web app version is weak. It works, but only for referring to your notes, organizing and typing them. Because most other ways of inputting content are based on the share sheets in the OS, when you are on Windows you can’t use them. So no saving web pages, images, whatever else. I also realized there is no way to forward emails into Notes, which I do use with Evernote. Plus, you can’t actually get at the standard iOS share sheet from, which means you can’t get your emails into Notes at all. That sucks!

I had considered beforehand that other note services may not clip web page contents and so was prepared to think up other options. Using either Instapaper or Pinboard seemed possible as they are services I already use and could see adapting them to clipping web pages for notes. In practice, however, I really like having my saved web pages showing up as search results when I search my notes. But the inability to add content from Windows and email are enough reason for me to try another option, so next I will tackle the Synology solution: Note Station and DS Note.

Notes on Notes Apps

I use notes a lot and for the past eight years I have been using Evernote. For the last oh I dunno, four? of them, I have been putting up with Evernote. They went all business-focused, and suddenly were pimping “work chat” in all the apps which is essentially the opposite feature from what I want, they let most of the apps get bloated, confusing and slow, and now it sounds like they are raising the prices. Anyway. I have options! And I shall explore them, by kicking the wheels on a few competing apps while blogging about it here. Stay tuned. OMG what a complete THRILL FEST!!!!

Let’s lay out the criteria here, maybe? I use Evernote for:

I need something that works on iOS, macOS and either the web or windows.

The one thing I’m a little hung up on is clipping web pages. I don’t want just a link, I want the page archived in some form. Evernote has a few options for this – link, full page, quote or “article” (it does sort of an Instapaper-esque parsing of the content and strips out the design and crap). I’m not confident that any of the competitors will be able to do this. So I may have to explore new ways of doing it?

Things I don’t need: work chat. I don’t use any to-do list stuff, I use OmniFocus for that. I thought the OCR stuff would be handy but in practice I rarely use it.

Apps I think I will look at: OneNote, Apple Notes, and DS Note/NoteStation, the system offered by my Synology NAS. Am I missing anything?

Roderick Jaynes

The Coen Brothers edit all their films under the pseudonym Roderick Jaynes. Here is his bio, and here’s an interview.

Predictive Text Laffs

Not sure why, but there is a certain kind of comedy that always cracks me up: broken telephone, mistranslation, poor imitation. And also Markov chain stuff, like where an algorithm tries to guess the next word based on its analysis of previous words. It feels like a computer trying to bullshit you and failing. Here’s what I’m talkin aboot:

Something Important Happened 6

[Continued from here. All articles in this series will be archived here]

After we saw you we went down to the hospital cafeteria and ate. It was strange – you feel like food is unimportant compared to everything that’s going on. But that’s not how your stomach sees it.

There’s this strange feeling of relief after the trauma of death. If the person you love had been suffering, there is this realization that you no longer have to worry about their suffering. But there also is this stampede of busywork that sweeps you up at the worst possible time vis-a-vis your ability to actually do anything: find a funeral home. Talk to the coroner. Sign paperwork. Wills, notices, invitations, phone calls, emails, everything.

My sisters were a godsend. Having them there to bring their massively superior organizational facilities to bear on directing the stampede was an enormous help. It didn’t hurt that in times of crisis, my mother is essentially a warhorse. So all the post-death arrangements were handled by a not-unanimous but certainly professional panel.

We disagreed mildly about how the funeral should be arranged. My sisters are both Unitarians. My mom is a Catholic-raised agnostic, and I’m pretty much a Buddhist at this point. But you were an atheist. I remember you telling me there was no such thing as god when I was a kid (“but lots of people think there is, and that’s okay”). So I tried to advocate for the atheist. We decided a Unitarian church was an ok location for the event. There aren’t a lot of non-church locations that are workable for a funeral, and the Unitarians are an open-minded lot that don’t insist on any particular dogma being included in the service.

The panel invited people, decided on speakers and performers. I made an invite and then a program. I looked through old pictures of you. I began to feel proud. Still sad, but as I had discovered there are many different kinds of sad.

You wanted to be cremated, so we had to go up to the funeral home to inspect the body before this was to happen. No one was invited but the funeral home fixes you up in your dressy clothes anyway. We went and saw you and they had combed your hair oddly – puffed out to the side. It made us laugh; you would have laughed too. Although I remember wishing I could have somehow just atomized your body as soon as you had left it. Better that than have strangers handling it and screwing up your hair.

We fought about the remembrance ceremony, as we were now calling it. We met with the officiant, a nice Unitarian minister (priest?) whose suggestions I nonetheless had to keep vetoing, because I felt I knew what you would want. There would be no prayers or invocations. There would be remembrances, and songs.

People started to arrive. My sisters’ families, my aunt and uncle. The house started to fill up. A neighbour lent us their house for the duration, and we put people up there. People told stories about you. We rehearsed the songs.

Then the memorial day came, and we put it on. We played songs from your album as people filed in. It was quite a crowd. We had few decorations, some flowers, some pictures of you. You were a handsome man, don’t you know? Friends of yours came, many who I hadn’t seen in years. Friends of mine came from work. Friends I hadn’t heard from in ages had heard about it and asked to come saying, “your dad was a good guy.”

People spoke. We heard your life story – in part, but well told, by the people who were there. And at the end we sang that song.

Afterwards it was a wake at your house. People filed in; it got crowded. Some said it was the best funeral they had ever been at. Some said, “he had quite a life”. I switched into associate host mode and didn’t have much of a chance to think about my own feelings, which was good. We poured Guinness, and food was served; people were hanging out in the garden. Stories were told. Your old friends told me how much I reminded them of you.

And in that way, on that day, the old, withered, wraith-Tom began to recede and a new, remembered and imperfect – but much more representative – Tom took form.

It’s been over five years now since that day. In the months following, things were hard to take. Many things that were important in my life – work, my interests, whether I got out of bed – seemed insignificant compared to what had happened to you. As time went on, I was able to put things back together again, and figure out what belonged, and what I should jettison, what I should work towards, and what I should just drop.

As with the memorial, I tried to think what you would do, and I still do that every day.

I wear your watch on my wrist; I think of you every time I look at it. Your picture sits next to our dining room table, which you made. My daughter knows your name and your face. She asks about you. I wish you two could have met, but that’s not how it happened. So I tell her stories; good stories. There are so many. So much wisdom. Thank you for all of it.