Life technology Uncategorized

Why is it impossible to completely mute the iPhone?

I use my iPhone in bed a lot. In the predawn dark, I scroll through Twitter to find out what happened while I was asleep. And every night, I read until my eyelids grow heavy. These cherished rituals bookend each day. I’m loathe to give them up, even if they do undermine my sleep.

But what about my wife’s sleep? I hate the thought that my bedtime habits might sabotage her rest. My iPhone’s LED-lit screen casts bright, bluish light into our otherwise pitch-black room. To minimize the impact, I dial down the brightness to zero, block the offending light with my body, and avoid apps that lack an eye-friendly “night mode.”

Noisy videos can also threaten my wife’s slumber. Frequently during my nighttime browsing, I’ll stumble across a clip that I want to watch. I can’t don headphones, since retrieving them would create a racket (Click. Tap-tap-tap. Draaaaag).

Instead, I resolve to watch the video with no sound. After all, many short snippets—say, a funny slapstick clip or a sports highlight—don’t need audio to be appreciated.

You’d think that muting my iPhone via the side-toggle would prevent the device’s speaker from making noise. Only it doesn’t. This mute switch applies only to the phone’s ringer and app notifications. Even when muted, the phone plays back media at full volume.

The next option, logically, would be to use the phone’s volume rocker buttons before hitting ‘play.’ That doesn’t work, either; by default, volume up / down applies only to the phone ringer—i.e., again, not to media playback.

So until the audio actually starts playing, I can’t tell how loud it will be. And I can’t change the volume until playback starts, either. All too often, I’ll tap ‘play’, and a video starts blaring. I desperately scramble to press ‘volume down’ until the damned thing finally silences. Meanwhile, my wife rolls over and groans at my stupidity.

Why can’t the iPhone’s “mute switch” act more “mutey”? When I silence my phone, I want it to shut up! No ringer, no media playback, and no notifications.[1]

UPDATE: Kudos to Joel Ross, who points out that the volume slider in Control Center (swipe up from the bottom of the screen) applies only to media playback.

  1. Maybe user alarms deserve an exception. No one wants to obsess over whether she detoggled the mute switch—remember the nightly dance with old school alarm clocks? Then again, even if the alarm didn’t sound, the iPhone’s vibrator is loud enough to wake the dead.  ↩
Life Uncategorized

Checking up on my Advent creative goals

Just before Thanksgiving, I made several “creative resolutions”: new habits for the weeks remaining before Christmas.

As the holidays approach, here’s a status update on each of these goals:

  1. Post to the blog daily. I’m happy to report that I’ve published something on this site every day since November 21st. That’s easily my new record for consecutive-day blogging. That hasn’t always been easy. I’m writing this post from our car’s dark backseat, as we wind and lurch our way back home to West Virginia from a weekend visiting family. The van’s constant swaying is making me nauseous, and the baby’s overtired cries are making my temples throb. If I weren’t terrified of “breaking the chain”, today would’ve been the perfect day to skip blogging.

  2. Ignore analytics. Another success! I haven’t checked my blog stats since before Thanksgiving, either. I have no idea whether daily writing has swelled my readership. In some ways, it’s easier to not know. If the number disappointed, I’d be tempted to stop writing altogether. Let’s hope that on Christmas Day (when I will finally check the analytics), I don’t find a lump of coal in my stocking.

  3. Record a weekly podcast. Sadder news to report here. I still haven’t nailed down a concept that would hold my interest for the long haul. I’ve flirted with many ideas: a podcast dedicated to iPad productivity (I’ve been writing exclusively on my tablet); a podcast all about breakfast cereal; or the “Scripture in Culture” idea I mentioned in that original post. None of these have gotten beyond the brainstorming phase.

    At this point, It’s unrealistic to expect any recording before December ends. I’ll be satisfied if I can choose a niche and do some administrative legwork over the holidays.

So… I’m 2 for 3 on my year-end goals. Honestly, that feels like a win. Better to make steady progress in one arena than half-heartedly commit to multiple projects.

Life technology Uncategorized

‘Study: Text messages that end in a period seen as less sincere’

From EurekAlert:

Text messages that end with a period are perceived to be less sincere than messages that do not, according to newly published research from Binghamton University.

Remember grunge fashion? Suburbanites who had the financial means to dress neatly instead donned frayed flannels and ripped jeans. They dressed down, hoping to fit in.

I’d like to propose a corollary concept: grammar-grunge. In grammar-grunge, otherwise-literate communicators intentionally disregard proper punctuation, form and syntax. I know when to use “whom” instead of “who.” But because “whom” makes me sound like a pretentious jackass, I swallow that last consonant. I do the same thing when I eschew snooty words (e.g. “lain”), use a preposition to end a sentence, or disregard a hundred other poorly-understood grammar rules. No one else follows them; I don’t either, because I’m afraid of appearing snobbish.

Over the past two decades, texting has acquired its own vernacular—its own sloppy syntax. The cell phone’s numeric keypad made pecking out messages infuriatingly cumbersome. “Unnecessary” punctuation quickly fell to the wayside. Even when the mobile typing experience grew better (thanks to improved keyboards from Blackberry and Apple), sloppiness remained the standard.

In this world of careless touch-typists, proper form sticks out. Anyone who deviates from the informal norm—say, by punctuating her sentences—must have a reason. Other texters assume that the nonconformist’s pedantic periods have meaning. Is she being curt? Is she criticizing my improper form? Or maybe—as this study indicates—she’s being insincere, even sarcastic.

To avoid being misinterpreted, I again resort to grammar-grunge. I type “hey” instead of “Good morning!” I forgo my beloved semicolons. I even drop in the occasional “WTF”.

Life Uncategorized

Christmas tree, done right

My childhood Christmases weren’t always very merry. My parents’ divorce, frequent financial struggles, and neverending family strife often put a damper on the holiday season.

But one tradition consistently redeemed the unhappy Yuletide: our Christmas tree. It sits at the center of my holiday memories, cheery and bright. To this day, a good tree can make or break Christmas for me—so I’ve assembled my list of requirements for the Tannenbaum tradition:

  • Use a real tree. You wouldn’t feed your family imitation ham for Christmas dinner. Don’t give them an imitation tree, either. If erecting an eight-foot Fraser fir feels overwhelming, scale things back. Even a Christmas bush trumps any plastic alternative.
  • Visit a tree tree farm. On the first Sunday after Thanksgiving, we make our annual pilgrimage to a local Christmas tree farm. This ritual marks the start of the holiday season for us. Of course, the visit itself isn’t always pleasant: think cold rain, blaring novelty music, and bratty kids brandishing saws. But it’s worth braving the “festivities” to have an opportunity to cut your own tree.

    If the nearest farm is too far to justify the trek, you’re stuck buying from a local tree lot. Make the best of your tree-shopping visit, but realize that an overlit grocery store lot may not deliver the tree farm’s romantic atmosphere. At least try to track down a reputable outlet that receives frequent deliveries of fresh-cut trees. You want a tree that was felled yesterday—not on Halloween. Know that you’ll pay a markup—to cover the cost of delivery and staffing the lot.

  • String your Christmas lights the right way. Trimming the tree can be dangerous. I’m not talking about disastrous tree accidents (although we’ve had those, too). The real risk is to your holiday spirit. Every family member has opinions on how best to hang Christmas lights—and they’ll likely wait till halfway through the project to chime in. No matter what technique you choose, you’re likely to be frustrated and irritable by the end of the ordeal. Take your time, and don’t be afraid to split the decorating over multiple days.

    As for the right technique… Too many tree decorators take the lazy way out, feebly laying the strands along the very outermost branches. This method is quick and easy, but the end result is less-than-ideal: a flat-looking tree with an unlit core.

    Here’s a better approach. Take your first strand’s “female” end in hand. Starting at the top of the tree, loosely wrap each individual branch from the trunk to the tip and back again. Then jump to a nearby branch and repeat. Don’t circle the entire tree; instead, divide it into thirds and light one section at a time, moving from side to side and from top to bottom. Once you’re done, you’ll have three male strand ends to plug into your power strip.

    This technique gives you a well-lit tree, featuring intriguing depth and interesting shadows. Your ornaments catch and reflect the light from every direction. More importantly, divying the tree into sections prevents you from daisy-chaining too many strands together (and creating a fire hazard).

    How many lights will you need? The short answer: “More than you think.” Hand-wrapping every tree branch eats up a lot of length. My general rule of thumb is 150–200 lights per foot of tree height. In other words, a six-foot tree requires about a thousand twinklers to light properly. That may seem like overkill, but it’s hard to overlight a tree.

  • Decorate the entire tree. One side of your tree will likely face a wall, but don’t skip decorating the hidden branches. You want your tree to look great from every angle—from the back deck, from the kids’ vantage point, from the side as you walk by. Hang your favorite ornaments out front and use cheaper, less sentimental decorations for less-visible areas.

    Hang ornaments at every depth—not just on the branches’ tips. Shiny baubles—like those ubiquitous red glass balls—look fantastic when hung near the trunk.

  • Leave your tree up a long time. The post-holiday season is long and dreary; why rush into it? In this case, procrastination should be encouraged. No Christmas tree should ever come down before January 6th. That’s the official end of the Christmas season (remember the “twelve days of Christmas”?). And it’s perfectly fine to leave your tree up till mid-January—as long as it’s still drinking water and holding onto its needles.
  • Save a memento. Once you finally do take down the tree, it feels almost sacrilegious to set it by the curb. This central fixture of the celebration, now brittle and brown, gets compacted with eggnog cartons and ripped wrapping paper.

    One way to remember the season’s centerpiece? Create a Christmas ornament. Saw a slice off the trunk and set it aside. Once the chunk dries out, sand it lightly and wood-burn a message into the smoothed surface (e.g. “Jill’s first Christmas tree, 2015”). Drill a hole for the string or hook. Finally, seal the wood with stain, polyurethane or gloss to help prevent rot.

Every family has different priorities for the holiday season. Maybe you’d rather dedicate your extra time to baking Christmas cookies, reconnecting with long-lost relatives, or just watching TV. But if your Christmas traditions—like mine—always revolved around the tree itself, it’s worth taking the time to do it right.

internet Life Uncategorized

Stop sorting your email.

For twenty years now, I’ve sorted my email. I painstakingly classify each incoming message, hoping that my tags will help me find it again later. If folders and cabinets keep paper documents organized, I tell myself, then wouldn’t digital folders help me stay on top of email?

The answer, of course, is “No.” Email folders (and the Gmail equivalent, labels) are a waste of time.

I rarely—if ever—browse archived emails by label. If a message isn’t in my inbox, I use search to track it down, relying on the automatically-generated index that’s standard to every email modern client. Can I recall even one unique word from the message I’m hunting? If so, search retrieves the thread instantly. If not, metadata can help filter down the results—e.g. was there an attachment? Who sent the email? When? Search lets you leverage whatever bits of information you can remember. I’ve grown so used to this approach that I’ve memorized multiple search operators in both Gmail and Outlook.

It’s not just that I labels feel unnecessary; they actually undermine productivity. My commitment to tagging adds friction to every inbox triage. Too often, I leave emails sitting in my inbox simply because I’m too lazy or too busy to label them. Before I know it, dozens of threads have piled up. Automatic filters can help—but setting them up feels like another tedious chore.

A final reason I resent email labels? They limit my email client options. The slickest, most innovative email apps—like Microsoft’s Outlook, or Dropbox’s Mailbox—don’t support Gmail’s proprietary tagging system. I miss out on helpful features like one-swipe archive and email “snoozing.” Even Apple’s vanilla (but solid) offers limited label support. I’m stuck with Gmail’s clunky—but label-compatible—official app.

I want to break free. I’m dropping labels, cold turkey, for the next few weeks. I won’t delete my tagging hierarchy just yet. But rather than classify each email as it comes in, I’ll either archive it, delete it, create a to-do task, or delegate that item to someone else. You know, just like Uncle Merlin says. What I won’t do is add a tag or move the message into a folder.

Will I relapse and binge on labels again? Or will I attain a new level of email enlightenment? I’ll report back in a few weeks.

Life technology Uncategorized

Drowning in Twitter debt

I abandoned RSS because I couldn’t keep up.

Feed readers made it easy to read every single post from my favorite websites. But there’s a downside to that thoroughness. Hit ‘subscribe’ too many times, and catching up becomes a chore—one more inbox to empty. My RSS unread count frequently ballooned into the hundreds.

When Google Reader (my preferred RSS client) shut down, I resolved to try something different. I would rely on Twitter for the latest updates instead. I became a “Twitter completionist”. In other words, I always pick up my timeline from where I left off, rather than starting with the most recent tweets. My favorite Twitter client, Tweetbot, makes this automatic; it syncs my timeline progress between the iPhone and iPad.[1]

Tweetbot unread
My out-of-control unread count in Tweetbot.

For years, this Twitter-as-feed-reader approach worked well. But recently, my renewed commitment to daily blogging leaves me with precious little free time for social media. I’m facing the same problem with Twitter that I had with RSS: constantly falling behind. Over the Thanksgiving break, my unread tweet count approached 1,000 for the first time ever. By this morning, I had whittled that number down to 700, but I can feel it climbing as I type.

Here are three potential ways to handle skyrocketing “Twitter debt”:

  • Follow fewer tweeps. Easier said than done; how do you decide who makes the cut? Besides, as of today, I only track 366 people on Twitter. That seems like a reasonable number (right?).
  • Stop reading every tweet. After all, Twitter itself doesn’t expect its users to be completionists. But I rely on Twitter to generate ideas for this blog. Skipping ahead often could mean missing out on potential post topics.
  • Declare Twitter bankruptcy (when necessary). I have to accept the fact that I’m going to occasionally fall behind—especially on vacations. That’s a good thing; the holidays are meant for lazy TV watching with family, not for checking Twitter obsessively. I plan to adopt this approach during the upcoming Christmas break.

Till then, I’ll keep that scrolling thumb loose. Tweetbot Zero, here I come.

  1. Syncing also works on the Tweetbot Mac client. That doesn’t help me; I’m a Windows users on the desktop. Lately, I’ve been avoiding Tweetdeck on Windows, just to preserve my mobile progress. That’s good for productivity, but somewhat irritating. If only Twitter had integrated (or replicated) Tweetmarker in its official clients—then I’d always be in sync, no matter what app or platform I used. But Twitter refuses to acknowledge the possibility that some users prefer a third-party client experience.  ↩
internet Life Uncategorized

Early resolutions for Internet creatives

The end of the calendar year always feels bittersweet. On the one hand, the holidays are fun. I enjoy the chance to escape the daily grind, the time spent with extended family, and (let’s be honest) the unhealthy, delicious food.

On the other hand, as each year rolls past, I find myself reflecting on how little progress I’ve made towards my creative aspirations. Most years, I feel as if I didn’t make anything interesting—outside of work projects, which ultimately belong to my employer.

This year will be different; I’m aiming to get the jump on late-year regret by establishing some new habits. Whether you call it a “Creator’s Advent Calendar,” or an “Early New Year’s Resolution”, here’s what I’m hoping to do between now and Christmas:

  1. Post something on this blog every day. Finding time to write was never easy. But the arrival of our first child in March sent our schedules into overdrive. Our curious, energetic baby fills every day with exploration and wonder, from the predawn hours till well after sunset. Add in my 8–5 work day, and I’m left precious little time for hobbies.

    If I want to write, I’ll have to do it before the baby wakes. If I want a full hour to write, I need to roll out of bed no later than 4:30am.

    That’s only sustainable if I establish an early bedtime, too. Turning in at 8:30 does feel a bit silly. I also miss out on some choice prime-time TV: the presidential debates start too late; I can’t watch the end of my hockey games; and “must see” episodes “must wait” for Hulu. Those are sacrifices I’m willing to make, if it means I won’t feel like death the next day.

    What counts as “posting”? In short, anything counts. The daily post could be a full-length article like one, or a several-sentence commentary on a link to another site. The goal is regular momentum, not voluminous content. The habit is key; it makes writing an automatic part of your day. Conversely, if I skip a day, suddenly I’ve skipped three. Go a week without posting, and, before I know it, I haven’t written for months.

  2. Ignore analytics. Checking my blog’s readership too often sabotages my motivation to write. Building an audience is tough, and I get discouraged when few readers notice my work. So, for a few weeks, I’ll ignore the stats. I figure it’s better to neglect the numbers for a while than to get derailed by disappointment.

    My Google Analytics tracking script will continue to run when readers visit this site, but I won’t be checking the results until Christmas Day at the earliest. I’ve disabled the graph widget on my WordPress dashboard, and the Google Analytics site itself is strictly off-limits.

  3. Record a podcast every week. For years now, I’ve wanted to toss my hat into the podcast ring. My multiple missteps and false starts mostly result from a lack of clarity; what, exactly, do I want to talk about? What can I offer that no one else can? I like geeky movies and tech, but how many more thirtysomething white dudes do we need weighing in on those topics?

    One podcasting possibility? I could resurrect my long-dormant interest in the Bible. Although it feels like another life, I earned my Master in Divinity degree a few years back. Those school years—spent studying millennia-old languages; exegeting obscure texts; and learning about the ancient world—often seem like wasted time. Outside of the church, there just aren’t many outlets for those interests. My full-time job—spent working in SharePoint and Photoshop—doesn’t demand much Aramaic.

    But what if I could corral that passion into a podcast that interests a broader audience than Bible nerds and the devout? I’ve long contended that biblical allusions saturate “secular” American culture to the core. The entertainment industry loves to recycle narratives and themes from scripture. Politicians can’t resist the tempation to spout faux-religious platitudes. Who better to dissect these appeals to biblical authority than someone with a background in biblical interpretation? It seems like there’s room for an irreverent weekly summary of “Scripture in Culture.”

    We’ll see. Of my three goals, this feels the least defined–and therefore the least likely.

  4. It’s hard to build something great. It’s even harder when you’ve got a full-time job and a curious, nap-resistant baby on the loose. But if I can maintain these three habits between now and Christmas, I may finally beat the New Year’s blues that haunt me each December.

Life Uncategorized

‘What We Think About When We Run’

Feet went numb, stomachs ached, lungs heaved, exhaustion loomed, hills hurt, heat sapped, vomit threatened; all told, fully a third of runners’ thoughts concerned the downsides of running.

In the years since high school, I’ve run thousands and thousands of miles. I’ve run in subzero temperatures, kicking numb toes through shin-deep snow. I’ve run beneath pouring rain, shoes squelching with each soggy step. I’ve run through sweltering heat, sucking thick air. I’ve run beside busy two-lanes, along barely-maintained wilderness trails, and atop groaning treadmills.

Friends who admire my jogging habit sometimes assume that I must love it. That I’m addicted to some mythical runner’s high. That I feel at one with the world when I’m pounding the pavement.

The truth? I resent every mile. When I run, my brain repeats a bitter mantra: “I hate this. I hate this. I hate this.” I dread every workout and only “enjoy” running when it’s over.

So why run at all? Why torture myself? Simple math. My running regimen burns extra calories and gives my diet some breathing room. It’s hardly the romantic or devout rationale some runners cite.

Life music Uncategorized

The best work soundtrack? Soundtracks.

Turns out, Snow White knew her stuff:

Great music makes even the dreariest work more bearable. For manual labor, anything catchy can do the trick. But what about knowledge work? Lyrics make it impossible to concentrate on word-heavy tasks like triaging email or writing documentation. That rules out pop music—whether new or oldie—during the workday.

Classical is an obvious alternative. But my brain prefers catchy, simple melodies; it rebels against dense, unfamiliar art music. Baroque pieces entangle the lead line in fugal counterpoint. Modern avant garde pieces eschew melody altogether. Early romantic music—Beethoven or Schumann, say—fits the bill, but if you don’t know the composition already, it’s hard to appreciate.

Fortunately, there’s another option; movie soundtracks are the perfect work accompaniment. Unlike pop, soundtracks don’t hijack your attention with lyrics. And unlike classical, soundtracks rarely deviate from straightforward arrangements. Each track boasts simple orchestrations that build to a suitably inspirational climax. That’s exactly what I need to keep plodding along.

Alas, many soundtracks are so simple that they grow stale after a few listens. If classical music rewards careful attention, soundtracks punish repetition. Braveheart’s theme loses its thrill when it’s left on repeat. I need variety, which my meager music library can’t provide.

Streaming services help. After all, Spotify and Pandora offer a vast catalog of film scores. Unfortunately, these services don’t make it easy to consume soundtracks. Their recommendation engines, geared to deliver top 40 hits, surface the same orchestral albums again and again. Don’t get me wrong; I love John Williams, but I can only take the Star Wars soundtrack so many times. Another issue with streaming radio? They don’t always play the “real” rendition. Too often, a gross, synthesized adaptation replaces the lush original.

Hopefully, Spotify will make their service more friendly to soundtrack fans. For example, excise the fake imitations, especially when the original is already included in your catalog. Another request? Implement a “new music mode”—in which anything I’ve ever heard before gets skipped, automatically. That would keep my soundtrack playlist fresh and inspirational—and keep me dutifully plugging away until Friday at 5 PM.

Life Uncategorized

Confessions of a McDonald’s employee

Soon after my sixteenth birthday, I took a job at a McDonald’s restaurant near my house. All that summer, I grilled quarter pounders and wrapped Big Macs at the Golden Arches.

And… I saw things, man. Bad things.

Below, I clear the air. Here are some behind-the-scenes insights from my time at Mickey D’s.

  1. Your burger sits out for hours before it’s served. Once the beef is cooked, grill workers stack the patties in a plastic tray, then slide the tray into a warming machine. That’s the “fast” in “fast food”—McDonald’s can deliver your burger instantly because it’s been pre-cooked. Each warmer tray slot has its own timer; when the alarm sounds, the beef must be discarded so that it doesn’t spoil. But here’s a nasty secret: the grill staff ignores the timers. When the warmer beeps, workers often reset the timer and return to whatever they were doing. When a tray runs low, its contents are recombined into another tray and the process starts all over again. In short, no one’s keeping track of how long each patty sits there. Often, the grill sends out dry, congealed burgers, hoping that no one notices.
  2. The staff desperately wants to work more. Throughout that long summer, my manager scheduled me for just a few dozen shifts. Often, I’d work just one or two days per week. Back then, my local franchise probably hired extra workers to cover for flaky employees. These days, underscheduling workers probably helps McDonald’s avoid federal insurance mandates, since part-time workers are exempt. In any case, between these infrequent shifts and my minimum wage, I made very little money that summer.
  3. McDonald’s can be dangerous. One afternoon, I was assigned to clean the back of house, rather than cook. I wandered around the grill area, wiping down random greasy surfaces. At one point, without thinking, I leaned on the grill itself, then immediately yanked my hand away in pain. The 350-degree surface had instantly seared my palm. Somehow, I managed to finish my shift without revealing the injury (thankfully, a first-aid kit near the drive-thru booth included burn cream). I gritted my teeth and endured the throbbing ache until I clocked out. Why not tell my manager? First, I was embarrassed. Second, I would’ve be sent home—and I was already short on hours (see #2 above).
  4. Individual workers may suffer from the division of labor. I worked at McDonald’s for an entire summer, but I spent nearly every shift manning the grill and the re-warming trays. Rarely did I handle the actual bun assembly. Only once did I get assigned to cleaning detail (and that ended badly; see above). The drive-thru was assigned to more experienced workers. The cash register and delivery truck were foreign territory. And I never worked the breakfast shift, which required separate training than the burger-and-fries detail.
  5. Not every worker prizes hygiene. Like any restaurant chain, McDonald’s has high cleanliness standards. Employees are instructed to wash their hands when there’s any chance of contamination. But during the lunch rush, when two dozen customers have queued out front, and the drive-thru traffic loops around the building, cleanliness falls to the wayside. An employee who scratches his nose or touches his hair should drop everything and re-wash his hands. That rarely, if ever, happens.

These aren’t exactly horror stories; nothing here is scandalous enough to make the local news. No, during my McDonald’s summer, I witnessed more of a low-grade grossness. Not enough to hurt anyone—but enough to make me feel queasy every time I stoop to eating fast food.