six colors

by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Jason Snell

Automate this: Holiday lights the hard way

This story starts, as most modern horror stories do, with a text message from Lex Friedman.

I want you to publish a tutorial on how I can use IFTTT applets and a calendar to tell my front lights to change colors depending on the date. So they’re green on St. Patrick’s Day, red on Valentine’s Day, etc.

Leaving aside the big question—what color would Presidents Day be?—my initial response was that this would be easy to accomplish. You’d think so, right? But it’s not. And the difficulty I had trying to figure out how to answer Lex’s question says a lot about just how primitive home-automation technology still is.

Sure, you can now tell Ensign Alexa that there’s a Romulan attack underway, but as Dan found out while working on that project, it’s difficult to wire up smart-home tasks that aren’t much more complex than cause and effect.

In the end, I figured out two possible solutions to Lex’s problem. Neither of them are ideal, and I’m hoping that some savvy Six Colors reader will offer an even more efficient solution. But the two approaches I took do work, with some caveats.

The “simple” approach: Multiple IFTTT applets

The easiest and cheapest approach here is for Lex to use multiple triggers on IFTTT. As I’ve complained about on more than one occasion, IFTTT is a useful but frustrating surface, because it’s incapable of anything but the simplest of cause-and-effect relationships.

That means in order for this system to work, Lex would need to create a whole bunch of separate IFTTT applets—one for every holiday he wants to monitor, as well as a handful more for regular operation.

If you’re like Lex (and me-), you like for your lights to turn on a while before dawn and turn off at sunrise, and turn on at sunset and stay on until some point late in the evening. To do all that via IFTT, you’ll need four separate applets. Two are time-based—at 6 a.m. turn on the front lights, and at 11 p.m. turn off the front lights. The other two use IFTTT’s Weather Underground source to trigger based on sunrise (turn them off) and sunset (turn them back on). For my approach below to work, make sure that these actions are setting the color of the bulb to your normal, non-holiday color.

But now we have to add holidays to the mix. First, Lex will need to create a Google Calendar for the holidays on which he wishes to bestow Geek Nation’s highest honor—the colored Wi-Fi light bulb. Since he’s got two separate periods where the lights are on, he’ll need to create twice as many events in the calendar. Since IFTTT is too stupid to trigger based on two separate factors—i.e., “if my Google Calendar says it’s Presidents Day, do this at 5 p.m.”—Lex will need to create events in both the morning and the evening of every holiday. (For holidays that repeat on a regular schedule, you can set those events to repeat annually and your work is done!)

Be sure to set these times so that they trigger after your regular daily applets, or the color change will be overridden. If your lights come on at 6 a.m., set these events for 6:15 or 6:30. If they come on at sunset, choose a time a little later than local sunset. (Yes, this means your triggers will be fighting each other out. It’s dumb, but the only other option I’ve thought of is to create an additional Google Calendar event on the morning of the next day after each holiday, setting the colors back. That seems even dumber to me.)

iftt-trigger

Next, create a series of IFTTT applets that are based on the Google Calendar trigger. Choose the trigger type “Event from search starts,” which fires off when an event with a specific keyword or phrase begins on a Google Calendar you specify, such as Presidents Day. Next, choose your light bulb of choice, and tell them to use a specific Presidents Day color. If you’re using Hue bulbs, use the “change color” action, which will also turn on your bulbs. You will need to do this for every single holiday you want to honor, with its own colors.

(If you’re using LIFX bulbs, you can change the color of the bulbs without turning them on. You could combine this approach with a daily command in the middle of the night that sets your bulbs back to the everyday color, then set the Google Calendar holiday events for slightly later in the early morning, and your regular turn-on/turn-off regimen would be undisturbed. Unfortunately, Hue’s “change color” IFTTT action also turns on the bulbs.)

Anyway, if Lex does all of this, it should work. I didn’t say it was easy or good, but…

The harder way: Zapier

I also built a version of this system using Zapier, a web app that lets you create fairly complex interactions between different web services. (If only Zapier attached to smart home stuff itself!)

I created a new app (which Zapier calls “Zaps”) to be triggered by a separate service, and set up a trigger on IFTTT to connect to the Zapier app’s URL every day right after the turn-on times for my lights.

The Zapier app, thus awakened, searches my holiday Google Calendar for the presence of a holiday on the current date. (This approach means my holiday calendar doesn’t need any times, just all-day events with the names of the holidays, preceded by “Holiday:”.) If it finds an event, it filters out the “Holiday:” part of the string, encodes the name of the holiday, and embeds it in a URL that leads back to IFTTT.

Then back on IFTTT, I create a series of applets, all triggered by IFTTT’s Maker channel, an all-purpose trigger that runs whenever anyone accesses a specific URL with a keyword you define. In this case, the keyword is the name of the holiday in question—and each applet is set to look for a specific holiday and turn on my lights with the appropriate color.

Since I have a paid Zapier account, I was able to add all of that text filtering, but this approach should work with a free Zapier account if you named the holidays in your Google Calendar things with URL-safe text that contained both a string that was consistent across all events and another that was unique to the holiday in question. For example, “holidaypresident” or “holidaystpatricks”. That string would be kicked back to the IFTTT Maker channel, and you could use that as the trigger to change the color of your bulbs, just as in the earlier approach.

Ugh ugh ugh

In short: This stuff can be done, but it’s way too complicated. A web service with a little bit of flexibility could handle this in short order:

  • When it’s time to turn on the lights
  • Check my calendar to see if it’s a holiday
  • If it is, set a variable based on what holiday it is - “red” for Valentine’s Day, “green” for St. Patrick’s Day, and so on.
  • If it isn’t, set the variable to white.
  • Turn on my lights with their color set to the contents of the variable.

That’s not complicated logic, but it seems like it’s logic that’s beyond the tools we currently have access to for things like home automation.

Anyway, Lex, I hope this helps. Everyone drive over to Lex’s house on St. Patrick’s Day and see if the lights on his front porch are green.


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Overcast 3 is out

Congratulations to Marco Arment for releasing Overcast 3, the latest version of my favorite podcast-listening app.

This is a big design update influenced by the modern design conventions of iOS. There’s a new playing-screen interface that uses more of a “card” metaphor. It also offers better listening-queue management, a feature that I’ve come to love—tap an episode and then tap the plus button to add an item to a playlist.


Linked by Jason Snell

An Uber HR horror story

Susan J. Fowler details her terrible year at Uber:

As most of you know, I left Uber in December and joined Stripe in January. I’ve gotten a lot of questions over the past couple of months about why I left and what my time at Uber was like. It’s a strange, fascinating, and slightly horrifying story that deserves to be told while it is still fresh in my mind.

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick responded to this post on Twitter by saying it would be investigated and was “against everything we believe in,” but Fowler’s story reads a whole lot more like she was let down by Uber’s corporate culture itself.

The truth is, while employees often feel that a Human Resources department exists to serve and support them—and many HR professionals feel this way too—the HR department works for the company and its ultimate job is to protect the company.

In a company where treating all employees fairly and creating a good work environment is part of the corporate culture, these things are all in alignment. When the corporate culture is rotten, that’s when an HR group starts doing things like gaslighting employees. And that’s why Kalanick’s statement rings hollow to me. Maybe he doesn’t think this is his corporate culture—but it is.


Dan Moren for Macworld

4K and HDR may not be enough for Apple TV to win the living room ↦

It’s time for the latest rumors about the Apple TV—the set-top box that we love to be “meh” about. A report from Bloomberg suggests that Apple is at work on a new revision of the device, which will bring support for 4K (Ultra High Definition or UHD) video as well as a feature with “more vivid colors,” which is probably something related to High Dynamic Range (HDR).

But is this too little too late for the Apple TV? While the set-top box probably does fine by Apple’s standards, it’s hardly the kind of category-defining product that we’ve seen even the Apple Watch or iPad be, much less aspiring to the heights of the iPhone. Historically, Apple’s TV attempts have always been a bit on the lackluster side, and these latest rumors don’t do much to change that perception.

Continue reading on Macworld ↦


Jason Snell for Macworld

Imagining the next 9 iOS devices ↦

What is now known as iOS first debuted as iPhone Software 1.0 almost 10 years ago. Given how huge the iPhone has become over the past decade, it’s pretty fun to go back to the way Apple explained the software that drove the iPhone way back then.

“It runs Mac OS X,” we wrote (and put on the cover!) at Macworld. Apple was showing that the iPhone was a real computer at its core, with the same underpinnings that ran the Mac. Of course, we know now that Apple’s two primary operating systems are pretty different, though they share a common core.

In the intervening years, iOS-as it was renamed when it became clear that this platform was going to extend beyond the iPhone-has grown and expanded. If we define the iOS family broadly, Apple currently sells five different classes of device with iOS inside: iPhones (and the iPod touch), iPads, the fourth-generation Apple TV (tvOS is a variant of iOS), Apple Watch (watchOS, likewise), and MacBook Pro with Touch Bar (the software that runs the Touch Bar is derived from iOS and watchOS).

It got me thinking: What will Apple’s next devices be that run iOS, or a derivation thereof?

Continue reading on Macworld ↦


Podcast

The Rebound 124: I Think We’re Doing It Wrong

The Rebound

This week, John and Dan try desperately to keep the show afloat while Lex spends the whole time playing Stagehand. (I kid! Well, mostly!) But we still find time to talk about Apple’s reality show endeavors (needs more lava), the possibility of wireless charging in the next iPhone (needs more distance), and Rogue Amoeba’s experiments with selling one of its apps (needs less Mac App Store).


By Dan Moren

WWDC is in early June…in San Jose?!

Well…didn’t see that one coming. Apple’s announced that the 2017 incarnation of its Worldwide Developers Conference will be held from June 5 through June 9, but not in its usual home at the Moscone Center in San Francisco. Instead, the event will take place at the McEnery Convention Center in San Jose, about an hour south of the city.

(Fun fact: This is actually a homecoming of sorts, since the event was held in San Jose at McEnery from 1989 up through 2003.)

I suspect a large part of the move is that McEnery is much bigger than Moscone; in 2011, the center added an additional 125,000 square feet, bringing it to around 550,000 square feet. Moscone West is, all in, just shy of 300,000 square feet. That has capped the number of attendees that Apple can admit to far fewer than apply to attend—last year the company had to use the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium in San Francisco to accommodate everybody for the keynote. Update: Over at Daring Fireball, John Gruber talked to Apple’s Phil Schiller about the move, and Schiller says the number of attendees will be “about the same”, though the proximity to Apple’s headquarters will mean way more availability of the company’s employees.

Since the introduction of the iPhone, the event has become more and more popular, necessitating Apple to handle ticket sales by randomization. While the company will still be deciding registration by lottery, it seems likely that the new venue will be able to accommodate more folks.

There’s also the added fact that it’s not cheap to stay in San Francisco: hotel rates have risen considerably over the last few years, making it an expensive proposition for most—especially small developers. It’s unclear if demand will push up the prices in San Jose in the same way, but it’s hard to imagine that it’ll be as pricey as San Francisco.

It will be interesting to see how the conference will react to the new venue. There are a lot of established patterns and events around WWDC, and those will either now need to react by relocating to San Jose, or by asking folks to make the trip back and forth.

Tickets for WWDC go on sale on March 27 at 10 am Pacific. You’ll need to be a registered member of Apple’s developer program or developer enterprise program to purchase one.

[Dan Moren is a tech writer, novelist, podcaster, and the Official Dan of Six Colors. You can email him at dan@sixcolors.com or find him on Twitter at @dmoren.]


Linked by Dan Moren

Comcast has a new Xfinity app, but it’s still not on set-top boxes

Successor to the Xfinity TV app brings Xfinity X1 functionality, including a Spanish guide, filtering, music channels and Common Sense media ratings. In the home, users can watch their entire TV line-up on phones, tablets and laptops.

But not on the Apple TV or other set-top boxes. *sigh* Because why would I want to watch TV shows on my nice big TV set? Look, I’m paying for Comcast’s TV streaming option, which gives me access to these apps, but it’s utterly ridiculous that I can’t watch the shows on my Apple TV. They’ve already got my money, so just give me a product I’ll want to use.


Linked by Jason Snell

Help Girl Scouts learn how to make a game

Here’s a fun Kickstarter project: Creation of a video game by Girl Scouts in San Diego, during which they will learn all aspects of design and development. Check it out and consider helping a new generation learn about technology, design, and development.


Linked by Dan Moren

The consequences of refusing to unlock your phone at the U.S. border

Over at Ars Technica, our former Macworld colleague Cyrus Farivar has put together a look at exactly what might happen if you’re asked to unlock your phone at the U.S. border and you refuse:

He concluded: “If I was asked to unlock my phone or computer by border officials today, I would politely say no, ask for an attorney, and deal with the consequences from there.”

However, in 2015, a federal judge in the District of Columbia ruled in favor of a South Korean businessman who has his laptop seized at Los Angeles International Airport, and searched without a warrant.

The ACLU’s Nathan Freed Wessler, who noted he has personally been sent to secondary screening but has never been asked about his own electronic devices at the border, added that this puts travelers in a “tough spot” between balancing their privacy rights and their ability to get where they are going.

The fact that we have to even think about this issue is unsettling, but we live in unsettling times. Electronic devices carry a lot of our personal information, which is exactly why the government wants to look at them, but it doesn’t mean that they should be given carte blanche to dig through our personal correspondence, private pictures, and so on.


Linked by Jason Snell

Rogue Amoeba adds SoundSource to the mix

Today Rogue Amoeba announced SoundSource 3, which adds a menu bar item to your Mac that allows you to route sound inputs and outputs, as well as the ability to monitor any input device from any output device.

The Mac is pretty weak when it comes to audio configuration—SoundSource’s tag line is “The sound control that should be built into MacOS”—but Rogue Amoeba has done a remarkable job of filling the gaps. SoundSource joins Audio Hijack, Loopback, Airfoil, and Nicecast in a remarkable suite of audio utilities.

SoundSource is free to all existing Rogue Amoeba app owners, and $10 for everyone else.


Linked by Dan Moren

Sonos CEO Patrick Spence talks Echo, Google Home

Really interesting interview by The Verge’s Dieter Bohn with newly minted Sonos CEO Patrick Spence.

So if you knew right away you wanted Alexa on Sonos, can you tell us why it hasn’t come out yet? What’s taking so long?

We’re doing it a little differently in terms of the way we approach it. Of course, we could have done it [on a different scale] and been off and running that way. But you know we think broader about the experience and what’s possible. We’re actually doing some work with them which is unique around the music experience that we’re creating. We believe that it’s worth investing that time and energy to create something a little bit more unique. Others will be able to use whatever we’re working with Amazon on, and they’ll be able to build on that. I think it’s really important we get that experience right, and that we are thinking about how we support a world where there are multiple voice services, too.

We didn’t want to end up in a situation where we’re only supporting one. You know, for instance, at CES, a lot of those devices are dedicated to one voice service. It would be like a speaker that could only do Spotify.

This is a really thoughtful take on Sonos’s place in the tech sphere, and how it competes—and doesn’t—with products like the Echo and Google Home. In particular, it’s apparent that Spence is taking the long view on Sonos’s integration with voice assistants while also maintaining that the benefit of those smart speakers is that they potentially serve as gateways to a solution like Sonos.


By Jason Snell

Twitterrific for Mac gets Kickstarter rebirth?

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I joined Twitter because of Twitterrific.

When The Iconfactory released its first version of Twitterrific for Mac, I downloaded it, signed up for Twitter, and off I went. Ten years later, my view of Twitter as a service is still largely framed by apps, rather than the web. If Twitter was only on the Web, I think I’d use it about as often as Facebook, which is to say, not often.

I still use (and love) Twitterrific for iOS, but on the Mac I’ve had to abandon it. There hasn’t been a substantial update since 2013, and Twitter the service has moved on since then. The Iconfactory made the business decision to focus on the iOS edition, and I don’t blame them. I would’ve done the same.

Still, at least once a week I wish that I could use Twitterrific on the Mac. And now, if enough Mac users feel the same, I might get the chance. The Iconfactory has launched a Kickstarter campaign for Twitterrific for Mac, with a $75,000 goal to do a new version of the app. A $15 pledge gets you the final version, a $30 pledge gets you on the beta, and there are a bunch of goodies, too.

I’m in. Here’s hoping a few thousand of my fellow Mac users will be interested in making the up-front commitment. I’d really like to use Twitterrific on my Mac again. After all, it’s where I started.


Podcast

Upgrade #128: Is It Any Weirder than Dashboard?

Upgrade

This week Jason and Myke deal with a mountain of follow-up from last week’s episode about the present and future of the iPad, and then ponder what Apple’s long-term strategy for the Mac might be.


Dan Moren for Macworld

How Apple can make music sound sweeter ↦

We’ve heard the refrain over and over again: music is in Apple’s DNA. It’s been uttered regularly by Tim Cook, and even if Steve Jobs didn’t put it in exactly those words, it was clear from the direction he steered Apple—introducing products like the iTunes and the iPod—how important music was to both him and the corporation he headed.

But even as the company continues to push its Apple Music venture, there are a few places where Apple would be better served by re-examining the way it approaches music. From services to software to hardware, Apple’s gotten pretty comfortable about where it stands with music—but not necessarily because it has the best solutions out there.

Continue reading on Macworld ↦


By Jason Snell

Vacation with the Apple Watch Series 2

I haven’t written a lot about the Apple Watch Series 2, despite having worn it for the past few months. But when I went on vacation in January, I began to appreciate the Apple Watch even more.

If you haven’t heard, Hawaii is sunny. (Except when it’s raining, but wait a little while and that’ll pass.) I spent the better part of the week walking around in bright sunlight wearing sunglasses. At home I noticed that the Series 2 Apple Watch was brighter (Apple says twice as bright!) as my original Apple Watch, but the real validation came when I was on vacation: Despite my sunglasses and the bright light, I never had a problem reading my Apple Watch at any point. That’s not something I could say about the original Apple Watch.

Most of the time, my iPhone is within reach—either it’s in my pocket, on my desk, or a few strides away. But on vacation, there were numerous instances where my phone wasn’t really accessible. We went to a lot of beaches, and generally our stuff would be packed away in a backpack and not particularly accessible, especially if we were wet or covered in sand.

But that Apple Watch was on my wrist, and as a result, I was able to answer calls and reply to texts (we had eight people and three cars, so there was a lot of coordinating going on) without needing to dig my phone out of the bag. It was pretty great. I realize that some people will view this as a negative—didn’t I want to be entirely cut off from communication when I was on the beach?—but honestly, I didn’t mind. I was more relieved to know that I could respond quickly to someone without checking my phone. It helped, rather than hindered, my relaxation.

When I’m asked about the waterproofing features of the Series 2, my stock response has been “I don’t swim.” Not that I can’t swim, but I generally don’t. In Hawaii, however, that’s an entirely different story. I kept my watch on when we walked the beaches, when I went in the water, and yes, even when we were swimming and snorkeling. And when I came back home, I could take off my watch and show the resulting tan line to prove that, yes, I had gotten some sun.

Finally, the fitness and GPS features came in handy, too. We spent a lot of time hiking, paddling, and otherwise actively exploring the island during the week. I used the activity app on the watch to track those outings, which also generated geotagged maps I could review later to see where we’d gone. (Think of it as a digital souvenir of the trip.) We were staying a short but steep hike away from a secluded beach, and by using my Apple Watch I was able to give the rest of our party an accurate assessment of both the distance and time it took for us to get down to the beach.

I’ve woven the features of the Apple Watch into my regular life over the last couple of years. Every now and then I realize I should probably try a new app or change my notification settings, but I’ve largely settled into a comfortable relationship with the device. A week in a different location gave me a much better perspective on how I use it and what it offers. But that’s the great thing about vacation, isn’t it? It lets you step outside your life and alter your perspective a little bit.


Jason Snell for Macworld

Reasons to be optimistic about the iPad’s future ↦

With another quarter of falling iPad sales, there’s a lot of talk these days about what’s up with the iPad. While Apple still sells more than twice as many iPads per quarter as it does Macs, the Mac business generates more revenue and is more stable than the iPad, which has shown year-over-year sales declines for 14 of Apple’s latest 15 financial quarters.

Despite a larger installed base than the Mac, customer-satisfaction scores that are “through the roof” (to use Tim Cook’s phrase), dominance in the high-end tablet market, and increasing sales to first-time iPad buyers, the iPad’s lack of sales momentum leads to a lot of skepticism about its future.

I believe that the iPad, or something very much like it, will be a huge part of the future of how people use computing devices. Here are a few of the reasons why.

Continue reading on Macworld ↦


Podcast

The Rebound 123: $500 Well Spent

The Rebound

While the Lex is away, special guest James Thomson will return to play. We show you what happens when your nerdy automation trick fails repeatedly on air. Then we discuss Apple’s quarterly results, being spied on by Vizio TVs, and what you do with a problem like the iPad. All with no preparation whatsoever.


By Jason Snell

Easy group scheduling is only a Doodle away

Doodle is a web-based scheduling tool that I use all the time, and the other day I was shocked to realize that I’ve only mentioned it once on Six Colors. Let me rectify that.

Doodle is the tool I use to schedule all of my podcasts and meetings. At its simplest, it’s a free tool that lets you quickly find common times between disparate groups of people. I log into Doodle, create a new event, and pick a bunch of dates and times when I’m available. At the end of the process, I’m provided with two URLs—one that lets me administer my poll, and another that I send to everyone I want to participate in the poll.

Everyone I’m inviting to my meeting or podcast gets that second link, and clicks through to see all of the date and time options. (There’s a time-zone feature that automatically converts all times to local time—I wish it was on by default, because sometimes I forget to check the box.) My potential participants fill out their availability, and I’m sent a notification (via email or, once I installed the Doodle iOS app, on my phone) that they’ve entered their information.

Once everyone’s been heard from, I visit the administration link—or just log in to Doodle, where it shows me my recent items—and see the results. The site automatically highlights any events where everyone has answered in the affirmative. If there aren’t any, then I have to make the difficult decision about who’ll make it and who will be left on the outside looking in. Once I select a time, I can close the poll and notify my attendees about the final time.

Doodle has a bunch of other features that make it a more flexible scheduling tool than you’d think. I frequently make use of the “if need be” scheduling option, which lets people indicate that they can make a time but would rather avoid it if they could, which is surprisingly useful when no meeting time is perfect.

You can also limit the number participants in a specific slot, and limit a person to a single option. Turn both of those options on and you’ve got a sign-up service for appointments—if I were teaching a college class, I’d consider using Doodle for office-hours sign-ups, for instance.

Doodle is free with basic features, including some calendar integration. For $39/year, you get an ad-free version with more data collection and encryption. For $69/year and up, there’s a team version with a bunch of other benefits. It has made the job of scheduling podcasts and nonprofit board meetings—both of which involve wrangling a whole bunch of people with very busy schedules—vastly easier for me.


Linked by Dan Moren

Play Portal on a HoloLens

The most compelling case I’ve seen for augmented reality yet.