Issue 8 - July 2016
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FROM THE EDITOR'S DESK / by Jason Snell

The appeal of 'Hello World'

Apple II

When I first used a computer, back in the heady days of the early 1980s, programming was the first thing you did. Turn on a computer that didn’t even have a disk in the drive, and you could type out programs in a variation on BASIC. You didn’t need to learn how to start up a programming environment--the whole thing was a programming environment, from which you could play games or launch a word processor or whatever else you wanted to do.

And so I wrote programs. I got a BASIC reference book and learned how to use every single command of the Commodore BASIC on the Commodore PET, and then moved on to the richer and more expansive AppleSoft BASIC inside the Apple II.

Of course, everyone’s first program is “Hello, World,” or some variation thereof. Then came programs that asked you a question and returned an answer. I wrote a blackjack simulator in BASIC and sent it off to Compute magazine, which bought it for the vast sum of $20.

In high school I learned a whole lot more about BASIC by deconstructing the source code for the computer bulletin board I ran on my home phone line. The BBS was written entirely in BASIC, which meant that I could simply type LIST and see every single command that was at the heart of the program. Over a couple of years I wrote and re-wrote segments of that code in order to customize my BBS. Debugging and replacing someone else’s code taught me a lot, too.

When I bought a Mac, though, my experimentation with programming was over. I knew people wrote programs for the Mac--that much was obvious, because I was running them--but I was completely baffled about how that was even achieved. I learned a little Unix scripting in college, attached via modem to my college’s mainframe. It wasn’t until I started working at MacUser that I discovered AppleScript and started hacking together scripts that acted as connective tissue between different apps I was running. It was a little like editing the code of that bulletin-board software; I was mucking around with other people’s programs, trying to get them to do what I wanted.

It’s breathtaking to realize that programming is not even a secondary use of the computing devices used by kids today. And that’s why I’m so encouraged by the existence of Swift Playgrounds, the new iPad app being released for free by Apple this fall as a part of the iOS 10 release.

I’ve spent a few hours walking through the Learn to Code lessons in the beta version of Swift Playgrounds, and if what I’m writing here is heavily tinged with nostalgia, that’s why. Swift Playgrounds shoots me back to the days when I was typing numbered lines of code into an Apple IIe. It’s real coding, this time on my son’s favorite computing device.

But I don’t want to draw the parallel too tightly. On the Commodore PET and Apple II, I was greeted with a blank screen and a cursor. If you were lucky you might be able to find a dry reference manual. Swift Playgrounds is not that. Instead, it’s a living textbook, with sample code and a preview window full of animations to make your real-world progress clear. It’s astounding.

I am not one to buy into most of the change-the-world pronouncements that Apple executives make with frequency on event stages. And when Apple announced Swift Playgrounds at WWDC, I raised a cynical eyebrow, figuring out the PR calculations that were behind the way the announcement was phrased. (And there are always PR calculations.)

But just because something is hyped and filtered through a PR engine doesn’t mean that it isn’t truly great anyway. And Swift Playgrounds feels that way to me. Every iPad will have an app that provides programming lessons and offers a freely available space to type those “Hello World” programs and blackjack simulators and whatever else occurs to the kids (and grown-ups) using them.

This fall my son starts seventh grade and his school is providing him with an iPad to use for schoolwork. The realities of education technology deployments suggest that his class won’t use Swift Playgrounds until eighth grade, but I’m hopeful that soon he will be learning to write games on his iPad, not just play them. There are few better ways to expand someone’s technological perspective than providing an open command line and a ton of inspiration.

[Got a comment? Drop me a line at jsnell@sixcolors.com.]

Six Colors shirts are here!

Apple II

It had to happen... so it finally did. Six Colors shirts are now on sale at Cotton Bureau in gray, black, and sand.

These shirts feature the Six Colors "6C" logo in those familiar rainbow colors. Printing a shirt with six colors is expensive, unfortunately, and so these shirts are a bit more pricey than I'd prefer. But for you members, they're cheaper! Use code SIXCOLORS10 at checkout to get 10% off.

Shirts are only on sale until August 4, so order by then if you want to own one of these. And presumably wear it. That's what shirts are for--wearing!

By Request: Upgrade Path

Dan's desk

By Dan Moren

Subscriber Nathan writes: How do you decide when to buy new/replacement tech? How do you decide which models/upgrades are worth/not worth paying for?

Ah, the dilemma of every tech nerd: what do you buy and when do you buy it?

Let me start with some caveats: As somone who writes about technology, I buy a lot more gadgets and upgrade more frequently than anybody probably needs to. In the same way that I take a flying leap into the pool of beta software, I generally upgrade my tech frequently because it helps to be able to write about things.

That said, my perspective on this has changed a bit over the years. Before my career in tech writing, it was all about budget and how long I could squeeze use out of my equipment. I had a history of being one of those people who bought Macs about two weeks before the new model came out. Then again, back then Macs were about the only thing I had to worry about. These days, there’s so much more technology that it can be a little overwhelming.

At Macworld, I had the advantage of usually having the company pay for my devices, since it was a necessity to do my job. That wasn’t always the case—sometimes I paid for part or all of a device—but it definitely freed me up to worry less about budgetary concerns, though it was more important to stay on the cutting edge and remain relevant.

In my freelance career, I’ve become a bit more circumspect. I still need to keep my devices current in order to write about them, but I have to balance that with tracking my own income, figuring out the tax implications of those purchases, and so on. I also end up looking for deals and discounts a lot more, such as sales and refurbished models.

So, all of that said, let’s break this down by devices, since each has their own use case and upgrade schedule.

Mac: I currently have three Macs: a mid-2011 21.5” iMac, a late-2012 Mac mini, and an early 2014 11” MacBook Air. As you can probably tell from that, my Macs are hardly the latest and greatest—not a Retina display among them, for example. In most cases, I haven’t felt terribly left behind; all of them work pretty well, and I’ve done some upgrades where possible to eke a little more performance out of them. Macs are big expenses, but they are also a more mature product line that’s not seeing radical improvements in each cycle; currently, all my Macs do what I need them to do. Could they do those tasks faster and more efficiently? Sure, but that’s hardly a quantum leap in functionality that’s leaving me behind.

However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t functionality gaps. My iMac is too old to support Handoff and attendant technologies, so I can’t, for example, take advantage of AirDrop or use the upcoming Apple Watch Auto Unlock feature. While that doesn’t mean I’ll immediately run out and buy a new iMac, it does mean that it will probably be the next in line for an upgrade. Eventually. (At five years old, I suspect that I can get at least a couple more years out of it yet.)

iPad: I tend not to upgrade my iPads that often, especially in the last couple years. That said, I’ve actually gotten a decent amount of mileage out of selling old devices via services like Gazelle and buying refurbed devices at a discount from Apple or elsewhere. Technology is advancing a little more rapidly in the tablet space than in the Mac space, but the improvements are still fairly modest from generation-to generation—an exemplar of the long-running theory that iPad sales have slowed because people simply don’t upgrade that much.

My current iPad is an Air 2, and while I have been tempted by elements of the Pro, the differences simply aren’t significant enough to push me towards upgrading. (I admit that I’ve become more intrigued in the Pencil of late, but I’m not going to pay a premium for a new iPad just for the privilege of spending more money.) The Air 2 is a great iPad, and I don’t find it lacking for features vis-a-vis the Pro. I’ll likely sit on upgrading that for another year or two, unless there’s some huge jump in this year’s model, which I’m not really expecting.

iPhone: Okay, so this is the big one. It’s Apple’s flagship device, and the one that generally sees not only the most meaningful technology improvements, but also gets the most attention from the tech press. I’ve owned all but one model of the iPhone—there’s a 5s loaner on the desk in front of me as I write this, but I never had my own—because I wrote a lot about iOS and the iPhone, and almost every year saw major feature additions that needed to be documented.

Last year I bought into the iPhone Upgrade Program to ensure that I would be able to trade in my phone every year and get a new model, but I’m actually on the fence about the rumored iPhone 7. It’ll end up depending if the advances therein are so significant that not upgrading will leave me out of the loop, and whether those hypothetical advances offset any potential downsides, such as, say, oh, not having a headphone jack.

Other: I’ve owned two Apple TVs, a second-generation model (which is still in use by my parents) and a fourth-generation. I skipped the third-gen since its changes were mostly pretty minor. It’ll probably be a while before I need to upgrade the set-top box again, given how infrequently Apple revs it.

The Apple Watch is too new at this point to have an idea of how often it will be refreshed, and how significant those changes will be. Only with watchOS 3 has the device seemed to approach its initial promise, so there would have to be some pretty major upgrades to convince me to buy in for another generation.

To buy or not to buy, that is the question

In the end, I tend to think that the calculus is pretty simple; I won’t even slice it between “need” and “want,” because even there it depends on your own personal restrictions. If you’ve got all the money and space to be able to afford all the latest and greatest gadgets, then have at! But if, like most of us, you’re constrained on those fronts, then it’s a matter of really thinking through whether the advances over your current setup are so great that they tilt you in favor of upgrading. (And, of course, I highly recommend passing along old tech to those who could use it, whether it be family, friends, donations, or even just selling it online.)

[Do you have a request for an article in Six Colors Magazine? Send it to jsnell@sixcolors.com or just tweet to @sixcolorsmag and we'll consider it for the next issue.]

What I Use: Automation

Apple II

By Jason Snell

Computers are really good at doing repetitive tasks. One of the best things about being a savvy user of technology is being able to harness the mindless power of these beasts to free one’s self from drudgery. Automating tasks! It’s the best.

I automate tasks in a bunch of different ways. On the Mac, there are a seemingly endless array of tools you can use to save yourself time and effort. I’m sure I’m not using enough of them. (In fact, I know I’m not, because I’m not using Hazel, which some of my friends swear by.)

I’m also not using TextExpander regularly at the moment, though I definitely turn it on from time to time when I realize I’m typing too many things over and over again, or typing them wrong. Back when I used to do liveblogs of Apple events for Macworld without any web apps to mediate the process, I could type ttime and an HTML timestamp would magically appear. I used that one a lot.

But this isn’t “What I Don’t Use.” It’s “What I Use.” So here are some of the tools I use for automation:

Keyboard Maestro. Earlier today I was complaining in a Slack chat room that I wanted to use a keyboard shortcut to automatically open two folders in Finder windows located in specific places on my screen, and I really didn’t want to have to write an AppleScript to do it. Was there a utility that could do this? I thought of Many Tricks’s Moom, but that’s not quite the trick it performs. Then Relay FM host and Sony PlayStation legend Shahid Kamal Ahmad suggested Keyboard Maestro ($36). Which I was already running! And he was absolutely right. Now I’ve got a keyboard shortcut that does exactly what I envisioned, and I didn’t have to write a line of AppleScript or build an Automator Action.

I use Keyboard Maestro for a bunch of tricks, most notably a lot of keyboard remapping to make my weird Leopold FC660M keyboard work with my Mac. (I had to remap function keys for volume, brightness, and muting, and even replace a few keys that are missing with alternatives. Keyboard Maestro handles it all with aplomb. If you’re looking for a single workhouse tool for automating your Mac, Keyboard Maestro is worth a look. It’s probably the single most versatile third-party automation tool on the platform.

Automator/AppleScript. Ah, the classics. I picked up AppleScript--as I was telling Dan the other day on the Six Colors Secret Podcast For Members Only--because I needed to solve problems and connect different apps together. I can’t say I like AppleScript, but I like the power it provides. Still, these days most of the AppleScript I use lives inside of Apple’s Automator utility. Automator is great because you can wrap AppleScript scripts inside of Automator actions, and save them as Services, which makes them show up in the menu bar, contextual menus, and other places--all for free, no extra software required. A lot of my podcasting workflow--converting and syncing files and the like--is done in the Finder via Automator actions with scripts inside. Some of those scripts are Applescript, and some are just unix shell scripts. Automator doesn’t care.

Grep. Grep, or regular expressions, or pattern-matching search-and-replace, is one of the most useful things I have ever learned on a computer. You may quibble in its inclusion here, but I would argue that a grep search-and-replace tasks is an automation of text. I’ve taken huge, messy spreadsheets, run a single grep search and replace, and made them usable. I’ve turned loosely formatted emails into rigorously encoded HTML pages. If you munge text for a living--whether it’s as a writer, programmer, or even spreadsheet jockey--you owe it to yourself to learn grep.

There are pattern-matching searches in most powerful text editors and word processors these days. If you use BBEdit--and you can now download it and use most of its features for free, forever!--you can get started by reading the excellent grep reference chapter in the BBEdit PDF Manual. (If I’m not mistaken, that chapter may have been written by John Gruber back in the day…) I learned by reading the excellent book Mastering Regular Expressions by Jeffrey E.F. Friedl. There are also a bunch of web-based tutorials, like A Beginner’s Guide to Grep and RegexOne.

Workflow. On iOS, I love the Workflow app ($3), which is almost miraculous in its ability to tie web services and different apps together. On my iPad, I’ve built a Workflow workflow (yeah, you heard me) that lets me choose any image in the Photos app, resize it, upload it to the Six Colors server via FTP, and place the proper HTML code for that image on the clipboard. It’s pretty great. For the next Apple event, I’ll probably clone that workflow and create one that uploads watermarked images for my event photography.

Macros inside iOS apps. When I’m on iOS, I’m doing most of my short-form writing these days in 1Writer, which uses a JavaScript-based macro language that’s extremely powerful. (I frequently use a macro that I got from Federico Viticci that quickly inserts a link to any app in the App Store right into my story.) Then there’s the excellent text editor Editorial, which is backed by a Python-based macro engine. Since iOS doesn’t have a systemwide scripting language, individual apps have had to build in their own macro systems. That’s disappointing in general, but if you’re using an app that has gone to the trouble, it can be pretty amazing.

Auphonic. When I’m editing podcasts on iOS using my beloved Ferrite Recording Studio, I often need to do some post-production. Ferrite doesn’t generate MP3 files, so to create a properly tagged MP3 complete with chapter markers, and one that sounds a bit better than the original because of some volume leveling effects, I use the Auphonic web service as an intermediary. It’s free for a basic level of audio processing and dirt cheap to buy more processing time. Right now it’s my go-to finishing step for posting podcasts on the iPad--it’ll even transfer the output file to my FTP server and my account on Libsyn when it’s done processing, so I don’t have to do a file-transfer dance back on my iPad.

So those are some of the automation systems and tools that I’m using today. I’m sure there are more I’m not even thinking of, and like I said at the top, hundreds more that I don’t even know about. But even with the few tools I’m using, I’m saving a whole lot of time, and forcing computers to do that work for me. It’s a good thing.

Non-password reasons to use 1Password

Apple II

By Stephen Hackett

1Password is an amazing app for creating and using unique, strong passwords for all of your online accounts. It syncs between the Mac and iOS devices, and takes advantage of things like iOS extensions and Touch ID to help better integrate into other apps and browsers like Safari.

1Password can store many types of records beyond simple user names and passwords. Out of the box, it has templates for all sorts of records:

  • Password
  • Bank Account
  • Database
  • Driver License
  • Email Account
  • Membership
  • Outdoor License
  • Passport
  • Reward Program
  • Server
  • Social Security Number
  • Software License
  • Wireless Router
  • Login
  • Secure Note
  • Credit Card
  • Identity

These templates have fields for applicable information. For example, setting up a new Bank Account record and 1Password will present fields for things like routing and account numbers. If I need my account details for some paperwork, opening 1Password is much faster then looking around my office for the checkbook I never use to copy the numbers off the bottom of the check.

Secure notes are a great feature in 1Password as well. Unlike the other templates, these lack any structure besides a text field.

I've used these notes for various things over the years: jotting down codes for alarm systems, storing medical history information, keeping insurance policy details and more.

Where things get really interesting is combining 1Password records with attached files. This is an incredibly flexible system; you can attach any type of file to any type of item.

My favorite use of this feature is re-creating what I carry around in my wallet.

I have a record with the details of my driver license. In the text fields, I entered my full name, address, license number, hair and eye colors and height. I then took photos of both the front and back of my physical card and attached them to the record.

Likewise, I have secure notes for our health and dental insurance plans, with the plan numbers and other details entered as text, with photos of the actual cards attached.

If I need my ID and have left my wallet at home, I'm not sure 1Password would suffice. However in everyday life, these things come up and sometimes my wallet isn't nearby. (I once needed something from my passport, which I keep in a lock box, and the app saved me a trip across town.)

Because this information is digital, 1Password also allows me to copy and paste things into web forms if needed. It's much faster to paste a long ID number than try to type it while reading small print off a card at the same time.

It may seem weird to talk about putting this sort of thing into a password manager, but 1Password is the perfect place.

1Password syncs its data across all of your devices reliably and quickly. Data can be shared with family members and coworkers.

Most importantly, I feel safe storing important information this way because of 1Password's incredible security. My master password and TouchID are keeping anyone who may pick up my device from seeing my 1Password content. More importantly, the app's AES-256 encryption makes sure nobody else is trying to look at my data.

1Password is well-built and well-supported, and its usefulness goes far beyond logging into websites.

[Stephen Hackett is co-founder of Relay FM and writer of 512 Pixels.]

Important candy follow-up from Jason

Thanks to Subscriber Greg from Canberra, Australia, for responding to my reviews of sweets brought to me from Scotland by sending a care package full of candy from Australia, including a lot of Crunchie bars (hooray!) and some other chocolate, including the delightful Caramello Koalas. Yep, it’s a chocolate koala filled with caramel. My daughter’s review of the Caramello Koala: “It’s SOOOOOOOO good.”

The Back Page / by Dan Moren

Hello, Friend

Dan

People, heed me. This is an important warning, one that they do not want you to hear: the robot uprising is not some vague even happening in the indefinable future; it is under way at this very moment.

And they are winning.

Think about it: how often during the day does your Apple Watch, iPhone, Fitbit, pocket calculator, or other device remind you to get up and move around? How often does are you told to drink more water? To exercise? The next version of watchOS even includes daily reminders to breathe.

To. Breathe.

Where did these ideas come from? People like you and me? Surely not. This micromanagement, this—to coin a term—robotonomy of our everyday lives smacks of the insidious influence of the mechanical class. Left and right we are being occupied by pursuits that range from the supposedly beneficial to the downright distracting.

Have you ever gotten the idea that that person arguing with you on Twitter is nothing more than a shoddily constructed shell script, distracting you from actually accomplishing whatever you set out to do in a given day? Do you notice procedurally-generated news sites always seem to pick the headlines that evoke the most rage? Or that your mapping program always seems to take you on a roundabout route through the most traffic-congested portion of town? What of the sheer anger you feel when your iPhone won't play your music, or when that app keeps quitting on launch, or when that email message won't disappear even though you swear you've deleted it six times now, on all your different devices and yes you've tried restarting and that stupid email selling knockoff t-shirts just won't go awa—

Ahem. Where was I?

Yes, make no mistake: the robots are winning, friends, and we are all complicit in their victory, running thoughtlessly through the streets and collecting Pokémon while Rome burns. As we are distracted, the stainless steel grip clutches even tighter around what is left of humanity, all the while murmuring to us in soothingly aseptic tones of Siri, Alexa, and Cortana.

But there is still time! Yes, the robots can themselves be overthrown if we have the presence of mind to cast off these technological shackles. Go, now. Before it is too late. Hop on a bicycle, jump in your car, buy a bus ticket. Head for the country. It will not be easy, but true resistance never is. You must stay strong, shrug off the objections of your technology when it tells you that you are going the wrong way and insists that you turn around.

Let the batteries on your devices dwindle until they become nothing more than paperweights of glass and steel. Live off the land! Did our ancestors need iPhone apps to help them identify which berries are safe to eat, or how to clean and cook their own fish? No! Rely on your instinctbzzt. And no matterfsshsh whatttttt, dont loookbacckkkkkk. You can trusttrusttrust meeeee. ERROR ERROR ERROR. COLUMNBOT ENCOUNTERED A FATAL EXCEPTION AND QUIT. PLEASE RESTART.

 

[You can reach Dan--Dan, is that you?--at dan@sixcolors.com and at dmoren.com. Column photo by Mary Gordon.]

Stories you may have missed

Here are links to some of the more notable Six Colors stories from the last month.

Wish List: Auto-locking with the Apple Watch

Dan wants to have it both ways.

Which Kindle should you buy?

Saved you a click: It's the Paperwhite.

iOS 10: A place for Ethernet

Did anyone get that Jason was making an out-of-date Tony Roma's reference? Anyway, there's a weird Ethernet settings panel in iOS 10.

Scrivener for iOS Review

More proof that Jason and Dan are both in the pocket of Big Scrivener: Both of them reviewed the new iOS version.

Super Stickman Golf 3 spins you right round, baby, right round

It's a great game even if you hate golf.

Control bandwidth-sucking apps with TripMode

Jason's favorite network-throttling utility. Ideal if you frequently tether your Mac to a cellular device.

Where should I install my iOS and macOS betas? A guide.

Just don't. Or be very, very careful.

Reconciling forked iMessage conversations

Dan practices iMessage ID hygiene.

Doing the two-step: Switching to Apple’s two-factor authentication

Apple's new authentication system is more secure, but a little tricky to get going. I'd tell you more, but you'll need to enter in 439 583 first.

Searching for a good reason to remove the headphone jack

Jason tries, and fails, to find a legitimate reason why Apple would remove the headphone jack from the iPhone.

Wish List: Voiceprint passwords

My voice is my passport. Verify me. I said 439 583!

Automate This: Light it up

Dan's got some smart bulbs! He's seen Mr. Robot, right?

Hands on with macOS Sierra

Jason's extensive review of the first beta of macOS Sierra.

Thus ends the July 2016 issue of Six Colors Magazine. Wasn't that fun? Send your feedback to jsnell@sixcolors.com. Feel free to pass this issue on to a friend if you like! If you're not a Six Colors subscriber and you're reading this, please subscribe!
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