Issue 9 - August 2016
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FROM THE EDITOR'S DESK / by Jason Snell

Keeping up on the news

Jason

Staying on top of the news sure is more complicated than it used to be. There was a time when I had a newspaper delivered to my door, and that generally did the trick. There was cable news for anything breaking at the moment. And… we were done.

The world doesn’t work like that anymore. But there are still ways to sensibly keep track of what’s going on. In this issue, Stephen Hackett writes about the fact that the death of RSS has been greatly exaggerated, with great options for RSS story aggregation on the Mac and iOS alike.

I have to admit, RSS has never been a technology that ever really stuck for me. I’d download a new newsreader and give it a whirl for a while, but eventually I’d abandon it--usually overwhelmed by the number of unread items, or frustrated about the limitations of RSS feeds themselves--and go back to other ways of getting news.

These days I get news in a few ways. I have three newspaper subscriptions--the Kindle Edition of the San Francisco Chronicle and the digital editions of the New York Times and the Washington Post. I’m a regular user of Nuzzel, a news aggregator for iOS and the web that takes the links in my Twitter and Facebook feeds and filters them based on their popularity. I use Instapaper to collect stories for later reading, and use that service’s integration with the Kindle to send those stories to my Kindle overnight.

While Nuzzel does a good job of aggregating links in my social timelines, I also pick up a whole lot just by reading my main Twitter timeline as well as custom lists I’ve built for sports and science topics.

I also visit a few sites regularly, just to see what’s going on. It’s completely manual--or as I like to think of it, completely on-demand. I type in a web address or click a bookmark and see what’s there. I know, how primitive. But it seems to work for me.

Still, I have to admit that reading Stephen’s story makes me ponder taking another run at RSS. I know how it would end, though. With me deleting another RSS app and going back to the grazing strategy that’s served me, more or less, for more than a decade. It’s primitive, I know, but somehow it works for me.

Next month will be a big one in terms of news. Final versions of iOS 10 and macOS Sierra will arrive. There will be a new iPhone and, if we're very lucky, maybe some clue about what's happening with the next generation of Macs. Keep watching Six Colors for our complete coverage, and of course keep listening to the Six Colors Secret Podcast (accessible by logging into your account at Six Colors, if you don't know the secret feed address yet) and reading the Six Colors Magazine!

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

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By Request: Desktop Diagram

By Jason Snell

The Screen

A few weeks back, I tweeted out a picture of my iMac’s screen while I was recording an episode of the Clockwise podcast. What followed was not entirely unexpected--you don’t post a screen shot of your computer interface in front of thousands of Apple nerds without knowing it will be analyzed, Zapruder-like, in moments. I tweeted the image because I thought people would be interested in it, and they were!

Subscriber Unai suggested that “some explanation on every app would be great. Maybe for the 6c magazine.” Sounds like a good idea, so let’s do it!

(I realize the image in this newsletter is tiny; there's a full resolution one at https://sixcolors.com/images/magazine/clockwise.jpg .)

Google Sheets: I use Google Docs and Google Sheets for most of my collaborative projects, including the magazine you’re reading right now! For Clockwise, we’ve taken a page from the book of Leo Laporte’s TWiT network and built a rundown spreadsheet with tabs for individual episodes. A day or two before we record, I send a share link to our two Clockwise guests and ask them to put their topic into the spreadsheet. (That’s really how it works--everyone truly does bring their own topic with them.) We also put sponsor information in here so that we know what sponsor read we’re doing for a given episode.

On another tab of the Clockwise spreadsheet, we do our scheduling, with episode numbers and dates and a field for the two guests we’ve booked for that week. Sometimes we book weeks well ahead; other times… not so much. We also have a calculation on that tab that shows us who our most common guests are, which can remind us not to overuse guests but also reminds us who’s good that we maybe haven’t had on in a while.

Skype: There in the back is Skype, with a head shot of Shahid Kamal Ahmad, one of our guests that week (and a co-host of Remaster on Relay FM). Yep, we still use Skype because it’s free and it’s easy and everyone has it. I have experimented with newer approaches, including web-based tools, and will continue to. One day, the web-based tools will probably win this one. But for now, Skype’s what everyone has and so we generally use it.

Audio Hijack: In the bottom left corner, behind the Google Sheet window, is Rogue Amoeba’s Audio Hijack 3, which is a pretty incredible audio tool in terms of flexibility. Let me drop in a clearer shot of what’s going on here:

The Screen

In this case, Audio Hijack is grabbing audio from two sources. At the top left is my USB audio interface, marked “USBPre2.” At the bottom left is Skype (I’ve set the Skype block within Audio Hijack to only record the output of Skype--by default it records your own microphone too, but I’m taking care of that separately.) Both sources run into Recorder blocks that save the contents into two separate mono WAV files for use in my final podcast project. Once this is done, both sources are routed (the Skype with a bit of a volume reduction so it doesn’t overpower my own microphone, which is a bit quieter) into an output device called Loopback.

Loopback is, in fact, a separate Rogue Amoeba utility that creates virtual audio inputs and outputs. This is useful because I can route all of my audio into a Loopback output, and then choose a separate app (like Nicecast, see below) to use that same Loopback output as its own input. The result is the ability to route an arbitrary collection of sound from one app to another. It’s pretty great.

But we’re not done! The audio that’s going to Loopback (and therefore to Nicecast) is also passed through the Menu Bar Meters block, which just puts a set of audio meters in my menu bar so I can be reassured that the entire thing is working, and to another Recorder block, this one a 96kbps mono MP3. That MP3 file is the source I use for a special “bootleg” feed of live recordings that I offer to members of The Incomparable podcast network. It can also serve as an emergency backup in case something happens to my own recordings of the conversation.

Nicecast: It’s not much to look at, in the bottom-right corner is Rogue Amoeba’s Nicecast is how our live streams happen. Up in the cloud there’s a server (Unix for The Incomparable, a Mac Mini for Relay FM) running a version of the Icecast streaming server. If you listen to our live stream, you’re connecting that server and getting the audio from it. That server, in turn, is fed from someone’s Mac running Nicecast. Nicecast picks up the input I’m sending it from Audio Hijack via Loopback, encodes it into the right MP3 format for use by Icecast, and sends it up to the server. That’s how the magic happens. (It also means that until I press Record in Audio Hijack, there’s no audio on the live stream, which lets me control when we start putting live microphone audio into the live stream.)

Lingo: The chat rooms embedded in both the Incomparable and Relay live pages (as well as the Accidental Tech Podcast and 5by5 pages, thanks to Marco and Dan for the inspiration) are powered by IRC. You can chat on the page itself, but I use an IRC client to do the trick. Unfortunately, the client I prefer is Lingo, and it’s been not just discontinued, but disappeared by its developer. The web site is gone, the download links are gone, the app has vanished. Sorry for taunting you fine members, but there’s just nowhere to get a copy on the Internet.

Floating Notification: I got a lot of guff on Twitter for the floating “Jessica out Tomorrow” notification in the top right corner. One of these days I will complain about how Calendar doesn’t really let me turn off alerts on specific calendars, but today is not that day. The larger point is, yes, I know there’s a Do Not Disturb feature at the top of Notification Center (scroll up, it’s there!), but the last thing I need is another item on both my pre- and post-podcast checklists. A floating alert here or there is fine. I don’t care.

Menu Bar and Dock People really do love looking at other people’s Menu Bars and Docks. It’s like looking through the windows of someone’s house as you walk past. So here are mine--free show! Of note are iStat Menus graphs (I have my reasons—again, that’s probably another story), the temperature outside (58 degrees Fahrenheit, because it’s summer in San Francisco--the zero in parentheses after it is the difference in temperature from 24 hours ago, which indicates another day of gloom is on tap), and the icon of a train on a track is TripMode, which I use to control bandwidth when podcasting. Off to the left is Bartender, which collapses a bunch of menu-bar items into a single submenu.

As for my Dock, what I can I say? I am a right-dock person, and have been for ages. (Worse, I used to be a "pinned to top" right-dock person, when that was possible.) My Dock is full of apps I use regularly: BBEdit, MailPlane, and Slack; and at the bottom, apps I use for podcasting: Skype, Lingo, Nicecast, and Audio Hijack.

[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: Creating and maintaining my website

By Dan Moren

I have a small website that I re-did a few months back. I’m no stranger to making web pages: in my early 20s I spent several years working in IT and web development. I’d had a hosted blog for a while, but didn’t spend much time updating it, so I wanted more of a professional page to catalog the various projects I work on, with some possibility for expansion down the road.

First thing up was a server. I’d used some big hosting companies before, but I’d been intrigued by what I’d heard of Linode*, which lets you set up a virtual server for a pretty reasonable cost. So I took the plunge, signed up, and started setting up my server. Thanks to the company’s extensive guides, it was pretty easy to follow the instructions and set up a web server, a WordPress installation, and a few other handy pieces of software.

Much of the server management can be done from Linode’s web interface, but sometimes there’s no substitute for the command line. On my Mac I use the included Terminal app, but on the occasion where I need to do remote management from my iPad or even my iPhone, I depend upon Panic’s SSH client, Prompt; as you might expect, it’s a great-looking app, and has pretty much all the features you’ll want for working with the command-line. Paired with my iPad’s Bluetooth keyboard, it’s indistinguishable from sitting in front of a terminal on my Mac—you know what? It might even be better.

To move files back and forth between my local computer and my server, I use another Panic tool: Transmit. There are many great things about Transmit, which handles pretty much any kind of file transmission you can think of, but personally it’s the ability to use it on my iPhone, iPad, and Macs that I find the most helpful. Between Prompt and Transmit, no matter where I am, I’m never far from being able to do pretty much anything I need to in order to keep my server in good working order.

Despite having spent a decent amount of time working on websites, I’m in no way, shape, or form a designer. So I turned to a template. My goal was to have a website that was responsive and clean, so I chose Smpl Skeleton, which is a pretty bare bones (ha ha!) theme that lets you do some easy customization. It’s not perfect, but I spent a little time hacking at the CSS and HTML until it did more or less what I wanted it to do.

On the occasion where I do need to write some HTML or CSS, I of course turn to my trusty BBEdit, which is hands down the best text editor around. And for any sort of image editing, I turn to my tool of choice, Flying Meat’s Acorn; it’s lean but powerful, and makes short work of image resizing, re-encoding, and the occasional bit of touching up.

*Disclaimer: Linode is a frequent sponsor of Jason and my podcast Clockwise, but I used the same promo code that we give away on the show. :)

RSS isn’t dead, and here’s the proof

By Stephen Hackett

FeedBin

Some may say that in the world of Twitter lists and Facebook Instant Articles, RSS is dead. After Google Reader shut down in 2013, many people believed that it may live only as the underlying technology for subscribing to podcasts. Consuming website content over RSS suddenly seemed very old fashioned.

However here in 2016, the landscape for RSS services and apps is still robust. While Google Reader dominated before it was shuttered, today users have lots of options to mix and match to create their own experiences.

I think that's great. It means that today, I can read my favorite websites and blogs via RSS just like I have for the last decade: in a dedicated client of my choosing.

Services

The core of the RSS experience is the service, and there are lots of good choices. These seem to be the most popular:

  • Feedly — Free; $5/mo for a professional account with more sharing options and IFTTT support

  • Feedbin - $3/mo

  • Feed Wrangler — $19/year

  • NewsBlur — Free; $24/year for an unlimited number of sites and additional features

The first two options are pretty similar to Google Reader in look and feel. They have solid web apps and Feedly offer native apps for iOS, with Feedly also having an Android app. Both have pretty universal support within third-party iOS and macOS apps.

Feed Wrangler's UI isn't as polished as Feedly or Feedbin, and while it is supported in third-party apps, its own iOS app is top-notch. Like the others, it supports smart folders and searches to help triage incoming articles.

NewBlur is an animal all unto itself. It's for RSS power users. It can be trained to filter our stories even highlight ones that should interest you. It offers an iOS and Android app, as some of its features are hidden from regular RSS clients.

There's also Fever, which is a web app that requires your own server. While it can be used to read every article from every subscription you have, it works to combine repeated stories and present them as one "hot" story. This means when Apple news breaks, for example, you can see a collection of stories and links about it one place, as opposed to having similar content clog up your entire timeline. Fever is nice, but as it requires a server, isn't for the average user.

Out of all of these, I use Feedbin. I like that the $3/mo allows the company to be sustainable, and I find it to be the the most comfortable in terms of UI on the web. Feedly is a little flashy for my tastes, and Feed Wrangler a little too odd in places.

Apps

Most of these services offer their own first-party apps, but there are several Mac and iOS apps that do a better job at collecting, reading and sharing RSS items.

On the Mac, the two big names are Reeder and ReadKit. Both support a wide range of RSS services, can fetch items in the background, format them nicely for reading, and offer a ton of ways to share content to social networks, email and more.

I think that Reeder, while on a fairly slow development cycle, is slightly nicer than ReadKit. In my experience, ReadKit is harder on the CPU and lacks a little bit of polish in the corners.

On iOS, the landscape is more varied. Unread is very simple, and based all around gestures. Reeder is fiddly, but doesn't use system services like the iOS Share Sheet. Mr. Reader is incredibly customizable, but is iPad only. Slow Feeds attempts to divide feeds with higher volumes of content from those that have slower, less frequent updates.

My go-to on the iPhone and iPad is Unread. It's quick to use on the go, and the gestures mean it's easy to use one handed, even on my 6S Plus.

Since I'm signed into Feedbin on both Reeder on my Mac and Unread on my iOS devices, the articles I've read and unread all stay in sync, just like email. It's easy to go back and forth without losing anything between the cracks.

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

The Back Page / by Dan Moren

The Third Party

Dan

Software’s always been about parties. Who doesn’t like a good party? Chex mix, charades, and maybe a little bit of punch—a good time will be had by all.

But let’s talk about the two major parties—well, not those two parties—the first party and the third party. (What happened to the second party? No one knows: it has been lost to time, shrouded in mystery, and legend has it only a very few will ever be able to find the eternal party which never sleeps. And which, once found, you can never leave!)*

(* Yes, I know "you" are the second party. But how much software do you make?)

As I took a stroll through my MacBook's Applications folder the other day, it got me thinking about first-party and third-party software. One of my favorite aspects of computing is discovering new software; that's long been part of my job, too. But in recent years I've found that on the Mac the number of prominent new third-party apps has dwindled. I tend to use the same third-party apps I've used for years—1Password, Acorn, Reeder, Tweetbot, Dropbox—and many of them simply fill niches not occupied by Apple's own apps.

It's not that there aren't third-party apps that do what Apple's own apps do, and oftentimes better. Both BusyCal and Fantastical are excellent replacements for Apple's own Calendar app, for example, but despite those options, I've kept on using Calendar. Likewise, some people like Mailplane or Airbox, but I'm deeply entrenched in Mail. Inertia is a powerful thing, especially when it comes to the tools you rely on to get things done everyday.

I don't think I'm unusual in this regard, either. In general, it's because Apple's apps have two things going for them: first, they're generally good enough. Second, they're deeply integrated in the operating system. Unlike iOS, the Mac does let you change your default apps for certain tasks, but that doesn't stop the close ties in some places: the Mac's data detectors, for example, which let you quickly create calendar events or add to contacts from information discovered in emails.

But it's also because much of what we do on our computers has shifted elsewhere. For example, when I recently replaced my dad's computer, I discovered that virtually the only app he uses is Safari—he checks his mail, looks at sports scores, reads the news, and downloads recipes via the web. (It's been an uphill battle to get him to store all his logins in 1Password.)

Then there's mobile. The huge influx of smartphones and tablets, plus the commensurate skyrocketing of third-party development for that platform has made it the place to be. The Mac, meanwhile, has become a mature platform that can often seem a bit staid, especially since it's been upstaged by its younger, flashier siblings.

That's fine for long-established third-party tools that have essentially become part of the landscape, but a tougher proposition for a new breakout hit—with more than thirty years of history behind the Mac, it sometimes feels like there's nothing new under the sun there.

Overall, the composition of my most used Mac apps hasn't changed in a while. That's no bad thing: it means I'm getting things done instead of constantly mucking around with new tools. But sometimes I long for a bit of the new and different, to see something I've never seen before—perhaps something that brings a little more life to the party.

[You can reach the other party in this conversation 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.

Follow-up: Exporting MP3s from iOS

Jason finds some answers to iOS podcast problems.

Quick Tip: Auto-expanding email address

A quick tip to make logging into websites faster.

Deus Ex Go hacks into a winning mobile formula

Dan praises Square Enix's mobile development strategy.

Quick Tip: Excluding backups from Spotlight

So annoying!

Wishlist: Bring back Find My Friends’s Temporary Events

It was nice to share for only a day.

Castro 2: Inbox triage for podcast episodes

An impressive new take on podcast management.

The large appeal of a better iPhone camera

Why a better camera might motivate Jason to upgrade to an iPhone Plus.

iPad podcast post-production with Auphonic

Editing podcasts on the road! And uploading them... with help.

Top 10 least-loved emojis

This was a funny one.

FunctionFlip for your flipping f-keys

Fix that effin -- I mean Fn -- key!

Automate this: Switch on

More adventures in smart home equipment.

Thus ends the August 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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