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No Pain, No Gain

Permalink - Posted on 2018-01-01 04:00

Unlike us, our ancestors were calorie-restricted. Just like cats, pandas, and almost all large animals, humans have evolved a strong natural drive to be lazy. In the wild, laziness is smart business – seeking comfort and reserving energy for the hunt is a winning strategy in a harsh world.

Millions of years later though, things have changed. We have more food than we can eat, sinfully cozy couches, and our troubles have evolved from finding enough coconuts to dreams of self-actualization. Meanwhile, our monkey brains still tell us that the most valuable thing we can do is curl up beside a fire with a jumbo bag of Lindt Balls and sleep for 13 hours.

Our instinctual drive towards comfort no longer serves us well.


As a kid, I spent a lot of time strategizing how to maximize comfort. I’d position my computer so I could play games near a heating vent, go to great lengths to avoid being outdoors, and find inventive excuses to avoid exerting myself. Surprisingly, I was not a particularly athletic child.

For example, I liked the idea of playing hockey, but there were a couple obstacles between young Allen and NHL stardom. For example, you may not know this, but ice rinks are awfully cold. Ice skates also pose a serious threat to comfort: if you lace them tightly you’ll hurt your feet, but if you lace them loosely you’ll hurt your ankles. In the face of such a dilemma, I would lace them half-tight. This approach ensured both my feet and ankles hurt, proving once and for all that sports are dumb and we’d all be better off at home under a blanket.

Whether I was attempting a sport, suffering greatly through one of Vancouver’s famously mild winters, or being subjected to the ordeal that is Phys Ed, I spent a lot of my childhood being indignant about being uncomfortable. This was rather apparent, so from time to time, an adult would try to upend my worldview with the pithy wisdom, “no pain, no gain.”

Oh, how I hated that phrase. Steeped in macho tough-guy attitude, it was toxic masculinity before I had a name for it. The idea that there was some sort of competition to experience pain was the dumbest thing I’d ever heard.

The manly glorification of discomfort simply reinforced my slothful attitudes. I don’t need to freeze to death or crush my feet just to enjoy hockey – I’ll just collect hockey cards! I’m not lazy, I’m rational!

As a teenager I would seek schemes, sometimes elaborate ones, for how do the minimum amount of work, whether by automation or social engineering. I would calculate how much each assignment was worth in a class, what my target grade was, and determine the minimum amount of work I had to do to get the grade I wanted.

Basically, I was a little shit.


Many years later, I found myself revisiting learning how to play hockey, and found myself again staring down a pair of skates. Funnily enough, if you just lace skates tightly, and have a good attitude, it’s a non-issue. Your feet grow some little calluses where needed, but you soon associate any remaining discomfort with the satisfaction of skating well. If you focus on the end result, the discomfort becomes irrelevant.

Now, this is obvious to anybody who is into fitness. To a waifish programmer though, it was a blockbuster new thought technology. Overcoming discomfort is a skill. Shrugging off the frosty air while you take out the garbage is a talent. Posing uncomfortably until the photographer gets the shot they want is an art. Calvin’s dad actually had a point!

Discomfort, by its nature, is perceptual. There is a beauty to taming and controlling it. There is a way to find the joy in satisfyingly tight skates, the sharp winter air, or the soft burn of newly formed calluses. While I grew up thinking of comfort as a human right, I now see it as a blanket: good for bedtime, but often impractical.

While I still take issue with “no pain, no gain”, I must admit it’s catchier than “Discomfort is typically an opportunity for growth.”


So, as we assess the past year and consider the next, it’s worth thinking about discomfort. What habit could I start that would be uncomfortable at first but soon become routine? Is there an uncomfortable thing I’ve been avoiding that, once done, would reduce my stress?

It’s also worth thinking about comfort. Comfortable habits have a tendency to outlive their usefulness for recharging or relaxation. For the comforts you indulge in daily, consider: do I get an important boost from this, or am I spending 4 hours a day on the couch just because millions of years ago some monkeys couldn’t scrounge up enough coconuts? It’s a question worth asking.

Then, lace up those skates. Donate the rest of the Lindt Balls to the office kitchen, and go make 2018 a better year than 2017 – just slightly less comfortable.


Longphone

Permalink - Posted on 2017-12-01 04:00

The iPhone X is packed with new and novel technology. Face ID. OLED. Dual cameras in a compact package. As fascinating as that all is though, it has an unusual property that been little discussed: this phone is really, really tall.

iPhone X’s screen is the tallest ever in an iPhone. It’s 30% taller than the comparably-sized iPhones 6 through 8, and even 11% taller than the enormous iPhones Plus. Meanwhile, it is only slightly wider than an iPhone 6. As a result, the X’s display has a downright Chockian aspect ratio of 2.17 to 1.

That is to say, it is tall.

Unfortunately, this has fuelled the Apple-hater meme that the iPhone X isn’t usable one handed. According to these pundits, reaching Control Center is “damn near painful”, “you need to shimmy it every time”, and “it feels like I’m going to drop my phone, Jesus this thing is as slippery as a wet bar of Pears.”

While it may be true that this ultra-tall screen makes Control Center and other top-oriented UI frustrating to use, it’s worth remembering that iPhones are designed by some of the most talented and creative people in the world. Apple’s industrial designers must have prototyped shorter phones with the same edge-to-edge design. They also surely evaluated making it slightly wider to make it better for reading on. But after all their testing, they decided that the “phone of the future” should have a tall and narrow screen. So let’s ask: why?

Room for activities

Anybody who has used an iMac or iPad Pro knows that a larger screen can make you more productive. Big screens allow you to keep multiple apps on screen at once, and they can acommodate wider, more readable line lengths. The iPhone X’s tall screen does neither of these things – but what it does do is show more lines of text at once.

Now, you may ask: “Doesn’t increasing the aspect ratio beyond the 1.8:1 ratio of human vision provide little value, especially considering the narrow height of the retina’s focal area?” And I would respond by saying: why are you asking me this? I’m not a doctor. Do I look like a doctor?

Okay whatever, maybe a narrow aspect ratio isn’t ideal for text, but let’s be honest: kids these days don’t read anymore. It’s all about photos and videos, and that’s what the new iPhone’s Super Retina display all about.

If you’re a photographer, you may know that really wide screens are great for viewing images, if those images happen to be panoramas. If you’re a fan of panoramas, the iPhone X’s aspect ratio is perfect for you. Even if you’re not, you’ll find that displaying normal photos on iPhone X is also possible.

Another place the iPhone X’s aspect ratio shines is movies. While it has been observed that the screen is effectively no larger than an iPhone 6 for watching TV or YouTube videos, iPhone X’s 2.17:1 format is nearly the same ratio that Lawrence of Arabia was filmed in. Lawrence of Arabia! In fact, most theatrical releases are filmed in an even wider ratio, 2.39:1. This makes this otherwise strange aspect ratio great for watching feature films, which is excellent if you’re the kind of person who likes to kick back for three hours and watch The English Patient on your phone.

Lay of the land

Although text, photos, and videos are the primary content people care about, it’s also worth considering what benefits an exaggerated aspect ratio has for app UI.

While landscape apps on iPhone X are as cramped vertically as they are on an iPhone 6, iPhone X gives app developers a lot more space available beside their content. As a result, you get to enjoy much more of your favourite apps’ background colours.

Typing in landscape on the iPhone X is especially distinctive. The keyboard appears front and center, while still giving you enough space to see not only the line of text you’re typing, but often the line before and after it.

A tall order

In summary, the surprisingly tall aspect ratio of the iPhone X has a non-zero number of advantages over a more ergonomic screen height. While a somewhat shorter display would be easier to hold, use, and develop for, it would be substantially worse for watching Peter O’Toole tromp around the desert.

Now that we’ve entered the iPhone’s “Generation X”, there is speculation abound about what other screen sizes may be available in upcoming designs from Apple. Will 2018 see an iPhone SE-X that offers most of the iPhone X’s screen width but with a more thumb- and pocket-friendly height?

No.

Will we ever understand exactly why the iPhone X’s display is so curiously proportioned? Also no.

No, our job is not to understand. It is to stretch our thumbs, put cases on these beautiful glass slabs, and appreciate that despite its flaws, the iPhone X is a truly remarkable device.

Even if it is a little bananas.


Top Banana

Permalink - Posted on 2017-11-01 03:00

Being a generalist is great fun. There is much joy to be had in jumping between programmer and artist, project manager and product designer, bug finder and bug maker. You can also be a musician and athlete, parent and world traveller, superfan, superstar, and whatever else strikes your fancy if you invest the time. The world is your bivalve!

Generalists are ideal team members for startups and small product teams. Product teams that are themselves generalists – they are capable of working on many kinds of products – are also primed for success in a tech industry that walks ever randomly. Heinlein said “Specialization is for insects”, and he was mostly right.

There’s one problem though: it’s hard to sell somebody a mixed bag.

“So tell me, what are you good at?”

“Well sir, I’m okay at everything.”

“Sure, but what’s an example of a really exceptional project you’ve worked on?”

“Uh, well, I made a proof-of-concept Rails app, I designed some reasonable labels for a craft brewery, I wrote a pretty okay musical…”

“Right fine, let’s switch gears. How many times have you written a realtime video app?”

“Well, I haven’t yet, but… I’m a fast learner?”

This is kind of shitty, since a lifelong learner with broad skills is actually a great addition to most teams – it’s just hard to stand out in a crowd of other self-proclaimed fast learners.

Whether you’re trying to get hired as an individual or as a company, there’s a trick to getting work: start by becoming a world expert.

Insert training montage

In some industries and some eras, becoming a world expert was a Herculean undertaking. After decades of training to become a master sushi chef like his father, Jiro Ono’s son was still working in the back, making the rice and toasting the seaweed. I mean, I bet he toasted some damn good seaweed, but… damn.

In modern software development, on the other hand, becoming an expert is just a thing you do. Part of the fun of software is that the tools and methodologies change at least yearly – or if you’re using JavaScript, they change every 16 minutes.

And thanks to the wonder of the Information Superhighway, you can typically experiment with and learn new technologies before they’re even formally released. You just need to play with some beta releases, read a couple mailing lists, and otherwise gather knowledge from sources that are just inconvenient enough that most people don’t bother. Next thing you know, you’re top banana at an exciting new technology.

Of course, nobody can be an early adopter like this for every technology – in fact, most developers, especially ones at larger companies, won’t be early adopters for any technology. They’re content to let the indies and enthusiasts research, experiment, and occasionally blow themselves up due to some dire documentation or dubious dependency.

In return though, the experimenters benefit from great demand for the lessons they’ve learned. As the bleeding edge becomes just the cutting edge, bigger teams and companies start investing in the latest new-fangled wizardry and need folks to help.

I learned the value of this by accident when we started Steamclock. At my previous job, I’d become pretty experienced with a relatively obscure web framework called SproutCore. When I struck out on my own, I started getting inquiries out of the blue from big businesses that needed help with their SproutCore apps. It turned out that as a young open source project, very few people outside Apple knew the framework, so when companies wanted to experiment with it, Steamclock’s site popped up in the search results. This got us a couple of our big early clients, and taught us the value in specialization – intentional or not.

Each time new technology debuts, new experts emerge. Erica Sadun jumped into Swift on day one, and has now authored more Swift language proposals than anybody in the world. When Angelina Fabbro worked at Steamclock, she went from checking out a draft spec for Web Components to touring the world giving talks how to implement them before I could blink. And of course, friend of the show James Thomson – under the guise of developing a calculator app – has rapidly remade his career as a world expert in ARKit bananas. Which is bananas. But also, wonderful.

Back in the day, there was an interview show on 5by5 called CMD-Space. Each episode, the first question host Myke asked was:

“What do you like to be known for?”

While it served its intended purpose of kicking off many a good interview, it also slowly worked itself slowly into the audience’s brains – a question worth having an answer to. “What am I known for? What do I want to be known for?”

As a product studio, Steamclock does client work in order to fund our own product work, so having a good answer to these questions is critical. If we’re not known for anything in particular, we’re stuck knocking on people’s doors, trying to get in the lowest bid on Tinder for Bananas. On the other hand, if we’re known for doing great work of a certain kind, leads will knock on our proverbial door. Almost all of our work comes from this kind of lead today, and it makes for a far healthier business.

The thing is, it’s not enough to be able to say you’re good at building apps for companies – you need to be great at something specific. Maybe you’re great at building beautiful apps for ecommerce companies. Maybe you’re great at building secure apps for enterprise companies. Maybe you’re great at building dumb blockchain apps for excessively funded companies. You can stay a generalist – generalists are great. Just be sure to specialize in something too.

Seek out the surprisingly attainable goal of becoming a world expert.

If you don’t, you’re bananas.