My idea of a good time: coding on a Linux computer

Lately my idea of fun has been firmly rooted in coding, and playing around with Linux.

We’re planning to buy our son a new Linux PC after passing his (and before him, my) old Linux PC to our daughter.

I’m very tempted to extend my loan of my personal MacBook Air to him, and but myself a new laptop to install Linux on, and use that to explore what’s possibly my latest midlife crisis.

This article about Jason Evangelho’s switch to Linux just reinforces my temptation/idea.

Canonical’s Ubuntu seems to command a lot of mindshare when it comes to desktop Linux, so that was my next stop. I went through the same paces: download to a USB stick, boot up to the “Live” version of Ubuntu 18.04 (which includes 5 years of security patches and updates), have a look around, click “Install.” Ubuntu presented me with several options for partitioning the internal SSD, including blasting the entire drive. Tempting! I was feeling lucky so I took the plunge.

We’re already living in the future

We’re living in an incredible time. Technologies that seemed like science fiction just a few years ago are being released, and they look incredible. Take the Microsoft Surface Hub 2 as an example:

Then, when you’ve watched that, take a trip back about six or seven years when these sorts of displays were fantastic dreams:

A day with smart glass envisioned by Corning

Yes, your window is your smart display

Even Google’s Jamboard already seems quaint, just two years after it was announced:

Jamboard and Surface Studio are hints of our future tech

We haven’t quite realised the dream of the sorts of ubiquitous screens and panels that we see in the Corning and Microsoft future vision videos, but given what we see now in Microsoft’s Surface Hub 2, we can’t be that far from these interfaces either.

Put your phone away, #ItCanWait

#ItCanWait is probably one of the best PSA campaigns I’ve seen. The Western Cape Government has taken on the challenge of educating people about the risks of not just texting and walking, but texting and driving.

As the research points out, humans simply can’t multi-task. When we shift our attention to our phones, we take it away from what we should be doing:

The bottom line of the situation is that the concept of multi-tasking is a dangerous myth. While our brains can jump back and forth between tasks, we are simply not wired to do more than one thing at the same time. The multi-tasking myth can provide for amusing workplace badinage, but is deadly serious on the road. As the National Safety Council points out, brain activity in the areas that process moving images decreases by over 33% when we are talking on our phone. This means that we effectively become partially blind when we use our cell-phone while driving. This in turn, leads to collisions which can result in deaths and serious injuries. There is no call, and certainly no text message, so important that it is worth a human life: it can wait.

This tendency to text while doing things like walking, driving and riding bikes happens all the time in my neighbourhood. People do pretty stupid things while texting in my city:

  • riding an electric bike (without a helmet[1]);
  • riding a hoverboard[2] up a road (again, without a helmet); and, of course,
  • driving.

As it is, we spend way too much time staring at our devices. The prevalence of instant communication services reinforce this notion that each message deserves an instant response.

I’m dreading the inevitable accident when a teenager cruises into traffic mid-Snap one day. It shouldn’t happen but people can be pretty short-sighted, downright stupid even.

Image credit: Mike Wilson


  1. I’m pretty sure people don’t wear helmets because they would mess coiffed hairdos. Pretty stupid, when you think about it?  ↩
  2. As an aside, hoverboards must be one of the most idiotic inventions. They fuel the height of laziness. I see kids riding them around the city and I keep thinking, “Walking is too much for you?”.  ↩

Remove Facebook from your phone at your peril

I recently decided to remove Facebook from my phone. I made the decision after finding myself opening the app and frequently being pretty underwhelmed by the updates Facebook insisted on notifying me about.

Although I was tempted to delete the app altogether, I decided to remove the app from my home screen instead. This means I’d need to find it in my app drawer to open it.

The immediate benefit was that I didn’t find myself opening the app because I was bored and then wondered why I bothered. The downside had been that the main utility Facebook has for me has been buried: I’ve started missing birthdays!

Yup, probably the most valuable part of Facebook to me is the birthday calendar and not checking the app obsessively means I have started missing birthdays. I can’t seem to work out how to sync birthday calendars with my phone yet (I think I know how to do it) so I’ve been reliant on the app to remind me.

Aside from that, my decision to remove Facebook from my phone has been worthwhile so far. I don’t open the app out of mindless habit. I don’t have that regret when I do and I have replaced Facebook’s spot on my home screen with Feedly instead.

Much better use of that attention-grabbing spot.

If you’ve been dissatisfied with your Facebook experience lately and you’re tempted to remove it from your mobile device, just consider the loss of the features like the birthday calendar and decide if it’s worth it.

Critical steps to get things done when you clearly lack focus

We live in a wondrous technological age that also makes it harder to get things done. This is a challenge when you have a lot of things to do. Obviously.

Fortunately there are a few steps you can take to be more productive. Here is my list for tomorrow morning.

Step 1: Silence reminders

I love that I can set, snooze and gaze fondly at reminders on my phone. I also really like how Google Calendar can help me schedule time to achieve goals such as learning Hebrew, how to code in Python and do my weekly reviews.

It’s all great.

The problem is that these reminders tend to chime at the same time when I am in the middle of some or other task. That is mostly my fault because I don’t really think through the timing for my reminders when I set them.

My first step is going to be clearer about when I need to block off time to finish a task. With that done (possibly by blocking off the time in my calendar), I can set my reminders for “unreserved” times.

Step 2: Email should know its place

I know better than to keep checking email throughout my morning whenever my phone informs me that I have received more email. Sadly, I have forgotten the importance of batching this sort of stuff.

Email, calendar defrags and task batches (or "How Gina Trapani could preserve my sanity")

My next step is to remind myself to keep my email tabs closed until I reach my designated time slots dedicated to checking my email and other batch-able tasks.

Step 3: Be antisocial

I should have paid attention to Catherine Jenkin’s Facebook/Twitter hiatus. She clearly had the right idea.

Although I am tempted to take an extended break from social media, I probably won’t. What I can, and must, do is severely limit how much time I spend on social when I need to focus on my work.

I am also going to keep WhatsApp and Skype closed. Yes, people contact me through those apps and some of those conversations are even work-related. But do I need to keep the apps open all the time and check them obsessively? Probably not.

I can batch this stuff too.

So, step 3 is resisting the idiotic urge to open Facebook/Twitter/Google+ (yes, it is an equal opportunity, time-wasting urge) when I should be focused on the task at hand. That goes for WhatsApp and Skype too.

Step 4: Quiet, you beast!

One of the biggest culprits is my phone. It notifies me about everything. My phone finds everything just so exciting that it has to tell me immediately.

Lacking discipline and willpower, I pull my attention away from what I am working on and check my screen far too often. Each time I do that, I break whatever flow I’ve managed to cultivate and cost me additional time restoring my focus on what I was doing in the first place.

This sort of thing does not constitute “winning” when you need to get things done.

Fortunately, my phone has a handy “Do Not Disturb” mode that silences notifications from anyone outside my family members. It also silences incoming phone calls, which can be a challenge in itself, but the benefits may outweigh the downsides.

Step 4 is going to be to switch my phone to “Do Not Disturb” and cut out most of those little interruptions that pour in throughout the day.

Note to self (2017-04-26): Create an exception for event notifications so you don’t inadvertently miss the important, scheduled events you need to attend!

Right, so that is the plan for tomorrow and, quite possibly, all the other work days that follow.

I hear that it can be pretty rewarding when you actually get things done when you mean to.

Featured image credit: Veri Ivanova

The VR headset made our kids disappear

Our son recently received a Gear VR headset as a birthday gift. He doesn’t have a phone to use with it so he borrowed his grandmother’s Samsung Galaxy S7 to try the headset out. Actually, we all tried it out and it is an amazing piece of technology.

Watching him use it bothered me, though. The technology has tremendous potential to introduce our kids to experiences of new things using portable VR technology. At the same time I think this we are going to have to moderate how often they use this technology pretty carefully. Bear with me, I’ll explain why I say that.

All that screen time already

At the moment our kids have old smartphones and an old iPad 1 they play with at home. They watch videos on YouTube (our daughter started using YouTube Kids after I “upgraded” her iPad 1 experience to an old iPhone 4s that supports it and she loves it – thankfully), play games like Clash Royale and build stuff in Minecraft.

They only use their devices on weekends and, usually, only after they have finished their homework. Even with that limitation, we have to come up with things to do with them to make sure they don’t spend their entire weekends staring at a screen. I came up with a couple rules to impose some sort of limitation on their device use that include both kids putting devices when the first device’s battery runs flat.

Still, our kids can disappear for a couple hours at a time and spend all that time staring at their devices. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing because some of what they do on their devices is somewhat educational.

I’ve noticed that devices tend to make them pretty anti-social and detached from the rest of the family. Heck, that happens to us parents too so I make a conscious effort to limit my screen time when I am around my kids (and generally).

The VR headset made our kids disappear

VR headsets are only going to aggravate that tendency to detach, I think. You physically can’t see the world around you. The virtual environment can be so consuming, you can easily become oblivious to the world around you. For kids who already have a propensity to be sucked in by screens, I can already see we will need to supervise how much our kids use VR headsets very closely.

Fortunately, they don’t have a device that is compatible with the headset so they simply can’t use it unless someone with a compatible headset is around. That helps!

I’ve been thinking about the phones our kids have (or will have in the case of our daughter). At the moment, our son’s “daily driver” is a very basic Nokia feature phone that can make calls and send SMS messages. Many of his friends have smartphones but I’ve already told him he won’t receive one for a while still. You just have to look at how kids are today with smartphones to guess why (or just watch this interview with Louis CK):

By contrast there is a real world to engage with

Another gift our son received was a dense chalk egg with a plastic crocodile (I think) embedded in it. It came with two plastic tools and the idea was for him to basically chip away at the egg until he uncovered the toy inside.

Desktop archaeology

He spent the better part of the day chipping away at the egg. It looked like a lot of fun and it was the sort of thing that involved everyone, either as spectators or by helping him along.

Desktop archaeology

By the time he finished it in the evening, he had a pile of dust and this little toy. He also really enjoyed doing it and was talking about getting another one. What struck me about this toy/project is that it is a stark contrast to a VR headset. Chipping away at that egg, he was firmly rooted in the moment in our physical space and interacted with whoever was there with him. With a VR headset, he is sequestered from his physical space and from everyone sharing that space with him.

I don’t think that he would be content only doing this sort of thing and I wouldn’t want to prevent him from using devices for play too. I just found the contrasts between the two activities to be pretty indicative of the challenges of VR headsets, especially when it comes to kids.

When it comes to new technologies, I much prefer augmented reality over virtual reality. At least AR takes its cues from the space we occupy and augments it with additional digital and information overlays. I think AR would probably be more beneficial for our kids than VR and I really like the possibilities presented by Corning’s “A Day Made of Glass 2: Same Day. Expanded Corning Vision”:

Just looking at how kids are with smartphones, I am more than a little worried about what we will see if/when there is a VR headset in every kid’s room. For one thing, our kids will stop interacting with each other (at least, relative to the varying degrees of interaction they manage today). They won’t learn to recognise those very human and physical cues we rely on for so much sub-vocal communication as a species.

Go outside and play (and channelling our parents)

Like any generation, I think this comes down to figuring out the balance of the potential of the technology with the harm it could do to our children socially. I am also acutely aware that I probably read like our parents did when we started using gaming consoles back in the day. I’m pretty sure they also lamented that we’d never go outside and play.

To a degree they may have overstated the harm of us playing video games and watching TV. I don’t think the answer is forcing our kids outside and forbidding them modern technology.

On the other hand, I think that the rapid change we witness from year to year makes our jobs as parents that much harder. We have to keep up with the changes, anticipate the risks and try and manage them as best we can.

As I said at the beginning of this post, I think the VR headset is terrific technology and it offers our kids opportunities they didn’t have before. It also has a troubling flip-side and that requires us to keep a foot in both worlds if we have any hope of raising the kinds of humans who won’t be among the first to go when some wild beast attacks because they never learned basic human survival and communication skills.

Using the iPad Pro for everything, in detail

MacStories’ Frederico Viticci has published a very comprehensive guide to using the iPad Pro for everything. I saved it to Instapaper and I have a 79 minute read to look forward to. That about covers my train rides to and from work.

I’ve been thinking about the viability of using the iPad Pro for everything I currently do on my MacBook Air as part of a forward-looking thought experiment. The prices of Apple hardware have a tendency to skyrocket due to currency fluctuations. The prospect of replacing my MacBook Air one day (may that day be in the distant future) leaves me more than a little breathless.

On the other hand, a tablet could be a very convenient replacement if it has enough flexibility to cover my day to day tasks. My very rough estimation, before reading Viticci’s essay, is that it probably would meet virtually all of my requirements. My big question mark is what to do about my photography but, perhaps, there is answer to that too?

With that, here is “A Computer for Everything: One Year of iPad Pro”. Boil some water and get comfortable.

Image credit: Pexels

Chromecast sold me on Apple TV but it’s complicated

My big excitement in the last two weeks was our HD TV purchase which brought my hope for an Apple TV a little closer.

We are like those families who hung on to cabled VHS machines when everyone had moved on to DVD players. This is our first step into the modern TV era. Having bought a really nice (dumb) LG HD TV, I finally had a screen I could connect my first generation Chromecast to and see what it could really do.

I almost immediately fell in love with my Chromecast. It updated itself and I set the background to switch between photos sourced from some beautiful online collections and a couple of my Google Photos albums.

We primarily watch YouTube and Netflix with our Chromecast. They are just about the only apps we have that support Chromecast on our iOS devices. We have been Netflix fans for a while so that mostly works out just fine for us.

Yes, I prefer to pay for our entertainment

I am a bit proponent of paying for my TV series and movies so I buy just about all our movies and TV series from the iTunes store. Unfortunately the Israeli iTunes store doesn’t have as much of a movie collection as the US store and doesn’t have any TV series. This means I’m not using the Israeli iTunes store which is problematic in itself.

I am also an Apple Music fan and have been a subscriber since the service launched.

Given how invested we are in Apple-supplied content, I have my eyes on an Apple TV for our home so I can access all our content in much the same way I do with our Chromecast. I can use my laptop to access our movies and TV series but my Chromecast has spoiled me with the ability to easily watch stuff on our TV without needing to plug my laptop in and mess with displays and stuff.

Compared to the Chromecast, the Apple TV is expensive and part of my justification to my wife for buying one is that we could also use it as a gaming console and save us the cost of an X-Box or Sony Playstation (my son wants an X-Box because he can play Minecraft – I told him Minecraft is coming to the Apple TV too). She may be convinced (decision pending).

Joseph Rosensteel published an article titled “Apple’s October TV Surprise” (I linked to it from Matt Mullenweg’s post titled “Apple TV’s Struggles“) which raises more than a few questions about whether the Apple TV is worth buying. It has certainly given me reason to thinking a little more about my planned purchase.

There is no way to justify spending $150 to enter Apple’s TV ecosystem in the fall of 2016 on hardware alone. When Google is making a streaming UHD HDR player that costs LESS than a replacement Siri Remote, there is a problem with the hardware Apple is selling.

But I don’t have many paid content options

I would be pretty comfortable switching our movies and TV series across to the Google Play Store and just using the Chromecast as our primary media streaming device. Unfortunately, movies and TV series are simply not available from the Google Play Store here in Israel. Even the iTunes store offers some movies and music here!

These are the countries in which you can buy movies from the Google Play Store. Movies are available in Ivory Coast, Mali and Tajikistan but not Israel?

Albania, Angola, Antigua and Barbuda, Argentina, Armenia, Aruba, Australia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Belgium, Belize, Benin, Bolivia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Botswana, Brazil, Burkina Faso, Cambodia, Canada, Cape Verde, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Estonia, Finland, Fiji, France, Gabon, Germany, Greece, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Hong Kong, Hungary, Iceland, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Italy, Ivory Coast, Jamaica, Japan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Macedonia, Malaysia, Mali, Malta, Mauritius, Mexico, Moldova, Namibia, Netherlands, Nepal, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Niger, Norway, Panama, Papua New Guinea, Paraguay, Peru, Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Rwanda, Russia, Senegal, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Sri Lanka, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, Tajikistan, Tanzania, Thailand, Togo, Trinidad and Tobago, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Uganda, Ukraine, United Kingdom, United States, Uruguay, Uzbekistan, Venezuela, Zambia, Zimbabwe

TV shows
Australia, Austria, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, Switzerland, United Kingdom, United States

Another effect of limiting (or opening up) the availability of this sort of content is that it influences which device ecosystem you buy into and stick with. I’ve considered switching to Android on and off but remain with my iOS devices because I rely on certain iOS apps fairly heavily. I also have all of my music and, of course, my movies and TV series in Appleland too.

That largely locks me into the macOS/iOS ecosystem. Buying an Apple TV would only entrench me further in the ecosystem. Given that this is the best source of much of my entertainment and my apps, it is practically inevitable.

The absurd content availability model

This fragmented content availability confounds me. It is the 21st century. Israel has pretty good, cheap broadband and a population that is really tech savvy. Why can we not pay our hard earned Shekels for the content we want?

That is a rhetorical question. The answer is likely that the studios and publishers have deals with local distributors and those deals block availability of the content here.

What happens is that almost everyone I know simply torrents the stuff they want to watch. Our friends look at me like I am crazy when I tell them I prefer to buy our movies and TV series. They explain to me (slowly and loudly) that all I need is Kodi or some streamer and it’s all free!

Israel also has what seems to be a substantial Android user-base so extending Google’s content offerings to Israel would seem to make a lot of sense. Unfortunately the people who could change the current situation don’t seem to agree.

Opening the Google Play Store to more countries opens the door for more people also makes switching to the Google ecosystem feasible. Surely that is desirable to Google too?

So that leaves me with my current plan to invest in an Apple TV at some point in the near future. Hopefully it will be worth the cost but given where we have most of our content, it remains a compelling option. Still, it’s complicated and it needn’t be.

Featured image credit: Stocksnap