2006 (old posts, page 4)

Part-Time Development and Money

The old debate over donation-ware and pricing has popped up again, in response to Peter Maurer's Textpander, since expanded into TextExpander. The debate rages in comments on TUAW and a bit more on HawkWings. Both TUAW and the MacUser blog choose to call it "freeware", which is technically true, but blurs the lines in an important way.

Peter's stuff is released with no price, just a polite suggestion over on the side: "If you decide to use Witch regularly, please do consider making a donation." He doesn't say how much. In my experience, even getting a $5 donation from a happy user is really a boost. Free coffee in the morning is awfully nice - add in a comment saying what you like about my app, and it makes me want to impress you with something new.

Writing software, even small apps, is not easy. A nice polished donationware app with all the trimmings represents a serious investment of time. When I was working on BibDesk, I would hack on it for 4-5 hours at a time every couple of days. As I've discovered over the past year or so, it's not something you can really do intermittently.

I bet that many of Peter's Textpander users have real jobs. We grad students call you "real people." If a real person goes for one week at grande instead of venti, or ate ramen for a night instead of going to Outback, the change is more than enough to make the Mac software world a better place.

Why? Just think of all the bad apps you have to pay for from big companies who don't really get it, and then think whether a few bucks is worth it to support software that actually works the way you like. Your dollar might be the one that seals the decision for the next Gus Mueller, Fraser Speirs, Mike Piatek-Jimenez, Daniel Jalkut or Steve Gehrman to start developing full-time.

I'm glad to hear that Peter made some money. You might think that $30 is too much for TextExpander, but don't fault him for selling his app - he doesn't owe us anything, not after the huge gift of his free time and talent he already donated to us.

XCode 2.3 Hidden Gem: Interface Builder 2.5.4

XCode 2.3 is out, so why not spend a nice May evening reading some Dev Tools release notes?

There are some excited posts about Dedicated Network Builds from people who work at Apple, but not having a cluster of build machines myself, I'm not so worked up. (Unless sourceforge gets on that for their build farm.)

Then I saw this one line buried a little past halfway through:

  • Nibtool
  • Added functionality for exporting and importing properties as a plist Nibtool can extract properties into a plist format that can be edited and then reimported into the nib using the new --export (-e) and --import (-i) flags.

If I read this right, it means the door is open for easy automated access to bindings and maybe a way to make editing bindings easier. I know visual programming has its benefits, but bindings are just so opaque - you see one object's binding at a time, and making mass changes to bindings is just impossible - until now, I hope.

I'm downloading it now.

Webmail.app follow-up

I came back from a weekend camping trip to find that my post about WebMail.app got a lot of attention: TUAW, Hawk Wings, and MacUser, for starters.

Some people got what I was trying to do with it, and some didn't. The idea got passed around a bit, so a few commenters probably didn't read my original post. That's not a big deal, but I did want to clear up a few points that weren't obvious from what I did write.

I don't hate Apple Mail.

I didn't say anything about disliking or replacing Apple Mail. Mail is my primary mail client, and there's plenty about it that I like. I just use both, since I like GMail better for viewing mailing lists.

WebMail.app was not a mission statement for the web.

I like rich local clients. I don't think that apps like WebMail are the future of desktop apps.

I don't think that cloning WebMail.app for any given website/web app will necessarily be a good idea. Sometimes it will, but if you could benefit from system-specific GUI features or services like Spotlight, CoreImage, AddressBook integration, control over data backup, etc, then just another browser window won't help you. For instance - I can't think of any reason to move flickr browsing to a mini-browser like WebMail. I don't need to avoid distraction when I'm using flickr - I'm already distracted.

Also, I'm not qualified to expound on the future of the web, so let's not get ahead of ourselves there.

I wanted it to be a bad browser.

This was the part that got people who didn't read what I wrote in the original post about distraction. Yes, you could get almost the same effect by using real browsers with their toolbars off, but the whole point was to make it hard to distract yourself on the web.

There's a fine line where if you add any more features, you're re-implementing a real browser, and that's counterproductive. We can disagree on the position of that line, but I feel I hit it pretty close. For instance, if you want tabs, I think you should probably just use a real browser. And for my purposes, not being able to open links in other browsers is an important feature.

It wasn't a product announcement.

I wrote it to avoid distraction - I'm not going to be supporting it, adding features, nor will I even work very hard to get an icon. I suggest using the icon mentioned in the Hawk Wings post about it. That's probably what I'll do if I ever get around to it.

Some people suggested features that wouldn't make it more distracting, including handling other web mail sites, doing the right thing with uploads for attachments, importing contacts, a better login interface (actually, I don't get why you'd care about that), and using newer WebKit builds for better compatibility. I don't plan to do any of these, but you're welcome to. If anyone wants to use the name and take it in that direction, I'm OK with that - let me know.

I do use it, though, so if it ever breaks on a new system and there's no good replacement, I'll get it working again.

I have heard from at least one person who's building a similar app and has done some more interesting things with it, so when I find out more about that, I'll pass along a link. (But I'm not sure if it will be free or open source.)

It was super easy.

Now that I've addressed most of the criticisms that I wanted to, I want to ask that if you like this app, please reserve your praise for the Web Kit team at Apple - it took me months to realize that I wanted this app, but only minutes to build it because of all their hard work. It really was basically the demo app, and not even the one at the end of the talk. Thanks!

Webmail is not web browsing.

Webmail is really a separate application. When I'm visiting GMail, I'm checking mail, not browsing the web. So what's so bad about using a browser for this?

Minor Gripes

If I keep a browser window running with GMail, now clicking on the Safari dock icon just brings that sucker up instead of creating a new empty window.

I love the GMail key shortcuts and Safari has an annoying tendency to get the key focus wrong so I have to click in the window somewhere after moving up out of a thread to get my shortcuts back.

Safari crashes, I forget to reload GMail, I miss important messages.

Even all that isn't so bad. For a while I ran Firefox with only GMail open. I could get a GMail notifier so I won't miss messages... but:

The Real Problem

The final straw is this: Every time I check mail, I'm diving right into the world's biggest time-sink. My email isn't usually a waste of my time, but all the windows I've left floating around, my bookmarks bar, or a quick Google search are. These are the things that eat up afternoons, and webmail is a gateway to that distraction.

Browsers have lots of features that I don't need to use GMail: bookmarks, back & forward buttons, a search field, page history, a location bar, and on and on.

My Easy Way Out - the Minimalist Specialized Browser

A while back, I wrote a separate web browser just for GMail.

All it does is load GMail in a nice big window and duck out of your way. No location bar. And no bookmarks.

It says: Go ahead and follow that link your friend (or bug tracker) sent you, but to check BoingBoing, you're going to have to go over to Safari. Maybe you'll decide to go back to work instead.

It's basically the WebKit demo, except that I tried to improve the key shortcut situation a bit, and it has a progress indicator.

I've been using it for a while now, and the only features of real browsers that I miss are pretty simple to add - text find, a refresh command. I just haven't needed them that much. Sadly, one feature I'd love to add to GMail, a key shortcut to "go to inbox", eludes me, since their Javascript is pretty obfuscated. Update - "go to inbox" already exists as the sequence "gi".

Meet WebMail.app

If you want to try out this idea without the hassle of writing those ten lines yourself, get a tarball here: Webmail-1.0.tgz and let me know what you think.

The source is in there, it's BSD licensed, and I'll happily accept patches that make it more useful for email, but remember that making it more useful for general browsing is kind of not the point.

Oh, and it lacks a real icon. Sorry.

Update much later: a new version that supports printing and attaching files is available here: Webmail+printing+attaching.zip

Full Screen Focus

I visit 43Folders only about once a week now - I couldn't deal with the cognitive dissonance implied by procrastinating by visiting a site about how to be more efficient and avoid procrastination.

I was really glad yesterday to see Merlin's post about faking full screen mode with a trio of useful apps. I had tried Menushade before, and didn't really see the point - the menu bar doesn't bug me - but in combination with the other two that Merlin recommends, Spirited Away and BackDrop, his scheme is a really great way to turn your computer into a tool for focus and not diversion.

At first I thought I wanted a faster auto-hide than the default 60 seconds, but after a bit of time with the delay set to zero and then a less disconcerting 10 seconds, I decided that it was confusing to lose context that quickly, so the default's been working well for me. Also, it makes diversions painfully obvious when your work-related windows blink away and you're sitting staring at ESPN. It immediately begs the question: "You've already wasted one minute - is this that important?"

I was also reluctant to hide the dock, but I tried it, and now I'm never going back. I have SpamSieve and Growl to point out important emails (checking once an hour), and for the rest of the time, my numerous diversions are better off out of sight, out of mind.

Another tactic I've started using is a dedicated browser app for Gmail. Just because I need to look at my mail doesn't mean I need to spend some time checking hockey scores - so I built a separate browser that only loads Gmail, and that temptation is gone. I'll probably post more about that sometime later, but for now, I need to get back to work.

Dear Innovative and Revolutionary Management School

Dear Rady School, you may be dedicated to producing business leaders who can straddle both the business world and the world of science and technology, but please ditch the little animated guy on your homepage who told me that.

Also, please read this adaptive path essay on user-centered URL design, and revisit your URLs. Most of your URLs look like this: http://management.ucsd.edu/cms/showcontent.aspx?ContentID=163

I care about 30 of those characters, including dots, one slash and protocol. There are another 31 characters that never change and don't tell me anything about the page.

For the previous URL (#163), might I suggest: http://management.ucsd.edu/facilities

And for the next number up, #164 (apparently not up yet, but it should be the web syllabus for a class), might I suggest: http://management.ucsd.edu/courses/2006/summer/mgt-111



Ingredients: prunes, salt.

If you're ever at the liquor store down the block and see a tempting new combination of previously unconnected flavors, and you feel a sudden urge, a tug, to buy that bag of Salted Prune Saladitos and rush home, eager to shut the door behind you and experience something alien and tasty in private, stop. Just pay for your diet coke, leave a penny, and walk home a fortunate, humbler man.


Prune Saladitos: fit for a king with a powerful jaw.

The one Saladito I tried was probably harder than anything else I've been told was food, and certainly the saltiest thing I've ever tasted, including salt. It was like biting a really big, wrinkly pistachio, shell and all. A two-hour soak in warm water did little to soften the nugget, and now this bag sits in my kitchen, awaiting fate. Maybe someday I'll try a fresh one.

You're wondering where else you can read about these formidable treats on the internet. I've already done the background for you, and I recommend learning about diversity with lemons and saladitos.

To be fair, King Henry does make a delicious trail mix.

Buying my TV from the iTunes Music Store?

I don't have cable TV service anymore. Now I have NetFlix and books instead, and so far that's working out OK for me - but as much as I can't handle 300 channels, I would really like to be able to pick a few programs to watch.

Thus, I'm cautiously optimistic about getting my TV over the internet. I think it could be cost-effective for me - cable bills can be pretty expensive, so even though TV seems cheap, consider how much crap you have to watch to get the price per show lower than $2. Is it worth it? Suppose I watch two games a week and three shows each week. At current iTunes rates, that's about $10 a week or $40 a month, assuming I don't get discounts for season passes, or screwed on sporting events. That's not bad.

But is it a comparable product? I watched an episode of Scrubs today, and I'd have to say yes and no.

Buying it went smoothly, not having to watch commercials is pretty great, and I assume I can send the audio to my Airport Express, right? However, you wait for it to download the whole thing first, the resolution is low, pausing and scanning through the video sometimes hangs briefly, and I'm not sold on having the video play in a separate window - it seems like a major afterthought. I'm really curious why iTunes is a worse video player than the Quicktime Player for the same exact file.

The file's 104MB, and I'm not likely to watch it over and over again - what I am likely to do is keep it around because I'd feel guilty trashing something I'd paid for. I'd be much happier if I knew I could re-download these shows in the future, so I'm not saddled with a massive file if I don't need it around.

What's more, I remember pretty clearly sitting in the audience for Steve Jobs' keynote in 2004, and watching him demo super-fast, live, streaming playback and scrubbing around H.264 high definition content. It was pretty impressive. Two years later, where's the HD content? HD would really sell video on the internet - not many people have HDTVs, but lots of people these days have a monitor that can display at least 720p (1280x720), and once you watch sports in HD, you're hooked.

So - I say, bring on the laptop HD revolution. Bring on live HD sports via iTunes. Let me stream it and re-stream it. Let me decide what to pay for - I don't want to have my cash go to subsidize Elimidate, ever again.

VoodooPad life


It's been a while since I've said anything about VoodooPad here, but it deserves another round of kudos - I continue to absolutely live in it, and it gets much more useful the longer I use it.

How I use VoodooPad

I keep a running set of time-stamped pages under "ResearchLog" and "MeetingNotes", and all kinds of linked notes from there that I constantly search, occasionally refactor and refine. "MeetingNotes2006-03-21" leads to "ResearchLog2006-03-22" and so on. With a simple python script to automate making new "Notes" pages, I don't have to work too hard to keep the organization and index pages going, and it's proved to be really useful to recall what I did when, and what problems I ran into.

As I work, I keep a running log of what I'm doing in each ResearchLog page. What I've found most valuable is that I copy in verbatim command lines for configuring and building software I'm using for research (including my own) so I can recreate the same environment elsewhere. This kind of thing has saved my sanity over and over again, enough that I can't imagine working 'bare' (without a VoodooPad window open next to my terminal) any more than I can imagine working without Emacs.

A tip on style

A little attention to text style makes my notes pages more useful and easier to find in the Expose soup. I started using a larger font for the top header and description of each page, so I could distinguish pages easier, and it's made everything a little more pleasant.

Here's a typical set of VoodooPad windows for me - a jumble!

This zoom shows what it looks like at 100% - the large-print title helps me find the window I want without the Expose "scrubbing":

Still, I don't want to have to keep doing this all the time, so I made use of the "NewPageTemplate" page (documentation) and set the styles there - now all my new pages have the style I want, and I don't have to keep using Cmd-Opt-c and Cmd-Opt-v (copy and paste style) over and over.

Update: One comment asked for larger images, but since you probably don't want to see my research notes anyway, here's an RTF file with the contents of my "NewPageTemplate" page.

Matt Pond PA

I meant to post this just after the show, but I didn't.

I saw Matt Pond PA play on March 7th at the Epicentre in Mira Mesa.

The band sounded great, fitting a sometimes symphonic sound from a few band members into a smallish low-ceilinged venue (okay, teen center). I was impressed that their sometimes melancholy songs translated so well to a live performance, and as usual it was fantastic to see actual people play favorite familiar songs in person. As compared to their albums, live, they rocked a little more - which is only right.

However, the band fails to even mention the date on their running tour blog, and I think I know why. Mira Mesa in general, and the Epicentre in particular, occupy an all-too familiar spot right in the nexus of lame. It's hard for me not to feel a little sad whenever I drive through the place, a plateau of asphalt wedged between freeways and topped with a layer-cake of condos, strip malls and "communities". The Epicentre is not a bar or any kind of concert hall - it is a teen center directly across from the local high school. The bathrooms smelled like chalk and institutional cleaners, and although I'm sure I'd have visited the place if it'd existed near my high school, it was clearly trying too hard to be both cool and safe, two things which can never coexist, especially if you're a minor.

I'm a little embarrassed for my adopted city because too many bands will experience San Diego as a place where they draw ten percent of their usual crowds and are forced to play at the diner from Saved by the Bell.

In summary, Matt Pond PA was very good, and I really hope they don't hold a grudge.