On CreateWorld and conferences

Conferences are terrific, but not only for the explicitly planned sessions. It’s the chats between sessions, it’s the chance conversations in corridors, it’s the random exchanges over a drink. Workshops can be great to open minds, and so can a good panel session. It’s not every day you get to introduce one of the custodians of Scratch to a new programming language, or hear how a new school is able to inspire its students, or build a robot and then program it — but I got to do them all over a couple of days.

Opening your mind is always a good thing. If you spend a lot of time teaching something, you’re an expert, often with a razor-focus, and that’s not great for your ego. A great antidote to “knowing it all” is coming to a conference like CreateWorld, because it reminds you that there’s a whole heap of stuff out there that you don’t know. Scratch is something I should know better. Building robots is something I should do more of, though I suspect I’ll remain a software fan. And interactive visual art can be built on all kinds of apps I don’t have my head quite around just yet.

For example, TouchDesigner, which I attended a workshop on, is a pretty amazing piece of software, and in the hands of an expert it can produce magic. It’s node-based and superficially similar to Quartz Composer (which I know pretty well) but I could still fall off the deep end in Touch Designer. While I appreciate its power, I found it like driving without a seatbelt or a windscreen. Too many ways to break it irrevocably, no safety net, and I’m just about curmudgeonly enough that some questionable UI decisions can put me right off. Still, others who have spent much more time in Unreal (or Unity, I guess) don’t have the same resistance.

(An aside: Certainly, I’m glad that there’s a wider world out there that isn’t all following the Adobe-Apple UI model, but I don’t want to completely re-learn the wheel every time, and I wish they wouldn’t reinvent the basics of selecting and moving. No, I don’t want to right-click and drag just to select something. No, I don’t think I should be able to create a situation where all my different elements are such different sizes I can’t see them all together. And yes, I do expect Undo to work reliably. Software that’s effectively pulled up from its own bootstraps has a certain appeal, yet for me it’s too fragile. But anyway.)

So why CreateWorld? I was invited to present a talk on FCP X. The talk itself will be online in the next few weeks, though I might re-record a presentation of it before then. In case I don’t, here are the slides, though the CoreMelt giveaway was of course for attendees only.

CreateWorld as a whole was terrific — just the right blend of the unexpected and the practical. A little bit of what I knew, just the right distance from my comfort zone, and an open bar at the dinner for good measure. If you work in the creative media space, this should definitely be a conference to attend. See you there next year?

Yosemite is awesome

The US National Park is awesome. The version of OS X called Yosemite was pretty good for its time. The conference called Yosemite that I went to last year after NAB was fantastic. If you’re in the US and part of the Mac or iOS community, then you should definitely make the time to go.

Half Dome in Yosemite National Park

There’s no other place where you can hang out (and even eat dinner) with the Apple-related people you’ve been reading for 20 years, learn amazing things from amazing people, go on fantastic walks in one of the most beautiful forests on the planet, and then drink cheap booze* under the stars.

While I don’t expect I’ll be able to go again (I live on the wrong side of the world and NAB isn’t on at the same time in 2017) I’d definitely be going if I lived nearer. Yosemite (the park) is something you should do at least once in your life, and Yosemite (the conference) is a brilliant way to kill two birds with one stone.

*Optional but recommended

Roughly the time

Today, an update to Roughly, my new Apple Watch complication was approved, and the new version supports both the Utility and Mickey faces in addition to the Modular face that v1.0 supported. So what does it do?

The Roughly app store preview

“Roughly” is a complication, a small chunk of information that can be added to a watch face on the Apple Watch. I’ve had one since release, and still really like it. In fact, I’ve reviewed it for macProVideo here, and talked about how to set up custom faces on it here.

Roughly snap 1

While I’d really like to be able to create custom faces myself, this is the best I can do for now. I’d seen that the Pebble smart watch had a face made entirely of words (e.g. twenty six past ten) and while I liked the idea, for myself I wanted something less precise.

five past two, Utility

When someone asks you the time, you don’t give an exact minute-by-minute readout; almost by definition, someone who doesn’t wear a watch doesn’t care about that level of detail. What I created was something more approximate that can tell you “roughly” what the time is, to the nearest five minutes, in a natural English way.ten to eleven, Modular

For me, this is a bit of fun and a slight convenience, though I’m finding it’s actually useful on the “Mickey” face, which is hard to read, and on the Utility face, which I find most attractive in its most minimal (yet least functional) mode.

five to eight, Mickey face

For some people though, numbers are hard to comprehend. Dyscalculalia is the numeric equivalent of dyslexia, and I hope they find Roughly to be useful. Other people haven’t yet learnt to tell time quickly on a standard analog clock, and hopefully it’ll be useful to them too.

ten past ten, time travel, Utility face

Time Travel support means you can spin the digital crown and see many times with their English-language equivalents, which should be useful to kids and students of English.

half past eight, Modular

Even though I made the thing, I’ve been surprised by how much I’ve enjoyed using it myself. Like the Apple Watch itself, it’s not that I need it, but that I enjoy it. It’s free, available now, and I hope you like it too.

Click the icon above to download Roughly for free from the App Store.


P.S. Since I made the app, I’ve been informed about “Fuzzy Clock”, a similar concept delivered on the web, and as an iPad app. Roughly is obviously a very similar idea executed differently, but those are the links to follow if you’re looking for an implementation on a different platform.

P.P.S. To install the complication on your Apple Watch, you actually need to download an iPhone app first, then perform a few steps. There are instructions inside the iPhone app and Apple Watch apps as to what to do next.

Using the OS X Terminal

Inspired by and following on from a useful article on iMore, here are a few more tips on how to use the Terminal — if you ever need to:

– Press Tab to autocomplete a path.
– Use Option-left and right arrows to move the cursor by word (this didn’t use to work but does now).
– Use up and down arrows to go back through your previous commands (all the way back to previous sessions).
– “sudo su” if you’re going to do a few things as the superuser.
– Dragging in files from the Finder to type their path is very handy.
– You need to escape spaces in filenames with , as in “My File”.
– It’s written in the article already, but recommended to always use “ls -la” to show all permissions and hidden files.
– “top” is the Terminal equivalent of Activity Monitor, handy for discovering process IDs.
– “kill -9” if something just won’t die.
– When navigating, ~ means your home directory, and / means root.
– Whatever you do, DO NOT type “rm -r /*” because it wipes everything — at least, the files you have permission to.
– The “more” app is a good way to read longer text files.
– “chmod” for changing permissions.
– “dig” or “nslookup” for checking out websites.
– “vi” is a basic, powerful text editor, and knowing its basic commands can get you out of some sticky situations — but it’s weird.

WordPress hackers

If you have a website, you may have been unlucky enough to have been hacked, like me. Right now, I’m wasting my Saturday going through several websites that I host, repeatedly removing infected files and locking down anything I can. It’s incredibly frustrating that hackers continue to actively destroy so many other people’s websites, forcing them (or me) to waste their time dealing with this rubbish.

The nuclear option of converting most of these WordPress sites to unhackable, super-fast static sites remains a possibility. It’s just a real shame that I’m even having to consider it.

When Holidays Go Bad

My wife and I were meant to be flying to Bali this week, but it very much looks like that’s not going to happen. Even if our flight did reach Bali, we’d almost certainly be in a queue trying to return home, as there are thousands of other travellers who’ve been stuck for several days already.

Volcanic eruptions are out of anyone’s control, but the response which companies give to a situation like this is revealing. A few slightly ranty bullet points:

  • Virgin Australia’s customer support line isn’t a freecall number in Australia, which cost some people a lot if they’re on hold for hours. There is also no kind of notification of how long you’ll be on hold, or how many people are in front of you.
  • After eventually getting through, staff were hamstrung by their own policies — Wotif would have to make any changes.
  • To a travel arranger like Wotif, Virgin Australia is regarded as a “regular” airline while Jetstar is a “low cost” airline. You must make changes directly with a low cost airline, but Wotif has to make changes with a regular airline. I’d much rather deal with the airline directly — why can’t I?
  • Wotif do have a freecall number, and a callback service. Unfortunately, yesterday I was told the callback would be 1 hour 20 minutes, but it was over 3 hours. When they called me back, I was then put on hold(!) for another hour and 15 minutes. Insane.
  • I’ve had no dealings with Jetstar, but you can at least (try to?) contact them through Skype.
  • The airlines only cancel flights day by day. Virgin’s language today is indicating pretty clearly that if they can fly on Wednesday they’ll only be taking empty planes to Bali to fly people home, but they haven’t actually cancelled our flight yet.
  • Virgin are offering replacement destinations “for free” (codeshare costs extra) but they are all domestic/uninteresting/cheaper from Brisbane. (And why isn’t Perth on the list when flights to Broome (via Perth) are?)
  • Days ago, Jetstar allowed passengers with flights booked through the end of this week to pre-emptively cancel their flights for a travel credit, but Virgin didn’t. Virgin’s public language only mentioned changes, and refunds could only be arranged by talking to Wotif, who would then read Virgin’s fine print and ask them nicely.
  • Jetstar are now also offering replacement flights to many other destinations (Hawaii/Fiji/Thailand/NZ) with no change fees. Virgin’s more exotic (codeshare) destinations cost an unknown amount of extra money.
  • Wotif can cancel our flights and get our money back from the airline now, but until the flight is officially cancelled, we’re less likely to get our money back from the hotel (and there’s still no guarantee). We therefore have to wait until it’s officially cancelled before making any other bookings, and can’t book any replacement holiday until the day before, when all the cheap tickets are gone.
  • Finally, Wotif want an $80/person rebooking fee. Apparently not, according to the  person I spoke to today.

Lessons learned?

  • Maybe the savings from a package aren’t worth it. Booking directly is much easier to manage.
  • Wotif and Virgin could both communicate a whole lot better. I’ve had absolutely no proactive communication from either company, I’ve had to call them, and each call has taken a long time.
  • Earlier pre-emptive cancellation of flights would help a whole lot of people to actually have a holiday.
  • Wotif really need to react better to this situation. Why not earn some goodwill and actively offer replacement holidays to anyone still in Australia?
  • Wotif really shouldn’t be calling people back to put them on hold, or charging $160 to make a booking. They should be emailing people to let them know they might not be going on holiday in two days time.

Enough. Hopefully everyone stuck in Bali can get home soon.

EDIT: Virgin finally cancelled the flight today on their travel alerts page, so I rang Wotif to get a refund. Full flight credit received, and hotel refunded too. An hour or two after that, Virgin emailed me to say my flight was cancelled. Better late than never?

The Demise of the Local Video Rental Shop

My local video rental shop is (finally) closing, and that’s a sad, sad thing. While this happened years ago for most people, I’ve been lucky enough to have a local video shop this whole time. So what’s the big deal?

Cost is one factor. Watching a movie is now going to cost a lot more than $1 on a Tuesday, and at $5-7 a go, I’m less likely to take a chance on odd movies with mixed reviews. As someone who rarely re-watches movies or TV, I’m not inclined to buy discs. Disc rental was the only cheap way to watch TV shows that were otherwise locked away on pay TV — especially if you’re catching up on past seasons.

Apart from the money, though, the main thing I’m going to miss is the browsing. Digital shopfronts are really good at letting you find what you’re already looking for, and pretty bad at helping you to discover something you’d enjoy. The analog world of the video shop is the opposite: hard to find what you’re looking for (and with limited quantities) but terrific at introducing you to something you didn’t even know you wanted. (Disc rental kiosks don’t duplicate that at all: no older releases, a limited selection, and I still have to return something. Worst of all worlds.)

Spending a half-hour at the video shop scanning the shelves was a joy: all a film needed was an interesting cover to pique my interest. If a quick look on Metacritic showed that it wasn’t trash, I might take it home. I honestly don’t know how to replace that, because the digital world allows commercial interests to insert themselves into that process, and I’ll have to engage with some other system that simply shows me all the films recently released. It probably exists, but it won’t be as much fun as walking the shelves.

So many of the films I’ve found at the local video shop over the years were unknown before I stumbled across them. Sometimes it took repeated looks over a few weeks before I caved in; sometimes they were good, sometimes not. But I don’t know how else I would have found God Help The Girl, or Wanderlust, or Pride, or All Is Lost, or Locke, or What We Did on Holiday, or countless other good movies that never got enough of a marketing budget to put their name in front of my ad-blocked eyes. Also, I couldn’t have watched all the behind-the-scenes making-of specials that don’t always make it to digital formats — Wanderlust alone has an entire alternate cut of the film made from outtakes. I may even have missed out on Game of Thrones, the first season of which I bought when my last video shop of choice went under.

Digital is a tricky beast. It makes search easy, but browsing hard. If digital shopfronts make it difficult to discover lesser-known or older works, then we’re doomed to a future of only tentpole blockbusters for the mass market and indie films few people see. We can do better than that, but given how movies have shifted in just the past few years, I’m not sure if we will.

Basic financial advice

I didn’t expect to ever offer anyone financial advice, but here we are. Some very simple tips that will hopefully help if you’re in the mid-life stage I find myself in.

1. Get a mortgage with an offset account. Not every bank offers this, but many do.

2. Put all your family’s income directly into this offset account. The balance effectively comes off your mortgage instantly for interest calculations, and you’ll therefore pay a lot less interest. If your mortgage payments are made directly from this account, it no longer matters if you pay weekly, fortnightly or monthly, because the money counts against the mortgage both before and after a payment is made.

3. Use a credit card for most purchases, but be sure to (automatically) pay off the full amount each month so you don’t incur any interest. That way, your money will sit in your account longer, paying off your mortgage for as long as possible.

4. To be safer, use a separate account for PayPal and for receiving payments, and don’t keep much (or any) money in it.

That’s it. The basic idea is that it’s better to avoid paying interest than it is to earn interest you have to pay tax on. Hope it helps.

Facebook issues

There have been a couple of posts recently drawing attention to how much power Facebook has over what we see. It might not be obvious at first, but we don’t see everything all our friends post, and we don’t see everything in all of our groups either. We certainly don’t see all the posts from companies we like.

If Facebook becomes the main way we stay in touch with what’s happening, we’re very much at the mercy of Facebook’s algorithms. Given that you can buy your way into people’s feeds, that’s not a great outcome.

Here’s an article on saving the diverse, free web.

Amanda Palmer posted this and more to her Facebook page:

did you know that when i post a youtube clip, they’ll deliberately limit the reach because they want you to embed direct?

did you know that (or so it appears) if you pay to “boost” content, they’ll start punishing you by making your next posts underperform, so that you’ll be tempted to toss in more cash?

did you know that if you use the word “s4@R3″ (it means: to disseminate”) in your post, they’ll limit your content reach?

did you know how freaky it feels to be sitting here, composing this post, knowing that bookface is scanning it, and wondering how much to allow out, and how much to hold me back?

neil and i, and many other bloggers, have discussed this with more and more worry lately. we used to have blogs, on our websites. we’d link to them. people read them. LOTS of people read them. this was in the days before twitter, bookface, instagram, tumblr, etc. it was when you woke up in the morning and read people’s blogs and posted thoughtful comments and it felt like the internet was ripe with possibility and freedom.

it’s going away. even though we both have far larger fanbases than we did ten years ago, our blog readerships have been halved, quartered, more.

Sorry for the long quote, but I can’t link directly (of course!).

And Twitter? It can be good or bad. If your reading diet becomes 140 character chunks, then that’s bad, but if you use to discover something longer and more substantial, then that’s great. Like eating M&Ms vs a decent meal.

Facebook and Twitter aren’t inherently awful things, and neither are content aggregators like Apple News, Clipboard and so on. But blogs and real websites are important too, and worth seeking out. While it’s always tempting to dip into the flow of Twitter or Facebook, if we don’t read the longer pieces on blogs and websites, eventually people will stop writing them.

Watch the Making-Of specials

If you’re into filmmaking, or just into films, you’ll probably find the behind-the-scenes specials worth a look. If you only rent a film digitally, you may miss out, but the real Blu-ray (or, ugh DVD) discs usually include at least a short film or two showing how they made it.

Some movies come with no extras at all — Woody Allen films, for example. The film stands alone.

Other times, there’s something there, but it’s overly driven by marketing, or there was no budget to do a proper job. You may see extended, poorly-edited press interviews with the stars, or specials cut purely to promote the film where the actors talk about how nice all the other actors were to work with. Not very interesting.

Better productions include a decent amount of information, showing the actors and crew doing their job, then talking about it. You can learn a lot from watching these, and they’ll make re-watching the movie a much more engaging experience. Seeing how a DOP sets up their lights or how an actor behaves on set can be handy for anyone wanting to break into those fields, and watching the deleted scenes can be revealing indeed. Sometimes you’ll see really rough performances that just had to go; other times you’ll see alternate endings which disappeared for a very good reason. A commentary over the movie by the director and/or the cast normally gives away all kinds of hidden secrets, but you can do even better. Predestination includes a behind-the-scenes documentary that’s as long as the movie, and Wanderlust includes an entire alternate cut of the movie(!) built using outtakes.

My favourite behind-the-scenes extra snippet is on one of the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels, movies I didn’t like. The director explains excitedly how they built the biggest set ever made so they could shoot two battling ships at the same time. He was quite proud of it, but just a couple of minutes later, the effects boss explains that they spent a lot of time painting out the ship in the background because it didn’t look right. Gold.

Because picture quality alone doesn’t cost much, these days, Blu-ray discs usually include extra features in HD, but sometimes you’ll see something much worse, like the extras for “Coco”. They’re all standard definition 4:3, which is downright weird. It’s not unusual to see extras where the quality is nearly as good as the film itself, just without the same colour treatment. Extra material like deleted scenes can look good or bad too, depending on how the post production process went.

At the end of the day, though, they’re worth watching. It’s like the liner notes on vinyl: pretty, worth a look, but harder to distribute in a digital world. Seek them out, learn about the craft, and be sure to make your own if you ever get to make a feature yourself.