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Four months. Whee.

It’s now been roughly four months that we’ve been largely sheltering in place. Yes, Santa Clara county has lightened up a bit (indoor retail! outdoor dining!), but we didn’t make it to indoor dining before the state closed it down again. And while there was going to be the chance for a few people to possibly go into the office this month, in practice the rising infection rate means it’s going to be September at the soonest before I can probably actually visit the office. And I’m not holding my breath on that one.

On the other hand, I’ve been wearing shorts every day for months now; wearing pants for work is a thing of the past. And I only wear socks when running or biking. That must count for something, right?

Thoughts on HEY email

Largely out of a desire to experiment and try out a different approach to email, I tried out and eventually choose to subscribe for a year to HEY. HEY is a new approach to email by Basecamp (formerly 37signals), that does a number of things differently:

  • You have to explicitly choose to receive email from new senders; all email is screened out by default.
  • They provide two “buckets” to sort your mail into beyond the inbox: a feed that organizes email messages into a temporarily ordered, scrollable list, and a repository of receipts, tracking information, etc.
  • You can mark a message as something you want to reply to later or set it aside so you can easily refer to it later.
  • They attempt to filter out tracking pixels so that you can actually look at images in your email without worrying about the privacy implications.

Overall the experience has been positive so far. Of course, it generally feels good to start somewhat fresh with email anyway: you can revisit which messages you actually get, rethink your email strategy, and clean up in your accounts in general (I used the excuse of moving some of my email subscriptions to HEY to also update a number of my passwords).

But I do like the capabilities they provide, and I chose most of the email that I moved to my HEY address to take advantage of the Feed and Paper Trail (the order repository) capabilities. After using it for a few weeks, there are a few things I’d like to see them improve:

  • Their mobile clients seem to be wrappers around web content. Basecamp generally does a good job with web content, but that choice results in noticeable latency when opening views (they’re clearly hitting their server, for example, whenever you open the Feed). I’d like to see them doing more caching on device and background information fetching to reduce that lag.
  • By default messages in the Feed are only shown partially, and you have to tap to expand them. I’d like HEY to expand where you can tap to fully display a message. Instead of tapping the See More button, I’d like to tap anywhere on the top or bottom of a message
  • I’d also like tapping at the top or bottom again to collapse a message; often after skimming an expanded message I’d like to collapse it so that it doesn’t take up as much space when I’m navigating the Feed.
  • Along a similar line, I’d like the message previews in the feed to actually be slightly smaller so it’s easier to see more of them at once.
  • HEY is big on not having notifications or badges to let you know if you have unread messages. While in general I like that approach, given that there’s some latency in opening the Feed I’d like a way to easily tell within the app whether there are new messages in the Feed or not. Now the only way to tell is to navigate in and then back. And within the Feed it’d be useful to have a marker indicating which messages are new and which you’ve seen previously. Currently it’s up to you to remember which messages you’ve seen before.

While I moved some email to HEY, I’m also still using my Gmail and iCloud email addresses as well. I’m currently planning to continue that pattern for awhile, and once I have more experience with HEY I’ll decide whether to shift more of my email to or from it.

Oh, now we can no longer point fingers?

Android has taken flak from iOS fans for years around copying features, despite the fact that the copying has gone both ways. But now that the latest iOS release (14) copies Android for pretty much all of its flagship features (widgets, app library vs. app drawer, app clips vs. instant apps, non-full-screen assistant), the iOS crowd now thinks we should move past worrying about who’s copying who and pointing fingers.

There used to be a time and place for pointing fingers and bashing one company for blatantly copying another’s ideas. But now it feels juvenile. Who really cares? “Good artists copy, great artists steal” as the saying goes. Everyone borrows. Everything is inspired by something before it.

Oh, now it’s time to stop. Funny how that happened after iOS’s main new features all seem to be copied from Android. I’m sure that’s a coincidence.

Why is merging iCloud accounts too much to ask?

I have two iCloud accounts, that I actually use as the main iCloud account for my Apple devices and one that I use for Apple media and purchases. I come by these two accounts naturally: I acquired one back when I paid for a MobileMe account, and one that I created for my iTunes purchases (back when iTunes only sold music).

I am not alone in facing this situation. I know this because Apple devices explicitly support this situation, allowing you to specify a main iCloud account and a separate one for media and purchases.

But that’s a kludge. I don’t want two accounts, I want to merge them to create a single account to make my life simpler. You’d think Apple would want to support merging accounts as well, since they could then stop building kludgy support for two accounts. And yet years after people started facing this problem, Apple still doesn’t provide a way to merge accounts.

Why is a mechanism to merge accounts too much to ask? After so long I suspect there must be some legal reason. From both a user experience and engineering perspective supporting merging is the right thing to do. And when trying to understand why companies do things that don’t make sense, legal reasons is the answer more often than not.

Aha! Strava is (partly) to blame

There are unfortunately more than a few people that seem to treat the Stevens Creek Trail as if it’s part of the Tour de France (although there are thankfully fewer of them these days, now that almost no one is using it to commute). I may have accidentally discovered at least part of the reason why.

Since Bike to Work Day wasn’t a thing this month (biking to work is pointless if you can’t actually work there), Google kicked off a “bike anywhere” competition. To log your bike trips, you need to install and use Strava. I’d never installed Strava before (I don’t care how long it takes me to bike to or from work), but I decided to use the competition as motivation to resume biking every day (I miss the forcing function of commuting). So I installed it and started using it.

And I discovered that Strava breaks the Stevens Creek Trail down into segments, and times how long it takes you to complete each of those segments. Thus every time you ride you get little rewards if you beat your previous times, and there are leaderboards for those segments so you can compete with other cyclists.

One of the things about people in Silicon Valley? They have competitiveness issues. Big ones. So of course people are racing on the trail as if they’re trying to beat someone. They are.

Strava seems like a very nice app, but I think we’d all be better off if they scrapped the leaderboards and achievements for multi-use trails.

Working from… where?

As our working from home period stretches on (and on), a number of technology companies are revisiting remote workers and looking at the possibility of more of their work force shifting to permanent work from home (or wherever) status.

I’m personally a little skeptical that Google will shift most (or even much) of its work force to permanent work from home status. Sure, we’ve been fairly productive so far. But we’ve largely been executing on previous plans to this point. I suspect where the lack of face-to-face conversations and meetings will really start to bite us is when we shift to making new plans and coming up with new ideas. I personally find it harder to be creative when I can’t easily exchange ideas in casual conversation or jam at a whiteboard when talking an idea through with someone.

But the possibility does raise the question: if you could work from anywhere, where would you want to work from? While the Bay Area does have lovely weather (and we’re appreciating it anew now that we’re spending so much time at home; being able to spend lots of time outdoors is wonderful), the housing prices and traffic are definite downsides.

I could probably spend a couple of happy years working from the San Juans, but the increased isolation would probably drive my wife crazy. Someplace near Tahoe would provide lots of lovely outdoor scenery and opportunities for exercise and fresh air. Some place near Yosemite would make it really easy to take advantage of the park.

Or we could move someplace that would pay us to relocate. Vermont still has a program that will pay you to relocate there for remote work. I’d love to work from Alaska in the summer, but I’m not sure I could take the winter (and the Permanent Fund is probably hurting right now).

Or we could aim for a mid-size city that has reliable internet service, solid cultural institutions (symphony, theater, museums), a variety of tasty restaurants, and affordable housing prices. Ideally one also close to outdoor recreation opportunities and an airport to enable easy travel to other locations.

I don’t expect we’ll leave the Bay Area anytime soon. Among other factors, we want to let our daughter finish school before we relocate. But once she’s off to college, we might find ourselves looking more seriously at where we’d want to live, particularly if work is no longer tied to a specific location.

I think that’s week 10

It feels at this point like time has lost much of it’s meaning; the days tend to blur together with their similarity. But I’m pretty sure we’re starting week 10 of mandatory sheltering-in-place in the Bay Area. And for those who started working from home when it was optional it’s been even longer.

At this point people finally seem to have gotten enough toilet paper; it’s no longer a surprise when you actually see paper goods (toilet paper, tissues, paper towels) in stores (although the shelves are certainly not full). And the baking aisle is no longer totally ransacked; it’s possible people have baked themselves out (or maybe their just pausing while they catch up on eating their baked goods).

It’s still hard to find at least some cleaning supplies here. We’ve been trying to find liquid soap refills for over a week now, but the stores we’ve checked (Target and our local grocery stores) have consistently sold out. We may cave and order online if we can’t find any in the next week.

After a couple of weeks of looking, I finally found and ordered a recommended model of hair clippers online. I was at the point where I needed a haircut right before the lockdown, and after two more months I was seriously shaggy. My first foray into cutting my own hair actually went fairly well. I didn’t try anything ambitious, and I’d reached the point where most changes would have been an improvement, so I definitely think I came out ahead. Who knows when we’ll actually be able to get cuts from professionals again; the Bay Area is being extremely conservative with re-opening; our county only started allowing curbside pick for non-essential retail a few days ago.

It’ll be interesting to see how much people adhered to social distancing over the long weekend. When my daughter and I went grocery shopping on Saturday there were noticeably fewer people out and about; I’m curious if they actually went out of town or were just sleeping in.

Pixel Buds first thoughts

I bought a pair of Google’s new Pixel Buds this week (technically they’re the Pixel Buds 2, I suppose, but since the Pixel Buds 1 are better forgotten let’s just all stick with Pixel Buds without a number), and they arrived on Friday. So far I like them: easy to set up, comfortable to wear, good sound quality.

One feature in need of better design is the real-time translation, though. It’s a promising idea; trigger the Assistant and ask it to help you speak another language (e.g., “help me speak French”), and when it hears you speak English it’ll speak the French translation in your ear so you can speak it to the other person. And when the other person speaks French (continuing the example, the Buds will hear the language and speak the English translation in your ear.

So what’s wrong with it? Two things. First, the Assistant speaks the translation way too fast; by the time it’s finished translating a phrase you’ve already forgotten the first part of what it said. It needs to slow down when speaking the phrase, possibly saying it more than once until it detects you saying it, and potentially giving the option to display the phrase on your phone as well.

Second, there’s no cue to the other person when they can speak. If you try to explain to the other person what’s going on and when they can safely speak, you’re likely to confuse the Assistant and have it translate your attempts at explanation (which could, of course, be what you want). It’d be better if you could either provide a cue to the Assistant when the other person is saying something you want translated, or provide a cue to the other person when the Assistant is ready for them to speak (possibly again using your phone).

So as a wireless music and Podcast listening tool, I like the Pixel Buds so far. But I can’t see actually using them for real-time translation except in an utter emergency.

Please wear a mask in the bank

We stopped by the ATM at a local bank on the way to the farmer’s market today, and there was a security guard standing outside. It seemed a little strange, but times are strange and he confirmed the ATM was available. It was only while using the ATM that I realized why he was there: the bank was now asking patrons to wear facial coverings before entering. So that’s how far we’ve come in a couple of months: from “please don’t cover your face and remove your hat and sunglasses”, to “please cover your face”.

Day One and Google Photos are taunting me

Technically it’s our daughter’s spring break this week. It’s not really a vacation, though. She doesn’t actually have classes, but with AP exams approaching she still has plenty of homework. And it’s not like we can actually go anywhere. But in prior years this week has commonly been one where we’ve taken family vacations.

I typically take photos on vacations to remember them, and for awhile now I’ve been using Day One to capture thoughts and experiences from those vacations. Awhile back I uploaded lots of our vacation photos to Google Photos, so that we could have our Google Home Hub display a rotating carousel of those images. Normally I like that both services remind me of previous photos or journal entries: it’s a chance to be reminded of a fond memory. Now that we’re all trapped at home for an extended period of time, those reminders are a little painful.

Remember last year, when you were in the San Juan islands and Victoria? How about this trip to Joshua Tree? Yosemite? The trips to wide open spaces seem particularly painful now. Why yes, I do remember hiking through Yosemite and think it’d be awesome to be wandering through the meadows right now (well, ok, except for the increase in bears casually wandering around). Except, oh yeah, the park is closed. Joshua Tree? Closed. Pretty much every place we’ve spent spring break in the past is now closed (and even if it weren’t, it’d be hard to get there).

And yet the reminders go on. Daily, because the software isn’t smart enough to realize that the individual entries actually belong to larger events. So for the past week I’ve been treat to daily tauntings of when we could go out and enjoy ourselves as a family. Sometimes our “intelligent” software? Not so intelligent.