If you see a stylus, there’s probably a good reason.

I was catching up on things this morning and saw this post on Daring Fireball regarding the impending flood of told-you-so tech pundits loudly proclaiming that Apple “blew it” because they might include a stylus with the still-hypothetical iPad Pro that might be coming. It occurred to me that a lot of tech writing, like every other facet of humanity, sees only black and white, ignoring any and all shades of grey interpolated between those two fixed points. Surprising, I know.

But this isn’t about defending Apple’s choices. This is about something that we as a culture have done and will continue to do. We say things, write things, and do things that are irrevocably bound to us, carved in time, for later examinations to throw back at us, disregarding the context of what we did entirely. Words are disassembled and used as weapons. Meaning and intent are disregarded or reframed in a revisionist history that suits a new agenda.

When Steve Jobs famously made that comment— the “if you see a stylus, they blew it” one—it’s pretty clear that he was talking about the general use cases involving touch screens and human interaction. I think at this point, years later, we can all agree that in many ways, this was the right direction to follow. It’s hard to imagine a world where we didn’t touch all the screens around us with our fingers. But that of course doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for a refinement of those interactions, a subset, in which certain users see value in employing a specific tool to do a specific job.

Reading that comment broadly as “a stylus is always a bad idea” is tantamount to the shortsighted letter-of-the-law interpretations we see every day in politics, religion, and any other human pursuit that we feel passionate about where we point to something from the past and apply it to a current situation. Context, understanding, timeframe, and intent are all valuable variables that need to be applied to these ideas to better see the point someone tried to make. This isn’t a technological fallibility; it’s a fundamentally human problem.

Latching on to the core of an single statement in its most literal sense prevents us from growing bigger and better ideas. It’s exhausting to see a bold step forward turn into fodder for the most inane and recursive discussions possible. To come back to the comment specifically, even if Apple decided “hey, you know what… maybe we were wrong about the stylus thing” it would likely be because it took the idea, observed how the world applied it and made a judgment call. It wouldn’t have followed the letter of the law, but the spirit of the law.

I personally couldn’t be more excited about the potential a more powerful and advanced iPad might bring. That product line needs a shot of adrenaline. It’s been relegated to gorgeous, inspiring commercials and good intentions, but it hasn’t grown the way a lot of us had hoped. If there’s a stylus, great. The device probably needs it.

Apple is a business, and it makes products people want to buy. Steve was notorious for changing his mind, as anyone who’s even studied Apple casually can tell you. Shifting gears is how the company made it this far. Don’t assume for a second that anything that’s ever been said is gospel. That’s just not how progress works.

Text messages and my shortcomings as a social human.

I hung out with a longtime friend on Saturday night. Well, afternoon and evening, really. Being old, by 10pm, we were done, and back at my house. Exhausted, we said goodbye and he took off. I showered and got into bed. Then we had a 45-minute text message conversation, mostly about his iPhone, which I was helping troubleshoot. But as I fell asleep, I couldn’t help but wonder: what is it about text messaging that is so unavoidably appealing to so many people? I love it myself, and prefer it in many social scenarios. I tried to distill it down to a few key elements to understand it better. This is what I landed on:

  1. Time investment
  2. Social grace
  3. Psychological/cognitive load

There are factors spread across these three areas that I think resonate with people on different levels, depending on who you are and how you interact with the people with whom you communicate. Picture it as a pie chart, rearranging percentages based on situation or personality. I’m going to examine these from my own perspective, but I’d be curious to know if I’m right about these for other people, and if so, how the percentages fall at any given time.

Time investment, or ‘why would I want to sit on the phone with you?’

I recall being a 7th grader when my parents decided it was time for me to have a telephone in my room. I got to pick out the one I wanted (even then, I was pragmatic; nothing fancy–a nice keypad with rubbery keys and a slim design) and they got me my own line. This was probably because we used our house line for my dad’s business as well as our family stuff. Either way, it was a big deal. I spent a lot of time on that phone that year. I remember calling friends and just laying there watching TV or doing nothing at all, in almost complete silence, for hours. Teenagers are weird.

Now, time spent on the phone is purely a tactical measure. If I have to be on the phone, you’d better well believe it’s to accomplish a task or set of objectives that I literally can not complete in any other way. The notion of sitting on the phone talking to someone for hours is simply exhausting no matter how I picture it. In fact, I’m getting a neck ache just thinking about it. For a variety of reasons, my time is so much more precious now than when I had my burgeoning 7th grade agenda meticulously organized in my Trapper Keeper. I don’t think I’m alone here, either. Anyone with small children would probably agree that free time just isn’t what it used to be. And even if you consider something like a phone connected to a Bluetooth headset, you’re still expending mental energy to maintain that phone call as you do other things. It just isn’t tenable anymore for many of us.

Texting is easier, quicker, and accepted in almost all situations. I say almost all because there are still an obvious number of things that absolutely require phone calls–family emergencies, relationship issues of any kind, etc.

Social grace, or ‘did you really just say that?’

Our mouths work very differently when we speak in a conversational context with other people as opposed to when we are thinking alone and can form words within the walls of our minds. Everyone has muttered something that probably didn’t really need to come out, and regardless of whether it’s embarrassing, destructive, unpleasant, or merely a misstatement, we recognize it and feel it. The more magnanimous individuals among us brush this off to make others feel better, but there’s something to be said for having some semblance of forethought and tact prior to speaking.

I feel like the slight delay sending a text message affords us allows me to reflect, even for a moment, on what I think I want to say. I can pause, process, and respond in a way that speaking in real-time doesn’t always afford me. I like to think I’m pretty quick on my feet anyway, and can feel fairly comfortable speaking extemporaneously about a lot of things to all kinds of different folks, but even still, I know I’m not conversationally infallible. A joke may land flat, I may inadvertantly insult someone who I’ve only just met, or I might just be an asshole thinking I’m being delightful. I try to be cognizant of these moments, but they still come up from time to time. Text messages give me that added advantage of stopping myself for a heartbeat to do a quick assessment.

There’s a flip side to this, of course. Context, sarcasm, tone, and a great many other things can be lost, mistranslated, or otherwise morph in the worst of ways in the course of a text message conversation. It’s very easy to make the same mistakes you would in a spoken conversation with typed words. And emoji only goes so far.

Psychological/cognitive load, or ‘sweet mother of mercy, just shut up for a minute’

I am someone who has a finite amount of patience for speaking of any kind. If I’m embroiled in a conversation that I can’t find a way out of, or I’m tired of, or whatever, I try to be kind (operative word: try) and see my way clear to another part of the room. The bathroom and I are intimately acquainted with this little dance. Talking can be exhausting! Being around people is tiring! I am totally outing myself as a hermit-in-waiting, but I don’t care. I used to think it was funny to just wander away quietly, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that I’m not a Wes Anderson character, and that this kind of behavior just makes me a dick.

Text messages allow me to be the very best dick I can be. I have a little kid. Anything can happen. I have a pregnant wife who watches that kid most of the day and needs respite when I get home. I’m a busy guy at work and have many obligations. I occasionally operate a motor vehicle and I make a great effort to do so safely. There is no end to the amount of reasons I can’t respond to you right this minute, or had to wander away from our text conversation. And if you’re going to get bent out of shape about that because I was nice enough to turn read receipts on, I’ve got some pro tips on not caring. Just ask. This freedom is intoxicating. This actually builds on the previous two elements: there’s an asynchronous time factor working in my favor, as well as the delicate social balance of not being obnoxious to someone in person. This is my pool, and I am Michael Fucking Phelps when it comes to this shit.

I’ve been texting for years now. I never get tired of it. I think my love for it grows every day. And when I love something, I guess I find it enjoyable to examine why. It helps me understand myself a little more, and I’d say it’s a valuable exercise. Even if it’s through an asinine blog post, it’s worth something to stop and think about our motivations around certain activities. Self-reflection by way of emoji poop. Sounds about right.

Siri, SMS, IFTTT, and Todoist.

When a lot of us started checking out Todoist after Federico’s comprehensive review, one of the things I noticed I’d be giving up was the Siri integration that I’d come to rely on with OmniFocus. OF has a nice feature where it would watch your Reminders for things you added, presumably using Siri, and pull them into your inbox within the app. Todoist is insanely flexible in so many ways, but there’s not currently a direct parallel for this feature.

I started looking to IFTTT for a solution to this. I noticed some recipes that attempt to do the same thing, as IFTTT can monitor your iOS Reminders as well. But since it needs to occasionally be brought up from the background, if you don’t jump into the app regularly, the reminders may never show up. Which defeats the purpose of capturing this way.

I had forgotten that IFTTT can process incoming SMS data as a trigger as well as use it as an endpoint. So today I looked into pushing text messages to IFTTT and having them then get redirected to Todoist. Since both services talk to one another directly on the web (one of the most interesting parts of Todoist in my opinion), this actually works incredibly well, and way faster than I’d anticipated.

You’ll need to set up a recipe in the following way:

  • Start with the SMS channel, and choose either the plain incoming SMS option or a tagged one if you prefer (my suggestion would be to keep it simple, since we’re relying on Siri to do the work and you want accuracy).
  • Then choose the Todoist channel (activate it if you haven’t already) and have the task sent to whatever project you like. I always use inbox, as it’s just for general capture anyway.
  • Once the recipe is made, you can tap to edit certain parameters of the Todoist action (priority, task content, due date1, and note for premium subscribers).
  • I created a contact simply called “Inbox” on my iPhone, again to keep things simple for Siri.

So now, I just say: “Send a message to Inbox that says remember to follow up with the team” and Siri parses it as you’d expect, and sends the message2 directly to IFTTT. Seconds later (it’s shockingly fast in my experience) the task is in my Todoist inbox. It’s way faster and more reliable than hoping the IFTTT app is running often enough to pull reminders directly, and since sending text messages is one of those easier Siri things that works more often than it doesn’t, it’s pretty solid.

Todoist’s web core makes it an interesting way to funnel things into your task list. I’m so glad I thought to do this, because it makes that instant capture I was missing totally achievable again.

  1. I noticed one weird thing related to applying due dates to Todoist via IFTTT. I have my Todoist account set to add a reminder notification to any task that has a date and time associated with it. However, while tasks with times were added correctly, the reminder notification was not. I reached out to support about this and was told that this connection probably isn’t currently supported via IFTTT. If you’re just collecting inbox items this way and processing them later, it’s a nonissue. If you edit the recipe to add dates/times however, just be aware of this potential limitation. 
  2. You can do this with Siri and email too, using the subject line as the task item and the body as the note (if you’re a premium subscriber). But I found that since I’m usually only doing the name of the task anyway, as it’s the bit I need to think about and SMS is so fast and easy, it’s preferable to email in this case. 

Workflow: Annotate Screenshot and Delete.

One of the things I’m always trying to do is reduce the number of apps I need to use to accomplish certain tasks. In the absence of Yosemite’s Markup feature on iOS, I’m using Skitch, and have for a while. It’s good, but I almost never open it unless I need to draw an arrow in a picture for some reason. And then I send it somewhere, and then I have a screenshot I don’t really want, and a second version with an arrow. Both of which I want out of my Camera Roll.

So I built a workflow to do just that. Here’s what it does:

  • Looks for your most recent screenshot
  • Opens that photo in the editor so you can do whatever you want to it
  • Copies the edited photo to the clipboard
  • Launches the Share sheet
  • Provides the option to immediately delete the original screenshot after sharing is complete

Instant editing, no messy screenshot leftovers. Unfortunately since the image editor can’t currently run as part of an extension, you need to launch it by itself. If that changes, this is going to be awesome.

Get it here:

Annotate & Delete

12-14-2014, 9:24 PM
Phillip Gruneich over at One Tap Less (one of my new favorite places on the internet) took this and improved on it, bypassing the clipboard entirely. I’m still getting the hang of variables, so any time someone can take my initial idea and make it better, I’m all for it. Check out his full post here, which has a few other gems as well.

Oh, and it was brought to my attention that the ampersand in the workflow name causes trouble if you try to use it in Launch Center Pro. Just change it to ‘and’ to avoid that. Didn’t occur to me. I just liked the way it looked.

Quick memes with Workflow.

Something I do a lot (for better or worse) is look for silly images online, and apply text over them, for ostensibly comedic purposes. How effective this is depends on a variety of factors, such as alcohol intake for the evening, who the intended recipient is, etc. Anyway, there’s this amazing new app called Workflow that is bound to make so many things on iOS so much cooler and easier. It’s truly a groundbreaking achievement, and as such, I decided the first noble application of this new power would be to extend my reach as a horse’s ass.

With that, I introduce my first workflow. I’ll probably revise it, and I’m certainly looking for feedback if you’re the kind of person who can make it better. Please get in touch. Anyway, here’s what it does. It’s saved as a shortcut in Launch Center Pro. When I tap it:

  • The Workflow app launches
  • I’m prompted to enter some text
  • I’m sent to Safari for a Google search on that term, where I can pick “images” and find something
  • I find an image and copy it to the clipboard
  • A second workflow that sits as an extension 1 returns me to Workflow (the app is told to wait until I return to continue executing the flow)
  • Upon returning to the foreground, it opens the clipboard contents in the image editor
  • From here I can add text quickly
  • The new image is saved to the Camera Roll
  • Then my Twitter app opens, and I can drop the new asinine image right into a tweet

I know for sure that I can tighten this up, and I plan to keep tweaking it, as well as try to do something legitimately productive with this unbelievable app. But this was a great little exercise to figure everything out and now I have a handle on the basics.

If you want to try it out, you can install the following:

Add Text to Photo

Return to Workflow (action extension)

Have fun and make lots of hilarious pictures!

  1. I reached out to Ari for a hand relaunching the app from the action extension since I couldn’t get the default URL to work. What’s currently saved in that extension will likely change as the team updates the URL scheme(s) for the app, so keep that in mind. For the time being, it functions as expected.