That Damn Headphone Dongle

There’s been a lot of controversy (or dare I say anger?) since the announcement of the iPhone 7 and 7Plus regarding the removal of the headphone jack. While I never really considered it a big deal, I was curious to see what my experience would be when traveling with it.

The Apple-supplied EarPods never really quite fit my ears properly, so I wasn’t really keen on trying out the new lightening-equipped ones. And, thru many years of trying a large variety of earbuds, I really have come to love the way the Bose QC20‘s with “StayHear” tips sit in my ear; not to mention the overall quality of the sound.

Yesterday, I “dongled” for the first time

And you know what, everything was just fine. And, just for kicks, I used the dongle on the iPad Pro too. That worked swell.

Sure — i’ll go ahead and probably get one of the new W1-powered headsets to play around with it — I’m generally interested in seeing where the technology goes beyond just sound. The W1 is a computer in your ear, and I have a feeling this is going to be another step from Apple in the evolution of computing.

But for now, the dongle didn’t ruin my day.

Don’t Get Hacked by a USB Charger

“What do you mean the charger hacked me?”

Now that I am doing a large amount (if not all) of my computing via mobile devices, making sure that I have enough power with me throughout the day is an absolute must.

Even though the iPhone 6S+ and the iPad Pro 9.7 are great on the battery, I still carry a small backup battery and a rapid charge adapter with me to keep myself charged throughout the day. And as a frequent traveler, I also find myself in a rental car, airplane, airport or hotel with a USB charge available — but I never felt really comfortable plugging into some random USB port just to get a quick battery recharge.

Every day, there seems to be a new article detailing a horror story about people using these plugs out of convenience and then the chargers steal your data — a practice commonly known as “juice jacking”:

Juice jacking happens when a mobile device (i.e. smart phone or tablet) is plugged into a charging station via USB — it does not occur via laptops or devices plugged into wall sockets. Any employee with a smart phone or tablet that is connected to a corporate network can open up exposure simply by plugging his or her dying device into the USB charging kiosk at an airport, business center or conference. These charging stations can be hijacked by hackers and configured to read and copy data from the device and also upload malware to facilitate later exploitation, all without the user’s knowledge that anything is amiss.

To combat that, one of the easiest and most useful tools that I always carry with me is a USB “condom” — also known as a smart data blocker. From trying out a bunch of these, I highly recommend the PortaPow Fast Charge + Data Block USB Adaptor with SmartCharge. It’s easily the best one that I’ve tried, without any charge time performance hit. Basically, the PortaPow sits in-between your normal charge cable and the USB outlet — cutting the data lines of the USB — so your device is only getting the charge and doesn’t leak your data.

It’s a simple but effective way to keep yourself and your data safe.


“The future is all around us, waiting, in moments of transition, to be born in moments of revelation.”

It’s happening again: in less than one month, I have already begun to question the iPad Pro experiment. While I’ve been getting by just fine answering emails, writing documents, attending meetings and taking notes, there just seems to be something off with the entire experience.

Remember, I started this journey again with the specific intent on shaking up my workflow; what I have quickly found is the opposite. Instead of reinventing how I work, I have been trying to bend the iPad Pro into my existing workflow.

More apps, little hacks here and there, putting together a Workflow or creating new Pythonista scripts to get things done — where on a full laptop, these things are easy to do. (Side note: Don’t mistake what I’m saying here — Pythonista is FANTASTIC; it’s opened up a whole new level of productivity for me on the mobile devices).

But really, at the end of the day, while it’s an interesting exercise, I’ve found that I am spending a good chunk of time trying to make things work optimally so I don’t need a laptop with me.

But I think this just ultimately highlights a key flaw, which I mentioned in an earlier post:

The iPad Pro is all the hardware you need, but the software hasn’t caught up yet.

I’m not quite sure why application developers haven’t done more with the Pro at this point. Too many devices and differences to build for? Too limited of a market? Perhaps it’s similar to what I saw with landscape mode on the iPhone 6+ and 6S+ .. it’s incredible useful, yet few apps really took advantage of it.

And then there’s the question of “small apps” vs “full apps”. On one hand, I like single focused applications where you can get to information quickly. On the other, it often gets in the way and lends to application overload: I really don’t want 6 photo apps to filter, crop and manipulate an image — I want a single, full-featured workhorse.

Which brings me to the MacBook 12″ Retina, the other machine in my stable that I’ve been neglecting as I try this experiment.

It weighs only 2.03lbs (vs the iPad Pro 9.7 with Smart Keyboard Cover at just under 2lbs), has a solid 8–10 hours on the battery, and runs full macOS. It has a super-small wall-wart plug, and despite controversy, I actually like the keyboard. Alot. While there’s also been alot of back and forth on the single USB-C port or the overall speed of the laptop, I haven’t really had a problem with this. I even use VMWare Fusion on the laptop to run Kali on occasion.

My only fault with it is the crappy 480p iSight camera — it sucks in low light and it’s great for video chat.

In the end, it’s not a big difference when it comes to the hardware, weight or battery.

It’s the software that is the tipping point. Did I mention it runs full macOS?

I’m not at the point of giving up on the iPad Pro for work (yet), but I am starting to question if the real optimal workflow combination is the MacBook 12″ and the iPhone 6S+?

The Evernote Exodus

One of the most important, yet simplest, tasks that do every day is to take notes. While this probably isn’t the right post to discuss exactly how many hours of my life is spent in meetings, note-taking has easily become one of the single most critical tasks for my computing needs. This need is ubiquitous for me, it doesn’t really matter if I am on the MacBook or the iPad Pro or the iPhone — I need my “backup brain” with me.

The concept of a “backup brain” is one I’ve been thinking about in various forms over the years, but generally it’s a place to store all your random thoughts, web clippings, important facts, bookmarks, and pretty much everything possible. The tools I’ve experimented with have varied over the years from personal wiki’s (VoodooPad) to OneNote to almost any and every tool I could find.

Then 3 years ago, I discovered Evernote — and since then my workflow, my world, has centered around it.

  • Taking notes in a meeting? Evernote.
  • Long term archive of articles? Evernote.
  • Shopping lists? Packing lists? Evernote.
  • Scanned file storage? Evernote.
  • Commonplace Book? Evernote.
  • Evernote, Evernote, Evernote.

While Evernote wasn’t perfect — it basically accomplished what I wanted — a place for me to store notes in a manner where I could find it quickly and easily. On whatever device/computer I used.

And still for some odd reason, every year, I’ve continued to look for a replacement. I’m not sure why — perhaps it was the integration of their silly “work chat” feature. Or the fact that I was paying for another premium service. Or, perhaps it is just the constant drive that I have to keep simplifying my workflow.

The final push for me though was the pricing changes this past month. I was a premium customer for the last 3 years and $70/yr just felt wrong to me. I’m not the only one — lots of backlash here and here.

Migration to Notes

I finally pulled the trigger and migrated the thousands of notes out of Evernote this past week and into Apple Notes. It’s pretty easy to do — Export a series of notes out of the desktop Evernote application using the “Evernote XML Format”, then just import it into Notes directly. There is a great article describing the process as well.

  • Is Apple Notes as feature rich as Evernote? Nope.
  • Does it matter? Nope.
  • Is my workflow simplified? Yes.

And that in the end, is what matters most to me.

Update 12.19.16

Evernote has further angered people by releasing, and now backtracking from a new privacy policy. I am now fully off of Evernote, and have no plans on looking back.

User data must be treated as a liability, and not an asset.

Mobile Tools

if all you have is nails, sometimes you need a hammer…

You never know what you’re going to need…

One of the things that I still find joy in is the simple discovery of understanding of how things work, regardless of what weird road my career has taken me to. These days, it’s rare that my day has me spending time in a debugger or pounding out code like I used to. And while I often joke that Keynote is my new IDE, I still hack away at technology when I have free time because I simply enjoy it.

More importantly — I fundamentally believe that it keeps me sharp. Technology isn’t stagnant; it’s amazing how often people I run across who have decided to just stop learning.

Anyways… One of the biggest things I have had to let go of (and it’s a big one) when I made the leap over to using the iPad Pro as my day to day computing device, are the things that comprise my tool “warchest”. Heck, some of these utilities/scripts/apps I’ve been lugging around with me for years. And while I certainly don’t need them every day, I can often find the right one for the job when the need crops up. Or if something special popped up — just write a new one fairly quickly.

Being able to get things done is an obvious requirement of my new minimal setup, and having to completely rethink how tools play into this was tested this past weekend. We were taking a few days off for the 4th, so I was on the road again with my new setup — something from work popped up (as it always does). During the course of figuring out what the issue is, I had the need to examine a few photos EXIF data. For those that don’t know what EXIF is, the easiest way to explain it is that it’s data on a photo that isn’t the picture. Almost every digital camera, phone, etc., adds additional “metadata” to every photo it takes — information about the camera, the lens, even the location that the photo was taken (think of the lovely privacy issues).

On the Mac, I would typically just open up the photo in pretty much any photo editing application (or even Preview), and just view the information. But this was an interesting challenge on the iPad Pro — Photos didn’t appear to have any way to do this built in.

Often the solution on iOS utilities can be found on the AppStore, where I found 2 quick ways to do what I wanted:

  • ViewEXIF — A very simple .99 application that works as an extension to the Photos app (review). Worked perfectly.
  • Workflow — Workflow is an interesting application that reminds me of old block programming used to automate tasks on iOS. I’ve had the application for awhile, but frankly, really haven’t used it for much. They do support an Image object with the ability to “Get Details of Images” which would have also done the job.

I ended up using ViewEXIF, as it was just a quick and easy solution to my current problem.

The Hammer

Of course, when I had more time to really sit down and think about it, I ended up writing my own tool — on the iPad itself. As I mentioned earlier, I love to understand how things work and to push the boundaries where possible. While most folks wouldn’t go this route, I found it to fit the best for the tinkering way I compute.

While XCode is still non-existent for iOS (and a good topic for another post), I have been spending quite a bit of time over the last few months (on iPhone, now the pad) working in my new favorite tool— Pythonista.

I have no idea how/why Apple has allowed it into the AppStore, but it’s a full-blown Python development environment. It allows you to create standalone apps, application extensions, call into Objective-C, debug, etc. It’s easily the single app which is responsible for completely transforming the way I use my devices.

I can write code directly on the iPad or iPhone. It’s amazing.

With it, I was able to easily create a Python extension, pass in a photo, and by using the Python Image Library (built in to Pythonista), use __getexif() and parse through the EXIF data myself.

While I understand 99% of humans wouldn’t go to this extreme to get the job done, I have found over the last few weeks, having the ability to create my own custom Python tools that allow me to bend/extend the capabilities of my devices has brought me to a whole new level of productivity.

Big win for the iPad here, while my laptop gathers dust at home.

Update: After I posted this, Omar dropped me a recommendation for Exify from the IconFactory. Took a quick look, and as usual, the IconFactory delivers — its a real nice extension. The only thing that dont see it handling is the ability to strip metadata from a picture.

Signing a Letter

O Canada — Who knew you needed a signed document for kids crossing the border…

On the first trip that I was planning to leave the MacBook at home and go “iPad Pro” only was a quick weekend jaunt up across the border to Victoria, Canada. Both my wife and I were participating in the Victoria 70.3 Ironman, so it seemed to be a short and relatively easy way to give the new travel “rig” a workout.

The timing for this trip worked out where we could cross the border by way of the Anacortes to Sydney ferry — but we would need to take 2 different trips. I would head up on Thursday with my parents, and Liz and the kids could head up the following day. It’s quite a stunning boat ride, and really a much better way to get to Canada than hitting the U.S. border crossing by driving.

Need to relax? Take the ferry from Anacortes

While walking around on the ferry, I noticed a document that outlined some of the passport restrictions — specifically the requirements for minors under 18 which apparently recommends a letter of consent if both parents (or legal guardians) aren’t present at the time of crossing the border:

It is strongly recommended that if only one parent is crossing the border with a child under age 18 that they have a Consent Letter from the other parent granting permission to take the child out of the country. It is even more important if the child is traveling with a friend or relative without either parent present… There is no legal requirement that you have a Consent Letter. There is no specific format required for a letter. There is no requirement that a letter be notarized. However, border officials for both countries have complete and absolute discretion to allow, or deny, entry to anyone wanting to enter their country. With, or without, a letter they need to be comfortable that everything is above board or they will start digging to determine if a child abduction is in process.

Hmm… Ok.. I figured this would be a good test of the iPad Pro and the Apple Pencil. My plan would be to write up a quick letter of consent, sign it, take a photo of my passport, and then email it all to Liz to print out and bring with her when she got to Sydney the next day.

I wrote the letter in Pages — then quickly discovered when I went to sign it that it doesn’t support inking. What. The. Hell.

In a bit of a panic, I resorted to signing my name in Notes, then exporting it as a picture. After a quick crop, I was then able to insert the image into my Pages document. Grabbing a picture of my passport was simple — Scanbot is my go to for anything that I need to scan. I then just bundled it all up and sent over the mail to Liz.

While I was able to get the job done — the simple fact that the Apple “work” applications dont support the Apple Pencil at this point is somewhat mindblowing to me. I’d assume that in the iOS 10 timeframe, this perhaps will be fixed, but right now, it’s almost embarassing that they haven’t updated their apps yet.

Since this, there are several great alternatives that I have been playing with for this type of situation:

  • Notes — Seems simple enough, I could have just written the letter in the stock Notes app and signed directly in there.
  • PDF Expert — I could have downloaded the “stock” letter as a PDF, or even exported my letter from Pages to PDF Expert, then used the Pencil to sign.
  • Notability — Recently re-installed Notability after a long absence on the iPad (and iPhone) — looks like they have done a really great job with Pencil support, and I may start to use this as my default “note taking” application.

Anyways — this wasn’t, in the end, a catastrophic failure — but certainly a bit of an eye-opening one, which left me with a simple thought:

The iPad Pro is all the hardware you need, but the software hasn’t caught up yet.

The iPad Pro Experiment

Every few years I experiment with a complete change of my day to day workflow; sometimes it involves radical changes to the software I’m using, others it’s a shake up of the hardware and my everyday carry to accomplish more with my personal and work computing. I’ve even gone “all in” on iOS before — using just a phone and an iPad Mini for several weeks, then quickly switching back to the MacBook when the novelty wore off.

Over the last several months, I’ve been curiously watching Ben Brooks, Federico Viticci, Thomas Gamstaetter as well as a few others to see how they have fared with similar experiments. Something about a more focused and simplistic computing experience has really struck a cord with me.

It only took a few weeks to finally take the plunge — went with the 9.7″ iPad Pro (space gray, cellular) along with the Smart Keyboard and Apple Pencil. Also bought a regular Smart Cover for around the house — only need the keyboard at work or travel.

I plan on using this space to document the experiment with failures and wins, as well as keeping a running list of tools, tricks and tips. Or maybe it’ll be a place to just post something interesting, humorous or useful.

Here we go.