Top 3 Podcasts You Must Listen To In 2016

Top 3 Podcasts

Why listen to podcasts? Because they are the perfect form of entertainment to consume while doing something else. It doesn’t matter if you’re washing dishes, folding laundry, or rocking the baby–you can escape the boredom with thought-provoking material that is both free and “hands-free.”

If this sounds compelling, I have a quick list of 3 podcasts you should listen to in 2016, along with a brief description.

1) Hello Internet

It’s hard to neatly explain Hello Internet. It is conversations between CGP Grey and Brady Haran, two guys who make interesting YouTube videos. The strength of the show is their knack for zeroing in on engaging topics and having fun conversations about them. Example topics they discuss include flag design, self-driving cars, free will versus determinism, Apple products, reviews of Star Wars and the Martian, the merits of “hotstoppers” (Starbucks splash sticks), plane crashes, and subvocalization (the internal speech you hear in your head when you read silently).

Grey is a former high school physics teacher who is into brain and productivity hacks. He has some unusual opinions. For example, he thinks that learning foreign languages and keeping up with current events are not great uses of time. Much of the show is spent arguing the merits of such ideas. Agree or disagree with him, Grey has thought through his positions thoroughly.

Brady is a likeable science-loving guy who used to be a journalist. As such he’s very good at asking insightful questions. He does an excellent job playing devil’s advocate to Grey. The two have excellent chemistry and clearly enjoy their conversations. We are lucky to be allowed to eavesdrop.

This podcast is my favorite and it makes my day when a new episode comes out. I put anything else I am listening to on hold and switch over to HI immediately. Episodes usually last between 1.5–2 hours and can easily be broken into smaller chunks for your commute.

2) 99% Invisible

This podcast gives the fascinating backstory of the designs of all kinds of things. The host, Roman Mars, has the chillest voice imaginable. Each episode he takes us on a 15 minute story about such topics as the effect of sound effects on our emotions, the design of the suburban mall, or the carpet at the Portland airport. You will learn something new from every episode.

3) You Are Not So Smart

This podcast by journalist David McRaney is all about cognitive biases, heuristics, and logical fallacies. It’s tag line is “A Celebration of Self Delusion.” Basically it covers all the systematic ways in which humans make terrible decisions. He typically interviews leading psychologists about their work. For example, when explaining the Dunning-Krueger Effect (in which the untalented overestimate their skill) McCraney interviews David Dunning himself.

Some of my favorite episodes include: the Post Hoc Fallacy, Survivorship Bias, the Placebo Effect, and the Illusion of Knowledge.

There are some other excellent podcasts that didn’t quite make the cut for my Top 3. They are: Accidental Tech Podcast, Serial, Hidden Brain, What’s the Point, Question of the Day, Freakanomics Radio, Connected, and Cortex.

I believe there is a great podcast out there for just about everyone. Here’s to a 2016 full of high quality audio entertainment!

This Never Would Have Happened If Emperor Palpatine Were Still Alive

Emperor Palpatine

This Never Would Have Happened If Emperor Palpatine Were Still Alive

Warning: spoilers for Star Wars: The Force Awakens ahead. If you haven’t seen it yet, bookmark it and come back later.

The Empire and its successor, the First Order, can’t innovate anymore. Emperor Palpatine would have hated The First Order’s newly launched Starkiller Base weapon. It definitely had some “ho-hum” incremental improvements over the original Death Star. For instance, using a nearby star for a power source is pretty neat, but this is an evolutionary feature not a revolutionary feature.

It’s clear that since the death of the charismatic but mercurial Palpatine, the Empire/First Order is just putting out rewarmed leftovers. They seem unable to think outside the “large spherical celestial body-destroying” box in their weapons development group!

If the Emperor were still alive and one of his weapons people showed him a model of Starkiller Base his wrinkled countenance would have twisted with rage. He would have Force choked them to death. The First Order’s marketing division was laying it on thick by referring to Starkiller Base as “The Best Space Weapon Ever.” Since Palpatine’s death, the Empire/First Order is still stuck at the tired intersection of doomsday machinery and Storm Troopers.

And let’s not forget about the “thermal oscillator gate” scandal in which yet another single weak point allowed a mega weapon to be destroyed while the more nimble competition literally swooped in and decimated them. In the past the Empire invented massive Star Destroyers that “just worked” but clearly those days are long gone. I guess having massive factories with droids working around the clock in poor conditions isn’t a recipe for consistent quality.

Emperor Palpatine, while not without flaws, was always a hands-on leader. He inspired his subordinates to believe in their mission with his masterful use of the Force, sometimes called his “reality distortion field.” He always brought a blaster-like focus to products and famously said “no” to a thousand features in order to create an incredible Force-like user experience.

Sure, he could be a micro-manager who was not fun to work for, but he was effective. He even got deeply involved in making the unseen parts of his super weapons, right down to the trash compactors. With his death, the system he put in place is unable to fill the void he left behind.

The First Order is doomed without Palpatine. Snoke’s First Order needs to stop trying to do what they think the Emperor would do and find its own identity. While also remaining completely true to what Emperor Palpatine would have done if he were still alive. One thing is certain: if the First Order’s launch of their next generation doomsday orb isn’t available in Rose Gold then they blew it.

The Exercise Nut’s Guide to the Apple Watch

Apple Watch

The Exercise Nut’s Guide to the Apple Watch

I am a serious fitness enthusiast. Some might say “fanatic.” Despite having two kids under 4, I still exercise 5 days per week. Failure to workout leaves me twitchy–and crabby. Every week I get in some HIIT on the treadmill and rowing machine as well as a good mixture of weightlifting, and tough outdoor running. I also should mention that since April I have tracked virtually every calorie that has gone into my mouth.

Apple Watch is my always-on fitness tracker. The step and workout data that it detects get saved into HealthKit on my iPhone. Then MyFitnessPal pulls in that data to take into account my activity for my daily caloric intake. The more active I am the more I get to eat. I’m way more motivated to move by gaining calories for the day than I am by the Activity Rings that Apple uses to gamify exercise.

I believe the Apple Watch is the best smartwatch available. It has the best combination of utility and style on the market today. I love notifications on the wrist, the Digital Crown, and complications. But I am going to ignore all that stuff to focus on the Apple Watch as a serious fitness wearable.

Style Meets Comfort

I have a 42mm Apple Watch Sport with a white sport band and silver case. I also bought a black sport band. Initially I ordered it with the black sport band and space gray case, but I found them too dark together. I quite like the contrast between the black band and the silver case. To my surprise I also really like the white band. Yeah, it doesn’t look as impressive as a $5000 Swiss watch. But I have no use (or budget) for that.

How is any of this relevant for fitness? The Apple Watch simply looks better than any other running watch or wrist-worn activity tracker. The ability to easily switch out the bands makes it versatile enough for most dress up occasions. Also the sport bands are insanely comfortable. I can wear mine all day without wanting to take it off. When I wore my FitBit Surge full time I had to take it off for an hour every day to let my skin breathe. The combination of comfort and style means Apple Watch is an activity tracker I can wear all day. That sets it apart. It even sets apart from other Apple devices that aren’t very comfortable to use, cough, iPad Pro, cough.

The sport bands are made out of fluoroelastomer. That’s Apple-speak for “fancy plastic.” It’s a great choice of materials that doesn’t promote extra sweating. Also, the sport bands don’t become stinky with all the sweat contact. They are my favorite thing about the Apple Watch.

Watch Face

There are a number of decent watch faces, but I prefer the Utility face. I like it because it’s clean, simple, and highly customizable. Where Utility really shines is that you can use the largest complication slot on the bottom for the Activity app. Doing so displays the active calories burned, minutes of exercise, and number of stand goals met. I hate squinting at the tiny complications with the activity rings on the other faces, so this is a nice alternative. Also, I am just not that fond of the rings. They don’t tell me much (even full-screen in the Activity app) because virtually every day they wrap around a couple of times.

IMG_2214.JPG
Utility face with long Activity complication

You can do something similar with the Modular face if you are willing to use up the one humongous complication in the center of the face. The problem with that is you are stuck looking at the odd layout of the Modular face. Side note: I’d prefer to use a digital watch face, but Modular is too painful for me to use.

Water Resistance

Apple downplays the water resistance of the Watch. I’m not much of a swimmer, but I wear mine in the shower all the time. I wear it whenever I go paddleboarding out on the lake because I am completely unconcerned about submerging it. I have worn it for some light swimming too. It has handled it all well, although when the screen is wet it doesn’t detect screen touches.

Stand Up Paddleboarding
Stand up paddleboarding

Many times I have taken the Watch off my wrist and held it under a stream of water from the faucet while twirling the Digital Crown to clean it. That’s per Apple’s instructions for keeping the Digital Crown working smoothly. Zero problems. I wouldn’t take it scuba diving, but otherwise you will be just fine.

Heart Rate Monitor

The Apple Watch has the standard LED heart rate monitoring technology that most wrist-based wearables have. It works pretty well, provided your band fits correctly. I initially used the large-sized band and frequently got spurious readings. Later I discovered that the small-sized band has its holes offset so that they fall in between the holes of the large band. By switching to the small band I get a better fit with more accurate readings.

IMG_2262.JPG
Utility face with long Activity complication

Normally the Apple Watch only measures heart rate once every 10 minutes (and only then if you and your wrist aren’t moving.) During a workout it tries to measure it “continuously.” When I am not working out and I bring up the Heart Rate glance my last reading was often 5–10 minutes ago. Despite this limitation there are stories of the Apple Watch saving people’s lives by uncovering health problems. I would like to see the non-workout heart rate get measured a little more frequently or be user configurable.

Like other wrist-worn heart rate monitors it gives bogus readings if you bend your wrists much, say while doing push-ups. In fact doing push-ups sometimes results in the back of my hand inadvertently long pressing the Digital Crown and activating Siri. That would be fine if she would help motivate me to force out another 10 reps!

I have also found that the heart rate monitor is wildly inaccurate for jumping rope, it frequently gives me insanely high readings. In fact the high end of the heart rate spectrum generally seems less accurate. When I do sprints it gives readings that are about 10% higher than other heart rate monitors.

It is more accurate than a chest strap heart rate monitor for certain kinds of activities. Things that make chest straps slip like sit-ups, back extensions, or rowing. That said you can pair your Apple Watch with a chest-mounted heart rate monitor if you desire.

While using a Polar chest strap, the FitBit Surge, and the Apple Watch simultaneously on several occasions I have observed that the Apple Watch is usually the least accurate of the three. It is also the slowest to acquire an initial measurement. But in my opinion it’s still good enough and usually it was pretty close. In my experience all heart rate monitors give flaky readings sometimes.

My biggest issue with the Apple Watch and heart rate is in the software. Only the most basic information is shown for your heart rate after the workout. You are shown average BPM but no have sense of heart rate zones or any kind of visualization of your heart rate over time.

Avg BPM after a workout on the Apple Watch
Apple’s inadequate workout data

Apple’s Health App is no help here either. I have found one third party app that gets me closer to what I want. Contrast this with what FitBit gives you:

IMG_6348
Utility face with long Activity complication

Workout Types

Apple Watch supports the following activities in the Workout app:
* Elliptical
* Indoor Cycle
* Indoor Run
* Indoor Walk
* Other
* Outdoor Cycle
* Outdoor Run
* Outdoor Walk
* Rower
* Stair Stepper

This is a good start. As with most wearables lifting weights gets relegated to Other. Weight workouts can vary tremendously by pace, variety of exercises, and heaviness of weights. So heart rate monitors are not very insightful in the data they provide about resistance training.

Otherwise these workout types are pretty good. I’ve found that hybrid workouts that involve weights, rowing, and treadmill are best lumped into a single Other workout. If I break them out into separate workouts inevitably I forget to change it when I switch activities.

GPS-less

I refuse to take my iPhone on a serious run outside. Having it bounce around in my pockets is intolerable. Also I’m unwilling to wear my iPhone in an arm band. I find arm bands uncomfortable and performance-inhibiting.

I live in Minnesota and run outside year round. This means that I’d be bringing my iPhone with me on sub-zero winter runs on icy trails. Oh yeah, and because the days are so bloody short I’d be running by the light of my headlamp. With my $800 pocket-sized computer. What could possibly go wrong?

These are the local trails
Here’s a typical Minneapolis trail in winter

But as a serious-ish runner I need GPS for pacing, elevation change, split times, and interval runs. The Apple Watch offers none of that, without the iPhone coming along. Apple claims that if you take your iPhone with you for a few runs the Watch learns your stride length and thereafter you can rely on the Watch’s accelerometer without the phone to tell you your distance.

I’m here to tell you that’s mostly bunk. Yes, if you keep a very steady stride length like an automaton the Watch can give you within 0.1 mile of accuracy if you’re lucky. But if you run up hills, do intervals, run into a stiff wind, or vary your speed those distance estimates are useless.

Further, just like with your heart rate during the course of a workout, Apple’s first party apps do not nicely summarize your run with a map, splits, and the like. That information is nowhere to be found. Contrast this with what I get from a run with my FitBit Surge (and it’s way cooler in a desktop browser):

Heres a lap run on the FitBit Surge
Note the option to choose between lap splits and mile splits

So what’s a data-crazed tech-nerd chasing a 20 minute 5K to do? Why, wear two smartwatches on runs of course! I look like a complete tool when I’m running the trails of Minneapolis with a FitBit Surge on my right wrist and the Apple Watch on my left. But it gives me everything I want. “Having” to wear two smartwatches to get all the data I want is the ultimate first world problem.

Me with my dueling smartwatches
Dueling smartwatches

The Surge has GPS and tracks split times and pace. The Apple Watch logs my workout for the purpose of counting steps. It also adds to my daily calorie allowance in MyFitnessPal (if you earn more calories you definitely want that to show up.) It also allows me to always see my heart rate at a glance. I can’t do that without scrolling around on the Surge when running intervals with the lap run.

Until the Apple Watch has onboard GPS, it won’t be viable without the iPhone for serious runners. I’m defining a “serious runner” as someone who wants to improve their race time and trains accordingly.

I do take my iPhone in my pocket for Outdoor Walk “workouts.” That works great, the iPhone bouncing around doesn’t bother me and I listen to podcasts. I can use the Watch’s Now Playing glance to skip the ads and the phone stays in my pocket the whole time.

Outdoor Cycling

Regarding biking outdoors: the activity tracking is just fine. But I find that it’s quite dangerous and annoying to use the Apple Watch while biking. Raising your wrist to look at the time is irritating because you are steering with one arm and it doesn’t always wake the Watch. Having to raise your arm multiple times while biking flat out sucks.

If you need to touch the screen or dictate a message you are jeopardizing the safety of yourself and others. Those kinds of interactions require taking both hands off the handlebars and taking your eyes off the road. I tried to raise my left wrist to wake the screen, quickly regripped the handlebar, and then used my right hand to tap on the screen while biking, but that worked terribly. Even simply raising my wrist and using “Hey Siri” to set reminders is tricky because you need to check the dictated reminder text for accuracy.

Tuneage

If you like to listen to your favorite jams to get pumped up (or to distract yourself from your suffering) Apple Watch has got you covered. Playlists can be stored directly on the flash storage onboard the Watch. Transferring music playlists from the Music app on the iPhone to the Watch is done wirelessly over Bluetooth. It takes a while, and will likely require the Watch to be in its charger.

The Watch does have a tiny external speaker, but that won’t get it done for you. Instead you can pair the Watch directly to a pair of Bluetooth earbuds, like Jaybird X2’s which works quite well.

Two quick caveats: this only works with music rented or purchased through the Apple Music app. You won’t be playing your offline Spotify tunes directly from your Watch.

Also, it only works for music, forget about listening to podcasts unless you want to jump through iTunes hoops to make your podcasts look like really long songs. They would probably take up too much of the flash storage on the Watch anyway.

Cold Weather Performance

I’m eager to see how the Watch deals with sub-zero outdoor runs. In the past I would take my iPhone 5 on walks on very cold days so I could listen to podcasts. I would frequently get the message that my iPhone had overheated and needed to cool down before it could be used.

iphonetoocold
I doubt if it needed to cool down–it was about -15 Fahrenheit that day

I guess those Californians assume that if the weather is impairing the operation of your iPhone it must be due to extreme heat! Hopefully they haven’t made the same mistake with the Watch.

Apple seems to have made it very durable. I accidentally bang it on things all the time with no marks, chips, or scuffs. So I am optimistic that they have considered cold weather environments.

Conclusion

Don’t get the wrong idea, I really like my Apple Watch. I feel like I am missing a minor appendage when not wearing it. Comparing a general purpose first generation smartwatch to purely fitness-oriented wearables from FitBit or Garmin isn’t entirely fair. Certainly things like Apple Pay and the ability to dictate iMessages and emails from your wrist add huge value that dedicated activity wearables can’t touch.

But for people who are serious about fitness data, the Apple Watch is just not there yet. This group will likely need a second wearable device. That’s true even for people who aren’t as averse to working out with their iPhone as I am. For the fitness-obsessed I would hold off a generation or two until Apple adds GPS and richer activity capabilities in the software. There are rumors that the next generation of Apple Watch hardware will drop in 2016, so at least wait until then. I am confident that Apple will do what it always does: steadily iterate and make significant improvements with each generation.

Many of the problems around workout data visualization, lap runs, and split times can be fixed with software updates. I for one am eagerly looking forward to using my Apple Watch as my sole wearable. Then I won’t look so moronic wearing a watch on each wrist out in public!

Hallucinations Considered Harmful

Close your text editor now. I’m about to explain a plot device that will violently repulse your audience. It will be difficult to rebuild their trust afterwards. I’m talking about the use of hallucinations to advance a story.

Hallucinations are like dreams. Yours are captivating when recounted in detail, but other peoples’ are interminable. The first rule of writing hallucinations is to keep them brief. They probably aren’t as interesting to your audience as they are to you.

Conversely you may be thinking of writing a vision full of bizarre, otherworldly imagery. That might be visually interesting, but still grating to the audience because they are often a lengthy aside from the meat of the story. These hallucinations are often so strange and unrelatable that they can alienate people from the character experiencing it. An insane character is seldom an appealing character.

Let’s get one thing out of the way: I am not categorically opposed to using hallucinations in a story. A Beautiful Mind, Limitless, and Inception all contained such visions that were central to their stories. I have no problems with their use in those films. They were excellent plot elements. They didn’t seem long and boring because they were either very brief or better still the viewer didn’t know that they were hallucinations.

Before I provide a sampling of cringe-worthy examples, some spoiler alerts are needed. If you aren’t past Season 5 of The Walking Dead, Season 2 of Turn: Washington’s Spies, or Season 4 of Homeland you may want to stop now. Even so, I will try to avoid unnecessary detail to make my points. I quite enjoy all of those shows–yet they have each made egregious hallucinogenic plot errors. I have forgiven them, almost.

Here they are in order from moderately terrible to so abysmally self-enamored that they sell out the story.

  1. In The Walking Dead Season 3, Rick Grimes and his group have found refuge from the post-apocalyptic zombie hordes in a bleak, crumbling prison. There Rick has visions of his dead wife, Lori, wondering around the prison wearing a white dress. Erratic behavior and poor decisions are made by Rick as a result. Worse still this continues through several episodes. Why Rick’s feelings of guilt over her death couldn’t be shown to the viewer without insanity is beyond me.
    Its just so corny!
    It’s just so corny!
  2. In Turn Season 2 the Valley Forge episode has none other than General George Washington hallucinate that his teeth have fallen out. He then proceeds to have a lengthy back and forth with his dead brother while kneeling in the snowy forest. His brother’s mirage affirms Washington’s judgment and competence. Afterwards Washington rejoins reality fully self-validated as a result of his “conversation” with his brother. He is then able to make a choice over which he had been agonizing. There are many ways this could have been handled better, but even having it be a dream rather than a vision would have spared us all the ahistorical doubt over Washington’s sanity.
    Kneeling before his brother in the snowy forest of Valley Forge is not melodramatic at all
    Kneeling before his brother in the snowy forest of Valley Forge is not melodramatic at all
  3. In Homeland Season 4 in the Redux episode Carrie Matheson is drugged by a mole inside the US embassy in Pakistan. After some earlier unobjectionable hallucinations due to the drugs she is taken to the home of a Pakastani intelligence counterpart, Aasar Khan. There she sees visions of her dead on-again-off-again lover and on-again-off-again terrorist, Nicholas Brody. It dredged up a character and relationship that well overstayed their welcome in previous seasons. Further, it served no purpose other than getting her to curl up in the fetal position of “Brody’s” lap. “Brody” was of course shown to be the very handsome Khan in reality.
    Brody is very comforting to Carey and insufferable to the viewers
    Brody is very comforting to Carey and insufferable to the viewers
  4. Not to be outdone, in The Walking Dead, Season 5 in the What Happened and What’s Going On episode, they somewhat surprisingly kill off Tyreese, a quite compelling character. This is fine and is classic Walking Dead. But after getting bit by a walker Tyreese lies in a house hallucinating that he sees many other dead people talking to him. It’s a who’s who of Walking Dead has-beens, especially the unintentionally-over-dramatically-eye-patched Governor. This felt like the current cast members had schedule conflicts and they trotted out other actors who had less going on. They then showed us the inside of Tyreese’s head for what was the last few minutes of his life–although it could have been the last week of his life for as long as it took. It added nothing and could they could have given us some insight into Tyreese’s thoughts with a few simple last words. It tainted an otherwise strong episode.
    A roomful of hallucinated ex-characters
    A roomful of hallucinated ex-characters

Those are just the examples that come readily to mind. I’m sure there are far more egregious abuses of this plot device. If you can think of any, please add them in the comments.

If you’re a writer and you’re thinking of adding a hallucination element to your story, ask yourself these three questions:

  1. Is this going to take longer than one minute for the audience to take in?
  2. Can what’s going on in a character’s head be explained via dialog with real people, monologues, or any other means?
  3. Would it be undesirable for the audience to identify less with this character?

If your answer to any question is “yes”, please reconsider describing the vision and simply show the behavior that resulted from the vision. Or write the hallucination out altogether. You will have my undead gratitude if you do.

Chained To My Desk By The iPad Pro

ipad_pro

The iPad Pro sparked some violent disagreements. They quickly escalated into bloody skirmishes. Well, mental skirmishes. Held entirely within my head. Turns out, it’s hard to decide the fate of a $1,000+ device that you alternately find to be enticingly elegant yet also a malformed Franken-tablet that channels the Chevy El Camino.

The El Camino in all its sublime glory

At first sight I thought, “This iPad is comically oversized!” On the one hand, I loved the spacious screen. Text is supremely legible and photos look amazing. An empty canvas for sketching on that mammoth screen felt limited only by human imagination rather than the space between the bezels. But that very size also made the iPad Pro feel unwieldy.

This thing could be used as a cafeteria tray!

The software keyboard is as much like a physical keyboard as smooth glass pixels can be. It has a permanent row for numbers. When a number key is long-pressed a popover with the matching symbol appears. Swiping your finger upward types the symbol. Describing this feature is way harder than using it. There is almost never a need to switch keyboard modes for numbers or punctuation.

The iPad Pro on screen keyboard in all its glory

When I first picked it up, the iPad Pro felt lighter than its surface area led me to believe. The powerful A9X SoC and the 4 gigabytes of RAM can easily handle anything I need to do. Animations are buttery smooth and Safari rarely reloads tabs. The four speakers put out shockingly loud sound. The highs come out of the top speakers and the lows from the bottom speakers regardless of orientation–I found that to be the cherry on top.

But despite all these accolades I returned it.

Half Baked

It has been well-articulated elsewhere that iOS 9 doesn’t take full advantage of the iPad Pro. In particular, the home screen and Control Center seem almost purposefully exaggerated on that 12.9 inch screen. Many third party apps haven’t yet been updated for it either, though that will come. I make my living writing mobile apps so I would love to see Apple allow it to run developer tools like XCode or R Studio. Then it could be my only machine that won’t fit it in my pocket. For now I can only wistfully imagine writing code on my iPad.

Split screen multitasking is fantastic. When in landscape orientation with apps split 50/50 it’s almost like having two iPad Air 2s side by side in portrait. Each app is big enough to avoid the cramped feeling you can get in split screen with smaller devices. Restricting multitasking to two apps at once is underwhelming with that enormous screen. I forsee the use of as many as four simultaneous apps in iOS 10 for the iPad Pro.

The good news is that these are software shortcomings. They can all be fixed with updates.

Too Big To Hold

The iPad Pro is a whole new class of device. It’s not a laptop replacement with tablet-like features like the Microsoft Surface Pro 4 or the Surface Book. I think Horace Dediu said it best in this video. It’s a tablet for the desktop. It’s the first iOS device that is not as portable as many laptops.

Some have said that with the four speaker audio and the big screen it’s the perfect content consumption device. I disagree. It works great for watching Netflix at a table. But sitting on the couch with it was as unnatural as holding a cafeteria tray up on its edge at a 45 degree angle in my lap for an hour.

It lacks the ability to casually be held with one hand, despite Apple’s marketing photography. Even with two hands you will want it solidly placed in your lap.

One handed? This hand model must have trained hard for this photo shoot

Maybe I am just fidgety but when watching videos or writing while sitting on comfy furniture I like to hold the iPad without resting it on anything. Then I assume any relaxed posture I want; I can place the iPad as near to my face as my position dictates. It allows for pleasant use on an airplane even if the jackass in front of you reclines their seat and is effectively laying in your lap. That flexibility is also helpful for reading in bed.

I had occasion to give a brief speech that I read off the iPad Pro. There was no podium available so I held the right edge in my left hand with my left arm underneath the iPad. Then I was free to scroll with my right hand. It worked but felt cumbersome.

Clearly Apple wants the iPad Pro to be king for content creation on iOS. In many ways it is. But again, it’s size is also limiting. That software keyboard is great, but the screen is too big to thumb type in portrait orientation without resting it on anything. Even if Apple hadn’t removed the split keyboard it’s doubtful that thumb typing in portrait would work well. Landscape is better for typing but it needs to be propped up and sitting on a table. I find that typing in landscape can be done awkwardly in my lap.

Jason Snell astutely observed:

“I started to think that users of the iPad Pro might want to consider having a smaller iPad around for more casual lean-back use. That’s somewhat damning.”

I kept coming back to this idea myself: it made me want to have two different-sized iPads because the Pro just felt too unwieldy away from a hard surface. For my iPad use I need it to work in casual and “get-stuff-done” contexts. This was the single biggest problem for me.

The iPad Pro isnt quite this oversized.

Accessory to a Flawed Launch

The Smart Keyboard and Apple Pencil are key differentiators for the iPad Pro. Unfortunately neither was available at launch time.

Luckily my local Apple Store had some floor models set up with these accessories so I could briefly play with them. I immediately disliked the Smart Keyboard. It felt odd to type on, and I didn’t like the extra bulk it added to the already gigantic tablet. Also it folded so many times that I found it confusing to take on and off the device.

The software keyboard on the iPad Pro is so good that I couldn’t see myself needing a tactile keyboard too often anyway. And for the few occasions where I would, I have the standard Apple Magic Keyboard with the Origami Stand.

The Pencil is the more interesting device. In my brief experience it was a joy to use. It felt good in my hand, there was little lag, and the precision for writing and drawing felt just like a real pencil. I loved how angling the Pencil produced exactly the kind of shading I expected. Paper by 53 worked well, but I noticed that it actually worked even better with Apple Notes. I suspect that Paper will receive updates that will improve the experience with the Pencil.

Not For Me Yet

There are many reasons why creative people might love the iPad Pro. It has been shown that people are better able to think creatively in rooms with high ceilings; low ceilings tend to promote detailed work. This is called the cathedral effect. I can’t help but wonder if some variant of this might apply to work done on that expansive iPad Pro display.

The iPad Pro has much to recommend it. Unfortunately its value proposition inherently makes it less flexible in where it can be comfortably used. This was a price that I was unwilling to pay for the benefits it offers today.

I returned it after 4 days of heavy use and got an iPad Mini 4 instead. The screen seemed miniature at first, but I can use it anywhere. I don’t need to have a bag for it–it will fit in my jacket pockets. Perhaps I would have been more willing to put up with the iPad Pro’s bulk if I had been able to acquire an Apple Pencil. I eagerly await the day when Apple Pencil support is built into all iPads.

If I could do development work on an iPad Pro I would be willing to make the trade off. It might be right for you if you prefer to use it on a surface or find it natural to use sitting in an easy chair despite its size.

How I Lost 20 Pounds Without Giving Up Pizza

Tracking my food intake freed me to enjoy pizza. The guilt, self-punishment, and even physical discomfort after eating pizza is now gone. It’s counterintuitive, so how is this possible?

pizza
This stuff is my kryptonite

In a word, budgeting. I budget my calories every day. If it’s dinner time and I still have 1,000 calories left for the day, I can eat up to 1,000 calories of pizza without remorse. If I caved and ate a doughnut during a meeting at work, I track those calories and adjust my subsequent calorie intake down. A little planning lets me eat some very tasty “unhealthy” food and still lose weight.

Budgeting calories helps me make smart trade offs. Imagine I’m not tracking food but imprecisely trying to eat healthier. I know that I can save calories by ordering my sub without cheese. But the benefit to doing this seems vague. If I do it often enough all else being equal I should lose some weight eventually. But that might not motivate me when I am starving and seeing other peoples’ subs coming out of the oven smothered in delicious, melty pepperjack.

If I am tracking calories small changes like skipping cheese or having fruit instead of chips make a big difference. Enough of them might allow an ice cream sandwich for dessert that night because I saved the calories that day. The immediacy of benefits from sacrifices is increased. This makes it easier to consistently make better choices.  I will explore this topic in more detail in a future post.

Full disclosure: I also work out 3-6 days per week. That wasn’t the key to my results however–I’d been exercising like that for 10 years with unchanging weight (in the overweight category by BMI). I’ve heard it said that diet accounts for 80% of results and exercise for only 20%–that seems right to me. Clearly paying attention only to the “energy out” side of the equation and neglecting the “energy in” side was self-defeating.

Mindless Eating

My problem has always been mindlessly eating. That is my natural tendency in social situations or with salty, crunchy junk food. I am only semi-aware of how much I eat until I am uncomfortably over full. I’m not alone in this.

In a 2011 study “The Pull of the Past: When Do Habits
Persist Despite Conflict With Motives” mindless eating was addressed. Two groups of people were given popcorn and a movie to watch in a theater. One group had delicious buttery theater popcorn and the other group had 5-day-old stale popcorn. Both groups ate the same amount of popcorn even though the stale popcorn group reported that they didn’t even like their popcorn! That’s mindless eating at its worst.

popcorn

When the stale popcorn group was instructed to eat only with their non-dominant hand they ate less than the group with the fresh popcorn. Using their other hand snapped them out of their pattern and demanded attention. Additionally when the movie was watched in a conference room the stale popcorn group ate less too. So it appears that environmental factors play a role in “eating on autopilot.”

Restrictive Diets

In the past I have lost significant weight with a different approach. I dropped 50 pounds using the Body For Life plan after my college weight gain. I didn’t count calories but I did have one fist-sized portion of approved complex carbohydrate, one fist-sized portion of approved lean protein, and one fist-sized portion of vegetables per meal. I failed miserably at the vegetable part.

I will always be grateful for the weight loss I attained that way. Unfortunately over time I slowly started eating “unapproved” food in “unapproved” portions. I gained 15 pounds back and pretty much stayed stable at 195–200 pounds for a decade–and that was with working out 3–6 times per week.

Having any plan is better than no plan. But cutting out entire food groups and eating unsweetened oatmeal and cottage cheese for breakfast every day was not sustainable for me, despite the weekly “free day” built into the plan. If you dislike carbs, by all means choose a restrictive diet (I’m looking at you Paleo), it may be sustainable for you. For people looking to drop weight quickly for a wedding, movie, or photo shoot it can also make sense.

That’s been the big advantage to counting calories, I don’t have to cut out entire types of food that I enjoy. For me, that’s the difference between an unsustainable diet and a lifestyle change.

My Plan

I used the free Myfitnesspal app on my iPhone to track my calories. It’s free on the App Store and always with me when I need it. Myfitnesspal has a huge database of food so you easily find what you’re eating, or a decent approximation. It also scans barcodes from food boxes to save typing. In practice, most of us only eat a few different things and in 1-2 weeks it knows what those things are. Then it’s very quick and easy to log your food.

The Myfitnesspal app icon
The Myfitnesspal app icon

I gave Myfitnesspal my height and weight (6 feet and 1/2 inch and 198 pounds) and told it my activity level (Active, based more on workout frequency than job activity.) I tied in my FitBit Surge’s calorie burn estimates, which are quite accurate because I am wearing a heart rate monitor all day. Myfitnesspal slurps in that Fitbit data and adjusts my calories for the day up or down based on my physical activity.

Every day I start off with 2400 calories. If I barely move all day that’s all I get. If I run 7 miles I might be granted as many as 700 extra calories for the day. Turns out eating 3100 calories in a day doesn’t feel too restrictive.

That’s about it. Even though all my micronutrients and macronutrients get tracked, I mostly ignore them. I generally try to emphasize getting a lot of protein and vegetables, but calories are king. I have heard it’s a good idea for weight lifters to get 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight to avoid losing lean body mass so I try to get close to that.

Results

Measuring is my antidote to mindless eating. Tracking everything I eat forces awareness. My eating is less rigid than on other diets because no kind of food is off limits. This has given me a nice balance between enjoyment, sustainability, and control.

That’s not to say I eat perfectly all the time. I have binged late at night a few times and gone way over my calories for the day. But even in those cases I am sure to log my best guess of those calories. I want a record of those failures. Measuring them helps me keep a healthy perspective on their significance. The good thing is that I have always rallied and resumed following my plan afterwards.

I don’t have to be perfect–just consistently good. It reminds me of this quote:

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then is not an act but a habit.” – Aristotle

It turns out that consistent, intentional action over time has a tremendous amount of quiet power. There is another great quote that concisely expresses the idea:

“Long term consistency trumps short term intensity.” – Bruce Lee

I started tracking my food in March of 2015. In 3.5 months I have lost 20 pounds and went from wearing pants with a 34 inch waist to a 31 inch waist. My body fat percentage has gone from 20% to 14%. I have been able to follow my food intake goals very well even on vacations. I am confident that this will be sustainable and look forward to continuing to wear these in the future:

jeans
My new jeans

I would be remiss if I didn’t thank my sister, Kiersti, for her inspirational role. She lost a lot of weight using Myfitnesspal, and her success was the extra bit of motivation I needed to overcome my visceral distaste of past diet experiences to embark on this journey.

Update: 4 months after starting this I’m down 25 pounds and those 31 inch jeans are getting loose!

Auto Layout With NSLayoutAnchors

NSLayoutConstraints are painful to use in code. NSLayoutConstraint’s initializer takes many parameters. The Visual Format Language gets around the inconvenience of the initializer parameters, but I can never remember the syntax. Either way, making constraints programmatically gets verbose. The essence of the overall view layout gets lost in the boilerplate code noise.

Thankfully in iOS 9 Apple has solved these problems. Now all UIView subclasses (as well as UILayoutGuides which I wrote about already) have a variety of NSLayoutAnchor properties on them. These NSLayoutAnchors are a fluent api that act as factories for NSLayoutConstraints. Now constraints are very easy to set up.

nautical anchor
Nautical anchors are still superior to NSLayoutAnchors.

Here’s an example of how you would align the tops of two UILabels:

The various NSLayoutAnchor functions provide overloads that can make use of constants too:

That code anchors the top of the UILabels 20 points below the top of the parent UIView. The various “constraintEqualToAnchor” functions return an inactive NSLayoutConstraint instance. You can grab a reference to it for mutation later. If that’s not necessary, you can just set it to active inline with .active = true.

Here are the NSLayoutAnchor properties on UIView:

  • centerXAnchor
  • centerYAnchor
  • bottomAnchor
  • firstBaselineAnchor
  • heightAnchor
  • lastBaselineAnchor
  • leadingAnchor
  • leftAnchor
  • rightAnchor
  • topAnchor
  • trailingAnchor
  • widthAnchor

It should also be noted that there are a few variants of the “constraint” factory functions that allow you to create constraints with <= or >= relationships, setting dimensions to constant values, and using multipliers for relative values.

Here’s a playground with a layout out a red, yellow, and green button vertically inside of a parent UIView to better see this in action:

Here’s the UIView hierarchy that it created.

Playground output
Views created by the playground.

Feel free to fork the actual playground repo on GitHub if you so desire.