Regarding Software

Trello, We Hardly Knew Ye

Recorded on January 13th, 2017

Atlassian is buying Trello. Damn.

I knew it was too good, too elegant to last. I knew not to trust it with too much of my brain in it. Trello says they’ll benefit from Atlassian’s R&D, but the track record for these things is not good.

They even ended their announcement with this, the kiss of death:

“We hope you are as excited as we are about our journey ahead.”

I just searched for alternatives and saw no compelling ones. I can look at a full Trello board and still feel calm. All the Trello competitors just feel off and busy to me. There is a real art to UI design and Trello nailed it, on the desktop and on mobile. Sigh.

The YNAB Toolkit Browser Extension

Recorded on August 19th, 2016

A friend of mine told me about the new YNAB Toolkit browser extension. The people who wrote it and contribute to it aren’t affiliated with YNAB — they’re just enthusiastic about the new web-based version of the app and see opportunities to add features that the rest of us think are missing.

If you’re a YNAB-online user, you have to get this thing. The extension adds a ton of new features to YNAB. I’m using the Chrome one, because the Safari version is a little bit behind while Apple reviews the update. Some of my favorite additions:

  • The “Check #” column is back in the account register!
  • Net Worth Report (actually, any reports at all are a big step forward)
  • In-cell calculator like in YNAB4!
  • Searching transactions, like in YNAB4
  • Alternating row colors in the register
  • Shortcut buttons show Scheduled or Reconciled items quickly in the register
  • Current month is highlighted in blue in Budget view

The New YNAB Goals Function Is Great

Recorded on August 17th, 2016

Of all the good new features in the online version of YNAB (browser access from anywhere, faster syncing with mobile, direct import of transactions), my favorite by far is the Goals feature. It makes it monumentally easier to stow away money in a bucket every month. You may need to pay the exact same amount to a service (like Netflix @ $9.99/mo), see how long it’ll take to save up $1,000 for something, or calculate how much you should budget each month to be able to pay your insurance premium six months from now. Goals can help with any of these.

Here’s a goal I created tonight for a $190.80 annual bill I know we have coming up in October:


I don’t want to slack off for now and then have to scramble to come up with all of that dough in the month that it’s due. A much better way to deal with it is to spread that cost out over the months leading up to the total bill being due. In this case, I have August, September, and October in which to do it. For a goal like this, all YNAB needs is a total target dollar amount and a target month, and it’ll calculate the $63.60 I need each month between now and when the bill is due. Each month, it’ll tell me how much I need to add to that bucket to keep up with the plan. When you do your budgeting each month, you can click one button to automatically budget that amount ($63.60) based on the per-month target.

It would have been better if we had started this version of YNAB earlier so that I could have averaged that bill out over 12 months, for a much smaller per-month contribution to the goal, but: shoulda, woulda, coulda. If anything, YNAB teaches you to start now, with what you have and what you know. Learn from your mistakes and do a little better next month.

GarageBand Can Generate Musical Notation

Recorded on August 11th, 2016

Who knew that GarageBand on OS X had a whole window tab dedicated to turning recorded software instrument parts into musical notation? You can even quantize and tweak notes, so your sloppy playing can look orderly. This is part of what I just printed to a PDF right from GB. Very handy!


YNAB on the Web Is Good

Recorded on August 5th, 2016

We are on board with the web-based version of You Need A Budget (YNAB). I had my reservations earlier this year, but I finally decided that the utility of having YNAB in a browser with the ability to pull data in from the bank outweighed my security fears. Actually, I realized that so many health/financial/government institutions store our data on their servers now that I can’t worry myself with how they all do it. I may as well use the slice of data that I can control in a way that makes it easier to live within our means.

Overall, I am very impressed with the new web-based version of YNAB. (It’s not even new anymore, but it’s new to me.) Importing is easier, syncing to the iOS app is faster, we don’t have to worry about Dropbox syncing between devices anymore, I can get to YNAB from any web browser, and we can set per-month funding goals for any budget category.

One key that I must mention that makes the privacy/security part way less scary: Many banks now allow you to set up view-only guest access to your bank accounts. This is a perfect way to give YNAB access to your banking data. There’s no need to hand over the full set of keys to them if you have this option. I’m much more comfortable with YNAB slurping up our data now, knowing that if the credentials were compromised, no-one would actually be able to vacuum out our balance with just that information.

Not everything is perfect. The direct-import feature is still a little weird. This may depend on which bank you use. The way mine works is that nothing new gets imported to YNAB until it clears the bank. If you rely on direct-import, you’re always going to be a couple of days behind the curve, which, for me, doesn’t work with the way I’m used to YNAB. I need to reconcile every day or two to keep up and not let things get too far out of sync. So I continue to manually enter most transactions, but that’s no great burden, and it keeps me more in touch with our spending anyway. If we’re going to eschew actual paper money in favor of chip-cards and Apple Pay, it’s useful to feel a little bit of pain with each purchase.

Sometimes, YNAB will tell you that there’s new data to import, but there really isn’t. What happened tonight was that our checking and credit card accounts both showed that they had a handful of transactions to import, but when I clicked the “Import” button, nothing appeared in the ledger except the message, “There are no transactions to import.” Not a confidence-builder. But it’s not a killer, either, since I view direct-import as just a safety net for when we inevitably go too many days without manually entering purchases.

I do miss the ability to search the ledger for a dollar amount, payee, or category. But I can live with it for the knowledge that I’m headed in the same direction that the software creator is moving. When you can see where the puck is going to go with an app or an operating system, it’s usually a bad strategy to cling too tightly to the old way of doing things. (Apologies to .38 Special.)

My other complaint is that the voice and tone of some of the dialog boxes favors being cutesy over being appropriate. I know that in this world of Instagram and MailChimp and Duolingo that it’s normal to have witty responses to routine user interactions: “Way to go!”, “Boom!”, “You rock!”, etc. But when I’m using a financial app where thousands of dollars are at stake, and I’m doing my first big import from the desktop version of YNAB to the web-app version, I do not want to see something that says:

“This normally takes only a few seconds, but can take up to a few minutes to complete. Banks, right?”

Really, YNAB? You nailed so much other stuff. You got syncing working quite well, you got a web-based ledger to actually function like a desktop app, and you massively improved how credit cards and credit-card debt payments are handled. Don’t blow it with the writing. I know you know about the dangers of being too cute with your copy. Learn from MailChimp’s Voice & Tone Guide about how to match the tone of your status messages to what your users are trying to do. It’s fine to have fun — maybe when people are setting up category names — but otherwise, give people confidence in your product. Make sure they know you take their data and their money seriously.

Sorry to vent. Overall, the new YNAB is really good and I don’t plan to ever return to the desktop version. Now let’s see how long we can go before we have to do another Fresh Start!

Adobe Lightroom Mobile Is All That

Recorded on June 14th, 2016

screenshot of Lightroom Mobile for iOS

Screenshot of Lightroom Mobile on the iPhone. The iPhone!

I’d heard and heard about Lightroom Mobile and finally gave it a throw the other day. Why did I wait so long? We were already paying for the monthly membership to the Adobe Creative Cloud Photography Plan ($9.99/mo), and the Lightroom Mobile app is free on the iOS App Store anyway, so that’s no extra money there. Plus, with the Creative Cloud plan, you can sync back and forth between Mac OS Lightroom and iOS Lightroom. Just pick a catalog on the Mac version, tell Lightroom to sync it to mobile, and your photos appear on the iOS app a minute later.

And get this: the RAW rendering engine is purportedly the same one whether you’re editing on mobile or on desktop. So all those edits you make on the iPhone/iPad look the same when they sync back to your Mac! This is great for a bunch of reasons, most of all that you can check an iffy white balance on a bunch of devices quickly and zero in on a setting that looks pretty (pretty, pretty, pretty) good everywhere. Without that, it would be like doing a final mix of a song on one set of speakers and hoping for it to sound good in the car, on earbuds, on laptop speakers, on a big stereo, etc.

The only downsides I’ve seen are that (1) there’s no great way to import custom film emulation presets to mobile, and (2) when you do a bunch of mobile edits, all the iterations of them get collapsed under one mobile edit “step” in the History panel on the Mac.

For (1), the film emulation problem, you’re fine if you import photos from your camera to the Mac first, apply your import presets, and then sync to mobile. The settings all transfer over, though they’re not actually called “VSCO Kodak Tri-X 400” or whatever.

For (2), I’m not going to complain about the neutered History that shows up on the Mac version, because these two apps do so much other great stuff together.

Keep in mind that though RAW files (if that’s how you roll) are “synced” to mobile, what you’re getting there is really a lightweight, high-quality JPEG preview. It’s all good, because the edits you do in Lightroom on either platform are just non-destructive “instructions” that the computer processes every time you view an image. So all those big fat RAW images are still only really stored on your Mac, which you should back up (with something like SuperDuper! and Backblaze). Don’t rely on Adobe Creative Cloud as a backup (although they say you can store as much as you want on there, so it’s better than no backup at all).

You Can Re-order Projects in the TaskPaper 3 Sidebar

Recorded on June 12th, 2016

screenshot of TaskPaper 3 on the Mac

Maybe everyone already knew about this, but I sure didn’t. In TaskPaper 3 for the Mac, you can click on a project name in the sidebar and drag it around to re-order it. Of course, doing so moves all of that project’s descendants1 with it. If this was always the case, I sure wish I had been paying more attention. This is going to help me a ton! I frequently need to pull a project up into the near-term landscape, out of the deep, dark Well of Neglected Projects. I thought the only way to do that was to select the entire project in the main text window and cut and paste it to a new spot. Now all I have to do is click and drag one item in the project list.

  1. I still want to type that as “Descendents” with an “e”. 

Dave Cutler: Quality Is My No. 1 Constraint

Recorded on April 16th, 2016

photo of Dave Cutler, from Majorconfusion/John P. Beck [Dave Cutler - Wikimedia]

I read this today via a tweet by John Carmack. It’s a history lesson I’m keeping forever:

The engineer’s engineer: Computer industry luminaries salute Dave Cutler’s five-decade-long quest for quality | Microsoft News Center

Over the course of his career, Dave Cutler was central to the development of (among many other things) DEC’s VAX/VMS operating system, Windows NT, Microsoft Azure, and the Xbox One hypervisor (the thing that a virtual machine runs on). He’s one of the few people in the world who can reach down to the deepest register and address level of where software meets hardware. In one day of internet use, the information you send and receive has very likely been touched by some piece of code that Cutler had a hand in writing. If not that, then some company you regularly rely on has probably benefited from at least a descendant of his software.

The depth and breadth of his expertise and output would be inspiring by itself, and then you discover the impossible deadlines he leads his teams through. On top of all of that, he dedicates himself to writing bug-free, secure code. From Boyd Multerer, director of development for the Xbox One in 2011:

“Dave fits a pattern that I’ve seen from the very best software engineers,” Boyd Multerer said. “They have similar traits, one of them is you hold quality extremely high. The best engineers like Dave are fanatical about quality. That means they write a lot of test code. They ensure that the code they write works. That’s what they hang their pride and reputation on. Most software engineers measure their success in terms of volume of code. The greats like Dave measure themselves in terms of quality of code – small amounts of quality, tuned, performant, robust code that doesn’t crash … It’s that fanatical embodiment of code quality that separates Dave from the rest. He just won’t accept anything less, from himself or others.”

Cutler is 74 and still works at Microsoft. Here’s how he describes his process:

“When presented with a programming problem, I formulate an appropriate solution and then proceed to write the code. While writing the code, I continually mentally execute the code in my head in an attempt to flush out any bugs. I am a great believer in incremental implementation, where a piece of the solution is done, verified to work properly, and then move on to the next piece. In my case, this leads to faster implementation with fewer bugs. Quality is my No. 1 constraint – always. I don’t want to produce any code that has bugs – none.”

The article is kind of a long one. Once you get hooked, I challenge you to see if you can close the browser tab before you’re done reading.

Ward Cunningham, the Inventor of the Wiki

Recorded on April 15th, 2016

photo of Ward Cunningham from Wikimedia [Ward Cunningham - Wikimedia]

The other morning, I randomly thought, “What was the first wiki software?” Of course, Wikipedia provided the answer to this recursive question: WikiWikiWeb was it. I didn’t predict that there would be a photo of Ward Cunningham, the human inventor of the software and the “wiki” concept. There he is in 2011, a regular-looking dude, smiling, knowing he was the one to design the first user-editable website.

Think of all that his work spawned. There are wikis for everything now: group knowledge management, documentation, journaling, even entire e-books. We might eventually have gotten to something like Wikipedia as we know it today, but would it have happened as quickly?