Round and Round…

I love American Science and Surplus,  the Chicago retailer of magnets, science gear, and just plain weird stuff.  If you ever get a chance to visit their showroom, do it — it’s a treat, and the brick and mortar location has all the charm of their print catalog, with its witty copy and hand-drawn product photos.

I bring this up because today’s new product announcement is a reissue of one of my favorite toys as a kid,  the Spirograph.  Originally marketed in the 60s and 70s by Kenner, Spirograph was a set of gears with holes in them that let you draw elaborate geometric patterns.

AmSci is offering a die-cast set, with metal gear pieces instead of the original plastic parts.   Now, if they also have good pens to use, that will be even better — the cheap pens that came with the original set dried out quickly, but you needed a pen with a certain length to the ballpoint nib to fit into the gear holes — a Bic wouldn’t work.   I had good luck with the 4-in-1 ballpoint pens, though.

I doubt this offer will last long, so don’t dally.


iOS development iPhone

New Apple App Store Rules

Daring Fireball has a piece today announcing changes to Apple’s App Store.    Apparently there is so much to be announced at WWDC that they didn’t have time to discuss this in the keynote.

Apple has been quietly changing the App Store under the hood for a while — approval times are now dramatically lower, and the tools for submission and management of apps have been actively changing for months.   I personally have noticed changes to the iTunes Connect user interface and features, sometimes in the middle of a day.

Their major change is long overdue, and will help make independent development more viable.  The main feature is the expansion of subscription pricing to a wider range of apps, and support for different tiers of subscriptions.  The system will make it possible to offer trail versions, for one thing, and the revenue split on subscription apps will be 85/15 for subscriptions over a year old.

In addition, there will be the ability to pay for ad placement in search results.  This, of course, will benefit large publishers a lot, but it also helps even the playing field for indie apps.

It’s always been challenging to make a living from an independent app on the App Store.  The ‘pay once’ model has made it tough for developers to set a price and build a sustainable business — raising the potential revenue per customer makes it possible to build a high quality app and keep improving it over time.



Music UX

What does Apple Music need to really take off?

Apple to Revamp Streaming Music Service After Mixed Reviews, Departures

I agree that Apple Music really needs improvement on ease-of-use.   John Gruber makes some great points about this: because Apple’s service is trying to combine your downloaded music with your streaming music, it’s really much more complicated than a streaming-only service.   Spotify doesn’t have this problem, at least not on mobile (the desktop Spotify can import your downloaded music, and it, too, makes it hard to know what is where).

Would a separate streaming music app help?  Not unless Apple clarifies the iTunes Match, iCloud Music Library, and Apple Music boundaries.  Navigation and filtering in Apple Music are problematic — you have so much content to make sense of, particularly when you look at the way the service merchandises and curates music.

My big complaint is that the experience isn’t nearly as seamless as I’d like between mobile, desktop, and Apple TV.  Things are supposed to ‘just work,’ but when they don’t, or they are doing it more slowly than you’d like, you can’t really tell what is going wrong or how to fix it.   This seems common to Apple’s cloud services in general.  Poor WiFi connectivity seems to exacerbate the problem.  Would love to see additions to the iCloud libraries that could help you see sync progress.

Anyway, hoping they come up with a solution to this — looking forward to their WWDC announcements.


Health monitoring

Withings to be bought by Nokia

Nokia is buying French health device maker Withings.

Withings makes a pretty complete line of health tracking devices: Blood pressure cuffs, Wi-Fi connected sales, sleep monitors, and a very nice-looking health tracker watch, among others.   They have been plagued with software and reliability issues in my experience, so the backing of Nokia can hardly hurt them.


The Upgrade Game

Well, that was fun. After getting notified by my Web Hosting Provider that my WordPress installation was so old that it constituted a security risk and therefore they must disable my page to save me from myself, I’ve been trying to get things back up.

First order of business was to remind said Web Hosting Provider that updating WordPress goes much faster when you actually have access to the page. Yes, you can do the migration over FTP. Yes, you can follow the recommended step of disabling your plug-ins by simply removing the plug-in folders over FTP. Yes, you could download the site in its entirety, make a copy of your WordPress database, install the whole thing on your home machine, and do the upgrade there, uploading when you are done. None of these things seemed like Plan A, so I asked for access. Support promptly provided me with a password to get into the affected directories.

So, how far behind was I? I’d been running my particular version of WordPress since 2009. It was WordPress 2.8.3. I’d probably updated it a few times, but once 3.0 and then 4.0 came out, it was clearly going to be an involved process.

This time around, once I’d gotten my passwords sorted and gotten into the site, I asked myself ‘why don’t I try the ‘Upgrade Now’ button? It hadn’t worked in the past due to provider permissions on some of the files, but it was worth checking out.

Strangely enough, it worked. Rather than the recommended procedure of incrementally installing every other minor version of WordPress until you got caught up, it just did what it’s supposed to do, and migrated the database as well with no issues. I don’t recommend this for people who actually use their blog a lot and have a big database and complicated installations, but within an hour of getting serious about this, I was back to a good state.

After that, it was updating plug-ins. Most important plug-in is Akismet, the comment spam filter. And of course, it upgraded flawlessly, and then told me I needed a new API key. One credit card transaction later (technically, it’s donation-ware for individual users), I had that back. Other plug-ins seemed to update just fine.

Most of my themes also had updates, given that 4.3.1, the new version of WordPress, is quite different. Those went well, except of course for the one I actually use. Constructor is a nice theme with powerful customization, but that gets wiped out when you update. Unfortunately, the developer has been pretty busy and redesigned the theming system, which meant my backed up theme files didn’t really work. Looking at the site in this state, I realized that the developer had also really improved the CSS for the theme and that many of my overrides were no longer needed. So, I decided to do a minimal edit to get the basic skin going.

This would no doubt go better if I knew more CSS, and understood the theme better. After a lot of trial and error and a maiden run of actually learning how my Safari debug tools work, I got something that looks like the old theme, but better. I changed the paragraph spacing for better readability, and got rid of some changes that just looked dumb now.

The thing about configuring widgets and plug-ins and CSS in WordPress is that because you can tweak a lot of things, you end up tweaking a lot of things. Doing this tweaking can be error-prone, as you have to remember to commit your changes; this is not modern Javascript, it’s PHP. I’ve been at this for what would be a pretty intense work day’s worth of coding and testing. But now I definitely want to explore newer themes and plug-ins.

Of course, I’m still waiting for my Web Service Provider to remove the boot from my site. If you can read this, it’s happened, and I can see just how well this theme works on mobile browsers.

My big takeaway, though is that WordPress has really matured in the last few years. I would have never expected this upgrade to just work out of the box, and indeed upgrading in older versions required permissions I didn’t have. They’ve obviously re-thought that, and now just ask for my FTP password on the upgrade operations. That made a big difference.


Turning off Apple Music auto renewal

Now that most people who enrolled in Apple Music are near the end of their 3 month trial period, it’s time to decide whether to pay up or not. will explain how.

Personally, I’m still on the fence. I like the selection of music on the service and the curation, but am not crazy about the ease-of-use. It’s still very confusing how to get content onto one’s iPod for offline use without having to just go and buy the tracks, and my experience has been that the streams don’t always launch promptly on my home network.

I’m not a big fan of Spotify, the only thing I like about it is that it’s free. It’s a nice service for looking up and listening to bands somebody mentions, but the ads are obnoxious, and the user interface is slow and dumb.