I’ve known Sean for a few years, and he is one of the most talented people I’ve ever seen do hand lettering — the man practically writes in typeface. He’s put together a 50-video master class that covers everything from the basics of typography and the skills of doing hand lettering, to making and selling original art, to working with clients, and more.

Here’s a fascinating short documentary (about 11 min.) on the Hong Kong neon sign industry, which was at its peak in the ’80s and ’90s but is now in serious decline with businesses installing LED signs now.

And here’s a crazy fact I bet you didn’t know: when a glassworker is designing the a neon sign, the tube’s start and stop points are determined not so much by the letter form but by where he’ll be able to most easily bend the glass without burning his hands.

(via Hoefler and Rands)

Friday, March 21

Over at The Sweet Setup, we put together a running list of all our personal favorite apps on iPhone, iPad, and Mac. It’s a massive list with over 100 apps.

In a way, the list of staff favorites is a condensed version of what the site as a whole is striving towards. But it takes us so much time to do research, test, use, and then pick a “best app” for different categories. And so this running list — broken down by platform and then by category — is our way of giving as many recommendations as we can now, while we continue to build out our catalog of the in-depth comparison reviews and picks.

This list represents all the apps we, The Sweet Setup staff, use day in and day out for work and play. And, as always, if you’ve got questions or suggestions, hit us up on Twitter.

On this week’s episode of my podcast: analog vs digital; low-fi vs high-fi; old school versus new school; manual versus automatic — appreciating and taking advantage of today’s awesome technology while also celebrating the more traditional and hands-on way of doing things.

Brought to you by:

Dumb

The more I read about smartwatches, the more I appreciate my “dumb” watches.

Analog Watches

These are the two watches I wear. The one on the left is a Tissot, and the one on the right a Seiko automatic. Most days I wear the Seiko.

Here is an exhaustive rundown of all the functionality of my watches: They tell the time of day (albeit they’re imprecise, and usually off by half a minute or so) and the date. The Seiko, being fancy, also tells the day of the week. And since neither watch knows what month it is, a few times per year I have to adjust the date forward from “29″ or “31″ to “1″.

That’s it.

But I don’t just wear a watch to know what time it is. Part of the reason I wear one is as an excuse not to pull out my iPhone.

So often I’d be standing in line at the grocery store and I’d pull out my iPhone to see what time it was. Then, out of sheer habit, I’d swipe to unlock and the next thing you know I’m mindlessly scrolling through tweets or reading emails without actually acting on them. Then the line would move, I’d put the iPhone back in my pocket, and if you’d asked me what time it was I couldn’t even tell you.

My analog watches are my reminder that utility exists apart from an internet connection and usefulness doesn’t require the latest software.

My watches don’t have an interactive touch display. Nor do they have Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, LTE, or USB. Heck, the Seiko doesn’t even have a battery — if I don’t wear it for a day or two then it stops working until I wind it again.

There are no apps for my watches. I can’t pair them with my iPhone, can’t give them voice commands, can’t get directions from them, nor can I use them to change my music to the next track.

On the flip side, my watches don’t require updates, and they won’t be “slow and outdated” in one year’s time after the next version comes out. In fact, they will never grow outdated and irrelevant unless they break altogether.

In 15 or 20 years my sons will hopefully think it’s special when I pass down one of my old watches to them.

That’s not to say vintage technology isn’t special. But an old watch is simultaneously special and usable. In 20 years my original iPhone, as special and nostalgic as it will be, probably won’t even power on.

My affinity for analog watches doesn’t mean I dislike the concept of the smartwatch. My iPhone is one of the most incredible items I have ever owned and used. But my experience with it has also taught me that the promise of convenient notifications and relevant information is almost always paired with the reality of constant distractions, tugs for attention, and perhaps even an addiction to the “just checks”.

When I look down at my watch I know exactly what it will show me: the time.

Checkmark 2

Here is a huge update to my favorite location-based reminders app, Checkmark.

In addition to location-based reminders, Checkmark 2 now supports scheduled and repeating reminders as well as a general project/list section. So not only is Checkmark the best app for location-based reminders, but it now aims to be your one-stop shop for all tasks and reminders, regardless of when, where, or what they are for.

I’m still deep into OmniFocus for my general to-do list, and I usually use Siri or Fantastical for setting time-based reminders. But the location-centric stuff in Checkmark is the best there is, and now it’s even better than before.

The big update with how Checkmark handles the location-based reminders is that you can now create location groups. Hooray!

Now, I don’t know about you, but my wife and I don’t shop at just one grocery store all the time; we shop at like six. In Checkmark 2, I created a location group with all the grocery stores we shop at. Then, no matter which of those stores I show up to, Checkmark will remind me of any items I’ve added to that group. (Gosh would I love to see shared reminders with this.)

Here’s how you create a group:

  • You start out just like you would create a location.
  • From the “Where” section, tap the plus button and name your location (example: “Grocery Stores” / “Hardware Stores” / “Ice Cream Shops”).
  • Next tap “Add from map” to search for the places you want to add (or Add from location if you’re at the place you want to add).
  • Once you’ve found one of the locations and the pin for it has dropped, then tap into the search box again to search for the next place you want to add.
  • Once you’ve got all the pins for that group dropped, then tap “Done”
  • Select your icon and tap Done again.

Now you have a location group and you are on your way to being the the master of never forgetting to check out this season’s sink selection next time you go to the hardware store to buy charcoal for your grill.

You can add or remove locations from a group by tapping into that group, tapping the settings gear icon in the upper-right corner, and then editing the location. I have found creating and editing groups to be a little bit finicky at times. But once a group is created, then your golden.

In addition to the awesomeness of the new groups feature, Checkmark is still faster than using any other app for adding a location-based reminder (even for specific spots, not groups). And, most importantly, Checkmark is incredibly reliable for triggering upon the arrival / departure of a location.

My one quibble with Checkmark is it’s assumption that time-based reminders are the most important. When launching Checkmark, it opens to wherever you last were in the app. If however, the app has been cleared from memory since the last time you launched it, or if you’ve restarted your iPhone, then Checkmark’s default landing screen is the “When” section. And currently there’s no way to change this setting. Which oftentimes means creating a new location-based reminder requires two additional taps: one to open the basement menu and one to tap the “Where” tab. But this is a minor quibble, and I’ve heard it may be resolved in a future update to the app.

I’ve long been a user and a fan of Checkmark because I think it handles location-based reminders better than any other app out there, including Apple’s own Reminders app. You can snag Checkmark 2 in the App Store for just $3.

Tuesday, March 18

The only devices remaining that still use the 30-pin connector are the iPod classic and the iPhone 4s. And the only non-retina iOS device is the original iPad mini. These are the extreme devices: the iPod classic for the those who want the most storage possible (160GB); the original iPad mini and the iPhone 4s for those who want the cheapest iPad/iPhone possible.

Monday, March 17

EverWeb is a powerful, easy to use website builder that is a great alternative for Apple’s discontinued iWeb builder. EverWeb provides a full drag and drop user interface while still allowing for advanced features such as mobile websites, drop down menus, rollovers, image sliders, built in search engine optimization, and more. 

EverWeb includes built in templates to help you get started with a professional looking site, or you can start from scratch. It also comes with built in widgets for adding contact forms, social media, e-commerce, and HTML5 video or audio.

Try EverWeb for free today.

* * *

My thanks to EverWeb for sponsoring the RSS feed this week.

Completing the 3-app trifecta, Microsoft’s OneNote is now on the Mac App Store. I have a handful of friends who used to adore this app back when they were PC users, but now use Evernote. Personally, I’m more of the one-app-per-function persuasion: OmniFocus for tasks, Simplenote for notes, not-sure-yet for shared lists, Paprika for recipes, Pinboard for bookmarks, and Fantastical for my agenda.

Speaking of Amazon Prime, Nick Bilton recently stayed indoors for a week, relying only on apps to get life done:

There is no denying that today’s technology-powered hyper-convenience can be a wonderful thing. The other week I holed up with my smartphone, apps and online services to see how far I could go without leaving home. The short answer: very far.

Marco:

This has not been a popular decision, to put it lightly, but most Prime customers — which I’ve been since 2005 — aren’t really going anywhere. There’s nowhere to go. Amazon has either destroyed or bought every competitor that has ever come close to its retail business.

I’ve also been a Prime customer for years, and though the $20 price hike is a bummer, of course, Prime is still worth it for us. There are so many one-off items — such as batteries, coffee filters, baby toothpaste, organic coconut oil, printer toner (ugh), charcoal lighter cubes, fine-tip gel ink pens, etc. — that are easier to order from Amazon than to put on the shopping list for the next time we’re out running errands. Heck, I have a friend who bought his lawnmower on Amazon Prime so he wouldn’t have to borrow a truck to go get one at Lowe’s.

But Marco’s complaint isn’t so much with the price increase as it is with the ever-evolving spamminess of Amazon Prime:

The biggest annoyance recently is that Prime members are now being forced through [an] interstitial ad between checkout steps [...]

Showing this once is bad enough, but I see it regularly. Amazon is now annoying their best customers with desperate, obnoxious, tricky interstitial ads.

Reminds me of a few other examples of companies who spam their best customers.

Curiously, I have never once seen the ad that Marco sees regularly. However, Marco says he’s never once watched a video through Amazon Prime, whereas Anna and I have watched a few videos.

We’re fans of the Agatha Christie Poirot shows, and a few of the newer episodes aren’t on Netflix but are on Amazon Prime. We would probably use Amazon Prime more often if the viewing experience wasn’t so awkward for an Apple-centric household. To watch the Poirot episodes we had to download the Amazon Prime iPad app, find the shows, and then stream them to our Apple TV. It’s alright, but not nearly as nice as the Neftlix app on the Apple TV.

Friday, March 14

On this week’s episode of my podcast I answer several listener-submitted questions, mostly related to picking a CMS, building an audience, and if there’s a difference between “writing” and “blogging”.

Brought to you by:

  • CocoaConf: The developer conference for those who think different. Use the code BLANC to save 20% on tickets for any Spring event.

  • The awesome members of shawnblanc.net: thanks to their support which makes the work that I do a sustainable possibility.

Scott Adams:

A study showed that people are more creative when there’s human background noise, such as in a coffee shop. My experience agrees with the study. Back when I owned a restaurant, I brought my laptop to lunch one day to do some work in a booth while my order was being prepared. Ideas came to me so rapidly that I ended up writing an entire book while sitting in the restaurant during lunch rushes.

My experience agrees as well. It’s one of the reasons I’ve enjoyed working out of my coworking space for the past month and a half. Just being around others who are also working, and hearing the traffic outside, the tapping of other keyboards, and the occasional side conversations and phone calls, just helps me keep on my own track.

Thursday, March 13

It wasn’t just all the emails and tweets that Nguyen was getting which led him to pull the game from the App Store, it was also the barrage of local media attention:

As news hit of how much money Nguyen was making, his face appeared in the Vietnamese papers and on TV, which was how his mom and dad first learned their son had made the game. The local paparazzi soon besieged his parents’ house, and he couldn’t go out unnoticed. While this might seem a small price to pay for such fame and fortune, for Nguyen the attention felt suffocating. “It is something I never want,” he tweeted. “Please give me peace.”

Over on The Sweet Setup, Stephen Hackett wrote a quick rundown of how iCloud’s Safari tabs work and why they’re awesome. Synced browser tabs and the new iCloud Keychain sync are by far and away my two favorite iCloud features.

Reporter, Day One, and Launch Center Pro

About five weeks ago, on February 6th to be exact, Nicholas Felton’s Reporter app shipped.

The whole gist of the app is to give yourself a pretty good idea of how you spend your time, where you spend your time, and who you spend it with. I set up Reporter to ask me 11 questions related to where I was, who I was with, my outfit, if I was eating/drinking anything, my mood and general feeling of productivity for the day, the tools I was using at the time, and what the last app I had launched was.

My first report was logged on at 9:49am on Thursday morning, February 6. My last report at 1:04pm on Monday morning, February 17. I only used the app for 12 days. As much as I loved the idea of Reporter, the multiple interruptions throughout my day weren’t worth the aggregate data I was collecting.

From the 12 days I used the app, I learned that 92-percent of the time I was feeling productive with my day and 98-percent of the time I was in a happy mood. Most of my outfits consisted of pants, slippers, and a sweater (Polar Vortex, remember?); only once did I wear a hat and only once did I get prompted for a report while in my underwear. I mostly drank water. My most commonly-used tools were my Mac and my Clicky Keyboard. A little over half the time I was working; the vast majority of my time was spent at home; most of the time I was alone, but when I was with someone it was usually my oldest son, Noah.

One interesting-slash-revealing fact I learned was regarding the apps I was launching on my iPhone. Reporter would ask me what app I had previously launched. I answered this by double-tapping my Home button to bring up the multitasking card view just enough to see what app was next in line. The most common app I found there was Threes game, with Email in second place, and then Tweetbot. Hmm.

Is this the truth revealing itself? Perhaps. But perhaps not. As I pontificated on one of my Shawn Today podcast episodes a few weeks ago when talking about this same topic, I recall being much more likely to fill out the Reporter report if I was already doing something non-trivial on my iPhone or if I was not in the company of others.

I often would ignore the reports when I was in the middle of reading, or writing, or when I was with other people (especially when I was with Anna). So it’s hard to say just how accurate these reports reflect my life, let alone the 12-day segment.

In the end, I stopped using Reporter because, as I mentioned above, the frequent interruptions were not worth the aggregate data they were generating.

But I’ve found another way to help automate the “reporting” process using some apps that I already have in my iOS tool belt: Launch Center Pro and Day One.

I came across these Launch Center Pro actions that Josiah Wiebe cooked up, and I think they’re very clever. Josiah has put together a handful of customized Launch Center Pro actions for the purpose of logging meals, drinks, books, films, and more. Using the actions in Launch Center Pro basically enables you to answer a few questions (some of which can even be multiple-choice) and then auto-insert those answers into Day One in a nicely formatted layout.

For example, here’s my Coffee Log entry from yesterday morning’s brew.

I also installed several of Josiah’s actions into my Launch Center Pro, and for the past ten days I’ve been using the coffee log and the daily summary. Though, I tweaked his actions slightly to build versions that are more suited to my own needs and layout preferences.

For example, since I almost always get my coffee from one of two local roasters — Parisi or Broadway (if I didn’t roast it myself) — I changed my Coffee Log action to offer the Roaster as a multiple choice option. And for my Daily Summary action, I set up a reminder in Launch Center Pro to ping me each evening.

Since Day One already is grabbing my location, weather, steps taken, and I can add a photo if I like (a selfie, perhaps?), I find these daily summaries to be an excellent compromise when compared to the more-detailed, but more frequent logging of Reporter.

However, it’s not a perfect system. For one, I miss is the way Reporter auto-populated certain answers making it easy to answer the same thing again. In LCP, if I am entering in the same answer to the same question on a regular basis I either have to type that answer in manually, or decide if I want to limit my answers to a pre-defined multiple choice list. There is no option (that I know of) to offer a multiple-choice prompt that can be converted into a text entry prompt on the fly.

And, now that I’m entering in more and more entries which use markdown-based tables and header tags, my Day One timeline view is not so pretty any more. Because Day One shows the raw markdown in its “timeline” view. I mentioned this to Paul Mayne on Twitter, however, and he said it’s something they’d like to add to the 2.0 update of Day One.

Speaking of potential future updates to Day One, I think it’d be great to see this sort of “guided/automated logging” built into Day One. The app already offers reminders that remind you to write in your journal, but sometimes that wide-open blank page is just too intimidating. Having specific questions can not only lead to more frequent journaling/logging, but when you’re answering the same ones over and over, though it may feel silly in the moment, over time it paints a picture about our lives that when we look back at it, we are reminded of who we were and who we are.

That’s why I’m personally quite the advocate for daily journaling. Because little things, day by day, usually don’t seem like much in the moment, but over the course of months and years, we are changing and maturing as individuals and it can be so valuable and downright encouraging to be able to look back and see that change.

Or, in the words of Kayli Stollak: “All you need is a sentence, a word, a thought, and suddenly you remember who you actually were.”

Wednesday, March 12

Pay attention. You’ll be quizzed on this next time you use your iPhone.

Ben Ubois:

The next time you read somebody declaring the death of RSS, you can just smile to yourself as you mark it as read in your favorite reader and move on to the next article.

This Is a Review of Day One’s New Publish Feature

Day One Publish

In a nut, the new Publish feature in Day One is a way to share your thoughts and memories with your closest friends and family or with the whole world.

Publish lets you selectively upload Day One entries to the Web, and from there you can share the URL with whomever you like.

For example, here is an entry in my Day One journal about my recent excursions at a local coworking space. And here’s another entry with a rating/review of this morning’s cup of coffee.

As of this review, you can only publish an entry via the iPhone app, though there’s a soon-coming update for iPad that will allow publishing. Meanwhile, the Mac app has been updated to support the new custom Publish metadata (such as views on an entry, retweets, etc.), but an update to the Mac version that allows you to publish entries won’t be available until later this year.

To publish an entry from your iPhone, start by creating an entry (or going to one that you’ve already made) in Day One. Then tap the little ribbon-bookmark icon in the bottom left corner (that’s the Publish icon). If it’s your first time you’ll be prompted to create an account, and then you can publish that entry to the Web.

Before publishing, you get control over if that entry is auto-posted to your Twitter, Facebook, or Foursquare account. You also get to choose if the location of that entry is shared.

Once you’ve published an entry, the Day One app will show you stats about how many people have viewed that entry and how many liked, faved, or RTed your tweet / Facebook status update about that journal entry. And Published entries are quickly identified within your Day One app’s timeline view because of their blue date instead of black. Moreover, you can update a published entry and/or remove it from being published.

You don’t have to share your published entries with your legions of social network followers. You see, people can only get to entries that they have the direct link to. So, say, for example, you publish two entries: one you share with all of your twitter followers and the other you share with just your family. Well, neither group will ever come across a link that would send them on to the other entry you published.

Day One Publish is not like a blog where links to other entries are auto-generated and once you come across one you can find all the others. No, each published entry is an island.

I asked Paul Mayne, the man behind Day One, to share a bit more about just how private / non-discoverable published entries are and why there is not an option for password protecting them. Paul wrote to me in an email, saying:

By default, published entries are hidden from search engines and visible only to anyone you give the URL. Of course, if you are sharing to a public feed on Twitter, Facebook, or Foursquare, the URL will be indexed and searchable.

We feel our current approach is a solid solution to share entries semi-privately with close friends and family. Also, we’re planning to add an option to easily share published entries via email in a future update.

I’m satisfied with how Day One handles the privacy of each entry. I’m obviously never going to publish anything that is so sensitive or personal that I wouldn’t want just anybody to come across it. If and when there are certain journal entries that I don’t want to be online at all but that I do want to share with close friends or family, it’s quite easy to just email those entries from within the Day One app.

After using Day One’s Publish feature for the past two weeks, I think it’s cool on a couple of levels.

For one, Publish gives you the chance to share moments you want to share. And thus, it actually gives a bit of “social motivation” to enter things into Day One. The truth is, we like to share thoughts, photos, quotes, and musings with the world, but a lot of times we also want to save those moments for later. Publish is a classy way for us to create journal entries in our own personal journal, but then, with the tap of a button, we can share those entries with whomever we want — even the whole world.

Secondly, with Publish, the Day One team also wins because when people share their Published entries they are, in a sense, advertising for Day One. They’re providing an awesome service to current users that will, in term, generate new users, and therefore make the app’s development more sustainable and profitable.

This brings me to another question I asked Paul, regarding the cost of Publish and if it would be free forever. He replied that the current offering is free, but they are looking into additional premium features in the future.

Also, Paul wrote to me saying: “We’re currently hard at work on Day One 2.0. A cool feature with it will be current and historical activity feeds as starting points for creating and adding entries to Day One. We are [also] working towards enabling more web-based Publish and Day One features.”

* * *

The whole point of a journal (digital or analog) is to chronicle as much of our life as we are willing. I’ve been using Day One for a couple of years now, and the more I use it, the more I get ideas for how to use it better.

The guys at Day One say that Publish has been a side-project of theirs since the very beginning and is the start of “an exciting 2014 for Day One.” In my short time with Publish, I’ve found that it has a surprisingly ancillary effect of encouraging the journaling process just a little bit more. I still consider Day One to be the best journaling app out there, and if this is just the start of what they’ve got in store for updates coming this year, then I’m excited to see what’s next.

You can get Day One for iPhone + iPad here and the Mac version here. Although, right now you can only use the Publish feature from the iPhone version of the app.

Monday, March 10

CocoaConf: the developer conference for those who think different

What do you get when you take some of the best Apple dev authors, trainers, and speakers and combine them with the most passionate, engaged developers in a region? You get a learning and networking experience that will not soon be forgotten! You get CocoaConf!

CocoaConf is back this Spring and better than ever! Joining us this tour are folks like Casey Liss, Daniel Steinberg, Dave Wiskus, Jaimee Newberry, Justin Williams, Matt Drance, Mattt Thompson, and Mike Rundle.

We just wrapped up CocoaConf Chicago last weekend, and a great time was had by all. If you weren’t able to join us there, we still have four more events this Spring in cities across the U.S:

Herndon, VA (DC)March 28-29
Austin, TXApril 4-5(Sold Out)
San Jose, CAApril 25-26
Raleigh, NCMay 9-10

Readers of Shawn’s blog can save 20% on any CocoaConf ticket by using the promo code BLANC at cocoaconf.com.

Don’t miss out on this exciting opportunity — remaining tickets are going fast!

* * *

My thanks to CocoaConf for sponsoring the RSS feed this week.

We’ve got an excellent setup interview this week with my long-time internet pal, Ian Hines. Ian’s interview is especially fun because I also interviewed him almost 5 years ago to talk about his Sweet Mac Setup. Back then, in 2009, Ian had a couple of BlackBerrys, a white plastic MacBook, and he and his wife were pregnant with their first. My how things change.

An OpenSignal report (via Ryan Jones) with some really interesting data:

The OpenSignal app allows users to contribute to our impartial coverage maps of mobile networks, we took data from those of our 6 million users who have LTE and focussed on their experience of two key metrics: download speed, and the proportion of time spent with LTE access. All data included in this report comes from the second half of 2013.

Australia has the fastest average LTE speeds and the United States has almost the slowest average speeds.

For me, LTE here in Kansas City is actually pretty great. We are one of the few cities in the USA with LTE coverage from all four players — AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile — and we have pretty great coverage and speeds. My iPhone is on AT&T and I average 22Mbps down and 8Mbps up at my home. My iPad is on Verizon and it averages about half those speeds here at my house but does much better when I’m further north in the city.

And now, guess I’d better go buy a Ferrari.

Here’s a Javascript imitation of Threes that you can play in your desktop browser. I played a few games and tracked the dealing, and so far as I can, this browser clone follows the same card-dealing stack logic as the official Threes iOS game does. However, it’s still just an imitation and not a duplication, as it doesn’t allow for the slow slide to preview your potential next move, nor does it have the charming animated monsters and all the other little details that make the iOS game so great.

Friday, March 7

Today, on episode 7 of The Weekly Briefly, I continue a topic from a Shawn Today episode last week regarding “writing the Internet you want to read”.

Brought to you by:

Daniel Engber, writing for The New York Times (via The Tech Block):

“People wait for all sorts of things every day, sometimes more happily than others,” wrote the interface designer Bob Stahl in a 1986 article for Computerworld. “The problem is how the user feels about waiting.” At the time, machines were often slow and unreliable, and users didn’t always know when their programs crashed. A “progress bar” might mitigate frustration, Stahl suggested, by signaling that bits were flipping with a purpose somewhere deep inside the C.P.U.

It’s true. Even now, when computers are a bazillion times faster than they were 30 years ago, it’s calming to have a cue that the computer is working, the website is loading, or the iMessage is sending.

And, so long as we’re talking about progress bars, see also this classic xkcd comic.

Thursday, March 6

Two things. For one, I love reviews like this one which are done after owning a product for quite a while. In this case, Thomas has been using the 2Unfold a year. I bought a Hard Graft Flat Pack almost two years ago and it is so nice and still in excellent condition.

And secondly, Thomas’s site is powered by the Ghost blogging platform. His is the first I’ve come across using it in the wild (though maybe I’m just not looking hard enough).

Speaking of the internet and Alan Adler, here is a Q&A interview he did on Slashdot just a couple months ago. (Via Marco, of course.)

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