jb… a weblog by Jonathan Buys

Over the Air

March 19, 2020

I recently dropped our cable service and switched our home entertainment system to be centered around the Apple TV (the box, not the service), with an app installed to watch live news, sports, and other local channels. Here’s how I did it.

I used the otadtv.com tower locator to find that there were several over-the-air broadcast antennas within 30 miles of us. Since we live in Iowa and the terrain is almost entirely flat farmland, there’s very little to get in the way of a signal.

Equipment

  • RCA Outdoor Yagi Satellite HD Antenna - link
  • Tablo Dual Lite OTA DVR - link
  • Seagate Portable 1TB External Hard Drive - link
  • Apple TV HD - link

The RCA antenna is inexpensive, and mounted cleanly on the post on my roof recently vacated by the old Dish antenna we haven’t used in years. The one downside to the antenna is that the converter that screws into the antennas dipole was incredibly fragile, I accidentally snapped off both ends screwing them on by trying to screw them on too tight. Luckily the part is only $2-$4 at any local hardware store, so I bought two and kept one in a cabinet just in case.

The Tablo box is a DVR that hooks straight into the coax coming from the antenna. It then hooks into the local network either by ethernet, which I do, or over the wireless network. Since the box was going to be sitting right next to my modem and Eero router, it made sense to plug it straight in. The 1TB hard drive hooks into the Tablo box for DVR and commercial skipping capabilities. Finally, since I wanted the same experience upstairs that we have downstairs I bought a second Apple TV, but since the TV is so much smaller I opted for the slightly less expensive “HD” version instead of the “4k”. When and if we upgrade the upstairs TV to 4k, I’ll probably just buy another Apple TV box to go along with it.

Home Network

We upgraded our home cable service last year to a bundle of TV channels, home phone service, and internet. The only thing I was interested in the was the internet, but my wife enjoyed a few shows and liked having the cable, so we kept it. We needed two cable boxes, but only one of the boxes they delivered was a proper DVR, the other one would stream shows from it across the network. There was a ridiculous coax network setup when Mediacom installed the cable, but I changed it so each cable box hooked up over ethernet to an Eero router to communicate over the home network, and the boxes could download the tv guide from the web.

The new setup has each Apple TV plugged into ethernet into an Eero router, networked to the base Eero where the Tablo box is hooked up. I’ve got the Tablo app downloaded on the Apple TVs which gives me a single interface for movies, tv shows, and local news, weather and sports. As a bonus, I can now watch the morning news on my iMac or MacBook in Safari by visiting my.tablotv.com. We are still in the testing things out phase, but assuming everyone’s happy with the setup I’ll cancel my cable and drop back down to just internet service. With the reduction in price this setup should pay for itself in about four months.


How Long Will macOS Be Unix?

March 16, 2020

I’ve started to worry about the Unix core of macOS. Possibly unnecessarily, but there have been a few troubling signs over the years, the biggest of which is obviously the lack of access to a decent development environment on iOS. On iOS, web development is possible, but only in the barest, most basic sense of the term. As soon as you need to do anything even remotely complex, like build a Django project, run the server locally, and browse the site for testing, you are out of luck. That’s fine, because it’s iOS and I don’t need to do development on my phone, but for years Apple has been saying that they thought iOS and specifically the iPad was the future of computing. In the past few months we’ve seen other signs that point towards Apple looking to simplify their products to the point where they’d no longer be usable for me.

Another obvious sign is that Apple has deprecated what they call “scripting languages”.

Scripting language runtimes such as Python, Ruby, and Perl are included in macOS for compatibility with legacy software. Future versions of macOS won’t include scripting language runtimes by default, and might require you to install additional packages. If your software depends on scripting languages, it’s recommended that you bundle the runtime within the app. (49764202)

Well, fine, for years we’ve needed to download the Xcode Command Line Tools to install git and a compiler. I imagine (hope) that future versions of the download will include the scripting languages needed to bootstrap Homebrew.

What bothers me the most though is that Apple has removed the man pages from their online documentation. Even the old archived links no longer work. In fact, if you start at developer.apple.com/opensource, and follow the link at the bottom to “View Unix Documentation”, you are brought to an extremely out of date archive page with five (5!!) links, none of which are relevant. I’ve been listening to Swift and Objective-C developers complain on podcasts about how the language documentation is incomplete or out of date, but that’s nothing compared to what’s been done to the Unix documentation. So far, the best we can get is doing a search on the open source repository… until that goes away.

I use a Mac because I love the simplicity and reliability of the user interface coupled with a solid Unix core, and because the indie developer community produces some of the best software in the world. The text editor I’m using now for example, BBEdit. Personally I think it’s clear that the Mac’s model for a software ecosystem is the best we’ve been able to come up with. Provide a person with the ability to craft an application themselves, and be able to make a living off of doing so by selling to a global audience. This results in high quality, sustainable software built by people who care deeply about their work and are motivated to continue developing it. Not to mention that the community built between writers, developers, artists, and hobbyists is welcoming, friendly, and inclusive.

One of the reasons for the Mac’s success in the 2000’s and 2010’s is because it made such a great developer or sysadmin machine because of the Unix architecture. Being a Mac, if you never needed to know about it, you would never see it, but if you did need it, the Terminal app was always right there in the Utilities folder, pop it open and you’re off to the races. Unfortunately, given recent moves by Apple, I’m not sure how much longer I’ll be able to stay with the mac as my primary work machine. If I literally can’t get my job done, I’ll be forced to go somewhere else. That really doesn’t sound appealing to me.


Nostalgic Development

November 1, 2019

Like many my age, my first introduction to writing code was creating basic web pages, mimicking what I could find by right-clicking on a site and selecting “view source”. HTML was, and continues to be, simple. There are nested elements inside the top and bottom tags, and the styling sheet defines how those elements are presented. But, somewhere along the line we’ve collectively lost our way.

For example, I recently worked on a rather large Python web app. The basic concept of a web app is fine, it dynamically creates the HTML on the backend and handles the input from the page. A layer on top of the HTML, but a necessary one to develop anything dynamic. The Python environment has its own package manager, and bundling things up is fairly simple. Then the developers decided to do some modernization of the UI, which required significant modifications to the build pipeline.

Instead of a pure Python environment, we now needed Node.js. We aren’t running a node server, we only need it for the build process. Not to build the actual application, mind you, just the CSS and javascript. Node famously comes with its own package manager, npm, and thank goodness, because our site suddenly needs 899 packages in the node_modules directory. Building on top of node we’ve got React and webpack. Webpack is a bundler used to process javascript and SASS files to compile them into javascript and CSS suitable for deployment. Why do we need SASS? I have no idea. I also don’t know why we need to compile our javascript down into bundled javascript.

We’ve taken what was simple and beautiful and piled on so much clutter and junk that it’s nearly unrecognizable from the days of “view source”. As in all things, I’m sure there’s a lot about this situation that I don’t understand. I’m sure that the developers of these projects have good intentions, and see a definite need for their work. It’s just that I don’t see it. I don’t understand why we need these layers of abstraction.

I’ve been creating web pages for 20 years, in one form or another. I really thought that HTML 5 would be a renaissance of simple, usable web development, but for the most part, that hasn’t happened. Well, at least we finally got rid of Flash.


Think About the Future

October 11, 2019

Over the past twenty years the tech industry has greased the tracks of an express train to dystopia. As age creeps up on me and my hair continues to grey, I think back on the naive optimism of my youth with increasing nostalgia. We live in a world of constant surveillance, persistent erosions of privacy, a decline of democracy, and a rise of populist demagogues. Every new year becomes the hottest year on record, America has an obesity epidemic, and starvation is still a problem around the globe. The Amazon is on fire, opiate abuse is rampant, our kids are suffering from mental health problems, and everyone is too distracted by their phones to care. In short, we’ve made a mess of things.

Being a small part of this industry I can’t help but feel some responsibility. Although I’ve always been a small cog in a massive machine, I’ve been a cog with choices, and those choices did not always turn out as hoped. The easy and human response to our situation is cynicism and scape-goating, blaming the other without accepting any of the responsibility ourselves. I find this kind of laziness unacceptable, an abdication of character and integrity. It’s giving up. We can never give up.

Instead, I again choose optimism. Not naive optimism, but one born of experience and faith. I think most people are good, and clever, and when given the chance want to do their part. I think to share this optimism we first need a vision for the future. Not an apocalyptic future, but one where we’ve solved or are in the process of solving our current problems. Less Mad Max and more Star Trek. Or, somewhat more realistically, more of Microsoft’s most recent Future Vision video. Technology, humanities expression of boundless problem solving ability, must be the underlying foundation for what comes next.

One thing we must agree on before we can move forward is that we can’t go back. We can’t time travel, we can’t bring back “the good ol days”, and we can’t change our culture to recreate an imagined point in the past when things were better. The genie is out of the bottle; we have no choice but to move forward. As uncomfortable as that might make us, there really is no other choice, and anyone who tells you otherwise most likely wants something from you. Smart phones, tablets, social media, the Internet… they are all here to stay. What must change is how we use them. Technology is a tool and a mirror, how we use it shows us who we are.

To solve big problems we must be able to think clearly and concentrate. Luckily we’ve got smart people working on this problem like Cal Newport and Shawn Blanc. I submit that we need a societal shift towards a mentality that treats social media similarly to alcohol. Perfectly acceptable in moderation, can be enjoyable with friends, but improper at work or school. Or, maybe a British attitude is more appropriate, go ahead and have a pint of Twitter at lunch, then go back into your Eudaimonia Machine at work.

This ability to think clearly, without distraction or interruption, must also extend into our school system. We have adopted one-to-one programs across the country that give each child a laptop, and then expect them to have the self-control to be able to use that machine to study, take tests, and do homework. Most of the machines we’ve given them aren’t built to do that by default, they are multi-tasking environments that make it quick and easy to switch between tasks, an accident waiting to happen for an already distracted mind. Once again, we’ve adopted a technology without fully understanding its implications. Technology in education is a broad and deep topic that I hope to cover in more detail in the future. For now, I’ll summarize my position by saying that I advocate for devices like the re:markable e-ink tablet. Not less technology, but tech better suited to the task at hand. Technology that respects our humanity, with all it’s faults and vulnerabilities.

Once we can think clearly it will be much easier to spot partisan propaganda and “fake news”. Without the talking heads on TV, podcasts, youtube and twitter drowning out intelligent conversation we can start to have meaningful debates about things that really matter. As a society, we must indemnify ourselves against phycological warfare like Brietbart and Twitter trolls. We need to be able to identify attempts to promote the false and hateful ideology that seeks to divide us and reject it. The world is awash in mammoth-sized problems, it’s going to take all of us working together to solve them. We must be able to concentrate, then find common ground, and out of that a path forward.

And what is that path forward? What vision should we share? What do we want in the future? Clean air and water. Safe cities, thriving communities. An economy that supports small towns and big cities alike. Work that is respected regardless of if you work with your hands or your mind. Individuals with the freedom to live as they choose, and the responsibility to themselves, their family, and their community that comes with that freedom. The ability to produce and distribute enough food and fresh water that no one goes hungry or is forced to drink bad water. These problems are hard, but not impossible.

I can see a future where our differences are sorted out through vigorous debate. Where our technology is powered by clean, renewable energy. Where we’ve abandoned our dependence on the fossil fuels and plastics that are destroying our environment. Where our food, clothing, and other consumables are sustainable. This is not a utopia, I don’t envision a world without crime or war, but I do envision one with much, much less hate and violence than we currently have. We can turn the tide of the mental health crisis we are currently experiencing. We can defeat the hopelessness and depression that turns people to drugs. We can build technology that prioritizes individual physical and mental health, as well as privacy, security, and autonomy.

We just need to decide to do it. Let’s talk about how.


The September 2019 Apple Event

September 12, 2019

Several more professional sites have written longer and better articles about Apple’s recent event than I can do here. A few of my favorites in no particular order are John Gruber’s take, Ryan Christoffel and Alex Guyot cover the new iPhones and Apple Watch, respectively, at MacStories, Jason Snell’s take on hits and misses at SixColors, it’s always worth a click to read everyone’s pal Jim Dalrymple at The Loop’s thoughts on the event. And of course, the team at iMore has an entire section set aside for the many articles they’ve already written about what’s new.

This is not a review, just my thoughts on the new products after letting the dust settle for a couple days.

Apple Watch Series 5

I can see myself upgrading my Series 3 for the 5. The bigger screen that debuted in the Series 4 is attractive enough, but the always on screen in the 5 really pushes it over the edge. This is the one Apple device I use every day, all day. For almost two years straight now I’ve worn my Watch nearly every day.

iPad 7

I have many conflicting thoughts about the modern computer for the rest of us. Setting those aside for the moment, this looks like a great update to the entry-level iPad. Larger screen and finally a proper keyboard option, but the same A10 chipset. For $330 this is the right option for someone looking for a casual computing device to take notes, watch video, send and receive emails, and surf the web.

iPhone 11

When compared to the XR, the iPhone 11 is an incremental update with a slightly faster CPU, slightly better battery life, a big update to the camera, and worse color options overall. I’m not a fan of the washed-out pastels, especially when compared to the vibrant and fun colors of the XR. The yellow is especially egregious.

That being said, it’s important to note that this is how Apple rolls. One small incremental update after another, and after a few the iPhone 11 is a massive update in all aspects from something like an older iPhone 6S. Color preferences are just that, preferences. That this year doesn’t match mine doesn’t make them bad, just not for me. What we can’t ignore is that this year Apple ships yet again another incrementally better iPhone, one that’s better in all the ways that matter from previous versions.

iPhone 11 Pro Max Super Duper Cool XDR Edition

Apple really can’t name anything anymore.

Better battery, better camera, better screen, but not better enough to justify the additional $300 the Pro costs. Not to mention that the colors for the Pro are just awful. Speaking of color, that Midnight Green looks like a sad color for a car in East Berlin before the wall fell. The gold is more of a copper, and the white is more of a cream. Space Grey remains the best option for an iPhone that lacks the color options of the 11.

Of all the Apple devices that are “not for me”, the Pro Max is the not for me’ist. I’m actually looking for ways to use my phone less, not more, and I’d rather have a smaller SE-sized phone than even the larger size that originated with the iPhone 6, let alone the Max.

Apple Arcade

$5 per month? Sold. I’m always looking for new games, and I know my kids will get a kick out of this too, especially once it’s available on the Apple TV. I’m even considering getting an Xbox One controller to turn the Apple TV into an almost real gaming console.

Also, I take back what I said previously. Apple Arcade is a great name for the service.

Apple TV+

$5 per month? Sold. I have high hopes for the shows they’ve advertised so far, and I think that over time the TV+ catalog will grow to a respectable size. My current plan is to drop Netflix, pick up TV+, and upgrade to the Hulu and Disney+ bundle. And maybe, someday dropping cable once more.

Miscellany

As discussed on the most recent ATP, the game demos were not good. I also thought they had too many videos, and I miss Jony’s British voiceovers. I also 100% agree with Marco that the forced applause from Apple Retail employees is really starting to feel fake and cringe-worthy. This video for the Watch was Apple at their best.


Enterprise Software Again

September 6, 2019

I realized today that it’s been ten years since I dedicated an entire post to complaining about enterprise software. In that ten years not much has changed, unfortunately. Enterprise software is still crap, and it’s still more of a hassle than it’s worth. It’s best to avoid whenever possible, so when you find yourself evaluating software or services for your company, here’s a few easy markers to identify the products you should let pass by.

  1. Enterprise software doesn’t want to tell you how much it costs.
  2. Enterprise software often doesn’t even list what it does, instead it want’s to partner with you to provide solutions.
  3. Enterprise software doesn’t provide you technical documentation until after you’ve paid. And even then, it’s lacking.
  4. Instead of real documentation, the marketing department of enterprise software vendors will write “whitepapers”, which are entirely useless.
  5. The user-facing part of enterprise software is almost always complete garbage.

This last point is important because it gets to the crux of what enterprise software is: software wherein the person who pays for it is not the person who uses it. Payment for these solutions is handled by managers who are several steps removed from the daily process of having to put the software in place and use it as intended. What the managers need is a way to justify the exorbitant fees enterprise software vendors charge, so the vender’s sites are full of marketing jargon and various scenarios, hoping to inspire one manager to convince another manager that the price is worth it.

It’s not.

There’s almost always a better way to go about solving whatever problem an organization seeks out a vendor to solve. My personal preference is to solve it in house with open source software and custom development. That way, the money you would have spent on the garbage solution from an enterprise software vendor is spent investing in your own organization. Invest in yourself, solve your own problems, don’t compound your problems by buying someone else’s.


That One Mac Guy

March 8, 2019

I bought my first Mac in 2004, a white plastic iBook G4. It was slow, the screen resolution was terrible, but wow did I love Mac OS X. After several years of loading every Linux and BSD variant I could find on the PC I bought in ‘99, I finally found a stable Unix-based operating system with a logical and beautiful user interface. The Mac was exactly what I wanted in a computer. I desperately wanted to use it at work, but working in a secure military environment, that wasn’t going to happen.

After I got out of the Navy in ‘06 I got my first civilian job on a six-month contract in Iowa. I was issued another PC, but after poking around a bit I found an old Mac that wasn’t being used, so I adopted it made it work for me. One of the lead engineers saw it once and made the off-hand comment that I should “get that piece of crap off my desk”. I ignored him and carried on. My coworkers were having a LAN party one day after work, and invited me along to play some networked game. I brought my personal MacBook with me, and quickly realized that everyone else had custom built gaming PCs, and that my little laptop couldn’t keep up.

When I found stable employment in Des Moines, I was, again, issued a PC. A Dell laptop this time. Again I found an unused Mac in a closet somewhere, a PowerMac G4, booted it up and used it as my main workstation. After a few years, and knowing my boundaries, I found it possible to work under the radar and bring my personal Mac to work, by now a MacBook Pro, and typically just dropped the Dell in a drawer. From time to time there’d be something I’d need to do with the Dell, and it’d wind up back on my desk for a bit. I remember once a coworker, who would eventually be promoted to my manager, walking by my cubicle and mocking me loudly saying “typical Mac user, Mac in front of him, PC on the side to get real work done.” I didn’t like that guy.

Over the years Macs have become more mainstream and I’ve noticed that they’ve become more accepted at the different places I’ve worked. One thing seems to not change though, whoever is in charge of taking care of employee’s computers always wants Windows PCs. I imagine because they are easier to manage en masse. Even at my latest company meeting, the team was discussing some feature rollout to the PCs, and it came up that I used a Mac1. I quipped that I was pretty sure that by now my using a Mac is a condition of my continued employment. (It’s not.) I further quipped that they could have my Mac… when they pried it from my cold, dead hand.

For my entire working life outside the military, I’ve been the outlier who uses a Mac. By now I’ve been using it exclusively for so many years that I’d be completely lost in Windows. The Mac has a carefully chosen set of tools that mold perfectly to how my mind works. Things are where I expect them to be, they do what I expect them to do. As an information worker, I care deeply about the tools I use. I spend so much of my life using it, I want the experience to at least be somewhat enjoyable. I couldn’t imagine working anywhere that forced me to use a PC, if they did, I’d use it to start sending out my resume immediately.

  1. My whole team uses Macs, but my team is three people, so 🤷🏻‍♂️. 


Setting Up Webster's Dictionary

March 6, 2019

Via a post I saw today from Chris Bowler, via a newsletter by Sarah Bray, discussing an article written by James Somers, wherein he describes the writing process of John McPhee1, and how he uses a good dictionary to go from last draft to finished work. The emphasis here is on a good dictionary, namely the 1913 Webster’s Unabridged. I won’t attempt to describe how wonderful the dictionary is here, James did a fantastic job of that on his blog five years ago. I will however say that I think his installation instructions for getting the dictionary usable on your Mac are out of date. Here’s the easy way to do it.

First, download the compiled dictionary text. I downloaded it from a GitHub account, but who knows for how long that’ll be available, so I’m hosting the download here2. Webster.s.1913.dictionary.zip

Next, unzip the downloaded file and find the file named “Webster’s 1913.dictionary”. Click on the Finder’s “Go” menu and hold down the Option key to show the hidden “Library” folder. Click on Library, and find the “Dictionaries” folder. Open it, and drag and drop the new dictionary folder into it.

Now when you open the macOS Dictionary app, you can go into the settings (either by pressing ⌘, or by clicking on “Dictionary” then “Preferences…” in the menu bar), scroll down a bit till you find “Webster’s 1913”, click the check box next to it and drag it to the top of the list. Uncheck the “New Oxford American Dictionary”. Now when you click on a word in a good Mac app, then click just a tad bit harder3, you’ll get the definition from the new and improved Webster’s. It’ll also show up in Spotlight searches, and anywhere else the system-wide dictionary is used.

Now you have a far richer and more useful dictionary. A useful resource if you happen to currently be, or soon will be, a college student who needs to write often, and in volume.

  1. Good grief! 

  2. Which, ironically, is also hosted on GitHub. 

  3. If your Mac doesn’t have the force-press feature in the trackpad, you can hit ⌘⌃D while a word is highlighted to get the definition as well. 


Stories

February 24, 2019

“We are all stories in the end, just make it a good one eh?”

Christians, shaman, poets, and authors all know one thing… what we believe shapes who we are, and the stories we tell ourselves shape those beliefs. Our lives are a self-fulfilling prophecy. We become who we believe we will become, because we take actions that are logically attuned to the story we’ve told ourselves about our life. Storytellers hold power, not because of wealth or authority, but because the stories they tell shape our understanding of the world around us. In turn, how we understand the world and our place in it guides our decisions and shapes our world to be more like what we believe it to be.


Inessential Thanks

January 16, 2019

I believe this will be the last I muck about with the design of the site for the foreseeable future. After being disappointed by the available themes, and further disappointed by my own design ability, I went back to basics. And by basics I mean that I found a few sites that I like the look of and copied large chunks of HTML and CSS to build a custom Jekyll theme.

Readers of Brent Simmons’ Inessential site will probably recognize the fonts and general layout. I’ve added navigation at the top, minimized the layout to bare HTML5 tags, and setup some color here and there. I’ve also set up a bit of responsiveness for media, and syntax highlighting for code blocks. My hope is that this will be a good baseline for any future work I put into the site, but attribution must be made first.

I enjoy the simplicity of the design, and how clean and readable it is now. I especially like that there is no Javascript in use. Nothing but pure HTML and CSS. No tracking, no stats, nothing dynamic or fancy. It’s just you, me, and the text.

PS. Brent was kind enough to give his blessing to the new design, for which I’m greatly appreciative.