The Small Fish Sponsorship

Despite not being updated on a daily basis, this website has been taking an increasing amount of my time in the past three years. Until 2012, my main source of income had been my work as a freelance translator (see Services for more information). Since early 2013, my focus went back to what I’ve really loved doing since I was a teenager — creative writing. After more than thirteen years ‘in the trenches’ of the translation world, I felt it was time for a change, as I was approaching burnout due to the working hours, the difficulties in dealing with mostly terrible clients, and the disheartening process of trying to get paid for my hard work. At the same time, after a peak in translation works and collaborations during the 2010–2012 period, things started to slow down (alarmingly) on the translation front, so that factor was also crucial in driving me back to the path of writing.

After publishing my first volume of short stories, Minigrooves in July 2013, and starting Vantage Point Magazine in June 2014, I wasn’t so naïve as to expect an immediate success, but I admit I expected a little more support, especially from people who seemed quite eager to read my stories and my magazine when I first announced these products.

Meanwhile I noticed that an increasing number of the prominent independent tech-oriented sites/blogs I read on a daily basis, started featuring a sponsorship model à la Daring Fireball, where sponsors purchase a week-long slot on one of these high-traffic sites/blogs, and the author usually publishes a promotional post from the sponsor at the start of the week, followed by another thank-you mention at the end of the week. Of course, with a high-profile site such as Daring Fireball, where the estimated monthly webpage views is 4–5 million, the sponsor is very likely to receive a great, fruitful exposure.

Now, my site is no Daring Fireball. In the tech-oriented independent punditry, I’m a small fish. That’s why I’m about to launch a scaled-down sponsorship model for this place, called The Small Fish Sponsorship.

The Small Fish Sponsorship

I would call what follows a ‘final draft,’ which means that the basics are all outlined, but there might be some refinements from here until the beginning of 2015, which is when this sponsorship model will become officially operational.

The Small Fish Sponsorship should work this way:

  • It should start on January 2015.
  • Every sponsor gets a week, like on Daring Fireball and other similar indie tech blogs/sites.
  • Every sponsor will receive the same basic treatment: a promotional post at the beginning of the scheduled week (Monday), a thank-you mention at the end of the week (Sunday).
  • If I find the sponsor’s product/service particularly interesting or useful to me, or deserving more attention, I could write a review of it. I could even write an Italian version of the review, so as to reach a wider audience. And if the product can also be of interest to an audience of vintage tech enthusiasts, I could mention it on my other blog, System Folder, which is about vintage technology and Macs in particular, and sometimes gets even more traffic than this website.
  • Of course, since I’m a small fish, and the estimated monthly webpage views of this site is about 7,500, the price I’m asking is comparatively more affordable: €450 (or the equivalent in your preferred currency).
  • Speaking of views, every now and then, an article I write gets the attention of bigger players such as MacStories. When that happens, the spike in traffic my site receives is considerable, so if you’re an interested sponsor, bear that in mind as well.
  • If I’m particularly interested in the product promoted by the sponsor, the sponsor can use a unit of the product to cover part of the payment. For instance, if the sponsor is a manufacturer of a piece of hardware or an accessory that costs €100 and it costs €20 to ship the product to me, those €120 will be deducted from the €450 to purchase a week slot (so basically I will receive the product and €330).
  • My blog may not be widely read, but I have a great audience of smart people who like quality stuff, and I respect every one of them. If your product lacks quality, don’t even bother contacting me.
  • Don’t push for a review. As I mentioned above, a review is something I might spontaneously write if I find the sponsor’s product useful, appealing, worthy of more attention, etc. It has to be considered a bonus gesture on my part, not a given.
  • Final reminder, just to be very clear: this is sponsorship. It’s not OK to contact me with advertising proposals for placing banners and similar ads on my website.

To recap

The Small Fish Sponsorship allows a sponsor to purchase a week-long slot for €450. Basic treatment: same as Daring Fireball (and other similar indie tech blogs/websites): post at the beginning of the week, thank-you mention at the end of the week. Main difference: the more I like your product, the more I’ll talk about it during the week. A review is possible if I love the product and think it’s worth spreading the word. If you push for a review, forget about it.

At the end of the day, the spirit behind this is simple: I’m (still) a small fish compared to other prominent tech-oriented blogs and websites, and I can’t offer their kind of traffic or visibility. Thus what I ask in return is relatively modest compared to those blogs. Still, if a sponsor has a particularly compelling product to offer, what I can provide is potentially more than just a mention and a thank you.

So, that’s it, in a nutshell. In the next weeks I may update this post with further clarifications/refinements, so stay tuned if you’re interested. When the Small Fish Sponsorship begins, this post will become a dedicated page on my site, and it will feature a calendar with a slot availability schedule, much like this page on Daring Fireball.

If you’re another ‘small fish’ indie operation like me and would like to propose this kind of model on your site, be kind and mention me on your blog and to your sponsors. Thank you.

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Addr is a nice eBook reader for the iPad

The other day I was checking the Technology section on my Flipboard and this article on TechCrunch caught my eye, obviously: Addr Is A Nifty iPad Ebook Reader For Those Who Miss Readmill. Now, I still use Readmill despite being discontinued, but I just can’t say no to eBook reading apps on iOS, so I went and downloaded it even before finishing the TechCrunch article.

Everything you need to know about Addr you’ll find at Addr’s website. I want to share a few more screenshots and some initial impressions.

When you open Addr, you’re presented with your Library:

 

Addr library

 

Books can be arranged by Date, Author, Title. Addr links to Dropbox, and after you authorise the application, when you tap My Dropbox, Addr will scan your Dropbox folder for ePub files. Tap on the files you want to import and the eBook will be imported and formatted according to Addr’s design guidelines. The better the original ePub file, the better the outcome (for example, that copy of Orwell’s Essays I own lacks an index, so no index will be created in the app. I didn’t remember, so at first I thought there had been some error during import).

 

Addr first page

 

This is what you see when you tap on one of the eBooks: you’ll be presented with the first useful page after the cover. This eBook has an index, and I can tap on any chapter or section to get there immediately. I really love this kind of presentation and the typography chosen by Addr’s developers, both the sans-serif font used for titles, subtitles, and menus, and the serif font used to render the text. It’s not very clear in this screenshot, but there are different layers at work here. There’s the ‘menu column’ on the leftmost edge, then there’s the first page of the selected section (that “To Sa…” you can make out is the selected Dedication page), then there’s the ‘minimap’ of the selected section — that dark square you see on the top to the left of the book’s title — which is small preview of the whole text of the selected section (you’ll see it better in the next screenshots); then the book’s title and author, and the index.

 

Addr page

 

This is an example of a page. Here you have a better idea of how the minimap works: you can swipe up and down on it to quickly reach a certain part of the text within a chapter/section.

 

Addr add note

 

I really like the way Addr lets you add notes: instead of highlighting the text, you first drag your finger towards the book’s margin to mark the beginning of the passage you want to highlight or annotate, then, without lifting your finger, you swipe down until you reach the end of the passage. At this point you can add your observations in the margin. While this method may look a bit cumbersome at first, I like it æsthetically because it’s exactly what I usually do with physical books — make annotations with a pencil on their margins.

 

Addr notes summary

 

All notes are gathered in a separate panel and can be accessed directly by tapping, or shared using the Send button.

 

Addr page with note

 

Swiping right hides the minimap, and you can see your annotations in full. Annotated passages show up on the minimap as well (if you go back to the previous screenshot and you squint a bit, you’ll see).

There’s a lot to like about Addr. I like the elegant and minimalistic design, which I find to be a nice mixture of modern and traditional approach in the way you interact with eBooks. As I mentioned above, I also like the choice of typefaces used and the colour palette. As for the annotation system, I agree with Romain Dillet at TechCrunch when he writes: While it sounds like a gimmicky feature, it makes sense when you go back to your previous annotations. You will see them right next to your text in the margin. You won’t have to tap on a button or a sentence to open an impractical and ugly popover.

The developers have made a series of bold design decisions, which might annoy some people who prefer a higher level of customisation:

  • Addr works only in portrait orientation.
  • Font size is fixed.
  • Fonts cannot be changed.
  • Colours cannot be changed. There’s no ‘night theme’ or anything like that.
  • It only works with ePub files, as far as I know.

Bear in mind that this is a 1.0 version, so it’s possible that font and colour customisation and a landscape mode are simply features that have been planned for future versions but weren’t ready when the developers decided to ship. Personally, while I find the current settings good enough (the text font is pleasant and sufficiently big), I’d like to have more options available to tweak my reading experience, especially some sort of night theme to avoid eye strain when reading at night.

For now, the only criticism I have is that certain UI elements are perhaps too subtle and one may need to find the right gesture or the right place to tap or swipe after a bit of trial and error. The app’s performance on my iPad 3 isn’t consistently smooth, but it’s too early to say if it’s the app itself at fault here, or if it’s just the occasional poorly-formatted ePub file that’s causing problems. The import process could also use a progress bar: as soon as you select an ePub file to import from your Dropbox, a modal dialog box (“Importing the book”) appears while the book is being imported, but you don’t exactly know when the import process is complete. The dialog box can be dismissed at any time by tapping ‘OK’ but on one occasion I apparently dismissed it too soon, returned to my Library, and the eBook I chose to import wasn’t showing up.

I think that, overall, Addr is off to a very good start. As far as I’m concerned, it just needs some light UI refinements and some basic customisation options. I’m not sure if I agree with Romain Dillet at TechCrunch about the need of an iPhone version. True, now we have iPhones with bigger screens, but I don’t know if Addr’s gestures and annotation system would work as well on the smaller iPhone screen compared to the iPad’s. We’ll see.

At the time of writing, Addr is free on the App Store and has no In-app purchases.

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Mail’s hegemony

In recent times there’s been a lively debate about email in general. The gist of it — it seems — is that email is a venerable communication medium that has to be ‘refreshed’ somehow since we cannot get rid of it. It appears that a lot of nerds are overwhelmed by email management, and since evidently it’s too complicated to review or perfect how one manages email, it’s the medium that has to be ‘adjusted’ to be more convenient. So, new clients have appeared, and new approaches to email have been attempted to ‘optimise the concept’ and to ‘bring email to the 21st century.’

To use the phrase Calling bullshit is perhaps a bit too much, but picture me scoffing at the very least.

Email: deal with it

There’s no way around it: email is messages you receive, messages you write, and replies to messages you receive. When you receive a lot of emails and want to get it over with as soon as possible, you either ignore all non-essential or top-priority messages, or you get someone else to act as a secretary. I don’t believe there’s a software solution to make your email life much easier, unless we’re talking about something that sends pre-packaged answers, which is just horrible, at least for someone like me who values correspondence. You just have to Stop whining and deal with it.

Software-wise, you can mix things up all you like, you can pretend emails are status updates, or to-do items to act upon, GTD projects, etc., and you can come up with clients that emphasise this aspect or the other in the software’s interface, but in the end, again, email means message management, thus there has to be a part of the UI dedicated to show message lists, default and custom email folders, a single-message area inside the main application window, and a Compose Message window/pane/sheet.

And that’s why, while my interest is piqued every time a new email client is introduced, I always return to Mail.app.

My path to Mail

I came to email rather late. I opened my first email account in 1999. At the time, my main machine was a blueberry iMac G3/350 with Mac OS 8.6. My browser of choice was Netscape Communicator 4.x, and its Mail & News module was also what I used for email and Usenet newsgroups. And let me tell you, Netscape handled email and newsgroups quite well, at least for my needs. So well, in fact, that I kept using it as an email and Usenet client for as late as 2002. In late 2001 I had upgraded my iMac from Mac OS 8.6 to Mac OS X 10.1, and started using Mail.app as secondary email client, to get accustomed to it and also because by then I had more than just one email account, and with Netscape Messenger things could get tricky if you had multiple accounts.

Soon I realised that Mail.app’s user interface wasn’t so different from Netscape Messenger’s, so I migrated all email to Mail, and kept using Netscape Messenger for handling Usenet newsgroups until 2004, when I finally switched to a Mac OS X native app, Unison by Panic Inc.

Migrating three years of email messages from Netscape Messenger to Apple’s Mail was less painful than I’d anticipated. And this particular software lock-in began. But I’ve always been okay with that.

Years have passed, the number of email accounts has grown, and my email archive has got bigger and bigger, which means that changing email client at this point would involve a complex migration of tens of thousands of messages split among a dozen accounts. Since all the email accounts I opened before the advent of Gmail didn’t offer much space on the provider’s servers, I’ve been a heavy user of the POP3 protocol over the years, using IMAP only with Apple’s @mac.com accounts and all the accounts I opened in the Gmail era. I still use POP3 for some accounts, and for those my email client of choice is Mailsmith because it handles email backup in a solid way, and because it’s a powerful, versatile, no-nonsense client all around.

Those who know me well, know that I love testing and trying web browsers, and over time I’ve often changed my default browser to experiment with new offerings or projects. But email has always been a more delicate matter for me. I’ve managed to preserve my email archive (15 years’ worth of messages), and ironically the only part missing of such archive is a window of a few months — from late 2004 to early 2005 — which I lost when an attempt to migrate to Mozilla Thunderbird went unexpectedly very wrong and resulted in the corruption of hundreds of messages I was unable to recover.

Sticking with Mail

But the reason I’m sticking with Mail.app on the Mac isn’t just about my resistance to change email client because I’m afraid to lose my precious archives. With a few careful backups, a bit of patience, and a quiet weekend, I could move all my accounts to another application. The truth is that I still haven’t seen a third-party client groundbreaking enough to make me leave Mail.app behind. Using a secondary Gmail IMAP account, I have indeed tried clients such as Postbox, Mailplane, Airmail, Mailbox for Mac, and I was also interested in seeing what kind of client would result from the .Mail project by Tobias van Schneider, but it seems that the project didn’t go anywhere eventually.

For all this talking about ‘revolutionising’ email, I still haven’t encountered a revolutionary client capable of winning me over. But mind you, this isn’t anybody’s fault, either! The fact is, it’s not an easy task — you can make an email client with a nice UI, you can make an email client that follows a certain concept and have its UI rejiggered accordingly but, like I said before, email’s core is always there: messages you receive, messages you send, and, in general, messages to manage.

All the third-party clients I’ve tried are nice applications and admirable efforts, I’m certainly not belittling anybody’s work here, but ultimately they lack enough gravitational pull to convince me to fully switch. Mail.app is a solid client I’ve been using since 2001 and, believe it or not, I never had a serious issue with it; the worst that has happened was to force quit it in those (rare) cases it had become unresponsive — but Mail has never lost any data. At the end of the day, Mail does everything I need: any change at this point would be just for change’s sake.

Sparrow

To be fair, there was a client that almost pulled me away from Mail, back in 2011: Sparrow [Wikipedia entry | Main website]. I tried it since the early beta versions, and I was really liking the path it was taking. It didn’t want to revolutionise email, just be a lightweight, efficient application. Too bad Google poisoned the well by acquiring it in July 2012 and basically stopping any further meaningful development. You can still purchase it — both the Mac and iOS version — and if you’re looking for a nice and lightweight email client on the Mac I’m tempted to still recommend it (on the iPhone, regrettably, its UI has remained like it was under iOS 6, so it’s a nice alternative only if you’re still using an iPhone 3GS or an iPhone 4 that hasn’t been updated to iOS 7). I’ve managed to retain the last version of Sparrow that could run on PowerPC Macs and it’s my default client on my older PowerBooks because it just feels faster and lighter than Mail on those systems.

Mobile

Mobile is a more flexible environment to create useful, original, more efficient alternatives to iOS’s Mail. Mailbox, Dispatch, Triage are the first third-party apps with an interesting approach that come to mind, plus there are decent email apps such as CloudMagic, Evomail+ or Molto, just to name a few. Smartphones and tablets are a different story, and the Multi-touch interface, the portable size of the devices, the different user-interface and user-interaction paradigms, in my opinion, offer more room for improvement or simply for trying more daring approaches to email management (e.g. an email client tailored to the smaller screen of a smartphone can focus on the triaging part of the process, and provide an optimised interface for the task, so that the triaging part becomes truly quicker, thus expediting email management).

For me it’s also easier to try different email clients on my iPhone and iPad because I don’t need to bring my whole email archive with me, nor do I need to handle all my email accounts while I’m out and about. I only monitor three main accounts, they’re all IMAP, so syncing is a breeze in case I’m trying out another email application.

And what about the new Inbox project by Google?

I’m moving away from Gmail, progressively closing and deleting all the accounts I’ve opened over the years. The hardest part is figuring out the services I’ve tied a certain Gmail account to, or if I’ve set up a certain Gmail account to act as a recovery account in case something goes wrong with yet another email account, so that I can change settings accordingly. So, as you can imagine, I’m not interested in Inbox in the least.

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The system’s babysitters?

I was reading this article on Macworld yesterday — Mac users say Yosemite 10.10.1 update did nothing to fix Wi-Fi — and a comment in particular got my attention, by user “BlueToronto”:

Most issues, if not every single one, that people are having with OS X updates & upgrades would be eliminated if you did a clean install. i.e. back up their Mac hard drive, initialize/erase it, re-install from scratch a clean OS X 10.10 from a bootable USB flash drive installer, then copy data back from backup.

DO NOT use Migration Assistant utility, as it brings back corrupt preferences and settings. (Apple includes it to make it easier to restore your data, but it brings with it a slew of issues.)
Hard drives, with age, get corrupt zeroes & ones. You want to eliminate corrupt files by not re-introducing them to your new clean Mac.
Yes, you will have to re-type passwords for wifi networks and email and instant messenger applications, but it’s a small price to pay.

I’ve never experienced any of the issues people complain about in the support forums, with a brand new Mac bought at the Apple Store. Why? Because they have a brand new clean installation on them without previous corruption.
(Now granted, if you buy a brand new Mac, then use Migration Assistant from your old Mac you’re replacing, some issues will still crop up because of corruption from your old Mac.).

Same thing with iOS8.
I had clients complaining that the iOS8 upgrade made their iPhone 5 & 5S virtually unusable.
But once I did a Restore Update (after backing up their iPhones first), wiped out the old data & initialized the iPhone’s flash drive, and installed fresh iOS8, all the issues, including speed issues, went away.

I had clients with mouths wide open in disbelief after seeing their Mac computers and iPhones/iPads working like brand new, nice & fast, no issues!

As someone who has done a lot of freelance tech support in the past, I do understand this point of view and I do agree that it’s possibly the best practice to follow if you want to keep your system tidy and your Mac in working order.

Your Mac is a tool, and like any other tool it works at its best if it’s properly maintained and taken care of. Yet, more and more often lately I’m wondering if perhaps the burden on users’ shoulders isn’t getting a bit too much to bear.

Back up the whole main drive, reformat it, perform a clean install of OS X Yosemite, copy back the data from the backup manually to avoid any issues… These are all sensible steps to follow, but part of me can’t help thinking: It’s 2014 — shouldn’t an operating system be smarter than that? Do we have to proceed like we used to do in previous decades, always babysitting systems and machines — the same systems that are supposed to make our lives easier?

I have approximately 350 GB worth of data on my MacBook Pro’s main drive at the moment. To upgrade to Yosemite following the ‘safe route’ outlined above means losing at least one day. It’s a slow, time-consuming, tedious procedure. Again, I agree it’s the most sensible from a pragmatic standpoint, but I feel this should be more like a last-resort, paranoiac scenario. Instead, especially with all OS X versions following Snow Leopard, this has become the best way to avoid surprises.

I don’t know if this kind of preventive measures before performing a system upgrade are needed now more than ever because Mac OS X has got worse (i.e. in the QA department) or simply more complex (therefore with more underlying bugs), or because the last releases of Mac OS X support many more Mac models and configurations than before; but while I previously felt comfortable upgrading to a newer Mac OS X version without having up-to-date backups or having to worry about possible side-effects, since OS X 10.7 Lion I’ve grown increasingly careful and wary. And I still haven’t upgraded to Yosemite because I’m really worried it could negatively affect the good performance I’m currently experiencing under Mavericks on my mid-2009 MacBook Pro.

What is worrying me with Yosemite more than previous OS X versions is that now, for the first time, a lot of people I know who already do a great job at maintaining their Macs and generally at babysitting their systems have experienced some issues after doing a simple upgrade to Yosemite (no clean install or anything). And the simple upgrade — open the Mac App Store, download Yosemite, and install — should be the way things ‘just work.’

Instead, some well-optimised Macs after Yosemite have been having serious issues with Wi-Fi connectivity, a marked decrease in battery life, a progressive performance worsening of the whole system after a few hours of usage (OS X getting more and more sluggish), random freezes and hangs… Very few people I know have told me their upgrade to Yosemite has been completely hassle-free, and a friend who said everything was alright told me yesterday that the update to OS X 10.10.1 actually screwed up his Mac’s Wi-Fi performance.

Having measures in place and good practice to protect our data is the least we can do today, and not having at least a Time Machine backup is just reckless and inexcusable. But I’m still convinced that one truly innovative thing would be to have more reliable, less finicky, operating systems’ installation processes. Users who have perfectly working Macs should be able to just click ‘update’ and wait for the process to complete without biting their nails in trepidation. But most importantly, users shouldn’t have to approach their computers as system administrators. It shouldn’t be up to the user to prepare the best possible ground for the system to update and work — the system should be smart enough to install properly, or at least to detect conflicts or data corruption during the installation process, alert the user about any problem encountered, and ideally point the user to a possible course of action to remedy the problem.

(I’ve focused on OS X Yosemite a lot in this article, but this applies to all current operating systems out there, whose installation/update procedures and maintenance are probably even more convoluted than OS X’s. I know a few Windows users who were basically forced to either reinstall their current system or upgrade to a newer version of Windows simply because one of Windows’ weakest elements — the Registry — got corrupted in a way that was beyond simple repairs or fixes. And my own recent experience with Android has left the impression that it’s a system that needs constant care and attention on the user’s part to guarantee a decent performance and user experience.)

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iOS 8.1.1 on iPad 2/iPad 3

The latest iOS 8.1.1 promises, among other fixes, to improve performance on older devices, such as the iPhone 4S and the iPad 2. Since we have an iPad 2 and an iPad 3 with iOS 8 in this household, I was eager to install the update and see for myself.

Back in September I wrote my initial impressions of iOS 8 on the iPad 2 and iPad 3, and concluded that, all in all, the experience wasn’t significantly different than iOS 7 on these devices. There was the occasional stutter, and sometimes the transitions in the interface were a bit slow, but nothing that made the update to iOS 8 an intolerable experience.

Things worked well under iOS 8.0 and 8.0.2. What I’ve failed to mention is that the update to iOS 8.1 wasn’t as smooth, and since updating to iOS 8.1 the stuttering and the slowness in transitions and animations were more pronounced. In particular, the transition from waking up the iPad and sliding on the lock screen to access the springboard had lost all its smoothness. At times the iPad seemed unusually stuck for a few seconds on the lock screen even after sliding to unlock, or the sliding was recognised but the lock screen simply budged a little. And entering the springboard was often jerky and the transition played like a video that keeps skipping frames. Same when exiting particularly resource-intensive apps.

I’m happy to report that, after updating both iPads to iOS 8.1.1, everything’s back to normal. Transitions and navigation are smooth once again. Swiping from screen to screen feels even smoother than under iOS 8.0 to 8.0.2. All the issues described in the previous paragraph are gone. Entering and exiting apps offers again a pleasant transition. Waking the iPad, sliding to unlock the lock screen, and entering the springboard — same story. My iPad 3 feels generally better and slightly more responsive. My wife’s iPad 2 feels less sluggish than under iOS 8.1. I’m really happy with this update, and if you own these devices and have experienced these issues, I do recommend you update to iOS 8.1.1 right away.

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