Categories
On Technology

Running a dumb robot vacuum with Shortcuts

I love the idea of a totally self-sufficient robotic vacuum to keep my floors clean. However, I am also cheap: a $1000 Roomba that empties its own waste is amazing, but not something I’m willing to chalk up for at this point in my life.

So, I got an Ecovacs Deebot N79 for sale on Amazon a few months ago. It’s great, but it’s also pretty dumb. Alicia and I call it DJ Roomba (obviously), and it’s very cute but kind of dumb.

It can schedule itself to run daily at a certain time, but no more granularly than that — I don’t want to hear a vacuum at 11am when I’m at home, but I do appreciate coming home to a clean house when I’m out and about. It does have Wifi capability and a companion iPhone app, but the app sucks: it requires 2 taps and several seconds of delay just to find DJ Roomba, and then I have to tell it what to do, and every time I want it to do something different I need to repeat this entire process.

It’s not great. I’d rather just build a scheme that DJ Roomba can follow automatically, whenever I want it to.

Homebridge and its flaws

I naturally Google’d the crap out of this problem. I quickly found sucks, a Python interface that connects to Ecovacs’ server and then enables one to issue commands to any robovacuums tied to your Ecovacs account. This was easy enough to set up. I then found a way to connect sucks to Homebridge via a plugin called CmdSwitch2.

I had never used Homebridge before, but I love the potential of HomeKit. I already have a moderately robust HomeKit setup in my apartment: some smart bulbs, a couple of switches (including a critically placed one controlling my modem) and a HomePod to yell at, so installing Homebridge on my Mac seemed like a fun little project.

Turns out I suck at and don’t enjoy the command line. The process of setting up Homebridge, connecting all the dots between Python, sucks, cmdswitch2 as a trigger that exists inside Homebridge’s config, and Homebridge itself, was a tedious process that quickly lost my interest. I kept having to kill and restart Homebridge to make sure everything was playing nice. I must have scanned the Homebridge QR code into my iPhone’s Home app twenty times to get it registered as an accessory.

The other major challenge: I didn’t want my wife to have to deal with this either, but we share an iMac. She uses it regularly for work, and often has to kill processes in order for Adobe apps to run optimally, or restart the computer if things go wrong — which also killed my Homebridge server. I found some options to automatically restart the server, and I could have kept trying those things, but my fun little hobby project of automating control of my dumb vacuum was increasingly frustrating me. I’d go to start the vacuum and constantly see the damn “No Response” in red.

So I gave up and dismantled the entire thing.

A few weeks later I realized that I don’t actually need Homebridge or cmdswitch2 at all. I really just wanted to run sucks on command: ideally a specific times of day or when I’m home, but just being able to trigger it from any of my devices (or my voice) would suffice.

Enter crazy and powerful Shortcuts.

Shortcuts and a simple AppleScript

Nobody I know personally really uses Shortcuts, but it’s sort of my lifeblood for controlling things around my home and work. I use it to set reminders without thinking, do a whole host of chores every morning & weekend, and generate canned email templates that I shouldn’t have to send as often as I do.

Viticci opened my eyes to the idea of Shortcuts triggering actions on a remote Mac via SSH, including waking it from sleep. I figured out that I could also run AppleScripts using the an SSH command — osascript.

I realize that most tech people probably know this already, but bear with me.

I then did the following:

  1. On my shared iMac, opened up Script Editor and created an AppleScript (.scpt) file that run a basic sucks command: sucks edge 15 clean 30 charge. This script, when run, tells Ecovacs to run the “edge” function on my vacuum for 15 minutes, then general cleaning for a half hour, then send the vacuum back to its charger.
  2. Saved that .scpt file my parent user directory on the iMac.
  3. In Shortcuts, wrote a very simple (1-step) Shortcut that triggers script via SSH. Rather than SSH-ing into the iMac locally, I enable SSH access and file sharing on the iMac, then connect to its IP address so I can run the command from anywhere.
  4. Repeated steps 1, but with a different script that simply tells DJ Roomba to go home, it’s drunk: sucks charge

Now I have two Shortcuts: Run Vacuum and Stop Vacuum. I can yell out to my HomePod, tap a button on my iPhone or iPad, to kick either process off. As long as my iMac is on, this will always work.

I can run this as part of another shortcut, such as my Bedtime Ritual one which darkens some lights around the home and reminds me to floss, clean out Roomba’s dustpan and a few other things. I can even have Reminders remind me to run the Run Vacuum shortcut at specific times or locations — for example, anytime I leave my house. Then, in one tap, DJ Roomba is up to his antics.

The possibility in iOS 13

This works really nicely, but it’s not perfect. I’d love to customize even further when and how DJ Roomba can run. It sounds like this all gets unlocked in iOS 13 via Shortcuts Automations. I’ll be able to, for example, run the vacuum on Saturdays as long as nobody is home, something I can do currently but only with HomeKit accessories.

This is really dumb and nerdy, but I find it satisfying and fun.

Categories
On Technology

We might have reached Peak Apps

It’s a great time to be a productivity nut. (Note that this post is going to be incredibly first-world-problem-y in nature.)

Since moving to Berlin I’ve had an opportunity to critically review how I work. My job is for the same company and essentially doing the same thing, but I was able to shed some of the burden of direct reports, longstanding internal processes and borderline-political work relationships, and kind of start fresh in a way. My morning routine has gotten more about me — taking time, eating a real breakfast, learning a bit of German via Duolingo, reading news instead of email.

When my mind is feeling nourished, I plan my day with Things 3, moving stuff for this evening to This Evening, comparing my pockets of available time with the number of tasks or projects I need to focus on, and deferring the least important things. I might draft up a few writing ideas or notes for projects in Drafts, some of which get linked to in Things and others that sit in my inbox for when I have a creative thought later.

My bigger idea boards for things that need planning or some kind of structure sit in Trello.

This all works for me quite well… but on some days it feels wrong. Why manage some projects in Things and others in Trello? They’re both really good, but why do I need Things to supposed Get Things Done when Trello can organize my projects with structure and let others collaborate with me?

Collaboration is important, right? But isn’t focus? Trello can do focus really well, I think. But then again, Todoist is also great for focus and collaboration — plus, it can automatically pull in tasks from anywhere via its API. But, Things can kind of do that through its own URL scheme and Mail feature.

GoodTask can do most of the above too — plus it integrates with Reminders, which is great because I can talk to it via Siri and not have to remember to say “using Things” or something very unnatural. Then again, why not just use stock Reminders since I can remind myself about most of the things I need to work on and have it smartly link back to those things? Moleskine Actions also looks really good too, I think. I haven’t even mentioned OmniFocus, because that’s…too much for me right now.

Literally all of these options are totally fine and look, perform and function amazingly. I haven’t even touched the writing, presentation, mind mapping, or spreadsheet apps. My brain hurts.

It’s a weird time to be a productivity nut. Most of the popular apps in most categories are all really, really good. How do you know which one is best? What is best, anyway?

Best for most people? Best for productivity nuts? Best for a married couple? Best for tech company employees? Best for strong female entrepreneurs? Best for stay-at-home dads? Best for digital nomads? Best for you? You’ll probably find a list like this and see roughly the same 10 to 20 apps in a given category, all of which are really, really good.

Navigating this is really hard. Not because the lists of “best apps” are too long or they’re too expensive or hard to find, but they’re just all so good. It takes a long, long time of trying each one out, being wowed by the unique features or design conventions or automation potential or scalability of each one, and having to decide which secret sauce of those is best for you. Apple is sometimes helpful with this, but other times not. I love the new App Store, but when I see a feature focused helping me “Get to Inbox Zero”, I can’t help but laugh at the 15 email clients they recommend for this — as if they’re sneering, “Literally any of these will work, we don’t care, just pick one.” It’s almost lazy.

Not to mention how those apps in a single category connect with the 10-to-20 best apps in a _different_category. I’ve finally decided on sticking to Things, but do I use that in tandem with Drafts? Bear? Ulysses? Apple Notes? Byword? 1Writer? Each of them? Some combination of these? I could use a cocktail of these different apps that basically do the exact same thing, but how much time must I give myself to figure out that perfect Manhattan of writing a few ranty blog posts on an iPad?

I also have to imagine it’s especially hard now to develop an app in the productivity or writing category and not be in this list. Either:

  1. You could copy some design conventions or differentiating functionality of one of those 10–to–20 apps, do some marketing pushes, and eventually be admitted into the wonderful apps club
  2. You could try and determine some feature or use cases that none of these thousands of people figured out already, and take a big gamble
  3. You should just give up and die

To be clear: I don’t think any of this is bad. I find it an interesting time in the world of mobile-first productivity and content creation where the consumer is pretty much always going to be delighted. Developers of that top-tier bucket of apps clearly know what conventions and functionality their consumers want and are willing to listen hard to understand how to best deliver that. The question for the consumer has gone from “what is the best app out there?” to “what is the app or apps that best suit my particular needs at the moment, but also jive perfectly with how I think or what I want to look at?” The second is a much more time-consuming question to ask, I have to imagine, for most people.


Originally published at tonedeafcolorblind.com on April 28, 2018.

Categories
On Technology

The wonderful future

or, my phone is slowly becoming my wallet

Since Alicia and I moved back into Boston proper, I’ve started to hold cash on me much less frequently. Back in NYC or up in Salem, most of the establishments we frequent only accepted certain credit cards; many were cash-only.

Now, I can use Apple Pay or order online from pretty much anywhere I frequent — cabs & Uber, groceries from Trader Joe’s, Starbucks and most other local chains — for everything else, I’m only really using one of two debit/credit cards. My only actual use for cash, except when I’m not in Boston, is to pay my barber every month. This has been a wonderful way to live, if anything because I have to worry about having less with me at any given time. My only further request is that I could get my driver’s license and MBTA subway pass somehow onto my iPhone — then I could ditch my wallet almost completely.

Having a thinner wallet is kind of amazing, but my iPhone is starting to feel like a single point of failure. What if I drop it and crack the screen or damage the NFC chip or the Touch ID button? The 6s Plus has amazing battery life1, but what if it dies? Do I replace my wallet with my little Anker portable charger in my back pocket? What if I lose or forget that? What if I get mugged? Or worst yet, what if I lose the phone due to my own idiocy? How will I get my goddamn Venti iced coffee?

It gets me thinking about product redundancy — the physical wallet begins to act as backup for my virtual Wallet. But what happens when I have no need for a physical wallet anymore, other than to cover my ass if my phone dies? That’s kind of an annoying prospect? Is that what Apple’s betting on with the Apple Watch, if you ignore the lifestyle play? When does the “all-powerful device” with several obvious Achilles heels require redundancy, especially when you don’t want to also carry your phone in an Otterbox case and with a portable charger constantly?

It’s all really fascinating, is all. It’s interesting to me that we still don’t have a good, trusted, redundant solution here that’s also convenient and cheap. We have it with our digital files thanks to name-your-cloud-storage-and/or-backup solution, but credit cards, identification and other highly physical-world things are still confined in your pocket or purse one way or another.

I get excited for our inevitable Minority Report-like future in which we could have public kiosks where, via a retina or thumbprint scan, you could retrieve a temporary copy of your ID, driver’s license, last credit card used, or whatever you lost while out in the world. Dropped your phone and it’s useless? Scan your finger at a Touch ID kiosk and you can automatically have a temporary ATM card printed instantly for use. Got mugged or lost your phone in an unfamiliar place? A quick scan could get you quick access to emergency response care, your Medical ID and history, and/or automatically wipe your phone and notify a loved one that you’re okay. I don’t know nearly enough about the technical complexity of making this work in practice — the scanners would need to be sanitary, damage-resistant, weather-proof, whatever else — clearly there are a lot of holes to this. It’s almost certainly easily hackable if we’re not careful.

But it’d at least be super cool, right?

Originally published at tonedeafcolorblind.com on August 31, 2016.

Categories
Getting Better On Technology

On Macs and focus

I own an iPad, but I really only use it to watch Netflix in bed with my fiancée since my iPhone 6s Plus is just too small enough for both of us to watch simultaneously. Outside of this pretty obvious use case, I’ve struggled to find a purpose for the gorgeous device in my life.

Everywhere I turn, though, I read about another person finding the iPad completely invaluable in their daily lives. It now exceeds the processing power of the average PC; its app ecosystem is generally much cheaper than the PC app ecosystem; it’s “more fun” to use than any device before. A lot of people who write about the iPad suggest that it allows for a level of focus beyond what Macs or PCs can allow.

I call bullshit. Anyone who says the Mac is too distracting has not given the Mac a fair shot since, well, 2 or 3 versions ago of OS X. Apple has made a series of beautiful, powerhouse laptops, build for demanding technical work — that also happen to be incredibly pleasant to use and conducive to focus.

I’m not suggesting that the iPad isn’t a great device — it truly is a pleasure to use. However, so are Macs, and some tech pundits seem to forget this. Efficiency on a Mac isn’t even a question worth asking — sure, you eschew a touch screen for a keyboard & multi-touch trackpad, but the sheer ergonomics of having both the keyboard & trackpad within millimeters of each other compared to jumping between keyboard and screen are staggering. Sometimes you want to lay back and relax, but when you need to work, the Mac wins every time.

The question really is about one’s ability to focus on a single task or project while working on a laptop/desktop computer. Tons of people have written about this. Those same people have tried incessantly for years to justify usage of an iPad for as many possible use cases as possible: blogging, note-taking, long-form writing, designing, music producing, analyzing spreadsheets, chatting with many people at once. I keep asking myself: what’s the goal of being able to do all these things on an iPad, other than attempting to justify my impulse purchase of an iPad?

If the goal is focus, I’ve wanted to try and tame the beast and have my Mac work to my advantage. Basically, a means of avoiding this:

Where’d my Messages go?

Hey, guess what? It’s really to avoid the above with really minimal effort and discipline. Between the iterative improvements brought to OS X and its huge app ecosystem, it’s really easy to make a Mac your portable productivity powerhouse. (Alliteration intentional.) And while the Mac app ecosystem is technically smaller than that of iOS, that has its benefits: less crap to weed through.

I have to give Apple props for identifying the key aspects that make iOS so pleasant to use and employing them in some fashion within OS X. For instance:

Launchpad is a solid app launcher and organizer; after a bit of reorganizing, it effectively replicates the iOS home screen. With Spotlight (or the more powerful Alfred) on top of this, finding and opening an app on a Mac is far quicker than anything performed on an iPad.

Full-screen mode and Mission Control in El Capitan is arguably an even more elegant app switcher than iOS 9’s. I can see everything at once, instead of having to swipe through a bunch of apps, some of which I haven’t touched in days.

Split screen mode is actually useful on my MacBook Pro unlike the iPad Air 2, which doesn’t give me quite enough real estate to work with two apps side-by-side.

Automator isn’t new or even quite that extensive without mild technical know-how, but Workflow wouldn’t be the iOS powerhouse it is without Automator coming first.

Love Drafts on iOS for jotting down quick notes, but missing an equivalent on OS X? Try using the fabulous new version of Notes.app with this Alfred workflow. This has become my perfect solution for quickly taking down ideas and then sharing them everywhere — both on my Mac an don the go.

Plus, you can enable Do Not Disturb just like an iOS device.

Still having trouble focusing after trying these wonderful solutions? There’s apps for that, including two literally called Focus (here and here) — some of which also have iOS counterparts but many of which are Mac exclusives such as:

  • Bartender, a great menu bar cleaner-upper
  • Hazel, an automatic file organizer so you don’t have to clean your crap up yourself
  • Alfred, an amazing launcher and workflow tool that allows you to quickly ask a question or start something without pulling yourself away from the task at hand.
  • Ulysses, Byword, ia Writer, or any other number of free/cheap minimal writing apps for writing without distraction

Some of these are real boons to focus, like the first Focus app, which blocks you from accessing distracting websites and replaces them with inspirational quotes. I could argue that this makes the Mac BETTER for focus than the iPad, since you can actually stop Facebook from loading after you impulsively type the “f” into your browser’s address bar. Can’t really make the impulsive tap on the FB app icon on your iPad less compelling than it already is.


Disclaimer: I use a MacBook Pro with Retina Display, which has a solid state drive and 16GB RAM, so I’m not really ever concerned about my laptop exceeding the performance needs I have. Yes, it came at a higher price point than the average iPad and I purchased it primarily with music creation in mind.

But considering the top-of-the-line iPad Pro is virtually the same price as (and comparable in spec to) the ultrathin MacBook, it ultimately comes down to user preference. I’m here to suggest that while tablets are so fun and exciting, many of the reasons why find tablets so fun and exciting are right there in your average Apple laptop.

As with any tech write-up, this is my opinion, but I’d love your thoughts too. Agree? Disagree? Let me know. Like how I write? I’d love for you to share this post and follow my writing, either here or on Twitter. Thanks!


Originally published at brandon lucas green.

Categories
On Technology

Dear Medium, I have a product thought for you.

Dear Medium, I have a product thought for you.

Do you have the ability to track which articles I’ve read or not? I’m pretty sure you can, since the Stats page exists. If so, could you not show posts I’ve already read in “My Top Stories?” Maybe in a new section called “recently viewed” instead?

If I’ve already read an entire post, why would I want to read it again? Or is this purely for validation that I read a popular/trending post? With all the repetitive, fake-inspirational pop writing on this site, the last thing I want to do is continue seeing literally the exact same posts every day.

For example, I’ve seen this one now 3 days in a row within the first five posts on my feed:


(Chosen for dramatic effect.) I read this, and I even liked it enough to recommend it. Why am I still seeing it? I have to imagine there’s more writing on this site than the tiny bit I’m actually seeing — so maybe this is a tiny start.

Thanks for (maybe) listening!

Cheers,

Brandon Green

Product guy from north of Boston