Categories
On Work

Adventures in remote desktopping

or, the obfuscation of ecosystem


I love working on an iPad Pro. It’s the device that I find myself wanting to continually pick up, and the device on which I seem to get the most done — not always finished products, but the best and most fully defined ideas I can usually bring to reality. That goes for many aspects of my life: personal projects to cultivate my relationship with my wife, writing and producing the bulk of songs, writing and communicating and planning product ideas and larger initiatives for my job, writing this blog post.

My job is doing product management which, while a very complex and multi-faceted job, is essentially reading, writing and talking. Hey now — the iPad is amazing for that. I’ve got Slack, Outlook, the Google Suite of apps, my writing and task management apps of choice loaded up, and that makes up about 90% of the job.

The other 10%? Fairly technical stuff locked down to company-owned devices. I’m diagnosing issues with complex operational products, testing features, writing SQL queries, reading code — stuff that would be insane for a large public e-commerce company to leave open.To do this work, I am effectively locked into a Windows PC. At least it’s a massively souped-up quad core Windows 10 PC, but…it’s a PC. Stuck between the Google and Office ecosystems. Locked down by IT administrators. This PC is a laptop attached to an enormous dock connected to two Dell monitors in a corner of a big room, neither of which I use or maintain a consistent connection to said enormous dock. Because PC laptop keyboards seem to be all-encompassingly awful, I have a separate, wired external keyboard and (also wired) mouse which still hurt my hands to use, just slightly less so than the laptop keyboard.

All to do about 10% of my job. Possibly less on some days.

Meanwhile, the iPad just sits there, next to said collection of heavy, bulky metal objects connected by many thick cables, waiting eagerly for me to return to the other 90% of my job.I was recently thinking about why I bother using the PC at all. I don’t mean this to undervalue our IT department, but what does it mean to be a primary working machine in the first place? Can I just pretend that my primary work machine is my iPad Pro, and the PC is just a novelty device that I bring in as the big guns?

Or, could I rely on VNC/remote desktop access for the few things I need the PC for? For a long time, I honestly forgot this was a thing: you could access your desktop computer, in its entirety, from another device.

Turns out Microsoft Remote Desktop on iOS isn’t half bad at all — and since my work machine runs Windows 10, it’s all tablet friendly (thanks Surface) and my sensitive work stuff translates nicely to a 10.5” tablet. I can tap to execute a script, or open a Chrome bookmark, or run a POST request in Postman, or…open a 80MB Excel worksheet.

I have three main gripes with this approach, which keeps me occasionally reluctantly returning to my PC:

  • iOS’s stock keyboard doesn’t seem to like unicode quotation marks — ‘ and ‘, but not `’`. I find myself copying-and-pasting quotation marks around SQL queries, which can become annoying.
  • Since Windows uses different conventions for key commands, and you’re accessing Windows via an iPad, sometimes basic key commands are hard to get right. The basics (Select All + Copy + Paste) work fine, but Windows-app-specific ones do not. I sometimes find myself needing to use a combination of hardware keyboard and Microsoft RD’s built-in software keyboard just to reopen a recently closed tab in Chrome-within-Windows.
  • Google Slides and Sheets (not Docs) are pretty terrible on iOS, so I sometimes need to use Remote Desktop for that. It’s sometimes actually more effective than the native app.

Temporary sanity

I’ve drastically undervalued remote desktop access, and now have an even deeper appreciation for both my iPad and Microsoft’s investment in the iOS ecosystem. It is now even easier to do my job from anywhere, even if that job is locked into certain systems and processes for various reasons.

Originally published at tonedeafcolorblind.com on May 22, 2018.

Categories
Getting Better

32 places to put stuff

I have a lot of places in which I put things I care about.

I use Reminders to store…well, reminders of things I need to do. Basic lists.

I have a wish list of stuff I want to buy on Amazon, but then I have another list of other non-Amazon stuff to buy in Reminders.

I also have a few lists and notes for things in Apple Notes.

I keep my passwords securely in 1Password.

I use Trello to manage projects, but not all projects because not everyone uses that.

For some things, I need to make a Google Doc or Sheet. (Somehow, I’ve literally never had a need for a Google Slides presentation.)

Sometimes those projects have other materials. If I’m collaborating, they get shoved into Google Drive or (occasionally) Dropbox.

If it’s a personal project, it’s most likely iCloud Drive.

If it’s something in Adobe’s ecosystem, it might end up in Adobe Creative Cloud — I barely ever use it, but sometimes things occasionally end up in there.

I use Scanbot to scan papers, receipts and stuff for storage in one of these places

If it’s a work thing, it goes to Sharepoint which also includes a hook into OneDrive.

Sometimes it’s a manual or guide book for something, in which case it goes to iBooks, which is basically iCloud but also sort of not. Speaking of iCloud services and reading, Safari Reading List also houses some reading materials that I care about.

Photos can of course be stored in many places — it doesn’t really matter where they go as long as they’re everywhere all the time. In case they aren’t, well, they start in iCloud Photo Library, then go to Google Photos and Amazon Prime Photos.

All this stuff backs up to one of two external hard drives, and an Amazon S3 bucket.

Sometimes I write. I like Markdown for my own personal writing, so I write lyrics, creative ideas and blog posts like this one in Ulysses.

I can’t use that for my day job, though, so for that I use OneNote to write & share notes & documentation with my team.

We use a proprietary solution for managing technical projects.

Roadmap documents? Excel and Word. Not Trello, at least yet, because I need to get people to adopt it and we’re a pretty tight Microsoft shop. Speaking of which, Powerpoint.

We still use Slack to communicate, and I use it for some other things. Sometimes I save notes and to-dos as starred Slack messages.

Of course, there’s always stuff in one of 3 Gmail inboxes, my work email via Microsoft Exchange.

This is a list of apps in which I can put things I care about. They all have incredibly discrete functions in which they’re invaluable to me, but they all each have storage capabilities too. There’s also all the physical papers and forms and stuff filed away in a bookcase.

Thank goodness cross-platform search technologies these days aren’t awful, because if I had to remember in which place I stored something, I would be lost pretty much constantly. As much as the app economy and tech startups fascinate me, it’s almost too easy to lose track of everything. If productivity tools like Workflow and IFTTT make it so much easier to keep things in sync, and there’s backup solutions galore, why does the digital side of my world still feel so fragmented?

As much as Apple’s plan to store users’ entire Desktops and Documents folders within iCloud for syncing purposes is slightly nerve-wracking, I appreciate the effort to help consumers keep their shit in one place. I realize this anxiety is partly my own neuroses and my being raised on a file system paradigm, but I also have to imagine that the fragmentation of the cloud storage (and general digital storage) markets are part of why tech is so overwhelming for some.


Originally published at tonedeafcolorblind.com on September 12, 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

My must-have OSX products of 2015

My desktop, with a fantastic background (thanks, Wallcat)

I became a heavy reader of the Macstories blog this year, both as an ardent Apple fanboy and as a proponent of good, honest, analytical writing about tech. With tech journalism being largely pandering clickbait these days, it’s nice to read Federico Viticci and his team’s insightful and personal writeups about the state of Apple tech, supporting independent developers and great ideas along the way.

Since he went full-iOS this year (and wrote about it like crazy), I tried to do the same. However, with my heavy interests in music production and learning to code better, I could not get rid of my Retina MacBook Pro — it’s just too deeply ingrained into my lifestyle and, frankly, is too damn beautiful and powerful to pass up. It’s also been a fantastic year for development of Mac products, not just for Macs themselves, but for hardware and software developers in the space.

Here are some of the most indispensable apps for Mac I discovered this year.


2Do for Mac. Federico’s write-ups, while great and detailed, only touched on the amazing new 2Do for iOS, but I wanted to call out this app as it relates to Mac OS X. I got 2Do for free earlier this year thanks to a great Apple promotion, and it got me more on top of my to-do’s than I’ve ever been before. Adding a Mac app into the mix (at half price, thanks to yet another promotion!) turned this helpful task organizer into a full-fledge productivity suite for me. I used 2Do for Mac similar to how Federico uses it on his enormous iPad Pro screen — bulk-moving, delegating and dating tasks with ease, relying on Task Actions to easily get to websites and emails I need to check on, and even multitasking split-screen in El Capitan. It’s a pretty fantastic tool.

Reeder 3. Reeder has been my RSS/news reader app of choice for years, but when v3 for OS X came out this year it gained even more value in my day-to-day. With new Instapaper API integration and a beautiful new look, I can get all my news updates and long-form reading done — without ever having to open a website.

Coda 2.5. This year, my fiancée and I launched Tone Deaf & Color Blind, a blog in which we try to explore more creative outlets in our lives (one of which is writing — hey!). I had done plenty of WordPress tinkering before, but this was the first website I built and launched fully by myself — from creating a local dev environment to hacking major blocks of PHP. I was originally trying to make sense of Sublime Text and all its plugins, but I wanted something that (1) was easy enough to manage without having to constantly tweak the program, and (2) something I could also use on the go. Coda overwhelmingly has satisfied my needs here, between the comprehensive and easy-to-use Mac app and the newly-revamped Coda for iOS.

Ulysses. Starting Tone Deaf & Color Blind, as well as realizing a need to write more in my life, made me want to seek out a good means to organize & execute upon my thoughts. I tried out a few different apps — Editorial, Byword, a few raw text editors — and none of them seemed to jive with my organizational style. I wanted an app that could both let me focus on writing things down and easily access different blurbs, notes, etc. and group them together however I wanted. Ulysses was that app — after getting over the slight sticker shock of its price, I’m happy to have added this app to my personal ecosystem. And now that Ulysses for iPhone is available in beta, I can even manage this stuff on the go.

Ulysses and 2Do split-screen. I can make a list, check it twice, and then write about it.

Tweetbot. I also tried to start building my personal brand this year on Twitter. Part of why I sucked at this previously was due to the lack of a good free Mac app. Twitter’s own app was never great, and Tweetdeck/Hootsuite were always too ugly and buggy for me to buy into. However, when Tapbots updated Tweetbot this year I decided to try it out — and between their Mac and iOS apps I’ve become far more interested in what’s out there in the Twitterverse.

Slack. We don’t use Slack at my day job, sadly, but it’s become invaluable to me — both as a water-cooler-of-sorts with some of my close colleagues and a vital means of bouncing ideas for my side projects. While I love the ability to quickly act on messages from my iPhone, I love having a full conversation thread on my MacBook screen while I research UX ideas or wireframing an idea.

Copyfeed. I used to think that my Mac and my iPhone were, other than some compatible apps, largely separate. I could sync photos and email, but text was elusive beyond text messaging to myself. Drafts and other iOS-only apps solved this between iOS devices; Copyfeed makes text (and images) easily and instantly shareable across my phone and my laptop.

Divvy. Sometimes I plug my MacBook Pro into an ultra-wide LG UM95 monitor, which is the best screen for managing large recording sessions. However, when I have many modules (or apps) open, the screen gets fairly chaotic. Divvy lets me easily organize things on the screen simply, either by dragging across a small grid or with keyboard shortcuts.

Alfred. Alfred has and will always replace the stock Spotlight function for me, if only for the ability to perform a Google search outside Safari. I’ve also become incredibly dependent on some awesome workflows for checking the weather, finding emojis, instantly create a note or search all my Trello boards, to name a few.

1Password. For as much buzz 1Password got for its stellar iOS integration last year, I think it’s integration into the OS X ecosystem is almost more invaluable to how I work. I absolutely love having constant access to my logins from the OS X menubar or any browser window, and I trust it as my main directory for all things private & secure. Now that 1Password can handle 2-factor authentication codes too, I can easily get into all my secure accounts without having to manage multiple apps in parallel.

F.lux. This thing keeps my eyes from going bloodshot far more often than I give it credit.

Numi. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve had to do more and more math: for doing my own taxes, for settling bills, for budgeting a move and an eventual wedding. Each of these use cases require a lot of context beyond just the numbers — it’s necessary to know what numbers correspond to what in reality. Having Numi to both store this context and automatically perform complex mathematical operations has been absolutely invaluable, and I cannot recommend it highly enough for Mac users.

Wallcat. I’ve become obsessed with something incredibly mundane — my laptop’s desktop background — thanks to Wallcat. Every day I have new beautiful artwork from the wonderful folks at Unsplash, and every day I think, “This one’s lovely — I should stick to this one.” Then I forget to set it as my permanent background and get another amazing image to enjoy the next morning.

Logic Pro X. I’ve gone back and forth with a few different DAWs for a while for making music: Sonar and Cubase interchangeably in college, Reason once it could do audio too, Pro Tools for a minute, Presonus Studio One because I was begged to try it. But once Apple dropped the price of Logic Pro to $200, I was compelled to try it out. I haven’t turned to any other

Reason 8. Logic has unfortunately led to a drop in my Reason usage, but the Kong drum machine, Thor synthesizer and surprisingly great piano sampler (see: Concert Grand Piano Combinator preset) make this very much worth keeping around.

Balsamiq Mockups. This has been my wireframing app of choice for years now. I firmly believe in designing functionally and essentially, and not getting wrapped up in the visual details of a design. Balsamiq is intentionally ugly (sooooo much Comic Sans), but it allows me to explore a functional idea and focus on getting the most important elements into the right place.

Trello. For some reason, I hate hate hate web apps — I guess you could blame my browser tab anxiety. Trello is the one exception to this rule, and it’s become my go-to for project collaboration. Fortunately, someone made a Mac app called Xccello to contain its awesomeness.


There you have it. In the spirit of Perd Hapley, I wrote this to communicate something, and that thing was a list of products I relied on this year, and the story of those products is that I used them on a Mac.

Big thanks to Product Hunt, Twitter and some of my colleagues for sourcing most of these apps for me. Onto the next year!