TFI Friday notes: No one loves the Metaverse and podcasts I wish I could find

No one loves Meta’s Metaverse. Including the people working on it. I still haven’t found a compelling reason for the metaverse to exist until we can have a fully immersive virtual reality where I can be an elf.

I nuked my Graphene OS install on the Pixel 6 because I had never been able to re-lock it. So it’s currently Android 13, and it’s a good reminder of how much Google’s Android is in your face and capturing your data all the time. I know Google now makes a story about its commitment to privacy and putting you in control. Still, it now has so many services doing stuff in the background I doubt any consumer can actually make a call on what to block — or even what they can block. It’ll be back to Graphene soon.

John Gruber has a good post about the putative X – The Everything App that Elon Musk teased. There are lots of reasons what amounts to a WeChat clone won’t take off in the West, but honestly, would you want it to? Would you want your entire digital life in the hands of Elon fucking Musk?

IMPORTANT ONE: We Hunted The Mammoth is having a pledge drive, and it’s not going well. The site does the absolute best work in uncovering both the hideous misogyny of the so-called men’s rights movement and the awful transphobia of so-called “gender criticals” — who are often related or actually the same bunches of people. Throw them some money, even £5, if you can.

This post on how it’s getting harder to preserve the internet reminded me of something. One of my favourite podcasts of the mid-2000s was On the run with Tablet PC, hosted by Marc Orchant and James Kendrick. As the name suggests, it focused on Microsoft tablet PCs and had some really good guests. Sadly Marc died in 2007 and James in 2018, both too young. The page for the podcast has now vanished, and before that, the links to the files were broken — I would love to find copies if anyone has them.

Musk! Twitter! And why Google is a bit cheeky with its RCS claims

There’s some new Google stuff out, but I am just not excited about it. The Pixel Tablet looks interesting, especially because of the dock, which sort of converts it into a Google Nest Hub Max, but the watch and phone are just meh.

Of course, Google had a moan about Apple not adopting RCS. A reminder: the RCS standard does not include any end-to-end encryption. The end-to-end encryption Google has built on top of RCS is proprietary to them and only works with their Messages app. If you use it all your messages go through Google’s servers, and of course, as it’s a Google app you have to have Play Services installed which are constantly feeding data back to Google.

Here’s another great example of why it’s best to own your own platforms, or, if you can’t do that, choose specialist providers rather than that “free” thing Google, Facebook or Twitter just launched (you probably should look at Buttondown)

Elon Musk appears to have worked out that he’s better off buying Twitter than ending up paying them $20bn or so to walk away from it. However, he wants Twitter to stop its lawsuit, and if his finance partners bail out, he seems to want to walk away. I cannot imagine why Twitter would agree with that. Related: you can always find me at Mastodon.

Not sure how Apple can avoid this – who can make its chips other than TSMC?

It’s the 30th anniversary of the first ThinkPad, the great-great-great etc grandchild of which I’m typing this on now. The keyboard is still good.

Ever wonder what the specs are for McDonalds characters? No, I hadn’t either.

Does my alien have a penis and other interesting things for today

Only a so-called “gender critical” could turn the sex of a cartoon intended to get kids reading into a debate about whether an alien has a penis. This is a canonical example of why some people shouldn’t use social media.

Meanwhile, Putin’s conscription efforts are going exactly as you would expect from a country mired in corruption.

I have pre-ordered a Kindle Scribe because it sounds like the kind of technology I love. I have a similar Remarkable 2, and while it’s a great note-taking device in many ways, it’s a poor e-reader. The Scribe looks like it’s probably the other way round, and that’s fine with me. It’s due to arrive at some point in December — I’m hoping before I head off to a week-long residential writing course I’m doing.

Tangentially related: you can now easily send ePubs to Kindle, which means that the DRM-free books I’ve bought elsewhere can work on my favourite e-reading hardware.

Dan Moren has a good piece on the conundrum, which is the iPad. I must admit that the iPadOS 16 betas have made me fall in love with my iPad Pro a little bit. However, after the initial rush of excitement that I might be able to replace my Mac with the iPad Pro and a big monitor, external monitor support in Stage Manager has proved to be so rough that Apple has pulled it, and who knows when it will return. Something is wrong internally at Apple to get to this point and still be this much of a mess, which goes beyond just QA or the difficulties of grafting this kind of function onto a device that comes from a completely different paradigm.

Via Om comes this Christian Heilmann piece on the sorry state of the web. Christian is absolutely right: the social web is a mess, and there’s no coherent archiving apart from the incredible work of Archive.org. I would add that the web has become the equivalent of television for my generation: something that just soaks up your attention rather than being a place to go to learn something or be entertained intentionally.

I immensely enjoyed Russell’s latest email in which he ruminates on blogging for writing vs banging out link posts. I, too, wonder about this, but that’s partly because I look at my ideas bucket for longer posts and find about 20 things, all of which I don’t think I’ll ever want to write about. So, for example, that post about how shareholder value isn’t the best thing for directors of companies to focus on is great, but it just doesn’t feel like something I want to write now…

There’s a new Linux kernel out! I’m not sure when I will become a Linux user (is there a badge?), but I’ve been mainly working on my ThinkPad running Zorin OS for several weeks, and it’s starting to feel like home. I’ll probably write some more about this at some point — it took me a while to settle on the right distro and get the right tools in the right places — and although I still use my other laptops (both Mac and Windows), this is where I prefer to work.

One of the reasons that I started investigating Linux was an increasing wariness about Apple’s future direction. Om has a good piece in The Spectator about why the company is pushing more into services and advertising. In short: there’s no growth in hardware, and app store revenue is flatlining and is likely to decline.

Our wonderful government has decided to do away with GDPR and have some kind of “British Data Protection System”. This is almost the perfect Tory policy: it will have little impact on businesses (which will have to continue to follow GDPR if they so much as sniff at an EU customer) while adding most cost because there’s yet another system to support and deliver little if any real-world benefit. Bravo!

Leaving Ulysses?

I wrote a little about this in my weeknote but I thought it was worth expanding a little on why I’m looking at Obsidian as a potential replacement for Ulysses.

I’ve used Ulysses since it first came out, and it is my favourite writing tool. I love the way it lets you break down writing into smaller more manageable chunks, as well as its focus and typewriter modes and its ability to tag and organise your work. It can also publish straight to a WordPress blog or export into virtually any format you want, which is the icing on the cake.

The part that I don’t like is the way Ulysses stores your work. Yes, underneath everything, it’s Markdown. But it’s stored in iCloud, and the files aren’t exposed — they’re hidden inside a library. I have enough experience trying to get large amounts of content out of cryptic file stores to be wary of anything which complicates the file structure.

Case in point: Apple’s Photos app. The photos themselves are hidden inside a library. You can export them from Photos — Apple makes this commendably easy — but in practice, for a library of any size this kind of export is impossible. I tried exporting around 10,000 images, and after a while, Photos just crapped out. Perhaps that was unsurprising, given it had started to use around 80Gb of virtual memory (it’s a testament to Apple’s system design that it had gotten that far).

The last thing I want is my writing to suffer the same fate. My writing is probably even more important to me than my photos. I have often found inspiration in going back and finding old writing, reworking and polishing it, and publishing. I also use Ulysses for storing notes and what I call “fragments” — little notes usually from real life about places, people and things I see. Often these will end up in later work, which is really important. I don’t want to lose them to weird data corruption affecting an undocumented and obscure library.

Coupled with this, Ulysses is an Apple platform-only application. That’s fine if you want to use Mac, iPad and iPhone all the time, but that’s not how I tend to work. Since I bought my ThinkPad X1 Carbon last year, it has been my preferred laptop, running either Windows or Linux, because it combines good (matte) 14in screen, performance and battery life, and its fantastic keyboard. Going back to using my 16-in MacBook Pro after working on the ThinkPad is torture for my poor fingers.

I really want Ulysses, but working on any platform and using just plain Markdown files in a folder structure. The good thing is there is something which comes close to being exactly that: Obsidian.

Obsidian is best known for being part of the wave of personal knowledge management applications that allow you to use two-way linking between documents to create a knowledge graph based on what you read and write. However, it’s also possible to use it to create a simple but powerful writing environment.

Setting up for writing

Obsidian isn’t known for being a writing environment. It’s designed as a notetaking application, and out of the box that’s what it’s set up to do: text notes linked together with two-way links. Turning it into a replacement for Ulysses takes some setup.

The good news is that several people have gone down this path already. Curtis McHale has written and created YouTube videos on all the things you need to do to get Obsidian into shape as a writing environment, and the folks at The Sweet Setup have also trod this path.

You will want to install a few add-ons to make it work. I won’t go into how you enable third-party add-ons, as there are plenty of guides to doing this, but here are all the ones that I have found useful.

Longform

This is a great addon, still very much in beta, which recreates Scrivener and Ulysses’ ability to let you re-order scenes and then export them into a single draft. I’m sure there’s more to come from this plugin, but it’s already a lifesaver that makes it possible to use Obsidian for long-form writing.

Pandoc

Pandoc lets you export into various formats, including Word, PDF, and much more. You will need this if you send your work off to publishers or editors. You will need to install Pandoc on your computer first (sadly, it won’t work with mobile devices).

Templater

Templater lets you create templates which include variables. I use it to make templates for regular posts, such as the one for my weeknote, which includes the date in its title.

Typewriter Scroll

I love typewriter scrolling — it’s one of my favourite features of Ulysses. This keeps the line you’re typing in the middle of the screen rather than gradually moving down towards the bottom. This plugin also has a neat focus mode which greys out paragraphs you’re not working on, allowing you better focus.

Word sprint

This plug adds a sidebar which gives you a Pomodoro timer for your work and prompts you to keep writing. It’s a little bit annoying, but if you’re the kind of person (like me) who occasionally stops writing to stare into space, it will keep you on the right path.

Readwise integration

One plugin I thought deeply about using was the one that offers integration with Readwise. I’ve been a Readwise user for quite a while, with all of my annotations, highlights and comments from applications like Kindle, Matter, Pocket and more going into it. It’s a great tool for storing all that kind of information. The plugin downloads all your notes in a handy format into a folder in your Obsidian vault.

Having all my highlights and notes from Readwise integrated into the application I write in is incredibly powerful. It means that all the quotes which I might refer to are easily found and linked to, and because Obsidian allows you to split the screen and use two documents at the same time you can easily refer to a note about a source while you are writing.

Overall…

Can Obsidian really replace Ulysses? The initial signs are promising. Today, I have written over two thousand words and published a blog post which isn’t bad going. I’ll probably save this to publish another time, which means I will have another post in the bag.

The real test for me will be when I start writing fiction with it. So far, I have used Scrivener or Ulysses for my fiction: Obsidian could, in theory, replace both. It can also become where I put all those fragments of writing I mentioned. I’m certainly going to give it a go and see if it really works for me.

Google isn’t bored of Android

John Gruber, writing about Counterpoint Research’s note that iPhone has overtake Android in US usage share:

I also continue to think Google is bored with Android. Two years ago I wrote: Do you get the sense that Google, company-wide, is all that interested in Android? I don’t. Both as the steward of the software platform and as the maker of Pixel hardware, it seems like Google is losing interest in Android. Flagship Android hardware makers sure are interested in Android, but they can’t move the Android developer ecosystem — only Google can. Apple, institutionally, is as attentive to the iPhone and iOS as it has ever been. I think Google, institutionally, is bored with Android. Nothing in the last two years has changed my mind on that. Android is certainly still a thing for Google. It’s a priority. But it’s nowhere near the top of Google’s priorities. Nothing ranks higher amongst Apple’s priorities than the iPhone and iOS. Year after year, that difference in prioritization adds up.

There’s clearly a difference in importance between Apple and Google. Google created Android initially because it feared a Microsoft-dominated mobile world where the big beast of Redmond could lock them out of the nascent smartphone ads market. Apple created the iPhone to be the next big thing, something they could charge their usual margins of 30%+ on hardware.

But saying Google is “bored” of Android is wide of the mark. Both Android 13 and the forthcoming iOS 16 are similar in the way they fill in the gaps. Neither offers anything radical. Apple is revamping the lock screen, which is nice but overdue. Google extends its nice “Material You” tricks, which balance the interface’s colours with the wallpaper.

Both operating systems have really reached what you might call the Windows 7 era: users don’t particularly want radical change because they like the way things work now. And neither Apple nor Google is inclined to make their own Windows 8…

Miscellany, August 3rd 2022

Apple is delaying the launch of iPadOS 16 until October, a month after the launch of iOS 16. If you have used the beta this might not surprise you: Stage Manager, particularly when used with an external display, is an absolute buggy mess. Ex-Microsoft Windows head Steven Sinofsky thinks this isn’t down to a single feature, because you don’t delay a whole release for just one thing, but I disagree: get Stage Manager right, and it’s a huge step forward in using an iPad as your only device. Get it wrong, and it would be a big step backwards.


I genuinely thought that Microsoft Teams was already optimised for Apple Silicon, so it’s a bit of a surprise that it is only just releasing a native binary. It’s also a testament to how well Rosetta 2 performs.


Alex Jones had a very bad day.


Academic publisher Pearson has a plan to somehow use NFTs to remove students’ right to resell their books without giving them more money. This sounds like absolute hogwash to me, but I’m sure the markets like it.

A collection of miscellany – 2nd August 2022

You know how websites want you to use their app instead? There’s a good reason for that: apps can often collect more data about you, and are more difficult to block. Banish is a Safari extension which stops this happening. Neat.


Outlook: an app so bad that Uber receipts can crash it. Microsoft is apparently working on a fix.


Not content with having a webcam that looks like ass, it sounds (sic) like the audio on the £1600 Apple Studio Display has issues too. Glad I didn’t buy one.


Google has a habit of introducing stuff and then quietly forgetting about it — and its hardware is no exception. My personal favourite was Soli, which I thought was genuinely useful but was dead in a year.


Paul Carr — who knew the man well — has an interesting review of a new book on Tony Hsieh, the troubled founder of Zappos. Incidentally, The Upgrade is one of my favourite books and I’m long overdue for a reread.

Stuff I’ve been reading today: 29th May 2022 edition

Google has delayed its third party cookie ban till 2024. Of course, all this is doing is just giving browser makers even more reason to work preventing third party cookies from working at all.


Meanwhile, Intel has seen its revenues fall by 22% year on year. It is blaming a 10% drop in PC sales, although it’s also worth remembering that the PC had a big boom over the past couple of years as people moved to working from home and companies raced to equip previously office-bound employees with laptops. Apple stopping using their chips won’t have helped either — by any measure, Apple is a top-five PC maker.


Apple now has 860m subscribers across its services. This is an insane number of people for a company which isn’t really a cloud provider except to people owning its devices.


And another NFT scam turns to be, well, a scam. This time it’s some bros claiming to save the rainforest using the power of the blockchain:

According to the MPF, members of Indigenous groups in the area reported the company had violated their rights. They also explained that Nemus had expressed to them their plans to use heavy machinery to open an airstrip and build a road in order to access Brazil nut groves in the area.


One of the most hilarious moments of Web3 insanity is winding down, as the nerds who bought a book for $3m have finally admitted to themselves what everyone else knew: just because you own a book doesn’t mean you own the copyright.


In another “let’s get our priorities right” moment, demand for electricity for data centres is now so high that no new houses can be built in parts of London. I mean, it’s only people, right? Who cares if they want somewhere to live?


I had forgotten that Amazon Drive existed, so it shutting down isn’t exactly a loss.


I am really not sure that a 41.5% margin is something that’s good for society.


Twitter Blue – which isn’t even launched in the UK yet – is raising its price in the US from $2.99 a month to $4.99. There is nothing in the product at this point which is even remotely worth $4.99.


Meanwhile I’m reading Ruthanna Emrys’ A Half-built Garden and after a slightly slow start it’s really drawing me in. I’m not going to write too much about it till it’s finished, but Cory’s review is here if you want some persuading.

What I’ve been reading today: Firefox, Spotify sucks, spoken word recording and combat drones

The latest version of Firefox includes better support for ProMotion displays, for those lucky lucky people who have a new 14- or 16-in MacBook Pro.

You’ve probably heard about Amazon’s Ring handing over video doorbell footage to police without a warrant. Turns out that the terms of service for Google Nest allows them to do the same thing. Apple’s HomeKit Secure Video on the other hand is end-to-end encrypted so Apple can’t do this, even if it wanted to.

Spotify Car Thing, a product which should never have crawled out of a company brainstorming session, has been unceremoniously dumped after just five months on sale. I avoid Spotify like the plague because I don’t want a penny of my money to the odious Joe Rogan.

I asked the wonderful Mr Christopher Phin for some advice on an audio setup for recording books (not for me, I should add). Needless to say, he massively overdelivered and wrote the definitive post on what you need to record spoken word.

Remember the Bayraktar TB2 combat drone which Ukraine used to such good effect in the early stages of their war against Russia? Russia wants to buy them. It will be interesting to see if Turkey – a NATO country – sell them (or more likely, find a third party country to ship them to or manufacture them under license, which then sells them to Russia).

Boris Johnson is an evasive weasel. Nothing more needs to be said on that score.

Some people really do want their Instagram back

Taylor Lorenz has written a piece on why you don’t want the old Instagram back and I couldn’t disagree more with it.

No really, a lot of people do want the old Instagram. Insta became a great space for visual artists who adopted the platform as the de facto place where they show their work and build community it.

People think that bringing back the “old” Instagram design, or a chronological feed will somehow recapture the magic of using Instagram in 2014. It won’t. That time is gone and the internet and culture have irrevocably changed. Most importantly, how and what we want to share on the internet has changed.

What Taylor is missing here is that Instagram was always a place for discovery in a way which was controlled by the user. TikTok gives you little control over what you see: the algorithm decides that for you in a way which is much more opaque than even Facebook’s much-maligned news feed. Facebook at least has a notion of what kinds of content is important to you: birthdays, babies, weddings, and all the major events of life. TikTok? Not so much

These days, intimacy is fostered through features like DMs, group chats, or ephemeral posts to Close Friends.

Except that intimacy needs to start somewhere. And that somewhere can’t, by definition, be a DM.

Spaces which are private like the ones Taylor is describing have only two kinds of relationship in them: the already-established relationship between people who already know each other from elsewhere, or the relationship between an advertiser who has paid to be in that space and the people in it.

People think that bringing back the “old” Instagram design, or a chronological feed will somehow recapture the magic of using Instagram in 2014. It won’t. That time is gone and the internet and culture have irrevocably changed.

Culture is not monolithic: platforms have many forms of users, and users find the use for platforms – not the other way round.

This piece is a great example of the tech journalism communities obsession with the newest latest smartest thing, with destroying the old no matter what the cost. And it’s just wrong.