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Frauds in the US Patent System

Remote Workers Are A Pain To Manage (sic)

This is not exactly news anymore, but a fraud-related scandal was uncovered a few days ago in the US patent body of regulation.

This hits me on two different levels, completely unrelated to one another : work-at-home mechanics, and the actual concept of patenting stuff.

My distrust of any patent system (especially for software) in today’s day and age has popped in once or twice already.

The work-at-home side of this story is distressing to say the least. In the last 15 years, I have worked for maybe a couple of months in an actual office with actual people. It’s no secret I don’t enjoy it, and it’s no due to any of the fine folks I was sitting next to. It’s just that my habits of cursing loudly at my screen, and my need for a total lack of distraction when I’m focusing on a particularly thorny problem, make having people sitting right next to me a difficult fit.

But because of stories like this, and because it is so easy to cheat bosses/customers of actual working time when they don’t have their eye resting directly on you, working from home is a very real deal-breaker for my interactions with customers sometimes. Trust issues aside, on an hourly basis, I get more than regular employees, and I can Do It in my bathtub! Holy granola! From the outside it looks like I have some totally unfair advantages over everyone

As Seen From The Other Side

Truth be told, working from home is hard.

Let’s start with the beginning of the day: it’s so easy to snooze the alarm and go back to bed. Really. Especially if you have been working late the day before. Then whatever your routine in the morning might be, taking your time to read the news, catch up on social stuff, etc is tempting. Then you realize it’s really late and you might have to cram everything before lunch, which could last longer because you’re enjoying it in front of the TV, etc etc…

Basically, if you have any procrastinating tendencies, they are all very easy to succumb to. Structure helps, like having “office hours” to simulate the real thing, planning your customer phone calls early in the morning, or at any other time you might be tempted to do anything else but work. Life hacks such as this are easy to implement and adhere to, and every one should know themselves well enough to know which ones are important and how their personal procrastinating tendencies surface. Because the key thing about working from home isn’t replicating a workplace at home.

To be able to work from home, you need to know exactly how your brain works.

To take the only example I know well enough, I tend to be very code efficient right after I wake up. So I have two known times where I cram my most urgent/important stuff : early morning, and after my nap. Yes I do take naps, partly because of this, and in a regular office, it’s not generally the norm. After roughly 2h straight of coding, my mind tends to wander. I start checking news, chat with people. So I use that time to do my support / client stuff. But even that is tiring, so I generally cap that out at 1h. Then I do the code that’s less neuron-consuming, which might (or might not) get me in the zone again for more important stuff.

The important part of all this is that I spread my work hours larger than strictly necessary. I usually have a 8-8 work day, and I sometimes work for a few hours on week ends as well. Because I can, and because it doesn’t impede on other things I consider vital. And during the day, I have free time to run errands, have a cuppa with people, etc. The very fact it’s spread out a bit means that I can contract it if necessary to stay on a deadline that is whistling dangerously close, or expand it a bit if I have time and am feeling under the weather or uninspired.

The Root Of The Problem

Applying “office rules” at home seems completely stupid and backwards to me. Either you give people the option to work from home until they can’t achieve what they said they would do anymore, whatever way they want to organize themselves, or you force them to be under scrutiny in an office. Giving them restrictions in their own homes will lead to resentment and “cheating”, and there should be no shame in saying after a while “look, it doesn’t seem to work when you do it remotely, come back in an office”, to potentially be tried again at a later date. The remote workforce problem embodies to me a fundamental flaw in how people’s work is valued : results vs time.

It’s perfectly ok for people whose job it is to be available (to interact with customers who may or not call, for instance) to be paid / valued in good part relative to the time they spend on the job. But for developers, to take an example I know only too well, it’s all about what we do deliver. Time is second.

Let me take an example. Company A contacts me, for a contract on an app that displays news for their product and allows for support contact, and social sharing. The very first question they ask is how long it’s going to take. Which is fine and normal. But based on that, they derive the amount of money they will assign to the project. While my time is as valuable as anyone’s, we can all agree that there are some things I will do faster than others with my level of experience (to take the seniority out of the equation). If it takes a colleague of mine 1 month to do that app, and I take only 2 weeks, should I be paid less? No but the second question they ask is “what is your daily rate?”. So in essence, if I have a fixed rate that’s close to the market I will be paid less for the same job, and if I double it, I probably won’t have the contract. How is that fair?

I can hear sniggering in the back : “why don’t you just SAY you will take a month?”. The ethical value of that comment is left as open for debate.

But once again, we circle back to the problem of assigning a value to someone’s job, and the perversity of contemplating cheating to “fix an intrinsic wrong”. I refuse to think every single human on the planet is prone to cheating in every circumstances. Most of the time, mostly honest people who try to game the system to do less while earning the same financial compensation feel cheated themselves. It is indeed a HR problem, but not in a “let’s put more restrictive measures in place to increase productivity” way, more in a “let’s see why these experts in their fields feel like they aren’t paid enough”. And remove the actual bad apples based on results.

  

[Highlight] User Returns

One of the things to handle when you have publicly available software out there is what the users’ response is like.

For Highlight 2, it was overall pretty warm and nice, except for 2 general things :

  • “I can’t scroll the window under Highlight” (1 star review) : Well… yes. A computer has windows on screen that take active user inputs, such as keyboard and mouse events. It’s really an either/or situation where there’s no way to determine if that particular time you wanted to click through or draw a point. Not to mention more modern OS feature some security features that specifically forbid and prevent your app to access another’s memory (and a window is part of the app’s memory). So… well, yea.
  • “It doesn’t work on top of Keynote” (2 stars review) : For reasons not dissimilar to the point above, this is currently not feasible. To get a little bit technical, it’s a matter of screen capture, kind of like in games. Basically, the app expressly states it wants the screen(s) for itself. Unless you have a way to insert yourself in the graphical pipe (through the graphics driver, for instance, which is how NVIDIA does it for its Shadowplay features, or through the graphical library like Steam), there’s nothing to be done. And as a small fry developer, I don’t think I will have any way to install a potentially harmful kext ( Kernel Extension) in the App Store.

Moving on to the things that made me laugh (and far more numerous than I thought):

  • “Why don’t you market it?!? I’ve never heard of it before today!” : Hmmmmm. I’m lazy, that’s all. I kind of want to see it have a life of its own. It’s not free, granted, but it’s clearly not geared towards massive profits… What should I do? post an ad? go talk about it on a show? Come on people, let’s be real :)

  • “Do you want to make tons of money with it? if so, please contact me” : See above, with more laughter.

  

[Highlight] 2.0 in the pipes

It’s been a long time coming. Between my projects with quite in depth dives in BTLE and CoreData (and the various more “classic” iOS development shenanigans) and the fact precious few volunteered to beta test HLT2, I didn’t have much time for getting that release up to publishing standards.

It is now a done deal and the 2.0 version has been submitted to the App Store.

New goodies include one of the top demands for that app, text input. Historically, my main concern about text input had been the potential clunkiness of dealing with a UI that would make sense in a totally mouse-oriented application. I found a solution that seems to be a good compromise : any double click on the screen will bring up a text input bubble (with the color of the pen it will use as a border, because, well, I’m forgetful sometimes). You can obviously setup the font you want to use in the preferences.

The main problem with that, though, had to be technical : NSPopover doesn’t work well at all with multiple screens (radar submitted), so I had to make my own, based on some existing code, but still mostly debugged line by line to work as intended.

Anyway, it works. It’s one of these “it looks easier than it is” things to implement, but it’s there.

Thanks to the bug reporting tool, and kind users sending me emails, I also managed to fix various issues with multiple screens, and laptops, as the dynamic nature of what a screen is wasn’t factored in properly. It now is.

And finally, the old method for global system shortcuts was wonky under more recent releases of the OS, so that had to be redone as well.

Anyway, I’m glad I finally managed to push it out and keep my fingers crossed for the validation by Apple. Hopefully, the 2.0 release of highlight will hit the store in a few days.

Keep sending me feedback, as it motivates me to inject new things in that project! And thanks a lot for making this app a bigger success than I hoped for!

  

[META] Activity Here

As you can see, I have started to update this blog more often than in the past… This is part of something I keep telling people who want to freelance/go indy, and I have had little time/motivation to carry on myself.

Being without boss means self-regulating every aspect of your life. When to work, when to relax and let inspiration come, when to immerse yourself in code despite all the distractions that are freely available to you.

Back when I started this blog, it was mostly a place to put some interesting tidbits about code I found during my projects that might benefit others, but over time, it became harder and harder to make snippets that would make sense outside any context. The various technologies I can credit myself for knowing intimately are not prone to simple 20 lines examples, and this led this place to have more and more empty time between posts.

Having gotten over the latest rush to have a product shipped, I decided to apply the discipline needed to work alone to this blog as well. I apologize in advance if some of the entries are bland – or completely uninteresting for that matter – but like with everything else, if you don’t practice something often and rigorously, you loose the aptitude and the momentum.

As a side note, getting motivated to do something is kind of a trick question in our line of work, as freelancers. It should be as simple as “I said I would do this” and do it. It might be hard sometimes, but put yourself a reminder that auto renews every so often days, and just do it. No boss means more freedom in terms of daily planning, but no one ever said it meant less work.

  

[HLT] Looking For Beta Testers

HLT2.0 is reaching RC stage. Please apply for beta testing!

If you haven’t bought HLT yet, I will give you a promo code, if you have (thank you) you will participate in the Circle of App Life : only requirement is to be able to submit bug reports in a clear way ;)

  

[MISC] Development Dance

Nothing new to developers but for some reason sometimes hard to grasp for the profane, the development dance is something that should be taught in schools.

In the mind of the non technical customer/boss, “development” is the process of going from nothing to a highlighted goal (specs, screens, that kind of things).

Most of the time, if you do a whole project with only developers attached to the process, for us code monkeys, it’s more like building something with Lego(s; bricks) : we build something that works, then iterate towards something like an ideal.

Cultural clash happens when the goal isn’t realistic from the point of view of the dev, but is non negotiable from the point of view of the non dev.

Which leads to the Dance : we take a few steps back on the goal, then a couple of steps sideways, then a few steps forward again.

Non technical people have to understand that’s the only way they can get close to what they want. Because the technical side is fraught with pitfalls, unwanted deadlines, miscomprehension, etc. Many a good feature started as a “what if?” coming from down below, only made possible because the foundations allowed them.

Going for a strict top-to-bottom approach gives you apps or websites riddled with bugs (because, as hard as you try, users will always use your work in a way it’s not supposed to support, or that you didn’t think of), and a strict bottom-to-top approach gives apps that are bland or ugly or without global vision.

Only a smart collaboration of the two can result in a decent product. Agree on key features, on a way the program should be handled in a way that’s considered normal, and fill the blanks as you go. That way, devs can geek out and build foundations that will handle anything and everything that they can think of, without having to fear you will change your mind once the hard work is done, and the non-techs can leverage the tech savvy to get something that will satisfy their itch of a beautiful, sensical product.

As with any relationship, concessions have to be made, and so far, the dominant culture has mostly been that developers don’t – and shouldn’t – have any input on the project, that developers are executants. What more companies get in return is a passive aggressive stance of “I’m going to do exactly what you asked, so that you can see it fail miserably”.

  

[WWDC14] Thoughts

I won’t go into details, the WWDC keynote has been covered far and wide.

  • New Look : √
  • New APIs : √
  • New ways to do old things : √
  • New Language : errrrr √

Response among the community was unanimous, this is xmas come early. And it’s true that for us developers, there a lot to be excited about. The new “official” way to communicate with other apps through the extensions mechanism is awesome, the integration of TestFlight will make a lot of things easier, especially for us small teams, and the new language will hopefully make us more productive (yay, less code to write).

There are some blurry or grey areas about these changes that will probably cause some problems, but hey, we’re Da Dream Team, right? We’ll manage.

The only thing that struck me as a slight cognitive dissonance is the fact that outwardly, Apple publicly recognizes our role in the success of the platform (huge), but kind of changes nothing in the way we are treated. I am definitely not asking for exclusive access to the thought process of Apple regarding what’s secretly being working on, I think opening up betas to pretty much everyone defuses the rumor mill, and might help get better .0 releases.

Since we are the people who make the “normals” want to get an iPhone/iPad, why is it so hard to have any handle on how we do it?

Xcode tends to get better, but there is still no way to expand its capabilities, or adapt it slightly to the way our brains handle code-writing. Third party IDEs (like AppCode for instance) that may not be perfect by any stretch of the imagination, yet still give us more flexibility, have a hard time adapting to the internals of the build process. We still have proprietary/opaque file formats for vital parts of the development (I’m looking at you XIBs and CoreData models). Cocoapods have become mainstream, but are still iffy to integrate (and might break).

For the social side of things, since WWDC is harder to get to than a Prince concert, same deal, it’s Apple’s campus, or community based (read no help from Apple whatsoever) things. Kitchens? Local dev events? Access to labs? If you’re not in California, tough luck.

So, yes. We are the main booster for the success of the platform, but we have absolutely no handle on things, in any way, shape, or form.

Am I excited that we get shiny new things to play with? Sure. Is my head buzzing with ideas? Yup.

But I am also a bit bitter that, sometimes, it feels like we’re not working together.

  

[HLT] Version 2.0 in the works

I have been so overwhelmed with work and system changes that it’s been hard to keep up with the Highlight maintenance.

But I’m pleased to announce this is officially over, I stopped slacking and a 2.0 is reaching the Release Candidate stage.

New features include on-the-fly screen changes detections, and text input (yes, you asked for it, you will have it)

Bug fixes include retina weirdness, and global shortcut fixes for Mavericks.

If you have some last minute requests or bugfixes to include, don’t hesitate to fill in a note in the bug/feature tracker

  

[Internet] The “Weird” Socio-dynamics Of Online Communities

I must admit, I’m a lazy dinosaur in this tech stuff. After one too many discussion about my relationships with people I don’t see very often (read less than once a year), I just feel like writing things down and pointing the next inquiry in that direction…

Dinosaur?

Yes, I used to hang out on IRC a lot. I still have friends I consider very close that I met online “back in the day”. I met people in my travel who I must say I am not keeping in touch with to the level I would like. But these are the most enduring relationships I have, to this day. Feeling closer to a random dude I’m having a conversation with on Twitter than to a random person I meet in a bar really is nothing new.

OK, so?

There are two main facets to the online relationship you might form with somebody. Most people who have little to no experience with that will focus on the negative side : it can be completely anonymous and the “person” you’re talking with may have little overlap with the human behind the keyboard. Extremes include complete impersonation (sex change, age change, skills change) for fun or profit. But the more positive thing is you can also often see the “real” side of someone, who’s hiding it most of the time because of his/her real life constraints. That includes the kid who’s so shy he wouldn’t even come to a bar, but can be Ragnarok-The-Viking-667 online and be really funny, knowledgeable and socially inclusive online. Depending on the kind of activity you are having, the drive to be a predator, either literally or not, can be made irrelevant. Some services and some games reward competition and jackass-ery online, giving an edge to the “evil” side of the coin over the benign one, but it’s far from being the norm everywhere.

Do you have data that supports this? numbers? because I had the totally opposite experience!

Not really. I guess I’m lucky or something. But I found that even in online games, within the confines of a group acting together, the tendency to appear bigger and stronger than everyone else fades after a while… Or maybe I avoid being in activities that encourage being solo, the top dog, or whatever. The thing is, in my experience, I tend to bond easily with people I’ve only ever seen type, or heard the voice of, some of which even became good friends and had or still have “real life” interactions with me.

When you think about it, “anonymity” or a partial one is key to a good therapy. You are not supposed to know your therapist beforehand so that you can talk freely to them. The kind of relationship that develops after that is up to the participants, but the initial point of entry is no assumption. And that can be very liberating to people who might feel left out for reasons of their own. Online, you can be whoever you want. Most people will settle down to be “themselves” after a while, which is not the social mask we have to wear in some real life circumstances. So why not give these relationships the shot they deserve? It’s not any weirder than forming a bond with someone you just met at work, in a bar, or a friend of a friend.

PS: that’s what “being lazy” means to me : you do it once, and then you don’t have to do it again ;)

  

[BTLE] Nike is probably going to kill the Fuel Band

During the weekend, I came across a CNET article reporting Nike will kill one of the major BTLE devices out there.

what does it say? (aka tl;dr)

Mostly that due to an opinion that the fitness sector is already kind of saturated, and some managerial issues, and the fact that Android Wear and related rumors on the Apple side will bear fruit soon-ish, Nike isn’t interested in hardware dev anymore.

what doesn’t it say?

It’s kind of hard to say what’s really going on. Nike isn’t some small startup who might fold overnight. The allegations of gross mismanagement are hard to verify. The tidbit about focusing on software and making a deal with Apple, since they will be making the phone/watch hardware anyway is interesting but misses a crucial fact: usability. Your phone does a heck of a lot already, and I have doubts it will do everything in the future. And fitness bands are unlikely to be replaced by a very costly and somewhat bulkier “iWatch”, if only because the physics and comfort involved will limit its capabilities in terms of tracking.

why do you say that?

Step counts? sure, a spike on the vertical axis of the accelerometer, provided you don’t move your arms around too sharply. Pulse, temperature, etc? Why not as long as it’s stuck to your skin.

But a lightweight device that needs to be recharged every week or so has a magical ability to become invisible. As such, it can track real habits. A thingie with a distracting screen? Less likely. If its weight or discomfort during the things it’s supposed to track is too much, the data will be even less reliable.

I’m a big proponent of specialized gizmos that do one or two things, but do them very well.