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Tag Archives: Apps

Apps and social media fatigue

If I were to graph the number of apps installed on any device I own since I got my first Android phone in the summer of 2011 (an HTC Inspire), it would be left-skewed. A combination of concerns about battery life and storage space, the realization that some websites offer better experiences than their respective apps (especially Facebook), and an overall desire to just have few sources of information has led to delete nearly everything but preloaded apps.

What’s left? Not much.

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What’s more, I haven’t actively searched for a new app in a while. I’m not sure if this says more about me being burned out on data and notifications (they feel so distracting, and I know I have written/read less because of them) or about the maturity of the app market.

I remember when “apps” became part of the lexicon some time in the summer of 2008. I had just moved to Chicago and I still had a Motorola RAZR that might have been cutting-edge in 2005, during my first year of college. When I got online for the first time ever in my first Chicago apartment – via a Dell desktop PC – the App Store was only 2 months old and Google Chrome was less than a week old. On my PC, I didn’t really think of “apps” except for Web browsers and games, and even then I thought of them as “programs.”

In 2009, I had my first brushes apps like Shazam and Grindr that offered something a lot different than what had been available from a PC or Mac. In 2010, I learned about Instagram and was for the first time jealous of people who had iPhones (I still had a dumb phone of some sort at that time). In 2012, I found out about Uber and was briefly enamored with it before it revealed itself as an ethically-challenged organization.

But since then, there haven’t been many “a-ha” moments for me in using mobile apps. The ones I use every day are based on age-old phone conventions like being able to send text messages (starting with SMS and now evolving into iMessage, LINE, etc.) and photos.

There’s also DuckDuckGo (a search engine, one of the oldest forms of exploring the Web), Lyft (since I can’t stand Uber), Flickr (for photo backup) and Tumblr (where I do some of my creative writing). There are ways to pay for my coffee (Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks) and then there’s Yo, which is a novel way to get updates on RSS feeds, Twitter accounts, etc. Although it started a gimmick, I think Yo has a lot of potential. There’s Pocket, my favorite. And 1Password, which simplifies so many headaches.

Part of the reason for the paucity of apps on my phone is that I have never been in love with social networking. With Tumblr, I can just publish from time to time and not worry about my real identity. But I steer clear of Facebook and Twitter on mobile since they just demand too much attention for too little return. I use Snapchat but have never used Secret (I don’t get it) or any dating app like Tinder (I’m married).

What is the future of social networking? Bleak, I hope, since it seems to make so many people anxious or unhappy, worrying about what others are doing and keeping track of when certain people are awake or active. I liked this passage from Tyler Brule:

“I have a theory about social media: that is exists not because people are dying to share everything but because of poor urban planning. The reason these channels have developed on the U.S. west coast stems from millions of people being lonely and trapped in sprawling suburbs. Apparently, the Swiss are among the lowest users of social media in Europe. I’d venture that this is due to village life, good public transport and a sense of community.”

In America, for someone born after 1980, there are so many barriers to meeting up with others unless: 1) you have a car; 2) have access to good public transportation. #1 is an issue for the cash-challenged Millennial generation, yet so much of American infrastructure – from sprawling parking complexes to office parks located in the middle of nowhere – assumes the ownership of one. #2 is surprisingly rare – I would venture to say that one can only comfortably be out and about in a city without having a car as back-up in exactly two American cities: New York and Chicago.

What fills the void? Social media and messaging apps. Maybe part of my own gravitation away from social media has been the fact that I have lived in one of these two cities for the past 7 years. Plus, no longer being single has also eroded a lot of the youthful fascination that once made, say, Facebook so exciting to use. It’s hard for anyone who joined Facebook after roughly 2006 or 2007 to know what it was like in the early years, when it was all single college students who send each other Pokes and edited each other’s Walls at will.

Less social media (and storage space – I settled for a 16GB iPhone 6 Plus) has led to a pretty spartan, utilitarian home screen. But it’s also, I suspect, left me happier since I don’t have to keep tabs on others as part of a lonely suburban existence.

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How to read RSS and listen to podcasts on Android

RSS isn’t dead. The demise of Google Reader last year inspired pearl-clutching about the demise of the standards-based Web and the rise of Google+ and other proprietary content filters. But here we are in late 2014 and podcasts (audio RSS) are thriving and there are multiple sustainable RSS engines available for subscription, from Feed Wrangler to Fever. Making a podcast client is the new making a Twitter client.

Meanwhile, Google+ has lost its mastermind and services such as SoundCloud, through their increasingly onerous EULAs, show the perils ahead for insular networks. RSS, email, et al will outlive Facebook. In my own ridiculously small slice of the Web, I have proposed that blogging will survive because it’s the foil to the artifice of social media and “solutions.”

Android is less a playground for RSS and podcast clients than iOS. It makes sense, given the Android clientele. Android lacks a built-in pod catcher like iOS’s Podcasts, though it can do RSS reading via Google Play Newsstand. For less than $25, an Android user can get a top-notch RSS and podcasting experience.

For RSS reading (news):

1. Subscribe to an RSS service

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The Feed Wrangler web interface

Feed Wrangler is my pick here. It’s got a simple, barebones Web interface that makes adding feeds easy. It only costs $18 for a one-year subscription.

2. Buy Press and log-in with Feed Wrangler or another account

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Press for Android

Press is the best RSS client for Android. It has a sleek interface that nicely weaves-in Pocket, Instapaper, and Readability, support for DashClock Widget, and its own large widget. You can log into it with Feed Wrangler, Feedly, Fever, and Feedbin

For podcasts:

1. Buy Pocket Casts

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Pocket Casts for Android

Podcasts are having a moment, for at least as long as Squarespace is willing to keep sponsoring episodes. Shifty Jelly have made an outstanding, Android-optimized podcatcher called Pocket Casts that offers variable playback speeds, easy navigation, lock screen controls, and a handy widget.

How to use Link Bubble for Android

In my previous entry, I mentioned Link Bubble, a nifty Android app made by Chris Lacy, the creator of the Tweet Lanes Twitter/App.net client. Like DuckDuckGo (a merged search engine-browser-news aggregator), Link Bubble is on the bleeding-edge of mobile browsers. It doesn’t just try to compress a desktop experience for a small screen a lay Chrome, Safari, or Dolphin (all good browsers, but ones that are of a piece with almost every browser of the past 20 years). It realizes that the mobile Web is a destination rather than an immersive app – how many times have you ended up in Chrome et al because you clicked on someone’s link and had to wait for the page to load?

Link Bubble is an overlay – it is, sure enough, a “bubble” that is drawn over whatever screen you’re currently on. It looks like this:

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Here’s how to use it:

1. Download Link Bubble from the Play Store. You’ll probably want to get the Link Bubble Pro upgrade, too, since it unlocks most of the features worth using (multiple bubbles, colors, etc.)

2. Click a link in any app (Hangouts, Google Search, email, whatever) and then, when prompted with the intent dialog, select Link Bubble and select “Always” so that it becomes your default browser. You may have to go through this process for several apps, depending on where you click most of your links. The clicked link loads in the background and shows up with a favicon to the side, in the overlaid bubble. The “HG” in the screenshot above is for Hardcore Gamer, for example. Since it’s done in the background, you don’t leave the app you’re currently in – convenient! Especially for Google searches where there’s more than one link you want to click. Here’s what it looks like when you tap on the bubble to go into the actual browser:

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3. After it’s the default, open the Link Bubble settings (find it in your app drawer and click it) and set things up:

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You’ll need to pick a fallback browser (probably Chrome unless you’ve downloaded something else) to handle any links that Link Bubble can’t handle. You’ll also want to pick the default behaviors for the upper-right and upper-left bubbles. It’s easier if I show a screenshot:

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These extra bubbles (upper-left, upper-right, bottom_ show up when you tap and drag one of the bubbles (circles) at the top of the browser. You can customize it to your wish, but the default is Pocket (if installed) in the upper-left, share in the upper-right, and close tab at the bottom.

4. If you ever need to hide the bubble because it’s in your way, or simply want to close everything in one fell swoop, you can do so from the notifications tray (Link Bubble creates a persistent notification):

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Touch it once to hide the bubble; you’ll be able to get it back the next time you click a link. Expand the notification with a downward slide to close everything.

Using TextWrangler to write poetry

One of creative writing’s decisive advantages over similar arts is its low barrier to entry. The writer needs little more than a way to produce text, whether word processor, blog template, or pen and paper. Great work can be created at minimal expense; the labor is mostly in the head.

This doesn’t mean that the writer should become complacent and be contented with standbys like Word and iWork or even higher-grade tools such as Scrivener. Writing-specific apps, especially distraction-free and corrective ones, have come to the fore over the past decade, and while many of them aren’t so useful (for example, I wasn’t so high on the overbearing Hemingway) there are some that can be hacked for neat effects.

I previously discussed how both Google Keep and Notif Pro – neither one a “writing” app per se – can be used to improve the writing process. Although one may never find herself composing “Ulysses” in Google Keep, it serves as a scrapbook and a way to air mental dirty laundry. Notif Pro is great way to see and manipulate the top idea in your mind, through persistent notifications with lists and photos.

Text editors
Simple, barebones text editors are powerful creative writing tools. Many were designed for composing source code, but they have features that make them uniquely conducive to offbeat poetry and prose composition. In these examples, I mostly consider TextWrangler, a free text editor for OS X that I first started using in early 2013 to write Python files:

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Writing poetry in Word or Google Drive is painful because it feels like a prose tool is being contorted into a poetry one. TextWrangler et al treat text as a collection of discrete lines rather than a blob of contiguous words.

This paradigm is naturally suited to poetry. Plus, the white space that naturally occurs between blocks of code and poem stanzas, and the source code comments that are often written in apps like TextWranger, inspires avant-garde approaches to creative writing.

Through TextWrangler, I got the idea for commented poetry. By that I mean poetry in which a blank line is left above each line so that the poet can make meta-comments on the poetry. It’s easier to show than tell:

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A commented poem written in TextWrangler. Note the gray side margin.

I doubt I’m the first person to take this approach, but I know that I would not have thought of it had I stuck to Word or Drive. The notion of text as just lines on a page is utilitarian and literalist, but effective for unlocking new creative angles.

Stylistic agnosticism
Text is text in text editors. Fonts, sizing, and automatic spacings from copy/paste cease to be bottlenecks. Writers can focus on ideas and execution instead of wrangling with style. Poetry, more so than prose, has little need for elaborate formatting or supplementary material. A text editor like TextWrangler helps because it gets out of the way.

BBEdit
The upgraded version of TextWrangler, BBEdit, has other features such as clippings and scratchpad (no need to create an entirely new file just to temporarily hold text you may not end up needing) that ease poetry and prose composition. Repetitive poetry, even on a super-simple level, can be powerful, while advanced pieces often employ motifs (“The Raven,” anyone?).

One of my favorite workflows in TextWrangler is writing a poem, taking a screenshot of its finished state, and then editing the photo in something straightforward like Pixlr Express. The stark interface of TextWrangler provides an earthy grounding to the eventual visual poem:

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An example of a poem screengrabbed from TextWrangler and then edited with Pixlr Express

How to replace all of Google’s apps on your Android device

If you like Android but are either fatigued by or unhappy with Google’s burgeoning product portfolio, then you’re in luck. Android is super flexible and lets you replace any of Google’s popular consumer-facing apps with 3rd-party alternatives. You can do this without even rooting your phone. Simply choose the alternative app over the Google app when given the option, by tapping it and then tapping “Always” in the dialog box:

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An example of choosing a 3rd-party app as the default over a stock app.

App: Chrome

Replacement: Link Bubble

Link Bubble is mobile browsing reimagined. It doesn’t look like any other browser and is instead an overlay (a “bubble” that loads your links in the background and then can be expanded when you want to read them. I’ve written a more detailed guide here.

Apps: Google Search/Google Now/News and Weather

Replacement: DuckDuckGo Search and Stories

If you’re tired of tracking and privacy breaches, DuckDuckGo is a good bet. It has a simple, lean search engine that doesn’t engage in filter bias, so you’ll see the same results as everyone else: no “personalized” results based on years of tracking. Founder Gabriel Weinberg aims to make DuckDuckGo the Craigslist of search engines, i.e., a reliable an simple service that sticks to what it’s good at. The DuckDuck Go app for Android also includes a nice news reader that draws from Reddit, the New Yorker, and others.

App: Gmail/Email (stock client)

Replacement: Kaiten Mail

Kaiten Mail is a $5 client (the free version is ad-supported, which I don’t recommend) with lots of customization options for look, feel, refresh interval, and display. It’s fast and has perks like a rich text editor.  Most importantly, it features rich Jellybean notifications that you reply or delete a message from a notification. I only wish that it had  a scrollable widget or DashClock support, but for now I can work around the latter using AnyDash Pro.

App: Google Drive

Replacement: Dropbox

This one’s easy. Dropbox does virtually the same thing as Drive, with the exception of spreadsheet creation or saving to .gdoc format (neither exactly a pressing need on a phone in particular).

App: Google Keep

Replacement: Simplenote

I like Google Keep, but it’s busy and is essentially a place for collecting junk from around the Web. Simplenote is dead simple but supported by Automattic (the makers of WordPress.com). It has tags, deep search, and a Mac app, too.

App: Google Play Newsstand

Replacement: Flipboard/Press

I like Newsstand’s widget and RSS support, but Flipboard was the original visual-centric reader. You can connect numerous feeds and editions, as well as your social profiles (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram). The ability to create/curate custom magazines is a unique Flipboard feature.

For RSS reading, Press offers a much richer set of features and is compatible with services such as Feed Wrangler and Feedly.

App: Google Maps

Replacement: All-In-One Offline Maps

The only real competitors to Google Maps at the macro level are Bing Maps and Apple Maps, neither of which is available for Android. All-In-One Offline Maps is a clever app that lets you have offline access to maps, which can be handy if you just need a map and not an overwhelming social data mining solution.

Google+ Hangouts

Replacements: Skype, WhatsApp, Tango, LINE

Another easy one. WhatsApp and Skype both have more users. Tango is a comprehensive VoIP, messaging, and video conferencing solution. IMO is a hybrid messenger app that has support GTalk, Facebook, AIM, and others alongside its own Broadcasts service, which is similar to Twitter/ADN.

App: Google Keyboard

Replacement: Swype

Now that Google has its own keyboard app (just a standalone version of the former Android Keyboard), any device running 4.0+ can download it. Swype is a capable 3rd-party alternative that feels slightly more accurate to me, at least for now. It also has a built-in voice assistant called Dragon.

App: YouTube

Replacements: TubeBox, Vimeo (not recommended)

YouTube is tough to replace because it’s a social location/hub more than an app. If you still need YouTube’s unique content stream and critical mass, TubeBox is a YouTube client with better multitasking support. If you’re looking to break off completely, Vimeo is an alternative to YouTube that sadly has only a lackluster Android app (its iOS app is much better).

App: Calendar

Replacement: ZenDay

ZenDay is a unique calendar/to-do list combo (something I’ve always wanted; I see less and less reason to have a standalone reminders app) with 3D animations. It has a steep learning curve, but can be worth it if you’re tired of the corporate doldrums of Google Calendar.

App: Google Wallet

Replacement: ???

NFC payments aren’t very popular. I keep Wallet around for paying at Walgreens sometimes, but I’ve made exponentially more purchases with the Starbucks apps, for example, which uses a simple barcode rather than an NFC chip.