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May 17, 2014

iOS App Review: SMBox

I call this: iOS,phones,theatre — Posted by KP @ 1:55 pm

AppIcon76x76One of the most time-consuming and error-prone things a stage manager has to do is deal with time. Break times, scene timings, performance timings… Anything that can be done to automate this process makes me happy.

05-SMBox-iPhone-TimersWhich is why I was excited to get to try out a new app for iOS called SMBox (iTunes link). It’s the first app from a developer called Backstage Apps, who promises further apps to make life easier for entertainment professionals. The app sells for $8.99 and works on all iPads, and iPhone 4 and higher.

I’ve since used SMBox on two productions, the first a one-act play, and the other a two-act musical. Thankfully the app can store multiple shows. You could also use the multiple-show feature to have different configurations of timers for different situations (like one for rehearsal and one for performance).

The interface is designed to be dark and very running-light friendly, which is pretty much a necessity for an app of this sort. However, a lot of the time I was using it in the rehearsal room during scene work and run-throughs, and would have liked to be able to switch to a brighter UI for normal lighting conditions. I hope this will be one of the features added in version 2.0, which is in development.

smboxIn addition to the usual run time calculations, I found it especially helpful for getting scene timings. I love having too much information about run times. I like having up-to-date data on the length of every scene, because you can do so much with it: How much time is left in the act? How many scenes can we get through before lunch? When the director says “Let’s just run this scene before the break,” is there a chance in hell that’s going to happen?

So the way I configured SMBox was to get individual times of all 14 scenes in my play, and then total them. The app can only store one set of timings at a time, but there’s a button to quickly email yourself a copy of the data it has so you can clear it and start over. My one feature request on this front is that while the app saves your email address to send these summaries, there doesn’t seem to be a way to send it to multiple people (without manually adding them to the email each time). I’d love to be able to include my ASM’s email along with mine as the default addresses.

If you need to stop your timer for any reason (like the director stops to give a note, or someone stumbles over their lines, or the scene change goes totally awry), you can tap on your timer to pause it, and tap to resume. A long drag from left to right resets a given timer. The timers can be configured in a number of ways: to count up or down, or both (which is cool in the case of intermission — how long it is vs. how long it should be). You can decide to include or exclude each timer from the total. I wish there was a way to have more than one total (i.e. all the scenes in Act I totaled, all the scenes in Act II totaled, then everything totaled, then everything plus intermission totaled).

It’s not possible right now for a single SMBox “show” to capture and calculate all the data I put in my reports. In particular the Start Time and End Time feature, which record the time of day vs. the run time, don’t appear to support multiple acts or display the time in seconds. The app is very flexible with timers, much less so with “what time was it.” This makes it unsuitable for me in a performance setting, but I did find it helpful in rehearsal, where I’m not interested enough to create a database to track scene timings, but can be bothered to tap the screen a few times during a run.

I am admittedly a very tough audience when it comes to stage management timer apps because I develop my own solutions for these situations, and tend to take them to ridiculous extremes (at some point I must tell you about my famous “Are They Dead Yet?” feature, which was known to predict the time remaining in a performance, or the time an act will end, to within a couple seconds, and which I intend to revive for my next show). Once I have this data on running times, I want to do a lot with it, so my mind immediately jumps to things like exporting it in formats that can be imported into spreadsheets and databases.

That isn’t really the point of this app. There are plenty of stage managers who are using the “lap” feature on their phone’s stopwatch, if they’re doing anything fancier than jotting numbers on a piece of paper at all, and SMBox is a big improvement on that. I can see myself using it on a reading or quick show where I wouldn’t bother using any specialized software. It’s a simple solution that anybody can configure, and the devs seem to have put a lot of thought into making it as flexible as possible. I’m eager to see where they take version 2.0.


January 6, 2014

A Brief Moment of Technological Bliss

I call this: computers,iOS,phones,tech — Posted by KP @ 11:09 pm

Just before leaving work I had downloaded a sample of a book I was considering buying, thinking I would read the sample on the train, and probably buy the book when I got home.

I started reading the brief introductory chapter on the platform, and when the train arrived the conductor announced it was going local. Realizing I was already halfway through the sample, and that I liked it, I regretted not buying the whole book for what was now going to be an even longer ride home.

Then I set myself a challenge: could I set up a hotspot with my phone, connect my Kindle’s wifi to it, purchase and download the book, all before the doors closed and the train left the station? Thanks to the new cell reception in many midtown stations, I had a precious few seconds left at 59th Street, before heading north into the great underground wilderness.

I’m pleased to say that I accomplished my goal, and was so engrossed in my book that I nearly missed my stop. Sometimes, despite the obstacles thrown in our way by patent lawsuits and greedy wireless carriers, we can actually use our inventions to accomplish the things they should be able to do. [Hugs Verizon.] I’m sorry about all the things I said about you. They were all 100% true, and you deserved to burn in hell at the time. But I would be remiss if I didn’t also acknowledge when things cease to suck.

Telecommunications industry, you made my night.


March 30, 2012

iPad 3 Review

I call this: phones,tech — Posted by KP @ 8:19 pm

On March 16 I received the new iPad, which I, and presumably everyone else in the world, will refer to as the iPad 3, because as I learned in nursery school, 3 comes after 2. Although sometimes in Apple-land, S comes after whatever the previous thing was. But let’s stick to integers.

I’ve had a little over a week to get to know my first iPad — this is important, that this is my first iPad. I have said in years past that I wasn’t quite sure how an iPad would fit into my workflow, and I’m still not completely certain, except that I’m much surer now that it will be useful somehow than I was when I wrote a pseudo-review of my Dad’s iPad back in 2010.

Choosing the Model

I got the 4G version instead of wifi-only, even though I expect to use it almost always on wifi. My reasoning is that I can’t really grasp all the ways I’ll want to use it, and I figured spending $800 and regretting my choice would be worse than spending $900 and possibly having a feature I don’t need. Also, I found out after my purchase that the wifi-only models don’t have true GPS, just the ability to use nearby wifi networks to guess your location. So that’s another bonus of the 4G that people should be aware of.

Choosing the Carrier

When the iPad went on sale for preorders, the carriers weren’t even acknowledging its existence, so I took a wild guess based on their plans for the iPad 2, and went with AT&T kind of by default, since it would match my iPhone. After the iPad had been on sale nearly 24 hours, AT&T and Verizon bothered to announce their data plans, so people could make a more educated decision. Their pricing is different, but in a way that might be better or worse depending on what you want. This graphic shamelessly stolen from the Apple website explains it best:

The big mystery, of course, was the “Who’s Going to Be More Evil?” game, which in my world for the last decade usually has something to do with tethering. Which mega-corporation, or both, would feel like charging by the GB and then charging again based on where the GB goes once it reaches your phone and is no longer on their network? This time, the winner is AT&T. Verizon is offering tethering at LTE speeds, at no extra cost. It’s almost like they want to help the customer by providing a service that costs them nothing… for free. AT&T caps off their victory not by announcing that they’re charging for tethering, but that they aren’t allowing tethering at all, for now. It’s just like their past iPhone plans, when they acted shocked — shocked, I tell you — by the carrier-related features the phone had, and took months to even announce how they would support them. Whenever they get their act together, I expect it to cost an arm and a leg.

It took a while for me to build up a good head of steam of burning rage about this, and I was more interested in the device itself than in the data plan I might never use anyway, so I didn’t undo the hours I spent trying to place my order on Apple’s website. After a week I was reading a post on Reddit asking if there’s a workaround for the AT&T tethering issue, and somebody was like, “just return it and get a Verizon one.” I’ve never been a big believer in returning a perfectly functional device, but I had forgotten entirely about Apple’s no-questions-asked, our-products-should-be-perfect-or-your-money-back, 14-day return policy. And my product was definitely not perfect. In fact, I was decidedly disappointed, and although it’s not quite Apple’s fault, they did take my money without being able to tell me what the terms of my service plan would be.

So after a week of ownership, I called up one of the local Apple Stores, and got lucky on the first try with a store that had the appropriate model in stock. I hopped on the train and in less than 5 minutes I was in and out of the store with a Verizon iPad. I had a nice chat with my salesguy about choosing between AT&T and Verizon on iDevices in general. He’s happy with his Verizon iPhone, and says that despite AT&T having better maximum speeds when service is good (which was my explanation for putting up with them), he finds on average he gets much better speed with Verizon because AT&T’s service is so often performing far below its capability. Or the capability of a 14.4k modem, for that matter. His one complaint with Verizon was the inability to use data while on a phone call, but that’s a non-issue with the iPad anyway.

I’ve just activated the data plan yesterday, and haven’t used it much except to test it, because I have no idea how quickly I’m going to use up my 1GB. I’m doing a three-week gig in April, so I started the plan just late enough that the job will fit within my billing month.

Here’s my speed test result:

Not bad at all. It’s better than a lot of people’s home internet, though of course the data cap kind of defeats the purpose.

Thankfully the plans offered by both carriers are very flexible. You can pay month-to-month, which is great for someone like me who works a different job (or not) often on a monthly-or-less basis, and may have a need for it sometimes and no need at all at other times.

I’m curious to see how often I want the 4G. The kind of places I’d need it are probably the same places I wouldn’t be inclined to take the iPad out in public anyway. It doesn’t seem to me like the kind of device I’d whip out anywhere. On a long train ride, maybe — I mean a train-train, not a subway. But I think it would be seldom enough that tethering to my phone wouldn’t be too much of an inconvenience (happily, tethering to the iPhone works just as you think it should — neither carrier seems interested in forcing you to buy two data plans). Unless I had a job where I’m spending hours every day in a place without wifi, I don’t expect much need for it, but I will see on my upcoming job if I find a lot of uses for it. It will certainly be better than any rehearsal studio’s wifi, although we’ll be at Pearl, and their wifi has always been good enough that I’ve never felt the need to tether and burn megabytes off my data plan.

The Hardware

As I said in my impressions of the iPad 1, these things are heavy. When I envision a world where we all carry Star Trek-like tablet devices to diagnose alien diseases or record our captain’s log, I picture them being a little lighter. Maybe not as light as my beloved Kindle 4, but I don’t really want to be conscious that I’m getting a forearm workout while I’m diagnosing a problem with the warp core. The iPad 2 is lighter than the iPad 1, but the 3 is a small step backward. The difference may be worth it, but before we knew what the iPad 3 was, besides the obvious retina display, I dreamed it would also be amazingly thin and we’d all be shocked that they managed to include the upgraded display as well as a thinner and lighter design, without sacrificing battery life.

I like to imagine there was a conversation between Steve Jobs and Jony Ive that went something like this:

Come to think of it, that's probably the conversation that concludes the design process of every Apple product.

So I guess I can cut them some slack. But not having had to stand around holding this thing for any extended period of time, I can’t say if the weight will be a deterrent to using it in some situations. I still use my Kindle to read on the train, because it weighs almost nothing in my bag, is less likely to be stolen, less likely to be missed if stolen, I find touchscreens more trouble than they’re worth for reading, and I find the eInk soothing to look at in a well-lit environment. However, the retina display is much easier to read on than other LCDs, and I have taken to reading in bed with the iPad, mostly because I like to read with the light off, and also I’m running out of room to keep all these devices by my bedside! The ability to sync the page I’m on between the actual Kindle and the app makes it pretty easy to switch between them at will. I just have to make sure I turn on my Kindle before I leave the house and let it sync because it’s wifi-only.

So, the retina display.

Have you seen one? Have an iPhone? It’s like that, only bigger. It’s like staring into liquid or something. It has less pixels-per-inch than the iPhone, but it still has more pixels than all but the most awesome of desktop monitors. I have no complaints. It’s gorgeous, and I never want to look at anything else. I feel vindicated that I refused to buy an iPad without one. I don’t think I’d ever want to buy another screen of any kind if I expected such a hi-res version to be available within a reasonable timeframe. I am not buying another MacBook Pro without one, though in light of recent rumors of hi-res icons in Mountain Lion, I suspect we will see one on the market long before I’m shopping for a new laptop.

Charging

For those who are curious, it will charge from a MacBook Pro (2010). I’m glad I can probably keep the chunky charger at home. I think it’s just trickle charging, but whatever. Usually if I have my phone charging from my computer when I’m away from home, it’s just so I don’t run down the battery after 8 hours in rehearsal. As long as the battery level isn’t going down, I don’t usually need it to go up.

This heat issue

I know a lot is being made of some reports of iPad 3s overheating. I haven’t noticed it myself. But then again I haven’t been playing 3D games. I have streamed several hours of video non-stop, without any noticeable heat at all, though. I’m curious to see if this turns into a problem-problem or just a quirk of this model. “My iPad is hotter than my old one” is a problem along the lines of “My PowerMac G4 MDD sounds like a wind tunnel.” “My iPad is shutting down because it’s overheating” is something a bit more serious, so I’d like to know how many people are actually experiencing that severe of a problem. The more time goes on, the less this is sounding like a real issue. More recent reports have said that the heat is in line with similar Android tablets.

Software

First of all, I just want to say something to the development community in general: there are some really awesome sync solutions out there. Especially given how little control iOS gives to devs, they have made it possible to own three computing devices (computer, phone and tablet) and to feel like they’re all working in harmony without a lot of backtracking to move the data around. If apps that handle data couldn’t sync, it wouldn’t be worth the trouble to use more than one (certainly not more than two) devices for the same purpose.

Some credit also has to go to Apple, as iCloud is making its presence felt just a little more now. Syncing apps and other purchases automatically to all devices saves a lot of time. Not to mention all the stuff I already take for granted like bookmarks and email, calendars, contacts, etc. that were awesome enough when just syncing from computer to phone. What a pain it would be, with the potential for losing important information, if I had to remember to sync all my devices every time I made a change on one of them. However, it drives me nuts that it only syncs new apps, not updates to apps. No idea why it makes that distinction.

I also want to point out one of my longtime apps, the RSS reader Byline, which offers a discounted upgrade from their original iPhone-only app to their newer universal app. The App Store is pretty inflexible about giving developers the option to offer discounts or upgrade pricing, but they’ve found a way to do it. I’m not actually sure how they did it, but every other developer needs to steal it. They get bonus points for finding a way to give a break to loyal customers.

The internet look like ass.

When you start Safari, especially if like me, you spend several hours just setting up retina-enabled apps before venturing out onto the web, you will notice that sites that rely on graphics for their UI elements look like crap. Web developers are starting to discuss ways to adapt their sites for the new iPad, but apparently it’s not simple: it means either serving bandwidth-hogging large images to everyone, or using javascript to decide which images to show based on what device is viewing it. There doesn’t seem to be much of a consensus about the best way to handle it, but people are already talking about the impact this will have on web design.

Personally, I’m grateful that this site doesn’t look that bad, as I’ve always tried to keep the use of images to a bare minimum anyway. I’m going to let everyone else figure out the best solution before I worry about it. There are a couple tiny background images I might try to replace with CSS3.

No stocks and weather in the notification screen.

Boo! I don’t mind not having the apps, but the widgets are awesome. The stock ticker and location-aware weather summary on the notification pull-down thing make them very worthwhile. Before iOS5 I could understand eliminating the built-in apps since there are so many better ones available in the App Store. But since third-party apps can’t have similar displays on the notification screen, there’s no way to replace the functionality of the Apple apps. I wish they could at least be optionally downloaded from the App Store.

Wallpaper

You’re going to need some big wallpaper to cover the 2048×2048 total size of the iPad’s screen (it needs to be 2048 in both dimensions so that it covers the screen no matter which way you turn the iPad). My favorite wallpaper site, Interfacelift has a surprising number of iPad3-sized wallpapers already available, with more added every day. That link will take you directly to the iPad3-compatible offerings.

Apps I Love So Far:

Most of the following apps are already compatible with the retina display, and all are making the most of the iPad’s capabilities.

TweetBot – Possibly the best Twitter client

Skitch – easy illustration app recently acquired by Evernote

Alien Blue – truly awesome Reddit client

Byline – Google Reader RSS client I mentioned above – not updated for the retina display, but I didn’t notice that until I checked. Still like it better than all other RSS clients I tried.

OmniFocus – feature-rich project and task management app. The iPad client is without a doubt their best UI.

What’s On – a TV listing app. Soooo much easier to read than on the iPhone’s tiny screen. Not retina-enhanced, but the listings themselves are hi-res text, so I don’t even notice it.

Google Maps (built-in) / Google Earth – The UI on Google Earth is not retina-enhanced, but that’s hardly the point. The satellite view maps look amazing on the screen, and the size and touch interface of the iPad is a great way to explore the maps.

Use Cases and Other Thoughts

Stay tuned for another post which will look more in-depth at how I find the iPad useful for work and other activities. I started to include some of that stuff, but I think it’s a bit premature at this point, and both posts will be better served by remaining separate. I’ve just started using the iPad in preproduction for my next show, and I’m also working a benefit on Monday, so I should be coming up with some good experiences to share soon.


February 26, 2012

Let Me Tell Ye: A Cautionary Tale About Calendars

I call this: computers,mac,phones,tech — Posted by KP @ 6:18 pm

Let me tell ye a story:
Last week I was very nearly late for a meeting because I completely lost track of its existence. In my defense, it was seriously the only appointment I had all week, and pertains to a job that doesn’t start until April. But I have a habit before I go to bed each night of asking myself what I have to do the next day. Sometimes it’s really obvious, like if I’m rehearsing six days a week and just sent out the next day’s schedule six hours ago, then I don’t usually need to consult a calendar to remind me. But if it’s not immediately obvious, then I check the calendar to be sure.

On the eve of this particular meeting, as I was preparing to shut down my computer and head to bed, I asked myself the usual question of whether I have something in particular to do the next day. And I consciously made the decision not to take the 5 seconds to open iCal and check. So sure was I that I had no responsibility in the foreseeable future.

Well let me tell ye, I was wrong. Thankfully, my PSM texted me a little more than an hour beforehand to double-check where the meeting was being held.

As I sat fuming on a train wondering how this all happened, I broke it down to the most essential failure:

It wasn’t that I didn’t bother to check the calendar. It’s that this appointment was likely to be lost track of in the vast expanse of free time surrounding it, and I didn’t set a reminder alarm to go off several hours beforehand.

I have these kind of alarms for lots of things — when I’m going to visit my parents, the stage managers’ networking event at Equity next month, if there’s something on TV or an event on the internet like an Apple keynote (obviously things that don’t require leaving the house don’t need a 3-hour warning, but I might include a shorter warning in case I’m out shopping and need to get home).

So the real cause of my near-missing of this meeting is why I didn’t set an alarm for something so obviously in need of one. The real reason is because I’ve stopped using them as much.

I stopped using alarms because they had become unreliable.

I had been using my Google Apps account for my calendar, which is great because Google Calendar is kind of the de facto standard in calendar sharing in the theatre industry, even if it seems nobody uses it to its full potential. The problem is, for many months I’ve been having a lot of trouble with alarms properly syncing between iCal and my phone. I had done a lot of experiments with iCal, the Google web app, and the iPhone, trying to figure out the circumstances under which an alarm wouldn’t sync. I had looked for solutions online, and had heard some suggestions that adding a sound to the alarm caused problems, but that didn’t seem to fix it for me (not that silent alarms are a great solution anyway). I was really stumped. Sometimes it worked, and sometimes it didn’t, and instead of entering my appointment in whatever app I pleased, I was now having to check and double-check on multiple devices just to make sure there really, truly seemed to be an alarm set somewhere.

Let me tell ye: this should have been a huge red flag. A rather important component of my workflow (the one responsible for not forgetting to be somewhere) had essentially stopped working, and while I had spent many hours trying to fix it, I let it continue to be broken. I was smart enough to stop trusting it, but I didn’t replace its function.

Late that night after the meeting, I created a bunch of calendars in iCloud, and gave them the same names and colors as my Google calendars. Then I changed all the appointments pertaining to the upcoming show I’m doing from the Google calendars to their new iCloud equivalents.

Now let me tell ye: I don’t really have great faith in iCloud. It’s no better than MobileMe, which was not much better than dotMac. But I always felt that MobileMe’s calendar syncing was a little more reliable, which is only natural when you’re using apps designed for it, rather than relying on support between two companies’ implementations of calendar standards. The only advantage to using Google Calendar, as far as I could tell, was if I wanted to share calendars. And let me tell ye, I have hardly ever shared my calendars, and definitely won’t need to in the kind of jobs I’ll be doing in the near future. It would also be very easy to convert back. Just a checkbox to turn the account back on in iCal, and one of those blue switchy-things on the iPhone to turn calendar syncing back on for my Google Apps account.

So far things feel a little safer. I am by no means saying that iCloud is a superior platform to Google Apps. On email features alone, I declare it is not. But the most important thing in my workflow should be to prevent data loss, because it could lead to absolute disaster for me and whatever production I’m working on. Sometimes that means picking the safer solution. It’s why I’ve never used Google to sync my contacts — it adds an extra layer of syncing between Address Book and Google, and in 12 years of syncing contacts, if I’ve learned anything it’s that they love to either disappear or inexplicably get duplicated 5 times, and it’s even more fun when field names get mixed up. Since my contacts are just for my own use, I prefer to go from an app to a cloud service to an app that are all designed to work together.

Anyway, my point in posting this is not specifically to talk about which calendar syncs better. The point is that I failed to fix something that was broken in my workflow — I guess because I was stubborn, or because I was afraid of breaking something else by switching formats — and it caused me to become disorganized and nearly make a major mistake. So I present this cautionary tale to anyone who relies on computers as much as I do, or on non-computer routines, for that matter. If something is preventing you from staying organized, fix it. If your thing is that you stick post-its on your corkboard, and you run out of post-its, run to the store and buy more. If your new corkboard makes the post-its fall off, stick them on with push-pins until you figure something out. Don’t stop using the post-its!

Also, it’s a good idea to look at your calendar before you go to bed.

I think this article may elicit some FAQs, so:

Why is Google Apps better than iCloud (for you)?
What I meant about the email being superior is best expressed in this Apple knowledgebase thingy. In short, MobileMe email would not push changes in status other than the arrival of a new message. So if you got 2 emails and read them on your computer, and then deleted them, your phone would still show two new emails until you actually opened the Mail app, at which point it would connect to the server and the emails would be marked read and then disappear off to the trash. Now imagine you’re on a train, and don’t have access to the server. Even more annoying.

Google mail had no such problem — all changes get pushed instantly, so you never have false unread mail alerts, and everything is in the folder where it belongs. Thus proving it’s never been a problem with the phone, with multitasking, or anything else. It’s just that MobileMe sucked. I had hoped that iCloud, whose only selling point was basically “MobileMe, but without the suck,” would fix this behavior. It didn’t. And that knowledgebase article basically says, “yeah, we meant for it to be this way.” So I no longer use any of my old dotMac/MobileMe/iCloud email addresses because it’s so annoying, and clearly not likely to change. Also with Google Apps I can use my own domain name for my email address, and that’s nice. Plus, if I someday didn’t want to use Gmail, I can keep my address and take it somewhere else.

So why don’t you just use Google Apps for everything and forget the syncing to iCal and Address Book?
Because I hate web apps. I do not trust the web, or the cloud, at all. Its only use for PIM (which is a term that’s never used anymore, but it means personal information management, and it’s a useful phrase), is to create local copies of my data simultaneously on all my devices. If it can’t be saved, accessed, and edited offline, and then successfully synced later without fucking everything up, I don’t want it. There are a disturbing number of places where I have to do my business without any internet access, so I prefer to work in well-designed local apps that stay in sync with each other, rather than in web apps that might try to throw in offline access as some kind of afterthought.

I like to know that if my tenuous hold on 1KB of bandwidth is severed while I’m entering data, I’m not going to lose anything, I don’t need to stop working, and I won’t be prevented from accessing data I’ve already entered. Also, I like purpose-built apps that are well designed and reliable at the tasks they were built to do. Sure I could use a browser as an email client. I could also use Photoshop as a word processor.

The only time I appreciate the existence of web apps is when I need to access something from somebody else’s computer, and when I do it’s very useful, but those occasions are rare. Also, they always seem to involve something about a printer that can’t be accessed except from the office computer. So yes, a great option to have in your back pocket, but I’m not comfortable with it as my primary method of working with my data.

You’re insane, you know that?
I offer this FAQ only as an explanation of why I personally have dismissed other available options. My way is far from being the most appropriate solution for everyone.


October 14, 2011

iOS 5 for Stage Managers

I call this: phones,tech,theatre — Posted by KP @ 1:54 pm

Now that Apple has released iOS 5, here are a few new features I’m finding particularly useful for stage management.

Reminders

If you’re a seriously anal stage manager with some disposable income, you may have already invested in some of the more robust and expensive task management apps like OmniFocus or Things, but if you like to keep your tasks more simple or cost-free, the Reminders app is a great addition. It also syncs with iCloud so you can see your tasks on all your iOS or Mac devices. One of the features of this app, and the new OS in general, that I’m most excited about is geofencing — the ability to have it remind you when you enter or leave a certain place (like your home or theatre) based on your GPS location.

I’m a heavy OmniFocus user, but I think I’ll probably be using Reminders to keep track of simpler short-term tasks like shopping lists. I also want to compare the geofencing abilities of Reminders versus OmniFocus.

Clock

Please note, the timer now has a “pause” function. I’m struggling a little with when you would use this — perhaps if the earth stops rotating for a few minutes while you’re on a ten? But I add it because it’s the kind of feature Phil Schiller is never going to bother to tell you about in a product launch, and you may have more inventive uses for the timer in your workflow than I do.

iCal

Week view in iCal!!!!!!

I don’t know about you, but I always have my calendar in week view on the Mac. With the Retina Display, I couldn’t fathom why I couldn’t have a teeny-tiny week view on my phone, too. Well now if you tip the phone sideways, you can. Only one minor nitpick from a stage management perspective: when you swipe to the side to advance through the days, it has a little division between Saturday and Sunday, denoting the new week. Of course the Equity week starts on Monday, and there’s no way to change this. So if you’re counting hours on your tiny screen, you may be a little distracted by having to break up the week differently than is indicated, but this is a very minor inconvenience compared to the awesomeness of having a week view at all.

Note: there is one roundabout way to do this: under Settings/General/Date-Time/International you can select United Kingdom, and that will fix your week start problem and leave you with a host of other problems in the formatting of your date, time, phone numbers, etc. Unless you’re British, at which point you’re totally set already and are probably wondering why we silly Yanks start the week on Sunday anyway.

Flags in Mail!!!


Finally! Seriously!! How hard was this? This is one of those things that even the simplest mail client on any device should be able to do. I could do a Let Me Tell Ye on this alone, but now it’s fixed and all is forgiven, so I won’t. You may now go about marking emails you need to follow up on, and when you look at them on your phone they won’t blend in with whatever other crap is in your inbox.

I should also mention that I’m having some issues with flag status updating between devices. So it’s more of a theoretical “finally” than an actual solution. It seems to work better on my iCloud account than on Gmail.

Notification Center

Finally iPhone users who don’t jailbreak can have a feature that other smartphone users had over 5 years ago — something we used to call a “today screen” back in the PDA days, which was even longer ago.

One of my favorite things about this little applet is that I was on a train last night and every time I looked at my notifications, the weather had updated with whatever city the train was passing through. I didn’t even notice it, it was just there. This would be great for the road — no more having to remember to update your weather app with where you are.

You can pretty heavily customize (for Apple, at least) the apps that appear on this screen, and how much they show you, and in what order. One problem is that you don’t have control over what calendars you can see. So say I have a work calendar (don’t be silly, I have six work calendars) and a personal calendar, but I don’t want to clutter up my notifications with my personal appointments — you can’t turn that off, even if you hide that calendar in iCal. What’s worse is that you can’t get rid of the birthdays calendar. So one day when I had three contacts with birthdays, that took up most of my 5 appointment slots, and pushed off things like, you know, the performance I had that night. You can have it show you 10 appointments, but then you’d have to scroll to see any other type of notifications. It would be great to be able to hide certain calendars from the notifications screen, and give them an order of importance, the way you can with what apps appear.

It would also be nice to get rid of that nasty linen background, but I assume we will have to jailbreak or wait for several years to pass before that happens. The linen, it grows on me not.

Find Friends

This would be awesome on the road. You’re on lunch break during load-in, and somebody finds a cool restaurant. See where all the members of your cast/crew are during the day and meet up somewhere. Nick and I once walked all the way around the campus of Minnesota State University Moorehead in like a foot of snow, on top of a sheet of ice, looking for our bus, and never found it. Now we could just walk directly to the location of our colleagues on the bus.

Otherwise it’s a little stalkerish, but this app would be amazing for keeping track of a group in an unfamiliar place, which is pretty much the definition of stage management on the road.

iCloud

I don’t think of this as a big deal because I’ve had MobileMe and Google Apps for years, but if you haven’t been syncing your contacts, calendar, emails and bookmarks instantly over the cloud, you now have no excuse not to enjoy the convenience and security of knowing that your data is updated everywhere without you having to do anything.


October 13, 2011

iOS 5 and iCloud Day

I call this: mac,phones,tech — Posted by KP @ 2:06 pm

I’m a little behind the curve because I spent all day yesterday in a theatre with slow wifi, so I just got around to doing the iOS 5 upgrade last night between 1 and 2AM, which I napped through, and then went straight to bed when it was done. The good news is, I appear to have missed the rush on the servers.

This morning I awoke intending to learn about all things iCloud, but after an easy and successful upgrade to Lion 10.7.2, I hit the wall of server meltdown that is no doubt occurring at Apple’s state-of-the-art, size-of-the-state-of-North-Carolina data center.

So here I sit, periodically clicking through the dozen or so screens of the iCloud sign-up process, only to meet rejection. It reminds me very much of the process of applying one’s Google+ invitation when it first came out.

The reason there are so many screens to click through is that Apple has done a nice job of making sure you understand the consequences of changing your MobileMe account to iCloud: stuff is going to go away. Mostly shared calendars are going to break unless the people you’re sharing with are also on iCloud. I, for one, have never used shared calendars on MobileMe or .Mac, but that’s mostly because not everyone wanted to pay $100 a year for a service that barely worked, and so I had few people to share with. Now that it’s free, maybe it will be a more attractive competitor for Google Calendar.

Also, some of the more obscure things that MobileMe synced (like dashboard widgets, keychain info, and mail accounts) are not synced with iCloud.

There are two other caveats to the upgrade that were cause for some slight concern:

1. All the Macs you sync with must be running Lion I have my old MacBook Pro on Snow Leopard as a contingency for needing to use something that doesn’t work in Lion. So right now I’m creating a Lion partition for that computer, so I can sync it with iCloud (which should be cool), but still boot into Snow Leopard in emergencies.

2. The iCloud sync app for Windows requires Vista or newer Sue me, I don’t think a Mac user should pay for two copies of Windows 7. So my Boot Camp partition is on 7, and my gaming rig still runs XP. As you might gather, I don’t do a whole lot of fancy modern gaming on it anymore. As a matter of fact, I’m currently not playing anything at the moment. You might wonder what the point of even turning it on is. There’s not one, really. But when I do I like to have my bookmarks synced to Safari. So now apparently I won’t be able to do that.

Let me tell ye: I’m not paying like $200 to sync my bookmarks to a computer I rarely use. And frankly, I’m not putting another dime into that computer unless I receive another windfall from whence it came: an overwhelming amount of disposable income from a Broadway show.

I still haven’t quite figured out how iCloud is going to impact my life. I like the idea that my stay-at-home Mac will share more of the same files. I’m hoping that somehow this means I can carry less of my music library on my iPhone, but still be able to quickly download a song or group of songs from the cloud if I find I need them (and yes, I mean need, professionally, not just feel like listening to). The 32GB capacity of the iPhone 4 was pretty sad when it came out over a year ago, and for me is the biggest incentive to get a 4S. I would like to be able to fit a few movies (and about 60 episodes of West Wing, if we’re dreaming big — even 64GB isn’t gonna cut it) on my phone in a quality that will look good on the retina display, and right now I can fit like 1 or 2 at a time. So I’m curious to see how much iCloud can do to reduce the importance of having a large amount of local storage.

But for now, I will have to keep trying again, as the screen suggests. And somehow I don’t expect the experience is going to be any better, with millions of people uploading their entire media libraries at once, until things have a chance to settle down a bit.


September 13, 2011

The Evolution of Recording Music Rehearsals

I call this: mac,phones,tech,theatre — Posted by KP @ 9:19 pm


Today we started rehearsal for Ain’t Misbehavin’. After a very complex and inspiring opening speech from Andr√© De Shields, we spent the rest of the day on music.

While watching the actors rehearse, I noticed something I had not seen before: one of our actors was using her iPad to record her music. There’s really nothing surprising about this, but I made a mental note that it’s another small step in the evolution of technology in the rehearsal process. In addition to its capability for recording, she also uses one of the many piano simulators available for iOS to find her notes when reviewing music.

A History Lesson as Taught By A Largely Inattentive Observer

Most singers in musical theatre bring some kind of recording device with them to music rehearsals. They use it to capture their individual vocal parts as they’re being taught, the song as it is sung with everyone, and often they will use time on breaks or after rehearsal to have the musical director play through a whole song with the piano part only, creating essentially a karaoke track that they can then sing along with at will. The recordings allow them to continue to review the music at home, on the train, or anywhere else that they don’t have access to an accompanist. Naturally the recording device that allows this is an important tool.

When I started out, tape recorders — either full-size or mini cassettes — were what everybody used. Sometimes an actor would run out of tapes and would be lucky to be able to borrow a spare from a colleague. Batteries would die, and a stage manager who could immediately produce two AAs was a hero.

Around 2005 it seemed that many younger or more tech-savvy actors had switched over to purchasing a mic attachment for their iPods, allowing them to record huge amounts of music and sort through their recordings in an organized manner.

Naturally the plain ol’ iPod gave way to the iPhone and iPod Touch, which have built-in microphones and offer an even easier user interface for making and organizing recordings. The iPad is basically the same thing with a giant screen, so it’s no less useful. Maybe what struck me most about it was not so much what the iPad was doing for music rehearsals, but what its presence signifies in terms of how common the device has become since the iPad 2 came out. It definitely seems more mainstream, and no longer just an expensive experiment for early adopters and Apple enthusiasts. I actually feel like a little bit of a luddite for not having one, or thinking I need one.

I consider myself lucky that my stage management career has spanned a very interesting 10 years. I was around to see the end of a different way of doing things, but thankfully not for too long before the internet age took hold of most aspects of production. I imagine it’s something like what took place when computers began to operate lights, sound and automation in terms of the way the business has changed.

Today in rehearsal the actors were waiting to have their measurements taken, and engaging in a lively discussion about the ups and downs of the business. One of the women somehow got on the subject of the answering service, which made me laugh because it’s been so long since I’ve heard anybody bring up the idea of a service. The rest of the actors in the cast had never used one, having never worked professionally in the time before ubiquitous cell phones, email and texting. I added the stage managers’ perspective — how if, for instance, a call time changed, you had to call every actor at their home, their service, and their cell or pager number — because you never knew which phone they would be near, and cell phones were expensive and had short battery life, so were often turned off when not needed. And you certainly couldn’t rely on actors or production people to a) have an email address, or b) check it more than once a week. Nowadays you can send a single email or text to a mailing list and be confident everybody will get it in a timely manner, and with accurate information — imagine having to leave the same phone message 75 times in a row, and hoping you didn’t accidentally say the wrong time or day on one of them! And that is by far the best thing that’s happened to stage management in the last 10 years.

One last tip on the subject of recording vocal rehearsals: if by some chance your actor forgets to bring their recording device, whatever it may be, a handy way for the generous stage manager to help them out is to use your computer (or iPhone) to record their song and then email it to them immediately — a relatively painless way to keep their process moving, and have the song(s) waiting for them when they get home. The duration of said rehearsal would determine how time-intensive this favor is, but on the occasions that I’ve done it, the very grateful actor and musical director were economical and specific about when they were ready to record, which makes it pretty easy.


July 13, 2011

KP vs. Angry Birds

I call this: gaming,phones,theatre — Posted by KP @ 6:20 pm

Confession: I suck at Angry Birds. I hurl my birds haphazardly at structures with little understanding of what causes them to destroy or bounce off harmlessly. When I win, I don’t know why. When I lose, I know it’s because… I suck at Angry Birds.

But I drew a comic about my most perplexing Angry Birds moment ever:


July 3, 2011

Finally, Tethering the Way it Was Meant to Be

I call this: phones,tech — Posted by KP @ 11:27 am

…Overpriced, and with a data cap.

I’m just giving AT&T a little (well-deserved) shit there, but mostly I just want to say that finally, after way too many years of not offering the option at all, AT&T has gotten it right. Or, more accurately, has allowed Apple to get it right, since all AT&T is doing is collecting my money and allowing me to use the data I pay for legally. So, thanks for that.

The Tethering Plan Doesn’t Suck as Much as It Originally Did

First of all, if you missed the news, over the… well, I don’t know when, but it was when I was on tour… AT&T doubled the data cap on its limited data plans, which, if my math skills serve me, means that doubling 2GB to make 4GB is still infinity-times less value for your money than infinity-GB, which was the previous plan. But hey, it’s like 5 or 10 bucks cheaper. Anyway, this happened back around the time that Verizon got the iPhone, which was smart on AT&T’s part, but for one of the first times in my life, I genuinely felt warm-fuzzies toward the Evil Empire for giving me a data cap that at least sort of approaches the 5GB that most “unlimited” plans actually were in the fine print. I mean I’m locked into my contract with them anyway, and they gave it to me for free. Being on the road and having to sometimes use my phone data for things that really should have been able to be done at a hotel or venue’s wifi or ethernet, I could go through a GB in a day if I ran into a total internet fail when I needed to download large files, so suddenly having twice as much room for hotel/venue fail in my month was really great. And at home, forget it. I’d have to work really hard to ever approach that much usage.

So Today on the Train

I’m on the Long Island Rail Road right now. This brings me to the inspiration for this post. I took out my laptop, intending to blog about something else. I opened the lid, and the weather icon on my desktop immediately changed from cloudy to pouring rain. I was like, “how does it know that, it’s not connected to the…?” and then, right above my weather icon, I saw that my wifi was connected. And very carefully I moused over to it, thinking, “It can’t be… is it?” and opened the drop-down menu, showing that it was connected to my phone.

So basically what happened is, without any preparation or action on my part, I opened the lid of my laptop and pretty much as soon as the screen turned on, it had internet access.

Now what’s going on here is that Personal Hotspot and wifi are on on my phone. I generally leave both on by default, unless I’m worried about battery life. Also, having tethered over wifi before, my computer already is familiar with my phone’s network, and will join it by default when other networks it knows aren’t present, the same as it would do with any network it knows. Since wifi tethering became possible within the past year, I still use bluetooth a lot, mostly out of habit, and because I often have my wifi off when traveling to save battery life.

For whatever reason, all these factors have never come together for me before to create this beautiful effect of an instantanous, completely no-click tethering process. I’ve spoken before about how much I love the way Apple implemented tethering because it was previously a two-click process (pull down bluetooth menu, click “connect to network”), which equalled my previous favorite on the Treo 700p. This is fucking no clicks. Now, that may not always be what you want, but in this case that was exactly what I wanted, and it did it for me. It was one of those “I’m living in the future” moments, and tethering has been my wireless pet peeve for about 10 years, so to see it finally working as well as the technology is capable of (and legally, at that) is really heart-warming.

So, rock on, Apple, — and AT&T, I suppose you can rock on, too.


May 17, 2011

Evernote Use Cases

I call this: computers,mac,pc,phones,tech,web — Posted by KP @ 9:44 pm

I made my first post about Evernote back in August, as I was preparing for the last Acting Company tour. If you’re not familiar with Evernote, I suggest reading that first, as it will give you a basic idea of what the app does. In very brief, it stores and categorizes any text, document, photos, or other media you want, and makes them searchable and available on the cloud (and as a result can also sync with your phone and between your computers).

I had just begun using Evernote when I made my first post, and since then have mentioned it in passing on occasion. My assistant, Meaghan, and I had been sharing Evernote notes during the tour, as well as keeping our own individual notes about various things related to the show. Now that the tour is complete and I’ve been using Evernote for about nine months, I finally feel prepared to really write about how I use it, not how I thought I would use it. So I went through all my notes to sum up which ones are/were most useful.

Like most things in my life, I find I can divide it into three categories: work, personal, and technology. So that’s how I’m going to break it up. Behold!

Work

  • Cast checklist This is by far the most useful single note in my Evernote. All it is is a list of the full names of the cast, with a checkbox by each one. Initially this can be used as a reference for remembering people’s first and last names, and checking spelling. Once you get to the point where you know everybody’s name, it’s basically used for taking a headcount, or marking off when things have been completed for each actor (such as if you were making labels for their valuables bags). I think it’s fair to say that Meaghan and I used this note nearly every day, very often multiple times per day.
  • Other checklists Some other uses of the handy checklist features of Evernote are for prop presets, pre- or post-show checklists, and one of my favorites, the list of things needing to be run at fight call, and the actors and weapons needed for each one.
  • Rule books and contracts I tend to also have these files on my DropBox, but this is something that is worth the redundancy, I think. I keep the PDFs of all applicable Equity rule books, contracts, riders, letters of agreement, etc.
  • Codes On the TAC tour we had a note filled with all the codes we’d accumulated over the tour: copier codes, combination locks for our road boxes, door unlock codes, bus door codes, computer usernames and passwords, etc.
  • Procedures How to do things you might otherwise forget how to do. An example of this would be on The Comedy of Errors, we used the house’s main curtain in our show. In theatres where that wasn’t possible or desirable we had an alternate set of lighting cues. In theory they were written into the show file. But I kept a note with the designer’s original notes of all the changes made to the original show file to create the curtainless cues, as well as a breakdown of the steps that needed to be taken to make the routine switch between the curtain show and the non-curtain show.
  • “People Who Have Gotten Screwed” I have a note with this title, which is simply a list of names (there were three by the end of the tour). The gist is that when somebody gets arbitrarily screwed (like there’s no way to make the schedule without somebody having a four-hour break in the middle of their day), the person who gets screwed gets their name on this list. The next time that kind of decision has to be made, if there are multiple people who could potentially be screwed, a person with their name on this list will be passed over for screwing.
  • Interview or initial hiring notes When somebody first calls me about a job, I use Evernote to take down quick notes about the name of the show, who’s involved, where it’s being done, the dates, and salary if known.
  • Quotes I kept a list of all the funny quotes that came up during the tour.
  • Directions and maps I’ve got some notes with maps and written directions for how to get to various venues and rehearsal studios.
  • Truck pack info I didn’t end up using this as much as I intended to (probably due to not being able to type on my iPhone with my gloves on), but I had a note for documenting our truck pack, which could be lists of the order items come on in, as well as pictures of various sections of the pack to show how the items fit together.
  • Travel info / itineraries Any time I got a flight itinerary (which sometimes was way in advance), I threw it in Evernote and didn’t worry about it again, knowing I would always know where to find it when I needed it.
  • Notes for reports On more informal shows, I take my notes for the rehearsal / performance report on my phone if it’s not convenient to have my computer out. It’s also handy for making lists of questions to ask the director, or for topics to bring up at a production meeting. Then when I get home or back to my computer, I can process them more appropriately.
  • Exit interview notes While on tour, I knew that at the end of the season I would be brought in for a meeting with the general manager to discuss what was good and bad, what had improved or not since last year, and so forth. I’m pretty terrible at remembering these kind of things six months after they happen, so from the start of the tour I kept a note with all these thoughts.

Personal

  • Shopping lists Definitely my favorite in this category. Great for quick, disposable lists like groceries, and also for long-term shopping that I might not get to for a while, like things I want to get for my apartment.
  • Movie and book recommendations Any time I hear about a book or movie I might like, I go to my “Books” or “Movies” notes and jot down the title and maybe a reminder of what it’s about, or the author. This helps me not to forget things that I’m interested in, because when I’m in need of some new entertainment, I can just go down the list and head over to Netflix or to bn.com to see if any are available.
  • Insurance information I have a note with various information about my health insurance plan, and another covering my eye doctor visits last year. I haven’t needed to reference them yet, but it will be very handy over time to have documented when my last check-up was, the doctor’s name, etc.

Technology

  • All useful infomation My most prized note in this category sums up everything there is to know about my Mom and Dad’s technological lives. I did a total revamp of their house quite a few years back, and do periodic upgrades and maintenance on their computers and network. Naturally I don’t always remember all the details, so I have a file that has all their various usernames and passwords, router names and passwords, wi-fi network name and password, and computer names. I use this all the time when I’m over at their house.
  • Ink cartridge information This could be as simple as a line of text with the cartridge numbers, but I prefer to take a snapshot of the printers’ ink cartdrige, mostly because it’s faster to take the picture than to transcribe the information. Also it gives you visual confirmation of what the cartridge should look like, which is sometimes helpful.
  • Troubleshooting procedures When something goes wrong with my stuff and I find the directions to solve it online, I generally make a note with that information, if I feel like it’s something I won’t remember if it ever happens again.
  • Terminal commands and other shortcuts Ever find something online like “just type ____________ in the terminal to get this really useful option”? That’s great. Until you reinstall your OS or get a new computer, and then you forget all about that thing you cut-and-pasted two years ago. So I have a single note (which used to be a Word document I dragged around from computer to computer) that holds all of these.
  • Specs of my computer I have one that’s just a screenshot of the item description of the last batch of RAM I bought. I’m pretty bad at remembering my computers’ specs over time, so I keep them in various notes. This also includes serial numbers and MAC addresses.
  • Product keys I really keep all my product keys in 1Password, but when I first get something I often snap a photo of the product key if it’s on the box or the CD or whatever. That way I can be sure I don’t lose it or accidentally throw it out before putting it into 1Password.
  • Configuration info The one that saves me the most time is the settings for Coda, which is the web development software I use. There’s a configuration screen that allows the app to access the local and remote versions of this site, and every time I have to re-enter that information I screw it all up. So now I have it in a note, with a screenshot of how everything should be filled in.

Summary

These are the notes I’ve found most useful. Evernote can really be used for whatever you want. For instance, I don’t make any attempt to make it a task manager, as I have the much more powerful and dedicated OmniFocus for that. I wouldn’t say that I’m a power user of Evernote. I do have the $5/month Premium subscription, which allows me gazillions of gaziggabytes of uploads (I believe that’s the technical term) per month (which is more necessary when you’re uploading photos), but I rarely have really needed that subscription. I think about bumping back to the free version (Evernote is fantastic about not making you lose any of your stored data if you decide to go back to free), but I keep thinking “it’s just $5” and I like the app so much. And I really don’t want to lose the 150×150 pixels or whatever it is that the ads take up. But if you were on a budget, you could easily survive the workflow that I normally use on the free account.


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