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Opinions on design, programming, UX, games and tech

2016-11-30

Given recent discoveries about the Dropbox app hacking its way into the Finder on the Mac, and using a few gray-area tactics to get the permissions it needs, I started looking at an alternative. I tried iCloud Drive, and here are my findings.

Why iCloud Drive?

I chose iCloud Drive mostly to give it a chance. It’s a relatively new service, plus it integrates nicely with the Apple ecosystem. It has a few advantages relative to Dropbox: it has native Finder integration, which means it works seamlessly with the filesystem.

It works in a special directory (Documents), but it also works on the Desktop as well. That means that I could just work on my files the way I always do and everything was synced automatically.

A nice feature iCloud Drive has is Optimize Storage. With this option, the system automatically manages which files are stored in your disk and which ones stay in the cloud, whenever it senses disk space is low. So it gives priority to files you’ve opened recently, and it’s kind of hit and miss.

One advantage of this system is I can have more files in iCloud Drive than what fits on my local drive. With Dropbox you can, too, but it involves managing Selective Sync manually for your folders. So if you don’t sync a folder, you save space, but you can’t see it at all on you system. With iCloud Drive you see the full directory structure, and even query for file sizes, and it shows the real info of all files, even if they’re not downloaded locally. That’s a great advantage.

The problems

It’s kind of common knowledge that Apple is bad at web services. I feel bad repeating it, because I wanted to give it a chance, but the reality is, they’ve improved a lot, but still nowhere near the reliability of other companies.

For starters, the first time I started saving files to iCloud Drive, they wouldn’t sync to my iPhone. I searched lots and lots of support pages and forum questions until I found a convoluted process to fix it, which involved fully emptying the drive and deleting files multiple times (which were already filled with GB’s worth of files). It worked out at the end, and after that fix everything was syncing instantly as it should.

I say instantly, but the reality is Apple servers, for as modern and environmentally friendly as they are (100% running on renewable energy at the time), are still too slow for competing. They’re nowhere near what Dropbox or Google’s servers can handle in terms of reaction speed and upload speeds in general.

The third problem is a matter of interoperability. These last months I’ve been working on web development almost exclusively, so I’ve been using macOS the whole time. Lately I’ve started using Windows too for a while, and not having my files there has been a hindrance.

Curiously, iCloud Drive is supposed to work on Windows, but it didn’t for me. I enabled it, but I think it may fail because of the size of my online drive relative to the disk space available. But there’s no indication that that is the case. No low space warnings, no fail icon, nothing. It may be because there’s not enough development devoted to Windows at Apple (understandable), but it’s not like its a cryptic error that happens to one person in a million. It’s a core feature that just doesn’t work out of the box.

I’m sure there might be a fix or a workaround for that particular problem, but I’m just not willing to put the time to find it myself. It should be a given.

Conclusion

I’d say I’d like to give iCloud another chance in the future. The appeal is there, specially because of the Optimize Storage feature. But the lack of speed, polish and debugging, makes me not want to trust it with all my files. For that, I’m still leaning towards using Dropbox, even with its flaws. At least it’s consistent and fast. In terms of speed, interoperability and stability, I still find Dropbox to be the king of sync.


2016-09-21

There must be thousands of articles like this, with the myriad ways different people set up their spaces. Lately I've been giving a lot of thought to what makes the perfect workspace for me for working efficiently. I'm a work environment freak, I need to have the best possible space for getting my creative neurons to fire.

So having said that, first things first:

What work are you doing?

The type of work matters a lot. Depending on what I'm doing, I can be somewhat liberal or very strict on my workspace environment and conditions. I'll be talking about digital art, design and development work, and obviously each type of work has its own quirks.

How much space do you need?

How comfortable are you in tight spaces? Do you like more cavernous, empty places? Or maybe tight, comfy and familiar? I'm of two camps here. For artistic and design work, I kind of like having the place I'm most familiar with, with my stuff surrounding me and a good stationary desk. This means no art or design outside the office. Tools matter too. For art and design, I have to work with a mouse. And maybe also a Wacom tablet. So that makes it even harder for me to work on the move.

For development work, however, as it involves mostly typing, I can do it wherever, be it in an office, a sofa, or a bed, or even a coffee shop or a public bench. Thieves may be a problem in public spaces, but in safe places with a lot of people and proper vigilance, it means I'm not tied to an office for that kind of work, which is great. It's a good thing to be able to roam around doing work that you like in different places.

For art production, an iPad Pro is really the thing I'm most looking forward to trying. Being able to use an equivalent to a portable Wacom tablet (maybe even more precise) means I can set up an art studio on the go. I really hope some good apps are already in development for it.

Light

On the subject of light, it's important to have your monitor set at the right brightness, you don't want to be blinded by a harsh white light while sitting in the dark. It's better to have some dim lights around if you work at night, and if you work by day, have some curtains for the ability to actually being able to see what's in the monitor.

Color temperature of the light also matters. If you're working on a room with artificial lighting, chances are your lights have a lower color temperature than your screen, being warmer while the screen becomes a glowing blue rectangle in front of you. There's an app for the Mac called F.lux that changes the colors of your screen to warmer colors as the day comes to an end, but it may go too wild and turn the whole screen orange. Use it sparingly, and it will be gentler in your eyes. On iOS, Apple developed a feature called Night Shift that does exactly the same as F.lux on the Mac, but less extreme, and on the 9.7 inch iPad Pro, it actually uses light sensors to capture the current light color temperature of the environment and apply it to the screen, so it always matches. The result is making the screen look like a sheet of white paper under the current light.

Sound

Maybe it's the loud traffic noise outside, or some construction happening nearby. Maybe it's a humming fluorescent tube or an annoying finger-drumming coworker. There's people who can deal with working in a noisy environment, others don't. I know I can't.

In my old office, traffic noise from outside was a real issue. Cars and buses roamed constantly on a cobblestone street, one of the few left in the city from ancient times. We were located just at an intersection which only doubled the problem (and was cause of a few accidents). The road noise was so high, we couldn't open the windows. This caused another problem: heat. It got unconfortably hot inside, which ended up causing me some nasty headaches. It also got smelly fast, specially in summer (plus some people seemed to reject the idea of deodorant).

Traffic noise was a problem because of volume. I actually suffered from tinnitus during that time, attributable to the constant high level of noise.

Another noise problem is with repeating or annoying sounds. You know, humming, whistling, rattling, finger-drumming, that sort of deal. It's nice working with other people, and usually that stuff is normal, idle human artistic expression. But when you're hearing it all day, it starts to hurt. You despise the sound while it's there and live in fear while it's silent, because you know in any moment it'll start again.

Suffice to say, noise is a real problem and can make you crazy or physically ill. Avoid it by moving into a better insulated location, using headphones or buying soundproof curtains if there's too much traffic noise. And ban finger-drumming in the office. Your ears will thank you and you'll keep your sanity.

By the way, some people use backgrond white noise, like that from TV static, or a fan, the sound of rain or an airplane interior, to mask exterior sounds. The way they work is, white noise is basically random soundwaves in the whole range of frequencies all at once, so any distinct frequencies from outside get drowned in the whole, and the ears manage to stabilize everything. There are several resources online like YouTube where you can find huge loops (10 hours) of these sounds for using while working. I've tried them and can say they kind of work, but with the caveat that you would be receiving constant sound pressure in your eardrums for hours at a time. When you take the headphones out, it feels weird. I'm not sure of the long-term effects of using theses sounds may be, I'd need to investigate.

On my particular case, when coding, there's a few soundtracks I constantly use (the background music of SimCity 4). It's really weird how productive I get while listening to it. Granted, it's the soundtrack for a city building game, not an action packed one, and that really helps. There's a lot of variety in the individual tracks, they're long, and really soothing. I think that's what works for me, and also the fact that I've heard it enough times that I memorized almost every note, so my brain doesn't have to work on analyzing what I'm hearing, instead following it like it's on rails. Again, mine is an extremely particular scenario, maybe you'll get the same by listening to metal, who knows.

What I can't hear while coding is songs with lyrics. It's like I can't use the logical part of my brain while focusing on the words I'm hearing. I guess I have a single vocal processor after all. Curiously, that doesn't happen with songs in languages I can't understand. So I listen to Enya a lot too.

Schedule

Finally we get to the time management portion of the setup. How many hours of work are good enough? Opinions vary wildly, but the popular idea is that you're better off working for fewer productive hours than droning through the day without doing any real work. Workaholics are a problem, to themselves, to their employers and to their coworkers. They're on track to burn out, they cost their employers more on overtime pay, and they make their other coworkers uncomfortable for working normal time. They feel like martyrs going on without sleep, but at the end of the day there's nothing to show for it.

My schedule is not what it used to be. My current job demands ten hours a day, and I think that's way too much. There's nothing to be gained by stretching idle hours. Better look up to models that work, specially in some European countries, like Germany, where workdays are shorter but really intense. I think that's the way to go.

What's really important, I think, is to avoid interruptions. Getting into a mental state for productivity takes some time, and if you're interrupted it takes more time to get into it again. That's why some people, myself included, work better by night, or when there's no one else at the office.

So, what's your ideal work environment. I'd love to know. Email me so we can get some ideas.


2015-12-21

I've been unintentionally hearing the Star Wars main theme about five times a day lately, which I'm not complaining about. Saw The Force Awakens on the 17th and will probably write a longer post on it later. Been too busy these days.

Hopefully something soon!


2015-11-09

"One bit of advice: it is important to view knowledge as sort of a semantic tree -- make sure you understand the fundamental principles, ie the trunk and big branches, before you get into the leaves/details or there is nothing for them to hang on to."

The man knows what he's talking about.


2015-11-05

Always a good idea to work with a real video for context. Here's a quick tip.

How to do this? It's pretty easy if you use Adobe Creative Cloud.

First, get yourself a preview render of the show you're making graphics for. If you don't have it because it hasn't been filmed yet, make a mashup of talking heads from YouTube to simulate it. This will be your reference video.

Create a new project and import your reference program footage. Create a timeline based on this clip. Now, go and import your current After Effects file, not the render, but the source file. Premiere will ask you which comp inside the file you're bringing, which is really nice, and then add it to your project where you can use it the same way you'd use a video clip. Now you can drag it into the timeline and you'll have your motion graphics in context with the reference video.

Here's the nice thing though: the clip is actually linked to the AE source file, so you can go into After Effects, modify the comp, then save and back in Premiere the preview is updated automatically. So no more rendering between changes and importing back in Premiere, you can have the preview almost in real time. You can drag your clip around in the timeline to test different sections of the video and see how your graphics look in context. Great!

Now to turn it up a notch, if you use custom graphics inside After Effects, make them in a Photoshop file, which is also linked and automatically refreshed in AE. Now you make a change in the PS file, go to After Effects which hot-reloads it, save that file, and now the Premiere timeline is updated. This whole chain of workflow events makes the process of iterating in context really easy and fast. Now there's no excuse for lame motion graphics packages.


2015-10-27

Some new freelance projects coming in, some are piling up. Things I'm currently working on: 1 contract work game art model, 1 freelance game art model, 1 web design and development project, 1 motion graphics package for a YouTube show.

Maybe I should start focusing a little? But I kind of like it this way. I'm not gonna complain.


2015-10-19