Still running Sierra and iOS 10.3

Computers -- or playing with them -- has been a hobby, pastime, and necessity for the last couple of decades. It used to be that I could not wait to download or install the new version of an application or operating system; the thrill of the New powered that desire.

But with my iMac, 3-month-old iPhone SE (my first ever smartphone), and iPad Pro 10.5-inch (my first ever tablet), I'm taking the upgrades slow. 

One reason is that they're so dang big -- 1-2 GB for iOS, and 5.2 GB for the High Sierra installer. We're on a relatively stable but slow DSL connection so I would need most of the night to download the latter. (I use the free Amphetamine app to keep my iMac from going to sleep.) I would also need a Saturday or Sunday free to deal with the frequent reboots and minor disruptions.

The other is that Apple's software upgrades have been famously fraught with frustrations, from the root login problem in High Sierra to the battery drain and other issues in iOS 11.

It's a shame, because both upgrades seem to be essential ones, especially for the iPad Pro. But both OSs are still too young and Apple, which prides itself on its devices' rock-solid reliability, still seems to be scrambling. I'll wait till it all cools down.

For the iOS upgrade debacles, I am following Forbes.com's Gordon Kelly. While the tech press and Mac sites trumpet each new upgrade, Kelly instead draws his conclusions based on what real users are reporting on Twitter. His recent article on the iOS 11.2 upgrade -- the one that everyone hoped would bring stability to this wearying story -- convinced me that I was wise to bide my time.

I will probably wait till the new year to upgrade, when I have time and when the dust has settled.

How I'm Learning Now

My day job for the last two or so decades has been as a software technical writer. Basically, I write the how-tos that people generally avoid reading. 

I always default to buying a book when learning a new product. I did this for my iPhone and for Squarespace; I have bought innumerable e-books from Take Control to help me learn the ins and outs of certain concepts and software packages. 

But now I find myself acting like you all: it takes considerable willpower for me to crack them open so I refer to them only when I have a problem. Example: when I bought my first iPhone in September one of my first purchases was Que's My iPhone. I skimmed the first chapters, gleaned a few things I didn't already know, and have not gone back to it.

I'm currently involved in a project where I'm using iMovie for the first time, and at work I find myself using Git and LaTeX. So now I'm watching Lynda.com or YouTube to introduce and acquaint me with the software. 

I find I am naturally and unconsciously defaulting to this sort of just-in-time training -- and visual training at that -- while my "rational" brain still favors just-in-case training.

Do I learn any more quickly? I can't say. Some videos are just narrated slideshows, which is worse than reading because I can't skim ahead (though I can play the video at a faster rate and race through the material faster). I like Lynda.com's software video tutorials because they walk  through a sample project so I can actually see how something like editing is done within this bewildering interface. I'm more of a visual learner than I thought.

So as I get acquainted with my iPad, I will stop myself buying newsstand magazines or books and instead watch some videos. And for what the videos cannot give me? There is always The Google.

My New iPad

New and first iPad ever, actually, only a few weeks old. It's the 10.5-inch iPad Pro and it is a beaut of a machine. Remarkably light and thin, beautiful screen. It's a luxury that is not yet a necessity.

Liz has had an iPad Mini for 4-5 years now and absolutely adores it. She reads the digital version of our local newspaper on it, surfs the web, listens to music, researches our trips, and generally does not need a traditional old-fashioned PC or desktop computer at all. Her iPad Mini is a constant companion for her: the perfect size for carrying and using anywhere. 

My friend MikeU bought the 9.7-inch iPad about 5-6 years ago and it became his laptop replacement at work. His aim was for the iPad to pay for itself. With the addition of a Logitech case/keyboard and Evernote, the iPad became his note-taking device at meetings and led him to eschew paper-based Day-Timers after nearly 20 years. But he rarely used his iPad for entertainment; for him, it was primarily a work machine.

I bought my iPad as I thought about our upcoming trips. For the last several years, when we've traveled, I've packed an Acer Chromebook laptop with its ungodly and ungainly AC adapter and cord. I liked the full-size keyboard for writing emails, I could use my Bluetooth headset, and the screen was adequate for watching the Doctor Who Christmas specials. I did not want to use Liz's iPad to check my email or type messages on; iPads are personal devices and I didn't want to mess anything up on her True Love. Besides, what if I wanted to surf the web too? Better for us to each have our own devices.

The appeal of the iPad Pro for me was primarily to make traveling easier: it's lighter than the Chromebook, the AC adapter is very low-profile (in a pinch, Liz and I could share one), I could use the iPad while squished into an airplane seat, and I could customize its display as I liked. The attraction of the bigger screen means I can now read comics via Comixology and get something like the experience of having the pamphlet in my hand, with the extra advantage of zooming into a panel when I want to study finer details. And there are Kindle ebooks that are meant for use on color devices, so I can now enjoy them on my new toy.

So why am I not more excited? I am a little skeptical of this expensive device. Expensive not just in terms of money, but in the time I feel I need to take to get it set up and to learn its ways.

My Kindle Paperwhite is still fine for reading and has its own advantages: smaller even than the iPad Mini, longer battery life, cheaper and thus more easily replaceable, it doesn't push light into my face, and -- crucially -- I can't do anything else with it. It's built for distraction-free reading, while the iPad encourages distraction. 

My iMac is my principal home computer and I already tend to do most everything I need to do on it: writing, YouTube, file management, even Comixology though it's not terribly pleasurable. The iMac is my everything-device; I am used to the power of the full-fledged Mac OS and desktop apps.

My iPhone SE (my first smartphone ever, bought in September) replaced my trusty and beloved iPod and it quickly filled a key niche in my digital ecosystem. The iPhone hosts my iTunes music library, email, camera, podcasts I listen to in the car, Evernote, and my budget app. Its smaller screen prohibits me from reading on it for long periods (which is a good thing). It's my general purpose pocket computer and it has become as necessary to me as Liz's iPad Mini is to her.

So while I look forward to using the iPad on our upcoming travels, I remain skeptical of its value to me when I'm at home. Where does it fit in my media consumption diet? Where does it fit when I want to write emails or a blog post? These are things I'll find out over time, while I work out how necessary this luxury item is to me.

 

"Teacher" - a short documentary

Back in the spring of 2017, I was searching for a new creative project to take my mind off of work upheavals. I took a Durham Arts Council short course called "Make a 5-minute Documentary in 7 Weeks." I've done screen capture edits at work with Camtasia Studio, but had never worked with capturing or editing digital video. I thought this would be a good enough challenge to get me making something.

It took longer than 7 weeks to create my documentary (lessons learned to follow!) and it turned out to be about 8 minutes long, but I was pleased with how it turned out. It is of my banjo teacher, J. Michael Pope of Beautiful Music Studios, and I think it captures the heart of his teaching and his spiritual practice. I captured the video, edited it in Final Cut Pro, and uploaded it to YouTube.

Tales from The White Box

In my office, under a table, has been sitting a white cardboard banker's box for several years. It contains assorted comics, magazines, and graphic novels or collections that I want to get rid of but that I can't bear to throw out till I've read them first. Marie Kando would say, "If you haven't read them by now, you never will. You've already gotten enjoyment from them. If they're not bringing you joy now, then say good-bye to them."

But ... I just don't want to say good-bye to them yet. Since I don't have a reading project or writing project at this time, why not use this box and this blog to give myself both?

So, no order or theme to these reviews. Just taking them as they come out of the box, and as I finish reading them.

11 favorite Christmas albums

We have a strict rule: no playing of Christmas music until we're driving back from my Aunt Carolyn's Thanksgiving dinner. From then until the evening of December 25th, Christmas music plays pretty non-stop at home. The music we listen to may be good only to our ears; we've had some of these CDs for so long that they're old friends. It's hard to hear them anew. Still -- Christmas is a time for familiar, cozy comforts, and the music we enjoy reflects that. (Although streaming tons of new-to-us music off of Amazon Prime is tilting the balance these days...)


A Charlie Brown Christmas (Vince Guaraldi Trio, 1988) How can you not have this CD? A classic, of course, that stays listenable, always fresh, and with a children's chorus that sound like real children. Love that. "Christmas is Coming" always gets my attention. This is one of the few CDs Liz and I both had in our collections when we merged households.

Nomad Christmas (Various Artists, 1997) I remember buying this as a cassette from a music store on Ninth Street in the late '90s, I think. (Local bassist Robbie Link appears on it.) I love the more exotic and jazzy versions of some well-known carols, along with songs and melodies from other countries I'd not heard before. All instrumental, a great low-key sound when you're decorating the tree. This was one of our first forays into "world music" for the holidays.

A Very Reggae Christmas (Kofi, 1994) I remember we bought this from the gone but not forgotten Carrboro branch of Nice Price Books (secondhand books and records). He surrounds familiar old melodies with heavy beats and exciting arrangements so that I hear them fresh every year. Kofi transforms two of my most hated Christmas songs -- "The Little Drummer Boy" and "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" -- into music that I actually enjoy. And, God, he makes "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing" sound like a true celebration of joy and not a prim, tasteful dirge.

Holiday Songs and Lullabies (Shawn Colvin, 1998) This was an impulse purchase while I waited in line at the gone but not forgotten CD Superstore at Brightleaf Square, and one of the best I ever made. There are familiar Christmas songs alongside ballads, folk songs, and lullabies -- the cold night, the child in its crib -- plus several carols that were unfamiliar to me, such as "Little Road to Bethlehem" and "Love Came Down at Christmas". It's a record for winter that makes you want to sit in a dark room, watch the lights glint on the tree, and listen to the understated arrangements and Colvin's gentle voice.

Christmas Caravan (Squirrel Nut Zippers, 1998) The Zippers were a local band who flared brightly for a few years before burning out and disbanding. But not before making this CD, which we did not like at first, but that has grown on us over the years. (And isn't Christmas music all about familiarity?) More than any other CD on this list, Christmas Caravan is an acquired taste -- many of the songs are originals or tunes little known to me, Katherine Whalen's vocals take getting used to, and Jimbo Mathus' arrangements make each song so different the album as a whole lacks a unity. But tucked into this CD are some great one-of-a-kinds: "Christmas in Carolina," "I'm Coming Home for Christmas," "Hanging Up My Stockings,"  and a kick-ass "Sleigh Ride."

American Folk Songs for Christmas (Mike, Peggy, and Penny Seeger, 1989) We usually wait until we start our annual drive to Florida before listening to this 2-CD set. This is a respectful, lovely collection of folk and Appalachian hymns, carols, spirituals, shape-note, and songs clumped together to tell the Christmas story: the stars, the shepherds, the birth, the joy of Christmas day, and too the excitement the day brings to a poor household: jokey songs, counting songs, high spirits. The sound is of a family gathered with their instruments around the hearth -- almost painfully spare and austere, and beautiful in its directness to the ear and heart.

The Bells of Dublin (The Chieftains, 1991) A great smorgasbord of traditional and British Christmas tunes, with really great guest turns: the McGarrigle Sisters on "Il Est Ne/Ca Berger" and Nanci Griffith on "The Wexford Carol." But as comforting and charm-laden as Celtic-flavored Christmas music could be, the Chieftains keep their eyes on today and so the album layers in some tartness: Elvis Costello on "St. Stephen's Day Murders" and my favorite, Jackson Browne's "The Rebel Jesus."

Christmas Night: Carols of the Nativity (John Rutter, The Cambridge Singers, The London Sinfonia, 1987) -- We have several of Rutter's Christmas CDs, but this is the first I bought (thank you, CD Superstore) and the one I like best. As with all his productions, the sound is crystal clear, the choral singing full and lush, and Rutter's arrangements restrained yet full of emotion. I like the selection of carols here, and the mood of it all -- faithful, in all senses of that word.

In the Christmas Spirit (Booker T. & the MG's, 2011) -- If you are of an age to have heard the first airings of David Sedaris' Santaland Diaries on NPR back in the late '80s-early '90s (produced by a young Ira Glass), then this music is what you heard in the background. Low-key, funky, and could have been recorded yesterday. It can play in eternal rotation.

A Putumayo World Christmas (Various Artists, 2000). As time goes by, I find myself favoring international holiday music over the American pop holiday standards. Part of it is the attraction of new sounds and songs, part of it the aliveness of other traditions. I always enjoy the Putumayo collections and this one is hot; I love every track on it. (The Putumayo's Cajun Christmas CD? Not so much. Hardly at all, in fact.) I cite the year for this CD, as a later reissue removed some of the tracks that were my favorites. Amazon has several Putumayo Christmas collections, but this one looks to be out of print.

A String Quartet Christmas (Arturo Delmoni, et al., 2010) When I'm making sausage balls or Liz is decorating the tree, then what's needed is some instrumental background music that sets a mood. This set of 3 CDs fits the bill. (They were originally released as individual CDs in the late '90s under the title Rejoice!) These short string quartet arrangements of carols, hymns, and traditional melodies stick to the classic selections; no secular guff like "Frosty" or "Rudolph" here, thank Festivus.

 

 

My quixotic smart Christmas playlist

In iTunes, I have assigned the genre "Christmas" to all my Yuletide music, albums and singletons alike. This makes it relatively easy to add them to my iPod or remove them at once with the click of a button. (Some sequester their Christmas music to a different iTunes library, but I haven't gone that far yet.)I have a few static playlists that group a series of albums together, for example, all of the Windham Hill Winter Solstice albums. My friend Bob has a static playlist containing only instrumental songs, for when he just wants background music. 

My own quixotic contribution to the world of Christmas playlists is a smart playlist that collects and sorts all of my Christmas songs in alphabetical order.

Liz prefers hearing her Christmas music by album; each album has its own personality, sound, and emotion that she enjoys. For myself, I rather like the randomness and juxtaposition of so many different songs in one place. I get a kick out of hearing nine different versions of "Joy to the World" -- community chorale, solo vocal, piano instrumental, surf guitar -- one after another. Or picking a letter of the alphabet and starting my listening there, just to see what comes next. 

Here's a screenshot of settings for this playlist:

xmas_smart_playlist
xmas_smart_playlist

When iTunes creates the playlist, make sure you click the Name column header to ensure they're sorted alphabetically. Then sync the playlist to your iDevice.