I grew up in Scotland and spent my formative years driving to the mountains then hiking up and down them (with a bit of mountain biking thrown in). Even when I moved to Yorkshire at 24 and travelled around the world I always loved coming back to my home country and seeing just what a beautiful place it is. As life got in the way I’d still visit Scotland but hadn’t been up in the mountains for too many years. I decided it was time to break that cycle and have an old school road trip around some of my favourite parts. A trip down memory lane, literally. And Scotland did not disappoint!
Way back in 1995 my friends and I took an old MG Montego on a road trip from Scotland to Chamonix in the French Alps which also happened to be my first holiday abroad. I wrote about it a few years ago – The Spirit of Adventure. My abiding memory of that trip was taking a hike up the mountains to see my first ever glacier. I was expecting it to look pristine and white, not covered in rocks and debris so initially asked my friend where the glacier was before he pointed out that everything in front of me was a glacier! You can understand my confusion, this is the photo I subsequently took:
Wind forward to the Summer of 2017 where I had the pleasure of spending a few months living in France including a couple of trips to Chamonix. First time was with a friend for a few days and we went up to the highest point a cable car can – the Aiguille du Midi (which was too expensive for the John Conners of 1995 to afford) – and I was hoping once again to catch sight of this amazing glacier I’d seen over 20 years before. Turns out I should have looked at a map – the glacier was on the next set of mountains over. But it was pretty spectacular nonetheless!
A few weeks later I returned and this time I had a better of idea of the glacier I’d originally seen – I reckoned it was the mighty Mer de Glace. So I figured out how to hike there and one morning that’s exactly what I did. Rather than being a lazy tourist and taking the funicular railway to the top I walked – starting straight up a ski slope (those things are pretty steep and relentless to walk up). And after a couple of hours I found myself in truly spectacular scenery.
It was shortly after I was in for a bit of a shock. Turns out the glacier has receded dramatically over the 22 years since I’d been. To the point where there are signs on the cliff as you go down showing you where it was in a given year.
I couldn’t help but feel sad – upset if I’m honest – to see such a dramatic difference in such a short space of time (22 years really isn’t long at all). The sheer volume of ice that’s melted just boggles the mind, but it wasn’t until I finally got around to scanning in the negatives of my photos from 1995 that I was really able to compare the before and after as it just happens that I’d taken pretty much the exact same photo 22 years apart (I’m nothing if not consistent).
The photos were taken at around the same time of year and it’s pretty clear that the rock and green line is significantly further from the glacier than it used to be. When you multiply that by how long the glacier is, that’s a hell of a lot of ice that’s no longer there. When you look at a photo like those above and see the difference it’s pretty unsettling. But when you walk there and see it with your own eyes and remember what it looked like before, it really does bring it home to you how our planet is warming. We live on a beautiful planet, but it’s fragile.
A couple of generations from now that glacier will be entirely gone. Enjoy it while you can.
I was lucky enough to spend two weeks driving from Colorado to Las Vegas and back in a circular route taking in some of America’s most impressive national parks (covering 2500 miles in the process). Not only was the scenery scarcely believable (it was like being in a different country every day), but the people were incredibly friendly and generous everywhere I went and the food – despite stereotypes to the contrary – was superb, and healthy too.
The general route follows (usually a couple of days exploring in each place) and I’d highly recommend you give it a go – we could have easily spent 2 weeks in each park!
- Flew to Denver airport
- Drove to the Rocky Mountain National Park
- A long drive (via some scenic stops) to Canyonlands National Park
- An amazingly scenic drive to Bryce Canyon (what a place!)
- A few days in Vegas (which I wouldn’t recommend to be honest)
- Next up, the meteor crater near Flagstaff (wanted to go since I was a kid)
- The relatively short hop to the Grand Canyon (yes, it’s as stunning as everyone says)
- Then onto the south of Lake Powell and the famous Horsehoe Bend
- Heading east to Mesa Verde National Park
- Through Rio Grande National Forest towards…
- Great Sand Dunes National Park – completely unexpected sand dunes!
- Finally back to Denver and off home!
My favourite US state is definitely Utah as it has some incredible roads, scenery and every day was jaw dropping! I had a drone that I flew for some aerial shots when I could (they’re banned in National Parks). Anyway, some random photos of the trip follow – enjoy!
When I first started using Facebook many years ago it took a little getting used. At the time it was completely different to any software I’d encountered before. I was used to discussion forums where you either created a topic in a section or replied to one – that was it. Now there was this concept of having your own wall where you could post in addition to posting on friends walls. I spent a little while pondering like this: “so friend X has posted on my wall, do I now reply by posting on their wall or commenting on their post on mine?”. Soon enough it seemed normal and I started to use Facebook the way I initially used this blog back in the day – short, punch updates on random things. While on here I’d gone more long form, so posting much less frequently but only when I had something substantial to say.
Fast forward several years after many many photos of my dog posted and I decided the time was right to deactivate Facebook and leave it behind. Here’s why.
The Early Days
I was initially very impressed with early Facebook. Unlike forum software it was designed around real world social interactions. You might meet a friend for a beer (i.e. their wall) and get chatting. Then another mutual friend drops by for a beer and a chat too (they see the conversation on your friends wall and join in). You’d see all the posts from all your friends in reverse chronological order and could keep in touch with and stay up to date with more friends than you possibly could in real life. It saved time and seemed to actually enrich friendships with those you might have lost touch with or not see as much as you used to. Augmenting real world relationships and bringing everyone closer.
I was re-connecting with people I’d lost touch with over the years and was learning more about other friends than I ever had in the real world. I felt like a part of a lot of peoples lives and it felt great. I was enthusiastic about it! I posted random links to YouTube videos, photos of my dog, created a photo series of things I found in the street (aka “Somewhere a small child is crying” with a photo of a pacifier on the kerb) and worked some of my favourite song lyrics into posts that almost nobody ever noticed.
Then Things Started To Change
Having been blogging for years before Facebook I was well used to my random musings being publicly visible and so potentially read by friends, family, anybody really. As such I’d learned to self-censor what I wrote and be mindful of who might be reading. Nowadays Twitter and Facebook are huge and especially with the former you can find yourself at the receiving end of abuse from a virtual baying mob of people for a single, out of context or inappropriate tweet.
Unfortunately for a lot of people signing up to Facebook, they were lambs to the slaughter. People have lost jobs, friends, been sued, arrested, harassed, had real world fights and a host of other such fates from ranting on Facebook. And that’s without even posting publicly.
So while Facebook modelled real world interaction and made it more efficient, it also magnified all the negative aspects of real world interactions. If you meet up with a friend and you have a disagreement (which often happens after alcohol is consumed) at least you’d go your separate ways, sleep it off and get over it. With Facebook there was no escape and no looking someone in the eye and realising it was a misunderstanding. You could have that same argument but now you’ve got dozens of witnesses, all happy to join in, baying for blood (see my book recommendation above) and blow things out of proportion. People would start falling out and commit the ultimate social faux pas – an unfriending. This seemed to be treated as a personal slight against the unfriendee that would often spill out into the real world. It was as though all the negative emotions from people would be focussed and nothing of the whole rounded individual would be seen.
I found myself at one point having to clear out a bunch of “friends” who weren’t people I knew in the real world and kept it strictly to those I did. It was a lot safer and less hassle (ask me some time over a beer and I’ll tell you a tale or two!).
People would often go the other way and instead of ranting learned to self-censor and focus on only posting the most glowingly positive aspects of their life. As though they were living the perfect happy life where everything was great and perfect! You’d meet them in the real world and of course life doesn’t work like that, so what you were seeing on Facebook was life through a lens – essentially part of their life, but only a small part. The authenticity of interactions seemed to have changed from the earlier days and I began to wonder if it was the people or the software itself. If you only interacted with angry or happy posts, was Facebook only showing you the same – like an echo chamber? Something started to feel off.
So Are We The Product?
It’s been much quoted in the tech press that Facebook users aren’t the customers, they’re the product. People enter a great deal of personal information into Facebook as well as demonstrate what they like and care about by their behaviour on the platform. This is gold dust to advertisers and to make as much money as possible Facebook want us to interact with ads and so charge advertisers a high price for that specific targeting.
While that’s factually correct, I don’t believe the engineers and product managers behind the scenes really feel that way or have that as their objectives. They’re trying to connect the world and have billions of users – so are doing a pretty good job. Trouble is, for me at least their attempt to do that really started to put me off.
What attracted me to Facebook was being able to see a reverse chronological feed of all my friends posts. Simple. Periodically I can catch up just like I’d do if in the real world I meet up for lunch with friends and we all update each other on our lives since we last met. Problem is, that’s impossible to do on Facebook now unless you manually go to the profile of every single friend.
Instead Facebook wants to figure out what you want to see, then tailor your news feed to show you it. So a bunch of clever engineers at Facebook have the feed data from billions of users and slice and dice that data to figure out for each person what sort of items they’re interested in and curate the feed to give you your own personal news feed with everything you want to see! Except of course it doesn’t work and you miss most of the interesting things. The reality of this type of software, and in fact current artificial intelligence technology, is that we’re a very long way away from it being genuinely useful in this context. The only way as things currently stand to see a curated subset of posts is for a human who knows you to choose them for you. It really is as simple as that. When a machine passes the Turing test, then I’ll revisit this statement.
But clever people like trying to solve problems like this and while there are billions of users it doesn’t matter if they alienate a few million, it’s just raindrops in the sea for the greater good. Ultimately from an engineering point of view I think they’re doing the right thing. To get so much real interaction data between humans in one place and be able to analyse it is the sort of fascinating problem I would love to be a part of. Well, second after background switching of course. So I completely understand why they’re trying to build software that can predict what you’re interested in based on your behaviour. And I’m sure this type of work will ultimately lead to smarter software, although hopefully not like those Terminator films. But as a user, it’s the opposite of what I want. It’s the equivalent of sending androids to meet up in a bar and controlling them through a virtual reality headset instead of actually going to that bar and meeting your friends. It’s a layer of abstraction I don’t want.
So when I take the fact that there’s no way to see what I want (I know you can choose ‘Most Recent’ rather than ‘Top Stories’, but it’s still a curated subset of posts) and add that the negative traits of social interaction are magnified, I realised I was no longer enjoying using Facebook. When I’d meet up with friends in the real world the communication was infinitely more meaningful than it had been through Facebook’s pages. It just wasn’t adding any value to my life.
There is no substitute for real world interaction. And that’s why after much thought I deactivated my Facebook account and haven’t looked back! I look forward to meeting up with friends and finding out what they’ve been up to. I really won’t know and not knowing makes it that much more interesting. I don’t even find myself wanting to log back in and see what’s happening. And to be honest I don’t think anybody’s even noticed I’ve left! 😀
When I read that Mark Zuckerberg has a team of people who manage his own Facebook page that proved I was right. He’s a far far smarter guy than I am and even he realises his time is better spent in places other than Facebook. So I doubt I’ll be back.
When I was a child, decades before the Internet, mobile phones and even years before CDs I used to imagine what the future would be like. I grew up listening to music as my father never stopped playing records and it’s still something I love to this day. I distinctly remember thinking how awesome it would be to have a device that contained all the music there’s ever been so that I could just tell it I wanted to listen to Queen and it would play their entire collection. I imagined it being a small cubic device that fitted in the palm of my hand. At the time it seemed an impossible dream and yet in my pocket is exactly such a device – an iPhone with 4G and Spotify. And now that seems normal.
However my 10 year old self, used to wearing bulky headphones, also imagined that headphones of the future would just sit in my ear without cables, transmitting music directly into my brain without getting in my way (I considered implants but thought that a bit invasive). And until today that idea remained exactly that – a dream unfulfilled. Back in June 2014 I spotted a Kickstarter project that promised to deliver exactly what I wanted. Wireless earphones that sat in each ear, no cables, minimal size, great sound quality and an earphone case that also recharged them. The project was called Earin. I hadn’t even finished watching the video before reaching for my wallet to pay.
And now, after much delay, I have my hands on a set and this is what they look like:
I expected after such a long delay to be disappointed, particularly reading about failed Kickstarter projects not delivering, however to say the least my expectations have been exceeded. The design and fit and finish is very high quality, like something from Apple. You plug the capsule into your computer via a USB cable to fully charge it, then it recharges the earbuds whenever you store them inside. They come with a couple of sizes of ear cushions but the standard foam ones fit me perfectly and once in I don’t feel them at all.
The most impressive thing, however, is the sound quality. When I first started playing music I thought they were great and are made even better when running the Earin app and turning the bass boost option on. The sound is as good as the Bose earphones I normally use and the noise isolation from the foam earpieces is excellent.
I’ve worked out in them, laid on the sofa with them, walked around the kitchen with them, wandered about town with them and it’s basically like having music plugged directly into my brain (my 10 year old self would be impressed). No getting the cable caught on my clothes or a door handle and yanking my ear off. They just work and it feels that now, finally, I’m living in the future. The original promotional video talked about doing one thing – playing music – very well and that’s exactly what they’ve done with Earin.
So far the only thing I’ve noticed is that maybe once an hour the sound in the right ear drops for about half a second and comes back. It’s a tiny glitch that, given the huge upside of great sound and no wires, is well worth living with. If you have a chance to get a pair (supplies are currently limited) then I’d highly recommend them. For a version 1 product they are astonishingly good. More information here.
Back in September 2014 I released John’s Background Switcher to the Mac App Store. The idea behind the Mac App Store is that you pay £60 / year to Apple so that you can sign and distribute software for the Mac and submit apps for sale there. Apple host it, handle shipping updates to customers via the standard software update mechanism and your app appears on the App Store application bundled with OS X. Oh, and Apple take a 30% cut of every sale you make.
It sounds great. The App Store is built into every Mac. That’s potentially millions of customers wanting to buy your software! And unlike the iOS app store there isn’t an expectation that apps are priced unrealistically at $0.99 where there is no hope of ever covering the development costs, never mind making any money. However I had more modest goals than becoming rich and giving up my day job. I just wanted to cover the bare cost of building JBS. So I figured I’d break it down and detail how it’s panned out over the last 9 months.
The Costs Of Building An App
But first, development costs. I already mentioned the £60 / year to Apple. In addition JBS is built using Xamarin.Mac which for the cheapest Indie license costs $300 / year (call it £200). The website you’re looking at here costs £60 / year to host on WordPress.com and Amazon S3 hosting (not all directly related but a cost I’d want to cover) is maybe another £30 per year. I also support Interfacelift (a lovely photo site that has a paid-for API) and that costs me £19 / month or £228 / year. So that’s £578 per year recurring fixed costs.
Next is time. JBS for Mac took me 4 months of evenings and weekends (often very late into the night) to build. I’d conservatively estimate (knowing it was higher) an average of 4 hours, 4 nights per week and 8 hours at the weekend, which is a total of 384 hours work. Apparently an average hourly rate for a developer is £37.50, so let’s say to hire someone to build it for me would have cost around £14,400 (or $22,000 USD). Plus I’d have still had to spend my time managing, testing, designing, etc. Fortunately I could re-use a good portion of code from the Windows version of JBS, otherwise those numbers would have been a lot higher. However I had no expectation of ever making a dent in those costs – JBS is something I’ve loved building for years so it’s never been about the money. Instead my goal was to cover the fixed annual costs of £578 (around $880 USD). If I could make that I’d be happy.
I decided to take the same marketing approach I did with JBS for Windows which is to not advertise it, chase reviews, hound techie sites for kudos or such like. I’d leave it to grow organically, which meant I could iron out bugs while the number of users is small and if it ever gets successful then it’ll be a lot more stable and solid. In short, this is what happens when you build an app for the Mac App Store and are too lazy to do any marketing or advertising – the “build it and they will come” philosophy. (My brother works in marketing so will likely cringe at this approach). If you put in any marketing effort then expect to do better than me – this is like a baseline case study.
So come on John, how much did you make? Are you rich? The answers are “Ok…” and “no”. After some tinkering I decided to set the price at £6.99 / $8.99 as it felt about right compared to other apps out there. And without further ado, here are my sales from launch mid-September 2014 to June 1st 2015:
I average around a sale of JBS per day and over the past 9 months I’ve earned $1840, or £1200. Knock off tax at 40% (worst case scenario) and that’s £720. So that pays the development costs for a year with enough for a couple of meals out – yay! Although if I never write another line of code again for JBS it would take me 15 years to recoup the initial development costs alone. Clearly I won’t be quitting my day job any time soon! It’s fortunate that JBS is a passion project rather than a source of income. When you look at numbers like this and understand the amount of work that goes into building what seems a pretty simple app, it can be particularly galling to read reviews like this:
Which leads me nicely onto…
Why The Mac App Store Kinda Sucks
Ah yes. So 30% cut aside, there are a lot of downsides to selling on the Mac App Store. The first of which is the review time. It varies, but on average it’s taken around 7 days from submitting my “ready to go” app to Apple before it’s actually reviewed. And if it’s rejected (which it can be for a vast array of subtle reasons) you go to the back of the queue and have to wait another 7 days for the next one. This has happened many times with me and their rejection explanations can be so vague that it takes several go-rounds before you get to the bottom of it. Here’s the process for the next version (it’s currently June 3rd as I write this):
So if you’re used to being able to ship updates quickly, you’ll find the Mac App Store infuriating.
Update: As of January 2017 the review time is around 1-2 days which means rapid releases can be achieved through the Mac App Store – certainly a good thing in my book. However…
The next problem is that the App Store app itself is truly awful. It’s difficult to discover applications, the search is next to useless and it highly favours apps that have been “Featured” by Apple. I’ve no idea what gets an app “Featured” and that’s part of another problem – it’s a black box. If you’re not featured you have no control at all over your app page – and since the app pages make finding the support link difficult you often end up with app reviews like the one above. If you sell direct you get an angry email you can actually reply to and help the person out. And with no option for people trialling your app, if it turns out someone bought it thinking it was something else, all you’ll get is a 1 star review for your troubles. For a company that prides itself on attention to detail, Apple have done a really shoddy job with the Mac App Store.
But I guess investment goes where the money is. As Sam Soffes wrote, it doesn’t take a lot of sales to get to the top of the charts which shows that despite shipping on every Mac, the percentage of people who actually buy on the Mac App Store must be very small indeed. You can see the app store charting for JBS here.
Time To Sell Outside The Mac App Store
Having no control at all over the presentation and sales process, not to mention glacial release times and no direct contact with users who’ve bought the app, I felt I really should explore selling outside the Mac App Store. So I’ve set up a shop with FastSpring who do this sort of thing for loads of other app vendors. While their commission is lower than Apple (which let me drop the price a bit), my primary motivation is to provide the best service to users of JBS.
To do that I need them to get a personal email when they buy a copy that gives them a point of contact should it not meet their expectation. If they hate it, I want to see if I can help them by making JBS better and if not give them a refund, no worries. I don’t want to be seen as some faceless corporation which is partly why the app store mentality can kick in with perfectly reasonable people who end up leaving reviews like the one above. I also need to be responsive by fixing issues and adding new features quickly. Having to wait weeks to release an update in the 21st century is just unacceptable, so by using Sparkle I can push out updates whenever they’re ready to go.
I’m leaving JBS for sale both in and out of the Mac App Store. I wouldn’t want any of the 285 people who’ve bought it to miss out on updates, it’s just they won’t be shipped to them as quickly as for people who buy direct. Of course if anyone bought it from Apple and want a non-sandboxed copy I’ll happily sort out the license for them since happy users is my primary motivation, not making sales. And being outside the Mac App Store gives me more flexibility to make that happen.
I’m planning on adding trial functionality so you can try out JBS for free and if you like it you can then buy it, but that’ll take a little time to implement. However at least it’s now an option outside the Apple walled garden.
Firstly I’ll see how sales go outside the app store and if being more responsive helps spread JBS by word of mouth in the same way the Windows version has. But it does show that it is possible to sell an app without doing any marketing at all, just not necessarily to make a decent amount out of it. I’d be foolish not to look at marketing JBS to see what impact that has, so any suggestions welcome. 🙂
If you fancy filling your Mac desktop with beautiful photo montages then you can now either buy it on the Mac App Store or directly from my store. You’ll find the latter is a bit cheaper, you’ll get updates faster and… Wait, if you’re here you’ve read all of the above so no need to repeat it! And if you want to read a bit more about JBS and what it does in general, here’s the product page.
I’ve always been a classic omnivore with a leaning towards chocolate. That means I’d eat anything from a green salad to black pudding to a juicy steak to a Linda McCartney pie to any chocolate bar ever made. Although given the choice I’d definitely pick the chocolate.
I’ve also never been under any illusion that the neatly packaged meat I buy in a butchers or a supermarket was once a living, breathing, thinking creature and it was killed so that I could eat it. I’m rather fond of fly fishing so have killed, gutted, cooked and eaten many a fish over the years. The same with various other animals. So I’ve always been keenly aware of the industry that is breeding sentient animals purely to slaughter them and feed us. That bothered me, particularly the poor treatment of the animals, so my wife and I made sure we only ate free range egg (and real free range, not simply chickens that live in a larger cage all their life, ones that get to roam around outside) and bought only locally sourced meat that we could see in the fields around where we live.
Then around 6 months ago my wife suggested when we ate all the meat in our freezer we should try going vegetarian. I said “let’s do it” and so it began. Here’s what I expected to happen:
- I would have a bad stomach for a while as my body got used to no longer eating meat
- I would struggle with eating boring salads all the time – I loathe broccoli for example
- When dining out I would have to get used to eating bland nut roasts as the only vegetarian option
- I’d miss eating fish (having grown up on the east coast of Scotland I’ve always loved various types of fish and shellfish)
- As I play football and do weight training the lack of amino acids and protein would make me feel weaker over time and my fitness levels would drop off
- I would very much miss bacon and the smell of it would ultimately tempt me back to eating meat again
However none of the above have turned out to be the true. While my wife gave up after a couple of weeks (without going into details, it did not agree with her digestive system) I’ve found going vegetarian a complete nonevent. In fact I feel better than I’ve ever felt, fitter than before and while I now eat more than I did previously, I think more about what I do eat and so pick healthier options. Oh, and I still eat chocolate.
What I have been surprised by are the following:
- Virtually everyone I inform I’m a vegetarian assume I still eat fish. News flash: FISH IS MEAT TOO!
- A good percentage of my friends feel the need to try and tempt me back to eating meat as though it’s some sort of club to which I really should belong – the primary argument is that “meat tastes great”, but most people have the palate sophistication of a burger-eating teenager so are no experts on taste!
- I don’t miss eating meat at all and haven’t had a single craving to eat any. Given that I spent 39 years eating the stuff I expected to struggle giving it up. If I had to give up chocolate I know for a fact I’d be crying myself to sleep at night!
- As soon as you stop thinking “ok, let’s make this meal but replace the meat with some veg” and start thinking “let’s make a delicious meal” it turns out there are loads of tasty options out there
- I actually feel a sense of relief that I’m no longer a part of the meat industry and no animal is slaughtered so that I might eat it
It’s that last point that’s surprised me the most. By not eating meat I’ve had a chance to reflect on why we humans eat meat. Why we’ve turned the production of meat into an industrial process hidden away from public view to the point where a great number of people don’t associate a chicken breast in a supermarket with a chicken walking around a field. It’s a dirty secret we don’t seem to want to acknowledge and I was no different.
I think it rather sad that a technologically advanced species with its sights set on interplanetary travel still has as its primary food source living creatures that are bred, grown and killed. Take bacon. It’s no secret that I love my dog and dogs are intelligent, social creatures capable of recognising human emotions and I would never consider eating one. Yet pigs are as intelligent and social as dogs – arguably more so – but they’re food for a group of even more intelligent animals (us). That’s not tackling the fact that if population growth continues as it’s projected to do then farming animals is completely unsustainable. Not that us humans think further than 5-10 years in the future.
In the unlikely event that an alien species was to cross the chasm of space and visit us on Earth I would be very disappointed if their spaceship had a compartment containing animals they used as food for their vast journey. Surely they’d have left that behind aeons ago.
But one thing that hasn’t happened is developing a burning desire to stop other people eating meat. Heck, you can eat what you like! But me? I don’t see any reason to go back. So I guess that makes me a vegetarian. And I feel a lot better for it on many levels. Much to my surprise.
Some friends and I went to Chamonix this year for 4 days of snowboarding and skiing. Turns out it’s not the cheapest of resorts if you like a few heavy nights out (as we did) but the conditions were very good considering the comparative lack of snow on previous years. Beautiful scenery in the shadow of Mont Blanc too as I’m sure you’ll agree!