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July 7, 2019 -

Reading Time: < 1 minute

AdWeek has a great little story out about a Canadian ad agency, Target Marketing, which was once a Gold Lion winner at Cannes alongside global superstars Saatchi & Saatchi, TBWA, and Lowe Hunt in 2006.

The agency has published another video poking fun at the small-town life in Mount Pearl, Newfoundland (pop: 25,000). From AdWeek:

The fact is, the town isn’t known for much of anything … which is actually spun as a plus in the playful, self-aware tune. “Welcome to Mount Pearl” showcases bars, parks, hikes, Pete’s Pizza and even a pony.

Various influential members of the community make cameos. Current mayor Dave Aker who fist bumps a baby, former mayor Steve Kent tosses his trash at the city’s automated garbage truck and Tony the Zamboni driver, slides by on the ice with a thumbs up.

To anyone familiar with small-town life in Canada (like me!) this video will bring back plenty of memories. Kudos to the town itself, which would have had to sign off on the idea.

Let me know what you think.

June 29, 2019 -

Reading Time: 2 minutes

I actually lived in China at a time when a person could search Google (gasp!) and find pictures of Tank Man (double gasp!). Yeah, it’s gotten a lot worse since 2004…

When I travel in the Mainland these days I use Google’s spectacular Google Fi service (née Project Fi), which provides unfettered internet access as if I was in Chicago. Prior to that, I was able to roam in the Mainland using data plans from China Mobile Hong Kong, Three, or Smartone without much trouble. Authorities do allow the uncensored web if your phone plan is registered elsewhere.

That’s great if you have a generous data plan, of course, but not everybody does. I’m going to be holed up at the Dalian International Convention Centre for part of the week, with my MacBook Pro likely fully dependent on the facility’s Wifi network. It will likely be the same when I’m back at the hotel, which means a VPN is no longer optional – it’s mandatory. China blocks access to VPN websites, making it imperative that VPNs are installed in advance while still outside of the Mainland. Which is what I did last night.

I usually try and arm myself with one VPN when I head up to the motherland, but I now have three. I get ProtonVPN through my subscription with the uber secure ProtonMail service, but service is intermittent when I’ve tried to connect from behind the Great Firewall. So to play safe, I’ve signed up and paid for a month of VPN service from two of the more highly rated companies online.

I’m reluctant to name them, even though they aren’t secrets and China’s eagle-eyed internet censors probably have a book on them already. Still, no need to draw any additional attention.

I’ll let you know how it works. (Or I won’t… if there’s no update to this post, you’ll know how it went!)

June 27, 2019 -

Reading Time: 2 minutes

I remember the day Julian Castro decided to run for the Democratic nomination for president. The anchor on CBS threw to a reporter at Castro’s announcement in Florida and peppered him with a number of questions. I don’t remember them all exactly, but some included whether Castro’s heritage would help win the Latino vote, whether he would be able to win Florida in a general election, his choice of music at the announcement event, and whether he’s been too close to President Obama to win more left-leaning Democrats.

The interview was a long one by TV standards — upwards of five minutes. And at no point did the anchor or reporter provide a single policy position held by Castro. I heard all about his electability odds with smaller and smaller splinters of voters, yet I couldn’t tell you one thing he’d like to do as President.

I am no fan of Donald Trump, but the current state of the US media isn’t exactly healthy either. Trump’s antagonism of the press has pushed them into a de facto opposition role, one that it generally seems to have embraced. In doing so, I would submit it’s alienated a lot of Americans that just want the facts.

Which is why I was pleased to see Apple launch a new section of its growing Apple News app focused on the Democratic candidates and their positions. From 9to5Mac:

“The 2020 Democratic field is complex, and we want to offer Apple News readers a trusted place to learn more about candidates they’re familiar with and those they may be hearing about for the first time,” said Lauren Kern, editor-in-chief of Apple News. “The candidate guide in Apple News is a robust and reliable resource, connecting readers to valuable at-a-glance information and to great journalism from our partners.”

The section is very thoughtfully put together as a “Candidate’s Guide” that includes their priority issues, source of campaign funding, key endorsements, recent news, and much more.

There is so much negativity out there about journalism as a profession and news media as an industry, so it’s important to share good news and give praise when it’s deserved. Hopefully other media outlets follow Apple’s lead, but I won’t be placing any bets.

June 23, 2019 -

Reading Time: 3 minutes

I had the privilege of talking to communications students this morning at Hong Kong Polytechnic University. People who know me will be aware that I don’t have a university degree, but rather a diploma from the British Columbia Institute of Technology. The story of how that happened can be saved for another day — but suffice to say, I managed to skip the university lecture ritual in my early 20s, making it quite ironic that I found myself speaking to students who were in their master’s degree program.

I’ve given many, many presentations over the years but this was the first time I had to stand and speak for three whole hours. There’s a coffee break in there too, but it’s negligible. I worked on the presentation last night until quite late, finally wrapping up with 85 slides plus some live poll questions.

The lecture itself was called Digital @ Work & Play, and introduced the students to digital communications within a corporate setting, as well as how to build a personal brand and some key, “secret” tools to help make that happen.

I received a number of questions afterward, focused almost entirely on the software tools used to help create content, grow audiences, and measure the success or impact of any given campaign. I’ve realized over the past few years that while everyone knows all about Facebook, WeChat, and Twitter, few are aware of some of the cutting-edge tools that make content creation easier than ever before. The gap isn’t so much in capability but in the knowledge of what’s out there. I’m reluctant to share too many details because it would blow my cover!

I enjoyed the session even more than I thought I would, but the reaction to one slide surprised me. It’s a slide that clearly struck a nerve because a few people mentioned it to me afterward. It was this:

I’m not even really sure why I included this slide, but in retrospect I’m really glad I did. I have been thinking this way for a long time, as people who know me personally would attest.

I do think of myself as the CEO of my own life, and like I told the students, you should look back at the work of the CEO at year’s end and decide if the CEO deserves a contract extension or needs to be replaced. Based on the goals set at the start of the year, one’s age, and one’s personal circumstance is the CEO doing a good job? Is the CEO managing risk properly? Putting in contingency plans? Growing the business? Getting results? Or has the CEO missed some opportunities? Made some bad decisions that hurt the business?

It can be an eye-opening and often uncomfortable experience asking these questions of oneself if they’re considered honestly. In a way, this one slide could be more important than the other 84 combined, because it applies to everyone.

Overall I really enjoyed the session — the students were curious and it was great engaging them in discussions and helping answer their questions.  I was a bit nervous preparing for such a long talk, but it went better than I thought it could. I’ve already been asked back to do it again for new students next semester, and I’m looking forward to it — particularly because I can recycle my deck! ????

June 20, 2019 -

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Ever since I connected to the “World Wide Web” for the first time in the 1990s, I’ve wanted a proper website. Back then I had aspirations of becoming a radio or television journalist, and figured my own site would give me a leg up on the competition when applying for internships or part-time jobs.  Then, after broadcasting school, I thought I could use a website as a repository for my work so far, but tools like Squarespace weren’t around then and building a website meant serious time and money.

Life carried on until I arrived in China in 2004, right around when the China English-language blogosphere was really taking off. The years leading up to the Beijing Summer Olympic Games in 2008 were a true golden period — and it’s not just nostalgia, either. China’s economy was really kicking it into high gear, more and more people were arriving in Beijing, Shanghai, and elsewhere in the country looking for opportunity, and the government seemed to be taking steps towards greater liberalization. It was an exciting time to be in China and the online community reflected that.

There were only very rudimentary social networks back then, so blogs and the famous “blog roll” were ways to connect people who shared interests. The highlight of my “blogging career” was during that brief window, when so much was happening and every day seemed like an adventure. The China blogosphere was filled with entertaining, witty writers, historians, human rights activists, and other “China Hands” faithfully documenting China’s rise – just like me – from a front row seat in Beijing. Ah, the glory days. (Okay, maybe this is coloured a little bit by nostalgia.)

The blogosphere wasn’t just thriving in China, either. Blogging tools like WordPress and Movable Type opened up publishing to anybody who wanted to do it, and lots of people did. It felt like the wild west. Some of the best writers in the United States from that time have built super successful careers and huge audiences that sustain to this day — people like Ezra Klein at Vox or Andrew Sullivan at New York Magazine. (For the record, Ezra Klein’s podcast, The Ezra Klein Show, is podcast gold and a must listen if you follow the news.)

Blogging would probably have declined naturally, as things do, but the rise of Twitter and Facebook nearly decimated it overnight. Once people could share their thoughts and opinions in 180 words on Twitter, the inspiration to sit down and write long-form pieces seemed to evaporate.

I built my first blog the day after I was laid off from Jongo.com, an internet startup in Shanghai which paid me a lot of money to relocate from Guangzhou only to shutter the business a few weeks later. I remember waking up and thinking, for the first time in years, I have nothing to do today. So I took my trusty Windows XP laptop and headed to Malone’s (RIP) on Tongren Lu. I still remember sitting there mid-afternoon with quite the buzz (and while responsible people were in offices, doing work, I guess) and throwing my first blog posts together. I’ve never quite been able to shake the desire since.

The blog, called Zhongnanhai, had a decent run with strong traffic for a few years. Other writers even joined, and we began publishing some great content from people who were very familiar with China. But once the Olympics wrapped up and I decided to move down to Hong Kong, life changed. I just turned 30 and, I quickly learned, working at a financial company in Hong Kong doesn’t exactly leave a lot of free time for pursuits such as blogging.

I tried, though. A friend and I ran The Nanfang from 2011 to 2016, a news site with multiple writers and a strong following online, but we rarely wrote for the platform ourselves; instead, we were tasked with running the business, hiring staff, editing, and all of the other unglamorous tasks that come with administering a business. Nobody ever talks much about that part.

After that, I took a break. I needed a break. I wrote the odd piece here or there, some of which struck a nerve (in a good way, of course). But I was never happy with a blog that seemed dull and a site that was perpetually under construction.

Until today.

I’ve been involved in so many different projects in the past couple of years — mostly hobbies but some more serious — and I’ve been dying to write about them. From iPad productivity to investing in foreign real estate, from PR crises to Hong Kong politics, and from airline reviews to podcasts, there’s just so much interesting stuff out there. It’s a never-ending sea of content and interesting things, so rather than bombard my friends and family with long iMessages and meandering emails about topics they aren’t interested in, I figured I’d do that here, instead. For you. So, thanks!

This site isn’t just a blog though, it’s a place for me to centralize everything. I’ve done plenty of radio reporting in the past, been a frequent guest on international radio and television to discuss Mainland China and Hong Kong, and even done some rudimentary television in China (once you see those videos, you’ll understand why I never made a career of it.) I shudder watching or listening to some of it now, and I wondered whether it was worth putting online, but why not? It’s me — or at least who I was, at the time.

I have also done newsletters periodically over the years, but now a proper service has been set up and is ready to rock. If you would like to get posts delivered to you by email the second they’re published, please do! You can sign up here. I’m also beta testing a Weekend Reads newsletter that is sent out every Thursday, full of links to really interesting or noteworthy content found online. It will start out random, with zero restrictions on the kinds of content or topics involved, and I’ll monitor it from there. If you sign up for Weekend Reads, please let me know what works and what doesn’t.

I’m really happy to have a proper home online, and I can’t wait to begin. While I love and appreciate the fact you’re still reading this, I’ve never sought out huge audiences. Writing is therapeutic for me, like it is for so many others. It helps put things in focus and, over time, hopefully get a better understanding of the world around us — and of oneself.

It may have taken 25 years, but I finally have that website. Now it’s time to do something with it.

 

 

Thanks to Adam Carolla for the title.

May 18, 2019 -

Reading Time: < 1 minute

The best RSS reader for iPad and iPhone has received a major update, with a number of new features. Among them:

Since you might be using more than one device, you can also create iCloud based accounts, instead of just local accounts. Both feed and read later accounts are also available in an iCloud syncing variant, which synchronise your content between all of your iOS devices.

In addition to synching your content, version 2.2 also adds the option to synchronise all app settings, as well as account and feed settings (like the selected view mode for each feed). When you launch Fiery Feeds the first time on a new device you can also import your existing accounts from other devices with a single tap.

RSS apps serve a very specific niche these days, but there has been some serious innovation quietly in the background in recent years as people focus on social media for news instead. If you are a news junkie or enjoy checking out certain blogs (or both!), I implore you to check out Fiery Feeds. The developer has put out a power user product.

Source: Fiery Feeds

May 1, 2019 -

Reading Time: < 1 minute

I just wanted to pass along a quick update, because the performance of the site might be spotty over the next week or so.

I see the traffic figures and newsletter subscriber numbers growing quickly, and I thank you so much for that. It’s extremely hard to grow an audience on the web these days, and even more difficult when most of my writing is just aimed at getting thoughts out of my head! So I’m extremely appreciative to anyone who finds reading this worthwhile.

Anyway, I’m undertaking some significant changes to this site, so please be patient while I wrap that up. Once done, you’ll see a lot more posts going up much more frequently.

Thanks again, and don’t hesitate to drop me a note at [email protected]

Cheers.

April 20, 2019 -

Reading Time: 2 minutes

I was up in Beijing last weekend and came across these machines when I asked for WiFi access at Beijing Capital Airport’s Terminal 3:

I had never seen these before, and I travel to Beijing quite frequently. In fact, I didn’t pay much attention to them at all until an airline staff member told me to use the machine to get a username and password for Wifi access.

To be clear, I saw these machines in the Air China First Class Lounge and Cathay Pacific Business Class Lounge, though there were signs in the main passenger areas of the airport, too.

The process is easy enough: have the machine scan the barcode on my boarding pass, then let it scan my passport. Next came a small slip of white paper, like a receipt from an ATM. It contained my custom username and password.

The experience is otherwise unremarkable, except that it’s yet another intrusion by Chinese authorities into the lives of people inside the country. I don’t think checking NHL playoff highlights will interest them, but somebody else’s activities might.

It’s a reminder that China’s surveillance state is alive and thriving. This Wifi machine, on its own, wouldn’t be too concerning, but when it’s combined with biometric scanning, a social credit score, real-time surveillance of social networks, and bonafide concentration camps, it paints a dystopian picture.

My first visit to Beijing was in 1999, and I lived there from 2004 to 2008 (with a brief stint in Guangzhou and Shanghai during that time). Surveillance has been a reality throughout, but only in recent years has China really seen some serious breakthroughs in data collection, often with the assistance of foreign companies.

The government can already reach deep into people’s lives in China, and it’s anyone’s guess how far this could go.

April 9, 2019 -

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Update: Indeed, this speculation proved to be correct. The launch of a completely overhauled DEVONthink 3 looks incredible. You can read the launch announcement on DEVONtechnologies’ blog.

One of my all-time favourite macOS applications is DEVONthink — a comprehensive, AI-powered database that can save and organize nearly anything. I use it as my primary digital “filing cabinet” because in addition to saving and organizing documents, it also displays files and permits annotation on a huge variety of file types (PDFs, Pages, Word, PowerPoint, Keynote, Excel, Numbers, Markdown, Websites, JPG, and PNG, just to name a few). Users also have the option of importing files into DEVONthink to manage or leaving them where they are and having DEVONthink index them in place. If you aren’t familiar with DEVONthink and consider yourself organized and efficient, it behooves you to check out the links in the “Resources and Related Reading” section at the end of this post.

While DEVONthink is an all-star, vital workhorse, it is looking a little long-in-the-tooth these days. It’s nothing too serious, but as macOS and iOS evolve, third-party software can look dated quite quickly. In this case, DEVONthink hasn’t had a substantial look-and-feel update since 2013 (I think — this info is hard to find) which is an eternity in app years. Not only that, but long ago we moved into the realm of web automation with services like Zapier or IFTTT, which are incompatible with DEVONthink. In fact, I can’t even forward an email to DEVONthink to archive, something Evernote has had for a decade.

I emailed the founder of DEVONthink early in 2017 to inquire about a potential release, and he was non-committal. I learned soon after that I wasn’t the only one asking questions: it’s been a regular topic on a number of forums and in social media channels, with even the smallest tidbit of information completely out of reach. DEVONthink is one of those apps that sits at the very core of many people’s workflows, so its continued existence is crucial for those who rely on it. The developers have kept any future plans under wraps, though, and the years have been passing by without a peep — not even a vague, ballpark timeline for an update. One wonders what the team has been up to in its Coeur d’Alene offices!

Now we might finally have a clue. The first sign of something cooking was an overhaul of DEVONtechnologies’ forums to Discourse, which happened in March. A couple of weeks later, and even more surprisingly, DT unveiled an entirely new website — complete with new logo. That was enough to kickstart the whispers of a new version.

Then on April 4, DEVONtechnologies posted this to its blog alongside a maintenance update:

While we’re still preparing some things behind the curtain we’ve released a maintenance update for DEVONthink today.

The “…things behind the curtain” phrase stood out, as did the list of enhancements in this otherwise small update: enhanced Markdown and MultiMarkdown support including CriticMarkup (which I didn’t know anything about until I read this), access to an account page from within DEVONthink (a precursor to a subscription cloud service?), and other improvements to mail archiving and bookmark handling.

Maybe I’m so desperate for a UI overhaul that I’m looking for clues and convincing myself I’m finding them — which wouldn’t be the first time! But I do believe it’s more than that; any one of these updates wouldn’t be enough to drive speculation alone, but when all three are considered in context it looks like something may finally be up. Fingers crossed.

For real.

Resources and Related Reading

March 20, 2019 -

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Many moons ago, in the early days of the iPad, there was a nifty little app called Status Board by indie software house Panic. It was a customizable platform that presented multiple widgets of data to the user, all on a single screen — everything from Twitter followers to website analytics to the weather. Unfortunately, people didn’t want to pay for it, so Panic shut it down to focus on Transmit and other core apps. (You can see the user angst in the comment section of this announcement!)

I remember searching for a replacement back then, even trying out Numerics to see what it could do. Just like the panic that set in among RSS fans when Google Reader shut down, people were left scrambling for a suitable Status Board replacement. A number of apps popped up here and there, but none were ever good enough.

I’m happy to say that’s no longer the case! I recently decided to give Numerics another shot, and it was immediately clear that the app had grown-up is now ready for prime time. I downloaded it with the intention of using it to display important metrics at work, but it could be helpful to anyone who wants to glance at important data — even on the Apple Watch.

Numerics runs on iOS, including the Apple TV and aforementioned watch, presenting users with detailed and customizable data contained within widgets. When you open the app on an iPad, you’re given a chance to begin connecting various apps and services. I set this up with my own data to test it, so added Twitter, LinkedIn, Google Analytics and Adsense, WordPress, Instagram, and Facebook. But the list of possible integrations is long, including custom JSON and CSV files. There’s a particular focus on business tools like Salesforce, the Amazon API Gateway, ChartMogul, Basecamp, Chargify, and Stripe.

Once connected, you’ll be given multiple choices about the kind of data you want to see and how you want it presented. There are pie charts, graphs, line maps, bar charts, and heat maps, as well as several color and a couple of sizing options. If you like to tinker, be careful: this can easily swallow an evening…

The app is also right up to date, offering integration with Siri Shortcuts.

The end result looks great, with key information presented in a beautiful, easy-to-read and simple way. If I have one quibble, it would be about the length of time it takes to set up each account and widget; maybe the process is already as fast as it gets, but it seemed a bit finicky with some information requested multiple times and occasional broken connections.

That issue isn’t a show-stopper, though, and was worth enduring to get to the finished product. Once all of your services are connected, it’s just a matter of looking through the data options and selecting exactly what you’d like to see.

The Apple TV app is a welcome addition, with sync working flawlessly over iCloud. I haven’t had a chance to fiddle with the Apple Watch app yet, but I suspect adding complications to the watch face could be quite useful to businesses tracking conversions or marketing campaigns.

The free version of Numerics includes one dashboard, three widgets, and just a handful of integrations. The pro version makes everything unlimited, and I’ve already set up a couple of status boards for different purposes. The pro plan is $9.99 a month, or with a steep discount of $49.99 per year if purchased through the App Store, which I did.

For an app that isn’t absolutely necessary, a $9.99 per month charge – or even $49.99 per year – is a bit steep. Subscriptions are everywhere these days, and costs can add up fast. That makes it even tougher for Cynapse, the makers of Numerics, to earn a share of people’s wallets.

Having loved Panic’s Status Board and then suddenly losing it, I’ve decided I don’t want that to happen again. I’ve signed up for the year, hoping the developers can find a sustainable model that keeps the app up-to-date and around for a long time.

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