… it emerged that Google Maps on iOS has only around 100m active users, out of a little over 400m iPhones and 650m total iOS devices in use today. This points both to the power of defaults and to the fact that, as I suggest here, maps in general probably aren’t as universal a use case as one might think. 

(From Benedict Evans)

These numbers don’t reflect map users — they just reflect map app users. If I stay in San Francisco, I rarely need to use a maps app (I know my town, I don’t need directions) but I can’t get away from maps on OpenTable, on Strava, on Instagram, on Swarm. These maps are important because location is important, and apps can’t tap into my eyes to identify the cross street.

I’m not sure the import for Google Services though; getting directions (with routing and traffic) seems to be the hardest part of Google Maps to replicate. Geocoding is a relatively simple problem; if good geocoding does most of what’s required for a mapping service, then replacing Google Maps (and probably all of Services) is a much simpler problem.

I just watched a Starbucks employee carefully repackage beans at a cafe in Tokyo from American-standard bags to smaller ones for sale to locals. Great reminder to adjust your business to the local culture — and sometimes this will require manual “man-behind-the-curtain” efforts.

Killing the Creative Class

In Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class, Scott Timberg explores the convergence of forces which have combined to “eviscerate the creative class” — those people who make, produce, review, and sell culture; he includes everyone from record store clerks to authors.

While I sympathize with Timberg, and share some of his nostalgia for the late 20th century, I deeply disagree with his assessment of what we’ve lost, and how we lost it. At a high level, Timberg blames the rise of the internet for the decline of the creative class, through piracy, disintermediation, and mass retail.

His piracy arguments feel tired; the point has been argued elsewhere (see this, this, this, and this). While counterintuititve, there isn’t much evidence to suggest that modern piracy substantially harms most artists; the rise of high-quality distribution services massively undercut piracy (see: Spotify).

On disintermediation, his description of record, book, and movie store clerks is striking. They were “men who’d given up something else do [this work] out of love for the music.” He describes they as having a moral commitment. It is as if cultured clerks are modern-day monks, dedicated to art instead of God.

But the decline of Western civilization’s long-time keeper, the Catholic Church (and with it, monks & monastaries) no more sounded a death-knell for our culture than the rise of the Internet over the past three decades has.

In particular, Timberg fails to place the creative class he mourns in the context of history: Mass-produced culture is a new phenomena. There were few book clerks before Gutenberg. Motzart and Michelangelo produced culture with funding from noble patrons, not from a creative middle-class. Art and culture will need to change in response to new technologies and social mores, but it will survive.

I suspect we will see a shrinking professional creative class, but a flowering of amateurs. I’m not concerned about the production of culture, but I’m less clear on how culture is discovered. Timberg suggests that the canon of classics is undersiege, and its hard to disagree. There are fewer “expert” voices saying what should be consumed, and its harder to find the signal in the noise.

This isn’t necessarily negative. Old cultural gatekeepers often enforced mass culture — disadvantaged or fringe artists could be locked out. But I find it hard to believe that The New York Times Bestseller List is the best way to identify our cultural canon.

In part, this is because I think why something is recommended is just as important as what was recommended.

For many pieces of culture, the story and recommendation is a critical part of providing value. What is the story of this piece? How does it fit into the larger movement? What is its place in history? Am I supposed to like it? I suppose I believe that culture benefits from a hint of elitism. And I’m not sure that algorithms can provide an elite judgement anytime soon.

For many, the consumption of culture isn’t too different from the consumption of wine: We take pleasure, backstory, and price — in addition to the culture itself.

Computer algorithms can provide recommendations (as shown by Netflix), and will improve. But the algorithms that undergird machine-learning recommendations work by finding counterintuitive and subtle links between people and the culture recommended — I don’t believe exposing these recommendations would be compelling to most users.

Some companies have two separate algorithms: one to produce a recommendation, and one to produce a compelling set of reasons. This should eventually produce compelling rationales (assuming “success” is properly defined and fed into the algorithm — easier said than done), but if people don’t have faith in the algorithm, it can’t impart greater meaning and value to pieces of culture.

So I’m not sure how we can protect this judgement.

I don’t think recommendations do well in a winner-take-all marketplace, and instititutions like Michelin or Pitchfork are struggling to remain viable as businesses.

In part, these publications and cultural touchstones are being replaced by user generated content [UGC]. But UGC-centric sites struggle with authority — is a lengthy review from a Yelp elite reviewer more important to Yelp than a review from Michelin? Should a university professor and expert in a subject have more power than a long-time Wikipedia editor to edit Wikipedia?

The issue might not be insurmountable — Stack Overflow seems to have resolved some of these issues, and FourSquare is playing with interesting mesasures of “expertise” — but there are no comparable cultural organizations.

Where do we go from here? I’m not sure.

Even if app discovery is solved (and that’s a hard problem), the rate of successful unbundling certainly seems like it has to be limited by 1) the amount of space on someone’s phone, and 2) user’s inability to be aware of hundreds of niche services they may need at any time.

From a great post on unbundling by Casey Winters.

Keeping Productive

Computer Management

One of the first tools I install on any new computer is Bartender. It is is a simple app which manages menu bar items. I have so many apps running that they overwhelm dropdown menus, so something has to give.

no-bartender

bartender

Caffeine is almost as important as Bartender. It adds a coffee cup icon to your menu bar, and clicking it disables sleep, which is fantastic when you’re reading documents or talking in a meeting. Other tools I recommend include Moom – which makes managing open windows trivial – and 1Password, the best password-management tool I’ve used (crushing its main competition, LastPass).

Connecting Tools

Connecting tools on a Mac is far easier than most people realize. Hazel allows you to apply rules (like in Mail.app) to the files in folders. These rules can help you tidy things up (delete anything older than 1 month in your Downloads folder) or can execute AppleScripts (whenever anything is seen in this folder, run a script on it). Lingon is a Cron manager for OSX. This means you can schedule tasks (every hour, run this app).

Example Workflows

Folders to Evernote & Omnifocus — I use Hazel to monitor a several folders. Whenever any PDF is added to these folders, the file gets added to a new note in Evernote. Depending on the folder, it can also get automatically added to specific notebooks and receive certain tags.

The script I use in Hazel to generate this looks something like this:

tell application "Evernote"
activate
create note from file theFile notebook {"Scans"} tags {"Email", "Hazel", "OpenTable"}
end tell

Some files, for example, get the “To Read” tag and are added to my OpenTable folder. Lingon runs an app every fifteen minutes to check whether a file with these attributes exists in Evernote, and when it sees one it creates an Omnifocus task with a link back to the note.

This means that when I get emailed a PDF to read, I can just save it straight to this folder and be sure its on my to-do list within a few minutes (and that I can archive the email — inbox zero!)

This process was inspired by Asian Efficiency, and the AppleScript code is available here.

One nice feature of OSX Yosmite is a much more powerful Spotlight search. You can summon it by hitting Cmd-space, and you can type in the names of scripts to find and launch them. I have two scripts I use regularly: M2O is my mail to Omnifocus script; launching it turns the mail message into an Omnifocus task with the content of the email in the note of the task. M2E is my mail to Evernote script; it tranforms the email (and all the attachments) into an Evernote note for archiving.

I’ve put both scripts on Github here.

InDev Tools

Indev is a company which makes two fantastic tools: Mail Act-on and MailTags. I have a dozen different workflows enabled by these tools, but two in particular are useful.

Mail Tags enables automatic filtering.

mailtags

Whenever I receive emails that meet certain criteria (I have a number of rules that trigger similar flows), it automatically runs an archive script. This script sends the email to Evernote with the appropriate tags, while highlighting the email to let me know it is has been properly archived.

The “Archived” tag is also added. Tags in Mail Tags behave just like labels in Gmail: A message can have multiple tags, and also exist in other locations. This makes them great for organization.

Mail Act-on allows me to set hotkeys. My favorite is Ctrl-F which triggers a “Follow-up” Apple Script.

followup

This script reviews the most recent message. If it is something sent to me, it takes the first email address and automatically creates an Omnifocus task that looks something like this:

task

The date is automatically set for 3 days in the future, the text is set and it pulls in the title of the email (“Chat” in the above example). I can also use this rule for emails I’ve sent: In that case, it detects that I’m the sender and pulls in the first recipient.

The source for the script in on Github.

Waiting for a solution

Contact management is the weakest part of my workflow. Apple’s native Contacts app is awful (though it becomes slightly more usable if you disable social integrations, like Facebook and LinkedIn). I’m currently testing CoBook and Busy Contacts. Both are far faster than Contacts, but they also are less integrated into the operating system, so I’m undecided on whether they’re worth the bother; moreover, CoBook lives in the menu bar which makes it tougher to access. Both have stability issues, though that should improve with time.