The Weekly Magic Failure

Take a look around. There are step by step instructions and tutorials on just about anything. How to paint, how to play guitar. And you can watch all of these for free. If you take a brush or a guitar you will realize that it isn’t that easy. And that you need to work.

Today I was reminded of something that was probably one of the most enduringly useful tricks I learned in all of my music education. In a piano lesson, my teacher pointed out that if I have a repeated note to play quickly, pressing that same key on the keyboard with the same finger is slow and inefficient. Instead, use two fingers alternating to press the same key in a kind of walking motion. I use this all the time now even though I never play piano. I use it with my computer keyboard. Navigating a text file in vim? Tapping out six or seven J‘s in a row and watching the cursor move is more efficient than counting lines for a 7j or waiting while my system decides to send the repeated event to MacVim while I hold down the J key.

Sometimes, it really is about the journey. The journey is where you encounter the people and experiences that will stick with you. But you don’t use the journey for what you get out of it. The journey gives you its gifts freely because you were along for the ride.

2010

What’s Happened

In 2010, I went on my first cruise. (I thought I would hate it but it ended up being one of the funnest I have ever done.) I also went to NSConference and WWDC. It’s always inspiring to be around engineers that are way smarter and way more accomplished than I am.

One of the things I am most proud of from 2010 is the completion of my first Mac application. Eureka will be in the Mac App Store on January 6, but I both started and finished it in 2010.

Oh, and I got a new dog.

What I’ve learned

2010 was one of the toughest years of my life, but at the end of it, I’m a much better person than I was at the beginning. Here are some things I’ve learned:

  1. Forget about superlatives
    Perfectionism is something that I’ve struggled with since I was a kid. When I say perfectionism, I don’t mean the kind of commitment to excellence that you appreciate from folks who make kickass stuff. I mean the kind of debilitating, self-sabotaging self-requirement that says mistakes are not allowed, that you have to be all things to all people all the time. I owe a big thanks in this area to my reading The Now Habit by Neil Fiore.

    Here’s what I’ve learned, too. Chances are (and this is OK, by the way) that there’s no aspect of me that is superlative. I used to be the smartest person I knew. Then I went to graduate school and met some ridiculously smart people that cared a helluva lot more than I did. And in my computer science program, there were people like that too.

    There have been a lot of things I thought I was superlative. But slowly, one by one, I have been disabused of all of those. What’s dangerous is that if you base your identity on superlatives, you’ll eventually be left with just the shell of an identity when those are stripped away. So, what have I learned to base my identity on? The answer to that is simple: things that don’t change. Being a husband, friend, uncle, son, a software engineer, guitarist, Pez collector, and other things. And what’s left? Getting better at them and helping others get better at their thing too. That’s it.

  2. Keep Your Balance
    When I have a decision to make, it’s easy to let a particular emotional component of the situation make me lose perspective. When a new client contacts me with a project, I have a decision to make. If all I think about is the money, I might overlook how additional time commitments might affect my marriage, work, and other deadlines. Even if I manage to keep those things in balance, maybe I’ll have to burn the midnight oil or forego my exercise routine to make it all happen and that could affect my health. This isn’t to say that I won’t still take the project, but when I do I will know it’s a better considered decision that I would likely have made a year ago.

  3. First Person Transitive
    Merlin Mann’s been using this phrase for a while and it’s been such a huge help to me. My friend Patrick says it this way, “Don’t worry; do. If there’s nothing to be done, don’t worry.” When I face a problem, I face a simple question: Is there anything I can do about this? If the answer is yes, then get your ass to work. If the answer is no, then accept the state of things and make the best of it. There’s no other option.

2011

In 2011, I have some modest goals:

  1. Be a supportive and encouraging husband to my awesome wife as she finishes up her medical school prerequisites.
  2. Write and release at least one more indie code thing. I have several ideas in the pipeline for Mac, iOS, and the web, so we’ll see which one makes it out first.
  3. Continue getting into better physical condition.
  4. Slow down and enjoy things better than I did this year.

That’s it. Really those are my goals for 2011. Of course the usual ephemera such as being a good friend and remembering to take out the trash when it’s full, but those are ongoing, unmeasurable things. So, for 2011, my list is four deep. That seems manageable.

Matt Wood

You just need the perspective to sort out the necessary from the guilty pleasures, to distinguish the real problems from the self-inflicted, and to have the courage to step away when something makes you unhappy.

Thanks, Matt, for calling folks forward for a healthy dose of autonomy, empowerment, and ownership of what’s under their control.

Patrick Rhone

I’m willing to pay far more for an item if I know it will last a lifetime and, even more importantly to me, I will never have to spend the mental energy making a choice again.

This is such an unbelievably huge power move. I agree that big ticket items should be carefully considered. Right now, I’m in the midst of just this process with my needing to buy new clothes. I plan to buy things that will wear well and for a long long time. I discovered this benefit initially after receiving a Levenger Circa notebook as a gift a few years back. I still have, use, and love that notebook and foresee having it for many more.

While Patrick is spot on about final choices, I would add that it also goes for things you buy on a more frequent basis as well. For instance, I never think about what pencil I’m going to buy and use. I know I use Uniball Kuru Toga pencils. (Thanks to Patrick for turning me on to these as well.) If I lose, break, or for some other reason find myself needing to buy a pencil, I don’t go to Staples and gawk for an hour at the wall of mechanical pencils. I hop on the Amazon app on my iPhone while I’m waiting in line at Starbucks and order a couple to show up at my door step in two days.

This is something that I’ve termed “sensible defaults.” It’s a phrase I’ve picked up from studying UI design principles, but it’s something I’ve been able to work into other areas of my life as well. For instance, by picking sensible defaults at the eateries we frequent I was able to lose 50 pounds last year.

Is it a little neurotic? Absolutely. Does it mean you might spend a few weeks or months on a quest for the perfect bag to carry around your kit? Boy, ask my wife. Does it mean you might miss out trying the hot new dish at Pei Wei or the new exercise craze? Indubitably. But, in my opinion, the tranquility is well worth that opportunity cost. And the potential for doing something awesome with the saved time and neurocycles is priceless.

I’ve been working on my first indie Mac app in my spare nights and weekends for several months. Just as I’m nearing the 1.0 release, Apple announces the Mac App Store. Oh boy… This is sort of a perfect storm. I don’t have any existing customers or really much of anything that can’t be ripped out to go the Mac App Store route.

Parameters

I have a kickass full time gig with Agile Web Solutions working on awesome stuff that is tons of fun. So, I’m not necessarily looking for my indie work to support Ann Margaret and me full time. My goal is still rather lofty, but it’s one that is 100% measurable: I want to pay off our student loans sometime before one of us dies. We’re two well educated people with three bachelor’s degrees and three and a half master’s degress between us, so the number is pretty hefty, but it’s definitely a target that’s not likely to move much.

Enough Theorizing. Let’s use numbers.

Before the Mac App Store, I was targeting a $25 price point for my app and planning to use FastSpring as the payment processor. I figure that by the time I offer discounts, promotions and whatnot that I’d like to get 80% of that, so $20. For simplicity, let’s say FastSpring takes 10%. That’s $18. Now, I want to consider that Uncle Sam gets his cut too, so let’s call that 25%. So, for each license I sell, I get to apply $13.50 of dynamite to the mountain.

With the Mac App Store, Apple gets 30% of the sale price. So, a $20 price point becomes $14, which then becomes $10.50 of useful income.

But wait a minute, can I sell my app for $20 on the Mac App Store? If Apple’s keynote is any indication, that’s not going to work. The iLife and iWork apps are shown in the keynote video as selling for $14.99 and $19.99 each respectively. Users will perceive that Pages or Keynote is infinitely more complex than my app, so how can I “get away” with charging the same price? In the past, my argument was that the iLife and iWork bundles were priced as low as they are because it’s the price Apple perceives folks would pay for the one or two apps in the suite that they were really after. The individual pricing of apps on the Mac App Store screens in the keynote makes that argument no longer hold water.

Assuming that is true, let’s say I drop the price to a nice $9.99 price point. Apple gets $3 leaving me $6.99, from which I have to pay taxes leaving a net of $5.24. I really cannot envision selling my app for less than $9.99…

The Arguments for Mac App Store and My Answers

  1. Low Overhead It’s true you don’t have to write license and trial code. But, I have been working with CocoaFob and it’s just fine. Trials are a little trickier, but it’s not hard to implement something there. I already have a time limitation in my app and just need to add a few additional tweaks. I have my own hosting account with Dreamhost that has unlimited storage and unlimited bandwidth, so I don’t worry about those aspects either. So, I consider the low overhead argument moot.
  2. Increased Exposure/Cog in the Apple Machine I think this argument is simply overvalued. Lukas Mathis rightly points out that the App Store as it exists for iOS is simply terrible for discovering apps. I hadn’t considered it but the point Lukas makes about pirate stores being a better, more curated experience for users is fascinating and depressing all at once.

Arguments Against Mac App Store

The Mac App Store is not without its drawbacks, but unlike the iOS App Store, there really is a viable alternative where one can sell an app without being in the App Store.

  1. No integrated free trial system Yes, in theory you could provide a free trial download on your website, but this is something that Apple needs to bundle in as it is part of the user’s experience and there are millions of users who are well accustomed to the free trial model on the Mac.
  2. Customer distance With providers like FastSpring, you get access to the user database. Apple keeps that under wraps so you can’t know anything about your customers. What Apple is saying is, “These are not your customers. They’re ours.” This makes things like cross selling nearly impossible and things like newsletters and customer interaction an additional step for the user during first launch or some other time.
  3. No paid upgrade path As far as I know, it’s the same situation as on iOS. This has caused a lot of trouble for a lot of developers there and on the Mac, it will be the same situation without some significant changes.
  4. Some types of software can’t be sold If the appeal of the Mac App Store is that you don’t have to do all this overhead of licenses and trials and whatnot, what happens if I want to develop a prefpane or a Photoshop or RapidWeaver plugin? Oh, now I have to do all that stuff that Apple was supposed to handle, and as a result, that benefit is nullified for all development.

The Question

Is it reasonable to expect that I could sell two and a half times as many copies of my app in the Mac App Store?

I’ve been working on making the Javascript for a pretty big Rails app unobtrusive. Chucking everything into application.js as shown in many screencasts with trivial apps has proven to be problematic to say the least. It’s brittle code that could very well infiltrate unintended areas of the site that happen to use the same classes or id’s. Bad juju.

What I find amazing is that Rails hasn’t developed a convention for Javascript.1 I’ll describe some approaches I’ve seen and then the approach I developed.

Namespaces 2

This approach still chucks everything into just one or maybe a few big js files, but uses namespacing to get around the potential conflicts. As far as I can tell, though, this approach requires that the user use the next approach via a helper method.

content_for

This is old news and we use it to great effect, but it has drawbacks because it does not rely on convention over configuration. Also, if you have a few <%= yield :foo %> areas, your actions become a muddle of template code and actual action code. Currently we’re using content_for for a few different areas of the page, and it’s already becoming messy in the actions.

Convention over Configuration 3

# application_controller.rb
before_filter :instantiate_action_javascript
def instantiate_action_javascript
    js_path = File.join(controller_path, "#{action_name}.js")
    @current_action_javascript_path = File.exist?(File.join(RAILS_ROOT, 'public', 'javascripts', js_path)) ? js_path : nil
end

# layout.html.erb
<%= @current_action_javascript_path ? javascript_include_tag(@current_action_javascript_path) : "" %>

The code should speak for itself, but I think that mimicking the structure of the views directory makes the most sense here. With this code, I can create javascript files for each action and have them automatically included in the template. Checking for the existence of the file prevents an unnecessary HTTP request and corresponding 404 error in the Javascript console.


  1. We’re still on Rails 2.3.10, so if this is in Rails 3 (or I’ve simply missed it in Rails 2) please let me know. 
  2. First found this at Toby Hede’s blog via this SO post 
  3. I haven’t seen this anywhere else, but I’m certainly not so clever that I think no one else has thought of it.