Vesper Use-Case

When i first read about Vesper, the note-taking iPhone app by John Gruber, Brent Simmons and Dave Wiskus, I rankled a bit. Really? Another note-taking app? For five bucks? And no sync? 

But let's face it: I like Gruber — I like his website, I like his writing, and I like what he has to say about how digital tools work. Five clams for a notes app with no sync was almost a non-starter, but my curiosity got the best of me. If nothing else, I could test this thing out, see what all the hype was about, all the while supporting, in some small way, a guy whose site I've been reading for years. 

I've used iOS's Notes app for the bulk of my mobile note-taking, and it's mostly been great. But there's one area where I've needed some help. See, I make this webcomic called Malcontent. And I keep all my ideas for Malcontent — and, believe me, there are a ton of them — in one giant note. And, if I may be colorfully frank, this well and truly sucks major ass.

So I decided to dedicate my experiment with Vesper to this particular problem. I decided to take each and every Malcontent idea (did I mention there are a ton of them?) and transfer each to an individual, tagged note in Vesper. This is all I use Vesper for. It is my dedicated Malcontent comic idea app. And you know what? it works beautifully.

For one, Vesper is very easy to use. I can get a note down and properly tagged very quickly and intuitively. Compare to the olden days, using, in which I'd have to scroll to the bottom of the über note, write the note, and then, without the joy of tags, promptly forget all about it until the next time I spent an hour going through the entire über note. Note taking is now far easier.

It's much more functional as well. Because now, with tags, I can find stuff really easily. I have a few basic categories that make doing this a breeze, and these are all easily accessed in Vesper's sidebar. 

Also, once I've used a comic idea, I can archive it without throwing it out. Doing this means I no longer have to look at it, but I still have it in the archive, which pleases to no end the completist in me (or maybe the pack rat). 

So far this process has been lovely. it works well and makes both storing and accessing these ideas a joy. But did I mention there's no sync?  

Now, I always have my phone with me. There's pretty much never a moment when I am phoneless these days. Maybe on a Sunday morning in the brief interim before I've transferred iPhone to jammies, but that's about it. Since Vesper is currently an iPhone-only app, sync is not a huge problem. If I need to access my Malcontent ideas, I get my phone. No biggie.

But sometimes I work on Malcontents on my iPad. And when I do, it might be nice to not have to look over at my phone for the ideas or the dialogue. It might be nice to see these things — drawings and text — all on one device. So: sync. 

As time's worn on, and as I've become more and more invested in Vesper as a creative tool, I've hoped more and more for sync. With the advent of iOS 7, Q Branch — the company behind Vesper — released an update. And when it contained no mention of sync, I started to worry a bit. 

So I was extremely pleased this morning to read on Daring Fireball that sync is the next big milestone for Vesper. Vesper has turned out to be a terrific tool for me without sync, but sync will make it even better. Mr. Gruber refuses to give an exact timeframe for the feature, and that's okay. Just knowing it's on the horizon is, frankly, good enough for me.

I'm very much looking forward to it.


Siri Fail

What percentage of attempts at doing a thing must be failures until that thing is deemed unreliable by a user and abandoned for another more effective method? I don't know the answer, but whatever it is, Siri has passed it.

Siri's great when it works, it just so seldom does. The most common thing I want to do with Siri is make calls to restaurants to order food. But restaurants, particularly ones in this town, tend to have odd names. Siri doesn't work well with odd names and it usually fails when I try to use it to call, say, Kouzan. It also fails if I try to call Café Viva by reversing the words of the name and saying, "Call Viva Café." But this sort of intelligence — the ability to parse natural language, even mistakes to some extent — is just what Siri's billed as being great at.

I've pretty much given up calling restaurants with Siri. And since I don't really make many other calls, Siri phone functionality is mostly useless to me. So what else can Siri do?

Well, Siri's great at dictation. I mean really great. So this morning I attempted to jot down an idea for a blog post using the dictation feature. After finishing the input the note was empty. Completely blank. Siri just completely gave up the ghost. Turns out there was a network related problem, and Siri famously fails when it has any problem connecting to Apple's network. Let's be clear: I had connectivity three ways to Sunday; the problem was Apple-side. I think it might be good for Siri to do some network checking before taking requests, because, though it can save you quite a bit of time when it works, when it doesn't, it's a huge time waster. And that just adds to my steadily increasing level of gunshy-ness.

So far Siri's pretty good about setting reminders. Hasn't failed me there yet; I'll keep trying to use it. But I'm pretty close to giving up. I don't know. Maybe the giving-up threshold is simply determined by a loose calculation of how much time you've wasted on a new technology. Maybe once your brain realizes that this thing that's supposed to be saving you time is instead stealing it away, maybe that's when you stop playing guinea pig and get back to work.

Whatever the case, Siri has proven, over the longer haul, to be not particularly useful in real world use cases, at least not yet.

Don't believe the hype. Or at least not all of it.

Siri's Abortion Stance

There are two things that the controversy surrounding Siri's apparent stance on abortion demonstrates.

  1. Siri is a believable and convincing enough piece of software to make people react to it as though it is a real person, with real thoughts and opinions.
  2. Most people either just have no clue how technology works, or no interest in understanding it. Or both.

Sometimes, ya just gotta laugh.

iOS Camera Roll Bug

I recently mentioned a bug in the Photos app in iOS 5. What was happening to me was this:

  1. Open Camera app.
  2. Take photos.
  3. Look at Camera Roll from Camera app and verify that photos are there.
  4. Quit Camera app.
  5. Open Photos app.
  6. Navigate to Camera Roll.
  7. Photos app crashes.
  8. Open it again, and navigate to Camera Roll again.
  9. Camera Roll appears empty.
  10. Look again from Camera app, and the Camera Roll shows the recent photos.

Clearly, the photos are in my Camera Roll, but they're just not appearing when viewed from the Photos app. So WTF?

After a good deal of research I was able to track the problem down to what would seem to be a corrupt database. The solution is kind of a pain, but it works and seem to keep the problem from happening ever again. So here it is, the fix:

  1. Plug in and back up your iPhone, for good measure.
  2. Download and install either iExplorer (formerly iPhone Explorer) or any app that lets you view the file system of your iPhone.
  3. With iPhone still connected, launch iExplorer.
  4. In iExplorer navigate to the Your_iPhone->Media->PhotoData folder.
  5. If you're at all concerned or paranoid (like I am) back this entire folder up to your computer by simply dragging it from iExplorer to your Desktop.
  6. Delete the following three files:
    • PhotosAux.sqlite
    • Photos.sqlite
  7. Reboot your iPhone.

When the iPhone returns to service the Photos app should show your Camera Roll repopulated with your recent photos. If you don't have any other albums, you're done. Otherwise, any other albums you had — particularly ones that you'd been syncing from iPhoto — will need to be resynced. Simply open up iTunes and perform a sync operation.

That's it! You're done. From here on out your iPhone should behave properly when taking new photos; the Camera Roll should always display recent photos from inside the Photos app.

iPhone 4S

So I've had my Verizon iPhone 4S for a few weeks now, and I thought I'd let you know how it's been going.

The Phone

In many regards, this is the same phone I had a few weeks ago. The software is the same, the data is the same, most things are the same. And this is a good thing. Moving to the new phone was almost completely painless and straightforward.


Overall, though, there are some differences, of course. In general, I really like the phone itself. It's a huge speed boost from the iPhone 3GS, and that helps make everything work better, more smoothly and quicker. The interface is just faster, and that's really nice.

I was more surprised at how much faster the network is. I assume that this has something to do with my new provider, Verizon (more on that in a minute), but I also think that speed gain is a function of the phone hardware itself. Whatever the reason, I'm extremely pleased by this.

The Body

Coming from the iPhone 3GS's rounded edges and arched back, I was a bit skeptical that I'd like the body of the iPhone4S, with it's all-flat surfaces and hard edges. The 3GS felt perfect in my hand. It was a most ergonomic body shape.

But I've been pleasantly surprised at how much I actually do like the 4S's feel. It's not as soft to the touch, but it feels a bit thinner, and the hard edges add a certain grippiness that makes it feel very firm in hand and easy to pick up. They also afford the possibility of placing the phone on its edge for video shoots.

The glass surfaces, too, are very elegant — far more so than the 3GS's plastic back — yet have enough friction to them that the phone never feels in danger of slipping out of my hand. They also don't appear to scuff as easily or as much as the 3GS's plastic back.

And the iPhone 4S's body is just beautiful, maybe the prettiest phone I've ever seen. There are tradeoffs to the new body style, but they're very minor and pretty much even out. I'm quite pleased with the body style of this phone.

The Screen

I'm pretty blown away by the Retina Display. This is one of my favorite things about my new phone. Sure, I'd seen friends' iPhone 4s, so it wasn't completely new to me. But seeing the screen and using one on a regular basis are two very different things. Using the Retina Display is amazing, especially as my vision gets crappier with age. Reading text on this screen is noticeably better, an improvement that extends to every area of the iPhone experience. Also, I can finally notice tiny details, like the paper texture in Notes, that I'd never seen before. It's really terrific.

The Camera

The camera is much faster than the one on my old phone. It's also better, but I wouldn't say the improvement is huge. Side by side you can certainly tell a difference, but these still look like iPhone photos.

The HDR functionality is good only for certain types of lighting situations. For anything else it usually does a worse job. Moreover, it slows the camera down considerably. I recommend keeping it off unless you need it. For this reason I wish it had a dedicated button instead of being buried within a submenu.

Video is still clearly phone video, though as such it's quite serviceable. But what impressed me was the stabilization. It's very good, and on such a small device, it's really essential. These little video phones tend to exacerbate camera shake, but the iPhone 4S does a pretty darned good job of smoothing out the worst of it by using the phone's physical sensors, in part, to do the job. This, perhaps even more than the optics, makes a huge improvement to the video the iPhone 4S produces.


The big surprise for me, with Siri, is how much I actually do use it. For Reminders and phone calls it really is much quicker and easier than using the touch screen. And, yes, it's really as accurate as everyone says. It's not for everything, but there are certain situations that Siri is perfect for, and when you're in those situations, Siri is a joy.

Perhaps my favorite use of Siri is dictation. It's great! It's very accurate, and far more convenient than typing everything out on the touchscreen keyboard. Accurate dictation is far less useful on a computer with a physical keyboard, because you can usually type faster than you can speak. But with virtual keyboards, the equation is the reverse, and this is one place where Siri really shines.

Siri's limitations can be frustrating, though. I wish (as I think everyone does) that it was more hooked into the OS. I'd love to use Siri as an application launcher, for instance. Or maybe even for navigation. Siri's technically only in beta at this point, though, so I'm sure we'll start to see these sorts of things as the service evolves. I think it's going to be great.


One of the biggest changes for me with this upgrade has nothing to do with the actual phone hardware itself. For this phone purchase I switched to Verizon as my mobile provider. I was actually a little worried about the switch as I'd been fairly happy with AT&T's customer service and web apps. But I live in New York City, and AT&T's reception is pretty lousy here. Moreover, at work, often when I really need a connection, AT&T is spotty or just plain out of range, and that's not cool.

So I switched to Verizon on a trial basis.

Thus far I've been very happy. The cell service is truly amazing, a huge step up. Calls are not only more reliable, they are also clearer and louder. Some of this may be due to the new phone hardware, but credit where due, Verizon's cell service works everywhere I go, and works very, very well. I've not had a dropped or garbled call, nor been in an area with no signal yet. I actually needed to make a call on the first day I had the phone from a previously impossible location at work and it worked flawlessly. With voice commands, no less!

The improved reception has also brought another advantage: my data connection is more pervasive and reliable. Suddenly, I'm able to get a data connection in all sorts of places where it had been terrible on AT&T. At times, I believe this more reliable data connection even makes it appear that the network is much faster than on my old phone, which would choke when trying to connect using a spotty connection. So, overall, the increased reliability has ultimately resulted in increased network speeds.

Verizon's customer service has been very good as well. I've had two occasions to deal with their phone support, and both times they've gotten the job done quickly and politely. And that's pretty much all I ask.

Their account management site is also very good and easy to use.

Verizon is definitely more expensive, however. About $30 more per month for the plan I got, which is a slight step up from my old AT&T plan. I am now getting an employee discount that brings this back down to only about $10 a month more than my AT&T account, but without that, the price hike is significant. If phone reception is key, though, it might just be worth it; the improvement is huge. In my case, I'm more than happy to pay $10 more per month for much, much improved service.

Bugs and Updates

It hasn't been all wine and roses, however. There have been some bugs and issues.

The most annoying problem I've had is that, when shooting pictures or video with the Camera app — and this seems particularly bad when shooting from the lock screen rather than launching directly from the Springboard — sometimes they don't show up in the Camera Roll gallery. If I sort by Places, the pictures appear and can be moved to other galleries, but for some reason they don't appear in the Camera Roll. For that reason, importing via iPhoto can be hit-or-miss. Sometimes the photos appear for import, sometimes they don't. Sometimes they get deleted from the phone, sometimes they don't. It's more of an annoyance than anything, and I haven't permanently lost any data yet. But I really wish they'd fix it. And fast.

I was hoping the iOS 5.0.1 update would bring some relief, but it does not seem to have addressed the issue. Moreover, after applying the update, I

experienced the bug wherein contact names don't appear for incoming calls, despite the fact that they're still in your Contacts. This I was able to fix, however. It seems the Contacts database gets corrupted with the iOS 5.0.1 update, and the punctuation (parentheses and dashes and what not) gets removed from the phone numbers of all your Contacts. The incoming phone number, however, does retain all the necessary punctuation, and this inconsistency causes the Phone app to be unable to recognize said incoming number.

The fix that worked for me is easy enough: Just restore your contacts from a recent backup. Of course, this assumes you made a backup before updating. If you didn't, this is perfect example of why you should. Shit happens.


I'm very happy with my Verizon iPhone 4S. The hardware is a vast improvement over the 3GS, and I notice the speed boost and spectacular display all the time, in every area of operation, from note-taking to search, even after weeks of use. Siri is fun and useful, and the technology to watch; it's going to be great someday and a real boon to iPhone users. Finally, Verizon has really rounded out my user experience by at last allowing my phone to perform well in its primary function, as a phone.

Like a lot of people, I'd imagine, I seem to be on a leapfrog iPhone upgrade cycle, upgrading every other version, and so far that seems to be working out well. Each time I upgrade I receive a subsidy on the price of the phone and a significant hardware boost. The iPhone 4S is no exception. It's a solid upgrade, and I'm very happy with it.