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High lights and design

Recently while driving down the highway I noticed a crew changing lightbulbs on a street lamp. This particular street lamp was one of those extra-high poles with the circle of lights around the top that you see only on highways and some industrial or sports complexes. I had occasionally wondered why the transition was made to those poles that were double or triple the hight of standard street lamps. My assumption was that being higher they provided a larger spread of light, and they could be placed in the median so they could provide light to both sides of the highway. However, as I knew street lamps had their lights changed by crews with cherry-pickers, I wondered how these high poles whose heights were clearly beyond the reach of a normal cherry-picker had their lightbulbs changed. The answer to that question was now answered, but more on that in a moment.

Seeing this crew change the lightbulbs reminded me of two homes with the same issue. Both homes had living rooms with high ceilings, which were very nice, but had the same practical issue – changing the light bulbs was difficult.

In the first home, the lightbulbs were standard Edison-screw bulbs, in spotlight style with flat tops. In order to change them, you pulled out a telescoping pole with a suction cup on the end. You extended the pole and attached the suction cup to the bulb. You then rotated the pole until the bulb came out of the receptacle, and lowered the pole to remove the lightbulb. Then you did the reverse, attaching the new bulb to the suction cup, lifting the pole and inserting the lightbulb into the receptacle, and rotating the pole until it screwed in all the way. The process was a bit tricky, but not impossible.

In the second home, which I was involved in renovating, there was a row of lights at the highest point. These light fixtures were embedded into a design element built out of plasterboard. Remembering the first home, I asked the architect how you changed the lightbulbs which were clearly out of reach, even with a ladder. He explained to me that each bulb was held in by a frame that needed a screwdriver to remove, and that the only practical way to change the lightbulbs was to bring in scaffolding and stand up there with a screwdriver to take out the frame, then replace the lightbulb, then add back the frame. You’d then need to move the scaffolding a few times to reach all the lightbulbs.

Form over function? I was in shock. While design is important, how could one install lighting into a home that no homeowner could change on their own? The architect was perhaps a bit arrogant, wanting his design to be perfect and not taking into consideration such practical matters. What happened next truly threw me for a loop. After I had discussed the issue of replacing the bulbs, the design element that the lights were embedded into had to be changed. While the architect clearly was not going to change the lights after they were installed the first time, when the whole area had to be redesigned and reinstalled (I forget the reason, but I seem to recall it having to do with the air conditioning) I thought for sure he would change them to something more practical. Nope, same crazy lights.

So with all that in mind it’s not hard to figure out why this crew changing lightbulbs on the highway reminded me of these two homes.

So how do these road crews change the lightbulbs on a pole so high no cherry-picker can reach it? The crew lowered the lights down from the top on a series of cables. Presumably they simply opened a panel at the bottom of the pole and pressed a button, lowering the lights using a motor built into the pole. When they’re done changing the lightbulbs, they just press a button again and the lights head back up to the top of the pole. Brilliant. Not practical for a home lighting installation, but perfect for highway lighting.

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Circus Ponies Web Site

How not to upgrade software

Update 6 Jan 2016: A year and a half after this post was written, Daring Fireball is reporting that Circus Ponies, the company discussed in this post, is out of business. Not surprisingly, considering the odd customer service described below, customers were not a consideration in the closing of the company. The company simply disappeared, and posted a message that sending them an e-mail might get a response, but they wouldn’t guarantee it. Oddly they linked to a second web site with the same message in some kind of parody of Alphabet (old Google). I think creating a parody instead of some kind of customer-focused site on how to transition away from Notebook was not the best use of their time. Oh well.

I used to use a program called simply NoteBook on a fairly regular basis. It’s developed by a company called Circus Ponies Software. Its origin dates back before Mac OS X, to an application that ran on NeXTSTEP (the operating system that would go with Steve Jobs to Apple and become Mac OS X). In the early days of Mac OS X, NoteBook was extremely advanced and fairly unique. Over time other applications aped its user interface, and other organizational applications using different paradigms emerged that in some ways were better. I used NoteBook for a long time, but it seemed to be dying a slow death with infrequent and relatively minor updates. I do have several NoteBook documents I still use, if less frequently, so I run the app on occasion. If the application has an update, I usually install it.

Today I noticed on MacUpdate that there was a minor update (4.0.3) to NoteBook available. The odd thing is that the update was to a major upgrade (version 4) that I seem to have missed. Wondering what I missed I went to the company’s web site This is the top-of-fold view of the site:

Circus Ponies Web Site

Do you see the big announcement of a major new upgrade? I didn’t on first glance and went to their blog which announced the new version a little over a month ago, and linked to a list of changes. If you haven’t found it yet, it’s that red circle on the right side of the page, roughly in the middle – “New Version 4.0!”.

Surprised that as a long time customer I didn’t remember seeing any announcement, I searched through my old e-mails. Sure enough, no e-mail announcing the new version. I had received e-mails from the company as recently as November, so I’m certainly in their database, so why wasn’t I informed about their new version?

I then launched NoteBook to see if it was going to show there was an update. It actually did pop up an update message, but it turns out it was for a minor update to the version I was running (some update to version 3). After I installed that update, it told me I was up-to-date. No mention that version 4 was available.

Next I checked out their online store to see what the new version cost. This is what I found:


The price is ‘from’ $19.95. My first thought was that I remembered it being more expensive. I clicked through and got the following:

Circus Ponies Store

Note that it still highlights that the price is ‘from’ $19.95. It also, however, shows the price now at $49.95 (in smaller text than the $19.95 price) for a standard license. What’s the $19.95 price you ask? It’s for upgrading from the previous version. I suppose it’s debatable whether you should list a starting price for a software application that is only available to existing customers. I would probably show both starting prices to reduce confusion.

Remembering that the application was also available in the Mac App Store, I decided to check out the app there. I sometimes check when a new application is out on the Mac App Store since companies sometime offer upgrade pricing to everyone for a limited time. I don’t know if Circus Ponies offered such a deal to existing customers or not, since I never received an e-mail from them, but now more than a month later this is what I found:

NoteBook App Store Listing

I’m going to guess the reason Circus Ponies is charging $59.99 on the App Store, and $49.95 in their own store, is an attempt to recover the 30% they are required to pay to Apple for use of the App Store. That doesn’t recover the full amount, but it does recover most of it (they end up with about $42). In my experience, however, this is unusual. Some companies explain that they need to implement different features for the App Store version (such as support for iCloud) and thus charge more, but usually that is explained clearly. Most companies charge the exact same price in the App Store as in their own store, and eat the cost. In many cases this works out well as the company gets exposure they didn’t get before and more people buy the application.

So while I still look forward to seeing the new features in NoteBook 4, there are a few suggestions I’d like to make to Circus Ponies in particular, and all software publishers in general:

  1. When you come out with a new version, make sure to inform all of your existing users via e-mail. Track those e-mails and see who follows the links to your site to find out more. If you don’t get a response, send a second e-mail. If you do get a click, but not a purchase, e-mail them and ask them why – they might tell you.
  2. Your web site should look like Times Square showing there is a new version (especially if as in this case it has been 6 years since a major upgrade).
  3. Your application should inform your user that a new version is available. You can even hook into their system’s notification system and push notifications to them even when they’re not running the application (with their permission).
  4. In your own web store, be careful when using statements like ‘Pricing from…’ which don’t apply to all users.
  5. When using App Stores like Apple’s Mac App Store (or Microsoft’s Windows Store) price your apps the same as you sell them in your own store. It might cost you more to use that store, but think of it as a marketing expense.
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Leaving a WhatsApp Group

UX Note – Changing the admin of a WhatsApp group

WhatsApp has been in the news a lot for obvious reasons, and it has been praised for its focus and simplicity. Sometimes, however, simplicity is a crutch. Here’s one example.

Ever use groups on WhatsApp? It’s a great feature. You can set up up to 50 groups with up to 50 people in each group. I’ve used it spontaneously to organize get-togethers with friends, etc. and it is very useful. I am also part of a larger WhatsApp group used for more long-term coordination. I set it up not realizing a major limitation of WhatsApp groups.

The problem starts with only the admin being able to add people to groups. In order to add people, I of course had to have them in my address book with the same phone number they associate with their WhatsApp account. Okay, so I collected the phone numbers of the people I didn’t have. Not a problem. As the group grew I realized I didn’t want to manage it myself, so I figured I would add a second admin to help manage adding all the people. Except, like in Highlander, there can only be one. Then I figured I would switch the admin over to someone else and let them run the group instead. Except not only can’t you add a second admin, you can’t assign who becomes the next admin.

WhatsApp made some very good decisions in designing their app, but I wonder how they came up with the group admin handling. What is the only way to switch the admin of a group to another person in the group? Here’s the description in the WhatsApp FAQ:

Leaving a WhatsApp Group

That’s right, the only way to switch admin of the group to another group member is to remove yourself from the group. Then, the best part, the admin role is randomly assigned to another group member. Of course, if you want back in the group, you need the admin (whoever that may be) to add you back into the group.

How do you figure out who the new admin is? I guess you need to ask someone you know is in the group to look at the group info, see who the new admin is, and then contact the new admin about being added back…

I looked online and some people have struggled to find a workaround for this. What do they do? They delete everyone from the group except who they want to be the new admin, leave the group which automatically assigns the group admin role to the one person left, and then send a list of all the people who had been in the group to the new admin to be added back to the group. Crazy.

Perhaps the idea behind not allowing multiple admins, or reassigning the admin role, was to maintain simplicity, but in the end it has created incredibly complex workarounds.

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Will Remove Apps

UX Note – Removing Apps from an iDevice

Will Remove Apps
Designating apps to be removed in iTunes

Apple is great at making things ‘just work’ which is why when things go wrong with Apple, it’s that much worse. This is just a quick note on a user experience (UX) issue that bothers me about how Apple syncs iDevices. I’ll preface this by saying that since Apple liberated their iDevices from the tether of iTunes, I think they’ve put a lot less focus into improving the iTunes experience. This issue, however, I believe long pre-dates Apple eliminating the need for iTunes.

If your iDevice is full, you need to remove data from the device to make room for new photos, videos, etc. Sometimes you can just offload your photos and videos to make room for more, but sometimes you want clear out more space, so you need to remove apps. There are a few ways to do this:

  1. Hold down an app in the Springboard view (aka the Home Page) until it starts jiggling. Press the ⓧ in the corner of the app icon, and approve it’s deletion. Find other apps to delete and continue the process. Upside, can be fairly quick. Downside, no way to know which apps take up the most room.
  2. Go to Settings > General > Usage and see what is taking up space on your iDevice, sorted by what is taking up the most space. Upside, you know which apps take up the most space so you don’t need to waste time deleting apps that might not make much of a difference. Downside, it can be infuriatingly slow to calculate your usage and display the space used by everything.
  3. Connect your iDevice to your computer, and delete the apps in the Apps panel of the iDevice in iTunes. Downside, does not immediately delete anything. Upside, can quickly and easily sort apps by size, name, kind, category and date – making it very easy to figure out which apps to delete.

It’s the last one I’m focused on here. While not immediate, it is the easiest way to go through your apps and figure out which ones to delete. However, there one really dumb thing about the way this works. Let’s throw out some numbers. Let’s say you only have 50mb of space on your iPhone. You’ve added 200mb of music to sync on your computer. Simple math shows you need 150mb of space on your iPhone for this to work. So you go to the Apps tab and tell it to remove 500mb of apps from your iPhone. Should work right? No, not really. It’s pretty simple, Apple should try deleting things before copying new things to your iDevice. Unfortunately, it doesn’t. Instead it tells you there isn’t enough room on your iDevice to finish syncing.

Why? I have no idea. Syncing isn’t a new concept. Apple has been syncing from the Mac to cell phones since long before the iPhone (remember iSync?). It seems pretty logical to me that if one of your sync steps is to remove data from a device, that that should be done first. Instead, you’re forced to go with option one or two above, just to make room for the sync to happen.


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UX Note: I see dead people…on WhatsApp.

I See Dead People
“I see dead people”

How and why WhatsApp grew at the rate it did in the years it has been in existence is a topic of much discussion. Most people attribute it to the fact that WhatsApp got rid of the concept of a ‘buddy list’ and just used the person’s address book in their phone to connect them to other WhatsApp users. I feel like the side-effects of this system haven’t been discussed in detail.

Multiple SIM Cards

One topic I have seen discussed is the problem people run into when they use multiple SIM cards, such as switching cards when traveling. I recall traveling last year and was surprised when I loaded a different SIM that WhatsApp recognized the phone was operating on a new number, and asked if I wanted to switch to the new number. At the time I didn’t realize the significance of the switch. When you change numbers, anyone who has your other number in their address book becomes disconnected from you (unless they also have the new number).

Why is it that a single WhatsApp account can’t be connected to more than one phone number/device? It seems a silly limitation. Changing the number from the WhatsApp perspective seems to be based on the consideration that a person might change their phone number. With number portability, it seems to me more likely that people switch SIMs to get service in different places, such as cheaper service in other countries.

In the developing world it’s very common for people to carry more than one SIM card with them, and some phones even support multiple SIM cards. Even Samsung makes dual-SIM models of its Galaxy S phone line, although those phones are not available (directly) outside of Asia.

Dead People

So what does that have to do with dead people? My current address book on my iPhone has entries that date back to my Pilot 5000 (that was a first generation Palm device released in 1996). That address book was eventually synced with my Mac Address Book, and then to my iPhone. The oldest entries in my address book don’t have cell numbers in them, as in 1996 not everyone had one. Among the people whose cell numbers I have, if they changed their numbers before number portability became common, and then later joined WhatsApp with their new numbers, obviously I wouldn’t know they were on WhatsApp. However, consider what happens when someone in your address book passes away. Unfortunately, this has happened. After enough time this happens to everyone. What happens to that person’s phone numbers? Generally they’re released back into the pool of available numbers and assigned to new subscribers. What happens when those people sign up to WhatsApp and register their phones with their new number? That’s right. Dead people from your address book show up in WhatsApp. I’ve had this happen a couple of times that I’ve noticed.

Flipping Through My Contacts

As I was writing the above I flipped through my WhatsApp address book. What I found was interesting. One dead person. Several people with multiple listings, where one was clearly their current number and others their older numbers. Sometimes I have more than one cell number for people who had more than one phone and then they dropped others, without removing the ones that were dropped. I noticed one of my friends with one account which appeared to be him, and another with a status written in Arabic. While it’s possible my friend learned Arabic, I’m guessing it’s more likely he got rid of one phone and that someone else who speaks Arabic now has that number. Lots of people I am no longer in touch with, or at least not in touch with via phone (Hi Facebook Friends), show up with WhatsApp accounts but are clearly not them either. Other than the status message, one can tell by the profile image as well. When I have a male friend and a female photo shows up, it’s a good chance it’s not the right person.

Arabic Status
Two WhatsApp accounts from the same address book entry

Another sub-category of incorrect listings in WhatsApp are travel numbers. I live in Israel and when people come here from the US to visit they frequently rent a phone or SIM for their visit. I add their temporary number to their address book entry in my phone, and rarely remember to remove them after they leave. All those people who have visited from abroad over the years, whose phone number have over the years ended up on other people’s phones here in Israel, show up among my WhatsApp contacts.

I even show up in my WhatsApp contacts, and can message myself. That’s pretty funny.

These problems are not unique to WhatsApp. I’ve seen them with Viber as well. I would think all of the mobile-first messaging apps that have linked to the phone’s address book have similar problems. These are not insurmountable problems, and I’m sure they will be resolved in the future. Hopefully one day I won’t have to worry about dead people showing up in my messaging apps.

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UX Note: Apple needs to get in sync

Apple IIe (Wikimedia Commons)
Apple IIe (Wikimedia Commons)

The first computer I used was an Apple II in a computer lab in my elementary school. My first computer was an Apple IIe. I am forever thankful to my father who convinced me that replacing it with a Mac SE was the smarter move than getting the Apple IIgs. Except for a few companies that had me working on Windows machines, and some development on Linux boxes, I’ve been using Macs ever since. I’ve been on the iPhone since the first one in 2007. I love Apple and most of their products (the Mac Portable should never have come out, and the Pippin…let’s not go there).

I love that their products ‘just work’ and are consistent in design (due to their ‘Human Interface Guidelines‘). That’s why it pains me when they don’t work. Some things should work better, and just don’t (and don’t get fixed). In particular, I’ve found that Apple has a problem keeping things in sync with their iTunes/iCloud services.

Let me just preface this with saying technically there are no iTunes accounts and iCloud accounts, there are really just Apple IDs that are associated with iTunes or iCloud. I understand this, but we use these IDs in general for two reasons, for iTunes and iCloud. For that reason I call them iTunes accounts and iCloud accounts.

Here are a few examples of these problems:

De-Authorizing Computers

You probably know you can link up to five computers to a single iTunes account. In a small family these can get used up fairly quickly. Especially with tech-heavy families, where one or more parents might work in high-tech and have 2-3 computers they’re using themselves. More importantly, you need to de-authorize computers you no longer are using. If you still have the computer you no longer want to use, you can de-authorize the computer from within iTunes on that computer. What happens if you don’t have that computer? Like if the computer died and you replaced it? Certainly there must be a way to de-authorize a computer you no longer have, right? Well no, not directly. The only way to de-authorize a computer you no longer have is to de-authorize ALL your computers at once. There’s also a catch. You can only de-authorize all your computers once a year.

Doesn’t it make sense that you’d be able to see all your computer that are authorized on your iTunes account and could de-authorize specific ones whenever you want? Apparently not, according to Apple.

Using iTunes and iCloud on the Same Account

If you are a single person and pay for your own service, then this probably never occurred to you. Most people when they set up iCloud set it up with their existing iTunes account. Makes sense. That is, it makes sense as long as you have complete trust in everyone with whom you’re sharing. For example, let’s say you want to share your iTunes account with your children. Great. Save some money. However, it also means your children can now log in on, read your e-mails, check your calendar, read your notes, check out your Pages, Numbers and Keynote documents, locate your devices on a map, etc.

The solution is simple – don’t use your iTunes account as an iCloud account. However, if you’ve already done so, is there a way to shift your identity from one iCloud account to another? Certainly no simple way.

Multiple iTunes Accounts

iTunes was revolutionary in allowing users to share bought music among multiple computers and devices. When the App Store was launched, this spread to apps as well. Finally, a family could buy an app once, and use it on all their devices. Some developers hated this idea, but most embraced it (even if reluctantly). For those with a single account, this works pretty well. As someone who lives straddled between two countries, I can attest that when you have two accounts, not so much. I am required to have two accounts, because some apps are only available in one store or the other. For example, many transportation apps are different or only available in one country or another, and thus are not available in both.

In general, there is no problem with running apps from multiple accounts on the same phone. What happens is that you need to log into the correct store and purchase the app you need. It downloads and is linked to the device. Your single device is just taking up slots in two different iTunes accounts, not a real problem. Where things start to go wrong is when you are updating apps, particularly on the desktop. When downloading apps on your desktop in iTunes, it gets tripped up by the fact that there are apps from multiple accounts. It stops and makes you log in to the different account. Why? Why not allow one to be connected to more than one account? Just like you can have multiple e-mail accounts in Mail, you should be able to have multiple iTunes accounts in iTunes. Sure, one needs to be Primary, so it knows which store to show you, but when downloading apps you should not be made to switch back and forth. It’s inane and definitely cannot be described as ‘just works’.

While I was writing this I came across an even stranger occurrence. I had a mix of apps from both stores in my update queue, but if I clicked on apps from store A, it told me I was logged into store B, and needed to switch to store A. If I clicked on apps from store B, it told me I was logged into store A, and needed to switch to store B. Basically damned if you do, damned if you don’t. What was going on? I have no idea. I rebooted and everything updated quickly without having to switch stores at all. This kind of impossible problem is not something I’ve run across too much with Apple products, and it is therefore that much more disappointing.

Multiple iCloud Accounts

While multiple iTunes accounts might seem a minor issue that only afflicts people who spend significant time in more than one country, the issue of multiple iCloud accounts is a much more widespread problem. While a couple or family might share an iTunes account to share apps and music, they can’t share an iCloud account. Which iCloud account you’re connected to determines the identity of your phone in reference to iMessage, FaceTime, your calendar, your e-mail, etc. If a couple shared their iCloud account, they wouldn’t be able to message each other.

A pretty common problem, so you’d think there would be an elegant solution to managing your identities on your iOS devices and Mac OS X computers. No so much. That a single account can be both an iTunes account and an iCloud account is possibly the root of the problem. It would be nice if there was a way to associate multiple iCloud accounts as sub-accounts to your iTunes accounts, allowing them access to your apps, music, books, etc. but not accessing your personal data.

The iBooks Conundrum

iBooks and iCloud

I have my computer and iDevice set up with my iTunes/iCloud account. My wife has her computer and iDevice set up with my iTunes account and her iCloud account. This is how it’s supposed to work. We share apps, and that works great. I wanted to share iBooks as well, and here’s what happened.

I added some books manually to my iBooks on my Mac. These were books in epub format. I created several Collections to divide the books. In theory the books should then sync my my iPhone, and my wife’s Mac and iPhone. Right? No. Here’s what happens. The Collections, which are essentially folders, sync everywhere. What was in them, not at all. So I find empty Collections spread all over the place. If I delete the empty Collection on my wife’s computer, it deletes it on mine (and all my books get thrown into the general ‘Books’ section).

You might be thinking that I need to set ‘All Books’ in the Books section of iTunes on my Mac. You’d be right, partially. I went into iTunes and realized that only a few books were set to sync (from a previous attempt to use iBooks no doubt) and I set it this time to ‘All Books’. I synced and lo and behold all my books were on my iDevice. Great. Well, sort of. The first thing I noticed was that while I had ordered the books in their Collections a specific way manually on my Mac, they were not ordered that way on the iDevice. You can re-order them again on the iDevice, but why if you took the trouble to order them on your Mac should you have to do it again on your iDevice?

So they’re on my iDevice. What about my wife’s? No, of course not, because iTunes manages the connection to your specific devices. My wife has her own iTunes and iDevices. So why do the Collections sync over? Of course Apple let’s you sync books that you bought through the iTunes between devices. If I had bought the books via iTunes they’d show up happily everywhere. Since I didn’t but them via iTunes, they’re not ‘in the cloud’ and thus do not sync. Why can’t books you add yourself be synced to the cloud? You can pay for extra iCloud storage, but Apple’s own iBooks won’t store those books in your iCloud storage space?

Keep in mind, this is how Apple advertises iCloud on their site:


I guess the emphasis is on ‘Your’ and not on ‘everywhere’. Perhaps there should be a footnote to the above that reads:

“As long as your music, movies, apps and books were purchased through the iTunes Store. Any content added directly to your device using the supported features in iTunes or iBooks will not be synced through iCloud, but must be manually moved to each device”

Not as sexy as ‘just works’.

Consolidation of iMessage and FaceTime

Not so long ago, you could chat using text and video with your friends using Apple’s AIM-compatible iChat client. iChat went even further and allowed screen-sharing in a very simple way. When Apple started deploying it’s own messaging and video solutions to the iPhone, it left iChat behind and created iMessage system (using the Messages app) and FaceTime for video (and later audio) conversations.

As Apple sought to bring the Mac in line with what is was doing with iOS, it dropped iChat altogether, and replaced it with a Mac version of Messages. It appears that Messages does have some of the legacy support of iChat, including support for video chat with AIM members, and screen-sharing, although I’ve had trouble getting my AIM account working in Messages. I can log in using the web to my account, but not via Messages. No idea why.

It also brought FaceTime to the Mac, but like on iOS, as a separate app that shared only its identity points (your phone number, e-mail address, etc.). If you’re video chatting with a friend through FaceTime, you can’t automatically send them a text message (such as a link to a web site) without opening another application altogether.

This is frankly just silly. Why have two apps that link to the same identities, but not work together? Why have two apps that do video chat? It’s a bit absurd. I understand that Apple’s initial goal was to built these features as system-level features. FaceTime was actually working like that on the iPhone initially, but eventually they went back on that and added an actual FaceTime app. Apple needs to work to bring all of the text/audio/video chat technology under one spot, and let it all work together. If I’m on FaceTime, why can’t I initiate a screen share? or send a link? Why can I initiate a FaceTime audio call from my iPhone but not my computer? These inconsistencies need to be resolved.

So what are your thoughts on iTunes, iCloud, and using them with multiple people, accounts, devices, etc.? What works for you and what doesn’t?

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