111 stories
·
1 follower

Jon Lester Might Be Beating the Yips

1 Share

On June 3rd of this year, with the Cardinals leading 2-1 in the fifth inning and Tommy Pham on first with two outs, Jon Lester quickly took his left foot off the Wrigley Field pitching rubber and lobbed a throw over to first baseman Anthony Rizzo.

Pham, who had taken a 19-foot lead, was picked off first base to end the inning on a sunny Saturday afternoon in Chicago.

While the play seemed rather ordinary, it wasn’t. The pickoff was highly unusual because it was Lester’s first successful pickoff since 2015 and just his third since 2012. It was meaningful because, entering this year, Lester had all but stopped throwing to first — or in any direction other than home plate — because of the psychological block referred to as the “yips” in athletic parlance.

Lester declined to address the play afterward telling reporters: “Whatever… I just try and get outs.’’

Lester was tired of talking about the condition. He was tired of being in the center of the field, all eyes fixed upon him, and baserunners taunting him as the condition lost its status as a secret. The spotlight on his issues was never brighter than in last year’s World Series:

“I tell people, ‘You think it’s fun for me to look at a guy who is 20 feet off the bag in a World Series game?’” Lester told FanGraphs. “You think that’s fun? That’s where the frustration falls in.”

Give Lester credit: a stranger — this author — approached him to talk about his ongoing battle last Sunday, about whether his June 3 toss was an indication of progress, and Lester agreed to speak about the issue. Issues psychological in nature can be taboo to address in a professional clubhouse, and perhaps that is part of the problem. I had wondered back in February if baseball could solve the yips, if the softer sciences might represent unexplored frontiers for the sport. It’s why I approached Lester, one of the few people in the baseball world going though the issue at the moment.

“It’s not like you can hide from it,” Lester said. “I’m standing on the mound in front of 40,000 people and the guy has a 20-foot lead. It’s not something you can exactly crawl into a hole and get away from.”

The yips have swallowed the careers of players like Rick Ankiel and Steve Blass. Other have found a way back, like Steve Sax, to whom I spoke for the piece I wrote earlier this year. I was curious to speak with Lester because he has been in a metaphorical hole and I was curious if he was finding his way out.

***

Lester made 98 pickoff attempts in 2010 and 70 in 2011. But then something happened.

“It wasn’t one pickoff throw and I decided ‘No more,’” Lester said. “It was over time.”

Lester made just five pickoff throws in 2012, seven in 2013, and none in 2014, according to SportingCharts data. He did not make a single pickoff attempt over the course of 66 consecutive starts until this one on April 13, 2015:

Lester’s issue was no longer a secret.

“It’s almost like your human psyche gets in the way of doing stuff since you where however tall,” said Lester, marking the height of where he had perhaps stood as a T-baller.

And it is through that statement which Lester perhaps hits on the essence, the root, of the yips.

Back in February I linked to a Malcolm Gladwell piece, “The Art of Failure”, published in 2000 for the New Yorker. In speaking to a number of experts, Gladwell boiled the yips — aka choking — down to an automated task becoming un-automated.

Wrote Gladwell:

According to Daniel Willingham, a psychologist at the University of Virginia …. when you are first taught something — say, how to hit a backhand or an overhead forehand — you think it through in a very deliberate, mechanical manner. But as you get better the implicit system takes over: you start to hit a backhand fluidly, without thinking… Under conditions of stress, however, the explicit system sometimes takes over. That’s what it means to choke. When Jana Novotna faltered at Wimbledon, it was because she began thinking about her shots again. She lost her fluidity, her touch… The same thing has happened to Chuck Knoblauch, the New York Yankees’ second baseman, who inexplicably has had trouble throwing the ball to first base. Under the stress of playing in front of forty thousand fans at Yankee Stadium, Knoblauch finds himself reverting to explicit mode, throwing like a Little Leaguer again.

I asked Lester if he was consciously thinking about his throwing mechanics on pickoff plays, if the task had somehow morphed from automated to un-automated, from the subconscious — which accounts for the majority of brain capability, to a conscious process.

“I don’t know. I don’t think of it that way…” Lester said. “I think, if I knew, that there would probably be an easy way to fix it. We’ve broken it down and done different things and it is still what it is.”

What’s interesting about Lester and Sax — who dealt and overcame the issue in the 1980s — is that they were fine when the stadium was empty. In practice, in an empty Wrigley Field or at a private spring-training back field, Lester said he had no problems throwing to first base.

“No,” said Lester, shaking his head side to side, “No.”

Sax was blindfolded and could throw to first base without issue in Dodger Stadium — hours before batting practice.

Back in 2014, writing for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, I spoke to University of Chicago psychology professor and author of Choke, Sian Beilock, who agreed the yips are about a task becoming un-automated, but there was another crucial factor: the yips are also tied to environment.

“(Our mind) is a limited-capacity system. We can only pay attention to so much at one time. As we get better and better, some of what we do becomes automated so we can use our (consciousness) for other things. The issue is when we are in a stressful situation and working under pressure to perform well or had a poor performance in the past, those tasks that were automated before become un-automated. We start consciously attending to them… When people are watching you, you start watching yourself.

Fortunately for Lester and the Cubs, Lester has not lost the ability to throw toward home plate. But Lester’s throwing issue is still a portal through which to view a block that can end careers.

In 2014, I watched Pedro Alvarez throw flawlessly, mostly flawlessly, during infield work in an empty PNC Park. When the game started, he lost the ability to throw accurately. As recently as 2013, he was a three-win third baseman, but his loss of the ability to throw across the diamond forced him to first base, where he continued to have defensive issues. His run production was insufficient for his new position, which limited his market to a minor-league deal last offseason. The former No. 2 overall pick in the 2009 draft is playing in Triple-A in Norfolk, Va. The yips have cost him millions and maybe a major-league career.

What if teams could figure out to cure the yips? What if teams could better understand the soft science of performance?

“If there was a way to fix it, Chuck Knoblauch wouldn’t have had to move to the outfield,” Lester said. “Mackey Sasser wouldn’t have had to stop doing what he was doing. Rick Ankiel wouldn’t have had to stop pitching. We just try to combat it. I think that’s the right word for me.”

***

The Cubs and Lester are still working, but they have changed their approach.

Earlier in his time in Chicago, in Boston, Lester and his coaches tried to work through the issue. They tried every move, every motion off the mound, to control the run game. And what might work on spring-training back fields and in empty stadiums hours before first pitch, did not not work in games.

Joe Maddon said late last spring that he and the staff elected to take a new approach, and it’s working. The Cubs have caught eight base-stealers and only allowed seven steals when Lester has pitched this season. The league caught-stealing rate is 29%. Last season, 33% of base-stealers were caught when Lester was pitching. The league average was 27%.

“I think we finally arrived with a method we felt is more sustainable and are attacking this situation as opposed to the previous conventional methods we tried,” Maddon said. “And right now, he is one of the toughest guys to run against in the major leagues. Part of that was having a catcher like Rossie [David Ross] or a catcher like [Willson Contreras] that can really throw well and accurately. That matters. That’s a big part of the control. What [Anthony Rizzo] does at first that people are not aware of [including hand signals for pickoff calls], and also what Jonny does really well, subtle stuff. So we figured this out last spring. I finally had an epiphany where we never had any hard-and-fast rules… and finally arrived at some things.”

The Cubs, remarkably, have worked around the issue and are better than league average at controlling the run game when Lester is on the mound — even though opponents know he has little chance, or interest, in preventing a 20-foot lead. To have him worry less about the run game, Lester credited Ross and Contreras’s reminders to not worry about runners. Let them attempt to run, they told Lester, and they will throw them out. So even if Lester never beats the yips, he might have outflanked the issue.

But what’s also interesting is that the Cubs reduced Lester’s work on throwing to first and other bases this spring. There was less focus internally on remedying the issue and perhaps that has helped him. It was Beilock who told me too much practice, too much work, can be detrimental, as it places more focus and pressure upon the issue. Lester said he does not work on pickoff moves as much between starts, but I asked if the snap throw he demonstrated on June 3 could be a solution.

“Hopefully, yeah,” Lester said.

I suggested to Lester that, rather than a story of human weakness, his story could, perhaps should, be seen as one of creativity and resiliency in working around the issue.

“I like where your mind is there,” Lester said. “Usually everyone is more on the side of ‘Why can’t you do it? Why can’t you do it?’ That’s where my frustration comes.”

He was frustrated during the playoffs last season when there was more focus on the yips than his run prevention. (He allowed just two runs over his first three starts, covering 21 innings in the NLDS and NLCS.) What’s also remarkable about Lester’s condition is that he didn’t lose the ability to throw home, to carve up batters. He remains a quality starting pitcher.

“I feel like I have good enough stuff to get hitters out, so I just worry about getting the hitters out,” Lester said. “I make adjustments as we go and maybe we will get a few more [tosses] over there [to first base].”

There is also this: Lester has overcome much greater issues. He has beaten cancer. In contrast, the yips are meaningless. “I always have things in perspective,” Lester said.

And so while Lester does not quite understand what he is fighting, perhaps it is that perspective that will allow him to beat it.

Read the whole story
kbreit
2 days ago
reply
Share this story
Delete

Sturm und drang, Mike Hollingshead

3 Comments and 13 Shares

Sturm und drang, Mike Hollingshead

Read the whole story
kbreit
51 days ago
reply
popular
60 days ago
reply
Share this story
Delete
3 public comments
cygnoir
51 days ago
reply
(also a glimpse into my nightmares)
Portland, OR, USA
jepler
60 days ago
reply
@emdeesee
Earth, Sol system, Western spiral arm
emdeesee
57 days ago
I have one of these in the queue, coincidentally. I keep passing it over because oooooh, scary.
jepler
57 days ago
I can understand how you feel. I don't like seeing "somebody just got hurt" face plant gifs, but for whatever reason I can just look at these and see beauty, not danger.
emdeesee
56 days ago
I see what you see; they're really cool, all the more so because he makes them from a single image (!). Also I have this recurring nightmare. However I did get over myself.
jhamill
60 days ago
reply
Fascinating!
California

★ The Mac Pro Lives

3 Comments and 4 Shares

Let’s not beat around the bush. I have great news to share:

Apple is currently hard at work on a “completely rethought” Mac Pro, with a modular design that can accommodate high-end CPUs and big honking hot-running GPUs, and which should make it easier for Apple to update with new components on a regular basis. They’re also working on Apple-branded pro displays to go with them.

I also have not-so-great news:

These next-gen Mac Pros and pro displays “will not ship this year”. (I hope that means “next year”, but all Apple said was “not this year”.) In the meantime, Apple is today releasing meager speed-bump updates to the existing Mac Pros. The $2999 model goes from 4 Xeon CPU cores to 6, and from dual AMD G300 GPUs to dual G500 GPUs. The $3999 model goes from 6 CPU cores to 8, and from dual D500 GPUs to dual D800 GPUs. Nothing else is changing, including the ports. No USB-C, no Thunderbolt 3 (and so no support for the LG UltraFine 5K display).

But more good news, too:

Apple has “great” new iMacs in the pipeline, slated for release “this year”, including configurations specifically targeted at large segments of the pro market.


Let’s say you’re Apple. You’re faced with the following problem. Three years ago you launched a radical new lineup of Mac Pros. For multiple reasons, you haven’t shipped an update to those machines since. At some point you came to the conclusion that the 2013 Mac Pro concept was fundamentally flawed. It was tightly integrated internally, which allowed for some very nice features: it was small and beautiful (a pro machine that demanded placement on your desk, not under your desk) and it could run whisper quietly. But that tight integration made it hard to update regularly. The idea that expansion could be handled almost entirely by external Thunderbolt peripherals sounded good on paper, but hasn’t panned out in practice. And the GPU design was a bad prediction. Apple bet on a dual-GPU design (multiple smaller GPUs, with “pro”-level performance coming from parallel processing) but the industry has gone largely in the other direction (machines with one big GPU).

And so you decided to completely redesign the Mac Pro. But that new design isn’t going to ship this year. You’re committed to your pro users, but a sizable chunk of them are growing ever more restless. They suspect — in some cases strongly — that you don’t care about them anymore. They see the stalled Mac Pro lineup as a sign that Apple no longer cares about them, and they worry deeply that the Mac Pro isn’t merely waiting for a major update but instead is waiting to be decommissioned.

What do you do?

There are really only two options at this point. The first would be to suck it up and wait until the next-generation Mac Pros are ready to be announced, and suffer in silence while more and more people point to the current Mac Pro’s stagnation as proof that Apple is abandoning the Mac Pro market.

The second would be to bite the bullet and tell the world what your plans are, even though it’s your decades-long tradition — a fundamental part of the company’s culture — to let actual shipping products, not promises of future products, tell your story.

Apple chose the latter.


We’re inside a nondescript single-story office building on Apple’s extended old campus, across De Anza Boulevard from One Infinite Loop. This is Apple’s Product Realization Lab for Mac hardware, better known, internally, as “the machine lab”. This is where they make and refine prototypes for new Mac hardware. We don’t get to see anything cool. There is no moment where they lift a black cloth and show us prototypes of future hardware. The setting feels chosen simply to set the tone that innovative Mac hardware design — across the entire Mac lineup — is not a thing of the past.

There are only nine people at the table. Phil Schiller, Craig Federighi, and John Ternus (vice president, hardware engineering — in charge of Mac hardware) are there to speak for Apple. Bill Evans from Apple PR is there to set the ground rules and run the clock. (We had 90 minutes.) The other five are writers who were invited for what was billed as “a small roundtable discussion about the Mac”: Matthew Panzarino, Lance Ulanoff, Ina Fried, John Paczkowski, and yours truly.

The discussion is on the record.

Here’s how Schiller broke the news on Mac Pro. It’s worth quoting him at length:

With regards to the Mac Pro, we are in the process of what we call “completely rethinking the Mac Pro”. We’re working on it. We have a team working hard on it right now, and we want to architect it so that we can keep it fresh with regular improvements, and we’re committed to making it our highest-end, high-throughput desktop system, designed for our demanding pro customers.

As part of doing a new Mac Pro — it is, by definition, a modular system — we will be doing a pro display as well. Now you won’t see any of those products this year; we’re in the process of that. We think it’s really important to create something great for our pro customers who want a Mac Pro modular system, and that’ll take longer than this year to do.

In the interim, we know there are a number of customers who continue to buy our [current Mac Pros]. To be clear, our current Mac Pro has met the needs of some of our customers, and we know clearly not all of our customers. None of this is black and white, it’s a wide variety of customers. Some… it’s the kind of system they wanted; others, it was not.

In the meantime, we’re going to update the configs to make it faster and better for their dollar. This is not a new model, not a new design, we’re just going to update the configs. We’re doing that this week. We can give you the specifics on that.

The CPUs, we’re moving them down the line. The GPUs, down the line, to get more performance per dollar for customers who DO need to continue to buy them on the interim until we get to a newly architected system.

In an ideal world, yes, these next-gen Mac Pros (and new displays) would be shipping soon. In fact, if we’re going to say ideal, they’d already be shipping. But make no mistake, this is very good news for anyone who cares about the Mac Pro. Those of us with an ear to the ground knew that there were no major changes to the Mac Pro shipping soon. That meant one of two things: next-gen Mac Pros were a ways off, or Apple was abandoning the Mac Pro market.

Given that, this is very good news for serious Mac users. Even for serious Mac users who don’t buy Mac Pro hardware, this is good news because it’s a sign of Apple’s commitment to pro Mac software. There is no reason for Apple to commit itself to a new modular Mac Pro unless they’re also committed to what makes the Mac the Mac in software.

Some stats and facts Apple shared with us during the discussion:

  • Apple’s research shows that 15 percent of all Mac users use at least one “pro” app frequently. These are apps for things like music creation, video editing, graphic design, and software development. Basically, apps that are performance intensive. An additional 15 percent of Mac users use pro apps less frequently but at least once per week. That 30 percent of the overall Mac user base is what Apple considers the “pro” market.

  • Overall, the split between notebooks and desktops in Mac sales is roughly 80/20. (Personally, I’m a little surprised desktops account for even 20 percent of sales. I would have guessed 85/15, and wouldn’t have been surprised to hear 90/10.)

  • Even among pro users, notebooks are by far the most popular Macs. In second place are iMacs. The Mac Pro is third. Apple declined to describe the Mac Pro’s share of all Mac sales any more specifically than “a single-digit percent”, but my gut feeling is that the single digit is a lot closer to 1 than it is to 9.

So: only 30 percent of Mac users are in what Apple considers the pro market. Most of those use MacBook Pros (or other MacBooks). Most of those who use desktops use iMacs. None of this is a surprise, really — and this is exactly why so many users who depend on the Mac Pro have been deeply concerned about its future. For Apple to care about the Mac Pro, it requires Apple to care about a small number of users.

Regarding iMacs, Schiller also said that new iMacs are in the works, slated for release some time this year (no specifics other than “this year”), including “configurations of iMac specifically with the pro customer in mind and acknowledging that our most popular desktop with pros is an iMac.”

Craig Federighi then jumped in, and said:

That is a pretty incredible evolution that we’ve seen over the last decade. The original iMac, you never would’ve thought as remotely touching pro uses. And now you look at today’s 5K iMac, top configs, it’s incredibly powerful, and a huge fraction of what would’ve traditionally — whether it’s audio editing, video editing, graphics, arts and so forth — that would’ve previously absolutely required the Mac Pros of old, are being well-addressed by iMac. But there’s still even further we can take iMac as a high performance, pro system, and we think that form factor can address even more of the pro market.

What struck me about this is that Apple was framing a discussion in which the big news — the whole point, really — was their pre-announcing a “completely rethought” next-generation Mac Pro by emphasizing that most of their pro users use MacBooks and most of the rest use iMacs — and that they have big plans in store for the pro segment of both of those product lines. It’s exactly what I would have expected Apple to say if they were breaking the news that the Mac Pro was going away: We’re dropping the Mac Pro because its time has come and gone — all but a small percentage of our pro users have their needs met by MacBook Pros and high-end iMacs.

So it might seem curious for Apple to frame the need for an all-new Mac Pro by emphasizing just how many of their pro users don’t need a Mac Pro. But if you think about it in the context of the current Mac Pro, it makes sense. Those whose needs aren’t met by MacBook Pros or iMacs need extreme performance. The current Mac Pro — even putting aside the age of its components — only met the needs of some of those users. For the rest — for those who need the fastest Intel CPUs on the market, the biggest and most powerful GPUs, etc. — the current Mac Pro isn’t a good fit.

There were several questions from a few of us trying to peg down when Apple realized it needed to start over and design a new Mac Pro. Apple, unsurprisingly, wouldn’t budge. But they were forthcoming about the fact that the current Mac Pro isn’t meeting the needs of all the users who need a Mac Pro. Federighi:

I think we designed ourselves into a bit of a thermal corner, if you will. We designed a system with the kind of GPUs that at the time we thought we needed, and that we thought we could well serve with a two GPU architecture. That that was the thermal limit we needed, or the thermal capacity we needed. But workloads didn’t materialize to fit that as broadly as we hoped.

Being able to put larger single GPUs required a different system architecture and more thermal capacity than that system was designed to accommodate. So it became fairly difficult to adjust. At the same time, so many of our customers were moving to iMac that we saw a path to address many, many more of those that were finding themselves limited by a Mac Pro through next generation iMac. And really put a lot of our energy behind that.

Schiller:

As we’ve said, we made something bold that we thought would be great for the majority of our Mac Pro users. And what we discovered was that it was great for some and not others. Enough so that we need to take another path. One of the good things, hopefully, with Apple through the years has been a willingness to say when something isn’t quite what we wanted it do be, didn’t live up to expectations, to not be afraid to admit it and look for the next answer.

The word “mistake” was not uttered, but this is about as close as we’re going to get to Apple admitting they miscalculated with the current Mac Pro’s concept. One word that was uttered, however, was “sorry”. Here’s Schiller, after being asked whether they already had an external design in mind for the next-gen Mac Pros:

We’re not going to get into exactly what stage we’re in, just that we told the team to take the time to do something really great. To do something that can be supported for a long time with customers with updates and upgrades throughout the years. We’ll take the time it takes to do that. The current Mac Pro, as we’ve said a few times, was constrained thermally and it restricted our ability to upgrade it. And for that, we’re sorry to disappoint customers who wanted that, and we’ve asked the team to go and re-architect and design something great for the future that those Mac Pro customers who want more expandability, more upgradability in the future. It’ll meet more of those needs.


My takeaway is that the Mac’s future is bright. Mac sales were up in 2016, once again outpacing the PC industry as a whole, and the new MacBook Pros are a hit, with sales up “about 20 percent” year over year. The Mac is a $25 billion business for Apple annually, and according to the company there are 100 million people in the active Mac user base worldwide.

Yes, those numbers are all peanuts compared to the iPhone, but everything is peanuts compared to the iPhone.

Ternus put it plainly: “Some of our most talented folks are working on [the Mac]. I mean, quite frankly, a lot of this company, if not most of this company, runs on Macs. This is a company full of pro Mac users.”

I asked whether Apple is aware of just how many serious Mac users have begun to doubt the company’s commitment to the Mac in general, and the needs of pro Mac users in particular. Schiller said:

It’s a reasonable question, and this is why we’re here today, specifically, to address that question above all else. We’re committed to the Mac, we’ve got great talent on the Mac, both hardware and software, we’ve got great products planned for the future, and as far as our horizon line can see, the Mac is a core component of the things Apple delivers, including to our pro customers.

I think it was simply untenable for Apple to continue to remain silent on the Mac Pro front. No matter how disappointing you consider today’s speed bump updates to the lineup, they’re certainly better than no updates at all. But there was no way Apple could release today’s speed bumps without acknowledging that in and of themselves, these updates do not suggest that Apple is committed to the Mac Pro. In fact, if they had released these speed bumps without any comment about the future of the Mac Pro, people would have reasonably concluded that Apple had lost its goddamned mind.

Ultimately, actions speak louder than words. But I very much like the words I heard yesterday.


A few other miscellaneous tidbits from the discussion:

  • Near the end, John Paczkowski had the presence of mind to ask about the Mac Mini, which hadn’t been mentioned at all until that point. Schiller: “On that I’ll say the Mac Mini is an important product in our lineup and we weren’t bringing it up because it’s more of a mix of consumer with some pro use. … The Mac Mini remains a product in our lineup, but nothing more to say about it today.”

  • Schiller, on Apple’s own pro apps: “I just want to reiterate our strong commitment there, as well. Both with Final Cut Pro X and Logic Pro X, there are teams on those software products that are completely dedicated to delivering great pro software to our customers. No foot off the gas there.”

  • Federighi: “I think if you use Xcode downloads as a metric, it’s possible software developers are actually our largest pro audience. It’s growing very quickly, it’s been fantastic.”

  • Asked whether coming-in-the-future next-gen Mac Pros would be assembled in the U.S. as the current ones are, Schiller said “We’re not ready to talk about that yet. Further down the line, we’d be happy to.”

  • For examples of the type of software that the current Mac Pro isn’t well-suited for, Federighi mentioned VR: “Those can be in VR, those can be in certain kinds of high end cinema production tasks where most of the software out there that’s been written to target those doesn’t know how to balance itself well across multiple GPUs, but can scale across a single large GPU.”

  • I asked about scripting and automation — whether Apple still sees scripting and automation as an important part of the pro market. Federighi: “We think scriptability and automation of the system remain super important.”

Read the whole story
kbreit
81 days ago
reply
Share this story
Delete
2 public comments
martinbaum
82 days ago
reply
Stupendous news... for 2015.
glynn
82 days ago
reply
Next year...
Ubiquitous

Overcast 3: Design walkthrough

1 Comment and 3 Shares

Overcast 3 is now available, and it’s a huge update, mostly in the design and flow of the interface. I’ve been working on it since last summer, informed by over two years of testing, usage, and customer feedback.

I designed Overcast 1.0 in 2014 for iOS 7, and it was a product of its time: it used ultra-thin text and lines against stark, sharp-edged, full-screen white sheets and translucent blur panes, with much of the basic functionality behind hidden gestures. That fundamental design carried through every update until today.

My design goals for 3.0 were:

  1. Update the style from iOS 7 to today: More affordances, more curves, thicker fonts, less translucency, more tactility. App-design fashion doesn’t stand still, and many iOS 7-era designs now look dated.
  2. Bring all functionality into the open: Add visible controls and affordances to anything that was previously hard to find or behind a hidden gesture, such as table-cell swipe actions and actions that first require tapping corner “Edit” buttons.

    You wouldn’t believe how many customers have asked me to add features that were already there, or couldn’t find basic functions like deleting episodes, because they weren’t apparent enough in the design.

  3. Adapt to larger phones: Enlarge touch targets and make one-handed use faster and easier, even when only part of the screen is within easy reach. I also wanted to reduce the potential for (and effects of) mis-tapping, especially around the lower left and right screen edges, which I believe will become increasingly important as future iPhones presumably get thinner side bezels.

    Overcast 1.0 was designed for the iPhone 5S. Some fundamentals needed to be revisited now that the vast majority of my customers are on 4.7- and 5.5-inch screens.

Now Playing screen, card metaphor

I began by revamping the fundamental structure between the rest of the app and the Now Playing screen with a new card metaphor, which slides up from the bottom instead of pushing in from the right:

Old New

Most popular music and podcast apps have adopted slide-up methods for their Now Playing screens (including the iOS 10 Music app), so this matches what people are already accustomed to elsewhere.

It can be smoothly pulled up from the miniplayer (or just tap it), and can be smoothly dismissed by swiping down anywhere on the Now Playing screen (or tapping the “down” chevron).1

This card metaphor is carried throughout all other modal screens in the app, and they all work the same way, speeding up common tasks and greatly enhancing one-handed use.

I also redesigned the Now Playing screen itself. The old one revealed episode notes in a hidden scroll zone — you’d need to swipe up on the artwork to reveal them, which relatively few people ever discovered.

Old New

The new Now Playing screen can be swiped horizontally to reveal effects on the left or episode notes on the right, and — critically — this is indicated by a standard “page dots” indicator below the artwork.2

The Effects and Playback popovers have been consolidated into a single effects pane:3

Old New

Along with a tightening of the seek-back/forward tap zones, this moved critical controls away from the lower-left and lower-right screen edges, which are often mis-tapped when handling large phones.

Playlists, episode info, and podcast screens

Playlists have been manually reorderable since 1.0, but many iOS users never tap “Edit” buttons in navigation bars, so many people never even knew they could do it. Even for those who knew they could reorder episodes, the two-step process was cumbersome.

The new playlist screen has full-time reordering handles for faster access and better discoverability:

Old New

The miniplayer is also now larger and easier to grab, has larger buttons, and hides when nothing is playing.

I’ve also replaced the episode-info popovers, which I’ve hated since the day I shipped them:

Old New

The old popover lacked contrast from its surroundings, had limited space, and required carefully tapping outside its bounds to dismiss, which was often clumsy when one-handed.

The new episode-info card behaves like all other Overcast 3 cards: slides up quickly, then easily dismissed by swiping down anywhere (or inward from the left edge). It can also be previewed with 3D Touch and swiped up for quick actions.

Playing, deleting, queueing

Previously, tapping an episode in the list would immediately begin playback. This is nice when you want it, but accidental input was always an issue: I found it too easy to accidentally begin playing something that I was trying to rearrange, delete, or see info about.

A lot of people also never swipe table cells (or tap Edit buttons), therefore never finding the Delete button. I’ve gotten literally hundreds of emails since Overcast 1.0’s launch asking how to delete episodes without playing them.

Old New

To address these, I’ve switched to a two-stage method: tap an episode to select it, which shows various action buttons, and tap the newly revealed Play button to play it.

I expect this to be the most controversial change in Overcast 3, as it does slow down playback, but I’ve found that it works far better and more consistently, most people accustomed to the old way get used to it in a couple of days, and it makes the app far more reliable and discoverable for everyone.

It also gave me a place to put a new button: Queue.

Some kind of “Up Next”-style fast queue management has been one of Overcast’s most-requested features since day one. It took me a long time to come around to the idea because I thought my playlists served the same role. And they mostly did, but they needed two big changes:

  1. Easy access from around the interface to quickly add episodes to the queue.
  2. Overcast 3’s new option for manual playlists, instead of just “smart” playlists, matching iTunes’ definitions: manual playlists only ever contain things you add explicitly to them, while “smart” playlists (previously the only kind in Overcast) are a set of rules that automatically include or exclude episodes. Many people want their queue/up-next to be a manual playlist.

The new queue features are simply Overcast playlists with special placement in the interface. If you already have a playlist named “Queue” or the default “All Episodes”, that’s used, and if not, it’s created as necessary. These show up everywhere and have full functionality just like every other playlist.

Miscellany

The podcast screen always had a huge design flaw. Quick: in the old screen, how do you reverse the sort order of the episodes so it plays oldest to newest?

Old New

There’s no standard for this on iOS, so I copied the desktop/web standard of a triangle indicator on the header that can be tapped to reverse the direction. Nobody ever found this, so I’ve added a clearly labeled option under each podcast’s Settings as well.

The old podcast-directory screen was filled with annoyances: podcasts you’d already subscribed to would be dimmed out and show an annoying alert if tapped, you could only add one podcast at a time, etc.

Old New

Now, everything’s visible from everywhere, the same actions show up wherever an episode is listed, and you can add multiple podcasts without having to go back into the directory for each one. (Finally.) And, of course, it’s a card, so it’s easy to dismiss by just dragging down.

Some other new stuff:

A widget!

Rich notifications!

An all-new, much faster Watch app, finally natively running on watchOS 3! (The old one was watchOS 1. Really.)

And even some Swift! (This is why the app has grown from 7 MB to about 30 MB: since Swift is still young, all Swift apps still come with their own custom copy of the Swift libraries.)

Much nicer ads

When my patronage-only model effectively failed and I added Google ads last September, I had to swallow two bitter pills:

  • Bad ads: I had little control over the advertisers or the ad content, which could be offensive or reflect badly on my app without my knowledge. I thought I could set adequate limits, but in practice, it wasn’t good enough.

    Google provides an extensive control panel that lets you block certain ad categories. Most are clearly placed in Sensitive Categories and were easily disabled before launch, like gambling, drugs, etc., but I kept hearing from customers who’d seen other ads that offended both of us. For instance, at least one listener was shown an ad for a gun, which I never even considered would be allowed with all of the “sensitive” categories turned off. But Guns & Firearms isn’t in Sensitive Categories next to drugs and gambling — it’s in Business & Industrial > Security Equipment & Services.

    So I kept blocking more categories, but it was never enough to result in ads that were consistently acceptable to me.

    Other ad networks exist, but they tend to be even worse, or they don’t make enough money, or both.

  • Mystery code in my app: I had to embed the closed-source Google ad library into my app, and accept all of its uncomfortable requirements (Advertising Identifier, permission dialogs to use things like Bluetooth or Contacts if an advertiser wanted it, etc.).

    This made me a little uneasy in September, but then November happened, and by late January, I wasn’t comfortable embedding unnecessary closed-source code from a U.S advertising company in my app anymore.

I decided to do whatever it took to drop the Google ads and Fabric crash reports and analytics, which was recently acquired by Google.

No closed-source code will be embedded in Overcast anymore,4 and I won’t use any more third-party analytics services. I’m fairly confident that Apple has my back if a government pressures them to violate their customers’ rights and privacy, but it’s wise to minimize the number of companies that I’m making that assumption about.

Fortunately, the Google ads made relatively little — about 90% of Overcast’s revenue still comes from paid subscriptions, which are doing better now. The presence of ads for non-subscribers is currently more important than the ads themselves, so I can replace them with pretty much anything. So I rolled my own tasteful in-house ads with class-leading privacy, which show in the Now Playing and Add Podcast screens:

Now Playing can show ads for websites, podcasts, apps, or Overcast Premium, while the Add Podcast screen will only ever show ads for podcasts. (Want to buy an ad? Get in touch.)

That’s right, ads for podcasts. What better place to advertise a podcast successfully than in a podcast player? Tap one, and you get the standard Overcast subscription screen with a complete episode list and one-touch subscribing.

Go get it already

It’s a huge update. Thank you very much to all of my customers who made this possible.

I hope I’ve succeeded in my design goals, and I hope you enjoy it.


  1. Don’t worry, edge-swipers: you can also dismiss it by dragging in from the left screen edge, just like the old way, to fit your established muscle memory. ↩︎

  2. Well, almost standard. I made my own so I could improve some of the built-in one’s behaviors and make my own custom little dot icons for Effects and Info. ↩︎

  3. The continuous-play option previously in Playback, labeled “When Episode Ends: Play Next/Stop”, was frequently missed, misunderstood, or invoked accidentally. Many people have asked where the continuous-play option was, and many more asked why their app was suddenly broken and wouldn’t automatically advance between episodes. It’s now just a “Continuous Play” switch in Settings. ↩︎

  4. Unfortunately, this precludes Chromecast support. I’d gladly reconsider if Google documents a way for apps to send audio to Chromecast devices without embedding their closed-source library. ↩︎

Read the whole story
kbreit
124 days ago
reply
Share this story
Delete
1 public comment
MotherHydra
124 days ago
reply
I'm impressed with the thought and consideration that went into this "update" (it's actually a huge overhaul). The podcast player sliding into view from the right always struck me as kludgy and sluggish, but with this update the motion of the interface moving up from the bottom feels both natural and smooth. Also noteworthy: re-thinking how a user accesses audio effects and show notes. This was a fun read if you're a fan of user interface design, but even if you aren't skip down to the solution Marco created for displaying ads- very smart thinking here. I've already acclimated to the new interface and I've had it less than a day.
Space City, USA
peelman
123 days ago
Totally agree. The changes he made are incredibly well done. I love the larger controls, and the changes to list views and selections and control layout is soooooo much better for managing lists. Marco once again proves why he's a premiere example of Indie development.
MotherHydra
121 days ago
Peelman, am I just being a dolt: I can't seem to find the save button to make a vanilla playlist. I can name it and add podcasts, but all I'm offered is "cancel." Oddly enough force quitting the app and re-oppening it caused my tech playlist to appear, but I haven't been able to duplicate that behavior again. It may be time to step away from technology today. EDIT: OK, Overcast was just revved to 3.0.2 via the app store update process, and suddenly Lo! A wild "Done" button appears in my playlist creation sheet. Clearly this was a bug but it didn't affect everyone. Glad it got fixed I thought I was going crazy. The old version, 3.0.1, just had blank playlists without a name so clearly something wasn't kosher.

Preview NewsBlur's upcoming hardware device, Turn Touch

4 Comments and 11 Shares

I have something very exciting to share with you today. I’ve been working on a secret project called Turn Touch and I’m just about ready to show it to you. Signup on turntouch.com to find out.

It’s a new kind of device and it’s machined out of solid wood. I built it to last, much like my other projects (for instance the news reader you’re likely reading this in). Turn Touch is built for NewsBlur, among many other things.

Turn Touch will be launching on Kickstarter next week and I want to ask for your help. When I launch my campaign I’m going to need people like you to share it with people who look to you for recomendations on what’s good. You already use NewsBlur, so you’re already known for having good taste.

Now, you probably want to know what Turn Touch is and actually looks like, yeah? Then signup on turntouch.com.

You’ll get to preview the Kickstarter campaign and offer me any feedback you have. You’ll get to see Turn Touch and find out what it offers you.

I’ve been working on this as a side project for that past few years. And by signing up you’ll have the first access to it.

Read the whole story
kbreit
141 days ago
reply
popular
142 days ago
reply
Share this story
Delete
3 public comments
torrentprime
142 days ago
reply
I'd back that kickstarter if it could somehow make Trump go away
San Jose, CA
samuel
141 days ago
If only.
tingham
142 days ago
reply
Signed up months ago, no emails. Weird.
Cary, NC
samuel
142 days ago
You should have received at least three emails by now. I suggest signing up again, it will automatically email you the "Sneak peak" email.
GreenChange
142 days ago
I've also put my Gmail address in, and not received anything.
samuel
142 days ago
reply
It's a remote for NewsBlur (among other things).
The Haight in San Francisco
Splike
142 days ago
Can't wait to find out what this wooden thing actually does! Maybe it's like the Pokémon Go plus device. It will blink when good stories are nearby!
christophersw
142 days ago
I'm hoping for a magic "good news" button that filters everything not fit for /r/aww out of my feeds. :-) ... also it should make popcorn...
theprawn
142 days ago
I love this! I wish you success, but I cannot, however, support Kickstarter as a company. Hope this goes to market!
llucax
142 days ago
I hate this "sign-up to see what is it". I hope somebody posts an image or something on a public web that doesn't require sign-up or login
samuel
141 days ago
It's launching Tuesday. If you don't care to signup you can wait until then. I need people to signup so that I can send out an email on the day of the launch and have a nice start to the campaign.
sirshannon
140 days ago
Email newsletters and announcements are cool but I think the audience here on NewsBlur tends to skew towards RSS ;)

Musing: Google Establishes CA Root Authority.

1 Share

Google continues to build out its ownership of key Internet infrastructure. Email/Spam filtering, Chrome Browser, DNS

As we look forward to the evolution of both the web and our own products it is clear HTTPS will continue to be a foundational technology. This is why we have made the decision to expand our current Certificate Authority efforts to include the operation of our own Root Certificate Authority. To this end, we have established Google Trust Services (https://pki.goog/), the entity we will rely on to operate these Certificate Authorities on behalf of Google and Alphabet.

Thoughts, in no particular order:

  1. Bought company with root certificates to shorten lead time to control
  2. Ownership of and widespread use of Chrome web browser, DNS and trusted root certificates means that Google has unprecedented amount of control over user data regardless encryption.
  3. Can silently MITM any traffic in browser by combining web browser and certificate configuration
  4. Data gathering from DNS servers for destinations, source addresses/geolocation, usage profiling
  5. Chrome already prevents many privacy and usability features available in other browsers e.g. Reading mode,
  6. Adds to data-gathering possibilities from web services that predict searches, URLs and spelling errors built into browser

One of the base assumptions for internet safety was that functions would be widely distributed which included the spread of companies that could control and operate these functions. While BGP and routing is still “unowned” critical services like DNS and TLS are being owned by private corporations (Google, Cisco, Oracle etc) and Governments (China, Russia).

This is a disturbing pattern.

Google Online Security Blog: The foundation of a more secure web : https://security.googleblog.com/2017/01/the-foundation-of-more-secure-web.html

The post Musing: Google Establishes CA Root Authority. appeared first on EtherealMind.

Read the whole story
kbreit
146 days ago
reply
Share this story
Delete
Next Page of Stories