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Apple Embraces Tinkering for the First Time in 20 Years

Steve Jobs famously described the computer as “a bicycle for our minds.” Whether or not you’ve heard that before, it’s worth refreshing your memory on the context by watching this short video. The gist is that humans aren’t very efficient at getting around when compared to the rest of the animal kingdom, but because we are “tool builders,” we can more than make up for it. The tools we create magnify our capabilities. They make us better versions of ourselves. And the computer, Jobs believed, is “the most remarkable tool that we’ve ever come up with.” So what a bicycle can do for our bodies, a computer can do for our minds.

I love this analogy for many reasons, but primarily because it’s not simple. It’s far-reaching and it works from many different angles. One thing I draw from it, that others may or may not, is that the bicycle-like properties of the computer are strongest for those who use this remarkable tool to make tools of their own. A computer is a bicycle that makes bicycles, and a human is most magnified when they are a tool builder, not just a tool user.

To me, whether Jobs intended it this way or not, the “bicycle for the mind” is the tool that empowers you to repurpose it for your specific needs, not just to consume things with it, or use it in the same way as everyone else.

Or, in the words of former Apple Product Manager of Automation Technologies Sal Soghoian, “the power of the computer should reside in the hands of the one using it.”

Creators Build Tools

Many people use their computers for creative work, but, as I covered in my last post, everyone who does any kind of work also does some kind of meta-work, creating tools and systems that support their process. You might build a small business entirely around pre-packaged services like eBay or Shopify or Squarespace, but at some point you’re going to go beyond just using computers and services and start creating tools to make your work easier. This might be as simple as a customized spreadsheet to model your business plan, or a set of TextExpander snippets that automate your customer support replies. Or it could be as complicated as a multi-step Photoshop Action, or even a proprietary asset management system.

Creators build tools, which means they need tools for building tools.

Computers, Hammers, and Saws

The first home computers were tools, but also expressly and proudly tool-creation devices. The blinking cursor on an Apple II or Commodore 64 was as much an invitation to create your own BASIC program as it was to load and run someone else’s.

Early home computers were powerful for the time, but also simple. As combination tools-and-tool-creation-systems, they were a lot like a hammer or a saw that you might find in a woodshop. You can use a hammer and saw to build a bookshelf, or you can use them to build a jig that will speed up your production of a dozen bookshelves.

You may discover that a jig can speed up your work by tinkering away with the tools you use every day. Tinkering is a word I use a lot. It was years of tinkering with expressions in After Effects that led me to create my short film TANK. Tinkering with color correction led directly to Magic Bullet. Tinkering means experimenting, trying things out, and expanding your capabilities. Going farther.

In a woodshop, the same tools you use to do the work are also the tools you use to to the meta-work of automation. This means the woodworker is fully empowered to build their own tools. And they inevitably will, thanks to the power of tinkering.

Two Bicycle-free Decades

Early home computers shipped with BASIC. Early Macintosh computers shipped with Hypercard, which you were invited to use to create recipe books and home inventories, but was also famously used to create the hugely-popular game Myst.

In 1998, marking the triumphant return of Steve Jobs, Apple released the iMac G3. The “i” was for Internet, and this computer that would come to define the new Apple was in every way a consumer device, designed for every kind of person to use, not just computer nerds. Instead of a blinking cursor, it prominently featured the Internet Explorer web browser. The emphasis was on using a computer, on consuming content from the web.

This same year, Apple discontinued Hypercard. The iMac — the foundational device of the Apple we know today — was the fist Mac that didn’t come with an obvious way to customize its capabilities. It was a tool, but not fundamentally a tool-making tool.

And that would set the trend for Apple devices for the next twenty years.

“Anyone Can Code”

No, they can’t. Not just anyone can make an app. Exhbit A: People don’t.

That first iMac did ship with AppleScript, a noble, if wrong-headed attempt to dress up code as plain English. OS X shipped with a terminal app that could run bash and Python.

Scripting is powerful, and significantly less intimidating than coding an app. But scripting is still coding, and most people find writing code intimidating, becuase it has nothing to do with their creative work.

No normal people ever used these tools to make their computer-centric work easier. Building apps, large or small, became exclusively the domain of programers. A rift was starting to form between computer users and the super-users who could repurpose the computer to do their will.

Xcode is how you make iOS apps, and it’s about as anyone-friendly as an Apollo capsule.

Programing is great, but it’s not using a hammer to build a jig. It’s using a hammer-factory to build a hammer. When the tool-making tools don’t look anything like the work-making-tools, the worker is disempowered. Unless your work is making code, coding isn’t tinkering.

Computers from 1998 to the present day have disempowered their users by not shipping with simple, easy-to-use tools for tinkering.

But What About Automator?

I’m being a little unfair with that last assertion. Apple did take a stab at code-free scripting in OS X, with an app called Automator. It first shipped with Mac OS X Tiger in 2005, and on the surface, it would appear to be exactly the kind of tool-making tool that I claim has been missing since Hypercard.

Automator in OS X Tiger.

Automator’s express mission was to allow people to create custom tools using a graphical model of stringing actions together. It would seem, on the surface, to be exactly what I’m asking for.

I realize that to some, the above screenshot seems as intimidating as the Xcode screenshot. But there's a key difference: Just about anyone can tell what is happening in the Automator workflow above. When you download an Automator workflow, you can open and dissect it like this, and see how it works. This gets back to my “blinking cursor” theory of computers that natively ran BASIC: If running it is a lot like writing it, you can learn by example and tinker your way to the next level.

Automator was a great idea that seemed to be held back by a lack of support, or interest, within Apple. It can do a lot, but never quite enough to become an essential part of my workflow. The few times I tried making anything useful with Automator, I would inevitably hit a wall, and resort to scripting. Any useful Automator workflow I ever got my hands on was essentially a wrapper around a script.

As just one concrete example, Automator has nothing like an if/then action, so there’s no way to do the simplest kind of flow control. Here’s an Apple support thread about, you guessed it, working around that limitation with scripting.

Also, it sounds glib to say it, but I’m sincere when I point out that no one ever made Myst with Automator. Automating repetitive tasks is fine, but we’re all better off when our tool-making tools allow us to have fun, to express our creativity, and to make art, games, and stories — not just resize and rename a bunch of JPEGs.

Third Parties Step Up as Best They Can...

There are several great Mac and iOS automation tools from third-party developers.

TextExpander is an easy first step into automation for many. It allows you to type something short, which gets replaced with something long. If you email Slugline support and I sign off my reply with “Feedback like this helps us prioritize future development, so thanks again for getting in touch!” I hope you don’t mind knowing that I don’t type that out every time by hand.

Keyboard Maestro is a deep and powerful tool for automation on Mac. I’ve been using it a ton since the discontinuation of Quadro for iPad, and I’m sure you’ll hear more from me about it.

Hazel is another wickedly useful Mac tool for Automation. I use it for simple things, like tidying up my downloads folder, but I also built a remote render-monitoring system with it for TANK.

In 2015, a company called DeskConnect released an ambitious iOS app called Workflow. The easiest way to describe Workflow is “Automator for iOS.” To my great surprise, where I struggled to do useful things with Automator, I immediately found myself creating useful tools with Workflow.

I also had a similar reaction to many others, which was that Workflow was so awesome and so powerful that I genuinely wondered if Apple would continue to allow it in the App Store.

Workflow. I stole this image from macrumors.com.

On iOS there’s Drafts, which offers automation for text. It’s a syncing notes platform that can spit out your text in all kinds of interesting and powerful ways.

Also on iOS there’s an amazing text editing app called Editorial that has an Automator-like UI for processing your text. It’s wonderful, but it hasn’t been updated in a long time.

Editorial has some nice features in its worklfow editor, such as collapsing and color-coding actions.

It wouldn’t surprise me if the creator of Editorial had trouble building a business model around it. I know first-hand how hard it is to make money with a productivity app. I’ve never invested too much effort into making anything complex with Editorial, because I didn’t know many other writers who used it. As much as I love TextExpander and Keyboard Maestro, the topic of discussion here really is about automation tools that ship with the computer, like BASIC and Hypercard did. Attempts to keep Hypercard alive as a paid product failed. The bicycle-making capability, I believe, must be ubiquitous. It must be fundamental to the computer, like a blinking cursor.

But unfortunately, in 2016, Apple took a very public step away from this idea.

...While Apple Steps Down

In 2016, Apple eliminated Sal Soghoian’s position, prompting him to leave the company. Here’s what John Gruber of Daring Fireball said about that:

...a huge part of my argument for why I feel so much more productive on a Mac than an iPad revolves around the automation technologies that Soghoian’s group developed. [...] I find this to be a profoundly worrisome turn of events for the future of the Mac. I hope I’m wrong.

Gruber wasn’t wrong. Automator hasn’t been noticeably updated since Sal left Apple, and the Mac still suffers from a lack of tinkering tools, and a massive rift between users and coders.

But, crazily, Gruber was wrong about something else: While the Mac has not taken any steps forward in empowering its users to create tools, iOS has, and profoundly so.

Taking Shortcuts

That iOS app I mentioned above called Workflow? Apple did not kick it out of the App Store for being too powerful. Instead, in 2017, they acquired it. The reaction from the community was hopeful, but I and many others found it hard to be optimistic. Apple has a history of acqui-hiring, and of killing off beloved professional apps like Aperture and Shake.

But at their 2018 WWDC conference, Apple revealed the best possible news for Workflow fans. Workflow, under the new name Shortcuts, would be updated and integrated deeply with Siri in iOS 12.

Apple was not just going to ship an automation tool. They were publicly tying it to Siri, one of their most important initiatives. Apple shouted from their biggest stage that automation was a key part of the future of iOS.

When I watched this Keynote, I think my legs started pedaling involuntarily.

Shortcuts, Shortcuts, and Shortcuts

Apple did make the namespace a little confusing by renaming Workflow to Shortcuts. iOS 12 also debuted the idea of “Siri Shortcuts,” which are hooks that apps can add to allow Siri-based voice access to specific features. This is separate from, but related to, the Shortcuts app, which is literally just an updated version of Workflow. With it, you can download and/or create Shortcuts, which are graphical mini-scripts that can do all kinds of useful things on your iOS device.

Confusing? Sure. But wait a minute: Download and/or create. Shortcuts encourages you to do both equally. To dissect and learn, or to jump in and tinker. In other words, it’s the 2018 equivalent of the blinking BASIC cursor.

Bicycling

The bicycle is back, and I couldn’t be more excited.

Do you, like many people, have a love/hate relationship with your smartphone? Maybe you agree with Mat Honan, who wrote in his hilarious review of the Google Pixel 3, “When I am not looking at my phone, I become slightly anxious. And then, when I do actually look at it, I become even more so.”

Shortcuts, the app, is my favorite thing to happen to the iPhone since the camera got decent. I truly feel that my relationship to my iPhone has fundamentally changed, because I can now build things on it that make it do things that only I would ever want. Useful things, but also fun things. Complex things and simple things.

My wife was annoyed that her iPhone would make noisy alert sounds when she was trying to take a nap. I created a super-simple shortcut that asks how long she plans on napping, and turns on Do Not Disturb for that amount of time. It took five minutes to create and share with her via AirDrop.

The entire source of Naptime, and what it looks like running in Shortcuts.

I had an idea for an app that would help me prep portrait-orientations images for Instagram. The problem is, there’s no way such an app could ever be profitable. I didn’t really want to make money with it, but I couldn’t afford to hire a developer to make it, so the idea sat. Now I’ve tinkered it into existence as a shortcut.

 

Instamax pads photos that are too tall for Instagram with white borders.

 

Prior to shortcuts, the only Apple-supplied way to solve this problem would have been with a Mac running Xcode, and all the encumbrance of building a custom iPhone application. With Shortcuts I was able to tackle this problem while sipping a beer at my favorite lunch spot.

For this genuine use case, the iPhone is now its own development platform.

There’s so much you can do with Shortcuts that it’s difficult to know where to start. My recommendation is that you start very simple. Like maybe so simple that you wonder if it’s even worth doing.

There’s a pizza place near my office that serves one kind of pizza each day. They post it on their website in a consistent enough way that I was able to make a super-simple shortcut to extract just that information. I assigned it a Siri phrase, so now I can say to my phone, “Hey Siri, what’s the pizza of the day?”

My pizza shortcut running in Shortcuts, and via Siri.

Shortcuts can also do useful things with images beyond just cropping. These pretty..

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Finally!

(And pssst... there’s a sale! Details below.)

From the Adobe Blog on June 19:

Starting today, Lightroom CC, our cloud-based photo service, can synchronize both presets and profiles, including custom-created presets and third-party presets and profiles. This means you can have access to any preset that you’ve made or purchased on all of your devices, enabling you to truly edit your photos anywhere.

Note that this syncing only works with Lightroom CC. Lightroom Classic was updated as well, but Adobe is being true to their word that cloud-based syncing workflows are not a part of Classic’s improvement roadmap.

So this means, and again I really have to say finally, if you use any of my Prolost Profiles and/or Presets in Lightroom CC desktop, they will now sync to the mobile versions. And it’s a good, smart sync too — you can manage which profiles and presets are visible on Lightroom CC for iOS and Android.

What this means for me is that my Lightroom workflow — which has always been heavily based around presets, and now profiles as well — works completely on my iPhone. Put another way, the camera I always have with me has most of my desktop-based post-processing workflow built right in.

#yourfilter is better than #nofilter

There are no shortage of fun, easy and/or creative ways to post-process your iPhone photos, but what excites me about this is that, whether you use Profiles or Presets, and whether you build your own, or buy from folks like me, you can now curate your own collection of mobile photo looks. And you can apply them to raw DNGs that you can shoot with increasingly sophisticated control, using your phone’s camera. This is far more sophisticated than simply applying filters to our mobile photos. It’s more akin to choosing your own digital film stock.

Slow is Smooth

The reason I didn’t blog about this promptly was that I was visiting Yosemite National Park with my family. I had my Sony a7S II with me of course, but I shot a lot with my iPhone as well. Along with Preset & Profile sync, Lightroom CC for iOS also now features a “technology preview” of a Long Exposure mode. I tried it out on Yosemite’s beautiful waterfalls, and then was able to complete all the post I would ever want to do on these shots right there on my iPhone X.

Bridalveil Fall, Long Exposure. Prolost Geartrain GT10 profile, all processing done in Lightroom CC for iOS.

My brother Eric in front of the glacier exhibit he sculpted for the Yosemite Visitor's Center. Prolost Geartrain GT02 profile, all processing done in Lightroom CC for iOS.

My wife and son in front of Yosemite Falls. Prolost Geartrain GT10 profile, all processing done in Lightroom CC for iOS.

Lower Yosemite Falls, Long Exposure. All processing done in Lightroom CC for iOS.

Celebrating with a Sale

I’m so excited about this Lightroom release that I’m putting all my Lightroom Presets and Profiles on sale through July 4th. Use coupon code FINALLY to get 40% off.

Shop Prolost Presets & Profiles
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Prolost Blog by Stu Maschwitz - 7M ago

TANK is an animated short film that I have been working on for a year and half. It's up today on Red Giant's site.

TANK (short film by Stu Maschwitz) - YouTube
The Making of Tank

The way I made TANK is a little crazy. I made it entirely in Adobe After Effects, with equal parts animation elbow grease and nerdy expressions madness. This video is part behind-the-scenes, part After Effects tutorial, and part therapy session.

The Making of TANK - YouTube

A complete list of all the tools I used to make TANK is available at Red Giant's blog.

VectorKit

Want to try making 3D vector graphics in After Effects? No? Well, if you change your mind, I packaged up the basic working of my TANK vector graphics rig into an After Effects template that you can download for free from the Prolost Store.

Get VectorKit
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Prolost Profiles in the new Profile browser in Lightroom CC 1.3, released today.

Adobe released Lightroom Classic 7.3 and Lightroom CC 1.3 today, both featuring improved support for Creative Profiles, which have the potential to give your photos exciting new looks.

Prolost Profiles

To celebrate this launch, I’m releasing six sets of Creative Profiles on the Prolost Store.

Prolost Profiles on the Prolost Store

These are fun, powerful looks for your photos that you can browse visually and audition with a full-screen preview. Yes, Lightroom has finally caught up to where Magic Bullet Looks has been for years.

Like all my Lightroom offerings, I made these profiles for my own photography, and I’m sharing them with you in the hopes that you find them fun and useful. I’m excited to finally be able to create looks in Lightroom that go beyond what we can create with just the Develop sliders.
















Presets and Profiles

Where Lightroom Develop Presets are shortcuts to applying Develop/Edit settings, Lightroom Profiles typically apply an overall look to the photo. They leave all the Develop/Edit controls unchanged, so you can adjust them to taste. Unlike Presets, Profiles can create looks that are not possible with the Lightroom controls on their own (through the use of 3D LUTs).

Lightroom has long supported “Camera Profiles,” but they were not very visible, and used mostly to match camera JPEG output. With today’s updates, Profiles get a nice visual browsing system that’s front-and-center in the interface, and a differentiation between Camera Profiles and “Creative Profiles” like mine.

The cynical take on Creative Profiles is that they’re like Instagram filters for Lightroom. But given that they work on raw files, and that they combine with the immense and tasteful editing controls available within Lightroom, I think it’s much better to think of them as “virtual film stocks.”

Creative Profiles can support an Amount slider, so you can apply as much or as little of the look as you like. So like everything in Lightroom, they are just tools that rely on your eye and taste to provide good results.

All the Prolost Profiles support the Amount slider, so you can season to taste.

What About Mobile?

While new versions of Lightroom CC for iOS and Android were also posted today featuring the same built-in Creative Profiles as CC Desktop and Classic, there’s not yet any way to install custom profiles like mine on the mobile version of Lightroom.

Changes for Presets

These Lightroom updates change how presets work too. It’s a big enough topic that I’ll cover it in my next post, but if you want answers now, you can check out the FAQs over on the Prolost Store:

Read more about this Lightroom update at the Adobe Blog.

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Prolost Blog by Stu Maschwitz - 10M ago







This is a follow-up to A Take of Three Blurs, which I wrote in 2006 as a guide to the blur effects in Adobe After Effects.

Twelve years later, there are some new blurs in After Effects, some new best practices, and new potential for confusion.

TLDR

Use Fast Box Blur now, for everything.

But c’mon, there’s so much more to know about After Effects blurs!

The Three Oldies

This was the breakdown in 2006:

Fast Blur was a good, general-purpose blur. It was “fast” because it was just a three-iteration box blur, and box blurs can be fast on the CPU. Most people’s default choice of blur at the time.

Box Blur has the exact same blur engine as Fast Blur, but with control over the number of iterations. At three iterations, it matches Fast Blur perfectly. At one iteration, it produces a useful squared-off blur effect. At greater-than-three iterations, it produces a smoother, rounder blur than Fast Blur. My advice was to reach for this blur most often, as it offers the most control.

Gaussian Blur also used the same blur engine as Fast Blur, also at three iterations. But it lacked a Repeat Edge Pixels option, so my advice was to never use it.

Where Are They Now?

All three of these venerable old blur effects are now obsolete.

Fast Blur has been renamed to Fast Blur (Legacy) and moved to the Obsolete category, as it has not been optimized for GPU rendering.

Box Blur, the blur I recommended using most often? There’s no more effect by that name.

Gaussian Blur has been renamed to Gaussian Blur (Legacy) and moved to Obsolete. I didn’t recommend you use it in 2006, and now Adobe agrees.

The New Hotness

What happened to Box Blur? It’s actually still there, just under a new name. It’s called Fast Box Blur now, and it has been optimized for the GPU. It also has a new default of three iterations.

Point of order: Where Fast Blur was “fast” because box blurs are fast on the CPU, Fast Box Blur is “fast” because it runs on the GPU.

The name change was also designed to make it easier to find for folks like me who often type “fast” into the Effects and Preset panel to search for Fast Blur.

If you have old projects that used Box Blur (as I advised), you'll find those effects automatically updated to Fast Box Blur.

The new After Effects Gaussian Blur is actually the old Premiere Pro Gaussian Blur. Note the negative values on the scopes corresponding with the discolored halos around the highlights.

A new Gaussian Blur was added to the After Effects CC 2017 release, and was meant to replace both Fast Blur and Gaussian Blur. However, this blur, inherited from Premiere Pro, gives different visual results than Fast Blur, and could push some dark colors into negative values when used in 32bpc. If matching Premiere matters to you, you might consider using this blur. Otherwise, I’d suggest avoiding it.

So:

  • Fast Blur became Fast Blur (Legacy). Don’t use it.
  • Box Blur became Fast Box Blur, and it’s good. Use it!
  • Gaussian Blur became Gaussian Blur (Legacy). Don’t use it in 2006 or now.
  • Premiere Pro’s questionable Gaussian Blur was added to After Effects, and takes the Gaussian Blur name. Don’t use it.
Fast Box Blur is the Future

So once we wade through the family tree of the three-now-four After Effects blurs, all is well, right? We have Fast Box Blur to meet all our legacy needs. It visually matches the blurs we’ve long used and loved. It’s fast and future-proofed. Life is good.

But there is one problem with using Fast Box Blur as a one-to-one replacement for Fast Blur: The Blur Radius control is scaled differently.

Specifically, by a factor of 0.37. In other words, a Fast Blur (Legacy) with a Blur Radius of 100 is a perfect visual match for a Fast Box Blur with a radius of 37.

I think this is because, while Fast Box Blur is an ideal replacement for Fast Blur (Legacy), it was designed to replace Box Blur perfectly, and Box Blur, it seems, had a multiplier built-in so that its previous default of one iteration would be a reasonable visual match to the old Gaussian Blur and Fast Blur effects.

So if you have long relied on Fast Blur, there’s not a modern, GPU-enabled blur that works exactly the way you’re accustomed to.

Prolost Fast Blur

Well I can fix that.

I created a simple preset that gives Fast Box Blur a new Blur Radius slider, and used an expression to multiply the value by 0.37. Hashtag math genius.

Actually, I made it a little more complex than that, because I also added a toggle called Visual Match Radius. With this on, the expressions attempt to scale the Blur Radius so that the results are visually similar at any number of iterations. Turn this off and radius just gets the simple 0.37 scale.

Why should you use Prolost Fast Blur? Maybe you’re just used to the blur values from Fast Blur. Or maybe you’d like to be able to adjust Iterations without radically affecting the size of the blur.

Don’t use Prolost Fast Blur when you need more than one blur effect on the same layer though — the expressions will break.

Prolost Fast Blur is included in Prolost EDC, my free (or pay what you like) collection of handy presets that I keep with me wherever I use After Effects.

Get Prolost EDC

Like all the Prolost EDC presets, Prolost Fast Blur has no dependencies that can break, so it’s safe to use in any project, even one you plan on sharing with someone who doesn’t have Prolost EDC.

Recommendations

As before, but now for different reasons, avoid Gaussian Blur.

Use Fast Box Blur for literally every blur you do in After Effects from now on (or until the next follow-up post in 2030). An Iterations setting of three is usually fine. Five is smoother. One is useful for certain effects.

If you want to replace old instances of Fast Blur with Fast Box Blur, remember to multiply the Blur Radius by 0.37. If you have keyframes on Blur Radius, you can add this expression to preserve the animation with the new values:

value * 0.37

If you want that multiplication/expression-typing handled for you, use Prolost Fast Blur. It’s Fast Box Blur with a radius that matches Fast Blur’s.

Get Prolost Fast Blur
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