I came out to my refuge coffee + book shop as I sometimes do on afternoons when the toddler is asleep or occupied enough that he and his mom won’t need me for a little while. Yesterday it was a snow storm that turned into a whiteout on my short drive. I thought to read and write and do productive non-work creative things, but found I mostly watched the snow fall, with my mind quiet. It was quite fine.

Like so many, I picked up a Fitbit last month. I thought it would be a fun way to gain some insight into my activity and help me stay a little more active. Generally, I really like the little fella, though my activity has been hampered by a round of flu in the household, a few very cold weeks of wintertime weather, and a lot of busy, long days. (I wonder what activity best represents using a standing desk; Fitbit seems to think I’m mostly lethargic during the work day, but I think I should get some points for standing there.)

Fitbit offers a premium tier that provides extra reports and the ability to download one’s data for $50 per year. I’m not particularly interested in most of the features that come with premium membership, but I am a data guy, so the Fitbit API offers, albeit with some work, a way to get my data out of their system.

Working directly with the data yields plenty of benefits. Currently the charts on the fitbit web site all require Flash, so as a Click to Flash user I have a lot of clicking to do, all to view a relatively simple bar plot that doesn’t tell me that much. Sleep is a great example. The built-in chart of sleep at Fitbit doesn’t offer much information, and all its variants are simply more bar plots. There’s a nightly activity chart that shows times awake or stirring, but not a view that compares that activity against other nights or shows relative sleep-wake times.

Well, we can fix that.

I’m using the Fitbit plugin from Slogger, modified to run by itself on a server and grab my daily data. It saves the data I’m looking for, via the Fitbit API, to a text file that I can grab and process with R and ggplot2 to make some more useful and attractive plots for myself. Here’s what I’ve come up with for sleep.


There’s a lot more data here, in what I think is a much more interesting and attractive visualization: Relative times to sleep and wake, plus display of two variants of nighttime activity, fully awake and partially awake or stirring. (The Fitbit nightly graph shows them as a single category of wakefulness). Unlike the built-in graphic, this one shows comparative times across days, which is particularly useful for figuring out just why I’m dragging my feet so much this morning – of course, it’s because I’ve been up by 5:30 at the latest all week while pushing my bedtime further and further from its sweet spot.

Additional refinements might include adding the total sleep time to each bar, for more easy to read comparison. (This is basically all you get from the over-time graph that Fitbit provides by default.)

Data is fun and the programming, for both the data extraction via API and the manipulation and plotting in R, is enjoyable learning and pastime for me. I’ll continue to play with the Fitbit activity data for steps and overall activity and see what else I can come up with.

Rain here at high altitude since Friday, which is very unusual for wintertime. The landscape has melted and we can see our sodden backyard once again.

Cooped up, I turned to extra cups of coffee and playing with Alfred 2 workflows.

A few years ago I worked up a system using Alfred 1 to add items to a task list that gets displayed on my desktop with Geektool. The list itself is a Taskpaper compatible text file, and I use a TextMate bundle that I put together (derived from the Tasks bundle along with it.

With Alfred 2 it was fun to recreate and add to the functionality of my old script using workflows. I invoke the workflow with “do something” to add something to the top of my task list; later, “done something” will mark that item as completed and add a timestamp: Alfred uses the query you specify to find matching entries in the todo file, and acts on the one you select from that list of matches.

Here’s a quick tour. Adding an item via Alfred 2 and viewing the new entry in TextMate:


Then using Alfred 2 to find the same item and mark it as completed. You get a confirmation via growl and can see the updated item in TextMate:



I have some ideas to clean up and improve this workflow but do plan to release it. If you’re interested in seeing it now in all its ugly works-for-me state, just let me know.

So far it’s been lots of fun to work with the Alfred 2. If you’re an Alfred user considering the upgrade, I recommend checking it out!

Andrew DeGraff does, among other things, cool and finely-detailed diagrams of movement through locations in movies, such as Shaun of the Dead.

(source, via Andrew DeGraff’s blog with lots of cool images)

These are great:

Growstuff is a website where food gardeners will be able to track and share their food-growing efforts. A year ago I would have thought Skud’s proposal a little idealistic, with its emphasis on process, collaboration, radical openness, and inclusiveness. But my brush with fandom a year ago (when a distributed group of volunteers responded to my call for feature requests by drafting a beautifully organized 50+ page Google doc in about 48 hours) has made a true believer out of me. Moreover, I think food gardening is a natural fit for the kind of community-first approach Skud wants to pursue. I jumped at the chance to pick a project coming out of this friendly, highly collaborative world, and I can’t wait to see what it grows into.

(source)

One of the simple but non-obvious (to me) things about a system like GTD is the exhortation that complex intellectual work can be organized into physical actions.

Now there are all kinds of reasons why lots of the work I and others do is hard to organize that way, but being conscious of physical actions as a unit of analysis has helped me do one thing much better and much more frequently: listening to music.

Here’s the thing: in an office I can’t turn on a tune until I get my headphones out. I have spent entire days occasionally thinking to myself “I’d like to listen to something,” but my headphones are over in my briefcase.

Seriously, that’s like two or three feet away sometimes. But it’s enough to prevent me from catching up with a podcast or playing an album that would be just right for an afternoon of cranking out work, that little bit of distance and distraction.

This may be a profound mental defect, that I cannot maintain a chain of thought long enough to pivot left, get a headset out of a bag, plug it in, launch rdio or instacast, find the playlist, press play, and return to work. Yet there is it, and when broken down like that I can see how that chain of action is actually relatively sophisticated. It involves several decisions: Podcast or music? Which show? Or which genre? Which artist, album, or playlist?

So let’s shorten that chain just a bit: Now when I get to the office, the first thing I do is get out the headphones and plug them in. I’m listening to a ton more than I did before – and importantly, I’m enjoying it.

In the same spirit, I’m doing something to help me do more reading, by keeping better lists of books I want to read, and then keeping one or more of those books nearby – on Kindle app or the countertop – which I have found makes it far more likely that I will pick it up and read it when I have a few free minutes.

I am aware that this is all basically a dramatically unjust oversimplification of behavioral economics’ finding that pre-slicing apples increases the likelihood of actually eating them at lunch. But this brings me back to where I started, which was a lot of recent reconsidering of key elements of GTD. This notion of small pre-requisites for accomplishing something complex or ambitious makes sense to me the past few weeks in a way that it did not previously – this resonance has proven to be valuable and I expect to continue to find new ways to take advantage of it.

I collected these notes through the course of the last couple of weeks. Today we get fully back to our work and school schedules, with school back in session after a long Christmas holiday. Some of these routines, established on the lazy days of vacation, will persist, though perhaps only on the weekends where time stretches out a little more languid.

Coffee

  • Five-dark-thirty or so, grumpy dog at the bedroom door. Pull on a sweatshirt and go upstairs.
  • switch on the machine
  • prime boiler
  • flip to steam
  • fix portafilter in grouphead to warm
  • feed dogs
  • work day? Quick shower.
  • not a work day? Sit with book or the news on the iPad.
  • portafilter is warm; purge steam, pour milk, measure beans
  • steam
  • prime boiler, settle milk, grind, wipe spout, purge grouphead
  • dose grounds, tap to settle, level, clean, fix in portafilter
  • extract shot, wipe up grounds, log
  • swirl shot, taste, pour milk
  • clear brewhead, wipe machine
  • sit and pause a sec

Toddler

Cold this morning. Coffee and breakfast while wife and little boy sleep a little longer. I’m off to work again while she takes care of him today. He goes back to school after the weekend.

I’ve grown to love our morning routine, where I get up and have a coffee and a few extra minutes, before they wake up, when she calls me: Our boy is cuddled up and asking for bunny grahams. So I pour a few into a bowl – she tells me he perks up his head, asks “hear that?” – and bring them downstairs. He says thank you and asks me to go back upstairs for a little while while he snuggles some more with his mom.

Later he comes upstairs with her, sometimes having asked her to carry him, but usually lately under his own power, eagerly climbing. On the stairs he grins at me and wonders aloud, “Is this meeee?” He knows the game.

“Good morning!” I smile back. “Is that a hippopotamus coming up the stairs?”

“No it’s me!” He exclaims.

“Are you a … Zebra?”

Spreading his arms wide and smiling huge, “No, I’m me!”

We might do a few more rounds. Is he an elephant, or a helicopter or a school bus? No! Smiles.

“Oh, well if you’re not a dolphin then can I have a hug?” I ask him, and he marches over in that way a toddler does, all swinging limbs at a half-run, to wrap his arms over my shoulders and lean against me so completely that his feet are somewhere vaguely in the air. There will be oatmeal to make and a diaper to change and any number of busy tasks to complete before we can hustle to the car and make our way to work and school, but for a few minutes we get to just smile and talk and hug.

Naptime

He’s down for a nap, so we get an hour, sometimes more, sometimes less. When he was a baby we would measure his naps by album duration. Now they’re a little more reliable, but still less so at home than at school, where he easily lays out his blanket and curls up on the cot alongside his friends. Sometimes he’s still lounging on the cot when I come to pick him up.

We have some lunch, or maybe just a snack, chips and somebody’s homemade salsa that’s surprisingly good. We sit on the sofa with a book or magazine, iPad or laptop, sock feet touching on the old coffee table. This sofa is getting a little creaky. Over this winter break we watched a lot of old West Wing episodes on the AppleTV. She’s always liked naps of her own and might lean her head on my shoulder, the way she did every evening when she was pregnant, falling asleep at 7pm.

An hour or so of sitting close together, quiet and easy before he wakes up and needs us to get out some yogurt and crackers, put on snow pants, find hat and gloves to go out for an adventure or a car ride, to run errands or go to the market.

warning: the following is probably not very interesting.

I’ve had a nice time lately doing some reworking on the internals of my little not-a-blog system that runs things around here. First, I’ve done a tiny bit of learning about responsive web design, so mobile browsers should now get a nice narrow page. I’m still tinkering with a visual style that I like, so the look and feel may change more. It’s fun to experiment with this stuff again; it’s been a lot of years since I was really up to speed with anything related to web design.

Also, I’ve switched the whole engine from Pandoc over to a fully-ruby markdown parser called kramdown. Kramdown is faster than Pandoc and may allow for a future state in which I can build and deploy the whole site from a mobile device, without needing to run any code on my laptop first. Moving away from pandoc is the first requirement for that, since I can’t run it on my server at textdrive. (This is one of those situations where an always-available home server or something like a box at Mac Mini Colo would be an ideal alternative.) The next piece of that chain would be a good mechanism to migrate files from Dropbox, where the prettygoodhat markdown files live and are editable from any number of iOS apps, to the web server where the build tool and deployed HTML files live.

It’s fun to have a tool that’s in-process as well as this relatively-new outlet for some thinking and writing. I’m enjoying both aspects of publishing here, quite a lot.

As reflections on a year passing and a new one entering tend to do, yesterday’s thoughts about not resolutions focused mostly on things that in one way or another I want to do a little differently. It occurs to me that this rollover of the calendar is a good time to spend a few minutes on the things I have in my life that are already sustaining. In other words, it’s not Thanksgiving, but I’m grateful.

My wife and I love one another and she supports me every day. She is far smarter than I am, level-headed, thoughtful and vibrant. She and I are partners, truly, and I am better and happier for it.

We have a beaming little boy who lights up our lives. He has given us some scares but he is healthy. Every day he startles me with an observation about his world, with his deep brown eyes and his quiet & constant voice.

Our jobs are rewarding and safe. I work with smart people who challenge me and to whom the work I do is important. The organization I work for produces something valuable and I feel good about that. I will remind myself of this as I approach the crunch time of a significant project over the next couple of months or so.

I live in a town that I love and that offers all kinds of things to me, my wife and our son.

We worry about saving enough, but we are not hungry. And I worry about the world that our son will find waiting for him someday. But our home is warm when it is dark and cold winter outside.

All these things I will carry into 2013. I’ll forget them and I will be at times impatient, anxious and frustrated; yet all these things that help to anchor – but also lift – my life are more persistent than those troubles. So on into the morning of January One.

Making New Years resolutions is not something I like to do, as a rule. The notion that this one week is the designated time we self-improve always rubs me the wrong way. Also, I’ve seen the gym during the firt two weeks of the year, and it is not somewhere I ever want to visit.

And yet. And yet the turn of the calendar is a natural place for reflection, and I’m enjoying a number of writers’ thoughts about 2012 and the upcoming new year. There are indeed some things I’d like to do better – or ways I might be better – and while I have no desire to call these resolutions, perhaps as reflections and intentions they will, over time and accrued gradually, enable some of the things I would like to see in my own 2013.

  • Especially over the last heavily political year, I spent a lot of time refreshing Reeder and NetNewsWire. I want to be selective about what I pay attention to, and I want to continue to refine my focus on those things. So I’ve declared Newsreader (nearly) Null: I’m unsubscribing from virtually everything, and I’m moving reeder away from my home screen. (What am I keeping in? The toddler-blog of a friend I want to keep in touch with, a local weather blog, and a couple of writers. I reserve the right to add, of course. I’m not a totalitarian about it.)
  • Conscientious focus: This is about work and home. I’m a highly distractable guy and I’d like to be less so. I want to change my fast-twitch distracted energy into something that helps me produce something. That impulse to check twitter because I’ve hit a block? Let’s replace it with five minutes of mind sweep review or a few sentences in Day One. That should improve my presence of mind at work and make it more likely that I’ll have interesting stories to tell when I’m not at work.
  • Self-consciously social: Introverts like me don’t naturally gather people around them, but something very important to me is making sure that my currently-only-child toddler has plenty of opportunity to be social – and not in the “social network” sense. I’m still working on this one.
  • Listening: Rdio app improvements the past couple of months substantially increased my music listening. I’ve re-listened to and enjoyed things I had not heard in months or years, in addition to finding new things to enjoy. I like it. I think music makes me better. Maybe if I hear even more of it I might get better at the guitar. Listening is of course about a lot more than music; it’s not just hearing what people say but being engaged with it, responding to it, processing on it. Here’s the thing about listening, really: Listening means attention that is reciprocal, that rewards that partner who is speaking and takes seriously what is being proffered; it allows for opportunity for thinking in the moment as well as in follow-up. It is a shorthand for being present and honoring the obligation that is implicit in having a relationship, whether it is at work or at dinner with my wife. Listening is loaded.

Things intentionally out of scope for this post: exercise, finance, fine cheeses, technologies, “workflows”, platforms, and Scotch.

Happy New Year!

I spent much of the week working at home in order to not be That Guy who is coughing a lot in the office. As a result I missed some of the easy camaraderie that appears at work this time of year – another thing that helps signal the emotional wind-down of the calendar, which must help counteract the stress of knowing just how many conversations we’ve all had about doing something “right after the first of the year.”

It has been an up and down holiday season around here due to sudden plan changes, a hard-to-shake cold and cough, lots of work that needs doing, and the slow onset of what finally feels like winter. I’ve taken the season on in bits and pieces, which may explain why this essay by Patrick Rhone hit me in the right spot.

I shrug my shoulders and ask her, “What can we do?” I have a lot of patience for things like this. In fact, in many ways, I look forward to them. Stuck in a line with things I have to buy and no control over the time that it is taking. It is these times I’m forced to do nothing but appreciate the moment. To observe the details of a life that goes by too fast. Mostly because, if not for these forced breaks, we run through it without recognizing that it will be over sooner than we ever think.

Patrick is attuned to those moments that make for a story, the kernel of an experience that in his skilled hands become something more, a story that can be shared. Like all stories that are successful at finding broader resonance than with only the author, this one carried something that rang important: the exhortation to pause and pay attention was a valuable reminder for me. After all, our work and lives are series of events, ways we felt at certain times, most tangible in the details that we think of later. For me – and not uniquely, I’m sure – many of the memorable moments are the times between the work, when I have a few seconds or minutes to reflect.

Working at home, a little sore and achy, I only got out of the house a few times total all week, and my social interaction was pretty limited, so it was a small set of moments that took me out of my head – deadlines, team organization, planning, shopping list, Robitussin – and helped me enjoy this Christmas season.

One of them, believe it or not, was pumping gas this morning. A small front was moving in, blowing cold wind but not yet any snow flurries. I started the pump, pulled my hat a little closer to my eyebrows, and stuffed my hands under my armpits, watching the gas station traffic: A skier still in his boots after catching the half day at Snowbowl, stiff-stepping to the pump; a dude from Phoenix, not dressed for the weather (come on, guy, it’s 7,000 feet up here), hustling into the shop door, it lit by a string of gold holiday lights.

Maybe the cold reminds me of growing up in the wintertime, maybe it was just nice to be out of the house for a few errands, but that two minutes or so of watching the world go by, just waiting and watching patiently while the city’s slowest gas pump filled up my tank was just what I needed. I would be busy again in a few minutes, but right then, no place to go and nothing else to do, was just about right.

Just a week or so ago, it looked like we might not see much winter, and suddenly here it is.

The arrival of our first snow was followed by a another weekend storm, and there is more expected overnight and into tomorrow. As I type, the wind and snow is picking up outside this cozy room where I sit next to my toddler, he with his milk and cereal, watching a few short Thomas the Train episodes after school. “There’s Percy,” he notes between enthusastic bites of Cheerios. “And Thomas has blue wheels.”

We spent a lot of time this weekend staying close to our little boy, learning more about Newtown, Connecticut, and thinking of the families who won’t tuck in their children again, won’t hear their voices, will only imagine the span of their lives. I can’t imagine any kind of words that could begin to represent such a loss, nor can I begin to understand what could motivate the shootings. Finally, I cannot conceive of a reality in which the answer to these murders is more guns.

TextDrive Migration

I wrote a bit about the TextDrive re-birth a couple of months back, and last week I got my ticket to my new server. Over the course of several pretty happy evenings I completed the bit-by-bit migration of a couple of active and several mostly-defunct domains, back to TextDrive. This feels good, but there are some bumps in the road over there. I think due to the volume of new account setup, the TxD folks are having trouble providing support to users encountering problems, and there appears to be some inconsistency among server configurations.

For me this has all been mostly okay. I’m happy to be on a shiny new box and my hosting needs are pretty light these days, anyway. But for what it’s worth, the migration I did was straightforward and basically problem-free.

Privilege

Tom Morris writes on Geeks and Privilege.

The reason we’re seeing such vicious anti-equality bullshit in the geek community over the BritRuby situation and other conference type stuff is because the very existence of societal inequalities (against women, racial minorities, gender/sexual minorities) threatens the whole idea that hackers got where they are because they are super-fucking-smart.

It’s a smart piece, well worth the read and certainly worth thinking about at more length.

GTD

I spent some time in grad school really tuning a Getting Things Done workflow. I contributed a bunch to the TextMate GTDAlt Bundle and was pretty dialed in for a while. I used it right up until the time I made a career shift post-PhD and lost the handle on my workflow in the transition. Last spring, among a pile of increasingly-complicated work, I picked up the emacs habit again in order to use org-mode and organize my activity and the huge volume of notes I was making.

Doing a more organized effort at GTD didn’t really seriously occur to me, though org-mode has worked very well as a part of that workflow, namely a good collection bit via its capture/remember functionality. Then I started listening to the recent Back to Work episodes on GTD, and have been giving a more official system a bit more thought. I don’t honestly know if the contexts thing works for me anymore, partly because that particular element seems so oriented towards the tools, but the conscientious approach of “what can I do now to advance a project” really appeals to me. If nothing else, a good appraisal of how I’m working should be a useful exercise.

From the Pinboard list

A few more things I’ve noted lately:

Rdio got a lot of play this week with the launch of version 2 of its mobile app. Like Federico Viticci, I have always preferred Rdio’s orientation to albums and collections to Spotify’s playlist-centered organization, and Rdio. I’ve used and enjoyed it for a year or so now, though my listening time has decreased in the past months as I’ve listened to podcasts more, and the new release has prompted me to clean up some dormant playlists and crufty to-play queue. I’m intrigued by the syncing between the mobile and desktop app, and wonder if it’s a route to sending music to AirPlay speakers or the AppleTV (natively, rather than through AirFoil, which does work but feels fiddly) – but, in a first attempt, the mobile app doesn’t play successfully via AirPlay at all, just reverts to the local speaker every time I try. So that may be a step back, though otherwise the update is really nice, visually and functionally.

I do wish Rdio had a “favorite” action that could push to last.fm. As-is, I have a sort of favorites playlist that is easy enough to add tracks to, and while this helps keep track of things I like, it doesn’t quite push the button in the same way.

In another discussion of Rdio, Shawn Blanc notes that it has fully replaced his regular music purchases. It largely has for me, too; previously I happily subscribed to eMusic for about five years before trying them both together for maybe six months. The long term trend in my eMusic usage was basically that I wasn’t using it much – I was wasting my download credits – in part because at the time I was using a Droid X, and syncing my iTunes library was just a lot of work, so the collection match and streaming to mobile in Rdio was a big bonus.

But Rob Weychert’s thoughts on Rdio (via Shawn’s post) nicely makes an observation on the converse:

Rather than investing in one album, I’ve invested in all the albums, which is the same as investing in none of them. If something doesn’t grab me right away, I don’t have an incentive to return to it, which limits my repeat exposure to only the music with the most superficial rewards. And even that stuff is quickly overcome by the newer and shinier stuff constantly spraying from Rdio’s fire hose.

In addition to being a wonderfully data-driven consideration of his use of the service, I think this is insightful and reflects the downside of the otherwise-very-appealing-and-resonant “access, not ownership” theme. So lately, when I really like an album, I buy it outright. Whatever streaming service is around in a few years can’t terminate that license and take the CD off my shelf; meanwhile I can actually see and rediscover (some of) my collection of music and be thereby prompted to perhaps reward myself by listening to it.

The onset of December is an entirely expected, predictable phenomenon that has taken me by surprise and fully unprepared. Perhaps it feels like it caught me without warning because it has been so unseasonably warm here: After a sharp cold snap, most of October through November was warm and dry, and no real winter weather is in the forecast yet. The leaves have turned, and there’s frost in the mornings, enough to make the lawn feel a little crunchy, but daytime temperatures of 55+ degrees F have kept me from fully realizing the turn.

Still, the nights are coming earlier and earlier, and tonight’s sunset with a few high clouds was a treat.

Howell Creek Radio

On the subject of seasons, the most recent episode of the Howell Creek Radio podcast, Snap, is a characteristically well-delivered medidation, this one on what sounds like a dark and cold season Joel is quite happy to have left in his past. Joel is a writer and thinker whom I greatly enjoyed meeting a few months ago when he passed through town and I recommend checking out his (handsome) creations.

I’m ambivalent about e-books. (eBooks? E-Books? Electronic books? Too branded, too formal, and too anachronistic, respectively. I’ll use “e-books” for now, though I don’t much like it, either.) Mostly unsorted and partially thought out, these are a few reasons why.

  • The new book options in my town consist of Barnes and Noble and Amazon, but we have a fantastic, unparalleled and world-class used bookstore. The shop also has a great coffee shop I regularly visit for weekend downtime. Whenever possible, I am happy to buy there. I love to support this place, and it’s a core community institution, but the used book market being what it is, they don’t always have what I’m looking for.
  • E-books offer instant gratification. This probably isn’t a good thing, fundamentally, but it makes me fleetingly happy.
  • I like reading on the iPad. The book goes everywhere I go, it’s easy to capture notes, and I always have plenty to read, whether it’s on the iPhone or iPad
  • I also like reading paper books.
  • Paper books are part of an ecosystem of reading, sharing, trading and re-selling that e-books are not – and by design, due to digital rights restrictions.
    • Paper books are visible on the shelf the way e-books never are, which appeals to the recovering academic in me as well as the eager reader who picked up Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov and Annapurna from my dad’s bookshelf. Will e-books motivate my own son to read in anything like the same way?
    • At least as currently “managed” for digital rights, e-books don’t allow me to trade them at that fantastic local shop, or to lend them beyond the narrow parameters allowed by the different publishers and reader software. They are quite effectively closed to conversation, discovery, and re-use.
    • E-books can’t get lost in a box, left in a coffee shop or destroyed by a spill (though the more-expensive iPad certainly might).
    • Were I still an academic, e-books might aid note-taking and writing substantially over paper: Copying passages for quoting, managing references, and finding notes or noted excerpts.
  • Typography on e-books is getting there, but just can’t reproduce the effect of a well-typeset book on nice paper. The recent support of some comics and graphic novels by Amazon’s kindle & app has greatly expanded the world of e-reading for me, too.
  • Books require paper, ink, manufacturing, trucking, warehouse space, a whole supply chain. Are e-books with their reliance on cloud datacenters more sustainable, or ultimately, in the long run, less so? I’m not sure how to reconcile the two different kinds of costs.
  • The selection of e-books available from my local public library is awful, but the web site for the e-book borrowing is even worse. It’s really truly terrible.

The future I imagine is one much like the state of music downloads that Apple precipitated with iTunes Plus – DRM-free media readable by any supporting application or device (though the book industry is so strongly committed to its DRM that I’m not holding my breath). In the meantime, one of the conditions that persists is having my reading distributed across physical books and several electronic platforms. This, by the way, is one of the things that continues to make me fussy about the state of all my media, and the separation between these platforms only exacerbates the problem of sharing and finding (also, enjoying) when one’s collection is a mix of digital and physical media (“media” – what an awfully impersonal way to describe the albums and books that I love and that carried me through the highs and lows of life so far).

And the Incomparable does e-books the next day

I put up this post and then, the next morning, put on the Incomparable podcast on e-books in the car on the way to toddler drop-off and work. What a great conversation, and not just for the gratifying agreement that the monster-truck-rally-sounding “Overdrive” e-book lending system is a disaster.

James Gowans writes

What if you could eliminate a lot of the friction you might feel when trying out new apps and then deciding on which to use? What if you could save the time you might spend tinkering with third-party apps and their settings?

So two weeks ago, I started this experiment: I’ve reset my iPhone and iPad both back to factory settings, and I’m trying to almost exclusively use the stock iOS apps.

I really like this, and I love the results of his experiment: He’s become very good at using the built-into-iOS tools for taking notes, syncing, launching, and finding.

Catching up on some reading, I pulled out The Magazine while waiting for my lunch date earlier this week, and read two of the best short pieces in a very long time: Gina Trapani’s How to Make a Baby and Stephen Hackett’s Parenting Technology. Both are moving, sharply-written – and one is terrifying – essays on the role of technology in creating and sustaining the lives of the authors’ children. I have to admit that the first few pieces I read in The Magazine sort of left me cold; they didn’t seem quite developed enough, like draft blog posts that did not deliver, perhaps on tone or perhaps by strong buildup with too little room or time for a satisfying conclusion. But as editorial vision and guidance starts to ramp up, the way it seems to be doing now the articles are getting better and better. These two pieces are as good as anything else out there, and I hope strong editorial work will continue to combine with talented writers to craft a very good publication.

The Magazine has also generated a lot of attendant commentary about writing and publishing. Glenn Fleishman on The Talk Show this week noted something I thought was particularly interesting, that he and Marco Arment have a serious strategic puzzle to consider as they continue to develop it: They want to publish as much good content as they can manage; but if they can sustain it on a weekly pace (as alternative to the current biweekly schedule), would it overwhelm readers who already have plenty enough to read on a biweekly basis, or would it foster more readership by providing more opportunity for a broader set of readers to find something they’re interested in?

Now, thanks to Marco and Co., I have two sources of too much reading, both of which I look forward to opening up.

The POP - Prototyping on Paper app is pretty cool: It’s really built for wireframe designs of iOS applications: Take pictures of your designs, load them into the app, and mark them up with hotspots that link to other pages of the wireframe or mockup. Seems like a neat idea, if you’re an app developer.

I’m not a developer, but I have a notebook and like to scribble, so I used it to make a tiny choose-your-own adventure story: Hatventure:

You can play it right in your browser, and it looks a little better on a mobile screen. I don’t think there’s a way to share it to the actual app, where it definitely feels a little more native.

It was fun, and maybe you’ll think it’s fun, too. I’d love to see other, non-app-development-based uses of the tool.

There’s a lot of food in the office. Not only is there the occasional lunch meeting or event that I’m directly involved in, but on any given day somebody is likely to be bringing in lunch, and the extras move to the community area of the kitchen when they were finished. So there is often a slice of pizza here, a little sandwich there, maybe a cookie, too. Okay, there is always a cookie.

When I started the job several years ago, the new hours got in the way of my mid-day jogs in the woods, too. (There’s a lot to like about the schedule of an at-home academic!)

I had been a graduate student used to brown-bagging it for years. So it felt like not taking advantage of all those goodies was somehow equivalent to turning down a benefit. I was stuck in the mode of trying to maximize my benefit without thinking carefully about what exactly I was maximizing. Confronted with this new, must-consume bounty and reduced physical activity, I put on some weight, and it took quite a while to figure out how to moderate.

All this occurred to me the other day while I was topping off a mug of water in one of those kitchens. The walk down the hall for water, tea first thing in the morning 1, is one of the ways I get away from my desk to think without the screen in front of me. I wasn’t focusing well that morning and needed the diversion.

As it happens I had also been listening – catching up after a couple of weeks – to a Back to Work episode partly about deciding when enough technology was enough, and understanding that thee is a point at which collecting more workflow blogs or MHz no longer helps (Which was also very interesting to listen to after my previous post on being good enough or tuned enough. So this notion of stopping at the right amount of tooling was already somewhat on mind when I began to think about the food bounty that occasionally still confronts me at the office kitchen.

They’re not so different, really; both situations require learning how to show some restraint, but there’s a sometimes tricky balance. Just as I need the walk down the hall to change scenery and regain my focus, I can also thrive on updating my processes and adjusting the way I work, enough to kick start my thinking in order to really re-engage.

The thing to avoid is getting stuck in the tweaking cycle – or visiting the kitchen – as a way to avoid the thinking, processing, writing, phone-calling obstacle that may be confronting me back at the desk. So I’m working on being a little more conscientious about those diversions, physical and digital.

I’m finding that this helps me a lot at home, too, where the toddler’s requirements are perhaps even less forgiving to my inclination to putter around. With less time to tinker, I have to be ready to take advantage of my opportunities to do anything that isn’t making dinner or reading books with him – if I have to spin up the FTLs every time I get fifteen (or five) free minutes, then all I ever get around to doing is “starting.” And I want to do a lot more than that.


  1. I did decide long ago that the coffee at work generally wasn’t worth wasting my taste buds on, but I have sufficiently poor appreciation for tea that I don’t mind whatever bulk-bags of it they stock. [return]

I recently wrote about Ian Schon’s Pen Project as an example of neat craft, and mentioned that it was the first tangible product I’ve received from Kickstarter. Well, another project I’ve backed, Quarantine Z, has been funded, and I’ve been really impressed by the transparency that the project’s champions have shown. Throughout the project, they’ve posted regular updates with actual, detailed financials about their production costs and the decisions they’ve made in light of that money at various stages in the process. They also described carefully doing social media promotions at strategic points in time – identified by paying careful attention to when they tended to see the most backing activity, and coordinated to take advantage of things like the “Discover” spots on Kickstarter.

I don’t know if it had an effect other backers, but seeing the QZ guys’ strategy really had an impact on me: After their first financials post, I kicked in a few more dollars. It made a difference to understand exactly how they were using the money, and I wanted to be supportive of that kind of communication. The QZ guys are also advocates of other projects that they have confidence in, which I think is a nice reciprocity within the Kickstarter community. For my part, I hope their model of planning and communicating about their project – demonstrating that it’s realistic and then carrying it out – continues to stick around and influences other efforts.

Also, it’s a tabletop game about zombies, so TAKE MY MONEY.

Patrick Rhone’s The Best Upgrade is You essay is a nice set of thoughts about building mastery and being consciously (and eventually, effortlessly) efficient. Patrick followed up on the post asking for recommendations of “apps and tips for upgrading yourself,” resulting in this cool list.

While I like and use a number of the apps on that list, I also think that the real insight in Patrick’s original column was that he wasn’t necessarily pointing just to new tools but focusing on the value gained from getting really good at the tools you’re already using. in fact, he put that most strongly with the exhortation

Force yourself into the mindset that this is all you have. In other words, imagine this is the last working technology on earth. How would you still get the job done? How would it help you create? How would it help you work? How would it help you survive?

So I wonder if the message of getting better at what I have is somewhat misplaced in the enthusiasm for new tools. This strikes me as highlighting an interesting tension, between the do one thing well and the be deep and complex schools of thought. What Patrick writes about Mail.app falls into the latter category: It’s a complex application whose usage is deeply enhanced by knowing its keyboard shortcuts and extensive preferences and plugin possibilities. (See also software like emacs, which I have returned to at work for the endlessly customizable org mode.)

At the other pole are applications like iA Writer, which I am using to write this post: Apps with no preferences and no plugins, and which are built to excel at a single core function. Not surprisingly, these apps seem to be most common in writing, where single-focus tools have long been in vogue. The strength of these tools is that they don’t have any depth to learn; the upgrade to borrow Patrick’s term is at once simpler but more difficult: to get better at the work you do with the tool.

To be sure, these things are not at all mutually exclusive: effectively using a complex tool also requires more than any deep technical competence, and neither model helps without the spark of creativity or passion or drive or whatever moves us to really apply ourselves to our work. Or, put differently, org mode may help me capture notes and make sure I follow up on them; and iA Writer may help me focus on one thing at a time; but neither one, by itself, will make me a better co-worker or writer.

But as someone who has spent what was undoubtedly an unreasonable amounts of time refining my grad-school-era workflow for R, SWeave and LaTeX (and dived into similar wormholes on all sorts of toolchains since), I do have a feeling that knowing when to turn to the simple tool, or when to turn to the complex one, and knowing when my level of proficiency with either is good enough to get my work done, is a key capability of its own.

Part of my thinking about paying for stuff that I value has been an ongoing inventory of internet locations where I spend or have spent time. I found that there were a lot of them, mostly social networks or data services, and many that I haven’t used in quite some time – yet they’re out there, with my name or profile or other kinds of data attached. By and large I’m not interested in early invites or beta access or whatever goes over big anymore, but, man, I was once.

Where I can I am disabling or deleting accounts that I don’t use or that aren’t returning enjoyment or other value to me. I’m not trying to be an ideologue about it, and this isn’t meant to indict any of these services or tools, because I know there are lots of people who like – love them. It’s about simplifying my portfolio and increasing my focus.

So here’s the first, partial and draft iteration of just such a list:

  • Path is lovely but I suppose I never really connected with it. It strikes me as one of the nice experiences that didn’t garner enough critical mass among my friends or family to become a personal place.
  • I gave up on Glue a long time back, when I realized that it wasn’t truly doing anything for me. It was fun to check in to TV shows for a while, until I realized that I was checking in to TV shows.
  • I’ve been scrobbling to Last.fm since, I don’t know, 2002 or 2003? although my profile only shows plays since 2005 when they merged with Audioscrobbler. This is one I keep hanging on to, even though they’re now basically aggregating listening data for CBS and I very rarely use any actual features other than scrobbling (recommendations or “social”). I think I hang on to Last.fm because I still like the core element of logging what I’m listening to. I use Music+ on the iPhone because it has scrobbling built in.
  • Pinterest: I disabled my account. Somehow I’ll find another way to save recipies. Okay, that’s more snarky than it needs to be: I had fun here for a while but, as with Glue, I decided that the utility and pleasure wasn’t there for me, even though there are lots of pretty pictures.
  • I’ve been using Instagram less and less. No real reason. I like it, and enjoy the little community of folks there, but I have less time for it. It fit nicely into that particular moment, I suppose.
  • For a while I was a big Goodreads fan, but I didn’t update my reading there for a year or something, so I eventually stopped checking in there altogether. (I didn’t stop reading) (See also Readernaut and Zoomr and …)
  • I keep circling back to Flickr despite it not being cool anymore. For a while I let my Pro account expire, then I started another (failed) 365 and re-upped, and flirted with OpenPhoto. Flickr doesn’t meet all my requirements for a photo sharing tool that could basically be a back-end to a blog (so despite my best intentions I’m not experimenting with SmugMug), because it has “community guidelines” that mandate linking to images on flickr when displaying at other locations. But, I have years and years of photos and interaction there that I still love to revisit, even though my posting there has slowed to almost nothing.

This list doesn’t even include services that have since gone under or never gained any traction, like gubb.net – which I used once to send a Trader Joe’s shopping list to my dumb phone in 2007 – or Hunch or DoingText or Star.me or Amen. Nor does it include those forums where I registered to ask a question about compiling R for X11 on OSX or post a guitar tab; or a small raft of social data platforms like daytum. These are, I suppose, in a different category because they don’t even really take up any space in my online rotation any longer, though they do represent some of the long tail of my online history.

So where does this get me? Well, this is the first go-round. I suppose I should take a similar run at the the rat’s nest of RSS feeds that Google Reader is herding for me – but that’s another project for another day.

These are the short versions of some thoughts I schemed to turn into more elaborated posts. I didn’t make it, overwhelmed and busy with the daily episodes and activity of a handsome and precocious two-year-old, tiring work days and just keeping up with the needs of the house. But the drafts keep sitting there staring at me, so I’m clearing them out for the benefit of my clarity of mind and nominal benefit to anyone who cares to read.

Paying attention

There’s a common remark over on App.net/Alpha that users are finding more conversation and engagement there in a short period of time than in weeks or months or more on Twitter. I don’t think that’s necessarily not correct, but I do think that idea needs some unpacking to really understand. It’s possible that having paid for the service encourages users to take more advantage of it; certainly the longer post length allows for occasionally deeper discussion; and, right now, many users are very focused on the quality of their interactions – good for them, to be sure. And I’ve had much the same experience, so I’m not noting this to take anything away from ADN, but rather to suggest that at least some of the qualities that seem to make ADN appealing aren’t necessarily baked into the service and therefore exclusive to it.

I’ve received three or four versions of the following helpful email:

Hi Alan,

I’ve reported a broken link on your site […] that links to http://www.moleskine.com/eng/default.htm and haven’t heard back, so I just wanted to verify whether you’re the right person to contact? If not, could you direct me to the person maintaining the website? If you would be interested in updating your website, I have a similar resource that you are more than welcome to use to update. Let me know!

Link Replacement Option: http://www.learnstuff.com/learn-about-moleskines/

Best, Hannah Edwards

(Emphasis by me) Sorry, “Hannah,” I won’t be taking advantage of your useful report and suggestion that I redirect my link to your spammy ad-farm. I wonder how often this actually works?

Milestones

I recently hit a big milestone at my employer: Five years of work there. I’ve lived and worked here nearly as long as my previous gig (grad school), which feels like something significant. I also feel good about having been successful at the job, and this milestone finds me in the middle of a couple of big projects and the beginning of a new one. Keeping busy.

I’ve backed a few Kickstarter projects, but haven’t received anything tangible from them, until now. My pen from The Pen Project arrived this week. It’s an aluminum case around the (apparently well-regarded by Pen People) Fisher Space Pen ink cartridge, made by guys turning a lathe in Massachussets, and it’s pretty cool. The cap unscrews cleanly and attaches precisely – very precisely – to the end of the pen, making it a full-length instrument. It’s nicely heavy, a weight I’m not used to in the rollerballs and gels I normally write with, which takes a small bit of getting used to. With the cap on, the whole thing is a compact five-sixths of the length of my iPhone 4S – just right for tossing in my pocket with my keys to take everywhere.

After a few days of carrying it shopping, to work meetings, and around town, it has a few nice scrapes on the barrel to break up those clean machining lines. The pen’s designer, Ian Schon, says that the aluminum will wear to a patina over time, becoming individual to each user’s hand, which I think is quite cool for an instrument that is so often disposable.

I was thinking of this a little when I came across Shawn Blanc’s thoughts on The iPhone is Here to Work. He reflects on the beauty and utility of his iPhone 5 after its acquisition of the first scrape into that sleek anodized back.

After snapping a few photos of our sleeping boy, I turn the phone around so Anna can see the screen and browse the images I’ve just captured. I think to myself how it’s unfortunate my iPhone is no longer mint. And yet I wouldn’t trade that scrape for a case or a cover, and certainly not for a lesser device where scratches seem less intrusive.

After the iPhone 5 announcement I took my own phone out of its little gray Speck case for the first time in a while. Sure it’s taken a few more scrapes on that shiny back glass, and it’s a little more slippery when I set it on the arm of the sofa (which leads to a few more scrapes). It was always a fine little smart tool, and although it never looked bad in the case, it’s made to be carried and used just as it comes, just like the pen, not because it’s fancy and should be shown off to other people, but so the user appreciates the precision and craft and thought that shaped it.

But I’m still not going to toss it in the same pocket with that pen. I’m not crazy.