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?


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.

I think I rigged up an rss feed. Hey, that’s cool. News readers should find it automatically when pointed to the domain, but if not (which would be good for me to learn about) then you can grab it directly here.

A few of the things that are making me thoughtful recently:

  • The desire to pay time and attention in a more selective way, so that I use my time well and feel good about it, a desire that quite likely sends me to spend more time in face to face and personal connections;
  • Spending less time on Twitter, possibly for the same reason, partly in response to API restrictions and the resulting desire to cease adding my own value to a network in which I am a commodity; and partly because I am feeling a little less personal weight, less importance to me, of that particular community;
  • It’s election season, and promoted posts are popping up constantly on Facebook for Jeff Flake, Freedomworks and other conservative political groups. They’re sponsored links, also constantly being LIKED by one or two friends of mine – fine guys but with whom I probably have nothing in common after the time and distance since high school – and I would prefer to not spend any more time wondering “how the hell did that get into my feed?”
  • The energy happening on alpha/app.net – a non-free platform [!] – that is creating interesting conversation, community, and enthusiasm for doing cool things.
    • (Yes, thanks, I get the tension between “spend less time online” and “hey! cool thing online!”)
  • A period of exploring new web hosts prior up to the re-launching of TextDrive as replacement to the what-was-Joyent-hosting that, naturally, originally replaced TextDrive the first time around.

It was this last item that really sparked things. I was angry at the apparent loss of my lifetime hosting deal — about which I’ve noodled more, elsewhere, and may port those thoughts here at some point — and eventually came around to the decision that I’d be just fine going ahead and paying for hosting again: After all, I valued it, so I should pay for it and use it smartly. In short, I spent a lot of cycles thinking about the tools and services I truly value and are therefore willing to pay real money for.

In fact, I want to pay money for these things. This all ends for me with the clarity that I am willing to pay (real money!) for quality online services that allow me to have control and ownership and privacy, as opposed to the free services that need to turn my data – my network, my “social graph” or my eyeballs – into, basically, ad dollars in order to stay afloat.

A little over a year ago, I started movement in this direction when I began using fastmail.fm for mail services. [ Aside: fastmail is great; rock-solid IMAP, flexible options of all kinds, worth every penny. If you find it’s something valuable to you too, I get a credit if you sign up via my referral link ] At the time I was prompted in part by this post by Marco Arment on owning one’s own critical information. With fastmail, I began using a + suffix of my primary email address, every time I signed up for something or gave out my email address, instead of using my gmail address. My whole family is now on fastmail.

I’m not quite prepared to delete my accounts on Twitter and Facebook the way some vigorous Alpha/App.net users are (c.f. @jdscolam’s blog post – for which I appreciate his passion), because I still do get some value there: Twitter has a set of locals with whom I enjoy being in touch; and Facebook has helped me to stay connected with family and friends from various times in my life. But I’ve certainly spent less time there, and a plot of my posting activity would have a pretty steep downward curve over the last month or so.

I have spent some time lately thinking about alternatives to things I have used for free, such as posterous for my son’s blog – but on that score, with mixed success. It’s a strange situation, to be looking for someone to, as the saying goes, take my money, and finding only mildly satisfying options. More on that search later.

So, I’ll continue to look for ways to pay for the things I value, which will tie my time to my money and remind me to treat both with appropriate importance. That’s not a bad idea at all.

This list helps me keep track of where it may all be going.

Things to maybe write about

  • [ ] Today’s coffee
  • [ ] Being a Mac guy who spends most of his time in Windows
  • [ ] I have a toddler so there is yogurt everywhere
  • [ ] “You got a PhD and then did what?”
  • [ ] Podcasts I like
  • [ ] Working in IT, not as an engineer
  • [ ] Reading from my Instapaper back catalog
  • [ ] On not getting better at the guitar
  • [ ] Looking for worthwhile things that cost money


A small ruby script does most of the heavy lifting around here. It gets the job done and is a work in progress. Among the to-do items:

  • [******----] Automated re-syncing to server (pending TXD server transition)
  • [----------] Cool favicon
  • [*---------] Make better image formatting/handling
  • [********--] Build a proper multi-article index page
    • [******] Index pagination
    • [------] Article-to-article pagination
  • [**********] Build not-quite-brain-dead RSS feed
  • [**********] Build a proper archive
  • [**********] Rebuild all static files for header-footer change


  • Feb 2013: Rudimentary link log-style format for specified entries.
  • April 2013: Move build to server side. Improve “briefly” (link) entry presentation.

Update March 23, 2014: And, so, TextDrive is defunct. Well, I got another year-plus some months out of my “lifetime.” I’m in new digs at Kaizen Garden now.

For the sake of completeness, I also wrote about the original announcement of Joyent’s end of lifetime TXD hosting, back when.

Original post, September 18, 2012

TextDrive is not dead, after all, Dean Allen to return with some kind of ninja + jedi mojo and keep us all in the bits to which we have become accustomed.

As I watched this news unfold, to be entirely honest I wasn’t sure it was a good idea, because 1) discussions of shared hosting suggested it wasn’t really a viable thing anymore and 2) Dean seemed happy with his cheeses and wine and stuff, and 3) I was reconciled to going off and doing something new, anyway. But I concluded that we’re all more or less adults, that the key folks are smarter at this stuff than I am, and that I’d trust Dean not do jump back in through a fit of (merely) fury or loyalty. Also I had this idea for a project and need somewhere to cram it.

I’m glad that I mentally composed an in-the-moment rant, but I’m also glad I decided that it was better left as an exercise and then let go; better things to do, after all. I’m happy to have a continued place to put my nonsense online, and I’m encouraged by the community that re-shaped and gathered again around these events.

I do hope this doesn’t kill the BBQ. We were almost there.

As many are doing, the closure of TextDrive/Joyent lifetime accounts prompts me to do some thinking about the time with them. In many ways it’s one of the parallel stories – one of a handful of constants – to my last eight and a half years. (Basically textpattern startup through now.)

The alpha launch of Textpattern was the beginning of a huge amount of sociability, tinkering, and geekery among smart and interesting people. I first rolled my then-movable type blog to textpattern in February of 2004. The community was active and friendly, and had a pretty large core of early adopters who naturally jumped on the original TextDrive VC offer when Dean and Jason introduced it in 2004. I didn’t; couldn’t swing the money as a deep-in-it graduate student married to another graduate student, and I always wished I had – so I jumped when the second round, the VCII, came along.

So for the past seven years I’ve had this space where I could play with the web. I had everything a hobbyist web guy could want for my personal experiments in web projects and self publishing, hosted sites for family, my friend Cam Scott’s poet/flyfishing site… It was just there, and that gave me a huge amount of simple freedom to explore and learn.

There was something great about being able to have an idea, put something on the web, then leave it alone and just not care if it gets hits or needs maintenance or has to be paid for.

And the community continued: I got to meet a handful of them over the years, once in San Francisco, and recently in flagstaff where I had the great pleasure of meeting Joel for coffee. Online, it was this forum I checked into daily. We posted good news and bad news, child announcements, work updates, rants and nonsense, lots and lots of nonsense. What a tremendous great place accreted around a couple of guys’ adventure in web hosting, and persisted through all the organizational changes and frankly unimaginable growth of that company – until now.

I think Kelly put it about right:

Then today, Joyent sent out emails stating that we were being shut down. It was time to find hosting elsewhere, end of life or something. We don’t fit into things now. We’re old, and old people get sent away because they get in the way.

I don’t know how I feel about this exactly yet. I understand business costs, and that having a bunch of currently non-paying users taking up old hardware can be a drag. This odd thing I’m feeling is less about having to migrate than it is about something else.

My first reaction wasn’t about what I was going to do with my web sites, but a feeling of loss for what we had been a part of, the loss of being a part of something that was no longer what I still wanted – not a startup to which I was a (small) contributor, but a big company with accountants and lawyers. The thing we had isn’t there anymore, even though a lot of us still are.

I don’t want to focus on the nastiness that has erupted around the web and on the forum; threats of class action lawsuits that shut down conversation, anger and outrage. I think Joyent is making the wrong decision; but I don’t think I have anything to gain by trying to force them to keep me – or us – in their fold.

Update: Well, this was unexpected.