Related to my recent screencast on a similar subject, Eddie Smith alerted me to his excellent writeup (several of them actually) on how he uses TextExpander, MultiMarkdown (a variant of Markdown) and Notational Velocity for a powerful, yet simple, online writing tool. There are some really fantastic ideas here, several of which I have or will implement myself.
Addiction, Step One of Twelve, and Focus for A Fiver
Not too far from my home, is an Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meeting house. They have several meetings a day. I would guess ten to twelve (the house is large enough to accommodate). I regularly observe the people coming, going, mingling outside on the porch between meetings. They’re from all walks of life. They are all at various steps of dealing with their addiction to alcohol. No matter who you are, step one is always the hardest and most important. Believe me, I get that and have a lot of respect for it.
That said, I often wonder as I see them – almost as a rule – chain smoking, downing cup after cup of coffee, chatting endlessly on their mobile phone, if they are merely confronting the one addiction that was causing the most problem, and ignoring the others that are not. Have they really confronted the real problem? The problem of addiction itself? And by confronting and applying the steps to that core problem would it be successful in not only the battle with alcohol but in countless other ways? Have they really done “step one”?
I’m starting to wonder about the numerous applications one can now buy to help with “focus”. There are many of these I have covered here before. Heck, there are many that I use myself. I’m using one right now. That said, am I really curing the root of the problem? Am I simply replacing it with new ones? Would working on the root of the issue eradicate my need for an application like Writeroom when I find even my Desktop too much to handle? Have I really done “step one”?
Don’t get me wrong, I know that these root problems are much harder to tackle. I know that, on the surface, throwing down a fiver on something that will help seems like the right thing to do. But pretending that will cure the real problem, and in many cases not simply replace it with others, is the same as the chain smoking, coffee swilling alcoholic who claims he has dealt with his addiction because of the color of coin in his pocket.
I’ve had more than a few people ask me since watching the TextExpander/Markdown screencast what was making my Mac only show one application at a time (i.e. hide on switch). I’ve never liked the visual clutter of having different applications layered on top of each other. Therefore, I have sought out utilities to help with this since my Mac OS 7 days. The one I currently use, and have been since 10.2, is LiteSwitch X from Proteron Software. It’s a really excellent replacement for the built in application switcher and it provides tons more features. That said, the single application mode is not something it does out of the box. Therefore, here is a screenshot of my settings:
I hope this helps those of you who have asked and others who want to use it just to bring a bit of that iOS flavor focus to your Mac desktop.
This is another entry in the “One Thing Well” department. QueueUp allows one to search Netflix for a movie and easily add it to their queue with a single tap. An optional step allows one to view movie details and/or add it to the top of the queue.
I have long wanted an app like this. I often find myself discussing movies when out to lunch and want to add them to my queue. Before this, I kept a note in Simplenote for this and would add them later when back at my desk. This allows me to do so right from my iPhone in the simplest and quickest way possible. I’ve been a beta tester on it from early on and it works well.
PlainText is a new iPad application from Hog Bay Software (developer of Taskpaper and Writeroom which are two of my most beloved apps). I’ve been beta testing this one and it works as advertised. Basically, you hook it up to a Dropbox account and your PlainText documents get synced to it as, well, plaintext files. It’s simple, effective and (ad-supported) free. That said, a future in app upgrade ($4.99) will allow you to turn off the ads.
I’ve long contended that I can capture information more successfully with pen and paper than with any iOS app… I’m going to spend the next month with four apps apps (using one per week) plus a notebook and a pencil. I’ll monitor my habits, take data and report back in five weeks.
I use pen and paper for my sole task management system most of the time. That said, I often find I use Simplenote or Taskpaper or (*blush*) email because that is where I happen to be at the time. This despite the fact I always have pen and paper at hand. Therefore, I’m very interested in how this experiment turns out. For now, I’m placing my bets on pen and paper.
OK, take a minute or seven to click the link and read the post above wherein Merlin Mann whips out the shotgun of snark to take down “distraction free/less/otherwise” writing apps like the one I (and just about the entire rest of the free world) linked to earlier today. Go ahead, I’ll wait…
Now, there are those out there who may take such criticism as more than a bit of cranky-old-get-of-my-lawn-ism. While I agree there is better than average mellow harshing is at play here, I also see and agree with the point that is perhaps buried a bit too far under the subtext for those who have not followed his particular schtick for long enough. Let me sum it up in the simplest way possible.
The only way to really become a better and more focused writer is to glue your butt to a solid surface and move your writing instrument of choice to the right (or left if you are Hebrew or Arabic, I’m told). No app, tool, muse, god, magic, incantation, or soul searching will ever change that. No more than the move from shooting the bull about an adventure around a fire after hunting, to cave painting the same message with the fresh blood, made the story being told any different (or, better).
Despite his chosen method for communicating the above this time around, the message is a solid one that bears repeating in an age when anyone can pay five bucks for “focus” and think it really means something.
Writer is an interesting new application for the iPad that aims to give writers the tools and focus they need to get the job done. There are a lot of interesting ideas at play here. For instance, Focus Mode blurs out everything except the current three lines of text you are working on. Another is Reading Time which gives you an approximation of how long it will take to read your text (perfect for online writers – formerly known as “bloggers”).
This is not directly Minimal Mac related but enough readers here have gotten in touch to ask me about my technical consulting business that I felt it worthy. In fact, I get pinged about 2-3 times a week these days with questions that all center around “How do I do what you do?”.
Recently, Robert Dempsey of Life of The Freelancer asked to interview me about my journey and my advice for others that want to get into it. It’s a bit long at just under 50 minutes. That said, it contains just about everything I know for people to get started.
There’s a lot of junk I just don’t need; more to the point, I just don’t want - if I give myself a couple of minutes to let the impulse pass. I being able to live comfortably in a small space. I like that I’ll be able to move easily (and I plan to, within the next 3-4 years). More than anything, I like the idea that the major stuff I’ll acquire from now on might last most or all of the rest of my life.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this stuff lately as well. For instance, the last pair of boots I bought, I expressly researched and purchased a pair that, if properly cared for, should outlast me. I’ve been trying to be mindful of such things with all of my purchases.
Update: The boots are the Red Wing Gentleman Travelers (which have been replaced this year by the Beckman which are identical. Also, affiliate links). Being that I live in Minnesota, and Red Wing is a Minnesota brand, I get the added benefit of buying something local (which is among what we believe in) and there are officially approved cobblers aplenty that can do repair work on them. Expensive? Yes. That said, they will outlast several pairs of cheaper boots.
Lifehacker and I have an on again, off again relationship. That said, they were on again with this post which does provide some very practical, rational, and sane tips. A few of my favorite topics here include:
Draw a line between where you work and where you play.
Do Your Research Online, Then Get Offline to Work.
Inbox Zero means I care more about the outbox than the inbox. It means I choose to focus my time, energy, and attention on creating something worthwhile instead of feeding some unhealthy addiction to constantly check my inboxes. Pressing the Get New Mail button or refreshing my Twitter stream is like pulling the crank on a slot machine. Did I win? No. Did I win? No.
Graham writing about his refusal to own an iPhone, and further, his recognition of this act as a personal, and therefore inessential, move, is significant. We don’t lack for models of consumption, excess, and self-fulfillment online; what we need are more acts like this that are disengaged from the web yet which nevertheless exert an influence through it. Our need to learn to say no is not simply about addiction; it is more importantly about the possibility of the self.
There are times when the commentary added to a link on someones site is just as fascinating, smart and insightful as the thing it is linking to (if not more so). This is one of those cases.
Both are looks at the idea of setting limits and giving up things we have become attached to, not because these things are inherently bad, but to regain control. I know I find self imposed constrains often spur levels of creativity I would likely never reach if there was a solution to every problem.
That said, there is balance to be found here. A butter knife makes a fine enough screwdriver in a pinch but would you really want to build a table with one? Where one draws the line, and when, is just as important as the line itself.
This is a fascinating look at the illuminated manuscript of Medieval times and how they were often closer in design to a webpage then physical book.
The function of these images in illuminated manuscripts has no small bearing on the hypertext analogy. These “miniatures” (so named not because they were small—often they were not—but because they used red ink, or vermillion, the Latin word for which is minium) did not generally function as illustrations of something in the written text, but in reference to something beyond it.
The author goes on to mention other similarities as well. She then comes to this conclusion:
All of which is to say that there were a lot of “distractions” built into a medieval book.
I kind of have to take issue with this. Mainly because, when well done, the links, images, and even the ads on a site can and should enhance the content, not distract from it. I would like to think that I do this here. It is certainly my intent and goal. Even in the examples she gives, it is clear to me that this was the intent of the authors of the illuminated manuscripts.
I think the real difference is that the manuscript, while large, was contained. One did not find themselves, over the course of reading, suddenly in a whole different book or even a whole different room. In contrast, the internet is vast and seemingly endless and it is very easy to follow a trail that takes you quickly away from the content and context in which you started. In other words, it is a whole other level of distraction – almost deserving of its own word.
Seth Godin describes a recent experience helping a friend set up his PC:
First, the setup insisted (for my own safety) that I sign up for an eternal subscription to Norton. Then it defaulted (opt out) to sending me promotional emails. Then there were the dozens (at least it felt like dozens) of buttons and searches I had to endure to switch the search box from Bing to Google. And the icons on the desktop that had been paid for by various partners and the this-comes-with-that of just about everything.
As someone who occasionally has to set up new PCs for my clients, I can relate. I keep a copy of PC Decrapifier on my thumb drive for this very purpose. It’s a maddening and confusing experience at best. I have no idea how regular people do it.
He then goes on to mention how such experiences are an overall diluting of trust in the digital world.
The digital world, even the high end brands, has become a sleazy carnival, complete with hawkers, barkers and a bearded lady. By the time someone actually gets to your site, they’ve been conned, popped up, popped under and upsold so many times they really have no choice but to be skeptical.
Here, here! I could not agree more. I refer you to my pledge to you, the reader, for my stance on trust, ethics, and this site.
So, it looks like OmmWriter, the “minimalistic” full screen writing app, has come out of beta and is now calling itself OmmWriter Dana. There are two versions, The free Dana I, and the “pay what you want” (as long as it is at least $4.11) Dana II. Let’s talk about that pricing model for a second because, well, it’s interesting:
OmmWriter Dana II has no set price. We let you decide, based on what you get out of OmmWriter. As a result, we have set a low minimum price of $ 4.11 which you can keep or you can change.
They also tell us that monetary gifts ending with a 1 are considered auspicious in certain cultures. As a result we would love for the the final figure you pay to end with a “1” (for example, $ 4.11 or $ 5.51 or $ 11).
Um… Yeah. If this is the kind of thing that floats your boat, check it out. Me? Well, lets just say I have a hard time staying focused when there are background pictures and faux keyboard noise and music to think about. I realize all of this stuff is optional but I prefer the truly focused out-of-the-box experience of WriteRoom instead. To each their own though and I know this has it’s fans here so that’s why I’m posting it.
So, I’m working on something that has me looking at a lot of posts that I have read and enjoyed over the years concerning email. Specifically, how to get and stay on top of it. Those who have followed here long enough know that I really enjoy looking at how other people work. I feel you can often get more ideas and inspiration by watching others use the wheel then by reinventing it yourself. With that in mind, here are a few of the links that I have used for my research thus far:
As I mentioned in my post regarding the iPhone 4 shortly after its release, my plan was to practice what I preached, avoid upgrading, and remain satisfied with my iPhone 3G. The fact was, no single feature of the iPhone 4, as compelling as they were, was strong enough to justify the immediate upgrade. The 3G was doing all that I needed it to and, since the purchase of the iPad, I found that I was using it less than before. It was good enough for the foreseeable future.
That choice was going just fine until I upgraded to iOS 4. Like many other iPhone 3G users, it really impacted the speed and responsiveness of the device for the worse. It rendered the phone all but unusable. In short order, some tricks for making it slightly better were found and published. That said, even those offered only minor improvement. I dreaded any time I needed to do almost anything on my 3G. At best, it was a lesson in patience. At worst, a waste of my time.
Well, I’m happy to report that, as rumored, today’s iPhone iOS 4.1 release has returned the snappy performance my 3G enjoyed before the upgrade. Applications once again launch and are usable in short order, multi-touch responsive, and confidence restored. The iPhone 3G is, once again, enough.
Note to Princess Bethany: This is not to say that I would refuse an iPhone 4 should you decide it would make the perfect gift for a certain upcoming occasion. Just saying.
But your attention is a limited and precious resource. Those brief moments in-between active work and focus on a project are there to serve a purpose. Use these moments to help you stop and think about what you’ve been doing and what you might do next. If you fill every moment constantly fiddling with your iThingy you’re robbing yourself of the momentum and natural ebb and flow that will keep you productive.
I have been trying to be way more mindful of how I am using my few precious spare cycles. This is a great reminder of what not to do.
Naked Twitter is a Safari extension that strips away all the eye candy and sidebar clutter to give you just the tools you need. Nice enough that some may be able to forgo the need for a dedicated client.
I’m currently working on a project that has me reading through every single post on Minimal Mac (Yes. Every. Single. Post.). I thought it would be fun to post some links to some tiny little time saving utilities and ideas that have been featured in the past. Enjoy:
“So, the big realization with 2.0 is that I tried to do too much. Which is, you know, like being in a job interview and saying your biggest fault is you work too hard. But it turned out to be a big disservice to my customers,”—
I saw this very same thing ultimately put a software developer I used to work for out of business. To balance features, compatibility, boundary cases, and need is a hard line to walk but it is one that a developer must to survive.
First this is not nearly as impressive as what Google has built, but when you have several email addresses and a filing system you like, using Gmail is just not that practical (at least not for me).
That’s kind of where I am at after the initial excitement over the potential of the idea. He also covers some of the rules he uses to achieve similar results. I love this one:
Basically it is looking for my work email address to show up in the CC field, and then checking to see if my name appears in the message body. If my name is not in the message body and I have been CCd on the email, the email is then marked read and archived.
Now I have had some time to digest all of the announcements at Apple’s Music/Media Event held yesterday. I took the time to watch the keynote and have read several news and pundit posts about it. One thing that stood out to me is how much “small” was promoted as a feature. Seriously, if one were to build a drinking game around that word and all of it’s synonyms, one would have been under the table passed out half way through the event. Every single product that was rolled out got a reduction in dimensions and that fact was highlighted heavily. Let’s go down the list:
iPod shuffle — Smaller and thinner than not only the last generation but also the generation before that it most closely resembles.
IPod nano — Cut virtually in half and put on a diet. Now small enough to wear as a large watch.
iPod touch — Even more thin than the past generation which already seemed impossibly so.
Apple TV — Small enough to fit in a jeans pocket. I would be watching my house guests quite a bit more closely if I owned one of these.
There are many reasons why small matters. The one that immediately pops to mind is that, with the exception of the Apple TV, these are portable devices and a reduction in size makes them even more so. That said, here is the other thing that comes to my mind, the technology disappears. You forget it is there. Suddenly, there is no player, your music exists in your ears and you no longer feel it clipped to your shirt or in your pocket. Suddenly, there is no set top box, the movies just appear on your screen. Makes me wonder how long it will be before they really are gone and all that is left is the experience.