An Amish Approach to Technology

I’ve found, as I get older and wiser, my approach when it comes to deciding whether or not to upgrade my devices is increasingly like that I’ve read of Amish communities.
You see, it is not that the Amish shun modern technology. It’s that they take a very long, mindful, and considered approach as to what technology to adopt, weigh the pros and cons of how it might affect them, their homes, their communities, their way of life and if any of those trade-offs are worth it. Phones, for instance, are fine — as long as they’re not in the home and used only when absolutely necessary. And, if it’s not in any one home, then why not just have one phone in a central location that the whole community can use? So, one can see from this example that really what is at stake with the Amish approach is a question of true value — beyond the material — that every technology must pass and only applied in specific ways in order to be adopted.
Another thing I’ve learned about the Amish is there is also always the question of how a thing can be done as well or better either with an alternative technology or one that is already on hand… Do we need a tractor when we have a horse and plow? The tractor may be easier but what host of troubles does it bring? Then we have to buy gas and parts when it breaks and you can’t hook a buggy up to it and take it into town to sell pies and quilts. Then it’s noisy and disrupts the peace in the community and our neighbors. So, “easier” and “faster” are not things that always trump other considerations for the Amish. These are weighed against other factors equally. Better in one or two ways may be bad in too many others.
This is what has been coming to mind for me as yet another iPhone has been released. I’m still using an iPhone 5 that I, quite reluctantly, “upgraded” to 2.5 years ago. I loved my iPhone 4 but its decreasing battery life and increasing inability to run apps I thought “mattered” to me forced my hand to move up. The iPhone 5 continues to serve me well. That said, battery life and camera performance are my main concerns. I’m aware that upgrading to the iPhone SE would solve both of those in the same, handsome, form factor. That said, there are some thoughts that keep coming up for me…
Upgrading to the SE would mean a change of phone plans and additional cost. You see, when the carriers dropped the subsidized payment model — where you got the phone for “free” with contract — it actually allowed them to raise the price. Now, you either buy the phone outright or make monthly no-interest payments but you still pay the same monthly price for most plans as you used to when you got the phone for free. I’ve priced this out and, basically, what it means for me and my family if we take the monthly no-interest payments route is we will me paying about $40 more per month if both my wife and I upgrade. Kind of a big hike.
If camera and battery life are my main sticking points — if the performance and ways I use it are just fine — then there are other ways I can approach those. I could get a battery case to extend my life or even install a new battery myself — both for less than $30.00. I have a nice, small, lovely camera that I could use for those times when I wish the quality were better. Are there ways I could make it easier to take with me most places? Maybe a nice leather strap to keep it around my neck or a nice pancake lens so it slips easily into a pocket.
My point being that I’m considering all of my options in my considerations. If I have alternative solutions to my two main concerns that are less expensive, in many ways simpler, and solve the problem then why should they not hold considerable weight? Like the Amish, upgrading to something “better” does not always mean it is the best choice and sometimes that means using something that is considered old and outdated to the majority.

Twitter Zen and The Art of Retweet Maintenance

I was feeling overwhelmed every time I opened Twitter but I couldn’t put my finger on exactly why. Nothing had changed, recently. I hadn’t added more follows — I try to keep that number around 350. The most frequent and active Tweeters I had already relegated to a list called "High Volume". All the companies, sites, and news, etc. were in a list called "Interesting". I have several mute filters in place for the things I don’t care about. I very carefully choose who I follow and regularly evaluate and curate that list. In other words, I thought I had done all of the "right" things but, still, my main timeline felt — well — like it was not mine.
It felt like I threw a party, invited specific people to it, but then all these other people I didn’t know showed up with them. They came and hogged the conversation, ate too much food, and kept me from being able to really hear and talk to the people I invited. Bad uninvited guests.
I was describing the problem to my friend Jason and he reminded me that he wrote up a post a little while back about how he keeps his Twitter sanity. He suggested a few things from it that he thought would help me. His is a very reasoned and well thought out strategy and you should do yourself a favor and take the time to read what he has to say. That said, I wanted to highlight one item in particular that made a HUGE difference for me:

Turn off retweets for everyone you follow the moment you begin following them.

Now, since I had not been doing so before and planned to not add any more followers, I had to turn off retweets from everyone I already followed. This seemed daunting and tedious at first until I realized the better strategy was this; every time someone retweeted something and I saw it in my timeline my next action would be to turn off retweets for the person retweeting. This made the process far more doable and immediately caught the most frequent retweeters. I should mention the interesting part of this choice is that turning off retweets does not turn off "quote" tweets — where the person sharing has something to add. It only eliminates straight no-value-added retweets.
Now, after working on doing this for the past couple of weeks, my main timeline feels like mine again. It’s a party of my invited guests and I’m truly interested in what they have to say.
Don’t get me wrong, I get the general point of a retweet. Sometimes, people just want to share something with no additional comment. The problem is that, if I wanted to hear from those people, what they think, or what they had to say I would follow them. I don’t. I follow who I want to follow and I want to hear what the people I follow have to say and, if they want to share something and have something to add when they share, that’s cool. Because then I’m hearing what they think about what they are sharing.
So, I’m now back to feeling a little less overwhelmed by Twitter largely thanks to this. Hopefully, it will help for a while.
As an aside, I feel like Twitter — much like Facebook — is increasingly a service that requires a bit too much fiddling with to make it useable. It now suffers from the same "go into settings and tweak this and do that and turn these off and download this app and it’ll be OK not great but OK" that Facebook long has. If I didn’t care what my friends were up to and thinking so much it’s hardly be worth the trouble. And, though I have not reached it yet, it is on the verge of becoming such a needy puppy that it won’t be worth it. I have such a complicated and conflicted relationship with it these days.

Proven

When it comes to the things I use, especially those I rely on every day, I want to use only things that have been proven as much as possible. Proven to work. Proven to last. Proven over time and use.
This is fairly easy and straight forward to find in the offline world. For instance, I gravitate towards and enjoy using pen and paper because it is proven. As a tool it works, lasts, requires nothing else, has been around for hundreds of years, and is used almost everywhere so is easy to find. Other tools are proven too. Hammers are proven, for example. Nail guns may be a quicker way to drive a nail but require power and have a hundred ways they can fail or break. A hammer always works.
In the online world, it’s a bit more difficult to find things that are proven. Things change quickly. Formats and applications come and go. What’s hot today is gone and unsupported tomorrow in too many cases. Experience has taught me not to rely on many of these things or to be too quick to jump on board new things that come along. They aren’t proven.
Yet, there are some things in the online world that are proven — at least as far as such things can be in the world of technology. Here are two examples: Plaintext and Email. Plaintext (.txt) as a format is proven. It has been around in some form or another since the dawn of modem computing. Email, the basic plaintext form of it, has been around long enough to be considered such. These are things I trust. Things I have used for a long time, work today much the same as they always have, and the chance of continuing to work far into the future is high. Plus, they’re practically universal. Practically everyone who is online has an email address. Practically every computer can open a plaintext file.
This doesn’t mean I won’t use things that aren’t proven. I will and sometimes do. But I don’t place my faith or trust in them until they are proven. I don’t pretend they will be around forever and I always have an escape plan for when they inevitably go away. I don’t go all in on a new thing, especially if it means abandoning something proven.
So, when people ask me why I love and prefer email over [Insert latest email killer here] it’s because email is proven. It’s why I don’t use the latest note taking app or word processor. It’s why you won’t find me hoping on the latest new social thingamajig or chatting whatnot or blogging whozit. And while I watch those things come and go and their users jump on and off them, I’ll still be here using the same proven tools I have for-what-might-as-well-be-ever and getting the things I want to do done.

My Approach to Simple Logo Design

I actually find myself designing a fair share of logos for ious web and branding projects for myself and clients. I freely admit that I’m not a graphic designer in any traditional sense. I certainly wouldn’t call myself one. I don’t know own or even know how to use Photoshop or Illustrator. When I set out to make a logo for my own use or a client’s, I set the expectations as low as I can. I let folks know up front they will not be getting anything fancy — I don’t do fancy — but they will get something strong, utilitarian, and unique. If they want something more than that, they should hire a real designer.

Yet, when called upon, I design using the simplest tools I know and have at my disposal — ious fonts, Apple’s Pages ’09 (which I find far better for this purpose than the latest version), and Acorn. Despite the fact that I don’t consider myself a professional designer and am using what the professionals might consider amateur tools, I’m always proud of and impressed with what I’m able to achieve. Here are a few examples:

sarpa-medium

foolslogo

gr-logo-header

cramped-header-small

In many ways, I think for the purposes at hand it is an advantage that I’m not a professional. I’m forced into the constraints of both my ability and using what I have on hand. In many ways, this forces me to be more creative. To do more with less. And, that is something I believe in.

Of course, if you like the work you see above and think my skills and sensibility are a good fit for your needs, please get in touch.

Give your camera to your kid…

They don’t care about the perfect shot, nor do they wait for it. They have no clue what the “rules” are. Everything is interesting to them and worthy of being shot — especially what’s happening right now. They bring true meaning to the spirit of “point and shoot”.
Kids are not only used to telling stories, they are used to listening and watching for them too. Kids shoot what’s there. It may be blurry. You may end up with half of a face or a torso. It might be crooked or upside down. But it will likely be as authentic and real as anything you might shoot. Kids live the moment and shoot the moment.
Kids have the wonder and curiosity that adults have spent many years replacing with logic and skepticism. To a kid, what looks like some moss on a rock is, in fact, a fairy chair. That skyscraper is a rocket ship. A few trees in a park are a mighty forest where woodland creatures come alive. A kid will shoot the truth they see.
At the least, giving the camera to your kid will teach them that making art and telling stories is something everyone of all ages can do. It will teach them to respect the value of the equipment and how to handle it properly. It will let them know you trust them and that you care about what matters to them.
So, the next time you have the chance, give your kid a shot.

The Not Too Smart Home

Those that have followed me for a while know I live in a large Victorian home. And, as one would expect, we have a fairly large basement as well. If I had to guess it is about 900 square feet. Being it is a basement there are a half dozen lights spread throughout. Just simple ceramic bases to screw a bare bulb into with a short ball chain to turn them off and on. For the whole time I’ve lived in the house, if one wanted to go to the far corner of the basement they would have to snake through the dark, knowing where these lights were located, find the little pull chain, and turn on each one needed. It was kind of dangerous and so, therefore, we generally left at least a couple on all the time. It was a bit of an energy waster but it was the only logical choice.

One of the things that has improved our daily life greatly in a subtle way this year was the installation of some simple and inexpensive motion detectors into those lights. They screw in between the light and the socket. There is a simple dial to set the sensitivity level and distance so it does not go off when, say, the cat runs in front of it but still does when we do. So now, we simply walk down the stairs to the basement and the lights automatically turn on in front of us a few feet ahead we approach. Then, they automatically turn off a few minutes after we leave.

I think of this every time I see some new “smart home” product. Especially one related to lights. Because here was the sort of problem that many so called smart devices promise to solve, yet I can solve it today for under $50 (I got my detectors on sale) and a few minutes time. I don’t have to buy some fancy wi-fi enabled bulbs — I can use any bulb I want. And, the fact is, I can’t currently think of a single area of my home where I would want or need a light I can control from my phone. Or a use case that can’t be solved with technology that has already been around for years. Like the one I just solved.

This is not to say that all such technology is bad. I bought a Nest when they came out and have been happy with it. It manages the energy in our home mindfully. I barely ever have to interact with it but can get detailed reports about our heating usage if I want. It makes setting and forgetting our home temperature easy. All things that were either not available or needlessly complicated on our old thermostat. It’s a perfect example of where “smart” technology has made things better and easier. Where there was no existing non-smart product on the market that could deliver the same solution just as well or with a minimum of technology.

I think there an increasingly prevailing notion that the internet, wifi, or some other new technology automatically makes everything better. That adding more technology means convenience or ease of use. It doesn’t. And, in many cases it means the exact opposite. It means one more point of failure or one more thing to manage or one more corporation to be beholden to. In many cases, sticking the internet into the middle of things makes them worse.

What I am saying most is that I don’t want my home, or anything for that matter to be too smart. I want to be more mindful and intentional about adopting technology in a smart way. Before bringing today’s technology in as a solution, I want to make sure it is not a problem more easily solved without it. And, I want companies that consider such technology to do the same.

Thoughts On Radio3

I have recently become a big fan of Radio3. Radio3 is a linkblogging/sharing tool from Dave Winer that is designed to make it easy to share links to multiple places (So far, Twitter, Facebook, and WordPress) while at the same time creating an RSS feed and personal linkblog. I’ve long followed Dave’s work but I think the stuff he has been doing recently is really interesting. Fargo, a really good web based outliner that works with Dropbox to store your files, is another fine example of his work.

I thought I would write up a short post (spurred, in part, by a request from Dave Winer himself) to outline why I like Radio3 with a short wish list of what features I’d like to see in the future.

Why I Like It:

  • It is a simple and seamless way to share links I find interesting from my browser to Twitter (I don’t use it for Facebook or WordPress) using the Radio3 bookmarklet.

  • Through the linkblog functionality, it’s an easy way for those that wish to see just the links and commentary I’ve posted without having to wade through my whole Twitter stream.

  • In a way, this creates a “backup” of those links and tweets. That said, I already had Pinboard doing that too. But, as they say, you can never have too many backups.

  • It’s fun. Dave has invested a sense of whimsy and fun into the design. From the random sayings above the posting area to the font being used. There is a sense of casual fun while using it.

  • It has a philosophy that is stated up front. I wish more software projects would do so.

Wishlist:

  • I wish one could assign a custom domain to the link blog side of things so it felt more like “my place”. I thought what I wanted was the ability to self host it but, on further reflection, what I really want is for it to feel more like it is “my place” which could be accomplished by the above. The way I arrived at this conclusion was thinking about other services like Tumblr that I use, are not self hosted, but feel like “my place” all the same. I figured out the reason they feel like “my place” is primarily that I own the domain, control the look and feel to an extent, and minimal service branding. In a perfect world, I would have all of these with Radio3 but, if I were to focus on what I would want first, it’s the custom domain.

  • I would love if the items I shared were also stored/backed up locally in an open format like the outlines in Fargo. That would go yet another step further in the feeling-of-ownership department.

Now, a note. I realize that Radio3 has a feed and can post to WordPress and that I could, therefore, set up my own domain, install WordPress, hook up Radio3, and basically create my own linkblog that is fed by Radio3. But that seems like a lot of needless duplication to me. To be honest, the above wish list is a “nice to have” not a “need to have” as I really like Radio3 just fine as it is and believe it is worth checking out.

The Middle Path

I gave a brief review of Path when it first arrived on the scene back in 2010. At the time I just started to use it and was pleasantly surprised by it’s approach. They not only seemed generally interested in a well designed social experience but also a well restricted one. They positioned themselves around the idea that this was a digital journal of sorts that was shared with only your closest family and friends. And, to further reinforce this idea, they actually limited the number of people one could count as a “friend” on the network to 150. This number was not arbitrarily made up. It was based on Dunbar’s Number, the suggested cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships proposed by British anthropologist Robin Dunbar.

Now, Path has had it’s growing pains. They made a stupid choice at one point to access and upload people’s contacts to their service. Unfortunately, this caused many users to write them off completely (and even for Apple to make some changes to an apps ability to do such a thing in the first place). The CEO apologized for it but for some it was either not enough or came off to them as not sincere. But, as one who stuck with the service, I really believe they have been actively working to change this perception. The iPhone and iPad apps (the only way to use the service, mind you) are some of the most beautifully designed and thought through ones I use. The company puts it’s values and story front and center on it’s website. In short, they have worked very hard to win back and deserve the trust of those that use it.

I still use Path pretty actively. I post something there at least once a day. Given it’s purpose and what I use it for, I’m pretty picky about who I connect with there. I really have to consider you a friend or someone I’m at least comfortable sharing more personal details with than I would otherwise share on the more open social networks. I share plenty of pics of my little girl, my day-to-day activities, my runs (it connects with Nike+), my current location, and the occasional selfie. It is the primary way I interact with some other social networks including Foursquare.

Here is how Path fits in for me. I keep the stuff I just want for my eyes only in Day One, the stuff I wish to share with a wide and indiscriminate audience I do on App.net or Twitter. Path sits in the middle of this sharing graph. It is for the stuff I wish to share but only with a selected few. I like to think of it as the “friendship” chair of Thoreau’s home.

The thing is though that I fear for Path’s health and future. Today, they had to lay off 20% of the staff. And though they recently rolled out a premium subscription model, I still am not sure if there are enough people using it and willing to pay for that to sustain them. I hope it sticks around.

But, most importantly, I would like to see and interact more of my friends there. I like it and I think most of them will too. So, if you are so inclined, I think you should give it a shot. And, feel free to look me up and reach out to me if you do.

Realply

Tonight, I had an experience that I’m sure is common. Someone wrote me an email. I read it but did not take the time right then to reply. Later, I was out and about and happened to run into the sender. Before I even said hello, I gave him the answer I would have sent him in reply to his email. Thus, the matter is settled and now I can safely archive it without replying.

I related this to my friends on App.net and mentioned that there should be a name for this (as I’m sure it happens often). Johannes Valouch was the first to return what I feel is the best suggestion : Realply.

Therefore, consider it coined.

So, if your boss asks you if you replied to your co-workers email and, what happened was you did so in person, you can let them know that you took care of it with a realply.

Or, if someone sends you an email and you know the matter would be better discussed in person, you can say, "Hey, let me realply to that."

We could be onto something here.

Everyday Software (Mac)

Screen Shot 2013-07-08 at 9.12.46 AM

For no particular reason, other than the fact the people like to know these things sometimes and full disclosure, here are the apps I use every single day on my Mac. This does not account for everything installed and used. This is just the stuff I use every day without fail. I’ll likely do one of these in the future for iPhone and iPad as well.

  • Safari — I believe in using the built-in tools whenever possible. It helps when the built-in tools are pretty darn good. I find Safari pretty darn good most of the time.

  • Mail — The one email client I have used long enough and learned deeply enough to be maximally efficient with it.

  • BusyCal — Way better than the built in Calendar app (formerly iCal) and has easy sharing of calendars which my wife and I depend on.

  • nvALT — I’ve been a Notational Velocity user for over 8 years. I use it for all sorts of things. Currently contains 867 notes. nvALT is Brett Terpstra’s fork of this open sourse project that adds a ton of useful features which make it that much better.

  • Byword — What I use for most writing when on my Mac.

  • Twitter — Yes, Twitter. The official client. I still check in here daily despite having mostly moved to App.net.

  • Reeder (awaiting update) — My RSS reader of choice. Only worked with Google Reeder so I have not used it since that shut down on the first of this month. Once it updates to support FeedWrangler I’ll gladly fire it up once again.

So, those are all the “app” apps I use. But, what about the menubar and “just runs in the background” sorts of things? Here are those:

  • Droplr — For sharing files, screenshots, and quick one off notes easily.
  • Dropbox — If it is a file of any sort it is likely in here.

  • Day One — Which I use more as a daily log than a journal.

  • Jumpcut — Clipboard buffering. Keyboard driven. Full on awesomesauce.

  • Shortcat — Use your keyboard to find and click on buttons and links. The less I have to touch my trackpad/mouse, the faster I am.

  • FastScripts — Execute scripts with keyboard commands.

  • QuickCal — Enter calendar events quickly using your keyboard and natural language processing.

  • Quicksilver — Launch apps and do all sorts of other cool things using your keyboard (Are you sensing a theme here?).

  • DragonDrop — Provides a “shelf” with the shake of your mouse to drag stuff temporarily before dropping it.

I might have missed a few things but that’s what I use every single day on my Mac.

I’m a full-time independent writer who works hard to bring you quality reading and ideas here daily. If you enjoy what you read here, please consider a free will donation of any amount.