Ben Chinn

Slightly nerdy ramblings and linkage

Robert Fisher on Nest

Every Google product I’ve used has at some point started getting worse rather than better, if not simply canceled.

That pretty sums up my feelings about Google’s applications. I remember being thrilled when my employer moved from Exchange to Google Apps. Since then using Google’s applications has been frustrating and disappointing as features have been updated, disappeared or changed beyond recognition.

via Marco

Problems with TextExpander

Dissatisfaction with TextExpander Touch recently spilled into an app.net thread where folks despaired of being able to use the tool barring a major upgrade for iOS 7. I think this is a bit unfair. The app does work where supported and though the UI could use a refresh it was never what made the app great.

TextExpander is one of those apps I wouldn’t know how to do without on my Mac computers or my mobile devices. if you’re not familiar with the app it stores snippets of text and allows you to insert them anywhere through typing much shorter strings. In fact you can do much more than just insert text including inserting images, running scripts and inserting text with more complex “fill-ins” that let you mix predefined text with content you specify at the time of insertion.

On the Mac all this works flawlessly in any application (unless you’ve got a login form open in a web browser). On iOS it’s a different story since applications have limited ways of interacting with each other. First of all, iOS apps need to build in support for TextExpander for you to be able to use your snippets in those apps. If the app you’re using isn’t one of those apps you’re out of luck.

It gets worse: TextExpander has had to play whack-a-mole with how iOS allows apps interact. By my count TextExpander has had to implement this three different ways as iOS has been updated and the current implementation is only supported by a handful of apps sadly not including two of my favorite writing tools, Editorial (which at least has its own snippet functionality) and Writing Kit. Byword seems to have incomplete support, expanding snippets but not able to deal with fill-ins.

I can only hope that all these issues get worked out soon. TextExpander was a game changer in how I use my computer every day and could do the same on mobile devices given a chance.

DRY

DRY is a fundamental principle of programming which wikipedia defines as:

Every piece of knowledge must have a single, unambiguous, authoritative representation within a system.

Wouldn’t it be great if our own minds worked in the same way? If we only had to think about a problem once before coming to a solution, if we only had one way of doing a certain task, if everything in our lives had its own place certain and forever? David Allen was smart enough to have this figured out when he wrote Getting Things Done.

Central to GTD is the idea that there is a single point of capture: the inbox. Any idea, to do item, reference material gets captured in the inbox. Once the inbox is processed each of these gets represented as a single entity in the appropriate list or folder. Tasks get captured as single list items for the appropriate context. There is a single next action for any given project.

The pattern here is that everything in the system is singular and unambiguous. This has its strengths and drawbacks. One drawback is that contexts themselves may not be unambiguous. Some tasks may only be done on your computer at the office whereas others can be tackled there or on your home computer or your iPad. That’s a small downside. The upside is that at any particular time and place there’s only one thing to be done: the next action for that context. Not 27 priorities, but one task. I doubt it’s possible to reach that level. Certainly I’m not sure what the most important thing to do is most of the time. But knowing that there could be a single next action and trying to find it: that gives me hope.

Keeping a Sharp Edge

I just got a new chef’s knife and it’s made a huge difference to my experience in the kitchen. The knife I had before was of good quality and I took decent care of it through frequent honing and even sharpening with a stone. Still, recently I had begun to notice that it wasn’t keeping as sharp an edge as it used to. Prepping food took a little more effort, not much but a noticeable amount. There was a little less precision to what I was doing.

Then I saw the chef’s knife reviews on The Sweet Home and decided on buying their recommendation: the eminently affordable Victorinox Fibrox. I’ve been using it for several weeks now and this knife is super sharp, sharper than my old chef’s knife by a significant margin. I also recently purchased a Kuhn Ricon paring knife which was also an upgrade for me (and a steal at less than $10). At this point I’m seriously considering chucking all my other kitchen knives (except my bread knife of course).

A really sharp blade has made a big difference. Tasks that were a serious challenge before (e.g. segmenting a pummelo) are now enjoyable. I use less muscle and more finesse and feel more confident with every slice and chop. I also feel like a schmuck for putting up with knives that were good, but not great.

There’s a larger lesson here. Tools make a difference. The environment in which work happens can have an impact on the quality (and quantity ) of the work itself. Using the best tools makes work pleasurable, decreases stress and friction and opens up new possibilities.

Only a bad carpenter blames his tools, true. But good carpenters don’t use shitty hammers.

Starting From Scratch

About a month ago I started having problems with my work computer, a MacBook Pro. First the VPN stopped working. Then the keychain went haywire so I had to keep entering passwords for the same services over and over again. Finally I decided I had had enough and asked IT to wipe my machine give it a fresh install (after backing up of course). That was fine for a week and then my hard drive failed. Thankfully, because of the backup I had already done (seriously people, back up) I had all my files available and started from scratch again. I also had something else that proved extremely helpful: a list of everything I need on my machine.

When I started from scratch the first time I started a text file and as I installed software or settings added that to the document. I ended up with a fairly complete inventory of my Mac’s software beyond the stock install and then saved it as a gist. Referring to that document made setting up my machine much easier the second time around. Another key resource was 1Password with its storage of software licenses – much more handy than searching through email for serial numbers.

Of course what I need to install on a fresh machine may not match your needs. I highly recommend making a document like I did before you need it. Starting from scratch can be helpful in removing cruft from an old machine and doesn’t have to be that painful if you’re prepared.