Ben Chinn

Slightly nerdy ramblings and linkage

Where Do I Get Books Now?

I had been avoiding purchasing any books – electronic or print – from Amazon.com while their vendetta against Hachette was raging. The whole thing left a bad taste in my mouth and seemed unfair to the publisher, its authors and their readers, as well as a display of near monopolistic hubris by Amazon. I do a lot of reading on a Kindle so I had to resort to other ways of getting books on there, mostly by borrowing ebooks from the library.

Now it seems the parties have settled, with Hachette seeming to have secured the better part of the deal.

Am I going to start loading up on reading material from Amazon? Probably not. Even at its best, Amazon may have too much power when it comes to selling books. I’ll be trying to spread my money around a little when I buy books from now on.

Fun with Static Site Generators

I recently listened to a nice podcast whose subject was Jekyll, the static site generator that powers this site. This got me thinking about how I got into Jekyll and why I’ve been using it.

There seems to be a movement afoot to bring blogging back to basics. Although blogging engines with tons of features (like the ubiqitous WordPress) still power most of the online publishing going on many folks (especially the nerdier ones) are opting for simpler designs, fewer features and a focus on site performance and ease of reading over bells and whistles. The growth of static blog generators like Jekyll is part of this trend and many other static site generators have cropped up as well. The advantages of static site generators make up for the bit of extra effort it takes to compile them locally:

  1. Page requests are super fast since they don’t require generation of blog pages on the server.
  2. Static sites can be hosted on any web server with no extra dependencies. This site is hosted as a set of github pages, which gives me free hosting and CDN.
  3. The transparency afforded by a static site generator affords all kinds of opportunities for tinkering. [Brett Terpstra http://brettterpstra.com/), the guest of the aforementioned podcast, has used Jekyll to produce a blog with tons of functionality and features (it takes over 10 minutes to build the thing). Static sites tend to share a certain aesthetic, characterized by simple lists of posts, sometimes even lacking an archive. This aesthetic has its apotheosis in the retro community created by Tilde.Club, a collection of pages running as different home directories on a single Linux box. Many of those sites employ designs reminiscent of the text only interface of the Internet before the World Wide Web.

There does seem to be a realization that more is not always better and that blogs are for reading, rather than commenting on, liking, pinging, etc. Most of all writers are finding that the old way are sometimes the best that the process of putting words together does not require powerful server architecture. I’m very happy with the Jekyll setup and would recommend it to anybody who want to get a site served as quickly and simply as possible.

Do The Reading

This has been widely quoted but only came through my transom recently: when asked how he got so smart David Foster Wallace replied “I did the reading”. The more you read the smarter you are: simple but true, doubly so if your reading challenges your assumptions, takes you where you’ve never been and teaches you something without without feeling like a chore. There’s thousands of those opportunities around, in every bookshop and library, a click away if you’re not into the whole brick and mortar thing.

I’m ashamed to say I don’t read enough, sometimes even going for long stretches of time without cracking a book at all. Then a book will hook me and I’ll start devouring pages again as if literacy were a new experience.

Even a mediocre book can be rewarding or educational. My guess is that writing a book takes an enormous amount of effort and time and so it’s just not worth writing a bad one if you an possibly avoid it. Plus (at least for now) books are mostly distributed by publishers with editors to control quality and even work to make books better than the authors are able to manage by themselves.

With this in mind I present a hierarchy of text media, from least useful to most valuable.

  1. Facebook updates
  2. Tweets
  3. App.net Posts
  4. Blog Posts
  5. Magazine Articles
  6. Newspaper Articles
  7. Books

Even though they are the oldest technology in the list, books still offer the best word for word value.

A Fresh Old iPhone

While upgrading the version of iOS on my iPhone a couple of things went wrong. First, I didn’t have enough free space on the phone to download the update. This happens pretty much every time I upgrade the OS, which means I have to delete a bunch of photos and any unnecessary apps and try again. After the upgrade was downloaded and started installing, the phone insisted on being connected to a computer with iTunes and then would not wake up until it had been restored to factory settings. This left me with a fresh iPhone 4S loaded only with the stock apps from Apple. To make matters worse the iPhone had not been backed up since December 2013.

I’ve taken this opportunity to start from scratch, trying to refrain from downloading any additional apps unless I have a real need for them. I’m trying to enforce this policy for installing apps on the phone: keep only need one of each kind of app, use stock apps when possible and don’t install apps on the phone that can be exclusively used on other devices (i.e. my iPad or MacBook). So far these iPhone apps have made the cut:

  • Editorial: the one writing app I’ve downloaded, used to write the first draft of this post.
  • Automatic: I recently acquired the Automatic car tracker and driving analysis tool (perhaps more about that in another post) and the device is useless if not paired with an iPhone running the app.
  • Pocketcasts: For listening to podcasts during my commute.
  • Life360: For automatically messaging my wife in certain situations, (when I’m on my way home, etc.) especially useful when paired with other services via IFTTT.
  • Day One: The best diary/journal/log app. I like to add photos to entries with my phone and access previous entries when I’m in meetings and want to see what tasks I’ve completed lately.
  • Textexpander Touch: A critical utility for using text snippets in some of the above apps.
  • Buy Me A Pie: A great little app with a ridiculous name, it creates, shares and syncs grocery lists. The built in library of foods and color coding of items makes this indispensable for collaboratively creating shopping lists and making sure I always pick up everything necessary at the supermarket.
  • Whisper: A messaging app for App.net. I don’t get a lot of messages this way but if I do I want to be alerted on my phone and be able to respond right away.
  • Instapaper: I keep this on my phone mostly to get links into Instapaper although it’s sometimes nice to read saved items there too.
  • Uber: Not an app I use a lot but good to have when I do.

Having jettisoned so many 3rd party apps, I’ve had a chance to rediscover the Apple supplied apps, many of which I had replaced with 3rd party software long ago.

Mail: I had been using Dispatch for a while but the Mail app is just fine and loads messages faster.

Calendar: This app doesn’t do anything really well but is totally usable. If I want to check today’s schedule I use the Today view in the Notification Center and I’m generally at my laptop when adding events.

Weather: I’ve downloaded a lot of weather apps over the years but the one that comes with the iPhone is actually not bad, especially since I live in the Bay Area and don’t have to be concerned with heavy precipitation or extreme temperatures.

Phone, Messages, FaceTime, Contacts: These apps never had much competition on my iPhone.

Before, my iPhone contained about a dozen folders, all with several apps. Now I have only four folders and only one screen beyond the first home screen.

Generally I’m using my phone less now and that’s fine. Reaching for my iPhone during downtime had become a reflex and there was so much there to distract me: feeds, news, tweets, etc. Now my phone is loaded mostly with the tools and information that is truly useful. Will this last or will I start loading up my phone with more apps, more functionality, more to steal away the otherwise unspoken for moments in my life? I hope that I can keep the decks clean for a while now, especially since I’m already experiencing the benefits of a slimmed down iPhone.