Ben Chinn

Slightly nerdy ramblings and linkage

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. 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 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.

Deleting Facebook

After viewing this video about how Facebook is not only invasive and unethical but also dishonest I’ve deleted my Facebook account. I’ve deactivated my account in the past and reactivated when I found some service that required an account for authorization. Now I’m done. My account with all its data will be deleted and if there’s any service that requires a Facebook account for me to use it then they won’t have me as a user (this actually just came up with beta of Humin, a new service that looked pretty neat but has lost me as a member because they require a Facebook account for registration).

I haven’t been an active user of Facebook in years and their blatant disregard for the privacy of their users has convinced me to go from a passive member to a ex-member. You can join me by following this link.

Better Health Through Personal Tracking

I can pinpoint the moment when I started getting out of shape. It was January 3rd, 2009. It was also one of the most joyous days of my life, the day of my son’s birth. He’s been joined by a sister since then and over these years I’ve lost plenty of sleep as well as any practice I had previously maintained for exercise and keeping general health maintenance. I’ve noticed the addition of some pounds to my weight, loss of energy and some chronic aches and pains, not to mention the increase in the number and duration of diseases I pick up every year, mostly thanks to the Petri dish nature of preschool. Rather than beating myself up over these lapses I’m slowly improving the situation thanks to a bit of attention and help from some nifty hardware and software.

The hardware is a fitbit zip, which I received for free from my employer in return for volunteering to have my some health diagnostics done (a nice example of a helpful nudge). The zip is little more than a tiny pedometer that I keep in a pocket that tracks my steps, distance travelled and duration of physical activity. The zip syncs with my iPhone which shows me that data for each day as well as graphs to show the data over days, weeks and months. It’s a fairly simple device but it does the job and requires very little attention other than remembering to stick it in my pocket every morning (I keep it next to my keys so I don’t forget).

I’m also using My Fitness Tracker to keep track of what I’m eating and am consuming fewer calories as a result. When I hit the mark there in terms of eating the recommended number of calories I feel satisfied but definitely sense that I’m eating less than I was before. The tracking of food is less burdensome than I thought it would be, thanks to the large database of foods searchable in the app and the ability to scan barcodes of packaged foods for even easier entry.

The biggest insight I’ve gained from this is that building habits is a lot easier when they can be anchored to existing behaviors. I’m walking more because I go for a stroll after lunch. I’m drinking more water because I fill up my water bottle when I get into the office and then continue to do so every time I take the last sip. I track what I’ve eaten right after I eat it (this gets missed if I’m out with other people for dinner and don’t want to disrupt my evening by pecking away at my iPhone). I weigh in every morning before I get dressed. All my new habits take place around existing habits that I don’t have to think about. The other thing I’m finding is that good habits have a way of snowballing. Once I was tracking my steps it was easier to use the same application to track my water consumption. Once I was weighing myself daily I was motivated to track my eating to facilitate the weight loss I’m going for.

By no means am I tracking every last detail. Tonight I went out for dinner and there is no way I’m going to try to count the calories in the dosa and prawn curry that I ate. My hope is that if I’m on the right path then a bump in the road every now and then won’t be too much of an impediment.