My Analog Writing Tools

As much as I love computers and technology, I use paper a lot. I’ve used it for writing song lyrics most days since I was fifteen, blog ideas, sketching and a lot of other things. Systems and special ways to get things done are great, but not sustainable. The tools I’ve stuck with a long time are simple, and some haven’t changed since I was a freshmen in high school (I hope what I make with them has improved).

When I was a kid, I carried around a notebook from the drugstore I’d write lyrics for my band in. When I filled it up, I moved onto another one. When I felt I had reason to (sharing with others), I’d type them into the computer as a text file. It stayed that way for the next several years. Today is the same, except I might replace a text file with Evernote for some things, and I’m consistent about getting things into my Mac where they’re backed up.

Notebooks

What notebook or pen you use isn’t important if you like using them. I like a notebook with thick paper so that ink won’t bleed through, and impressions won’t show on the next page. Moleskine notebooks have thin paper, and they’re expensive, so I don’t use them.

There’s two notebooks that I use for capturing whatever I need to. A big one for when I’m sitting some place like my desk or a table at a coffee shop, and a small one that I carry in my back pocket.

Since I don’t have it with me all the time, the big one gets less use. What goes in it ends up being stuff like lyrics or sketches where the extra space is helpful. I carry a bright orange Rhodia notebook that I like a lot because it was affordable, the paper is nice, and it looks kind of cool. Expensive notebooks made me anxious to write in them, so I don’t buy them.

My small notebook gets all kinds of stuff put into it. Ideas for blog posts, grocery lists, sketches of app ideas. Most of it’s temporary, but some things like app sketches I might take a picture of and add to Evernote. When I fill one of these, I throw it into a drawer and start a new one. I’ve carried Field Notes for years. They’re kind of expensive, but not crazy, and they’re the perfect size to fit in my back pocket.

Pens

I carry a Fisher Space Pen clipped inside my front pocket when I’m out doing things. It’s wet where I live a lot of the year, I end up writing into my small notebook outside a lot, and the ink doesn’t bleed when wet. It goes great with the cool waterproof Field Notes I got last year. When I run out of those books I may need to find a replacement brand with the same paper I can use.

The space pen is good because it’s durable and portable, but I like something smoother when sitting at a desk. I started using the Uni-ball Jetstream in November, and I like them. You can get a three pack for $13 on Amazon. I used to use Pilot G2 pens, but these are better.

Tools to Make Software Less Dysfunctionally

Someone on Twitter the other day sent me a message asking me what tools I was using when making apps for things like issue tracking, testing, managing tasks in a project, etc. I don’t know if I’m the best example of anything, but I can tell you what’s worked and not worked for me in the past.

You Need to Write Things Down

The biggest issues I’ve had working with others have come when the team isn’t on the same page about what everyone needs from everyone else. Having a daily check-in where everyone gets together isn’t a bad thing, but it’s not a replacement for having an issue tracking and project management system in place.

If you’re thinking this can all happen in email threads: you’re wrong. An email thread is a terrible place for this sort of discussion to happen. People don’t respond, everyone has different habits when it comes to email, and people inevitably mix up 10 different topics into one thread that goes on for weeks. You need a system that allows you to create a task, assign it to someone, and have running commentary on the same page.

The best place to do that is in a dedicated issue tracker, maybe a project management tool, and a good chat system if you’re working with other people.

Issue Tracking

The issue trackers I’ve used and liked are GitHub Issues and Lighthouse. What I like about both of them is that they’re both extremely simple, reasonably freeform, and let you enter enough detail into your ticket to explain what’s going on. Some people like other tools, and that’s fine too, these are what’s worked for me. As a general rule if something gets very complicated I’ll stop wanting to use it.

Both of these will integrate with your source control repo, let you tag issues with whatever you want, create milestones (v1.0, v1.1, etc), comment on existing issues, and assign them to team members. Speaking of teams — you should be using an issue tracker even if you’re just one person. Apps like OmniFocus are great for runway level tasks, but bugs and enhancements are usually more than just a task, and you want to be able to get an idea of how they connect.

What’s great about GitHub Issues is that it’s free if you’re all ready using GitHub, and it does most of what you want. What’s better about Lighthouse is that it does everything Issues does, but a project in Lighthouse isn’t tied to a specific GitHub repo. You can’t have Issues without a repo, so if you have a project with more than one repo (e.g., web backend and iOS app), there’s no way to track things across the two.

I’d recommend giving GitHub a try until you feel yourself bumping up against the walls, and then try Lighthouse.

Project Management Tools

Project management tool like Basecamp or Asana can work well when you have a team and you need a 10,000 foot view of what you’re working on. For individuals or even small teams, I don’t think you always need one. For one person writing their own apps, I’ve only seen these used for procrastination and the kind of task shuffling that distracts people from actually making their thing.

On the size teams that I usually work with, I’ve rarely felt a dedicated project management helped up get anything done faster. Maybe for non-technical project managers, but those people are usually a net negative as well1. I imagine when a team gets to a certain size you need something like this, I just don’t generally work on teams of that size, so I don’t know.

In my experience a good issue tracker can take the place of a dedicated project management app, but not the other way around. The reason is that project management tools usually have a concept of tasks, but usually don’t have the right fields to put in all of the detail you need when tracking new features and bugs.

Group Chat

If you’re working with a team, you should have a persistent chat system. I’ve used Flowdock, HipChat and Campfire. Hipchat has the best native apps, but I prefer Flowdock because it was the easiest to integrate with other things like GitHub, was the hardest to lose track of things in and has the least ridiculous annoyances and limitations.


  1. Project managers who understand design and development, or at least stay out of everyones butt can be a different story. 

Meslo Is a Better Version of Menlo

Meslo is a tweaked version of Apple’s Menlo font which fixes what I think has always bothered me about it — small vertical line spacing which makes it feel really cramped. Meslo also changes the alignment of the asterisk, which wasn’t bothering me as much, but is fine this way too. It comes in three varieties so you can pick the amount of space you like best. I’m giving 11pt Meslo LG M a try and it’s a nice improvement.

Unsubscribe Rule for Apple Mail

I’ve been making a point lately to take back my inbox and actively unsubscribe from websites which send me unwanted email, and I’ve come up with a great trick to make doing that easier. All I did was create a new Apple Mail rule called “Unsubscribe” which looks at incoming messages for the word “unsubscribe” in the message content, and then set the color of that message to orange. I could probably go crazy and write an AppleScript to automatically create a new action in OmniFocus, but I don’t get so many of these that it feels worth the added effort.

Unsubscribe Rule

Hipster Ipsum

Artisanal filler text for your site or project:

Fugiat post-ironic aliquip authentic, pop-up kale chips Thundercats readymade Etsy Shoreditch vegan polaroid try-hard sed sustainable. Consectetur nesciunt Tumblr mixtape. Nostrud Tonx nihil aesthetic ugh. Raw denim try-hard Wes Anderson American Apparel, keffiyeh pickled actually whatever locavore. Reprehenderit Cosby sweater Pinterest velit mollit, +1 direct trade. Laborum nisi sunt, you probably haven’t heard of them delectus pug artisan synth freegan lomo squid. Aute laboris keytar fugiat High Life.

Choose “Hipster with a shot of Latin” or “Hipster, neat.”

Migrating From Octopress to WordPress

After several months of running this blog using the static blogging system Octopress, I‘ve moved back to self hosted WordPress. There’s a lot of things I liked about Octopress, and there’s a lot of things to not like about WordPress, so like everything, it really it just came down to which tradeoffs I could live with.

The main benefits you hear about when moving to a static system like Octopress are:

  1. Your site won’t go down when you get Fireballed.
  2. Your published site is all static files, so it loads really fast.
  3. You get to write in Markdown, and your files get stored that way.
  4. Easy to keep posts under source control.
  5. The default theme is pretty nice (on Octopress specifically).

Some of this, I think, gets oversold, and no one ever seems to focus much on the disadvantages (some of these apply more to Octopress than other systems):

  1. Your posts all get saved and stored as plain text — which is great — but because of that if you ever want to move to another system that doesn’t happen to use static files formatted exactly the same way, it’s non-trivial to get them into that system.
  2. If you’re not a Ruby developer, setting everything set up and working correctly is probably going to be a pain in the ass.
  3. Using an app like MarsEdit probably isn’t going to be an option. I tried a couple times and could never get OctoMars working correctly.
  4. It’s going to be pretty hard to blog from your iPhone/iPad unless you set up some kind of Rube Goldberg machine involving Dropbox or SSH-ing into a server. That’s adding a lot of friction.
  5. If you don’t like the default theme, there’s a lot less out there to use, and I found writing one from scratch to be pretty inscrutable.

Of course, a lot of this applies to just me. If you’re not worried about migrating out of a static system later, don’t have a favorite blogging app or don’t care about being able to publish from your phone, most of this isn’t really going to apply. And, for what it’s worth, a few of my other issues — including the fact that Octopress hasn’t had a major update in two years — probably would have not have been an issue had I chose Pelican instead of Octopress.

Octopress to WordPress Migration Script

If you search for guides on how to migrate from WordPress to Octopress, you’ll get a lot of results, but not so many the other way that describe how to actually migrate a large number of posts the other way. I also had to think of someway to maintain a bit of my nerd cred, and so I wrote a script to do the migration.

What it does is parse an Octopress _posts directory, reads the YAML front matter and content, and then sends it to a WordPress blog using the WordPress XML-RPC API (there was a good Python module for this part). I can’t guarantee that it‘ll work in your specific case, and it won’t retain categories from Octopress, but it did work for me. I’ve put the script on GitHub for others to use and improve.

Back to Google Apps

About a month ago, I posted about how I was switching my work e-mail from Google Apps to Fastmail, and how it was just super. Well, after a month it wasn’t, and a couple of nights ago I switched back.

Ultimately FastMail had a major issue I didn’t see any easy way to get around: the spam filtering. It just isn’t nearly as good as Gmail. There’s two ways spam filtering can fail: it can let spam into your inbox, or it can mark things spam that aren’t. Between the two, I can live with spam making it into my inbox occasionally, but I can’t live with it marking important things I want to see as spam. The other issue I had that it would greylist messages it thought might be suspicious and cause them to be delayed by up to an hour.

The biggest thing that I was hoping to get out of switching was to use something that worked better with Apple’s mail apps than Gmail, and it did in the way that there was no concept of labels to contend with, but I think the better solution is just to suck it up and use a native iOS client for Gmail and its web interface when I’m on a Mac. The side benefit is that I’ll never send work e-mail from my personal account and vice-versa this way. It also turns out that there’s some pretty great Mail apps for Gmail on iOS I had no idea existed. The biggest downside is that I don’t have direct access to my regular address book through Gmail, but maybe separating work and personal contacts isn’t the worst thing I could do anyway.

From Gmail to FastMail

Late last week — due to nothing wrong with Google’s services — I turned off my Google Apps for Business account and switched my work e-mail over to FastMail. The reasons for switching weren’t that Gmail had done anything wrong, but that I valued the better OS integration of Apple Mail more than the features of Gmail, and that Apple Mail really sucks as a Gmail client.

Why do I think it sucks? Well, the fact that labels in Gmail aren’t really directly comparable to mailboxes in Mail is annoying, but not show-stopping if you stay away from the web interface. The biggest reason was that archiving works differently on Mail for iOS and Mac with a Gmail account, and does so in an incompatible way. On iOS archiving means always sending messages to “All Mail” — even if the label is hidden — and on Mac it means always sending it to a mailbox named “Archive”.

And so — after doing some research and finding out what other people were using — I switched to FastMail. If sending calendar invites with a Google account worked on iOS, I’d probably miss Google calendar, but I’d already been using an iCloud calendar because of that anyway. Archiving also still doesn’t work right between the two platforms: for some reason Mail on iOS can only send messages to an “Archive” mailbox if you’re using an iCloud account — which is insane — but there’s nothing I can do except hope it’s fixed in iOS 7.

One thing that FastMail makes a lot easier is automatic forwarding to another address. So, for example, I use Tender for my support, which has a feature that lets me forward support mail send to a specific address to Tender in order to create support tickets. In Google, I either had to route it through an account, or set up a Group that forwarded to it, either of which was a pain. In FastMail I tell it “support@mydomain = address@tenderapp.com,” and it works. In general I feel like a lot of these most common tasks are easier with FastMail, because it doesn’t seem so focused on the idea that I’m managing a really large business, rather than a small one with a few e-mail accounts.

If you’re happy with Google, stick with it. If you’re not, FastMail is working out really well for me so far.

How and Why I’m Using Evernote

I’m not sure what triggered it, but all of a sudden it seems as though the nerd world has gotten into — or back into — Evernote. Merlin Mann talked about it on his recent visit to Mac Power Users, Brett Terpstra said nice things about it on on Systematic recently, Gabe Weatherhead has been posting about it on MacDrifter and I’ve been obsessed with it the past several days as well. It’s also possible that it’s been that way all along, and I just never noticed. Like I bought a blue Volvo station wagon, and now I’m seeing them everywhere.

There are two reasons that I’ve sort of always shied away from getting too into Evernote in the past:

  1. Afraid of being locked in. Finder and text files have no lock in.
  2. I hated all of the apps.

Lock In

Evernote makes it pretty easy to get my actual files out as attachments (PDFs, images, etc). It’s also got full AppleScript support, so I don’t think getting my text out would be all that difficult either. I’d probably lose any RTF formatting going to something else, but I don’t use a lot of formatting, so I don’t think that’d be a problem for me.

The Apps

The last time I tried Evernote — about a year ago — my experience was basically like this:

  1. Install the Mac version of Evernote.
  2. Drag a PDF onto Evernote.
  3. Watch it crash.
  4. Uninstall the app.

Fast forward to now, and the apps are between good and great in terms of stability and user interface. It seems like version 5 was a big update that fixed a lot. Some of how you get around in the Mac version is a little confusing, but not terrible, and nothing I can’t get used to. As just a way to quickly enter and find text based notes, it can’t really compete with nvALT, but you get a lot for what you give up.

Why Use Evernote

Fiddling is fun, but I’d like to avoid the temptation to switch every time someone comes out with a new app update. There’s a few things Evernote offers that no one else really can.

A Shareable Bucket for Everything

Besides Finder, Evernote is the only app I know of that you can really just throw anything at — PDFs, images, text notes — everything. And it’s not just that you can put everything into it, it’s that it treats most of those things the same way (through OCR), so that doing a text search is going to bring up results from all of the above.

I’ve put this to a lot of use already. For example, every time I buy a new bag of coffee now I take a picture of the label and put into a notebook called “Coffee Beans.” So I can now search for “Guatemala” and have all the bags of Guatemalan coffee I’ve bought show up. Or search “Stumptown” and have every bag of Stumptown beans I’ve bought come up.

Another use might be looking for a new apartment. Create a new notebook called “Apartment Hunting” and share it with your significant other/roommate. You can now both add pictures of “for rent” signs you saw out and about, or web clippings from Craigslist. All of the pictures you took are now automatically tagged with the location, and if you want you can manually add location data to the web clips as well.

Add-On Apps

I noticed when Evernote bought Penultimate and Skitch, but since I wasn’t using either of those apps a lot at the time, I didn’t put much thought into it. Now that I’m looking at them again, the ability of both apps to sync with Evernote has made them both really attractive. Penultimate plus a Cosmonaut stylus is combination I could see actually using for sketching app ideas besides paper. Since Skitch is now available on iPhone, iPad and Mac, it means that if someone sends me an app to test, I can take a screenshot on whatever device I’m on, mark it up with design notes, and send it back to them.

The other add-on apps I’ve been using are Evernote Food and Hello. Food let’s me search recipes from within the app, but also sync against any existing recipes you’ve already got in Evernote. It also lets you make a note of whenever you’ve had a meal somewhere, or search for any restaurant and save a note on it. And of course it saves the location, and often even has the menu for the place you were at. I’ve been using it to back fill places I liked in San Francisco, Montreal, Denver and New York so that the next time I’m in any of those places I don’t have to try and remember where it was I had a great vegan panini.

I’ve played with Hello less — because I haven’t been to any conferences or meet ups this week — but I tried it out at home. What it seems to do is let you take a picture of someones business card when you meet them, it can then pull their data off using OCR, sync it with your address book, and keep a running log of when you’ve met this person. I’m kind of excited about actually trying this out.

How I’m Using It

The biggest thing I’ve learned is that — like butterflies — notebooks are free. It’s usually easier for me to create a new notebook on a topic than to try and fit it into an existing one, so I’ve just been creating as many as I need, as I need them. I add one for every project or area of my life, and then if any seem very closely related, I drag them together to create a “stack” (Evernote’s concept of a folder). I’m doing more or less the same thing with tags, although I’m trying to stick with using tags for items that could potentially be spread across multiple areas, and notebooks for items which probably aren’t. Sometimes there may be overlap, but I’m not too worried about it. The best plan seems to be adding whatever contextual information you think would help in terms of title, tags and notebook, and then using search to find it later.

Another lesson is that Evernote really works best if you put as much as possible into it. For things which are strictly bookmarks, I’m not going to stop using Pinboard, but I’m giving it an earnest shot for text notes. The way I differentiate between things that go in Pinboard vs Evernote vs Instapaper is actually pretty simple. Pinboard is for something where I want to actually visit the site later (knowing it might change), I might make a web clip in Evernote of something if I want to capture it exactly how it is right now (like a recipe), and Instapaper is for things I want to read later.

Because I’m putting as much as possible into it, I now have one place I can look on any device for almost anything via a text search. How cool.