A plea to Republican legislators

Psst. Hey, Republican legislators. Come here. We need to talk.

Just the Republicans, please. The rest of you, move along, nothing to see here.

Are they gone? Good. Okay, guys, you have a problem. A lot of you are acting like you really believe the rhetoric you give to the rubes about small government. And this is getting in the way, frankly. You’re gumming up the works.

It’s these times we live in. The Republican leadership couldn’t very well gather you together in a ballroom and lay this out explicitly, because some damn member of the servant class would record it and leak it out on the internet. That doesn’t go well. So idea was for you to get the gist on the down low. That doesn’t seem to be happening.

It’s like this. The Republican Party is the political organ of the upper class, of the rich. Mostly white, mostly men, though if you have enough money, they’ll overlook not being male or white. But because rich white men are such a small part of the overall population, and getting smaller every year, the party has to appeal to everyone who wants to be rich. Which, thanks to the Horatio Alger American dream, is almost everybody.

But this is the thing. You’re only supposed to appeal to them. Just enough to get them to elect you. Once you’re in office, you give lip service to them, but you are supposed to act in the benefit of the rich people who will keep you in office. And despite what you tell the rubes, the rich don’t want small government.

I know, that’s a shock. But think about it. The rich love big government, as long as they don’t have to pay for it. They love a big military to secure resources overseas and serve as a customer for their defense contractor firms. They don’t want banking regulation, but they need a government big enough to bail them out when they get in trouble.

So big government is fine, as long as the middle class pays for it. And if you figure out a way to get the poor to pay taxes, that would help. But sending us over the fiscal cliff because you refuse to raise taxes on incomes over one million dollars is taking things too far.

You’re missing a golden opportunity here. You vote to raise taxes on millionaires, but only payroll income. Bonuses and capital gains are exempt. And overnight, bam, all the executives are only making one million in salary, the rest of their compensation through bonuses and stock. These people have the best accountants in the world. Let them do their job.

And in the meantime, you look like populists, sticking it to the man. You keep meaningful taxes on the rich down and let the middle class think they won. And most of those Chevy-driving, NASCAR-watching yokels vote for you in 2014.

Okay, break it up. Go do your real duty, and don’t tell anyone we had this conversation.

The real digital pirates

“Take all you can, and give nothing back!”
— pirate’s creed, Pirates of the Caribbean

We hear a lot about piracy online these days. But the real pirates aren’t people downloading last season of “Game of Thrones” over bit torrent. Opportunists, maybe. Lazy, almost certainly. But not pirates.

The real pirates are companies like Facebook/Instagram, who grab rights by changing their terms of service, and then give back only what they have to when people call them on it. I don’t buy for a second Instagram’s mea culpa that the initial language change in their TOS was misunderstood legalspeak. Legalspeak, yes, but we understood it better than they’d hoped.

I see this a lot with print publishers, and Kris Rusch has written about it at length on her blog. Big corporations have one and only one reason to exist: to maximize shareholder value. They do this by squeezing every cent of profit out of everything they do. If they don’t, if they play fair and leave money on the table, as it were, their shareholders can sue them for damages. So now it’s become standard boilerplate for publishers to demand worldwide rights and exclusive ebook distribution rights for as long as a book is in print. But ebooks never go out of print, so the rights never revert. They own your book forever, and you’ll get what they decide to give you.

Fortunately, just as the internet taketh away, it also giveth. I sidestep the above publishing shenanigans by going it alone and publishing my books myself. I get about the same exposure and marketing push midlist print authors get (ie. none), but I own everything and every dime of profit goes to me.

But as far as the Facebooks and Instagrams of the world go, caveat emptor. Read those terms of service carefully if you care at all about the data you’ll be feeding into the service. And remember that if you’re not paying for the service, you’re the commodity being sold.

Activities in place of goals

Instead of having goals with outcomes and deadlines, I need to focus instead on the actual daily activities I need to do to get me there. While goals are often described as nouns, as concrete things that you want to exist, activities are most definitely verbs. So what five verbs are the most important (not urgent) uses of my time?

Document

At work, I need to document every thing that I do so that the higher ups in my company know they need to keep me around. It would be great if that weren’t the case and I could just help people when they need help, but if I want to keep my job, entering tickets is just as important as actually fixing stuff. I need to be better at this.

In my personal life, I also need to document things better. I’ve gotten too lax in my journaling, and I can feel my mind getting restless, out of control. For me, journaling helps quiet my mind by making sure my thoughts are expressed, if only to myself, and don’t have to keep banging around in there.

I also want to take more pictures and videos of my friends and family. It’s important to me to document the time I have with them. I don’t want to go so far with this that I miss out on being in the moment, but I’d like more pictures of the people I care about than the nearly zero I have now.

Create

I almost called this one “write,” but I think “create” better captures the connotation I’m looking for. I want to spend more time really bringing into existence something, a novel, a blog post, a sketch, that wasn’t there before. Creating something is qualitatively different from getting ready to create something. Tinkering with my outline isn’t creating. Writing new prose is.

And yes, I want to make posting on this blog a regular thing. And now I’ve jinxed it.

Clean

My environment is a mess. My office is a mess, my apartment is a mess, and the only reason my car isn’t a mess is that it’s fairly new and so far I’ve managed to keep it from accumulating junk.

In a lot of ways, I think that’s a defense mechanism for me. If my apartment is a mess, I can’t have anyone (particularly dates) over. So I don’t have to do anything about that. If the office is a mess, it looks like I’m busy.

But clutter takes a mental toll. Everything in my field of vision at home and at work is what David Allen calls an “open loop,” that is, something that doesn’t belong where it is. And some level of my mind is continually aware of that and wasting energy either trying to figure out how to fix it or feeling guilty about not trying to figure out how to fix it. It’s kind of amazing how quickly I can find things in the chaos because part of my mind is devoted to remembering where I saw everything last. But how much more could I do if I didn’t have to remember all that?

I’m not going to try to fix this all at once. But every day, I’m going to put something where it belongs.

Commune

Humans are social animals. I need to spend time with people I care about so I don’t go feral. But the reason I called this activity “commune” instead of “socialize” is that it’s not enough to just keep doing my own thing in the presence of other people. I need to really engage and be present in their lives. I need to reach out and talk about things that matter along with the light-hearted banter.

At work, I need to reach out to my users more. I’ve started doing this already, but I can do more. I need to talk to them and really understand what they do with the technology I give them and why they do it. Because if I know that, and I really know them, I can do a much better job of not only meeting their needs, but anticipating them.

Relax

Yes, this is something I have to remind myself to do. I have a tendency when I build up a head of steam to barrel on until I hit a wall. I have two speeds: bat-out-of-hell and off.

There needs to be a middle ground. I need to make time to relax and enjoy myself, by myself, without feeling guilty about what I’m not doing. I need to be able to read or watch TV not because I’m avoiding something important, but because letting myself unwind is good for me, and I’ve earned it.

So that’s it. Document, Create, Clean, Commune and Relax. With no goals for 2013, no deadlines or fixed outcomes in mind, if I do those five things regularly I think good things will happen in my life. I’ll be calmer, healthier, happier and might even get a few books written.

No goals. No destination. Just five solid ways to be present in the journey.

Goalless

This article in the Harvard Business Review is brilliant, and I think it solidifies for me what was bugging me about the productivity methods I’d been using.

I work in IT support. I don’t really have “projects” in the usual business sense. My job is to be interrupted all day, dealing with things as they come up. In my off time, I’m an indie science thriller author, which means again I have no fixed deadlines, no publisher breathing down my neck for the latest draft.

And yet, I was setting deadlines for myself and getting discouraged when things came up and I didn’t hit them. And discouragement turned to guilt, which turned to resentment. I’ve been avoiding my current writing project for a couple of weeks now, promising myself I’d get back to it after the holidays. Only, I know that’s not the real reason.

The real reason I’ve been avoiding writing fiction is that I feel guilty I’m not further along than I am. Only, that’s ridiculous. I’m resentful of a deadline I myself set based on an arbitrary projection. I’m literally mad at me.

The article recommends that instead of fixed, measurable and time-limited goals, we instead set “areas of focus” for ourselves. Personally, I’ve always hated that phrase, because I never really understood what it meant. It’s too vague, even though vague is kind of what we’re going for here. What he means by “areas of focus” is “ways you intend to spend your time.” Because time is really the resource we’re trying to manage.

Writers have a phrase, “butt in chair.” If you spend enough time with your butt in the chair, making the clackity noise on the keyboard, the book will materialize. If you don’t get the book written, it’s usually because you didn’t spend enough time with your butt in the chair. And the article suggests that you define up to five (any more than that and you get diminishing returns because you’re not focused) activities that contribute to what you want to achieve. Don’t focus on the destination. Be present in the journey. Sounds a little Buddhist, and I think it just might be what I’ve been missing.

How a spreadsheet becomes a manuscript

In the past few weeks, I’ve been refining my workflows. That’s Nerd for “figuring out to do stuff.” And one of the things I’ve realized is that I’ve been outlining the wrong way for years.

In a discussion about writing methods, Chuck Wendig mentioned that while he tends to pants his first drafts, or use a sparse “bullet points” kind of outline, his second draft outline is done in Excel. This gives him the ability to tag scenes and see at a glance how the story moves. I thought this was brilliant. I’d never thought about outlining in a spreadsheet before.

For my current project, Homeworld, I have the entire novel outlined in Numbers. Each discrete scene gets a line in a table on a tab called “Step Sheet” with the following columns:

  • Done: Checkbox column letting me know which scenes are actually written

  • POV: Which character’s point of view is the scene written in

  • Scene: One line description of what happens

  • Words: Wordcount for that scene

Glancing at this table, I can see if I need to move scenes around to balance the POV narration, how much work I’ve done and what’s left to do. Moving lines is a drag and drop affair in Numbers, a bit easier than in Excel.

On a separate tab I have another table called Dashboard. This tells me my total words for the book (the sum of the Words column in the Step Sheet table), target word count, how much is left to go and percent completed. This is in big type so I can read it even in the thumbnail view when I have the folder open in Numbers.

So when it’s time to do my writing for the day, I don’t use a word count quota. I’m trying to just write one scene a day. If I’ve got a full schedule, I’ll pick a short scene. If it’s a lazy Sunday, I’ll go with a bigger, meatier scene. I go through my step sheet and find a scene that feels right for that day, copy the scene description to the clipboard and then I open WriteUp.

WriteUp is a text processor that syncs with Dropbox. I go to the folder for the project I’m working on, create a new file and paste in the scene description as the filename. Then I start typing. When I’m done, I note the word count, go back to my step sheet and write that in the Words column and check off the scene as done. The overall word count and percent done on my dashboard update automatically, keeping me motivated.

When I’m done with all the scenes, I’ll go back to the step sheet one more time and go over the sequence with my editor. Once we get that locked in, I’ll start copy and pasting the contents of each text file from WriteUp into a new document in Pages with page breaks between each scene. Then I’ll turn over that document to my editor for markup.

Pages now supports Word’s Track Changes feature, so when I get the manuscript back I’ll have all her notes and suggestions for when I go through and make revisions. From this point on the manuscript lives in a single word processing document, and the step sheet and text files are just historical reference. But when my editor and I are satisfied with the revisions, I have a Word file ready to convert to Kindle and CreateSpace formats.

Where do you put your text?

I have a problem. I have no idea where to put my text.

Let’s look at my requirements first. I need to:

  • record private observations in a journal
  • capture textual information for later reference
  • draft blog posts and novel chapters
  • keep all of the above organized and easy to access
  • handle data entry via Siri (later reference via Siri a plus, but not required) or keyboard

Looking at that, I can see a number of ways those requirements could be met. Let’s start with the simplest.

Notes.app

Apple’s Notes app isn’t really all that bad now that it syncs with iCloud. Theoretically, it also syncs with Google via Gmail IMAP, but not in a way that’s editable by anything on the web, whereas iCloud notes can at least be entered and edited in a browser by going to iCloud.com. And it has the advantage that search is instant, indexed in the background because it’s a stock app, and deeply integrated into Siri for both data entry and retrieval.

The downside to Notes is that organization sucks. You have one list of notes, no formal tags and no way to sort them. Just a big pile with the most recent at the top. No hierarchy, no restrictive filtering (show me notes containing “#project” but not “#done”). Frankly, I don’t think I can live like that. Maybe I’m not getting simple enough, but that seems… sparse. There’s a difference between simple and simplistic, and I’m not sure Notes meets my needs.

The other problem with Notes is that it’s too hard to get things into. Even apps who don’t support Evernote and Simplenote directly usually have Email in the share panel, and I have email addresses to send stuff directly to Evernote and Simplenote. With Notes, it’s the more arduous—and thus less likely to actually get done—select all, copy, open notes, press + for new note, paste. Really, Apple?

So as much as I’d like to stick to a stock app for maximum Siri and Spotlight integration, it’s just not in the cards.

Simplenote

Simplenote, on the surface, doesn’t look much more advanced than Notes.app. Still one big pile of notes with no hierarchy. But Simplenote does have some significant advantages.

For one, it has real tags, allowing for more sophisticated filtering. This alone makes it a more realistic contender for keeping my work notes separate from personal stuff from writing stuff. But the lack of folders still bugs me.

And Simplenote has the ability to backup/sync with Dropbox. I’m not comfortable keeping all my notes in iCloud in a database I don’t have full access to, but keeping them in text files in a Dropbox folder is completely different story.

Simplenote also, as I mentioned above, allows me to get data into it via email, so I can use it to quickly store all sorts of things that I run across day to day. It’s text only, but I’m a text guy, so that’s fine by me. And I can send notes to it via Siri by having Siri email my Simplenote address. A little more cumbersome than just telling Siri to take a note, but doable.

The only things I really don’t like Simplenote for are writing fiction (though it does have word count) and journaling, again because of the lack of structure. But maybe that can be addressed.

Simplenote plus Day One and WriteUp

Now we’re cookin’. Simplenote would remain my go to inbox, where things germinate into readable ideas. Things that end up more journalish can be copy and pasted into Day One, where they will have more robust time stamping along with my current location and weather. Day One also has configurable alarms to remind you to journal and gives you a really nice calendarish way of looking at your journal entries. And for those of you who don’t understand the importance of journaling, go read Walden and come back when you’ve learned your lesson.

And Simplenote, through Dropbox, can also feed into WriteUp, one of my favorite text processors. I can access my notes in WriteUp by just opening up my Notes folder, and move files out of that into the appropriate blogging or fiction folders. So in this way, I get around Simplenote’s lack of hierarchy, but only in cases where hierarchy is important.

Evernote, the elephant in the room

The other alternative to all of the above is to keep using Evernote, which I’ve used on and off almost since they started. I have a Journal notebook stack in Evernote, which notebooks for each year, and an iOS app that makes adding timestamped journal entries to Evernote just as easy as Day One.

I also have a stack called Writing, with notebooks for all of my major writing projects. And in my notebook for my current project, I have saved web articles, images, draft chapters, even Word documents of past drafts.

The Evernote app for iOS is really fast and amazing, recently redesigned first and foremost for speed. And the Evernote ecosystem is varied and wide-ranging, with all kinds of apps tying into Evernote’s API.

On my Windows PC at work, I can add things to Evernote by hitting Win-A with pretty much anything selected. I can add something from Outlook to Evernote with a single click on the ribbon. Evernote has even taken over the Win-PrintScreen screenshot function in Windows.

Evernote can do everything.

Which is why I think it’s too much. My Evernote database feels unwieldy, clumsy and slow. I don’t think it really is slow, but it feels that way because there’s so much stuff in there. PDFs, images, saved emails, bank statements, the list goes on and on.

And even though Evernote can do everything by itself as all of the above, there’s a subtle mental friction to using it, at least for me. I can feel the weight of all that stuff, and it bugs me. Just because I can dump absolutely everything into Evernote, that doesn’t mean I should.

The more I think about it, the more the combination of Simplenote, Day One and WriteUp (along with Drafts, my text inbox that can one-tap send to all three, as well as create appointments, reminders, tweets, app.net and Facebook posts, etc.) works better for me than Evernote. It gives me just as ubiquitous capture as Evernote, but more structured silos to put the text into, so it doesn’t all bunch up on me.

The bare essentials

Make things as simple as possible, but no simpler. —Albert Einstein

I just read about an experiment with using just the stock iOS apps to get work done, and it resonated with me. I was listening to the Enough podcast and the host made an excellent point about how the best tools are picked up and used without thinking. I don’t need 16 kinds of hammers, so why do I have that many different writing apps on my iPad?

The experiment is simple. Try, with as few exceptions as possible, to use iOS devices with only Apple software. I’m including downloadable apps like iBooks and Podcasts in this.

Why would you do this? In a word, integration. Because Apple is a closed ecosystem, Apple apps have the ability to integrate more tightly with the system and each other than third party apps that have to rely on Apple’s public APIs. For example, even though it’s downloadable and not part of the OS, Apple’s Podcasts app has the ability to change the skip forward and back buttons in the media controls and lock screen to 15-second forward and back buttons. Apps like Downcast can’t do that.

But more importantly, Apple’s apps integrate with Siri and Spotlight. Which means I can ask my phone to show me tasks about something specific in Reminders, but not if the tasks are in Remember The Milk. Notes in Apple’s Notes.app are indexed by spotlight and accessible via Siri, but notes in Simplenote or Evernote are not. Siri can send an email via Apple’s Mail.app while I’m driving. It can’t send one via Sparrow.

And since buying an iPhone 5, I’ve become convinced that Siri is the “next big thing” everyone is waiting for from Apple. It’s been right in front of us for a year now, but most of us didn’t realize what we were looking at. Voice is the next leap in UI after touch. It’s how you’ll control that TV Apple isn’t officially building.

Google’s going down this road too with Google Now. But the two products, while superficially similar, have a fundamental difference. Google Now is about your device telling you something, just when you need to know it. Siri is about you telling your device to do something, the instant it’s on your mind. They’re really 180 degrees apart.

And of the two, I think Siri is more important. But the big limitation with Siri is that, so far, it doesn’t have system-wide hooks the way Android’s sharing system does. You can tell Siri to do a lot of things, things that frankly I would have put off entering into the phone if I had to type them (I do a much better job of ubiquitous capture now), but only things that use the built in applications.

Which brings us back to using only the stock apps when possible. Now, for me, some exceptions are inevitable. I have literally thousands of books in my Kindle library, and I use Amazon’s WhisperSync to read them seamlessly on my iPhone, iPad, laptop and, yes, physical Kindle Keyboard. So while I could convert them all to epub via Calibre, sync them to iTunes and from there sync them to my iPhone and iPad for reading in iBooks, I’m not going to do that. It’s a little harder to shop for books from my iOS devices if I’m in the Amazon ecosystem instead of Apple’s, but reading is so much better that I don’t care.

Google Voice is tough one to give up. I really like my GV number (2KIRVIN), and really, REALLY like that it isn’t tied to any particular phone. Most of my friends and family don’t even know my Verizon number, because they don’t have to. I could forward texts to iMessage, but I don’t want to go back to caring how many texts I send. And I’d only be able to reply from my iPad to people who also use iOS.

But by and large, so far I’m finding it pretty easy to stick to Apple’s apps. Calendar, Reminders, Podcasts, Maps, Camera, Mail, Music (I have iTunes Match), Pages, Numbers and Safari are all fine.

So what third party apps do I use?

  • Audible (see Kindle)
  • Kindle (see above)
  • Flipboard (not stock, but means I don’t have to install Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and a Google Reader client)
  • Pocket (Apple’s Reading List in Safari is too hard to get stuff into still, but it’s a first attempt)
  • Cisco AnyConnect/Citrix Receiver (for work)
  • Pandora (this may go away if Apple’s rumored streaming radio service materializes)
  • Dropbox/AirFile
  • Letterpress/Bejeweled
  • Netflix/Amazon Instant Video/YouTube
  • Squarespace
  • Writeup/Day One/Evernote/Simplenote/Notes/Drafts

And that last line is the one I can’t unravel. I need to figure out where, definitively, to put my notes, and whether there need be any difference or distinction between notes, drafts and journal entries. But that’s a topic for another time.