Talking Tools is an ongoing series of interviews with people whom I respect as creators, communicators and craftspeople. The goal is to dig deeper into how these people work, what their toolboxes look like and how they engage in their own processes.
Today, we’re talking with my good friend and blogging hero Patrick Rhone. Patrick is probably best known for his work as curator at Minimal Mac, but he’s also operating a one-man empire as an independent Mac consultant and writer. Read on to find out more about how Patrick creates, consumes and executes:
When I read the things you produce, it’s clear that you like things clean and simple – do you find that these minimalist tendencies influence your choices in tools, particularly digital tools (for both work and play)?
There’s no question about it. I’m a big fan of minimalist and modern design and absolutely am smitten with software that takes that approach. I think Rands in Repose hit the nail squarely recently when he said “My favorite feature is the lack of features”. That said, a lot of people mistake this idea so I want to be clear. Anything, and software especially, should have exactly the features it needs to be relevant to the task at hand in consideration of your needs. An obvious missing feature is just as wasteful of my time and attention as ten that the myself, and the majority, will never use.
One of the many hats you wear is that of a Mac consultant. As I understand it, you spend a good chunk of time at client sites, away from your home base. What does your mobile toolbox look like these days?
Well, it has certainly changed over the past few months. I used to take my Macbook, it’s power adapter, a bag of sometimes needed but rarely used cables, not to mention my regular assortment of utility disks, notebooks, pens, etc. to each client visit. Now, I take my iPad instead of the Macbook and related accessories in almost every case. Not to be cliché (consider that a warning), but it has been a huge weight off of my shoulders both mentally and physically. Most of what I used the Macbook for when out and about was for access to reference materials for the problem at hand. Also to access Highrise() and Basecamp where I keep client related notes, tasks, and projects. Not only can I more easily do this with my iPad but, because I keep all of my documents and manuals in Dropbox, my reference materials are available to me everywhere.
Do you have a preferred way of managing a backlog of fixes you’ve come across — some type of knowledge base?
No. Believe it or not, I keep all of that knowledge in my head for the most part. I suppose I should, at some point, start to capture that stuff somewhere. I also suppose it would be different if I were working with someone else so we did not both have to try to reinvent the wheel. That said, for the current time, and the foreseeable future, I am doing neither.
How do you manage your on-site tools (like diagnostics, driver install packages, etc.)?
I keep it all on an external USB key (I have a super tiny one that fits in my wallet) or, in the case of things like DiskWarrior and TechTool, I keep the optical disks in my bag. I like to keep things as portable as possible.
On to your second major hat – writing. You maintain several blogs, notably the increasingly popular Minimal Mac (which I love, by the way). Tell us a little bit about how you write, applications you use, tracking post topic ideas – how does the process work for you?
First, a warning, this process may seem like a lot of added work and tools for some and, in those cases they are likely correct. I’ll try to explain myself but doubt I will have any strong arguments to counter…
Almost all of my writing starts in TextEdit. I’m an unabashed champion of it and I think it does not get nearly the credit it deserves. I have it set to default to plain text, 90 characters x 50 lines, Menlo 12pt for my font (after a long flirtation with Droid Sans). Been using basically this setup, except for font changes, for years and have grown very comfortable with it.
Another thing I use is Notational Velocity. Been a NV fan and user for a very long time but the current version is spectacular. I have that hooked up to and syncing with Simplenote so I have access to it on the iPad and iPhone. Also, there is now the option of storing and reading the database from a folder of .txt files. I also keep said folder on my Dropbox. So, I simply save my TextEdit documents to that folder and they automatically show up in NV, Simplenote and then sync everywhere via Dropbox shortly thereafter.
I write everything using Markdown. Therefore, from TextEdit I generally open TextMate and convert it to HTML using the Markdown bundle. Now, there used to be a Mac OS service (humanetext.service) that would allow me to do this right in TextEdit using a key command but I lost it along the way and the developer’s site has been offline for months. That said, I also kind of like doing it this way because the syntax highlighting in TextMate let’s me see really quickly if I have slipped up in my Markdown somewhere and I can correct that real fast. And yes, I know I could just write it in TextMate to begin with and, to honest, writing out all of the steps I actually take for this stuff is causing me to consider that but, as of this writing I prefer TextEdit for some obtuse reason so…
Then I copy and paste that HTML formatted text into a new post on Tumblr (which is where Minimal Mac is hosted). Yes, I know I could flip the Markdown switch in Tumblr and skip a lot of steps but it also adds some more if I want to include images in the post and need to change the formatting of those, etc. Therefore, I do it this way for now.
Now, that said, this is the way it works on my hosted sites (Minimal Mac, The Random Post, Practical Opacity) but I have a completely different flow for patrickrhone.com which is a self hosted WordPress site. That flow involves a fantastic app called MacJournal but I’ll save you a rundown of that for now.
I know we’ve discussed this before, but I’d love to hear again why so many of the sites you manage are running on Tumblr – what is it about that service that you find so appealing?
Not only is is wonderfully designed, maintained, and supported, I find the barrier to posting really low. Especially when it comes to the “curation” style format of most of the sites I host there. I can very quickly, using the handy supplied browser bookmarklet, post a link, quote, photo from wherever I happen to be on the web. Easy peasy.
When not working and writing, surely you do a bit of content consumption here and there – are you an RSS guy? Books? Magazines? Tell us a bit about how you consume and what that toolbox looks like.
Um, yes. All of the above.
I actually consider it a part of my duty, for Minimal Mac especially, to “drink from the firehose” and subscribe to far more feeds than I would otherwise do if only doing so for my own personal pleasure. That said, I do have a system for managing them all. My preferred reader is Google Reader, skinned with Helvetireader, as a Fluid app. I send longer content to Instapaper and read it there.
I have long loved magazines. I look forward to the day when magazines are available on the iPad at a reasonable subscription price that is the same, or very close, to the printed version. I have subscribed to Wired for over ten years. I read it cover to cover every month. I even enjoy most of the ads. That said, I usually pay about one dollar per issue of the print copy. Even with the interactive content I find that paying four to five times more than that, and still having ads, is unreasonable.
And I try to read the occasional book or two. I almost always read non-fiction. I find book reading to be the hardest and take the longest for me because, for me, it requires large blocks of uninterrupted focused time and I rarely get that.
How much overlap is there between your consumption and your curation for Minimal Mac and your other blogs?
I’d say probably about 50% in some way, shape, or form. For instance, in Instapaper I have two folders — Post and Reference. I’d say nine out of ten things I read there ends up in one or the other and it’s pretty even between the two. The things in the Post folder get posted to one of my sites or Twitter.
As far as feeds items not sent to Instapaper, I open anything that is post worthy in tabs in my browser and then post accordingly.
Please describe for me your ideal creative situation. What types of things surround you? What implements do you reach for?
Depends on what I am creating but it most certainly would involve paper and a pen or pencil. I still manage most of my lists, take notes, and think using analog tools. If eventually turning into long form writing, I would likely have my iPad too. Although, I have been known to write multiple paragraph posts on my iPhone (consumption, not creation be damned).
So, say you’re sitting at your desk with a glass of wine and you decide that it’s time to kill an hour on the Internet – where do you go?
The huge backlog of items I have in Instapaper would be a good place to start. I often find myself on prolonged historical and religious research ratholes. No particular reason other than those are subjects that interest me. As far a sites that are rocking my world right now, here is a list in no particular order:
- Daring Fireball
- Frank Chimero
- Inventing a Planet
- Rands in Repose
- First Today, Then Tomorrow
- One Thing Well
Special thanks to Patrick for taking the time to talk with me. In case you missed any of the links mentioned above, you can read Patrick’s writing at Minimal Mac, The Random Post, Practical Opacity, and patrickrhone.com