An Interview with Neven Mrgan by Shawn Blanc

An Interview with Neven Mrgan by Shawn Blanc

Neven Mrgan is a designer at Panic, Inc. and half of the creative team behind The Incident, one of my current favorite iPhone/iPad games. If you’ve enjoyed the Talking Tools series here (which recently featured Shawn, oddly enough), you’ll definitely find this to a very interesting read (and in no small part due to Shawn being an excellent interviewer).

The iPad and Content Creation


We’ve all found ourselves in situations where we need to complete a task and the appropriate implement for the job isn’t available. Or maybe it is available, but it’s just not immediately at hand. If I encounter a loose screw on one of the cabinets in my kitchen, my mind immediately tries to recall the location of the nearest screwdriver. When I realize that said screwdriver is on the other side of the house or out in the garage, I then start looking around for a suitable, one-time stand-in like the tip of a table knife or a narrow key. Clearly, I’m not going to use a tool like this to drive all screws from that point forward because it’s inefficient, but it will get the job done in a pinch. Such is my opinion of the iPad for “content creation”.

While there are obvious proofs of the concept that the iPad can be used to create things instead of just consuming them, I think we need to take a step back and consider the idea that just because it’s possible to create with the iPad doesn’t necessarily mean that the iPad is the best tool for a given job. When talking about content creation, typically people mean things like writing, shooting and editing photos and video and other visually creative things like drawing or sketching. I won’t argue that the iPad can do most of these things, but I will argue that it doesn’t excel at any of them to the point where it’s a better tool than a “regular computer”. It comes down to the concessions you’re willing to make.

For instance: I’m writing these words on an iPad while sitting on my front porch. I’m typing a good deal slower than I would be if I had a physical keyboard, and making more mistakes. I chose to use the iPad in this situation because it was a matter of simply grabbing it off of my desk and walking out my front door. I chose it because I’m not in any particular hurry in writing this, but I also don’t plan on sitting out here all day and just wanted to work on this post for a few minutes, so unhooking my laptop would have been a bigger hassle. I’m making sacrifices of speed and typing accuracy, but gaining portability and mobility. Is the iPad doing a good enough job in facilitating the writing of this post? Yep. Is it the best tool for the job among those available to me? Nope.

I’m not saying that people who opt to take their iPad to a conference instead of a notebook computer are somehow dumb or crazy. I’ve heard lots of people do this and since they’re ostensibly doing so with the understanding that they’re giving up certain affordances by doing so, more power to ‘em. Wanting to travel lighter and have a more compact device with which to take notes or check their email is understandable. The problem is that many of these same people would have you believe that they are simply using a different, yet equally capable, tool for the job at hand and this simply isn’t the case 99% of the time.

Most of the examples of people doing crazy shit on an iPad are to show that said shit is *possible*, not efficient or even practical. If I really wanted to, I could hobble my way through a game of tennis using my iPad to hit the ball, but it doesn’t mean my iPad is an excellent or even passable tennis racket.

I don’t mean to get all ranty here, but I find the endless grandstanding about the iPad’s content creation facilities to be a little tiring. If you show me somebody who can type on an iPad as fast or faster than they can on a “normal” hardware keyboard, then I’ll show you somebody who needs to spend less time trying to convince the world that the tip of a table knife is all the screwdriver they need and more time doing interesting things with their fingers.

The iPad is, in and of itself, truly amazing and I love using it the way I believe it was intended: as a short-term understudy for my Macbook Pro that’s really good at helping me read and watch things in a polished, engaging fashion - and maybe tap out part of a blog post. Occasionally.

Surely you have something you’d like to say about this?

Talking Tools: Shawn Blanc of

Shawn Blanc

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 another of my blogging heroes, Shawn Blanc. His most popular writings deal with Apple stuff, but he’s also got quite a knack for finding interesting content online and sharing it with his small army of fans at I won’t lie to you - I’d cut off my left pinky to write like this guy and I’m crazy excited that he’s taken the time to talk with me.

Let’s assume you had 2 minutes to give me a tour of your nerdy hardware before dinner was on the table… go.

Showing my office has always felt awkward for me. Perhaps because most people don’t know how to respond to the enormous monitor on my desk and the obvious lack of clutter. But that’s not even the main point. There is no way for a stranger to truly grasp just how much time I spend in my office and how important that space is is to my daily life.

And two minutes before dinner is about all it would take. My office is very simple: a desk and chair, a closet, some shelves, my computer. Neat…

How useful do you find the iPad, personally? Have you been able to move any major chunks of your workflow from your primary machine to your iPad?

Ironically, I am typing on my iPad right now. Standing at my kitchen counter in order to get out of my office chair for a bit and write from somewhere else in the house.

The iPad has definitely added value to my work and recreation. Though, in its current iteration, it could never replace my laptop. The most value the iPad has brought is that I read much more. In all the passing conversations I’ve had, answering other’s questions about how I like it, I always reply that I will most likely never buy a physical book again — having all my reading material on one device is bliss.

If the iPad were for reading and for writing only, it would still be worth it. These hallmark features make it a great companion regardless of the setting: meetings or living rooms, offices or hammocks.

Being the intrepid leader of a team of designers, developers, writers, editors and project managers must make for a busy workday. What do you rely on to keep things humming?

Busy, yes. But also exciting. To keep things humming I rely on my wits, a hot cup of coffee, and a steady diet of Seth Godin. Joking aside, I primarily lead my office by getting good systems in place and doing lots of delegation. The team I work with is absolutely fantastic, and the truth is that I work for them.

In terms of what tools I use to get my job done and keep my team productive, I spend most of my day in Mail, Things, Simplenote, and Pages. When I know I’ve got a few interrupted hours in a row then it’s likely I’ll spend a healthy dose of that time with a white board. I’m a verbal processor, and if my assistant isn’t around to listen to me talk things through in search of a solution then I use the white board instead.

Unfortunately there are days when it seems as if I get nothing significant accomplished because it’s all I can do to keep on top of email or I’ve got back-to-back-to-back meetings. For a long time I used to feel down after a day like that because I hadn’t gotten anything significant and measurable accomplished. But after a few years as a department head and manager of a team, I’ve learned that this part of my job is a small yet integral part of the story-arc that accompanies management. There is a balance between protecting my team from unnecessary meetings so they can get work done, and sending them to meetings so I can get work done.

When not in meetings I spend my time developing plans, strategies, workflows, and policies, as well as project managing. Currently I am in the middle of updating my Marketing Play Book, which contains our ministry-wide branding and style guidelines, design workflows, templates for creative briefs, marketing philosophies, product launch templates, and more. This has been a very exciting project for me because I love articulating things with words and graphics and then typesetting them into something beautiful and useful. And since I manage our relationship with the print house, I have been known to get my Decks printed on uncoated stock.

Let’s say we all woke up tomorrow and our Macs had been destroyed while we slept by some nefarious elves or something. How dependent are you on the Mac platform? How hard do you think it would be to move to another OS if you had to?

I am not dependent on the Mac platform at all. It would be sad if I had to move to another OS, but it wouldn’t unearth my livelihood the way it would if I were an Mac software developer or tech consultant. All the tasks I use OS X to accomplish could be done in any other operating system: word processing, text editing, email, project-management, and design.

With OS X out of the picture, I would most likely move to the Web as my “OS”. All the applications I use today are, for the most part, cloud-based, desktop tools. And so instead of converting to Windows or Linux tools, I would just use Web apps for all my tasks. Such as Instapaper, the WordPress dashboard, Gmail, Google calendar and reader, and Remember the Milk.

But it’s possible that I would not just migrate and pick up where I left off. But rather take the change as an opportunity to switch hobbies and do carpentry for a while instead of writing. I would set up an online store, Desk Envy, and sell huge, simple, handmade desks.

An oversized desk is the only sort worth owning. For one, they’re there for you when you need that extra space for papers and other work (when you need the space, there never seems to be enough). Secondly, when your oversized desk is clean and empty, the unused acreage is a sight to behold.

When a small desktop is clean it merely looks tidy, as it should. But when an oversized desk is clean? That’s conversation worthy.

Aperture? Lightroom? iPhoto? Something else entirely?

iPhoto, I guess. But I’m not a photography nut, and actually, most of my images are in folders on my hard drive instead of in iPhoto. Since I only ever use my iPhone to take pictures they usually just sit on the phone if they don’t end up on my Flickr account. That’s not to say I don’t like photography, I’m just rarely thinking about it throughout my day, nor do I give much time to post-processing my photos.

A big part of your blog is curating and sharing links to various things that interest you. How do go about collecting them? What tools help you do this effectively?

I love sharing links. Not only is it a way to share with others things I think are worth their time, it’s alway a way for me to give back to whomever I’m linking to by sending a little bit of traffic and attention their way.

As far as how I collect links, well I gave up a long time ago trying to spend any of my time searching for links. I just post them if and when I come across them. It seems the best things to link to are those which get discovered organically, rather than by hunting for the sole purpose of finding something link worthy. And so most links are things I’ve read in Reeder or discover via Twitter.

Every single word for my site gets published through MarsEdit (it would be great if WordPress had a better way for me to publish links via my iPhone or iPad, but I haven’t gotten it to work yet). I try to keep to an unofficial schedule of no more than three links or posts per day — one in the early AM, one around lunch, and one for just after dinner.

You’ve produced some popular longer-form pieces in your blogging career, but they seem somewhat sporadic. How does inspiration for these come about? Do ideas generally incubate for awhile or do you start writing as soon as something cool flies into your head?

Gosh, I very much wish that the frequency of my longer-form pieces wasn’t so sporadic, but since I’m not a full-time writer that’s just the way it is. Another part of it is that I don’t invest into a substantial article like that unless it is something genuinely close to my daily life. The software I’ve reviewed to date — NetNewsWire, MarsEdit, Things, Yojimbo, Mint) — all of these I still use and recommend to friends every day. I don’t just review a piece of software for the sake of reviewing it. The review comes out of a genuine appreciation of how much that tool has affected my day to day life.

Perhaps I’m not as efficient at writing these long-form articles as some other bloggers are, but for me they take about 20 – 30 hours of work. There is so much research that goes into the article just so I can get my mind fully wrapped around the history and backbone of it, and not just my own use-case scenarios. Secondly, and one of the most difficult aspects, is deciding what the *feel* of the article is going to be about. It can’t just be a list of features and screenshots, it has to convey something that transcends version numbers and release notes.

The ideas for these pieces is a combination of incubation and writing. Generally I begin taking notes and scribbles about an article as soon as the idea comes into my mind. And for a long time it looks like an ugly, unordered list of sentences and paragraphs. Most of them being their own thought or concept, while others are the same thought re-written five different ways…

Once I know the feel and tone I’m aiming for, and I have a strong grasp on all the information and things I want to say, I will open a new, blank text document and place its window next to the one with all the random writings in it. I then write the top-level outline for the article and begin pasting each bit of text into the outline under the proper headings.

Next comes the actual writing and editing process. I use a lot of what I’ve already written because most of those sentences were written when I was most clearly thinking about that thought. But I edit, edit, edit the article like crazy to get the overall flow and tone just right.

Tell me about your Mail client of choice and why it beats the pants off of mine (Mailplane).

I use Apple Mail. I keep it simple with just a few folders, Hold and Archive, and I try very hard not to live in there. It beats Mailplane because it’s free. And if you want to compare features, I think the less an email application does the better — feature-rich ones only encourage users to move in. I’d rather spend my time somewhere else.

I spend my time pretty evenly split between Firefox and Safari for various reasons dealing with add-ons. What’s your browser poison? Why?

I use Safari. It’s fast, doesn’t update every time I start it up, and works with 1Password.

What do you read? How do you read it?

I read a lot, but I’m slow and noncommittal about it. Over the years I’ve developed a habit of starting books and never finishing them. Also, I rarely read fiction. Most books I start are informative, how-to, and the like. I love topics that deal with creative leadership and communication and marketing. I also own and read a lot of Bible commentaries. Henri Nouwen, A.W. Tozer, and C.S. Lewis are three of my favorite authors. Not only are they fantastic writers, but the books they’ve written are among the few that have most impacted my heart and my life.

As I mentioned earlier, the majority of my future book purchases will be eBooks. I love to read on my iPad. I subscribe to about 75 RSS feeds that I read with Reeder; I regularly throw articles into Instapaper; I download Wired every month; and in iBooks I’m currently reading “Being Geek” by Michael Lopp and “How to Write Clearly” by Edwin Abbott.

So, you’ve finished your work for the day and it’s time to pee away an hour looking at a screen of some kind before you knart out for the night. Tell me what happens next…

If it’s not a night that I’m out of the house then this is the time when I read or write. Such is the case right now. I hate to just waste away an hour (especially as a daily habit) just vegging out for no reason. Writing is entertainment for me, although sometimes it takes on the shape of grueling and frustrating entertainment. So if I can’t get myself to focus on writing then I am likely to read or just go to bed.

There are some people who’s heads just pop off the pillow at 4:00 in the morning. I am not one of those people. But I would like to be. I go in and out of seasons where I’m able to get to bed early and get up early, but if I don’t stay disciplined at it I naturally gravitate towards staying up late to write instead of getting up early.

Though I will say that one advantage to being a night owl is that most of the online community is ‘gone for the day’ so there are less distractions taking place.

As with all of my gracious interviewees, big nerd ups to Shawn for his time and thoughtful responses. You can read Shawn’s kick-ass blog, follow him on Twitter and, maybe if you word the email just the right way, convince him to surrender his home address so you can send him those cookies you’re always bragging about. You know the ones.

Check out lots of other great Talking Tools Interviews.

A Crazy Simple jQuery Hack for Creating Rollovers

Mouse Cursor

This is one of my favorite “quick-n-dirty” jQuery tricks. If you’re working on a Web site and you need to add rollover effects to links or other images, you can do it pretty simply with this chunk of JavaScript code and some intelligently named image files. First, make sure you include jQuery if you haven’t already:

Now, include this jQuery code somewhere on your site:

Here’s how it works: each image you have that needs to do something when you mouse over it should have two states, “up” (mouse is off of the image) and “over” (mouse is over the image). Each of these stators will be represented by a specific image, i.e., “foo_up.jpg” and “foo_over.jpg”. So, all you need to do is name each of your following that pattern and add a single CSS class to the image itself within your markup:

And you rollover effects will work automatically. Easy as pie.

Clearly, you can change the naming convention to your liking if my implementation doesn’t suit you, but you’ll need to adjust the JavaScript as well.

The principle at work here is one I recall from The Art of Unix Programming by Eric S. Raymond:

Fold knowledge into data so program logic can be stupid and robust.

This approach is perfect for situations like this because you can tell almost immediately if there’s something wrong with your setup: either the image won’t load or the rollover effect doesn’t work. Either way, it’s pretty damn simple to find out where the bump in the road is and fix it.

I know this is a little inside baseball, but I’ve seen countless web pages where this same effect was achieved by doing this kind of crap:

I find that to be a little gross (and extremely obtrusive in terms of markup).

The swapping technique listed above is something I came up with when I did something that I think everybody (myself more than anybody) should do a little more often - think about the problem you’re trying to solve. Once you’ve done that, think about how you might avoid having to solve the same problem again in the future. Not that there’s a whole lot of genius wrapped up in my 10 lines of JavaScript, but I’ve used it at least 20 times in the last year and it’s served me very well.

What parts of your workflow could benefit from a little bit of extra consideration? 

Photo by Darren Hester

Announcing the Evernote Essentials Affiliate Program!

handshake I

It’s been almost a month since Evernote Essentials first hit the digital shelves and I’ve gotten a ton of requests for an affiliate program. Well, I’m happy to tell you that it’s here and it’s fabulous.

If you’re a fan of Evernote Essentials and want to make some extra cash by linking to it on your blog or sharing it with your friends on Twitter, Facebook and such, then boy howdy are you going to love this. As an affiliate, you’ll earn 40% of the price of each book you help me sell. That’s $10 each and all you need to do is use your special affiliate link. It only takes a couple of minutes to sign up and it’s incredibly simple.

Interested? Visit the Affiliates page for more details on the program and all the info you need to sign up.

Thank you all for making Evernote Essentials such an amazing success. The response has been overwhelming and I’m thrilled to death that all of you kind folks like it so much. I’m in the process of compiling a massive amount of updates and new material for the next version (which you’ll get for free if you bought the current version) and I’m aiming to have that ready to go in the next 2-3 weeks.

Thanks again. You guys rock.

Back to our regularly-scheduled programming.

Photo by oooh.oooh

Mailbag - Separate Evernote Notebook or Tag + Saved Search?

Evernote Party - Slide Lounge

The ruggedly handsome Dennis of asks:

How do you decide whether to group items in a notebook, or to give them a tag and have a saved search? Is this a personal preference, or is there an advantage to either one?

It depends if you’re adding a lot of content on this topic or just retrieving and reading what you’ve already collected. Let’s explore both of these, shall we?

Creating Content

When you’re creating a new note on the desktop, it’s trivially simple to select a specific target notebook or to input a few tags (or both). However, when you’re creating a new note on one of the mobile clients, like on the iPhone, selecting a notebook is a much easier step than typing in a series of tags. Generally, most people have a smaller number of notebooks than they do tags, so it’d be a longer process to thumb-flip through, say, 100+ tags to find the one you want than to flip through a handful of notebooks.

I would say that, when using the desktop clients for Windows and OS X, it doesn’t matter. Viewing the contents of a notebook and the results of a saved search are both extremely simple operations (the first requires a single click, the second may require two clicks if the Saved Search area is collapsed).

Retrieving Content

If you spent a summer poring over books of quotations from various historical figures and amassed a collection of you favorites in Evernote (just for the sake of argument) and you frequently return to this content for inspiration, then a Saved Search is the clear winner. Saved Searches sync across all of your Evernote installations, so you won’t be faced with the burdensome task of inputing a complex search query on your mobile phone. Once you’re in Evernote, accessing your favorite Churchill quip is a matter of tapping a few menu options instead of typing “notebook:Archive tag:Churchill tag:quote” into the search field.

This also brings up another interesting point (which I explore in a bit more depth in Evernote Essentials) about separate notebooks. In my humble opinion, the only discrete notebooks you should really have beyond the “Inbox” and “Everything” notebooks are for projects or tasks that are of immediate or ongoing concern. A good example of this would be resources for a current project at work versus an archive of accolades you’ve received from your boss. The former container is ostensibly something you’d need to both review and update frequently, so keeping the number of interface actions needed to get there as small as possible would be in your best interest. Conversely, the latter collection isn’t something you’re going to be updating regularly or reviewing a whole lot, so a unique tag and a Saved Search would get the job done quite nicely.

This crap is all about what works best for you and your situation in the end. If you love having a pantload of notebooks, then by all means, create a separate notebook for frickin’ everything and revel in the knowledge that it’s getting done your way. I’m simply suggesting that, in terms of the number of actions you must perform in order to get/put the relevant data, shorter is better.

Photo by thekenyeung

I love hearing from you guys - if you want to ask me anything about all this tools junk, shoot me an email at [email protected].

Talking Tools: David Chartier of

David Chartier with Dog and Problem

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’s unfortunate victim is tech journalist to the stars, David Chartier. Ol’ David has a pretty impressive résumé having written for Ars Technica, Wired Magazine and The Unofficial Apple Weblog, as well as serving as Chief Media Producer for Agile Web Solutions (makers of the venerable 1Password). These days he finances his Apple store purchases as Associate Editor for I’ve been pestering David online for a good while now and he finally agreed to talk with me if I stop sending him my daily homemade greeting cards (which are awesome).

As a writer for Macworld, it stands to reason that most of your equipment would bear a certain fruit-shaped logo. But, for those following along at home, please tell me a little bit about your hardware.

I have a late 2009 17-inch MacBook Pro, so the dual-video-card generation, but before they could swap without requiring you to log out and back in. Since I work at home, my primary machine is a 2010 27-inch iMac core i5. I also have an iPhone 4 and an iPad which I am writing with more frequently.

What is your writing tool of choice? Are you a word processor guy or a text editor guy?

I’m a word processor guy, even though I have some web design chops that I picked up in school and through tinkering off and on. But to me, code and writing are two different beasts. When I write, I want to see the paragraph the way the readers will; I want to see the flow and rhythm of the text, and where links appear as they will look in the final products. Having to parse HTML code, or even the much slimmer Markdown, ruins that experience for me.

What kinds of applications and services do you use to track potential stories and articles? How do those differ from what you use for pleasure reading?

I use a variety of tools like Google Reader, Evernote, and MacJournal (my word processor of choice). For pleasure I read plain old bookmarked webpages, sometimes in Instapaper, as well as in iBooks and Kindle.

Do you do any type of versioning or incremental backups of your pieces that are in progress?

I don’t use anything like Git, but I do use Time Machine, CrashPlan for offsite backups, and Dropbox. I’ve never been very happy with change tracking features in word processors. If I finish a first draft of a longer piece and think I might want to change it significantly, I’ll duplicate it either as an inpidual file or as a second journal entry in MacJournal so I can compare the original and the second draft side by side.

I’m assuming you use multiple devices when writing - how do you make sure you’re always working on the most recent copy of a given article or post?

I write almost everything in MacJournal, and its documents sync quite well over Dropbox. I still have to remember to quit it on one machine when switching to another, but it’s become habit by now so I rarely run into trouble.

How do you capture and track ideas for articles or blog posts?

A good chunk of my writing is news, so many times if we find something, I have to jump on a story right away. But I have a lot of ideas for original content too, and for a long time I’ve been using Things for that stuff. The Quick Entry feature is great for getting an idea out of my head and into a task inbox for dealing with later. I’m probably going to switch to OmniFocus though, now that it’s out for the iPad, which in light of your sync-related questions, should make things a lot easier for my workflow. I won’t have to be in the same room as one of my Macs to sync OmniFocus on my iPhone or iPad, and I won’t have to worry about ruining my task list by leaving Things open on one of my Macs.

What about general tasks and projects?

Whoops, guess I jumped the shark there. But basically it’s the same answer: I’ve been using Things, but I’m pretty sure I’ll switch to OmniFocus.

Tell me a little bit about how you “do” email.

I use Mail on my Macs and i-devices. I have a personal MobileMe account and a work account for Macworld, which is powered by Google Apps, so I have decent webmail interfaces for both accounts should I ever need to fall back on them. I don’t have an intricate system for my email, and I am not constantly chasing “inbox zero.” I do, however, use a few Smart Folders, and I like to frequently create Smart Folders and regular folders for projects, usually working with a source or PR on a news story or review.

One of my Smart Folders is simply “Unread,” which displays nothing but unread messages from both of my inboxes. It’s great for the occasional session of pounding though a backlog, since even if I don’t delete a message (maybe I need to flag it for followup or just keep it around for acting on later), it disappears from that Smart Folder once I select another message.

I have a Flagged Smart Folder for obvious reasons, but I usually also create Smart Folders for a specific person or product’s name if I’m going to be working even for couple days on it.

I also have a few key regular folders, such as “Coverage,” into which I toss messages that I want to make sure we cover. We often email links, PRs, and story pitches to a an editors and bloggers list, and if there’s something that needs to get covered, even if we have to wait on it for a day, I add the original message we send to that Coverage folder to maintain a sort of running checklist that I can compare against our published and upcoming stories.

During the course of a day, if there’s a message that I need to act on a little later, maybe it’s my next story or a reply I need to draft once I finish a story I’m already working on, I’ll double click to open it in a separate window that sits in a specific place on my display where I keep messages like this.

Of all of the folks I know, you’re a pretty outspoken proponent of Tumblr as a blogging platform. Can you tell me a bit about why this is?

Tumblr brings the most unique mix of simplicity and style to the table, and I’m not really talking about the themes. It’s stupid-simple to sign up and start posting, but I really like its concept of different “types” of posts, like links, media, and plain old text. Sometimes all you need to do is link something you found - you don’t need or want to say anything more - be it a photo you shot or cool site you found. On Tumblr you can do exactly that - you can post a photo with no title, caption, or forced blog post required, and you can link another page so the headline becomes a clickable link to that page. Tumblr lets your blog be as simple, flexible, or involved as you want, which is refreshing in a market of me-too, gimmicky WordPress and Blogger ripoffs.

Kindle, iBooks or dead trees (and why)?

iBooks and Kindle (apps), I’m a digital man - I read on my iPad and iPhone now, and I only get a dead tree if it isn’t in digital form yet or there is some significant extra media that you can’t get in the digital version. I get a little nostalgic for physical books every now and then, but the advantages of digital outweigh the longing for yesterday. I love being able to search books and have them all with me on the train. I’m thrilled about the potential for a much more engaging and informative experience that rich media books are beginning to explore, and I feel a lot more comfortable with my collection knowing that Apple, Amazon, CrashPlan, and I have backups in case I lose a device or my house burns down.

Do you have a favorite band or artist to listen to while you work?

I’ve been relaxing and focusing with instrumentalists like Bonobo and Amon Tobin. I love the grooves and rhythmic soundscapes that they produce, and as I’ve slowly grown away from some of my college music tastes I’ve come to find lyrics in music to be really distracting. It might be because I still love to sing and play music, so I want to play along in my head to more “traditional” rock sings with a lead singer. But give me a cool, layered track with a heart beat and I’m a happy worker bee.

You’ve spent a long day hunched over the keyboard, tapping feverishly. The work day is done, you’ve got a tall glass of something cold within arms reach and a Mac in front of you. What are your favorite ways to unwind online?

One kind of winding involves gaming, which is arguably anything but unwinding. I have a PS3, but I’ve always preferred gaming with a mouse and keyboards, especially FPS games, so during my downtime gaming I bounce between Mac OS X and Windows a lot to play games like Left 4 Dead 2 and Batman: Arkham Asylum.

Exploring all the interestingness and craziness that comes out of the Tumblr community and sifting through non-work-related feeds in Google Reader are also high on my list. Even though I’m not using much of my multimedia design degree, I still like to read a lot of design blogs like Motionographer, Iconfactory, PhotoJojo, and Jeffery Zeldman. Then there is of course my Twitter account and Facebook for keeping up with the gamut of readers and friends.

Big nerd ups to David for taking the time to talk with me. You can check out David’s writing at, 1FPS (his personal blog) and you’d be a fool to not follow him on Twitter. A fool, I say.

Check out lots of other great Talking Tools Interviews.

Creating an Ebook - A Tour of My Toolbox


Now that Evernote Essentials has shipped and the dust is starting to settle, I thought I’d spend a little time talking about how, exactly, it went from an idea to a completed project. Many different applications were instrumental in the production, sales and fulfillment processes and I wanted to outline exactly how I did it and what I used. Cool? Cool.

Brainstorming and Drafting

Believe it or not, the vast majority of the writing for Evernote Essentials was done, in fact, in Evernote. My requirements weren’t terribly stringent; I need to be able to write mostly plain text, occasionally add some basic styling (bold, italics, etc.) and have the ability to work on it from both my office at work on my lunch break and at home in the evenings. The idea of schlepping a USB drive around with the only copy of my work on it was quickly dismissed in favor of Evernote. The only potential drawback to using Evernote for this was the lack of real versioning of the files, which would give me the ability to revert to any previous version if I needed to. Evernote hadn’t yet released the “Note History” feature, but even that doesn’t create new versions every time a note is changed. This was something I was willing to forgo, as I was only in the beginning stages of writing it and was more concerned with getting my ideas down “on paper”, so to speak, than I was with creating a full-blown Development Environment for my frickin’ ebook.

Evernote was also where I would save screenshots, miscellaneous notes and ideas and any other odds and ends that were related to the project. Portability, again, was the primary reason for this.

Review, Editing and Collaboration

Once I had what I felt was a solid first draft of Evernote Essentials, I was going to need to recruit some friends. I needed people other than myself to read it for things like mechanics, spelling, continuity and, of course, technical accuracy. For this, I used the Writeboard facilities within Basecamp. I’d been using Basecamp for many other projects at that point, so it wasn’t any big deal to dump each chapter into it’s own Writeboard and start inviting friends to read it. Not only did it make sharing simple, but I now had proper versioning for each chapter, so I could easily roll back any change that was made by any of my intrepid proofreaders. My only complaint with Writeboard was the manner in which it exported the text; when I opted for a plain text export, I got a file full of forcibly-wrapped lines that I had to go through and fix individually. This was definitely an annoyance, but hardly a reason to not recommend Basecamp for similar projects.

After all of my buddies had taken a crack at the text and it was time to put together something resembling a final draft, I migrated each Writeboard into a single, massive document on Google Docs. I had, by this point, amassed a rather large number of screenshots that were to be included in the final product and Google Docs made adding them a snap. This document would ultimately be what was sent to my unstoppably talented designer for the final layout.

Selling and Fulfillment

The sales page for the book lives on the very same domain that is serving these words to you. It’s powered masterfully by Tumblr, a choice I’ve already defended once before and won’t belabor here, but there are a couple of other services that handle actual selling and delivery of the product. is a service I’d heard about from several of my friends who also sell ebooks. Essentially, you pay a flat rate, upload your digital wares, set the price and other details about said digital wares and they give you the HTML for a button to put on your site so people can buy your crap. Seriously, it’s not much more complicated than that. When somebody buys your product, they send you an email with the buyer’s information as well as the details of the transaction (if they used a coupon code, what currency was used, etc.). They also send the buyer an email containing a link where they can download the thing they just bought. You can create coupon codes, single-use links for free product and even affiliate programs (stay tuned, those of you asking about that). It’s very slick and, frankly, I can’t see how they make any money with how little they’re charging me.

PayPal is where the cheddar ultimately ends up. Just about everybody is familiar with the oft-vilified-but-incredibly-ubiquitous kings of online purchasing — a few people have actually emailed to tell me that they would love to buy my book but refused to use PayPal — but the setup and maintenance couldn’t be simpler. They take a small cut of each transaction automatically and the rest of the cash is available for me immediately after the transaction completes. Horror stories aside, PayPal has been great so far.


I wanted to be able to keep tabs on the site and traffic the day the book launched. Google Analytics is nice and all, but doesn’t refresh their analytics data for 24 hours and I wanted the real-time scoop. A friend of mine recommended Clicky and after about 30 seconds of watching it work, I was hooked. Clicky lets you watch visitors on your site and what they’re doing in real-time, shows you from whence they came, even what country they’re browsing from and with which browser/OS combination. They also have a slimmed-down iPhone interface, which came in handy while I was up in San Francisco and not necessarily in front of a computer. Best $30/year I’ve ever spent.

It was an interesting process, certainly. I’m sure that every other ebook author on the planet has their own special set of tools and techniques for creating their work, but these worked pretty well for my first pass at this. My next project will probably require a bit more in the text-editing department, so Evernote may be supplanted as the primary writing platform in favor of something more specialized. Other than that, there wasn’t much about this project that felt sluggish or inhibiting. We’ll see how I feel after the next book, though. :)

Photo by dkspook

Talking Tools: Chris Guillebeau of The Art of Non-Conformity

chris meetup 2 (1 of 1)

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 to Chris Guillebeau. Chris writes about unconventional strategies for life, work and travel at his blog, The Art of Non-Conformity. In his spare time, he travels the world (like, all of it) and is preparing a huge North American tour in support of his first print book, The Art of Non-Conformity, which comes out this fall. Chris is a friend and unofficial mentor of yours truly and I’m excited to share this with you guys.

Let’s start with computers and things that are computer-shaped. Tell us a little about your hardware.

I use a 13” MacBook and a cheap-ass netbook from Best Buy. The netbook is mostly a backup—pretty much the whole operation is on the MacBook. I’ve thought about getting a desktop setup for the house, but I don’t like buying stuff, so I’m sticking with the mobile setup for now.

Since writing is how you put food on the table (and your own hindquarters in countless airplane seats), what types of tools do you use when composing/editing? Do you use different applications when writing for your blog than when you were writing your book?

I write almost everything in OpenOffice, and do the initial outlining in a paper notebook. I also use Evernote to keep ideas and notes. With writing, I think the important thing is to make sure the tools serve the craft instead of the other way around.

Being a successful web-based entrepreneur undoubtedly involves a great deal of email. Tell us a little bit about your email toolbox and how you keep a fountain of an inbox at bay.

Yes, I process quite a bit of email. The first thing to say is that I like email—the trend of autoresponders, virtual assistants, and outsourcing is not something I’m interested in. When people care enough to write me a relevant message, the least I can do is respond.

Getting off the soapbox and answering your organization question, I use Gmail for almost everything. The Offline feature helps a great deal when I’m traveling, at least when it’s working. I’ve thought about migrating to Apple Mail, but the couple of times I’ve tried it, it hasn’t worked well for me.

Obviously, you spend a whole lot of time away from home. I imagine you check in with your wife on a somewhat regular basis - can you talk a little bit about your phone situation?

Yep, I check in with Jolie, and also have to do various work calls from time to time. I don’t have any kind of world phone, though—I just use Skype.

Do you have a specific piece of software or hardware that you use to keep track of the places you’ve been? Your living room slideshows must be frickin’ ridiculous.

We need to improve that, actually—right now the tracking is pretty minimal. I have a guy who’s working on some kind of tricked-out thing that is built with Google Maps.

I spend most of my day with a paper notebook open on my desk between myself and my keyboard. Do you employ any “analog” tools in your work life? If so, in what ways are they better for you than digital tools?

Yep—same here. I find it easier to keep data in two locations, even if there’s some overlap. I don’t have my laptop everywhere, but I always have the paper notebook.

How do you fill the time during those insanely long plane rides?

I catch up on email (with the help of Gmail Offline), I write, I read, and once in a while I’ll watch a movie. I don’t watch TV or movies elsewhere, but in the skies I’ll take a look and see if something is decent. Right now I’m drinking coffee and writing these answers for you from the FRA-DEN Lufthansa flight. I came in to Frankfurt last night from Almaty, Kazakhstan. I was tired due to the 4:00 a.m. departure from Kazakhstan—with a 4:00 a.m. flight, you basically get no sleep whatsoever due to checking in at 1:00—but after I slept for the first couple of hours of this one, I woke up and got to work.

Most bloggers I know spend as much time reading as they do writing - RSS feeds, books, magazines, all that stuff - how much of this is true of you? What types of things do you enjoy reading and how do you go about it?

I’m not sure of my ratio between reading and writing, but I certainly read a lot. I subscribe to about 10 magazines—The Atlantic and The Economist are my favorites. In terms of books, I try to read at least one a week, mostly business, travel, and literary fiction. Lately publishers have been sending me a ton of books in hopes of blurbs or reviews. This is a little challenging, because most of the books are good and I don’t want to disappoint a fellow author, but if I read them all, I’d never read anything else. So I have to triage somehow, and I do give the rest to other bloggers so that they can check them out.

I’m a very bad RSS reader—I only pay attention to a couple of blogs there, and catch up on the rest once in a while.

Let’s say you’re sitting in your hotel (or the local equivalent) after a long day. You’re pretty much out of gas, but you’re not quite ready to hit the sack and you’ve already seen the episode of Magnum PI that’s on television - what are some of your favorite digital distractions?

Twitter, checking on things (statistics, shopping cart, mailing list growth), and just hanging out online.

What (if any) parts of your workflow would you like to streamline? Is there a mystical tool that you wish existed for accomplishing a certain task or filling a specific need?

I’m continuously challenged with the imperative to get online all over the world. I never know before I’m going how good, if existent at all, the connection will be. The funny thing is that it’s not always the developing places that are most difficult. Last year I was in Irbil, Iraq, and the airport had free WiFi on a fast connection—something that my home airport of Seattle didn’t provide at the time.

Then last month I was in Germany and went to stay at the Marriott so I could catch up on a lot of online work. My theory was, well, at least I know I can count on a fast connection at the Marriott. But it turned out they were changing over the system or something, and the entire Munich Marriott had no internet for 36 hours. So much for that plan!

If you can fix this problem with a mystical tool, I’d be grateful. :)

Super nerd thanks to Chris for taking the time out of an excruciatingly long flight to answer my goofy questions. Be sure to check out his blog and be sure to assume the position for his Daily Ass-Kicking on Twitter at @chrisguillebeau. Oh, and if you haven’t already pre-ordered The Art of Non-Conformity, quit dorking around and go pay $10 for what should cost like $50.

Photo by jenlemen

Check out lots of other great Talking Tools Interviews.

Honing Your Reflexes and Cutting the Cord


We all do things reflexively; turning on light switches, pressing the gas or brake pedal, sticking our arms out when falling backward in when log rolling - everyday stuff. These are tasks that we do, thanks to repetition or subconscious reflex, because our brain knows the appropriate action given the situation. If we were to stop, think and decide to do any of these things when we did them, then they’d take a whole lot longer and, more importantly, our faces would absorb all of the impact of our log rolling mishaps.

Reflexive action is the lifeblood of any serious computer user. Things like sending an email, copying some text or running a macro in your favorite office application - after you perform these actions a few times, the physical movements are programmed into what’s called  ”motor memory”; you don’t actually think to yourself “time to hit Ctrl+C to copy this text” - you just do it because you’ve trained yourself to react that way when your brain realizes it needs to copy the selected text. It’s this motor memory that I go out of my way to train properly; when it comes time for me to do *anything* that I do regularly, I want my brain and fingers to take care of it because I’ve got better things to think about. Some examples:

  • Indenting a piece of text
  • Creating a new email message
  • Creating a new note in Evernote from anywhere

There are many more, but you get the idea.

The first step in building effective reflexes is realizing what’s inhibiting you. In this case, it’s your mouse.

One of the primary reasons I avoid using the mouse at all costs is that it *requires* that I pay attention. It doesn’t matter how many times in my life I’ve clicked on a button in an application because I still need to take my hand off of the keyboard, grip the mouse, *figure out where the mouse cursor is* and move the mouse cursor on top of the button, click the button and put my hand back on the keyboard. That part about figuring out where the mouse cursor is? That’s the problem. Because I can’t rely on the mouse cursor being in the same place when it’s time to click the button, now I have to stop what I’m thinking about and look for it. I’ve left reflex mode and am now fully engaged with the mini-task of locating a picture of an arrow somewhere on my display. I don’t know the neuroscience that governs this, but I can tell you anecdotally that having to repeatedly make this series of movements is a serious drain on both my focus and my productivity in the long run.

Think about it for a second - the amount of time it takes me to tap a series of keys (at once or in succession) without breaking stride versus that whole mess of steps I described before that necessarily moves my attention a little bit further away from my work. It may sound dumb, but when you spend as much time typing as I do (and I’m sure many of you do), little things like this can really add up.

My challenge to you: pick an application that you use frequently and find one task that you can do with the keyboard instead of the mouse. There are the obvious ones like cut, copy, paste and such, but I’m talking about things like putting your cursor in the address bar of your browser or initiating a new search within Word. I think you’ll be surprised at just how much you can do with your computer without ever touching the mouse.?

Photo by Mark Louden