RIP Neil Peart. Such an incredible musician.
Ran across this gem of an article the other day on Reddit. Privacy and technology is a big issue right now and this article does a wonderful job of, rightfully, placing the blame for current problems right back on the companies producing the software and devices we’re all using.
So here we are, finally in 2020 and a brand new decade. Lots of expectations of myself this year, more writing being one of those things.
I’ve been reading a bit today and am always amused by those that seem to take issue with using dates as a means to mark events. Sivers is way off, at least in how he’s communicating this thoughts in that piece. What is wrong with choosing a date as a starting point if that helps you achieve your goals?
This particular paragraph really got me though:
The fourth Thursday in November is not when I feel most thankful. The 14th of February is not when I celebrate my romantic relationship. To force these celebrations on universal dates disconnects them from the meaning they’re supposed to celebrate. It’s thoughtless.
Why does it disconnect them from that meaning? What is wrong with saying “hey, this particular day every year we’re going to set aside for people to come together and give thanks?” It doesn’t mean that’s the only day someone has to personally give thanks. Humans have always marked days like this, its part of being the social animal we are. Nobody is saying these are the only markers one has to have personally. The article seems like nothing more than a bunch of sour grapes to me.
I never thought I’d see the day but today buying marijuana became legal in Illinois and people lined up in droves to get the stuff. Good. I have never understood the distinction between pot and alcohol. Hopefully more states will follow.
One thing I didn’t write about in the introduction to this series was why the theme of stability is so important. This year I’m planning on doing a deep dive into writing music and playing piano. I’m going to give myself the time to do something I used to love doing and that ended up taking a back seat to everything else. As I approach 50 I need to start taking some time for myself. That means removing distractions so I can concentrate on the things that are important to me.
And there are so many distractions, some of which seem to be to be mentally and emotionally unhealthy at this point. I have a fondness for arguing stupid things in forums. It is a complete was of time and something I need to stop doing. I also have a fondness for arguing in the comments sections of the various websites I read. I’ve actually gotten a lot better about that this year so at least I’m on the right track in that respect. As the end of the year approaches I’m taking a retreat of sorts away from the Internet. I hope it will help set me up for a good start to the new year.
Sitting down and writing this it became apparent to me that even in my attempt to start to simplify things there are still a lot of areas of complexity in my life. In a modern life, where there are so many things happening and our time and attention is being pulled in so many directions, I’m not sure the level of simplicity I can get to. I do know I can do better though and thats what the upcoming year is all about.
I hope what I’ve written here is helpful to someone else. It was a good exercise for me to take a look at these areas of my life and I hope it might help someone else in theirs. I hope that everyone has a happy, and safe, holiday season and a joyous new year.
There is a ton I could write about privacy and security on the Internet. We have all heard the stories of data breaches, hacks, etc. Let’s talk about some of the areas that I think are important.
There are definitely some very simple steps that most people can do to help immensely with their privacy and security on the Internet:
- Don’t reuse passwords
This is the easiest thing you can do. Use a password manager like 1Password (my choice), LastPass, or Dashlane. These all enable you to generate strong passwords for your accounts and make sure that you only have to remember one, the login for the manager. They also autofill forms on websites, etc. Some, like 1Password, also let you store important documentation, credit card info, etc. securely.
- Run a malware/virus scanner
I use Bitdefender Total Security on my Mac and my Windows machines. One of the things Bitdefender does that I think is important is protects your most used directories (like Documents) from ransomware attacks. If you’re a Mac user and think you’re immune to malware or viruses you’re wrong. Get a decent scanner.
- Use a web tracker blocker
My personal preference is AdGuard. On my Mac and my Windows machine I run the system-wide version so I don’t have to maintain custom rules in more than one place. It also means that email gets the same protection. Some people might not be comfortable with that because everything flows through the AdGuard application. I trust them but you might not. If not just get the browser-based version that is free.
Safari and Firefox both have pretty extensive tracker blocking built-in. Use it.
- Do regular backups of your system both on and off-site
I think of this from the standpoint of data security, but I don’t mean security against attackers, just making sure I am able to restore important data at any moment. It is important to do both on and off-site backups! If you only do on-site and there is a fire you could easily lose important things. Pay for Backblaze. It is worth every penny for your peace of mind. It is pretty much set-and-forget and just does it’s thing in the background.
At a bare minimum do an on-site backup. Get a cheap external hard drive and use Time Machine on the Mac or Windows 10 Backup and Restore. At the very least you’ll have something if your machine crashes.
I’ve been concentrating on tools for the most part but there are a couple of simple things to do as well that don’t involve installing any tools or spending money on them. These are all easy practices to follow:
- Don’t ever respond to emails that ask you to click to a website and enter a password. If it seems fishy call the company in question and find out if the email is real or not.
- Look at who the email is from. If it says its an email from Microsoft but the return email is firstname.lastname@example.org you can be pretty sure it’t not really from Microsoft. Again, if the email seems fishy don’t respond!
- Don’t install web browser extensions you don’t need.
There is a lot of crap out there that will hijack the browser. Don’t install anything that doesn’t have a bunch of good reviews and that seems suspicious.
Data Brokers and Opting Out
One last thing, do yourself a favor and go here. The amount of data out there on you easily available for a small price is truly astounding. One of the things I did in 2018 was go through a bunch of sites like Spokeo and remove my listings. It was a lot of work but worth it. There are services like DeleteMe from Abine that claim to do this work for you at a cost. I can’t speak to whether or not they are effective because I did the work myself. But Abine also provides a nice DIY Guide to the most common data brokers and how to remove your listing from them.
For me privacy and security have been very important so it’s been the one area in 2019 that I don’t need to worry about moving forward in 2020. My routines have already been stable in this area and I will continue to practice good privacy and security practices moving forward.
Walkmeter and Apple Watch
I’ve been using fitness tracking on my phone since iOS 4 when Apple finally started allowing, even though limited, background processes to run. This allowed apps to finally receive GPS updates without needing the phone to be open. The best app I found, and continued to use up until this year, was Walkmeter by Abvio. It has always been a power user application with almost unlimited configurability and reporting. For years I have used it while out running or walking to track my progress. That changed though when I got the Apple Watch.
Even though Walkmeter supports the Apple Watch (though now via a subscription for “premium” features) I found myself using the built in workouts and Activity application on the phone more and more. This has continued up through the Apple Watch series 5 that I bought when it was released this past Fall. I have continued to import data into Walkmeter, and paid for another year on the subscription, with little need. I just am not using it. The built-in workouts and Activity app meet my needs perfectly (probably the only one of the built-in iPhone apps I can say that about). Apple really seems to be hitting the health market pretty hard with the latest watch and it’s showing in the related applications. So in April of 2020 when my subscription for Walkmeter expires it will be the first time in a long time that I won’t be renewing.
Headspace and Calm
Another important area for me this past year has been mental health. With help from Headspace I started a relatively regular meditation practice near the middle of 2018. When my Headspace subscription expired I wanted to try something else because I just didn’t find Headspace to be helping much. Andy Puddicome really does a great job in the Headspace meditations but he relies a lot on visualization which I have never been good at. I felt like I wasn’t getting anything out of the sessions even though I can see that a lot of people would because Andy is great. But it was time to look elsewhere and this year I switched to Calm.
Calm was recommended by a friend who had been using it for awhile. He raved about the Sleep Stories feature and given how good the rest of the reviews had been I gave it a try with a free month he was able to send me. It is exactly what I was looking for.
The number of mediations is huge, spread across many different areas like Anxiety, Sleep, Stress, etc. There is also a new Daily Meditation every day but I haven’t used that as much. Sleep Stories are great and I have used that feature on many occasions when I’ve had issues trying to get to sleep. I have found it a bit funny though because two of the actors reading some of the stories were on Game of Thrones. Odd to hear Catelyn Stark (Michelle Fairley) and Bronn (Jerome Flynn) reading to me in quiet, calming voices urging me to get to sleep.
So, in 2020 the plan is to stick with Calm and try to keep a regular, if not daily, meditation schedule. Given the stability theme for the year I think that will be an important thing to have in my pocket for when things inevitably get a bit crazy.
Mmmm, personal productivity and personal productivity systems, some of my favorite things! I can’t tell you the number of hours I’ve spent over the last 10 years playing around with todo list apps, document management, note taking apps, etc. I feel like if it was released for Mac or iOS I’ve used it. I’ve also found that I’ve spent far more time messing with my “system” vs. actually using it to get things done.
Part of what I wanted to accomplish in 2019 was settling on something and using those tools to get work done. I was partially successful but moving forward into 2020 I want to finally settle down with a set of tools and not spend anymore brain power thinking about tools and systems and spend my time actually doing the things I need to do.
There are a ton of apps out there to help you manage just about every part of what would typically be a productivity system. On the Mac users have been blessed with a ton of great choices. Let’s talk quickly about todo list apps.
The big names in this space are Things by Cultured Code, OmniFocus by the OmniGroup, and Todoist.
OmniFocus is definitely for power users. I used it for years but spent more time trying to figure out how to configure and maintain it. At the time OmniFocus also had terrible recurring date support. I recently gave OmniFocus a spin and that has since been fixed and it might have the most options of any app I’ve tried. But it again proved to be too much for my needs and it is still on the expensive side.
I tried Todoist in the past because it was multiplatform. As a web app it’s accessible anywhere you’ve got a browser. It has a nice set of features and a Teams version if you need collaboration capabilities. Unfortunately it doesn’t support start and due dates and just didn’t fit my needs.
I finally settled on Things 3. It has a beautiful interface and has the right mix of features I find useful day to day. Here is why I like it:
- Pleasant user interface
- Very good recurring task support (things like ‘3rd Friday of every month’)
- Items can be dragged into any order you want in the lists
- Today view has a “This Evening” subsection that is useful for separating out daytime tasks vs. night.
- Headings in projects. This is a great way to break a project down into sections
- Rock solid sync
Some people think Things is too simple and I’d argue those people really haven’t given it a proper look. It definitely has an opinionated way about it but it works well for me. I plan on writing later about the system I’ve come up with in Things for managing tasks that finally works for me. It’s the system I’ll be using moving forward into 2020.
Document Management and Notes
Another area where I have spent countless hours playing with different applications and systems is how to store important documents and notes. For the longest time I was using DEVONthink 2 Pro edition to store everything; notes, important documents, the works.
Then at some point I stopped doing that and just dumped everything into a set of folders on Google Drive. I did that because I wasn’t really using DEVONthink for much more than a dumping ground and wasn’t really using any of its power features. My documents were also “locked” into this proprietary software. The folder system worked fine as Google Drive indexes all of the files for search-ability. Then I became concerned about privacy because, well, it’s Google. I also ran into a problem with access, I couldn’t get to Google Drive from work. So I moved that set of folders into Microsoft OneDrive because I was already paying for a personal license for Office 365 and I could get to OneDrive from work because we use Office 365 there as well.
At that time I also split off notes from documents. Scanned receipts, medical information, etc. was kept in the folder structure on OneDrive but I moved all of my text notes for work and personal use into a repository at GitLab. It was free, versioning was easy, sync was simple, and I could get to it from absolutely everywhere including work. I was using the Visual Studio Code text editor to edit my notes, which I write in Markdown.
Then Bear came along and I fell in love with that application (are we seeing a pattern here?). Bear has a great UI and a wonderful set of features. If you want sync however you have to pay for a yearly subscription. I did and I enjoyed Bear a lot but the major problem with Bear is that it uses iCloud for syncing documents and that is another system that is blocked at work. I’ve been dealing with that situation by various means up until recently when it was getting close to my Bear subscription ending. I have been wanting to get rid of as many subscriptions as possible and Bear was one that I could easily get rid of without feeling too much pain. But it wasn’t just the subscription that lead me off of Bear.
For various reasons I decided that I really just want my important documents kept locally. It was clear to me, after a bit of thought, that I don’t need access to them from everywhere and from a security standpoint there is less to worry about.
From a notes perspective I generally have notes in one of two categories: daily notes and notes related to software development. For my daily notes I’ve decided to use the app Agenda. Its on iOS and Mac and its designed for time-based notes. I still have the problem with iCloud syncing but I can manage that in the same way I was using Bear.
For my software development notes I’ve turned to a tool designed explicitly for that purpose: SnippetsLab. SnippetsLab supports Markdown, supports creating GitHub gists from snippets, and can sync with iCloud or just about any other sync solution.
For everything else? I’m back at DEVONthink. It turned out that being locked into a proprietary application wasn’t all that big of a deal because when I moved everything out it was a simple matter of exporting the files. DEVONthink 3 was recently released and that was a major upgrade. They also made the upgrade available at a pretty substantial discount during the holidays so I bought that and decided that was going to be my tool moving forward.
Moving forward into 2020 I plan on keeping that system in place and working with it.
The last area I have spent considerable time, expense, brain power, and worry over is cloud storage. I’ve used them all, and switched back and forth time after time. My latest turn was with Dropbox and I’ve found Dropbox to both be really expensive and the best by far of the major sync solutions. But as part of looking over 2019 and with the planned theme for 2020 of stability I took a hard look at do I really need any cloud storage?
Yes I do need some but most of what I sync needs to be through iCloud which I’m already paying for at the 200gb tier. My Windows sync needs are actually met with iCloud as well because Apple recently rewrote the iCloud application for Windows to use OneDrive’s file-on-demand feature. My Office 365 subscription gives me 1TB of cloud space in OneDrive but I’ve decided to drop that because I never use the Office 365 applications and the OneDrive client on the Mac is terrible.
Google Drive isn’t even a consideration. Unless you pay for a G Suite business account you can’t get an on-demand files feature.
That leaves Dropbox and I almost paid for a year. As noted before their sync client is excellent. I like the new desktop application they introduced recently, and Dropbox Paper is a great notes system. At the end of the day though I don’t need to store anything there. It’s completely pointless to spend the money without a need greater than being a tech geek and wanting a Dropbox Plus account.
So, for 2020 the plan is to settle on iCloud for all of my cloud storage needs. Things will handle my tasks as it has been doing so ably. DEVONthink, Agenda, and SnippetsLab will handle my document and notes needs.
I have to admit that I’m a bit of nut when it comes to photography-related apps on iOS. I own a lot of them. But this year I had already decided to pare things down a bit and focus on two of them: VSCO, which I pay an annual subscription for, and Hipstamatic which has been on my phone pretty much since day one and I own pretty much all of the various lenses, films, and flashes they’ve made available. VSCO has beautiful film emulations. Hipstamatic has wonderful black and white filters and a huge selection of looks that would be hard to duplicate anywhere else. So I’ll continue to focus on these two apps in 2020. What has changed is how I’m cataloging the photos I’m taking.
I used to be an Adobe Lightroom fanatic but at one point I got tired of paying the subscription fee for Adobe Creative Cloud and I switched to Apple Photos, which was already part of my workflow anyhow. In the meantime with the iOS 13 update the Photos editor has become much more substantial. They’ve added a lot of nice features. I also bought Affinity Photo which is available at a price pretty much anyone can afford. But in the back of my mind I really missed Lightroom. I still think it’s the best of the photo management applications and the photo editing produces wonderful results and is easy to use.
So this Black Friday, when Lenovo had a heavily-discounted year of the Adobe Photographer’s Plan available I decided it was time to just bite the bullet and go back to the software I prefer. I will be using Lightroom Classic the most, because I keep my photo storage mostly local now. Lightroom, the new multi-platform version, will be my mobile editing solution. They both sync via Adobe’s cloud storage and I have 20gb of space available there to keep the best, most important pictures available wherever I am.
I wanted to write a bit here about the state of web browsers in 2019 and where I am personally with my browsing setup.
There are quite a few choices for web browsing right now. Google Chrome. Mozilla Firefox. Safari on Apple devices. Brave. Vivaldi. Opera. Microsoft Edge. Unfortunately for all of the choices there are only 3 platforms left these days, Firefox, Safari, and Chromium (Chrome). Brave, Opera, and Vivaldi are all Chromium-based. Microsoft completely rewrote its Edge browser to use Chromium as well. It makes me feel a bit uneasy that the most popular browser is controlled by a company that makes its money mainly by selling advertising.
I use, and will continue to use, Firefox as my main browser. Mozilla a non-profit organization that isn’t beholden to shareholders. Their mission is dedicated to maintaining a free and open internet, with a newer focus on safety and privacy. They continue to do unbelievable work on the Firefox browser as well as other projects that help people keep safe while browsing the web. They are also helping by alerting users when websites they use, or have used, have had a data breach.
Let’s talk for a second about browser performance. Don’t let anyone fool you, there is no meaningful difference between the major browsers these days on day-to-day tasks. If you run the various benchmark tools that exist Firefox is the slowest. But that means little given Mozilla’s mission and the flexibility of Firefox. I gladly give up a bit of performance for features like Multi-account Containers and an organization that is building tools to help me, not track me. If I truly need performance in a web app I turn to Safari.
If you’re on Mac the next best bet is Safari, especially if you’re on a laptop on battery power. Safari is hands down the fastest and most efficient browser on the Mac. Apple is also doing good work on the privacy and safety front. Unfortunately Safari is not as flexible as Firefox and quite frankly looks very outdated. I know many don’t care about the look and feel of applications they’re using but if I’m going to be using something as much as I use a browser every day I want it to be nice to look at too.
So, from a 2020 stability theme perspective absolutely nothing is changing. I’m using what works the best for me. I’ll continue to use Firefox with Safari as a backup. I’ll still have Google Chrome installed as a just-in-case but have reduced my usage to just about zero. Chrome may still be the king but one that’s no longer necessary to get the best browsing experience.
One thing I never really understood about writing, it can take a lot of time. Maybe a “duh” realization but as someone who isn’t a writer by trade I had no idea how much effort it can take beyond the 280-characters of Twitter. That being said I want to write more, a lot more, in 2020.
In the past writing has been one of those “systems” I love to tinker with. Listen to enough Apple podcasts that involve people who write for a living and they feed that desire to tinker1. Because of that I now am the proud owner of a lot of writing tools. Scrivener. Ulysses. iA Writer. ByWord and many others. None of which have really stuck with me, though I do have a particular fondness for Ulysses for some reason.
I’ve also had a problem with what format I write in. Sounds silly I know but part of that same group of writers also swear by Markdown and I bought into that as well. It’s plain text and no matter what system you’re on in the future, it will always be readable they say. Possibly, but rich text has been around forever on the Mac (and other platforms) and is just as readable at this point. I don’t think that will be changing anytime soon. All that said I’ve found that I just turn to Markdown naturally at this point and use it just about everywhere I write text.
So where does all this leave me going into 2020? Well, again the 2020 theme of stability comes into play. That means selecting some tools and sticking with them for the next year and see how it works out. For long(er) form writing I’m going to stick with Ulysses for now. I really enjoy the environment, and now that it has full Dropbox support that makes the decision a bit easier. For short posts I’m just going to use WordPress directly, either via the website or the mobile app. I already do this now and it works for me.
Journaling. I have found it extremely helpful in the past and want to continue with the practice, just on a more formal basis. I already use Day One for that and have no plans on switching. It is a fantastic environment for keeping a journal. It’s the thing that has allowed me to look back and see some of these patterns I have and want to break.
Those are my writing goals for 2020. Tomorrow I’m going to write a bit about my web browsing experiments over the last year and where I am taking that going into 2020.
- Never mind that many of those people are also tinkerers and change writing tools often. One podcast you’ll hear how great some particular tool is, how it is the one. Then nothing. The months later they switched tools again 🙂 ↩