Canvas podcast series on Workflow

November 30, 2016 • #

If you’re a podcast listener and an iOS user of productivity apps, you should subscribe to the Canvas podcast. Hosted by Federico Vittici (of MacStories) and Fraser Spiers, these guys know all there is about making the iPad into a tool for getting real work done.

They’ve been doing a series on Workflow, the powerful app for iOS task automation. I love this app and use it a ton for a few simple, yet repetitive everyday tasks from my phone.

Hopefully they continue the series with additional stuff on how they’re using Workflow to tie together processes for iPad-based work.

Podcast Rotation, 2016

April 19, 2016 • #

My podcast subscription library keeps growing. It’s been a while since I’ve shared anything about what I’m listening to regularly in my rotation. If I’m not listening to audiobooks, I’m keeping up with my podcast stream. Writing down this update of what I subscribe to is actually eye-opening. If I’d have guessed ahead of time, I’d have said I have about half this many subscriptions.

Here’s my current library as of early 2016, 36 feeds strong. I’ve broken it up by category, roughly organized in terms of my listening priority. For anyone wondering, there are only a handful I listen to every episode of, most I pick and choose as new shows are released. I listen to everything in Overcast.

Business & Technology

  • Exponent - One of my current favorites in the rotation, a show about tech business hosted by Ben Thompson. It’s his opportunity to expound on his writing on Stratechery. Membership to his Daily Update is worth every penny, and the podcast is a great side dish to the blog.
  • a16z Podcast - From Andreesen-Horowitz, the VC firm, covering trends in the tech business space. Always has excellent interviews, and their position in Silicon Valley gives them access to insightful guests. I always like their focus on startups in the enterprise space.
  • Track Changes - This is a newly-launched show from the guys at Postlight, Paul Ford and Rich Ziade. I’ve been reading Paul’s blog for years, and this show is a hilarious, enjoyable extension of the topics he’s always paid attention to in his writing.
  • Accidental Tech Podcast - One of the few I’ve heard every episode of. Marco Arment (developer of Overcast), Casey Liss, and John Siracusa talking about technology news, mostly. Can get pretty geeky, but they always have great discussion on what’s current in tech.
  • The Talk Show - Been reading Daring Fireball for years. This is the place to get the audio accompaniment to the blog.
  • Slack Variety Pack - Everyone uses Slack now. They launched this show which is a fun combination of interviews, stories, and discussions about teamwork in office environments.
  • Inside Intercom - Intercom is a platform for product support and marketing, but they’ve got a great blog that covers a lot on product development and business.
  • Product Hunt - Just recently subscribed to this one. The Product Hunt team talks to founders, investors, and product managers.

Geek Stuff

  • StarTalk Radio - Neil DeGrasse-Tyson and special guests talk about science, space, physics, and more.
  • Idle Thumbs - One of the few I’ve subscribed to since episode 1, the only show I listen to about games. I don’t even play video games at all anymore, but I still listen to Idle Thumbs every week.
  • Debug - Rene Ritchie and Guy English interview tech luminaries about software development. Often gets way deep on some detailed tech.
  • Reconcilable Differences - Merlin Mann and John Siracusa
  • Canvas - Federico Vittici’s podcast about mobile productivity. He’s the ultimate resource on the topic, uses his iPad for everything. His MacStories blog is also excellent.
  • Upgrade - A general technology news show with Jason Snell (formerly of MacWorld, now SixColors) and Myke Hurley.
  • Mac Power Users - Hosted by David Sparks and Katie Floyd with a rotation of guests and topics on Apple technology productivity.
  • Back to Work - Merlin Mann and Dan Benjamin on productivity, work, and communication. And a bunch of other extraneous topics. Always a fun listen.
  • The Incomparable - One of the only geek culture shows I listen to. Roundtable discussions of movies, TV shows, and books.
  • Under the Radar - A show about mostly iOS development with Marco Arment and David Smith.

Culture & Stories

  • 99% Invisible - Roman Mars hosts short and sweet episodes on architecture, cities, and infrastructure design.
  • Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History - Dan Carlin’s multi-episode series about different historical periods.
  • Here’s the Thing - Hosted by Alec Baldwin, an interview show with artists, politicians, public figures.
  • Radiolab - My personal favorite in this category. Audio documentaries about technology and science.
  • This American Life - A staple for years, probably for most podcast listeners.
  • Serial - A spinoff of This American Life. Longform stories told week by week, like a radio version of a TV miniseries.

News & Current Events

  • Intelligence Squared U.S. Debates - Debate show covering many diverse, complex topics.
  • PRI’s The World - The only general news show I listen to, only occasionally.
  • FiveThirtyEight Elections - I’ve gotten addicted to this lately during this wild election year. Nate Silver and FiveThirtyEight crew on politics.
  • The Loopcast - The best show on security / international relations issues. Always great guests and informed discussion.


  • Effectively Wild - The daily podcast from Baseball Prospectus. I have no idea how these guys do a show every day, and it’s always worth listening to for baseball fans.
  • Howler Radio - The podcast associated with the quarterly soccer magazine, Howler. George Quraishi with guests, players, coaches.
  • Hot Takedown - FiveThirtyEight’s sports show.

Miscellaneous Others

  • Causality - A show that analyzes the causes and effects of disasters and accidents. Hosted by John Chidgey.
  • What’s The Point? - Another FiveThirtyEight show, this time stories about data.
  • Modern Woodworkers Association Podcast - A chance to get ideas about potential woodworking projects, even though I spend hardly anytime on this hobby. This keeps the dream alive.
  • Designer Notes - A show in the Idle Thumbs catalog. Interviews with game designers.
  • Liftoff - Jason Snell and Stephen Hackett. A show about space, aerospace news, physics, and more.

Until I put this list together and saw the feed URLs, I had no idea how many were hosted on Soundcloud these days.

For anyone masochistic enough to subscribe to all these shows in one mouse click (or finger tap), here’s my feed list OPML file.

Nine Months

April 15, 2016 • #

I haven’t written anything yet about becoming a dad. Let this be the first post of (hopefully) many chronicling the experience.

My daughter Elyse was born in July of 2015. She’s nine months old now, and doing fantastic. But this post isn’t really about what’s happened with her so far, that’s for my private journal. This is about my personal experiences so far with fatherhood.

When we decided to try for a baby I was excited, as excited as you can be when you have no idea what’s in front of you. I’m now a firm believer that no first-time parent has a clue what they’re in for at that stage, regardless of the endless stream of advice from all sources leading up to the day your kid is born. You can endlessly attempt to imagine what it’ll be like — the big changes, the joy, the long nights, the hundreds of things you won’t be able to do anymore. But the day your baby shows up it all gets erased and you just do it.

To be sure, the hard parts are hard. The conscious decision to have a child should mean you’re okay with forfeiting your personal time, some or all of your sleep schedule, and adding a pile of constant worry for the health and safety of someone who needs you 24/7. Knowing all those things ahead of time doesn’t help much in preparation; it’s still hard. It takes incredible energy to commit to doing things right. I’d also add that the definition of what’s right is completely unclear at points, no matter what sources of advice you have. Should the baby be making that sound? Why is she crying differently now? She sounds raspy… what should we do? These moments happen all the time, especially in the first few months, and you have to get good at rolling with it and figuring it out. Colette and I have always relied on self-sufficiency and solved our own problems and still, not easy.

Elyse and her cousin

With all the strain a baby puts on various parts of your life, there are, of course, the good parts. And the good parts are really good.

I love coming home in the evening after work to a huge smile and squealing laughter when I walk in the door. I take her on runs to get her out of the house to give Colette time to spend alone or to get out of the house on her own. We make the occasional trip to the hardware store to shop for house projects (“baby-in-carrier” is a great look when you’re in the plywood section). I spend mornings with her on the weekends to (try to) let Colette sleep in. We make coffee, play in her room, and watch the early soccer matches. We take her everywhere with us and try to maximize the social time she gets out and about. It helps us keep our own sanity, but also gets her used to being around others for when she’s eventually playing with other kids.

Elyse is small both in weight and length, but she’s been alert and active since the first few weeks. She could hold her head up pretty well after a few months, started trying to stand up by herself around five months, and now cruises around our living room and her bedroom all over the place at eight. She’s inches away from taking her first solo steps.

Annals of the Former World

March 15, 2016 • #


I majored in geography in college and always liked earth sciences. I dabbled a bit with classes that were related, but not core to geography study — your basic geology courses and a class in geodesy. One of the classes I took called “Geology of the National Parks” had an applied approach to explaining the foundations of geology. Something about hopping from Katmai to Yosemite to the Everglades made me see geology as more than rocks and minerals. I loved the massive scope and scale of the Earth’s 4.5 billion years. Normally anything with a magnitude starting with a B or T is intangible (distances in deep space) or minuscule (numbers of molecules in a human body). But when talking about rocks, rivers, continents, strata, sediments — these things are very tangible and static, at least in passive observation. A year is a long time at the human scale, but a blink on the geologic. When comparing human and geologic timelines, it takes a while for this to sink in.

I’ve never read anything on the subject of geology. I previously enjoyed John McPhee’s The Control of Nature, and had Annals of the Former World on my reading list after browsing some of his other work. It’s a tome, but I decided to download it on my Kindle and give it a shot.

Annals of the Former World

The book is a Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of 4 books independently researched, written, and published over the course of 20 years starting in the late 1970s. It’s an incredible piece of nonfiction writing, with just the right balance of well-researched science, facts and figures, storytelling, and narrative1. The author tells a geologic history of the North American continent by way of the I-80 corridor across the lower 48 from New York to San Francisco, studying roadcuts and outcrops along the way. Each piece paints a picture of a slice of geologic science, with an emphasis on different landforms and processes. McPhee does an excellent job exposing the deep vocabulary of the geologist without being overwhelmingly technical. He’s traveling with (and quoting) scientists, and the book pushes 700 pages, so there’s no need for brevity.

In each section he splices together a healthy dose of history with scientific explanations of geologic processes. Each part contains a historical timeline of notable events, discoveries, or personalities that made breakthroughs in the science. Some of my favorite bits included foundations of what we know about Earth’s dynamism today, and the battles fought to get there in the scientific discoveries of the 18th and 19th centuries.

By the end of the book I was just beginning to get comfortable with the order and structure of the geologic time scale. The terms are so numerous that it takes repition to remember which came first, which age is within which epoch, and so on. Precambrian, Eocene, Devonian, Permian, Pennsylvanian, Proterozoic, Hadean, Ordovician — I had to have the trusty time scale at hand for constant reference.

Geologic time

Basin and Range starts things off with a study of the geologic province of the same name, mostly coinciding in the US with the state of Nevada. The expanse lies between the Great Salt Lake and the Sierra Nevada, with rolling folds of hills and valleys.

This section lays the foundation for modern geology by covering the work of two pillar figures: James Hutton and Charles Lyell. Hutton was a Scot that studied in the 18th century, and is known as the “father of modern geology”. As uncontroversial as rocks sound, it’s telling to keep in mind the context in which Hutton was publishing his work:

“Hutton published his Theory of the Earth in 1795, when almost no one doubted the historical authenticity of Noah’s Flood, and all species on earth were thought to have been created individually, each looking at the moment of its creation almost exactly as it did in modern times.”

Making claims that the Earth was billions of years old was as blasphemous to the scientific community of the era as Darwin’s work on evolution. Hutton’s theories of uniformitarianism didn’t stick in 1795. It wasn’t until years later that Lyell took Hutton’s original theories and popularized them in the 1800s with his own Principles of Geology. And Darwin, by the way, was heavily influenced by the work of both geologists:

“Voyaging on the Beagle, he was enhancing his sense of the slow and repetitive cycles of the earth and the giddying depths of time, with Lyell’s book in his hand and Hutton’s theory in his head. In six thousand years, you could never grow wings on a reptile. With sixty million, however, you could have feathers, too.”

In each of the book’s parts, McPhee is traveling with a different geologist in the field. In Basin and Range he’s following Ken Deffeyes, a specialist in the topography, mineral deposits, and stratigraphy of the region, on a mission to locate its abandoned silver mines and hunt unextracted ore using techniques not available during the 19th century mining boom. Most metal deposits have hydrothermal origins. Superheated water from deep underground melts and collects trace metals, makes its way upward through fissures in the rock, and precipitates them out in seams near the surface. As McPhee writes, “a vein of ore is the filling of a fissure. A map of former hot springs is remarkably close to a map of metal discoveries.” I’d love to check out some mining data and compare with geologic maps.

With the primitive theories of deep time and continental movement established in part one, part two, In Suspect Terrain, takes us to the Appalachians in the east. This part focuses mostly on the mountain-building, volcanism, and erosion that created the “suspect terrain” of Appalachia. From geologist Anita Harris we begin to understand the processes and results of glaciation, the most ruthless of Earth’s erosive forces. When the Wisconsinan ice sheet covered the continental US all the way south to Kentucky, it left scars and remnants scattered all over the country from Indiana to New York and up into Canada. The ice pulverized rock from the Adirondacks into gravel and powder and eventually carried it toward the Atlantic, depositing it as Long Island, which is made almost entirely of glacial deposits. The spine of the island is the ice sheet’s terminal moraine, and from there to the south shore is the outwash plain. It’s amazing how much of the country north of Tennessee is covered with topography resulting from the Ice Age glacial sheets. The pockmark lakes covering Ontario, Quebec, Minnesota, and Wisconsin are the “kame and kettle” landscape created by the grinding ice. An interesting statistic: Canada’s ponds, lakes, and streams hold a sixth of all fresh water on Earth.

McPhee peppers his writing with great little anecdotes that make the abstract scientific bits more real. For example: the millions of pool tables and chalkboards made from the slate of Pennsylvania’s Martinsburg formation metamorphosed from shale which was once silty mud on the bottom of the Ordovician ocean, 440 million years ago. I’ll definitely think of this every time I play pool from now on.

In Suspect Terrain introduces the final formation of plate tectonic theory in the 1960s. Nuclear proliferation in the 1950s had governments investing in seismic monitoring stations all over the world to feel for blast shocks. As a side effect, geologists detected and recorded earthquakes on a global scale, over the course of several years. Tossing those records on a map gives you a clear picture of the eggshell-like plates of crust, with thousands of vibrations marking the slip and slide of the plates against one another.


Part three, Rising from the Plains, takes us to the Rocky Mountains in the company of Wyoming native David Love. This part contains probably the least science, and instead substitutes some excellent tales of Love’s upbringing on his family’s isolated ranch in central Wyoming. In the early 20th century Wyoming was still very much the frontier, sparsely populated with little industry until the coal and uranium mining businesses boomed in the middle of the century. I love the title’s double meaning — Love and the Rockies formations he studied both spring from the eastern Wyoming flatness. The stories of his family roots hammer home how inhospitable and disconnected the West still was at the time.

This chapter dives into the region’s volcanic origins. With Yellowstone Park, it’s one of the most visible examples of hotspot geology in the world. Mountain building is covered in depth here, also, giving some context to how the Rockies built up, and how erosion has broken them and created the sedimentary structures of the outwash plain. The limestone layers in the high Rockies leave record of the Paleozoic ocean that once covered that part of the continent, and lifted only during the last 80 million years, which as McPhee points out is only “the last three percent of time”. Tidbits like this drill home just how deep deep time is. This bit about the Grand Canyon seems almost impossible:

The Colorado River, which has only recently appeared on earth, has excavated the Grand Canyon in very little time. From its beginning, human beings could have watched the Grand Canyon being made.

The origins and primary mission of the US Geological Survey are also covered in Rising from the Plains. The USGS mapped the expanses of territory acquired during the first half of the 19th century to catalog the nation’s resources, and as a result produced some of the original map data still in use through various public sources today2.

The final installment aims to explain the origins of California and the Pacific coast, aptly titled Assembling California. The first point covered is the concept of “exotic terranes”, landmasses that move across oceans and suture themselves onto other continental bodies through subduction faulting. The Sierra Nevada formed this way, a Japan-like archipelago riding the Pacific plate across the ocean and colliding with the Nevada shorelines in the Jurassic. With great effect once again, McPhee explains how terranes come together:

Ocean floors with an aggregate area many times the size of the present Pacific were made at spreading centers, moved around the curve of the earth, and melted in trenches before there ever was so much as a kilogram of California. Then, a piece at a time—according to present theory—parts began to assemble. An island arc here, a piece of a continent there—a Japan at a time, a New Zealand, a Madagascar—came crunching in upon the continent and have thus far adhered.

Faults are fractures in the crust formed around plate boundaries, and covered in depth in this chapter. California’s San Andreas fault complex is a strike-slip transform fault, and one of the most well known to Americans. His story of California begins at Mussel Rock on the San Francisco peninsula, right where the San Andreas enters the Pacific.

The Smartville Block formation that makes up the bulk of California formed on the ocean floor — an ophiolite. There are other similar “ophiolitic” formations on the Earth, so the book includes travels to Cyprus, another ophiolitic complex similar to what prehistoric California may have looked like. Since geologists study how things were, traveling to far flung places with similar structures can transport them to the past. I got a healthy lesson in prehistoric geography from this book. I bookmarked several pages with map renderings of Gondwanaland, Laurasia, and the Tethys Ocean to get my bearings.

Natural history is a subject I don’t read enough of. This book is an incredible piece of writing in general, regardless of format or genre. Like all of McPhee’s articles, essays, and other books I’ve read, this one is right up there with the best nonfiction. If you enjoy long form writing, I highly recommend Annals of the Former World for those interested in science.

  1. McPhee is well known for his literary nonfiction, just look at his bibliography.

  2. The USGS has a tool to browse its fantastic historical archive of topographic maps.

Writing Workflow

December 13, 2015 • #

I write a ton on the computer, whether it’s for our product blog, internal documents, product help guides, this blog (rarely), or many other things, I tend to stick to the same set of tools for different pieces of my writing workflow.

Everything I write, even things like meeting notes only for myself, I write in Markdown. It’s essentially muscle memory at this point. I write for Jekyll-based websites quite a bit, I write issues and wiki pages on GitHub, I keep my personal journal in Day One, and several other places. All of them accept Markdown as input, so I’ve just formed a habit over the years where I write everything that way. So when I paste an unordered list from a note I made somewhere into a web document, it’s already formatted. If the destination for a block of content I wrote doesn’t work with Markdown, most tools have a “copy plain text” option that I’ll use if I want the raw words to format inside of another application (*cough* Microsoft Word *cough*).

Anyway, onto the geeky stuff…

Tools, we all love tools

I try tons of new tools all the time, and I’ve converted through different tools over the years. About 90% of writing is thinking, so being able to flexibly organize thoughts without fighting with tools is paramount to productive writing. Remember that the tools don’t make you write. I try to prevent myself from getting distracted with whatever the new “app of the week” is for text editing, and while having the proper tools is important, if your process ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Just like with todo lists, code editors, and online courses, another tool in the belt doesn’t make you a better producer… producing makes you a better producer1. If you’re like me, it’s worth posting that above your desk to keep from fiddling with tools and systems and get to work. If you’re doing anything other than typing the words on the page, the tool isn’t going to help you make more letters appear! (I write that as a reminder to myself as much as anyone else.)

Now, with that said, here’s the short list of apps I use for writing, and for what purpose I use each depending on context:

  • nvALT: This is the everyday workhorse. Since I write everything in plain text files, this editor from Brett Terpstra is my go-to for fast access to making new files. It’s typically the initial scratch pad while I’m on my Mac. If I jump on a phone call, I pop open nvALT and create a new text file to log notes. With quick keyboard shortcuts, every time I make a file it just appears in my txt directory in Dropbox, which other apps (including mobile ones) can have access to. It’s an unfancy writing tool for longform stuff, but the key is that there’s minimal friction between thought or idea and it being instantly captured in a reliable place.
  • Byword: Used for longer-form editing, basically once something reaches the stage of an official piece of content like an article or guide, more than lists or scratch notes. It’s got a great interface for writing in Markdown, and a built-in preview mode for seeing the content rendered as HTML. Stuff that will end up on the web as articles usually happens here.
  • Atom: I use Atom for editing things that involve code, or are typically intertwined with code like HTML or CSS. When I’m writing documentation for Fulcrum or contributing to other projects on GitHub, I use Atom.
  • Paper, the IRL kind: If I don’t have access to my computer, I don’t feel like typing, or I want to make sketches, I keep field notes around for pen and paper notes.

iOS apps, where writing is typically harder

Longform content doesn’t usually happen much on iOS for me, unless the motivation strikes me to get my thoughts on paper and I’m not at my computer. Mostly from iOS I’m keeping notes or jotting things down.

  • Drafts: What nvALT does on my desktop, Drafts does on my phone. Since most of the time from mobile I’m starting with a new file versus editing something in progress, Drafts is super fast for jumping right into a text edit mode to type out some quick notes. Where Drafts really comes into its own, though, are in its Actions capabilities. The idea is that anything starting as a piece of text can be fed into an Action within Drafts to pipe it into any of dozens of other places. Getting to know what’s possible in Drafts is a separate post in and of itself, but needless to say, it’s where I do probably 90% of my text typing on iOS.
  • Editorial: I’ve just discovered this app recently after reading Federico Viticci’s stunningly in-depth review, and so far it’s a promising addition to the writing process from iOS. I’ve never been a heavy iPad user, but I’ve been debating jumping back into the iPad world again, particularly for working on something at home on the weekend, traveling, or otherwise mobile without my laptop. This app is ridiculously complex and powerful, and I’ve only started to scratch the surface.

Many people like Evernote and other cloud-based services for dealing with notes, but I like the idea of the archive of text I’ve produced since about 2009 all lives in plain files in a folder — completely portable, easy to back up, and generally friendly to copy or import into other places for publishing. I don’t need separate notebooks or embedded attachments or tagging on my files to get in the way, I just want an editor and the canvas for text. All of the tools I mentioned above have excellent full text searching capabilities, and after 6 years of managing all of my notes this way, search has never failed me for finding what I need.

One thing that my personal workflow doesn’t support directly (or at least I haven’t found a way) is on-the-fly collaborative editing. Most of the content I write is for myself, or at least doesn’t need to have other editors for most of its existence until it’s ready, but maybe there are tools out there I’ve not yet discovered. Currently for anything that needs to be collaborative from the get go I would use Google Docs, since it’s unmatched when it comes to real-time simultaneous multiuser editing. Other than that, anything that happens for publishing via GitHub already can be collaborated on asynchronously using pull requests and commit references, which our team uses constantly.

If readers have any suggestions of other methods for augmenting things, particularly collaborative editing a la Google Docs, ping me on Twitter, I’d love to find more options to make my flow even better.

  1. This episode of Back to Work has an excellent discussion of the line between distraction and productivity when it comes to trying new tools.

Amicalola and Dahlonega

December 5, 2015 • #

Since we never get out and about much on trips up to Atlanta, this time we took a trip out to Amicalola Falls up in the North Georgia mountains, near Dawsonville. I forget where I started googling around looking at waterfalls in GA, but probably something in the book I’m currently reading got me looking around for outdoorsy things to do while we were up there.

Amicalola falls crest

The falls are actually the tallest of all the waterfalls in Georgia, with a 729-foot drop!

The drive out was about an hour and fifteen minutes, so it’s easy to get up there for a day trip from Atlanta. We got there about noon, with completely clear skies and gorgeous weather in the mid- to upper-fifties. Couldn’t have asked for anything better. We first started off checking out the visitors’ center real quick to get a map and see what they had, then we drove to the base where there’s a reflecting pool, as well as the Appalachian trailheads. We hiked up probably halfway, where there’s a footbridge to walk over. That first half grade isn’t too steep, but after that point it goes almost vertical and it’s all stairs on the wooden boardwalks they’ve constructed ascending the face of the mountain. We opted not to do the hike all the way up, mostly since that would mean having to do the descent, too. I was wearing Elyse in her carrier, and that’s actually worse (and somewhat dangerous) to walk down the treacherous stairs with low visibility over her, plus the weak knees after a while. We drove up to the summit and looked out over the valley — gorgeous view.

Amicalola vertical flume

After leaving Amicalola, we drove over to Dahlonega just to stop in the downtown area and see what was up during the holiday season. It was super busy around the town square, and we didn’t do much but grab some coffees, walk around the block, and pop back into the van for the drive back into town. Elyse sat with her first Santa!