June 2009

Head in the clouds

Early last year I professed that the desktop was dead and talked about how I was in the process of moving everything I could to online storage rather than local. My point being I didn’t want what piece of hardware I had on me at the moment to affect what data I could access, and didn’t want to have to lug everything around to ensure I had what I needed. Basically I was dreaming of being hardware independent and no matter where I was if I had a browser and web access (via a laptop, a smart phone, or a internet cafe) I could get to all my stuff.

A lot has happened in the last year and that dream has been adopted by hordes of people and it’s now called keeping things in the cloud. It was probably called that then too but far fewer people were aware and talking about it. I’ve been continuing my own move towards it with varying successes and thought I’d post a little bit of an update here in case anyone else is trying to do this kind of thing themselves.

Last year I mentioned GoogleApps as a big help with this and it’s still a core part of my system. I can’t think of a recent day that has gone by that I haven’t used gtalk, gmail, and gcal. And with the addition of googledocs and googlevoice (which I admit I haven’t spent much time with) this remains a very serious contender in the war against hardware entanglement. I can access all these things on my mac, my netbook and my iPhone just as easily.

logoa new addition is Evernote which I find extremely useful in keep track of thoughts and notes, as well as archives of info and data that I need access to at some other point. The native iPhone client makes it perfect for jotting down ideas when ever I have then, even offline and that it auto syncs with the web and desktop version is ideal. This is really the perfect set up in my eyes, an iPhone client for being mobile, a desktop client for your home system, and a web version for traveling or use on computers that aren’t your own. The uses of it are endless and I’ve only scratched the surface of the functions it provides.

One thing that is important for me and I still haven’t found the best solution for it a to do list. Sure I could use any of the above for a simple check list, but that seems like too much work to replace my previous to do list system which was chicken scratch notes on the back of whatever scrap of paper I happened to have laying around at the time. To replace this I’m looking for something a little more robust, that can remind me of impending deadlines and priorities, and also allow me to easily check things off. I tried out Things and was pretty impressed with how it handled things but the deal killer is it has no auto sync to the cloud. Info is stored on your desktop or your iPhone and you have to open both apps while the two devices are on the same wifi network for them to talk to each other. This is retarded and makes the $50 price of the program completely unreasonable. If they get cloud syncing added it will be back at the top of my list.

From that I switched to Toodledo which does much of that but between a web and iPhone version only. I liked it but honestly it was too hard to add new things and too much detail in the sorting so I lost items I added and found myself not looking at it. A to do list is no good if you don’t look at it. After all this I circled back around to check out GoogleTasks. Since this is integrated into gcal and gmail now it’s been pretty useful. It’s very simple, but that is actually want I want to some extent and it mimics the scrap of paper feel I was looking for.

S10 in the wildI mentioned having a netbook above and this has been something that has pushed me along on this quest. Part of my motivation on this is I get sketched out taking thousands of dollars of computer equipment through customs and TSA security all the time when I travel and I honestly don’t trust them to keep my stuff secure or intact. I wanted something that I could take with me on trips instead of my MacBookPro but that would still allow me to do the work I needed to. If everything I have is hosted in the cloud and accessible from a browser this should be no problem, right? I looked around and eventually settled on the Lenovo S10 because of hard drive space and built in features like a webcam. It also has a PCI slot which allows me to use my Verizon EVDO card for internet anywhere and I have it running Ubuntu. Best of all it was only a few hundred dollars and the only thing on it is a browser and a few movies or MP3s that I have for that trip so if it gets lost, stolen, broken, etc it’s not that big of a deal.

In the world of larger data storage I and many people I know trust and love Amazon S3. Mac folks can couple that with Jungledisk and it’s a pretty seamless option for storing files in the cloud that you can get to from anywhere if you need them. This also serves as a nice backup plan in case of a disaster that kills all your local backups. I also know some people who are fans of Box.net though I haven’t spent much time with it myself to be honest.

That’s pretty solid arsenal of cloud storage and webappery if you ask me. It’s not 100% perfect yet but it’s much better than it was last year and I’m really looking forward to where things are heading. If you are using any of these things or have your own suggestions I’d love to hear them in the comments below. I’ve gotten a lot of ideas about how to use these myself from talking to other people so I love finding tidbits that I somehow overlooked.

Forced constraints, or why I’m afraid of wifi on planes

If you can’t paint something good, paint something red. If you can’t paint something red, paint something big.

That’s some advice that is sometimes joking tossed around in the art world. It’s a joke, obviously dripping with sarcasm – but there’s some value in it. First of all, who it’s making fun of it’s immediately apparent. Maybe it’s poking fun at the artists, suggesting that making “good” art is as simple as color choice and scale. Maybe it’s a comment on the viewer, implying what is being painted isn’t as important as it’s size and boldness. Is creating good work that simple? Of course not. Are viewer that shallow? No way. Well, not often anyway.

But as with much in the art world, it’s not necessarily meant to be taken at face value. This is the kind of statement an instructor will still a student who is complaining of not being inspired or the equivalent of “writers block.” It’s meant to be a kick in the ass to get them to get started. The reason for this is before you begin a work the variables are infinite. It’s daunting really, you have millions of colors at your disposal – how can you chose which one to begin with? What if it turns out to be the wrong shade? What if you run out? What if you use too much? This can go on and on and an artist can spend hours, days, hell – years in some cases debating these issues all the while not actually making anything.

So the advice is basically saying forget about painting something good, and forget all the other options and just use red. This isn’t because red is somehow the best color, it simply throws out all those millions of options and replaces them with one. If an artists has only have one color to choose from, their decision of which color to start with is going to take a lot less time. Of course the decision of which color to start with isn’t really the thing stopping them from starting, it’s the doubt and over thinking that is standing in the way. This advice is just a tool to help chip away at that. If an artist starts painting they might paint something crappy, but the next thing they paint will suck a little less.

I’m using art as an example here but of course this really applies to anything creative. Merlin Mann recently gave a talk that mirrors some of these thoughts that is really worth listening to. He’s talking about writing, as that’s his creative medium of choice, but the philosophy applies to just about anything. He talks about the endless things a writer can worry about that will prevent them from actually putting words on a page. What font? What format? What approach? Is this the right chair to sit in while writing? Maybe that program would work better. The questions are endless and a writer will never have the perfect answer to them before actually writing something. Worrying about perfection before you have anything to perfect is the best way to stop you from getting started.

I talked about perfectionism a little while ago when I wrote about talking yourself out of things and much of that echos in these thoughts. You’ll never make something good if you don’t make something and the only way to make something is to get comfortable with the fact that a lot of what you make isn’t going to be good. Getting through that and letting go of the desire to make only good things is one of the hardest things for creative folks. In terms of writing Merlin suggests that a writer commit to writing some amount of text every morning knowing full well it will be utter crap, but until that is done nothing else can be started including the actual thing they wanted to write that day. It’s a wall you have to push through.

This doesn’t only apply to creativity. Forced limitations can be a very powerful tool for focusing on any task you might have at hand. This is one of my favorite thing about long flights in fact. Being stuck in a seat cut off from the rest of the world for 10 or more hours has proven to be an amazing motivator for me to GSD (get shit done). I’ve read endless books, written billions of words and lost count how many movies and TV series’ I’ve caught up on while sitting on planes. This is why I’m less than excited about wifi on planes. I have the internet in the rest of my life and I know how much of a distraction it can be. No matter what I’m setting out to do, I always seem to squeeze in one more look at twitter or facebook, or answer one more IM or send that quick e-mail.

I can spend hours doing things that take just one more second before actually getting to work. It’s comparable to the above examples – instead of worrying about what color paint to start with, or about what font to use, or about what chair to sit in, I’m worried that there is something I should know about sitting in my inbox or that something important might have just happened on twitter or someone might have responded to something I said earlier. It’s all just an excuse that stands in the way of getting started. Wifi on planes means that chamber of solitude is no longer. Sure I can opt not to buy it, but the temptation might be too strong. So it’s a test of will really. But I guess when you think of it, that’s what all of this is.

The bits and the pieces

Had a chance to catch up with my friend Glenda tonight. We’ve known each other for years but erratic work/travel schedules rarely put us in the same city so it’s a nice when it actually happens. We know each other from the usual web world but mostly bond on a shared musical history – having a fondness for the post hard core. Chances are mentioning Seam or Texas is the Reason or Hot Water Music around us will result in endless stories and back-in-the-day-isms.

Tonight while flaunting my Bitch Magnet vinyl, we started talking about figuring out those things about yourself that get lost over time. Those bits and pieces that for one reason get put on a shelf in the back of your head only to be forgotten. The music that at one point in your life you would hunt down and obsess over but at some point life got too hectic and you stopped making time to hunt it. The activities that defined you and motivated you that got put on hold at some point never to be picked up again. The behaviors you felt you should drop or adopt because that’s what everyone around you expected. The thoughts you used to speak freely but then started keeping to yourself because you didn’t want your opinion to reflect on your friends, significant others, bosses, or maybe even yourself. We all do this to some extent, if we’re lucky we realize it before it’s too late.

But what is too late really? Waking up one day and looking around at your life and wondering how you got there because it’s not anything you hoped for, I’d say that definitely too late. When you’ve made so many concessions that trying to undo them would be more trouble than just living with them, that’s probably too late as well. Anything else is fair game and figuring out what those things are is often much harder than changing them.

I know for myself anytime I’ve realized I’m doing it the fix was easy, the hard part was admitting to myself I’d let it happen in the first place. People I swore I’d be close to for the rest of my life but hadn’t talked to in year. Bands that changed my life but I couldn’t remember the last time I listened to them. Remembering all the hardcore anthems about being yourself and standing up while biting my tongue because I didn’t want to come off like an ass. I think to some extent it’s good to see yourself doing that, because then you at least have the option to change it. Many folks never realize it. I don’t really know where this rant is headed, nor a solution for it, it’s just reassuring to know you aren’t the only one fighting these demons sometimes.

Putting it all in order

Over the past 6 months, hell the past 3 years, there have been a lot of changes in my life. Habits and practices and order and structure were thrown in a blender and dumped all over the floor. For example for many years I had a corner of a desk where I put bills to be paid, if there was anything on that corner I knew I had a bill I needed to keep in mind. If the corner was clean I knew everything was taken care of. Since then I’ve moved 5 times, sold furniture, rearranged, packed up, unpacked and generally moved towards less structure. There are many aspects of the less structured way of life that I love and can’t imagine changing, but there are also parts of it I’m still trying to get a grip on. That perfectly neat stack of bills has since changed into a pile here, a pile there, an envelope in this bag and a post it note on that monitor or even a scrap of paper in some pant pocket that I hope to remember to get out before I washed them. “Cleaning up” has been much more of the “get things out of sight” then “get things in order” variety.

That’s been catching up to me like the feeling of having something left undone but not knowing what to do to finish it. You know the feeling of having a bunch of things on a todo list you haven’t had a chance to write down yet and the fear that by the time you do write it down you will have forgotten some of the key items. That feeling has been manifesting in self in strained memory, misplaced stuff, and a general feeling of “I know something important just slipped my mind.” It’s because my head is swimming trying to keep track of all this stuff. I’ve been feeling like that a lot recently and finally decided I needed to do something about it. That something involves going through every box, every shelf, every stack I have around and either organizing or throwing crap out. I knew I had clutter, but I had no idea how bad.

Keep in mind that I did this to some extent 2 years ago and thought I got rid of anything I didn’t need. I must have been smoking crack. Today I dug into a filing cabinet, a closet and a 2 dressers. I’m no where near finished but one of the dressers is now completely empty and the filling cabinet is more organized than it’s been since I purchased it. Here’s a glimps of some of the things I found, and once I got over the shock that I had been carrying them around and making room in my life to store them, threw them out…

  • Check books from 1997.
  • Probably 1000 or more business cards, some over 10 years old.
  • Conference schedules from events that ended over 5 years ago.
  • Boarding passes for at least 30 different flights.
  • Cassette tapes (often broken) of albums I have on Vinyl, CD, and MP3.
  • Invites to art openings that happened years ago.
  • Birthday cards from people I haven’t talked to or seen since before I turned 30.
  • Boxes for electronics that I no longer even possess.
  • Bus transfers that expired years ago.
  • The list goes on…

Just today I threw out 4 bags full of crap. The amusing thing is even after all of that it doesn’t seem like I have that much less clutter around, but at least with the things I worked on today I know what I have and where is. That is a huge step from my general confusion that I started out with this morning. I’ve got a lot more to go in the next few days but the mental clarity that comes from not having to try and keep track of all this unfinished business is addictive so I’m really looking forward to it.