Words and Pictures - May

Fiction involving time-travel is inconsistent, and even some of my beloved Star Trek Voyager episodes have plot holes big enough for a truck, so I was surprised to find myself buying and devouring three volumes 1 of the time-travel series “Kirov” last month. It was great reading, as were a number of other articles.

Reading:

Video:


  1. Can a series of e-books be a volume, or is there another collective noun? 

A more flexible publishing workflow

My writing workflow is driven by three main considerations:

  • Most of my writing is done during my commute to work
  • I have connectivity during my commute but it is often flaky
  • It’s valuable to be able to post from devices other than my laptop

After reading a few posts on using a tablet as a primary device, I thought it was worth a go, and a fun experience. I can report that after a month I’m not using my iPad much more than I was, but I understand more about the constraints that I face if I were to use it as a primary device.

Linode

I setup a Linode 1GB virtual server and moved my blog publishing setup across to it. The act of publishing my blog, as distinct from writing a post, is the part that is most vulnerable to flaky internet connectivity so it makes sense to host it on a device that always has good connectivity.

Now I write my posts on my iPad or my laptop and then upload it for publishing.

Setting up the Linode forced my to brush the cobwebs off the unix sysadmin part of my brain and served as a reminder that porting a workflow to a new platform is rarely a simple task.

What I learnt along the way

  • tmux is awesome.
  • ssh keys with passwords aren’t as hard as I thought (ssh-agent with forwarding is brilliant)
  • mosh is a great idea, but it doesn’t support ssh-agent (which is a deal-breaker)
  • iSSH looks good on the surface but lacks polish and has flaky mosh support
  • that different spell checking tools exist, and their word list is remarkably different (MySpell/GNU Aspell)
  • a few of things about how to get better connectivity while commuting (I’ll write about that later)

What’s left to do

  • try mosh again once it supports ssh-agent (if the pull request is accepted)
  • get tmux working with ssh agent forwarding
  • streamline my publishing script now that I’ll be running it remotely.
  • clean up the way I manage my dot files now that I have them on several machines

And this post was published with the new workflow… hooray!

Words and Pictures - April

This month I got stuck in a tome, and I found it hard to leave the office during the day, which meant my lunchtime Instapaper routine didn’t happen very often, which means there aren’t so many smaller articles for recommendation this month.

Notable reading:

  • All Hell Let Loose - Max Hastings. A large and well written book on WW2 events focusing more on government and society than units, movements and generals. The material is excellent and informative but I did not enjoy it, so I stopped about half way through. In another place, with more mental and emotional energy, I would have completed it. I suspect my war reading will remain in the sanitised combat-centric genre, even though Hastings reminded me of the horrific effects of war.
  • Ain’t No Reason - Lex Friedman. Insight into pidgins, creoles, grammar and prescriptive linguists, in the context of African American Vernacular English (AAVE). Articles like this are the reason I keep reading Marco Arment’s The Magazine (he’s the guy who wrote the Instapaper iPad App that I so regularly use).

Movies:

  • Skyfall. If it weren’t for the last 15 minutes and the rooftop bike scene, I’d have forgotten it already. Pithy, explosive enjoyment.
  • Bullitt. Come for the car chase, stay for the cinematography. My only expectations were of the green Mustang Fastback so I was surprised to find myself captivated by the scenes without dialogue and the periods of silence, which reminded me of the amazing safe-cracking scene in Rififi. Far more artsy than I expected, and very enjoyable.

Having just loaded a bunch of articles from Longform, and recently added the RSS feed from The Browser, I suspect I’ll have some prize articles to list next month.

iPad Input Methods

My iPad is a wonderful tool, and while I read a lot of material on it I also use it to compose emails, take notes and take meeting minutes. While the iPad on-screen keyboard is useful for small input tasks, particularly if you have a way to stabilise the screen, I’ve found that other input methods are helpful in certain situations.

Siri

I snickered at Siri’s foibles when it was released but it’s definitely improved over time. I find Siri useful when I’m on my own and I want to dictate notes or dump ideas and don’t care about formatting or correct spelling. I find myself using Siri while I’m walking, which is a situation where I can’t edit documents effectively anyway and most of the time it’ll do a good job of capturing my ideas so that I can incorporate them later into a more structured document (I dictated the key ideas for this blog post via Siri while I was walking to the train station).

Stylus

I learnt to use a stylus when I had a Palm M500 and I found it quite an effective input method, and faster than a touch-screen keyboard. On the iPad I use MyScript Notes, with a Kensington Virtuoso stylus and it’s working well for me. MyScript Notes has very good handwriting recognition and a number of easy gestures to erase and move text which help with the iPad’s inability to easily edit text (my finger always makes it hard to place the cursor when I want to correct a spelling mistake). It also exports the text to other applications but I see that as a workaround because it’s an App and not a system-wide service , like it was on the Palm Pilot. I do wish stylus input were available for all applications in the way that Siri is; I can live in hope. There are other iOS applications that support stylus input, including Penultimate, but they didn’t have the features that I was looking for. There are reviews out there that compare them, so I won’t bother 1.

External Keyboards

I find typing and editing with a physical keyboard to be a much better experience than using the on-screen keyboard. I use a spare Apple Bluetooth job that we had lying around but there are also keyboards that are integrated into the case like the Logitech Ultrathin which makes transport easier. I prefer a full-sized keyboard, and I’m really fond of my Portenzo BookCase case so I’m happy to lug an extra device for the times that I plan to do a bunch of typing, at least until something better comes along!

In summary

It makes no sense for me to recommend one method over another as it all depends on your usage patterns. I use them all, and exploring others is fun too!

Table Reference Appendix Thing

Comparing iPad input methods
Type Extra equipment? Easy editing? Usable system-wide? Hands-free?
On-screen keyboard No No Yes No
Siri No No Yes Yes
Stylus Yes Yes No Yes
External keyboard Yes Yes Yes No

Words and Pictures - March

I actually got to watch some movies last month. My five month old and two year old made sure that I couldn’t watch any of them in a single sitting, but at least I got to see them! (and I wouldn’t change being a parent for the world):

The movies:

  • Argo - Spy thrillers can be hit and miss but this was really engrossing. I didn’t know the historical outcome so the movie held me all the more. p.s.: Ben Affleck has the coolest beard.
  • Source Code - A engaging time-travel thriller. It had a few plot holes but nothing that detracted from the entertainment at all. Don’t think too hard as you watch it and I think you’ll like it. I did.

And the best reading of the month:

  • Folklore - Andy Hertzfeld - Life inside a start-up. Making history might be fun, but it’s generally hard work. The background behind the hardware was fascinating, and took me back to 1990.
  • Michael Lewis - Obama’s Way - It’s Michael Lewis. What’s not to like? Just read it.
  • Sci-Fi Structures Found on Earth Get Transported to Alien World - Some people are incredibly creative. I’d happily move into Atmospheric observation outpost Omicron (the third picture) - hopefully one will appear for sale in my local real-estate agent.
  • The Real Cuban Missile Crisis - I didn’t realise that my view of the crisis was so heavily influenced by the writings of a pro-Kennedy hawk. Bias is most dangerous when you don’t even realise it’s there.
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