Monthly Archives: September 2010

James Burke and Connections

Jason Kottke posted a clip of James Burke from the BBC series Connections speaking about the history of rocket technology:

I hadn’t thought about the Connections series since the late 1970′s, early 1980′s when it was broadcast. I found the entire series and more on youTube in Burke’s area: James Burke Web. You can watch each segment there.

Connections is a history of science and technology by way of stories told in a fascinating way by Burke. Burke’s dress and some of the production values seem dated but the writing and ideas hold up beautifully.

Alain Delorme’s Totems

Alain Delorme’s Totems

The new Totems series by Alain Delorme plunges us into the core of contemporary China and its complexity. Under the blue sky of a highly colored Shanghai, men carry throughout the city unbelievable piles. These precarious columns made of cardboard or chairs appear as new totems of a society in complete transformation, both a factory for the world and a new El Dorado of the market economy.

I love these, as much for their informality as for their amazingness.

[via Coudal Partners]

Robert MacNeil on the history of the PBS NewsHour

No Blaring: MacNeil on Emmy, Keeping a Reasonable Tone in Broadcast News

I’ve been watching the PBS NewsHour for most of my adult life and the folks who put this show together are like family to me.

The producers of the show have done a first rate job of slowly moving the show onto the internet and now one can watch each story each night on their site as well as comment on their various posts.

As the rest of the “news” culture in the US sinks to lower and lower depths to get market share, The NewsHour continues to stay level headed and and has kept a loyal and growing audience for decades.

Austin Seraphin gets an iPhone

My First Week with the iPhone

Last Wednesday, my life changed forever. I got an iPhone. I consider it the greatest thing to happen to the blind for a very long time, possibly ever. It offers unparalleled access to properly made applications, and changed my life in twenty-four hours.

This post has been on my desktop for a while now. It was picked up by many blogs and I hadn’t gotten around to reading it. Austin is blind and he’s making great use of Apple’s built-in accessibility feature called Voice Over.

Had Apple not done early and important work in this area through their Worldwide Disabilities Solutions Group I doubt they’d have been in as strong a place to add accessibility features to their newer products as they are today. Apple has a history of attempting to make their various devices and operating systems more accessible.

Austin has a follow up post: Rejoining the Apple Family

This summer has inadvertently become the Summer of Apple. First, I got an iPhone, which changed my life. Next, I got an iPad, which I love as well. The other morning while eating breakfast, Goddess told me that the time had come to purchase a Mac.

Welcome Austin.


I’ve been looking for a tool or a collection of tools that work together to allow me to make various lists on my computer (Macintosh) and share them with my iPhone. Shopping lists, general to-do lists, movie lists and more. I also wanted to be able to write free-form text, like notes for this post. I like tools that are simple, well designed, and fall into the background quickly so that I can get work done.

Tools I’ve tried

iOS Notes is Apple’s built in “sticky note” application that syncs with notes built into OS X Mail and maybe to other places deeply embedded in OS X but not to an easy to use note taking application on the Mac. Too bad, Apple might have had a great system had they allowed iOS Notes to work with, say, the to-do list in iCal through mobileme.

Yojimbo from Barebones Software is a great information organizer for the Macintosh and I’ve been using it for years. If Barebones came out with an iPhone app that synced with it I’d have tried it first, however, I wrote and asked and was told that they’re working on an iPad app but not one for the iPhone. Too bad, I have a lot of information in Yojimbo and love using it.

Ta-da Lists from 37 Signals is a simple web-based list making tool that works quite well. There is no syncing with the phone, you simply use a browser (in my case, Safari) on the Mac and the iPhone to log into your Ta-da account and make a button of that link in the iPhone’s finder. This system (Safari on the Mac and iPhone) works well because there’s no syncing and the web application senses its running on the phone and re-scales itself. This is a useful and free way to make and keep lists. No free form text, for that you’d want to use another 37 Signals product like Writeboard. Writeboard could be used to keep lists as well. The big downside to both of these is to use them one has to be connected; they’re web based and don’t work off line.

TaskPaper from HogBay Software for the Mac and for iPhone looks great: more structure, lots of nice features for working with information in list form. However, HogBay’s syncing service looks cumbersome to me and so I never tried it. I did try TaskPaper and liked it although missed collapsing and then re-expanding lists in outline form.

Things from Cultured Code is one of the leading to-do list applications on the Macintosh, the iPad, and the iPhone and it’s quite amazing. It works with iCal (which I use extensively) and has enough features to keep anyone happy. However, it’s not a free-form list making and sharing product, it’s all about structure as far as I can tell from using it for a few days. I may actually use this product at some point but it wasn’t quite what I was looking for.

Wallet from Acrylic is a Macintosh and iPhone product for storing and syncing information like passwords, serial numbers, registration numbers but also any information that one wants to type in free form fields. It could be used for shopping lists and such but if you store sensitive information in it you’ll want to keep it password protected and that would make it cumbersome to use for a simple to-do list. I bought and use Wallet for both the Macintosh and the iPhone and it works quite well, syncs easily and I’m happy with it but not for this kind of list making because I have all of my passwords and account numbers in it and leave password protection on on both computer and phone.

How I came to Simplenote

After struggling with this for a while I decided to ask my old friend Steve Splonskowski about it. Steve has been using Macs as long as I have (1984), is a Mac and iOS developer, and like me, likes clean and easy-to-use tools. Steve recommended Simplenote and spent some time telling me how he uses it and how it might work for me. I remembered that John Gruber had written about Simplenote a while back at Daring Fireball and I had glazed over when I read his description of it mostly because I wasn’t ready to consider it, I had no need at the time I read his post and I had little experience with the iPhone.

This is important: My style has never been to collect cool software thinking I might need it some day. I try very hard to keep the amount of software on my computer to a minimum to both keep my System clean but also to keep my brain as uncluttered as I can. I’m ADD and so am easily distracted. If I don’t have a need for something I try not to collect it and what I do use I want to be simple enough so I can learn it fast and the tool falls into the background fast.

When Gruber first wrote about Simplenote I saw no reason to try it and so, didn’t. I also had less experience with my iPhone then. When Steve recommended it I had more experience with my iPhone as a smartphone/computer and I had a need for something like this and so, was willing to give it a try.

What is Simplenote

Simplenote is an easy to use writing tool that allows easy list making, free form writing, tags, searching and archiving. Here’s a list of its features.

However, Simplenote is really a cloud-based system in that there are “client” applications that run on desktop computers and mobile devices that automatically sync with the web-based account.

The downloads area of the Simplenote web site has a free iPhone app, two clients that run in Windows, and five clients that run in Mac OS X. No doubt there will be a few Android additions to this list soon.

How to use Simplenote

1. Create an account, It takes less than a minute, is free, and you’re done. Write down your username and password. Bookmark your account page in your browser.

2. If you’re an iPhone user, download and install the free Simplenote iPhone app on your iPhone.

3. Download one of the many desktop computer applications that work with Simplenote. I chose one for the Mac called Notational Velocity (after trying all the others). This application is also free.

4. Log into both the Simplenote iPhone App and Notational Velocity with your Simplenote username and password.

Now you have a system set up so that you can write and edit in three places and each will update the others. You don’t have to ever visit the Simplenote web site again although you can do writing and editing there as well. You can now do all of your writing on the desktop app on your computer or on your phone. You don’t have to think of the Simplenote web site as the “master” and the phone and desktop clients as slaves (although you can if you like); you can think of any or all of them as masters that simply update one another.

Simplicity is power

Once you have this set up (the entire thing will take you a few minutes, less time than it’s taken to read this) you can make and maintain a to-do list on your computer and walk out of the house with your iPhone knowing that the updated list is on it. No syncing with iTunes, no need for a mobileme account. Once out with the phone, you can add to the list or edit it as you complete tasks knowing that when you return to your computer the list will be updated.

The experience of using Simplenote reminds me of using an early AlphaSmart keyboard: very few features but enough to get real work done. If you’re the type of person who likes lots of features Simplenote (and the AlphaSmart) might not appeal to you in that they are both spare. If you’re the type of person who wants the tool to fall into the background so you can concentrate on your thinking and writing Simplenote may be just the tool for you.

I was sitting up on Bear Mountain the other day and had an idea for framing a photograph so I pulled out my iPhone, pulled up Simplenote and wrote it down. When I got home I ran Notational Velocity (I could have also simply gone to my account on the Simplenote web site) and my note was there. I did some more work on it at home knowing that the edits and additions would be on the phone the next time I looked. Simple yet powerful.


Since starting this post I’ve upgraded to the “Premium” version of Simplenote ($12 a year): Simplenote premium. I like to support companies (in this case two guys) who are doing great work.

Do not be intimidated by the length of this post. Simplenote really is simple and once you try it if it’s the right tool for you you’re bound to love it.

This American Life: Crybabies

This American Life: Crybabies

This entire show is great but act three is particularly fascinating: The Squeaky Wheelchair Gets the Grease.

In California, a kind of crybaby cottage industry has popped up around, of all things, the Americans with Disabilities Act—the federal law that requires all public places to meet a minimum level of accessibility. Some people make a living by suing business owners for not being up to code.

Listen to the show later today when it gets posted or through their podcast in iTunes: This American Life.

James Lee in Afghanistan

James Lee in Afghanistan

James Lee’s simple plan fell apart in the winter of 2007. The former Marine, who served two tours of duty in Iraq, had moved to rural Independence near Bishop, Calif. Lee was trying to control his wanderlust by living the simple life of a construction worker. His plan dissolved when he happened on a magazine article written by mountain climber turned war correspondent, Ed Darak. “I was never going to stay in Independence long enough to enjoy a simple life,” Lee said, “I accepted this fact while reading [the article].” He was 37 years old. “I sold my house and purchased my first camera.” Lee said. By January, he was back in Iraq. This time, instead of carrying a gun, the veteran of the Battle of Fallujah was carrying a camera and a notebook.

Excellent work by Lee.

Ontario Airport

Ontario Airport

Over Ontario, California. I had a whole row to myself last week on my trip to California and took this picture on approach to LAX. I haven’t done a lot of shooting out plane windows for a while, preferring to sit in aisle seats on the now crowded planes but during this flight I had an entire row to myself and it took me the entire breadth of the US to realize I could both sit on the aisle and shoot out the window.

That’s East Mission Blvd running at an angle to the airport and South Archibald Ave. tunnels under it. The freeway winding east/west in the background is Interstate 10, the San Bernadino Freeway.

I love seeing patterns from the air and I miss taking pictures like this.

Lloyd Kahn and Shelter

SHELTER from jason sussberg on Vimeo.

This video was being blogged and reblogged recently and my last post on Steven Johnson and my digression into the era of the Whole Earth Catalog got me thinking about Kahn again.

We just had our septic tank pumped and inspected and I did some maintenance on the drain fields which led me to buy a copy of Kahn’s book: The Septic System Owner’s Manual for his clear writing and Peter Aschwanden’s illustrations.

Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From

My friend Dale sent me a link to this a while back and it sat in my inbox for a while. Now that it’s gone viral I figured I’d watch it.

While I find the drawing while talking tough for me (ADD) as it makes it hard for me to fully process the meaning of the words, the ideas are first rate and Johnson reminds me of what I like so much about Malcolm Gladwell’s thinking and writing.

I’m thinking this might have been better as a slide show for me to more fully grasp the ideas. That’s just me.

The drawing style reminds me of the late Peter Aschwanden who illustrated How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive (for the complete idiot) and The Septic System’s Owner’s Manual by Lloyd Kahn. Aschwanden’s style is reminiscent of the style of Robert Crumb, for instance, his Mr. Natural character.

This drawing style really works for me and I love the association with my past. Thinking about the effectiveness of the drawing style, even in a book I read thirty five years ago, is an example of Johnson’s idea incubation. In my case, it may be better described as idea petrification.

Here’s what happens when you think about this stuff too much.

[via Dale Allyn]