it's pudding time!

I’ve never use the Finder for “work,” but faced with triaging 800 markdown files, the gallery view came in handy, especially with the QuickLook Markdown extension installed. Cursor arrows to flip through, ctrl 1-9 to tag.

Obsidian Things Link turns Obsidian pages into Things projects and Obsidian tasks into Things todos, with links back and forth between the two. Peanut butter and chocolate.

A bright orange hamburger stand in Cave Junction, OR A trophy mount at Oregon's premier lumberjack dining experience

Every 7-8 years I have to retrain myself to not over-filter email. Sanebox has been worth the license, but reinforcing it with a habit of only checking my email three times a day and letting it be a little fuzzy has let it shine. Need to re-look my initial review & reshare.

I tried out Secure ShellFish on my iPad to see how it compared to Blink. Wow. Logging in to a remote instance and using textastic to edit on the iPad, or quicklook bar.jpg to preview on the iPad. Plus baked in tmux support. Thanks @maique and @odd for the tip!

The Moonlander didn’t stick with me – too many devices to tolerate the difference in keyboard style. But ZSA doing a macro pad seems promising. An analog knob for Lightroom sliders would be pretty welcome, but looks like there are enough keys to just assign +/-.

Dawn at Harris Beach, OR

Forty is nice but doesn’t observe a few blog conventions, so last night’s fussing around involved a first whack at a bloggish posts page and adding a related posts feature (example at the bottom of this post. I’m going less for “blog” than “magazine,” I guess.

Mountain biker, Cape Blanco, OR Cliffs, Cape Blanco, OR

Camp breakfast, Cape Blanco Morning in camp, Cape Blanco, OR

Al on Southern Oregon Coast

Something good that came out of 2 months of refusing to do much on a topic until writing about it: Things lost their glamour. I’m left, for instance, wanting to use Obsidian because it’s a useful tool right now, not because someday I could use a Zettelkasten to write 63 books.

Three other learnings/reminders from the tool whirlwind over the weekend:

  1. GitHub pages doesn’t support LFS, so don’t bother.
  2. If you’ve been having problems with git pushes hanging at the end, it might be time to update your Mac’s git client (I just used the one in Homebrew and my problem was solved)
  3. There are cheaper ways, but GraphicConverter helped me solve the LFS thing by just chewing through the task of resizing and reducing the resolution of ~2000 images. From 2GB to ~350-good-enough-for-inline-display-on-a-microblog-MB in under a minute (Go, M1 Max, go!)

rusty tools hanging in a wall

This morning’s “putter around before the first meeting” project was to automate a calendar-to-Obsidian note workflow using iOS Shortcuts.

Part of my daily routine involves a review of the day’s meetings and events. I ask myself two prompting questions about each:

  • What is the most important thing about this meeting? That answer can vary. Sometimes it’s about a deliverable or a business outcomes. Sometimes it’s about something some attendees human need.
  • How do you want to show up in this meeting? I have found it very helpful to sit with this question for a minute first thing in the morning.

I keep the meeting notes on the same page where I answer those questions so that I have a reminder in front of me of what I want to accomplish and how I want to show up.

I was doing that on a reMarkable, but I’ve found that handwritten meeting notes don’t really aid retention much, and that it’s better to have searchable text, so I rewrote the automation for Obsidian.

You can grab the workflow and review it.

  • You need to at least have your calendar set up in Apple Calendar.
  • It will ask for the name of the vault you want to store the note in during setup. Don’t worry about spaces: It will URL-encode that.
  • You will need to set which calendar it collects events from (or unset that value in the Find All Calendar Events step of the workflow)
  • It was cheaper and easier to replace colons and slashes in event names than figure out how to encode them to avoid problems with problematic filenames.
  • If you don’t like the prompts I used, the text that drives the content of the page is just plain old Markdown … pretty easy to change them.

TODO: Add a specific folder to put the notes in. For now it drops them in the top level of the vault, which suits my purposes.

Monochrome City Monochrome City Monochrome City Monochrome City

People running on the beach

Man sitting on a rock on the beach

If you use Drafts, here’s a simple action to upload a photo to then get markup suitable for use with the glightbox plugin. You’ll need an API key. It helps you be a good citizen by prompting for alt, desc, and title tags.

Kids running on the beach

How to Listen to People: A guide for leaders and managers (There’s a bigger project here; I need to dial in my ambition.)

Higgins Restaurant, Portland, OR
Higgins Restaurant, Portland, OR

The doctor assured me the cold I was down with last week was not Covid. I started climbing out of it late in the week and had enough pent up energy on Saturday that the weekend became fixit-and-learn time, cleaning up web presence stuff and learning some new tools:


  • I’ve been using Blink on my iPad, but finally got mosh set up everywhere I could set it up on the server side.
  • I used to use tmux, but lost my config a long time ago. In the process of trying to put it back, I learned about Byobu, which puts training wheels on tmux and screen. It makes using a terminal from an iPad a lot more livable.
  • BBEdit’s pattern playgrounds are really wonderful. So much web work over the long haul – living with content handed off between a dozen or more CMSes over the years, is about cleaning up weird markup glitches. Being able to model a pattern, then pre-flight it by just finding everything and confirming, then doing a mass replacement over 800 blog entries was pretty nice.
  • Stripped my Emacs config down to something suitable for editing code over mosh, not writing org-mode from the GUI. I did that after trying and discarding a few small emacsen and next-gen console text editors.
  • I really want to like Ulysses. I do like Ulysses. But I don’t think its approach to Markdown is the right one, even if its heart is in the right place. It’s a fine line determining when to tell the user they’re just going to have to learn something new, and I would have drawn the line at link markup, which Ulysses makes needlessly fussy. So I’ve been doing prose in ia Writer, which interacts just fine with the iPadOS git client Working Copy for the actual content of each site – no round-tripping or making copies of writing – it’s all just in version control now.

Dev services

I learned about the ins and outs of GitHub pages and actions, replacing some clunky scripting on a web hosting provider with Jekyll sites and publishing actions.

I got there in a circuitous manner: I’ve got a account, and considered putting it to use again, but it took about five minutes to remember why I don’t like WordPress and truly hate trying to make a theme of any sophistication work. Jekyll has its own kinds of twistiness, but it was interesting to come back to it after a long time away from doing any sort of web stuff: Liquid, for instance, might not be HAML, but it’s not that bad. Especially with a decent local setup for previewing changes and getting realtime feedback.

So I shopped around for Jekyll themes, found one I liked a lot for some things, and another I liked for others, and was able to bang together a few beta-level Jekyll sites and update my theme here on to match. Still lots to do in the way of editing the content and tying it all together, but it went so much faster with Jekyll than it would have with WordPress.

It took me a few deep breaths and a couple of momentary screwups to get GitHub pages working the way I wanted, but it feels so tidy to:

  • Pop into mosh and edit a page
  • Fire up the preview server on the Mac Studio in my office to preview from my iPad in the living room
  • Commit and push
  • See the updates live in a minute or so

Something useful I learned about Jekyll to get live previews working from the living room on the iPad is the host argument for serve:

bundle exec jekyll serve --host=mac_studio.local -lw

Front ends

SASS wasn’t much of a thing for me the last time I did much web work, but it’s just a thing now. I had to learn the basics to get all the themes I was working with into a place I wanted them. I’m nowhere near proficient but learned enough from poking around to see the value. It was interesting to see how each theme author used its affordances. I was immensely grateful to the person who just used a _vars.scss file to declare the interesting parts in one place instead of scattering the highest-level elements of typography and color scheme throughout.

I used these themes:

  • Forty for my landing page.
  • Garth for a blog I’m considering.
  • Paper for

I borrowed Forty’s underlying color scheme and Garth’s typography for all three. I still need to just fork Paper on GitHub and use it directly on instead of carrying modifications over the stock theme and there’s some consistency stuff I should work on over time, but they’re all same-ish now.

So that’s all that. Here’s the output:

And after all that, dinner at Higgins.

Al on the Southern Oregon coast
Al on the Southern Oregon coast

Finished reading: Old Man's War by John Scalzi 📚

Well, part of the point of re-reading this was to take a small break from more dense stuff, so I will keep this short:

Scalzi acknowledges his debt to Robert Heinlein, and on this third read I still don’t know how deeply that acknowledgement is meant to go: As a collection of military SF tropes, yes, Old Man’s War is Heinleinesque. As a matter of tone, yes, that too. As a matter of world view, it’s a little harder nut to crack.

When I was serving, every soldier who read was probably reading Tom Clancy, a submarine nerd who glorified war without any apparent reflection. He probably helped me maintain a sort of moral equilibrium because he was so plainly deluded about the nature of the military and the people in it, or at least so thoroughly saw it as his mission to uphold the “warriors” he was depicting as moral paragons, that it was not possible to read any of his output without looking around the barracks at your actual everyday reality, snort, and keep reading to see how the story came out.

Scalzi is not Tom Clancy. He makes references to a “bad war” in his future history, and is careful to note that his main character was against that one, but for the nightmare Hobbesian struggle that is the war consuming the wider galaxy because it is an existential matter for humanity.

Tonally, Old Man’s War is sort of the military SF equivalent of, say, Zombieland: When his colonial troopers go to war against a race of one-inch-tall people, tossing them into buildings and stepping on them; or when an invading race brings along celebrity chefs to televise the ways you can cook a Terran, you’re sort of cued to relax a little: Scalzi’s galaxy at war is a little absurd, even if he remains more reverent of his upstream material than Paul Verhoeven was.

There’s a grabbag of other tropey classic and military SF stuff that might or might not work for people, but that are key to the military SF experience: battlefield promotions for gumption and smarts, humorless bureaucratic foils, the drill sergeant who softens up at the end, etc. etc. There’s at least one scene where the subversive self-awareness that keeps Old Man’s War on the right side of the moral scale yanked me out of the story.

So, basically the perfect “cooldown” book. There’s a little food for thought and it’s more than a slavish homage to what came before. Sometimes it spends more time than it should trying to distinguish itself from its upstreams. It doesn’t really leap into the plot, but it understands that a lot of the appeal of SF to its biggest fans is in the world-building and EPCOT-like tour of the future, so it’s not a huge ding that we spend some time gawking at the scenery.

Finished just in time for the weekend, and something more dense.

Finished reading: Old Man’s War by John Scalzi 📚

Finished reading: Kill It with Fire by Marianne Bellotti 📚

Ride attendant
Ride Attendant, 2017

I don’t know how many times I’ve said “the legacy stuff” at work in the past six months, but it’s a lot. I picked up Kill It With Fire, which concerns itself with how to manage aging systems, because I’d been saying “the legacy stuff” a lot just as a colleague noticed the book.

This was perhaps an aspirational purchase: I do have a few folks dealing with some creaking, legacy stuff, and I thought it wouldn’t hurt to get a few pointers that would take me beyond my usual, deliberative, incremental self as I work with them. I did get some pointers, and also some great insights that go beyond dealing with mere technology.

It’d be a mistake to pass this book up because you don’t have to deal with legacy systems. It has plenty of insight to share around the general endeavor of building and maintaining complex systems and, maybe more importantly, dealing with the humans keeping those systems running.

Highly recommended.

Kill It with Fire by Marianne Bellotti 📚

Currently reading: How to Take Smart Notes by Sönke Ahrens 📚

In the process of doing my digital declutter, I came across this little book about a particular note-taking method that is really changing my thinking about how to behave with intentionality.
Chalk in a jar in a window
Chalk in a jar in a window

I usually save writeups about books until I’m done with them, but this book made some wheels turn and took me off in another direction, so this is partly a mid-read writeup and partially documentation of some lightbulbs lighting up.

The opening chapters of Smart Notes describe Niklas Luhmann’s “Zettelkasten” knowledge management system. In short, Luhmann kept a slipbox of notes, sequentially numbered and cross-referenced, each ideally written in an atomic manner about a single idea or concept. As Ahrens points out in the book, the underlying sensibility of the system is a sort of cousin to David Allen’s Getting Things Done, except for ideas instead of work/actions. Also similar to GTD is the proliferation of documentation and implementation details you can go find on the ‘net.

I came to this book because I recently adopted Obsidian for note-taking, and it includes a few plugins and affordances that make keeping a digital Zettelkasten simple. I read enough about the approach to spark my curiosity, and all roads seemed to point to this.

As it turns out, the real value is less the “how to do a Zettelkasten” chapters. There are plenty of web tutorials that explain the mechanics. Plenty of those same tutorials miss out on the “why” of using a Zettelkasten vs. any other note-taking or knowledge management approach you might use. Here are a few of those whys:

Top-down hierarchies of notes (e.g. carefully labeled folders) over-direct and stifle the interconnected nature of how we actually think and know by predetermining where an idea “belongs.” By writing notes atomically – that is, about the most narrow idea possible – and storing them in a flat sequence, ideas are left free to be connected and assembled, then reconnected and reassembled over and over.

By providing a trusted system, Zettelkastens allow you to relax about where your knowledge is. It’s written down in brief notes that describe one concept well.

By keeping a collection of atomic notes – Luhmann’s own Zettelkasten reportedly exceeded 90,000 such notes by the time of his death – you make it easier to develop your thinking on a matter by constantly cross-referencing and connecting, allowing your understanding to change over time as new ideas come in and you write them down.

By making yourself write an idea down in as contained and focused a manner as possible, you also ensure that you actually understand it. As a former editor I remember using the coherence of individual passages in a freelancer’s submitted work as a guide to where I might want to fact-check or simply press the writer to rethink. If a passage didn’t read quite right, and if I had been through enough assignments from that writer to know they were an organized thinker, bad mechanics, stoppers, and uneven flow told me they might not understand what they were writing.

On that last point, Ahrens is a firm believer in the idea that writing is thinking, and that sitting quietly and letting words play out in your head is not. I have know this for a long time, and can remember key moments in my professional development where I used writing to develop my thinking, sometimes realizing at the end of three or five thousand words that I had ended up somewhere quite different from where I began.

There are a number of other “whys” that make the system work, but these are the ones that most stand out to me at just over half way through.

Where this book caused a spark to jump a gap came in combination with my recent read of Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism and the ensuing digital declutter I have undertaken.

The point of that declutter is to become more intentional about how I use technology, asking myself things like “What do you need to do to be intentional about this thing? Is that practical or useful?” and “When you adopted this thing, what aspirational idea did you have about it?”

I was doing some very basic writing about these things, but not in an atomic way. Instead, I was either making checklists, which involve believing that you “know” a lot about the thing you are checklisting; or writing essays, which are fine if you just want to publish a blog post or essay. What I realized, though, was that I wasn’t really thinking these things through deeply – I was plowing through a checklist of things to “consider” in a very superficial way. So I took a step back and tried a few things:

  • I decided to treat my checklists as prompts to think more about each thing on them, instead of as a collection of things I already understood and just needed to act on. Each of those prompts will become its own note.
  • I took an essay I was developing on tools I use in photography and decomposed it into atomic notes, making sure to use tags for each note so I could pull it all back together later, or build an index within Obsidian.

By taking the time to do that – to decompose my thinking about all the things I do around the topic of photography – I’ve made it easier to do my digital declutter, because instead of simply encountering an app, tool, or service and having a thought in the form of talking to myself briefly about its value, I’ve written about how I do photography, and why I have made the choices I have, the better to ask how that particular thing serves me.

Writing things down has also allowed me to anchor myself. I’m something of a tools and practices magpie and I don’t always slow down to think about how something is going to be in my life long-term. Sometimes I dart from practice to practice or tool to tool, leaving me with a hodgepodge of different approaches that take time to untangle or reconcile with each other. That means less time to do the thing I actually care about, and more time fussing with tools and processes. The act of writing things down, reasoning why I do things the way I do, gives me a grounding point to start from: “The best way to do this thing is this way for these reasons. So just do it that way. It’s better than the other ways you’ve tried. Leave room to iterate, but make that part of your practice of intentionality as well.”

On that last point, I’m adding some stuff to my longer feedback loops (monthly and quarterly reviews) so that I know I can address little paper cuts along the way without being in a state of constant flux. It’s been an interesting experience noting that something I do as a manager for teams I work with had to be rediscovered in my personal life.

So, great book so far, and I’m so glad my curiosity led me to it because it has truly enhanced how I’m coming at the overall theme of intentionality. It has had immediate applications for my digital declutter, and I’m applying it to the other areas of my life where I want to spend more time creating and less time fussing or reinventing wheels.

How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking – for Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers by Sönke Ahrens 📚