When to stop…

February 4th, 2007

Lorelle over at Lorelle on WordPress has posted a great article on how to know when to stop blogging. I really like it, but think it can be extended to a lot of things – when you don’t feel you have a purpose, when you’ve run out of stuff to say or do, when you’re burning out or being coerced, you should be willing to dump pretty much anything (realistically of course – some responsibilities are hard to dump, as they should be). Giving up is hard, but if it’s not really what you’re meant ot be doing, be willing to give up.

(found via Problogger)


January 27th, 2007

My handwriting is bad. Really bad. It’s been bad for as long as I’ve been able to do cursive, ever since elementary school. Even as an adult my penmanship has frequently been compared with Cuneiform.

Of course, with the advent of computers this shouldn’t be a problem anymore – no-one can tell how atrocious my handwriting is from an email, after all. But the problem is, no matter what situation you’re in, it’ll sometimes be necessary to communicate through pen and ink, and if you’re handwriting is so bad people sometimes think it’s Da Vinci style mirror writing, this can be a problem.

I’ve tried calligraphy and it hasn’t really worked out for me – calligraphy is, as far as I can see, more a practice of drawing letters than practical writing. I can do it reasonably well – here’s some I’ve done on my Flickr feed, but it hasn’t helped my cursive at all.

I’ve been hunting around for resources on improving my handwriting for a while now (and I still am – if anyone knows of any, let me know), but by far the most useful for me has been the article Tips for improving your handwriting by Dyas A. Lawson. Very cool, and advice on how to move from writing with the wrist and fingers to the forearm and shoulder. This never occured to me before, but it makes sense – larger muscles, aside from being more powerful and having greater endurance, are actually easier to control on a fine level.

I think I’m making progress, slowly but surely. Might keep a log up here too.

All About Money

January 25th, 2007

Ramit over at I will teach you to be rich has posted a fantastic article on ‘conscious spending’. I highly recommend all of you read, as it might help to get rid of the negative associations with finance (i.e. finance is about not spending money, whereas in truth finance is about spending money consciously).

It also reminded me of the fun little mac app Cha-Ching, which I like, but which I’m not entirely certain how to use (there’s no help. The splash screen for the latest beta implied the existence of a screencast, but the button was greyed out). But it’s well worth a look for the financially motivated (I like it already, just because it looks nice and seems reasonably sensible, even if I don’t know how to set a budget and get it to automatically refresh monthly).

How to make your mac read to you

January 24th, 2007

Sometimes I’ve got a nice big long article I want to read and have to shoot out of the door, effectively not giving me time to actually read it. Sometimes I save it for later by marking it up in my del.icio.us bookmarks, but if it’s something I really want to read, I’ll use this handy little Automator workflow to save it out:


I set the ‘Text to Audio’ action to ‘Show action when run’ using the expansion arrow:


This way you can set the file name of the resulting audio to something sensible, rather than have it set to the same thing every time – the file name will appear as the track’s title in iTunes.

All you have to do now is copy whatever you want into a blank TextEdit document and run this workflow – you don’t even have to save the document, Automator can pick it up regardless. The computer voice my trip over some words, particularly some non-english words. But it’s easy to comprehend.

You can set the rate in the System Preferences ‘speech’ preference pane:


I set the Genre to ‘Podcast’ to take advantage of iTunes’ smart playlisting – I have an ‘Unplayed Podcast’ smart playlist with any podcasts with a play count less than 1. That way I can find it easily on my iPod.

On Mac OS X as an idiocy filter

January 23rd, 2007

One of the things I like the most about OS X is that it acts as a barrier between me and my own idiocy. There is no better example of this than not twenty minutes ago, when I tried to create my own Star Wars opening scroll-y bit and failed miserably.

See, I found This link via The Unofficial Apple Weblog and immediately jumped on the idea of producing my own little bit of scroll text, possibly as an addition to my existing Automator alarm clock workflow.

Gleefully I set out putting my own text in required fields and hit the “Go” button, expecting it to generate a short movie, so I directed it to my clutter-free desktop.

What I failed to read was the bit on the linked howto that described ‘numbered stills’ and not ‘movie’.

So I wound up with nearly three thousand bitmaps on my desktop, crashing the finder. It couldn’t function, I think simply down to the sheer stupidity of what it was seeing on the desktop.

I wound up jumping into Path Finder, which once again saved my ass from my own rampant stupidity, letting me move everything to the trash successfully. The Finder is now recovering after a relaunch, still sitting there in my dock with its kind little smile… the little trooper.

So here’s what I like about this whole situation: because the Finder is a separate part of Mac OS X, I was able to carry on doing what I was doing (watching The Phone Guy, because I’m so very productive) while Path Finder was wiping my soiled behind. If this was windows I don’t know what I would have done to try and fix the situation – I’d probably resort to mounting the drive over a network and hoping.

Note: this is not a criticism of SWTSG, I’m sure it’s a great program – indeed, the bitmaps did look quite good. The website I linked to was pretty explicit that it would generate numbered frames, so the only thing at fault here is my poor reading comprehension.

Setting Smaller Goals

January 18th, 2007

Ramit over at I Will Teach You To Be Rich has posted a great little article on the importance of setting small goals and avoiding burnout.

It’s really important stuff to bear in mind, and stuff that’s borne out in my own experience. When I started writing every day I set a goal deliberately that didn’t make me sweat too much (five hundred words), and then moved it up once it was comfortable.

I’m also doing this at the moment when I’m trying to Get Out Of Bed When I Don’t Actually Have To (i.e. I don’t have any work or a meeting to go to) – currently I’m out of bed every morning around 9 am, and I’m going to start moving it back to before that, around eight-thirty. It’s not an ideal time, but it’s better than lying in ’til noon like I used to (and yes I know all about Steve Pavlina’s How To Become An Early Riser and How To Get Right Away When Your Alarm Goes Off, I just didn’t find they worked for me. But they might for you).

It’s all about Progressive Training, see.

Review: Omnigraffle

January 11th, 2007

Omnigraffle is a great app for making simple flow and structure diagrams, which look good in presentations n’ such. It’s got some rather nice features for laying stuff out and some pretty nifty diagramming tools, but there’s one thing that really sets it apart. It’s a mindmapping tool, and a fantastic one at that.

I heard about this listening to a Macbreak podcast. Merlin pointed out that Omnigraffle has a robust little outliner attached to it, which also functions well with Omni group’s Omnioutliner (which is worth a look atoo, and the subject of a forthcoming review).

What’s an outliner, I hear you cry? It’s a great little tool for making notes and writing stuff quickly and effectively, due to it’s understanding of keystrokes. Enter adds a new line to an outline, and tab will move it in or out, making it the child or sibling of an item above it, making it a great system for categorizing data.

With Omnigraffle you get the best of both worlds – drop in a line, tab it in or out and the mindmap in the main pane will reflect your changes, keeping everything spaced and legible with minimal fuss. It’s the best way to add data to a mindmap I’ve found so far – outlines are great for data entry, but I prefer mindmaps for data visualization.

Those diagramming tools are great for projects as well – drag and drop items into the main pane, drop some arrows in and stick them where you want to go. It’ll maintain the arrows if you move items around, they’re all magnetic. Also, these neat little layout gubbins appear when spacings are equal, so you can get your maps really precise.

Omnigraffle is $79.95 for the standard edition and $149.95 for the Pro at the Omni store. Take a look at the Pro edition if you need advanced presentation features and document management, but I’m happy rocking with Standard for now. There’s also a very fairly priced educational store, offering Standard for just $48 and Pro for $90. Might seem pricey on the face of it, but it’s an incredible deal when you consider what you can do with this software.

Oh, and it’s shareware – if you’re not sure, you can download and use it for as long as you want with the limitation that you only use twenty items. Which is the best kind of shareware.

On the iPhone

January 10th, 2007

Got damn that thing’s swooshy. Awesome looking interface. Shame Steve didn’t show anything about the Calendar functions, I wonder if it moves todos over as well? I don’t see why not, and that’ll tie in well with the Todo service they’re building into Leopard.

But the interface… damn. That’s dead fine. I wonder about practicalities of a touch-screen, and whether or not a stylus as well might be a good idea (especially for a sweaty-fingered gentleman such as myself), but I’ll be interested to see what happens with it in the future.

What I want though? An iPhone without the Phone-y bits. I want all that stuff in an iPod, with ebook reading capability as well. That’s something I would actually buy.

The Automator Alarm Clock

January 9th, 2007

There are a bunch of apps out there – some free and some shareware – that allow you to use your mac as an alarm clock. They’re mostly pretty good too, but I like the customizability of an Automator based solution, and I think you will too – with a little drag and drop you can have a very complex little morning radio bit.

The Basic iTunes Alarm

You can make a very simple little alarm with just three actions:

  1. Set Computer Volume (turn the volume up to maximum in case you muted it the previous day)
  2. Get Specified iTunes items (select the playlist you want to play in the morning)
  3. Play iTunes playlist

Here’s a screencap of what the finished article should look like:


Next, save it and select ‘Save As Plugin’ from the menu, and choose an iCal plugin. Automator will spit out an action into iCal, which you can move around to the proper date and time and also set repeats.

Now, iCal alarms will wake your mac from sleep but not from a shut down state (which is just as well, really). If you shut down your mac every night, you’ll need to set up a little scheduling. Fortunately this is simplicity itself from the Energy Saver preference pane. Open up System Preferences and click ‘Schedule’:


Then put in the time you want your mac to wake. It can be at the same time or a little after – the mac will run as soon as it wakes up.

You’ll also need to set auto-login:

Auto Login

I’ve blurred out the accounts and account names because I’m incredibly paranoid. So don’t worry about that blocky effect.

Also, a brief warning: this is a security risk, so I’d set it back to a proper login if you ever leave your machine unattended where someone might faff around with it.

Once all that’s done, you should have a simple little Automator alarm clock that you didn’t have to pay for or anything. Wohoo! But of course plenty of freeware will do this, so what’s the real advantage? Customizability!

Advanced stuff

You can drop other actions in teh bottom of the queue easily. My personal favourite, though, is having a little built-in DJ.


The iTunes volume actions will turn the music down to let the speech server talk over the music, but you can use the system volume options to really blare out the voice if you want. I don’t, because my Macbook’s tawdry built-in speakers simple don’t allow it – maximum volume is about right for music.

Beyond that, you can add more complex speech: for example, here’s a little Applescript that’ll interface with the rather fine (and also free) ?TextWrangler:

tell application “TextWrangler”
open “path/to/file.txt”
set readOut to line (random number from 1 to 22) of document 1 as string
end tell

say “Today's usage rule is: ” & (usageRule)
Using Automator’s ‘Run Applescript’ function you can get this script to read random lines from a text file (mine contains the usage rules from Strunk and White, which I laboriously typed out). To double check the line numbers in TextWrangler, just use the ‘Add/Remove Line numbers’ function in the ‘Text’ menu

Other stuff

Using my previous hint to set display sleep times, you can make sure the screen isn’t blaring away (although personally I’ve found the bright screen useful in dark mornings).

You can also open websites, check RSS feeds, or even download and open your local free Metro newspaper (no uk version, bah!).

So that’s quite handy.

On GTD Systems

December 30th, 2006

I’ve been thinking about GTD systems a lot recently, and I’m worried I’m getting another GTD itch – where I feel a sudden and insatiable urge to change my system around. Currently I’m using the same old Hipster PDA system I’ve used for about seven or eight months on or off, but there are difficulties with it – I always feel like it’s a bit of a hassle to write stuff down in it, as to really get access to the cards I have to unclip the cards, shuffle through for the right one, and then write on it. Plus, index cards aren’t all that firm, which only serves to magnify my natural poor penmanship.

So this post over at hyalineskies seems like an awesome case of serendipity. I like moleskines as it is and I constantly use one for my inbox (as well as writing and whatnot), so this has some natural appeal. I have issues with running out of space – the thing I prefer about Hipsters is the ability to move cards around in the deck – but I might work these out with some modifications (maybe writing from the back of the book, keeping Project and S/M lists on the flipped-over side of the moleskine? Possible…).

Plus, it’s not like I use contexts all that much anyway: I’ll probably label stuff, but the vast majority of my tasks are on the computer, so that card is constantly filling up.