What I Use: August 2015

The second in an occasional look at the technology I use regularly

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riends, family and colleagues are frequently asking my advice on what kind of devices and software I find most useful.  So following in the tradition of Bernard Pivot and subsequently the Actor’s Studio, and sites like LifeHacker, Supersite for Windows, and many others, I’ve borrowed a handful of standard “get-to-know-you” type of questions that others might find helpful.

Keep in mind that given an infinite budget, I’d have quite a bit more or possibly be using something slightly different or more recent, but the following are things I actually use on an almost daily basis. I also have a large handful of occasional devices and tricks that are not included in the list for brevity.

Fifty years from now, this list should also be fairly entertaining to reread. The first installment of the series can be found here: What I Use: April 2014. It includes some additional sections and material that hasn’t changed since then.

Primary equipment

Mobile device

Samsung Galaxy S6 on Sprint – I’ve had this for a couple of months now and like it a lot, but I honestly feel like there hasn’t been anything really new or exciting in the phone space for a while. Phones are becoming commodity items.

Computer

Lenovo Flex3 – I’ve had it for a couple of months and love its size, weight, and the fact that I can flip it over into a tablet.  I’m still occasionally using my Lenovo Thinkpad Edge E431, but planning on decommissioning it shortly.

Operating system(s)

I am using the final, shipping professional version of Windows 8.1 with Update 1 on my primary laptop PC.  Windows 10 is starting to roll out, and I’m about to make the jump…

I still have a multi-boot set up on a 10″ Asus EeePC with XP, Windows 7, JoliOS (flavor of Linux), and a multi-boot set up on an HP desktop with XP, Vista, Windows 7, and the latest Ubuntu Linux, but I’ve rarely used them in the last year.

Productivity

I made the jump to Office 365 Home Premium about a year ago and generally love it, particularly being able to dump almost everything I have into the cloud via OneDrive with a 1+TB storage option. For the bulk of my writing though, I still eschew Word and use WinEdt as a text editor/user interface in combination with a MiKTeX installation and Adobe Acrobat to typeset in LaTeX – the output is simply glorious. I’ve actually been doing the typesetting and layout for a client’s novel with this set up over the past few months, and it is truly great despite having do dig under the hood a bit more than I’d prefer to get the exact results I want.

Since my last “What I’m Using” I’ve moved away from Dropbox as my primary cloud service and prefer OneDrive for syncing across multiple platforms. I still have a huge amount in Dropbox and still use it for some collaboration. For email, contacts, and calendar management, I primarily use Outlook, though for some collaborative work, I have been using Google’s Calendar a lot more in the last year particularly for its simple integration into my phone.  I also have a well-exercised Gmail account for sifting most of my social media accounts, as well as a lot of bacon and spam.  I have gone through lately and cut the number of notifications I get by email in half. For reading Gmail, I primarily use Googles Inbox app on my cell phone when I’m waiting in lines.

Internet and communications

For web browsing, I use the latest version of Google Chrome typically to the exclusion of all others. For instant messaging and video chat I use either Skype or Google Hangouts depending on the others involved, though I generally prefer Hangouts.

I obviously use WordPress, but also have a few sites running Drupal as well. Over the past year, I’ve become a big proponent of the IndieWeb movement which fits in line with my long held beliefs about personal data. Toward this end, I’ve added a lot of IndieWeb plugins to my WordPress workflow, and I also love WithKnown which I use as my primary social stream tool. It dovetails with most major social networks incredibly well.

I do not use any third party security software as Windows Defender in Windows 8.1 includes anti-virus functionality and this seems to be more than enough. I tried a free trial of McAfee with my Flex3, but it was awfully bulky and annoying and the UI was just dreadful. Generally just not clicking on any links you aren’t 100% certain are secure will cover most problems with viruses and malware.

Digital media

Music: I rarely, if ever, purchase music online or otherwise; I’m also not currently subscribing to any online delivery systems.  For the last year, I’ve been using Spotify to the exclusion of almost all others, though I still visit Pandora, Google Music, and Amazon Music depending on my location and needs. Most of my owned music, audiobooks, and video content is managed through iTunes. I use DoubleTwist to sync my iTunes playlists and music to my Android devices. I sporadically use XM/Sirius in the car, but can’t bear to spend more than about $4 a month on such service when there are so many alternatives. I’m currently on an XM/Sirius hiatus, but I do miss the clarity and the dedicated bluegrass station.

Video: Netflix is the primary video service I use on an almost daily basis, though Amazon Prime’s streaming services is a fairly close second. Given the general availability of the content I want to watch, I find it rare to need to purchase any video content on any other platforms. I don’t often rip DVD’s, but when I do, I love Handbrake, which seems to be the sine qua non in the area. I spend a lot more time using my Lenovo Flex3 for Netflix with my Chromecast a close second.

Books: I have such a complicated set up with regard to ebooks, it will take an entire post to cover it all.  In simplest terms, I manage everything through a well-integrated combination of Calibre, Goodreads.com, Amazon’s Kindle, Adobe Digital Editions, Adobe Acrobat Reader, DJView, and OneDrive. Most books I get are either purchased through Amazon or are borrowed from a litany of local public libraries. I’ve spent the last several years converting almost all the reading I do to electronic reading. I still prefer to read on paper, but the overall process is much simpler in digital. Most technical books I read within some version of Adobe Acrobat for its ability to highlight, comment, and create notes. For most of the last year, a lot of my pleasure/fiction reading has been done via the BaltoReader app on my Amazon Kindle 7″ which allows me to read at greatly increased speeds.  (I covered it and some other options here: Speed Reading on the Web and Mobile.

Audiobooks: I’ve loved Audible.com for a long time, but I’m still on a hiatus from it playing catch up on some of the content I’ve accumulated over the past couple of years. It’s an awesome service.  I also often use the Overdrive service through several local libraries for downloading and listening to audiobooks. While Overdrive is clunky and smothered in DRM, it works and is just good enough, and I’ve yet to find anything better that is free. When necessary, I’ll also borrow CD’s from the local library for listening as well.

Photos: I still do a horrible job of managing my thousands of photos. In line with a general switch to OneDrive, I autoback up my photos from my phone there, but still also prefer to use Google+ photos. I will admit that some recent changes to Flickr make me want to reconsider it for broader use, but I’m not all in just yet.

Other applications and utilities

Feedly.com, TweetDeck, Mendeley.com, GetPocket.com – these are all still must haves, though I always wish I had more time to spend on Feedly.

Android Phone/Tablet apps

My favorites and most often used include: DoubleTwist, Waze, WithKnown, Google Hangouts, Google Voice, Amazon Kindle, BaltoReader, Facebook, Google Inbox, Pocket, Netflix, Instagram, Starbucks, Key Ring, Shazam, S Health, Periscope, Flipboard and less frequently Audible and OverDrive Media. The notable new entries in the last year are the “Do Suite” from IFTTT.com including Do Camera, Do Note, and somewhat less frequently Do Button. I use these several times a day and they’re front and center on my phone now. I also love IFTTT for a variety of back-end integrations for various other web technologies.

There are certainly others, but I rarely use many of them and didn’t reinstall many when I upgraded phone in June.

In the last year, I’ve moved away from Evernote in favor of OneNote which provides better integration to my Outlook workflow, but I will admit I do miss the UI of Evernote.

Home technology

Television

I’m still using a Samsung Series 5, 40″ LCD flatscreen.  Though there are certainly much newer models out there, this really has everything I could want and supplies a fantastic picture as well as even native sound.  Until the mansion arrives, or California housing prices drop precipitously, this is probably more television than I even need. For service I only use DirecTV which, though I desperately love, I have a feeling I’ll eventually dump it to live a complete cord-cutter life.

Set-top boxes

In addition to a DirectTV HD DVR which I upgraded last fall to a newer model with 1TB storage , I also have a Roku XD|S and Google Chomecast.  The Chromecast gets far more regular use, particularly for Netflix integration (via either a tablet or cell phone) and in my mind is the clear winner for being drop-dead easy-to-use. I particularly love the fact that the Chromecast automatically turns on the television and changes the internal television tuner, so I don’t need to pick up other devices to control the television. The Roku is ancient and clunky and now doesn’t support a lot of the newer apps/channels. I get regular emails from Roku about discounts for upgrading, but I’m not sure I use it enough or that the upgrades are worth replacing it. I rarely use the mini-HDMI to HDMI adapter to connect my Kindle Fire HD to the television for streaming Amazon Prime video to the television these days.

Kitchen

  • Cambro Containers: Over the last year, I’ve gotten a dozen large Cambro containers ranging from 2qt-8qt for more easily storing bulk goods like flour, sugar, rice, beans, etc. They store much more easily and functionally in the kitchen and the fridgerator. I don’t know how I lived without them before.
  • Scraper: Almost a year ago, I got an OXO Good Grips Jar Spatula, White and it has been my single-most used kitchen item after my knife since. For size, shape, and sheer versatility it’s one of my favorite tools. I’m tempted to get rid of all of my other scrapers and buy 4 more of these.
  • Coffee: I’m not a total fiend in this department and usually prefer soda or tea, but when necessary, a simple Bodum French press in combination with a Kitchen Aide coffee grinder are just great. I’m still very tempted to get the relatively inexpensive Aerobie AeroPress
  • Mixer: Life wouldn’t be complete without my 325 Watt Artisan Kitchen Aide stand mixer with a handful of attachments.
  • Scale: I believe Fannie Farmer irreparably destroyed much of what could have been some superb American cuisine and any semblance of science in the kitchen, so I avidly use my Salter 3003 Aquatronic Glass Electronic Kitchen Scale to begin the healing.
  • Thermometers:  Among many others I primarily rely on a Maverick CT-03 Oil & Candy Digital Thermometer and a CDN DSP1 Dual Sensing Probe Thermometer and Timer.

Free-form Broad Questions

What apps/software/tools can’t you live without? Why?

In a year, nothing here has changed. I simply love these:

Calibre – For my 2000+ ebooks, this is an indispensable e-book and document program that is to books as iTunes is to music. I also use it to download dozens of magazines and newspapers on a daily basis for reading on my Kindle. I love that it’s under constant development with weekly updates for improved functionality.

Waze – When living in Los Angeles, this real-time traffic application often saves me anywhere from 30-90 minutes of time in traffic a day; it also has the side benefit of helping you explore parts of the city you might not find otherwise.

DoubleTwist – Since I’m an avid Android fan, I use this simple app to dovetail my music and video collections in iTunes to sync with my other digital devices.

What’s your workspace setup like?

What I useFor the past couple of years I’ve been using a 1962 McDowell & Craig executive tanker desk that I refinished in 2008 and I use a matching chair which I painstakingly reupholstered by hand in late 2013. I often use the custom made glass top with dry-erase markers to sketch out ideas or write disposable notes and also place photos and incunabula of various sorts underneath it. I’ve been tempted to do a standing desk but as yet haven’t. I’m half tempted to follow the lead of film editor Walter Murch and set my desk up on cinder blocks to jack it up to waist level.

What’s your best time-saving/shortcut/life hack?

A combination of Feedly, Pocket, and the Spritz Bookmarklet on my computer allows me to plow through way more reading material that I used to be able to before.

What’s your favorite to-do list manager?

I primarily use a very customized version of Outlook and its  task functionality to track my to do list items. I use OneNote as my commonplace book particularly as it has a bookmarklet that makes it dead easy to transfer data into it.

Besides your phone and computer, what gadget(s) can’t you live without and why?

My Kindle Fire 7″ HD is indispensable and I primarily use it only for reading.  I’ve also had some great experiences with my new Timbuk2 Command Messenger Bag and my Zojurishi Travel Mug – I don’t know how I managed without them before.

For education purposes (primarily lectures), I am absolutely in love with my Livescribe Pulse Pen. I own three different versions. Every student on the planet should have one.

I could maybe live without them, but I’ve had a 30 year love affair with my Pentel 0.5mm and 0.7mm mechanical pencils, and they’ve literally lasted that long.

What do you listen to while you work?

For a while now, I’ve been catching up on the mid-70’s music I missed in my early youth.  I’m still exploring 60’s Jazz and classic bluegrass.

What are you currently reading?

Generally I’m actively reading 4-5 books at a time and less-actively up to 15 or so.  I use Goodreads.com to manage my reading lists, to find recommendations from others, and in part to catalog my library (though I’m far from having everything I own there).  I usually tend toward non-fiction, science, math, history and biography when reading for pleasure, though the occasional fiction piece will work its way into the stack.

My specific active reading list right now includes:

And I’m currently listening to:

What are you currently watching on television?

Lately I’m regularly watching Hannibal, Mr. Robot, Murder in the First, Charlie Rose, Suits, Royal Pains, The Closer (early season reruns), PBS News Hour, Major Crimes, and The Profit.  Guilty pleasure watching includes Shark Tank, Last Comic Standing, America’s Got Talent, UnREAL, and solely because there’s a “Chris Aldrich” on the show, I’ve seen a few episodes of season 2 of VH1’s Dating Naked. When they return I’ll still be watching Modern Family, The Big Bang, Person of Interest, and Grimm. Relatively recent binge watches include Mad Men (final 3 seasons) and House of Cards (season 3).

Bernard Pivo-esque section

What everyday thing are you better at than everyone else? What’s your secret?

I have a generally better memory than most. Though it was naturally good when I was younger, I ran across the concepts of the major system and the method of loci (aka the memory palace) at an early age and they have helped significantly.

What’s your sleep routine like?

I never seem to sleep as much as most, but lately I’ve been getting 7-8 hours of sleep at night usually from 12-7am. I’m far from a morning person and most of my best thinking hours are from 11pm to 2am.

Are you more of an introvert or an extrovert?

I grew up definitely as an introvert, but during college I managed to force myself to be an extrovert. These days I move between the two as my mood and social circumstances dictate.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

Some know it as the “Golden Rule,” but “Treat other people like you want to be treated.” I highly recommend people read How to Win Friends and Influence People.

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Git and Version Control for Novelists, Screenwriters, Academics, and the General Public

Revision (or version) control is used in tracking changes in computer programs, but it can easily be used for tracking changes in almost any type of writing from novels, short stories, screenplays, legal contracts, or any type of textual documentation.

Marginalia and Revision Control

At the end of April, I read an article entitled “In the Margins” in the Johns Hopkins University Arts & Sciences magazine.  I was particularly struck by the comments of eminent scholar Jacques Neefs on page thirteen (or paragraph 20) about computers making marginalia a thing of the past:

Neefs believes contemporary literature is losing a valuable component in an age when technology often precludes and trumps the need to save manuscripts or rough drafts. But it is not something that keeps him up at night. ‘The modern technique of computers and everything makes [marginalia] a thing of the past,’ he says. ‘There’s a new way of creation. Some would say it’s tragic, but something new has been invented. I don’t consider it tragic. There are still great writers who write and continue to have a way to keep the process.’

Photo looking over the shoulder of Jacques Neefs onto the paper he's been studing on the table in front of him.
Jacques Neefs (Image courtesy of Johns Hopkins University)

I actually think that he may be completely wrong and that current technology actually allows us to keep far more marginalia! (Has anyone heard of digital exhaust?) The bigger issue may be that many writers just don’t know how to keep a better running log of their work to maintain all the relevant marginalia they’re actually producing. (Of course there’s also the subsequent broader librarian’s “digital dilemma” of maintaining formats for the future. As an example, thing about how easy or hard it might be for you to read that ubiquitous 3.5 inch floppy disk you used in 1995.)

A a technologist who has spent many years in the entertainment industry, I feel compelled to point everyone towards the concept of revision control (or version control) within the realm of computer science.  Though it’s primarily used in tracking changes in computer programs and is often a tool used by large teams of programmers, it can very easily be used for tracking changes in almost any type of writing from novels, short stories, screenplays, legal contracts, or any type of textual documentation of nearly any sort.

Example Use Cases for Revision Control

Publishing

As a direct example, I’m using what is known as a Git repository to track every change I make in a textbook I’m currently writing.  I can literally go back and view every change I’ve made since beginning the project, so though I’m directly revising one (or more) text files, all of my “marginalia” and revisions are saved and available.  Currently I’m only doing it for my own reference and for additional backup not supposing that anyone other than myself or an editor possibly may want to ever peruse it.  If I was working in conjunction with otheres, there are ways for me to track the changes, edits, or notes that others (perhaps an editor or collaborator) might make.

In addition to the general back-up of the project (in case of catastrophic computer failure), I also have the ability to go back and find that paragraph (or multiple pages) I deleted last week in haste, but realize that I desperately want them back now instead of having to recreate them de n0vo.

Because it’s all digital, future scholars also won’t have problems parsing my handwriting issues as has occasionally come up in differentiating Mary Shelley’s writing from that of her husband in digital projects like the Shelley Godwin Archive. The fact that all changes are tracked and placed in a tree-like structure will indicate who wrote what and when and will indicate which changes were ultimately accepted and merged into the final version.

Screenplays in Hollywood

One particular use case I can easily see for such technology is tracking changes in screenplays over time.  I’m honestly shocked that every production company or even more likely studios don’t use such technology to follow changes in drafts over time. In the end, doing such tracking will certainly make Writers Guild of America (WGA) arbitrations much easier as literally every contribution to a script can be tracked to give screenwriters appropriate credit. The end results with the easy ability to time-machine one’s way back into older drafts is truly lovely, and the outputs give so much more information about changes in the script compared to the traditional and all-too-simple (*) which screenwriters use to indicate that something/anything changed on a specific line or the different colored pages which are used on scripts during production.

I can also picture future screenwriters using services like GitHub as platforms for storing and distributing their screenplays to potential agents, managers, and producers.

Redlining Legal Documents

Having seen thousands of legal agreements go back and forth over the years, revision control is a natural tool for tracking the redlining and changes of legal documents as they change over time before they are finally (or even never) executed. I have to imagine that being able to abstract out the appropriate metadata in the long run may actually help attorneys, agents, etc. to become better negotiators, but something like this is a project for another day.

Academia

In addition to direct research for projects being undertaken by academics like Neefs, academics should look into using revision control in their own daily work and writings.  While writing a book, paper, journal article, essay, monograph, etc. (or graduate students writing theses) one could use their own Git repository to not only save but to back up all of their own work not only for themselves primarily, but also future scholars who come later who would not otherwise have access to the “marginalia” one creates while manufacturing their written thoughts in digital form.

I can easily picture Git as a very simple “next step” in furthering the concept of the digital humanities as well as in helping to bridge the gap between C.P. Snow’s “two cultures.” (I’d also suggest that revision control is a relatively simple step one could take before learning a particular programming language, which I think should be a mandatory tool in everyone’s daily toolbox regardless of their field(s) of interest.)

Git Logo

Start Using Revision Control

“But how do I get started?” you ask.

Know going in that it may take parts of a day to get things set up and running, but once you’ve started with the basics, things are actually pretty easy and you can continue to learn the more advanced subtleties as you progress.  Once things are working smoothly, the additional overhead you’ll be expending won’t be too much more than the old method of hitting Alt-S to save one of your old Word documents in the time before auto-save became ubiquitous.

First one should start by choosing one of the myriad revision control systems that exist.  For the sake of brevity in this short introductory post, I’ll simply suggest that users take a very close look at Git because of its ubiquity and popularity in the computer science world and the fact that it includes a tremendously large amount of free information and support from a variety of sites on the internet. Git also has the benefit of having versions for all major operating systems (Windows, MacOS, and Linux). Git also has the benefit of a relatively long and robust life within the computer science community meaning that it’s very stable and has many more resources for the uninitiated to draw upon.

Once one has Git installed on their computer and has begun using it, I’d then recommending linking one’s local copy of the repository to a cloud storage solution like either GitHub or BitBucket.  While GitHub is certainly one of the most popular Git-related services out there (because it acts, in part, as the hub for a large portion of the open internet and thus promotes sharing), I often recommend using BitBucket as it allows free unlimited private but still share-able repositories while GitHub requires a small subscription fee for keeping one’s work private. Having a repository in the cloud will help tremendously in that your work will be available and downloadable from almost anywhere and because it also serves as a de-facto back-up solution for your work.

I’ve recently been playing around with version control to help streamline the writing/editing process for a book I’ve been writing. Though Git and it’s variants probably seem more daunting than they should to the everyday user, they really represent a very powerful tool. I’ve spent less than two days learning the basics of both Git and hosted repositories (GitHub and Bitbucket), and it has been more than well worth the minor effort.

There is a huge wealth of information on revision control in general and on installing and using Git available on the internet, including full textbooks. For the complete beginners, I’d recommend starting with The Chronicle’s “A Gentle Introduction to Version Control.” Keep in mind that though some of these resources look highly technical, it’s because many are trying to enumerate every function one could potentially desire, when even just the basic core functionality is more than enough to begin with. (I could analogize it to learning to drive a car versus actually reading the full manual so that you know how to take the engine apart and put it back together from scratch. To start with revision control, you only need to learn to “drive.”) Professors might also avail themselves of the use of their local institutional libraries which may host small sessions on learning such tools, or they might avail themselves of the help of their colleagues or students in the computer science department. For others, I’d recommend taking a look at Git’s primary website. BitBucket has an excellent step-by-step tutorial (and troubleshooting) for setting up the requisite software and using it.

What do you use for revision control?

I’ll welcome any thoughts, experiences, or additional resources one might want to share with others in the comments.

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Speed Reading on Web and Mobile

“Hi, my name is Chris, and I’m a Read-aholic.”

I

‘ll be the first to admit that I’m a reading junkie, but unfortunately there isn’t (yet) a 12 step program to help me.  I love reading lots of different types of things across an array of platforms (books, newspapers, magazines, computer, web, phone, tablet, apps) and topics (fiction/non-fiction and especially history, biography, economics, popular science, etc.).  My biggest problem and one others surely face is time.

There are so many things I want to read, and far too little time to do it in.  Over the past several years, I’ve spent an almost unreasonable amount of time thinking about what I consume and (possibly more importantly) how to intelligently consume more of it. I’ve spent so much time delving into it that I’ve befriended a professor and fellow renaissance man (literally and figuratively) who gave me a personal thank you in his opening to a best-selling book entitled “The Thinking Life: How to Thrive in an Age of Distraction.”

Information Consumption

At least twice a year I look at my reading consumption and work on how to improve it, all the while trying to maintain a level of quality and usefulness in what I’m consuming and why I’m consuming it.

  • I continually subscribe to new and interesting sources.
  • I close off subscriptions to old sources that I find uninteresting, repetitive (goodbye echo chamber), and those that are (or become) generally useless.
  • I carefully monitor the huge volumes of junk email that end up in my inbox and trim down on the useless material that I never seem to read, so that I’ll have more time to focus on what is important.
  • I’ve taken up listening to audiobooks to better utilize my time in the car while commuting.
  • I’ve generally quit reading large swaths of social media for their general inability to uncover truly interesting sources.
  • I’ve used some portions of social media to find other interesting people collating and curating areas I find interesting, but which I don’t have the time to read through everything myself.  Why waste my time reading hundreds of articles, when I can rely on a small handful of people to read them and filter out the best of the best for myself? Twitter lists in particular are an awesome thing.
  • I’ve given up on things like “listicles” or stories from internet click farm sources like BuzzFeed which can have some truly excellent linkbait-type headlines, but I always felt like I’ve completely wasted my time clicking through to them.

A New Solution

About six months ago in the mountain of tech journalism I love reading, I ran across a site launch notice about a tech start-up called Spritz which promised a radically different solution for the other side of the coin relating to my reading problem: speeding the entire process up!  Unfortunately, despite a few intriguing samples at the time (and some great details on the problem and their solution), they weren’t actually delivering a product.

Well, all that seems to have changed in the past few weeks. I’ve waited somewhat patiently and occasionally checked back on their progress, but following a recent mention on Charlie Rose, and some serious digging around on the broader internet, I’ve found some worthwhile tools that have sprouted out of their efforts.  Most importantly, Spritz itself now has a bookmarklet that seems to deliver on their promise of improving my reading speeds for online content. With the bookmarklet installed, one can go to almost any web article, click on the bookmarklet and then sit back and just read at almost any desired speed.  Their technology uses a modified version of the 1970’s technology known as Rapid Serial Visual Presentation (RSVP) to speed up your reading ability, but does so in a way that is easier to effectuate with web and mobile technologies.  Essentially they present words serially in the same position on your screen with an optimized center mass so that one’s eyes stay still while reading instead of doing the typical saccaddic eye movements which occur with typical reading – and slow the process down.

 

A photo of how Spritz works for speed reading on the web.
Spritz for speed reading the web.

 

As a biomedical engineer, I feel compelled to note the interesting physiologic phenomenon that if one sits in a rotatable chair and spins with one’s eyes closed and their fingers lightly placed on their eyelids, one will feel the eye’s saccades even though one isn’t actually seeing anything.

Spritz also allows one to create an account and log in so that the service will remember your previously set reading speed. Their website does such a great job of explaining their concept, I’ll leave it to the reader to take a peek; but you may want to visit their bookmarklet page directly, as their own website didn’t seem to have a link to it initially.

As a sample of how Spritz works on the web, OysterBooks is hosting a Spritz-able version of Stephen R. Covey’s book 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

Naturally, Spritz’s solution is not a catch-all for everything I’d like to read, but it covers an interesting subcategory that will make things useful and easier.  Though trying to speed read journal articles, textbooks, and other technical literature isn’t the best idea in the world, Spritz will help me plow through more fiction and more leisurely types of magazine and online articles that are of general interest. I generally enjoy and appreciate these types of journalism and work, but just can’t always justify taking the time away from more academic pursuits to delve into them. Some will still require some further thought after-the-fact to really get their full value out of them, but at least I can cover the additional ground without wasting all the additional time to do so. I find I can easily double or triple my usual reading speed without any real loss of comprehension.

In the last week or so since installing a my several new speed reading bookmarklets, I’ve begun using them almost religiously in my daily reading regimen.

I’ll also note in passing that some studies suggest that this type of reading modality has helped those who face difficulties with dyslexia.

A picture of the Spritz RSVP reading interface featuring the word Boffosocko.
How to read Boffosocko faster than you though you could…

 

Speed Reading Competition

Naturally, since this is a great idea, there’s a bit of competition in the speed reading arena.

There are a small handful of web and app technologies which are built upon the RSVP concept:

  • Clayton Morris has also developed an iOS application called ReadQuick, which is based on the same concept as Spritz, but is only available via app and not on web.
  • Rich Jones has developed a program called OpenSpritz.  His version is opensource and has an Android port for mobile.
  • There’s also another similar bookmarklet called Squirt which also incorporates some nice UI tweaks and some of the technology from Readability as well.
  • For those wishing to Spritz .pdf or .txt documents, one can upload them using Readsy which uses Spritz’s open API to allow these types of functionalities.
  • There are also a variety of similar free apps in the Google Play store which follow the RSVP technology model.
  • Those on the Amazon (or Kindle Fire/Android Platform) will appreciate the Balto App which utilizes RSVP and is not only one of the more fully functional apps in the space, but it also has the ability to unpack Kindle formatted books (i.e. deal with Amazon’s DRM) to allow speed reading Kindle books. While there is a free version, the $1.99 paid version is more than well worth the price for the additional perks.

On and off for the past couple of years, I’ve also used a web service and app called Readfa.st which is a somewhat useful, but generally painful way to improve one’s speed reading. It also has a handy bookmarklet, but just wasn’t as useful as I had always hoped it might be. It’s interesting, but not as interesting or as useful as Spritz (and other RSVP technology) in my opinion since it feels more fatiguing to read in this manner

 

Bookmarklet Junkie Addendum

In addition to the handful of speed reading bookmarklets I’ve mentioned above, I’ve got over 50 bookmarklets in a folder on my web browser toolbar. I easily use about a dozen on a daily basis. Bookmarklets make my internet world much prettier, nicer, and cleaner with a range of simple clever code.  Many are for URL shortening, sharing content to a variety of social networks quickly, but a large number of the ones I use are for reading-related tasks which I feel compelled to include here: web clippers for Evernote and OneNote, Evernote’s Clearly, Readability, Instapaper, Pocket, Mendeley (for reading journal articles), and GoodReads.

Do you have a favorite speed reading application (or bookmarklet)?

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What I Use: April 2014

The first in an occasional look at the technology I use regularly

Friends, family and colleagues are frequently asking my advice on what kind of devices and software I find most useful.  So following in the tradition of Bernard Pivot and subsequently the Actor’s Studio, and sites like LifeHacker, Supersite for Windows, and many others, I’ve borrowed a handful of standard “get-to-know-you” type of questions that others might find helpful.

Keep in mind that given an infinite budget, I’d have quite a bit more or possibly be using something slightly different or more recent, but the following are things I actually use on an almost daily basis. I also have a large handful of occasional devices and tricks that are not included in the list for brevity.

Fifty years from now, this list should also be fairly entertaining to reread.

 

Primary equipment

Mobile device

Samsung Galaxy S III

Computer

Lenovo Thinkpad Edge E431; I’m enamored of the fact that the operating system lives on a small internal SSD for incredibly fast boot times.

Operating system(s)

I am using the final, shipping professional version of Windows 8.1 with Update 1 on my primary laptop PC.  I have a multi-boot set up on a 10″ Asus EeePC with XP, Windows 7, JoliOS (flavor of Linux), and a multi-boot set up on an HP desktop with XP, Vista, Windows 7, and the latest Ubuntu Linux.

Productivity

I haven’t found a reason to really upgrade from the Microsoft Office 2007 Small Business suite of tools including Word, Excel, and Outlook, which I use on a regular basis, but  I’ve seriously been considering getting Office 365 Home Premium. For the bulk of my writing though, I usually eschew Word and use WinEdt as a text editor/user interface in combination with a MiKTeX installation and Adobe Acrobat to typeset in LaTeX – the output is simply glorious. Lately I’ve also been working at rolling git version control into the mixture with Bitbucket. I use a variety of online storage solutions in addition to Google Drive and SkyDrive Pro, but my primary account is on Dropbox which does an excellent job of syncing files across platforms as well as sharing document with others. I generally use it by way of their Windows integrated application which makes for a very seamless workflow. For email, contacts, and calendar management, I primarily use Outlook.  But I also have a well-exercised Gmail account for sifting most of my social media accounts, as well as a lot of bacon and spam.

Internet and communications

For web browsing, I use the latest version of Google Chrome typically to the exclusion of all others. For instant messaging and video chat I use either Skype or Google Hangouts depending on the others involved, though I generally prefer Hangouts. I obviously use WordPress, but also have a few sites running Drupal as well. I do not use any third party security software as Windows Defender in Windows 8.1 includes anti-virus functionality and this seems to be more than enough. Generally just not clicking on any links you aren’t 100% certain are secure will cover most problems with viruses and malware.

Digital media

Music: I rarely, if ever, purchase music online or otherwise.  I bounce back and forth between free versions of Pandora and Spotify, though I tend to spend much more time on Spotify lately. Most of my owned music, audiobooks, and video content is managed through iTunes. I use DoubleTwist to sync to my Android devices.

Video: Netflix is the primary video service I use on an almost daily basis, though Amazon Prime’s streaming services is a fairly close second. Given the general availability of the content I want to watch, I find it rare to need to purchase any video content on any other platforms. I don’t often rip DVD’s, but when I do, I love Handbrake, which seems to be the sine qua non in the area.

Books: I have such a complicated set up with regard to ebooks, it will take an entire post to cover it all.  In simplest terms, I manage everything through a well-integrated combination of Calibre, Goodreads.com, Amazon’s Kindle, Adobe Digital Editions, Adobe Acrobat Reader, DJView, and Dropbox. Most books I get are either purchased through Amazon or are borrowed from a litany of local public libraries. I’ve spent the last several years converting almost all the reading I do to electronic reading. I still prefer to read on paper, but the overall process is much simpler in digital.

Audiobooks: I’ve loved Audible.com for a long time, but I’m currently on a short hiatus from it playing catch up on some of the content I’ve accumulated over the past couple of years. It’s a truly lovely service.  I also often use the Overdrive service through several local libraries for downloading and listening to audiobooks. While Overdrive is clunky and smothered in DRM, it works and is just good enough, and I’ve yet to find anything better that is free. When necessary, I’ll also borrow CD’s from the local library for listening as well.

Photos: I generally do a horrible job of managing my thousands of photos, but what little effort I do put forth goes into both Google+ Photos with Picasa or into the auto-backup feature in Dropbox.

Other applications and utilities

Feedly.com, TweetDeck, Mendeley.com, GetPocket.com,

Android Phone/Tablet apps

My favorites and most often used include: Waze, Evernote, Foursquare, Google Hangouts, DoubleTwist, Amazon Kindle, OverDrive Media, Audible, Facebook, Pocket, Netflix, Coursera Companion, Instagram, Path, Starbucks, Key Ring, Dropbox, Mailbox, Pandora, Flipboard. There are others, but I rarely use many of them.

 

 

Home technology

Television

I’m using a Samsung Series 5, 40″ LCD flatscreen.  Though there are certainly much newer models out there, this really has everything I could want and supplies a fantastic picture as well as even native sound.  Until the mansion arrives, or California housing prices drop precipitously, this is probably more television than I even need. For service, though I also pay for Comcast cable (just to get internet service), I only use DirecTV which, though I desperately love, I have a feeling I’ll eventually dump it to live a complete cord-cutter life.

Set-top boxes

In addition to a DirectTV HD DVR, I also have a Roku XD|S and Google Chomecast.  Though I enjoy the Roku, the user interface could be much better.  The Chromecast gets far more daily use, particularly for Netflix integration (via either a tablet or cell phone) and in my mind is the clear winner for being drop-dead easy-to-use. I particularly love the fact that the Chromecast automatically turns on the television and changes the internal television tuner, so I don’t need to pick up other devices to control the television.  I’ll also frequently use a mini-HDMI to HDMI adapter to connect my Kindle Fire HD to the television for streaming Amazon Prime video to the television as well.

Kitchen

  • Coffee: I’m not a total fiend in this department and usually prefer soda or tea, but when necessary, a simple Bodum French press in combination with a Kitchen Aide coffee grinder are just lovely.
  • Mixer: Life wouldn’t be complete without my 325 Watt Artisan Kitchen Aide stand mixer with a handful of attachments.
  • Soda maker: At the beginning of the year, I got a SodaStream and have been making my own carbonated beverages. Nothing is really quite as good as a Coke or a Dr. Pepper, but it’s been more creative and entertaining than pursuing my old habits.
  • Scale: I believe Fannie Farmer irreparably destroyed much of what could have been some superb American cuisine and any semblance of science in the kitchen, so I avidly use my Salter 3003 Aquatronic Glass Electronic Kitchen Scale to begin the healing.
  • Thermometers:  Among many others I primarily rely on a Maverick CT-03 Oil & Candy Digital Thermometer and a CDN DSP1 Dual Sensing Probe Thermometer and Timer

 

 

Free-form Broad Questions

What apps/software/tools can’t you live without? Why?

Calibre – For my 2000+ ebooks, this is an indispensable e-book and document program that is to books as iTunes is to music. I also use it to download dozens of magazines and newspapers on a daily basis for reading on my Kindle. I love that it’s under constant development with weekly updates for improved functionality.

Waze – When living in Los Angeles, this real-time traffic application often saves me anywhere from 30-90 minutes of time in traffic a day; it also has the side benefit of helping you explore parts of the city you might not find otherwise.

DoubleTwist – Since I’m an avid Android fan, I use this simple app to dovetail my music and video collections in iTunes to sync with my other digital devices.

What’s your workspace setup like?

My WorkspaceFor the past couple of years I’ve been using a 1962 McDowell & Craig executive tanker desk that I refinished in 2008 and I use a matching chair which I painstakingly reupholstered by hand in late 2013. I often use the custom made glass top with dry-erase markers to sketch out ideas or write disposable notes and also place photos and incunabula of various sorts underneath it. I’ve been tempted to do a standing desk but as yet haven’t. I’m half tempted to follow the lead of film editor Walter Murch and set my desk up on cinder blocks to jack it up to waist level.

What’s your best time-saving/shortcut/life hack?

It’s probably not the best, but at the beginning of the New Year, I had read some material about slimming down my wallet, which had gotten a bit out of control, and though it hasn’t been a major life-changer, the subtle differences have improved my daily life and workflow as a result. Using the android app Keyring or the Google Wallet app has helped significantly in reducing the amount of plastic I carry in my wallet. Everyone should have at least 10 library cards, but no one should have to carry them in their wallet (or on their keychain).

What’s your favorite to-do list manager?

I primarily use a very customized version of Outlook and its  task functionality to track my to do list items, but I’m also progressively using Evernote for some tasks. I’ve lately taken to using Evernote as my commonplace book.

Besides your phone and computer, what gadget can’t you live without and why?

My Kindle Fire 7″ HD is indispensable and I primarily use it only for reading as well as the occasional Netflix screening.  I’ve also had some great experiences lately with my new Timbuk2 Command Messenger Bag and my Zojurishi Travel Mug – I don’t know how I managed without them before.

For education purposes (primarily lectures), I am absolutely in love with my Livescribe Pulse Pen. I own three different versions. Every student on the planet should have one.

I could maybe live without them, but I’ve had a 30 year love affair with my Pentel 0.5mm and 0.7mm mechanical pencils, and they’ve literally lasted that long.

What do you listen to while you work?

Most often, lately, it’s been concert music from the past 500 years as well as some jazz work I’ve been exploring.  I’ve lately been re-exploring the late 70’s and early 80’s music which I missed in my very early youth.  Often I’ll also sample material friends and colleagues are listening to which is relatively easy on both Pandora and Spotify.

What are you currently reading?

Generally I’m actively reading 4-5 books at a time and less-actively up to 15 or so.  I use Goodreads.com to manage my reading lists, to find recommendations from others, and in part to catalog my library (though I’m far from having everything I own there).  I usually tend toward non-fiction, science, math, history and biography when reading for pleasure, though the occasional fiction piece will work its way into the stack. I’m a sucker for great youth literature.

Because of my commuting habits, I’ve also taken to listening to audiobooks and particularly course titles from The Learning Company’s Great Courses Series over the past several years. They’re not only educational, but they’re almost always very entertaining.

My specific active reading list right now includes:

And I’m currently listening to:

What are you currently watching on television?

I regularly watch Modern Family, The Big Bang, Hannibal, Charlie Rose, Person of Interest, Suits, PBS News Hour, The Good Wife, Downton Abbey, White Collar, Major Crimes, Psych, Parks & Recreation, Blue Bloods, The Profit, Restaurant: Impossible, Grimm, Perception Recent one-off shows include: H2’s Big History Series and Simon Schama’s Story of the Jews

 

Bernard Pivo-esque section

What everyday thing are you better at than everyone else? What’s your secret?

I have a generally better memory than most. Though it was naturally good when I was younger, I ran across the concepts of the major system and the method of loci (aka the memory palace) at an early age and they have helped significantly.

What’s your sleep routine like?

I never seem to sleep as much as most, but lately I’ve been getting 5-6 hours of sleep at night usually from 2-7am. I’m far from a morning person and most of my best thinking hours are from 11pm to 2am.

Are you more of an introvert or an extrovert?

I grew up definitely as an introvert, but during college I managed to force myself to be an extrovert. These days I move between the two as my mood and social circumstances dictate.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

Some know it as the “Golden Rule,” but “Treat other people like you want to be treated.” I highly recommend people read How to Win Friends and Influence People.

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