It’s too easy to find info these days. Why remember the phone number for your favorite restaurant — or even take the two seconds to save it to your contacts — when you could just Google it again next time?
We’re so reliant on Google that it’s hard to imagine an internet without it. Non-techies are apt to sit down at a computer, type “Google” into the search bar on your browser, select the first link, and then search for what they’re looking for — even if said site is something that’d be easy to remember like the New York Times or the MLB.
And it’s not just about Google itself — google’s just an easy short-hand for search engine, one that’s an official English verb these days. So whether you Bing, DuckDuckGo, or Google, if you’re like me you likely do it far too much.
Search engine’s effect on our brains has been debated for quite some time, with Nicholas Carr asking in The Atlantic “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” half a decade ago, and the UCLA and CNN countering several months later that “Google does a brain good”. In reality, it’s hard to say it’s a good or a bad — we’re so reliant on search engines, we wouldn’t know how to function without them. Why would you remember basic facts when you could just look them up later? It’s the same rationale most of us made in school when we decided our teachers were crazy for having us memorize obscure names and dates, and it’s the same rationale we make each time we Google for something we’ve already looked up before.
We’ve outsourced our brains, without the slightest qualm.
I just argued in this issue’s first article that you should stop remembering where your files are saved on your computer, and search for them instead. Indeed, I think you should. Your computer’s smart, and you should let it do the heavy lifting for you and save your cognitive skills for more important tasks. But searching for the same fact on Google a dozen times isn’t smart.
So what should you do instead? Build your own Google.
Geeks reading this, don’t go fire up a server and start crawling the entire internet. Bad idea. Unless you’re Gabriel Weinberg, in which case, keep up the great work.
Instead, you should start saving everything that you’ll want to find again in the future to your own library. No, don’t just bookmark sites when you find them — instead, save the info you wanted to your computer so you can find it directly again without having to reopen a site that may or may not still be there. It’ll only take a second, and next time, you can search locally and find what you need with almost zero effort.
I’m going to recommend using Evernote — there’s a ton of other notebook apps that’d work great too, and even plain text files with the info snippet or PDFs if you want the whole site would work, though, if you really wanted to use something different. But Evernote has three major advantages that make it particularly perfect for building your own google: browser extensions that make it easy to save anything online to your library, apps on every platform, and — crazy as it may sound — integration with Google so you can find what you saved when you search online anyhow.
Here’s what you do. Whenever you need info about anything, Google it as normal. Find what you need, then hit the Evernote extension and clip just the part of the article you actually need and save it to your library. Keep doing that for a while, and at the same time put any other important info in your database as it’s convenient. Whenever you’d write something down, or file something away that’s not a typical file you’d put in your Documents folder, put it in your notebook. You can even get fancy and have IFTTT automatically archive stuff to your Evernote, if you want, or have Instapaper save your favorited articles to Evernote automatically. Basically, anything you think you’d ever want to find again, throw it in Evernote.
Now, after a while, you should be able to start trusting yourself to have info again. Search your computer when you’re looking for something, and Evernote’s results will start showing up more often than not. And hey — if they don’t show up in your search, it’ll take zero extra effort to search the web from your search tool once you’ve typed you’re query in.
Which brings us back to Google. The Evernote browser extension has a nifty extra that lets Evernote display search results from your own library right alongside your Google search results in your browser. If you’ve been saving everything to Evernote and still forget and Google for the answer, Evernote will still bring your saved result to the top and give you one-click access to the info you need without searching through search results.
Will this all make you smarter? I doubt it. Memorizing more data might make you smarter, but that’s a dubious proposition at best these days with so much data thrown at us in modern life. But it will make you a lot less panicked when the internet is out, and you’ll save a lot of time you’d otherwise have spent searching through search results or trying to rediscover data from links in your bookmarks that are long gone.
Originally published on October 29th, 2013 in Techinch Magazine Issue 7
“Just be yourself” sure sounds like a good motto to live by. It’s essentially why Buffer, the tool to automatically Tweet on a schedule, seemed like a crazy idea to me at first. After all, if something’s automatically Tweeting on your behalf while you’re asleep, that’s not really authentic and being yourself, is it? Sure, all my followers aren’t online whenever I tweet, but at least the ones that are online at the moment I post something know it’s genuinely me saying what I said right now.
But how real is social networking, anyhow? On Facebook, your stream of updates typically shows the stuff Facebook think you’ll want to see, and I’ve noticed posts from my siblings showing up above far more recent posts from friends I rarely talk to. Twitter, on the other hand, is a stream of consciousness of the whole world, and unless you go back and read older posts you’ll only see what’s posted right when you open your Twitter app. Either way, you miss far more than you see, either by the network only showing what it thinks you want to see or because you aren’t watching the stream of messages 24/7.
Let’s stop pretending social networking is authentic. It’s not. We post the updates we want people to see, the doctored pictures we’ve taken just to showcase our most interesting lives, and like the pages that we both authentically like and think will appeal to our peer group (and avoid liking those we secretly like but don’t need to make too public). That movie that you love but was a bust on Rotten Tomatoes? Eh, just leave it off — no need to get ribbed over liking that one.
We’re perfecting the picture-perfect idealistic versions of our online identities in our own fictional online world, and then have the audacity to complain about certain ways of using social networking not being authentic.
Making it Meaningful
But then, something about the whole idea of scheduling social media posts still strikes me as wrong. After all, if we’re supposed to be building friendships online — if that’s the whole point of social networking, to start with — then what on earth does automatically posting gain you? Sure, we’re already not being authentic — whatever that really means in reality — but shouldn’t there still be something sacred about our conversations? Or have we already let our robotic overlords take control of the conversation for us?
Perhaps that goes back to the very core of the idea behind social networking. See, there’s a bit of a fallacy we’re living out every time we login to Facebook: humans can’t really be friends with hundreds and thousands of people. Dunbar’s Number says we can have at most 150 stable relationships, and in reality, I doubt many people have more than a half-dozen or so close friends, especially if you have a decently large extended family already. The rest end up being acquaintances you know but aren’t really close to — and the ones beyond #150 or so are people you at best occasionally broadcast to and at worse are a meaningless random number on your profile.
You’ve got to pick how you use social networking. You could use it to keep your friends in the loop on what’s up in your life. If you and your limited group of friends only use one network — say, Facebook — like that, then there’d never be a need for tools like Buffer. You can afford to be authentic, posting only when you really want to post, and everything will just work. You’ll likely wonder what the rest of us keep complaining about with social networking.
But odds are that’s not enough. We want to share ourselves with the world, and our buddy list isn’t enough. Plus, our interests change, and we want to make new connections, and increasingly in this global, flatter economy we have to market ourselves.
Ah, goodness. Just give up and embrace it. You can be authentic in DMs and emails and private messages — that’s where my real friend conversations take place, in 900 word treatises. Facebook, even, is my censored authentic “personal” self, where I share pictures of picnics and vacations, and (very) occasionally write updates, but sharing my tech articles and promoting myself makes no sense there. It does, however, make sense on Twitter and App.net, where I’m trying to build new connections and broadcast myself.
Your public updates can be authentic if you’re treating your network as just your friend group. That’s Facebook, for me — and even still, it’s filled with people I don’t really know, but whatever. It’s where family and people that know me in real life are, so it works for that. But if you’re trying to broadcast yourself, trying to share with the world (or a thousand followers), nothing’s really authentic anyhow. Embrace the broadcast mode — that’s all there really is.
And so I came around to the idea of Buffer, enough that called it “the best social networking tool today” in my Web.AppStorm review. I wasn’t joking, either: if there’s one social media tool you need to post to a number of social network accounts across Facebook, Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn, and App.net daily, then Buffer’s the one tool that beats them all. It simplifies things by letting you broadcast posts on a schedule to all the networks you use, without taking more than a few seconds of your time. That’s valuable.
I still think you shouldn’t use it indiscriminately, just to post witty quotes and other filler content. But when you’ve got something to share, and want to make sure all of your followers see it, why not use the best tool for the job? Scheduling posts is just another tool, one you should put to use if it makes sense for you, and one that can free your time for better things than worrying about whether your followers see what you wrote. It’s a tool I’m glad I started using.
Originally published on September 10th, 2013 in Techinch Magazine Issue 5
As a kid, for some reason, I’d add up the combined computing power of all of the computers in our house as a mental game when trying to fall asleep. My own computer, a 1996-era Compaq laptop, had only a 75Mhz CPU and 700Mb of storage, which paled in comparison to the 500Mhz CPU and 20Gb hard drive in the family desktop computer, or the 2Ghz CPU and 40Gb hard drive in my dad’s laptop. At that time, even adding in random mp3 players and flash drives added a significant amount to our family’s total digital storage.
Those numbers are rather quaint today, when we’re carrying around 1.3Ghz ARM processors in our pockets. ARM processors are so common now, they’re among the world’s most-used products, pushing even McDonalds down the popularity ladder. Storage is still at a premium today, thanks to the price increase when you jump to flash memory, but now that there’s a 128Gb microSD card, surely our phones will start having as much storage as a laptop soon.
Computing’s everywhere. It’s rather staggering to think of how much computing power is around you at any given moment. Look around on any mass transit, and there’s almost always at least one computing device—with at least a 1Ghz CPU and 4Gb storage—per person. There’s likely far more than that, even, if just 1/10th of the passengers are also carrying a laptop or tablet. Suddenly my old game feels a lot more fun—imagine what type of supercomputer could be built from the computing devices in a train at a given time.
It struck me most vividly several months ago, after climbing 1,237 stairs up a mountain to see a viewpoint and temple in southern Thailand. It’s torture climbing that many stairs—and almost worse to have to go back down—until you stand in amazement looking at this temple that someone carried bricks, stone, and concrete up this mountain to build. That’s quite the marvel of human ingenuity and determination. And yet, on the top of that mountain, I counted no less than 5 iPhones, 2 iPads, and several other smartphones I couldn’t recognize. There were, as likely as anything, 10 ARM CPUs up there on that mountain, all tagging their photos with GPS and straining for a signal (and yes, there was 3G all the way up there, even if it was faint). Less than a decade ago, it’d have been odd to have any computers up there—who carries a laptop on a nearly vertical hike up a mountain?—and yet, today, it’d be odd to be anywhere without seeing a computing device. That’s as much a marvel of human ingenuity as the temple itself.
We’re carrying around computers in our pockets, to the tops of mountains and the bottom of the sea (at least, in Apple’s latest iPad commercials—but if there’s people selling those iPad cases and accessories, there’s got to be a market for it). There’s so much power there, so much potential.
And yet, look around, and those mini computers are being used to chat, check Facebook, and play Candy Crush. The usefulness of the average app is so low, even Jeff Atwood—the guy who started StackExchange—is questioning the reasoning behind building most apps. The potential is there, but it’s wasted by most.
There’s insanely powerful software for smartphones. Look at the photo editing features in VSCOcam and so many other photo apps, the OCR in Prizmo, the full Office-style features in the iWork apps, the beautiful instruments in GarageBand and the many other music apps, the writing and scripting environment in Editorial, the math power in PocketCAS, and even the offline reading environments of iBooks and Kindle and Instapaper. Download these apps, then go offline, and your device’s CPU will be doing its own work to crunch your data, no server required. As ridiculous as it may sound, even a spreadsheet can be a powerful tool on the go, making it easy to crunch numbers and, say, comparison shop. Maybe there should be a better dedicated app, but the spreadsheet is still quite a killer app.
Most apps out there are pointless. Plenty are just repackaged websites that would be far better as a standalone website anyhow. Plenty more are only an updated version of the old CD-rom demos and catalogs that were more useful as a frisbee than anything.
But we’re carrying around real computers, and it’s about time to treat them as such. Call the best smartphone apps “software” if you must, to differentiate it from the lite junk apps, but there’s no reason those fast CPUs in our pockets are going to waste. It’s a shame to think how many of the devices around us are literally useless to their owners if the internet goes down.
That’s why quality apps are worth paying for—they make your devices do more, make that glass and metal worth more than it’d be on its own. Phones and tablets aren’t dumb terminals, and it’s time apps stopped treating them that way. They’re computers in their own rights, and deserve the powerful software that proves that worth.
When you’re evaluating new apps, that’s the criteria you should test it by. Will this app make my device do more on its own, in a way that’ll actively improve my life? If so, it’s entirely worth paying for. If not, you’re likely better off ignoring it. There’s quality, powerful software for your iPad and iPhone and Mac, enough that it’s a shame seeing how many people stick with the stock apps and some web-powered free apps like Facebook and their favorite chat app and whatever in-app purchase ripoff game is the most popular that day. You’ve paid for a smart device, now give it the software that’ll make it powerful for you. There’s high-quality productivity apps, unique tools, and beautifully creative games that cost up-front, but that’ll make your app something someone would want to show off in a commercial, something that’d inspire someone else to buy that device. Few people would buy an iPhone just for its built-in camera app or email app—and yet, they take their new device home and manage to miss the wealth of quality software for it that can really do stuff.
There’s a common thread in the apps Apple shows off in its new iPad commercial: they’re all powerful software that work directly on the devices without needing an internet connection. They’re making those iPads be used as computers, not dumb terminals. After all, an app that requires a server would be of little use on a windmill in the ocean—or while diving under the ocean. If you’re going to take a computer up a mountain or to the sea, after all, it might as well be a bit useful.
Those apps—nay, software—that are powerful enough to help you get work done and improve your life? They’re the ones I’ll take the time to write about here. The rest are merely a distraction, junk that’s filling up the App Store and making it harder to find the truly powerful and great software that developers labor to craft.
Ever since Google killed Google Reader last year, I’ve felt uneasy about using Google’s services. That uneasiness hasn’t been enough to push me away from Gmail and Google Docs, but it did convince me to move Techinch’s RSS feed off Feedburner soon after Google Reader shut down. After all, if they killed their RSS reader, what’s to keep them from killing off their RSS syndication tool, too?
But then, sans-Feedburner, it’s next-to-impossible to know how many people are subscribing to Techinch. Maybe that’s an unimportant stat, but it’s fun to know that people are reading what you write. And so, last week, I signed up for FeedPress to get stats on Techinch’s RSS feed, among other things. That requires a little .htaccess tweaking, which is always slightly unnerving for me since I have the uncanny ability to mess something up every time I open that file, but it went fine the first time. Then, once everything looked good, I just had to get a FeedPress Premium account so I could keep everything on my domain to make moving away from FeedPress—if such a thing was ever needed—possible without any pain.
That’s when I managed to mess stuff up (and so, to everyone who subscribes via RSS, sorry if you got some random articles from a different site in your reader today. That was my fault, and it’s fixed now). I couldn’t leave good enough alone, and wait for more time to get things working.
My feed worked before, and it worked after the initial redirect to FeedPress. It would have been fine to wait. And yet, there’s this crazy, eternal drive to tweak stuff. They say plumber’s pipes always leak. For them, it might be because they’re too busy to fix their own, but for geeks, our problem is typically that we can’t leave good enough alone. All’s not well until everything’s perfect—but it should be readily apparent that there’s no such thing as perfect in a fast-changing industry like ours. You can eternally tweak, but there will always be something else to tweak.
I didn't have to tweak my RSS feed's syndication, break my .htaccess file, and burn an hour in frantic clean-up mode. It was ok already. But in that struggle for perfection, I got what I wanted—but at a far higher cost than I'd anticipated.
So stop. Agile development and rapid iteration and constant progression is good, but it’s so easy to take it too far. If your Mac is working, just get your work done and don’t go trying to tweak something to make it better. Same for your site, and your to-do list, and your everything else you’re tempted to tweak with when you’re bored. When it’s time to actually improve your site, set aside a block of time to do that, and just do that. But stop with the constant tweaking. You’re only going to drive yourself mad.
Or at least I’m going to. Which is why I’m trying to stop, and thought you might do well with the reminder to do so, yourself.
I'm a tech writer and editor, who remotely from Thailand online for Envato, an Australia-based company. And it's great. The only problem is, my job title is inherently confusing to anyone who's not geeky. Say you're a writer, and people assume you've published novels (now that'd be nice, but...). Say you're an editor, and people either assume you work in a newspaper (not bad), or stare blankly. Try to say you're a tech writer, and it simply doesn't make sense. Perhaps this all wouldn't be so hard in an English-speaking country—I can easily get by saying I'm a writer in English, but anything beyond that still tends to break down—but in Thai, it just doesn't work.
The simple question of "What's your job?" has, for so long, been the most annoying part of meeting new people for quite some time. That's ridiculous.
And then, finally, it hit me a couple months back: when asked, just say I "work in IT." Everyone gets that—even old people. It conveys that I work with tech, sounds like a real, respectable job (especially without any published books to back up that "writer" title), and even makes people not surprised when I say I work remotely. That one tiny change to the way I refer to my job has simplified my life way more than it seemingly should have. It was one of my best life decisions of the past few months.
Seth Godin recently asked the question on his blog "Should you teach the world a new word?" He discussed his own challenges with finding a job title for himself that didn't cause confusion, something that obviously struck close to home for me. He then expanded the idea to naming products, careers, and anything else, saying:
"Your job might be like no other one like it in the world, but that doesn't mean you need a new job title. ...if you can happily succeed while filling an existing niche, it's far easier than insisting that people invent a new category for you.
It doesn't matter if you're right, it matters if you are understood."
Isn't that the truth? Being understood—getting our point across—is the whole point of language and communication and titles. And yet, it's easy to want to call your thing something 100% new. Who wouldn't want the world's most unique and impressive job title? Who wouldn't want their app to add new words to the vernacular?
That's preposterous. There's enough real words out there to describe what you're doing with out having to invent something new. So simplify. Use normal words the way they were intended, and make what you're saying as clear as possible to everyone. It'll simplify what you're saying for others, and will actually simplify your own life, too.
Life's a lot easier when you're not having to explain everything you say a second time.
...though if developers keep using real words for their new app names, it's going to start getting harder to say anything that doesn't have a tech double-meaning...