My First Computer

My parents always did a great job at Christmas. There are two Christmas gifts that have stood the test of memories 30-40 years later.

The first was an aircraft carrier about 3 feet long that had a wire-guided plane you could land on it. It worked similar to this. My dad decided that the short wire that came with it was inadequate, so he grabbed his fishing line and rigged up a 30-foot guide line that ran the entire length of the house. That upped the fun and difficulty. I was probably 9 or 10 at the best, but even now I can picture the whole thing: the plane mounted on the table in the front room; 30 feet of fishing line going through the family room and landing in the doorway to kitchen. I’d hit the button that would launch the plane, pilot it with something that looked like a control mechanism from a Cessna, and attempt to grab the guide wire on the carrier. We probably pissed my Mom and the dog off equally. Too bad we didn’t have a cat or that would have really upped the challenge. Update: this is it.

The second was a Commodore 64. I have no idea about the thought process behind why they got me this. The computer revolution was just starting. I was in high school and had taken a couple of computer classes. I think my parents may have realized that computers were going to be a thing, heard about the Commodore 64 and bought it. There was a lot of angst on their end. The gift did not show up until Christmas Eve. I had just left the house to go to my friend Dave’s house and never saw the UPS truck show up.

Back then, it didn’t even have a floppy drive. It had cassette player you would load the program with. The day after Christmas we went to some small computer shop and I got a few games to play. One of them was called Gato which was a great submarine simulator. It was a lot of ASCI code showing the ships I was shooting at, but looking back that was some serious programming chops in the early days of computing. He also realized that I liked D&D-style games and bought me Zork. Zork was one of the first interactive fiction games by a great company called Infocom. While EverQuest and World of WarCraft probably hold the top places for hours played in a game, Zork comes close. This was before the internet where you could just Google your way out of a problem. A lot of my analytical skills and thought processes came from playing that game. I remember having an entire notebook with maps I had made and notes on what I tried to do to solve various puzzles. I still have the games loaded on Frotz on the iPad.

I also learned some basic programming. You could get Byte magazine which would have programs printed in it that you would then type by hand into the computer. Two years of typing classes in school didn’t do shit for my typing. Typing in thousands of lines of computer code, however, did wonders for learning that skill.

The Commodore gave way to an Apple IIe, which later ceded the way to a Macintosh in 1985. That Christmas, though, changed my life.


Sacred Places of Work

I wanted to move game playing out of my home office and transform the area into a space where I would just focus on work stuff. Paint my miniatures, write, draw, work on my trains, or learn to program. Have something to show for my time. So, I bought a PS4, put it in the family room, and moved the Alienware off my desk. All that remained was the iPad, MacBook Pro, and a sacred place of work.

My home office is amazing. We had it painted recently, there isn’t much in the way of decorations. I look out at 57 acres of woods, and several times a week see the local wildlife in the back yard. I have two work surfaces: a large desk that is the 3rd generation in my family; and an IKEA dining table that I use for painting my miniatures and working on my trains. On the desk is my MacBook Pro, the 27” monitor hooked up to my Alienware Alpha, and the related chargers and cables.

The first paragraph was written earlier this year. The second one a week or so ago. An astute reader will notice in the first paragraph the Alienware was off the desk, and in the second paragraph it came back. The problem with bad habits left unchecked they come back like weeds. The painting happened in early June. The Alienware was put away when I got the PS4 in December 2016. By September, it had crept back on my desk like a pile of kudzu. I’m looking at the 27”monitor right now and thinking: that right there is a big bucket of fail. The foundation of bad habits is lies and false promises you make to yourself. I just put that there to have the game on. I want a big screen to watch the drawing tutorials on. It’s out of the way and you hardly notice it.

I used to follow the Minimalists a lot (my full feelings on them is a future article), but one of their mantras is if you lead a distraction-free lifestyle free of things like video games, the TV, the internet, and cell phones you will miraculously find yourself an amazingly productive person.

Bullshit. Hard work may pay off tomorrow, but procrastination pays off today. If I feel like writing and drawing, I will. If I don’t, I won’t. The beauty of personal side projects is there are no deadlines. The curse of side projects is there are no deadlines.

Instead of Minimalism, I instead try and follow simplifying and the essentials. Minimalism feels like paring down too far. A minimalist may have only one Lightning charger, but I have five: one at my desk, one by my bed, one in my car, one at my desk, and in my bag is a set of MacBook and Lightning chargers. It’s not minimal, but it is simpler. Everywhere I need a charger there is one. Because it really sucks when you run out of juice someplace and realize you left the charger the last place you were at.

Likewise, my iPhone, iPad, and MacBook are essential. The Alienware and the 27” monitor are not and will be removed. The rest of the desk will be clean, simple, and essential.

I Write Because I Have To, and the Realities of Writing on the Web

On a good day, this blog gets tens of visitors. Whenever I check the WordPress stats — which I assume to be slightly accurate — I ask myself: is this even worth it? Ben Brooks doesn’t look at analytics anymore. I’m sure he gets feedback on how well a post is received from Twitter or emails. My posts go into an internet black hole. Maybe twice a year I will get some feedback or a retweet or something.

I write these posts because I have to. The idea comes into my head and I will have trouble sleeping until the post is published. I don’t agonize over it. A lot of these posts sit in draft form until I’ve got the idea in a good enough shape to publish. In Ulysses I have a folder labeled Abandoned. The posts that I am never happy with go there. I rarely look at them. It could just be something that typing up felt good enough, or the circumstances that lead to me writing the post changed, or I just gave up. Usually posting is the end goal; sometimes just writing it is enough.

Like most writers, I dreamed of going independent. Daring Fireball was a great inspiration, and it’s hard not to look at Gruber’ success and think: that could have been me. It takes talent and luck to make it. Gruber has both. No sour grapes there1.

The last time I was paid for my writing was back in 2014. I wrote some for-pay articles in 2015, but Gigaom closed down with a balance due that was never paid. In 2011, the company I worked for laid off its entire Tech Ops team. Over the next two years, the only employment I could obtain was short-to-medium term contract work. What little freelance work I was able to do made a difference. Stephen King said in On Writing something along the lines of: If you received a check for your writing, and you used that money to pay a bill, you are a professional writer. I paid plenty of bills with freelance checks.

The measure I used to determine if I could become a full-time independent worker was if I earned enough each month to pay the mortgage for six months in a row2. I never made the mortgage one month, forget six months. The closest I came was around 2009. At the time, I was writing about video games, and if you added up the hours I spent playing the games and writing the copy, my hourly rate was under what I’d make working minimum wage. Writing for tech sites was a better time to income ratio. My tech articles only took 3-4 hours to write. Maybe a little longer if I needed to review a product. It still worked in my favor compared to an MMO review.

After Gigaom shut down I didn’t look too hard for another freelance gig. Macworld had laid off a lot of staff so there was a glut of Apple-based writers available. One outfit contacted me asked what I made per-article for Gigaom. They never replied when I told them.

So, I started a site (thecasualtechie) to sort of try my hand at getting my own site going. The internet advertising model is pretty much non-existent. I didn’t feel comfortable trying to line up sponsors to pay to advertise on a site that no one reads. If I were trying it today, I would probably start a site whose focus is solely on iPad productivity. I still might. The mantra has always been: write good content and people will come. Few people want to pay for content online. Internet advertising doesn’t pay much, and I’d want to control the ads that appear on my site anyway. Affiliate link commission keeps declining.

I liked having a side hustle. The income from my writing paid for my tech toys, which lead to articles about how I used them. One of the themes I had for 2017 is trying to work on some sort of a model that paid. I liked writing an article and getting paid for it. But, it was a 1 to 1 relationship. Write an article; get a check. I never wrote one article and got two checks. I’m out of the freelance game anyway. In addition to the rates being low, almost every site I worked for actually getting paid was a hassle. Invoices would be tied up, lost, not paid. Promises would be made; these promises were then broken.

As I look ahead to writing, my goal is some sort of passive model. Self-publishing is the likely solution, but It also has long odds. I’m not sure how I’d feel about pouring thousands of hours into a book no one bought. Fiction stories don’t kick at me to be born the way these posts do, but a few ideas are stirring. Maybe there is a story in there trying to get out and I am ignoring it.

This is a post with no answers. It’s not a cry for help. I’m not looking for advice on how to (air quotes) Build a Brand. I just had to share about writing on the web in 2017.

  1. As an aside, I miss the old Gruber. He used to write more original pieces. Now, he just posts a lot of links with some inline commentary.
  2. Granted, just making the mortgage wasn’t a survivable wage. It was a data point that if I could make that amount on a part-time basis, I could probably earn enough to live doing it full-time.

iPad Life: Managing the Creative Process and Focusing on What Matters

I’ve had a running category tag on this site for a while labeled iPad-only. I’ve been inspired my Ben Brook’s iPad Productivity Reports, and Matt Gemmell’s series on going iPad Only. For a while, I’ve wanted to write a little more about how I use my iPad, so I’m starting this irregular series I’ve dubbed iPad Life.

Unlike Matt and Ben, I am not 100% iPad-only. Outside of the day job, even in my personal life I can’t go iPad-only. I run into enough challenges like de-DRMing my Calibre library, downloading some files off the internet, Photoshop filters, and 3D modeling tools to go iPad-only. It’s bothered me, in a way. A big step was getting my head around the idea that by using my MacBook for things I need a Mac for wasn’t betraying the cause of an iPad-only lifestyle; it was just using the proper tool for the job. This is just life and efficiency. Especially on a school project, sometimes it was just easier to open up the MacBook and do the task than fuck around with bending iOS to my will. I’m looking at you, WebEx app.

When I settle down to do any sort of creative endeavor, the iPad is the first device I reach for. It’s the best way for me to write and draw. I consider the 12.9” iPad Pro to be the canonical iPad, and I think an Apple Smart Keyboard are required accessories if you want to use the device for productivity. I also consider Ulysses, Procreate, Linea, Affinity Photo, OneNote, and Graphic to be my essential apps. Those apps let me focus on what matters: creating. It is a rare day I intentionally leave the house without my iPad. There is a cafe near my house I love to go work at. The coffee and food is great. There is a little alcove off to the side where I can have a little bit of privacy.

One of the things I love about the iPad is how it lets me manage my creative process. There is a great TED Talk by Adam Savage where he goes into creative obsessions. In it he mentions he has a folder on his Mac where he is constantly dumping images and creative things that inspire him. I have something similar on my iCloud Drive. What I love about the new split-screen features on iOS 11 is it is now very easy to just grab an image I like off the internet and drag it into a folder. I have folders for art I like, reference images, miniature painting references, and stuff that like that. Grab, drag, and drop. Articles I find of interest go into Instapaper and Evernote.1 When I need to reference something, I can split screen it to the drawing app, or full screen it if it’s a reference image for a miniature or a train detail I am working on.

This is the iPad’s superpower. It removes a lot of the friction to my creative endeavors and lets me focus on what matters.

  1. The reason for Evernote is archival. I enjoy Instapaper’s reading experience to Evernote, but I’ve noticed Instapaper has to redownload the web site if I reinstall. If the article is lost to history, so is my Instapaper archive.